These are all birth stories, but I will not tell you mine.
From Wikipedia: 坐月子, also known as ‘sitting the month,’ is a Chinese custom practiced by many women of East Asian descent for recovery following birth, typically for 1 month… During confinement, mothers are forbidden from habits which may expose their body to physical agents such as cold weather or wind that are claimed to be detrimental to their recovery. Specifically, mothers are not allowed to:
Wash their hair
Take a bath or shower
Climb the stairs
Have contact with water
Be exposed to wind
I. Washing the hair
The white girls lightened their hair in the summer with lemon and olive oil. My hair stayed dark. In some photos, I looked like another girl’s shadow: weightless, shapeless, my body missing a body. Nai nai says I was born blonde, so blonde the doctor didn’t believe I had a mother, this mother. But that’s just a story, like so many others: that my mother swallowed every door knob in the house to keep my father from leaving. That my brother was born without an umbilical cord, or that he tied it into his own noose. That a century ago, in German-occupied Qingdao, my great-grandmother fell in love with a soldier and all her children were green-eyed. One year, during the war, when the well water was low, she dropped each of her green-eyed babies into the well so that the water level would rise. That was how I saved the village, she said. That was the cost of thirst.
Like me, my cousin was not born in a hospital, but at home on a faux velvet sofa, three layers of towels soaked through, a smell in the air like smoke. We nicknamed him Kiwi, his buttocks slightly furred and stained green by his Mongolian mark. Even his flesh smelled sweet. I asked my mother why Chinese people give nicknames before names, and she said it was to make sure no god would get jealous and steal the baby back from the living world. The humbler the name, the safer you are. Her childhood name was Pig Pen, because she could sit in her own shit for hours without crying.
In labor, my aunt wept tears the size and shape of bullets. I gathered them in a bucket and used them to salt her afterbirth soup, the broth bobbing with dates and buckwheat. Afterwards, as we fed my aunt spoonfuls of salt and soup, Kiwi refused to nurse. Instead of opening his mouth, he gripped her breasts with his small hands. Milk in his fist like a bolt of white silk. My mother would later say this was a warning, that this boy would learn the world fist-first. She was right. His mother’s third language would be his only one. He would punch all his girlfriends, even the white ones. He would replace our names with swear words. Fuck, he called me. Shit. Bitch. Bitch. Sometimes, he spoke with an accent and it made him angrier. Shin. Birch. Birch. And I would remember the white birch tree in our front yard, the low branch I placed him on, expecting him to climb higher, higher. My mother later yelled at me, beat me in front of my aunt: he’s too young to climb down. But I only wanted to see his green-furred head breach the top of the tree, to see him so far away he was a bird smeared in the corner of the sky. Maybe I could have caught him, or maybe he would have stayed in that tree forever, his limbs becoming the tree’s limbs, his body becoming his namesake: a new fruit. I could pluck him off a branch and take a bite of boy, and with juice jeweling my chin I’d call him my sweet, sweet son.
II. Taking a bath
These are all birth stories, but I will not tell you mine. Listen to my mother tell it: she likes to say I am a drain and all my children water. The bathtub too small for her meloned belly, the steam ghosting her face. I feel like a vegetable in the pot. Our father installed the bathtub when she complained of showering, how she could barely stand when her belly was so big. It’s true: we stooped her, weathered her. Our births opened her body like an umbrella. My mother has never gotten her period. She claims she got pregnant by pushing chicken eggs inside herself, and that’s why we’ve grown up so fast: we have the lifespans of chickens. She laughed when she said it, but I cried every night for months. Our oldest hen was 14. My brother called me an idiot, said if I didn’t die at 14 he would kill me then himself. The year my cousin Kiwi was born, I turned five. I was too old to be bathed by others, but I liked to be touched clean, to watch the water dye itself dirty. My brother bathed me and was gentle, though I knew what his hands could do. I named the hens and he killed them. That was the order of things. I bathed Kiwi myself, practiced motherhood like lines in a movie. I wrote imaginary subtitles for our bath scenes: Daughter bathes baby in lime soap and water. She never lets the water gets cold, uses her own spit when the soap runs out. Daughter knows this is not her baby, but still washes him as if he were her own body. Daughter knows this is not her son, but still secretly calls him my son. Daughter knows she is not a chicken, but is still waiting for slaughter.
III. Climbing the stairs
Though my grandfather wouldn’t name me because I’m a granddaughter, my body rhymes with his in other ways: we have the same hairline, crooked. We have the same spine, straight. We have the same fears: swallowing seawater, walking past white boys, the scent of Ama’s hands oiling our scalps with horse oil from Taiwan. Our heads now slick as helmets. My grandfather taught me that safety is not avoiding injury, but injuring yourself before others can. When a white man with a rifle robbed his Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles, my grandfather pulled the trigger on himself. When my grandmother wanted to hurt him, he gave her the words: you animal. Eat shit. Eat your own shit. He lived under our stairs, in a small room with a bed and a bedpan and a sink we used to rinse him out. Sometimes we had to jar his shit and bring it to the Chinese doctor, who poked it with a straw and smelled it deeply, reading the odor out loud to us. If his shit was slightly sour, we fed him syruped loquats and dragon’s eyes and red bean soup. If his shit was meaty, we fed him ground ginger and lotus root. Every time I climbed the stairs in our house, I made sure to tiptoe. I knew he was asleep, adrift in his own odor. My brother and I spent hours killing him in our mind, to rehearse our grief before it was too late. We invented so many ways to kill him before he died of his own body. We knew he would be proud of us. With a plastic bag. With a deep fryer. With a blow dryer. With a tree branch. With a tire swing. With a rope and a pantry. We didn’t know how old he was, but we figured that was another way we could kill him: like cutting down a tree to count the rings.
IV. Contact with water
I watered my Kiwi’s bed every night, thinking it would grow him quicker. My mother mistook it for bedwetting and beat him for it. When she caught me, she let Kiwi beat me instead. He had already grown to my chin-height, his hands and feet already man-sized. But his waist was narrow as a vase, and his mouth was so small his words split and slurred on the way out. He spoke so slowly we wrote his name and our contact information on his wrists, so that in case of emergency, we wouldn’t need to rely on the rate of his speech-to-sound. When my aunt was sitting the month, I remember tying a towel into a sling and carrying him everywhere: to the public pool, where I tread water so he wouldn’t drown. To the white church, where I scared all the ladies into thinking he was mine. To the Korean church, where the aunties fed us glass noodles and slabs of beef. To the Chinese church, where my mother prayed to be a citizen. My father, now a Resident Alien, moved planets away to Fresno to work in irrigation.
He was the first of his family to go to college, and now he was a god, making rivers inside deserts, stomping lakes into droughtland. In Fresno, the farmers told him war stories of fields planted ripe with landmines and American grenades green as new apples. My father, god of water, told stories of the sea—how he floated on his back across the Taiwan strait, was caught by a fisherman in his net and brought to shore when he was five. Then in America, he beheaded fish at a grocery store, bringing the rotten ones home to his children, to his wife for dinner. That was his love: a fish pearled with maggots, the spoil boiled away. He always left me the good eyes, the deboned meat. In fifth grade, when my brother tore the hose while pretending it was his cowboy lasso, my father stitched away the hole. When I asked him what he was holding, he said a snake just to scare me. Later, at school, when the teacher told us the snake was temptation and Eve was evil, I thought of my father cradling that green hose. When he turned it on, water sprang from its mouth and it was a miracle. My father could make anything grow. I remember him whipping my brother with that hose, its metal mouth striking between my brother’s rolled-back eyes. I remember him saying, I’m sorry, but this is the only way you’ll grow.
Before storms, the sky wore a shawl. It was always dark before rain and dazzling afterwards. Agong couldn’t read, but he always knew the weather before he woke. Every morning, we stood by his bed and read his sleep. If he twitched, it would drizzle. If he thrashed, it would hail. If he was still, we knew the drought would stay on. In California, it is illegal to water your lawn, and at school, we pretended we had a lawn. We had a cat door and only pretended to have a cat, sometimes calling for it and pretending to be distressed when nothing came. We had an eviction notice and pretended it was a citizenship certificate: one that my aunt and my mother and my father could share three-ways. Kiwi and my brother and I wrote down ways to persuade the government: in school, we were learning how to write persuasive essays. We wrote: baba’s a good sky and mama’s a good kook. Our ant can bake like a lady. In freshno, our father is god of water and he left us to dew that. We be leave in rein carnation. We were born hear, and we are our mothers. All our essays were returned red: Improve your grammar. Improve your spelling. Implore your gods. Show us what you’re worth and we’ll give you a real sentence.
My mother cried only once while sitting the month: when my hair darkened from blonde to black. It was the last day of her month and she had just bathed me. The water, though clear and clean, dyed my whole hair the color and texture of night. My mother turned from me and cried so hotly it felt like she was bleeding. She didn’t drain the water. She didn’t rock me to sleep. Instead, she left me facedown in the water until I grew gills. It’s a power all the babies in our family have, an evolutionary adaptation from when my great-grandmother dropped her green-eyed children into the well. I gilled into a fish, silver-backed and fat. My father took me from the water and butchered me into a feast. My mother cried for me, but at least now I had no hair, and none of it was black.
What my brother taught me about sex: it’s not about the size of the blade, it’s about the depth of the wound. It’s not about birthing, it’s about burying. It’s not about the sun, it’s about where the windows are. It’s not about who owns the house, it’s about who’s died in it. It’s not about making love, it’s about locking all your doors. It’s not about girls and boys and boys and girls, it’s about birth order.
For example, our fathers were born before their fathers who will someday be our daughters. In a former life, my brother was my wife and I his knife. I am learning the logic of limbs: my brother’s legs latching to the neighbor girl’s, how I heard her gasps on the other side of the mattress my brother and I shared. The sound was nothing like drowning or dreaming. There was no water to put her in, and no dreams I could imagine I was inside of. Their sweat reached me like a hand. Their shadows coupled on a wall. I imagined my brother’s child and somehow it was also mine. When my brother was a bedwetter, he dreamed of women or storms. They produced two types of wetness, and I memorized each. I learned the texture of his dreams. In the morning, the neighbor girl was gone out the window, but my brother was beside me, awake, cupping his crotch like he was praying, like he couldn’t believe his own body.
VIII. Wind exposure
When our grandfather was dying, Kiwi and I took turns emptying his anus into the bedpan, which was a casserole dish a white woman had given my mother at night school. My mother did not make casseroles. The shape of the dish was as foreign as his dying. His dying filled our home and we breathed it like air. In bed, his bodyprint was a sweatlake. We blew on his skin to cool him. When he fevered, he teethed on his own fist until it rusted shut. We had to open his hands and press them under rocks and textbooks, as if they were sheets of paper that refused our reading. When the weather was good, Kiwi and I carried him outside. Because Kiwi was shorter than me, we carried our grandfather tilted. We looked like construction workers, going out to build a body of ruins. The wind tore out Agong’s hair, and we ran across the street trying to collect all of it. In our fists, his hair was wide-bladed as grass, and we potted it in jars. We tried to grow it back. If we left Agong in the wind for too long, sometimes his entire body, thinned around his bones, would lift from the ground. When this happened, he would laugh and joke about joining the birds, and we would panic and pile on top of him, weighing him down until we felt his breath stop, feeling the shame of our relief.
The day of Agong’s final fever, my aunt gave birth to her last child, Kiwi’s little sister. We had money to go to the hospital this time, and this time she needed a surgeon. The surgeon made her womb a wound, stitching it open so that Kiwi’s sister could breathe. We would call her Banana, her long yellow body bruised brown from the surgeon’s white hands. I would not be allowed to touch the baby. Only the doctor could weigh her, bandage her body, type her English name on the birth certificate. Her Chinese name was like her first cry: lost already, just something that made the nurse wince and cover her ears. I watched them coffin her in a glass case, hook her to a bag of fluids, sew my aunt’s belly into a quilt. The doctor told my aunt she could not sit the month, that it was a myth. Her body would heal sooner if she remained active, if she bathed and washed her hair, if she read books—if she could even read. So my aunt was the last to sit the month, to watch an entire moon’s life cycle like a face in the mirror, to sip our afterbirth soup, salty as her own blood. And Banana was the last of us to be given a nickname, to be protected from our jealous gods, who were no longer our gods.
It was Banana I bathed like her brother, though her body was strange to me, so stone-smooth she sank if I did not hold her up. Even my father didn’t dare hit her. Even my grandfather refused to let her see him. He crawled under his bed beside his bedpan, calling her away from the door. And yet, in the end, she felt his death no gentler than we did, our hands no less her hands. Her mouth no less our language. Grief was the girl she grew into, and we measured her in loss: by the fingers she replaced with forks. By bitefuls of baby fat. By the words she learned in one language that got lost in all the others. She would leave us one day, for college or a boy or a life of casseroles, and we knew this. We would not make her stay. We could only say we always knew the gods would take her back.