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Bittermelon face / 苦瓜臉

— K-Ming Chang

Where I live, the land is dry as a palm. Growing up, the only thing green was the traffic light, the neighbor’s spray-dyed lawn, and the flocks of iridescent crows when light made mirrors of their wings. But still, my mother knew how to grow things in the absence of water: she yanked a chili bush out of the ground, grew daffodil seedlings between two damp paper towels in our garage, and convinced half a cherry sapling to salute the sky before it receded again. She would walk me around the neighborhood and point at abandoned lots with chain-link fences, stray dogs knotted around each other in the shade, and tell me about all the things she could plant there, plotting each unseen seed. I didn’t understand how she knew where to plant certain species, which trees to grow in the shade, and which roots required deep soil and which flowers needed the sun to rise over their right shoulders. It seemed to me like minor godhood. Sometimes her imaginary garden became a grid of stories: Back there, where the dogs are, those could be dahlias, my mother said. They multiply on their own. She told me that dahlias reminded her of her grandmother’s reed-roofed house in Yilan, where the fields were frosted in white dahlias that bruised in the shade. Sometimes she walked to Home Depot and walked the aisles of the greenhouse, twisting off the leaves of succulents she wanted to replant beside our driveway. It’s not theft, she said, if these things should be free. Sometimes she brought a purse filled with soil and dug out the sweet-pea flowers from their 8.99 pots, replanting them in her purse to shuttle home.

It was rare for her to mention the colors of flowers. All her other stories about Yilan were about meat and shit and ropes of intestines, nothing as bloodless as beauty. She told me about the hooks in the roof at her mother’s house, where they strung up the bodies of bucks. Rain polished the bones of the deer they hung by the hooves. She and her mother dismantled the deer in hours, draping the hide over their fence, rinsing the skull clean before sunning it. For Tayal people, she said, it was mandatory to keep the skull of what you kill, to drink from the bowl of it, threading your tongue through the eyehole. That is how you worship what you wound: the deer will forgive you, and its ghost will return to the mountains and be reborn into a doe that won’t run away the next time you approach it with your gun. Where I was born, there were no deer, only possums and squirrels and sometimes dogs, nothing with a hide wide enough to rival the sky. There is a low hum here, which my brother says is the sound of the sewage plant processing our shit into the sea, but that my mother says is the sound of everyone’s thirst. Rain here is a rarity, the clouds unmoving and two-dimensional as birthmarks, and my mother says it’s a relief. She was sick of being so wet on the island, of the floods up to her ankles, her knees, all the times she had to scoop water with buckets and pour it back out onto the street. When typhoons came, she told me, there was no running water for three days. In preparation, they filled a bathtub and all their pots and woks with water, drinking from what they had collected, the water sheeted with dead flies.

One summer, when our water was shut off, my mother called her sister in Nevada to ask to borrow money. Instead, my aunt sent us my cousin Henry, who worked as a trucker in Carson City, shuttling sand and tanbark and decoratively-carved boulders to landscapers all over Nevada and California. Cousin Henry had hemophilia, which ran in my family like a surname, and to prevent himself from bleeding, he wore rubber gloves while moving rocks off the bed of his truck, careful not to grasp the edges of anything. There was a story he liked to tell me: once, he slit his knee open after falling off the roof of our grandmother’s house in Yilan, and my aunt had to seal the wound with hot tar. It seared his skin, cooked the flesh of his knee dark as stew-meat, but it was the only way to stop him bleeding. Dog’s ass, I said, and he said, I swear, I swear it’s true. He told me that in Nevada, people pay thousands of dollars for their yards to be landscaped, for someone to plot checker-squares of shade and sunlight, hammering stakes into the soil where the Joshua trees would go. Ma does all that for free, I said. It isn’t fair. He laughed at me, clapped his rubber-gloved hands together. It made his hands look like seal flippers, slick with spilled oil. Ko gwei bin, he called me. Bittermelon face, what in this world is fair? Everything belongs to someone. Even the sky. Who could own the sky, the rain? I asked him, but he never told me. At the end of the summer, he drove back to Nevada, leaving my mother a boulder the width of his shoulders. What am I supposed to do with this shit, my mother said, tapping the boulder with her toe. But it was hollow, a rock made of plaster, and I could carry it all by myself, throwing it over the fence of an empty lot for the stray dogs to teethe apart. It made me feel like a god, carrying that rock with nothing but air inside, and I thought maybe that was his gift to me, not the rock but the carrying, the pretense of my own divinity. On the other side of the fence, it shattered into foam, and the dogs ate it, pretending it was meat, their bellies bloating to float them away. I turned away. I wanted to pray. When I walked back down the block, I could still hear their teeth behind me humming, preying on what was empty, hunting me home.

Outside in the side-yard, my mother is attempting to grow a bittermelon in our first week of quarantine. She heats the soil in her palms, but I know it requires nothing short of a newborn sun, rain, humidity, warmth, constant dankness, the kind of weather that is extinct here. It’s not native to this climate, I try to tell her, but she kneels anyway, tapping the burial mound with her fingers. But look, she says, and when I kneel with her, I see what her shadow has been skirting: an eyelash of green, blinking away dew, already staking its roots.


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