by K-Ming Chang / 張欣明
K-Ming Chang / 張欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. Her short story collection, Resident Aliens, is forthcoming from One World. More of her writing can be found at kmingchang.com.
The Daughters Ding
There were three Ding daughters, each nicknamed after a disaster. The first one was named Earthquake because she’d been born in the center of one: she was shaken out of her mother like a handful of nickels. Her father lifted his wife by the hair and rattled her teeth into rain. Earthquake never spent any time at home, especially at night when her parents were there. She wanted to be a mechanic, and once when I was walking home from school, I saw her jump the fence into the junkyard, looking for living parts. Her car was a bashed-blue Subaru without any seatbelts, so she used bungee cords instead. When she drove it to the temple, pieces of the car crumpled off like cake, bits of windshield glass crumbed on her lips. One time while I was walking to work at the dollar store, she drove up slow behind me and asked if I wanted to leave. Leave where, I asked her, but she wasn’t looking at me. Her car had no windows either, just sashes of duct tape that flapped loose in the wind like dog’s ears. She reminded me of a dog, the way her head was jutted out of the window, her eyes on the sky, her tongue a ribbon all the way around my wrists. I got in with her that day, sitting with my knees to my chest because there was a birdcage on the floor of the passenger seat, and she got on the highway and headed into the desert and the dust slapped the windshield like the ash of a cremated body. I wondered what died to give us a city. She was telling me about the junkyard, how one time she was scavenging for parts when a thunderstorm hunched over her, and how lightning started lacing all the metal around her, rubying it, and how beautiful that was, the blood lit inside it. I touched that lightning, she was telling me, I felt it find the ground inside me. Okay, I said, and told her that the car was starting to slow down. It slumped to a stop by the side of the highway, and ahead of us was a mirage, a skyscraper like my throat, swallowing something. Earthquake told me that she really was going to leave, that the problem was this car was only used to carrying one person at a time, and she had to leave me behind. Okay, I said, and stood by the side of the road, watching her get back in, rope herself to the seat, and rev away. I stood waiting for her to turn back, but she kept going, and when I turned around to start walking back, my feet crushed something. It was her one good headlight, the glass sugaring my soles. I hoped where she went, night hadn’t been invented yet.
The second Ding sister never left the house, and sometimes when I walked by their duplex, I saw the room where she was kept, the newspapers taped to the windows, the bruise-quiet. Her name was Flood, because she was born one night when the sewers beneath our street burst all at once and we sunk. Shit boated down the street, and the neighborhood boys stuck toothpick-flags into their turds and raced them through the wastewater. Flood only ever left home to go to temple, and I saw her sometimes at the Saturday morning service, when we read the Heart Sutra and kneeled on red pleather cushions, our grandmothers saying the words for real while we said watermelon watermelon watermelon, waiting for one of the nuns to smack us on the backside or make us open our eyes wide as egg yolks. Sometimes we got to burn the name of a ghost, and that was worth it, getting to inhale smoke, spit ash, chime our lungs. Flood was the one who kneeled for hours, who could press her forehead to the ground before the Buddha and pray us into knots, who was never tempted to steal the unbruised peaches left on the altar for other ghosts. There were rumors she was going to become a nun too, that she had already shaved her head and what she wore now was a wig. Boys took turns sneaking up behind her and yanking on her hair, but they never succeeded in making her bleed. Saturdays, I waited for her in the parking lot, watched her circle around the temple with the nuns and speak to them with her tongue flicked into a wing. I watched her stroke the bell outside the double-doors, the bronze one with faces carved into it to scare evil away. They were always the faces of men, sometimes with beards or horns or seventeen eyes. She petted the beasts of the bell, and one time I even saw her lean forward and knock her forehead into its bronze brim, ringing it blue. Then she looked at me and left. The next time I went to temple, I knocked on the bell with my fist, but it didn’t sound. The nun laughed at me and said, you can only strike a bell with something hollower than itself. It won’t sing to anything solid. The goal of prayer, she told me, is to empty. To rid your mind of its crust. I wondered if Flood was hollow enough to be holy. If I struck her, and if that would make her sing. Once, when we were burning the name of ghosts, when all our heads were raised to the smoke, she kept her head down and dropped her fist into the bucket. Then she lifted it out, the flame in her fist like a broken neck. We shouted for her to stop, and one of the nuns spat on her fist to douse it, but Flood didn’t flinch at all. When you have transcended, the nuns always said, you will realize that pain is an illusion, touch too. I never knew if Flood became a nun, if the bell ever again blurted her name, but I heard she got pregnant and was sent away for seven months and that when she came back, her hair was so long it swept sewage from the street, and everyone tried to prove it was a wig again, that it felt nothing, until finally she set her hair on fire and sat in the street, cross-legged, humming to herself, her scalp crackling black, a pyre as proof.
The third Ding daughter I never knew. She was given away when she was born, which was during the lightning storm that set every sycamore in our city on fire. That summer, we flossed our teeth with power lines. We learned to live alongside light, to touch it skinless, to suckle at electrical sockets like nipples. Lightning was given away as an infant, though we never learned to whom, and we wondered which sister she would most resemble. We wondered where she was and who was conducting her blood. Years ago, when the first Ding sister left and the second was sent away, their absences overlapping, I saw a girl standing outside the Ding duplex, knocking on the blondewood door with both fists. I thought at first it was Earthquake or Flood who had come back, but the third daughter was white-haired and looked without a leash. I called to her, asking if she was the daughter who’d been given away, Lightning, and she said yes. I touched her hair, teeth-bright and cutting me. They’re not home, I said, though I was lying, their mother was always home, regrowing her molars for the morning. Lightning asked me if this was her home, and I didn’t answer. How did your hair become white, I asked instead, and she said it came from the lineage of lightning, when her mother was struck and the infant inside her was bleached into this. Struck by what, I said, knowing someone owned the sky. I hid my hands behind my back, afraid she would run away, but Lightning stayed. She walked the street with me, asking about her sisters, and I said there were rumors that the oldest had disappeared into the desert, dispersed into thirst, and that the younger wanted never to be touched and was running away to become a nun for nine months. That night, I brought Lightning home and let her lick my ears, my neck, her fist inside me. I pretended it was the churn of a child, a daughter-disaster, and outside our window dangled earrings of lightning. Look at these lines, I said, like a compound fracture, so many points of departure. I asked her if she remembered being left. No, she said, and in the morning she was gone, and beside my mattress was a white wig, the ash of her cigarette, the tip of my tongue charred blue, my breasts in two dog-bowls, dying coals. When she came back, I would remember to beg. To make at least smoke of me. To stay.