Outgrowth

Lucy Zhang

 

The man-eater did not come from a womb. She was born from the teratomas of her predecessors. The clipped nails and plucked hair follicles and tumors contained dormant buds on their surfaces, and when the sun warmed the soil and the rain loosened the earth, they sprouted hands and a head. After several days, her root system took hold and she emerged aboveground. Her outer layers of skin toughened, preserving moisture within her body, protecting her from organisms that caused rot. When she had grown tall enough and large enough that her roots could no longer keep up with her body, she tore her legs from the soil, snapping the roots. Some man-eaters never severed their steady supply of minerals and water, too weak to break through their roots, too large to subsist only on oxygen and photosynthesis; they eventually shriveled and were harvested as daughters and wives.

The man-eater began to walk. As she walked, her appetite grew. She plucked ants from a rotten apricot splayed on the grass, licking them from her fingers before they could crawl away. Sour, bitter, not nearly enough substance for the effort. She reached for the apricot and swallowed that too.

With no concept of time, the man-eater used her stomach as a guide. When her stomach hollowed again, a day had passed. When her stomach felt full and she wobbled from foot to foot, preferring to curl on her side, arms wrapping her legs, the sun had fallen and she slept on top of the earth, listening to the roots underground breathe. How much easier it had been: grounded by fibers clinging to soil particles, taproots winding and stretching to find water, and she simply needed to absorb what was sent her way.

By the time the man-eater encountered her first human, her hair had grown to her knees and the fat from her cheeks had dissolved. Her limbs resembled tree branches: angular and spry, bare of leaves and flesh. When she saw the human, though she had just finished feasting on ants and weeds, her stomach growled as though it had been sucked empty. The human offered a bottle of water which she twisted open and placed on the bottom of her lip, just barely touching the plastic, and water dribbled from the corners of her mouth. The human watched the water glide down her neck.

The man-eater followed the human to his home, where he snipped her hair and she watched the strands pile on the ground. She told him to bury them in the yard. They would grow into new man-eaters, her very own family, seeded from her hair. The man tossed them into a plastic bag and threw them into the dumpster.

The man fed her fried fish skins, and she discovered the taste of savory and umami for the first time. He showed her how to cast a fishing rod so the stem of the reel felt natural below her fingers, how to let the weight of the lure pull the line off the reel, how to choose bait: worms, grasshoppers, cut up pieces of fish—will the fish eat their own kind? She’d wondered. The man told her: larvae will eat their smaller siblings, and female fish will eat their own eggs, but it isn’t as common as you might think.

The man took her shopping, and they picked out underwear and bralettes—the ones with shallow cups to look natural on her chest, so he claimed—and loafers which he deemed trendy and elegant. He guided her around stores, pointing to Lego sets and small containers of betta fish and slim wallets that could fit two maybe three credit cards. The man-eater tugged his sleeve as her stomach growled. You’re going to eat me into poverty, he laughed.

He took her to watch a meteor shower, although the smoke was too heavy and the surrounding skyscraper lights too bright: a slate of grey hanging above their heads. She asked for moon cakes stuffed with egg yolks and said she’d hang the yolk in the sky before snatching it down and biting into the dry, crumbly bits of yellow sprinkling her mouth and hands, flakes of moon disintegrating, she joked. She’d not only devour the moon but also the sun—a sweet, dense treat traveling down her throat and settling in her stomach with lotus seed and pastry, and yet, even a planetary mass could not fill her.

The man left her alone during the day when he had to work. During those times, the man-eater watered the soil where her hair was supposed to be buried. Then she rummaged through the pantry and the fridge, taking bites of hog maw and fish balls and cubes of pork blood: nibbling and swallowing for a moment’s satiation. She gnawed on the stems of cilantro, grated her teeth against the skin of a beet, chewed through wedges of watermelon until there was no more red, no more white, no more rind nor shell. The man would return with a larger and larger grocery haul each time until it became too much for him to carry and he had to get it delivered by truck.

On weekends, sometimes he would take her to the beach. It wasn’t a beach meant for lounging: the sand was coarse and mixed with rocks; long strands of seaweed streaked over the shore in dark clumps that resembled hair; the ocean crashed into the coast as though it wanted to push both people and sanderlings away. She’d crouch, rummaging through seaweed with one hand and combing through them with another, her fingers scraping until most of the grains and rocks fell out, then she slurped the kelp and algae until she cleared the entire shoreline. It was cheaper than buying those packs of roast Nori, the man said. She coughed on a pocket of sand that had been caught between stems and spore clusters.

At some point, the man-eater began to share a bed with the man so the other bedroom could store the additional food supply. When they made love, she imagined his arms as fried dough sticks, his torso as sticky rice dumplings compressing roast peanuts and pork, his legs as strips of wide, hand-pulled noodles. She stroked his back when he fell limp against her chest, sniffing his neck, waiting for him to roll off her so she could prepare a snack. She had begun to snack on raw rice because it took too long to cook and the water used up too much stomach capacity before she could feel satiated. She poured herself a bowl of salt. Salt went down easily and it reminded her of the ocean, the fish, the shiny skins she’d once crunched after a lifetime of ants.

When the man-eater became pregnant, she asked if the child had grown from her fingernails or her hair. The man told her neither, that it was a product of love. Was love edible, she wondered.

As her stomach grew rounder, she demanded more fat, protein, calcium, sugar. She cracked eggs into a bowl and chomped through the shells before slurping tiny orange yolks centered in membranes. She gnawed on the backyard pine tree’s bark and sucked at its sap. The man lugged home buckets of sand from the beach after she emptied the pantries and fridge. She dipped her feet into the sand and danced around, searching for a spot where roots might take form, although none ever did. She stepped out of the buckets and cupped the grains to her mouth.

The man-eater gave birth to a daughter whom the man loved very much. This is not a real daughter, the man-eater claimed. Real daughters come from the earth; they are the stragglers too weak to pull themselves to the surface, who stay nestled between rocks and decayed organisms until someone yanks them out, their forms premature and frail. The man held their daughter and rocked her from side to side. The man-eater asked for more food.

At some point, the man-eater realized she would always be hungry. She had eaten the moon and the sun and the sand. She had eaten ants and beetles and praying mantises. She had eaten pork livers and cow hearts and Silkie brains. She had fed on the hair and tumors and fingernails of those she aspired to be.

The man found her staring down at the crib, eying the baby the same way she’d look at cartilage-dense bone soft enough to bite through. He scooped the baby into his arms and pleaded for the man-eater to spare their daughter. But the man-eater had only known hunger, and she told the man she would not last much longer like this. The man, who cherished both the child and the man-eater, was convinced she would waken her maternal instinct if only he provided a permanent solution to the hunger, and offered himself instead.

It made no difference to the man-eater. She took the baby from his arms, sniffed the bundle of wrinkles and skin—wondering how this creature would survive without a root system anchoring it into the earth, sustaining it with energy and water—and placed her in the crib. Then she gripped the man’s shoulders and had him kneel below her. And because man-eaters had developed over years of natural selection and evolutionary genetic optimization, she knew it’d be easier to ask for his heart than to chew to the center. ♦

 

 

 


Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Four Way Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Portland Review, and elsewhere, and is anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021 and Best Small Fictions 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at kowaretasekai.wordpress.com or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Cover Art: “Faces,” Anis Tabaraee, 2021