BY ROBERT GAO
When I was five, my mother told me she ate bones—shearing their bodies from the dead, sipping the red marrow in gulps and leaving only collagen for the rest of the broken to lap up. One night after she’d left to buy ginseng, I asked her fourth husband if this was true, if my mother did shell bones like pistachios and discard their hollow remains the way she did with all the past men in her life. Instead of answering, he slithered out of the room, a newly formed cavity in his back slowly gathering rust.
What do bones taste of, Mā? Pupils slit into crosses, my mother didn’t respond, only traced an ellipse around the topography of her lips. The youngest of rice farmers who exchanged sons for mahogany and daughters for beer cans, my mother could only speak in half-syllables, jaded curvatures instead of straight lines. When I asked her questions, she answered them the way she slivered day-old durian—taking their firm skins and whacking them tender, only satisfied when all that remained was a thin, unsalvageable pulp. A fifth of an hour later, my mother had only spoken four words, navigated their consonants with the yellows of her fangs—taste good, like lying.
I was Mā’s secondborn, the only son to make it past childbirth, the son she christened as virgin-boned, the son who was criminal-hearted and unfit for consumption, who confessed sin by the sea and pledged to be herbivorous, who only believed because the other option was always to unlearn. When Jie, my mother’s firstborn and jewel of her once-purity, made me cut off my fingertip because she wanted to finally taste brotherhood, I believed her angled eyes and half-pout, kilted the pleats of my hands into lines, smothered the sores with my mother’s laughter. After Jie coughed up phlegm into her hand, I wondered aloud if my bones were premature—orphaned and reeking of the raw.
As I neared the lip of teenagehood, I stopped believing in Santa Claus—big-bodied, carved regal like a jester—but still pled for the veracity of my mother’s stories. She said she only lied when she was in public—always in the emptied Asian grocery market, where my mother believed it was bad luck to share too much in front of so little. One week after her fourth husband leashed up his belongings and took the cheapest train out of the city, my mother surrendered the last of her pride, said that she was finally leaving him. Come on, Mā, Jie said, guava pop rocks splicing the drone of the store fan into measures. We know he left you for a good, adequate-toothed, ivory-white woman. My mother raised her palm. I saw her calluses unlearn their sins. She spat out a fang and disappeared behind the descaled fish and suffocated candies, Jie trailing slowly behind.
When hair began to split my skin into continents, my mother made me cut into the boundaries, taste the geography of where I came from. Jie, bone-white and already fossilized, plucked a tendon out of the carnage, guided it towards her mouth. Too metallic for consumption, she grimaced, rigor mortis dotting her canines, carmine turning her criminal. It’s getting worse with age. I said that it was because I was a fish, yearning for the wild but plagued with the palate of the sea.
Mā eats bones to relive her what-ifs, lives and men she never took, Jie told me one day, her creased knuckles motionless in contemplation. That day, I saw that half of her joints were missing. Intersections without their hardness, valleys sunken in fattened light—guided by the bioluminescence. Yesterday, she made me unlearn how to scream. I told her, Mā would never do that. One moon later, I dreamt about my mother taking Jie by the thumb and fleshy palm, picking her corpseless the way a polar bear consumes its offspring in autumn—skinned and ready for slaughter. All I knew was that my mother never fucked a man afterwards, and Jie became listed for sale at her high school, her purity auctioned off like chipped vinyl from a ragdoll.
The first and last time I saw my mother smile a half-set of teeth was after she took Jie to the woods, returning home discolored but triumphant, her split-face playing chimera. She said, today, I feel youthful. I am finally young again. When my mother opened her jaw to profess her youth, I saw that the enamel of her teeth had died—no autopsy to confirm its cause of death.
That night, my mother and I drove around the city, past all the rugged boulevards and desecrated streetlamps, all the unreturned howls of the homeless until we reached the woods, the place where my mother called the junkyard. Where she said that because I wasn’t useless, I’d never been driven and left there. Jie, bone-white and already fossilized, crawled out of the undergrowth on fours, clawed at the silt on her tongue. In the darkness, her forehead furred with tar—tethered to what was inside the woods, all sun-dried and hiding the rest of the useless.
Because my mother didn’t believe in potty-training, Jie and I were conditioned to believe and unlearn, see antagonization as another man’s crime. We sucked out our mucus with straws, laughed in our sleep when nightmares made their rotations, roamed around graveyards with rubber knives we’d bought from Goodwill, searching for adequacy when all we had to guide us was the silence of regret. Do you ever feel like a villain, doing this for Mā? I’d ask Jie during these trips. Cloaking her body like a crime scene, she’d always respond the same, spitting the answer out of her saliva. Nobody ever feels like a villain. We only act like one because of how we’re born—taught to haunt and made to be haunted.
Last week, Jie hired an exorcist. My mother had forced her way into a tarot card reading the day before, been told she had two months to live, then spelled out her grief in laughter. Near the abandoned pawnshop by our neighborhood, my mother had chased the cartomancer into an alleyway, and we were finally convinced she’d been possessed. Jie looked it up, saw that Mā checked off all the symptoms—rotting enamel, cannibalistic appetite, nighttime howls that cheapened surrounding paint, causing them to slowly unfurl.
The exorcist came to our house today at twelve o’clock. We let him in through the garage and pointed to the basement where my mother was still asleep. When incense began bruising the house sweet, Jie and I tiptoed down two flights of stairs, pressed our splintered cartilage against the padlock. For an hour, we only heard howls of laughter. We heard the beige paint slowly unlatch from the wall, feather onto the carpet. We heard a gruff voice curse in Cantonese, and thumping began occurring at two hours past noon. Once natural light stopped trickling through the door, once the laughter had died away and fossilized, we watched the exorcist walk out of the room, his fingers slime the latch behind him. After he had left, Jie, who had stopped talking weeks ago, who I only then relearned her crumpled limbs and missing teeth, messily scrawled on a yellowed pad—even if she stops screaming, we can leave her in there.
When I was five, my mother told me she ate bones—shearing their bodies from the dead, sipping the red marrow in gulps and leaving only collagen for the rest of the broken to lap up. Fifteen years and two lifetimes later, I am my mother’s only child—the only child to make it past teenagehood, the child christened as virgin-boned, the child who was criminal-hearted and unfit for consumption, who confessed sin by the sea and pledged to be herbivorous, who only believed because the other option was always to unlearn.
The night after my mother fossilized, I unlearned the silhouette of Jie I saw crawling through the basement—her spine hunched over a corpse, mouth plunged into collagen, maw frothing with hunger. I unlearned the smacking noises I’d heard, rapid gulps and swallows, the desperation behind a tongue eroding its palate toothless. After I had shut the latch and tiptoed away, after I heard Jie scream to be let out of the room, the first time she’d spoken in weeks—I unlearned the voice of my mother, reincarnated in Jie’s vocal cords, always haunting the discarded and the useless. There was always despair in her wail. Always the forgetting souring into the remembering. When Jie stopped screaming that night, there was no autopsy, only her limp hand resting on the doorknob, her withered fingers wrenching the lock even tighter.