Hannah van Didden
Reading time: ~10 minutes
A note from the editor: I have a soft spot for well executed retellings. I don't actually care what you're retelling, but it should be far enough removed from the original that someone who's unfamiliar with the source material would still enjoy it. With that said, the character above all must be true, and van Didden's Jezabel is very much her own person.
Yi Shun Lai
She eyed the mop-haired stranger on the doorstep through the cracks in her rockabilly fringe, not saying a word while her cigarette burnt down and his too-bright smile sent multicolored streamers through the house.
“Ding-dong,” he sang in a major third, as though she hadn’t heard the doorbell in the first place.
She pushed aside the smile-streamers and inhaled from the stick in her fingers, charm bracelet clinking with the movement.
“What are you selling?” hung in a speech bubble from her open mouth.
“The start of your eternal life!”
So began a neat musical routine with rhinestone-studded Havaianas twinkling at her from under his grey robe. When he was done, he offered her his hand, which she didn’t take. But she did take out another cigarette.
“I’m Daryl. Your savior,” he said in a voice made for radio. “I was in the area, and being my second time round, I’m doing house calls. I am the light you’ve been searching for.”
“Searching?” Her smoke expanded in the space between them like a living fog. “Searching is such a strong word. I might have heard of you, or at least the idea of you.”
“I know,” he said. “I know everything there is to know about you, Sharma.”
“Forget the nametag. The name’s Jezabel.”
“I knew you were going to say that because I can see into you,” he said. “I can literally see what’s in your heart.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. Her mind flicked through sepia-tinged slides of the brother who drowned, the uncle cornering her in the church quiet room, the never-present parents, and all the cuts ever since. If he could really see her heart, he would see it was bled-out and tough.
“I can predict the future too.” He pointed at the stick in her fingers. “Those things’ll kill you.”
“Anyone could tell me that.” She stubbed the last glow of her cigarette into the pot plant by the door. “Anyway, I know your story. If you are who you say you are, you’ll have scars on your hands and a hole in your side.”
“I am an excellent healer,” he said and, after he flashed his pristine palms, he proceeded to tell her about her deadbeat boyfriend and the meaning of life and what was really in yesterday’s sausage roll.
She wasn’t in the market for an organized god but Daryl had her intrigued, mostly because he reminded her of the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who. And, as he continued to speak, she nodded with the crystallizing knowledge that this was the face she had seen peering in at her through various windows over the course of her adult life, creepy or kind she couldn’t decide right then. But the air around them was getting cold.
“You’d better come in,” she said. “Tell me more over a cup of tea.”
“I’d prefer Jelly Babies.”
“I have those too.”
“I knew you would,” he said.
Jezabel offered her guest the purple leather armchair—the one under the unconnected lamp that was there for decorative purposes only—and Daryl managed to illuminate the room. She pulled the cotton wool from her ears and the spikes from her words. And she allowed her lips to curve upwards, which cracked the trowelled-on foundation from her face. He told her she looked better without it anyway.
He called around on the following day at a similar hour, and daily for weeks of days after that. He liked to make sure she was secure, that sure she wasn’t wasting time on time-wasters. He liked routine; she liked his routine. Her penchants for nicotine, her good-for-nothing boyfriend, and stage make-up fell by the wayside in favor of a new ritual of talk and tea and infant-shaped jubes.
Every so often, however, he would drop a peculiar phrase or look at her in a particular way that rippled her newfound certainty. She’d let him know when this happened, of course. Then he would laugh and she would laugh, and it was as though none of it had happened. He was good like that, the way he restored order to her world, but his constant misdirection was thinning her suspension of disbelief. Even he could see that.
He set out to prove himself by performing a miracle: he presented her with a barbed-wire ball, ostensibly from her chest. He promised to fill the resultant void but, before he could, the barbed wire corroded and he started to break apart right in front of her.
First, a section of his cheek fell away. Then his entire scalp lifted in a pink toupee, revealing metal cogs and electronica. His fingers scrabbled at his skin, struggling to hold the exterior together.
The strangeness of this experience shocked Jezabel back to the subject of his perfect hands.
“The barbed wire was an illusion,” she said. “And there never were any scars. Because you’re a robot—aren’t you, Daryl? But why here? Why me?”
“I’m your brother,” he said, “resurrected.”
She held her hands to her mouth; his flew to the ceiling.
“After my bionic conversion, I was programmed to come back for you.”
“You can’t be for real.”
“I’m better than real. I can fix everything, and so could you. You can be converted and, like me, recruit for the eternal. A living miracle. But first, you’ll need to let go of what you have.”
He approached her with a meat cleaver—did she just see him produce that from his throat?—and she backed away, her face wet with horror.
“Stop it, Daryl! I don’t want to be like you.”
“You’ve got no one else. I thought you’d be happy to see me.”
“You are not my brother.”
“But I could be.”
“I don’t believe in you,” she said, “especially when you can’t give me a simple miracle.”
“You. Don’t. Believe …” His speech grew shallow, quickening to something akin to hyperventilation.
“More wine, for example,” she continued, brandishing a glass. “I could use more wine.”
Daryl’s torso twisted round and round on itself and, in the inevitable unwind, he corkscrewed through the front window in an explosion of metal and brick and glass, and screeches so guttural that it took a moment for Jezabel to realize she was producing them. His blast-hole formed a wind tunnel in a crow’s line to her and, through this, sharp objects hurtled, destroying trinkets, doors, furniture, walls—every object in its path but her.
Then it stopped.
A thick haze coated her eyes. The air reeked of melted hair and plastic. Spot fires lit the corners of the living area. Her survey of the wreckage showed the only unbroken things were in her TV corner with its display lamp and purple leather.
She reclaimed the armchair she’d designated for Daryl and, in the act of sitting, her bottom set off the crackle of a familiar plastic. She retrieved the forgotten packet, withdrew a crumpled white cylinder, eyes searching the spot fires for a suitable light.
By the time Daryl reappeared the next week on her doorstep, pasty-white and stinking of over-fried vegetable oil, Jezabel had remodeled the house.
“You came back,” she said.
“You’re smoking again.”
He looked her up and down, and she did the same to him.
“And you look terrible,” she said.
“It can happen when you rebuild.”
“What are you doing here, Daryl?”
“I brought your proof.”
“Little late, don’t you think?”
His open hands showed red welts melted into sweaty rubber.
“And these are fresh,” she said, flipping his hands over, and over again. “Painted on, and not pierced through.”
“There’s this too.”
He lifted his robe. Above silver boxer shorts was a view through his middle to the front garden. He’d had a hole fitted to one half of his gut, and condensation congealed in brown blobs between sliding Perspex sheets.
“You can stick your hand right in. Try it,” he said.
Jezabel gave the casing a push. Sparking wires and cauterized rubber tumbled out at her. She snatched back her hand with a wince.
He shoved the electronic offal back into its cavity with a pair of tiny tongs. “My man Lucas did say, ‘Twenty-four minutes to touch-dry, twenty-four hours for diamond hardness.’ So it needs time, but it’s clearly a hole in my side. Pretty cool, don’t you think?”
“Are you serious?” she said, but he seemed not to hear.
“I can give you what you want now.” From the folds of his robe, he presented a booklet and three small bottles. “For you. And you are so welcome.”
She crinkled her face and read the bottle labels aloud: “Natural Red Color (Cochineal). Alcohol—175° Proof. Grenache Flavor. What is this?”
“Your very own water to wine miracle.” His hands were twitching. Preparing. “This upgrade’s just what you ordered. Now say you believe.”
Before he had the chance to do his cleaver trick again, she slammed the door in his face.
The ensuing door-banging was largely drowned out by the evening news, ceasing entirely at the eventual release of a corrosive gas she’d built into her security system.
Flashing onto screen was a story about a self-destructive tow truck, the latest in a spate of machine suicides. Footage of the defunct truck being dragged from the lake was shaky; in the background, another vehicle shuddered, its headlights dipped.
This became the when that she considered her treatment of her would-be savior may have been over harsh, that maybe his feelings were based in reality, but they were both practiced at moving on. And this last week she had, really. There was no clear mark of his ever setting foot in her world. Except for the remodeled bungalow, her singed-short hair, her much-upped alcohol consumption. Her gaping heart. But these were ultimately her doing. He had been a catalyst at best. Knowing this brought her to smile.
She lifted her drink to her memories, her bracelet chinking a solo cheers against rum-dulled crystal, and she set about fashioning a new life purpose.
The display lamp suddenly shone bright. A sign. A wonderful, impossible sign! She’d write her manifesto in this very air. It would be a good book indeed—The Book of Jezabel, she would call it—and she would convert it to an ebook and distribute it for free. Her book would be so compelling that it would attract disciples and a TV show and multiple other book deals in sixty-nine languages. And after her death, millions of people would bicker about following her teachings to the comma.
But first she would find that Lucas chap and get him on side. Because she could think of a dozen better ways to become a bionic icon than installing X-ray vision and someone else’s scars.
Hannah Van Didden had this to say about "Jezabel's Reformation":
I have spent much time interrogating the (his)tories and myths I was led to believe as a child; Jezebel's story was not consciously in my scope. In writing this fiction, Jezabel appeared on the page, demanding to be spelt with an a, inspiring me to seek out her story--which I discovered was, as for many Biblical characters, the result of a thin filtration through particular ideals. Considering her story brings me to wonder: what is real and true and important, and how does this bear on our beliefs?
Hannah does not know the end of a story when she begins to write it. You will find more of her at 37thirtyseven.com.
Reprinted with permission of the author