Written March 2017
Spoilers for Catherynne M Valente's Palimpsest
One of the songs I've been listening to over and over again recently is "The Girl With the Lion's Tail", from SJ Tucker's album Quartered: Songs of Palimpsest. Palimpsest, in turn, is a novel by Catherynne M Valente. The simplest way to describe the novel is that it is the story of a sexually transmitted city. It is, of course, more than that. That's not a plot, that's a hook. It is the story of a city torn by war and longing for healing, a city in which the war veterans have body parts of animals, where the vermin are made in factories, and to which the immigrants come from another world. It is also the story of four people, their lives folded together like the prints of a Quarto, who come to the city of Palimpsest. And it is a story with a great many monsters.
One of the four is Ludovico, a bookbinder, who comes searching for his wife Lucia, desperate to find her again. He has always thought of her as, called her, his chimera, his hissing, biting, kissing beast. Something out of a medieval bestiary, written by a saint. A girl with a lion's tail. A monster.
At first, Lucia loved it. To be thought a fabled thing. But eventually she found herself smothered under the weight of it, under the weight of what they were together. She found her way to Palimpsest, and left him.
We see Lucia exclusively through Ludo's eyes. Only once, near the end, does she get to speak her own piece. But this is the Lucia that Tucker shows us. "I don't want to be the girl you tame, an oddity, locked away somewhere safe, your one-heart menagerie, lonely."
She takes the monster he made of her and turns that power against him, throwing it in his face. "You're meant to crawl upon your knees, not steal my soul or talk to me, nor beg me to come home with you, the last thing I would ever do."
She never asked to be made a monster, never wanted to be a beast, but she is now, shaped by him and their marriage, and if she must use that to get free of him, she will. She wants to reclaim herself from him, but she can only reclaim herself as she is, not as she was during a summer in Ostia long ago. "Give me back the girl I was, the beast I used to be, shedding the skin of this creature."
One of the things about monsters is that they are powerful, and if we allow ourselves to become monstrous, we too can have that power.
The other song from the same album I've had on repeat is "Casimira". It is Casimira's family's factories that press and mold and pour out the vermin of the city. No family has been so often formally thanked as the Casimiras.
At age 13, she waged her war. She made monsters in the city, but was perhaps always monstrous herself. Everything she has done, she has done to bring something new into existence. "We have to cause a little pain to shed a little light."
Like all the children of the wealthy, she was born without a face, without will. They are called the Brauria, little bears, by the few who know their secret. Most are sent to a finishing school to be completed, to be educated and then licked into shape by the children of the very poorest of the city. But Casimira alone was not sent to the school. She was finished by the ghost of her own house, the house which opened to her touch alone. Of all the Casimiras and Casimirs, only she was born and has always lived as a Casimira. "My name is Casimira, as was every name before."
She knows all that her many creatures know, all the secrets of the city. She watches as the immigrants come, and ask their questions, and try to understand. She finds them ridiculous, but oh so necessary. "I sit back with the spiders and I laugh myself sick. I watch you give it all away."
But even Casimira cannot rule. She is not queen, and does not wish to be, cannot wish to be. She can only be what she is, no matter what and how much she wants. Monsters are their nature, and cannot be anything else. Nor can they (generally) circumvent the free will of others. Casimira must wait for November to come to her, must allow November to make her own choices. She can threaten, she can storm, she can manipulate, but she cannot control her. "Will you give it all away?" she worries, even as she demands, "Do not make me wait again."
Monsters have power, but they are what they are, and even the shapeshifters among them may change their faces, but they cannot change their natures. If we become monstrous to gain power, we take on their unchangeable qualities as well, and we cannot go back. All power has a price.