Before, I knew only what I must: pre-war, China; post-war, America. I was only nine then, watching you beneath an ancient breed of red lanterns, the grocery aisle awash in a cheap yellow native to San Francisco, a yellow made you look older than a grandmother. There was something different about how the old catch the light. Your skin so clock-worn that the floor was left with only a rumor of shadow. Silver static flying from your scalp. You hunched toward sacks of rice piled like bodies after gunfire, and one had bled forbidden rice, purple as a fresh bruise. We only visited the store at closing hour, when night scrolled across the sky and the shelves ached. I didn’t know this then, but we went late not to avoid the lines but because you could no longer endure torsos so close that ribcages zippered together. Maybe this was an echo of when you had to help fertilize the mass graves, or the desert weeks in the cargo hold between pre-war to post-war, where even air was rationed and the walls were the damp flesh of strangers. A thorned growth of unfamiliar limbs.
Laoye left last April in an oriental urn and you left a widow, posture weathered yet eyes dry as an old tradition. You said you were fine, that death was inevitable, and one day, you would see him again so what’s the use of tears? But I heard it in how your steel bisected the bok choy, each fall a reckoning from an uncivilized deity. In how your paperweight feet made couplets across the living room carpet. Every loquat breath, when you could remember your lungs, ripe for the picking.
Your brows hardened to guard the face: two arrows, notched. “Fleas fell from the sky to kill us, you know dat?” you muttered. This was the first time you mentioned the war to me, only, I thought you spoke of a natural disaster, as if the fleas use their own legs to arrive. As if there be a god, reaching down. I used to think the most painless interval between a heart and the ache was in years-since, but it had been decades and you were still remembering Ningbo, when you were young yet grown enough to fear the island less than a Pacific away. The early shippers and fishers dreaded each morning, as if the first glister on the horizon might not be the sun but Japan, closer.
The kitchen floor gasped at the sudden glass. Soy sauce and new splinters fenced in the unisex slippers on your feet. Your hand, open and tense like a carnivore’s ready maw. Your eyes, two angry wounds, husked my small self to unreliable skeleton waiting to be overthrown by wind. “You bring this Japanese filth into my house.” Smoke peeled off the wok.
Invasion was a long time coming. It began with nori, pages of seaweed left in the grocery’s overlooked bottom ledge. Then the middle shelves heavied with daikon paste. Dried unagi. Yakult. Vessels of soy sauce proclaiming a surname in kanji, and I guess I hadn’t noticed when I seized it. Hadn’t bothered to notice. And maybe you tolerated nori because every coast was edged with seaweed, but soy sauce had been China’s before history had a past to speak of. “Chǐrǔ. Get out.” You threw each syllable like a gut punch.
The sun was in mid-suicide. Back then, I didn’t yet know to be paranoid, wary of everything with teeth. Even if it was only a bottle of soy sauce, and even though when last I brought home a sedge of origami cranes from the craft station, you had used only buttery words to work it from my fists. That was before Laoye died. If I unscrewed lid from urn and sifted his ashes, maybe I’d find you too, the tender scraps too flammable to survive the crematorium. Homewards, I made sure to keep beneath the dogwoods on a lick of hot black concrete. I thought the domed night was just an inverted sieve. I thought each star was flea sized.
When I returned, your knees had rooted in the kitchen tiles, lungs browned with the salt of soy. A white residue clung to your jowls, your hands, the area where the sauce fell. I asked you what it was even though I saw the carton of baking soda on the counter and knew you had tried to absorb the scent. You looked at me with failing eyes. You said, Dui buqi, feathering an apology in your mother tongue, and I told you it’s okay, Waipo. It’s okay. You kept drooling apologies as you served me burnt lo mein, now rubbery and cold. Dui buqi, dui buqi, but you know we do not touch Japanese things, right? Dui buqi, but you know they took my family, right? Your ancestors? Between bites of rubbery and cold noodles, you told me how the fleas carved into Ningbo in jagged shards of English, as if a language still wrong to the lips could keep the plague within 1940.
Autumn underfoot. In the end, Japan comes by sky. The port city is as always, and you are swathing a warm pot of congee in wet qipaos because October is too brittle to air the laundry. At first, it is only a lone gull, vertex puckered toward the horizon, until its sloped wings level into a white-bellied plane. The snarl of the engine dents the coastline. People hurriedly tuck themselves within their homes of tamped mud, and Ningbo hushes in minutes—most stayed within an arm’s length from their doorstep since the war’s conception, pretending safety. The plane hatches a ceramic egg over the city center, which bursts into a dusty cloud of wheat grain and fleas, a flaxen yellow that ghosts over the nearest rooftops. You think it’s poison vapor, and you are half right. Over the next hour, more gulls dip over the city. You aren’t sure exactly how many. You help your mother seal the doorjamb and window cracks with the now damp qipaos as your elder brother forms prayers from a dried mouth, each falling by his feet along with a beetled shell of a sunflower seed. He had been saving those for the new year.
You paused. Your being here stopped. I had never seen you remember so eloquently, and perhaps you now had to figure out which ground was beneath your feet. You didn’t react when I used a wet washcloth to wipe the baking soda off your gray skin, or when I scrubbed the dishes clean, and I saw the inevitable. Days after, your family runs out of water and you have little choice but to quit these four walls, tailing your brother, each gripping twin buckets. Every square inch of your naked skin is spooled with strips of dishrags and cotton cloth to protect you from the elements, as your mother puts it. You do not talk about what the elements are, or how the elements came to be, or that you look like a little soldier boy putting on the uniform and field cap, readying for blood. You are a loyal citizen who believes in the immortality of her country.
You hear it before you see it: staccato clicks tattle on the flea by your brother’s ankle. He grinds a heel into it, but another takes its place. Another leaps over a rivulet. A few more stud the abdomen of a mastiff no longer, and there are more still. With only four feet between the two of you, you can only watch as the grains move through the city like forbidden rice, spilling.
Night fell. I let my eye past the gutted keyhole to your bedroom. Watched you press the urn to your forehead. Your lips peeled back into a pink gash, a soundless wail, as you realize the dead, and I saw the fleas tonguing the bubonic disease into your brother’s veins, then your mother’s. Their hands blacken and die before the rest of them. After the authorities decide fire is the only way to end this battle of the self to protect the rest of the city, they thread ochre ribbons through the windows of your home. A close friend of your brother’s takes you in, the one who convinced him to avoid the conscription. In the week, he drapes beads of jade over your clavicle and pronounces you his. The still-hot ashes of your before have not even settled yet; they stick to your clammy bare thighs, your breasts, as you consummate the marriage, and all the while, you don’t say it, but maybe your brother would have lived longer and nobler had he been on the battlefield. You don’t say it, but you wedded a coward, the same one who forced you to forsake your motherland in her hour of rape.
I gathered you into my arms while you were still solid from living once more. I was crippling under the weight of a post-war because post-war was more than America, more than years-since. It was your waning existence, defined by the briefest war and a coward afraid of so much that he found refuge only in a willing death from the neglected tumor on his jaw. Again, you had to watch a body swallowing itself.
A freckle leapt from your elbow and latched to my forearm. Punctured tendon. Another, this time from the scholar’s arch of your nose. Your swollen knuckle. Your earlobe. The oscillating fan shredded your thoughts into the plain scent of wheat and earth. Tarnish crept over my fingertips. I began to name your every mole, if only to know what to fear and prayed to forget.
Avalon Felice Lee received a nomination for Best Small Fictions 2022. Her words are internationally recognized by Brain Mill Press, Kissing Dynamite, Capsule Stories, The Lumiere Review, and elsewhere. She and her financial parasite, Esky, are on Instagram at @avalonfelicelee.