My mother had a cousin there. Her name was Aunt Yangyang, the woman who supposedly severed my umbilical cord with her teeth. Like all my cousins, I was born at home on a sofa that my mother and Aunt Yangyang found at a garage sale and haggled down to sixteen bucks, mostly because the cushions cowered from your ass and three of the legs were missing, the sofa tilting downward diagonally. My mother said that was actually very useful when you were giving birth on it: the saran-wrapped vinyl cushions acted as a lubricated slide, and gravity was our midwife.
When I was six and Aunt Yangyang’s daughter was sixteen, my aunt moved to Nagano through some employment agency whose advertisement she spliced out from the back of the Taiwanese Independence newspaper she and my mother were always arguing over, spitting papaya seeds into each other’s eyes. My mother got every week’s copy for free at the Oriental Market where she was a cashier. She said Independence was hopeless, that in the end the mainland had the bigger military: more men and more money and bullets the size of bulls’ balls, but Aunt Yangyang liked to unfurl her hair rollers at the kitchen table and roll them across the carpet like dice and say, “Yeah, maybe, but we’ve got the sea between us and the mainland,” and my mother laughed so hard her throat thundered into the sky. “Yeah,” my mother said, “but water has no loyalty. And the sea is so easy to cross, our father did it twice.” Aunt Yangyang didn’t say anything after that. Whenever my mother mentioned their father, Aunt Yangyang lost grip over her lips and would let them dangle open and fish-flap. Growing up, we knew not to mention our grandfather: his name was stretched silver as tripwire, shimmering where we stepped.
Aunt Yangyang and my mother had never lived apart, and before she left for Nagano, my mother begged her not to go. “It’s a scam,” she said, “I bet you when you get there they’ll knock you out and tie you to the beams of a basement where you’ll be the sex slave of a salaryman and there will be no windows and the boiler will bake you into a ham.” My cousin and I both thought this was too specific and wondered what my mother had been watching recently: Aunt Yangyang was always telling us not to let my mother watch those late-night specials on serial killers. We thought it was because she was worried my mother would get scared, but it was really because she was afraid my mother would get ideas.
One time—Aunt Yangyang told us this story on a night when she was drunk on milletwine—when your mother and I were young, she ran over a man with her motorbike. None of us even knew why. He was following her or something, or he looked at her or took his dick out like a knife, and she just—Aunt Yangyang punched the sofa, which relinquished the last of its legs—like that! She downed him like a telephone pole. Aunt Yangyang started laughing, but my cousin and I didn’t find it funny. We shared a mattress with my mother, who was skinny as a tadpole and swam nightly in the space between us, while Aunt Yangyang took the couch. We were afraid my mother might do something spontaneous like strangle us. Her fingers fortressing our throats. “No,” Aunt Yangyang said, laughing again, “you little girls, let’s play motorbike.” She made me get down on my hands and knees while she straddled my back and pulled on my braids like handlebars and said, “vroom, vroom, vroom,” her spittle oiling the back of my neck. But I didn’t want to wipe it away, didn’t want to be clean of her.
The night before she left, she walked around our two-room apartment, trying to remember something she’d forgotten. We walked behind her, repeating the names of everything that belonged to her—sofa, toothbrush, shirts, jelly-band watch—realizing the words didn’t even reach the brims of our mouths; there were so few things she owned and could carry. That night, she fell asleep on the sofa without taking off her curlers, and in the morning, her hair was singed silver. “I can’t go, I can’t go, I can’t go,” Aunt Yangyang said, over and over, but this time it was my mother who carried her to the door, who dragged her shepi bao to the sidewalk. “This is what you want,” my mother said, and watched her board the bus, her hair through the tinted windows like living embers, our tongues aching to catch them.
* * *
My mother said we shouldn’t call first, that this was Aunt Yangyang’s decision and she was the one who said things like I want to see the world, which my mother would respond to by pointing down into our toilet and saying, “Why don’t you see if you can dislodge your shit from the bottom of this with this wire clothes hanger, and that can be your world?” When Aunt Yangyang refused, my mother whipped her once with the clothes hanger and said, “When you flush, the water goes somewhere very far away; just imagine this turd is you and get it moving.” Without Aunt Yangyang in the apartment anymore, the toilet never clogged, and my cousin moved onto the sofa. It was just my mother and me back-to-back on the mattress, and it was only then that I realized how our tripled weight had kneaded it flat, crushing its coils like snails, and now, with just two of us, we could sleep above the ground. My cousin complained about the sofa and said she didn’t understand how Aunt Yangyang could have slept there all those years. My cousin was sure there was a nest of gophers in the cushions somewhere, curdling beneath her and trying dig their way up, every night tunneling out through her torso.
Finally, after two weeks of being just three, my mother decided to break her own promise and call first. Aunt Yangyang had left us the number of the agency and said she’d be getting a job in hospitality. I thought this meant a job in a hospital, but my cousin said no, it meant a job being nice to people, which I knew meant Aunt Yangyang would be home soon, fired immediately. She was born with a mean face like mine: thumbprint eyes and that pearl of flesh on our upper lip that my mother said meant we were born to talk our way out of death. My mother walked to the corner store and bought a discounted international call, counting over the coins and saying she was glad I was sister-less, that my cousin and I were spared this stupidity, but my cousin and I looked down at our reflections in the glass counter and wondered if we could be mistaken for sisters, ten years apart, tethered by the first thing to touch our skin, that green vinyl sofa no longer Aunt Yangyang’s.
When Aunt Yangyang answered, my mother didn’t say anything, just nodded as if her sister could see her, then put down the phone after a few minutes. “All that sound costs so much,” she said, sighing. “Auntie is tired,” she told us, “and she doesn’t want to talk, she wants to sleep.” We’d forgotten about the time zones, making assumptions about her sun, and I wondered if she was ahead or behind us, living in our past or our future. I wanted to know where to turn. We walked home together, my mother still mumbling, and every month, when we could afford the length of our words, my mother made a call. It never lasted more than a minute or two, even when my mother handed us the phone—Aunt Yangyang was asleep when we were awake, or she was tired, or she thought she had pneumonia but had really just accidentally inhaled a rice cracker while she was drunk and now her lungs were bruised. Or my mother ran out of coins, which meant we called only every three months.
We got letters sometimes, though they were always blank since the point was the paper and not what was written on it: she sent us sheets torn from notepads with cursive mastheads, emblazoned with the gold logos of hotels we didn’t recognize. It was the kind of paper so thick you could hold it up to the window and curtain it, or the kind of paper so fancy it still had specks of wood and petal inside it, which made my mother think it was defective: “Why would rich people pay to write on bumpy paper?” We knew Aunt Yangyang was sending us the paper as proof, and my cousin pinned up the notepad sheets on the wall, eight in total; eight hotels where Aunt Yangyang was paid to smile, and we imagined her in uniforms with gold buttons, though my cousin said only men wore those, or in white pantsuits with fresh peonies pinned to her collar, though I said Aunt Yangyang would never wear anything that threatened her with a wedgie, or anything white that could stain. She was the kind of woman who solved the smear of soy sauce on our kitchen wall by enlarging it, drizzling the whole wall with soy sauce so that the stain was now a skin.
We asked for photos from Aunt Yangyang, but she only continued to send us notepad paper, thick and thin and singed at the edges, sallow yellow or so white, mastheads with eagles and dolphins and lions. Though my mother pretended she was going to tear down the sheets and burn them with the rest of our trash, I saw her sometimes get up at night and touch each sheet with her thumb, so carefully she might have been touching a face, a frond of light. Once, a fly landed on one of the sheets of paper tacked to the wall, and instead of smashing it flat with her palm like she always did, she flicked it off the wall and herded it into another room to slaughter it. She didn’t want the paper stained either. Sometimes I squinted at the wall shingled with sheets, flapping like scraped-off fish scales, and tried to see where Aunt Yangyang had touched the sheets, where the shadow of her wrist might have bruised the white.
When my cousin turned eighteen, my mother said to her, “Don’t think this makes you a woman now. The law is you’re ours.”
“Okay,” my cousin said, and let us feed her the cheesecake slice we’d bought at the Cantonese bakery. There were flecks of green tea in it, bittering our tongues, and my mother said, “Don’t think because I’m saying happy birthday that I acknowledge you are growing up, because you are not,” and my cousin laughed again.
“In Nagano,” my cousin said, “my birthday would have already passed.”
We sat on the sofa side-by-side and stared at the opposite wall, the sheets of cream paper pinned like flags, their shadows bucking out from beneath them like roof tiles. “We’ll call tomorrow,” my mother said, but Aunt Yangyang didn’t pick up until three months later.
“I’m sorry,” the voice on the other end said. “We can’t connect her right now; please wait.” We waited. Then the line switched, and it was Aunt Yangyang saying the same thing, “I’m sorry, please wait, please wait for me.”
On the way home, we were silent. We walked along the strip mall, past the water store at the end of the block where Aunt Yangyang used to fill plastic grocery bags with water when ours got shut off. Weeks when she told us to wash our hair in the fountain outside the mall and to make sure no one saw us. We stole fistfuls of pennies out of that fountain, and she made us return them all, telling us that any president’s face was a curse to bring home. She folded all her paper bills into flowers and cattle and butterflies so that she wouldn’t have to see the men printed on them.
I remember Aunt Yangyang once told me that we burn things so that the dead will have them, that this can be done with words or houses or bodies, and I thought of my grandfather in that fire, of my aunt in that fire, of all the animals we authored with our hands. I exhaled the smoke. I let them go.
At home, in the dark, my cousin whispered to me through the bathroom door: “She didn’t say happy birthday to me.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to her, “birthdays are like my mother says, meaningless.”
“Okay,” my cousin said, but that night I heard her squeaking around on the vinyl couch, flipping and flipping. In the morning, when my mother and I went to wake her, the sheets of notepaper were unpinned from the wall, scattered across our moldy carpet like leaves, some torn off like roadkill wings. My cousin was awake and on her knees, plucking up the sheets and tearing them to confetti, scattering the pieces onto her shoulders.
“Stop that,” my mother said, and yanked at her wrists.
“Aunt Yangyang will remember next time,” I said, then realized that next time was a year away.
The next time Aunt Yangyang picked up when we called, my mother and I went alone. We’d salvaged a few of the sheets, but the mastheads were blurred from the leak in our ceiling. “The damn neighbor is finally bathing again,” my mother said. At the strip mall, my mother counted the coins and called. When Aunt Yangyang answered, I asked for the phone and my mother passed it down to me. Inside my ear, Aunt Yangyang’s voice sounded like it’d been mowed and needed time to grow back, each of her words bladed like grass.
“Do you remember me?” I asked her, and Aunt Yangyang laughed, but she didn’t answer. And when I asked her what she was doing, if she could say happy birthday to me, Aunt Yangyang laughed again—a sound like bronze, dull unless heard in the light—and said it wasn’t my birthday. “Yeah,” I said, “but if you say it to me, I can safekeep it for you and then release it to the right person when it’s time.”
There was a sound on the other end like a stove turning on, which Aunt Yangyang always used to do at our apartment: she struck the match and I watched it ebb blue. She tried to teach me how to do it, but I was afraid of the flame and always flinched away before the gas could gather around like lace, the match dropping onto the carpet. She stomped down on the match with her bare foot, grinding it out before it could catch, claiming that her soles were calloused into castles and the fire didn’t hurt her. But I thought it was a lie, that it did hurt, and with the phone in my hand, her voice blistering my cheek, I heard her say, “I don’t forget anything. Your mother does, though.”
On the phone, we could always hear her parsing through her words carefully, sorting them out like beads in a palm, choosing the polished ones to use. But now she was speaking without choosing, telling me that she forgot nothing, that she was the only one who remembered her father, that even my mother no longer dreamed of him, not even on his deathday. I wanted to ask what happened, but my mother was watching my mouth, so I only listened.
“My father, he was like me,” Aunt Yangyang said. “Well, he didn’t choose. I mean that one day he heard that they were looking for boys for work. And they came to his door and took him away and put him on a boat to Japan. In Yokohama, he built warplanes. Planes that could drop bombs full of rain. Warplanes like he had never seen before, not even anything like the American ones that flew over his hill. They paid him nothing. He turned eleven, he turned twelve. Then he realized that they were never going to get sent home. So he ran away and snuck onto a shipping container and then he was home, but it was different, and he had lead in his lungs from painting all the planes, and the only thing he knew how to touch was metal, and he wasn’t any good with skin. He hurt us sometimes, and then he died. But at least he died at home, and we buried him, and someday you need to bury me there too. Are you listening? I want to die at home. I don’t do anything here but clean toilets. I tear off sheets of paper from the notepads in my cart. We give those notepads away for free, you know, a few left in every room. I thought about sending you free shampoo and soap, sandalwood, always sandalwood. I know your mother would love that. But I like to keep those scents to myself. I don’t want to share something so small.”
We ran out of coins and the line was slit. Walking home, my mother asked what Aunt Yangyang had told me, but I said nothing. At home, my cousin was lying on the sofa, facing the wall, pretending to be asleep, and I thought about telling her the truth, that Aunt Yangyang was a cleaning lady and not a front desk lady, that she never once sent us money like she said she would, only blank sheets of paper with no one’s faces printed on them. I pared away the remaining sheets from the wall, the ones my cousin didn’t rip, and sat in the middle of the room folding them the way Aunt Yangyang used to fold dollar bills into horses and prop them on her palm or place them on her belly. They danced and galloped when she snored, the meadow of her belly goldening.
“I’m not calling anymore,” my mother said. “This time I mean it for real,” she said, but we didn’t listen to her. My cousin turned around on the sofa, no longer impersonating a dream, and watched me folding the blank sheets into something with legs. She kneeled beside me, plucking it from my palm, and I was afraid she would shred this one too. But instead she unfurled it, editing the creases with her fingers, sweat-soft cattle propped on the carpet.
That night, while my mother was asleep, I woke my cousin up and showed her to the stove, turning it on with one hand. The gas like a flickering skirt, a girl spinning inside it. With my other hand, I stole a match from the drawer and struck it against the wall, then brought the match to the gas, watching the flame stain the air, a bouquet of blue. I did it without flinching. Beside me, my cousin clutched the paper animals, herding them one by one into the fire, herding them into smoke. “They’re home,” I told her, watching the smoke rise like shoulders, shrugging into our sky, our ceiling buckled with mold. I remember Aunt Yangyang once told me that we burn things so that the dead will have them, that this can be done with words or houses or bodies, and I thought of my grandfather in that fire, of my aunt in that fire, of all the animals we authored with our hands. I exhaled the smoke. I let them go.
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the debut novel BESTIARY (One World/Random House, 2020). More of her writing can be found online at kmingchang.com.