The Tiger Flu
An excerpted chapter, The Starfish Groom, from Larissa Lai’s new novel.
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- Arsenal Pulp Press (2018)
- Excerpt from The Tiger Flu
- Reproduced with permission from the publisher.
- All rights reserved.
Author and Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary.
Grist Village (Fourth Quarantine Ring)
* * *
Node: Kernels Plump
Even if she is our last doubler, I don't want Auntie Radix to have Peristrophe Halliana's eyes. Auntie Radix already took Peristrophe Halliana's liver a week ago, and one of her kidneys four weeks before that. Auntie Radix says that it is the duty and nature of a starfish to give. I tell her it is the duty and nature of a doubler to know when to stop asking. Peristrophe Halliana and I have seen the new monsoons only nineteen times each. We are barely old enough to do what we do. Auntie Radix has been drenched by the rains forty-eight times. It should be her job to sacrifice for us, not the other way round. It's a good thing that memory is not a part of the body that can be cut out, or no doubt she would ask for Peristrophe Halliana's memory too.
I bite back my resentment. Radix Bupleuri is our queen, not to mention the eldest of the eighty-three sisters who live at Grist Village and a direct descendent of Grandma Chan Ling. She is well past a healthy age for child-bearing, but she is also our last doubler. With our death rates, we Grist sisters go the way of the dodo, unless she keeps birthing puppies. Yes, from her midnight egg space and—pop!—out her hoo, once plump and fresh, now floppy as an old sock. Still juicy to her young groom, who loves her. For me, nothing about her is juicy. Everything is duty. That means grit and grin, through every whim and tantrum.
I sigh. I clean then sharpen my knives on my precious whetstone. Don't you know that diamonds are a girl's best friend? We made the whetstone ourselves, crushed so many engagement rings from skeletons of the time before, six glass towers full of nice ladies, sweet so sweet. Purty, the scavenger Aunties tell me, purty as cover girl, wonderful wonder bra, guess? by george marciano.
Purty and thin as skin and bones. They had time to work off the weight. Time to rot, time to mummify. For every season there is a reason. Off their skinny dead fingers the scavenger Aunties took their diamonds. Crushed those doggies to a coarse salt and made me my whetstone. Now I smooth my blade, one, two, three. All that love from the time before rushes into my shiv.
That's the way the cookie crumbles, I tell my beloved Peristrophe Halliana, as I work my knives. Once they are good and sharp, I wipe them down with mother moonshine. We make it ourselves in clawfoot tubs from the time before. With potatoes cropped from our own fields, you know, Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? We pretty maids, we Sisters Grist, some call us tub puppets, fuck moppets, matchstick monkeys. Who cares? We will outlive them all, in beds of our own making.
Peristrophe Halliana sips six slugs of mother moonshine infused with forget-me-do. I wipe down the last blade with a seventh. Then the flame, hot so hot. My precious Bunsen burner salvaged from the very lab where Grandma Chan Ling was made, in old Saltwater Town, the ruin that somehow keeps on being a city. All railway tracks, mouldy stucco, and tarnished glass skyscrapers. All rain, mud, bedbugs, and rodentia. Rock-a-bye baby, in the cradle of civilization. Not that I've ever been there, but my mother double teaches me all the songs and all the history she remembers.
Thinking about the filth of Saltwater City makes me will my knives super clean. Pour more vodka in to burn baby learn. I'm being followed by a moonshine shadow. Peristrophe Halliana is prone to infection. The cutting might be no big deal, but healing's a bitch. So knives must shimmer clean, a lean mean clean. I mean, sparkle, twinkle like the lemon muscle man from the time before. Clean as mister. Even though the mistresses are master here.
The first cut is the sleekest. At the corner of the eye, at the zygomatic process, where the top of the skull attaches to the side of the head. I know my bones. My mother double taught me well. Foot bone connected to the heel bone. Heel bone connected to the ankle bone. Peristrophe Halliana sighs a sleepy sigh of pleasure-pain. I move my fingers beneath her eyeball, the tiniest blade concealed between middle and index. Nudge it out and softly slice the root. She groans. I tug at the globe, and it releases with a gentle squelch and click.
"Those are pearls that were her eyes," I sing as blood gushes from her left socket. I cinch it shut, and suture with my finest lichen fibre thread. From her right eye, she gazes at me with love.
I give her another couple of slugs of mother moonshine. Then, careful so careful, I work my blade on the right. Again, the root. Another squelch, another click. How can Peristrophe have so much blood in her head? I staunch the flow with mushroom gauze, press into the wound until the hot pulse of blood subsides. I stitch her up quick.
As I prepare my knives, I rant the chant the grannies gave me, the one that Grandma Chan Ling heard from the dirt, so long ago. My mother double, Glorybind Groundsel, smoking medicinal marijuana in the old rosewood pipe she inherited from Grandma Chan Ling herself, chants with me to make sure I get the words right. She teaches me my genealogy. You know, like, where we came from. What we're here for. "You must hold these things, Kirilow," she tells me. "We hold all that remains of the old world's knowledge in our raw brains. That means we need to be extra smart."
She teaches me how to be a good groom to my beloved Peristrophe Halliana, the last starfish among us, the last giver. It isn't easy, you know—to have and to hold, to kiss and to cut. Slit sluts, that's what they call us in Saltwater City. I'm not ignorant, I know what they say. It's why they expelled our grannies eighty years ago. For having and holding. For slicing and stitching. What did they expect from us anyhow? That they could keep making us again and again and again and again? Bust us from their greasy bottles like so many cheap gene genies? As if.
Grandma Chan Ling invented the partho pop, you know, how we egg ourselves along—I mean, the long, lizardy love of the Grist sisters. We split, we slit, we heal, we groom, self-mutated beyond the know-how of the clone company Jemini that spawned us, and the HöST scale and microchip factories that bought our grannies to work for them. But there are flaws in our limited DNA—the DNA of just one woman. We mutate for better and worse, for sickness and health. But more for sickness and worse. Only our starfish can save us, by regrowing whatever grooms like me cut out of them. Grandma Chan Ling invented the kiss cut, the repair job—what do you say? The fix, the patch. The first starfish gave her liver, her kidneys, and, at last, her red-hot heart to the first doubler. And so it was, in the beginning.
I chant loud as I can to push down the dread that roils in my belly:
Our mother of milk and mildew
Our mother of dirt
Our mother of songs and sighing
Our mother of elk
Blessed are the sheep
And blessed are the roses
Blessed are the tigers
Wind, bones, and onion flowers
We remember you and we remember rain
We remember mushrooms holding the globe in their mycorrhizal net
We remember dust
We remember meat
We remember fibre in its weave and fibre in its weft
The shifting and wobbling of the intentional earth
After we escaped the sister factories of Saltwater City, Grandma Chan Ling herself doctored it all. Our great progenitress—not only the first doubler but also the first groom, inventor of the loving transplant, the sexy suture. It feels good, you know, don't doubt it. We mutated the first forget-me-do, not that Isabelle Chow, not those Saltwater killers who claim it for who knows what new wickedness. Forget-me-do makes you feel pain as pleasure. It takes away all memory and feeling of pain, leaves nothing but a craving to be cut again. We cultivated it for the sisterly insertion and the doublers return, two holy ways for one to become two.
Larissa Lai is the author of The Tiger Flu, Salt Fish Girl and five other books. Recipient of an Astraea Award and finalist for seven more, she holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary and directs The Insurgent Architects' House for Creative Writing there. View full bio
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