If sea bass ate humans
Reading Time: 3 minutes
"If sea bass ate humans" originally appeared in Issue 21 of Tahoma Literary Review. I've read Zhang's work in other literary magazines and was excited to publish this piece––a prime example of her vivid, surreal writing––which prompts us to think about the food we eat and wonder: who will devour whom?
Max told her that sea bass ate humans, that was why their mouths were armed with bands of teeth. As Max stood in line to select a piece of salmon from the slabs stacked on a bed of ice, she shied away from the murky tanks crammed with black-grey fish. One fish was slumped at the bottom of the tank, its gill flaps opening and closing, filaments diffusing what little oxygen remained in the sealed enclosure. You have to watch out for those, the desperate ones, Max said. Max was like that, never said anything outright, expected his intentions to be obvious. Which was fine to her, since she much preferred communication through the osmosis of thoughts. How are they supposed to eat us? Won’t they die on land? She asked. Max pointed to the salmon at the back of the counter whose eye bulged like a fat pearl; the butcher grabbed it by its tail and slapped it onto a metal scale. You never know, they can last a few minutes on land, might do crazy things before they kick the bucket. The butcher sliced the head and tail off the salmon, scraped away its scales, sprayed the meat down with a shower-like nozzle, then slid the chunks into a plastic bag and handed it to Max. How can they eat us if we eat them? She asked. Max could put an entire fish head in his mouth and all that’d come back out would be the bones—not even all of the bones, he’d chew through the thin, soft ones. They began wheeling the shopping cart to the cashier, picking up a bag of preserved mustard greens along the way. Dying sea bass don’t know they’re fighting a losing battle, which makes them more of a threat, he said. Gotta eat us before we eat them.
She pretended she was a fish flopping on a mattress, expending energy and moving nowhere. The ocean was always so far away. Max liked to hold her in place as he licked her neck, his long legs weighing hers down, one hand clasping both her wrists, his body covering hers like a net. Goosebumps seemed to cascade down her body—like a knife skimmed her back, down her spine, across the backbone, a smooth and gentle slice working with the rib cage rather than against it. And she struggled against him—Max could feel her wriggling, it made him laugh, how cute, how easily ticklish—and she wished to rest because trying to break free was like trying to lift a mountain. She couldn’t. The covers smelled like sweat and exhaustion, the additional blanket she needed to stay warm at night grazing the ground. Relax, I’m just going to kiss you, Max said. I love you. And yet, like an animal programmed to fight-or-flight, hippocampus gone haywire, she fought to move her arms, tried to bend her legs, attempted to rock her hips upward to shake him off. He descended on her again.
How do you tell someone to stop trying? She called from the bathroom. Eh, some people just can’t, they’re hardwired to keep at something even if it’s fruitless, Max said between rapid mouse clicks and keyboard tapping. She ran her hand through the bath rug, watching fallen strands of hair tangle with her fingers. When did so much of her hair start dropping? She peeled off her t-shirt and sweatpants and stood under the cold shower, squeezing her eyes shut until the water warmed. The more she exposed herself to cold water, the less of a shock it’d be, and then she’d be able to avoid warm water entirely. Max’s body was always hot. He liked touching her cool skin which wasn’t natural, of course not, her sleek cool-blooded skin-coat only lasted for about fifteen minutes after her ice showers. Then she became a mammal again.
They visited the grocery store several times a week. It was only a five-minute walk away and they passed by it every day on their afternoon walks. She poked at a silkie chicken pressed against saran wrap, its wings hugging its featherless, headless black body. Do you think chickens eat humans too? She asked. Max stared at her like she was stupid. Dude, it’s dead, how can it eat a human? She picked the lightest packed silkie chicken and placed it in their cart. She’d later stew it with shiitake mushrooms. Chickens are descended from dinosaurs, the T-Rex, right? T-Rexes could probably eat humans, she speculated as they passed by the seafood section. What makes the sea bass different? Max turned to her, eyebrows tense; she was asking too many questions. Look, they’re not different, we eat fish, we eat chicken, that’s it, nothing eats humans, especially not animals smaller than us. Why do you always take things so seriously?
She forgot where she learned that chickens can still run with their heads chopped off, something about electrical currents reaching groups of nerves in the spinal cord, keeping their wings flapping, unable to rest even when their minds have given up on their bodies. Max pulled her underwear down her legs and rubbed his fingers against her, too soft, too hard, like a knife, everything felt like a knife these days. He pressed her into the bed, mouth against hers, tongue pushing past her teeth like there was something to be gained the deeper he went. She tried to turn her head to the side to remember her neck could rotate on its spasming body but nothing would budge so she stilled, waiting for oxygen as Max swallowed her slowly.