B Y N A N C Y A U
H E R M E N E U T I C C H A O S J O U R N A L
Nancy Au’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Beloit Fiction Journal, Hermeneutic Chaos Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Word Riot, Liminal Stories, Foglifter, Forge Literary Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, Flapperhouse, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Identity Theory, Prick of the Spindle, among others. She was awarded the Spring Creek Project collaborative residency (Oregon State University), which is dedicated to artists and writers inspired by nature and science. She has an MFA from San Francisco State University where she taught creative writing. She teaches creative and science writing at California State University Stanislaus, and is co-founder of The Escapery. Two journals nominated her flash fiction for The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology.
Elder Sister had a smooth river rock forehead, perfectly rounded and sleek. She had pointed ears like a fox. The women in our mountain village were skilled seamstresses and made their own clothes, but Elder Sister outshone them all. Her black robes were adorned with the brightest reds and greens; from small tin squares she cut strips like tendrils, then embroidered her favorite spirits, the fox and beetle, into thick, wooly fabric with the silvery thread. We were not wealthy, but she wore silver necklaces even when it was not Spring Festival. She told me that as the Elder Daughter of the village priest, she must maintain face, to show the villagers how Father had raised a dignified family outside of the temple. Mother and Father barely looked at me when she and I were in the same room. You could not blame them. Elder Sister shone so brightly.
I was always an avid storyteller, but I was especially dedicated in those winter months during Elder Sister’s fever. My stories filled her dreams with color and animals and magic. Bright orange tigers bounded in and out of the jungles of her mind, and hoary goats bounded up the tallest peaks so that their heads jutted through the clouds. The dreams stirred her; she giggled, her teeth chattered, and she cursed foully. Mother clucked her tongue, displeased at the dirty language, and I marveled at how much she sounded like a woodpecker. She even looked like one when her ashy hair was wound into a tight bun, and when her beady eyes darted around Elder Sister’s room, looking for secret places where the illness might hide. Her eyes were eagle sharp; they glowed yellow, reflecting the dim bedside candle which she kept burning day and night. Mother’s anxious bird sounds, the perpetual darkness, and the cursing all intensified as Elder Sister’s fever burned.
Kneeling at the edge of Elder Sister’s bed, I noted how her throat burbled like a dying fish while she slept. I whispered into her ear, I need you. Please listen to my story. I held her hand, but her frozen fingers rested limply in mine. I thought of the nights she played guitar, lively music to accompany my stories. I thought of the strummed beat in the air, of her strong hands on those strings, how her sounds deepened my imagination. I thought of my fictional heroines finding triumph over the ogres, the ruin, blood and madness that they battled. I exercised Elder Sister’s fingers, slowly flexed each one, tried to warm them in my own. I watched for her expression to change, but there was no struggle in her face, no war or campaign.
Mother returned with a pot of steaming tea, placed it on the bedside table, and tiredly sat down beside me. I studied her lips, her cheeks, thought of how they were once so full of warmth and red. The best of our vegetables and dried meats went into medicinal soups for Elder Sister. My stomach, empty and twisted, grumbled and complained. Before Elder Sister’s illness, I’d told her stories of eating large red apples, breaking their skin with my teeth, letting the juice run down my chin. In my stories, our family grew fat on flour-battered fried fish, succulent roasted pigs dripping in oil, egg custard tarts with sunny yellow centers and golden crusts.
A feast, she would always say. More than we could ever need.
In my hungriest hours, I resented Elder Sister. I thought of how she must have savored my stories, stockpiled her imagination with dreams of our family’s food. I wondered how many more months our family could survive with our meager pantry and our waning imaginations.
Mother tried to wrap her sweater tighter around her shoulders. Our elbows knocked. “You take up too much space.”
“No I don’t.”
Mother’s eyes rested tiredly on Elder Sister’s warm cotton quilt; the fabric was hand-rubbed, soft, dyed in indigo, deep blue like water. Elder Sister’s arms were sleeved in heavily wrinkled brown cotton, like the bark of a tree. When I blurred my eyes, it looked as if Mother was patting her branches.
“Let me stay.”
Mother sighed heavily--her breath smelled of ashes—then shooed me from the room.
Fumbling around the pitch-black house, I was left to wander in a cold river, alone. I felt a heavy pull on my limbs, rocks filled my stomach, and ice pierced my skin. To keep myself company, I cursed aloud at Mother, the dark, the cold—at all the wickedness that kept me from Elder Sister.
I lay awake; two silver foxes nudged me with their cold, wet noses. Elder Sister is like a snowy carp, wandering in dark, icy waters, they whispered, their icy breath ghosting my ear.
I nodded, admired their slicked fur, red and silver in the moonlight, and smooth as hardened mud on the banks of the river.
Without sunlight, your sister is adrift in colorless dreams, said the silver foxes.
How do I find a way into her dreams? Tremble the waters?
The foxes shook out their fur, and stretched; chin up, rear legs stretched backwards, their claws scraping the stone floor. They sighed contentedly, then replied, You must warm her.
I am good at this game. I offered a dried lotus root. The foxes nibbled the delicate plant, smacked their lips, blinked sleepily.
Fire-eating beetles will help you if you feed them. Their blazing tongues can push the sun into the sky and morning will come. They twitched their pointed ears; moonlight glinted off their sharp, black eyes. Without Elder Sister, you will have no stories to tell. No one to listen.
I’m very good at being afraid…If Elder Sister dies... My breath caught. The foxes began to crumble, the spirit mud long since dried. I imagined scooping the foxes up, placing them into one of Mother’s large cooking pots, filling the pot with steaming hot water until the mud softened, cracked. I wondered what the foxes would look like, unshelled. Would their spirits be the same size and weight of a fox, alive, trembling? Or would it be more like the small robin that I’d found last winter, frozen, inert, fallen out of a tree, empty of breath and chirp and life?
It is easier to be afraid, easier not to be heard, or take up space, I said.
Is that how you want to be? To eat in little hard bites, to carry a letter instead of mail it? they asked with their fading breath.
I thought about the foxes’ question. It was not charity, or scorn. It was hunger. It was eating fistfuls of warm, steaming rice. It was a potato sending out new roots even after its been ripped from the earth, after you’d swallowed it whole. It was eating a lemon whole, biting into its skin, admiring your teethmarks in the yellow flesh while you’re chewing and licking the sour.
Father kept a special room for his sacred papers and cloth scrolls—a room that I was forbidden from entering. While the house slumbered, I found the papers and drew over the sacred symbols with my charcoal stick. I drew Elder Sister’s silk dress, made heavy with her embroidery of foxes and beetles—luminous silver chains wound tight around her neck. I drew Father in his priest robes and riding atop a demon dog, and Mother wearing a goat head and swimming in clouds. In my pictures, I rode with Father as we hunted for my goat mother. Elder Sister’s decolletage lit the way.
Father left the house before sunrise to comfort a family whose baby had not survived the same sickness that plagued Elder Sister. He asked me to come along even though he knew that I never touched the dead.
As soon as he left, the silver foxes nipped at my legs. It was time. Now. Hurry, they said. I bounded out of the house with my drawings and Father’s sacred cloth scrolls stuffed inside of my robes. My eyes glimpsed left then right because I was fearful that, at any time, Father might pop out from behind the fragrant cinnamon trees surrounding our house and stop me. I cut into the cinnamon forest, scuttling in a low, crouching squat in the direction of the temple. Would Elder Sister laugh if she saw how I teetered like an unstable shore crab? I headed north toward the river and prayed that in crossing the bridge, which was brightly lit by the full open moon, I would not be caught.
I carefully counted my steps as I picked my way up the temple’s stone pathway. Once inside, I placed my heavy bundle at the feet of the wooden statue of a cloaked woman cradling an egret, Father’s favorite goddess. I jammed a burning incense stick into the center of my holy paper shrine, fell to my knees and prayed that the silver foxes were right and that fire-eating beetles would bring the sun.
The fire started slowly and I watched it from up close. When the fire-eating beetles appeared at last, smoke poured from their tiny nostrils as they danced in the scented flames. I got up and threw my arms wide, twirled and stomped my feet with abandonment. Soon the floor began to vibrate, the walls shook as if made of twigs, and smoke pushed out all the air. Jagged flames leapt up towards the temple spire, and the goddess crumpled to her knees; her necklace of fire shone even more brightly than Elder Sister’s silver chains. I stayed until the fire’s roar became too much and the great noise pushed me outside.
When the villagers came with their buckets of water from the nearby creek, they did not see me crouched in the shadow of a nearby tree because I was blackened with soot. Father, fully dressed in his priest robes, was the first of my family to arrive. From my hiding place, I watched him start towards the line of villagers who were passing buckets back and forth, when he stopped abruptly mid stride. I wondered if he had, for one guilty moment, considered how he could fight the fire without ruining his elegant robes.
Mother and Elder Sister arrived soon after, moving slowly up the path. Elder Sister’s forehead glistened with a pale sweat, and she stepped carefully as if she did not trust her legs to keep her up. I felt powerful seeing her there. I watched the field of shimmering faces. I watched Mother’s face, her eyes bright, mouth open. And I watched Father, unable to bear the weight of his grief, cradle his face in his soot-black hands. It was I who had fed the fire-eating beetles, I made morning come, and it was I who stirred Elder Sister from her colorless dreams. She leaned on Mother for support, and I wondered if she knew what I had done for her. I wondered if she had looked over at my empty bed when Mother shook her awake, whether she worried because I was not there. I wondered if Mother remembered me at all.
When the fire-eating beetles had tired of feeding, they hurled the sun into the sky where it perched unsteadily atop Mount Luohan, burning, burning. I lost my hiding place in the shadows. But when the winter frost met the sun and the fire’s heat, a rancid fog grew and I was hidden once more. Villagers, one by one, dropped out of the fight to save our temple, no longer able to work in the stifling haze. I trembled with excitement as I waited impatiently for the fog to clear so that my weary audience would turn their attention to me.
Father, Mother, and Elder Sister had not moved since they arrived. But when one elderly villager stumbled in front of them and splashed water all over, Mother helped the injured woman up, set her safely beside a tree, then took up the bucket and returned to the creek to retrieve more water. Father looked like he would be sick as he watched his wife struggle alone with the heavy bucket of water, her legs coated in mud. He tried to brush the mud splatters and soot from his robes, but even from where I stood, I could see that the fabric was hopelessly stained. With a deep breath, he stripped down to his linen pants and undershirt, waded into the water up to his waist. The villagers, heartbroken to see their spiritual leader struggling to fill buckets alone, reformed their bucket brigade and worked diligently alongside Father and Mother to douse the fire. Elder Sister stood perfectly still. Her haunted gaze looked as if she believed she had not woken up and was inside of a nightmare. She began shivering, though she stood just feet from the flames.
The silver foxes nudged me forward. I walked out from the shelter of the cinnamon tree and, for the first time since the fire started, stood straight. I lifted my arms to the heavens and in my powerful storyteller voice, praised the silver foxes and fire-eating beetles.
“Thank you,” I said. “You helped me bring the sun and now I have healed my sister.”
The villagers circled around me and some dropped to their knees to weep at my words. Their sorrow pounded the hardening mud, fist over fist, more bitter than the smoke. A breeze blew the acrid haze across the wet field; my eyes and nose stung. I turned and looked expectantly at my family. Look at me, I begged silently. I wanted them to see how powerful I had become. Please, please look at me. But they remained motionless, their faces contorted in shame, as they watched the burning temple.
I walked over and clutched Elder Sister’s trembling hand. I looked up at her, pleadingly. At first she did nothing, and we stood in stillness, watching the smoldering embers of the temple, of Father’s goddess, of our village’s most sacred space. But after a while, she squeezed my hand with hers, and I felt my heart squeeze. The curved stone path that had led me to the temple’s entrance was also destroyed; small rock islands jutted out of a river of ash. The cloaked goddess was nothing more than a blackened stump of charcoal that ended right at our ankles. My drawings, of course, had been devoured by the voracious beetle spirits, and I knew that I would never find them. The temple’s carved wooden spire, which once reached as high as the treetops, was gone. I looked up at the blue-black open wound in the sky where it used to be and realized that I could not remember exactly what it looked like. I could not remember what animal spirits our ancestors had carved into the wood; whether they had included the fox spirit or fire-eating beetles. I closed my eyes and saw my sister’s face, and for the first time, how the cool darkness of her colorless dreams must have comforted her when her fever burned bitterly. I saw the tender flicker of Mother’s candles, how they must have drawn away the heated power of Elder Sister’s sickness. And I saw my father again, in his splendid robes, a bright balm for the stormy grief of the parents of the dead child, and I felt my own grief rise.
Elder Sister leaned into my ear and spoke in a hoarse whisper, her throat constricted by the acrid smoke; I could not hear what she said, but I imagined her saying, I can hear you, Little Sister. I hear your struggle. My eyes blurred, and I closed them so that I could not see how the villagers looked at me—I could not see how Father and Mother would not.
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