(Content Note: Attempted Child Death, Abuse, Self-mutilation)
When the doctors tugged me from Ma I gripped on so tight with all my hundred hands that I left little handprints all over the umbilical cord. I grasped before I gasped. And then I was crying because they had to peel my fingers away, one by one, and swaddle ninety-eight of my hands in cloth so tight it felt like bumpy flesh against Ma’s breast, against the thin hospital gown. Are all babies this lumpy, she asked.
It’s all that flopping around in the womb, said Grandma, in her acerbic, to-the-point Teochew. Leaves a dent. Your milk will puff him back up.
Later she went to the feng shui man at the bottom of our block and asked what they had done to deserve this not-child.
When you threw me into the sea I gasped first and then I tried to grab onto you but you were already walking away, striding through the foaming surf, and all your footprints in the sandbed were washed away.
It was like being unborn. First I ran out of air, and then I was sinking into the water. But it was so soon, Pa, so soon after they cut the cord, that I never forgot how to live without breathing. And it was so soon, the little nub in my belly still flopped like a little worm, and as the currents teased and swept me into the dark it opened up like a flower and remembered again. It sucked at the water the way I fed at Ma’s breast, and the sweet life flowed through me again, a thousand metres out from shore and a hundred metres under it.
I drifted, arms paddling gently, taking it in turns. The sea was filled with such wonderful things, that everywhere I floated there was something astonishing to look at. There were jellyfish with glowing tendrils that wove tapestries on the ebb of the current, and hurricanes of fish that blotted out the light filtering through the surface, and corals that spread like crystallised forests beneath my pale feet.
The water coddled. When I breathed it in it was sharp and salty like memory. Grandma, returning with the amulet and the knife and the plastic lighter from the convenience store to cauterise the wounds. The creaking click, the flickering flame, dancing shadows across the crib, startling the lizard that had crept up close. She came close, but could not bring herself to do it. And so, Grandpa, kneeling at the altar, lifting joss sticks that trailed wisps of smoke across the living room and curled around the offerings of oranges and cake. Pa, your silver cross with the man spread out to die. The air was so thick with desperate faith in different gods it must have cancelled each other out. In the end the compromise was the default of all the islanders that there ever were—to offer up the horrors to the ocean, and hope the wax and wane of the seas brought back something transformed.
After nine months of drifting the sharks found me. They burst through the water trailing bubbled froth, almost silver in the dappled moonlight. I reached out with as many hands as I could and skimmed their velvety hides, nuzzled their rounded noses. Their curiosity made me laugh, the way babies laugh, giggling and gurgling the brine. I grasped onto their fins and knew I had been born again.
How many years, Pa? One loses track of time. Many, many moons. I learned to swim, with purpose, to grasp onto the tides and bend them to the intent of my body. I swam all the way up the peninsula and all the way back down, further than you have ever been. The sharks taught me to flatten my arms against myself to slip through the slivers in the currents, and throw out my palms to stop, fanning like a wall of white coral. I caught eels and rays and snatched tuna from the schooling hurricanes, one after another, arms darting in and out of the swarm.
The ships frightened me. They passed overhead like eternal storms, casting absolute darkness into the depths. Their nets stirred frenzy in the black, the sounds of thrashing, keening creatures pressed against the ropes, eyes bulging in the gaps, tails beating furiously against one another. They reminded me of the blankets, being swathed so tightly my arms lost all feeling, bound and twisted to my chest.
They took the tuna hurricanes, gobbling them up with one big bite. They took the turtles and the dolphins that weren’t quick enough to get away. Their chitters, sliced into squares by the gridded ropes, echo long after the ship has passed on. They took the sharks. Great whites with rows of dagger teeth swept up like minnows, vanishing into the depths of the groaning steel leviathan.
The sharks were the worst casualties. My kin, my protectors, my kings, falling like rain, falling like comets with scarlet tails. Sharks cannot live when they cannot swim; sharks cannot swim when their fins have been cut off. The boats lifted them to the sky, took what they wanted, and cast them back out. The water ran red and I could do nothing but drift in the grisly shower, see them wriggle like bloated eels with panting gills, crawling towards death. I wished I had a lighter from the convenience store, so I could sear the rotting edges of their wounds. I wished I had jasmine altars and gods to pray to. Pa, I could only pray to you.
When they pulled me from Ma and you saw the arms all across my body, like maggots you said, you left the room. You only returned when the doctors assured you I had been made presentable. Then, though your cheeks were pale, you managed to make a joke. So many hands, must be good for something, right? I cannot say what you imagined for my future. Standing on a factory line, perhaps, fifty workers squashed into one, like a foreman’s wet dream.
Grandpa was the one who ventured, Become a dealer, ah. Good at holding cards.
Many moons, many ships, many showers of soon-to-be corpses.
Desperation makes gamblers of men, just like Grandpa pronounced; I was blind and wild with grief when I found the sharp edge of shale lying on the ocean bed. The first time I cut off one of my arms and presented it to a dying mako, it was penance. It was a brand of solidarity, of suffering. How was I to know the arm would take? That the sinews would meet, crawling toward each other like lost lovers, entwining in flesh and blue blood, pale meeting grey, fingers going rigid?
With my flesh erect on its spine, blood sealed away from the salt, the writhing shark became graceful again. It flicked its tail and jettisoned through the water, a gleaming satin blur.
You believed in God to judge the value of your life. I found, that day, that I was worth one hundred lives. It was little. Too little. But I did what I could, Pa. I only did what I could.
You know what else came to me, Pa, as I anguished over the lives I restored with the centesimal of my own? Your voice, floating into memory like waves. Something you must have said in all your fervent prayers when I was still on land.
This is my body, broken for you.
You want to know how I returned to you.
Once I was careless, distracted by the way the sunlight trickled through the water, and made the little fish that darted through it glitter in its shafts. I didn’t notice the ship until it was far too late. I was swept up in the fleeing swarm, and I could not get away. I kicked furiously, but for every fish I pushed away a hundred more swelled into the gap, and all the time the net closed in. It engulfed us like a whale and began to drag us up, up, up. I was pressed against a thousand flailing fish, their scales writhing against my scars, tearing them open. My blood flowed into the ocean below, and the sharks came, circling. I wondered if, by then, they recognised the scent.
I was spilled onto the steel deck, gasping and flopping. The air was so brittle and dry, the sky so scorching and bright, the steel so severe against my skin. All around me were the sharp slicks of metal hacking away at scales, sawing away at cartilage. The air was so thick with blood it devoured all else. My own blood pooled and dried, copper in the afternoon. I thought of that man around your neck, dying on top of a hill, his limbs splayed out for the world to see.
You had aged. It was no longer the face that swirled in inchoate tides in my memory, earnest and dark-haired, with a dimple in one cheek and a widow’s peak. You were an older man, skin browned, fingers calloused. You had a scar on one cheek and heavy eyes.
You didn’t recognise me either. We stared at each other, on opposite ends of that sterile white bed, wondering if the people who had brought us both here had gotten it all wrong. You stepped forward, opened your mouth, shut it again, looked out the window at the snaking highway.
Ma perched over your shoulder like a pheasant, but when she saw me her eyes widened and she pushed past you and rushed to my side. Tears streamed down her face. She said a name over and over, cradling my face between her hands, until I realised it was my name she was saying. She ran her fingers through my long coarse hair, skimmed her thumbs over my cheekbones.
Then she seemed to realise how the blanket was draped over my chest, tucked neat around my body. She stopped, and hooked her fingers under the edge, and with one swift, triumphant motion threw the covers back, as though she had been waiting for this my entire life.
This is where we had our wedding dinner, Ma whispers. She rubs my shoulders and her hands slide down my smooth torso. She isn’t fazed. She almost revels in knowing. You see, she tells you, nothing to hide from me anymore.
The restaurant is gilded and gold, with dragons on the banisters and cranes on the folding screens. Fish swim languidly in tanks stacked against one wall. We are ushered to a table in the very centre, with the cream tablecloth draped, the places set, the lazy Susan polished to a mirror shine. You, Ma, me, and Julia, who is a pretty young woman studying to become a lawyer and who eyes me with the cool, practiced appraisal of the trade. My sister. She has two arms and ten fingers, the nails painted rosy pink.
Tea is served. Ma blows onto my cup—hshshsh—and then offers it to me, pressing the ceramic gently against my lips. I let the chrysanthemum trickle down my throat. Julia nibbles at the peanuts.
So, she says, how did you end up in the middle of no fucking where?
Julia, Pa snaps.
She shrugs with one shoulder.
It’s okay, dear, Ma says. Hshshsh. You can tell us the story when you’re ready.
We sip tea in silence. It has been so many years that we have nothing to say to each other. Ma works as a florist. You are a big manager at the harbour, where thousands and thousands of ships come and go every day. The thought makes my head spin. We went for a drive the other day, and you showed me the shipyard from a distance. See, you said proudly, those are the cargo ships. Those are the shipping containers from Europe. Those are the loading cranes. Those are the fishing boats. In the passenger seat of your grey Audi, with the air-conditioning cold and dry against my cheeks, the ships were merely specks that disappeared as we rounded the bend. I thought how small you must think they are, if this is how you see them, every hour of every day.
Finally, Julia says, relieved, as a waitress appears carrying a large dish.
The ceramic clatters lightly on the lazy Susan, and the waitress sets down bowls and pepper shakers and plates of beansprouts and scallion. She lifts the lid to a steaming brown broth, strewn with pale shreds and green coriander. She ladles the thick soup into the bowls and serves one to each of us. For your health and prosperity, she proclaims, just barely stuttering when she lays eyes on my floppy sleeves. Quickly she averts her gaze, tops off the bowls with a flourish, and whisks away the empty dish.
Ma shakes pepper over my soup and adds the vegetables, then scoops and blows. Hshshsh. She lifts it to my lips. Shark fin soup. The strips are spongy and chewy. They taste like nothing, and taste the same. I swallow, imagining the sinews making their way through my bloodstream to wriggle their way to my scars, returning life to lent limbs.
Jiak, jiak, you murmur, burying your gaze in your own soup. Eat, eat. The sound of your voice stirs another phrase, another devotion. A second part, I think, to the first. Eat, eat. There is a voice that is neither yours, nor mine, but a discordant harmony of ages. Eat, eat. Eat in remembrance of me. Down the ridges of my abdomen, my stomach stretches, clenches, closes like a newborn’s fist.
© 2022 Wen-yi Lee