Le Tigre

Allie held the painting at arm’s length and looked for something scary in it.

The drying canvas was blood-soaked with all the reds she had squeezed from the tubes now lying lifeless at her feet. Crimson and Radiant. Venetian and Cadmium Deep. Allie wanted to look into what she had created and feel her heart race. She wanted lifeblood itself smeared across the canvas. But all she could see—as always—was a clumsy thatchwork of brushstrokes, abstract and artless.

Something seismic rose up from within her. She could not scream in the studio—a group of her classmates were yukking it up over High Lifes around the corner—so she lifted the canvas above her head to smash it on the concrete floor.

“Allie, we’re headed to Roma,” she heard behind her. “Hey, what are you doing?”

“Uh… displacing the oils before they set,” she stammered to Willow. “I’m staying here tonight, thanks.”

Willow looked from the painting in Allie’s hands to the other works-in-progress lining the walls. Death By Death, Allie called the series-to-be—paintings in grisly, viscera reds that she thought of as Cindy Sherman by way of Rothko by way of Nightmare on Elm Street.

Death By Woodchipper. Death by Industrial Bakery Oven. Death By Trash Compactor.

If given the chance, Allie could talk at length about her depictions of bodies charred and crushed and ripped asunder. How she was attempting to elevate the grotesque and low-culture to explore codes of generational trauma and media violence.

But sunny, well-adjusted, happy nuclear-family Willow backed away and said, “I just wanted to remind you to turn off the lights before you leave.”

Of course. Why would they invite Allie? She never went with them to the coffee shop to chain smoke between rounds of atrocious open mic poetry, or to the Double Door to drink PBRs and play the video poker machines embedded in the bar. No. Allie was the art school madwoman, toiling in the studio from morning until night like some kind of paint-covered witch, trying to conjure into reality that which was locked away deep inside her. Double, double, toil and trouble.

After everyone left, the paint-flecked wall clock showed nine PM. Allie squeezed out more paint from fresh tubes— Perylene and Indian Red, Alizarin Crimson and Light Oxide—then began mixing them on her palette and working them onto a freshly gessoed canvas.

By the time she left the studio, the wall clock showed midnight. She was trying to work a splinter from her hand that would not come—she had ended up smashing this new painting on top of her easel. The image she had in her mind’s eye was carnal and bloody, menstrual and deathly, but every attempt to extract it from her imagination resulted in something stillborn, a perverse simulacrum.

A metallic taste of paint stung her mouth as she crossed Maryland Parkway. She caught her wild reflection in the window of Café Espresso Roma. Her zonked-out eyes and tornado of hair, her paint-splattered clothes and skin. She was superimposed in the glass against the crowd inside, who looked to be talking enough bullshit to drown out the man at the open microphone weeping while he read from his dog-eared notebook.

Her classmates said they were artists, but all they really wanted to be were art school students. They thought art was color theory and house parties, a Camus paperback tucked in your back pocket, an Egon Schiele pose with a brush in one hand and a palette knife in the other.

But art was something living and terrible. It writhed with tooth and claw in the chambers of your heart. To reach it, you had to crawl inside, down into the dark where it scratched and seethed, until the walls closed completely around you.

“Fuck,” Allie said. She forgot the lights again.

She turned around to head back to the studio. Yet just as quickly, she stopped dead in her tracks, staring with disbelief at a nearby electrical box. Because glued onto one sheet metal side was a strange and familiar image, which took her brain many uncomprehending seconds to register.

Her art.

A grainy photocopy of a charcoal sketch, part of a series of she had labored over during the fall. The Chimeras, she called them. Nude women, long-limbed and languorous, bearing the impossible heads of goats and wolves and other wild animals. Allie still thought of them daily, one of countless unrealized creations haunting her consciousness, even though she threw the whole lot away several weeks ago.

A vortex of emotions clashed within her as she wondered what her trashed work was doing here. Her eyes lingered over the lines scrawled in Sharpie beneath the sketch.

Human sacrifice for kicks in the godforsaken city of horror… one night only… Huntridge Theater….

Beneath that was a date.


Allie stepped off the bus and laid eyes on the Huntridge Theater. A long sheet cake of a building, its Art Deco marquee extending a hundred-feet high to spell out Huntridge in dead neon.

The bus disappeared down the desolate boulevard. Allie didn’t see a single other person as she crossed East Charleston and approached the boarded-up theater. In high school, she used to go to punk shows here during the dying days of the theater, shitty local Vegas bands generating the soundtrack for teenagers to leap over the mosh pit and smash bulbs from the grand chandelier overhead.

That was years ago. She now stood in the empty parking lot, looking over the former movie palace, condemned and decaying brick by brick into the asphalt.

One night only. It rang and repeated in Allie’s head. What could that possibly mean?

An ear-rattling bang made Allie jump and cower. Through her interlaced fingers, she saw a streetlamp flicker to life, illuminating a nearby dumpster and the scattering rats that had caused the lid to slam shut.

“Wasting your goddamn time,” she muttered to herself as she stood up. Was she so desperate for recognition, trapped in this vapid city at a third-rate university on no gallerist’s radar, that she would come chasing ghosts all the way out to this no man’s land?

She turned around to trek back to her shit-hole apartment—to eat a sad cup of noodles on her bare mattress on the floor—when she heard someone retching behind her. From around the corner, a man came stumbling across the parking lot. Trying to wipe his mouth, he tripped on his feet and ate shit on the asphalt.

“Are you okay?” Allie asked, taking a few tentative steps towards him face first on the ground. As if electrified, he whipped himself around onto his back, causing Allie to yelp and jump again.

“Look at all those stars,” he croaked. He had a face full of piercings and spaced-out eyes. “Wowie zowie.”

Allie vaguely remembered overhearing earlier in the studio that there was a meteor shower tonight. But when she looked up, she could see nothing through the atmospheric pollution of the city and its blinking casino light.

“Are you here for the art show?” the man asked. “They called me here, too. It’s just inside there. They’re waiting for you.”

Go inside? Allie wanted nothing less in the world. She wanted to turn and run and not look back. Yet she couldn’t stop thinking about her goat-headed Chimera, which she had attempted to destroy, but had been brought by mysterious hands back to the world. Was that the only one they recovered? Were the others inside?

So she left the man oohing and aahing at the starless sky, and went herself around the corner he had stumbled from.

She came to a spraypainted side entrance. Beneath the graffiti and a weathered biohazard sign, she made out the words Stage Door. Allie reached out with a hesitant hand and gave it a little push.

The door swung open. Damp and mold in the air. A dim, wavering light down the hall. Voices softly reverberating within.

As she set foot in the theater, the carpet squished underfoot. When she was halfway down the hall, the stage door swung closed behind her, plunging the world into black. Making a suffocated sound, she clutched at the walls, wanting to claw her way back towards the stage door.

But beyond the phosphenes swirling in the dark, she saw her nude Chimera, floating in charcoal and graphite. It was here, somewhere, in this very building. So Allie pressed on, towards the light and the voices.

She came to the formerly grand lobby. A group of about ten young people with grungy clothes and greasy dyed hair were clustered around a drumfire in the center. About as many more milling around the edges of the room. Above them still hung the crystal chandelier Allie remembered from high school, although every light had been shattered from it in the intervening years.

But Allie didn’t take in the squatters, or whoever they were, for very long. Because her eyes were floating across the room. They were all here.

As if by an invisible current, she felt herself carried into the room, moving from work to work. The Chimeras were tacked and nailed and pasted onto the charred black walls and peeling archways and crumbling columns. Allie’s goat- and wolf- and tiger-headed women stared back at her, nude and defiant from their canvases and sketch paper.

“I love how vaginal the compositions are,” said a voice. The man with the pierced face from outside came alongside her.

“Who’s running this show?” Allie managed to ask.

“No one’s in charge here,” he said.

“But… who put these up?”

“We’re an anarcho-primitivist goddess collective. All take part in the great dreaming.”

“But this is my art,” Allie said. Seemingly everything she had felt this night—confusion and desire, futility and surreality—was being pressurized into a hard and bright diamond of righteous anger. “Where did you get my stuff? Were you rooting around in the dumpster behind my apartment?”

“Oh me. Oh my. You’re the artist.”

“What did you say, Obsidian?” a nearby woman said.

The artist, Allie heard repeated. The word was parroted across the room—the artist, the artist—in hushed murmurs and excited whispers. They approached, circling around her in their threadbare and psychedelic rags, gawking with their bugged-out eyes and flea-bitten skin and rotting teeth.

“Tell us,” Obsidian said. On either side of him stood women holding strange silver rods rotating on hinged handles, as if divining for water in the desert. “Are you truly the artist?”

They jockeyed for position, elbowing each other to get a better view of Allie. Where crowds once came to this theater to be bathed in the projected light of fifty-foot movie stars, they now marveled over paint-spattered Allie, who was so uncomfortable in the center of this ring of attention that she wanted to fall to her hands and knees and flee between their legs.

But she forced herself to stand her ground, sticking her chin out and saying, “This is my work.”

“What was it like when you created them? What visions did you see?”

Visions? How could Allie even begin to describe what it was like to crawl within, elbow after elbow into ever darker space, until it felt like her bones were going to snap and she would be squeezed to paste?

“They are truly wonderful,” someone sighed, looking around at the Chimeras.

“No, they’re shit,” Allie snapped. “That’s why I threw it all away. It wasn’t good enough to be seen by anyone else. Not even in a place like this.”

Non,” said a woman in a thick French accent, pushing her way through the crowd. She was very young and her gutter punk clothes were splattered in dried paint. “No, no, no. Zese images are very powerful. Zey are the trooth. You depict them jest as zey are.”

“Just as who are?” Allie said. Someone stuck a forty of Olde English in her hand.

“Ow did you first zee zem?” the French woman continued. “Did ze images come to you in zleep? In orgasmique rapture?”

Allie took a life-giving drink from the bottle in her hand. She had no idea how thirsty she was. “That’s not how it is. I’m no receiver. That’s not art.”

 “Tell us then,” breathed Obsidian, as Allie took another long drink. “What is art?”

“Easier to say what it’s not. Beauty’s bullshit, for one. Art’s not some escape or glimpse into quote-unquote real life. It’s a goddamn motherfucking beast.” She drank some more. “It lives inside of you, clawing away. To stop the pain, you dedicate yourself to it, mind and soul. But it just takes everything you have and demands more.”

Allie went on and on like this, surprising herself, a torrent unleashed with the weirdos hanging on her every proclamation and theory. Somewhere in the middle of describing Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, she finished her forty. Another appeared from the crowd and settled in her hand. One or several joints were passed around. The party went kaleidoscopic. The world reduced to a low and agreeable buzz, through which Allie floated on roller skates, holding court on light and shadow, dissonance and vividity, the cheapness of representation and the absence of meaning.

A sound rumbled from the belly of the building, vibrating under her feet.

“Oh me, oh my,” Obsidian said. “They’re getting close.”

“Who?” Allie asked. No one answered and she quickly forgot about her question, the alcohol and smoke worming through her brain, clipping off her reservations and inhibitions one by one.

A few minutes or several hours later, she was describing to French Marguerite how destruction was just another form of creation (“I couldn’t zegree more”) when various people in the crowd jumped at once, the weird silver rods in their hands whirling wildly.

A slow cloud of dust descended over Allie. Wiping her eyes, she saw the busted-out chandelier swinging overhead as if there was an earthquake.

“They’re here,” Obsidian said. “What do we have for the blood gods tonight?”

“You’re the strangest group of artists I’ve ever met,” Allie said.

“Oh, we’re not artists. The artists live downstairs. You should meet them now.”

“Who’s downstairs?” Allie asked.

But the world had grown topsy turvy. Allie’s eyes jumped between the exultant faces of the crowd, the spinning rods in their hands, unable to settle on any one thing. She reached out to steady herself. Someone took her outstretched hand and pulled. The crowd parted and she was led across the room. As they reached an open doorway, the person who was dragging Allie stepped to one side, while Allie continued forward out of sheer plastered momentum.

Darkness stretched out beneath her. She jolted awake, flinging her arms out against the narrow passageway before she took another step and plummeted down a steep, neck-breaking stairwell.

Something down in that deep dark groaned.

The door slammed shut behind her.

“Hey,” Allie shouted as she turned, pushing and banging on the door. It would not budge. “This isn’t funny. Let me out.”

There was a long, jagged gash in the center of the door, as if someone had once taken an axe to it. Through this hole appeared Obsidian’s pierced and ecstatic face.

“I’m so excited for you, Allie. The artists have been here for a long time, but not everyone gets to meet them.”

“The wha… who the fuck are you talking about?”

“I dreamed about it all, back in Philly. Millions of years ago, a light appeared in the sky and split in two. One half landed here, in Las Vegas. Alain Huntridge found those who fell and built this theater above them, to appease their hunger with art from above.”

With a violent jerk, Obsidian was pulled away from the door. Marguerite’s face replaced him through the hole.

“Zat idiot.” The candle she held cast shadows over her face like she was telling a scary story over a campfire. “Non, non, non. They ave been ere forever, practizing their magique in the desert dirt. They—”

Now Marguerite was pulled away by a swell of grappling limbs. Obsidian reappeared.

“But the theater closed,” he continued as if there had been no interruption. “The music stopped. So they called us here, drew us from far and wide with their gravitational pull. They’re waiting for you, now, in the temple below—”

Something struck Obsidian from behind with a terrible crunch. His eyes rolled up in his head as he fell. Marguerite stuck her face through the hole once again.

Le tigre lives in ze ground,” she said. The prominent incisors in her mouth were sharp and glowed in the candlelight. “She ’as teeth and claws and ez going to eat you up. Bonne nuit, artiste. Bonne nuit!

Allie backed away, her heart stricken and twisting in her chest. Through the axe hole, she saw Marguerite carried away by the sway and crush of the delirious crowd. Her candle flew out of her hands. In a moment, smoke appeared under the door. Then flames. Tentative at first but quickly hot and bright, dancing up the rotten wood until the door was a smoking, skittering rectangle of ochre and scarlet fire.

A choking black cloud chased Allie down the stairs. The unbearable, deathly heat of it. She descended the narrow passage, orienting herself with arms outstretched to the walls on either side.

As she went lower down the blind passageway, she imagined she heard Marguerite’s voice drifting farther and farther away.

Bonne nuit! Bonne nuit!

Down and around the twisting staircase. Until a flickering light appeared at the far bottom and Allie reached solid earthen ground.

The subterranean space was illuminated by several candles melting on the cobblestoned ground. A sickly sweet smell of rotting flowers wafted in the air. Her heart on overdrive, Allie stumbled forward, the room revealing itself to her candle by candle.

There was no tiger. In the center of the room sat a decayed velvet fainting couch. And upon the cushioned swoop of it laid a figure in nude repose, her face obscured but her full breasts and dark tangle of pubic hair visible. As she sat up with the leatherbound book in her hands, Allie saw the lifelike goat mask she wore.

Ah,” the naked woman said with a voice of ice and moonlight, a sound unlike anything Allie had ever heard. “The solar winds have not yet brought my sisters. They ride still in the sky. It is just I.”

Allie did not want to take one step further, but the fire burned and crackled above her. She could feel the cool of the basement quickly heating up.

“There’s a fire upstairs,” Allie said, taking a hesitating step into the room. Was it the nerves or liquor that made her legs waver so? “We’re trapped.”

The woman set the book on the couch and stretched luxuriously.

“I was reading about the deaths of saints. Joan of Arc, burned at the stake. Classic. Others more perverse. Lucy, eyes gouged out and throat opened. Cecila, beheaded—partially mind you—and bled dry over many days. Agatha, breasts cut off and dragged over hot coals.”

“I said there’s a fire.”

“Yes, those maniacs have finally done it. But thou are not trapped fully. There is a way.”

The woman stood, unfolding her great length until her shoulders were back and shadows danced across her belly and breasts. Regal and otherworldly, she approached with footfalls that seemed to glide over the ground.

As she came close, Allie saw that she did not in fact wear a mask, but somehow a real goat head affixed over her own. Its milky white dead eyes. Its lolling tongue and long, curved horns. The decomposing flesh of it was so quickly overpowering that Allie lurched and threw up between her feet.

Hunched over and drooling puke, Allie saw the woman’s long, marble-white feet appear close to her own. She held out a square of fabric, delicately embroidered with faded flowers.

“For the effluvium,” she said.

“Thank you,” Allie replied. The cloth felt very old and worn thin as she dabbed her mouth with it. When she stood, she said. “They said you were a tiger.”

“Ah. But I am only an artist.”

The woman loomed high above, the tallest person Allie had ever laid eyes on. Allie had to crane her neck to even see the single puncture wound in the woman’s chest, above her heart, and the trail of dried blood that snaked down her breast and circled her nipple.

Allie’s heart hammered in her chest. But she still managed to say, “You look like one of my drawings.”

“Thou tuned into something unfathomable. I am the minotaur in the labyrinth. I offer a way out, but it is scary. Are thou certain?”

Without waiting for an answer, the woman’s arm reached out. Allie squeezed her eyes shut as her cheek was enveloped by the woman’s ice-cold palm. The splinter in Allie’s hand began needling her again. She dug into the flesh of her hand with her fingernails, but it would not come free.

“Yes,” she said, breathing in the acrid smoke now streaming down the stairs. “I want the scary way.”

“Ah. Then look there.”

Allie felt the ice-cold palm lift from her face. She opened her eyes to see the woman pointing to a small and rusted metal door set in the middle of the far wall. “That dumbwaiter rises to the old kitchen upstairs. The electricity no longer works but I can raise it by hand. Enter the box.”

“It looks like a trash compactor.”

“It is a dumbwaiter. Inside with thee.”

Under the spotlight of the blind goat eyes above, Allie baltered forward. The room was becoming more and more obscured by the smoke, which now descended the stairs in great, rolling waves and scorched her lungs as she breathed.

When she reached the wall, she pawed at the metal door until she was able to slide it open. Even in the dim light, she could make out the smallness of the claustrophobic box. She nearly threw up again imagining herself getting inside that coffin-like space.

“But it looks like a trash compactor,” Allie said. She turned to further protest, but she could no longer see through the smoke. Yet above her loomed the goat head, swaying high above the death cloud, those dead and all-seeing eyes directed down on her.

Coughing into her arm, Allie tried to ask, “Will you really send me up?” But she could no longer speak. Was, in fact, barely able to even breathe.

“Verily,” the woman said, as if reading Allie’s mind. “It is my solemn vow. I will send thou up and up.”

Her eyes burning from the smoke, Allie navigated the narrow entrance by feel. The corroded metal was sticky to the touch and hotter by the moment. She wedged her top half into that constrictive space, then crawled in after, until her knees were touching her chin and she was laying fetal in a metal womb so constricted there was not enough space for her to turn or even move her head.

Behind her, the door closed with a loud, reverberating clang.

“Thou have been cursed,” the Chimera said from the other side. Her voice filled the space in such a way that Allie was unsure if the voice issued from outside or was there in the dark with her.

“What? Send me up.”

“Thy paintings are lightfast. The canvases will not fade for hundreds of years, but no one will ever look at them. A terrible curse indeed. Thou have been given the compulsion to create, but no talent.”

Allie kicked at the door behind her, her heels clattering futilely on the metal. It was pure dream terror.

Send me up!

“This is no life to lead. The world only gets smaller. It’s a lonely end. Doest thou want to be free?”

With panicky hands, Allie clawed and pushed at the metal walls. They had an abrasive, syrupy texture that grated her fingers. The walls held a rank, baked-in odor of garbage, years and years of it, crushed and seeped into the metal.

“This isn’t a dumbwaiter,” Allie said.

No answer came. Something glacial and terror-filled sluiced through her veins. Allie was carried away on that river, lost beneath its surface. In those waters, her mind and body pulled away from one another, coming apart like two great continents over millions of years.

“Thou wanted to be an artiste,” the Chimera said. “Vowed it to the moon and the stars. But see where it has delivered thou. To this very place, dear girl.”

Allie knew that her lungs could no longer draw air, whether from the smoke filling the box or the constraint of the space itself. She could sense her body thrashing and wailing. But she was gliding over it all, watching her life fold in on itself like an origami bird.

The last clear thought she had was that she forgot to turn off the lights in the studio. For the life of her, she could never remember to do that.

“Pour the sand from thy bitter heart, dear girl. Let it all go. My sisters and I, we are artists. What a silly thing to trouble over. Give thyself over to me. Become my canvas and I will make something truly lovely.”

From all sides came a hum of electric coils, a whir of motorized gears. The floor and walls vibrated, building with energy and purpose. It was a world-filling sound, a cosmic din. This was it—finally—the scary way.

And all around her, the holy crushing machine came to life.

image: AI rendering of “a baphomet occult goat’s head thing.”


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