The mannequin with my heart in it stands in the corner, dusty. It has been that way for years. In the early days I would try futilely to tidy up round it, and when the feathers on the duster, my thin appendage, dragged across that cold aluminum collarbone and the plume of dust leapt up in answer, it would hover, bombinating, susurrating, droning…nothing but flecks of dust, thin-sharded and shining, mica and talc. I got tired of that dust, and the way the windowpane beyond it reeked of grime, and the way I never had to stand on tiptoe or crouch—the mannequin with its knobbed spine and the crooked jaunty tilt of its ear, circles upon circles of insets swirled within brass was always exactly my height. It did not have my hair. It did not, really, have even my shape, but its eyes were like mine, only flat and as completely lifeless as anything can give impression of being.
If it had seemed more alive, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so unnerving. Perhaps if, when I put my fingers splayed across its bare chest, I could feel an answering hum within the confines, a sort of bent pull from my heart toward the body that owned it, I would have felt more reassured. As it was there was only solid emptiness, a great, yawning, mechanical absence, and the mannequin soon became nothing more than another thing to take up space: a lump, an absent curiosity.
I had been fifteen when the world became unbearable. It had nothing to do with the parabolic retinues of the Order, it had nothing to do with the executions in the square, on the way home from school: I kept my head down like everyone who had any sense and played with the charm bracelet around my wrist. Snowdrop, lily, amaranth—all things I had vaguely heard of, and which still lived a shadowed half-life in my memory, in the neuronal sparking of my brain: microfiche leeching color from the plants, silver washing away the rest in the mass-produced charms. But even though I had high-minded ideals about originality, my own included, I loved the little bracelet, and the worn-smooth petals. Swip-swip; my thumb would make smooth tracks on an unchanging surface, and in concert, the pavement below my feet would spin away beyond. Feet all crowded into boots, into sandals, into striped socks, into colored tie-dyed appliquéd, beaded, faux-leather, plastic, buttons, shoelaces, ribbons… that’s all I noticed, the ground. I suppose there were others that looked up, and they could tell you a different story about that time.
The real cruelty of life was my self-focused delirium. I had written notes in the corner of my schoolbooks in pencil and the more crowded those notes became the more I could read, as if in a dizzyingly mocking mirror, the vacillation of my own thoughts, oddly spliced together with The Truth; that is, the printed type it sat between. Together, like a pea-plant, it grew new meaning. I became more and more convinced that I was if not a genius, I was at least a visionary, seeing through the incomprehensible nonsense that was spat out for us into some higher purpose. But there was no audience for my prophetic intent.
In more mundane words, I cried every night and missed my best friend, who had Gone Away, at some point. Everyone’s had that. There was nothing unique about my sorrow. Somehow, even in the depths of my melodramatic despair, I think I recognized the fact.
It became a problem, at some point, and so my case was referred. For a while we were all standing in stuck horror with the summons through our throats, as though wondering if it were even possible to run. It might have been a medical disaster, only a friend of my teacher’s who had seen one of my more unguarded essays recommended that my problem wasn’t precisely lack of patriotic spirit, but merely an excess of vision. So I got offered a position in government soon after school.
Why am I telling you this? I know it has nothing to do with my heart. It’s context; it explains why everything happened the way it did. These extraneous details are the most important part of any truly thoughtful exercise…
I was twenty-six when, through a referral, I came across the service. It was wildly expensive, but then, I had a comfortable amount of money, and enough trouble sleeping to want the latest palliative. They said it was stress pain, something sunk into the body, something to do with work. I didn’t care. What was the building like? Oh, clean… very ordinary. You’ve seen doctors’ offices like it. A discreet address on High Street that no one would ever suspect of such a thing. Or, at least, say in anything other than anti-patriotic jokes repeated under one’s breath. They showed me the mannequin. I found nothing wrong with it.
All those other details about the form—everything I’ve just told you—I only noticed those later. Over time, the buildup of almost imperceptible sensory experiences layered one on top of another finally created a clear enough picture of unease that it made me… uncomfortable. Perhaps the posing helped; the great spotlights, the sterile no-nonsense orderliness within which the mannequin fit perfectly. Sometimes I’ve seriously considered redecorating my office in tune with the memory of that show-strip just to make the mannequin’s presence ubiquitous; I haven’t because of the nagging thought that it might somehow gain another aspect—become as unfitting in its glamourous surroundings as it is in the detritus where it now perches.
I was under anesthesia for the actual surgery, of course: you can’t just remove someone’s heart with only topical medicine. So I can’t tell you much about that. But there it is: I had it out, and I felt unaccountably light for quite some time. It was almost easy to forget that it still existed, somewhere, and that it always would for as long as I lived, and that it would exist still—a husk made in my image—long after my death.
One day I found my old journals again—or what I had called my journals—and with the passage of time I was able to see my naïveté for what it was. I think I had them shredded. An embarrassment for me, a potential loss of my job if the wrong people found out about the inclinations of my younger self—I can’t imagine why I wasn’t ordered to destroy those things years ago. Well, there’s always something that slips through the cracks of even the most well-oiled machine, as they say, and the Great Progress is no exception to the matter.
They give you a small key, for emergencies, so you can open up the chest-panel. At first I did so out of pure curiosity, to watch the beating grotesque housing itself in my false flesh. I felt a pure sort of relief that it was no longer in me; it was so slimy and red. Yes, I’m sure I touched it once or twice. Still, over the years… I think it just slipped my mind.
A week ago, you know, when you first spoke to me, I thought about the mannequin, consciously, for the first time in years. I went up to its unworn face and stared into its eyes, and bent my cupped hand, to turn the key in the lock and look at my heart. I don’t know why I felt such a sudden urge. I knew it was working smoothly; I was still alive after all, and I’d never showed signs of palpitations or faintness. I think I just wanted a visual reminder; something that showed me movement, that showed me evidence of my own existence.
I put the key in, and … I couldn’t turn it. I couldn’t open it at all. The lock was rusted shut.
Yes, I know I should have oiled it more. That’s not the point. I don’t know what the point is. You just asked me ‘what’s it like’ and ‘if I recommend the procedure.’ Of course I recommend it. It’s quite standard and safe. You can ask anyone, they’ll tell you the same thing. Many good citizens have done it, many people you know, I’m sure.
All the same, you are my daughter, and I thought that you at least deserved the details—
Of course it changes nothing.
Yes, you’ll have a lot more job options open to you if you do.
I love you too.
[beep beep beep beep beep…]
Erasure Poetry Prompt
In the short story “The Mannequin,” the main character has chosen a form of societally-acceptable erasure. Whether or not this diminishes them is up to the reader. With erasure poetry, the point is often to bring something new or more vivid to the surface by erasing what distracts. Or, you could purposely diminish something to make some kind of point that the text was otherwise not making—possibly for ironic or satiric purposes.
Try it out. Take a screen shot of a portion of “The Mannequin” and create some erasure poetry using a simple digital blackout tool. Or copy a portion of text, paste it in the comment box, and then simply delete parts you want to erase from the whole.
Erasure Poetry Sample Text Before Erasure
The Erasure Poem
Enjoy More Stories From The Shivering Ground
“Stunning…from start to finish. Barkat is a fierce new voice.”
- Good News—It’s Okay to Write a Plot Without Conflict - December 8, 2022
- Can a Machine Write Better Than You?—5 Best (And Worst) AI Poem Generators - September 26, 2022
- What to Eat With Dracula: Paprika Hendl - May 17, 2022