Mother won’t let me eat the bones even though they’re soft enough.
You’ll calcify, she says. The doctor’s lab results report that calcium has already built up in my organs, a stone nestled between blood vessels, a tiny fossil deposit memorializing the chicken carcasses I’ve sucked clean of marrow, the bones I’ve crushed to powder between crooked molars. The amount of calcium you eat has nothing to do with calcium deposits, but I know better than to reason with mother. I set the carcass and neck bone back in the bowl. At least save it for another round of soup? I plea. Mother thinks she has won, so she complies. But later at night, after she takes melatonin and enters her five-hour window of imperturbable sleep, I pry the fridge open gently so it won’t squeak and reach for the bowl of bones. I stand at the sink, gnawing through a neck bone.
When my feet were still growing and mother would have to buy me new Skechers every year, she thought I’d collapse, the weight of my skin pulled tight around my spine, dragging me down until either I snapped like a green bean or disappeared into the earth, buried alive. Nothing can put you back together if you fracture, she said, even though I had seen classmates with casts and crutches, who broke their bodies every other month playing soccer and healed fine. She stocked the fridge with Dannon yogurts and whole milk and had me drink a cup with every meal until I told her I felt like a cow, which must’ve been a sign to her that the atmosphere was no longer subsuming my skeleton into stardust because she stopped buying so much dairy. But I’ve hardened now, my limbs like candied hawthorn skewered on bamboo. I’ve become the bone-eating bingtanghulu.
The hardest part to chew is the middle of the drumstick bone. It cracks like glass under my teeth. I swallow the shards. I’m sure they’ll poke holes down my esophagus, tenderize the mucosa, speckle the tube, puncture the sphincters until stomach acid burns all the way up. But mother doesn’t need to know. I can throw up very quietly, like a mouse.
Mother finds out the next morning that I finished the bones again. The empty bowl rests in the sink, cradling a cracked piece of femur too hard for me to swallow. She lectures me, says we won’t be able to have fresh bone broth for lunch, and she’ll have to slice open a can of Kirkland chicken stock and hope the sprig of scallion and star anise pods will suffice for flavor. Store-bought broth builds weak character, she says as she pours a can into the pot and defrosts another carcass for dinner. She pinches my wrists, look, so hard, like diamond! I could shave ice with this. I shake her hands away. She sighs, why do you always have to be on either side of extremes? Why can’t you be a little brittle, a little strong? The pot boils, bubbles roaring to the surface, a faint scent of licorice from the star anise spreading throughout the kitchen until I forget the smell of collagen. Mother stirs the soup with her spatula as I stand by the cutting board, fidgeting with a paring knife, embarrassed by the confrontation. But not surprised. Mother lacks an internal barometer to prevent her from saying things she shouldn’t at inopportune times. She’s the lady who screams at the high school hostess for downsizing her dumpling takeout even though it was the owner, Sushi John, who made the penny-pinching business decision to stop making plump dumplings in-house and start ordering them from the same vendor who sold disposable, splinter-prone chopsticks. When she picks me up from diving practice, she bad mouths my teammates in Chinese: when did Kimberly grow into a bottle gourd—puberty really does a number on some, did Jason always finish his pikes with such a big splash—you’d think he’s a drowning Jingwei. I roll on the balls of my feet, my metatarsal bones cushioned by calluses, hardening from the inside out, the outside in. My feet will be padded with stone.
That night, after the fresh carcass has been gelatinized in the pressure cooker, after the water has taken all that it can from tissue and collagen, I twist the lid open only to find a thin sheen of oil and shreds of scum floating in soup. No bones here. I rummage through the fridge, moving bottles of sriracha and oyster sauce to the side, stacking containers of doubanjiang on gochujang, shelving the pickled daikon mother has soaking in white vinegar, threatening to knock over an empty yogurt container full of the outer skins of onions—the tough parts that turn soup dark and you could chew forever, prying open lids and disturbing condensation on plastic wrap. Bones don’t just disappear. Mother must have hidden them somewhere she thinks I’ll never discover, and I’m too spineless to ask. The mosaic tile stickers covering the kitchen floor feel like ice against my bare feet—the parts that are still skin and can feel, that is. I don’t wear my slippers at night: they’re too loud, go thump thump thump against the hardwood and even the carpet. Mother is a light sleeper; I don’t want her finding me flipping the fridge inside out. This is all because you have a lump in your head, she’d remind me. She always blames my misshapen skull, how the bone folded in like wet clay when the nurses forced mother to push even when mother insisted on a C-section. How it ended in a C-section anyway. And the soft sections of skull melded as I grew, and the fontanelles closed as caverns, and mother said I could hold a spoonful of soy sauce in my head, disguised within nests of hair, a princess’s balancing act. I’m going to fill it back up with bone, I tell her. Once an empty head, always an empty head, she says. She thinks you can’t reinforce or strengthen things. You can only protect them, prevent them from deteriorating.
That night, I can’t find the bones anywhere.
I wake up to rain and wind rattling shutters. The nutty scent of sesame oil slips into my room. Mother will steam a block of silken tofu and douse it in sesame oil, soy sauce, and bean paste to eat with congee. I skip breakfast on these days because the water content makes me pee too much, and the last thing I want is to leave for the restroom while taking an exam. But it’s the weekend and mother’s bladder holds up much worse than mine (although she says it only started after giving birth to me) so I sit at the table with a soup spoon and bowl. Mother looks as she always does, relaxing her face so the wrinkles around her eyes wind like narrow rivers around a mountain, slapping her wrists and hands constantly according to grandmother’s advice, since mother can no longer grasp objects with precision unless she gets regular cortisone injections. She doesn’t want any injections. Says they’re unnatural. Says she’ll listen to her body.
She must know I woke up in the middle of the night to search. She always acts unfazed. Stoic and silent, she’s ticking off chores like checkboxes in her Reminders list. I wait for her to yell at me for misplacing sauces, for un-optimizing fridge space. Waiting is like breathing. I don’t know when it’ll end, but someday it will, and I’ll still not have an answer.
Instead, she sits next to me with her bowl. I sit on my left hand, hiding my fingers and wrist and forearm from view. The skin wrapping my radius and ulna has begun to solidify, excess collagen hijacking patches of soft flesh with hardened rock. If I stroke my arm carefully, I can feel the bumps of calcium deposits beneath my skin, pebbles scattered across my bones like sponge pores. One of the deposits erupts through my skin as I shift weight onto my hand. I can feel fluid leak from my hand, wetting my pants, and when I glance down, I spot droplets on the chair, full of tiny, white granules. The body is supposed to know how to take care of excess. Like how, if you eat too many lychees, your nose will start bleeding to get rid of the heat, to stabilize yin and yang. The body knows how to balance, mother always claimed. It sucks that balance demands so much pain, I think as I catch the open sore from the corner of my eye, and press down harder on my hand so the bleeding might stop. Nothing worthwhile can be obtained without pain, mother says. You were the most painful thing to come from my body, and still your head didn’t come out right. If my stares or the blood spreading through my sleeve are obvious, mother pretends she doesn’t see anything. I eat slowly, waiting for her to finish first, place her dishes in the sink, and walk far away so I can poke at the oozing wound, rub the bone granules between my fingers—how pearls fill me rather than blood, how microbeads stick to spongy tissue, how one day, I might be more calcium than person.
Mother leaves for the restroom. The amount of time she spends there has increased with her age. I’m sure I could cut off my humerus and wait for it to grow back during the time she’s gone. It’d sprout from my arm, smooth and cohesive. I consider it a good use of excess: rebuilding rather than adding where nothing needs to be added. But I don’t cut anything off because I can’t guarantee it’ll grow back—maybe it’d be different if I had eaten the leftover carcass last night.
Why do you always have to be on either side of extremes? Mother often asked me. But I don’t think I’m extreme. If anything, she’s the extreme one. I used to have a friend, Elbert, who collected Pokémon cards with me. We’d trade anything for the cards we wanted: I once offered him the jade bracelet mom gifted me for his Charizard, but he rejected the offer because the bracelet didn’t fit him. When we grew out of the Pokémon phase, we’d watch anime over Google Hangouts, concentrating more on each other’s facial reactions to scenes than the scenes themselves. I’d go to his house after school under the guise of club activities, and we’d stream newly airing shows while devouring his bag of sriracha rice crackers. Mother eventually found out and forbade me from staying out late after classes ended. You can’t trust men, she said. They’ll steal your body before you realize it. She taped dragon Jianzhi on my bedroom door—she has always been good with her hands, cutting intricate patterns that I’d tear through no matter how thin the scissor blades—and hung red lanterns by our front door, claiming it’d ward off any men’s bad intentions and purify toxicity in my bloodstream. I can’t just bleed it out? I asked. Mother shook her head, that’s what they want, to see you bleed for them. I stopped talking to Elbert because mother was monitoring my chats and emails, and eventually we pretended like the other didn’t exist. I’d heard he got a girlfriend, but I’d hear this news every few weeks, so I wasn’t quite sure about his state of affairs, nor did I care anymore.
Anyway, mother is the one who fawns over fuzzy, big-headed babies in strollers she encounters while taking walks. I don’t see how I’m supposed to give birth to her grandchildren without interacting with other humans.
I get the feeling mother doesn’t really know what she wants.
I reach for the rag mother cut from old bedsheets I stained years ago with period blood. The sheets were so thin my blood seeped through the fibers and into the mattress, and if I were to peel back the new cloud-patterned sheets I use today, you’d be able to see the brown splotch I’d tried to scrub away with a sponge and laundry detergent only to spread the stain’s surface area. The rag absorbs most of the bone-blood fluid mixture. I wring it under the sink. The dark blue fabric masks the rust blood color so I don’t bother rinsing with much rigor. My arm and hand continue to ooze, and I wonder what I did to trigger this imbalance. I know I shouldn’t fixate.
Sometimes you just need to let things go to protect the bigger picture, mother told me after I burst into tears in front of her and Mr. Stern, the guidance counselor, because she wouldn’t sign the waiver to let me watch The Breakfast Club in my Language Arts class. While my classmates watched the movie, I’d have to drag a desk outside of the classroom, against the obnoxiously blue lockers, facing the hall and avoiding eye contact with students ditching class under the guise of using the restroom. Her rationale to my teacher was the movie was inappropriate, but in the evening over dinner, she told me, I don’t want you getting any unrealistic expectations, people don’t just reconcile differences like in movies, especially not men and women. That night, she had me reading and memorizing Chinese idioms, as she did most nights when she decided school didn’t assign me enough homework. Jiǔ niú yì máo: nine cows and one strand of hair. Like a needle in a haystack? I asked. Hardly, she replied, because I’m never allowed to be right. Needles reflect light like mirrors, you think normal hay can sparkle? I could pluck a needle out, easy.
I try to ignore my arm and the growing stiffness in my feet. My limbs feel rusted over when I move, ligaments threatening to chip because they’re exceeding their intended volume capacity, stretching my skin, metastasized. Tiny, forgettable things, I remind myself. I rub the indentation in my head. It seems less steep. At least something is filling in the way I want. Once it’s full, mother will realize I had my head on the right way all along. Look how calcium protects me, I will tell her.
Mother makes broth again for dinner. She uses the bones from yesterday, cooking them so the remaining scraps of meat fall away from the bone. She tosses in napa cabbage and soaked wood ear and gān bèi, these sweet and pungent dried scallops capable of overwhelming broth to the extent I don’t understand why she couldn’t have just used water—the soup would taste the same: like the ocean concentrated in a pot. I watch her closely to discern where she retrieved the hidden chicken carcass, but she is good at acting when I am not watching. Behind-the-scenes work, mother called it when I asked her how my pneumonia hospitalization bill was paid, or when I found a small cylindrical container of pepper spray tucked in my backpack’s side pocket, or when all the tampons in the storage cabinet disappeared and were replaced by pads. Tampons are too invasive, mother said. When I am not watching mother (which is often because she says I only ever look in one direction even though this is the natural placement of human eyes: situated next to each other, straight to the front, depth perception prioritized over 360-degree view), I like to imagine her sitting on the couch, reading glasses slipping down her flat, round nose, flipping through The Three-Body Problem and cracking open sunflower seeds with her molars like she has completed every to-do list and can only kill time now. There aren’t many moments when she is not watching me, though. So I have to operate with discretion. After mother finishes watering her garden with buckets of collected shower water, I lay awake in bed, listening for doors to stop creaking open and close, for faucets to stop spilling onto porcelain, for the footsteps and squeaking floorboards to drift silent and the only thing I can hear is the low howl of the wind outside, a ghost for whom mother denies entry into the house and attempts to exorcise with salt sprinkled around the yard.
She’s asleep when I rise, cramming my feet into slippers. They barely fit with the bone protrusions stretching the tops, pulling at the seams connecting sole to sides.
I don’t bother rummaging through the fridge this time. Too conspicuous. Too easy. This time I search the garage, where I tug on my parka and breathe puffs of steam. Mother keeps food that doesn’t go bad for a long time here: squashes, potatoes, watermelon, daikon, cabbages. It’s cold enough to keep milk here, too, although mother errs on the side of caution since we’ve encountered too many gallons of spoiled whole milk back when she thought my skeleton would disintegrate from a passionate, rib-crushing hug.
No sign of carcasses. No sign of grey-brown shreds of spongy and hard tissue. I rub my hands together, the friction a comforting source of heat, and walk over to the blue disposal bin and open the lid with my thumb and index finger.
A waft of mold and food scraps greets me. Our blue disposal bin is full of tiny plastic grocery bags, each an individual batch of trash. And there, sitting on top of a few knotted Shoprite and H Mart bags is a clear bag stuffed with familiar twig-like wishbones and toothpick ribs and dark pieces of backbone—once a long, cohesive piece, now fragmented like granola clusters. I reach forward, one arm holding the edge of the bin, the other reaching for the bag. It’s double knotted and I struggle to unravel the plastic. My fingers have gotten too wide and crooked for this. By the time I’ve unwound the first knot, the calcium deposits on my knuckles and wrists have stretched and punctured the plastic.
I dig my fingers into the holes and rip the bag open. Then I crouch on my knees, placing the bag on the concrete floor, and scoop out chunks of bone with my hands, cupping them to my mouth. This requires no precision. As I chew, my movements grow rigid. For each bite, I imagine calcium accumulating layer by layer in my limbs, eventually bubbling to the surface of my skin, searching for a way out. I wonder how mother would praise me if I were to grow a shell by the next morning—surrounded. Fortified.
Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in West Branch, Threadcount, Superstition Review and elsewhere, and was selected for Best Microfiction 2021 and Best Small Fictions 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.