You drove through the city where your mother arrived decades earlier, her clothes tied up in a bedsheet, her Chinese-to-English dictionary dog-eared on the page with your name. You passed fields pearled with people, stopping at a gas station where everyone stared at you, the man in a truck carrying logs thin as shinbones, the woman driving a trailer full of black horses, their dark eyes escorting night into the sky. Your mother used to talk about the restaurant she slept in before she moved to Los Angeles, the chilis she picked and pickled into jelly, jars of red like molten rubies, sold for a dollar each at the side of a road that later left her.
In your passenger seat, there is a woman who was married to your brother for seven months, who told you she fell in love with him when he carved her face into a peach pit and strung it on a wire and wore it around his neck. You don’t tell her that’s a cheap trick, that the face he carved into the pit was not hers but your mother’s, that he learned how to do this from your father, inheriting the knife and the wrists and the grip. You don’t tell her she should have looked at the blade and not the pit, his hands, that she might have seen the silver studded with stains, dark freckles from a time he drove that blade into another boy’s belly. She will tell you funny stories later, in the roadside motel with a popcorn machine in the lobby, your mouth salted, a kernel lodged between your teeth like a bullet. You worry it with your tongue, but all night it remains there, small and silken, a baby tooth grown back as a weapon, equipping you to eat this memory.
The funny stories she tells you: how your brother once brawled with a Baptist priest, slamming his head against a pew, how your brother bought her a puppy at a night market in Mianyang and shipped it to her, but by the time it arrived in California it was dead, soft as a washcloth, the kind your mother says are for faces only. You will tell her what your mother said, that you always have to look at the paws of an animal to see how big it will grow up to be, and men are the same: their hands tell you what they are, what you will become when you are held by them. You will try to remember your brother’s hands, your father’s, but instead you will think of your grandmother’s, bright as skinned pears, palms plundered by soot, the woman who flew from Mianyang to raise you and your brother while your mother worked at the skirt factory, testing the zippers, opening a window at the crotch and then shivering it shut.
At the motel, you unzip her jeans zipper. You wonder whether she sees any resemblance between you and your brother. All your life, your grandmother from Mianyang has called you Little Son, revising your body with hand-me-down soccer shorts and camouflage tee shirts. You can’t be a daughter without a dowry, she said, laughing and handing you a jar. It rattled when you shook it, full of light like salt, and when you opened it and asked what was inside— they looked like gemstones to you, uncut diamonds the color of pork—she said they were her kidney stones. She kept them because she wanted to be buried with them: only a body buried whole can be reincarnated. Don’t forget my dentures, too, she said, and you laughed at how she could move them in her mouth, pop them forward like the maw of a predator.
Your grandmother always said: it’s easy to raise the two of you, how lucky I am that I only have to beat one of you. When Big gets beat, it’s Little who cries, she says, look how their hearts are loops. It was your brother who carried you on his back, though he was the one who bruised. While you hooped your arms around his neck, he ran with you from room to room, pretending to be an airplane like the ones that passed so low, you thought they would whip off the roof like a wig. It was your brother who told you about your other brothers, the ones raised by another man in another city, the ones you will meet years later at your grandmother’s funeral. They will lower the shoebox full of her ashes into a spooned-out section of soil behind her house in Montebello, and you will focus not on their faces—same skewed teeth, badly sown seeds—but on the fake Nike logo printed on the top of the box, the check upside down so that it resembles the slope of a breast.
It was your brother who woke you up one night to show you where your grandmother kept her amputated foot in a shoebox under her bed, Saran-wrapped three times, a glistening armor. And even though he told you not to, you touched the foot, the bone inside it, intricate as a tree cored by lightning, you touched it and it moved, the pinkie toe curling like a worm, and in the bed above, your grandmother reached down to itch her missing foot. That was how you knew it was possible to feel what was severed, how you knew, even before you woke to light blading through the blinds of the motel, that the woman was gone, the woman your brother loved, and that she had taken your car with her. Fog ferried her through the fields, lifting her above the gangrene-colored fields. But she came back that night, telling you she only left because she thought she saw a man’s shadow outside on the street, a shadow belonging to your brother, but it turned out to be a flock of crows. She’d been aiming to run over one, but the crows flew ahead of her, clawing apart the clouds.
You met her a month before she left him. You knew where she cut hair, and you came just to see her, and though you didn’t tell her who you were, she recognized you by the nape of your neck, the knob where your spine is soldered to your skull. Your grandmother used to say that bone was a symptom of your previous life as a doorknob, that you were the kind of woman other people passed through. At night, in the bed you shared with your brother and mother, you stared at the back of your brother’s neck, at the knob there, symmetrical to yours, and considered the force necessary to break open its bulb, release whatever light was incarcerated inside. But instead, you reached out and touched it, once, twice, until he shifted in his sleep, bucking off the sheets, reminding you of those trained whales in commercials that scythed out of the water and sprayed the audience. You always wondered what would motivate a whale to heft its whole body out of the water like that, what was worth flying toward, sacrificing the sound-shimmered world it was born in, and this is the question you asked his wife while she cut your hair.
She didn’t answer, but she brushed the back of your neck with her knuckles, and that touch was enough to make you hum. Your hair was already buzzed, but you asked for it shorter. Your brother’s wife was wearing a sheer shirt over another shirt, which looked like a screen door with holes punched into it, all the times your brother rang the bells of his knuckles against the front door, begging to be let in, your grandmother on the other side silent, a self-appointed god. You never understood why she rooted herself within the radius of his rage, why she never fled anything, not the army that killed her father, not the man who once chased her with a cattle prod until she leaped into a well, swam to the bottom believing she would surface on the other side of the world, but was tugged out again by her hair, born between the knees of a horse, a frog, any species but this. Later, she taught you how to inject insulin into her left buttock, and you thought the needle would dagger deep into her bone, the flesh there having already fled.
You watched the wife’s hands as she buzzed your head, remembering her silhouette behind the window of your brother’s car, how he leaned in to kiss the buck of her teeth. You have only ever seen her from afar, but even from the curbside you tried to see her hands, their shape, if there was a ring, if they harbored a history like yours. You joked to her later that she had straight-girl nails, long and artificial, your own blunt and bitten, but she didn’t laugh. While she cut your hair, you tried to meet her eyes in the mirror with its ear-curved crack, but she looked only at the nape of your neck, the cowlicks on your scalp. Chinese people, she said, as if you weren’t both Chinese, say that the number of cowlicks on your head corresponds to how many lives you’ve lived. This is your fourth, she said, this is my second. You’ve had twice as many as me. You told her you’d heard differently: that the number of cowlicks corresponded to how many debts you’d accrued in a previous life. How many people you owed. Four, she said, tracing each whorl on your scalp with her pinkie. Same as your brother. It sounded like an accusation, but when you flinched from her fingers, she laughed and pressed down on your shoulders, bolting you to the pleather-cushioned seat. She still did not look at you, not in the mirror, not when you thumbed over the cash, her tip twice what you could afford, some kind of latent apology, though you didn’t know what for.
When she left your brother, you and your mother were living alone in your dead grandmother’s apartment. She bought the place with cash kept alive in a knotted trash bag. Every week your mother waited at the strip mall where sandwich-board signs were propped up against the windows, advertising discount rates for phone calls to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, her coins duct-taped to her armpits after the time she was pickpocketed. You never knew who she was paying to call, if she had sisters or a brother like yours, the kind who said wei when he answered the phone, in a voice pickled by distance, a tone that meant convince me, tell me why you deserve your body. When your mother walked home to the apartment, you wanted to watch her ascent, but the peephole was penned black after the time she read a story about a man who owned a peephole-reverser, a glass goggle that could be pressed to any peephole in order to see inside. This man, it was reported, had watched for apartments with women, then broken in at night and hypnotized them, leading them outside and into his car. You did not believe this story or the newspaper that published it, but you allowed your mother to blind the peephole, and so when your brother’s wife arrived one day, you did not know it was her. You aligned your eye with the peephole before remembering it was blackened, and even then you thought maybe the world had been ladled into an amniotic night, swallowed into a dimensionless dark like the bottom of a well.
Your brother’s wife brought her clothes in a lemon-scented trash bag, and instead of looking at her face, you looked at the thin plastic skin, the places where the bag seemed to move by itself, something elbowing around inside. Without saying anything, you led her to your bedroom, watched her sling down the garbage bag like she wanted to kill the thing inside it, the way you once saw your grandmother slip an eel into a plastic bag and slam it against the edge of the sidewalk to crack its neck. Your brother’s wife slept like that, her head resting on the bulge of the bag, her body curling, clutched around something already gone, and in the morning she was in your bed, beside you, her hand splayed against your collarbone, a chilled necklace. You stilled, stared at the ceiling, and for a second forgot who she was, believing you had been escorted from your body and was now beside it, exiled. Then you turned your head, bracing to see your own face, but it was hers, her hair short as yours, her black hair blue at the roots. You wondered when she had cut it. If your sink was silvered with her hair.
Because you wanted to delay her hands on your collarbone, the ascent to your throat, your mouth, you said this was once your grandmother’s room, but she was dead, and you were the one who dried out the mattress, who emptied the closet of puffer jackets, which she wore even in the heat, who found the marriage certificate taped to the underside of the nightstand, the name of a man you couldn’t read, mold gilding the edges. You were the one who realized what was missing, her bottles of pills that she halved with a nail clipper, the glowing jars of insulin ordered from China, the syringes in their plastic sheaths. You learned later that your brother was selling the insulin on Craigslist, saw him meet with men in the parking lot below, and you wondered when he had taken it, if it was at night while your grandmother rattled in bed, rejecting her own lungs, or if it was after she was dead, if he was the one who discovered her, early in the morning before you were awake. If he had always been waiting. Flies banked and drowned in her eyes. Without closing them, he opened the nightstand drawer and plucked up the jars of insulin, spun them in his hands, warming the glass, filling them with light. Then he left.
She delayed the end of your story by notching her lips on yours. Latching her teeth to your neck, your breasts, your belly, she sought you like a searchlight, found the thing you hid beneath your skin. In the mirror, later, you traced the brackets around your breasts, the wet between your legs, all the places where her mouth bonded to your dark, holy hollow.
She was the one who suggested you drive. She wanted to go somewhere she didn’t have a name, somewhere dry. Where nothing had a say in the sky, not even rain. Driving east, you stopped to call your mother and tell her to unblacken the peephole: it was safer to see, to be able to recognize what was approaching, to know the face of want. East through the desert, you drove until the windshield was laced with insect wings, and when you stopped by the side of the road, she pushed you down in the backseat and fell asleep on top of you, her eyelashes linty with light, and you thought of being buried, of your grandmother swimming now beneath the street, wading toward a manhole. The sun exited the sky, wheeled away like a tire on fire, and when you woke, the entire sky was stuffed into your mouth. She’d scrolled the roof of the hatchback all the way down, and the stars grew in rows like cotton, toothed with thorns to prevent being picked.
You drive into Carson City, the hills husked of their gold skins, and she reminds you there were wildfires here a year ago, the sky shedding ash. At a strip mall with a water store and a Salvation Army, you pull into the parking lot and tell her to get some sleep. Let’s go to Reno, she says, and you tell her no, you have cousins in Reno. All boys. They lived in a house with a broad barn door and once chased you around their balding lawn with their dicks propped in their palms. They showed you their hidden deck of cards, each with a naked woman printed on one side, and you stole one from the deck while they were asleep, tucking the card into your sock, learning then that desire was something done in the dark. She laughed, said Nevada was the first time she’d seen real mountains, posed like soldiers by the side of the road, a mountain like the beak of a bird pecking itself out of the earth’s core. My brother used to tell me that story, too, you said, about how the earth’s core is a canary. It beats its wings, sings with lungs of light.
In the morning, the sun is seared into your cheek, and she is approaching the car from the sidewalk, her hand behind her back. Look what I got at the Dollar Tree, she says, and opens her hands, fanning out a deck of cards. But no women, she says, laughing, and as you pull out of the strip mall parking lot, she learns over and kisses your neck. What happened to your cousins in Reno, she says, knowing you always knot a story. She and your brother were good at telling the beginning of things, but only you knew how to sever them, how to reel her voice ribboning around your wrists. They’re men now, you said. They still live in that house. You think of their hands in the dark, shuffling the deck, and you kneeling, reaching into their mouths, down the mineshafts of their throats, drawing out the cards one by one, each woman feather-breasted, canary-blonde.
You ask when she wants to go back to California, and she says not yet. You wonder if she’s looking for something, if she’s directing you like a spotlight, and the way she squints through the windshield reminds you it’s already gone. When the suns comes down and nights her shoulders, you ask why she came to find you. These two things seem to be jointed like a handle to its blade. And she says she remembers the time you came to her for a haircut, the cowlicks she mapped on your scalp. With the tip of her scissors, she circled each one, offering to snip them out. You laughed, asked if cowlicks could ever reverse, swirling against their own grain, spinning the other way. She said no, that the hair would always circle itself, hunting its own root, but that at least no one would be able to tell when the hair grew out long. The circular current would be hidden, the way some rivers and seas seem not to be moving, the surface stilled but the water struggling beneath, growing legs to kick with. She said that before you left, before you paid her for the nick she left in your neck, which you found only when you took a shower that night and saw the water turn ruddy as it draped over you, you plucked a peach from your pocket.
It was pecked full of holes, stolen from someone’s yard, warm from holding it between your knees. You bit it, coring out the pit with your front teeth. Inside your mouth, its ridged edge slit your inner cheek. She watched you, her scissors hooked to the waist of her apron, her mouth opening. When you asked for her hands, she held both out, palms up, and you spat the pit into the center of them. Watching you, she hinged her hands to her mouth, slipping the pit between her lips, swallowing. The seed was guttered, hollow with something that rattled inside it, and as she swallowed, you listened to the bell of it, the sound symphonic as it passed through her body, your brother’s, a harmonized hunger.