A decade ago, after the local pamphlets published news of a city swallowed by the sea, Ma fled home by ferry and drifted toward this landlocked country of livestock. I was born at the butcher’s, in the year of the dog, not even a day after she reached the shore. This, she says, is proof of my obstinance, a brand of loyalty I never wanted to inherit.
Ma works at a slaughterhouse, the first of fifty on our block. She doesn’t mind the smell of death; her fears are limited to dementia and drowning. As the doomsday televisor warbles to the tune of a sea shanty, Ma picks at the bubblegum guts that have become perpetual freeloaders beneath the crescent of her nails. Here, clean things are hard to come by—everything we own is stained red, the color of Ma’s old flag, the color of meat, the color of blood.
As a child, Ma would nudge me toward the playground downtown, where gilded buildings gleaned the sky. It was there that I met Noah, the skinny son of a sailor who lived ten stories above sea level and had thumbs so thin you’d think they were a thief’s. Every time his hands brushed mine against the swings, my palms would flee to protect the few pennies I stored in my pocket. Every time, he would laugh, his voice rough as sandpaper, sea storm. “If I needed your money, I would’ve taken it already.”
I’m in Noah’s apartment, three years later, when the ocean outdoes itself, drowns a city the sailors said would be safe for seven more years. When an alarm rings for our city to shut, I scramble home to find Ma with a butcher knife still in hand, cleaving through the staircase in an attempt to carve our way to higher ground. In the distance, an incinerator exhales plumes of poultry into the air as smog. “We won’t need to leave, right?”
Her gaze bleeds into something softer. She drops the blade into the sink and lets the water rinse its stains. “You’ll understand when you’re older. Sometimes, there’s nowhere else to go.”
Some things I’m afraid of: dementia, drowning, the precision with which Ma pierces a cow’s pancreas and pulls it clean. Some things I’ve forgotten: what I wanted from Noah, how his hands sought mine around the twist of rusting chainmail, why the water swallows us without remorse. We sit against his stairwell, ears attuned to the sound of the sea. All the lands we’ve ever left or lost are leashed as riptides around my throat, their pull so strong the drowning almost feels like mercy.
—Vivian Zhu (CHEAP POP)