The only jewelry my mother ever gave me was a pearl necklace. The rest was stolen during an argument. My parents didn’t hear the burglar evict the screen door from its frame, or when they stripped my mother’s dresser as clean as fishbones. My mother tells me if someone loves me very very much, they will cauterize my wounds with gold.
My grandfather had six sisters. Every morning, his sisters brought him milk crushed with pearls and eggs still warm with chicken-shit. He wrote poetry on rice paper while his sisters made clothes, the skin on their fingers growing as tart and durable as dried plums. When the Japanese came, he ducked to Hong Kong and never came back. His sisters pasted ash on their faces, undid their hair into a waving black fuzz. They learned to spit between their teeth, prayed the soldiers would never arrive on their doorstep asking for ripe fruit. Even when they had nothing to swallow but tree bark and lockets they once wore, they did not send for my grandfather.
When my mother was born, they carried her in the air for every piss, made sure horseflies never fastened onto her skin. They fed her American newspapers and glass bottles of milk with cream buckled on top. When she could win all their cigarettes in a game of poker, they sent her across the sea to my grandfather with gifts. Lined what jewelry they had left in her skirts, wove curses onto her tongue. My grandfather stopped her from unraveling both, asking only for a gold cross. He made her promise to search for Ya-su in America before he bought her another ticket. It took many years for me to realize that Jesus had a Chinese name.
My mother holds my wrists, showing me with her flesh how thick the bracelets were, how I could have had fat jade pulsing against my veins. She teaches me how to say grace in Chinese, my tongue hardens into rock sugar that refuses to dissolve. My grandfather doesn’t care what language I speak, cracks pig bones with his teeth for me to suck the marrow clean, lets me stand in the streets of Shanghai and call a taxi. He takes me to see the tigers in the zoo, who only open their eyes when they bring rabbits, plump and dreaming. They crack into pulp as easily as fruit. My grandfather passes me a rosary, tells me to pray to Ya-su that I will not forget the value of hunger. That day, he buys me a gold pendant studded with a single garnet like a bead of blood. I come home, wearing it on my chest like a new scar. My mother tells me that real gold is soft enough to bend with your teeth so I coil the pearls she gave me back in her palm. When she turns away, I place my grandfather’s chain between my teeth.