Monday, October 17, 2016

Fiction: Black Soot

I cover them in my prayers. But it's no use. She insists on ruining everything.

Not everything is her fault.

I was never much of a mother, except when she was an infant. I washed her every day, fed her until she was white and fat--a symbol of success way back then, where we came from. The water always turned gray, black, as if she had spent the day inside a coal mine. Those winters. We might as well rolled around in coal. Beijing. It felt like another time, another world.

He used to beat me at night. When all was asleep. But I knew she could hear it. She never stirred, so I could tell she was pretending. Deep sleep like that wasn't a thing she knew. Her lashes pressed too tight against her eyelids. Her breath held for too long.

I'd tremble, bleed and beg him to stop. But nothing worked. He needed the release and I was his punching bag. As soon as he heard the sounds of my bones crunching against the ridges of his fist, his face would soften, crumble. Tears, apologies. Then we sleep. I'd hear her sigh, a long choppy exhale like how babies sobbed through their sleeps.  It'd grind on my chest, like some sort of a rock. Ridiculous. The sound of one breath.

She'd get sick. So often I lose track of the times she was well, so far and few in between fevers, coughs and sleepless nights. He'd hover over her, wash towels, treats, boiled pears cooked slowly in rock sugar to sooth her bronchi. Eyes so tender it broke me, lit me up from the inside with rage. I'd yank her up as she worked up another sleepy cough and told her to sit up for the rest of the night, pounding on her back. That would stop you from coughing. I shouted. It wasn't me. I didn't recognize that woman who shouted at her own sick kid.

Yan would leave the room, riding his bicycle around town for hours, hunting for cures. He came back one morning, having been gone all night, holding a white paper square. Inside were ground up powders of deer antlers. A thimbleful.

I cried. I didn't know how he got them. How much it cost. But I could guess--a fortune. Everyone knew they cured coughs and strengthened even the weakest lungs, bronchi.  He wore a white bandage on his arm, and a blue sheen over his face. Did you sell your blood? Or liver?  I asked him, fire in my eyes, though I couldn't stop crying.

He waved me away and began boiling the powder with other herbs. I prayed it would cure her, or kill her. I hadn't slept for a month, spending days making shoes for others, nights with him, and her. One who beat me, one whom I'd love to beat. But the stale air soaked with boiling herbs and coal fire and our recycled breath stifled me, pressed on my mind and my hands. I could only move in a predetermined pattern my own mother had taught me. Cook, clean, care for the young. I had seven younger siblings. I'd carried six on my back, one at a time, while Mother worked in the field, swept around the house, taught me how to cook and locked up on the bed with Father.

Why am I thinking about all these? She's the one ruining things, not me. But I have my part, I guess. That's why.

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