“Bone” by K-Ming Chang

“Geophagia1” by Sarah Knight / sarahknightart.net

The first time I met Bone, she stabbed me and ran away. I admit that I was stalking her, that I shadowed her every day from the bus stop all the way to the apartment building called the Breadloaf because it was mold-crusted, but it was all because I loved her like my own knucklebone. She used to live in my old apartment building, the one nicknamed the Knife because there’d once been a triple suicide on the first floor: a couple and their son stabbed themselves together in the bedroom, and when the police came, Bone and me and the rest of the daughters watched from the roof and tried to spot the bodies, though all we saw were our neighbors smoking on the street outside, the tips of their cigarettes bright as rubies clenched between their teeth. They were saying that they were all gonna move after this, bad fengshui and all, but they never did. Abu said our rent went down after the triple suicide and that more people should kill themselves so that it keeps going down. On the floor directly above us was Bone. Abu said that was a dog name, but I didn’t know any dogs with names. All the dogs here were strays, and the only thing they spoke was lonely. I once saw them hunt down a baby pig that escaped from the Lins’ shed behind the butcher’s—the Lins only killed what they birthed or bred themselves—and the pack of dogs slit the pig’s throat all the way to its belly button. I grew up seeing a lot of that, bleeding, bellies butterflied open. Abu fell in love with this dentist next door with a bottom lip like a maggot and a tongue with a hole the size of a penny seared through it. He said he got it from a Taoist immortality ritual, a burning iron rod shoved through it, and in the hallway where he played cards with his own shadow on the wall, which had four arms, I asked if he’d really live forever.  

Why don’t you try to kill me, he said, and went inside his apartment, which had a bad door that only opened if you kicked it really hard, breaking the seal of its shadow. He came out again with a knife, not like a cleaver that my mother and all the other aunties in the building used, but a small one for skinning a peach or a palm, and I thought again about the triple suicide. Take it, he said, daring me to try and kill him, but inside my fist, the knife silkened and went slack as a scarf. A trick knife, he said, but I told him I could still kill him with just the cloth. I was ten already and knew all my knots. Knew the names of the bones in a neck, every buoyant bead. My mother taught me behind the butcher’s house: how to twist the duck’s neck, then slit it and hold its whole flapping body above a bowl, the blood coming thick-dark as the nail polish she wears on her toes. She always wore her open-toe sandals to knock on the neighbor’s door, which is how I knew she loved him: my mother doesn’t believe in dirtying her feet for anybody, and bathes them nightly in buckets of dollar-store mayonnaise. You can tell a rich woman by her feet, she always told me: they are swaddled in their own shadows, pretty as peeled bananas, sweet when you bite in. I wondered if that’s why she brought her feet to the neighbor, to have them skinned, cradled in a palm. 

My love for Bone was accompanied by indoor rain. Bone and her whole family, nine cousins and brothers and a mother or two, lived above us and always flooded us whenever they bathed, which my mother said was luckily very rarely. She said she was never so grateful for dirty neighbors, since the plumbing here was about as reliable as a penis, which I didn’t know how to interpret. When Bone’s family made it rain inside, water perforating our ceiling, then coming down thick as hair, Abu and I ran around with our buckets and bowls and woks and tried to cup all the water up. But sometimes the water accelerated, typhooning through our apartment, and the next day our carpet was a salted marsh, fish flickering between our ankles, silver as knives. It was the third time this happened when I realized that the water was sweet, that when I paddled my palms through it and then licked my fingers, I tasted sugar, not the bagged white kind we get for free at the church pantry, but sugar like the dark kind, musky like a red bean, sweet with something soiling it.  

Later when the water was drained, after days of keeping our door open and irrigating the hallways, I crawled around the room and traced along the walls a railing of crusted black sugar, a crystallized rim that circled me. It was like the ring around the tub I left in the bath, except this was not the salt-sweat-shadow I ironed to the sides of the tub, this was confectionary, sugar spun from skin. I wondered what could be rinsed off Bone, if her sweat was really honeyed, if my tongue would cling to the syrup of her cheek. What I wanted was a single lick, just to see if I was right, a lick anywhere on her body, maybe her breast, maybe just a nipple I could candy in my spit, amber in my mouth. 

Abu and the other women in the building regularly went to Bone’s apartment to drop off bags of eggplants and woks of shredded potatoes and dozens of eggs stolen from the butcher’s shed. It was because, Abu said, Bone’s mother was sick and couldn’t work anymore. What kind of sick, I asked, and Abu said that Bone’s mother had blood marrow that was like a factory, one of those 24-hour ones that don’t give you a break except on New Year’s and you have to bring a plastic bag to piss, you gotta train your bladder to be expansive as a backpack. Then she said that her blood marrow was overproductive and manufactured too much blood, and Bone’s mother had to be bled every week, which she did herself by slitting her wrists and bloodletting into the sink, then stitching the wound up. She slit her wrists so many times that the scar was now thick as a charm bracelet. So she’s tired all the time, Abu said, because of the weight of too much blood. Then Abu said, I wish pigs made too much blood and we could bleed them like that, every week, blood like milk ripening in an udder, and then we could eat blood tofu soup every week, wouldn’t that be delicious. Yes, I said, delicious, still thinking of Bone, wondering if she was the one who sometimes held the knife, if maybe what sweetened the water in their pipes was blood braided out of her body. 

Then there was the time Bone’s mother’s blood started sliding through the pipes of all our apartments and the women had to get together and suggest alternative methods of blood disposal. They slid notes under Bone’s door that said things like, Please consider congealing it in your refrigerator for several hours, then burying or eating it. Please consider adding gelatin and cutting it into blocks of blood tofu. Please consider selling it to the butcher in buckets, just say it’s pig’s blood. Please consider just letting it evaporate and using the red salt yourselves. If you continue blood-dumping down the sink, the pipes will get a clot and then this whole building will have a stroke and we will not report you to the landlord, but we will all go waterless because of you. Thank you. 

I heard Bone and her brothers upstairs, the orchestral hum of their electric fans, the sound of something splintering, like when Abu used her bamboo broom to beat a rat to death and the handle split into legs. After the third time our plumbing halted because of Bone’s mother’s blood clots lodged in the pipes, my mother cursed the entire family upstairs, standing on our tatami mat and jumping up and down, throwing our spare AAA batteries at the ceiling until the dents resembled rain-pocks. To reverse the curse on Bone and her family—I thought it was unfair that they should all be blamed for the mother’s overactive bone marrow—I followed her all that fall. 

We went to different schools, our apartment building perched on a faultline between two districts, one of them famous for an elementary school with classrooms made of stacked dumpsters, and one of them famous for a high school with the highest annual rate of parking lot homicides. We started middle school on opposite ends of the city, Bone with a blade and me with a Tweety Bird backpack that Abu brought home from the factory, a matching water bottle included, which Abu filled with beef offal stew. After school, I ran sixteen blocks to the 7-11 where Bone always stopped on her way home. Through the blued glass, I watched her walk inside and look at the lottery ticket display and then walk out again. Then she walked alongside the abandoned railroad tracks back to our apartment building, kicking up gravel, her body flossing the teeth of the tracks. I didn’t remember when there’d last been a train, or if it carried people or animals, but once in a while, someone from our building would rope themselves to the tracks and wait for the ghost-train to erase them. Sometimes, walking two blocks behind her, I saw her lie down on the tracks, in between the rails that were scabbed with rust, and I imagined lying down beside her, waiting for nothing that would ever come. I wanted to be the train, too, her body my only stop.  

It was my fourth or fifth time following her when I decided to get closer, to finally see her: at this distance, her face was blank as my knees, and all I could see was her hair in two braids with red bows, like those girls in Communist posters that my Abu won’t let me touch when we go to the Chinese stationery store at the corner. She tells me that it’s propaganda, that those girls with their brushstroke braids and rain-flayed cheeks, with their pitchforks and their red books, were all fake. They’re not real, Abu said to me, if they were real, they’d be skinny as my shins. Their hair would fall out like fistfuls of hay and turn white. Those smiles are fake, just paint, and their teeth are fictional, don’t fall for them. Okay, I always said, but I liked to reach out my hands and trace those girls’ faces, their two braids flapping in an imaginary wind. 

Bone didn’t turn around, not even when I was half a block behind her, then a shadow’s length behind her. I stepped on her shadow’s neck, imagined it full of her blood, her pulse at my heel, grape-tender. That’s when Bone stabbed me, whipping around so quick I only saw the smear of her mouth, the rattle of her braids. She elbowed me in the neck, crumpling it, and then I felt the jabs of the blade, her movement precise as a typist’s, punctuating my belly with holes. The blood in me unraveled, lunged forward to follow her.  

I later dreamed that before she ran away, she spooned the blood out of my belly, brought it to her mouth and lapped like a cat. I saw the leather of her tongue and wanted its lash on my cheek, but I blacked out and woke up two weeks later on Abu’s tatami mat, a spoon so far down my throat that I almost swallowed it out of Abu’s hands. She said I refused to eat while I was asleep for two weeks, and that she almost considered flipping me over and trying to feed me the broth anally. She laughed then, her neck animated with lines, and I knew I was alive, that Bone must have told someone what she’d done. When I asked, Abu said I sounded like I’d been gargling fingernails. Drink first, she said, and then we’ll talk about Bone.  

She was sorry, Abu said: she told me that she thought you were a boy and that’s why you were stalking her. Abu rubbed my earlobe with her thumb and said, you do look like a boy, my little boy, but you’ve always been this way, bait. Where is she, I asked Abu, and she shook her head at me and said I shouldn’t try to get near her again. I told you, Abu said, that family has been fermented. They’ve gone bad, all of them, and their brains must be completely brined. Why else would they always be doing shao things like bleeding down the sink and stabbing little girls.  

I thought about Bone, how her pace didn’t change, not even when I was right behind her, how I could feel the heat fanning out from the back of her neck, the hair there fine as filaments of sunlight. Abu said if I wanted to see her, I was as shao as them, but I could do what I wanted as long as I carried a weapon. The one thing that girl does right, Abu said, is carry her shadow close.  

When I could stand up and soap my pits and staunch the holes in my belly with thumb-sized wads of newspaper that Abu stole from the neighbors, I ran down the stairs to the ground floor of our apartment building. There was a Buddha there, leftover from when the building used to be a temple. It was carved into the wall, its plaster face flaking into salt, but it was still god-shaped. Dressed in the dark, folded in front of the Buddha in the wall, was Bone.  

She was kneeling, her forehead tucked against the concrete floor, and when she stood up and turned around, her hands where upturned, palms up to receive prayers, the way Abu always taught me. I really thought you were a boy, Bone said, walking up to me, her hands almost plowing into my chest. She was offering them empty, as if to convince me they had never fisted a blade, that they remained holy and blank. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so I lifted my own and mimicked her, our fingertips touching. I flinched at how cold her fingertips were, like the mist that gauzed our windows every morning, the kind of cold that obscured skies, filled bones. 

It’s okay, I said, trying not to shiver, I know what I look like to you. Bone smiled, and her teeth were the TV kind, straight and symmetrical. I like how you look, Bone said, you look so loud. I told her I didn’t know what that meant, that actually I only spoke to my mother usually, and she laughed at me and said, I know, you live below us, I hear you two all the time. What do you hear? I asked, but what I really wanted to know was whether she listened for me the way I listened for her, like a stethoscope roaming the ceiling for the beat of her feet. 

A lot, she said, your mother prays a lot. I prayed for you to wake up in front of this Buddha. She kneeled again, this time pulling me down with her, and said, let’s pray you’ll wake up from your wound. I’m already awake, I said, who’s kneeling with you? But Bone said I wasn’t awake, not until I prayed, and that I had to knock my forehead against the floor three times, like I was waiting for a door to be opened for me, and I asked if she watched a lot of TV. She reminded me of those televangelists, their pulpits made of cardboard, chins cheesy with spittle and sweat, but unlike those men, Bone made me believe in being on my knees. When she lowered her head to the concrete floor, her palms pulsing up, I looked at the back of her neck, the skin I used to navigate by when I followed her on the sidewalk. I liked the way she folded, offering herself as a perch, her palms dishing sweat. I wanted to drink that salt and then surrender.  

 When she got up again and walked out of the apartment doors, the glass gasping out the last of the light, I followed. Bone, I said, walking after her, remembering what my mother said about Bone being a dog’s name, born to be obeyed. But she didn’t turn her head. She walked ahead of me, faster, along our street with no sidewalks. Last year they built condos across the street, and the city commissioned sidewalks just for them. We only had the retired train tracks to trace, the veins of a beast we’d never seen. I wondered where I’d left my blood, how I’d gotten home, but when I called out to Bone, she ran farther from me.  

She turned a block ahead of me, toward the park that used to be named after a war, but I forgot which one and in which country. Now they renamed it the Veterans Park, and for years I thought it was for veterinarians and translated it that way for Abu, who complained again that Americans had such an obsession with their pets. They treat their animals like childrenshe said, does that mean they treat their children like gods?  

I panted, chasing Bone onto the crackled field that the city once wanted to spray-paint green in lieu of watering it. I wanted us to be on our knees again, outside of ourselves, the Buddha drooling bathwater onto our shoulders, another leak beginning in me.  

Bone, I said, and she paused between two broken-spined sycamore trees with plaques that stated they were planted by the mayor, though the only names we recognized were engraved on the trees’ meat, the bark beneath our feet. I faced Bone beneath the trees and asked why she was always running from me. At least you didn’t stab me this time, I said. Bone said she liked the feeling of being followed, that she’d known for weeks there was something trying to stake her shadow, but she didn’t want to turn around and lose the feeling. It was like the time we had a ghost in our apartment and I didn’t want to leave it and my mother said, you can’t be Chinese and love ghosts. Why else do you have a name, unless it’s to keep you from becoming one? I almost told Bone that she had a dog’s name and would probably reincarnate into a dog, but instead I asked what happened to the ghost and whose was it. 

I don’t know, Bone said, but it was tall as this—she pointed to the tree on her right, the branches now beaded with crows—and it only came when I was in the bath. It touched me between my legs and said it wanted to live inside of me. But it goes away with the blood. What blood, I asked Bone, before remembering her mother’s bone sickness, her marrow making too much of the same color. Bone sat down on the grass, cross-legged, and said that she read all about the Buddha who sat under a tree and starved until the skin of his stomach wrapped around his spine, and that’s how he reached enlightenment. Sit with me, she said. Starve with me. 

I sat down across from her, between the two trees, and realized that the roots of the sycamores were studded with sores like rusted coins. I flinched from their sap, the ropes of ants. Don’t move, Bone said, the point is that you can’t move. Didn’t the Buddha die, I asked, thinking about how only dead people got parks and sycamores and statues. That’s Jesus, Bone said, laughing at me.  

I scooted forward until our knees touched buds. You don’t look like a boy up close, Bone said, that’s good. I don’t have to stab you. I told her she shouldn’t stab anyone, doesn’t matter if they’re a boy, and she said that her mother, before she was bone-sick, used saran-wrap over her underwear so that boys couldn’t take off her underwear. But really, Bone said, it just made it really hard to pee. 

The trees wore their shadows like veils, swinging them over us. I swallowed beads of my spit. Bone said, remember, we are starving. We are rising above our bodies. Our spines will be read through our stomachs. But all I could think about was Bone’s body, her feet forking into the grass as she ran, her fist grinding against my belly when she brought out my blood. The bandage around my stomach was pleating, drying stiff, and I twitched on the grass, clutching my thighs. Stop that, Bone said, and rested both her hands, palms up, on my knees. The heat startled my legs loose, and I kicked Bone in the shin. I’ll stab you again, Bone said, with her eyes still shut, if you don’t let me alone with my bones. 

I shut my eyes too, but I was still baiting her breath by holding my own. When I opened my eyes again, the hole in my side starting to purse itself purple. Bone’s head was lolled back. Her neck was arched, two veins crisscrossing, one blue, one green. Bone, I said, shaking her shoulder, but she didn’t lift her head. I propped it forward with my hands, shaking her head, spitting into her eyes. Bone, I said, Bone, Bone, and when she opened her eyes, I saw that there were two pupils in her right eye and that her left was blank white. Then one of the pupils in her right eye scuttled across her face like a dung beetle and pinned itself back into place. I flinched from her.  

I’m awake, Bone said, how long have I been hungry? I felt a wasp wooing my left earlobe and ignored it. I don’t know how long it’s been, I said, and waved my hands in front of her eyes, waiting for her pupils to scatter like flies. You passed out, I said, your head was dangling all the way back. Bone sighed and said, I sleep all the time. It’s because I have too much blood in me and my heart can’t herd it all at once. Like your mother, I said, and Bone stood up, leaning against the left sycamore. Her pupils paralleled the moon, unscrolling the same light. Do you want to bleed me? She said, it’s easy. I do it all the time for my mother. All you gotta do is find a big vein, she said, and held up her pinky to demonstrate. Big as an earthworm, she said, and purple. 

It was dark now, and the clouds were curdled. Rain came down like safety pins, piercing our ears and palms. Bone pulled me beneath the sycamores and held out her arms as if she were praying again. She looked at me and said, can you do it? If you don’t, I’ll pass out again. I couldn’t tell if this were true or if she were only testing me, but I told Bone that I could do it. I told her: my Abu works at a nursing home called Chateau. There aren’t any French people there, only old people, and my Abu has to slap their arms really hard so that she can find their veins and inject them. Because their veins are like worms, they burrow.  

Bone said: Mine too. Slap me, she said, or you won’t be able to see me. I gripped Bone’s left arm and slapped it the color of ground beef. That’s good, Bone said, bending toward her arm so that her eyelashes touched her skin. I can see it now, my blood. All you have to do is let it out. 

Hold your breath, I said, then remembered that that was what you did when you were underwater, not when you were bled. It was also what you did when you passed a cemetery or a buried body, so that the ghost of the deceased would not envy your breath and thieve it from you. Bone’s forearms blued in the rain, and I held my breath to look at her. Okay, Bone said, now this. She pressed a twig into my hand, something she must have plucked up from the ground. It looked too brittle to breach anything, but Bone said, now X out the vein like it’s a place on a map. Like you live there. Do it really hard. 

Stalling, I gripped the twig in my fist, willing it to break so that we could go home, so that I could return to heeling her like a dog, following at a distance. But Bone lowered my hand like a lever, the tip of the twig touching the blue vein up near her elbow. It’s not so bad, she said, that my mother has too much blood. One time I got locked out of the apartment building and all she had to do to let me in was slit her wrist and dangle the ladder of blood out the window, and I shimmied my way up. Arteries are just ladders to climb home. You can take them out and unknot them and put them back in again, don’t worry, she said. Bone said she heard that in other countries, you could sell blood, and wouldn’t that be great here, her mother wouldn’t have to work at all, her career would be in bleeding, and that’s easy. I told Bone I’d never bled anyone before I met her. The branch in my hand was slick, and Bone said, just do it, lifting her arm to skewer it on the twig-tip. 

Blood ferreted out of the hole in her arm, landing in the browned grass, shimmying away like slugs. I watched the blood evacuate her, worm after worm, and when Bone’s knees began to bend the other way, I held her up in my arms and said stop. Bone said, you’re the one who has to stop it. You have to tie something around it. There was nothing I could make a fist around except sycamore leaves, so I stripped off my shirt and knotted it around her forearm and held her hands palms-up in my lap. How much do you have left, I said, and Bone smiled at me. Her tongue flicking. Enough of me to go home, she said, and stood up. She ran ahead of me again, tugging loose the shirt I’d knotted around her, her blood flapping behind her like streamers. I chased her, grasping the air, trying to gather every stray sash of blood so that I could return it to her. But Bone ran too far ahead of me, and when I reached the apartment building, there were no blood-ropes left to follow. I stood in the dim of the lobby where men were sometimes found dead, looking up at the Buddha etched into the wall. I wondered what Bone kneeled for, if she knew all the lyrics to longing, and then I walked upstairs. At home, my mother was boiling bittermelon, scooping out the glue of its flesh, telling me that all bitter things grow your bones. When she turned on the kitchen sink faucet, the water was unsalted as rain, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t Bone’s blood threading into our pipes. Upstairs, I listened for the sound of Bone, wondering if I should go upstairs and knock, except my mother always said I shouldn’t visit sick people. They’re sick, she said, but I heard it as sacred. That night, I fit my whole finger into the hole in my stomach, the one that Bone had opened in me. The wound loosened like the clasps of a purse, and I looked up at the ceiling and wondered if Bone was listening to me. She told me under the sycamores that she was born hearing the blood in everyone, that she could tell how fast it was shuttling through me and what it would mean. You have fast blood, she told me, it means you can forget some of it at home and survive. It means one day you’ll leave your body for another kind of river. If I were a river, I told Bone, you could be my mouth. My opening. Bone ran laughing, mouth wide and swinging, saying come on, let’s go home, and you can be the one that bleeds me forever, you can own all the water in me, I can lose more than you and still live.    

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. More of her writing can be found at kmingchang.com