Rituals – Isabella Jiang

I get home by the creep—I mean I get home like this, creep, thieving through mid-afternoon. It’s after school. It’s slithering I do—in a slinky skirt, slipping. I gumshoe. I pussyfoot. I prowl and delude.

You scare me, Jenny says. You scare the crap out of me.

Nebraska will swallow me whole, feet-first. Nebraska: spread-eagling me. Nebraska will take me blank-faced, point-blank, iron and sinew. She will take me like a smooth pill, swallow me and spit me out.

Jenny is a small fucker who likes to be told how to be. I used to be that way once too, I mean. I used to know to unscrew my spine and pick out scripture like little bones. I used to fill my mouth with dirt, the slosh of spit, taste salt and believe in gods. 

The school took two weeks to study me: the girl who moves to Nebraska, slips into her mouth, is swallowed, spit out. As I obsess, I turn to obsession. The other kids, they stroke my bone-black hair. One girl snips a strand and keeps it in her locket for a week. 

Every day like this—yikes. You scare me, Jenny says, can’t you understand they aren’t like us? Yikes, I say.

Jenny believes Nebraska has changed me. For the worse, she says, her birdbreath coming in white puffs through the screen.

So—and so that is what you think of me. Gravedigger’s hands and a mouth full of bees. Jenny doesn’t know how I’ve changed, how I used to want control, to be in it and not. Back then: I wrote threnodies around my life and all its tragics. I trafficked in that shit. I thought things like: If I’m not changed by the end of this. Fucking metamorphosed. I threatened the sky. What do you know. I’ve been good for a long time.

Jenny is really Qinying Jenny, but I like it the other way. All I can think: how shameful it must be to endure a name like that—that parrots the sounds of clanging woks. But more shameful yet to have a second name, an excuse, a flap of thin skin. I am lucky—I am Ana, An-na in the other tongue and Ana in my mother’s.

Before Nebraska: I used to think about it all the time. I see it like this—Before and Nebraska—like bifurcation, because Before I used to live by a river. Thinking about Before: like tonguing the fallow wound at the back of your mouth. We lived slow-mouthed, safe. Honey pink. All our cares gathered into thick milk—we offered them to the rivermouth. Huangpu Meikong Hong: we talked about this and that. I fed you a tongue and you took it. I chameleoned into other cool girls, but you could count on my coming back.

Yet no—I couldn’t say I would repeat it. I couldn’t say I would ever go back. Mounting that fast ugly cycle of my youth.

If I tried, really tried, I could conjure up my family. It’s more a matter of wanting, now, I suppose.

Facial composite: the father a short, porky, submissive man, with a squinty-eyed smile always at the ready. His teeth are short, absent, or yellow. He speaks Bible and Chinese. The mother: thin-lipped, pacing the kitchen, stirring a pot of rice. She peels clementines with one sharp fingernail and offers them to the fat gods in her living room, prostrate. The dog is no dog, because it was dinner last night.

And the daughter—she books it out of there. Fuckstruts. Skips town.

It still rings in me—the quick, the proximity of ends. In the Before, each morning I climbed a cathaya tree and surveyed the world—which seemed at the time to glow for me at will. You could say I found it fun at the outset. I found it fun, and I found that I could smile, too, the sharp protrusions of my retainer pushing against my lips, the edges of my mouth stretching naturally around the metal maw. It hurt—all the smiling, genuine—but I found it very much worth it. Oh. To be unthinkingly light. At 11, I thought, so, this is what it is to be happy. How swift and easy, how clean.

But the goodness of this passed, and the two tumors took hold: the mold in the water, the gold in the rut. Taken together, I believe they made my Meikong unlivable. The mold crippled our autumn crops, and the gold called forth men with long drills from the far-flung cities, all goosefat and starch, clicking the slick wedges of their shoes against our dirt. And I remember how they waded into it: cold, with a kind of murky incuriosity. They touched our homes, from the outset, as if weighing them for worth. The fingernail, thick with blood.

Like that: there was no place that loved me back enough. No song. The songs were too pretty, the songs that declared their spells. The songs that marveled at their own beauty, the gracenotes ever-flickering, ringing into dull halls. The songs were tricksters, guttersnipes, here for the mocking—giving in for a cuddle then spitting me out. I remembered it all the time when I thought about my many tongues, my being tongue-dumb. I wanted to spurn each cliché and maxim until I was wordless. Wanting always to speak in poetry. My breath loitered at the door, at the ready, its hot feet fumbling. The feet fled. The floor gave. I talked into a wall, my mouth pressed against the plaster. My mouth plastered. 

At some point, options grew from the cathaya: stay, sit in a marriage. Take a motorbike into the city. But I didn’t want the city. It was dirty and fast-footed, sootwater steaming from its canopies.

Nor did I want the Meikong. Things tasted different now. China bitter. China sweet. It made no difference to me.

Then the tickets: pink-tipped flags that curled and uncurled in the distance. Nebraska, Nebraska, I could only think: daughters leaving. Daughters as spitfire, fatale, chiseling their hips into half-moons. I lifted my eyes, glimpsed something beyond the cathaya: the leaves like pearled claws. Girl: a nest of peachskins, a mirror left in the sun.

Sorrow took me into the small hours of the night and left me there, rocking gently by a dim screen, leaning in. I kept catastrophe puckered at the back of my mouth. I mouthed grief. I didn’t wish for tragedy, but I dreamt as though I did.

I stopped myself as softly as I knew. I took Nebraska by tornado and she took me, too. 

Jenny, we are halfway angels, gleaming backward in the night. Our gibbous gut, our meek teeth. Nebraska says there is only a little more to go.

The school studied me and I passed. I think, I will be a swallow. I will be a cud. 

Three hundred days into the odyssey, I found Nebraska’s heart. Jenny: the entry wound. It was shaped like a heart. Jenny, Jenny—a chain of bent necks waning into blue. I looked inside, and the heart glowed and unglowed for me. It had ligaments and it had skin. Bone-yellow wood and good wool. Knot of feet. Where only eyes don’t meet.

Jenny—ah but the time. Take a ticket, two. It is hardly too late. 

Jenny, I want to say, I see myself in you sometimes. Sallow girl, fully submerged in moonlight. The transgression foreign, womb-watered, and her mouth, her mouth like this—her beak a rubber cone, limned pink by a kinder sun.

Eventually, Nebraska will swaddle me in orange peels. Nebraska will take me in her crisp Midwestern tongue. I will give myself to Nebraska in a bag of milk teeth. Nebraska: a wreath of orange peels catching wind like wet birds. My swallow wings pinioned, cut; the fissure wet, cleft.

Jenny—she asks after me. Do you get it? And how are you, and how are you? I sleep easily, too easily, to be living.

Did I say something wrong? I walk home alone on fingertips, padding along the hot avenue, the hot street.

Isabella Jiang lives in New Jersey. Her work has previously been nominated for The Best Small Fictions and recognized by The Poetry Society, the National YoungArts Foundation, Hollins University, The National Federation of State Poetry Societies, Best of SNO, The Growing Stage, and elsewhere. She edits for Sandpiper, Opus, and HerCulture. Outside of writing, she enjoys doodling, singing, and baking.