BY K-MING CHANG
After Manuel Munoz’s Astilla
Melika, because she was older, taught us all the uses for newspaper: spread on the table before a fishbone dinner. Trim squares to use as toilet paper. Twist into a wick and shove up between your legs during your period. Cut the missing-children page into a triangle and tape to a cross made of disposable chopsticks, send it kiting through the sky. Make missiles of the missing.
She was different, Melika, she lassoed us into her light. Around her forearm was a kitten collar, the silver tag engraved with her stolen name. She was the tallest of us, could swallow wasps without water, and grew black hair on the backs of her fingers, licking the curls back slick. In fifth grade she climbed the backstop and the boys dared her to jump off it. She broke her ankle in two places and when the cast came off, her ankle was symmetrical to her wrist and we all took turns circling it with our fingers, braceleting the bone. My hands swooned in her sweat. Melika said she liked me best because we were both born on islands, hers to the west, mine to the east, hers on fire, mine bobbing belly-up in the sea, miscarried.
We all thought she would live forever, riding pigeons out of our city, its houses painted pink because that was the cheapest color, kitchen sinks cluttered with our cut-off hair, dogs made mean by boys pocketing rocks, trees bowed by crows, fistfuls of wildfire, hills browned like our backsides, wet t-shirts tied around our faces, flies embroidering the gutters, saltwater mace, but this was before we heard the stories, most of them unproved – that her boyfriend locked her in the trunk or that she ran into oncoming traffic or set her house on fire or went into a coma after cancer dissolved her bones – before we even knew her last name, or that she had three brothers, or that hers was the house our mothers shook their heads at, both windows deckled with cracks, pretty as lace and impossible for light to survive.
I remember when the boys played four-square on the street, using the neon sludge of snails and slugs to draw the borders of their courts, and we girls played house in the empty lot hemmed by persimmon trees. The birds took one bite out of every fruit, so we ate from the good sides only, unbruised, nipping the skins. I wanted Melika to be my mother because she was the best at treating pretend-injuries, breastfeeding, and spitting into the dirt to make breakfast porridge. I was always the family dog, the one who walked on her hands and knees and let the other girls de-lice her by tearing out fistfuls of hair. Sometimes they asked me to play fetch or roll over, throwing a stick all the way onto a roof and daring me to return with it, but Melika never made me do tricks. When I was the dog, she braided me a leash from dandelion stems and fed me jewels of persimmon from her hand. I gilded the grooves of her palm with my tongue, nosed her hip and barked spit.
The boys only called our names when their duct-taped balls went over our fence and into the empty lot, and sometimes we hoarded their deflated balls for ourselves, tucking them under our shirts and pretending to be pregnant. We gave birth to the balls while squatting on the street or splayed on our backs, and Melika reached under our shirts, lifted them born. She delivered each one alive, drew them each a mouth with her finger dipped in dirt. We baptized them in gutters of pickled rainwater. We argued whether the ball-babies were boys or girls and Melika said we couldn’t choose: we had to cut them open to know. When the boys kidnapped our babies and bounced them hard against the pavement, we wept and swept the street with our knees and designed funerals, standing around a mud-mound and tying bouquets of weeds to bury alone.
After house, we played horsey. Someone made reins out of knotted-together sweaters and we rode each other’s backs across the empty lot, until our mothers came out and yelled at us to get off the ground, girls don’t go to their knees, don’t touch anything. When I heard about Melika, when my mother described the ceremony to me later, the church full of her brothers, the girls who didn’t come, the photo of her propped next to the casket, a photo from when she was little, the only time her clothes were new and I knew her, I thought of the day we invented a saddle out of a bleached sheet flapping in the empty lot. We ignored the stain that hadn’t yet faded, a shadow symmetrical to our city. The girls folded it over twice and draped it over my back and trotted me down the street, down toward the dried-up creek with its skirt of green oil. When we got home, we all had lice, eggs pearling our scalps, our armpits, our crotches, outliving us all summer, all of us carrying what we could not kill.
Melika was the one who rode me last, straddling my back, and when I asked her where she wanted me to go, she leaned forward and mouthed against my earlobe: home. And because I didn’t know where she lived, didn’t know I had passed her house many times and heard my mother call it careless, a shame to the sun that touches it, I crawled back to my own house, the girls leading me by the hair, my braids taut in their fists. When she dismounted, Melika lifted me back to standing, pointing down at my left kneecap and its bright medal of blood. She knelt down and pressed her sleeve to the cut, knotting off the blood, and when she asked me to bend my knee and I did, she dug her finger into the flesh and plucked out a shard of glass, green, telling me to swallow it. When I asked her why, she said it was to protect us, to make sure it never seeded itself in anyone else. She said I had to sacrifice to save the rest of us. So I did, sucking it from her fingers, her thumb a thorn threaded through my tongue. I will always remember that day, the numbness in my knee for weeks, how only Melika knew what made me bleed, locating it exactly, mining it from the wound, lifting it out alive.