Eating the Fish-Girl
For Dinner
At that moment the door opened and four liveried footmen appeared in the entrance, preceded by the majordomo.

On a kind of stretcher, covered with magnificent red brocade on which was designed the crest of the Dukes of Toledo, they carried, in the traditional manner, an immense solid silver tray, containing an enormous fish.

A gasp of joy and admiration passed down the table. "Here is the Siren!" exclaimed General Cork, turning to Mrs. Flat* and bowing.

The majordomo, assisted by the footmen, deposited the tray in the middle of the table, in front of General Cork and Mrs. Flat, and withdrew a few steps.

We all looked at the fish, and we turned pale. A feeble cry of horror escaped the lips of Mrs. Flat, and General Cork blanched.

In the middle of the tray was a little girl, or something that resembled a little girl. She lay face upwards on a bed of green lettuce leaves, encircled by a large wreath of pink coral stems. Her eyes were open, her lips half closed; and she was gazing with an expression of wonderment at Luca Giordano's painting of the "Triumph of Venus" which adorned the ceiling. She was naked; but her dark, shining skin, which was of the same purple color as Mrs. Flat's gown, was exactly like a well-fitted dress in the way in which it outlined her still callow yet already well-proportioned form, the gentle cur Eating the Fish-Girl for Dinner | Curzio Malaparte

Eating the Fish-Girl
For Dinner
At that moment the door opened and four liveried footmen appeared in the entrance, preceded by the majordomo.

On a kind of stretcher, covered with magnificent red brocade on which was designed the crest of the Dukes of Toledo, they carried, in the traditional manner, an immense solid silver tray, containing an enormous fish.

A gasp of joy and admiration passed down the table. "Here is the Siren!" exclaimed General Cork, turning to Mrs. Flat* and bowing.

The majordomo, assisted by the footmen, deposited the tray in the middle of the table, in front of General Cork and Mrs. Flat, and withdrew a few steps.

We all looked at the fish, and we turned pale. A feeble cry of horror escaped the lips of Mrs. Flat, and General Cork blanched.

In the middle of the tray was a little girl, or something that resembled a little girl. She lay face upwards on a bed of green lettuce leaves, encircled by a large wreath of pink coral stems. Her eyes were open, her lips half closed; and she was gazing with an expression of wonderment at Luca Giordano's painting of the "Triumph of Venus" which adorned the ceiling. She was naked; but her dark, shining skin, which was of the same purple color as Mrs. Flat's gown, was exactly like a well-fitted dress in the way in which it outlined her still callow yet already well-proportioned form, the gentle curve of her hips, her slightly protruding belly, her little virginal breasts, and her broad, plump shoulders.

She might have been not more than eight or ten years old, though at first sight, owing to the precocious development of her body, which was that of a grown woman, she looked fifteen.

Here and there, especially about the shoulders and hips, the skin had been torn or pulpified by the process of cooking, and through the cracks and fissures a glimpse was afforded of the tender flesh, which in some places was silvery, in others golden, so that she looked as if she were clad in purple and yellow --- just like Mrs. Flat.

And, like Mrs. Flat's, her face (which the heat of the boiling water had caused to burst out of its skin like an over-ripe fruit from its rind) resembled a shining mask of old porcelain, while her lips pouted, and her brow was deep and narrow, her eyes round and green. She had short, fin-like arms, pointed at the ends and similar in shape to hands with no fingers. Hairlike bristles protruded in a tuft from the top of her head and grew sparsely down the sides of her small face.

About her mouth the flesh was all puckered and, as it were, congealed in a kind of grimace that resembled a smile. Her flanks were long and slender, and terminated, exactly as Ovid says, in piscem --- in a fish's tail. The little girl lay on her silver bier; she seemed to be asleep.

But, owing to the unpardonable negligence of the cook, she slept as the dead sleep when no one has performed the merciful duty of lowering their eyelids: she slept with her eyes open. And she gazed at Luca Giordano's Tritons as they blew into their sea shells; at the dolphins as they galloped over the waves, dragging Venus's coach behind them; at Venus herself, sitting naked in her golden coach, and her retinue of pink and white nymphs; at Neptune, grasping his trident as he raced across the sea, drawn by his mettlesome white horses, still athirst for the innocent blood of Hippolytus. She gazed at the painting of the "Triumph of Venus" which adorned the ceiling --- at the blue sea, the silvery fishes, the green sea monsters, the white clouds that drifted across the horizon; and she smiled ecstatically. This was her sea, this was her lost country, the land of her dreams, the happy kingdom of the Sirens.

It was the first time I had ever seen a little girl who had been cooked, a little girl who had been boiled; and I was silent, gripped by a holy fear.

General Cork, who had the praiseworthy habit of concerning himself personally with the smallest details, had asked the majordomo what kind of fish it would be possible to catch in the Aquarium for the dinner he was giving in honor of Mrs. Flat.

"There's very little left," the majordomo had replied. "Only a Siren and a few stems of coral."

"Is it a good fish, the Siren?"

"Excellent!" the majordomo had replied, without batting an eyelid.

"And coral?" General Cork had asked ... "Is it good to eat?"

"No --- not coral. It's a little indigestible."

"Very well, then --- no coral."

"We can use it as a border," the majordomo had suggested imperturbably.

"That's fine!"

And the majordomo had written on the menu: Siren mayonnaise with a border of coral.

And now, pale-faced and dumb with surprise and horror, we were all looking at that poor dead child as she lay open-eyed in the silver tray, on a bed of green lettuce leaves, encircled by a wreath of pink coral stems.

How many poor Neapolitan mothers would have coveted such a wonderful wreath of coral for their own dead babes! Coral stems are like the branches of a flowering peach tree. They are a joy to behold; they lend a gay, springlike air to the dead bodies of little children. I looked at that poor boiled child, and I trembled inwardly with pity and pride. A wonderful country, Italy! I thought. What other people in the world can permit itself the luxury of offering Siren mayonnaise with a border of coral to a foreign army that has destroyed and invaded its country? Ah! It was worth losing the war just to see those American officers and that proud American woman sitting pale and horror-stricken round the table of an American general, on which, in a silver tray, reposed the body of a Siren, a sea goddess!

"Disgusting!" exclaimed Mrs. Flat, covering her eyes with her hands.

"Yes.. .I mean...yes..." stammered General Cork, pale and trembling.

"Take it away --- take this horrible thing away!" cried Mrs. Flat.

"I assure you that it's an excellent fish," I said.

"But we can't eat that...that girl ... that poor girl!" said Colonel Eliot.

"It isn't a girl," I said. "It's a fish."

"General," said Mrs. Flat in a stern voice, "I hope you won't force me to eat that... this... that poor girl!"

"But it's a fish!" said General Cork. "It's a first-rate fish! Malaparte says it's excellent. He knows..."

"I haven't come to Europe to be forced to eat human flesh by your friend Malaparte, or by you," said Mrs. Flat, her voice trembling with indignation. "Let's leave it to these barbarous Italians to eat children at dinner. I refuse. I am an honest American woman. I don't eat Italian children! What would they say in Washington, General, what would they say at the War Department, if they knew that the guests at your dinners ate boiled girls?"

"I mean ... yes ... of course ..." stammered General Cork, giving me a look of supplication.

"Boiled girls with mayonnaise!" added Mrs. Flat in an icy voice.

"You are forgetting the border of coral," I said, as if I thought thereby to absolve General Cork.

"I am not forgetting the coral!" said Mrs. Flat, giving me a devastating look.

"Take it away!" shouted General Cork suddenly to the majordomo, pointing to the Siren. "Take that thing away!"

"General, wait a moment, please," said Colonel Brown, the chaplain attached to G.H.Q. "We must bury that ... that poor kid."

"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Flat.

"We must bury this ... this ... I mean ..." said the chaplain.

"Do you mean ... ?" said General Cork.

"Yes, I mean bury," said the chaplain.

"But... it's a fish," said General Cork. "It may be a fish," said the chaplain, "but it looks more like a little girl ... Allow me to insist: it is our duty to bury this little girl ... I mean, this fish. We are Christians. Are we not Christians?"

"I have my doubts!" said Mrs. Flat, gazing at General Cork with an expression of cold contempt.

"Yes, I suppose ..." replied General Cork.

"We must bury it," said Colonel Brown.

"All right," said General Cork. "But where should we bury it? I would say, throw it on the ash heap. That seems the simplest thing to me."

"No," said the chaplain. "One never knows. It's not at all certain that it is a real fish. We must give it a more decent burial."

"But there are no cemeteries for fish in Naples!" said General Cork, turning to me.

"I don't think there are any," I said. "The Neapolitans don't bury fish --- they eat them."

"We could bury it in the garden," said the chaplain.

"That's a good idea," said General Cork, his face clearing. "We can bury it in the garden." And turning to the majordomo he added: "Please go and bury this thing ... this poor fish in the garden."

"Yes, General," said the majordomo, bowing, and meanwhile the footmen lifted the gleaming solid silver bier on which the poor dead Siren lay and put it on the stretcher.

"I said bury it," said General Cork. "I forbid you to eat it in the kirchen!"

"Yes, General," said the majordomo. "But it's a pity! Such a lovely fish!"

--- Slightly edited from
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
David Moore, Translator
©2013 NYRB Books
*Mrs. Flat was later identified as Clare Booth-Luce
ve of her hips, her slightly protruding belly, her little virginal breasts, and her broad, plump shoulders.

She might have been not more than eight or ten years old, though at first sight, owing to the precocious development of her body, which was that of a grown woman, she looked fifteen.

Here and there, especially about the shoulders and hips, the skin had been torn or pulpified by the process of cooking, and through the cracks and fissures a glimpse was afforded of the tender flesh, which in some places was silvery, in others golden, so that she looked as if she were clad in purple and yellow --- just like Mrs. Flat.

And, like Mrs. Flat's, her face (which the heat of the boiling water had caused to burst out of its skin like an over-ripe fruit from its rind) resembled a shining mask of old porcelain, while her lips pouted, and her brow was deep and narrow, her eyes round and green. She had short, fin-like arms, pointed at the ends and similar in shape to hands with no fingers. Hairlike bristles protruded in a tuft from the top of her head and grew sparsely down the sides of her small face.

About her mouth the flesh was all puckered and, as is were, congealed in a kind of grimace that resembled a smile. Her flanks were long and slender, and terminated, exactly as Ovid says, in piscem --- in a fish's tail. The little girl lay on her silver bier; she seemed to be asleep.

But, owing to the unpardonable negligence of the cook, she slept as the dead sleep when no one has performed the merciful duty of lowering their eyelids: she slept with her eyes open. And she gazed at Luca Giordano's Tritons as they blew into their sea shells; at the dolphins as they galloped over the waves, dragging Venus's coach behind them; at Venus herself, sitting naked in her golden coach, and her retinue of pink and white nymphs; at Neptune, grasping his trident as he raced across the sea, drawn by his mettlesome white horses, still athirst for the innocent blood of Hippolytus. She gazed at the painting of the "Triumph of Venus" which adorned the ceiling --- at the blue sea, the silvery fishes, the green sea monsters, the white clouds that drifted across the horizon; and she smiled ecstatically. This was her sea, this was her lost country, the land of her dreams, the happy kingdom of the Sirens.

It was the first time I had ever seen a little girl who had been cooked, a little girl who had been boiled; and I was silent, gripped by a holy fear.

General Cork, who had the praiseworthy habit of concerning himself personally with the smallest details, had asked the majordomo what kind of fish it would be possible to catch in the Aquarium for the dinner he was giving in honor of Mrs. Flat.

"There's very little left," the majordomo had replied. "Only a Siren and a few stems of coral."

"Is it a good fish, the Siren?"

"Excellent!" the majordomo had replied, without batting an eyelid.

"And coral?" General Cork had asked ... "Is it good to eat?"

"No --- not coral. It's a little indigestible."

"Very well, then --- no coral."

"We can use it as a border," the majordomo had suggested imperturbably.

"That's fine!"

And the majordomo had written on the menu: Siren mayonnaise with a border of coral.

And now, pale-faced and dumb with surprise and horror, we were all looking at that poor dead child as she lay open-eyed in the silver tray, on a bed of green lettuce leaves, encircled by a wreath of pink coral stems.

How many poor Neapolitan mothers would have coveted such a wonderful wreath of coral for their own dead babes! Coral stems are like the branches of a flowering peach tree. They are a joy to behold; they lend a gay, springlike air to the dead bodies of little children. I looked at that poor boiled child, and I trembled inwardly with pity and pride. A wonderful country, Italy! I thought. What other people in the world can permit itself the luxury of offering Siren mayonnaise with a border of coral to a foreign army that has destroyed and invaded its country? Ah! It was worth losing the war just to see those American officers and that proud American woman sitting pale and horror-stricken round the table of an American general, on which, in a silver tray, reposed the body of a Siren, a sea goddess!

"Disgusting!" exclaimed Mrs. Flat, covering her eyes with her hands.

"Yes.. .I mean...yes..." stammered General Cork, pale and trembling.

"Take it away --- take this horrible thing away!" cried Mrs. Flat.

"I assure you that it's an excellent fish," I said.

"But we can't eat that...that girl ... that poor girl!" said Colonel Eliot.

"It isn't a girl," I said. "It's a fish."

"General," said Mrs. Flat in a stern voice, "I hope you won't force me to eat that... this... that poor girl!"

"But it's a fish!" said General Cork. "It's a first-rate fish! Malaparte says it's excellent. He knows..."

"I haven't come to Europe to be forced to eat human flesh by your friend Malaparte, or by you," said Mrs. Flat, her voice trembling with indignation. "Let's leave it to these barbarous Italians to eat children at dinner. I refuse. I am an honest American woman. I don't eat Italian children! What would they say in Washington, General, what would they say at the War Department, if they knew that the guests ar your dinners ate boiled girls?"

"I mean ... yes ... of course ..." stammered General Cork, giving me a look of supplication.

"Boiled girls with mayonnaise!" added Mrs. Flat in an icy voice.

"You are forgetting the border of coral," I said, as if I thought thereby to absolve General Cork.

"I am not forgetting the coral!" said Mrs. Flat, giving me a devastating look.

"Take it away!" shouted General Cork suddenly to the majordomo, pointing to the Siren. "Take that thing away!"

"General, wait a moment, please," said Colonel Brown, the chaplain attached to G.H.Q. "We must bury that ... that poor kid."

"What?" exclaimed Mrs. Flat.

"We must bury this ... this ... I mean ..." said the chaplain.

"Do you mean ... ?" said General Cork.

"Yes, I mean bury," said the chaplain.

"But... it's a fish," said General Cork. "It may be a fish," said the chaplain, "but it looks more like a little girl ... Allow me to insist: it is our duty to bury this little girl ... I mean, this fish. We are Christians. Are we not Christians?"

"I have my doubts!" said Mrs. Flat, gazing at General Cork with an expression of cold contempt.

"Yes, I suppose ..." replied General Cork.

"We must bury it," said Colonel Brown.

"All right," said General Cork. "But where should we bury it? I would say, throw it on the ash heap. That seems the simplest thing to me."

"No," said the chaplain. "One never knows. It's not at all certain that it is a real fish. We must give it a more decent burial."

"But there are no cemeteries for fish in Naples!" said General Cork, turning to me.

"I don't think there are any," I said. "The Neapolitans don't bury fish --- they eat them."

"We could bury it in the garden," said the chaplain.

"That's a good idea," said General Cork, his face clearing. "We can bury it in the garden." And turning to the majordomo he added: "Please go and bury this thing ... this poor fish in the garden."

"Yes, General," said the majordomo, bowing, and meanwhile the footmen lifted the gleaming solid silver bier on which the poor dead Siren lay and put it on the stretcher.

"I said bury it," said General Cork. "I forbid you to eat it in the kirchen!"

"Yes, General," said the majordomo. "But it's a pity! Such a lovely fish!"

--- Slightly edited from
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
David Moore, Translator
©2013 NYRB Books
*Mrs. Flat was later identified as Clare Booth-Luce
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