The Red Dress

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Nadine Monfils was born in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1953. A novelist, short story writer, film director and producer, for many years she taught screenwriting at the Université Européenne d’Ecriture in Brussels and in prisons throughout France. As a journalist and film critic, she has been a regular contributor to Père Ubu, Focus, and Tels Quels. Her first book of stories, Laura Colombe, Contes pour petites filles perverses, was published in 1981 with illustrations by Léonor Fini and a postface by Thomas Owen, who was a champion of her work. Since then, Monfils has written over thirty novels and directed several films. She lives in Montmartre.

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Katie Assef studied French literature at Sarah Lawrence College and recently completed an M.F.A. in creative writing at Brooklyn College. Her prose and translations have appeared in journals such as Whole Beast Rag, PANK, Alchemy: a Journal of Translation, Cerise Press, and Three Percent. She lives in Berkeley and is currently an apprentice with Open Letter Books in Rochester, NY.

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Venice was my last island. A dream outside of time. It was the only place where I felt the waters formed a barrier between me and the world, protecting me from human stupidity.

Something in me was broken. I’d lost my appetite for love, along with all the rest. Sometimes when you can’t change your life, you try to change your look: I swapped my black dresses for colorful clothes and hacked off my long dark curls.

I was another person on the outside–only on the outside. Walking past a mirror, I found my reflection strange, but on the inside I still wore black and would often smooth my phantom curls.

Life had made me more and more withdrawn.

I had come here to escape my demons.

My short hair, jeans and boyish suspenders stood out against the ancient, forbidding scenery like a keepsake box floating amid ominous waves. I had the insolent gaze of those with nothing left to lose; only my reflection in the water could still make me lower my eyes.

I strolled down the narrow passageways around Piazza San Marco, and it took a few days before I felt the effect of the strange atmosphere, like a shadow’s veil that falls gently upon you and never lifts.

To love Venice, you have to cast off your old self, to overcome your disgust of the filthy waters, dive in and let them wash away your dead skin.

Despite my horrible fear of rats, I was convinced the greyish water would help me recover the little girl I had once been. Her laugh and naïve gaze–what ingenious armor! I left my clothes on some pier and began to swim. I didn’t leave the water until I was exhausted, my mind empty.

Someone had stolen my goddamn pants. The thief must not have liked my blouse, for it pined away on the embankment, its heart torn to shreds. Instead of panicking, I took this as a sign and sat calmly beneath the Rialto bridge, waiting for an angel to come along…

A bum approached me. His sour breath made me want to vomit. I tried to fight him off, but he had that madness that gives rise to strength. He pinned me up against the cold, damp wall, gripping my wrists in his right hand, and dug his knee into my stomach to keep me still. With the other hand, he unbuttoned his pants and tried to take out his soft penis. He grumbled. Suddenly, he grabbed a bottle of red wine that lay on the ground and shoved the neck up into me. It was the only skill he had left…

I experienced a strange, repulsive pleasure, something violent rising in my throat. He crushed my breasts and tried to kiss me, but I bit him. He yelled and slapped me, and the taste of blood filled my mouth. After kicking me in the shins, he let me go. I felt a little piece of meat stuck between my teeth! I should have bit his tongue.

He walked off, cursing. The bottle rolled on the cobblestone and the sound echoed like an empty cry. If I had to have been raped by a bottle of wine, I would have preferred it to be a grand cru! But it had no label.

 

A hand came down on my shoulder. I turned and saw an old lady smiling at me. She motioned for me to follow her. Her hair was tied up in a black scarf, and she walked with a limp. Her coat was the color of water, a stormy grey. She took it off to cover me and brought me into her house, a gloomy old place isolated at the end of a blind alley. The rez-de-chaussee resembled a warehouse filled with useless objects. Mismatched chairs were piled on top of one another between moldy crates. A paradise for vermin. We climbed a wobbly staircase to the poorly lit first floor. On a bare table, an oil lamp burned. An old magazine crumbled into dust on the floor beside a broken doll.

That was when I saw her, a tiny figure crouching in the corner.

The old lady murmured a few words in Italian, and the little girl stood. She wore a red dress, a red so intense it seemed unreal. Oddly, when she walked, blood seemed to trickle from its hem. She took my hand and led me into a windowless room. A large candle was all that illuminated the rusty iron crib, half-hidden by dirty curtains. She asked me to sit on the bed. The sheets smelled of urine. And not only that—a strong scent of men, too.

Exhausted, I finally fell asleep despite my nausea. When I woke the next morning, I found the little girl seated at my feet. She was watching me with her little marten’s eyes. I felt as if she was searching through my mind like an old scrapbook, trying to unravel some mystery.  She wore the same red dress as the day before, and I was still wrapped in the old coat.

The old lady came in and gave me a night-blue silk dress. The little girl watched as I slipped it on. I hadn’t seen her smile yet, but maybe she didn’t know how.

“It’s my mother’s,” she said.

“What’s your name?”

“Camarde,” she answered, with a strange glimmer in her eyes.

“You have a pretty red dress.”

She jumped off the foot of the bed and twirled several times like a music-box ballerina. Blood splattered my face and the walls.

The child stopped twirling and began to laugh wildly.

“You’ve got your period?”

“No. It’s my dress that’s bleeding. It bleeds all the time. Ever since I killed the first man.”

“What are you talking about?”

Just then, the old woman called for her in a harsh voice. I heard the Moors of the clock-tower strike their hammers nine times on the bell.

“Come on. My grandmother is waiting for us with hot coffee. We can’t dawdle or she’ll beat my legs with her cane, and that’s the worst!”

“Why do you stay with that mean old hag?”

“And where else should I go, in your opinion? Come on, hurry up!”

 

The old lady drummed her slug-like fingers on the table. She had a fat nose and the shadow of a mustache. She smelled like rancid butter. A true marvel of nature.

She explained that I’d have to put on some makeup and walk the street to bring clients into her establishment.

“The child’s mother used to do it, but that whore took off overnight. Providence sent you to us!”

What luck! I’d walked right into a mouse trap—the old crone and her bleeding granddaughter ran a brothel worthy of Madame Claude herself.

Well, I needed food and a place to sleep. And anyway, it would be fun to try.

Swaying my round derriere, my mouth painted like a porcelain doll’s, I transformed into a baited hook for dumbfish.

The catch was not miraculous, but I did reel a little something in. Rather pudgy, sallow-eyed, in a clerk’s suit. Garden-variety. Never mind, his shirt pocket was stuffed with bills.

I didn’t want to have sex with this guy, but if I had to, I wouldn’t make myself sick over it. All I had to do was close my eyes to be somewhere else.

The fat fish followed me to the house of the witch and Little Red Riding Hood. The old lady made him pay before going any further. She took the bundle of bills and slid a few into my cleavage. Then she motioned for me to lead the wolf into the sheepfold.

The child sat huddled in the darkest corner of the room. I could tell she was there because of the broken doll on the floor beside her. The man didn’t even notice. He undressed, murmuring some dirty talk to rile himself up. He had the bulbous nose of a wino and a pink stomach the color of vacuum-packed ham. Real appetizing. Beneath this jumble of folds was a little rod to distract from the rest. I let my dress fall to the floor and lay down, obedient, eyes closed. I was already on the islands of the Rising Sun, there where flowers are blown apart by a gentle breeze. I spread my legs and waited like I did at the dentist’s.

The fat man collapsed on me with a gasp.

Did he like me that much?

When I opened my eyes, I saw a large knife planted in his back. The little girl in red stood behind him. This time, she was smiling.

“My mum and I always did that together.”

Afterwards, she helped me drag him to the trapdoor.

“Here it is!”

She pointed to a latch in the flooring. The john was heavy, but the girl was surprisingly strong and together we managed to throw him into the hole. I watched him sink into the waters of Venice.

“The canal passes underneath. No one will ever know. It’s black as hell,” said the child.

“You’ve killed many like this?”

“Only the first one counted. The others, we forget.”

“And the old lady – she knows?”

“We told her they left by the back alley. But I think she knows and doesn’t care. As long as it doesn’t mess with her life…”

She began to twirl, projecting tiny stars of blood onto the walls. Then she took me in her arms and led me in a wild dance.

She roared with laughter.

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