Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

Sometimes, I read a book that provokes such wonder in me I don’t know whether to put it down and marvel at the changed world around me or to keep it pressed tight to my face and never let it go. The dilemma between a desire to process thoughtfully and a burning hunger to consume more is overwhelming.

But eventually I finish the book, one way or another, and find myself in a strange haze afterwards, trying to reconcile the real world around me and the much realer world I’ve just left. Everything seems distant, and shiny. And then it all sharpens. The knowledge crystalizes. My worldview has changed.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is one such book. Shifting between science fiction and fantasy, traditional and wholly innovative, Liu focuses in on human concerns even as he leaps through space and time and species lines. I read The Paper Menagerie in a week last summer and it’s been turning over in my mind ever since. This week, after finishing another read, I decided to revisit Menagerie, this time as an audiobook.

Some books are thin. Not in size necessarily, but in content, in complexity. They may dazzle and astound at first, but become thin upon the closer scrutiny that comes with rereading. Menagerie is not thin. It instead unfolds, revealing ever more layers, striking the same chords and new ones. From its first tale, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” which chronicles the reading practices of alien races of Liu’s invention, to its last novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which zooms in on a future Earth and on the very real atrocities of our past, Liu manages to gather nostalgia, loss, shame, and love together in his fists, ball them up so as to make them indistinguishable, and release them, now commingled, into the world. His characters make sacrifices and make mistakes, explore the American frontier and the final frontier, but they are always reaching out to one another, always searching for connection. They are raw and complex and intricately human, distinct and compelling, and within the many worlds he casts they come to life, some timid and some bold, all more than what they seem at first.

It is for this reason that I found The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so difficult to put down the first time, and for this reason I revisited it again. It makes me feel the sort of connectedness that I only ever find through fiction. This book broadened my understanding of what short stories could do, and helped me to realize there’s more worth reading than just novels.

I can’t give this book five stars. That’s too simplistic. It’s worth a galaxy.

Fiction: Blanca the Beautiful

Don Carmelo had traveled the land from the arid sands of León to the seas of Cartagena. He was a very vain man, and believed he had seen all that Spain had to offer. He knew well the old mosques of Córdoba and the bustling squares of Madrid, had even ventured to the Galician countryside to look distrustfully at the Portuguese border. But he had never once ventured across the Pyrenees into France.

Don Carmelo was a man of great fashion, and the fashion in those days was to leave one’s homeland and never return, but instead to pine for it from the luxurious prison of Paris. And so, on a whim, he saddled up his strongest stallion and set forth from his estate towards the foothills, leaving behind all of his treasures, save the one he could not bear to part with: a lock of his beloved Blanca’s hair, cut the night she died.

Night fell over Don Carmelo when he was near the peak of the last foothill before the mountains began in earnest. He had just dismounted to tie his steed and make camp when he heard voices nearby. He held the reins steady and listened, but he couldn’t quite make out the words being muttered. It sounded like a gathering some little ways away, and so he remounted his horse and went on through the dark until suddenly the trees stopped growing.

He arrived in a clearing with three squat huts and seven women, all ugly, all identical but for the colors they wore. One was draped in a gown of bloody red, another in bright Valencian orange, the third in mustard yellow, the fourth in darkest green, the fifth in the blue of the seas, the sixth in the violet of distant mountains, and the final in a gown of purest white. As one, the wall of rainbow women looked up, their wrinkled faces pinching together as their yellowed eyes met his.

Buenas noches, damas. My name is Don Carmelo. I seek a place to rest for the night. Do you know where I might find the nearest village?”

“There is no village for miles and miles,” the women say in unison. “You are welcome to stay with us.”

Don Carmelo’s skin prickled at the very thought of it. But he couldn’t rest in the forest nearby knowing that these hags had all seen him. Who knew what they might do if he rejected their charity?

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said graciously, but he had already decided that he would rather stay the night here than alone. At least he could hear them this way.

“Stay with us,” said the women in red, orange, and yellow, “and we will ensure your safe passage through the mountains, for a price.”

“Stay with us,” said the women in green, blue, and purple, “and we will ensure your safe return home, for a price.”

“Stay with me,” said the woman in white, “and I will grant your heart’s truest desire, for a price.”

Each set of women looked expectantly at him. He looked back, unsure what to do, then looked down at the lock of Blanca’s hair in his hands, remembering her moon-bright skin, her laughing eyes, her full lips pink as the salmon she once loved to eat.

Dama, I will stay with you,” he said to the woman in white, then turned to the others. “Gracias por todo. Buenas noches, damas.

As he watched, the other women filed back into the first and second huts. The crone in white extended her shaking, gnarled hand to him and he took it, holding fast to Blanca’s hair and the reins of his stallion with the other.

He staked and tied his horse behind the third hut to pasture, and followed the woman inside. The hut was bare of furnishings, but for a small carpet in one corner and a shovel in another. A small fire blazed at the center of the room, held aloft in the air and spending no fuel that Don Carmelo could see.

“What price do you ask, Dama?” Don Carmelo asked once he was finished marveling at the flames. “I have gold and jewels aplenty at my estate.”

“I need nothing of your material wealth,” she said. “I can conjure gold and gems myself.” She pulled a coin from the air, and closed it in her fist. When she opened it again, it was a large, smooth ruby. She placed the gem in the fire, where it disappeared. Her hands came away unburnt. “I will ask you to do three tasks for me. Tell me what it is that your heart desires, that I might make it manifest for you.”

“My beloved Blanca, the beauty I was once betrothed to. She died the night before we were to wed. Bring her back to life and I will do anything you ask of me.”

The hag looked him up and down, evaluating his request, then nodded. “First you must dig a hole, as long and deep as you are tall, and as wide as you are broad.”

“Where?”

“Oh, anywhere outside will do. You must dig it tonight. Use that shovel there.”

And so he took the shovel and he dug a hole behind the house. His hands grew blisters, and splinters from the shovel popped them. He relished the pain, though. It was nothing compared to the joy of regaining Blanca.

When the hole was completed to the hag’s specifications, he returned inside. Hours had passed but the crone still stood waiting.

“Very well,” she said. “For your second task you must give me the lock of Blanca’s hair which you carry with you always.”

Don Carmelo was sad to part with the hair, but he knew it would be worth it to have Blanca back.

“It is yours, Dama, but please be careful with it.”

“I will treat it as though it is my own.” As she said this, the hair began to grow in her hands, upwards towards her scalp. It latched there, and the rest of her white, patchy hair became black and lustrous, just as Blanca’s once was.

Don Carmelo held back a grimace. But this must be to the witch’s plan. He could despise her all he wanted once Blanca was back.

“What is your third task, Dama? I would like to get it over with and see my beloved.”

She smiled, displaying three yellow teeth and many empty gums. “Come outside with me, and Blanca will live again.”

He followed her outside, heart leaping in anticipation. “Andale,” he exclaimed.

She stopped just next to the hole he had dug, and turned to him.

“For your final task, you must die.”

Don Carmelo blinked, certain he had misheard her. But she did not say anything, merely stared at him.

When he finally opened his mouth to protest, she put a haggard finger to his lips.

“It is a side effect of the magic, of sorts. For her to live, you must die.”

Don Carmelo braced himself, then leaned backwards and fell into the grave. As he watched, the witch above him transformed, her face smoothing and paling, her body straightening and filling.

And the last thing he saw was Blanca’s beautiful face, and her long fingers scattering a handful of dirt onto his corpse.

Fiction: Red-Handed

Daisy died in front of my house on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon. Her arms were wrapped tight around the bloodiest bible you’ve ever seen. The sun was beating down nearly as hard as the car had, and I, in my wool coat and gloves, was sweating hard. I thought it was the heat, but in retrospect, seeing something like that took just as big a toll, maybe bigger.

I probably should’ve called the cops straight away, or at least taken down the number on the plate, but frankly I was so caught off guard by her and that book that I forgot to look. I thought it was red, but when I got over to where she was lying with her chest moving up and down in an uneven rhythm, I realized it’d been bloody all this time, soaked through from front to back. The craziest thing was that she herself didn’t have a speck of red on her, except where she was clutching it with white-knuckled fervor. I guess it was the impact that did it, shocked the beat out of her heart or something, but she wasn’t bleeding anywhere that I could see.

I’ll admit I let curiosity get the better of me. It always does, and I always let it, and then when I wind up in these sorts of jams I guess there’s no one to blame but myself, but anyhow I don’t believe in guilt so it all kind of works out. So I took off my gloves so they wouldn’t stain and I pried the book from her hands, but they were getting real tight, and even with the blood making the leather all slippery I couldn’t really get a good hold on it because my fingers were sliding more than hers, but I kept on. When I heard a few snapping sounds I looked down at her, and her chest had stopped moving and I said a little apology in case her spirit was still nearby and listening and yanked the book good and tight and left her fingers there at a bit of an angle.

Now I was all slick with it, and really I should’ve showered and called the cops or something but I figured she was dead and wasn’t going anywhere and I had missed the license number anyway and so I might as well take a look at this thing before the pages all fused shut.

There wasn’t much ink I could make out anymore. If you’ve ever seen paper all saturated with iron and gore then you understand it’s a whole lot darker than you’d think, and fragile. I didn’t want to rip the pages and they made this awful squelching sound when you tried to pull them apart anyway. It wasn’t hard to tell, though, from the care in the binding and the embossed golden cross on the front, that this was a bible, King James if I had to guess from the heft of it.

I was wondering where she’d gone to get such a book and how it had come to be so thoroughly drenched in blood, almost like the words themselves were dripping, when I noticed something else odd. It started with a whisper of salt, like sweat or tears, and then I saw the color fading from the bottom of the page, diluting as water began running from it instead. The ink was taken with it, just leaving paper with the memory of pinkness at the edges, and when I pried open more pages to figure it out I saw a hole there, right in the center, oozing blood from one side and water from the other.

And I said to myself, well, would you look at that, and then remembered that in the heat of the day Daisy would start to smell soon if someone didn’t come take care of her so I shut the bible and stuck it in the kitchen sink so it wouldn’t keep leaking on my floor, then I went and got a mop and after that took a shower, and when I called they didn’t take long at all to show up and block off the road while they took pictures of her lying there with her skin unruptured and her fingers all broken up and bloody.

Later they found the guy that did it based on the approximate size and shape of the dent on his bonnet, and he didn’t say a word throughout the whole trial even when his own lawyer questioned him. He’s still locked up, but the book disappeared from my kitchen sink by Sunday even though my doors and windows were sealed. A lot of folks have come by lately, cops and reporters and curious folks asking questions I don’t have answers to, and I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t’ve touched it at all because they just keep coming like rats.

Fiction: The Medium

Exactly one year after my father’s death, he woke me three hours before dawn. It went something like this: the ceiling staring down at me, me staring up at it, the moon glittering off the chandelier, and my hands curled into fists. He was sitting at the end of the bed—he had pulled the covers up and was now pinching my toes as though trying to figure out what they were. I couldn’t move them but I could feel his incessant tickletwitch touch. If I had the wherewithal to unclench my jaw I would have told him to leave off, but I’m not so sure he would’ve understood. He died before he taught me how to talk to ghosts, and it would appear no one had really taught him how to talk to the living. So instead we sat in silence, me stiff-muscled and silent and him still fiddling with my toes.

When the sun finally rose I felt the strength return to my muscles, and as I sat up I realized my father was gone. I couldn’t point to the moment it happened—it was like I’d forgotten something. If I hadn’t known to expect him, I wouldn’t have believed myself. But he had told me, on the day of the crash, that he’d see me next year, and my father was nothing if not punctual.

When he’d died, my mother had taken to washing the dishes herself, scrubbing them until her bony fingers split at the surface like grapes. I told her not to worry and even Gianni, my father’s suave Italian butler, stepped in. He put his foot down when he saw the wine glasses streaked with blood. As he bandaged up her cuts, Gianni said grief worked in mysterious ways. My father would have laughed, or maybe been offended that my mother had so little faith. But after years as the wife of a television medium, she’d lost whatever belief in the beyond she might have started with.

At any rate it had taken a year after my father’s death for him to visit, but once he started he wouldn’t stop. It became incessant—every night I’d wake up at three a.m. and he would be sitting there at the end of the bed. He wasn’t always alone—sometimes a few other shades would be with him, and they’d walk around the room, or come closer to inspect the top of me. He had stopped playing with my toes but it seemed the mysteries of flesh were still captivating to the dead. He did a lot of eyebrow stroking for a week or so, then some ear tugging. Once, one of his companions slid her cold dead finger up my nose, and if I hadn’t been paralyzed and if she hadn’t been dead, I would’ve killed her then and there. But I was, and she was, so I glowered instead.

It seemed like there were more and more of them every night, but never the same ones. There were new ghosts and old ghosts, shades of every race, religion, and creed, and they were all stuffed into my bedroom, inspecting the place, inspecting me. They carried with them some astral chill that stifled my breathing to thin, shallow gasps, and the more they poked at me the stiffer I felt, like a cadaver. Once in a while one would try to lie down in my place but my father would always corral them away just at the moment before fusion. I didn’t know exactly what would happen if they joined into me, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to learn firsthand.

When Gianni noticed the dark circles under my eyes, I had to confess I wasn’t sleeping. He told me to try some of my mother’s sedatives, but they didn’t help at all. I was just groggier the next morning. Instead I asked Gianni if he’d kept my father’s papers, and I began to study.

Scribbled on yellow legal pads and scrawled in the margins of books, my father had left a lot to work with, but little of it was relevant to me. It seemed he wasn’t interested in the theory of ghostwork, but rather the psyches of the dead. His notes read like those of a therapist. Onscreen, he’d always acted… well, larger than life. That was the name of his show. But here, now, I could see he was a man obsessed.

I could find no guidance for talking to ghosts, no evidence my father had ever experienced the same paralysis I was undergoing. Instead, I found out only that ghosts felt more welcome in the presence of burning mugwort but hated sage, that they often cared more about the body they left behind than the people they had, and that they could manifest just about anywhere, but once they had they couldn’t travel through closed doors.

 That last one sparked my interest. I always slept with my door closed, afraid of someone creeping in during the night. But now that I had dozens of nightly visitors, I realized perhaps I could let them out. That night I piled sage onto a ceramic plate on my bedside table and set it to smoldering, and left my door wide open, sure that this time I would finally get some rest.

Needless to say it did not go as planned.

I woke with sensation in my limbs, surrounded by sage smoke but ghost-free. I checked, and checked again, sitting bolt upright and even stepping out of bed to prove I could. It was still dark out, the kind of cloudy night where you can’t even see the stars, and so lit only by the ember remnants of the herbs I poked my head out of the door.

I heard a sound like running water, and despite the smoky heat I shivered. It was probably Gianni doing some household task. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. With the door open, who knew what mayhem the ghosts were causing?

I decided to investigate. I walked down the hall on the balls of my feet, as though by tiptoeing I could sneak up on ghosts. It felt reassuring in a frail way, like pulling a blanket over yourself and pretending like that will ward off monsters and murderers.

In the kitchen I found my mother at the sink, her eyes wide open as she scrubbed and scrubbed at spotless plates. It had been a while since I’d seen her do this last, but the image of her bloody fingers was fresh as ever.

“Mom?” I asked. She stared and stared at nothing, and didn’t stop scouring the dish.

“Mom,” I tried again, but she kept going, so I called loudly for Gianni.

I could hear his footsteps, then so many footsteps like a stampede. He walked into the room from the long hallway, flanked by ghosts.

I felt the motion drain from my limbs and I froze in place as the ghosts filled the room and began poking at me, tugging at my mother. She was still washing the dishes, her hair disheveled and her nightgown sweaty, and she didn’t seem to notice as the ghosts pulled at her flesh.

I looked at Gianni, and Gianni looked at me and seemed to take in my condition.

“Now, now, Evelyn, that isn’t nice. Let him go, please,” he said, and immediately I could move. I jerked away from one set of ghosts and tumbled into the next.

“You…” I said. It was all I could spit out.

“Yes, me.” He was smiling as he said it. I looked around for my father, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“You didn’t really think your father could do any of it himself, did you?”

I’d never seen Gianni look so alive. It only made the dead look paler, thinner, poor facsimiles of the living. You could see they had no flesh.

“I saw him speaking to ghosts on Larger Than Life. I read his notes!”

“You read my notes. Couldn’t you tell they weren’t really his style? No, he would go on set and manipulate poor sad widows into revealing things they didn’t realize, and he’d regurgitate their message back at them. When it came to real ghosts, when he needed real information, that was all me. Until he decided he didn’t, anymore.”

I swallowed hard. My aching fists were clenched like they were still paralyzed.

“And even now, look what he’s done. All that trouble I went to, arranging the crash and everything, and he still finds a way to profit off the dead. He’s been charging them to see you, you know.”

Just then my mother dropped a dish into the sink and it shattered.

“Mom?” I said, my voice raw and high and scratchy.

“Oh, that’s not your mother. It hasn’t been for a while. She was bothering me, asking too many questions, so I had her replaced.”

I felt my eyes bulge. “Replaced? With what?”

“Now, now, you’re being rude, just like your father. With whom, you mean. And her name is Edith. She died some hundred and seventy years ago or so, and she just doesn’t understand the dishwasher.”

It felt too staged to be real and I expected at any moment to wake in my room again, groggy from some strange, sage-induced hallucination until Gianni stepped forwards and touched my face.

“I always thought you were cleverer than your father. Wouldn’t you like to join me in rebuilding his empire on a real foundation now?”

I opened my mouth to say yes, to convince him for long enough to get to my sage-safe room, or outside at least. But he saw all the no he needed in my eyes.

“Very well, then, Evelyn, take him,” he said, stepping off to the side. I felt my body go stiff and lock again.

“They all want a piece of the living, you see. I try to tell them it won’t last, but that hasn’t stopped them yet.”

And they came forwards and tugged at my toes until they popped off, and bit at my ears until they ripped, and they divided and divided me and I screamed and screamed until I was one of them.

Fiction: Silvertongue

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.