In a dream, my grandfather dangles from the ceiling. Not like a dead man but like a fruitbat, the kind my mother sweeps off our balcony. Bats like to die up high, she says. They don’t want to be buried. They want to be elongated into light. Upside down, my grandfather speaks in a girl’s voice: I have one regret in life, he tells my mother. I gave away one of my daughters, and I want to know how she is. Will you find her for me? When my mother wakes, a dead bat dangles from each of her earlobes.
When my mother asked her mother: did you have another daughter and give her away? My grandmother said, you’ve been watching dramas again. My mother loved the ones where concubines poison each others’ sons to secure the throne for their own. She decided to purchase silver chopsticks online and prod my mouth with them, withdrawing the chopstick like a thermometer to record its color. Dark means you’re dead. But the chopsticks were a scam silver, the paint parading away, and in my mouth the chopstick turned white. Diagnosis, my mother said: daughter.
Three aunts passed, one per year: heart attack, husband, hanging. My mother strung my baby teeth into bracelets, talked with her wrists, walked rattling. She called her surviving sisters, asking if they remembered seeing a baby, this big: . You’re the only baby we remember, her sister said. I refused to speak to my mother after she took my teeth, deprived me of the tooth fairy. My mother said the fairy was a debt-collector, designed to disappear me. I’m safekeeping, she said, lifting her wristlet of teeth. You can have yourself back when I’m dead.
When you were born, my grandmother told my mother, I couldn’t look at you. In those days, my mother said they lit bamboo for their stoves, no matches, no strikes of light. Bamboo is hollow but opens only on one end, so that the water fed into it cannot be threaded out. As a baby, my mother was so constipated that the family joked she had a mouth but no asshole, an entrance but no exit. Sometimes I saw smoke rising from other houses and wished that was my home. Not the house, I mean. The sky.
To remarry clean, my grandmother gave away her first five daughters to her parents. Her first husband was a drowned insurgent, a drunken man who kneeled on the beach and used his arms to paddle the island farther from the mainland. She married a mainlander next: his job was dumping insurgents into rivers, shouldering them out to sea. When she was ten, my mother noticed five women following her to the beach. Found us, they said, and taught her to float, each sister holding a limb, her head. Now hold your breath, they said, hold it forever, and wedged her beneath the water.
Six years after the dream, my mother’s donated sister was still missing. I was living across the country training to be a silk aerialist. There was a new trick I was learning: first I dangled from the ceiling of the theater, swaddled in the silk scarf, and then I unraveled it, freefalling, catching the end of the scarf and swinging. Gravity was a construct I chose not to believe in, like marriage or men. Over the phone, my mother said she’d given up asking. She didn’t care whether she had another sister somewhere. What she wanted to know was whether her father really spoke to her, whether it was possible for the dead to dally in our dreams and speak in the voice of our daughters. It was possible, I said, while in a headstand against the wall. My trainer told me to do this: adjust to the pressure of all your blood beaming into your skull. My mother said she thought it was possible to prevent the birth of your child by propping your body upside down, legs hooked over the back of the sofa. That way, the baby would backslide down your throat. It would take years for the fetus to forge an exit.
Your grandfather was that way, she said. What way, I said. Zhong nan qing nu. Heavy son light daughter. I didn’t understand: wasn’t it better to be light? To fly? Swinging from silks, feeling them flirt out of my hands, my limbs glittering like a chandelier. Women are weightless, my mother always said to me. She said: today I found a moth in my closet, eating your old cloth diaper, the one I keep even though it’s stained like an evening. I asked the moth: are you my sister? Are you eating this diaper to avenge the fact that my father gave you away? She almost batted it with the back of her hand, but the moth was unafraid. It flew from her shadow and landed on the mirror above her sink, and as my mother approached it, her face in the mirror feathered, fluttered away.
Sometimes I think, my mother said, that when your grandmother dies I won’t be sad. I won’t miss her. Is that wrong? When my grandfather died, my mother stopped going to the temple, the one where his name hung, written in black ink on a ribbon of white rice paper. Instead, she cleaned the house with the rags of his old shirts, trimmed the branches of the birch tree she claimed was blocking our caiyuan. This tree, my mother said, is blocking all the luck that’s trying to fly in. I gripped the ladder while she stood on the top rung, hacking at the branches with her cleaver, dislodging a hummingbird nest and pitching it onto the street like a baseball. It cracked open, and two eggs rolled out, yolks ogling each other. Even after the tree was bald, my mother wasn’t satisfied. One night we woke to it on fire: the tree raised itself like a torch, moths crowning the scene. She claimed it wasn’t her who did it, but I saw her smiling as she broomed up the ashes. If your grandfather ever wants to see me, we don’t want him to get tangled up in some tree, she said. That week, a hummingbird buzzed around our doorway, pricking its beak into our window, searching for the yolks of our eyes.
Look for a woman with my face, my mother said. Wherever you are, look for a woman like me. She might be my missing sister. On the opposite coast, on the night of my first show, my ankle catches in the silk scarf as I’m swinging toward another one. I hear it twist, the tendons tangled into a necklace. When I come home that month, my mother unwraps my ankle. You have my anklebones, she said, thick. I used to wish them thin. She pressed the place beneath the bone, the place where I’ve planted ache. When I was little, my mother searched my limbs for bruises and pressed them hard with her thumb, ten times each before bed. You have to press them to make them better, she said, it makes the blood rush in and soldier your skin. I hissed when she did it. I told my mother that faces were too easy to mistake. I’d look for a woman with our ankles. Thick? she said, petting my anklebone. No, I said, broken.
This time, the dream is mine. A tree in my fist, upside-down like a broom. I lift it, and in front of me is a woman with her back turned. Moth-wings sewn to her spine. When I wake, there are two cockroaches mating inside my bedside lampshade and I have a show this evening. My new trick is swinging through a hoop of fire, except the fire is now fake, made of paper, ever since one of the aerialist’s wigs caught fire and she went like a wick. In the eighties, my mother told me, she read stories about how some girls, when born, were smothered in ashes or drowned in chamber pots. The chamber pots were a matter of convenience, the nearest thing to drown in. It was a mercy, she said, what my parents didn’t do. I tell her a story about my apartment, how the other aerialists and I once lived in an apartment together. Our water got shut off. After a few days, we started peeing into the shower drain. We felt like men. She laughed and asked me when I would come home. She said she was planting a new tree, a kumquat tree, a mini. It would not block our door, would grow into nothing between us, no obstacle for luck. I promised soon, but I knew that when I hung up I would hook myself onto the silk scarf attached to a ceiling and perform my falling.
My mother sent photos of the new mini-kumquat tree, its branches brittle as fingers. Come touch, the caption said, and I recorded my laughter to send back to her. When I was a baby, she told me, she had to rehearse separation with me. I was too god to you, she said. I wept when she took showers with the curtains closed, when she walked behind a door. I must have thought she’d disappeared. So she placed me in the drained bathtub and practiced walking backward, shutting the door in front of her. She stood outside while I cried for her, beating the sides of the bathtub blue, wailing what I thought was her name but was actually mine. Little sister, little sister, I called to her, because that was what my grandmother called her, the name that worked on her like a whip. Come back. Outside the door, she kneeled and pressed her forehead to the floor. She promised to herself: count to one hundred before opening the door. But she always failed, quitting at ten. Even when I no longer called for her, when I was no longer afraid and instead lay on my back in the bathtub, pretending to surface, my mother couldn’t count farther than ten. She ran in through the door while I bathed, while I ducked and batted her away. I’m here, she said, reaching for me. Little sister, I won’t let you be taken away.
—K-Ming Chang (A Velvet Giant)