Sep 13 ● BY Star Su
The egg slipped out into my underwear, oiled black with blood. Usually, I knew when my period was coming, felt it between my ribs like any other kind of rain. My mother taught me how to watch the sky’s belly, how to weigh the water: tiny fish, screaming cat, feathers of snow. I didn’t blame her for not warning me what would detach from mine. I could hardly look down, choose the appropriate size of tampon to endure.
There was a time when I cared what my body precipitated. November. April. Last February when we knew we had a daughter. Alex stopped asking because the answer was always the same. No baby. I didn’t expect his resolve to last longer than mine, but when he stopped buying sesame tang yuan and red dates, and exchanged them for tampons and a full tank of gas from Costco, I drove for the first time in months, taking the car inland from East Providence to Connecticut, where there were storms that would scream as I would and no water to draw me in.
When I returned, we split a six-pack. After he fell asleep, I tipped his bottles against my lips, catching the drops I knew he would waste.
In the new year, broadcasters delivered a forecast of dragon babies, joked that if you went to bed too late, some would be born with the heads of snakes. For once, we saw the same weather, clear skies and almost months without a ribbon of blood.
I was pregnant again. Four months in, Alex picked up soft-bellied cream buns and strawberry milk, foods I didn’t remember telling him I was craving. I danced barefoot in the living room, floors glazed with lemon and pine-soak, spiders quiet in the corners. The playlist was old (“Shadowplay” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Divison; “Sea, Swallow Me” by the Cocteau Twins; an old soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera from one of our first dates). And so we made plans to make a new one soon, this-weekend-soon. We both understood the forecast. Still—celebration.
We set the table for the first time since we moved in a year ago, slicing the cabinet’s darkness with our phone’s flashlights to locate matching bowls and feed each other whipped cream with silver chopsticks before going to bed early, sealing the covers around us like an envelope.
As we fell asleep, Alex didn’t reach for my waist and I was relieved.
The next morning, I almost missed the egg. The lights were off, Alex was a light sleeper and only the nightlight trickled against the wall. The bathroom tiles were slick with shadows, ink that didn’t flinch no matter how bright the sun was.
To have survived my womb, the egg must have been recycled from some previous life. It was mottled like a chicken’s, constellated with birthmarks I had spent summers smothering with fleshy spray paint to sell at my mother’s stand; it wobbled like frogspawn, a palmful of jelly that I had been looking forward to since moving back, tadpoles bursting open with the magnolia.
Must be a good omen, I thought. My mother used to read me Chinese history books as large as bricks, transcribing the characters into her cigarette-hoarse voice as evenly as rain. Horses made of half-moonlight, half-dragon. Birds half-sun, half-chain. I went to sleep praying all of it was real though I didn’t know the words for making a wish since we never went to church. Unlike the beasts in American movies, our gods brought luck, my mother said. Earthquakes that brought kind, old men to the surface. Gourds that swallowed demons, grinding their bones into a fine rain that ended famines and ripened even the loneliest mountains with fruit. If she were here, I would ask her what kind of luck this was.
Downstairs, Alex shouted there were no eggs, no creamer, and, sorry, he had the last piece of toast. With one hand I cradled the egg and with the other I knocked on the floor twice.
Okay, I know.
The echo passed through the bathroom tiles, down the back staircase to the laundry room where he collected the plywood models for work. Since last February, the day we came home empty-handed from the hospital, my voice was not what it once was. Though I never smoked, my voice had grown into my mother’s, harsh and delicate as the smoke she swallowed.
I twisted the latch to the bathroom window, pried open the frosted glass. The sky was cobwebbed with storm clouds, lit with threads of blue lightning and hollowed by the wind from the ocean, a body I could taste but not see from here. I stooped down to knock again: one slow, two fast.
Careful—it’s going to snow.
The garage door tongued shut.
I thought about flushing the egg down the drain. How easy it would be to make it a ghost, give all my other children some company. I thought about giving it a chance. My mother would have buried it in the backyard, between the snow peas and melons, where everything swelled three times the size of their grocery store comrades. The garden survived my neglect the past year; proof that someone else should take care of the egg—I wasn’t fit to be a mother.
We say one thing and do another. This is why we don’t get to live inside myths, I thought as I rinsed the egg under the sink, the blood sweating down the beige marble. This is why we are recycled, learning to lose something each subsequent life.
I kept the egg.
I discovered without water, the egg would dull and harden like a riverstone lodged onto shore. I kept it in the walk-in closet, in a ceramic bowl painted with dancing hedgehogs that we had bought for the baby. Nestled against my raincoats and folded sweaters, the egg was safe. Alex never went into the closet. If he needed something other than slacks and black t-shirts, I chose the outfit. When he dressed himself, I was not sure what he was preparing for, shirts and pants layered without thought to the weather. That hadn’t changed since college.
Each morning, I purified water from the tap and heated it on the stove until it was warm to the touch. When it greeted me for the first time, I spilled the carafe of water and began to cry. The egg blinked at me like a cow’s milky eye, gloss like water on riverstones swallowing its edges. I don’t know why I cried. Alex could cry at any moment. I liked that about him—how he summoned water freely at a friend’s departure, the movies, choosing a paint swatch for the nursery. My mother always said it was a happy life to marry land with plentiful rain. I had always thought it applied to men, too.
The day the egg hatched, Alex came home early. It was my birthday. I left the bed only to pick up the TV remote and change the water in the closet. My joints split soft like popcorn as I stopped to choose a blouse for dinner. Usually, I left dinner in the steamer and fell asleep next to the cold divot on his side of the bed, woke up to the ghosts of his fingers and linen sheets blotted with floor dye and papercuts.
I had long ago lost track of his buildings, so when people asked about his work, I made them up. To the hairdresser, I said a new shopping complex: skittled leggings with matching cocktails next door. To the gynecologist’s intern, I claimed Chick-fil-A was finally coming to Rhode Island. The chain I really wanted was Meet Fresh, where Peng Peng once took me on a day trip to the city. Sweet potato and taro balls drenched in evaporated milk on a bed of grass jelly. Our favorite dessert.
The truth was he was working on a commissioned house in Tucson, one ripening on top of an aquifer. Kitchens with obsidian islands and floors that opened to infinity pools. The plans appeared geometrically impossible, but money had a way of remedying that.
You must have a nice house, the hairdresser said. I knew she wanted to see pictures but I could only think of the garden, of watering it just a bit more.
After she finished trimming another half inch off my bob and I promised to bring Alex next time, I stopped by the hardware store on the corner. Watering cans, spades, and packets of green peas and horseradish seeds were half-off; even I knew it wouldn’t be worth it to sow in snow-barren ground. I bought all the seeds that had been left behind.
Happy birthday, Alex said, pressing a bouquet of lilies into my arms, holding the front door open with his shoulder. I smothered my face in the petals, inhaling funfetti and frosting, stale air from the supermarket. The egg was beginning to glow, fissures of milked light. I wanted to go back to the closet to watch it take form.
Lilies, right? he said. I thought peonies for a second, but no—I remembered lilies.
I rearranged my face into a smile.
Twenty-seven stems. You’re old now. Alex grinned before he padded into the bathroom to find a vase.
She’s really twenty-eight, a voice behind him said.
His sister crossed the slush-covered steps and into the house. My heart began to sickle its way from my chest. I hadn’t seen Peng Peng in five years, not since the jellyfish. Only her hair had changed, soft blue now, tapered at the nape of her neck. She still wore the same quarter-zip, thumbholes she punctured, and the jeans she loved, a brilliant teal corduroy. It made me unbearably happy to recognize that outfit.
Stop being so Chinese, Alex said. I remembered then, in China, you count the year you spend in your mother’s water. I did not feel twenty-eight or really any age at all. Was this when mothering started—to count your days with another body? The egg would celebrate its third week tomorrow.
Peng Peng didn’t move her luggage and pushed him away to take my arm the way she used to when it snowed or rained, the water falling in dense gray sheets and us, together, walking to Fellini’s for slices after long, waning afternoons in the library.
I had Alex make me a list of all your favorite snacks, she said. Her breath snapped against my ear and I tried not to inhale. She had always been warmer than me. Alex hoisted the vase up the stairs, gripped its gold neck with one arm. I knew he would leave it in the bedroom, where I would move it to the nursery. I had buried my mother with lilies and no longer found them sweet.
Peng Peng unzipped the bubblegum-pink carry on, emptying it right there on the doormat. Sour plums dusted with sugar, coins of dried fish and squid, glass bottles of juice with candied grapes suspended, the kind that my mother once refused to buy me. From her pockets, she pulled Ziploc bags of tea leaves, pungent with cigarette smoke and apples. I teased her for finally adding fruit to her diet.
Class reunion, everyone took me shopping, Peng Peng said. After their parent’s divorce, Peng Peng followed her ba and his new girlfriend to Shanghai. Alex went with his ama to Chicago. The only thing she told me of the time was her father had sold their family van for a Mercedes so they could fit in during after-school pickup.
How did you get this over the border, I asked. She laughed and turned over the suitcase, peeling off BIOHAZARD stickers. Always scares Americans shitless, she said.
We had been close in college. She showed me how to survive the walk back from the grocery store with two buses, a stop at the Portuguese bakery for sweet bread. She bought me raspberry vodka whenever I wanted; texted me at night, in the morning, was I home? She let me tail her to house parties with fog machines and people who asked what I was reading and to films at the Avon where her girlfriend let us through the back and dim sum with her lab in Boston. She had an apartment of her own, and soon I oriented myself on campus in relation to it. Five minutes from the mailroom. Two from Coffee Exchange—I could stop by, mocha in hand, if there was more than five in my bank account. She took care of me before Alex did. Which is to say, I loved her first.
Give me a reason to believe society can function without capitalistic urges, Alex said. Peng Peng set down her chopsticks, wiped her hands on the tablecloth that needed washing anyways. You don’t stop working long enough to find out, she said. Neither of them heard the noises upstairs. They went on like that, quarreling like we were in the Ratty. I tucked fresh napkins by their plates, folding them into swans and ducks.
When Alex went out to buy candles for my birthday cake, Peng Peng lit a cigarette and asked about the babies—fuck, fetuses, she said. We had barely spoken at dinner. She knew I wouldn’t tell her to stop smoking.
Are you alright? she said. Her eyes were stamped with the orange whorl of her cigarette.
Fine, I said, the answer usually watered down the rest of Alex’s questions. She laughed, powdering the ashes over a bowl of watermelon seed husks.
I’m surprised you married him, she said.
What do you mean? I began to stack the plates, the bowls within the larger bowls, then the enamel saucers their mother had given us for the wedding. It was more than I could usually carry.
You were always restless, she said. And this is a nice cage.
Upstairs, the bowl now carried a tiny red fish. There was no trace of the egg left, save for its belly, a lick of creamy white. Under the flickering light of the closet, its scales sometimes looked dark blue, then red, the colors evaporating into one another, how I imagined the sunrise must erupt in the deepest trenches of the ocean.
We met at a Halloween party. I finally fit in. Every girl wore flannel, sports bra underneath. Her lipstick tasted like tangerines, tightened across my tongue sour-sweet. I liked that her hair was the same shade of Fanta. Later I would try dying mine too, only I was allergic to bleach; my bangs and top-layer left white as if half-chewed by a ghost.
The second time: summer in Providence. The sun blooded the cobblestone streets, made it unbearable to even bike. I went to the beach with a friend of a friend of a friend, who turned out to be Peng Peng. She paid for the rental car and I paid with my eardrums, her chipped nails working the radio, our thighs stuck together for the two-hour drive.
At the beach, she took samples of the tupelo trees for her fellowship. Their crowns lay twisted on the sand, all their roots exposed. She bought me coconut popsicles, the sweet milky juice slaking down our wrists. I followed her copper hair, swimsuit bottoms faded on the cheeks. Later, in the car, I found both were soft to the touch, falling away with the weight of her legs on my shoulders, my hands unstitching her seams, careful with the orbs of her spine, the red skin peeling like hawthorn flakes.
As the sun vaporized our limbs in the backseat and the wind grew into a razor of sand and cold salt, neither of us stopped to roll up the windows.
We stayed friends, stayed in our relationships. The surface of the water, still.
Alex rolled off of me, his spine a storm drain for sweat. The sex reminded me of the worker who came in a few days ago to shear branches from an oak tree. He pinned its arms down with sturdy bands and moved the saw evenly, back and forth, making no visible progress.
Are you mad at me? he said. You’re really quiet. Is it because I’m leaving?
Dryer’s done, I said and began looking for my underwear in comforter stranded on the floor.
Once I folded his shirts, he could leave for the airport tonight, catching a red-eye to Arizona to finish the volcano house. I found my bra, the only one with elastic left in the lace. I took his T-shirt and slippers and went downstairs to answer the dryer’s lullaby.
When I came back, he said, At least Peng Peng’s staying here until her expedition in Greenland. You won’t be so lonely anymore.
I took the shirt he was folding from his hands. They needed to be equilateral triangles not rhombuses to fit in his suitcase.
Neither of us are patient people. That much was clear from the beginning.
Peng Peng singed her hand turning on the gas stove. I handed her a bag of frozen peas, pulverized into fine sand from my previous burns. At night, she didn’t bother with drying her hair. Or conditioner. I looked away once I realized she wasn’t wearing a bra, wet curls snaking across her white tanks. She yelled at the rice cooker to keep taking its sweet time and I let her have some of my cellophane noodles, ladled another bowl of soup. We began to eat together, rinsing vegetables hip-to-hip, starting the rice early and—when we burned it—doused the scorched crust with sesame oil, eating the grains with four hands.
When Alex and I started dating, he took me to the RISD Nature Lab, where Peng Peng part-timed as a monitor. He asked her to open this drawer, that cage, and—before I could take off my jacket—asked if we could hold Netop the corn snake? I knew then that I was not the first girlfriend he had brought here.
Upstairs, drawers rattled full of seeds and teeth. Lynx skull, fingers of coral, ribs of Japanese maple; only one of each as if preparation for when the sea would devour the land as one of its fish. Downstairs, jellyfish waltzed in tanks, their tentacles shot through the water like love arrows, red tinged with flecks of gold. Alex wanted to know how they had been captured, what kind of poison they manufactured in their glowing skin.
Peng Peng laughed. Isn’t it enough to watch them? she said, ruffling his hair.
I held my breath; Alex didn’t like anyone to touch his hair.
But before he could snap at her, she reached for both of our hands and plunged them into the water which bubbled like simmering broth. The jellyfish flinched, receding at first to the far corner of the tank, a phosphorescent migration, piling on top of each other like a rainbow of umbrellas. I couldn’t bear to watch and focused instead on Peng Peng, her hair tucked behind the ear pierced by four golden hoops. Like a pirate. I wanted to touch those hoops, capture them in my pocket like a piece of precious candy, more than the jellyfish, more than the bones of the rare creatures she had shown us.
Immediately, I tried to unthink it—I was dating Alex, we were together, I had finally stopped thinking of her—and so I missed the jellyfish beginning to wrap their hands around me.
They were strong for having limbs that looked soluble. Alex moved beside me—only later did I realize that he was trying to save me.
He tapped their heads as if testing watermelon—Peng Peng and I screamed at the same pitch—and the jellyfish turned to him.
The sleeve of his shirt dipped in, the water magnifying everything.
We were there for a long time. Alex always told the story at parties, smiled with all his teeth, let people rub the purpled scars like good-luck tattoos. Later, Peng Peng would tell me the jellyfish had never stung anyone before.
The fish in the closet ate little: mulberries, spinach, peas in dried husks from the garden. It loved horseradish immensely. When I ran out of fresh chunks, I drove to Good Fortune to buy a shelf-full of wasabi peas, tossing them to the fish like popcorn. Sometimes it chewed so slowly I pried open its mouth to check it hadn’t choked. It outgrew the rice bowl in a matter of hours, the soup pot in a few days. Soon I wouldn’t have a cooking vessel large enough to contain it. I decorated the pickling pot with animals, its tongue purpling the interior as I slid the Sharpie into the curve of a swallow, an ellipsis of leopards, a spackle of starfish.
Peng Peng squatted next to the pot, trailing her fingers in the water. She didn’t ask where it came from. Looks funny, she said. Alex doesn’t like pets you know. I knew from googling her name—careful to close the tabs before she leaned her head against my shoulder—that Peng Peng was a professor of marine biology. All research, no students: the opposite of what she had promised to be in college. She tickled its head and the fish beamed out of the water like a lamp, wriggling between her arms.
Alex doesn’t like a lot of things, I said and unclasped my hands, which were knotted with the fish’s dried saliva. At least it’s not dead, I thought, glad that Peng Peng never could ask the right questions.
Does it have a name, she said and picked up the bowl with one arm, started down the landing. I want to take it to the kitchen, the only place in this house with some light.
No samples allowed, I said.
Calm down, you didn’t give birth to it, she said. I didn’t answer—she was passing the second floor, faint puffs of dust collapsing as she swung the bowl. No samples, I promise, she said. The fish glided in circles, the radius tightening with the winding staircase, its body curled into a musical note, fins marking the tempo of her steps.
Soap bubbled down my arms. I made no move to save the carpet.
Can you choose the name? I felt my voice unfurl, a sail over the banister.
Kun, she hollered back.
She was always up before I was, stuffing a fistful of herbs inside the kettle, chewing on jian bing. She raised the half she had left, smeared with egg yolk and red pepper paste. I’ll make you another, she said. As she started the slurry, I stared at her earrings, four jade hoops, marbled red, skeins of white. I wonder when she had buried the gold ones. A streak of flour carving a hollow on her cheek.
My baba was Taoist. Alex ever tell you that? Peng Peng unclipped an earring, held it out to me. You can have it. He’s probably throwing a fit on the steps of heaven, she said. Pure body, pure mind. Wouldn’t let me have medicine. Not for chicken-pox, not for pneumonia. You remember the wig? Yeah, that was for video chatting him.
Sounds like my mom, I said. You think they’re in the same heaven? Shangdi together?
I don’t know, she said, turning to the pan and waving the smoke away. Baba had always liked this myth about a tiny fish called Kun in the northern ocean. It grew and grew until its wings could fasten a new sky onto the clouds. When the sea could no longer hold it, Kun flew to a lake in heaven and was baptized into a real bird. That’s what I was named after. The fish that made it were called Peng. She rolled the bing straight over the flames, sucking her fingers as she passed it to me.
I liked how the name Kun rotated in my mouth—Kun, Kun, Kun— an incantation of the future where the world could be inverted: fish leapt into birds, the sky a portal for the ocean, every landscape of harsh truth into possibility. We fed it to the fish like prayer, punctuated with strands of jian bing, sesame seeds floating in the water. Sometimes I swore the fish grew longer as it chewed, its bones warping around the echo of its name.
Peng Peng was appalled that I kept Kun in a rusting pot, no temperature control, no water filtration, or even gravel to keep the bacteria out.
I’m surprised it lived this long, she said.
On the way to Pet Mart she called shotgun, played Icelandic pop. When we got carded at Whole Foods buying hard pink lemonade, I found out she still didn’t have a license.
What are you, Peter Pan? I said.
She raised her hands in defeat and cracked open the straw’s vertebrae with her teeth, offering me the first sip.
I drove slowly, the long way around all the potholes on Wickenden. We hummed at the sight of this library, happy to see the red brick intact, not yet resurrected into an underworld of steel and concrete like the others. I found myself looking for places like the skateboard emporium and the playground, which I once took great pains to avoid when Alex and I moved back, giving a wide berth to the children made by real mothers, ones with hospitable wombs and weather. Peng Peng must have noticed, especially at the swing set on Hope and Persimmon but she just pointed to the sushi bar and said, did the waiters sneak you shots of magic water here? You didn’t realize it was sake?
I was grateful. We made plans to get pizza from the place across the fire station. Olives and cannolis and chicken wings, the usual we had ordered the many nights we landed there, fingers dipped in grease and glitter. It was easy talking again. The silences felt better too.
She spent three days modifying the tank in the nursery.
Think of it like a first crib, she said, pointing to the one Alex and I had assembled. A prototype.
She came out only to go to the bathroom, peeing with the door open. She sang in Chinese as she worked. The only verse I ever understood was about bumblebees. The song echoed in rooms of the house she wasn’t in as I did the laundry, swept the floors, collecting nests of her blue feathered hair. At night, when she came downstairs, her footsteps clattered in the same syncopation as Alex’s, a bridge of cards collapsing.
Seen a ghost? she said. Then, come on, let’s get ghost food. She pulled my ankles off the leather sofa and dialed pizza for pickup.
I had no idea that bacterial colonies could eat the fish inside out, that a few degrees colder in the water could induce hibernation. I had no idea that survival rested on matters Kun could not communicate to me.
Wouldn’t Kun grow larger than this new tank soon? Could we feed it hormones to stunt its growth? What if—oh, it wouldn’t feel a thing, the medicine would taste like chocolate milkshake, vetted by the FDA as safe, very safe. And if Kun wanted some air? Part of the plan, don’t worry, Peng Peng said. I agreed to everything she wanted. I agreed we wanted the same thing.
I let her feed it, stopped myself from yelping when his tooth came loose in her gloved hand. Every other meal since its birth had come from my palm. Kun loved cheddar cheese—would Peng Peng remember? I kept slices in the fridge for it on the top shelf where it was the coldest, the hardest to spoil. She promised to treat it like her own child.
One afternoon, I came home to a wall of steam, hot lavender mist, and the pipes in the walls voicing a chorus I had not heard before. Upstairs, Peng Peng held a liter of Sprite to Kun’s mouth propped against the lip of the bathtub, the floor soggy with crescents of pizza crusts.
We had a pizza party, she said. You’re not allowed to be mad.
I’m not. I searched the house in my mind for where I last left the pine cleaner, my knees already sore thinking of the hours it would take to eat the grease between the tiles.
Kun lost its first baby tooth. Peng Peng took my hand and placed in it a molar the size of a coffee mug. Smooth porcelain, scabbed brown at the roots with blood. The fish drooped its blue tongue over the edge of the tub, picking up crumbs. All the anger went out of me like a bathtub plug hiccuping on the last swallow.
Another two are loose, she said and tugged on my wrists. I sat down on the bathmat next to them, already cataloguing foods that would be gentle on its teeth. Congee, eggplant, and—best of all—sweet potato and taro balls. I counted the days until we could watch Kun try our favorite desserts.
The new tank was beautiful. It seemed alive, channels of electricity and bleached light leapt across the carpet braided with rainbow trim, swallowing the crib that now seemed so small. The glass was warm to the touch, hot even, the temperature of a fever. Peng Peng said that this was normal, the fish needed tropical water, fish this beautiful were born from volcanoes. They were practically volcanoes themselves, molten in color. I nodded, set my hand on the glass. Kun didn’t seem to notice me, didn’t come to touch the tips of my fingers as it had when it was the two of us, swaddled in the closet.
I knocked on the glass, once, twice, but the sound of it was harsh, a key turning in the wrong lock. Suddenly it seemed very important for Kun to see me—its mother—for me to hold it, the cool slide of its scales in my palm, the water lapping between us.
I asked Peng Peng to open the tank. She reached beneath the cords, examined a gauge, cross-checked it with something written in her notebook.
Not yet, she said. The pressure is too volatile.
I continued to knock, tried to roll the rhythm into a song, some vibration that would echo through the water.
The glass is double-walled, she said. From the outside, you can see everything. Inside—inside, the fish is happy, Kun is happy, I promise. She pulled the cuffs of her sweatshirt over her hands, kneeled to pick up the tools strewn across the floor. Normally, I would have stooped down to help, asking where this screwdriver belonged and what these nails were used for, but I found it impossible to be still in that room, to watch the fish in that water, murky with its shedding skin and the oxidized-banana walls.
That morning, Peng Peng’s words started tremors inside of me that lasted until I started lunch, shaving carrots, potatoes, the onions fanned like a deck of cards. The knife slipped. I sucked it white, the flap of skin lifting onto my tongue, wrapped the dish cloth around my knuckles before turning to the beef, which still had to be tenderized.
A phone call from Alex chimed on the landline. I didn’t pick up.
Peng Peng sprinkled seaweed over the curry, pressed down the spine of a new book. I waited for her comments—she always teased me if the vegetables weren’t minced. Cavemen cuts, she would say. I was sure the dish tasted a little metallic, a little like my wound. She said nothing.
I didn’t ask her if I could hold the fish again. I knew she wouldn’t tell me when the tank was ready, the water pressurized. It bristled with retractable coral and platinum finish, each screw studded like a necklace of teeth.
Just a prototype, she said.
At night, I went into the nursery to watch the fish. I could see the tank light leaking through my bedroom hinges.
Kun swam from one side to the other, fins as supple as wings. Open, shut.
After a while, it stopped moving, whole segments of its body fell still at the bottom of the tank. Its dorsal fin grew twisted, drooping towards the floor. I pressed my face against the glass, fingers searching the perimeter for some way to let it know I was there.
When Kun’s scales turned cold silver, the blemishes of color fading before our eyes, Peng Peng told me to relax, it’s not a mood ring. The hormones didn’t stop its growth, layers of fat and muscle unfolding, fins perked open like magnolia buds.
Peng Peng said she had ordered something stronger, it would arrive tomorrow—could you sign for the package?
When I didn’t reply, she rose from the couch to turn off the TV. You should sleep too, she said, tucking a blanket around me, but I didn’t move.
I knew the water magnified the tank’s contents, made whales out of carp, so Kun must have more space inside than what I could see. The coral couldn’t be the size of legos and, anyway, Peng Peng had promised to replace it soon, very soon, with an organic seaweed colony. I knew the distortion was almost always worse in my mind. I knew but did not want to. The fish was folding over itself to stay in the tank, its spine an umbrella undone by a storm.
The birthday cake flowers smelled of honeyed rot, their stalks bitter and dry like green onion left too long in the crisper. I tore open the pastel curtains and, fingers stiff from cold, undid the clasps and tipped the lilies out the window, not caring where they landed.
The fresh air that flooded the nursery dizzied me. I leaned against the vase, its midsection as wide as my hips, catching my breath before I heaved it by the neck through the grass-toweled carpet to where Kun slept. The gold rim came off on my palms in smears of warm metal.
The all-natural coral was ground into orange-cheese powder, indistinguishable from the mold that slicked the walls, the kind that blooms on shower tiles when water is trapped for too long. Moonlight choked through the shutters, rested a few spectral fingers on Kun’s head or perhaps on its tail. I could no longer tell where its body began and ended.
The door opened and, for a moment, I thought Alex had returned. Peng Peng’s steps were always like an illusion. I didn’t turn around, knowing what I was about to do might be unbearable for her to witness.
It’s not right to keep it trapped like this. You know that, I said. As a scientist, I wanted to add. As a friend.
I thought you wanted to mother it, she said.
I let go of the vase for a second to face her. We can’t always keep what we want. Her face remained still, eclipsed in shadow, as I knew it would. The cage I had assembled for myself, around loving her, seemed to belong to another life, a chasm as vast as that of a deep-sea diver, contemplating the tangles of sunlight, the granite-block pressure between where one stands now and coming to the surface, hands empty.
Then she reached out towards me—and I thought for a moment that I was all wrong—but it was only to twist a gauge on the tank that read, “FILTRATION”. A few bubbles broke, collapsed, the water settling into a remainder around Kun’s spine. More scales than water to filter in this box. I let my hand drop, touching the glass one last time, my breath blooming across it.
I thought of Kun’s gills splayed open like kites. Buoyed by a tide, he could travel through the clean blue water of the sky, hot white clouds steaming his belly.
Between my ribs, something hollowed. A forecast that would leave me behind.
Peng Peng took a step back.
Then—with all my strength—I struck the vase against the tank, over and over, the glass breaking in a crescendo, shards spiraling like a school of tiny silver fish, raising a tide I was ready to swallow.