Secret Skin

Star Su

We’re the granddaughters of a fox. Popo said the fox spirit followed no reason, missed one sister but hounded the next generation. Upon giving birth to my sister Lea, Mama tried to drown her in a plastic basin for washing vegetables. She didn’t want to raise a fox, still hadn’t forgiven her sister for running away into the mountains of Sichuan. Her grievances with Popo were even more clear: she didn’t want a child like her mother. In the end, it was Lea’s mouth of baby teeth, perfect and pearled, that convinced Mama that she had a little girl. As Lea teethed new fangs, sickling the chairs into wishbones and collapsing the sofa into little clouds, Mama prayed that the well-behaved-fox spirit hadn’t missed her too.

When Popo came for Lea’s birth, she refused to speak to Mama, suckled Lea on chicken breast blended into milk, persimmons she dried in the garage. Those first weeks, she carried Lea on her hip like a new knife, sharpened her on the scent of severing meat from bone, then bone from bone, and taught her there’s always marrow underneath. She credits the marrow for Lea’s complexion, tells me to chew my bones if I want skin made of the same creamy light.

Daddy left before I learned to walk. Mama said that he was a chicken and we all know what foxes do to chickens, but I can imagine it better. Mama didn’t tell him about her family until Lea was born, a howling pelt of rust, and told him it wasn’t permanent, of course not, until six years had passed and nothing had been subtracted from Lea, another one multiplying in Mama’s belly. Lea said the only thing that she remembers was that he preferred to keep the TV on at all times, his face pouched in colored light. In his departure, ghosts unzipped the house. The TV exploded from heat and the hot water pipes started whistling. Mama invited Popo to come swallow the spirits; it was cheaper to have her move in than to find new land or actually facing them.

It was determined later that, though Lea was hungry, I was the pig. As I swelled in her womb, Mama ate whole watermelons, fish from cheek to tailbone, and cream cakes she didn’t bother to slice. When I crawled out, she was relieved that I hadn’t eaten her alive. At least you’re not a fox, she said. By then Lea was six years old and knew the difference between girl and fox. I fell asleep with her feet kissing the shingles of the roof, sheets left shining by the open window and, in the morning, she would be curled on the bed with me, tail tucked away, her pigtails smelling of wet cedar and fresh clay. She brought me gifts though I didn’t understand how strange they were until I unwrapped a family of mice skulls at show-and-tell, their burrow flash-frozen in the first snow, and my kindergarten teacher fainted.

We were all quite proud of Lea being able to hunt. Mama never turned away her catches, kissing her forehead on inhale and yelling on exhale for me to come pluck the bird. After, she would hang the chicken from her knotted fist, dangling it like ripe fruit. If it was a fat one, she would braid its legs with twine and boil it for days in a cloud of ginger, green onion, and peppercorn. We watched over it like a snowstorm, for it to seize on the first day, soften overnight into white and yielding flakes. Our favorite was when Mama parted the thighs, deemed them juicy enough for popcorn chicken. We ate them in a song of teeth shattering crisp skin, swallowed faster than Mama could fry. This was when I learned first to fight Lea, shedding the soft skin on my hands for claws that hungered too. Popo watched but never stopped us. Better learn early, she said.

Popo instructed me to never be afraid of Lea. Otherwise, she would feast on this too, swallowing it out of the air as greedily as dark meat or a doll’s arm. I had seen the consequences once when she swallowed my Barbie. Lea’s eyes rolled back white and keening, and Popo’s nails became fishhooks, scooped her out like ripe cantaloupe. After that, Mama never forgot to rub the Barbies with minced cilantro again and I never forgot that Lea looked like a chicken on the inside. With the doll’s arm sweating in the sink, Popo knit her stomach back together, though she left the seams too tight. Lea ate like a bird after that.

Mama switched to the day shift at the hospital and Lea became my babysitter. Lea was a great babysitter. If I was hungry, which I always was, we walked to the gas station for red hot potato chips. I could last longer than Lea, chewing the bottom of the bag even as the chili opened gashes in my throat. She took me to swim in the creek next to the motel, the only body of water in town not crowded with flotation devices and dog shit. The unfinished pool was healthy enough for fish, which Lea collected handfuls as easily as pennies. When it was too cold to swim, we visited hives that had crystallized underneath rotting panels of maple, made up dreams for the bees that slept: which ones married the queen, traveled kingdoms to set her free, or betrayed her, ensnared by her own tricks. They were always as elaborate as the wuxias Popo watched after dinner. After we visited the slumbering animals, I begged Lea to take me to the black bear that raided garages in the neighborhood, who had been caught on tape for its fondness of instant ramen, but Lea refused. One night, she told me to listen for the gunshots and I learned that they sound nothing like the movies: not a whole fist, just open and shut, a noise from the back of the tongue. Bears don’t know to play dead, she said. Why do they have to? I said. It can save you, she said and buried me in the soft spot between her ribs.

Despite Lea’s advice, I never played dead. The first time a boy shoved me into the monkeybars, my teeth fell out, a tiny concentration of roots, still tinged with blood. No one had seen it happen and everyone thought I should have punched back if I was in real pain. The next week, Lea was walking me home from school when someone held out their foot, stained my knees with twin tattoos. Before I looked at Lea, I was already down the street, lifting the boy’s shirt with my hands. Not all of Lea’s kills were clean, I had seen bone gleaming loose from fur and did not want to confirm the same could be done to this boy. When the shadow of his piss spread a shadow across the sidewalk, I felt I had done something right so I punched first this time, suturing his left eye purple. Only after did I turn and see Lea smiling. I would wake up for many years, those pits leaving holes in my breath. Still, I knew that Lea wasn’t the monster in the house. She was the one who fetched bandages, held me screaming under the sink as Mama poured hydrogen peroxide on my knuckles. When the scars healed as thin as a blade, Lea showed me how to make a fist, how to seal my fingers to do the fracturing.

Mama liked to ask me why I wasn’t as happy as Lea. My sour plum, she said, gnawing at my cheeks. Lea was always smiling, you could play connect-the-dots with her dimples. I was a disagreeable child: my skull as hard as rocks, my will even more hopeless. Lea said it was true that once my cousin had striked my skull with a pool stick, I picked up the splinters and went after him, wielding them like chopsticks haunting shelled crab. Lea’s smile used to unsettle me. I did everything I could to loosen her tear ducts: carving half-moons on her flesh with my nails, stealing sour-sweet ribs from her plate. Nothing could make her eyes water so I settled for crying enough for both of us.

Lea could see in the dark, her eyes so luminous you could drink it as warm chrysanthemum tea. I had tried looking into the sun once to convince some to light to honey my eyes, but they stayed plain as riverstones. Still, I never faulted Lea for it, her glow-in-the-dark gaze meant that she read to me longer than Mama did.

We slept in the same room. I was supposed to take the top bunk, Lea the bottom, but we always slept together in one, spines lined crooked together. I told Lea that I had recurring nightmares but the real reason was that Popo told too many ghost stories and the shadows on the ceiling would inevitably be knit into the same horrors. I couldn’t fall asleep without my arms around Lea’s tail. It was a soft thing: the color of rust wrapping around a ring, the tip tapered into a downy white. I treasured its powers and lavished it in return in bubble baths and whispered secrets.

Despite the myths and mangas of nine-tailed foxes, Lea had only one tail in real life. Everytime she died, a new one would grow into place until there were no more. The stories were true though that whoever took Lea’s tail could make her life belong to them, move her limbs as ruthlessly as we commanded our Barbies. It never seemed to be something that worried Lea. She would hand me her tail for safekeeping, scamper off into the woods with her friends. Even when I was young, I knew that Lea was dangerous and that this put her in danger, though I could never say from whom.

The first time I followed Lea was after Mama threw her out the front door. Even for Mama, it was unusual. I was six, old enough to understand that the cursive Mama wrote on our backs with her belt could be hidden. Dignity couldn’t. Lea still waved to Mrs. Gu, who turned her eyes down to her patch of wild chives. Lea’s hands dropped but still smiled to Peter, who had come like a good prince in his toad-colored Honda. They walked through the woods behind our cul-de-sac into an unfinished house. I knelt in the bushes, waiting for some sign that Lea had been mended. I had always suspected that Peter was her boyfriend so I waited for her to emerge dewy with fresh kisses. I nearly fell asleep, woke to their laughter and smoke cuffing their hands. Then I saw Lea, not covered in rust or pale skin, but all red as if everything had been turned inside out. The blood wrapped around her shoulders like a new bomber jacket, embroidery laced down the arms.

That night, I lifted her sleeves, my hands slick with sweat. Of all the skin I had seen: snake, deer, racoon, even Popo’s pockmarked ass, I had never seen Lea’s. The lines crossed themselves, some webbed translucent, others detonated into sticky red knots. I told Popo the next morning. I know what it is, leave her alone, she said but I didn’t listen and followed Lea around the house. What’s wrong? she skins an orange for me, winding the peel around my wrist. Make a wish it’s one piece. I swallowed the orange segments, tasted vinegar, not sun. Popo must have done the same as Lea once; she didn’t even look and she knew.

On Lea’s sixteenth, we wreath her in buttercream and eat ice cream cake until we paint the toilet in chocolate slush. Popo begins teaching Lea shape-shifting, something she had always done by accident. When she laughed too hard, her ears grew heavy, the lobes as soft as a dog’s. Her hair turned red when we asked about her crushes, blood fizzing in each strand. Popo teaches her to draw borders around her skin, the same chalk-white sword circles staked against demons in Popo’s wuxias. I pick up the powder, make the same seams. Whenever Lea can’t take Popo’s exercises anymore, I point out that I still had energy. Popo shakes her head, there’s nothing I can reveal that wasn’t already there. It’s not a gift, Popo says. The garage peels open, Lea cursing, mice are harder to catch than chickens. Besides, you can’t keep a secret, she says. Foxes are made of them.

Lea did learn to make bodies, even as her real one hadn’t settled into the air, bruising on tight corners and door frames. No one could deny that she was a masterful architect, tugging and reassigning with ease cheekbones, hairline, moles, even the shape of her skull. She was limited by the faces she had seen before so Popo took her to the supermarket and the ER waiting room instead of church. She warned Lea to never practice on anyone in the tabloids. Not real faces, she said.

What’s the hardest form to make? Popo asks us. Rich people, I say. Beauty, Lea says. Aging, Popo says, hurts more than plastic surgery. I don’t believe her until Lea’s skin raises and buckles like hot milk, went slack in Popo’s hands. Stupid girl, Popo says, wrinkles leave scars. She lays Lea on the ironing board, steams her with both fists, leaves her to dry in the sun with our duvets in the backyard. Mrs. Gu knocks, brings a bouquet of chives for soup. Women’s pains, Popo says. They lean their heads together to pray.

I saw Lea transform into someone I knew once. The phone rings and she takes it, smiles like she’s made of something else. She has Aggie’s laugh too, curling above the ingrown hair on her lip, plastic pearls that double as rosary beads around her neck. They’re meeting at the mall, Popo says. We both thought she was going to meet with Aggie, play two-for-one discount. I rehearse my lines on the bus ride. Let me tag along, I will be good and transparent. Lea never took me anywhere, preferred Peter or her friends, who didn’t know my name and called me little sister.

At the mall, I look first in the ceramics store. It was Lea’s favorite. She loved coaxing the clay into a rose in her palm, flattening it the next with one finger. There was something she loved about the fire too even as Popo warned her away from it. Foxes don’t return from fire, she said.

When I don’t find her there, I dance around mannequins swirled in candy-colored lingerie, buttered pretzels and haunches of fried chicken. Then, I see Lea, my real Lea with her pale skin and wide yellow eyes, in the center of the food court. She’s kissing someone, though kissing is not the right word. They had become one line, twisting like a match that understands its short life. I freeze watching Lea swallow not Peter but Kera, whose little brother I’d punched, who came over for midnight card games, who bought me perfume with a sterling silver bow in exchange for spreading rumors about her boyfriend.

I take the glass steps two at a time. Do I know you? Lea says. I reach for her hand, but she’s already hooked onto Kera, walking away. I pretend that their shadows pass through me without leaving a wound.

At home, Popo tells me to whisper as she beats taro root into submission. The kitchen fills with its milky scent, lulling me. Maybe it wasn’t Lea that I saw. Another fox? I open the door to our room, and Lea and Peter are watching TV, their ears tangled in one pair of headphones. They laugh and laugh when I tell them what I saw. Lea’s been home, Peter says and claps a hand to my shoulder. Want some candy? He grins, blue taffy sweetening his gums.

No one tells Mama, not in words. She knew when we threw our lunches away, when we stole eyeliner from her bathroom and returned it snapped in half. No one tattled so she must have the ability to pull our secrets from the air like snow, sending the soft molecules spinning into crystal daggers. We wake to find the ground scabbed over in frost and Mama flinging Lea’s clothes into the garage. They arrive onto the hood of the car in a syncopation of dust, swaddle the tires and shovels with jeans, legs stiff in the air as if a ghost wears them. When she reaches the back of her closet, she finds Lea’s box of makeup, using both hands to lift it. Lea sits in the hallway, barely watching, doesn’t even flinch when Mama drops the box at her feet. It falls with a muffled crack, an egg drowning in its thin armor. Stop crying, Mama says. She kicks an eyeshadow palette as she walks out of the kitchen, casts gunmetal and quartz into the air. The only sound after that was the cold air, smelling of rust, of coming snow.

We spend the next few days swallowing without chewing, our tongues drying out. Mama won’t speak to her until she ends things with Kera. Lea won’t look at us, not even a glance at Popo who brings her rice and pickled radishes, then later, steamed egg and tiny dried shrimp. I tell her Lea’s not sick, and she shakes her head. Isn’t that what a breakup is? Lea tells Mama that they’ve broken up, that she told Kera to never come back. Her voice emerges from a small grave. You’re a liar, my mother says. How do I know if you actually did it?

In the morning, I understand that there’s a point where pain can no longer be turned inwards. Lea? Mama’s voice hitches onto the corners of Lea’s empty drawers. She didn’t say bye to me either, I tell her. The dawn piles in light, flushes the room to the rim with plum, bruising my mother’s pale eyes. She heaves the mattress onto its stomach. Makes a wound in the center, tries to find a vein, a pulse, but there are only feathers caught in the air, between our teeth. The floor is flooded with Lea: riverstones too precious to skip, a fraction of dried honeycomb, sketchbooks I never knew she kept. Mama curls onto the floor, her body proof that it is possible to drown in your own body. Mama unlocks the doors and sleeps on the ground. Good for the bones, she says and I try to believe her, that she isn’t burying herself early. Popo wanders outside to feed the birds, even the raccoons. She leaves oranges unwrapped like flowers, pancakes fried in duck fat. I don’t ask if our doorstep is an altar prepared for her return or a trap laid with her favorite foods. At night, I leave my window open. The curtain swells, wrapping around the ledge to make new ghosts each night. Mama calls Daddy when she thinks I’m asleep, tells him Lea likes girls because he left us.

I see Lea one last time. I’m waiting for Mama and Popo to come home from the grocery store, when another car spins into the driveway, candy-apple Saab sweet enough to bite. Mama walks out of the garage, her back to the window where I watch. Kera, this is a surprise, she says. Lea wouldn’t end it like this, Kera says. She laces her hands first behind her waist, then tucks them between her armpits. She looks like a chicken about to be plucked, and I pity her for trying to give words to Mama. Mama shuts the trunk, spine crumpling a little, says, I—she didn’t want to hurt you like this.

Fine, Kera says. She unbuttons her jacket and Lea’s tail sways from her fist. She can have her leash back. Mama watches as Kera unlocks her car, holding the tail in her hands as if it weighed of stone, not fur. Kera rolls down her window, as if she’s about to ask a question but spits at the ground at Mama’s feet. When Mama turns around, she’s crying. Her cheeks are glossy, slick with salt that she laps up, hiccupping. She nears the driveway light, and suddenly, I see how it was all a shell. Mama’s bones soften into Lea’s frame, her skin knits into light. When I open the door, Lea’s already crossed the shadows. She leaves me with one of my own, her tail rustling on the altar.

This is the one secret I have kept. I bring the tail to school, fold it into my binders, wrap it in the clothes I shed, still warm, before swimming in the creek. I buy a pillowcase for it, hold it close as a charm. On Lea’s birthday, I go to the ceramics store and make clay mugs. They were only mud the day before, scored with scars. I leave the four of them on the counter, stone melted into shining bone.

I don’t hear her follow me on the trail but she’s three paces away. Close enough to stop me, to take the tail and command it as a sword for Lea to come home. Mama watches as I burn Lea’s tail. Not all the threads of red have been caught but she makes no move, her hands silent. You didn’t tell me she gave it to you, she says. Mama, I try to say but something has buried my voice. She touches my cheek, her fingers warmer than tears. Through the smoke, the tail looks like a wing. That’s what I want to believe. Not one like the hawks or vultures, following Lea to school in a lonely arc of sky. It looks carved of marble, trembling in the flames, still alive. The darkness closes and opens its aching jaws, swallowing her white-hot bones.


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