K-Ming Chang

The women in my family have black teeth. Not a black like evening or shade under a tree, that dark you can breathe. Ma’s: red-black like broken scabs. Ahma’s: green-black like oil scum on a sick river. Hue that murders moons. Ma says she got these teeth from betel nuts, but I know she was born with that mouth. They’re the color of her memories, each molar corresponding to a night or a man she ran from. When she smiles, the whole room dims around her face.

Ma claims it’s the nuts because she doesn’t want me to start chewing them too. One time Ahma chewed them at the mall, the red pulp slipping down her chin. A white woman thought Ahma was spitting blood and called an ambulance. We had to run: Ahma has no papers and isn’t supposed to talk to anyone in a uniform, even if they’re trying to save her. The paramedics swept through the food court looking for us, but Ahma and I had already stolen out the back of a shoe store. Her belly rang like a bell while she ran: that morning, I’d seen her swallow all her coins one by one, converting her stomach into a piggybank. Ahma says that’s the only way you won’t get mugged. Later she’ll shit the coins out in the toilet and they’ll settle at the bottom like pennies in a wishing fountain.

Ahma scavenges the house for things to swallow: stray earrings and silver buttons, lost beads and pennies, even the jade ring Ma now keeps locked in her bedside drawer. Ma stirs powder-laxatives into rice porridge whenever Ahma swallows something we want back. Ahma’s teeth are too porous to chew anything properly, so most of the porridge slides out of her mouth and runs down the bone-rungs of her neck. At the end of every meal, I’m in charge of swiping the spit off her lips with a dishtowel. I sponge the porridge-stains off her skin while my brother tells me which spots I’ve missed. It’s my job to keep Ahma clean, and it’s my brother’s career to do nothing. Ma says that a good daughter is like a good fire hydrant: it stays in one place, never wanders, and is always there when you need to put out a fire. She doesn’t have any sayings about sons, except that they need to be given a radius, the way you do with wild animals or a bomb. While Ma and I take turns watching Ahma — Ma in the mornings and me in the afternoon when I’m home from school — my brother steals bottles and cans from our neighbor’s bins to sell at the recycling center downtown. In the backyard, we crush the soda cans with our feet and compete to see whose are flatter. We batter the cans into silver stains, thin as coins. Ahma is the judge, and my brother wins every time. She says he stomps better than a soldier. My brother salutes her, his solemnness a mockery, but Ahma smiles anyway, all her teeth showing. I want to pin back the corners of her mouth like curtains, to hold open that smile with my hands.

That day with the ambulance, we ran out of the mall and past the parking lot and past the Toyota car dealership where Ahma once spat on every single used Camry because they’re Japanese and past the 7/11 where Ahma buys scratchers and never wins and finally onto the side-street where we live between two non-functioning streetlamps in a squat house painted the color of snot, yellow-white. I told Ahma we could stop now, but she kept running past our house and down the block, her feet splitting the street, the back of her white nightgown flapping like a flag. Ahma says nightgowns are not just for nighttime, just like nightmares don’t stay inside of sleep. When I say I never have nightmares, just dreams about the sea, Ahma says that’s the same thing: the first time Ahma saw the Strait, she thought the white foam on the waves were bones. She thought the sea was a pot of boiled-up bodies, blood salting the water.

Ahma’s red spit dash-marked the sidewalk, so I followed it as far as I could. But she was too far ahead, and her spit on the sidewalk was fading to pink. Then nothing. June was thick around my hips, the air so humid that my voice sounded like I was underwater. I called for Ahma, but the syllables turned to smoke. My tongue sizzled when it touched the air. In the summers, I always took Ahma to the mall where there was air-conditioning and pretzel stands and storefront windows that glistened like eyes. Ahma never let me go into any of the stores: she pointed at the white mannequins with whittled-flute waists and called them all guizi. But they’re just plastic, I said. Ahma said that ghosts were anything in the shape of bodies that were not bodies. Anything standing without skin. She cracked the betel nuts with her teeth, numbness spreading along her jaw like a bruise.

Ahma stopped running sometime in the evening. She came home holding a run-over squirrel by its fried tail, the body bloodless and beaded with flies. We couldn’t tell if she wanted us to eat it or bury it, so Ma shrouded the roadkill in saran-wrap and threw it away. Ma separates our trash three ways: recyclables, flammables, and Ahma’s daily offerings. Today, the third bag already contains two run-over squirrels, a fallen tree branch in the shape of a rifle, and a purple sofa cushion left for free on the sidewalk.

We put Ahma to bed when it’s night and the crickets form their choir. Ahma sleeps on our skin-colored roof and Ma lets her, says my mother thinks she’s some kind of bird. Ma prefers to use other b-words to describe Ahma: buhaoyisi, biaozi. Bujian: Ahma who was born on one island and fled to a smaller one. Ahma who fried tree-bark in a pan during the famine and now describes all the birches on our street as white meat. Ahma who treats bee-stings by spitting on them, who says that every sea requires feeding: before she sailed the Strait, she tossed in her mother’s wedding earrings, a pearl bracelet, and a basket of oranges. Every crossing costs something, Ahma says. You can never stop paying.

According to my brother, Ahma once swallowed her gold ring before boarding the boat so that no one would be able to steal it off her. They’d have to slit her open to get it out. Ahma who waited days then months then years to shit out that gold ring. It was a no-show, a ghost ore. In Taiwan, Ahma kept a colander in the bathroom to shit into, straining and sifting through her own grit, praying to see the brief light of gut-fermented gold. Ma says the gold dissolved inside Ahma’s hostile body, says that Ahma is incapable of keeping anything. Anything includes: memories, husbands, money, a home, her sanity.

Ahma lies beyond my room’s opened window, her reclined body the size of my sky. I can always see her from my sill, her body banked on the black-clay tiles. A flock of pigeons lands on her, shrouding her body with their shit-clung feet. Then they rise off her skin, dense as smoke, the sky banished by wings.

about the author