Jane Yin & Amy Wang
2022 Collaboration Contest Winner
Manqing is older than the rest of us, so she knows all the things you can do with a fish instead of throwing it away. Save all the scales that you scrape from it, she tells us one evening, as all of us ponder what to do with the black carp that our husbands could not sell during the day. Like this, she says. Her hands move the knife with a deftness that can only be learned in the thin skin of a flesh wound, each finger teething against the blade.
Like this, she shows me, turning over a palm of silver light. On the wood, the fish shudders, its ghost mouth opening and shutting again, like a severance of body from bone.
Manqing is different from us, in that she knows how to coax her husband but refuses to do so out of principle. He was the one who chose to ask my father for marriage, she always tells me. If anything, he should be the one coaxing me.
Manqing only thinks this way because she was born in Beijing, where her father sold watches and sunglasses before he ran out of money and had to sell all three of his daughters instead. In Beijing, the men are respectful, she always says. She always says this, though privately I have always doubted the truth of this, because, like the rest of us, Manqing speaks of respectful men as if she has never seen one in real life. During the day, we invent them for each other, the salt crook of our wrists sketching out youthful faces and gentle smiles in the sand before we kick them all to pieces, hiding our creations from our husband. At night, we invent them ourselves, imagining scholarly faces in place of our husbands, who are so stiff with sunlight that we can wring the dust out of their hair.
Manqing laughs at us when we complain about our husbands and the way they always stink of water lily roots. She tosses her dark hair and then pins it up again with a fish-bone hair stick, the kind that is white and sleek and smooth in the morning light. The smell is nothing, she tells me, as we walk down the dirt road to the well, where the rest of the wives are. It’s just something else to brush off. All of you are lucky your husbands don’t come back smelling like the whorehouses by the river. When she says this, some of us shift uncomfortably, matched to her words in a way we would rather not be. Unlike Manqing, we are hooked onto lines, unable to open our fish-mouths even when our husbands beat us into something too pulpy to sell at market.
If the rest of us are chubby catfish, Manqing is a waterfowl, as comfortable drawing against the current as she is riding along with it. Most of us envy her, wet with the longing to be her kind of free, to have the silver trinkets she wears on her ankles, to have a husband who bracelets her waist with his fingers every time he comes home from the river. She reminds us of the heron we see in the water — she is as white-winged, as close to the sky as they are. We tell each other stories about her, whispering them behind our wet hands as she passes. In this way, we imagine ourselves as luckier than her, as more blessed and less fortunate, all at the same time. Our pittances are few and full — we count our sons and daughters and cluck gently at her barren skirts, at the empty yard of her house whenever we pass by.
What good is a loyal husband if you have no children? Sanyi asks. Together, we imagine getting pregnant as a kind of fishing, where the child is the fish and the woman is the fishhook, and the man is the fisherman, casting out again and again as he tries to hook a son. Daughters are like tadpoles, one woman shouts, and the rest of us agree with her. She is one of the unlucky ones, one of the wives who wears her stillborn children in a beaded cloth around her wrist.
And sons are like big-mouthed carp! We laugh, but it is an errant kind of laughter, soft-mouthed and tender to the touch.
When the doctor announces the slipperiness of my pulse, I go to Manqing first. She is by the dock, her wrists wet with the smell of the river’s spit.
Congratulations, she tells me, and her eyes look like hollow coins in her head. The carp in her hand is fat-mouthed, and as we speak she presses it from one hand to the other. Like when the other wives are pregnant, her gaze drifts away from my face, as if searching for something she has lost.
What will you name your son? she finally asks, and I tell her I haven’t decided yet.
I am not sure yet, I say. I want it to be a surprise.
She nods and then flips the fish over, its scales catching the light. I am reminded of the first time she showed me, how gentle she was with the carcass. Like this, she said. Like this, holding onto something that was slippery and alive with the breath of the world.
And this is what I keep coming back to, the scene I saw on my way back home from the doctor. In the river, two men on their boats, a net strung between them like a wish. They lashed it back and forth through the air, as if trying to catch the dragonflies. And in the net, the heron, its wings bent beyond recognition, the sunlight flashing through its beak like a seed pearl, so brightly I was almost blinded.
Jane Yin is a writer from Beijing. She spends her evenings writing poetry and her days as a project manager.
Amy Wang is a writer from California. When not crying over fanfiction, you can find her reading Chinese literature, coding, and taking long walks.