Dinner was special. The candles were miraculous, emanating a light that went oozing into pores, piercing into strands of hair, that found its way inside the thin glass of the champagne flutes, the rough, quartzy crystal of the punch bowl. Nothing glittered, nothing sparkled, nothing shone. Everything glowed, everything throbbed. The other guests did not smile, but they radiated pulses of tender heat in her direction, until her cheeks were mottled red. Each course in the banquet had an aura that hung heavily over the platter, like steam weighed down with rich globules of grease, thick particles of oily light.
She swallowed the wine that paused in her mouth, clung there, spreading itself. She swallowed the black soup: thin, sour broth swimming with clots that trailed delicate filaments. She swallowed the tempura of cobra lily, and, inside its cup, the pale, limp moth that seemed to sigh and dissolve on her tongue. When the songbirds were served, her gracious companion, sensing her confusion, placed a steadying hand on the back of her neck and guided her head under the starched napkin. She ate the scorching meat, needled with tiny bones her teeth had splintered. She felt little ruptures where they scratched her throat. Her companion was missing the fifth and second fingertips of his right hand, the entire middle finger of his left. Bluntly, blindly, fondly, the stubs knocked against her skin. The manservant brought the baby octopi in shallow bowls filled with, her host informed the company, vibrio fischeri, which sent a pale gold-green luminescence throughout the water. She dipped an octopus in the spicy sauce and trapped it lightly between her teeth. Its small heavings and sucks brushed against the pads of her cheeks like tiny kisses. She kissed back.
The main course was a roast: mild, slightly stringy. Sweet bursts of fat jetted from the sinews as she chewed. The light in the room was so dense it oppressed her; she could barely see through it. Food filled her stomach like air in a balloon; the heavier she grew, the higher above her chair she seemed to float. Her solicitous companion murmured an inquiry; it was decided they would leave before the dessert. She deposited her hand in that of her host. Rivulets of sweat trickled through the plump seams in his palm. He twinkled and beamed at her with his eye; the side of his face where the eye patch adhered remained stolid. In the car, she sniffed at her fingers, still slick from her host’s farewell; they smelled like earth freshly turned over: fresh, rich, heady. The smell seemed to cleanse her palate: her eyelids spasmed in the bottomless night; her stomach wrenched in sudden appetite.
• • • •
In the morning she woke with a head that felt stuffed with cement, cracking and crumbling against the inside of her skull in jagged pressure. Her bedroom was narrow and spare, the walls shrunk tight around the heat that came shrieking and spitting from the iron radiator. She scrabbled frantically at the window; it screeched open in a flurry of dirty paint chips, and the air shoved in, knocking her aside, gnashing at her shrinking skin. She sank down, flinching at the grit that bit her legs and hands, and entered her stretches. Inflexible, she tore tentatively at her muscles, lunging forward with shallow gasps. Compelling her forehead to the floor, she felt frustration lash up her spine and stab the back of her neck like a handcuff snickering tight around her straining.
The bathroom smelled strongly of the new plastic shower curtain. She brushed with her lips pursed around the handle of the toothbrush, preventing the froth from running out over her chin. Her skin was getting worse. Her face, which at sixteen had been so pure and watertight, was at thirty-three beginning to boil and leak. Her virginity, which had been withered, dry, and hard, was beginning to rot and extrude. Like a 1,000-year-old egg, it had softened, become pungent, delicious, disgusting. She tapped against her pubis with one finger. She flattened her palm against her stomach. “Somewhere in there,” she said, “like a little dead baby.”
She hobbled out in her matted pink robe, cleared the table of its ketchup-caked refuse, cooked three strips of bacon, which she ate with the fat still gelatinous and slightly cool. Her professional wardrobe was consistent: slacks, with leggings underneath to intervene against the scratch of the wool; a cardigan; another cardigan.
On the bus she leaned her head against the window so the jolts of the motor and the road chattered her teeth together. She tried to give up her seat to an expecting mother, but the woman didn’t want to sit there. When she entered her cubicle there was an unfamiliar odor: creamy, sweet, powdery. Later in the day she could only smell it by whirling her head suddenly to the side. Her new colleague across the aisle caught her doing it and laughed. He had laughed the day before, too, at her dispersal of pillows: one on the seat of her folding chair, one at her back, two under her feet, one on her desk for her elbow to rest on. He had a gaping laugh, this new colleague, she could see the hole at the back of his mouth, he opened that wide. It was delightful. She thought of smiling at him, but resisted. Her smile, she knew, was crooked: it had a forced quality. Nonetheless, pleasure rocked through her in slow waves at the trust implicit in her new colleague’s exposed gullet. She settled for beaming at him with quiet kindliness. When she swung around, she checked her beam in her little round mirror. There was a grimness to it, in the set of the jaw, but something in the eyes, she thought, that was accurate.
Her elegant companion invited her to accompany him to the grocery store, and she accepted. “Dress warmly,” he counseled. He drove for hours in the dark, the headlights spinning uncertainly off the broken curbs, the sharp teeth of the stoops, the strobing telephone poles. The supermarket was in a bad neighborhood, but vast, swallowing several city blocks. Homeless were encamped at the intersections of the aisles. They each took a cart and moved quickly to the meat department, looking neither left nor right. The meat department was a gargantuan walk-in refrigerator: the space so enormous and the cold mist so dense that she could not see from one wall to the opposite. They did not leave each other’s sides. They did not speak or touch. They filled their carts: chicken, goat, bear, salmon, pork, lamb, conch, squab, rabbit, shark, beef, veal, turkey, eel, venison, duck, mussels, ostrich, frogs, pheasant, squirrel, seal. Tripe, kidneys, liver, tongue, and brains. She suggested the purchase of some lemons and marinade; he reproved her cordially.
She helped him load the boxes into the service elevator of his building; then he drove her home. Outside the door of her apartment, probing her bag for her key, she discovered he had slipped in a small package of pancreas sweetbreads: a token. She tucked it beneath her pillow and dreamt all night of the beating of her heart.
The new colleague sat at her table in the company cafeteria. She had a Ziploc bag of cold shrimps, while he had brought a Tupperware of deviled eggs, each half in its own hollow of molded plastic, which he ate by forking out the middles, then peeling off cool white wedges of the whites.
The new colleague had been transferred from a branch of the firm located in another state. He described himself as “corn-fed.” Moving to the city had not been as difficult as he had anticipated. There were lots of ways to meet people. He had joined a church choir and was taking a photography course. The first half had dealt with still lifes; the second was on snapshots. He produced a picture he had taken of her in her cubicle. She looked as if the flash of the camera had struck her across the face. It was flattering. She wished she had known it was happening. “It’s out of focus,” she said. He smiled. He said, “That’s artistic.”
“Are you a good singer?” she asked. He used to be incredible, he said, before his voice changed. It had been his whole life. It had given him a kind of spiritual mission, as a kid. He was a very mature child. He felt he had been charged with something. After his voice changed, he felt neither release nor despondency. At that point, he stopped considering things like blessings and missions. He became childlike; he lost the habit of thinking much about himself or the things that happened to him. “What about now?” she said. “Do you wish you had become a castrato?” Behind his tongue, his throat was roseate, and the flesh there jerked with his laughter.
When at the conclusion of the meal she folded her Ziploc bag, sealing in the salty film of pink water, and began to rise, he forestalled her, and took her garbage with his to the trash receptacle. She did not reflect on the contact their hands had made during the exchange until, late that afternoon, she noticed him scratching feverishly at a rash that had swollen across the range of his knuckles. She wished she had remembered beforehand to think of it.
• • • •
The door of her apartment shuddered with the force of the knocking of her illustrious companion. When she flung it open, he staggered in, holding up his right hand. The tip of his index finger was flapping there on a strap of skin. In his left hand was a plastic grocery bag. “Take it off!” he said, in a voice admirably controlled, if keen in pitch. She got him into a chair at the kitchen table, and placing a skillet under his hand to catch the blood, snipped off the fingertip with her nail scissors. She swathed the stump in toilet paper and tied dental floss tightly around the base of the finger to stop the bleeding. He whistled in relief, and pulled a rueful face. He lit a cigarette, picked up the grocery bag from the floor beside his chair, and jiggled it merrily in the air. “Would you care to dine with me this evening?” he inquired.
She set the table while he busied himself at the stove. He had removed his tuxedo jacket and tucked a dishtowel into his collar to protect the pique bib of his shirt. While his back was to her, she glanced covertly around the apartment. But everything seemed to be in place: the sag of the couch springs had a decadent grace, like a courtesan in the half-swoon that succeeds a debauch; the buzz of the fluorescents was textured and complex, a Gregorian plainchant heard from across a great distance. Water stains undulated across the ceiling, like tentacles of a translucent sea-monster half glimpsed through immense currents. The smell from the cooking wove an intricate web from wall to wall; she felt it smothering against her nose and mouth, rich with the scents of ingredients that surely were absent: zedoary, fenugreek, frankincense.
He brought the skillet to the table to ladle the meal, still bubbling, into their bowls. Without ceremony, but gravely, he maneuvered the digit into her portion. Her genteel companion had extracted the nail, or it had dissolved. She speared the tines of her fork through the nailbed, and ran her tongue across the pattern of lines on the pad of the finger. She inserted the portion into her mouth and sucked off the dark, congealing stew. Her companion’s breaths were audible and steady. She removed the part and considered its form, then inserted it again and began, with small strokes of her incisors, to shuck the nugget of flesh from the bone. There was not much meat there, but once she had it all behind her lips, it seemed to fill the space of her mouth. It tasted like her tongue, her gums, her cheeks. She was nervous to chew; she was afraid to bite down on her own tissue. She swallowed it whole. The rest of the stew had the taste that had been drained from the finger: savory, ripe, and plummy.
Her companion, always immaculate, kissed her hand at the door. “Your hospitality,” he purred, “such a gift.” She said, “Thank you for dinner.” “Leftovers are in the fridge,” he smiled, and backed out into the oblivion of the unlit hallway.
In the middle of the night she woke and stumbled clumsily toward the kitchen. The smoke from the cooking still curtained the windows, gagging the weak light of the streetlamps. She forgot in her haste the jut of the walls, the menacing corner of her bookcase. She poured the remains of their supper into a half dozen mugs and bore them on a tray into her bedroom. She drank them off in the dark, propped on her pillows, then dreamed she was inside the stomach of a whale.
Her skin was much worse: abraded, blistered, mucid, rubicund. Her eyelids were swollen and tears of pus welled up in the depths of the sockets. Her chest was hot as if sunburned; when she pushed her hand against the breastbone the imprint did not fade away for some minutes. During her stretches, bending over at the waist, she could fill the satiny slithering of her organs over each other, the horrible pappy give of them. The putrifecation of her virginity shocked her with its rapacity and virulence. Her hair was broken and thin. It floated in the air, repelled by the electric charge of her damp scalp.
The fever was constant and she fed on the extra degrees. She was bright and alert and vibrating. She took measures. She packed the bathtub with ice and slept in there one night. When she awoke, the swelling around her eyes had shrunken, her face and chest were pale, she was hard and smooth and cold inside and out. She was tremulous with gratitude. But the thawing nearly crippled her. She had to leave work early, as much so that her new colleague across the aisle would not actually hear the sharp cracking and rending in the marrows of her bones, as because of the savagery with which the molten brimstone of her decay attacked the frozen blocks of her limbs.
She began swimming, trusting that she was not infectious, visiting the heavily chlorinated YWCA pool at senior citizens’ hour, in enormous goggles and a latex swim cap. The chemicals in the water helped her face. She submerged and held still, and could see the bubbles race up from her cheeks and chin, hear the hypochlorous acid hissing against her skin. Her complexion lost its rawness, though it was still pitted, and the skin now flaked away in fragile, dusty layers. Inside, though, she continued to rot away.
At last she began swimming in the city bay at night, naked. The water was syrupy, warm, stinking, and crowded with objects she did not identify, which nudged her meekly, skimmed along the side of her body, and were dragged on and out by the slow, mild movements of the sea. She floated face down or up, legs and arms open, and felt the sludge of the bay flush in and out of her. She rocked calmly in the wake of garbage tugs or police speedboats. She didn’t know if the high toxicity of the bay really had killed her virginity once and for all, or if the organic soup of the water, crowded with things living and dead, had simply calmed its hunger, given it to feed. Whatever the case, her fever dropped, her blood thickened and slowed, her organs grew leathery and dense, her pustules shrank into her pores. The only stain the water left on her was a distinctive smell, salty and dark, that plucked constantly at her hunger; and a dull, muddy smear, like a skin, that covered the orbs of her eyes.
• • • •
Her charming companion invited her to a gathering of intimates, something special and private, he said. She was to wash her hands and wear old clothes. He drove. The headlights poured out like floodwaters submerging a condemned city. They arrived at their destination in no time at all.
She was happy to revisit the home of her amiable host, though the dining hall was not suffused with radiance on this occasion, and the atmosphere did not bewilder her with scents that choked the air. Nonetheless, she was struck anew by the welcome implicit in the cavernous chambers, which never threw her footsteps back at her in repulsing echo, but muffled sound in their embrace, opening gladly to her ingress and to that of her astonishing companion. The smell of her host—storm-soaked sediment, shrinking fungi, nacreous gastropods—trembled shyly in her nostrils.
In neat array around the empty banquet table, the other guests awaited their arrival. They too were dressed shabbily, in torn jerseys, paint-stained singlets. Again they did not smile, but she felt their geniality drift warmly over her, tickling her hair. She took a seat beside her magnificent companion, and on that cue the great doors opened for the manservant, wheeling in his late employer on a gurney sumptuously draped.
Her host was thickly glazed with pomegranate sauce, and flushed livid from the boiler, and legless, but otherwise was all she had remembered—massive, calm, beatific. An affectionate drone, a deep, low appreciation, rose from the company. A tall, angular woman, drenched in hair, rose to speak. “Loving,” the woman pronounced. “Inspired, messianic, but gentle. Always with us,” said the woman, “a comfort and a rare delight.” The guests touched each other’s wrists and shoulders with whispering care. The manservant, reverential, slid his employer’s corpse from the gurney to the table. The bounteousness of the body of her host brought a part of him within easy reach of each pair of tender hands.
The guest to her left noted her hesitation and leaned in, sharp, wry, and twinkling. “Don’t hold back,” the guest advised. “It’s our gift to him.” She asked, “And his gift to us?” “Oh, particularly that,” crooned the guest. “When I knew that I was going to lose my baby before term, I came straight here. You can’t imagine what it did for me, all my dear friends taking in the little half-body, holding him in the warmth of their mouths, giving him sanctuary. My part in it was an act of necessity, of course. Getting him back where he belonged. He was always part of me. But our friends, our host. Ah, our host,” sighed the guest. “He wasn’t tasty, you know, my baby boy. He was raw, immature, flaccid, an inharmonic composition. But now I think I can taste him in our host, completed, ripened. A small fresh note, like a little pocket of lavender snuggled in among the fat of the flank here. Can’t you taste it? Ah, our host. He gives and gives.”
She reached out and, digging her nails into the crease of her host’s breast, tore a tendril from the body. “Be sure to chew,” the guest prompted anxiously. She chewed. Her host smiled inside her mouth. “He’s delicious,” she said.
“Ah, he’s delicious,” hummed the guest. With a hurried flick of the tongue, the guest caught a rivulet of their host where he was racing from wrist to elbow. “He always ate for this moment,” said the guest. “He primed himself for us. Such munificence!” said the guest. “Such benevolence!”
When the funeral was complete, the host was a tattered thing, and the guests were smeared with sauce and peppered with black flakes of charring from the skin. Sated, exhausted, elated, and mournful, they reflectively sucked the fibers of flesh caught between their teeth.
This time her regal companion had the honor of taking her into the parlor for coffee and dessert. A Black Forest cake was served, the host’s favorite confection.
Coming late into the company cafeteria, she joined the new colleague for lunch. She had just purchased a stout block of shrink-wrapped foie gras; he had arranged the ingredients of his meal on an unfolded square of butcher paper, and was spreading tuna salad on crackers, crowned with thin wafers he cut off a radish. He drew her attention to the sores on her mouth. A new nervous habit, she explained. Her lips were shredded and mangled with teeth marks. It must happen during sleep, her colleague suggested. He had never seen her do it at her desk.
His photography course was proceeding well; he spread out on the table the latest additions to his series of portraits of her. Undoubtedly, she was losing weight. The hinge of her jaw protruded with a truculent insistence; her shoulders were mean, angry splinters that snagged at her sweater. Her posture was impeccable: paralyzed. “Missing—Have You Seen This Woman?” she said.
Her new colleague sputtered with glee and cut cleanly through his radish and into the ball of his hand. He coughed in surprise. The blood beaded and hopped on the waxed paper, like spit on a griddle. She moved quickly over to his bench, and secured his wrist in an efficient grip, and sucked at the cut.
“Oh, my god!” said her new colleague. “Please stop that!”
“What?” she said. “I just thought, the radish juice, I thought it might sting.”
“Well,” said her colleague, “that’s thoughtful, but I really can’t ask you to do that. You’re too kind!” he said, laughing and shaking his head.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I would want someone to do it, to help me, in a similar situation. Look,” she said, picking up his paring knife and drawing it cleanly down. She held her palm up to the ceiling and tilted her arm so the flow ran neatly into her sleeve. “You can make it up to me,” she said. She maneuvered awkwardly to bring her hand to mouth-level without dripping blood on the tan slacks of her colleague.
“No!” he said. “I’m getting the first-aid kit. Just hang on!” he said. “Keep your hand elevated.”
Sadly, she considered the wastage of her blood, soaking through the acrylic of her cardigan onto the tile floor. Her colleague wasn’t returning with first aid, and finally she sealed her lips over her palm and began nursing the wound. Her blood was better than his: strong, fermented, with a bitter, gritty strength and a distant note of figs and honey. His was sour, with a pickled sharpness like cut grass; a stale dustiness, like a glass of water left all night on the bedside table; and a slick coolness, like broken glass. Hers numbed the flat of the tongue, like strong tea; it stroked the inside of the esophagus, like horehound syrup; it moved in the stomach, she could feel it stroking the walls, coaxing her hunger. She took the afternoon off and went home to eat.
She returned repeatedly to the supermarket in search of her distinguished companion. At last he strolled in, urbane, guiding his shopping cart with the tips of his fingers, light, tasteful intimations of pressure. At the sight of her his face broke apart in amazed enchantment. Beside him was a young girl, still plump, with stippled indigo circles sagging ponderous under her eyes. “Am I interrupting?” she said. “My dear,” replied her companion, throatily, “what a question.” He leaned forward to kiss her cheek; she felt his busy sniffing at her neck. He retracted from her, his profile pivoting this way and that as he searched the air. “Child,” said her courtly companion, “have you been plundering your harvest? You have been dining in?”
“Once,” she said, “twice, three times. I wanted to see if I was tasty. I am,” she said, “ambrosial. I wanted to know if it would be an insult to offer—”
“This?” said her lustrous companion, running his fingernail across the zipper of her handbag. She scrabbled briefly, it was wedged between her change purse and her date book, but at last she produced it without embarrassment, with a cold dignity, the item crumpled in cling wrap, a pasty purple, bruised and browning at the edges. “Hymenaeus,” said her companion, warming it between his hands. “The son of Aphrodite.” His smile tumbled over her, eager and youthful; she had to brace herself against the weight of it. “You have made your decision?” asked her devoted companion. “This is something that would never have been asked of you.”
She put it to him: wasn’t it true that her rapacious and unremitting hunger was fueled by her feeding? Was it not the case that, having been devoured, she would be full? “Little wendigo,” said her refulgent companion, “it is so. For a time, indeed.”
Her companion had counseled her to eat, but she would not eat. He came to her apartment bearing gifts: a shapely thigh, a breast fulsome with milk, a smoky, musky phallus; but she merely measured off frugal doses of her blood with a syringe and dispensed them gingerly into the plastic tops of cough syrup bottles, marked off in tablespoons. In the gray, silken evenings they sat comfortably on her couch and sipped in companionable silence. She asked whether her blood did not give him the hungers, but that, he said, was what he liked it for. Disrobing with supple tact, her considerate companion displayed the sliced planes of his buttocks, the half-moons where his torso had been spooned out like a melon. She inquired why it was their fellows had so far declined with gratitude the offering of her own parts. “You’re still such a virgin, little one,” said her loyal companion. She pinned him with sharp eyes. “The flesh eaten still on the living body,” he told her, “there is the union.” “Your finger, our host, my hymen?” she asked. “Fellatios, my sweet,” lisped her companion. She eyed the swell of his forearm with avarice, the muscles coiled in knots under his slippery shirt. “Not me, my darling,” he said, and lifted his remaining finger to tick-tock through the air in drowsy admonishment. “You make your own way; then you come home.”
She turned and looked full into the stutter of the camera of her colleague. He berated her. “That’s not spontaneous!” He insisted that the project set for the class was for the photographer to be the hunter, and the subject the prey. That made it edgy. “Oh,” she said, “you’re not hunting; you’re farming. Picking off creatures grazing at pasture, dull in contemplation.” She struck a candid pose, lips slightly agape, eyes askew, her expression garbled, transparent and opaque, like a muddy pond. He was discontent. If she stalked the camera, he reasoned, if she had him in her sights, while he had her in his, that skewed the terms of the assignment. “True,” she conceded, “that’s not hunting,” she said; “that’s war.” He snapped her picture. “Caught you!” her new colleague crowed. “Let’s eat,” she proposed. She had forgotten to pack a meal, so he accompanied her through the lunch line, selecting a Charlotte of Bavarian creme and ladyfingers, while she consumed a Manwich.
She escorted her exquisite companion to the city bay where they sat on the dock, shoes off and pants rolled to the knees, smiling at the disparity of their feet in the water, hers crumpled and dented and damp from her pumps, his slender, prosthetic, dove-gray. The bats in the twilight were reckless and extraordinary; the seagulls had hidden themselves but called out fierce and lonesome, like the whistles of locomotives skating across the track of the tremulous far horizon. They had purchased small waxed envelopes of sweet, crispy nuts. She swallowed hers nearly whole, while he chewed his bites minutely and spat them out in neat piles on the gravel shore.
Her companion was wistful. The fine engraving of his face looked stony and the quizzical glances and debonair moues by which she knew him seemed painful to execute. She reached in experiment to probe the softness of his cheek and he winced, a tremor of delectable fineness and subtlety.
“Melancholy,” her companion apologized, “a disease not commonly recognized as having its origins in exposure to freshness of air. I am so little accustomed to the pathos of the junction of the land and the sea.”
He was sorrowful, wondering, his chin tucked into the refuge of his collar, his cowlick sprouting in the salt spray like that of a small boy.
“Don’t,” he chastised her, “feel maternal. You can’t imagine the monsters in those deeps. That is so much more dangerous.”
“More dangerous than this?”
“There’s little danger here.”
“Is our safety so assured?”
“Au contraire.” He was amused again, his mouth twisting and curling to savor the joke. “It is our downfall that’s reliable.”
She was comforted. She wedged herself against him, and he allowed this, though she could feel the warmth on her shoulder where a suture on his breast had wrenched open with the nesting of her weight. The bats were sucked upward into the sky, caught by the magnetic pull of the stars, and the mosquitoes rushed in, enveloping the happy couple, and falling in quivering piles to the dock, all around them.
She woke at the first stain of sunlight on the face of the sky and slithered to the floor to enter her stretches. They came more easily now that her muscles were drained and limp and she laid her cheek between her legs against the floorboards and sniffed the old gasoline smell of the paint; the gamy traces of her footsteps; a cloying, pulpy odor of breakfast in the apartment below. In the bathroom, she brushed her teeth, tilting her chin back to cup the toothpaste in her mouth, staring down her nose at the mirror. This gave her an accusing look. She made a kind, understanding face that returned to her as a nauseous leer. She giggled. In the shower she ran the water so hot it nearly melted the glue that held her skin to her substructure. Her flesh slipped dangerously over its ligaments. “Oops,” she said.
She had recently treated herself to a French press and, swaddled luxuriously in her old pink robe, she tipped in the beans she’d ground the night before, and punished them with water at a rapid boil. Setting the egg timer to four-and-a-half minutes, she dressed for work: leggings, slacks, two cardigans. She relaxed at the table with granola and berries, slapping back the unfurled and flapping wings of the newspaper. A merry little robin perched on her windowsill, stabbing with its beak at its reflection in the pane.
At work she attacked the keys of her calculator with especial vivacity, tapping her rhythm into the brain of her new colleague. She broke a light sweat, and several pencil leads. The chalky scent of her perspiration, buoyed on a cloud of lily-pale eau de toilette, made its way across the aisle. Her hair was hectic with static. She kept her best three-quarters profile toward the door of her cubicle, and never looked round.
Her colleague invited her to an after-work aperitif. He had a Bloody Mary; she enjoyed a Cinzano. His photography course was finished; he would move on to sculpture in just a few weeks. He displayed the final array of photographs on the tabletop. There she was, blinking, flinching in all her poses. “You see,” he chortled, “it was better when you didn’t know I was taking them. You came at the camera,” he said, gesticulating, “in a flurry of fear. It was kinder, after all, to take you unaware.” She concurred with her new colleague.
He fell asleep with the lights on. If the patchwork of her body, the scars of old decay, the faint sifting and rattling sounds of shriveled things within her, had worried him, he hadn’t shown it, and she would now require the illumination for precision. She had discovered that the area least sensitive to touch was likely to be the back of the shoulders. She inserted the point just above his scapula, turning the flat of the blade parallel to his skin, and cut two sides of a small triangle. Without completing the figure, she lifted the flap, hovering above him in an unwieldy posture, propped on her knuckles, and chewed the skin. She was careful not to sever it, as she did not want to have to cut another piece. The living, she noted, did not have as much taste as the dead. He was tough and elastic. And she could feel the muscles shrinking away from the grind of her teeth. When she had at last reduced the flesh to a small, spongy lump, sticky but bloodless, she yanked it off—he snorted slightly—dropped it in the trash can, wrapped in a tissue; drank a glass of water in the crackling light of the bathroom; dabbed on a touch of lipstick; and locked the door behind her as she went.
She had never eaten so well in her life. They brought her sweet, sticky rice; curried cauliflower delirious with coconut milk; jungles of spaghetti, mired in Alfredo sauce; pinto-bean chili black with molasses. For a long time she would not touch meat, not trusting the source, but then they began to carry in animals roasted whole: a suckling pig, turned on a spit; an infant lamb in a roasting pan, its hooves tucked in trustingly; turkeys spilling out oysters; crabs crusted in ethereal salt; and these she felt safe in consuming. She promised she would sit very still, so they cuffed her only by one foot; and she kept her word, burrowed in somnolent complacence in her featherbed, in an endless drowse, basting herself for her banquet. She was stupefied, seduced, but she knew herself to be tempting, was confident their mouths would water for her. She waited, and every day she grew more ardent.
She had little idea of the passage of time, and when the temperature in her cell began to rise she wondered if summer was finally upon them and if they were saving her, perhaps, for a midsummer feast. The intensification of the heat was, however, accompanied by great commotion in the hall, by the repeated jostling of doors and the thumping of wheels over uneven ground, by the smell of outdoors, lichen and bark and wood sap, and finally, it came to her, a far-away rushing sound, a flickering, hissing, panting growl, like the anger of the surf.
To her beautiful companion, who came every day to see her, she said, “Something is not right.”
Her companion asked if she was weary of waiting. He had lost his nose, and his face, always a ravishment, was now even more moving to her, a stately ruin sliding down the cliff of his skull to the sea beneath. She denied his imputation. She was eager, she said, but not weary. She would do whatever was necessary to be most pleasing to the company. “Only,” she said, “they have built a fire.”
Her faithful companion assented to this conjecture. “A very large one,” he said, “they began it in the dining hall, with the banquet-table, and they have been piling wood on for days.”
“I thought,” she faltered, “that I was not to have been slaughtered first.”
Her companion considered the suave line of his shoe. He tugged sadly at the scraps of his earlobe. At last he said, “You are not held to be quite delicious enough for that.”
“No?” she said.
“Lamentably not,” said her doting companion. “I consider it a piece of great foolishness.”
“You would have eaten me alive?” she beseeched him.
“Oh,” said her companion, “I fear it must be acknowledged that I would not have been able to eat you at all.”
Blackout curtains covered the windows, but she could hear the hammering of the rain against the glass, like a mob of useless fists. “Please help me,” she said.
Her loving companion held her hands between the butts of his wrists. He smiled down at her. “I can’t help you,” he said, “but I won’t hinder you.” And then he took his leave.
She heaved her body from the bed to the floor. The manacle, she discovered, could slide some distance up her leg, but could not be made by any contortion to allow her foot to slip through. Bending her leg at the knee, she grasped her toes with both hands, and stretched forward. The skin at her ankle was tender, and she was not prepared for the juice that shot out and battered the back of her throat in an insistent stream. After her long recumbence, the muscle was creamy and fine. She nibbled all around, using her nails to tear at the meat on the far opposite side of the limb, and flexed her jaw for the bone. But this shattered in her mouth, releasing a puff of powder that mingled unpleasantly with the red paste of the marrow. With the elimination of the foot, the manacle clanked to the ground. Staunching the bleeding took time, however, and she endured this impatiently. At last she was able to lurch to the door of her cell, and propping her body against the wall, to heave it open.
The guests were garlanding the dining-hall fire with armfuls of flowers; burning petals drifted in the air. The thin crystal flutes they held glowed with the champagne inside them, like pale coals. The long limbs of the women waved gracefully in greeting; the men bobbed their heads at her with rough affection. Her own companion was not among them. Across the room, beside the door, the eyes of the manservant were black in the black smoke. She hobbled in his direction. At this movement, a cheer went up, and the guests began applauding. The champagne slapped the sides of the flutes in cheerful chimes and the celebration lashed across the room, and all the company danced in a great spiral, like a whirlpool sucking through the house. The eyes of the guests were brilliant, adoring; their faces were tilted up, innocent, anticipatory, as if to be kissed. Their delirium raised a dazzling bright wind in the hall: she breathed it in: odorless; swallowed it: tasteless; trapped it in her lungs, where it disappeared, weightless. She stood on her leg and observed the guests as, fingers interlaced, hair tangled together, their breaths muddling in each other’s mouths, their exultant cries in each other’s ears, they danced and danced. She saw that in an instant the floor would collapse beneath the force of their joy and their affection for her.
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