Three Stories


Golden-haired Elizabeth Siddal was another famous laudanum user. The muse, and later wife, of the great pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she suffered from poor health and became hopelessly addicted to laudanum.

Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel

If I am Hamlet’s Ophelia and Gabriel’s muse, if I am pregnant again I must stop taking laudanum. I am sure my housekeeper dropped my vial into the chamber pot. Where else could it be? I take up my sketch pad to work. My pencil concentrates on the human form but soon the tock of the clock begins to boom until I hear nothing else. Now the frozen day sweats and in my stomach an army of ants starts to march. My head churns and the walls creep closer; they breathe softly at first, and then hiss. Who will welcome the black wind? “Drink your tea,” I tell myself. “Eat a biscuit.” Outside a humid stench from the Thames presses in—English roses in excrement. There’s another vial somewhere here. Housekeeper, where did you hide it? Fetch the doctor, the pillows are stabbing me, the bedboard’s burl hides my last nightmare. I am restless. I hate this room, I detest Gabriel’s silver vase engraved with glassfish, the fish have begun circling me like a ten-year engagement. I wrench free and drop to my hands and knees, tearing apart the cabbage rose carpet. Gabriel, my vial, the exquisite draught. Was it you who took my medicine? You have reduced me to this. Me, whose posture had been so perfect.  I rip the linens, the second sheet, the first. My hands tremble. The housekeeper helps me to my feet. Back to bed with you, I’ve brought you lemon tea. I sink onto the cushions and sip. The whites of her eyes shine when she tells me about the souls she’s seen, the ones who died by their own hand and how she’s blessed with second sight. Percy Bysshe Shelley owned a black walnut gate-leg table. Souls stay in iron-grilled balconies just as they do in the cherry wood desk where Lord Byron’s grandmother breathed her last before her brother strangled her. You yourself, Mrs. Rossetti, will leave your soul in that bed.


‘Lizzie has been delivered of a dead child.’ the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti writes. His wife and model Lizzie Siddal would never be the same again. The baby girl had died inside her three or four weeks before the birth. Poisons from the dead foetus were leeching into her own system, while her mind was suffering equal torments.

Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel

Tell me how the midwife ties sheets to the bedpost for me to pull when the pain starts. I want to hear the Anglican pulpit preaching that medicine to relieve labor pain is sacrilegious, which would deprive God of the woman’s pure cries for His help. Talk to me about the birthing chamber. Another short skirt rolled up under the arms to replace the soiled one after the birth. I am dressed in a petticoat and long blouse. I am biting on a cloth. Tell me in case I die the pelvic bone can be sawed through to save the child. What is death that in a few hours it bleaches the skin or darkens it to ash? What beauty causes hemorrhage? Lift the linens and you’ll find roses and great peeling leaves, not clotted blood or bizarre tadpole shapes. Lizzie, you grip these when the pain takes you, my sister says in her rushed voice. A jackdaw rides her shoulder. Sister, the thing of black plumage portends death. Get it out. Lizzie, there’s no bird. The doctor is coming. The jackdaw beside me reads my eyes. Its grey-white irises. I’m being broken. I’m breaking. The bird flies. Fast. The doctor comes with his filthy instruments. Don’t hurt. He applies lard to the place of passage. She is well oiled, he says. I am panting, pushing, and someone not me is screaming. For hours. A lifetime. He cradles Rossetti’s baby, the head purplish, the eyes sealed sockets. The doctor lifts her into my arms. A mouth in the jelly that should let out a scream and another stays quiet. I see the cut between her legs. The baby is a girl who will get no bigger. The umbilical cord is pulsing. My skin is hot but my inner flesh has gone cold like a piece of ice that sweats. For days after I am delivered of a dead baby, I keep my hands on my belly, searching for more movement. The jackdaw has returned to keep me company. There, I feel a kick. Another. We’re all right, I tell it. Its silver eyes shine. The light is inside me, the miracle of making from my body. I let the bird ride.


No other respectable man would be likely to marry Lizzie now, with her reputation of being Rossetti’s mistress, as well as her history of modeling as Millais’s Ophelia had become one of the decade’s most acclaimed paintings.

            She was considered “spoilt” by Rossetti’s attention.

I am tainted. My body untouched is spring rain, my body handled is spoilt. Before us flows a creek bridged by slat and rope. You tie up my skirt so the hem doesn’t drag. Running your hand against my calf, the shadow of leaves slashes your cheeks. We tramp the maroon puddles and brackish leaves—the dark places where genitals dwell—pale mushrooms, musky toadstools—vulva, grayish-purple. We walk among the medieval oaks. Dead Tutor lovers rise as you place your arm around my waist and rock me backwards toward the larches. The flask you lift to my lips, the syrup trickling over my chin. Lizzie, take the sip in. You love how cognac scrapes the outer layers away, how it seeps into the gums like tasting the skin of Anne Boleyn. You want me with you. Your mistress, but wifehood you deny. I am walking into your thicket and touching the trunk of satinwood. Let me pass through the humidity with my arms both alive. I’ll be a green shade of enchanted ants. Listen, wrap me in red bark and icy vines. I can swallow leaves and grow myself to the trees. Cure me. Take me. Make me into foliage. Earth, catch me when my head falls, too heavy to hold up on the stem of my neck. Body, leave the head and run away with my legs. Give me your lower lip. I want to eat it. Your fingers unsheathe tiny daggers that nick me. I want to be the knife, I want my touch to spoil and mark you too. Show me the blade and the shapes that are edible. I will cut flesh and pieces of dark pink moth orchid to stuff in your mouth.

Stephanie Dickinson lives in New York City with the poet Rob Cook and their senior feline, Vallejo. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Other books include Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg (New Michigan Press), Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian Arts Press), The Emily Fables (ELJ), Girl Behind the Door (Rain Mountain Press), and her just-released Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself (Alien Buddha). Her stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South, New Stories from the Midwest, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. At present she’s finishing a collection of essays entitled Maximum Compound based on her longtime correspondence with inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.