by K-Ming Chang
I had an aunt who went to the dentist and asked to get her tongue pulled. We only do teeth, the dentist said, but did it anyway. She took her tongue home in a jar and flushed it down the toilet and years later a fisherman in Half Moon Bay made the evening news, waving my aunt’s tongue like a flag at the end of his pole. The police are still looking for the body it belonged to. I had an aunt who worked at a Chinese buffet and stole us a live crab, which my other aunt boiled alive, and when I tried to crack the legs with my teeth the way they did, one of my molars fractured into five and my other aunt, not that other aunt but this other other aunt, spent the rest of the night tweezing tooth-shrapnel out of my gums. By morning my mouth was ground beef. I had an aunt who told me not to get braces because it would set off the metal detector at airports and trigger the dogs to run out and tackle me and the agents would confiscate my teeth and replace them with rubber bullets and interrogate my mouth with their tongues. I had an aunt who took me to Great America while my mother was at an immigration interview. This aunt refused to get on a roller coaster even though that’s what we paid for. When I told her to get on, she said the only time I’ll get off the ground is if I’m on an airplane or become an angel. And I told her she’d never become an angel because I saw her kiss a woman once when we were at Walmart buying four-ply toilet paper because my mother was having stress-diarrhea, induced partially by her upcoming immigration interview and partially because I tricked her and said the immigration officers would test if she was truly American by feeding her soft-serve and waiting to see if she’d digest it. I told her that’s why it’s called passing a test – because they catch what passes out of your body and if it’s liquid, they don’t let you into the country. So she went out and bought two gallons of Breyer’s vanilla to train her body to convert milk into bone and not brown silk. Anyway, in the parking of the Walmart my aunt locked me in the car, which I said was illegal in America – you can’t even lock dogs in the car – and she walked to a woman who had been following us while we shopped, a woman I’d recognized from the temple where we prayed to save my grandfather’s polygamist soul – that woman was the one who gave me Oreos when the nuns weren’t looking, which I left on the shrine instead of eating – and my aunt, the one who told me to use a bra as a weapon and not as a catapult for oranges, who once whipped my legs with a clothes-hanger because she caught me cutting the crotches out of a lingerie catalog, kissed that woman. Kissed her so hard, my lips shriveled in sympathy like salted slugs. We drove home. I had an aunt who gave me the lingerie catalog because there was a coupon printed in it, though no one here would ever wear underwear with jewels or lace, because jewels and lace need to be worn on the outside so that everyone knows you can afford it. I cut the bottom halves off the women for no reason. At school we watched an Oprah interview where a white woman tells Oprah how she stopped her rapist: by peeing on him. I had an aunt who peed on me one time we shared a mattress. She’d been in the country five months and when I woke up she was trying to shroud the stain with a towel. She said she’d dreamed of being back on the island, peeing onto the roots of a camphor tree that didn’t grow unless it was given water directly from a body. I imagined I was that camphor tree: I grew because my aunts were watering me. I had an aunt who cut my hair for years until she got early-onset something, some disease named after a man, and then she went around cutting people’s earlobes on purpose, just sneaking up behind them with her scissors and shearing off the tips like bits of shrubbery, and for years every time I saw something behind me, a pigeon or the gym teacher or rain, I assumed it was her. I covered my ears in my sleep, could never hear in my dreams. I had an aunt who said always carry a flashlight in case you come across night. She talked about night like it was a man who would apprehend me suddenly on the street, and not like something that happened routinely at the same time every day. I told her I knew when the dark was coming, because everyone knew when the dark was coming, and she said I never knew when I’d be taken. Taken from where, I asked, and she said anywhere. I had an aunt who wrapped cellophane candy wrappers around the heads of flashlights and shined the beams onto my ceiling before I fell asleep, telling me it was the Northern Lights, and when I asked her what even caused the Northern Lights, she said it was the sky having bad breath. The sky was the color of infection. The more colors a wound turns, she told me, the closer it is to healing. When night is the color of all my aunts letting down their hair, I remember I have another aunt who got all her teeth bashed in on a bus because she was speaking Chinese. She doesn’t remember the man who did it, just woke up at the end of the line with the bus driver slapping her awake, telling her she better learn some English, so she did. I had an aunt who woke with all her teeth in her palm, a boy on her breath. I had an aunt who worked at a grocery store and made flashcards every day with words she’d overheard, beef stew and babysitter and exact change. I had an aunt who only said one thing, over and over, but I can’t remember what it is anymore. I had an aunt who wanted to name her daughter Dog because that’s what Americans love most of all, dogs, and how many movies are there about American dogs that must find their way home to their families? And how many of those dogs die, percentage-wise? And can’t a name give me the odds I need? I had an aunt who grew orchids in her trash can and disposed things by flushing them down the toilet, even knives. She stole soil from her neighbors, gouged holes in their lawn in the middle of the night, lines of holes complex as cursive, until the neighbors were convinced it was a message from the aliens. I had an aunt who watched Lifetime movies with me after work. She spoiled all the endings by yelling They fuck! They die! at the screen. I had an aunt who kissed a woman and my other aunts said that one was supposed to be a son. I had an aunt who saw me kiss a woman in the booth of a Burger King and said no wonder, you were supposed to be a son. I had an aunt who pulled me out of my mother by a jellied ankle and said of course she’s born backward, everyone in this family is. I had an aunt who reached inside my mother as if taking attendance, checking to see if anyone was left behind. I had an aunt who washed me in the sink and held me on the sofa while my mother slept with her back to me. I had an aunt who called me, for the first time, by my name. I had an aunt who lent me her breasts while my mother was at work scooping ice cream into paper cups, milk shadowing the front of her apron. I had an aunt who died in a drunk driving accident, in a sober driving accident, in a suicide, in a typhoon, in the middle of the day while blow-drying her hair, in the evening while opening a window, in the morning while hiking to the family grave, in an attempt to get away from her husband, in an attempt to get away from her father, in an attempt to leave the country, in an attempt to get into another one, in an attempt to get her nose done, in an attempt to love a man, in an attempt to outrun a river, in an attempt to rain. I had an aunt who grilled shrimp on tinfoil on a hot sidewalk, who cracked an egg on my forehead when I made fun of her accent. I had an aunt who did my hair before school every morning, marinating my braid in egg yolk and butter, saying I’d smell like an American girl. I had an aunt who was a citizen. I had an aunt who was never. I had an aunt who made sausage out of wild squirrels she shot in her yard, and when I said those squirrels probably had diseases, she held me to the chair until I ate the whole sausage. I had an aunt who napkined the grease off my chin after every meal, even when I said I was too old for that and had functioning hands: she said she didn’t trust me to be clean. I had an aunt who stood outside the bathroom and listened to me shit, saying she could divine the shape of my soul based on how my shit fell: whether it sank right away, whether it floated like petals or sang in the water or became a fish. I had an aunt who said chewing orchid petals prevents pregnancy. I had an aunt who never married and told me men were magpies: they want anything that shines. What shines: blood, a bruise like an eyepatch, a lake, salt, a window, dew, sweat on a girl’s collarbone, my aunts pledging allegiance to the moon. I had an aunt who massaged my elbows when I cried and said the heart is a hinge, to live it must bend. I had an aunt who said I should carry a rock in my palm until it’s the same temperature as my body, and then I should talk to the rock as if she is inside it. She says we should all learn to listen through other skins. I had an aunt who said that home is the temperature of an armpit. I had an aunt who never let me turn on the heat, because if we don’t pay for the sun’s light or warmth we shouldn’t pay for heat or electricity, and so she locked my hands under her armpits and turned on her mouthlight and pretended she was a hen and I was the egg, swaddled by wings, swimming inside a shell of distilled light, waiting to break to birth to sing.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow and Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel BESTIARY is forthcoming from One World / Random House in September 2020. She lives in New York and her website is kmingchang.com.
Image source: Breno Assis/Unsplash