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Article
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Fiction

Fiction | Caryatid

Symmetrically proportioned with clear eyes, long lashes, even nose and sumptuous lips. Glowing, unblemished skin that reflects the light. A long graceful neck. Smooth décolletage. Perfectly-rounded pert bosom, narrowing to hand-span waist.

She would call her—Caryatid, formally, from the Greek. In ancient times, sculpted female figures serving as architectural supports. In Jane’s case, her architectural visage. A mask. An appendage. Her pillar of strength.

Caryatid, yes. Cary for short.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—no embargo.

Dr Jane Roach’s latest findings to be announced, 7pm (UTC), by assistant Cary Tides. Cary works with Dr Roach at the bleeding edge of Appearance Science and led research for her new book, Keeping up Appearances: why first impressions count but maintenance matters most. trybooking.com/you-beauty

***

Jane slips the vellum over her head. It’s mildly suffocating, particularly as the nose bridge is so much narrower than her own, but months of face masks have conditioned her to persistent claustrophobia. She breathes deeply, smooths the new skin over her own, then turns to face the mirror.

Cary.

Tonight, she is beautiful. Tonight, everything will change.

 

Some months prior

 

 Jane typed in her credentials but the Zoom login window was stuck. On a black, empty square …Connecting blinked beneath an otherwise static cursor. Jane’s palm felt sticky on her mouse.

‘Wear jeans,’ Susie had said, ‘you’ll feel more relaxed.’ Squirming uncomfortably, Jane had to give the junior publicist credit. As it was, the jeans were cutting Jane’s waist. In a glad-wrapped pencil skirt, she’d have felt positively trussed. Jane sighed. If nothing else, the kid could navigate screen-time and socials. Both of which, despite her scientific success, eluded Jane.

On top, Jane remained polished: slicked back ponytail, fitted mid-blue blazer and a hint of lip gloss—au naturel (no point in more, there was simply no hiding her plainness). Lastly, her father’s old watch—a piece of comfort worn close, which others saw as old-money and old-fashioned but which Jane felt as the weight of his protection.

Jane watched her mirror-self on screen. Her eyes darted around the blank walls of her office, looking for signs of life. Is anyone out there? She adjusted her scarf. Susie had suggested that too.

‘It’ll soften your look on camera,’ Susie had said. ‘Make it blue. To match your eyes.’

‘But my jacket already—,’ Jane had replied.

‘Wear both,’ Susie had insisted. ‘We need to smooth your edges. Being that much closer on Zoom—what once seemed … authoritative on stage now seems a little … intense, online.’

Finally, a message popped up in the bottom right corner. Moros’ iPhone has entered the Waiting Room.

Jane clicked Admit. ‘Ah, hello.’

Moros’ box hung silent.

Jane hovered, uncertain how to proceed.

A new message popped into the bottom screen, then another, and another. The top bar filled, a mini-portrait gallery of black squares. The clock read 12:36. Jane supposed she ought to start.

‘Well, hello everybody.’

 Silence.

‘Ah, yes. As I understand it, I’ll be talking while you’re kept mute. Never have I had it so lucky!’ She paused for the laughs.

 Silence. Mute, indeed.

‘Right. Um. Simply, because there are so many of you—.’ Jane wiped her brow.

Talking to a room of dead screens was unnerving. Though some faces had appeared on entry, they’d promptly turned their videos off. At least on stage Jane could gauge people’s reactions, hear their responses—a nervous giggle, a raised arm, sometimes if she were lucky, a room filled with laughter, occasionally even, rapturous applause.

On Zoom, nothing.

Jane cleared her throat. ‘Today, I’ll present from my new book,’ she said, holding it high as Susie had instructed. ‘I know many of you will have heard that first impressions count, and no doubt, you’ve all made an effort to look your best—well, used to anyway—for a first date, or a job interview, or meeting prospective in-laws.’

 Silence.

This was way tougher than usual, and Jane was used to tough. She’d made a living out of being a walking irony for Pete’s sake. Plain Jane—using her looks (or lack thereof) to sell her research. Teflon-coated, Jane had spent years solving the challenge of not being born ‘naturally’ beautiful. Yet here—now—it just wasn’t translating.

Jane continued with her regular script. ‘Making an effort to match your appearance to the expected norms of society is a deeply ingrained trait we have inherited from our primate forebears. Yes, that’s right, ‘aping’ someone is a biological drive.’

Usually that line woke people, stopped the shuffling in the room. Today, it prompted numerous screens to log off. Jane was confused. Could they even hear her? She checked the chatroom, eyes widening as she scanned the remarks.

 From C8 to Everyone:
OMG – Can’t trust this face to talk about looks ><
From Bznet to Everyone:
Blah, blah. Heard it all B4
From turkey-dancer to Everyone:
Where R my beer goggles?
From Louche to Everyone:
LOL. Dude, it’s only midday.

Jane fingered her scarf as heat flooded her face. She knew from experience that meant a big ugly rash would be creeping across her cheeks. She fumbled with the mouse, desperately trying to shut down the meeting.

In her office on the other side of town, Susie cleared her throat. ‘Righto everyone,’ she said, ‘That’s it for today. Thanks for coming.’ She hovered over the End Meeting button. ‘Jane—hold on the line.’

Jane was oblivious. She felt as if she were being choked. She balled her fists against her eyes. Sounds of the ocean swooshed in her ears, her stomach heaved.

Susie called out. ‘Jane? … Jane!’

Jane clutched the edge of the desk, pushing herself up. Her hand slipped and she stumbled forward, narrowly missing the table. She rushed to the bathroom, kicking the door with her foot as she passed.

‘Jane!!’ Susie listened hard. She could no longer hear Jane breathing. She typed a message. Jane? Are you OK? I’m worried. If I haven’t heard from you in 5mins, I’m calling emergency.

 Jane shuffled back to her desk, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Gingerly, she eased herself into her chair and looked to the camera. Urgh. Red nose, eyes rimmed like a racoon. Flyaway hair hanging limply across her cheeks and neck blotchy from where she’d been tugging the scarf. Bloody scarf. Jane ripped it from her throat and threw it to the ground. Breathe.

Susie looked up. Seeing Jane’s face, she stopped typing.

Jane spoke quietly. ‘People have always made fun of how I look.’

Susie listened.

‘It’s just that…before—I’ve never had to see it. Written. In black and white.’

‘A lot of things were different before, Jane. For everyone.’

Jane felt her heart thud. She tried to stop her jiggling knee as she gnawed her lower lip.

Susie sighed heavily. ‘This year has changed everything … Some people have changed for the better. Most have changed for the worse.’

Both women remained silent for a moment. When Susie spoke again, she sounded much older than her twenty-four years. ‘What you’ve gotta do, Jane,’ she said, looking up at the Gandhi poster blue-tacked to her wall, ‘is be the change you want to see in the world.’

Jane rolled her eyes. In her mind, her father’s voice echoed the sentiment. Jane straightened her shoulders, then looked to Susie. ‘No kidding.’

 

Present day

 

Jane looks down at her wristwatch. ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,’ she hears her dad whisper. He’d never let her stay defeated.

As a child, when she’d struggle home with twigs in her hair and dried tears on her cheeks, he’d pull her into a warm embrace, cocooning her in the smell of musty mothballs and pungent tobacco. He’d let her breathing soften, gently plucking the brambles from her shirt. ‘Chin up, kid,’ he’d say. ‘Can’t let ‘em see you down.’

Closing her eyes, Jane can smell his pipe and hear its crackle. Jane breathes deeply and lets her shoulders relax as she prepares to layer the final coating.

Letting her fingers be her guide, Jane smooths the last sheet of vellum with a delicate touch. There. A dove beats in her chest. Please. Jane opens her eyes and stumbles backwards, hand over mouth.

Before her glows a divine beauty. Suspended under lights, an ethereal creation descended from the heavens.

Caryatid.

The golden ratio made flesh, meticulously drawn from a vast array of popular body shapes, calculated to the ideal average. A model mathematically and scientifically factored to generate the broadest appeal.

Jane is particularly proud of the reflective patina which adjusts to any shade, dependent upon the viewer’s retina. This, she is sure, will guarantee Cary’s popularity. Tonight, she’ll find out for certain.

***

Jane types in her credentials but the Zoom login window is stuck. On a black, empty square …Connecting blinks beneath an otherwise static cursor. Butterflies batter her stomach. Please God, let this time be different.

Ding. The login screen loads and with it, the launch participants. Seeding Cary’s profile pic had created a global media storm. ‘A virtual hurricane!’ Susie had boasted and by the look of those numbers—1.3 million and climbing—she was right, again.

The rest is now up to Jane. NO. The rest is up to Caryatid. Save face or lose it, tonight, she will bear the load.

Cary gleams in the light, casting Jane into shadow. Catching her reflection on screen, Jane smiles. As Cary’s mouth moves in tune with hers, Jane’s grin broadens. Ready.

Camera, ON.

Applause erupts, bouncing off the walls of her study. Sound vibrates through her body. Even her desk light shimmies. For the first time in her life, Jane feels invincible.

***

By midnight, the Internet is wall-papered with Cary’s image.
@BigTex: Will U B my Gal?
@AmericanScience: Science Made Sexy <3
@Trump: Move over Melania

By next afternoon, a meme is circulating. What colour is Cary’s skin?… Some call it African, others Asian, others White? Does it change in the light? Vote now!

Jane responds, prompting a headline in New Science: ‘CARY’S SKIN A NATURAL PHENOMENON claims Dr Roach.’ It reports that Cary has been ingesting phosphorescence to cultivate glowing skin, with ‘an interesting side-effect,’ says Dr Roach, ‘of refracting light, casting Cary’s skin tone as the viewer desires.’

‘OMG!’ begins an email from Susie. ‘We’re being flooded with requests from Big Pharma AND Cosmetics, wanting to buy the rights to your formula! Call me. NOW!’

Jane can practically hear Susie screaming. It is already giving her a headache. She puts her fingers to her temples.

Forget New York, this is a world that never sleeps. It is seventy-two hours since Jane has. Screw them. I’m still human. I need to sleep. She takes herself to bed.

***

Fourteen hours later Jane wakes, tries rolling her head. Her neck is fused. She raises her hand to rub it but it’s like lifting a dead weight. She tries moving her jaw, waiting for the inevitable click. It never comes.

Just breathe, Jane. You’re exhausted. This is perfectly normal. Jane tries to inhale, struggling beneath the pressure on her nose. She feels a tingle down her arm, a worrying sign of lack of oxygen.

Pushing with all her might, Jane forces herself up, fumbling a glass to her mouth. As she watches cold water spill down her front, she’s puzzled. She can’t feel a thing. Jane grabs a blanket to wipe herself dry. It’s like wiping plastic.

Waves thunder in her ears. She really can’t breathe. She tries leaving the bed but falls back, as if under immense weight. She tries again, this time leaning forward like an Olympic ski-jumper, pushing violently through her feet. Get me to the mirror!

Jane stares at her reflection, struck still. For the first time in her adult life, she’d missed her beauty routine before bed. Expecting puffy eyes and sallow skin, Jane is shocked. The face looking back at her is fresh, plump and lustrous.

The longer Jane stares, the more she relaxes. I could definitely get used to this. As Jane slowly rotates her neck, it loosens. Soon she can swing it side-to-side, admiring its long curves and the way her hair bounces around her face. Her eyes sparkle. Then her stomach growls.

How long has it been since she’s eaten? Days, Jane counts, making her way to the kitchen. But, that stiffness. Those legs. Moving is impossible, but for sheer grit. Eventually, Jane’s shaking hand reaches for a biscuit. She crunches. Instead of tasting sweet delight, shreds fall down her shirt front. Puzzled, she stops.

Attempting another bite, Jane watches herself carefully in the oven glass. Luscious lips first smile, then open, then fail to close around the cracker. She tries again. Her lips smile—O—no further. Try as she might, they won’t purse.

Of course! The muscle relaxant. Well, it’s worked. Cary has no fine lines feathering her lips. Only one small drawback. She can’t eat.

Jane titters. Oh well, probably a good thing. Soon she won’t need this corset either. Her scientist-brain lashes back. You’re still flesh and blood. You still need food.

Jane walks over to her home lab and picks up a syringe. Easy. She’ll simply inject her nutrition. Why has it taken her so long to get practical? Now that she has, she’s finally beautiful. Practically Beautiful. Ah. Perfect. Tomorrow she’ll begin.

***

The only thing Jane didn’t like about her new self was the first hour upon waking. Lying still made Cary fuse into her bones, rendering them stiff and sore. Maybe she was imagining it, but over the week this effect seemed to last longer each morning.

She also had to admit, she missed solid food. The way it crunched and swished around her mouth. She missed the sting of lemon acid, the cool bite of celery, the burning plumminess of a good red wine.

Still, no matter. Once Practically Beautiful was released she stood to make millions. Not long now. By the strict conditions-of-sale, all formulas had to be shipped simultaneously. Susie had given Jane exactly twenty-one days.

Initially, progress was fast. Jane had decades of research at her fingertips, the beauty ratios were set in stone, and the process, as she’d discovered, was surprisingly easy to implement.

But something was happening. By the second week, Jane was unable to rise before noon, giving her only a few hours in which to work. Her afternoons became dedicated to administering the intravenous injections required to feed her body and skin.

Ever the scientist, Jane calculated. At this rate, she’d be more-or-less bed bound by week’s end, making it impossible to support herself. Think smart, she heard her dad say. Jane pivoted.

Beginning week three, Jane concentrated on creating a computer sequence that could support and maintain her where she lay. It wasn’t too complicated. Harnessing machine learning, Jane simply input her end desire and left the program to generate the commands.

By the end of the week, Jane felt free. Better still, liberated! No longer did she have to wash, bathe, clean, eat. She could simply lie still and work, sometimes dream, while a machine took care of her.  Once per day, she posted a Cary vlog. Subscribers were now into the billions. Pre-sales had gone through the roof.

***

Jane!

Jane!! Call me. I haven’t heard from you all week and Cary’s vlogs are getting shorter and shorter. We’re launching this week.

Jane!!!

***

Jane rolls around in her sheets, murmuring to herself. Her skin feels hot. She’s burning. Get those sheets off. Get these clothes off. Get this SKIN OFF! Jane’s screaming but there’s no sound. She blinks her eyes madly. The computer doesn’t respond.

***

The servers crash fifty-seven times on the day of the formula’s release. Media has crews stationed at the university and in front of the publishers. Despite promises, Dr Jane doesn’t show. Neither does Cary.

Regardless, the book sells billions. Pharma can barely generate enough supply.

The frenzy peaks at exactly 12:32pm on the 24th August 2020. After that, supplies gradually dwindle. So do the complaints.

The internet goes deathly quiet.

***

On a black, empty square …Connecting blinks.

From the soundless void, the whirr of a computer waking.

 Connected… comes the reply.

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Charle Malycon is a Sydney-based writer and critic. She likes to make people think but mostly, to make them feel. Charle is currently co-editing the 35th Anniversary edition of the UTS Writer’s Anthology, which celebrates forty years of emerging Australian talent.

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Comments

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this thought provoking short story which addresses the lengths we take to achieve”perfection”.

  2. Yep, 2020 was a bad year alright. I wish we could say it’s all behind us, but as this story demonstrates, perhaps the worst is yet to come! Nice reimagining of the ‘horrors’ and thanks for the humour.

  3. Enjoyed being aghast and challenged by Malycon’s acerbic short story that covers so much ground effortlessly: the “new normal”, WFH, society’s worship of beauty, toxic online disinhibition and feminism.

  4. Thoroughly horrifying though perky! This story gives us yet another way to think about the horrors of overlaying the real and virtual worlds, even as we do that faster and faster. This ain’t no fairy tale…

  5. Loved this thought provoking and beautifully written short story. I was very impressed by how adeptly the author addressed so many areas affecting our society and with such a wonderful overlay of dark wit!

  6. This well-crafted , intriguing story lures its readers towards an inevitable, awful conclusion. The author holds up a mirror to the times and we may not like what we see.

  7. Cracker story to kick off the new year! Morbidly fascinating horror comedy, my fave. I can’t stop thinking about it that poor woman writhing around, suffocating under her own ‘beauty’ mask. *Shivers

  8. Very intelligent, thought provoking piece. Loved the mysterious feel throughout – looking forward to more!

  9. A really captivating story, leaving a sinking feeling about our pursuits for like-ability in this crazy modern world. Thought provoking and original, look forward to the next one Charle!

  10. Great story – interesting, funny, a bit unsettling in that Black Mirror way. Looking forward to reading more!

  11. This story held my attention from the first moment. Intriguing and beautifully written, the author seamlessly merges a frightening vision of the future interwove with the everyday ordinary; the blue scarf, the inherited watch and then the ghastly but prophetic end point of a society obsessed with female beauty. It needs now to be written into script and presented to Black Mirror producers for an ep in their next season. Give us more Charle!

  12. Intriguing use of science, technology and imagination to take your readers on a horrifying journey in pursuit of that elusive goal of perfection. Human nature at it’s worst and a worryingly accurate portrayal of our society – highlighting the willingness to go to any lengths to achieve the unachievable. Very clever, very timely, very well done!

  13. I found this story a little horrifying! People go to great expense to achieve beauty which seems to be happening more and more,like having their lips plumped up so much that it’s hard to stop looking at them when they speak to you! The theme is in your face and it’s sad to think that so many people strive to have a certain beauty that is not natural to them. Charlie the story was very easy to read and I am looking forward to reading more short stories from you.
    The story bought out a strong emotion in me!

  14. It’s very well written! A bit dark and unsettling, thinking how far people are willing to go in order to get public attention.

  15. The story was so deep, that with my English as the third language, I did not get it. There were many detail, but I missed the plot. I am glad that the other reviewers had different experience.
    It would be nice to see some drawings or pictures in the store for a better visual representation. I like kids books because they have many pictures. The world is moving more into digital media than ever, so visuals are what people want.

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