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Story by K-Ming Chang (Read author interview) October 12, 2020

Art by Maria Anastasia Druckenthaner

We wanted Michelle Dong’s doll sacrificed to something, but couldn’t agree on which deity. The doll’s name was Polly and her hair was plastic and her face smooth as a pinky. We wanted no nipples, so we nicked them off with pennies, the same way our aunts flayed lotto scratchers. They lost. We were numberless under our nipples. We won the moon, though, and argued about who would get to pop it like a balloon. We wanted Barbies whose knees could bend, whose blonde hair blued in bathwater. We wanted to be commercials: dial our belly buttons today and we’ll send you our skins for free! Wear at risk of attracting sharp things! We competed for knees like medals, wanted the ones scarred shiniest. We wanted Tweetybird mirrors to wear around our neck on a lanyard, like Sugar Wong did. Sugar’s mother managed a Safeway, and Michelle taught us how to shoplift mascara there, except the tube leaked when she slid it into her underwear, and so she lied and told her mother it was diarrhea, but because it was black, her mother took her to the zhongyi and Michelle got to take off all her clothes in front of a man, and we asked what was it like, and she said it was like trying to undress as a watermelon, her clothes a cabin, and when she tried to step out of her skirt like seawater, graceful as an actress made of ankles, she tripped on the hem and fell on her face and tried to sell us the bruise, like look where he touched you. We wanted make-up, crushed pearl powder, horse-oil that polished our hands into pocketknives, teal eye shadow, even though we couldn’t agree what color that was, if it was more like the sky scabbed with smog or if it was more green like the Dong family SUV, which we all threw up inside, because Michelle Dong’s mother drove with ferret-feet, skittering from pedal to pedal until we unspooled our stomachs out the window. While our mothers worked, we ate crumbs cooked into cockroaches, our toenails simmered soft. We dined on our deadest parts. Days we dangled by the legs. In our building, there was a ground-level temple with card-tables carrying oranges, flies unwinding their rinds, and we weren’t allowed to smack the flies because they were the reborn souls of dead people, though once Michelle smacked a temple-fly because it landed on her bruise and named it the moon. The nuns – who wore skin-colored swim caps instead of shaving their heads – chased us out with bamboo brooms and said, THAT COULD BE YOUR NAINAI. YOU ARE NOT DAUGHTERS, YOU ARE DOGS. But Michelle said, my grandmother isn’t dead but I wish she was, because then Mama and Baba will make an altar with dried scallops on top of it and I could eat them and give some to you, plus pork ribs too. So we prayed together for Michelle’s grandmother to die, and she did, falling off her balcony in Reno wearing nothing but her dentures. Michelle said it was the wind, and our mothers said it was unpaid gambling debts and someone took revenge. We liked that word, revenge, our teeth stuck in its rind. So we decided to take revenge on the nuns who chased us with bamboo brooms, who ate oranges off the altars without sharing. Michelle said, let’s bring our flyswatters and slaughter every insect inside the temple and cancel their reincarnation cycles. So we swarmed the temple with swatters or slippers or just our hands, massacring the flies and the mosquitos too, freckling the walls with their bodies. The nuns wept. One of them committed suicide, but Michelle said it wasn’t our fault because it was the nun who cut off all her hair for real, rumored to have had a son – struck dead by a truckful of cattle in Tainan – and all of us thought about it separately, if maybe one of those flies was her son, if we were going to be reborn as beef. After she died, the other nuns drove her 1994 hatchback slow around the block, and we stood outside watching the nuns scroll back the hood, the wind whipping off their swim caps, their hair bounding behind them like night. Our mothers said: atone. Michelle said we could swallow stones and walk into a river as punishment, except we couldn’t find a river, only a creek. There used to be water vocalizing it, but rain went extinct in another country and no one imports it here anymore. Counterfeit rain is dry as glitter. In the bed of the creek are skeletons, crows and dogs and raccoons that scuttled into the mud and snagged their legs, swallowed in. Michelle is the only one who commits to the creek, wading up to her knees, and we tie our braids around her waist, haloing her with our hair. She leans forward, squirreling her arms into the mud. There’s something under here, she says, I can feel it, so we sift Michelle from the mud, tugging her back with our braids. We find the body of a girl in that creek bed, shrouded in mud, face blank as a fist. At first we think it’s a deer, except for the way her limbs hinge, like they were born folded and trained upright. That’s the first time we decide to be flies. We are not animals that grant their bodies to grief. We will flirt in the air above everything, land only on the sweet, feel only our feet, frisk from skin to skin, city to city, except the only city we know is this creek. Michelle says, there’s only one way for us to become flies, fast, and so we follow her down into the moaning mud, our mothers. We will return to the scene of our rebirths, the walls of the temple where we were swatted so sweetly, where no one will ever forget to feed us.

About the Author

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel, Bestiary, is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.

About the Artist

Born in Austria, Maria Anastasia Druckenthaner is a Berlin based artist who uses a small digital camera to explore the streets and landscapes of western Europe. Weaving between striking interiors and urban glimpses of nature, she seeks to share her love of the image with the world.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Nine of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Nine

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