I am the creature in your mouth. Between your teeth, beneath your tongue, behind your plump pink lips, I wait and listen. You are a soft thing, with knobby fingers and fleshy wrists. You have no secrets.
When I could still see through the gap in your two front teeth, when your breasts were little more than a whisper and a wish, you learned to close your mouth. So many unpleasant things can find their way in and out of careless lips—errant words, wandering tongues, rotten peaches, squirming slugs. For instance, there is a species of sea louse that eats the tongues of fish. It enters through the gills into the mouth, then latches there. In its embrace, it chokes the tongue of blood. The louse gluts on the flow while the lingual muscles atrophy. When there is only a stump, the parasite clings on there, tapped directly into circulation. In essence, it becomes the tongue.
You found this out some two years after your mother died, while on summer break from your landlocked boarding school in Switzerland. Back home, brined in the salt of July, your father thought you should learn the family trade. Though your mother would have fought, stepmother two or five or eight was too young and eager herself to hold you back, so he took you out on the dark and roiling sea on that flimsy paper yacht and let you hold a rod. The clouds were gathering, the waters growing quick, but he refused to leave until your iron snagged a lip. The air drew in, close and tight and salt-cold on your neck, coaxing your hairs up one by one until you were covered in gooseflesh. Your breathing quickened, your knuckles whitened, but he remained, staring at the line where the waves pushed back the sky.
When something pulled, he made you reel it in yourself, burning your soft fingers raw and straining your too-weak arms. Although he covered your hands with his, a human counterweight, you still fought hard. Just as you were about to give in, to toss the line itself into the sea, the fish surfaced, near as long as you were tall. You hauled it in, gasping for breath like the fish, and let it fall to the deck. Your father reached out, unhooked the barb, and let it drop. At the look in your eyes, he almost softened, then set his jaw. You know better, now: fish cannot feel pain.
You watched the clouds shift over silver scales, and your father lifted the fish in his hands, its gills still flapping fast and panicked. He spoke in colors: bluefin, red flesh, gold mine, green banks. This fish, he said, was your fortune. Its life paid for your own. You owed it a debt—the least you could do was understand it.
He asked if you’d like to touch it. It wasn’t a request. In your hands, you understood that it was a living thing, struggling against your grip. Slippery and strong, you felt its muscles work beneath the scales. You couldn’t stop looking at its grand pearlescent eye. It was so empty.
“Watch,” your father said, and opened wide the fish’s mouth.
That night you bit your tongue. You tasted like the sea. You tried to scream, but I swallowed the sound. You thrashed and flailed, your movements like the tide. You dreamed of seven pairs of claws. Years later, sometimes you still do.
But not today—you slept like the past fifteen years were the nightmare. You slept like it was waking.
Your day begins with sunlight, pleasant morning rays that ease you seamlessly from sleep to waking. You nestle under the covers a little deeper, warm and bright, before padding to the cold-tiled bathroom, barefoot and half-clothed. Our daily game of cat-and-mouse begins when you brush and floss your teeth, chasing me from gap to gap, almost drowning me in suds and spit. I always win.
For breakfast you scramble the sea. Your chef once showed you the lobster tanks when you were young. You cried as they were put to boil, and they did, too. Now, we feast on caviar and crab without a second thought.
Today you bundle up, vicuña wool and mink, before you leave the house with salt still on your tongue. Your father sent a car. You settle in the backseat without a word. Outside the window, the landscape changes quick, knobbly green hills becoming flaxen fields, bright sky fading gray. The smell of brand-new limousine gives way to sand and brine.
Here, the sea is yours. Or, more properly, your father’s. Purchased in your name with his cash some ten years back when taxes bothered him more, this little strip of white sand and waves is cordoned off and full of cars parked right up to the tow. Usually, on winter days, the coast is bare and gray, with only the tug of the tide whispering over the land. I like it more that way.
Now that you are older, you do not visit this beach often. You don’t see much of your father anymore, and it suits you fine. But ever the dutiful daughter, you meet him every year under gray November skies and the auspices of cameras for the company holiday card, the reminder that his fishing empire is a family enterprise with family values.
Stepmother ten or twelve or twenty is here—you haven’t bothered to remember her name. She is windblown and bronzed, a picture from a summer catalog pasted onto these gray sands. She is a similar make and model to the last, which is to say, she looks very much like you. It used to bother you, the curve of your jaw, the sweep of your dark hair, your long, elegant eyelashes. The endless stream of wives were funhouse mirrors: you but a little taller, you but a little thinner, you but a little fleshier, you but a little more vacant around the eyes. He spent through each one quicker than the last. You have grown numb, though. I swallowed your disgust.
Now you grit your teeth, and I peer out from between them. There are the people hired to make you and stepmother whatever-number look like fisherwomen Barbies, and there are the sailors who will operate the boat when the cameras aren’t looking, and there are the people who will line up the shots of you and your ravenous father and your umpteenth stepmother holding fish, reeling lines, and staring into the waves. The natural light through the clouds is good, dramatic and sharp, casting the world in silhouettes.
“Hi, Lilian,” you say to the latest edition. It isn’t her name. You do this with all of them, like tradition. Only this one plays along.
“Hello, Marissa.” Not even close.
You sneer at each other. Her teeth glint paper-bright. Your mother used to take in pretty girls like her, to turn them razor sharp. This one has no edge.
Once you set sail, your hair is arranged to look artfully windswept, lips puckered pink, all natural. The barren palms shrink behind you, and your stomach churns with the sea. When you swallow back bile, I gather by your tonsils, safe in your dark, soft throat.
We move out farther, until land becomes a memory.
Your father tries to make conversation, but all you can remember is the fish with insect tongue, segmented and still, staring at your soul. He is watching you expectantly, searching your face for some response. You try to reply. I swallow your words.
When the ship drops anchor and forward motion stops, your head is spinning. You clutch the rail with pale knuckles. The water is dark, the sky is light, and you are turning green. When you vomit over the edge, your father frowns.
“You don’t get seasick,” he says. It is a fact in his voice. He is used to his statements becoming true through willpower and well-paid assistants.
You retch again. I cling tight to the acid film on your molars. Nothing but air comes out. In the water, filigrees of crab and half-chewed fish eggs mingle in the waves. As you watch, the scum of your stomach acid drifts away and sinks. You stay hunched over, lips still burning sour, but your nausea has worn off. You are hollow now.
“Water, Emily, get her water,” your father snaps at one of the assistants, or maybe your stepmother. You aren’t sure. Either way your hands are shaking as you accept a clear glass. You slosh some on your fingers. Rinse and spit, then down another gulp. Someone takes it away, and you straighten, push away from the rail. You can stand on your own—you’ve got your sea legs back.
Around you, each face is slightly pinched, some with concern, some with disgust, some with irritation. You clench your jaw and brace your spine.
“I’m alright,” you say. I smile.
Your father’s personal assistant comes forward with a tube of lipstick in an attractive shade of coral, clinical and bland, selected specifically to make you nonthreatening. This sort of neutral pleasantness has been your brand since you were small, and as your cherubic cheeks have matured to fine sharp cheekbones, as your lips and hips filled out, you’ve strived at every moment to retain universal appeal. Your picture on the holiday card must satisfy the workers and their wives. The balance is ever so much more delicate as a woman. Your mother looked like a lady and talked like a broad. We never met.
Just once, some years ago, I lost control. You filled me up with doubt and fear and shame and rage, so much I couldn’t breathe. There was no room left for your words, the salt and strength of them. Your father was pacing, pacing, pacing and you were trembling like an oak leaf in winter. He pinched the bridge of his nose and left the room, your mother’s room, so empty now. He’d tossed away so many of her things without a second thought.
When she was dying you weren’t sure what to do. All you could think of were the places you were losing—her parents’ little house that they had never let her fix up, the ice cream shop she’d always take you to that your father didn’t know about, the girls’ mentoring group she ran in the city where your father never showed his face by day. Your mother’s absence was so large it couldn’t begin to figure, but the loss of those spaces hit you heavy. As she gripped tight to your hand with her birdlike bones, the bruises at her wrist stark against her ashen cast, you wore away at the hole you’d been biting in your cheek for days. You could see the shape of who she once was in her eyes, reflecting yourself at you.
“Be careful,” she said, “and never stop burning, and don’t you dare let him swallow you whole.”
You bit down at that sore in your cheek as her eyes shut slow, not for the last time but not far from it either. Your iron and salt shaped me into form, and I explored your lips, your gums, your mind, latching onto the richest flow. I danced through your memories, licking at old wounds and rubbing salt in others, circling, circling, until you tried to cry. I discovered then my favorite flavor.
And when your father told you oh-so-cavalierly he had tossed away her things, you bit your lip and drew blood. I slithered close to lap it once he left the room. Full to bursting, I hadn’t yet learned my lesson. I tumbled from your lips with your scream. We beheld each other for some time, eye to eye to eye, and you clenched your teeth tight at the sight of my slippery flesh, my tongue-moistened sheen, my wet voracious mouth. For the first time we saw one another, you all warm skin and probing tongue, me all squirm and slime. I was not a part of you, but your mouth still felt hollow without me.
I was growing cold and sick and you were crying into a pillow that used to smell like your mother, and only when you fell asleep there could I crawl back in and latch on tighter. I was weak by then, starved again already by your distance, your disgust, so I swallowed the lump in your throat for revenge.
Once your lips are peachy bright and catalog-ready, the action shots begin. The camera drinks you in. Someone, an aide or a gaffer, tells a dilute joke about fish and basketball that would merit a groan on a good day. Instead, you laugh in shapes, your mouth open and round, your teeth a flash. Your father drapes his arm around your waist, another around the stepmother’s shoulder, and pulls you both in close. His fingers squeeze a hair too tight at the scant spare flesh beneath your ribs. You cannot squirm. I do instead.
You clamp your mouth shut, then force a gritted smile. As soon as the photographers call for another pose, you tear away. Your father approaches, but a stylist holds him back, saying that at least one glamor shot of you alone is good for the website, to show the company’s future. He nods, and so you linger gratefully, the wind billowing your hair, until the camera is sated.
The next photo requires props. From belowdecks, a man with rubber gloves brings up a cooler and sets it gingerly on the ground. Your father steps forward and lifts the cover, revealing a live bluefin tuna, constrained beneath a shallow layer of salt water. Stepmother flinches back, and you barely manage not to do the same. When your father picks up the fish, you swallow hard. Suddenly your tongue feels foreign and strange. You are unsure of its surface. If you think too much, you feel its phantom claws.
I wallow in your fear as it pools like saliva at the base of your mouth. There is too much to swallow.
You try to smile as you look down at the fish, remembering it has paid your tuition and bought your clothes. It looks up at you, its hollow gaze upon your throat. Beneath the landlocked safety of your mammalian furs and wools, you shiver.
These shots won’t make it in, I’m sure.
Your father and his wife pose next, the lucky fish cast back to sea, and as they look hungrily into one another’s eyes you remember your mother’s voice. Rooms darkened when she walked in, but she glowed. When she opened her mouth, birdsong and flame came out in equal measure.
You are a candle-lark, burning low and close, with a voice like morning: fleeting, but steel-spun when it comes. Most days it doesn’t. I swallow it whole.
But I am fed fat now, swollen with fear and disgust and raw fish, and you are burning. Your silence is so brittle now that it has stretched too thin.
On shore you say a prayer of thanks that you have not yet sunk. The sun emerges from behind a cloud and bathes you in sudden warmth. The cars roll out one by one as soon as their drivers have paid your father their respects. Soon it is you and him and Stepmother alone. She slides into the limousine without a parting word.
I bite your tongue. You let it bleed. I cannot taste your thoughts. When did you learn to keep them back?
“Stop,” you say. My hold is whisper-weak.
Your father turns. His eyes are tuna blue.
“What is it?” he asks, his voice uncertain now. You never command him like this.
“Come to dinner tonight,” you say, and I almost fall from your lips. “Alone.”
His left eyebrow shoots up, but pulls the corner of his mouth with it.
You select the menu, and your chef performs the task. In the fluorescent kitchen of your mansion you watch her cracking eggs, the deft swing of her knife, the bubbles in the pot rising to the surface and bursting into steam. The chef moves with a quiet efficiency you’ve always envied, imbued with usefulness and power. She moves from step to step confidently, stopping only to taste her work or offer you the spoon.
When she is finished, you dismiss her and the other staff. Candles line the dining room, and you light them up yourself. A whole poached salmon watches the display from its perch above the side dishes. Thin simulacra scales sliced from a cucumber line its puckered flesh. You lie in wait at the head of the table, engaged in a staring contest you can’t win.
Your father rings the bell, wearing a different suit from this morning and a hint of spiced cologne. His glance sweeps over you from head to toe, but lingers at your lips. I hunger now; for once I do not know your mind. I starve to let you speak.
He takes a seat beside you. I can smell his breath. He’s all tobacco smoke and charm.
“I’ve missed you,” he says. “I haven’t seen you all year. Your hair looked better longer, you know.”
You smile and swirl your Château Cheval Blanc. “There was a time when we had family dinner every Thursday,” you say, your lips curled tight to your teeth. “It was tradition.”
“Yes,” he says, barely even pausing. “I remember.”
Lies come as easily to him as lust does.
“Mom always insisted, remember, that you take that one night off work to be with us together.”
He laughs. “Your mother was always stubborn.”
“Until the end,” you say, remembering the ghost of her white-knuckled grip on your wrist and her warning not to let him eat you whole. Without my bite to hold your tongue you’re daring now, and raw.
Drawing your lips into a tight, tense smile, you offer him a plate of canapés. He bites a vol-a-vent and takes a drink. You watch his Adam’s apple in his throat.
“Now,” he says, his sweaty palm upon your knee, “why are we here?”
“Existentially, to bear witness to the beauty of creation. That, or pass the time.”
He leans in close. You do not flinch. His hungry breath is on your lips.
And when you part them, I spring into place. I take his tongue first, so much slicker than your own, and tear it into shreds. I chew the pulp and lap the gushing wounds. When he jerks back and tries to swear, I swallow his words. I can see your grin reflected in his teeth before I eat those too. His eyes bulge as he brings his hand to his mouth to pull me out. I skin his fingertips before he can. You sit and watch the life drift from his face as I gorge myself on the air in his lungs. There is no part of him I will not consume, even his name. I am insatiable.
As I continue, you part the salmon’s lips and stare at the parasite latched inside. For a moment you hesitate, but you have been famished for so long. In a deft gesture you pluck the sea louse out and bite its head. It crunches in your teeth.
When we are satisfied, you and I, you hold your hand out to your father’s lips as his torn jugular stains the carpet. I crawl onto your palm, ready to accept your final judgment. When you place me on your soft pink tongue, we reach an understanding. It is an act of trust.