Read These Surreal Short Stories About a Talking Hyena and an Assassination Attempt
'The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington' shows the writer at the height of her fantastical, macabre powers.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was well-known as an accomplished painter and a key member of the Surrealist movement. Less known, however, is her writing, which is remarkable in its own right. This month's publication of two books—The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington by Dorothy, a Publishing Project, and Down Below, a memoir about her descent and return from madness to be published by New York Review Books—seeks to change that.
In the world of Carrington's fiction, hyenas can attend balls; maids and queens alike may be offed at a moment's notice; and a gentleman asking to cured of an annoying fly may end up with navy blue skin, red zippers over his orifices. Observed critic Marina Warner: "Carrington achieves a rare tone, at once naive and perverse, comic and lethal." If you're looking for the missing link between Daniil Kharms and, say, Diane Williams (or Rebecca Curtis's weirder works), I encourage you to check out these two stories, excerpted from The Complete Stories.
—James Yeh, culture editor
When I was a debutante, I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew the girls of my own age. Indeed it was in order to get away from people that I found myself at the zoo every day. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was very intelligent. I taught her French, and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.
My mother was arranging a ball in my honor on the first of May. During this time I was in a state of great distress for whole nights. I've always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honor.
On the morning of the first of May 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.
"What a bloody nuisance," I said to her. "I've got to go to my ball tonight."
"You're very lucky," she said. "I'd love to go. I don't know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk."
"There'll be a great many different things to eat," I told her. "I've seen truckloads of food delivered to our house."
"And you're complaining," replied the hyena, disgusted. "Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can't imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I'm given."
I had an audacious idea, and I almost laughed. "All you have to do is go instead of me!"
"We don't resemble each other enough, otherwise I'd gladly go," said the hyena rather sadly.
"Listen," I said. "No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, nobody will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we're practically the same size. You're my only friend, I beg you to do this for me."
She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.
"Done," she said all of a sudden.
There weren't many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. I opened the cage quickly, and in a very few moments we were out in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everybody was still in bed. In my room I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands, which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times, walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.
"There's a bad smell in your room," my mother said, opening the window. "You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts."
"Certainly," I said.
She didn't stay long. I think the smell was too much for her.
"Don't be late for breakfast," she said and left the room. The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena's face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, "I think I've found the answer. Have you got a maid?"
"Yes," I said, puzzled.
"There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we'll pounce upon her and tear off her face. I'll wear her face tonight instead of mine."
"It's not practical," I said. "She'll probably die if she hasn't got a face. Somebody will certainly find the corpse, and we'll be put in prison."
"I'm hungry enough to eat her," the hyena replied.
"And the bones?"
"As well," she said. "So, it's on?"
"Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face. It'll hurt too much otherwise."
"All right. It's all the same to me."
Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn't have done it if I didn't hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit it didn't take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later she said, "I can't eat any more. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I'll eat them later in the day."
"You'll find a bag embroidered with fleurs-de-lis in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you'll find inside, and take it." She did as I suggested. Then she said, "Turn round now and look how beautiful I am."
In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary's face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.
"You've certainly done that very well," I said.
Towards evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared, "I really feel in tip-top form. I have a feeling that I shall be a great success this evening."
When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her, "Go on down now, and remember, don't stand next to my mother. She's bound to realize that it isn't me. Apart from her I don't know anybody. Best of luck." I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.
Night fell. Tired by the day's emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later, I noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats. I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.
"We'd just sat down at the table," she said, "when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, 'So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don't eat cakes!' Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, it disappeared through the window."
The Royal Summons
I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.
The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.
I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.
"I did it to grow mushrooms," he told me. "There's no better way of growing mushrooms."
"Brady," I said to him, "you're a complete idiot. You have ruined my car."
So, since my car was indeed completely out of action, I was obliged to hire a horse and cart.
When I arrived at the palace, I was told by an impassive servant, dressed in red and gold, "The queen went mad yesterday. She's in her bath."
"How terrible," I exclaimed. "How did it happen?"
"It's the heat."
"May I see her all the same?" I didn't like the idea of my long journey being wasted.
"Yes," the servant replied. "You may see her anyway."
We passed down corridors decorated in imitation marble, admirably done, through rooms with Greek bas-reliefs and Medici ceilings and wax fruit everywhere.
The queen was in her bath when I went in; I noticed that she was bathing in goat's milk.
"Come on in," she said. "You see I use only live sponges. It's healthier."
The sponges were swimming about all over the place in the milk, and she had trouble catching them. A servant, armed with long-handled tongs, helped her from time to time.
"I'll soon be through with my bath," the queen said. "I have a proposal to put to you. I would like you to see the government instead of me today, I'm too tired myself. They're all idiots, so you won't find it difficult."
"All right," I said.
The government chamber was at the other end of the palace. The ministers were sitting at a long and very shiny table.
As the representative of the queen, I sat in the seat at the end. The Prime Minister rose and struck the table with a gavel. The table broke in two. Some servants came in with another table. The Prime Minister swapped the first gavel for another, made of rubber. He struck the table again and began to speak. "Madame Deputy of the Queen, ministers, friends. Our dearly beloved sovereign went mad yesterday, and so we need another. But first we must assassinate the old queen."
The ministers murmured amongst themselves for a while. Presently, the oldest minister rose to his feet and addressed the assembly. "That being the case, we must forthwith make a plan. Not only must we make a plan, but we must come to a decision. We must choose who is to be the assassin."
All hands were immediately raised. I didn't quite know what to do as the deputy of Her Majesty.
Perplexed, the Prime Minister looked over the company.
"We can't all do it," he said. "But I've a very good idea. We'll play a game of draughts, and the winner has the right to assassinate the queen." He turned to me and asked, "Do you play, Miss?"
I was filled with embarrassment. I had no desire to assassinate the queen, and I foresaw that serious consequences might follow. On the other hand I had never been any good at all at draughts. So I saw no danger, and I accepted.
"I don't mind," I said.
"So, it's understood," said the Prime Minister. "This is what the winner will do: take the queen for a stroll in the Royal Menagerie. When you reach the lions (second cage on the left), push her in. I shall tell the keeper not to feed the lions until tomorrow."
The queen called me to her office. She was watering the flowers woven in the carpet.
"Well, did it go all right?" she asked.
"Yes, it went very well," I answered, confused.
"Would you like some soup?"
"You're too kind," I said.
"It's mock beef tea. I make it myself," the queen said. "There's nothing in it but potatoes."
While we were eating the broth, an orchestra played popular and classical tunes. The queen loved music to distraction.
The meal over, the queen left to have a rest. I for my part went to join in the game of draughts on the terrace. I was nervous, but I've inherited sporting instincts from my father. I had given my word to be there, and so there I would be.
The enormous terrace looked impressive. In front of the garden, darkened by the twilight and the cypress trees, the ministers were assembled. There were twenty little tables. Each had two chairs with thin, fragile legs. When he saw me arrive, the Prime Minister called out, "Take your places," and everybody rushed to the tables and began to play ferociously.
We played all night without stopping. The only sounds that interrupted the game were an occasional furious bellow from one minister or another. Towards dawn, the blast of a trumpet abruptly called an end to the game. A voice, coming from I don't know where, cried, "She has won. She's the only person who didn't cheat."
I was rooted to the ground with horror.
"Who? Me?" I said.
"Yes, you," the voice replied, and I noticed that it was the tallest cypress speaking.
I'm going to escape, I thought, and began to run in the direction of the avenue. But the cypress tore itself out of the earth by the roots, scattering dirt in all directions, and began to follow me. It's so much larger than me, I thought and stopped. The cypress stopped too. All its branches were shaking horribly—it was probably quite a while since it had last run.
"I accept," I said, and the cypress returned slowly to its hole.
I found the queen lying in her great bed.
"I want to invite you to come for a stroll in the menagerie," I said, feeling pretty uncomfortable.
"But it's too early," she replied. "It isn't five o'clock yet. I never get up before ten."
"It's lovely out," I added.
"Oh, all right, if you insist."
We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed, only the light moves. I sang a bit to cheer myself up. I was chilled to the bone. The queen, in the meantime, was telling me that she fed all her horses on jam.
"It stops them from being vicious," she said.
She ought to have given the lions some jam, I thought to myself.
A long avenue, lined on both sides with fruit trees, led to the menagerie. From time to time a heavy fruit fell to the ground. Plop!
"Head colds are easily cured, if one just has the confidence," the queen said. "I myself always take beef morsels marinated in olive oil. I put them in my nose. Next day the cold's gone. Or else, treated in the same way, cold noodles in liver juice, preferably calves' liver. It's a miracle how it dispels the heaviness in one's head."
She'll never have a head cold again, I thought.
"But bronchitis is more complicated. I nearly saved my poor husband from his last attack of bronchitis by knitting him a waistcoat. But it wasn't altogether successful."
We were drawing closer and closer to the menagerie. I could already hear the animals stirring in their morning slumbers. I would have liked to turn back, but I was afraid of the cypress and what it might be able to do with its hairy black branches. The more strongly I smelled the lion, the more loudly I sang, to give myself courage.
Translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot with Marina Warner
From the Dorothy, a Publishing Project website: "Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was a writer, painter, and a key figure in the Surrealist movement. She was born to a wealthy English family in 1917, expelled from two convents as a girl, and presented to the king's court in 1933. Four years later, she ran off with Max Ernst and became a darling of the art world in Paris: serving guests hair omelets at one party, arriving naked to another. After Ernst was taken from their home to a Nazi internment camp in 1940, Carrington fled France. Nearly mad with grief and terror, she was thrown into a lunatic asylum in Spain, and, after escaping, married a Mexican diplomat, fleeing Europe for New York City then Mexico City, where she lived for the rest of her life."
"The Debutante" and "The Royal Summons" from The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington are published with arrangement from Dorothy, a publishing project.