The Terrible Secret

by Thomas Wiloch

A TOY DOLL COMES to life. She stands on wobbly legs, blinks, waddles around the toy shop. She finds that the other dolls are strangely quiet and still. They do not respond to her questions. They do not react to her touch. After a time it comes to her that the other dolls are different. They possess a calm poise that she does not. They maintain a stern dignity. They are regally silent. The toy doll looks at herself in a mirror and sees an awkward creature whose joints are stiff and whos e little plastic mouth emits a squeaky noise. The toy doll who has come to life is shamed by this revelation. She sits down on her shelf. She does not move. She does not speak. She stares into the distance.

"If I do nothing, say nothing," she reasons, "no one will ever know my terrible secret."


I wake early one morning and slip into my parents' bedroom. My mother lies on her side, curled tight as a seashell. My father is on his back, his mouth wide open. I notice that my father is not snoring, and my father always snores. In fact, he is not even breathing. His mouth is open, his eyes are closed, and he is perfectly still, perfectly quiet. My mother too is still, quiet, not breathing. The early morning light coming through the curtains tints them in a yellowish sheen, as if some soft golden powde r has been spread over the room, the bed, the sleeping bodies.

I wonder how it is that my parents are not breathing. I watch them closely, trying to solve the mystery. I see that my father's skin is turning gray, my mother's skin too. My parents are becoming stone, gradually transforming from skin into stone before m y eyes.

The added weight of the stone crushes against the mattress they sleep on. My mother's stone body is sinking into the mattress. The white mattres rises up along her sides, folds over the top of her still hands and feet, over her torso and head. She disappe ars into the mattress, leaving only a crease. Then my father sinks from sight, the mattress creeping over him like the closing petals of a flower. His arms, his legs, his torso--all disappear into the trough of the mattress, until only his face remains.

Then the mattress folds over his face and he is gone.


The innocence of gravestones, to be unaware of their true purpose.

"We are special stones," they tell anyone who cares to listen, "for we lie here in the grass and the men trim the grass when it grows when it grows too high so we will not be covered over like the common stones. And the men polish our surfaces and arrange us in neat rows, and they come visit us, for we are handsome stones revered by men, and deserving of special treatment."

And the gravestones are quite pleased with themselves.

"But what of those crevices men carve into your faces?" ask the trees.

"Beauty marks," reply the gravestones.

"And," the trees continue, "what of those soft words women whisper as they stand near you with bowed heads and weep?"

The gravestones blush. "Unrequited love," they explain.


"When you are dead," said Delia, "I shall collect your bleached bones and carve them into totems. I shall paint them in gaudy reds and blues and use them to decorate my garden. I shall fashion a cage from your ribs and house a snake within it. I shall mak e a bowl of your skull in which I shall plant foul-smelling cacti. I shall even carve your finger bones into tiny trinkets and sell them on the street to foreigners."

She leaned closer and hissed into my ear: "And what do you think of that?"

"All I ask, my dear," I whispered, "is that you do not forget me."


My parents are balloons floating on the ends of long strings. Above me, they continue to bicker, their balloon bodies twisting and bumping. The whole neighborhood can hear them argue. "Can you keep it quiet?" I say, tugging on their strings. But they igno re me. My father turns in a slow lazy circle as my mother rocks back and forth, emphasizing some point in the argument. Their voices are loud as ever. "What do I have to do?" I call out. "Do I have to poke you with pins?" That finally quiets them down. Th ey do not want to be punctured. They fall into a moody silence. As I walk around, holding the strings attached to my balloon parents, I feel guilty about what I have done. Threatening my own parents with destruction, after all. I am ashamed. This guilt di stracts me so much that I hardly notice that my grip on the balloon strings has relaxed. I hardly notice that I have let go of them. And my parents' voices raised me to call as they drift away into the sky, well, their voices are always raised. Who notice s such things.


It began when a man carved a cross in his forehead and let the blood flow down his face and drip off his chin. Then a woman carved a star into her cheek. A boy cut a deep circle around each eye. Soon everyone seemed to be carving symbols into their faces, marking themselves, bleeding. You saw these people everywhere, in stores, on the street.

"Why have you done this?" I said to one of them. He had a swastika splayed across his thin lips.

"I have defined myself," he shouted. "I have made myself anew. While you," and he pointed to my plain, unmarked face with a sneer, "while you are content with what you've been given."

He laughed and he swaggered away and I found myself unable to refute his logic. I had been content to stay as I was, content to accept the limitations life had presented me. I sought nothing beyond the expected. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced. Logic led me first to the carving knife and then to the mirror. I took a deep breath. I carved a square into my forehead. I put a circle within the square. The blood streamed down my face in tiny red rivulets. Hot blood. Sticky. But when I nex t ventured into the street, I walked with pride.

"Why did you do it?" my friends asked me, horrified. I sneered at them. "Why HAVEN'T you done it?" I asked.


"What are you going to do with a bowl of blood?"

"I'll wash my face in it."

"That's all?"

"I'll start with my face, rubbing it in so I'm nice and red, drippy red. Then I'll soak my hair in it until the blood gushes out when I squeeze. Then I'll rub in on my neck, my chest, back stomach, arms, legs--everywhere. I'll be naked, you know. By the t ime I'm done, I'll be glistening with blood."

"The blood will serve as a kind of paint, then?"

"Exactly. Paint on a living, moving canvas."

"A living sculpture, really."

"Or a sculpture. It's open to interpretation."

"What about the left over blood in the bowl?"

"I'll drink it. That way, not only is the exposed surface of my body covered in blood, but the inner surface as well. All of me will be doused in blood."

"That doesn't sound like much."

"Oh, there's more. When I'm covered with blood completely, inside and out, I'll start to dance, spinning crazily all over the stage, painting the stage with red droplets, like a living Jackson Pollock creation."

"I like that. It combines dance with painting and theater."

"And the audience with blood, too. I'll make sure of it."

"A bit of splatterpunk, eh?"

"No, no. I call it 'audience participation.'"

They both laugh.

"And then what? There should be an ending to it."

"There is. I take a white sheet and press my red, wet face into the fabric so it makes an impression of my features."

"Like the Shroud of..."


"Very neat."

"Then I hang up the sheet, with my bloody face looming over the audience, and I leave the stage quietly, still naked and dripping with blood."

"Oh, yes. That's good. That'll do it. This is one of your best pieces yet."

"Thanks. I'm glad you like it. I'm always a little nervous about them. About how they'll go over."


"So, tell me, what performance piece will you be doing for the festival?"

She brought out a small mohogany case. Opening it, she displayed a myriad of gleaming steel instruments, some pointed, some curved, others jagged or toothed.

"The same old thing," she said. "But this time I'm using a baby."


You go a theater to see the opening of a new play. You take your seat, the lights go out, and the audience hushes in expectaion. When the stage lights come up there is nothing to see. No set, no props, no actors. Only an empty stage where the lights burn quietly. For some few minutes the audience remains quiet, expecting the play to begin momentarily. As time passes, however, it becomes clear that there is something wrong. The stage remains empty and silent. No projection into imaginary characters and the ir imaginery problems is possible. There is no promised escape from the audience's own humdrum lives of toil and tears. There is nothing to look at, no action to follow, no words to hear, no story to second guess. The audience is alone with itself, aware of itslef, confronting itself. Coughs are heard, and a low murmur. People look around the auditorium, stand, turn to one another. Voices are raised in question. After twenty minutes members of the audience begin to file out. There is nothing here for them . But the ticket window is closed. The manager's office is locked. There are no theater employees to find. The place has been abandoned. Disgusted, the audience heads for the exit. But the exit doors have been bricked over. Barbed wire is strung across the windows. And those who push at the doors find themselves the targets of unssen sharpshooters firing from the darkness near the ceiling. One falls, another falls. Millions are eventually shot in this way. Millions more starve when the snack counter runs dry. Others find themselves reduced to scraping the carpeting like peasants, hoping for stray chewing gum sticks or forgotten candy bars. The cries and laments of the audience are muffled by the theater's thick walls so that no one outside can hear them. That is why each night there are yet more people joining the throng inside the theater, people lured by the enthusiastic ticketsellers outside. "Step right up," the ticketsellers cry. "Step right up for the greatest show on earth."

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Written by Thomas Wiloch
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