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From a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels, Under the Poppy is a breakout novel of childhood friends, a love triangle, puppetmasters, and reluctant spies.
Under the Poppy is a brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. Decca is in love with Rupert, but he in turn is in love with her brother, Istvan. When Istvan comes to town, louche puppet troupe in tow, the lines of their age-old desires intersect against a backdrop of approaching war. Hearts are broken when...
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From a wartime brothel to the intricate high society of 1870s Brussels, Under the Poppy is a breakout novel of childhood friends, a love triangle, puppetmasters, and reluctant spies.
Under the Poppy is a brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. Decca is in love with Rupert, but he in turn is in love with her brother, Istvan. When Istvan comes to town, louche puppet troupe in tow, the lines of their age-old desires intersect against a backdrop of approaching war. Hearts are broken when old betrayals and new alliances—not just their own—take shape, as the townsmen seek refuge from the onslaught of history by watching the girls of the Poppy cavort onstage with Istvan's naughty puppets . . .
Under the Poppy is a vivid, sexy, historical novel that zips along like the best guilty pleasure.
Nominated for the IMPAC Award. Winner of the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.
Kathe Koja's (underthepoppy.com) books include The Cipher, Skin, and Extremities; her young adult novels include Buddha Boy, Talk, Kissing the Bee, and Headlong. Her work has been honored by the ALA, the ASPCA, and with the Bram Stoker Award. Her books have been published in seven languages and optioned for film. She's a Detroit native and lives in the area with her husband, artist Rick Lieder, and their cats. Under the Poppy is currently being adapted for the stage.
"Koja can pack a lot Dickensian humor into a sentence . . . [she] takes a page from Victorian lit in her writerliness, and she reveals human nature like someone slipped her the manual."
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
"This book made me drunk. Koja’s language is at its poetic best, and the epic drama had me digging my nails into my palms. It’s like a Tom Waits hurdy-gurdy loser’s lament come to life, as sinister as a dark circus."
—Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
"Unlike anything I’ve ever read, a world unto itself, spun out of fevered, sensual prose and vivid, compelling characters."
"A gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death that reads a little like what would happen if Sarah Waters and Angela Carter played a drunken game of Exquisite Corpse in a brothel . . . will make you want to get out your very finest crushed velvet, drink a couple bottles of wine, and do something a little bit illegal with someone very good-looking. In other words, it’s a winner."
"All the elements of a great novel are present in Koja’s work: from suspense and intrigue to undying love and toxic jealousies, this highly developed read is brimming with imaginative flair and originality."
"People will probably love this book or hate itpossibly both. But let me just say that it would take an author of extraordinary talent to open with a scene of a woman being sodomized by a ventriloquist’s dummy and make me want to keep reading. And Kathe Koja is that talented. Five stars."
—Speak Its Name
"The velvet and brocade, the rips and tears, the music and theater, you see it all as you read about what the denizens of the Poppy do to stay in business, stay ahead of the tide, stay alive."
—Colleen Mondor, Chasing Ray
"Frequently changing viewpoints and fluid segues in and out of flashback illuminate actions readers have already witnessed. Part of the fun is heading into the past after knowing the future; even when you know where the story will go, you wonder what will happen next."
—Ann Arbor Observer
"I loved Under the Poppy. It pours like chocolate—laced with brandy; sexy and utterly compelling!"
—Ellen Kushner, author of Swordspoint
"An atmospheric tale for those who like their historical fiction on the dark and lurid side. Those readers who enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin or Sarah Water’s Fingersmith will find similar themes.”
“A page turner with riveting language and close attention to sensory detail. Set in late 19th-century Brussels, the story follows the adventures of puppeteer Istvan and brothel owner Rupert who bond as friends and lovers.”
“Laddie,” Guillame says, “you’re the Light of Love, you’ll be here with the candelabra. Vera on the chaise, yes, just so. And you, Jen, up there, I want you dangling like a grape. A ripe grape about to fall into a hungry mouth—”
“The straps hurt my back,” says Spinning Jennie. “I can’t do it.” Lucy, kneeling beside her on the stage, hemming her costume, pinches Jennie’s long white thigh through the cheesecloth skirt; Jennie makes a sluggish gesture as if to chase a fly and “You’re so dosed,” says Lucy, “a hammer couldn’t hurt you. Puggy, look at her eyes.”
“Shut up, Lucy!”
“The harness, Jen. Go on,” chewing a cigar like Omar does; if it is true that Omar wants to be Rupert, then Guillame wants to be Omar, or at least look the part, bald head, cigars, and all. He has none of Omar’s imposing physical presence, being rather comically short and round, but when Guillame is in his element, bringing life to this stage, he possesses an undeniable energy, a human dynamo in boiled wool and old blue spats.
His title is stage manager, which means a thousand things on a hundred different days: direct and wrangle the players, cadge the props—such as the harness, a refurbished cast-off from the livery; conjured diamonds from paste, Triton’s trident from a hayfork, a paper dove that flutters into life—and construct and assemble the sets, school Lucy into a seamstress, make sure Jonathan has piano enough to play. Some nights he works the doors with Omar, vetting the lustful from the drunks. Most nights he stays up past dawn, reviewing the evening’s playlets: what brought applause or indifference, what roused the crowd, what roused them too much. The verge, he likes to say. That’s where we want them, the utter, utter verge.
Guillame tells a thousand stories of his advent at the Poppy, his life before he came: in some he is the hero, some the villain, some just a winning young lad with a wonderful gift to share. There is no telling which story might be true, if any, though portions of the tale persist in every telling, so perhaps the factory father is real, and the consumption that killed him; certainly the scars on Guillame’s legs are real, from riding on the trains, any trains, as long as they were headed east. The theatre was calling me, he likes to say.
And it is true that he has a gift for it, the spectacle, the glitter and dash; he can make do with few resources, though he agitates always for more: as now, Decca passing through, a passing pince-nez glance and “Wax candles,” he implores, pointing at the candelabra held by a yawning Vladimir. “This fucking buffalo tallow, it’s all smoke, no one will be able to see a thing.”
“I can see her tits,” Decca says. “So will they.”
“If that’s all we mean to offer, we might as well change our name to the Sloppy. Or set up next to that cesspool on the corner.” First strident, now wheedling; he is a bit of an actor himself, Guillame. “Decca, have mercy. To spin gilt-paper to gold, and cheesecloth to silk, I must have the proper light.”
“The tables will have wax candles. We cannot afford—”
“We cannot afford to skimp for Jürgen Vidor, his one night will bring a year’s worth of business.” This is an exaggeration, but close enough to truth that Decca frowns, and fiddles with the pins on her breast, topaz winking between her fingers until “All right,” she says. “But save all the ends, mind . Lucy, why are you here? No one wants you in the show.”
Lucy looks up from the skirt she is pinning. “Puggy wants me.”
“You belong upstairs.”
Slowly, Lucy draws the pins from her mouth. The others—Guillame, Jennie, Vera, Vladimir, Jonathan sitting quiet behind his keyboard—take a waiting breath, cut their eyes one to another. There are various theories as to why Decca so implacably hates Lucy; it is Guillame’s private opinion, shared only with Omar, that there is some jealousy involved.
Now “Upstairs,” Decca repeats and “That’s all you think I’m good for,” snaps Lucy. “You think I’m just tits and two holes.”
“Three.” Decca taps her lips. “Now go and ready your room.”
“Decca.” Guillame steps forward, into the sightline between Decca and Lucy. “If I might—”
“You might remember who is in charge here. Every hour Lucy spends prancing onstage is an hour stolen from the lockbox. Why do you flatter her into thinking she can do more than suck prick?” Her voice grows louder. “Why does she—”
“Stop.” Rupert in overcoat and gloves, the cold still on him, a princely apparition at the back of the house; his voice is calm but it carries. “In this room, Puggy is in charge; if he needs Lucy he must have her. When she must, she will be in her room, yes?” to Lucy who nods, replaces the pins in her mouth, straightens the hang of the cheesecloth with an angry tug. “Where’s Omar?”
Decca’s voice is even. “Seeing to the wine.”
“More guests are due than we expected—half the garrison it seems. Have him buy double. Puggy, tonight’s show will be exceptional?” as Guillame bows—“Exceptionally so”—and “It had better be,” striding up the aisle with Decca in his wake, into the empty lobby where she stands before him, en garde, at bay and “If she’s an actress,” low, “I’m a Dutchman. Have I no authority at all, here?”
“Why must you meddle where you’re not needed?” He stuffs his gloves into his pocket, rubs his forehead. In this brighter light, his overcoat looks scuffed and slightly shabby, his hat in need of brushing: the pauper prince. The whole lobby wears that same declining air, brave enough by candlelight, by day just a bedizened box smelling distantly of damp wool, cigars, and ancient sperm. “Christ knows there’s plenty else for you to do this day.”
She knows the truer source of his agitation; she bites her lip. “And what of you? You were abroad early.”
“Vidor sent for me this morning. Apparently he must have Redgrave and that idiot Franz attending, as well as the colonel and his retinue. And the man from abroad, all expecting our ne plus ultra, he says.” He rubs his forehead again. “Kippers and bacon fat, Jesu. And swilling tea by the gallon.”
“What,” flat. “Did he what.”
“Will he,” carefully, “be returning to the hotel, after the show?”
“How the devil should I know?” although Decca knows that he does, knows that she knows, as well. She and Rupert never discuss Jürgen Vidor except in business terms—his river of money first a bonus, now a lifeline for the Poppy as times grow darker and rumors escalate—but this is the heart of that business, the wizened byzantine heart of an aging man, aging out of everything but wealth and acid need so “Let it be,” Rupert says now, and “Yes,” she says. So much of what she wants to say, longs to say, can never be uttered, ever. Especially to him. “So, you breakfasted, then?”
“On fucking kippers, yes . What about that other?” nodding upward, the merest motion of his chin, face a forced blank, as Decca shakes her head: “Tomorrow,” she says softly. “Let him bide for the evening, this day has trouble enough.”
Watching them both, seen by neither, is Jonathan, sheet music in hand, paused at the lobby door he has opened as he does everything, quietly. Thin shadow waiting until they separate, Rupert up to the parlor office, Decca down to the kitchens and the yard, making sure they have safely gone before he climbs the stairs himself, past receiving rooms empty in dim daylight, past Velma on her knees with a bucket, toward the half-open, beckoning door of the Cell.
"Not Lucy." He dwarfs the dainty duchess chair, its carved arms and wan petit-point roses: long legs, tight-squared shoulders, the sober frock coat and glass-polished boots of a prosperous undertaker. Black hair to his collar, a deep groove between his eyes, at odds with his young man's face. "Omar. An abscess."
"Then Omar can pay for the doctor himself, next time. Or switch to the spoon." Fox-colored hair piled high, secured with silver combs; on her violet silk breast are several pins, pinked topaz, opal, silver-gilt, and, pinned inside her bodice, a miniature blue eye in a circle of gold, a lover's eye, far more opulent than the others. "More tea?" She pours without waiting for an answer. He takes the whiskey-glass instead, he rubs his forehead. "Your head.... Call Vera, let her see to you."
"Fucking doesn't ease a headache."
"It relieves tension."
"I am not tense."
Lips parted to dispute this, she closes them again. Scratch-scratch. "The fire screen in the parlor wants replacing, the carpet there is fairly scorched through."
"Did we do well tonight?" She glances briefly at the door. "It seemed a thin crowd when I was on the floor."
"Well enough, considering."
She glances towards the door again. "Redgrave was in early, I saw him sporting with Pearl."
"Yes.... What do you look at?"
"Nothing." And then both hear it, the noise of commotion past the muted hum and thump of the dwindled downstairs crowd, the upstairs rooms: a girl's voice, Pearl's voice, high in protest-"No, sir! Stop! Sir!" Not play-acting, the heat of actual distress as Rupert stubs out his cheroot, Decca half-rising: "Let Omar deal with it. Rupert, let Omar-"
-but bald Omar is already at that door, half-bandaged arm, rapping with the truncheon's handle: "Hey! All square in there, Pearl?"
A smothered cry from within as another door opens, a vexed and peering guest from the Blue Room across the hall, the whore Lucy behind him, trying to jockey him back inside. Decca arrives, hand outstretched in futile warding, as Rupert turns the knob, peremptory, Omar at his shoulder-
-to peer through the guttering darkness, no candles, just a dim and flickering tallow-light, and see the whore Pearl, wide-eyed and bare, trying to claw up the wall and away from a lean-muscled man in a white plague mask and a lumpy, determined dwarf, still half-dressed, who appear to be assaulting her simultaneously: the dwarf's arm is aiming up her back passage, the man is pounding at her front and "What harm?" Omar says, looking to Rupert stilled a step past the threshold as "They didn't pay for two!" cries Pearl. "The little one, he didn't pay!"
Rupert nods, one step closer through the cloaking dark as Omar grasps the dwarf by the neck-"Hey, messire"-but "No!" shrieks the dwarf, a high and terrible voice, though his ugly head lies flaccid in Omar's grasp, black hair and rolling eyes staring backwards at the three of them, like a felon pursued to ground. "No, no! Don't make me stop, she's tight as a virgin!"
"Let's go, messire!" as the masked man still pounds busily away, long hair slapping his naked back, Omar tugging at the dwarf, tugging harder and "Jesu!" Omar's shout as the dwarf's head pops loose into his hand, pink blood spurting across the sheets, he throws the head from him with a curse and Pearl goes mad, the hideous half-clothed body still attached to her by its arm, its hand still jammed inside as Rupert reaches, grabs a leg and pulls-
-and stumbles backwards from the force as the masked man shouts with laughter, as Rupert flings the body to the floor, stares at the bed, at the man on the bed, who tugs aside his mask and "Shhhh," he says sweetly to Pearl, who is retching now into the sheets beside him. "Shhhh, it's just a toy."
"It's a God damned puppet," Omar cries.
"Hello, Rupert," the naked man says.
Silence, blank and dead until the boom of Omar's laugh, aghast, relieved, Pearl wipes her mouth on the sheet as Rupert stares at the man, a stare like a blow, turns viciously on his heel and leaves the room and "All's well," Decca says to the watchers in the hallway, half a dozen peering and unnerved, Vera and Jennie and Vladimir, their tricks and johns-until Lucy starts laughing, Lucy from the Blue Room laughing and clapping and "Bravo!" she cries, and the others relax into shrugs: Why, it was just a joke, a show, just another peculiar amusement at the Poppy, no cause for anyone's concern.
Decca turns, peremptory, to Omar: "Go fetch Velma, have her change the linen in here. Take her too, yes," as the nude and trembling Pearl climbs to her feet. "And you," sharp in their departure, as the door shuts decently behind them, as the unmasked man retrieves his fallen accomplice, setting the head politely on a chair, "oh you imbecile," helpless and smiling, crossing the room to gather him into her arms.
So I am working this man, you see, watching the little clock by the bed frame, I aim for just six minutes and no more to do the job. Which is what they pay for really, those six minutes, no matter how long the business really takes. Umphf-umphf-umphf, he's a fat one, fat jelly roll underneath me, I don't like the fat ones usually, they're much harder to bring on. But sometimes you get lucky, sometimes they swoon, and you can go through their pockets while they catch their wind. Sometimes they even die. Last month one died on Vera, she was milking his prick and boom, he fell right over on his face. Their hearts give out, you see, because of the fat.
This one, he wants a fairy tale, he wants me to pretend I'm an angel from heaven, whistle like a canary and wear little white wings on my back. All right, I don't mind, the feathers itch but he pays extra so I get extra. They always want you to pretend to be something, act out some sort of play; that's why they come here, to the Poppy.
So there I am, an angel fucking a fat man and thinking maybe I'll be lucky and he will die and I can pilfer him before Omar or Decca get there, especially Decca. Omar I could bribe, he's still friend enough to take money or a handful of snuff or dope to keep his mouth shut. But what he really wants is to be a manager, stop sleeping in the back rooms, start sleeping With Decca? I say to him, you want that cold cunt wrapped around you at night? And he laughs. I think what he wants mainly is to be Mr. Rupert, but that'll never happen. Omar works hard, yes, downstairs and upstairs, but he likes the drink and the snuff and even, sometimes, the needle, he likes to take Pearl, or Jennie, or both of them together. He likes his fun, does Omar. So he could never run a place like the Poppy, not the way Mr. Rupert does.
UNDER THE POPPY, it says on the sign, with the picture of the poppy-flower, dark-red painted but to me it looked black, when I first came here, and I wondered, What kind of flower is it that grows black? I didn't stand wondering for long, though, it was freezing, snow up to my ankles, leaking into the cracks of my boots.... I remember those boots, they were Katy's, I had to stuff them up with paper just to keep them on my feet. Katy, my sister, who had the only pair of whole boots in the house, the only new dress, the only bed. Because she shared it with our father. Not long after I came to bleed, he started in looking at me, too. I told Katy that if he ever touched me I was going to kill him, but she said No, Lucy, he'll hurt you. Just go. Go to the city, you're a likely girl, you can get some kind of work there for sure.
What about you?
I'll be fine. I know how to handle him. Handle him! She had already had one of his whelps, thank God it was born dead. Dead and ugly. Come with me, I said, I begged her but in the end I went alone, wearing Katy's boots, carrying Katy's coins wrapped up in a bit of wool under my dress, and the little silver mirror she gave me to ward off the evil eye. Sometimes at night I still wake and think, I should have killed him anyway, I should have killed him quick before I left. Did he punish her, because I ran away? I don't know. I don't know what happened to Katy. May be she had another baby. May be she is dead. She used to braid my hair, when we were little, and put flowers on the ends, and sing me songs about the fairies in the trees: Watching out for you/ And watching out for me.
So I went to the city, and started in whoring: first on my own-that didn't last-and then for Mr. Angus at the Europa. It didn't take me long to see that he was cheating me, cheating all of us girls, charge ten and give us half a dollar, but when I complained he hit me: Every day I see a dozen like you, he said. You don't like it here? Go back to the Alley.
The Alley was where they gathered, the girls without pimps, the ones right from the country, or too old for a house, or stuck hard on the needle, or whatever. Cigarettes rolled in newspaper, sleeping where they stood, wiping themselves with their hands-no, no Alley for me. But I won't be hit, either, not just for talking. So I went to the Palais, and Miss Suzette.
"Miss"! She must have been forty if she was a day, a hard forty too, grooves all over her face, her tits like bags of old rags, carnelian earbobs and that rose sachet, ugh, like someone's grandmother in a coffin. She never hit anyone, her punishment was to starve: get smart, no dinner for the day; steal, or fight with the other girls, or try to cut yourself, no dinner for a week. I got along with her all right, especially when she found out I was lettered. She used to have me in her rooms with the newspaper to read the advertisements to her, the news of the day. At first I thought she meant to try to touch me, which would have been all right, I don't mind that. But what she really wanted was to learn to read! Isn't that funny? She knew a little of her letters, how to spell her name, and she could cipher perfectly. But she could barely put two words together.... She wasn't happy, when I figured that out. She didn't starve me, but she started giving me the worst of the customers, the ones no one else wanted, the ones who never wash or who took forever to bring on, then complained afterwards that you were too quick. She let that go on for a week until I went to her rooms-dust everywhere, mice in the featherbed stinking of rose sachet-and Miss Suzette, I said, you can keep giving me these bastards from the bottom of the barrel, and I can leave. Or you can let me help you with your letters, and I can stay.
She didn't say anything at first, let me wait for a day or two, but I watch people quite carefully, you know, and when you watch them, you get to know about them. It was how I knew when a man was going to be troublesome, waiting in the parlor. Or which girls you could make friends with, and which not to bother with. Or that my father was going to try with me. So I knew Miss Suzette was going to come around, and I started planning how it would be, how I could get her to a certain point in her lessons and then ask for things, ask not to have to fuck so much, or at all, may be even ask for money.
But then she caught the scarlatina, caught it hard, and the house closed up like a fist because Faulk put himself in charge, that greedy, high-nosed, gutter-bred prick. He locked her in her room with a spoon and some laudanum, and put us to work around the clock, receive from noontime till nearly dawn; only Sunday afternoons were we free, and then we were supposed to clean the grates and sweep the rooms, empty the slop jars, peel spuds for Sunday supper; ridiculous. I won't do it, I told Faulk, I'm a whore, not a housemaid.
You're not a schoolteacher, either, but you were ready to act that part quick enough. So you can take your turn at the mop with the rest of them.
But I didn't, I stole away, out into the streets to take the air. It is a big place, and the avenue is long: up and down the vendors selling everything you could think of, pomade and fruit-cake, boot-blacking and smelling salts, picture puzzles of the palace and the White Gardens, walking sticks with ivory heads of birds and dogs and tigers, silver ribs for silk parasols, blue crayons to make your skin look whiter. And all sorts of little food shops and wine parlors, it made your mouth water just to see them, but I had no money for those kinds of things. And theatres.... Do you know, I never even saw a theatre before I came here? Once or twice a year a drummer would come through, and Katy and I would give him a penny to crank the concertina, and once there was a puppet show, a little man with a hook nose and a slapstick, and his wife and baby, and a toby-dog. We laughed so much! The drummer could make all the puppets talk with different voices, and he even barked, for the dog. They were called Punch and Judy, they were in the book that Katy had, called Droll Tales. It had a story about Cinder-Ella, too, who lived among the ashes until she found her rightful prince, and one about the Mouse King, and the people who live underwater and talk by bubbling, one bubble to another; it was how I learned to read, that book, until our father found it.... I should have killed him, really.
At the Gaiety Theatre there are plays, and dancing, you could hear the music from the street: a real band, with a fiddle and piano, and the ladies bright as butterflies in spangles and lace; I saw it on the sign and I thought, If I could only dance, or sing! Wearing lovely costumes, not going with the men unless you wanted to, unless they bought you roses or scent or jewelry, what a life that would be. But I am not so pretty, and I cannot sing or dance. I couldn't even afford a ticket to go inside and watch.
But that Gaiety, it was how I ended up at the Poppy, really. Omar was there-I didn't know him then, of course, but it was Omar, with his bumpy bald head, standing outside the Gaiety having a smoke and Hey, I said. You could tell he wasn't a trick. Hey messire, you work in there?
Why? You need a job? And in the end it was as simple as that, what Jonathan calls the kismet. Omar told me about the Poppy, how it was a kind of theatre, with a stage, and costumes, and plays, private plays for one watcher at a time. Mister Rupert is always looking for likely girls, Omar said. Are you likely?
I put my hands up under my tits and jiggled them. You tell me, I said, and he laughed, and I went back and told Faulk to go fuck himself, and I walked in under that black-flower sign, I walked in Under the Poppy, and I never left. I hate Decca's guts and she hates me, but the rest of us get along fine, and Mr. Rupert treats us very fair. And the shows, the little plays-the ones downstairs, where there is music, Vera and Pearl and Laddie, and Spinning Jennie, she used to be in a circus somewhere, she can hang from the ceiling up-so-down like a bat. And Jonathan plays the piano like an angel. And Puggy can declaim lines and lines of verse, he can read French and English both. Anything you give him, he can read.
And upstairs-well, sometimes the feathers tickle, and the fat bastards won't properly die, but they finish anyway, six minutes is six minutes. And things happen at the Poppy that would happen nowhere else. Like Mr. Istvan. And Pan Loudermilk. Even the Gaiety has nothing like them.
* * *
"And this one?" Guillame lifts a louche blonde puppet, lips painted primly pink, wires threading its blue brocade skirt and "That's Miss Lucinda," Istvan says. "She sings. And cries real tears," milking a tiny secret bulb so a drop of glycerin oozes from her eye socket and rolls, slow glass, down her cheek. "Although I try not to make her."
On the narrow bed beside him, Lucy claps her hands. "Lucinda! That's my name, almost." She fingers the bright brocade. "This is so lovely."
Excerpted from Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja Copyright © 2010 by Kathe Koja. Excerpted by permission.
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