Isabelle Chin

My mother used to tell me that when I was still in her womb, we shared one heart. Naturally, I loved the idea, beaming as I imagined our single heartbeat furiously pulsing through chambers of her swollen body, making blood vessels and nerves shake with thunder, rumbling echoes on the verge of bursting skin.

That was, of course, before they cut me open and ripped you away, destroying my body forever! she’d add lightly–always with a dry smirk and a smile that never quite reached her eyes.

 

But what happened to our heart? I asked–always with morbid curiosity and awkward guilt. Then eventually sardonic resentment. The answer was different almost every time. Sometimes the heart was split in two, sometimes it dissolved upon touching open air in the operating room, sometimes it was stolen by my son of a bitch dad who displays it proudly in a glass case in the new house he bought with his shiny new wife and their shiny new kids as a reminder that sometimes, the grass is in fact greener on the other side. That last one was always delivered with a distinctly canine smile which filled me with a curious type of glee. I secretly practiced that same smile in mirrors whenever I could, pulling lips tightly over sharp incisors and tilting my head from side to side so they’d glint menacingly in the light. It never looked quite as threatening, but I felt powerful nonetheless.

 

My mother told me that all of the women in our family have disturbingly sharp teeth. When my great aunt was born, she didn’t utter a single gurgle. The doctor, fearing the worst, tickled her tiny baby feet in desperation for any sound. I don’t remember exactly what she did, but they say whatever it was caused a symphony of hysterical screams that shook the halls of the hospital. My great grandma, who had been unconscious from the pain of labor, blinked awake blurrily with a proud smile once she saw the bloody scene her daughter had created mere seconds upon entering the world. In my opinion, that is the natural response to tickling, but it could also be that I come from a matriarchy of beautiful powerful monsters: babies who bite when touched and mothers who smile when their child tastes blood for the first time.

 

My least favorite response was my mother’s most used. Once the doctor began coaxing my mother to squeeze me out, I sensed the impending danger and grabbed our heart, hands locked in a vice around our ferociously beating lifeline. Every time she tried to push, my mother would be filled with white hot searing pain. According to the doctor, my mother refused to take any painkillers, so he had no choice but to slice into her torso and snatch me out–only to find my miniature hands bloodied and gripping my mother’s beating heart.

You have always known how to hurt me, she’d hiss.

She’d use this to explain away the weeks after I was seized from her body when she became a hollow ghost, floating in a haunted daze around the halls of our empty house, materializing only to nurse me.

Even then, I’d give to you, she’d remind me, face shrouded in angelic holiness save for the bitter smile.

 

I knew she’d never say it aloud (actually she did once–it was a bad time for her) but it was clear that the happiest she’d ever been was when I was still in her womb. I didn’t mind it–in fact, sometimes I think I would have been happier as well, with nothing to do but exist safely in an insulated cave while my mother breathed for me, ate for me, drank for me, slept for me, lived for me. I didn’t mind it at all.

 

My mother tied my hair with these red silk ribbons every day. It was the only time she ever touched me. Even when I was an infant, she would only pick me up when she absolutely had no choice. I always waited in anticipation for the second she set the brush down, because I knew her hands would be combing through my hair, gentle and warm and sure. It was during one of these highly anticipated hair styling sessions that my mother asked me to bring some herbal medicine and homemade dumplings to my grandmother, who lived deep in the woods.

 

When I was younger, I developed an obsession with these white floral silk hair clips and the girl from school wearing them. The girl was the thorniest, most captivating person I had ever met in my life up until that point. Doll-like, porcelain features, bright yet narrow eyes. An upturned mischievous mouth and a bony nose. Thin lips. Always pursed or smirking. She was assigned to sit in front of me, so I mostly spent my classes tracing her silvery gossamer hair with my eyes and admiring how neatly the pristine white hair clips would collect the strands. I had to physically restrain myself multiple times by sitting on my hands in an effort not to yank, smell, or bite her pigtails all of which would have definitely landed me in grave social danger.

 

One day, the viciously ethereal girl turned around and surprised me by revealing two extra white floral silk hair clips–identical to hers. I immediately panicked. Maybe I had accidentally been breathing too heavily down the back of her neck or maybe drool got on her moonlit hair or maybe intense eye contact actually could be felt from behind the head. Either way, I grabbed the hair clips and wore them immediately. She observed me curiously with a generously pitiful smile.

 

That afternoon, I raced home to show my mother my new gifts. She hated it, of course. I imagined myself to look absolutely ethereal, like a divine dress up doll handcrafted by God himself and kissed by rays of sun. I was rather disappointed, you can imagine, when my mother saw me and screamed. She paced frantically, talking about how the color white is associated with death in our culture and then attempted to yank the clips out of my hair only to screech when they clattered across the ground and my scalp began to gush blood. I almost laughed, in that moment, just at the sheer absurdity of the situation. The love of my life. A pair of razor sharp hair clips. My mother, wailing, hands stained with my blood. Me, on the precipice of fainting or giggling or both. I chose to giggle.

Even then, I’d give to you, I remembered my mother saying.

But after, And how have you repaid me? I stopped laughing and fainted.

 

My mother threw out those cruel hair clips and surprised me with two new gifts the next day: red silk ribbons. I didn’t talk to her for a week after. I wondered if the ribbons were her form of branding me, a visual contract of everything that I owed her, a neverending accumulation of debt. I knew I was being ungrateful. I didn’t care. She began tying my hair up in these pigtails every day.

And don’t walk off the path in the forest. Come home before sunset. 

I could feel her struggling with a particularly stubborn knot tugging at the ends of my hair.

Why? I asked, feeling silly, brave, and reckless.

She freed the knot, pulling my hair tightly in a bunch with her fingers.

Mei, you need to be home by seven. I am not fooling arou–Ow! 

I made a noise of protest as I felt the right side of my scalp almost being pulled off while my mom tied a ribbon around my hair.

It needs to be tight or you won’t be able to see. It’s not good to be messy, like you are. My scalp stung from where she pulled it. My mother held my hair in one hand and pushed her hand flat against my back with the other.

Sit up tall, you don’t look good like this. You need to have good posture or you’ll end up like me. 

She pointed to her own back which was curved into a hunch. I groaned as my spine curved outwards and I felt the full weight of my back and chest. She picked up another section of hair and began to comb.

“Mom, do you love me?”

Instead, Mom, why don’t you ever hug me? 

The word had almost become a myth in my mind and I thought if I said it out loud with my mouth, it would somehow materialize in hers. I knew I made a mistake when she sighed loudly and quickly tied up the left side of my hair, yanking tightly.

What kind of question is that? You insult me. 

And the moment is over.

 

My mother and I used to fight all the time. Not anymore. It’s just neater that way. We’ve both realized that emotions are actually incredibly easy to deal with if you only really feel two to three every year. But every once in a while I crave it, the violence, the passion, the flying spit, the widened eyes, the clenched fists, the discordant waves of emotions all threatening to explode at once. I remember reading somewhere that when there’s passion you know there’s love.

 

I can only recall three serious instances where my mother and I fought. And only snippets from those instances.

The first,

Child: I HATE YOU! 

Mother: WELL, I HATE YOU TOO! 

And cue the child’s face of *shock*a timeless classic for all families.

The second, fuzzier. Melancholy? No, charged. Tear-stained carpet. Hardened eyes. Desperate eyes. A knife. Do you want me to do it? Because I will, I’ll do it, I swear. Silence. Stone. Glasses. A bowl of cut strawberries the next morning. An apology? A peace offering. And the third, unspoken fight. An immediate surrender. I’ve only seen my mother cry once. It was after she came back from visiting my grandma in the woods.

You don’t know how hard it was to raise you as a single mother. You don’t know what I had to go through. What I gave up for you. 

 

I wanted to scream back, Is that okay, though? Does that mean I deserve this? I didn’t ask to be born. I screamed into my pillow instead. I used to be full of so much rage. Rage that threatened to boil me inside out and rip into everything around me. A rage and anger and sadness and loneliness that collided and squeezed through my throat. I stopped choosing anger a while ago. I learned that compliance worked better. I stuffed away each bitter memory deep inside myself. But there’s something disconcerting about seeing your parent cry. It’s the ultimate trump card. I thought of every time I faced her as a child, tear stained face, wide innocent childlike eyes with a only to be met with stone. I wasn’t like her though. I would never be like her. I would never be her. The next day was as if nothing happened. I played along to save us both from the embarrassment, of course. But I kept her words tucked away deep inside my womb where they would stay forever.

 

The woods were located exactly one neighborhood away from our house. Only the most seasoned of forest-venturing professionals know that the fastest shortcut is if you take the alley behind the abandoned bookstore, shuffle underneath a small bridge, and climb over the abandoned railroad tracks. I, being a forest-venturing professional, found myself in front of the woods in no time, precious cargo in tow, pigtails tight. The sun was strong and bright in the sky. I looked straight ahead into the woods. The branches were so dense I couldn’t see more than a few feet deep into the forest. I heard howling from the strong wind which played with my scarf and swept through my hair, but the trees didn’t even sway an inch. Odd. I shrugged and started walking on the path, a thin miserable thing that was barely trampled. What did my mother say again? Ah yes, Don’t walk off the path. Come home before sunset. Besides the occasional protest from the wind, the crunch of leaves beneath my feet was the only sound echoing through the forest. That and a thin humming sound that didn’t hurt my ears, but was just discernible enough to make them mildly uncomfortable. I clutched my bag, cradling my grandmother’s medicinal brown sludge and dumplings against my chest.

 

The last time I walked through these woods, I was with my mother on the way to my grandmother’s house. My mom walked the same way to my grandmother’s house every time–determined then indifferent, resigned, grim. All sorts of woodland creatures scurried around and birds chirped cheerfully in harmony, warmly ushering us through their home. We found a grasshopper that day which she trapped in an empty plastic container she carried in her purse in case of bug-trapping emergencies, handing it to me as a gift. I was delighted and I recall seeing a little glimpse of a smile tugging at her lips. I remember its spindly legs desperately twitching in the air, jumping as I gawked and poked at it. We had collapsed on the floor laughing together at the pitiful creature. When my mother was in a good mood, the air seemed clearer and my heart always felt so full like it would burst. But while I tried to revel in each shared moment of happiness with her, I felt the lurking sense that I was treading on a thin layer of ice which could crack at any moment by a wrong word, a displeasing movement, an annoying sound. Eventually, my mom had to hurry me along because I was crouched, staring at the ground for hours, determined to add another creature to our collection, or at the very least, delight her with a similar gift. The collection proved to be only a dream when my grandmother gasped in horror upon seeing our newest green discovery. You brought a bug into my house? Are you trying to give me a heart attack? And you let Mei play with that disgusting thing? What kind of a mother are you? What will our family think? I was too busy enjoying warm homemade buns to really notice my grandmother’s tsks of disapproval. Or my mother’s eyes burning into the side of my head.

 

My grandmother loved me, this I knew. She always doted on me, fattening me up with homemade chive pockets plucked fresh from her backyard, caressing my cheek gently with her knobby hands, sneaking me sugar cubes while my mom wasn’t looking, complimenting me on how beautiful or smart or talented I was. I always felt my mother’s eyes watching my grandmother and I carefully, intently, warily. My mother was never the same after we came home. Tense, cold, giving snappy one word responses whenever I tried to talk to her. She would nap for hours. I learned to leave her alone. That was the last time we went to visit my grandmother for a while.

 

The trees leaned in towards me, fanning to form a cocoon in the sky. I shrugged off my jacket, my back slick with sweat from the sweltering sun. I heard rustling from deep within the trees on my left. A pit in my stomach formed, and I began walking faster. Minutes later, I heard the same rustling but closer to the trees near the path. I froze. A small red wolf gingerly stepped out in front of me. We locked eyes–yellow with brown. The wolf stepped back into the underbrush and paused, beckoning me to follow. I swore I almost saw her wink at me. I looked up at the sky. The sun was still shining hot and bright. It seemed like it would never dip lower.

 

I decided to follow the wolf, stepping gingerly off the path and into the dark woods. She led me deeper and deeper, stopping occasionally to check I was still following her, until it felt like we had been walking for hours. Eventually, we reached a small clearing which to my surprise was pregnant with flowers. I barked out a laugh. How sweet. The little wolf laid down to rest in the middle of the flower field. I pressed my face against the tulips, feeling their plasticky fragrant surfaces against my cheek. Rolling over onto my back near where the sleeping wolf lay, I closed my eyes as the soft hum of the forest washed over me. I felt so incredibly safe and warm and soft–like I was home. I played with the grass. At one point, it felt like I was breathing with the grass and the flowers and the trees around me, rising and falling as one organism. I woke up (minutes? hours?) numb with panic, my neck ticking with a swelling urgency. I scrambled to my feet. What time was it? The air was much colder now, tinged with a biting frostiness. The sun was dangerously close to the tip of the trees. I shivered, and scanned the flower field for signs of my new friend, sweeping aside the flowers to find her. I gasped. In the place where the wolf had slept, there was the body of a rabbit that was torn apart, its flesh still dripping and innards spilling out onto the fuzzy grass where I had laid just a moment ago. I felt an unshakeable sense of nausea and walked grimly back towards the path, blinking hard to wash the disturbing image out of my mind. A pang of guilt and unease hit me as I thought of my mother warning me not to go off the path.

 

My grandmother’s house looked exactly as we had left it last–in shambles yet dignified and austere at the same time. Save for the cracked tiles, overgrown ivy, unkempt yard, one could almost see the outline of a rather stately exterior. I knocked once, twice. No answer. When I tried the knob, the door swung right open. It was eerily quiet as I stepped into the living room. The house felt off somehow, like the entire structure found a way to put its collective shoe on the wrong collective foot. Normally, I found my grandmother practicing Chinese calligraphy, doing Tai Chi, gardening. She always believed that a busy life meant a happy life, and not doing anything was a waste of time and a sign of early onset laziness.

 

PoPo? I yelled. Nothing. She was probably resting. As I put the dumplings in the fridge, I frowned, thinking about my grandmother’s rapidly worsening condition. Had it gotten that much worse? Maybe this was why my mother was unable to look me in the eyes when she gave me this mission. Probably overwrought with guilt from making her daughter visit her dying mother because she herself couldn’t be bothered to. I grabbed the thermos full of medicine and walked upstairs to my grandmother’s bedroom. I got the uncanny feeling that something was watching me, but I steeled myself. This was my grandmother, and I was safe. When I got to her room, I saw her wiry frame in her bed, shrouded in dusky darkness. I left the thermos on her nightstand and began tiptoeing out.

Wei Wei. I froze. That was my mom’s name. My grandmother’s voice scratched like gravel. She must have been incredibly sick like my mother said.

Mom isn’t here, she had me bring some medicine and dumplings for you. 

Do you remember the strawberries back in Taiwan? She sounded like a child this time, coaxing, hopeful, innocent. Yes? I offered. Maybe it would be easier to play along with whatever spell my grandmother was going through. I was stunned when my grandmother grasped my hands tenderly between her wrinkled ones and began crying, her sobs raspy and metallic.

I never told you, but they were so sweet, so, so unbelievably sweet. 

She stroked my cheek and held my eyes for a moment. They seemed so clear and confident, I wondered if perhaps she was joking. I closed my eyes and leaned my face into her weather hand, imagining it as my mother’s. Then, her eyes focused on my curved back.

Stand up straight, how many times do I have to tell you not to slouch? 

When I looked back at her she was already fast asleep. I noticed a bowl of sliced strawberries on the table on my way out. I decided to pack them in the emergency plastic container I always brought with me in case of bug trapping emergencies. My mother loved strawberries. When I swung open the front door, I felt the pit of dread in my stomach open again. It was too late. The sun had already set.

 

In the pitch black, the path was blurry and the streetlamp lit at the end of the street flickered menacingly. I quickened my pace, ignoring the chill that was running its fingers up my back, afraid if I acknowledged it that I’d have to start running. And everyone knows that the second you start running it’s over. The crunching of my feet on the gravel echoed through the forest, and I almost screamed out of frustration. It was too silent, why was it so silent?! I felt something touch my leg and I couldn’t help it–I bolted. I wasn’t even sure I was on the path but everything in my body screamed for me to move–didn’t matter what direction, just away from whatever it was that grabbed my leg. I squeezed my shut as I ran through the forest, feeling the wind whip past my face. I saw flashes of the wolf’s sweet and playful gaze morphing into haunting yellow eyes I didn’t notice before and urged my legs to move faster, faster. Then, they began howling. As I finally broke free through the forest back to my neighborhood, I slowed to a jog, only catching my breath once I began to see my familiar house come into view. The lights were on, and my heart almost stopped in fear. With experienced movements, I closed the front door behind me gingerly and carefully placed the fruit in the fridge without making a sound. Mom? I’m back. PoPo left something for you to eat. No response. I grimaced. She was probably either furious or in one of her obscenely long post-grandmother naps. I prayed it was the latter. Hopefully, she would be distracted or tired enough not to notice that the sun had already set for hours. I felt brambles in my hair from where I laid in the grass and tried to disentangle them, feeling smooth loose hair. My heart thudded. I felt my neck break out immediately in a cold sweat and my hands began to shake as I felt around my head. I had lost the red ribbons.

 

In these situations, it was almost always the best option to come clean right away. I spent most of my childhood lying, hiding things, stuffing them in dark corners only to realize the impending punishment was always worse the longer you waited. I forced my legs to walk straight to my mother’s room.

 

When I entered, my mother’s bedroom smelled like evergreen and damp fur. I saw her sleeping figure on the bed, smothered in a mountain of blankets, illuminated only by the moon peeking through the window. Obscenely long post-grandmother nap it was.

Mother? No response.

The air felt thick with something I had never encountered before but felt familiar somehow. Whatever it was filled me with a fundamental visceral sense of unease.

I crept towards her bed, moving to tap her but I hesitated, choosing to hang back instead. I crouched on my knees and watched her lie there for a moment, observing the steady rise and fall of her chest, and remembered days as a young child, when I would watch her breathing to ensure she was still alive, desperately and frantically shaking her awake whenever she went still for too long.

Mei, come here. 

Did she already see my hair, loose and wild and ribbonless? I frowned trying to recall if she woke up with a cold today as her voice sounded deep and gruff like gravel.

I remembered days from when I was a toddler, when my mother would help me get dressed. Before my baby whale socks got on my feet, she would put one on her hand to make a sock puppet.. Hi baby whale, this is Mommy whale. Hi Mommy whale! I’d reply gleefully with my matching sock puppet. I remember laughing so hard I got the hiccups. I inched toward her bed.

Closer, Mei. 

The stench of the earthy outside was amplified until it was unbearable, filling my lungs until they were suffocating with lush forest and a metallic taste.

Promise you won’t get mad but— 

–I need you to come closer, I can’t hear you, she growled.

I approached her headboard and leaned down, until I was a breath away from her face. An odor like a rotting carcass greeted me. I remember when she used to smile at me without the green glint in her eyes. When we used to sleep in the same bed, I felt safe and warm and comforted. When it was just us. When it was just her. I saw her jet black hair which was now graying and so coarse it almost resembled fur. I was filled with guilt, fear, sadness. I tapped her gently again, and she began to turn towards me. I panicked.

Mom, I think Grandma wants you to know that she’s sorry and she loves you. 

Old habits die hard. It turns out I didn’t even gasp, just blinked dully as I came face to face with her massive snout. Her yellow canine eyes held mine in a tender moment.

 

I searched frantically for her sun spots which looked like freckles, her feathery brows, her distinctly rectangular shaped almond fingers, only to be met with pure materialized terror, the type of thing that lingered in childrens’ nightmares. I wasn’t surprised–I supposed I had always known. But I just wanted my mom. I desperately wished for one last glimpse of her straight lightly yellowed veneers and the mole above her lip. To smell the countless anti-aging products slathered fresh on her skin. To hear her voice. To hold her hands. I felt something within me break, and scalding tears began streaming down my face.

What’s wrong, Mei? Come and give your mother a hug. 

 

Her long claws stretched out towards me, and I recoiled violently. I looked away to avoid the searing look of betrayal I knew was probably splayed across her canine face.

I’m sorry, I lied. I lost the red ribbons you gave me. 

 

She froze. I felt swollen with pain and tenderness and pity. The urge to hurt her as badly as she had hurt me all of these years dissipated. The tumultuous anger that seeped into my skin had vanished. I felt that familiar twinge within myself to press my face against hers, to have her fold me into her until I couldn’t escape, to stick myself to her like a parasite, to hug her. To be hurt by her. I just wanted my mom.

 

A beat of silence. Then, like a rusty water pipe finally bursting,

Why do you always hurt me? She wailed.

I went to my mother, crying like a heartbeat pulsing, mama, mama, mama, mama.

And she answered, unhinging her massive jaw as rows and rows of enormous teeth crowned my scalp, dripping with her saliva, until she was wrapping her mouth around me, engulfing me deep in a thick mucous liquid until I was drowning and gasping for air while it poured into my lungs, squeezing tighter and tighter and tighter, until I thought, this is love, until the pressure became too much for my skeleton and I burst, meshing glorious with gruesome in a coiling shapeshifting collage of red hot, an explosion of blood and tissue and flesh as we finally became one again.

The first and last thing I ever felt was warmth.


Isabelle Chin is a junior studying violin and communication studies. In her free time, she enjoys yelp reviewing, listening to music, and being unhinged.