You went to see her when your daughters began to wife each other, when they wanted to shear their hair short as a son's and teethe off their fingernails and tongue stone pits from each others' palms. You went to her when your husbands claimed they were leaving, unhinging the front door and surfing it down the street. You went to her when you found a bone buried in your yard, pecked to glass powder by someone else's hen. You went to her when a baby was coming and you needed it to quit. You went to her when you got addicted to lottery numbers and dislodging your own teeth. You went to her when you couldn't dream, not of anything, not even of drowning or oaring back to the island where you were born without ribs, where your lungs were confiscated and dragged around on a leash while your bones grew their birdcage, where your mother was dying, where you remembered Sunday school and the American missionaries who told you not to eat pigblood anymore, because pigs are dirty, though you ingested the blood of Jesus and that was holy, and in the dreams you no longer have, you conflated dirt with divinity and kneeled to accept the pig's bladder into your mouth, the velvet of its skin, prayer-thin, the piss-stream of light spouting from your lips.
Ouyang Ayi spoke less to the living and mostly to the dead. She lived in a corner house, which everyone said was bad luck for women, but because it was Ouyang Ayi, the woman who was rumored to have smothered her infants in an ashtray, who could barter rain for rubies, who kicked an intruder so hard in the crotch that his balls retracted back into his body and never again descended alive, no one spoke of her luck. There were other rumors, that she was descended from a line of shamanesses who knew the way of hollowing a bone and fluting its ghosts, and when she carried her bag from the butcher's, the other women tried to glance inside, to guess from the shape of the bloodstain what animal she had paid to slaughter. When she boarded the bus every morning, on her way to the house where she took care of twins, one blonde and one black-haired, her presence parted the air like a blade. The women of the neighborhood debated if she was a bringer of disaster or fortune — her yard, which was necklaced by a chain-link fence, had the most fertile soil in the city, the kind that was dark and braided like, that fathered bittermelons the size of stomachs, watermelons that had to be harnessed like horses and ridden out of the yard. Because of this, it was decided that Ouyang Ayi was at least partially blessed, despite the fact that she lived in a corner house rocked by rain, the walls thin as eyelid skin, and despite the fact that she eavesdropped and offered unsolicited cures, such as ways to get rid of acne with a fork, or ways to sever a son's feet so that he couldn't leave, or how to domesticate the daylight by collecting it in a bowl by the window and sprinkling it around the house at night to save electricity.
Though it was believed that Ouyang Ayi cured anything, that she could spank the water out of a dead sycamore tree or teach the summer how to snow or boil a stillborn in salted water until it cried its name again, Xiaoming didn't believe Ouyang Ayi was capable of helping her. Xiaoming watered her wants, tended to them, knowing that none of them would ever root inside her. She tried to live like a wasp sting, loving things only on the level of skin. She'd had six wives, each brief, and she remembered only their shadows, the way they were in bed, the last one with a mouthful of piano teeth, played by her tongue. The last wife broke Xiaoming's legs one night, taking a chair to them, one that neither of them had ever sat on because they were afraid of dirtying its satin seat and the scene of peaches embroidered on it. It was the first time Xiaoming had broken a bone, and she was startled by the silence of it, no cartoon sound, no scream synced with her mouth, only the quiet she kept in her kneecaps. The sound her breath made: like a scarf loosened from around a neck, a knot kneaded into meat. What she loved about the last wife was her familiarity, how Xiaoming believed they'd known each other from birth when they first met at the fish butcher's counter: the last wife's shoulders were herded with moles, and Xiaoming loved the way she slammed the fish's head against the counter to stun it before steaming it alive. Xiaoming had wanted to stun herself against the glass counter that same way, speechless as steam.
Xiaoming arrived to Ouyang Ayi's house by bus. She lived a neighborhood away, where the women spoke of Ouyang Ayi as if she were already a ghost, something to appease with sweet things but already without a body, and when she arrived, the door of the house was missing. Instead, there was a mirror socketed in the doorway. Xiaoming could only see herself approaching with legs out of sync, as if they were attached at separate times and never learned to share a body.
Xiaoming knocked on the mirror, her legs bending like fishbone. When Ouyang Ayi knocked opened the mirror-door with her elbow, forcing Xiaoming to side-step, she squinted out at nothing. Xiaoming wondered if it was true that Ouyang Ayi could spit at a man's face and pepper it with holes, allowing anyone to stargaze through his mouth. If it was true Ouyang Ayi could get a rabid dog to knot its own tail around its neck and die before biting anybody. If it was true Ouyang Ayi had once been a mother. In Ouyang Ayi's hand was an ashtray, and Xiaoming remembered the rumor about the babies and the smothering and thought maybe it was possible to kill anything, to yoke your hands around any love.
Ouyang Ayi's mouth was pleated like a dried plum. She asked Xiaoming what she wanted. I'm closed, she said, though she held the door open. Xiaoming entered without being asked and saw that Ouyang Ayi owned six different TV sets, all boxy and broken, and she followed Ayi into the kitchen, where something was boiling on the stove, steam fraying apart like fabric.
I know you, Ouyang Ayi said, and Xiaoming nodded, saying that she used to work on this street with her mother, biking up and down with bamboo cages full of crickets strapped to their handlebars, selling the songs to night. They used to sell bootleg DVDs too, and paperbacks with ink so cheap it smeared away when you flipped the pages, but then the police started chasing them away. Ouyang Ayi shook her head and said women were not meant to wander like that. You will never have sons, she told Xiaoming, sitting down on a wicker chair with newspaper spread open beneath it. Xiaoming asked to sit in the opposite chair, which was saran-wrapped, and Ouyang Ayi said yes, no more wandering. I don't want sons, Xiaoming said, and Ouyang Ayi cocked her head. Xiaoming said she had always imagined her lineage as a wick, simmering out inside her. She remembered the first of her wives, the one with breasts like anthills, crumbling in her palms, teeming with seeds. How her first wife had explained that ants were the only creatures she would ever mother. When she was little, Xiaoming's first wife heard a rumor that inserting the bone of an oxtail inside herself would turn her infertile. It worked? That's how you decided you would never have children? Xiaoming had asked her first wife, but the first wife said no, it was a man that did that. The first wife had laughed, and it reminded her now of the way Ouyang Ayi laughed at nothing.
Ouyang Ayi looked down, and Xiaoming tried to tuck her legs in. But they were still healing and they sometimes bent like bowstrings, twanging when she walked. When her last wife was a little girl, she'd fallen from a neighbor's fence after trying to steal a peach from a tree. Xiaoming had laughed at the story: it reminded her of that myth of the monkey king who stole a peach from the garden of the immortals in order to live for ten thousand years. But the last wife did not laugh. She said instead that she broke both wrists, and because she told no one, they healed incorrectly and had to be re-broken so that they could be set again with twig splints. In bed, she held up her wrists in the dark. Xiaoming circled them with her fingers, trying to understand the shape they had settled into, but the bones were unruly, rolling beneath the skin like beads. Healed now, the last wife said, and it hurt more, the second time. But that's how you grow something straight: you have to break it again the right way. It was what she said to Xiaoming that night they decided to leave each other, after months of lapping at their own lonelinesses. It was what she said when she lifted the chair and hammered its feet into Xiaoming's knees: break it to heal it, break it to heal it.
Ouyang Ayi stood up from her wicker chair and came closer to Xiaoming, squinting at her knees, fuzzed like peaches. She reached a hand out, and Xiaoming flinched away, trying to stand. But her legs soured, picked in their bent position, and she could only hold herself up with her arms. Ah, Ouyang Ayi said, I see what you came for. But Xiaoming said she wasn't sure why she was here, only that she wanted to know if Ouyang Ayi truly lived alone, and if she slept on the floor the way Xiaoming did, and if she ever broke something just to run the vacuum for a few hours, just to make a symphony out of all this silence. Come into my yard, Ouyang Ayi said, and lifted Xiaoming from the chair. I'm strong, she said, despite the tin in my hip.
Kicking down the screen door, Ouyang Ayi carried Xiaoming bridal-style from the kitchen and into the yard. The lawn was brunette, but there were chili bushes bright as confetti and a guava tree that rang like a windchime and six kumquat trees leaned together in one corner, sour siblings. Three hoses coiled together in the sun, rippling like snakes. Xiaoming felt her feet on the ground and realized Ouyang Ayi had set her down. She didn't know how Ouyang Ayi grew anything in a drought, how her guavas grew into the size of infants, and she thought again about the garden of the immortals and how inside each peach was a baby, a belly button, teeth. Each peach required ten thousand years to mature, and Xiaoming wondered how long they would take to digest, how to metabolize what happened. She opened her mouth to explain her legs, her many wives, how she liked to sleep with her back to anything living, a wall, a woman, but Ouyang Ayi was leaning away from her, bent over a trench.
Here, Ouyang Ayi said, I was wondering what I was digging this for. I thought another tree, but now you're here. She gestured down at the soil that sparkled with handfuls of bone-glitter, and Xiaoming realized that Ouyang Ayi was asking her to get inside the mud-trench. Shaking her head, Xiaoming stumbled back. Sighing, Ouyang Ayi nodded at the tangle of hoses and said, I can rope you up and throw you inside, or you can get in the trench on your own. So Xiaoming waded in, the mud mating to her hips. It was waist-deep, wide enough for three women to stand side-by-side, and she shivered as the soil fingered her knees, sliding up the legs of her jeans. Ouyang Ayi looked down at her, nodding, and then began to kick soil into the hole, burying Xiaoming to the waist. Hilted in mud, Xiaoming squirmed and said she didn't understand the point. I'm just getting dirty, she said, waving her arms, flinging off Ouyang Ayi's shadow. Quiet, Ouyang Ayi said, and Xiaoming realized she had nowhere else to go. Her bicycle, strapped with bamboo cages of crickets, was leaned against the wall of her last wife's apartment. It was no use stealing it back when she couldn't pedal her legs, not the way they ached. It reminded her of her first loose tooth when she was a girl: when she couldn't bear its throbbing, she begged her mother to yank it out clean. Her mother knocked her head against the handlebars to coerce it out, a bloodless loss. Xiaoming stared at the tooth, rolled it in her mouth like a sugar cube, the pain she'd asked permission for.
In the mud now, Xiaoming felt her legs loosen, unscrew, then weld themselves to her hips again. The dirt was fertilized with chili seeds, and beneath her knees, she heard earthworms suturing her skin, filling the holes in her bones. Above her, Ouyang Ayi paced her yard, hose flung over her shoulder, fronds of water flinging onto everything. She was humming to the hose, convincing its mouth open, drenching Xiaoming until her hair slid off like paint, running to the gutter. Hold out your arms, Xiaoming said, and she did, dazed, finding that her fists were furred, ripe to be plucked. She stayed that way, arms outstretched, waiting to be pruned by Ouyang Ayi. Her bones crocheted new marrow, legs lengthening and tapering into many. She remembered what her last wife said one night, how Xiaoming would never have the strength to leave. With eyes shut, Xiaoming feasted on dirt with the mouths of her knees, teaching them how to walk beneath the world, to forget themselves into trees.
K-Ming Chang 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.