Camilla Grudova’s debut collection, “The Doll's Alphabet,” was published in early 2017with Fitzcarraldo Editions, and is one of the most original, staggering collections I’ve read in recent years. The stories in the collection pull apart and reconstruct genre's conventions, and carry the reader into a stirring, harrowing world that brings to mind of a ride on an amusement park ghost train—even though we know it’s only a mock setting, we still sway and squeal with delight inside the car while grabbing our stomachs. Throughout the collection, Grudova demonstrates her remarkable sensitivity to the female condition; her characters often struggle against a nightmarish dystopian world that threatens to seal their fate. However, in “Notes from a Spider,” the final story in the book, the protagonist is a man—a half-spider with eight legs, who admits to being “part vermin.” Grudova manages to imbue this grotesque character with something highly sexual; a sense of dark perverted lust prevails throughout the text. She pushes the boundaries of these elements to a new level through a description of the ultimate objectifying love — an infatuation with a sewing machine—a sophisticated and incredibly precise choice of object that pops up in other stories in the collection as well, in various intriguing forms. The woman as a sexual object becomes an artifact, and the real woman is sacrificed to it—this is the allegory that is realized here by the power of an extraordinary imagination – but how disturbing is the gothic world in which it is rooted! That is its power, and that is the power of Grudova’s writing, which grips and doesn’t let go.
These notes were found in a leather binder, written on loose-leaf paper of good quality. The binder was stuffed in an old trunk, underneath a moth-eaten fox fur, small black records, many broken needles, tattered bits of sewn cloth and empty glass medicinal bottles, in a condemned building, the last of many to be torn down to make way for modern and sanitary housing.
I couldn’t have been born in any city but this one, a great European capital filled with beautiful, highly detailed architecture, a castle overlooking the river, the city a spread of gilded and copper garlic-like domes, gargoyles, steeples, trains, lampposts resembling moons entrapped by black vines, skylights like dew on buildings, factories, workshops, cabarets, a forest of iron, stone, glass. I certainly can’t imagine myself existing in an American or Siberian village, a desert, a valley. I have only seen such places in books, I have never left the city in which I was born. I’m given many invitations to visit villas in foreign countries, castles, the seaside, but I worry I would disappear as soon I stepped out of this city, like a cloud of smog.
I feel part wrought iron, part human and, I won’t lie, part vermin.
I have eight legs, and the upper body of a normal man. Black hair, elegant nose and melancholy green eyes, a good set of fake teeth made out of elephants’ tusks – I had my real ones removed, like so many gentlemen of my city, so I could enjoy rich food and drink without continual visits to a dentist. I had my fake ones designed to be sharper than my originals, more fang-like. The style has been emulated by many men, young and old.
I bring to mind a spider, an umbrella, a marionette.
The way I move I resemble a large hand with a few extra fingers. I only have one set of genitals – thank goodness! The delicacy and sensation of having a pair between each leg would be unbearable.
The spaces between my other legs resemble armpits, but slightly firmer. They are hairy. I have the hair removed with wax, so there will be less ambiguity when viewing my naked form. I take great care of my feet, each nail covered in clear, shiny polish, each sole dipped in scented powder.
My anus is directly underneath me, my buttocks a circle in the centre of my legs, much like a lavatory on which my torso permanently sits. A chamber pot is much easier for me to use than a modern toilet, and the cafés I patronize regularly provide me with one. Afterwards, I wipe myself with a wet cloth. I take great care with my appearance. I have suits especially made to fit the proportions of my body, though some, including my doctor, have suggested it would be more comfortable for me to wear a gown.
I never wear unmatching shoes, though some people would imagine I would want to, in order to show off my vast collection of footwear. I buy four pairs of each shoe I desire, and wear them all at once.
I could be a stone arabesque that crawled off a building, or a complex contraption belonging to a barber, a photographer or a mathematician. I could be one of many things that exist in the modern city, I play various roles in many fantasies.
It’s impossible to imagine my parents, I believe I simply rose out of the city, out of a steamy grate, like Venus out of the ocean. There are many men in the city, deformed by the guns and cannons of the last war, who have only one or two limbs left, or none at all – in a sense they are my fathers. If there is nothing shocking about a man with one limb, what is so shocking about a man with eight?
A soldier with one arm and no other limbs lives on a small wooden wagon outside the metro near my apartments. I always gave him coins until one day he asked if he could have two of my legs instead. He laughed, but his eyes looked so envious, so hungry, that I never stopped to give him anything again. I scurried away on my infinitely precious eight feet, an abundance of flesh.
From what I was told, I was left on a church doorstep, like a gargoyle that had fallen from its façade. I was brought to an orphanage, but I was too exceptional to stay in an orphanage long, news spread of me quickly. A handful of kind, curious patrons hired a nanny to raise me, tutors to educate me, a doctor to watch my health carefully. I was a particular favourite among wealthy women. No one person possessed me, I was considered a child of the city. Everyone important visited, brought me toys, books, musical instruments.
Though I wasn’t forced to learn a specific skill, or to heighten my difference with strange tricks, like the circus dwarf who is taught to juggle and dance, I played piano a little, had a fine voice, and knew arithmetic. But I knew from a young age that I would mainly devote myself to pleasures of less effort: to eating, drinking, reading, loving.
My legs are somewhat weak, long but childlike, despite exercises especially designed by my doctor. It is necessary that I walk with a cane. I have one with a silver spider on the handle.
With women, I often oblige them to sit astride me so that I won’t be overly weakened. I sleep the way a flower does, closed like an umbrella.
I have many women friends, and many woo me. One, a rich baron’s wife, had a coat made out of insects’ fur for me. She had hundreds of tarantulas and bees killed in order to make it, in order to appeal to me, but never have I been so repulsed. I care deeply for the creatures so many others despise: spiders, moths, rats, mice, all manners of bugs. They are my kind.
I have two pet rats, one white, one black, Odilon and Claude, whom I take with me everywhere in a leather and gold cage. I feed them candied almonds, bits of sausage and oranges. They are fond of me, they love to crawl across my many limbs, and I have my suits made with a few extra inches of loose fabric so that they can comfortably sit between my legs and the cloth. People often mistake their lumpish outlines for further deformations of my body, and are horrified when they move.
I am the city’s muse. Many artists have painted me, and there is a sculpture of my body, nude except for a bowler hat, in a public garden, upon a pedestal, with a poem, written in my honour, carved into it.
An architect designed a glass and steel pavilion full of palms where one can have tea, topped with a bronze model of my head, and a round theatre, made of black and white marble, the black marble designed in arches emulating my legs.
I also make a substantial amount doing advertisements for: absinthe, shaving lotion, wafers, sparkling water, brogues, bowties, soap, feather dusters, jewellery, truffles, silk, macaroons, liquorice, typewriters, photography studios, paint, thread, tea, perfume, coffee, Bergamot oil, sock garters, galoshes, tinned oysters, umbrellas, moustache wax, fishnet stockings, walking canes, bowler hats and nougat.
I refuse to do advertisements for insecticide, though I have been asked many times. How I hate those horrible shops with rats nailed to the façade, boxes of poison, traps for creatures of all sizes, some so large they might catch an unfortunate child.
How I love cockroaches, lice, fleas, pigeons, moths, rats, mice, spiders, sparrows and of course, cimex lectularius. It is thanks to me such dwellers in this city have a safe haven. Using my vast funds, I created a zoo where a selection of so-called vermin can exist in fascinating proliferation, in a closed-off area of the city, where glass tunnels have been built so that human citizens may walk through unmolested and unbitten. Visitors bring them rotten meat, stale bread, old clothes and bedding. Some find it relaxing, even addictive, to watch the creatures propagate, consume, die, to see them exist in a space where they can do each without restraint, without poison, brooms, traps, felines and dogs.
From a distance, my zoo resembles a great gallery or train station. It has many glass roofs, and grand pediments with friezes depicting rodents and insects. At the entrance, there is a bronze statue of me, a rat in one hand, a moth in the other.
I love the moth house, for those creatures consume everything. The moths were enclosed in a structure resembling a greenhouse. Every morning a man who wears an outfit similar to a beekeeper’s opens one of the glass panels and throws in a bag of stale bread and a pile of coats. In such profusion, the swarms of moths resemble swathes of brown fabric or vicious and strange tropical trees which sway to an unknown breeze.
Inside the rat house is a model in miniature of our city, the very same buildings and streets, so that one may watch the rats, so manlike with their hands and whiskers, go about their business of breeding, eating and digesting. The cockroaches and mice keep themselves hidden under old mattresses and couches. If one taps the glass of their cage with a cane or a fist, they move from one hiding place to another, storms of brown and grey. I always bring along a pair of opera glasses, to view the fleas and bed bugs.
The spider house is quiet. It has so many webs it resembles an arctic landscape in its whiteness. It is still except for the morning feeding, when flies and other small creatures are sacrificed. There is a great difference to me between a spider that needs blood, and so must kill, and the unnecessary crushing of spiders, simply because we do not like the sight of their webs in our windowsills. The spinning of webs in the zoo is barely perceptible to the viewer, but the spiders communicate with each other by playing their webs like string instruments, a harmonious music you can hear when all else is silent. They are common household spiders, from the windowsills and corners of my city. Some auspicious women visit the zoo specifically for the spiders, almost praying to them, telling them their secrets and their ailments, as if their words will be absorbed into the webs. I heard that some younger women bring, hidden in precious boxes, the pulp of their menstruation to give to the spiders, believing that doing so will bring them love, marriage, children, and even death. The zookeeper has shown me such boxes, like the ones rings are held in, but stained with blood. He keeps them in his office, after dropping the blood clots into the spiders’ home.
I also draw such attentions. Women unsatisfied with their husbands and unable to bear children come to my apartments begging. I sometimes oblige if their gifts for me are exquisite enough – a fur stole, or a crate of pomegranates or blood oranges, each fruit wrapped in gold foil, for example. The children that result all have my distinguished face, but none my multiple legs. Some women were too nervous and excitable when they saw me naked, my phallus extended like a ninth leg. The women most capable of dealing with an array of different bodies were prostitutes. They told me about the hundreds of deformities hidden under men’s clothing. They were never surprised nor shocked. Publicly, I spent most of my time with actresses and opera singers. I had my own box at all the theatres and opera houses in the city. I always wore a long black cape and sat in the back of my boxes, half hidden in the shadows so as not to draw attention away from the performances. I was the most famous man in my city, my face was everywhere. I was like a monument so large you could see it from wherever you were standing. There was even a ballet and an opera written about me. The ballet was titled Son of Arachne, the opera The Black Spider.
I have been asked to take to the stage myself, but my health would not permit it. It would be too exhausting on top of all my other activities.
It was after the premiere of Son of Arachne, however, that I fell into despair. For the pas de deux, a male and female wore tutus designed to look like multiple legs. (Ah, that female equivalent of me that doesn’t exist!) How they danced together, while I faced life alone! I bought a female tarantula from an exotic menagerie and kept her in a glass box shaped like a palace, I slept with four prostitutes all at once to immerse myself in a tangle of female legs, and later, I borrowed the costume from the ballet and made one of the women wear it, but nothing satisfied me. I went for long drives in my carriage at night, the carriage itself was spiderlike, I had its lace curtains designed to look like webs. I was searching, it seemed impossible that this city of factories, of specialist shops, this city that could produce everything in great quantities could only produce one of me. I stopped in front of Gothic cathedrals and ornate balconies, hoping for a mistress who resembled me to crawl down from their heights.
On one such night, driving across a shopping boulevard where the shop window lights were kept on all night, I spotted the most beautiful but inhuman thigh and told my driver to stop. It was a sewing machine shop. The machine in the window had four legs, like iron plants, a wooden body, a swanlike curved metal neck and a circular platform to run the fabric across, not unlike the plate on a gramophone where the record is placed, and a small mouth with one silver tooth. She was an unusual, modern creature. What beautiful music she must make! Florence was her name, it was stencilled on the shop window. florence. I sat there in my carriage until it was morning and the shop opened. I hastily purchased her, the one in the window. They asked if I wanted her taken apart for carrying, but I had her put, as is, in my carriage. I drove through the city, my legs entwined with hers, two of my feet placed on her sole-shaped pedals.
The shop owners gave me a catalogue of sewing machines, all the names tantalizing: Cleopatra, Countess, Dolly Varden, Daisy, Elsa, Alexandra, Diamond, Gloria, Little Gem, Godiva, Jennie June, Pearl, Victoria, Titania, Princess Beatrice, Penelope, Queen Mab, Empress, Anita, Bernina, Little Wonder, but none more than my Florence, sitting across from me.
Back at my apartments, I tried to bring her to life. I put a hankie from my pocket below her mouth, I fed her string, the very best, I pressed the pedal, but she was stubborn. She swore at me in large, uneven stitches, harsh lines on my kerchief. I wept. I embraced her desperately, kissing the metal body, but she was frigid and still.
Florence needed a woman to assist her, a lady in waiting, she was telling me. I asked one of my servants to call one of the prostitutes I saw regularly, and to bring her over in my carriage as soon as possible. Her name was Polina and her black, curly hair reminded me of Florence’s legs.
After she undressed, I told her to sit at the machine, and sew.
She pressed the pedal and laughed, blowing me a kiss. She got up and tried to join me on my chaise, but I demanded she sit down by Florence again. She pouted, and said what use did she have for knowing how to use a sewing machine? Her Madame fixed her underthings when they were torn. It wouldn’t do! I needed a professional, a seamstress. I told Polina to get out. I immediately wrote an ad for a newspaper and sent it by telegraph so it would appear the next morning.
Oh those poor thin bespectacled things who lived in basements and attics, living off thin soup and dented cans of fish, their backs hunched, their fingers thin and calloused. Yes, there was something insect-like about them. I interviewed many, and settled on a young thing, not yet deformed by her profession. Her hair was the same chestnut colour as Florence’s wooden torso. I had her measured, and a dress made of black lace that followed the same pattern as Florence’s legs. I bought rolls of white, black and gold silk, for Florence to speak to me with.
The girl blushed when she changed into the dress, one could easily see her breasts and bottom through the pattern. I sat close by, and told her to sit down with Florence, and begin.
Ah, those stitches, like lipstick marks left on a paper napkin, sweet poems. The girl worked and worked, caressing Florence in a beautiful dance. I clutched the finished sheets of clothes to my chest. I didn’t want the girl to stop, I closed the curtains. We both became hypnotized, I don’t know how much time passed, but I watched and watched, telling the girl, ‘Do not stop, do not stop!’ in quick breaths until the girl collapsed, the cloth becoming tangled, Florence’s mouth slowing until it was still.
Florence, my mistress, had killed the seamstress. My stove was more decorative than utilitarian, a green and black box with as many ornamental figures and faces as an opera house. I had my meals in restaurants and didn’t use the stove for more than heating sugar, and it took all day to burn the remnants of the seamstress, whom I chopped up into little morsels no bigger than mussels, taking off the dress I had made for her first, of course, and draping it carefully over Florence, to whom it really belonged.
I was tempted, many times, to take the seamstress’s body to my zoo. Oh, how the rats, moths and fleas would consume her in a moment.
I had spent days, nights, in the company of Florence and the seamstress, unaware of time passing. After the seamstress’s body was burned, I was famished, greatly weakened. I kissed Florence and went to a restaurant. I ate my meal quickly, I was impatient to get back to Florence, but I needed another seamstress. I couldn’t use the same newspaper.
I waited near a clothing factory in my carriage and as the girls went home, I stopped and talked to one that appealed to me, the same chestnut hair, the same size as my first seamstress, so that I could reuse the dress I had. I gave the girl a meal delivered from a restaurant before she began, so that she would last longer, but not a meal heavy enough to make her lethargic.
I read the swathes of cloth, her fine, straight stitches, a mysterious and invigorating language, a great novel of love for me. I wrapped myself in them. I only left the apartment to eat, to find more seamstresses, to buy more cloth.
In Florence’s honour, I would open a sewing machine museum, which would also provide me with a steady stream of seamstresses. I would call it the Florentina Museum, an iron and glass building resembling a magnificent web. My patronesses loved the idea, though they had never sewn themselves. It would be recognition of women’s work, and they gave me the money I needed. The museum was planned under my direction, and sewing machine manufacturers donated models and further funds.
The seamstresses came to the museum on weekends in droves, either out of a strange curiosity to see machines unlike the ones they worked with or because they were scared of being away from their machines. No one would love them, so they pushed their affection towards the very machines that destroyed them. They didn’t have sewing machines at home, they couldn’t afford them. Simple needles and threads wouldn’t do, and so they came to my museum in their free hours, their lonely hearts longing to see a treadle, a wheel. The machines had disfigured the seamstresses, they put all their beauty and youth into dresses, curtains and suits. It was easy to spot them, the pale skin, the tired eyes with purple half-circles underneath like violent-tinted spectacles, the squinting, their fingers worn thin, almost needles themselves, hidden in cheap gloves, the shaking legs that would have been muscly from pumping had they had more meat to eat.
The museum had a café, where I now went every weekend for anise and pistachio éclairs and coffee in small black and gold cups. The seamstresses sat at the arabesque iron café tables, their legs moving up and down underneath. They wore hats and shoes made out of black cardboard and carried little pouches filled with iron pills or tonic, often given to them by their factories to keep them alive, and took them with their coffee.
‘If you could do a quick sewing job for me, I have a machine, some silk pyjamas that have ripped, what fine fingers you have, I will pay you of course, and give you dinner too, a fine steak, some roast chicken.’
They lost track of time, there were no clocks in my apartment for this purpose, the curtains were shut, the air was heavy from the stove and gas lamps. I worked them for days and they became hypnotized, as did I, watching the beautiful iron limbs of Florence move.
But the point came when, watching the girls wilt with exhaustion, watching the machine consume them, feeling the cloth covered in gold, black, green and red stitches wasn’t enough any longer. I wanted to be involved in the process, to be touched by Florence.
I cut open my leg with a penknife and said to the current seamstress sitting in front of Florence, a weak thing with a thin black braid, ‘Sew it, sew it up, my dear. No, there is no need to call a physician, just sew it up for me, dear, on the machine.’
Without wiping the blood away, I stuck one of my legs underneath, pale with black hairs, like a roll of cloth that had been slept on, and commanded the seamstress to sew, the cold metal of Florence’s flesh poised above me. What relief, what joy, what pain with the first stitch!
They were love bites, to me. They weren’t as legible or as even as the stitches on cloth, but just as beautiful.
Soon, all eight of my legs were covered in stitches and scars, like a ragdoll, Florence’s kisses. The loss of blood weakened me immensely. I started to walk with two canes instead of one, and I partook of iron pills and tonics, just as the seamstresses did. I barely had any appetite for food, I was too lovesick. For my visits to the zoo, I bought a wheeled chaise which one of my servants pushed me in, but otherwise I did not leave my apartments, I refused invitations, no longer did any modelling. Only my creatures in the zoo understood, I thought, my consuming desire for Florence, my endless hunger for cloth covered in her stitches, for her stitches in my flesh. I brought a bag of wigs for the moths, sausages for the rats, and a cage full of kittens for the fleas. I watched them eat, then returned home.
The few times I had visitors over between seamstresses, so as not to raise too many suspicions as I had previously been so sociable, I covered Florence with a cloth. I didn’t want them to see something so intimate to me.
Disposing of used seamstresses was exhausting. I bought a larger stove, saying I suffered more and more from the cold. I couldn’t even ask my servants for help. I let go all but one, who drove my carriage. Visiting my doctor, I was reluctant for him to see my legs. I told him I was attacked by the dog of a woman friend. My doctor told me I had to stop seeing her at once, and to stay away from dogs. I couldn’t afford to lose more blood, I needed more than the average person with my extra appendages; my heart was overworked.
Oh indeed it was, but he did not know how much. He was disgusted by my stitches. What awful, backdoor surgeon had I visited and why? Why did I not visit him, my trusted doctor since childhood? He gave me a bottle of antiseptic liquid to put on the wounds. I vowed never to visit him again.
I had piles of telegrams, invitations, letters, newspapers, but the only thing I read was Florence’s cloth, yes, and her love-bites, I think she is beginning to love me, I feed her, she writes she writes
The last page ends with an indeterminate smudge, whether blood, ink or alcohol, it is too aged for the naked eye to determine.
*This story was published in: The Doll’s Alphabet © Camilla Grudova, 2017, Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2017.