Rated R, for human parts sundered and sold.
I Am Not I
by G. V. Anderson
I found the emporium on old Tanners Row. A prime location, to be sure — within pissing distance from a Saps’ slum. Its proprietor, Madame Qlym, boasted better pickings in her own back garden than any other acristologist in the city. But despite this and every revered thing I’d heard about it, the emporium looked in poor shape: the gilt lettering on the lintel was in mid-peel. Even as I watched, a tiny flake of autumnal gold broke off and fluttered past me. I frowned, but quickly shook away my doubts. Acristologists like their theatrics, after all. With its steep grime banks and lingering stink, Tanners Row provided more than ample ambience for the prospective customer.
I glanced round; the Row was empty. I eased open the door to the emporium and slipped inside.
There was only one aisle, wide enough to spread out my arms and brush the shelves with my fingertips — not that I wanted to get too close. The shelves creaked under the weight of thousands of dusty jars containing hands tinted amber by formaldehyde; eyeballs trailing optic kelp; and butter-bean fœtuses that watched me with milky, unformed eyes. Sap parts, all of them. Collected and sold for the pleasure of Varians.
The preservation of Saps’ bodies is a fundamental aspect of acristology, but it has also become a mark of status, a way to flaunt one’s wealth and intimidate one’s rivals. Almost every Varian household has one or more of these jars — the bigger and more complete the specimen, the higher the prestige for the family.
I shivered. Gaslights hung from the ceiling but their greasy glow did more to hide than illuminate. I wiped my hands on my new jacket; I’d not touched a thing and already I felt grubby.
“Is anyone here?”
The door at the back swung open and out she scuttled. I recognised Madame Qlym’s eight spindly arms and her infamous coiffure, so stiff it wobbled as one mass, but her body had lost its shape like a shrivelling balloon, and her powder — a new layer applied every morning, already months deep — was starting to crack. She bore little resemblance to her old tabloid photograms.
Theatrics, I reminded myself firmly.
She threw me a generous, moss-toothed smile. “You must be Miss Strohm-Waxxog! Oh, let me look at you!” and before I could protest she was inches away, jerking my chin this way and that to admire the glitter of her lamps in my six eyes, twirling me round to look, to pat —
I flinched. My wings, stale as a new butterfly’s, rustled against my clothes as I moved.
“Ah,” she said, withdrawing her hands. “No true flight? It happens, it happens. What a pity. And your poor eye . . .”
I knew I looked unspectacular. When I’d telephoned to arrange this interview I’d given her my real surname — a reckless move, but I needed her to employ me; few would turn away a member of the city’s most powerful family. She’d probably spent all morning imagining what beauteous manner of mutation would be walking through her door later. And here I was, with sore, brittle wings and a gammy eye.
“It’s the Strohm gene,” I gambled. “Infections in the third pair are common.” I needn’t have worried. She was so blinded by reverence for my family that she swallowed this without question.
After a tour of the emporium — a glorified sweep of her hands, really — we sat at the kitchenette table and talked business over stale biscuits and tea: black for me, peppermint for her. I presented my identification papers and letter of recommendation, all painstakingly forged by my own hand, but her eyes barely took in the words. She seemed more impressed by the lush vellum. When I prompted her about the expected duties, she recalled herself: “You’ll run the shop until we close for lunch, then accompany me to my meetings in the afternoons.” She sipped her tea, leaving a cracked lipstick impression on the rim. “Most transactions are completed at the customer’s home. It’s more bespoke that way.”
I rubbed the handle of my teacup. Specks of grime clung to the delicate china. When I lifted my head, my gaze snagged on some well-established cobwebs fluttering in the corners of the ceiling. Finally, I met her eye. “Your advertisement mentioned payment.”
“Oh, yes . . .” She choked delicately on the admission that my salary would be just five pence a week.
I fought to keep the dismay from my face. “So little? Surely such a prestigious emporium as this could afford to pay more?”
She blushed through her powder. “Commission is available, of course, although it won’t keep you in the manner to which I’m sure you’re accustomed,” she said, her eyes downcast. “The Strohm-Waxxogs have such grand houses, the most exquisite feasts. You must have been brought up surrounded by luxury.”
I knew the childhood she was imagining for me — could almost imagine it myself.
“You know,” she said, leaning in with a forced intimacy that made me recoil, “it is so unusual to hear of a Strohm-Waxxog working at all . . .”
“My mother insists on a vocation. She says it builds character.” The lie coated my tongue like treacle.
Only five pence a week . . . I remember thinking that I could still get imperiously to my feet and storm out, could still return to the squat I called home, with no harm done. But — damn it all! — I needed money, and I didn’t dare believe that the great Madame Qlym, the acristologist of whose skills I’d heard so much in my life, could be as poor as all that. She must be hiding something, I decided. “Is my application a success?”
She reached out to stroke my hand, her lipsticked mouth puckering like overstretched elastic. “Of course, darling. How could I refuse?”
Her lingering, covetous caresses were only bearable for so long, and I soon asked to be shown to my new room. Underneath thick dust sheets, I found a bed, a chipped desk, and a wardrobe. Opening the wardrobe gave me a fright: a mounted Sap skeleton had been stuffed inside, its eye sockets level with mine. I caught my breath and tapped the sternum with a fingernail—it was only hardened resin, a worthless imitation.
A mirror with a worn wooden frame hung inside the door of the wardrobe. My brown face glared out of it. Two of my eyes sat in my sockets; two more emerged from my temples. The third, smallest pair sat within the procerus muscle between my brows, and it was one of these that had swollen. When I blinked, the eyelid juddered over the surface of the eye. The damn thing wouldn’t last much longer.
I had only one tiny, rot-swollen window, which I forced open to air the room. From here I could see the slums concealed behind Tanners Row: a maze of buildings and empty clotheslines, a constant trickle of gutter water. Glassless windows gaped from every surface. In one of them I saw a pale, doughy face. A Sap’s face. I scowled in disgust.
We were all Saps once, before genetic splicing made wings, strange mouthparts, advanced digestive ability, super strength — Varians — possible. Varians quickly grew in number, forging dynasties and complex class systems, developing languages and dialects to accommodate their new physiologies, while the Sap became an undesirable evolutionary leftover — like an appendix or wisdom teeth. They were elbowed to the fringes of society and reviled.
But the Sap gene still runs in us all. They don’t like to admit it, but no Varian is immune to the possibility of a Sap child. These children are drowned at birth and forgotten about. It’s considered the kind thing to do.
If only my mother had been so kind.
When I was born, so I’m told, my father ordered me destroyed. But against his knowledge or consent, my mother instead kept me in a cold, bare room in the old servants’ quarters — one’s first child warrants some maternal instinct, I suppose, although she refused to name me, as if I were some animal bound for the abattoir and she daren’t get too attached. We had a few years of tenuous peace together. Once, I fell over and sliced my knee; I remember her alarm, her hesitant hairy palps patting the dark skin of my leg, my anatomy a mystery and a wonder to her.
The only other soul who knew I lived was the housekeeper, Ms Gishak, and when my father eventually thawed and welcomed my mother back to his society, it fell to her to provide for me. She didn’t relish the task. I don’t even have to close my eyes to picture Ms Gishak’s nostrils flaring, her beak clicking with impatience. She fed me scraps from the table and slipped anti-Sap pamphlets under my door to teach me to read. Her company was cruel. “Do you know why we call you Saps?” she once hissed in my ear, her voice as sharp as a pinch in the dark. “Because you’re parasites, the lot of you.”
As time passed, it became difficult to conceal me from the growing household. My father had taken a second wife and my mother had conceived again; space was at a premium. The night I turned fifteen, Ms Gishak smuggled me out of the house to meet an extensioneer by the name of Heechi. She left me on the operating table, openly pocketing the small change my mother had meant for me with a nasty grin.
As soon as my wings and eyes were implanted — my mother’s parting gift to me — I was cast out onto the streets, nameless and alone.
“Close that window!”
My head snapped round. Madame was standing in my doorway, clutching her neck. I closed the window slowly and slid the bolt home, and by the time I’d done that she was already tottering downstairs, muttering to herself.
My weekday mornings in the shop turned out to be dull, since Madame had no customers. I ached to do something about my eye, but I was obliged to sit by the till in frustrated silence while she did whatever it was she did upstairs. When I paced the aisle, the fœtuses floating around in their jars seemed to follow me with a turn of their pale bodies. My eyes skimmed their faded labels, the dates they were “harvested” — such a pastoral word, as if they’d been plucked painlessly from trees, not wombs. In the end, I turned the jars around.
The afternoons weren’t much better. Madame and I called on her customers: past patrons with no intention of a second purchase, or collectors unlucky enough to have their name whispered in her vicinity. With all eight arms she would lift her rotund torso off the ground and advance from every angle, her breath rancid with peppermint. The few sales we made were struck out of a desire to be rid of her.
“Perhaps,” I said, after one fruitless encounter, “I could conduct the meeting next time?”
Madame glared at me, her cheeks flushed. “You think you might do better?”
After a week, as I dropped my first measly five pence into the collection box under my bed and heard its hollow plink, I could no longer tell myself that my low wage was a result of Madame’s stinginess. The next morning, I searched for anything that could help me understand what I’d tangled myself up in. I came across a small metal box stashed in a kitchenette cupboard, and for two hours sat cross-legged on the sticky floor flicking through the paperwork inside. Bills, demands, notices. Unpaid invoices and overdue rent, all stamped red for now, now, now. I slumped against the cupboard door, the papers sliding from my hands.
Heechi’s extensions had lasted longer than any others I’d heard of, but after ten years, even they’d started to fail. Before I started working for Madame I’d tracked him down to Port Street, a slum like Tanners Row, and had demanded that he fix his work. He told me he would only accept the same price my mother had paid in the first place: two hundred guineas. Cash.
I’d expected a high figure far beyond my means, of course. I answered Madame Qlym’s advertisement — had intentionally placed myself in the constant company of a woman who killed Saps for profit — on the understanding that her business was profitable, and that the money I needed to pay Heechi would be easily found. I’d got it wrong. The emporium was in serious financial trouble, and I’d put myself in harm’s way for nothing.
I couldn’t understand why, when stock was so plentiful. We had stacks of jawbones teetering up the side of the tiny staircase and navels spilling out of alcoves, and thick knots of Sap hair hanging from the kitchenette ceiling like bundles of onions, and baskets overflowing with teeth assorted by incisor, canine, and molar, and a dozen reinforced spines lounging in the umbrella stand by the front door — we had enough inventory to pay Heechi ten times over.
I stuffed Madame’s paperwork back into its box. If she couldn’t sell this lot, I would. And extensioneers need Sap parts as much as Varian ones, for those rare freaks desperate to go the other way — perhaps Heechi would lower his fee in exchange for some of these jars. My only problem was Madame’s insistence that I stay by her side at all times — she even panicked at the sight of me stepping out for the milk.
The bartering, trading, and circulation of pickled Saps is only half an acristologist’s work. Madame had a partner for the other half — the procurement of new specimens — and I met him for the first time four weeks into my employment.
He knocked on the door just after lunch, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a full veil that hid his features completely. “I’m sorry, sir. We’re closed. Business hours are —”
“Quite a serious little acristologist, aren’t you, hmm?” His voice was muffled, but I could hear the thrum of a chuckle.
I almost slammed the door in his face, but Madame had already seen him. “It’s all right, darling, let him in! He’s late, though, the devil! Pull the blinds, will you?” I did as she asked and obscured the only natural, clean light in that squalid space. I turned as he was removing his hat and veil.
He was more hive than flesh. He wore a loose shirt and pressed trousers, braces slung uselessly about his hips, and every available patch of skin was riddled with deep, black holes. Holes that went nowhere at all. They obscured his face, his mouth; he had no hair, just tunnels boring into his head. As Madame ushered him through for refreshment, a bee emerged from the depths of a neck-hole and perched in the opening to watch me.
This was the first company we’d had in weeks — I would never get a better opportunity to see Heechi. So I declined to join them, citing some urgent personal errand.
Madame’s brow creased.
“Oh, let her go,” the honey man said, laughing. “Knowing you, I expect she’s barely had five minutes to herself since she started.”
I waited in the aisle until the kitchenette door closed with a soft click, then dove for the jars. What would an extensioneer have need for? I had no idea. I grabbed slender jars full of green-tinged fingers, a handful of nipples. Rolls of skin, as sheer as photogram film — I unravelled five inches and held it up to the gaslight to reveal a constellation of pores, follicles, moles, and scars. Teeth could be useful; eyes, too. I scraped a handful of coins from the till for the tram fare and raced down the Row, my pockets bulging.
As I walked away from the slum, I felt the city come alive around me. Colour and light were a part of my world again. Varians of all descriptions were in the streets doing their shopping, hollering to friends across the road, bustling from one important place to another. An enormous gastropod with four rows of swollen teats and a cluster of ten offspring had left a sparkling trail on the pavement; my boots made imprints in it as if it were snow. The buildings became cleaner and taller, and the traffic of winged Varians grew thick in the air. I began to see signs of civilised life: electric streetlamps, recently installed and humming; and boxy televisions in shop windows playing black-and-white anti-Sap propaganda.
The Sap teeth tinkled in my pockets and I thought about selling a few there and then, but I could only hope to get pennies for them. The reward was far greater when Heechi opened his door to me: he gaped as I emptied my pockets.
“Pickled personally by Madame Qlym of Tanners Row,” I said, “the best you’ll find. Ears, feet, nails, kneecaps, scalps — whatever you need. Would that bring the price down?”
He agreed to lower his fee to one hundred and fifty guineas if I could supply him with certain parts. It still seemed like an impossible amount of money. I would have to work hard to sell every last thing in that shop. “Fine,” I said. “What parts do you need?”
“I’ll write you a list.”
It was getting late by the time I let myself back into the emporium, but there was still a faint light under the kitchenette door. I put my ear to the grain.
“— the average Varian doesn’t buy acristological jars these days, Madame, and hasn’t for some years. Attitudes are changing.”
“The average Varian,” Madame said loudly, slurring her words, “is bored by appendages and organs. Hic. I need full specimens. That’ll bring them flooding back.”
The honey man’s voice was low. “Full specimens are hard to find.”
“But you know, hic, where to look, don’t you, darling?”
I wished I could slip upstairs unnoticed, but unless I was prepared to shimmy drainpipes in the dark and climb through a window, the staircase at the back of the kitchenette was my only option. I knocked on the door and peered round. “I’m back.”
Madame started at the sight of me. “I was starting to worry you’d, hic, abandoned me!”
“I trust your errand went well?” the honey man said.
I slipped into the kitchenette and slowly headed for the stairs. “Yes, very well. I didn’t mean to disturb you . . .”
“Oh no!” Madame said, pulling out a chair from under the table and patting the seat. Her eyes were glazed. “Do sit and join us, there’s no rush! Come, come!”
Reluctantly, I sat down. Madame poured me a cup of stale tea. A bee landed on the rim of my teacup, its antennæ trembling. I flicked it away with a finger.
“As I was saying, full specimens are hard to find,” the honey man said. “And the humans are growing restless. Bolder. There’s been talk of riots not far from here. The press are prohibited from reporting it, of course, but word slips through.”
I stared at him. I’d not heard Saps referred to as humans in a long, long time. “Sap” is such a commonplace slur, it hardly occurs to anyone that it was once a slur in the first place. Ms Gishak had used it exclusively, and I’d picked up the habit in a pathetic attempt to please her.
The honey man ignored us. “For a while, I’ve been wondering whether we should look in a different direction entirely.”
Madame frowned. “A different direction?”
“It’s said there are humans hidden within the greatest families. Think how much a collector might pay for . . . well —” his eyes rose to meet mine “— a human Strohm-Waxxog, for example.”
“We can’t go around upsetting the important people,” Madame hissed at him, shooting me an anxious glance. The honey man and I sat quite still, our eyes locked, but his gaze was as disturbing as his mutation and I looked down at my teacup instead. A fine crack ran through it, which I’d not noticed before — perhaps the pressure of my grip had buckled the old porcelain. My ears filled with buzzing; I couldn’t tell if it came from the bees clustering around me, or my own mind.
“I’m sorry. You’re right, of course,” said the honey man, breaking our awkward silence. “The slums are getting dangerous, but they’re far from empty. I’ll plan an expedition for us soon, Madame. It will be just like old times.”
“Old times,” she repeated. “Oh, that would be, hic, lovely.”
He glanced at me. “I fear I’ve overstayed my welcome. Would you mind fetching my things?” As I stood to oblige him, he whistled. Bees poured from every conceivable crevice in the kitchenette — even from the spout of the teapot — and wriggled back into his body like furry maggots, his skin bulging slightly to accommodate them.
His was a mutation unlike anything I’d seen before. The symbiosis between man and bee was bizarre, somehow: out of place — it didn’t follow the usual rules. I walked him to the door and handed him his gloves, greatcoat, and veiled hat. “I never did catch your first name,” he said lightly, shrugging on his coat.
“I never said it.”
He grinned. “You really should see a doctor about your eye. It looks sore.”
I almost parroted the Strohm gene excuse, but something told me the honey man was too sharp to swallow it. “I’ve made an appointment,” I said instead.
“Indeed.” His gaze was sly, but this time I met it squarely and held it. “I’ll call again soon if you’ll permit, Miss Strohm-Waxxog?” I nodded, and as soon as it was polite to do so, I raced upstairs to the mirror in my wardrobe. The infected eye now had a white, glassy sheen. The surrounding skin was hot and tender.
I wandered back down to the kitchenette, passing Madame on the stairs on her way to her room. I rinsed the cups and saucers in the tiny chipped sink. I used a rag to scour away Madame’s lipstick stains and the invisible — but no less tangible — footprints of bees. I scrubbed so hard that my hand cramped into a thoroughly un-Saplike claw.
A loud buzz made me jump. A bee had blundered in through the rotten, riddled woodwork and bumped once, twice against the grubby glass in confusion. An innocent bee, perhaps, but I lunged from the sink and silenced its awful buzzing with my palm.
Over the following weeks, I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life. I reinstated the emporium’s mail-order service, which had lain dormant for years. I went door-to-door — forgoing breakfast, as that was the only time of day I could slip away — handing over our newest brochure. I even persuaded Madame to allow me to conduct our afternoon appointments. Whenever the clients commented kindly on my eye, Madame would burst out an explanation of the infamous Strohm eye ailment to stunned, polite silence. It wouldn’t have mattered, but I’d cultivated a more sophisticated client list that might rub shoulders with Strohm-Waxxogs every day: the Ybb-Xybryses, the Slins, the Aujoxes — families of quality. So I’d raise an eyebrow, or roll my eyes behind her back at these moments, as if to say, Don’t mind her, she’s an embarrassment, but what can you do? Sometimes, as we shrugged on our coats to leave, the clients would approach me with a gentle touch on my arm and a question — “Just bring yourself next time?” Things were turning in my favour, the clink of coins in my collection box sounded less hollow with every passing day, and Madame was discrediting herself without even realising.
But while the afternoons buoyed my mood, the nights dragged them down; the eye had turned hard now, a frozen pea buried painfully in my brow. One evening, after my wings had been particularly sore, I shrugged off my blouse and turned to see the connective skin bruise-purple, the seam chapped. I pressed a finger to my shoulder blade, gasping with pain. A pearl of pus trickled down my back.
I was running out of time.
This concludes Part 1 of “I Am Not I.” Part 2 will be posted on June 25, 2019.
About the Author
G. V. Anderson is a British writer whose professional debut won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2017. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and Interzone. She is currently working on her first novel.