The Lies You Learned
by S. Qiouyi Lu
When you were a child, an illusionist took your tongue.
You could not call the illusionist a thief, though,
for he gave you a new tongue: it rested in your mouth
the same way your old tongue did, a tiny beast curled
against the back of your teeth.
The contours of your sentences transformed.
No longer did your words glitter with a symphony
of tones. Instead, you spoke in broad cadences,
never realizing that each word echoed
with the illusionist’s voice.
The illusionist made you believe that your skin,
ochre-rich as the silt of the Yellow River, was ugly.
He made you believe that your willow-leaf eyes
were too small, too narrow, too brown.
He made you believe that hair spun of gold
was more valuable than the inky black locks
flowing over your own shoulder.
But he fed you promises too, laced
with gossamer-sweet expectations:
Be my apprentice. Perform
for me. I can show you how to hide
your flaws, to become powerful,
beloved. I can make you
When you look in the mirror, you see
only the illusionist’s vision of you.
He strokes your cheek, whispers poisons
that you take as truths: your body
is foreign, disgusting, Other, and yet
desirable, delectable, a delicacy
to be consumed.
You believe him. You wear this contradiction.
You want so desperately to please him.
The illusionist pulls you taut: a cat’s cradle.
You lay bare, eyes closed to your shame
as you bite back words that would betray you.
Please, you say instead, inviting the audience in.
See what shapes you can coax out of me.
You tell yourself that this eroticism
brings you pleasure, that it will make you
The illusionist smiles.
The curtains fall. For a moment, you’re
alone. You tell yourself that the audience
adored you, that they enjoyed you, that
you did well.
If you could relive that performance,
you could hang on to that adoration, that
enchantment forever. But you struggle
to contort yourself back into one of those
beautiful shapes: star, bridge, ties.
Without hands to shape you, you are lost.
The illusionist knows you. You’re lucky to
have him, for right then, he slips into your
chambers: You were beautiful. You’re a
natural. He assuages you. He loves you,
loves your exoticism. He turns your pain
into pleasure, your humiliation into such
Give in, my dear. Always
You learn that yes is a word of power, for
if you always say yes, you can control your past,
rewrite every event
as something you wanted.
The illusionist works hard
to keep you quiet, isolated, dependent
on his attention, his validation.
But there are places where his illusions
crack. Tonight, when you perform,
you do not look over the audience, but
into their faces.
At first, you see only
more illusionists, how pleased
they are, how they applaud, how even
if they know every slight of hand, you
still manage to dazzle them.
Then you see
You did not know there were others, but
of course there are others. This one is
a woman with eyes darker than the Mariana
Trench, eyes that show you her pain, that
reawaken your own hurt, magnify you both.
She opens her mouth. Her tongue
is scarred, but when she speaks
her voice is gentle:
The illusionist has a skeleton key, but
you know now that there are places
that can be safe, if only
for a moment.
You hate this apprentice at first, the way
she unmakes illusions, unravels you.
But soon you realize that she sees you,
that she witnesses you, that she needs no
illusion to accept you and to love you.
The first time you tear your tongue
you bleed for days, cottonmouthed scarlet,
but this is a pain you want to bear, that
you must bear:
There is no anesthesia for the excision
In time, you will heal.
Your words will no longer echo
with the illusionist’s voice.
For now, she wipes away your tears
as she sheds her own.