I went to Ouyang Ayi for acupuncture. She led me to a card table in the garage and told me to strip. On my back, I explained to Ouyang Ayi that I suffered from insomnia. Hereditary, I told her, from my grandmother and my mother. My grandmother jokes that she conceived nine daughters because she had nothing else to do at night. My mother jokes that our bodies are not designed for sleep, that we are engineered to grieve. Ouyang Ayi tells me to shut my eyes, relax. I read online that you’re supposed to swab the spot with alcohol before inserting anything, but Ouyang Ayi just spat on my skin before flicking the needle in. Your liver is unclear, she said. And your gallbladder is weak as a peach. I need to balance you, she said. When she leaned across my body to shunt a needle into the sweat-ruffled skin of my inner elbow, her breasts banked on mine. Her breath folded into my shoulder like a bird. I blew on her ear, ruffling the hairs of her sideburns. She turned her face toward me, and I told her she had exactly the kind of hands I imagined. What kind, she said, and I said precise. Her fingers tapered, her palms trayed, her knuckles nuanced as seashells, hollowed and iridescent. When she spiked the needles through the cartilage of my ears, I could hear her hands, the bones struck like bells, the wing-curve of her wrist. You have the kind of hands I want to dress myself in. Ouyang Ayi laughed down at me, poked a needle between my eyes, asked if I could still shut them. Good, she said, now stay still for an hour. I heard her circling me, looking down, and I kept my eyes shut, thinking she might kiss me. Ouyang Ayi started telling a story she knew, about a man she once married who owned a five-foot snake. When they parted, he killed her dog and fed the pieces to his snake. That’s why, Ouyang Ayi said, you should never get married. Just own a snake! Now look how you’re more balanced already, she said to me. I thought about the balance of the card table, if it could support our combined weight. I thought about her crouching over me, tugging out each needle in my belly with her teeth. When I was little and got splinters, that’s what my mother did to me. She unsheathed the splinters from my skin with her front teeth, telling me that nothing mattered more than a mouth. Ouyang Ayi wore a knock-off Seiko watch that pirouetted around the wristbone, too big for her. It was my grandfather’s, Ouyang Ayi said to me. He wore it all his life. In his sleep, when he bathed, when he became a soldier. It caught a bullet once, this watch, and that’s how it was stopped. I didn’t believe Ouyang Ayi then—I thought the watch was just something she haggled for at a flea market—but then she stroked my throat with her gloved finger, played the chords of my thirst. If you want to sleep for real, Ouyang Ayi said, what you need to do is break ten things a night before you go to bed. Ten of my things, I asked her, or ten of someone else’s. Any ten things, Ouyang Ayi said, yours or not yours. Then the ghosts will be too afraid of you to follow you into sleep. I told her I’d try this, and that night, I sat in my rented room and looked around for something to shatter. There wasn’t anything, I realized, that I wanted to save. I broke the bulb in my bedside lamp, the leg of my plastic chair, the lid of my toilet. When I ran out of pens to bend, I broke one of my fingers in the doorframe. The next time I went to Ouyang Ayi, she looked at my hands and laughed at me. Brave, she said, and socketed my finger in her throat, gagging on it like a fishhook. Her jaw dangled from my hands like a lantern, slack light. She said it was so easy to forget you had them, hands. Use them more often, she told me, and you’ll wring some sleep from the sky. She let me punch open her jar of cotton swabs, then gathered the glass and glittered my palms with it, kissing my knuckles two at a time, listing my blood on her lips.
Melody was a girl I killed. It happened in fifth grade. I was jealous of her whistle-thin neck and her name, Melody, because she got to walk to school with the other three-syllable girls, Tiffany and Vivian and Jennifers I, II, and III. I planted tanbark shrapnel in her hotdog at lunch, and when she swallowed, her stomach tore a hole like a toe through a sock. She was resurrected at the Taiwanese Buddhist temple in Milpitas, where my mother told me to repent and become a nun. To atone, I shaved my head and committed myself to nunhood for six months, eating only the rinds of tofu, unsalted broth, and diced boiled taro. As a junior nun, it was my job to dump the buckets of burned names. In the parking lot, we incinerated the names of everyone who had been dead a hundred days. The buckets frothed with ash and retired light, and sometimes when I stirred a chopstick around in it, I rolled over a molar. The nuns claimed not to be burning any bodies, only names written on white paper, but one time I emptied a bucket and there was a shin in it. Bent like a blade and with some fat still swathing it. Melody came in with her mother a few times during morning prayer. I averted my eyes and hid inside the brass bell for the full four hours. Afterwards, I saw them in the parking lot, Melody with her two braids, her fingers twig-thick—piano hands, my mother said—and I saw that she was kneeling in front of a bucket, burning her own name, the smoke flaying her face. My mother told me later that because of me, Melody had a plastic bag in her belly, lining her like a trash can. That way, nothing would slug out of the hole in her stomach. At the temple, the nuns showed me VCR tapes of the enlightenment, how you can be knocked from your body like a loose tooth and live rootless. They showed me recordings of nuns sitting on flaming coals, rolling through meadows of needles, dragging pick-up trucks through the mud with their teeth, meditating in sub-zero temperatures for weeks. It’s all possible, they said, if you detach from desire. I thought of Melody and her kneecaps, how I wanted to suckle them sweet. The way she stood below me while I dangled upside-down from the monkey bars, saying she was the sea and would swallow me. At night, when the other nuns were asleep, I imagined her thumb on my tongue, gritty as a rusted nickel. I wondered what it would be like to be touched. In the morning, I searched the parking lot for the bucket Melody had burned in. I poured the ashes onto my bare feet and remembered what the nuns said, that desire was detachable as a doll limb. Discard it, they said, but I grilled my feet into shrimp instead, tender and lemoned. Next time she came, I thought, I’d toothpick my toes and feed them to her. She’d unstring the syllables of her name like beads and share them with me, counting them aloud, summing them up as love.
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020). Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.