Published on 2014/02/02

The Lady Inanna

Michael Critzer

The exotic dancer on the orange sideshow banner reminded Sherman of his grandfather’s deck of nudie cards. He could almost hear the old man cackle from behind him, “Careful, boy you’ll grow up too fast.” But the eyes of the woman on the banner were different than any paintings Sherman had seen. They were too alive and teased him with their gaze.

“I saw my cousin once, when her bathing suit came down,” Boomer said through a mouthful of cotton candy.

Matt smoothed down his flattop with a palm and boasted, “I saw my mom’s friend changing clothes in our bathroom. I made a hole in the wall, and I can go outside and peek whenever I want.”

Boomer hooted his approval, looking up at his friends, but Sherman felt his palms begin to sweat. His stomach knotted like when his teacher found the drawings he had made of her. A fleeting memory of walking in on his mother in the tub once popped into his head, but he knew better than to mention that. He shook his shaggy brown hair down over his eyes as his face began to burn and was thankful he’d not yet gone to the barber that afternoon like his mother told him to. Maybe they’d change the subject, he thought, but when Matt looked at him with a smirk, he began clicking the top of the sketch pen in his pocket and kicking at the red brown dirt around the ten stakes.

“I bet Shermy’s never seen a real girl naked,” Matt said.

“I have too.”

“Oh yeah? Who?”

“None of your business.”

Matt laughed and turned to the sideshow banner again. His face settled into a dark grin.” I dare you to buy a ticket.”

Sherman looked at the opening in the faded yellow tent beneath the banner and the sign that read “No Children Admitted!” He felt around in his pocket for the money his mother gave him for the barber. He had enough to get in, but it would mean explaining to his mother why he didn’t have a haircut. Besides, he knew it was a trap. “No Children Allowed!” If he was turned away, Matt would laugh at him again, but if he refused to try, then he’d be labeled a chicken. Still, it was better to be a brave child than a chicken, so he closed his eyes, steeled himself, and walked towards the tent. At least there was a chance he would make it in. The thought sent a chill below his stomach, like he had eaten too much peppermint.

A small group of boys, not much older than him, reached the doorway first, and the ticket taker never questioned them. “Step right in, boys. Thrill of your life,” the man proclaimed as he took their money. But as Sherman got closer, his confidence faded. Something in the ticket taker’s proportions or development didn’t fit. The man was gangly and awkward and had a stubbly face nicked with cuts. But there was something more. Sherman couldn’t pinpoint it, though it set his hair on end as he sped up and stayed close behind the boys in front of him.

To his amazement, the man took his money and handed him a ticket without even looking him in the eye. Sherman stepped inside a pace or two and turned around, eager to gloat. But Matt was directly behind him and holding up his own ticket. Before Sherman could say anything, they both jumped at the sound of the ticket taker’s voice breaking sharply from its beckoning tone: “Just a second young man. Mature audiences only. Try the merry-go-round.” He was talking to Boomer, who looked at his friends in protest, but they ran inside before he could betray them.

It was dark and crowded, but they worked their way to an empty space in the middle of the benches lined up on the dirt floor.

“Made it,” Sherman said.

Matt smoothed down his hair. “Yeah, because I was walking behind you.”

Sherman was about to argue, but the crowd hushed suddenly as an elderly man walked out from behind the curtains on stage. He moved with an energy that didn’t match his fragile frame. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced to the audience of mostly boys. “You are about to experience the thrill of a lifetime, the show that will captivate you for years to come. It was at the tender age of eighteen that I first laid eyes on the wonders that await you—and ten years later, I’m still here.”

A murmur of laughter came from the older boys, as Matt leaned over to Sherman and whispered, “I hope the dancer hasn’t aged as badly.”

Sherman ignored him.

Two more men came out from behind the curtain and walked to the corners of the stage. One carried a drum and looked as though he had been sewn together from pieces of a strongman and a dwarf, and the other one, tall and lanky, shuffled his feet while focusing on the flutelike instrument he carried. They began to play lightly as the old man continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, from a land and a time long since forgotten, I present to you the Lady Inanna!”

There was some applause as the music grew louder, but the audience fell silent as a bare arm appeared from behind one of the black curtains and extended from the elbow to coiling and recoiling fingers. The body that followed was definitely not that of an old woman. Sherman felt his insides tighten as her hips slithered into view, tapering into an exposed midriff beneath taught breasts wrapped high in black fabric. There was one white lock in the front of her long dark hair, but otherwise she couldn’t have been older than the teacher Sherman still sketched when he was alone in his room. The Lady Inanna looked just like the painting on the banner, with the same glass blue eyes that he could swear were singling him out, even now as they glinted above a black veil.

The rest of her costume left little to the imagination. Her legs slid in and out of a long black loincloth, and her feet were bare except for anklets with bells that tinkled and crashed as she moved. Sherman knew it was called belly dancing, but it was so much more than the animated Barbara Eden that would prompt his mother to change the channel. Different parts of Inanna’s body moved back and forth and side to side, independent of each other, and he felt a warming sensation, like he had spilt something hot down his spine and both legs. He was embarrassed to feel such things in public and began clicking the pen in his pocket again.

Eventually she dropped to her knees in the center of the stage, and leaned back on her hands, still thrusting and shaking her hips. Sherman was so concentrated on the curves of her inner thighs that he did not notice the curved sword in its sheath floating out over the stage until it was almost above her.

“Wires,” Matt whispered loudly.

Sherman wanted to hit his friend for the first time since the time Matt had insulted his mother. But he could not pull his attention away from the stage.

The Lady continued her undulations, as the sword and sheath slid apart above her head. The blade dropped with its full weight, and the audience gasped, but Inanna, with her eyes still closed, reached out both hands and caught it. The audience exhaled, as she rose to her feet, and levitated the blade above her raised palms, lowering it in front of her and then raising it slowly, until she leaned her head back and brought it up and over her exposed throat. She placed it between her clenched teeth, and a swell of applause came from the audience.

Sherman chanced a smug look at Matt. Let him explain that away with wires!

Inanna twirled faster with the sword in her mouth, and the applause increased until a screen slid out in front of her from the side of the stage, and a light switched on from behind so that only her outline could be seen. She stopped twirling and held the sword in one hand by its hilt. Both of her arms rose slowly in the air, and in one fluid motion, she brought the blade up and down in front of her. Sherman had a split second to wonder if she had stabbed herself before she turned and raised the sword into the air once more with the top to her costume now dangling from its tip. Sherman took in the form of her forbidden flesh, with each secret contour silhouetted, before the light went out and the crowd erupted.

Matt said over the noise, “I’ve seen better in my Dad’s box of magazines.”

But Sherman was too fixated on the stage to be angry, hoping Inanna would come back for an encore. The elderly man appeared instead.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he croaked over the cheers, “if you would see more of the Lady’s charms, she will perform again at seven. Return then and witness what she has in store.”

“Why does it have to be at seven?” Sherman muttered, realizing that his mother had told him to be home by six for dinner.

“You can come over to my dad’s next weekend,” Matt said, “and I’ll show you some real women.”

Once they were outside, Boomer pounced on them with questions. “What did you see? How was it?”

“Kinda lame,” Matt sighed, “nothing I haven’t seen before.”

Boomer looked at Sherman. “How was it, really?”

Sherman could only smile, but Boomer responded as though he had been told everything and kicked at the dirt. “Aw man! I wish I’d made it in.”

“You guys are pathetic,” Matt sneered.

Sherman no longer cared what Matt said. Inanna had shared something with him as she stared at him from the stage. He wasn’t sure what, but it felt adult, like a mystery that wasn’t meant to be explained. Matt was the child now, and Sherman ignored him as he watched the crowds leave the tent and tried to make out if anyone remained inside.

“I bet she’s still in there,” Matt said. “You’ll probably never see her again, though.” Matt elbowed Sherman. “I guess you can just draw a picture, but you should probably do it soon before you forget what she looks like.”

“I thought you didn’t care about her,” Sherman said.

“I don’t, but you do, chicken. I dare you to sneak in.” Matt began to flap his elbows and laugh.

Sherman wanted to laugh at how childlike Matt looked in his dance, but the taunting had touched a nerve. The thought of never seeing the Lady Inanna again kindled a sense of urgency. As Matt started to laugh and boomer looked at the ground, Sherman clenched his fists, held his breath, and walked back into the tent.

He stopped just past the entrance, expecting to be yelled at and ushered out. The ticket taker was looking down, counting money on the table, but his head was turning, and Sherman had just enough time to dive beneath one of the benches to avoid being spotted.

He waited for the man’s voice to call him out, but when nothing happened, he chanced a peek. The man had returned to counting the money, so Sherman raised his head a little higher and scanned the room. Besides the ticket taker, the space looked empty, but then he noticed a part in the tent wall, just behind the stage. There was no daylight on the other side, which meant it must be another room. But before he could move toward it, a hand clutched his leg. He almost screamed, as he turned around in terror and saw Matt, crouched and smiling.

“I thought you weren’t interested,” Sherman said in the angriest whisper he could manage.

But Matt just shrugged and pointed to the opening.

From the last row of benches, the opened tent flap was a short dash away. Sherman couldn’t make out anything inside, but he had come too far to turn back, so he motioned for Matt to wait, got to his feet, and ran as quietly as he could across the packed dirt floor. He hesitated a moment at the opening but then slipped inside and crouched to the ground.

“Not so fast!” he heard someone yell from behind. He turned to see the old man announcer from the show grip Matt by the back of the neck and jerk him up to his feet. “Dying for another peek, hey?” he chuckled, leading Matt away. “Well, nothing’s free.”

Matt’s eyes were wide with fear and anger as they stared back at Sherman, who wondered if he was about to be given away. He trembled in the darkness waiting for someone to come for him until his eyes had adjusted to the darker room. Eventually, he stood up with caution to take in his surroundings.

The room was a small corner of the main tent that had been sectioned off. It was crowded with tables and bookshelves, stacked with random objects like baseball caps, yoyos, and pocketknives. But against the far wall, a photo, stuck in a vanity mirror, caught his eye. It was of Inanna, and even from across the room, Sherman trembled at the sight of her alluring flesh in black and white. The real Lady Inanna was nowhere to be seen, but maybe he could at least steal the photo. It would be a little piece of her to take with him, an image to sketch from and keep with him forever.

His heartbeat felt like a drumroll as he made his way between the shelves. He started clicking the pen in his pocket to calm his nerves, but the noise was deafening in the quiet room, so he gripped it tightly with his fist instead. A smile spread across his face as he approached the photo. He began to breath faster the closer he got to it, as though he had been running. Her body was covered with nothing but a black sheer cloth that was transparent before the flash bulb. He reached out his hand, but just as he pulled it from the mirror, a woman’s voice asked, “Come to join the carnies?”

He jumped at the sound, and his hand flew out of his pocket, throwing the pen across the room. “I believe our last position has just been filled,” the voice said, low and melodic. “But you’re awfully cute. Maybe we can make a deal.”

Sherman turned around, and his knees bent at the sight. On the table against the wall sat the Lady Inanna, wearing nothing but the veil on her face and looking at him through a toy-store spyglass that rested on her bent knee. A burning sensation spread from low in his body as he looked at his first real naked woman. Her breasts were high and round, just as he imagined them beneath her costume, but they moved like pudding when she laughed, and it made him want to touch them.

“You like my picture?” she asked.

He nodded, unable to speak. There was something about the way she looked at him. It wasn’t with reprimand, but as though she knew something he didn’t—that mystery again, but it was something about himself—something that amused her.

She stretched her other leg out to where his pen lay on the ground and rolled it back and forth with her toes. His eyes moved down her stomach, trying to see into the shadow between her legs. She noticed and winked at him, making his face fill with fire.

“You take the photo,” she said. “And I’ll add your pen to my collection. Do we have a deal?”

Sherman nodded again. He felt dizzy with shame, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Another part of him wanted to stay with her, to prolong the interaction, to keep going until he pierced that mystery in her smile. He opened his mouth, but no sound came.

Inanna let out a long and seductive laugh, as though she knew what he was thinking. “Soon,” she said, shifting her legs out to the side and reclining into a small ray of light from a crack in the tent’s stitching, “when you’re older. But you still have time. Now run along.”

He didn’t know what she meant, and it hurt the way her tone dismissed him, even more than her words. He took in her beauty for one final moment—her perfect smiling eyes, her perfect skin, and her perfect black hair, which no longer had the white streak from before—then he ran out, clutching the photo to his chest.

In the outer room, someone stepped out between him and the exit, waving both arms. From the flattop, Sherman thought it was Matt, but then he saw the lined face of a grown man and dashed past him through the exit.

Boomer was waiting outside, but Sherman kept running until he was in the safety of the crowd by the fun house. He felt giddy from the image of Inanna still fixed in his mind. And as he looked down at the photo, he knew he would be sketching her for the rest of his life. When Boomer caught up to him, Sherman held up the picture and almost giggled.

“Oh my God.” Boomer exclaimed.

“I know. Isn’t it awesome?”

“No—your hair.” Boomer said pointing.

Sherman turned to look in one of the fun house display mirrors. On the top of his skewed reflection was his tousled brown hair, and off to the side hung one long, abnormally white lock.

Michael Critzer's short stories have appeared on sites such as Horror Novel Reviews and The Story Shack and in publications by Firebringer Press, Short Scary Tales Publications, and others. He teaches creative and critical writing in central Virginia, and is currently working on his first novel. You can like him on Facebook at Author Michael Critzer or follow him on Twitter @MichaelCritzer