“It’s not healthy to be a female character in comics,” Gail Simone wrote on the website Women in Refrigerators in 1999. Founded by Simone and other comics fans, the website was named after a scene in Green Lantern #54 in which the hero finds his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in a fridge. The site features a list of women in comics who have been “killed, raped, depowered, crippled, turned evil, maimed, tortured, contracted a disease or had other life-derailing tragedies befall [them]” to further male characters’ stories.
This week, Catherynne M. Valente expands upon the “refrigerated woman” concept in her new book, The Refrigerator Monologues. Delivering six linked short stories from the points of view of the “wives and girlfriends of superheroes, female heroes and anyone who’s ever been ‘refrigerated,’” the collection subverts the traditional superhero genre tropes.
Valente set her stories in an original universe, and we’re thrilled to share an exclusive excerpt (and an accompanying illustration by Annie Wu) following a new character nicknamed “Bayou.” The Refrigerator Monologues is available now from Saga Press.
All eyes turn to the lady in green. She swirls a spoon around her coffee cup. It doesn’t make any noise. Thank the tiny baby Jesus, down here in Deadtown we are spared the constant tinkle of silverware against porcelain that plagues the restaurant industry. A long, long red curl slides out of the black pearl comb in her hair and lands on the table like a spurt of blood. It hurts to look at it. Like a camera flashing in your eyes. The sides of her head are shaved down to red fuzz, just the one long horsetail left, running up and over and down her spine like a special-edition collect-them-all punk-rock Barbie doll. She doesn’t notice us staring. I love my girl Bayou to a hundred million pieces, but she’s like one of those thorny old fish who hide on the seafloor, totally still and silent, blending in, waiting for something tasty to drift on by.
Only she doesn’t blend in. Not for a second. It’s hard to blend in when your skin is covered in green crystal scales. When you look like a torch singer who stayed on stage so long, she chemically bonded with her costume. She never wants to talk. I’ll go tomorrow, she always says, but she never does. I talked yesterday. But she didn’t. Never jam today, that’s Miss B to a T.
Miss B suddenly notices no one’s talking. She blushes, which looks weird on a green girl. Like Christmas lights. “Oh! Can I get anyone another coffee? Tea? I think Neil’s hiding some wine back there under his wings. I saw it. Pinot and Cab and some black dusty stuff with a Greek name.”
Neil shrugs behind the counter. He tucks his lolling gargoyle tongue back behind his fangs the way that classy old guys smooth their neckties or clean their glasses. Reaches under one great big bat-wing and produces a bottle wrapped in black straw. Sidles on over with a tray of glasses, holds the cork for Bayou to sniff. She nods; he pours. Rich emptiness glugs into each of our glasses—the living will never let a decent wine grape go extinct. But the Bordeaux tumbles out for her, thick and red and reeking of fruit and sunlight and dirt and stone. We all stare while she drinks it. We watch her throat move. I’m not saying it’s not creepy. It totally is. But we can’t stop. She’s so bright. I never kissed a girl when I was alive, but death has a way of loosening your inhibitions.
“Your turn, Queen B,” I say. I want to touch her hand but I don’t. She can touch me but I can’t touch her. Them’s the rules here in the strip club of the damned.
“Oh, no, I don’t have anything to say. I’ll go tomorrow. What about Daisy? Or Sam? Please. Don’t worry about me. I’m not . . . It’s not my place. It’s not right. I’m not like you.
“I’m not single.
“I’m not human.
“I’m not dead.
“Deadtown is just my summer home. My Hamptons. My Riviera. Every year, I drive up to the old black house, fire up the boiler, dust the tables and chairs, scrub the windows, stock the larder with apples and cereal and grief, try to find something good on the radio.”
She runs one glittering green finger around the rim of her wineglass. The wine shivers and grows crosshatches like a speaker. A wet crackle shimmies up out of the gargoyle’s personal stash: Welcome to DPR, Deadtown Public Radio, the Voice of the Underworld. This afternoon on All Things Cadaverous: Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper address the issues surrounding piracy and VPN access in the city center . . .
“So, you see, it’s not fair for me to take time from all of you. At the end of the summer, I’ll go home like always. There’s a place down by the docks, a little way along the boardwalk. I’ll walk there and buy an ice cream cone and when I finish it, I’ll dive off the pier and swim down to the bottom of everything, past the rusted bicycles and six-pack rings and anglerfish and oil drums until I find the little golden grate that leads back to the land of the living. It’s been in my family for centuries. My grandfather hired a gargoyle to guard it. He’s all gills and spines and baleen. Still keeps the buttons on his uniform bright, even in the briny deep. I’ll bring him a bottle of whiskey and kiss his cheek as I swim by. Say hello to your family for me, Mort, I’ll whisper. And he’ll bow. And in a year, I’ll do it all over again. Unless I find him this time.”
“Find who?” Hazel asks.
“My son. He has to be here somewhere. He is here. Deadtown is a big place, maybe the biggest place, but I’m actually a very organized person. The city is a grid. I search quadrant by quadrant. And someday I’ll see him, swinging on a tire in a park or peering into the windows of an automat or splashing in a fire hydrant. Maybe he’s living with other dead children in some blackstone with brown ivy over the door. It doesn’t matter where he is. I’ll find him and the world will stop being a terrible place and everything will go back to the way it was when I was young.”
Samantha reaches out for the lady in green but stops short. Her hand hovers over Bayou’s shoulder, squeezing empty air. “Sweetheart, it’s time. You won’t go tomorrow. You didn’t go yesterday. Time to pay your dues to the Hell Hath Club.”
Bayou takes a deep breath and straightens her shoulders. Something comes into her eyes. Something hungry and young and manic. Something a lot less elegant. Something a lot less serene than little Miss Oh-Don’t-Worry-About-Me.
“All right. Okay. How do you start? John used to go to AA. So, I guess I could do the HH version. So, yeah. Okay. My name is Bayou, Trash Queen of Backwater Atlantis, Alligator Princess of the Great Galactic Delta, the Creature from the Rhinestone Lagoon, and I hate my husband.”
I never wanted children. Let’s get that straight up top. All I ever wanted to do was to drink beer, play my horn, and ride mutant armadillos till the end of the world. But you don’t get to hit those high notes when you’re Queen of something. Hard to scream-sing fuck the man authority is deathpuke anarchy in Atlantis when your mom is, like, the entire government.
I know what you’ve heard about Atlantis. But it’s not what you think. There’s no perfect crystal towers, no vending machines packed with enlightenment in a can, no visions of techno-utopian sugarplums dancing in the streets. Atlantis does not have ancient wisdom in every pot or a golden submarine in every garage. It’s just a city that happens to be underwater. Like most cities, it’s got some good neighborhoods, a couple of cool clubs, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, and the rest is pretty much a shithole. You think of an underwater city and your brain spins up all these postcards of clean turquoise water and whitecaps and frolicking orcas off a Lisa Frank notebook. But the ocean isn’t like that. It’s full of salt and sewage and tanker oil and mud and dead dolphins and fish poop and about a billion and four jellyfish. We don’t live in Atlantis because it’s a pristine paradise. We live there because we’re weird, gross aliens and Brooklyn’s full. Plus, for us? Breathing air is like knocking back shots of whiskey. The longer we do it, the loopier and punchier and louder and dizzier we get until eventually we pass out in a toilet or die. A fresh summer breeze will get an Atlantean shit-faced drunk.
I told you. I’m not human. I’m not a goddamned mermaid, either, so don’t get any ideas about shell-bras or selling my voice to a sea-witch. That little idiot deserved to die. Never give up your voice for a man, you fucking guppy. Atlanteans are sort of . . . half alligator, half siren, half electric eel. Yes, I know that’s three halves. Don’t get any of your slimy binary brain on me. We came from another planet or another dimension or some woo-woo place. I never could keep it straight. Who cares how we got here? This is where we live now. The Dumbfuck Dimension obviously doesn’t miss us. Even though they should, because we’re gorgeous and we live for ages and we’re all psychic and really kick ass at water polo. Any ecosystem would be lucky to have us.
And among the weird, gross alligator-eel aliens, I’m royalty. It’s not my fault. I didn’t ask to be born to the Fascist Bitch-Queen Delphine Tankerbane the Fourth. If I could’ve picked, I’d have been born like my friend Platypunk—out in the backwater boondocks to a hairdresser and a bartender, living in a trailer park hacked out of a fossilized Portuguese man o’ war, smoking brain coral and being awesome. But nobody picks. I swam off from the palace as soon as possible.
I call it a palace. It’s basically like if you built a Jenga tower out of shipwrecks. Mom’s got a little of all of them in there. Captain’s cabins from the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman and the Lusitania—you would not believe how much crap she lifted off the Titanic before humans started shining searchlights on the thing and diving for rust. Aw, you still don’t get it. Think big. She swiped an entire ballroom for the royal chamber. Her throne is made out of a thousand silver teapots with WHITE STAR LINE stamped on them. It’s all just garbage. Junk. How come I was the only one who could see that? I hightailed it the second Mumsy wasn’t looking. Out into the real city. Into the muck and the noise, down to Squid Row where no one cares who you are, to Soho where everyone’s furious and starving and beautiful, into the East Gillage, swarming with throbbing techno whale song, snarling skinny punks with fishhooks in their ears, angler-headed hipsters burning for the ancient undersea connection to that salty dynamo in the machinery of the deep.
That’s where I met Platypunk. I don’t know what his deal was, taxonomically speaking. He had sleek, soft fur like an otter instead of scales like me, poisonous barbs on his heels, webbed feet, a hot pink mohawk, and claws for days. We started a band. Blowhole? Maybe you’ve heard of us? Platy sang and played the lionfish; I was on drums and conch. I bet you think conches just sort of bleat out one non-note, don’t you? No way. Not when an Atlantean is on the horn. My conch did whatever I told it to. Scream or whisper, whistle nice or empty the room. We played all the hot stages in Atlantis, him and me. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend we’re still bringing the house down at Sea Bee’s, right at that part in “Anarchy in Atlantis” where Platy just starts quacking like a maniac at the top of his lungs, and then we both jump into the crowd and they carry us away in their arms and everything is good forever.
Point is, I was happy before John Heron came along. I was fine. I was myself. Every story I told was about me. I was better than a punk. I was a protagonist. No kids, no husband, no throne. No problems. No clawing sense of loss the color of the sea’s guts. No dead mother. No dead son. I didn’t even know what it felt like to have a shark chew my leg off! Good times. The best times.
So, this is how it happened. Strap in, because this is about the lamest part of my whole soggy joke of a life. Falling in love is embarrassing. It is not hardcore. It is not part of the scene.
I was sort of half-shacked up with this guy named Crowjack at the time. He had a swim-up apartment in the Gillage, wrote plays full of halibut whinging about their fathers and the pressures of masculinity. After the show, his or mine, we’d all go down to Platypunk’s dad’s bar, the Great White Whaler, and do some blow. Free pints of sour beer with shot glasses full of real topside air dropped in. Platypunk Sr. always had great air. Kept it in a couple of scuba tanks behind the bar. You had to be in the know to get any, know the handshake, that sort of thing. I was a hard drinker back then. Part of the uniform. A little oxy, a whiff of nitro, pound that garbage beer, lick a shaker of ozone off my wrist, throw back a shot of smog and suck a slice of seaweed to take the edge off. But Crowjack loved to drink. He had his own tank and mask at home, and half the days, he’d just float on the current that flowed between the bedroom and the kitchen with his mask on, sucking down oxy until he thought he was God. Platypunk always said he was a douche bag and I guess he was right.
“Hey, baby Bayou. Let’s get outta here,” Crowjack slurred at us Upon That Fateful Night. “Let’s go somewhere we can really get wrecked. Where they’ve got the good stuff, on tap, none of these canned farts.”
I was feeling good. Scratch that. I was feeling fucking spectacular. Blowhole had hauled our first full house that night. Two separate fistfights broke out during the bridge of “I Wanna Be Mutated,” which is how you spell a truly epic show. I should’ve known what he meant, but I was feeling too nice to do my usual trick of sifting through everything Crowjack said in case there was something fucked up floating around in there.
“Naw, man,” said Platypunk. “I don’t do that shit. It’s hardcore, balls-to-the-wall boring. You shouldn’t either, Miss B. We got lunch with the guys from Oily Penguin tomorrow. Besides, your mom would kill you if she found out.”
When you think about it, it’s all Platypunk’s fault. The number one bull’s-eye easiest-peasiest way to make sure I’ll do something is to tell me how it would piss off my mother. So, Crowjack and I blew out of the Great White Whaler like a couple of speedboats and started the long swim up to the surface. Because of course that’s what he meant. That’s where you get the strongest air. Where it gets you—and all for free. I couldn’t believe how warm the water was that close to land. How blue. How clear. It felt like hot velvet diamonds rolling over my skin. Our heads busted up out of a wave into a liquid gold-red twilight and a wind like cocaine-moonshine. Crowjack just huffed it all in. His pupils blew out so big and black! He threw himself backward against the next wave, giggling and paddling around like a kid. It didn’t hit me quite as hard. I took shallow breaths—too much to swallow all at once. I looked at the sun instead. My first sunset, sinking in the sky like a goldfish on fire. I looked at my skin in the light of the breathing world, glittering like a disco ball where the sun bounced and jangled off me. Off in the distance I saw an island with nothing on it but a tower with a light on top of it. Below the tower, people moved. I could see their shadows on the long grass.
People. Others. Humans.
“I wanna go home,” I whispered to Crowjack. “I feel sick.”
And I did. I ducked under the whitecaps for a minute to get my head on straight.
“What are you talking about? We just got here! I’m not even buzzed yet.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, you are, dumbass. You’re such a lightweight.”
I was only teasing. But you can’t tease anybody who writes plays about their father. Crowjack hauled off and punched me in the eye. Punched! Not slapped. Closed-fist. Like he meant it. Like he’d been holding that in. Well, fuck that for nothing. Bye, bye, Crowjack. I wasn’t in love with him anymore, anyway. He cried almost every time we had sex. And I was a far better swimmer. With a couple of kicks, I got well away from that cliché little scene. A couple more and I could hardly see him. Only a little shape in the waves, flailing his arms and yelling that he was sorry. Who cares, lightweight? I might like a bruise or two in good fun—I look tough as hell with bruises. But back then, I didn’t take that action from anybody. I swam and swam, ducking down below and popping up again, feeling my strength, feeling my speed. I was pretty hammered by then, I admit. I wasn’t paying attention. I got too close to the island. One of those people-shadows saw me and stopped moving around. Then, for absolutely no goddamned reason, it jumped into the water and started swimming after me! I should have just gone down bubble, but I was too shocked and drunk to move. The shadow turned out to be a man, a big, nice-looking man with a good beard and thick hair the color of the sun. He grabbed me around the neck and started hauling me to shore.
“It’s okay!” the man yelled back. “I got you! You’re gonna be fine!”
“What? Stop! Hold on!” I coughed and spluttered. The way he was dragging me, I kept getting wind up my nose.
“Good thing I saw you! I thought you were driftwood for a minute,” he went on, panting with the effort of saving me. “Or a seal. But better safe than sorry! You almost drowned!”
“This is ridiculous,” I snarled, and squirmed out of his grip in one quick duck-and-twist. “I don’t need your help! Do I look like I need your help?”
I don’t believe John Heron really saw me before that moment. He was in Burly Savior Noble Guardian of Life mode when he grabbed me. All he saw was a girl in the water. But he sure saw me then. Six long feet of green crystal scales and blue switchblade-fins and really almost pornographically suggestive gills and bruised cheekbone and half-shaved-off red hair. But I saw him, too. He had the warmest green eyes and the kindest way of holding his mouth, even when he was dumbfounded and gawking like a damn fool. Those muscles didn’t hurt, either, even if they were a weird brownish color. He was handsome as hell, and most importantly, he didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met in my life. He looked new. We treaded water in total silence for, well, god knows how long. Finally, he said:
“Are you a mermaid?”
“That’s racist,” I snapped. My head was starting to spin. Crowjack was right. The air was amazing up there.
He backpedaled immediately. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it; I don’t . . . What happened to your eye?”
“Bad boyfriend,” I answered, and touched my face. Still tender.
Then it happened. I couldn’t help it. I laughed in this weird way that had nothing to do with me, this soft, coquettish, flirty laugh like a fucking sea lion in heat. Gross. It’s the air, you know. Everything that came after, I blame on that stone-cold bitch oxygen. She hates me and wants me to suffer. I loved him. I loved him like breathing. I loved him because I was breathing. I was reeling on the whiskey-wind, my vision gone to oil and honey as I pounded shot after shot of pure unfiltered sky.
We screwed under the stars on the beach below his lighthouse. It wasn’t very good for me. He didn’t vibrate the water with his legs to signal his interest. His torso didn’t flush that delicate shade of blue that really gets me going. He didn’t clack his swim bladders against each other to make the secret song of Atlantean sex. He didn’t even have claspers or a cloaca. We had to do it his way. It took forever. But it certainly was new. I straddled him and clacked my swim bladders deep in my throat and I could feel the blue coming on in my chest, lighting up his dumb handsome face with the light of another dimension. Afterward, we swam out together so I could sober up. He told me about himself. He was an orphan, found screaming on the shore by Angus Heron, the old man who ran the lighthouse, and raised to keep that light on like it could save the world. It was romantic. Like a fairy tale. Like a song written by someone other than me. I told him about my music. Sang him a bit of “Lemuria Calling.”
“I have a secret,” he said, floating in the shallows, little harmless green jellyfish glowing along the strand like stage lights.
“Don’t we all?”
“I want to tell you mine.” He looked at me intensely, through his long wet gold hair. He looked at me like I was the answer at the back of a math book. “I . . . I can talk to fish. Not just fish. Dolphins and whales and seals and eels and scallops and crabs. I can talk to them, and when they talk back, I understand everything they say.”
I laughed. “So? Who can’t?”
John looked hurt. He actually blushed. “Well, pretty much everybody on the planet but me, actually. The truth is, I’m . . . I’m a superhero. People call me Avast.” I crooked one crystal, scaly eyebrow. “I fight . . . you know . . . injustice and villainy. I’m part of a group. The Union. With a bunch of other guys. Kid Mercury, Grimdark, the Insomniac, the Unstoppable Id, Chiaroscuro.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. I didn’t care about any of those stupid names. They sounded like particularly shitty scene bands. “I’m on the planet, John.”
But he was still in a huff because I wasn’t impressed by his little party trick. “On the planet. Not under it.”
“That’s such a mammalian thing to say,” I sighed. “‘The planet’ is seventy percent water, you know.”
John’s face broke apart. He gave in. He cared that much what I thought. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad.”
I rolled my eyes. “You can talk to fish. Fine. Can you breathe underwater? Or at least hold your breath for a really long time?”
Slowly, John Heron nodded. I narrowed my eyes. My catch of the day was starting to smell suspicious.
“How old are you?”
This was clearly the big one. He didn’t want to say. John couldn’t look at me and talk at the same time. He fiddled with some invisible thing in the water. “About . . . about eighty-five?”
He didn’t look a day out of college.
“Let me see your feet,” I sighed. But I already knew. You have got to be kidding me. What are the fucking chances?
I hadn’t noticed before. I know we had sex and everything, but I’m not really into feet that way. I checked under his arms and under his hair. John Heron, alleged human male, had webbed toes, gills, and tiny vestigial skull-fins the color of the jellyfish on the beach.
“Mystery solved,” I purred in his ear. “You’re one of us. Half one of us, anyway. Welcome to Freak City. Watch out—it gets real stupid here.”
• • •
And indeed it did get real stupid, real fast.
I shouldn’t have gotten knocked up. It’s so easy when you’re doing it with other fish! If it’s not mating season, I’m not releasing eggs and it’s all good times and kippers for breakfast after. But John’s got a lot of mammal in him, and I guess the rules are different. Probably what happened to his poor mother, whoever she was. Girl thought she was going topside for a bit of blow and strange and all of a sudden—BAM. Egged up something terrible. Atlantean girls go from zero to mum in about six weeks, so I just . . . stuck around. I couldn’t face my mother or Platypunk or Crowjack. I couldn’t face being on stage screaming out “Atlantean Idiot” with a big ol’ baby belly. It is the opposite of punk rock.
Illustration by Annie Wu.
The best part of giving birth was the look on John Heron’s face. I don’t know what he saw in his sex-ed filmstrips, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a green girl squatting in the ocean in broad daylight while she pushes out an aquamarine egg the size of a dinghy and tries to hide what’s happening from the kids in their floaties and swim trunks. He thought the daddy’s job was to smoke a cigar and change a couple of diapers, not to wait until nightfall to drag the egg onto the sand and secrete a nutritive acid from his eyes to dissolve the shell. I don’t think I ever loved him again as much as I did while he wept over our son, fire-colored gunk hissing and popping on the eggshell, laughing at the total bugfuck absurdity of what was happening to him. When the glassy blue egg had half-melted away, I reached my arms down into the last of the glittering yolk. I felt tiny fingers clutch my hand.
Look, I have never been anything but hardcore since I said my first swear, but when my son grabbed onto me for the first time, it was like a harpoon in the heart. Nothing ever hurt so much or felt so good. I lifted him out of the egg and held him in my arms. He didn’t cry. He held on to my hair in his fists.
Of course, he wasn’t him yet. Atlanteans are born hermaphroditic, telepathic, about as far along as a human two-year-old, and completely transparent. We pigment up over childhood. In kindergarten, most of us still have clear patches all over. I counted diamond ribs through crystal skin.
“It’ll be a boy in about a year,” I whispered to John.
We both stared at our child. I was amazed any creature could be so perfect and beautiful. John was amazed that his kid looked like a glass Christmas ornament of the baby Jesus.
We named him Angus. John insisted, after his foster father. I only gave in because everything else about Angus was all me. You’d never know he had any mammal in the mix at all. When he cried, it sounded like whale song. But when we were alone I called him Azure. A proper pedigreed Atlantean name for the secret prince of the sea. Because I still hadn’t told John who I was. Who my mother was. I liked just being Bayou for somebody in the world. Just being loved. But after Angus was born, we had to go home. Hatchlings just can’t live on land. It’d be like filling a baby’s bottle full of rum and cramming it up his nose all day. A growing boy needs salt water.
This is the part you’ve been waiting for. I know what stories fill the seats, and it’s not the one about the punk rock alligator princess getting knocked up. That’s what happens before the real story. Or offstage during an act break. Babies just sort of happen to heroes at random moments, like a new superpower, and then they’re off to the real excitement. But Angus and I happened to each other. Lucky accidents. All the way down, his gentle little voice spoke in my head, and my rough, air-shredded whiskey-whisper murmured in his. I kept looking over at John, swimming so beautifully, like he’d never walked in his life, wondering if he could hear us. But I guess he was too human for that.
Mama, what are those?
Those are orcas, Azure. We’ll sneak out while Daddy’s sleeping and play hide-and-seek with them, just you wait.
Mama, why is the ocean blue?
Because blue is the color of love, my darling. Everything good is blue.
We glided up the long road to the palace, and for once, it looked wonderful to me, in all its rusted trash-heap glory. I was going to present my mother with her first grandchild, with the chorus to a song I hadn’t even known I was playing, with the future. I flushed pink with pride. She’ll love you, I told John, though it was even money she’d hate him. Don’t be nervous. You’re coming home. Atlantis never turns away her own. Maybe we’ll even find your parents. One of them, anyway. You look kind of like this girl I know who plays the drums in Zombie Starfish and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
But the doors of the palace were shut. Not just shut, barricaded with the masts of the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste. Not just barricaded but guarded by two burly Atlanteans, a giant squid with anger issues, and a great white shark. Not just shut and barricaded and guarded but sporting a big sign with scrawly, terrible penmanship:
COMMONERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER OF MEGALODON
(AND ALSO BAYOU WHO CAN FUCK RIGHT OFF)
Six weeks is a long time to be gone, I guess. All the clubs had shut down till further notice. Platypunk and his family had gone into hiding. No one had any plankton and no one had any hope and no one had any idea what the hell was going on. Half the royal family was in lockup—Davy Jones’s Memorial Hospital for the Violent and Insane. And some asshole named Megalodon ruled Atlantis with an iron fin. But no one had seen the boss himself, only his muscle. So, what did we do? We did what anyone would do when they’re young and in love and looking after their first baby.
We beat the shit out of a shark.