This river has a bad habit of clearing itself like a throat. The waves like coughs, slight foam haloing our ankles. It’s summer and māma’s listening to the radio outside, far from the bank because she doesn’t like wet things. Legend goes, she refused to hold me when I was born until the nurse double-washed and double-dried me of all the sluggy birth fluids, blood and brine. Gege was born dry as a nut. Gege says the real reason why māma didn’t hold me was because I’m a girl, but he’s just mad because we have rhyming names. The water stings like sweat. Māma reminds us every day that our father was born in this city, but I can’t imagine someone like Baba being born at all, his two fists popping out before the rest of him. Baba who says things like, the only thing that’s self-making is BLOOD.
I imagine him like the Japanese legend: Momotaro the boy born from a split peach, a sword in hand. But the only village-terrorizing monster my dad would ever kill is his own mother. Nainai has taken to saying things like, your body is a place. Since Yeye’s got dementia Nainai’s become a Christian, says the more river we swallow, the cleaner we’ll be. To her, cleanliness is the fact that knives will sharpen themselves if you use them enough. The water’s black like mosquito juice so none of us drink more than a fistful. Yeye says we should go soon, river’ll wipe us of our scent so we can run better. We said from who and he said Nihonjin. Sometimes it’s The Communists and he hides from his own wife by playing dead. Then he forgets he’s not actually dead and we have to roll him over and show him our faces until he remembers. He says everything in Yilan creole, which according to Wikipedia is 70 percent Japanese, 30 percent indigenous Atayal. Endangered Language Project says we’re 80 percent endangered and Yeye grunts, says 100 percent of people are 100 percent endangered. But what does he know, he once wore a flank steak as a hat, says it reminded him of a time when meat meant food. Nainai says Yeye’s got dementia because once upon a time, another country borrowed this country, and when that happened Yeye was borrowed to kill for the people that killed his people. She says it like a riddle she doesn’t want anyone to solve.
Which means we’re supposed to pray for his soul. We have never heard of heaven but we try to imagine it as a place where people can do whatever they want, like go naked or gamble. I imagine souls like a balloon you let go of on purpose so that your parents buy you something better, like a sugar cane juice or a new paper fan.
Doctor Hsiung said my Yeye’s lost 50 percent of his brain already. He’ll only smile if we bring him his medals, if we tie the blue ribbon around his neck, if we help him read his certificate: Nippon Imperial Army. Empire of the Rising Sun. He wears the medal like a noose. The ribbon’s so worn it’s the color of storm weather.
Now whenever I pray I keep thinking, to make the body a place, you must first destroy the body. I remember when Yeye and I danced barefoot in the wooden kitchen to Kangding Love Song, the cigarette smoke he blew in spheres. Look, he said, I’m borrowing the clouds. My knees sour on the tatami mat. I’ve been kneeling for so long it feels like my bones have pickled in the flesh. Gege in the next room is rattling his X-Box, says goddamnit, the heat gets in everywhere. Nainai says, pray for his release. Yeye screaming in the next room, says someone is felling his legs to stuff with feathers, someone is pruning away his eyelids. Says, cut me to pieces so they can’t take me all away.
Kristin Chang lives in California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in witch craft mag, Luna Luna mag, the Asian American Writers Workshop, fog machine, Rookie Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently on the poetry staff of Winter Tangerine Review and is located at kristinchang.com.
Photograph provided by Loni Jeffs.