Back in October of last year, I wanted to write a spooky short story for Halloween. So I pulled up a list of about 100 or so horror-based writing prompts and picked a number at random. The prompt I got was “This centuries-old beauty treatment is effective but horrifying.” While the scheduling didn’t work out, I’m still proud of the final product and my ability to give this prompt an unusual twist. So, time to settle in for a tale of fashion, mystery and some magic with chilling consequences…
Paris in the late autumn, Antoinette thought, was a beautiful sight. That simple fact could never be changed, even as the unceasing centuries ravaged the rest of the world.
Looking out from the loft of her building on the Rue de Lille, she could glimpse the Tuileries on the other side of the Seine. The rows of verdant green had given way to burning orange and red as the leaves’ days grew numbered. She could see a portion of the Louvre as well, and her mind went to sour thoughts of the pyramid that blemished the front courtyard. An unsightly structure, that one. It clashed with the fine architecture and disrupted her memories of how the palace had once been. In the past, she could walk the grounds and fill in the empty space with sights and sounds that no one else was alive to remember. Now that was becoming more difficult. Perhaps, she thought, she only hated the pyramid because it reminded her that she was old.
A knock at the loft door drew Antoinette from her reverie. “Come in, Matthieu,” she said as she set down her coffee cup and closed the curtains.
The paint-stripped door creaked open, and a young man poked his head into the room. “There’s a girl downstairs to see you, Madame Jacquier,” he said. His voice and his thin frame trembled at the news.
“Oui. The one you selected.”
“Have her seen to the dressing room, then.”
“She is already there. I told her you would be down presently, Madame.”
“Don’t make promises you cannot keep.” Antoinette knelt, unperturbed by her three-inch pumps, and began picking up the loose notes and sketches that littered her floor. “That will be all, Matthieu,” she added, seeing her assistant still lingering in the doorway. “Go home early tonight. Or get drunk, see a film, I don’t care.”
Matthieu looked down and bit his lip. “I would rather stay a while longer, if you would allow me to.”
She rose to her full height and looked at him sadly. “You want to know how the ritual is done, I suppose,” she said. “You want to see for yourself what will happen to the girl.”
He admitted his guilt with a flat, joyless smile. “Wouldn’t you be curious if you were in my place?”
“I would know not to tamper with that which I could never comprehend,” said Antoinette. “Trust me, you are better off never seeing it. Even I look away from it now.”
She reached for the jewelry box on the small table beside her armchair and opened the lid. Sifting through the diamonds and gold chains, she brought forth a pair of chokers that seemed plain by comparison. Four rows of pearls strung together to make a simple band. Nestled in its center was a small white flower with thin, nearly translucent petals.
Antoinette fixed one of the chokers around her own neck, fastening the clasp with the precision of an automaton moving through its limited motions. The other choker she fixed around her wrist as though it were a bracelet. Now all was ready.
She brushed past Matthieu and strode out into the hallway without looking back. “As I said, you are excused.”
The barren loft was on the fourth floor of Antoinette Jacquier’s Paris studio, and her private quarters took up the third. On the second were the rooms where she threw herself into her work: rows of beloved sewing machines and tables for cutting fabric, the study with its easels and sketching tools, the spacious closets stuffed with designs and collections from decades past. She passed all these and made her way to the dressing room that took up the east wing of the floor.
She took pains to ensure that the rooms which outsiders entered would be pleasing to the eye and the mind. With that goal in mind, she had had the dressing room walls painted a soft pink and spread out knitted rugs to cover the hardwood floor. The wall sconces cast a warm, steady yellow light into every corner like unflickering candles. Most visitors found it “charming” or “elegant,” or whatever nonsense they spewed. To her, it was an artificial warmth, a pale shadow of the girlhood bedroom that now existed only in her memory.
The American girl was already there, sitting at one of the vanities with her face buried in the screen of a mobile phone. She looked even younger than expected – just out of university, Antoinette had been told. Her wavy blonde curls that fell past her shoulder blades made her look younger still. Even put against Antoinette’s supposed years, she would be little more than a baby.
Antoinette glimpsed her reflection in one of the vanity mirrors. She took in the deepening wrinkles of her face, the liver spots on her skin, the gray overtaking the auburn in her hair. That sight alone was quick to clear any doubt and guilt from her mind.
By now the American girl was making faces at her phone, puffing out her lips and putting on a sultry look that dissolved into giggles. She happened to turn her head as she laughed, and when she saw Antoinette standing in the doorway, the noise died off into a frightened squeak. “Oh my god, I am so sorry!” she said, dropping the phone and kicking it off somewhere behind her.
Antoinette chose not to react. “You are Miss Norman?” she asked. “The girl from the Instagram?”
“Yeah! Yeah, that’s me,” she said, her face still flushed with embarrassment. “Just call me Chelsea, please. I swear I didn’t see you there, Mrs…Jack-queer? Am I pronouncing that right?”
“Jacques-ee-ay,” said Antoinette. “You may call me Toni if you like.” She smiled and held out her hand. “Enchantée.”
“Oh. Um, okay, Mrs. Toni.” Chelsea shook her hand limply.
“You were taking pictures?”
The girl hurried to retrieve her phone. “Just a couple of selfies.”
“What? Why?” Chelsea asked, frowning.
“No one can know that you are here tonight,” said Antoinette. “On account of the non-disclosure agreement, of course.”
“Oh! Oh, yes. I guess I got so excited I forgot. I was like, ‘I gotta get some proof for my friends back home or they’ll never believe this!’ They don’t know about the sponsorship yet, they think I’m in Missouri visiting Grandma. Instead I’m…” Chelsea and made a sweeping gesture around the room, ending at Antoinette. “I’m here with you!”
“They will have their proof soon enough,” Antoinette said with a plastered-on smile. “Do sit down, Miss Norman. It’s getting late, and we should begin. Hair and makeup first, I think.”
“Aren’t you supposed to have a whole team here to work on that?” Chelsea asked, reseating herself in front of the vanity.
“Not for tonight. Shoots like this one have always been more intimate occasions. I prefer to assist the girls myself.” She pulled open a vanity drawer filled with lipstick tubes and half-used blush palettes. “Hold still and try not to talk too much.”
The girl, however, was quick to reveal herself as the sort who needed to talk as others needed to breathe. She babbled on and on while Antoinette struggled to keep a steady hand despite her subject’s ever-changing facial expressions. At first Chelsea spoke of Instagram pictures and YouTube tutorials and thrift store trips in search of old dresses to cut up and rejuvenate. Then she fell to talking about pet dogs and Los Angeles traffic and the best glitter to use on old high heels.
Antoinette wondered what more a girl of such tender years could possibly have to say about herself. She thought once or twice about muttering an incantation to lock her jaw, just to have some peace and quiet as she worked. But that would have been unkind. Instead, she tuned out the distinct words and let the girl’s voice fade into a melodic background hum.
“So, I guess right around then was when you had your reps contact me about getting sponsored and doing the photoshoot. And I know I’ve said this already, but like, I really can’t thank you enough for this, Mrs. Toni.”
Antoinette paused in the middle of straightening the girl’s hair. “Pardon?”
“I mean, I’ve always wanted to travel. And I never had the chance until now, first with school and then with running the social media stuff. I want to just get out in the world, you know? Find some inspiration and start making outfits from scratch.”
“Is that so?”
Chelsea beamed. “I want to be a real fashion designer, like you.”
Antoinette felt the doubt and guilt stir inside her again. She wished it was something tangible, something she could rip from her heart and strangle.
“There, we are finished,” she said, putting away the brushes and makeup. “Nothing too noticeable. Only a touch of softness to smooth out the imperfections.”
Chelsea cooed at her reflection in the mirror and ran a finger along her face, tracing the pink blush and lipstick and the faint gold eyeshadow. “I love it!”
“I knew you would. And now for the dress.” Antoinette moved off toward a row of plastic-wrapped outfits hanging from a nearby rack. The one she pulled off was still pristine and unwrinkled in its coat.
Months of work had gone into preparing it for tonight. First, there was been the time spent studying images and videos of the girl, determining the hues and fabrics that would suit her best. Then came the innumerable sleepless nights with the needle and thread, assembling the pieces of the dress and stitching the runes into the pattern as her mother had once taught her to do. At last she had finished it the night before: a white satin gown that cascaded off the shoulders and down to the floor in a shower of sparkling crystals and thick embroidery. She had to admit, the creation itself was worth all the calluses and blood.
The girl would never know all that, of course. She squealed in delight when she saw the dress, grabbed it from Antoinette’s hands and dashed off behind a set of room dividers to get changed.
“Do be careful putting that on!” Antoinette said. “It’s quite fragile. I would not want you to damage the sewing.” That much was true. A stitch out of place might cause the whole spell to unravel. “You’ll find the shoes I selected on that shelf behind you – I have labeled them. We will be going to the showroom when you are done.”
Sitting back in a chair, Antoinette made a mental note to come back here when the ritual was finished and discard the girl’s old clothes, along with the rest of her valuables.
“Okay, now I know you couldn’t do the whole photoshoot by yourself,” Chelsea said, struggling to keep her balance as she walked in the new heels. “Where’s everyone for that?”
“You underestimate me, my dear,” said Antoinette, walking briskly ahead down the darkened staircase. “I am most particular about who I allow into my most treasured spaces. Only a select few are permitted into the showroom.”
“The same reason you would protect any sacred chapel,” said Antoinette. “The need for worthiness.”
They came to a thick metal door at the bottom of the stairs, with a small scanner embedded in the wall beside it. Antoinette pressed her hand to the screen, and after a few seconds, there came a loud click and the door swung inward.
“Consider yourself worthy, Miss Norman,” Antoinette said as she stepped through.
There was a cleanliness and stability to the showroom. The floor was of white marble, and the eight walls flowed seamlessly into one another as though carved from a single great block of limestone. Half the octagon was taken up by alcoves in which faceless mannequins posed in ornate gowns, and across from each one was a gilded mirror that stretched the full height of the wall. The domed ceiling was itself a mirror as well, reflecting the raised platform in the center of the room and the black geometric symbols laid into the floor. Antoinette had taken the liberty of covering most of them this evening. For now, they were hidden beneath white sheets and spotlights meant to give the impression of a real photoshoot. But the symbols did not need to be visible to have power. That was the first lesson her mother had taught her.
Chelsea took in a shaky breath as she looked around the room, craning her neck to see as much as possible. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said with a grin. “But what are those?”
She was looking at the portraits which hung above the alcoves. One was a new photograph of Antoinette, smiling at the camera as she sat at her desk. Nearby was a black-and-white picture of a lady in wartime dress with her hair in victory rolls, looking wistfully out over a liberated Paris. Next came a stern, sepia-toned lady in Victorian garb. Finally, there was a painting in a gilded frame that showed two smiling women in powdered wigs and dazzling Rococo gowns. One was middle-aged and stately, the other young and bright-eyed.
“Just a piece of family history,” said Antoinette. “You recognize me, of course. And there is my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother. All celebrated women in their time.”
“Who’s the old lady in that last one?” Chelsea asked.
“No one important,” Antoinette lied, clenching her jaw.
Chelsea furrowed her brows and frowned as she looked up at the pictures. “They all look so much like you.”
For a moment, Antoinette’s heart beat more rapidly in her chest. But then the moment passed, and Chelsea’s oblivious smile returned as she was distracted by the poufy rose-gold ballgown on one of the mannequins.
“Oh, I’ve seen this one before!” she said. “The ’86 winter collection, right?”
“We can dwell on the past later,” Antoinette said. “For now, let’s have a better look at you.”
Chelsea twirled around. The hem of her dress fanned out, and the crystals twinkled like tiny stars as they caught the glare of the spotlights. “How do I look?” Antoinette smiled sadly. “Close to perfection. You just need one more touch. Something to fill in the empty space around the neck, I think.” She unclasped the pearl choker she had around her wrist. “Come here, try this on.”
“What’s that?” Chelsea asked, her eyes widening at the sight of the jewelry.
“An old family heirloom.” Antoinette held it out for the girl to examine. “It is part of a pair, you see. My mother had them made for herself and I. They have been in my possession since 1945.” Chelsea’s smile faded as a hint of confusion flickered across her face. Antoinette could tell she was trying to match the face to the date. Finally, she seemed to give up and laugh as though she had just heard a joke. “Wow, I’d kill to know what kind of skin care you’ve been using, then!”
“Most people would.”
Chelsea picked up the choker and stroked the petals of the central flower. “This looks real. What kind of flower is it?”
“Crocus sativus is the proper term. I refer to it as white saffron.”
“I thought that was, like, a spice or something.”
“Ah, but this is far more valuable than it would be ground up! Especially in such a lovely shade. This one came from my family’s personal garden. Great-Grandmother fancied herself a botanist, or so I was told. People say she created this variety of the breed.”
“Wow, that’s cool!”
“It is only a family legend, of course,” Antoinette said. “No one knows where it really comes from. I have heard others say it was older than this city and used by Gallic witches for their spells.” She scoffed. “But where they come from is of no importance. All which matters to me is that they are beautiful.”
“And you’re sure it’s okay for me to wear one?”
“Oh, they were made to be worn by someone like you.”
Chelsea kept the choker in her hands for another moment, but then slowly handed it back. “I’m not really sure. Maybe we can take a few pictures without it first?”
Antoinette’s smile vanished. “I am not requesting that you wear it, my dear. I am insisting.”
“At least let me see how it looks on you.” The warm smile popped back into place, as welcoming as ever. “You will humor an old woman, will you not?”
Dropping her gaze, Chelsea placed the choker around her neck and fastened the clasp.
“There! A vision of loveliness!” Antoinette said, taking the girl’s hands in her own. “Just as I knew you would be. Now, go to the pedestal and arrange yourself as you think best.”
Chelsea gathered up the hem of her dress and stepped on to the pedestal. “So what kind of pose are you looking for?” “Show me what feels natural to you.” Antoinette backed towards the wall, taking care not to step on any of the black marble symbols just yet.
“Okay? I thought I’d keep my arms all floaty like this and then look off to the side here…are you paying attention?”
“Yes, of course,” Antoinette snapped without thinking. Patience, her mother would say to her now. No room for losing your temper when you are this close to what you desire.
“You’re not even looking!”
Antoinette looked up and observed her subject. Chelsea stood with her arms bent and suspended at her side and a dreamy, far-away look on her face. The crystals on her bodice glittered in the bright light as she breathed. “Like a fine Greek statue,” Antoinette said, smiling. “Perfect in every way.” Her hand went up to her neck. Then she closed her eyes, took a breath and touched the petals of the white saffron. “Now, I command you not to move an inch.”
She felt the change at once. Silence descended on the room like a falling weight, and the air within grew cold and sharp. It stayed that way for several seconds, until the girl’s voice cut through and killed the moment. “Um, Mrs. Toni? I think my arms just fell asleep. And my legs…”
Antoinette opened her eyes. Chelsea was still there on the pedestal, holding her pose from before. But there was a new rigidity to her thin frame. The movements of her chest were slower and more stunted now. Her limbs and neck twitched as she tried in vain to break free from the tableau. But her body stayed frozen as though caught in the lines of an unseen web.
Antoinette stepped up on to the pedestal. “Look at me,” she said. Her lips were moist with anticipation now.
“I can’t…I can’t move my neck. I can’t move anything.”
“Good,” Antoinette said, stroking the girl’s hair. “That means you will not feel any pain.”
The body trembled again as Chelsea tried to move herself. “What did you do to me, you…”
Antoinette tapped her choker again. “Not another word out of you.”
Chelsea’s jaw immediately snapped shut. A few muffled screams escaped from between the closed lips, but nothing more.
“You have been a most cooperative participant this evening, Miss Norman,” Antoinette said as she straightened the choker on Chelsea’s neck. “I suppose you deserve to know what will happen next.”
She circled around the pedestal, pausing every few steps to move aside the spotlights and the sheets, exposing the black symbols. “These are runes,” she said. “Words laced with powerful magic. My mother taught me how to use them without speaking them aloud. They need only to be present when a spell is cast. These on the floor…” She stepped on each of them. “…are for the Incantations of Silence and Stillness. And those woven in the fabric of your dress, those belong to the Incantation of Youth. That one is most difficult to perform. You need two people.”
She stepped into Chelsea’s line of vision again and saw the girl’s eyes gleaming with terror as they followed her every move. “If two wear the white saffron,” Antoinette continued, “then the one who begins the incantation shall receive all the years of the other. The fuel of their very soul. But a person cannot survive without their soul. Taking it away…well, it leaves them changed. Some I have seen turned to stone or wood, others to dust. That part of the spell is not easily controlled. I have my ways, however. So did my mother.”
She looked up at the double portrait in the gilded frame. “Mother used to tell me that you must steal what you desire from the world before it can steal from you. That was one of the last things she said to me before the guillotine took her. The pearls and her spell books were all I could smuggle out when I fled Paris.”
A single tear had escaped Chelsea’s eye and trickled down her cheek. Antoinette reached up and gently brushed it away. “I will not tell you not to weep, my dear,” she said. “You would have had many good years ahead of you, I can see. I promise I will use them well.” She stepped back and took a final look at Chelsea. “You do look lovely, you know. And now you will look lovely forever.”
She closed her eyes, touched the white saffron and spoke the words that her mother had recited time and again. “Years for beauty. A fair trade.”
The rush of energy came like a needle into the bloodstream. Each time it managed to overwhelm her. It swept the haze from her eyes and the gray from her hair, the wrinkles from her skin. Her heart beat faster and faster as though it might burst. It hurt like being pulled apart and reassembled, and she welcomed the pain. She could not help smiling as the years fell away. It was enough to help her ignore the faint noise in the back of her head, the whistle like that of steam escaping from a valve. The feeble, frightened scream that ebbed away into silence.
Everything began to slow back down. The adrenaline flow trickled down into a placid stream, while the temperature of the room had returned to a pleasant coolness and the sounds of the traffic outside were audible once more.
Antoinette opened her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. The room appeared as untouched and clean as ever. Nothing around to prove that the ritual had been held at all, other than the mannequin that now occupied Chelsea’s place on the pedestal.
Her final pose was captured in plastic, her arms still hovering where she had left them and her head turned away to the side. Her hair was gone. The fearful expression from moments earlier had been wiped away, and now there was only one of painted apathy. She looked regal and aloof in her new state. Perhaps even beautiful, as promised.
Antoinette noticed the showroom door standing slightly ajar and a pale face peering out from the shadows. “You may come out now, Matthieu.”
Matthieu staggered out into the open. His jaw hung slack, and his eyes bulged out from their sockets. For a time, his lips moved without noise as though he could bring himself to force out the words.
“You know how it annoys me when you do that, my dear,” said Antoinette.
“In a sense, yes.” Antoinette unclipped the choker from around the mannequin’s neck and slipped it back around her wrist. “A living soul cannot inhabit an unliving form. Her years have been added to my own.” Reaching out, she pulled Matthieu on to the pedestal with her, ignoring his whimpered protests. “What, are you a coward? It is quite safe here. She cannot hurt us now.”
With a sudden, shuddering jolt, the blue eyes of the mannequin moved. One moment before, they had been gazing off into a corner of the room. Now they were locked on Antoinette’s face.
Matthieu screamed and tumbled off the pedestal in his efforts to scramble to safety. Antoinette did not move. Her lips were pressed tightly together, however, and her fingernails dug into her palms as her knuckles turned white.
“Sometimes a sliver remains inside when the ritual is done,” she said, speaking more to herself than to her assistant. “But only a sliver, and never for long. I have heard of this happening now and again.”
Heard of it, yes. But she had never seen it in two centuries. The thoughts of what it might portend were enough to turn her stomach.
“I want you to get rid of the face,” she said to Matthieu.
“Paint over it, sand it off, I don’t care how. I want it gone. Don’t place it with the others, place it in storage. Make sure no one ever sees it.”
She turned and hurried out of the room, suddenly feeling its oppressive essence. She did not stop until she reached the barren loft, where she locked the door before allowing herself to breathe.
This feeling will pass, she thought to herself. It always passes. Get something to help it along.
She selected an Edith Piaf record from a dusty crate in the corner and placed it on the old Victrola. As the music filled the air, she took a glass from the cabinet and poured herself some red wine.
The lights on the other side of the river were still shining bright. As Antoinette stared out her window, she could see her reflection in the glass. Her skin was smooth and glowing with fresh health and vitality. Not a strand of gray in her shiny auburn hair. She was not a day over thirty, at the most.
She smiled. “How beautiful.”