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.
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
“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
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.”
“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,”
She stopped just next to the hole he had dug, and turned to
“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.
When they told me they were getting a divorce, my parents
took me to the pet store. I was thirteen by then, and had been waiting for them
to figure out how to break the news for two years before they mustered up the
nerve. I didn’t need a consolation. Practically none of my friends had married
parents, so I knew what divorce really meant—two Christmases and fewer fights.
I’d easily trade the mortgage for that. But if they were going to buy me a pet
to make themselves feel better, I wasn’t going to stop them.
Dad was pushing the glow-in-the-dark fishes pretty heavily,
because he didn’t want any animal that required him to scoop up shit. Mom
wanted something cute and conventional that she could show off to her book club
friends. I left them arguing by the poodles and went over to the cages where
the hamsters and rats were kept.
I didn’t like the way they moved, the rodents, all jittery
and anxious like they had coffee in their weird little straw-bottles instead of
water. I wondered for a moment if that was something I could do, if I bought
one. Get a rat hooked on caffeine and set it loose in the city.
Mom and Dad found me pretty quick, and Dad took one look at
the rat and shot his eyebrows into his receding hairline. “What are you doing
over here?” he asked, like he was begging me not to say I wanted a rat.
I didn’t, not really, so I made something up quick and
pointed across the aisle at the chinchilla. “I think I might like one of
Mom laughed. “That’s not a pet. That’s something you make coats out of.”
That stung a little, but I didn’t actually want a chinchilla so we moved on to the next aisle before
they could start bickering again. We were surrounded now by birds, chirping and
singing and cooing at one another, pecking at the bars. One was even hanging
upside down from the top of its cage like a bat.
They all went quiet out of nowhere, except one. It was
yellow, bright, singing at the top of its lungs. I looked at my parents. They
looked at each other. We bought the canary.
I called her Calliope because I was deep in that Greek
mythology phase you go through in middle school when everything you feel takes
place in epic proportions that only old legends have the scope to encapsulate.
I carried her cage back and forth every other weekend and cleaned it out
myself. Her song sounded a little like a car alarm. Mary Yang told me that only
boy birds sing, but I figured it was a bird and as long as it was caged up and
alone it didn’t really care one way or another what I called it.
Sometimes I would talk to Calliope in my room at night
because I couldn’t really tell Mom or Dad the things I was thinking. I had
friends, but the one-layered middle school variety of friends who you knew from
algebra or jazz band and you only ever talked to in algebra or jazz band. They
didn’t know one another, and they didn’t know about the other facets of my
life. I didn’t like my foods to touch.
With Calliope it was different. For one thing, I kept her in
a cage so she couldn’t go anywhere. She was a bird, so she couldn’t tell
anyone. And when she cocked her head and went quiet it felt like she was
listening for real, like she was sympathizing and understanding.
I told her about how embarrassing it was when the teacher
paired me and my crush Johnny Cochrane together for a science lab when I had a
bad breakout, or how I got my first period in second period and I had to be
sent home because I bled through my pants, or how Madison and Kayla were in a
huge fight and I couldn’t even say anything about it because they’d accuse me
of taking sides and then I’d be the bad guy to both of them somehow. I even
told Calliope about how Mom got a new boyfriend she thought I didn’t know
about, but how sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear
her with him doing it in her room. I
wondered if Dad knew she had moved on so fast. I wondered if he would, too.
It was pretty easy to talk to Calliope, and after a while
she started kind of cheeping back at me when I spoke like she was
commiserating. I tried to show Dad, once, and dragged him to my bedroom to show
that Calliope would talk to me, but she didn’t do it with him around. He said
something like, “If you wanted a bird that could talk, you should’ve bought a
When he left I turned to Calliope and gave her my meanest
I flopped onto my bed—less comfortable than the one at Mom’s but with a prettier comforter—and shut my eyes for a few minutes, breathing slow and deep to control myself. I felt like crying suddenly, even though there was no reason to. I didn’t want to cry, and that made it even harder not to.
Suddenly Calliope spoke, but this time it wasn’t just
“Don’t cry,” she said, and she said it with my voice.
I sat up straight, my eyes suddenly dry, and I opened my
mouth to respond, but all that came out was a meek little peep.
“It’s going to be alright,” Calliope said.
I tried to cry out and found myself singing her usual
“Open up my cage.”
And I did.
“Now open up your window.”
It was unnerving to watch her talk. She just slightly opened
her beak, and didn’t move it at all when the sounds of her speech changed. The
words flew out like they’d been recorded, and as I opened my window I cheeped
something to that effect.
“It won’t be for long, love,” she said, and suddenly I felt
my arms go cold and goose-pimpled.
“I’m going to fly away now,” she said. “And you’ll never see
me again. But you’ll have your voice back, and you should really use it to talk
to someone other than a bird.”
I twittered indignantly, and she cocked her head to the side
a little. “Really. You’re thirteen years old. Have some agency.”
And with that she took flight.
I twittered and cheeped and sang and called until my voice
became my own again, yelling, “Wait!”
But she was already out of my sight by then and there was
nothing else to do.
My father burst in
after a moment and took in the scene—the open window, the empty birdcage, the
wild, raw look in my eyes—and said, “Oh, honey,” and I ran into his arms and
We had a cat. She was oil-gushing, midnight-piercing,
charcoal-crumbling black, so we called her Black Cat. It was simple, really—no
debate or anything.
Sometimes we’d set fires in the backyard. We’d gather up all
the twigs in a pile, away from the uncut grass. Black Cat would sit and stare
at the fire all glassy-eyed, like she was waiting. Even when the ashes stopped
glowing, she’d stay there, watching.
That was how we found her in the first place. It was summer and the sky was stark and starless, and the grass was brown from weeks without a storm. They told us there was a wildfire advisory, so of course we had to set something ablaze. Everything caught just like we’d hoped, and after the smoke and the flare and the fizzle, we saw Black Cat just out of the reach of the light, with her eyes gleaming steady.
We watched her back, playing chicken to see who could go
longest without blinking. She won by mere seconds—once we both cracked, she
shut her eyes all slow and opened them back up real lazy-like. She followed us
into the house when our yawns told us it was curfew, and that was that.
We never saw her eat, but we knew she did. She was lithe,
all fur and bones, but when we’d leave out saucers of milk and little dishes of
chopped up meat, they’d be empty by morning—licked clean, even. She didn’t seem
to like to do a whole lot while we were watching, really. Anytime we were in
the room she’d just sort of stop whatever she was doing and curl up. She didn’t
even really meow.
She could purr something mighty, though, like a motorcycle
engine rumbling in her chest. Sometimes she’d sit in a little patch of sun on
the carpet and kind of buzz. Her eyes would always be open, looking right into
the light even though we told her it was bad for her vision. She wasn’t much of
a listener, that Black Cat.
She definitely didn’t like strangers. One time about a month
after she showed up, Mrs. Davenport from next door came over to check on us and
was asking all about where our parents had gone. We didn’t really want to tell
her the whole thing because we didn’t want her to call Child Services, but
lucky for us Black Cat was there and she jumped up and bit Mrs. Davenport right
on that wrinkly, flappy skin beneath her arms. We had to say all kinds of sorry
and pretend we were mad at Black Cat for show, but it got Mrs. Davenport to
leave and stop asking all her nosy questions pretty quick.
The fire we set that night was extra big. We even went out
in the woods behind Kevin Rothschild’s house and got some sassafras twigs
because he told us sassafras makes real nice-smelling smoke. We made a kind of
monster pile of twigs and grass and a few bigger sticks that had fallen down
the last time it had stormed—we weren’t so sure about cutting down trees
ourselves and anyway our axe was all busted off the handle so it wasn’t much
good for anything. We stacked it real tall until it kind of looked like it was
gonna fall over, and then we lit a match and threw it in. We didn’t realize
Black Cat was outside with us until she bounded over and hunched down real
close to the fire like she was gonna pounce on it. The flames were dancing in
her eyes, and she looked a little scary right then, real powerful, like a piece
of the night sky torn down and brought here to the earth.
The fire started to pop and hiss when the sassafras caught,
and Black Cat started her little buzz-purr-rumble so it was competing with the
fire. The wind started howling too and it was a kind of eerie little orchestra.
We both got goosebumps even with the fire crackling right there in front of us.
We remembered that one time before Mom left when she told us
that the night was not a thing to be trifled with. She always liked big words
like that, trifled. We knew she was
dead serious because her breath smelled like tequila. She only told the truth
when she was wasted.
Black Cat kept rumbling something awful, and we didn’t
realize it but we’d started shrinking together until our arms were wrapped
around each other tight. Black Cat was a feral creature and we couldn’t really
own her, we knew that now. She opened her mouth all wide and we could see the
little red stains on her teeth where they’d sunk into Mrs. Davenport’s arm
earlier. The fire made her tongue look orange.
The wind picked up some more and the fire got real tall all
of a sudden, and we wanted to move but were too scared to try it. Next door
Mrs. Davenport’s porch light flickered on.
The fire got bigger and bigger and Black Cat got louder and
louder and then there was a knock at the gate and everything all stopped. The
fire was just embers, and Black Cat was sitting there purring all quiet-like
and normal, with her mouth closed and her eyes just yellow-gold again.
We got up after a moment and went to the gate. It was Mrs.
Davenport and she insisted on coming into the yard because of course she did.
She was always kind of pesky, used to gossip to all the neighbors until they
realized she was talking about them behind their backs. Now she was kind of
lonely and sad, but still a real busybody with no sense of what was her
business and what wasn’t. She came right over to our fire pit and looked right
at it with a strange sort of grown-up contempt, the look they get when they
think they’re too good for fun things, and we felt something kind of like pity
until she opened up her thin little mouth.
“You kids have got to
get yourselves under control. Where are your parents? Where’s that deadbeat
mother of yours, that trucker father? What kind of people leave two rowdy boys
alone in a house like that?”
Those were exactly the kinds of questions we’d been asking
ourselves lately but it hit differently to hear her say them out loud. One of
us started crying. The other got all jumpy-nerved and tense.
We didn’t have anything to say and she wouldn’t soften just
looking at us. Kept muttering to herself as she started to stamp out our fire
with her big pink slippers.
“Stupid kids, bastard parents, what do you expect? You can’t
have a neighborhood with this kind of riff-raff running around all the time
setting fires, of all things.”
She was going and going and we were stuck still in place and Black Cat started rumbling again, loud like before. The wind joined her like they were duet partners and suddenly the fire caught up again. The tops of Mrs. Davenport’s slippers caught, and instead of kicking them off she just sort of yelped and bent down to beat at the flames with her hands. Black Cat leapt up and bit her again, right there in the face, purring all the while, and the fire grew and grew. Now we were both wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but we didn’t say a word as her blood dripped onto the twigs and the orange flames climbed her stupid bathrobe, her ridiculous papery skin. She might have been screaming but the wind carried it away.
The moon emerged from behind a cloud and the trees looked like they were dancing in the gale. We could hear the cicada hum now, and when the fire dipped down again Mrs. Davenport was nowhere to be seen, not even her bones. Black Cat sat licking her bloodied claws and an owl hooted somewhere close by. We pulled apart, looked at one another, looked at Mrs. Davenport’s flickering porch light, gaped at the sky full of stars. When we looked back down, Black Cat was gone, and she had taken the smell of the sassafras with her, leaving only green grass scent and the pines on the breeze.
I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.
You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it
came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you
with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was
that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like
accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped
showing up to parent functions.
So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your
fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to
reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but
shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door.
I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used
to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.
Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster
than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew
purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting
against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like
you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You
were always stubborn like that.
Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth
rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your
teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the
jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all
that was left of you.
They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I
made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by
worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals,
and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know
what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.
You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would,
because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you
stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I
held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were
always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped.
Sometimes I wonder if…
But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one
of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford
the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept
with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves
try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I
remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and
clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla.
I couldn’t cry.
But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it
wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted
glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body
belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I
froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt
down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the
Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer
opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it
burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.
It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it,
though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook
the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in
a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that
squirrel had your teeth.
I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the
squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the
night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little
mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and
I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because
that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and
now you are only a smile.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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.