Poppy Z. Brite

Nicole cradled her newborn son and gazed through her window at the moon rising in the purple Shanghai sky. Her pussy throbbed in time with her heartbeat, a low, gnawing ache that persisted despite the bitter herb tea the midwife had made her drink. Though Nicole’s labor had ended hours ago, her lover had not yet entered the room. She was beginning to feel afraid.

What is there to fear? she wondered. I’m in one of the finest houses in the French Concession. I’ve just given a rich man his first son. There will be no more eternal nights on high heels, no more grinning into ugly drunken faces, no more scrounging for the rent. It is nearly June already; why should I feel so cold?

She took a deep draught of the nighttime air, rich with the heady scent of roses. Her bedroom looked out over the formal rose garden, and she had breathed their perfume every day of her confinement.

Nicole had left Paris three years ago, in 1914, just before the first German bombs fell. Since then she had felt no urge to return. Her friends had said the Orient would be crawling with disease and danger, but Shanghai was cleaner than Paris had ever been. In Paris she sometimes had to do filthy things just to feed herself. In Shanghai she made good money working as a hostess in a swanky dance hall.

As for the danger, she hadn’t believed in it until she met Tom Lee.

A trader of things legal and otherwise — mostly otherwise

— Mr. Lee had spent a great deal of money on Nicole, claimed to love her, then seemed to tire of the whole thing after a couple of back-scratching, eye-gouging marathon fucks. This was nothing new, and Nicole quickly forgot Mr. Lee. When she missed her next period, she had no thought of contacting him, but planned to see an herbalist to take care of the problem. If she had not happened to mention this to her friend Daisy, a Chinese bartender at the club, the matter would have ended there.

“Tom Lee?” Daisy repeated incredulously. “The importer? The man who moves so much opium that the Triads have given him a scale made of gold?”

“But I don’t want a baby … ”

“Listen to me. You cannot do this. Everyone knows that Tom Lee has always wanted an heir, but refuses to marry. If you abort his child and he finds out, he will have you killed.”

“And if I tell him I am carrying it? Why should he believe me?”

“He will want to believe you. He will care for you until the baby is born, then pay you off and send you away. This is your only choice.”

But Tom had made no mention of paying her, or of sending her away. He could not marry for obscure legal reasons, he said, but he would love Nicole as his wife and the mother of his son. He never mentioned the possibility of a daughter. Gradually Nicole succumbed to the vision of a hazy, wealthy future, a brace of shining sons, perhaps a small opium habit once the childbearing was over with.

Soft footsteps sounded in the hall. Here was Tom at last, come to see his perfect boy. Nicole’s fingers found the top of the baby’s head, stroked the silky black tuft of hair. She could not say why she was afraid to look at the opening door, afraid to question the source of the quick light footsteps crossing the room.

A hand covered her mouth. Another yanked her head back. The moon engulfed her vision now, filled the whole sky with its dazzling brightness. When they began to work on her, she could not tell where the moonlight ended and the pain began.

* * *

The house of Perique’s father contained many mansions. Some were made of precious stones and metal, some of hand-cut paper, some of carved wood or ivory. All were miniatures of famous Western and Oriental structures: a jade Versailles, a scrimshaw Taj Mahal. The summer he was ten, Perique spent a great deal of time studying these mansions through their polished glass cases, wondering what life would be like there, no, there. Sometimes he thought he saw a ghost looking back at him, but it always proved to be the faint reflection of his own face: the sharp features and strange green eyes that marked him as a half-breed.

Today he was staring at a jewel-encrusted replica of Napoleon’s tomb. He was admiring its blatant, unapologetic grandeur, and certainly he was pondering Paris. But most of all he was trying not to think about the tale his father had just told him.

It was not unusual for Perique to be called into his father’s office. In 1927, Tom Lee had not yet despaired of teaching his son the family business, and Perique was sometimes recruited to add figures, stamp documents, or weigh out black bars of opium. Today he had had to do none of these things. Today he had only stood before his father’s desk, eyes fixed on the tips of his glossy leather shoes, listening mutely as his father unravelled the world like a ball of string.

“Your mother did not die giving birth to you. That is what I allowed you to believe as a child, but now that you are growing into a man, you must know the truth. To discover what you are capable of, you must know what I am capable of.”

Tom Lee described the dance hall, the brief romance, the blossoming of Nicole’s pregnancy. He had hired the best midwife in Shanghai, paid her to ensure with certain herbs and prayers that the issue would be male. After Nicole delivered, while she was still in a semiconscious twilight of drugs and pain, Tom had the child taken from her arms and brought to him.

“I examined you carefully, looking for traces of ancestry — were you hers, or mine? I was most put off by your eyes, of course. Not only were they oddly shaped, but they were green!

“I thought of destroying you. But that was pure instinct, irrational. Of course you were my son — and while I knew your mixed blood would make your life difficult in many ways, I also anticipated that Western connections could help our family in the future. That is why I named you as I did.”

“Perique” was a diminutive of Pierre Jean-Luc, a name Tom Lee had plucked at random from some French novel.

“As I examined you, your mother was being killed.”

Perique looked up. His father’s gaze was steady, with no more conscious cruelty in it than that of a lizard or snake.

“Two of my associates entered her room. You know one of them — Cheung Toi, who died last year.”

Cheung Toi had always been especially kind to Perique, like a trusted uncle. Perique remembered crying at the news of his death.

“He held her while the other man pushed a hatpin through her nostril into the brain. Death was instantaneous. She never felt a thing.”

When Perique managed to make his lips move, his voice felt rusty. “Can I visit my mother’s grave?”

“Her body was thrown from an opium junk into the middle of the South China Sea. By that time I had decided to keep you, based on a single identical characteristic we shared, a characteristic I took as a good omen.”

Perique would not, could not ask.

“Our two cocks look exactly the same,” his father said, and began to laugh with no humor at all.

* * *

Five years later, Perique’s father ordered him out of the house, paid him handsomely to change his family name and leave Shanghai.

Perique had been dipping into the opium stock for some time, but that was acceptable to a point. When Tom Lee found his son in bed with two girls and a boy, a position not enhanced by the fact that the girls were hungrily sucking each other’s pussies while the boys watched, mesmerized — well, that was completely unacceptable.

Perique didn’t care. In fact, he had been taking all sorts of stupid risks, hoping something like this would happen. It was tiresome listening to shouted phrases like “you soft French faggot” and “your mother’s poison blood” as he packed his considerable wardrobe, but as soon as he stepped out of his father’s house, he was glad to have made the break at last.

He had his trunks sent ahead to the train station, then spent the afternoon shopping at Sincere’s department store, his favorite place in Shanghai. He loved the ornate ceilings and fixtures, the red banners with their gold lettering, the air of opulence. He bought clothes, accessories, brightly colored little packages of soap, tea, candy. For a time it felt as if he would never stop buying things. Finally he caught a rickshaw to the station and boarded the express that was the first leg of the journey to Hong Kong. Evening gilded Shanghai’s rococo skyline as the train pulled away from the platform.

* * *

If Shanghai was an aging courtesan in ragged Victorian lace, then Hong Kong was a ripe young whore whose gaudy makeup advertised a delectable array of treats. Perique found it a paradise.

He never spoke to his father, but once each month a package arrived from Shanghai full of more money than even Perique could spend. He had always liked the feel of money, but this money had the feel of shame. He let it slip through his fingers heedlessly, never walking anywhere when he could take a rickshaw, never settling for a rickshaw when his hotel’s Bentley was available. He frequented the most scandalous nightclubs, acquired Western friends and mannerisms, learned the ways of the stinking, seething island city.

He had lived in Hong Kong for one year when his mother’s ghost began to speak to him.

It was a ghost in his heart, the kind that never quite seems real but never quite goes away. It whispered to him in French — Perique was certain it was French, and he spoke fluent French, yet he could make out scarcely any of the words. This voice insinuated itself beneath the jazz music of nightclubs; it murmured in the pipes as he bathed. Opium could not drown it out. Upon waking, he often felt that the voice had just been speaking clearly in the room, but he could never recall what it had said.

He tried to distract himself with sex. One night when the whispering seemed especially loud to him, the American girl he was fucking gripped his shoulder and asked, “What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“I could have sworn I heard a woman talking.”

“In French?”

“Maybe … Say, is this some kind of set-up?”

Perique stopped going out. He huddled in his luxury suite drinking pots of room-service coffee, listening to the voice instead of trying to drown it. And, gradually, he began to understand. When he understood enough, he took the ferry to the mainland and boarded a train for Shanghai.

He had his hair cut short and removed all his jewelry before making his way to the French Concession. Night had fallen, and the neighborhood was silent, the wide streets and fine gardens lit only with flickering lanterns. The whispering was very loud. He was recognized and received by the servant, who clearly didn’t know whether he would be welcome or not. The old man brought a pot of tea, then left Perique sitting in the parlor for a long time. The voice was quieter now, a faint susurrant backdrop.

When the servant reappeared, he was smiling. “Your father is pleased to receive you. He says it has been too long.”

Tom Lee sat behind his desk, his smile more strained than the servant’s had been. Perique tried to seem contrite, implied that he had pressing business in the city and had decided to visit on a whim. “Of course, I have a room at the Grand,” he lied.

“Certainly not — you’ll stay here.” His father paused, looking for a rebellious reaction. Perique offered none. “You’ve changed,” Tom Lee said at last. “You seem much older.” His tone was approving.

Perique bowed his head. “I am only sixteen. I still know little of the world.” Inside him welled a dark joy. If his father was happy to see him — well, then, so much the better. Happiness was more precious than life, and just as easy to destroy.

He was given his old bedroom, which was unchanged but immaculate. For four hours he lay awake in the dark, watching the moon and breathing the scent of the roses.

He almost dozed. A sharp whisper woke him.

Perique slipped silently down the hall and stopped before an onyx replica of a Florentine cathedral. He lifted the glass top and gently tilted the carving. A brass key lay beneath it, as he had known it would.

He entered his father’s office and crossed the thick carpet to the massive desk. The key opened the top drawer, as he had known it would. His fingers hovered over the contents — papers, a jade name chop, a pistol — then touched a long, narrow box.

“Yes,” the voice sighed.

He placed the box on the desktop and lifted the lid. Inside was a silver hatpin, its last six inches still caked with blood.

* * *

The voice was gone when Perique woke the next morning. His head felt blessedly clear.

He had no trouble feigning surprise when the servant came in to say that Tom Lee had died in the night, apparently of a heart attack or brain stroke. “It was Providence that made you come home when you did, to see him one last time,” the old man said.

Perique could read the suspicion in his eyes, and also the fear. The master was dead, and the son was now a very rich man.

When Perique went in to dress his father for the funeral, Tom Lee’s face was exquisitely tranquil, the crow’s feet around his eyes gone, his mouth relaxed into a half-smile. Only a small trickle of blood from his left nostril spoiled the illusion of peace.

First published in Rage Magazine, LFP Publications, 1997. [Editor’s Note: This gives you a taste of the wonderful fiction of Poppy Z. Brite. If you want more than just a morsel, you’ll want Are You Loathsome Tonight, Poppy’s new short story collection that will be published by Gauntlet in October. We suggest you order now, as this is a signed, LIMITED edition and is selling fast.