On paydays we ate at Hometown Buffet. Mama dressed older to get the senior discount: scab-colored sweater, wool scarf that camouflaged the scar on her neck, a broomstick for a cane. She always said that white people can never tell Asian age, and she was right—half of us got the children’s discount, and the lady behind the counter handed us all kids’ trays, the ones with walled-off compartments for the entrée and side dish and dessert. My brothers and I strategized beforehand, sketching diagrams of the buffet on our palms and circling our territories with laundry markers: my eldest brother got entrees; my middle brothers got appetizers, side dishes, salads, and breads; my youngest brother got drinks (where he mixed Coke and lemonade into a dark amber mix that Mama called a thirsty man’s piss); and I manned the soft-serve machine. We knew the soft-serve would make us shit a watery stew, that we’d go home and crowd our only bathroom, bumping asses while all trying to squat over the same toilet bowl. But we ate it anyway, chocolate and vanilla braided together, the two colors slurring to a flesh-hue in our bowls. I thought it was miraculous, that you could lift a silver lever and make the cream come out endlessly, an engineered infinity. No one telling me to stop. At home, Mama told me to stop biting my noodles in the middle because it would sever my life short. I make them long for a reason, she said. After that, I imagined that the noodles in my mouth were alive, that if I bit one it would burst like a vein, bleed me out onto my plate. I started swallowing my noodles whole, tilting my head back to gulp like a fish until my middlest brother told me to stop because it was slutty.
At the buffet, the only table we fit around was the big one in the center of the crust-carpeted dining room. Everyone watched us eat. My brothers’ mouths were heavy machinery, their teeth threshing meat from bone, their tongues endless as conveyor belts.
First brother loved watching the white man with an arm-sized knife slice a glazed ham: gloves up to his elbows, knife a serrated saw. I want a knife like that, he said, and when we asked him what he’d use it for, he said I’m going to live in the wild and eat only what I kill. He was always packing his schoolbag to run away, taking the emergency flashlight from under Mama’s bed, Ziploc bags full of raw rice, rope he braided from dental floss, and the Peter-Rabbit-printed blanket he shared with my youngest brother. But he always changed his mind within a few hours, and by that time Mama had already told us to lock all the doors and shut the windows and pin the curtains closed. Sometimes she’d leave him a plate of fish outside the door of the house with no chopsticks and say let him eat like a dog. I fell asleep waiting by the door and woke to the scrape of his nails against the plate, a pitch higher than prayer. I don’t yet know how to name the shame of that sound. I could only wait silently on the other side of his hunger. When Mama finally let him back in, it was morning and the sky bled light. First brother put everything back in the order he took them, starting with the flashlight he tucked back under the bed: I saw him check the batteries, clicking it on and off as if testing to make sure it’d last ‘til the next time he left.
The flashlight was the only thing Baba ever bought for himself. He saw it in a TV ad: a flashlight with a clock embedded in its side that shows military time. Mama asked what the point of the clock was, but Baba could never give a good reason for it. The flashlight required twice the batteries and was twice as heavy as a regular one, the silver barrel so wide-around I couldn’t hold it in one hand.
Once, Baba found a handprint on the wall, a translucent grease stain that stank of the leftover chicken Mama kept in the fridge. A carcass we all thieved from. That week, we pinched the flesh off its thighs whenever we were hungry, and sometimes even when we weren’t. Baba made us all place our hands on the stain, though we already knew whose it matched: First brother was born with big hands, too big for his body even now. Mama said this meant he’d grow up to be a gambler or a thief. The larger the hands, the greater your gains. The greater your losses. When First brother’s hand matched the stain, Baba took the flashlight out from under the bed and beat him ‘til the batteries flew out. The first time he left, First brother flicked on the flashlight and shined it into my face, watching as I winced away. I just wanted to check if it was broken, he said.
When the buffet began to close and we were the last family left, Mama bagged our bones. She plucked the gnawed-over drumsticks and teeth-ragged wings off our plates, wrapped them in napkins, and folded them away in her purse. Later she’d sit in front of the TV and suck the marrow out the way I never learned how, her face white-lit by the soap opera she already knew the end of. Her teeth perforating the bones. When she fell asleep with chicken bones piled like a pyre on her chest, my brothers and I carried her up the stairs. I held her head. There were seven of us in total, not enough limbs to go around, so two of my brothers walked alongside us as we carried her swinging body. We loved our mother most when she was weightless, divided between our hands; when each of us held a separate piece of her and thought we’d still have time to trade. I knew the stories about the miscarriages before us, First brother knew the ones about the grin-shaped scar on her neck, Second brother knew where the gold was kept, Third brother knew why she wouldn’t say the word funeral, Fourth brother knew exactly whose face was in her newspaper clippings, Fifth brother knew why she kept the cabinet under the sink locked, and none of us knew what exactly Sixth brother knew. To know everything all at once would drown us, so we treaded at the level of fact: who, what, when, where.
Who: our mother. Two days after giving birth to me, she got a phone call that said her mother was dead. The last thing Ahma had said to her: Six sons are a winning streak. You can stop now. I broke the streak and Ahma had a stroke. My mother put me down in the crib and didn’t touch me for two days, even when I cried. I was the crime scene. The weapon she didn’t know she was carrying. My aunts said maybe I was Ahma reincarnated, that Ahma’s soul had fled her body for mine, that I lived with two people in my body. They sent phone numbers of shamans to consult over FaceTime. My mother breastfed me on the third day, when I was nearly dead, and I buttoned my lips to her breast as she wept. Now I eat only salty things, fermented bean curd and black bean, spaghetti-and-fish-sauce, my mouth acquiring a taste for mourning.
At Hometown Buffet I emptied salt packets onto my slice of ham, trying to chase away its sugar-rind sweetness. My mother probed her chicken breast. That’s the problem with meat in America, she said. You can never tell what part of the animal it’s from. You can’t even tell it is an animal. I said isn’t it easier this way, to eat anonymity. My mother said it scared her, the facelessness of our food, its skinless silhouette. To not know what we’ve been fed. To not know what we’ve become to our bodies.
The year Second brother lost his memories, Baba gave birth to salt. Baba stayed in the hospital for three days while they cut three salt-stones out of him. The doctor told him to lower his sodium intake, no soy sauce for at least a month. Mama kept the pink-clear stones in a tin can and rattled them once a day, saying it would scare the salt-ghosts away. We asked her what a salt-ghost was and she said it was the spirit of a refugee who died in the Strait. She said Baba had almost been one. My brothers and I took turns cupping the stones in our palms. They were the color of raw salmon and jagged, so sharp I was afraid to hold them. I imagined they were still warm from his body, that if I slid one into my mouth it would dissolve and rebuild itself into a diamond inside me.
Mama boiled Coca-Cola with ginger and lemon, spooned it hot into Baba’s mouth. She said the sugar would cancel out all the salt in his body, and for a whole year she cooked only sweet things, dates stuffed with rice cake, sticky rice with red bean, guava slices rolled in chili-salt and honeyed. Second brother bought cans of Coke from the high school vending machine and brought them home for Mama to boil. At school, his classmates’ favorite game was to ask what he was holding: Coke, my second brother said, pronouncing it like cock. His classmates asked again and again, one of the boys laughing so hard he bit his own tongue into a bloody sponge. Cock-drinker, they called him, until even the teacher accidentally said it once.
Baba was mad at the salt in his body. It made him miss three whole days of studying. He was going to be a physicist, he told us, though he was the oldest person in his class and this was his second time going back to school. He tried to teach us all the principles of physics, like a body in motion stays in motion. He liked to demonstrate all his lessons: once, he held Second brother by his shirt collar and rolled him down our hardwood staircase. Second brother’s body kept going even after his head bounced off the bottom stair. He slid across our newly-waxed floor and ricocheted off the far wall. Then he was still. A body at rest stays at rest, Baba said. Second brother didn’t wake up until dinner. He said he’d dreamed of swimming in a sea made of sugarwater instead of saltwater, that he gave up swimming halfway and started drinking, the sweetness of the water clotting to sap in his belly. We asked him where he’d been swimming and he said he forgot.
After the car accident on his 18th birthday, the first thing Second brother remembered was that time Baba bowled him down the stairs when he was ten. A body in motion stays in motion. When he hit the other car head on, his body kept moving forward and punched through the front windshield. His body lolled out like a tongue. The paramedics extracted him from the glass but kept the shard in his belly intact: if they pulled it from him, he’d bleed out in seconds. What was killing him was the same thing keeping him alive.
In the hospital, my second brother ate sweet things: Jell-O cups, instant hot chocolate, over-sugared coffee. Fig Newtons from the vending machine. Baba recognized Newton but asked us what fig meant. It’s a fruit, I said, and Baba said did you know an apple discovered gravity? He told me the story of Newton asleep under an apple tree, how a falling fruit knocked him out of his head and made him famous. At the end of the story, Baba rapped the top of my skull with his closed fist and said that’s gravity. For years I thought gravity was when you were knocked in the head. What happened to your brother, my classmates would ask, after Second brother went back to school with a bandage around his forehead and jaw, his head swathed like a mummy’s. Gravity, I said, and they looked at me like I’d been hit too.
Mama slept in a plastic chair by the bed, upright all night, her braided hair greasy as a wick. Sometimes we thought Second brother was faking what he forgot, that he really just wanted to stay in the hospital for as long as possible, where the nurses called him handsome and sponged him clean, where the morphine was free. We tried to trick him into remembering: Cock-drinker, we said, chanting around his bed. What’s that in your mouth? Cock! But he always looked at us with confusion, his eyes dilated to dimes. He was perpetually dazed, like a man emerged from a cave after living in the darkness for decades. His first day home, he climbed up our stairs with both hands on the railing, wouldn’t let go even when he got to the top. Let go, we said. Instead he walked backwards, all the way down, still holding on.
Lamb at sea
The night Baba left the mainland for Taiwan, Communists patrolled the skin of the shore, their bloated trucks like blood-fat leeches. No refugee ships could dock safely, so Baba had to swim out to meet it. He had never swum farther than the width of a river, the one that nosed through his city at the speed of concrete. Now in the water, with a sack of rice strapped to his back where he thought it’d stay dry, he prayed for something in his body to fail. He wanted to stop, to be stopped, to leave dead or not at all. He thought about giving up, pickling his legs in the sea, letting his lungs become sponge. He wanted to flip onto his back and float up to the stars, lick away their light. Instead, he swam like a dog, paddling gracelessly, sloshing water into his eyes and mouth until he was salt-sick, gagging.
When he reached the ship, repurposed from the French military, the crew said there was no more room aboard. Baba said he had gold. They threw him a rope, dragged him in. Out of his anus, Baba pulled out an entire gold necklace, seemingly endless, shit-smeared but still the color of sun. It had been his mother’s. The deck was so crowded he walked across bodies to find a spot. Everyone had chosen something different to take: bags of oranges, schoolbooks, children, servants. One woman even clung to a live goat, its little body bleating with so much grief that another passenger threatened to tear its throat open with her teeth.
Baba claimed that when he got to the island, he only ate three grains of rice at a time. I didn’t shit for a decade, he said. He even ate pineapple skin out of other people’s trash, the green-barbed hide piercing his stomach from the inside, deflating it. I thought of my father as a balloon with holes. You could blow all you want, but it would never become a shape. Baba could never cast a shadow. My brothers and I made him stand outside in the sun, posing him in every position like a mannequin, but still he never left behind an outline. I left my body behind in Hunan, he said. For a year before he left the mainland, Baba learned how to swim away from the Communists. His mother stood on the riverbank, impersonating a soldier, her arm aimed like a rifle. If I can see you, you’re dead, she said, so Baba held his breath and went deep, his mother’s voice following him under like a bullet.
The doctor once said Baba’s body is full of stuck things: salt that won’t dissolve into his blood, shit that clogs his guts like leaves in a gutter. So Third brother became a surgeon so that Baba would be his first patient. In a lifetime the salt-stones in Baba’s groin had expanded into an entire formation, a quarry, a salt canyon. We all went to the hospital the day of his second surgery, Third brother in his white mask and blue gloves, scrubs, shiny black shoes that made his feet look like dung beetles. Baba was wheeled into the operating room and Fourth brother was flirting with a nurse in the waiting area.
I was the only one who saw: Third brother, when he was still in medical school, would practice using the scalpel on himself. I once saw him make a diagonal cut on his kneecap and peel the skin back, exposing the bone. It was the whitest thing I’d ever seen, whiter than salt or sugar, so white I didn’t know how the body could bear its own purity. His hands shook inside their skin. He stitched his skin back into place and wore long pants for three months.
My third and fourth brothers were twins, and even Mama couldn’t tell them apart the first few years. Fourth brother dropped out of my mother when she was already back from the hospital, after she delivered brother three painlessly. She walked through the door and he fell out of her like rain. He was the size of a fist, so small the ultrasounds didn’t detect him, and Mama planted him like a seed in the backyard and watered his spine tall like a sapling. Fourth brother went to medical school too, but then he dropped out and became a waiter after his girlfriend got pregnant.
Mama had been a waitress all her life, even back on the island, where there was no such thing as tipping. The first time she waited in America, at an Applebee’s in our city, another waiter asked her how much did he tip you? And Mama said no, he didn’t even touch me. After Fourth brother became a waiter, Mama refused to speak to him, even over the phone, even after Fourth brother’s baby was born so early it died, its heart too small to carry blood for the whole body. Mama said Fourth brother had broken her heart, that she could have had two doctors for sons but now only had one. Fourth brother sent Mama a whole crate of bitter melon, Mama’s favorite, but she wouldn’t even touch them.
Her second job as a waitress was at a Sichuanese restaurant, where even the décor was chili-red, and the mapo tofu singed her cheeks. Her third night on the job, she waited at a table where Baba sat, though he wasn’t our Baba yet. Every time Mama turned away from the table, her apron came undone, the string unspooling to the floor. She had to catch the fabric at her waist before it dripped to the ground. It happened twice before she realized the man at the table was pulling the apron-string every time she had her back to him. Stop doing that, she said finally, whipping around. The man laughed and said who says it’s me? His teeth were neat as strung pearls. He shrugged and his whole head receded into his sharp-boned shoulders. She couldn’t help but laugh too, and by the end of his meal, she had given him her apron. That night in bed, he balled up the apron under his head like a pillow, its greasy fabric painted with chili oil and soy sauce. Mama almost went to school, but instead she had my first brother. She asked Baba for the apron, but he never gave it back.
When the bitter melon didn’t unsilence her, my fourth brother sent her a potted orchid that turned out to be made of plastic. Mama set it on fire in the backyard, the sour smell of singed plastic stalking us into the house. The neighbors called us to complain. Fourth brother’s girlfriend had been a student too, an aspiring pediatrician, and now she wasn’t going back to school. We heard that after her baby died, she stopped eating or drinking and pissing and shitting. Fourth brother kept a collection of syringes to inject fluids into her veins, which turned black and visible as bruises.
When Second brother said it was better anyway because they couldn’t have supported a baby, we all said it was because he’d hit his head in that car accident. It turned him cruel. I imagined that his brain was like a bruised apple, a soft black spot breeding itself bigger and bigger until it became the whole fruit.
One night, on a Saturday or Sunday, Fourth brother came to our door after dinner. He sat with his back to the door until it was nearly morning, the sun spreading its light like butter. Mama finally let him in, and that’s when we saw his left hand dangling from his arm like an ornament. His wrist was floppy, unable to support the weight of itself. When Third brother examined it, he said the bones were broken to breadcrumbs. Mama didn’t ask, so we did: Fourth brother said his girlfriend had done it last night with a meat mallet. She was crying while she did it, and he’d been in bed, asleep until the first blow bit into his wrist. The blood was everywhere like a birth, soaking through the mattress, and he stayed lying down. He held still while she brought the mallet down harder and harder, crying until she stopped. He accepted his punishment, his hand numb after the sixth or seventh hit, and then it was over. She put the mallet in the sink and sat down on the ground and stared at her hands that had been died in. Her baby had been smaller than a palm.
Fourth brother went to the ER, but he fled the room as soon as the doctor left to prepare the molding for his cast. He thought of us and came home.
Fourth brother passed out halfway through the story, so I made up most of it. Later I’d say he got hit by a car, a story to match my second brother’s. It was easier to consolidate that way. Third brother carried him bridal-style to the sofa in our living room, then faked a cast out of cardboard and duct tape. A smell sharpened the air, almost bloody, full of garlic: bitter melon soup, a pot of it, my mother stirring and stirring. She broke open the crate and skinned each melon, slicing their skinny bodies lengthwise. In the pot, the pale melon-flesh boiled velvety, the steam hiding her face. My brothers and I ladled gluey melon into bowls, the china-pattern faded into blank white, the soup cooling as we sat at the table and waited for Fourth brother to wake. I was the one who snuck sips of soup until my mother saw and slapped my wrist. The melons had rotted in the crate, too syrupy and sweet at the edges, but I swallowed anyway. We ate through the rot, bitter melon reborn into our bellies.
Slice and eat with: crushed chili and salt and lime
Eat with: sweet fish sauce and palm sugar
Eat with: licorice powder
Before my mother’s throat got slit, she was a singer. Ahma sang to Mama in the womb, curving her head down all the way to her belly button, cupping her hands around her mouth like a megaphone. My mother came out of the womb singing: she didn’t cry, just hit a high-C until even the doctor applauded. Fifth brother says this is a lie because Mama wasn’t born in a hospital, because we hadn’t been modernized yet and islanders still crawled around like orangutans, because that’s what we were before the Dutch and the Japanese and the mainlanders, because all we did was eat and grow fur the color of pork floss. But I know the singing stuff is still true: Mama could sing so high only the dogs could hear and come running, all the strays from every neighborhood howling at her door until Agong came back with his old pistol and shot each barking bitch in the throat. Agong said his gun had killed so many Japanese it didn’t go bang, it went baka, but I didn’t get the joke.
My mother sang on the way to school and back, and all the dogs that followed her bus into the city got flattened to patties. Mama’s singing was so clear it competed with the town bell tower, the one that rang only on holidays. Her voice was so smooth it tore silk, it watered silt beds. It made the petals weep off an orchid. It made the sun shy. It made the moon mourn. On the beach when she sang, the waves lined up at her feet. The tide stilled. Boats sank because the water gave up holding the weight of others, too busy listening to my mother. The whole sea on hiatus.
Fifth brother says this is bullshit and I should stop before Mama hears. He says Mama studied music in Taipei because the city people felt sorry for her, the daughter of a soldier and a mourner, so poor she had to eat the shell along with the egg. He says my mother met a lot of famous singers, even Teresa Teng once, and they even sang a duet version of yue liang dai biao wo de xin. Mama was on TV and looked at the studio’s ceiling the whole time she sang. She imagined her tongue taking flight from her mouth, a recurring nightmare she always had before performing. Her tongue flitted out, translucent as a moth’s wing, leaving her unable to name its loss.
Fifth brother says there’s a photo of our mother and Teresa Teng somewhere, but we both don’t ask Mama about it. She wears her scarves even in the shower: checkered wool ones, polka-dotted cotton ones, infinity scarves in colors that scratch at your eyes, yellow and green and pink. Mama always says the best way to hide something is to draw attention to it. One time she hid a bruise by painting her whole face like a skull. Everyone thought she was a performance artist or crazy. Baba laughed for two days and said she’d always been a creative woman, able to make a play out of any pain, a character out of an injury.
The summer my mother developed vocal nodules, which was the season before a doctor slit her throat open to remove the scar tissue, Ahma sang at her last funeral. People didn’t hire professional mourners anymore. The funeral was for a man who’d jumped onto a subway track. Ahma said she was better at grief than anybody, that she could sing a sadness more real than any widow’s. It’s not a real funeral if you don’t hire a wailer, Ahma said. Her songs began shallow in the chest, breathy like the beginning of a sob, and then the verses stacked into full shrieks, the lyrics building a ladder to heaven. That’s the way Ahma would say it. She believed in heaven like she believed in breath. Years later she found herself sneaking into strangers’ funerals, local ones she’d read the announcements for, and when she arrived she was always the oldest person in the room, even older than the body cremated.
In a news report on the death of professional mourning, the youth reported that hiring mourners was redundant. Why burden someone else’s body with your own grief? Another interviewee said it was invasive, presumptuous for a stranger to perform your sadness. It’s performative, the college student said. Ahma watched the report on TV and called us about it, her teeth cracking peanut shells indignantly: Everything is a performance. Sometimes you need to rehearse your grief so that you come out of it alive. Sometimes you need someone to show you that you can.
At the end of her last semester in music school, Mama’s throat went rigid as a steel pipe. Nothing could move through it, out of it. The zhongyi prescribed string-thin slices of green mango soaked in lime juice, sharp-tasting things that would reopen her throat and widen it. The western doctors said she had calluses on her vocal cords, hills of scar tissue from using her voice incorrectly. Mama never thought of her voice as something to use, to wield: she thought of it as a guest, something that was housed in her, a ghost flown into her belly. It wasn’t the haunting she minded, the way her voice felt foreign-born and yet native to her body.
The doctor asked if she’d ever had invasive surgery before. Mama said she didn’t know what he meant by invasion. The same summer she lost her voice, she’d bent over for a boy in the next town who told her she sounded like a swan. Mama didn’t know what a swan sounded like, didn’t even know they sang. She saw them painted on western-style music boxes they sold at her school’s gift shop, but on the island there were only geese that bit your ass. When she went under, Mama’s last prayer was that the surgeon slit open her throat but never stitch it back up, leaving her open like a window, the wind scraping through her string-thin vocal cords to stir them into melody. A mourning note. A way she could sing without having to.
Sixth brother was born a fish. Mama says this, but the story lacks proof the way most do, so we let it stay that way, suspended in the air without ever really entering our bodies. If my brother had been born a fish, then Mama would have put him in a fish tank instead of our crib, and my sixth brother would have outgrown it in a day. He was always growing. There were days when he woke two inches taller, three. One week it was a whole foot. He outgrew Baba by the time he was twelve and I was eleven, but Baba was hunched over anyway, in pain from the salt passing through his bladder. It was also the year Mama stopped being a waitress and started her own restaurant, the Little Shanghai, though none of us had ever been to Shanghai and we were all pretty sure it wasn’t little.
My brothers were dishwashers, waiters, cooks, hosts. Even my surgeon brother came at closing time to help stack the chairs on tables and cut new pieces of tablecloth, which was just butcher paper we’d spray-painted gold. Second brother wasn’t allowed to count the money. Fourth brother wasn’t allowed to flirt with customers. First brother had run away for real this time, though we’d find his face years later in the newspaper photo of an investment banker in Macau. We’d argue about the mole on the photo’s face: had it been over his left eyebrow or the right? None of us had thought to take pictures of him. None of us thought we’d forget his face so thoroughly we’d clip out a picture from the Cantonese newspaper and pass the thin square back and forth between us so many times that our fingers turned black, a rubbed-off night. Everything we did that day was stained.
Sixth brother’s first girlfriend has red fingers. She eats Hot Cheetos for every meal, sometimes plunging them in XO sauce or wrapping them in leftover slices of bread. She calls it a crunch sandwich. She’s like a criminal, leaving behind red fingerprints everywhere, on the walls of our restaurant and on my brother’s skin, his neck, his soccer jersey, his fly. The red powder clings to the grooves of her palms, dyes her nails, swells her lips ‘til they look liquid. My brother, which one I don’t know, makes a joke that if we pantsed Sixth brother, there’d be red fingerprints up and down his dick, a red tongue-print. Worth the burn, they all say. I pretend to laugh, but I feel like a lit match. I want to set all their spines on fire. Swallow them bottom-to-top.
Her fingers on my cheeks feel like flames. We call her Melon because she’s round-headed, sweet-bellied, full around her bones. She’s only two years older, sixteen when I turn fourteen, but she likes to stroke my cheeks like I’m a child. She comes every day after school to waitress at our restaurant, where Mama pays Melon below minimum wage and compensates by giving out unsolicited advice about her sons: Be careful around my second one. Marry the third one. Pray for my first.
Melon confesses to me that she can never tell my brothers apart, and when I tell them this they laugh together, breath battering their teeth like wind chimes. After that, the younger ones take turns tricking her: Fifth brother kisses her in the walk-in refrigerator. Fourth brother gives her a bouquet of fake daisies. Fifth brother kisses her again, on the cheek this time, out on the floor where my mother says no touching, no speaking Chinese to each other because the white people think we’re talking about them, no throwing dishes to each other, no running. Every time Melon gets kissed, I look down at the dishes I’m washing and twist the faucet hotter. When my hands emerge from the water burned and patchy, I consider it my punishment. I betrayed her to my brothers, sold them her secret for nothing.
Melon and I take breaks in the parking lot outside the restaurant. She wears a white shirt buttoned up all the way, her collar cinched tight around the neck. She has a strong neck, corded and thick, and for a brief second I wonder if my hands would fit around it. Then I need somewhere new to look, so I look at her mouth, which makes me sweat. I am damp everywhere from the hot water steam. I’m tall enough to wash dishes now, and when my arms ache, Melon massages my wrists until the pulse nearly pounces out of me. In the parking lot, the streetlamp lights only half her face, and I find myself wanting to drag the sun back out and train it on her like a spotlight. I want to see her wholly in the light or in the dark, unshared by anything. At night when I close my eyes, when the darkness I impose is total, I allow myself to think of her mouth. I circle its shape in my mind, not mine, its heat remade from memory.
Melon is teaching me to smoke. In the halved light she lights a cigarette, wincing like it’s her own fingertip. She brings it down to my lips, but I won’t open my mouth. Trust me, she says, but I don’t know how to say it isn’t her I don’t trust. I only know how to control my mouth like a cage, opening it to let something out. Never in. When she finally coaxes me into opening by tickling my chin, I won’t breathe in. She laughs and says stop holding your breath, but that only makes me hold it more. The evening rushes down like water, a top-down flood, and I am willing to drown.
When she can’t get me to smoke, Melon and I play our embarrassing story game. The rules are one: tell an embarrassing story. Melon always reuses the same stories, but I never mind. They’re a little different every time, and my own private game is to trace what’s changed and guess why. Today she tells me yesterday’s: One time I used a stick of imitation crab as a tampon. Then I put it back in the bag. When we had hotpot that night, my brother asked why he tasted blood in the broth. I said something must have died in it. The difference is that there’s a brother in the story when I know she doesn’t have one. I think she knows my brothers have been tricking her. I think she’s sampling them, testing the temperature of their mouths, the weight of their hands on her waist, their eyes always watching her, even when she isn’t there. She takes their eyes with her, carries them home and into our parking lot. Juggles them invisibly. I feel them even now, eyes like pebbles in my pockets or the moon opening above us.
When Sixth brother and I were too young to know our bodies, Mama bathed us together in the sink. She made bubbles with dish soap, whisking the water frothy with her hands, folding boats made of newspaper for us to name. Sixth brother played the wind, blowing into the black-and-white sail, and I was the sea, churning my hands below the surface to make the water wave. We hadn’t seen the ocean yet, but it was instinct: the air and water both moving, above and below, sometimes in tandem and sometimes opposite, the waves pulling back like reins. When the boat was too soaked to remember its shape, it sank and my brother cried. I watched the paper dissolve silently, black ink shedding into the water and across it, spanning the sink like a new skin.
Mama was worried that I never cried: she nearly starved me because I didn’t call for milk. The doctor said to keep a close eye on me, so my mother slept with me balanced on her belly until Baba complained and she put me in back in the crib, the same one my brothers shat and slept in, the same one I used to dream was a boat full of holes, though my brothers say no way, I would’ve been too young to remember my dreams. I asked them if they remembered when I was born and they said of course. I wanted to say I remembered their births too, but that was impossible. They had happened behind me, beyond me. And still I felt like I’d been witness to their beginning, that I’d birthed them myself or been born into each of them. Sometimes I saw my own eyes in Second brother’s face or grew a nose parallel with Third brother’s, and each time I forgot it was because we all shared a common denominator, and not because I had sprung from them alone, my father-mothers, my brothers.
The embarrassing story I tell Melon is old too, tired of being reused so many times in one night. It begins this way: before she died and inhabited my body, Ahma was a professional mourner. She knew a song for every kind of death. Songs for men who died at war. Songs for women who killed themselves when their men didn’t return. Songs for babies who died in the womb. Songs for boys in motorcycle accidents. Songs for girls in basements, buried along abandoned roads, in fields. Songs for triads. Songs for Nationalist officials she later cursed in secret. Songs for schoolteachers. Songs for exterminators who died from inhaling their own poisons. She was an inventory of grief. She knew every kind of killed, every breed of burial.
Before she had us, Mama had two miscarriages, bleeding through her underwear and the car seat. That’s not the embarrassing story, this is: once, my mother examined my underwear for signs of shedding. She wadded my underwear and brought it to her face to smell it, masking herself in my stink. That’s the embarrassing thing. Then she told me that the difference between blood and death—and blood the body doesn’t want—isn’t color or texture but sound. She said every hole knows how to sing. The mouth, the anus. All of it is wind in the body. The word for stroke in her dialect is zhongfeng, meaning middle wind. After Ahma had her stroke and died, after her ashes were sent to us in a cardboard box and Mama bought an urn and lid online, after everything arrived and we could assemble Ahma’s death on our doorstep, my mother sang.
She didn’t sing Teresa Teng or even Lily Chao, the folk-pop her teachers thought she’d be famous for covering, but an old mourning song, the kind with lyrics that could not be written, only steeped in the body like tea and poured out through the mouth. After her surgery, Mama’s voice was metallic, flint striking stone. It entered the room like a light source, a candle lit and lifted to our ears. It burned us fleshless, listening like that. We were bone to bone.
The song ended and we were all smoke. Because we didn’t have the money to bury Ahma’s ashes, Mama kept the urn in her closet for years. Then she moved Ahma’s urn to the drawer under the sink, and we all bowed three times to it. Before the silence came down like a curtain, I asked Sixth brother if he remembered when we were both small enough to fit in that sink, to get clean in it. He said nothing, but the silence was its own body. It fit between us. It was our secret sibling. Mama shut the cabinet door under the sink and we went back to breathing. In the throat-dark of her urn, Ahma’s ashes sang back. The cabinet under the sink began to leak song, a frantic beat like wings flapping, but when Mama opened the door there was nothing. At night we listened to the song for hours, counting the beats until we fell asleep, the night noised by unseen wings, a heartbeat under the sink. But eventually we gave up trying to measure the lifespan of that sound. We let it outlive us. We let it tell us our names.