An Eroticism of the Eyes

Reviewed by Stephanie Dickinson

"Pay enough money to the right person and travel for hours across several borders, and you’ll find me and my sister and no one’s daughter in this secret theater where white flowers sway" (9).

Call it sex slavery in a primordial Garden of Eden where instead of innocence before sin, innocents are brought to a hidden garden of depravity. Welcome to the world of flower masks, stolen daughters, cabinets, runaway sons, wrappings, and bone puppets. In this allegorical meditation, Aimee Parkison, a 2004 Starcherone Innovative Prize winner, has delivered a universe entire. Peopled by captured children and those who feed upon them, The Petals of Your Eyes seduces the reader with its baleful beauty, rich imagery and elegant language, yet the text is chilling: a death-saturated voyeurism laced with “white flowers falling” (11).  Like Roberta Allen in The Dreaming Girl, Parkison renders the carnivorous nature of the jungle, where snakes swallow birds and “birds eat lizards leaping among leaves,” (10) a jungle that shelters a carnivorous secret theater. We see the secret theater in bits and pieces; the setting, an isolated mansion, rooms within rooms where the kidnapped are brought. The performance might be actual, with a new actor, a runaway boy hung from the wall, his feet bound feet. Garrotes, ticklers, a mask, are alluded to. Parkison does not linger; her image-myth-making facility is larger than scene.

The language mirrors the jungle’s lushness, its “water lily soul,” (11) and the omnipresent flowers and their whiteness heighten the sense of the captives’ purity as well as soften the recital of ongoing horror. Parkison’s protagonist, a naïve 14-year-old girl (the rose) who was captured on a cruise along with her sister (the gardenia) ushers us into the unearthly delights. In the secret theater there are few names as naming implies personhood, so instead Parkison features directors and ticket takers. Patrons and trainers. Dressers with gentle hands and photographers who arrange girls inside glass containers, “tying our legs open, adjusting the straps” (8). Live photos of girls lure tourists who pay to become theatergoers. The theatergoer graduates, as an audience member, to choosing a girl to be removed from the cabinet, or to getting inside a cabinet with either a living or dead girl. Throughout The Petals of Your Eyes there is the sense that the border between life and death has been breached, life has “curled in final heartbeats,” (10) and that cruelty and kindness are inseparable. New directors beget old directors, roles shift; genders are mutable—androgynous, inter-species, hybrid.

Along with not providing characters’ names, the novel offers no extended scenes; thus readers are never allowed to fully ground themselves. Rather than being a mocker of narrative, Parkison seems more a mistress of innuendo and suggestiveness; she tells but mystifies. The more readers learn, the more they desire to know, perhaps wishing that the recitation would slow and unfold, yet the novel rushes on, detail upon detail. Men wear false wings and false eyelashes. There are older women here, animals whose tongues have been removed: "Long ago, the usher had surgically removed the scarred women's tongues.  He fed human tongues to eagles and called the tongue-less humans animals" (54).  There are golden beetles and tiger lilies; every sentence scintillates with another shiny object that evokes captivity and capture. We are enthralled, our senses overwhelmed by a drench of lyricism, yet we do not discover the how and why and who. We only glean a momentary what is. And herein lies the brilliance of Parkison’s tale.

What makes this novel ultimately seductively appealing rather than repellent are the purity of the child narrator’s voice, gentle and without guile, the cinematic imagery that delights in natural beauty, and an empathetic italicized mantra that repeats throughout the text. “He is lost. Find him and set a nourishing dinner beside the blazing fire … He is whimpering. Sit close and look into his eyes …” (24). The mantra functions as prayer, a blessing that releases light into the surrounding darkness.

Is The Petals of Your Eyes an embellished representation of our computer age’s eroticism of the eyes? Or, more particularly, of Internet child porn characterized by secrecy, hidden chatrooms, and anonymous predators? Somewhere a camera is capturing children for this private audience. Conclaves of the likeminded—the theatergoers. “Perhaps they think because we are children we will not judge them” (34). The penetration resides in the relationship of seeing, between the viewer and the viewed, in the act of capture. In the secret theater a dog is burned alive “… that dying, dancing dog, trying to escape the flames of its body and then trying only to escape the body” (107). This is the style of the horror and the speed with which it flashes by. The profusion of Parkison’s images—at times almost a disparate bombardment of them—mimics our screentime as we click from website to website.

The core eroticism in the novel besides the jungle-like language is the kissing and love-play between no one’s daughter and the rose. Described more fully and appearing more often than other characters, no one’s daughter “at 17, looks like a tiny woman with heavy rounded breasts, long chestnut hair,” (8) and her milk-giving nipples the rose suckles from. When the rose’s sister dies from the drug/potion she’s been given to sedate her, the particulars remain oblique. It is the post-mortem rituals that interest Parkison and these she renders with poetic precision. The body is first wrapped in lace, and then buried. Later the body is unearthed. “Scraping off the beetles and worms, I cradle the corpse as she [no one’s daughter] strings it with wire and rope. A heavy puppet, my sister is more than just bones …” (84). No one’s daughter, the mythic Ur-mother, continues to create puppets from the unearthed skeletons of dead children. Around the sister’s grave are bones of children, “tiny children, most of them the size of infants, or smaller, only partially formed” (83). No one’s daughter performs puppet shows. A contemporary dance macabre. Are they her dead babies? This would explain why her breasts are always milk-giving. The question is never answered nor should it be. Is no one’s daughter a victim, or is she one of the directors or producers? The rose concludes: “… she is a better actor than the others. Even though she pretends otherwise, she has been in charge of the secret theater all along. She is the one who secretly orders the girls into cabinets, even my sister and me. I fear no one’s daughter is no one I could ever really know. Yet, I love her still …” (48).

Diverse cultures have long believed in the female as ornament/captive. There are echoes in Parkison of the now outlawed Chinese foot binding practice, once called the “gilded lily” or “golden lotus.” Feet were broken when girls were still children, then tightly wrapped in bindings, leading these girls to a lifetime of walking with the swaying gait of the mutilated. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, elaborate rituals and rules exist for confined women, and in her dystopian Year of the Flood, sex workers are imprisoned in fish-scaled body suits, and then suspended from the ceiling on trapezes. Parkison takes the idea of captivity farther--for instance, Inside the mansion in The Petals of Your Eyes, there are rooms where captured owls are kept, and they’ve become so comfortable that they fear being released; when the windows are thrown open, these creatures of the night cower.

Another book which resonates with Parkinson’s novel is Joy Williams' The Changling, in which the protagonist is trapped on an island with a group of untamed children. Similar to Williams, Aimee Parkison has written an allegorical narrative some might call a disturbing fairy tale. Yet fairy tale we know it is not; although a metaphor that we also recognize as figuratively true, we also know that it is real somewhere. We understand there are sinister and expensive tastes. Some of the world’s rarest birds are captured or killed for the ultra-cuisine of the ultra-rich. There are rich safari clubs whose members hunt almost extinct species. The Petals of Your Eyes seems a fitting allegory for the 21st century—the Internet age of voyeurism (the eroticism of the eyes) with its millions of theatergoers who visit porn sites, or those fewer in number, the audience for the secret theater of child porn. Parkison has accomplished much; she’s fashioned an unforgettable, chiseled text for our time and beyond. 

Stephanie Dickinson

Stephanie Dickinson was raised in rural Iowa and has passed time in Wyoming, Oregon, Minnesota, Texas, and Louisiana. She now lives in New York City. Along with Rob Cook, she publishes and edits the new literary journal Skidrow Penthouse. Her novel, Half Girl, won the Hackney Award (Birmingham-Southern) for best unpublished novel. It is now published in a limited edition by Spuyten Duvyil.