Our mother called us two sides of the same coin, the moon and the sun, the rabbit and the rat. Anna led you around when you were a baby, she’d tell me, like you were attached to her by an invisible leash. I’d drag myself on my back legs, trying to keep up, until my skin broke, leaving trails of blood on the carpet. When I could walk, I continued to follow Anna until she grew so frustrated, she’d slap the soft fat of my arms and grip the side of my neck, calling me an annoying little rat, a shadow she couldn’t shake. Get your own life, she’d whisper through gritted teeth. You’re sisters, our mother would tell us, fated to get along. But Anna didn’t see the need. Two years older than me, she could blend in with the other white girls at school, while my face gave me away, dissolving me until I was sure I’d become translucent.
Even after our mother’s funeral, Anna still treats me like a baby. She lets me sleep in the twin bed with Aunty, bragging about how she’s fine to sleep alone on the old brown couch. She’d put on a brave, determined face and hadn’t cried at the funeral, hiding her tears somewhere under her starched white dress, a larger version of my dress, the seam falling just below her ankles instead of her knees. I felt whiny standing next to her, blubbering by the casket as they sealed up our mother in a dull, short box. When the box was dropped into the frozen ground, I glanced over and noticed something different. Anna lifted her head from the hole, open, adjusting the lining of the dress. Like she was slowly turning herself inside out.
The apartment creaks, dust collecting on the top of the television, the blinds thick with the grime Aunty can’t reach. Standing over the couch, I brush back Anna’s hair with my sweaty palm. I lean closer, squinting in the dark, but I can’t find where her face begins and her hair ends. Anna isn’t an ox on the zodiac calendar; I double check the description nailed to the wall, scanning the circle of animals caught in lunar time. A gift between sisters. Aunty plucked it from our mother and hung it on an old nail with an amused smile on her face, a piece of tacky decoration that didn’t mean much to her. Was Anna becoming a rabbit, a very hairy, large rabbit? No. I lean in, breathing over her body, staring at the thick copper spirals of hair growing as she sleeps. An ox.
She opens her eyes and begins to rub at her face, but she’s too dazed with sleep to realize. Aunty dresses in her work clothes in the near dark, the pink top with a smiling coffee cup below the collar, humming her usual morning song that rises high, a hmmm that rabbles through the apartment like church bells are trapped just behind her lips. Aunty pauses her humming when she finds Anna on the couch in the morning light.
“My god,” she says, fumbling with her collar, her face contorting. “What’s happened? Aiya. My god. Is this truly our unlucky year?”
She makes wild gestures with her hands like the women in the Chinese soaps, women who put swords to men’s throats and scream. She backs away from Anna, muttering, and then tries to recover, remembering she’s our sole guardian now, our example of motherhood. Unwanted, but hers all the same.
“Stay here, girls,” she says finally as she pulls at the front door, “I have to go to work, I’ll come back, I’ll sort this all out. Be my good little animals. Stay inside.”
She’s never called us animals before, or hers. There is barely enough money to pay for anything, so she must go and take her shift to earn enough for three hungry mouths. She’ll feed us when she returns from the café with bags of day-old egg custard buns and packs of expired lychee puddings, filling us up with watery milk teas made by mistake, labeled with other people’s names. The café workers pity Aunty for her bad juju situation, losing her only sister at the intersection she drives through every day, and inheriting us. She always comes back with the leftovers.
I wait until Aunty’s car flies down the street, past the intersection and the Easy Mart on the corner. I look at Anna more closely. My beautiful sister, our mother’s pretty first-born with a small delicate nose, pin straight brown hair and icy blue eyes, a gift from our wayward father. “The Swede,” Aunty said with scorn at the funeral when he didn’t show up despite our mother’s undying love, waiting for him until right before she was hit. A petite Asian woman, they told us, who kept moving when she wasn’t supposed to, right into oncoming traffic, and then bam, a truck kept driving and she was down.
At night, after her shift cleaning up the stains and marks of other people’s children, our mother used to send handwritten letters to the Swede’s last known address one province over. Detailed letters about Anna’s top marks and success at school, and my blossoming growth despite my shyness, developing into a quietly smart young lady who knows her strong background, a bloodline not to be trifled with. Bored and snooping, I once uncovered a pile of his things in her top drawer. A small knife with a fish carved into the handle, a cheap heart charm with no chain, and a lock of dull blond hair in a plastic bag, not at all our color, but somewhere in us he’s there like a slim bright line running through our veins. I thought about setting the hair on fire in the sink, but in the end, I kept it, marking the plastic bag with the sharp end of my thumb nail.
Whenever he failed to reply to her letters or didn’t send any money, our mother bore down on comforting reasons for his choice.
“He has another family to take care of,” she’d say. “It can’t be easy for him.”
She’d pause, her hand rubbing at the ink stains on the table, her nightly ritual.
“He’s a rooster through and through.”
She’d point to the zodiac tacked to the wall in the kitchen like it meant something, the descriptions of each animal in red and their ideal companions, paired together for all of eternity. The ox, bossy and wild; the rabbit, clumsy and boring; the rat, happiest in the muck. I hardly listened to her when she started to go on like this, though I was often her audience in the empty apartment while Anna was out studying at the library or at the movies with her friends.
Once she told me, You’re fine looking but Anna is who you’d see in a magazine or in an ad for something expensive. She said it like a fact, the same way she spoke about the rules of the zodiac. The emperor threw the party that began all parties, she’d say, her voice carrying over the hard top of the table, and the animals lined up one by one to pass through the heavenly gate. The rat jumped out of the ox’s ear and won first place, changing the order of everything forever. I didn’t buy into her stories about the power of the zodiac, but the fact of my inferiority to Anna was easy to believe, especially coming from our mother. She seemed to see us both so clearly when she wasn’t absorbed by her other love, writing letters that went nowhere, to a no one.
I thought about responding to her letters, pretending to be him. But I didn’t know him at all, what could I even say? Staring at Anna on the couch, I longed for the manic way our mother rubbed at the ink stains on the table, sharing her deepest secrets with a man who never wrote back.
“Little sister,” Anna says. “Come here.”
I creep closer, squinting to see her better in the warm yellow light of the room. Her pin straight hair has turned lush and wildly curled, a layer of stiff fuzz standing up at the ends, like a hairy coat has been draped over her arms and chest. I can still see her icy blue eyes, but her head is covered in bushy brown fuzz, the slant of her nose sloping towards a point, the soft end made sharp with a rubber cap. Her ears have begun to fall wide on either side of her head, and two dark round marks sit above her forehead, for the horns. My beautiful sister, changing into something wild and feral. I feel a surge at the bottom of my stomach, a twinge of horror, and then, washing over my body, a feeling of relief that it had happened to her and not to me. Better an ox than a rat. I force myself to look at her, swallowing to settle my stomach.
“Well? Just tell me.”
“Not so bad,” I manage. “Not so bad.”
“I’m so itchy, I can’t breathe.”
She pulls at the hair on her arms and chest. I’m relieved to see her hands are still hers, slim and fine boned. Not yet changed.
“Why are you making a face like that?”
She bolts into the bathroom, and I hear the light switch flick on, the bulb shaky in the socket. And then her wailing starts, more deeply than I’ve ever heard, a sobbing that makes more sense at a funeral than in the claustrophobic bathroom. Angry, deep screams, her small lips dripping with her own saliva. I bend over her like our mother used to when she didn’t get a perfect score on a test or get chosen first, burying my face in the rough heat of her arms, inhaling the smell of dirt, and underneath, a heady wet scent, something new. When she eventually pulls away from me, she watches her tears absorb against her own body, soaking into her thick, matted hair, evaporating.
“Ha,” she says. “Ha ha.”
She keeps going, throwing her head up and opening her mouth wide, her teeth still small and delicate. Her voice is deep, the sound so infectious I can’t help but join her. I quiet down when I realize I can’t keep up, pressing my shaky fingers against the bathroom floor. She continues wailing and ha ha-ing at her own reflection, and I can tell she’s becoming a different kind of animal, changing again.
“I did this,” she says. She falls against the bathroom door. There’s barely a voice left in her throat. “I made a promise, but it didn’t keep.”
Aunty is the independent sister, prone to disappearing for months somewhere in the city or hopping on a ferry to visit a man she met in a bar. She watches Chinese soaps at night before drifting into a dreamless sleep. No letter writing, no rubbing at ink stains until morning finally shows up. “A typical snake,” our mother would always say. “Shedding her skin and slithering into the riverbank.”
Aunty is also the only drinker in the family and keeps a mini fridge by the television, releasing its cool air after she comes home from the cafe and we dig into the custard buns, arguing over the least stale ones to fill our bellies. I open the mini fridge and hand Anna a cold can, trying to calm her down. Aunty would have a fit when she finds out we broke into her supply, but given the situation, she might forgive us. Anna chugs the entire can in one go, burping, the air thick with her musky smell, bright sun trickling in between the blinds. On the street outside, cars honk at the four-way, and someone swears, glass plinking all over the street. Anna grips the can in her still human hand, her eyes adjusting and readjusting as she thinks about what might happen in moments or hours, her body slowly morphing in front of our very eyes. She shifts around on the floor and her fur makes a harsh, scratching sound.
“Tell me something,” she says, “to distract me.”
I take a quick sip of beer, my mouth turning at the sour taste on my tongue.
“Uh, okay. There were once two sisters who lived in a tower, far from the city. One had very long legs, and one was very short, so short the long-legged sister would have to put her on her shoulders to see out of the one window in the tower. She’d sacrifice her view so her sister could see. One day, the tall sister got so tired of holding the short sister on her shoulders, she thought about tossing her out the window.”
“Aiya, this is not a happy story.”
“Sorry,” I say as Anna pops open another can. “The taller sister thought better of throwing her out the window, realizing she’d miss her sister too much if she ever did such a thing. She went to sleep, and in the morning, she woke up to find her sister gone. Her clothes were on the floor, but she was nowhere to be found. The tower was empty.”
I pause, watching Anna take two long sips of beer, getting more drunk than she ever has in her life.
“The taller sister searched everywhere, calling her sister’s name, hoping to find her before nightfall. But she never found her, and she lived out the rest of her days alone in the tower.”
“That’s it?” Anna nearly spits out the beer in her mouth. “Is that from that book of fairy tales you’re always reading?”
“No. I made that one up.”
Anna’s left ear curves down more than her right, I notice as I stare at her, the skin hard and brown, resembling the rotting flute of a flower, or a shell made of dirt. She flicks the side of her ear with her hand, itching, and then I realize, there will be flies living on her, eating the bugs burrowed in her hair.
“Fine, okay, do you have a story? If you don’t like the ones I tell so much.”
She burps again and reaches for another can, popping it like she’s been drinking all her short life.
“I’m missing an important presentation at school today, little sister. To decide my future.”
A presentation to compete for a top scholarship, to get into a better school in a different part of town, far away from the moaning apartment, beyond the intersection where our mother was hit. Anna licks the can and begins to slide into deep ha ha-ing again. I can’t stand the noise.
“You could do the presentation for me now. I’d love to hear it.”
“No point. Don’t mock me.”
“I’m not, I promise, I want to hear it.”
“No voice,” she says softly, tipping the rest of the can into her mouth.
“Where are your notes? I can do it for you. All that hard work can’t go to waste.”
She motions to her backpack, propped up next to mine, on the floor by the couch. I fish through her well-organized binders and notebooks, her pencil case with SUN on one side in our mother’s handwriting. I watched her write this years ago at the table like a spell, SUN for Anna and MOON for me, linking us together in the most unnecessary way before getting up to ready herself for daylight, tucking her half-written letters next to the switchblade that belonged to the Swede.
I hold up the numbered cue cards and stand in front of Anna, trying to distract her wavering eyes. I roll my shoulders back and begin to read, looking up at her after every few lines to make sure she’s paying attention.
“I, Anna Wong, will become incredibly successful and happy. I’ll get into the best schools in the country, become a top lawyer, and invest in a clean energy car to help the planet.”
She burps, half listening. For a moment, reading her cards, I am Anna, this person who believes in the possibility of these things, full of wanting, and the means to get it done. The sun I’m supposed to follow, the natural order of things. My guiding light.
“You really are beautiful,” she says, interrupting me. She slams her hand down on the floor, knocking over the empty beer cans. “I promise I’m not mocking you, you’re beautiful from the inside out. Looking at you, I can see it now.”
“If this is how I go, become whatever the hell this is, I’m happy I’m here with you.”
“Me too,” I tell her, my stomach churning with a weird sort of pleasure.
Tears spring in the corner of Anna’s eyes and she lifts her hand to rub her face. She pulls it away from her cheek, her mouth dropping open. Her hand is turning into something solid, her fingers curling into a half-moon shape. We both watch as it finishes its work, braiding itself together. She holds it up to confirm. The heavy, round black of a hoof.
I begin to shake, clamping down on my teeth to stop myself from screaming at this new development, this reminder that she might soon be gone completely. Anna looks ready to jump out the window, but she stays frozen on the floor, the energy in her to cry or laugh wiped out, a sort of acceptance and finality emerging behind her eyes.
“I made a promise to give something up, a sacrifice to bring Mama back,” she says. “I guess one half of it came true.”
The zodiac is the rolling order of things, I remember our mother saying, and if you mess with it, it will mess with you. Anna had given up her best thing, her beauty, her future, standing in front of the casket, and the zodiac had responded by making her the wrong animal. But I didn’t even think about offering anything. I could hear our mother’s voice in my head. Aiya, you’ll never be like her.
“My other hand!” Anna exhales deeply, her face becoming less and less recognizable, her hands turned to hooves. I try to hold her again, but she jerks herself away from me, leaving me with a handful of thick, coarse hair.
“Mick Lyn, Easy Mart,” she manages to say as she retreats to the corner of the room. I shake my head at the idea, but she stamps and huffs through her nostrils, her breath clouding the air, hot and wet. She fills the apartment with stubborn, angry sounds until I have no choice but to go, shutting the door behind me in the hopes it might somehow contain her in whatever time we might have left.
Mick Lyn, Easy Mart, has no formal training. He claims his mother was the premier traditional medicine woman in the neighborhood before the shop was bulldozed to make way for the convenience store he works at now. “There used to be jars of old medicine on these shelves,” he’d tell us as he swiped at the coins we left on the counter. “For balance, for alignment, for alchemy! And now, Marlboro Slim Lites and Cool Ranch Dorito chips.”
He has a side business selling remedies to the old aunties in need of a middleman, doling out shrink-wrapped teas and shriveled up animal parts from under the brightly lit counter with obscure instructions, swearing he absorbed the old knowledge from his time spent in the womb. “Some connections,” he’d say, “cannot be severed even in death.”
I do not count myself one of his believers, partly because he always tells Anna and me the candy we buy will turn us into deranged addicts with no teeth, and partly because he tried to date our mother. When she was in a bad place, he recommended medicinal teas the color of mud for her health, and we’d all end up drinking them, the taste bland and offensive. “The man is a rat,” our mother said as she let the teas drip down the drain, “Not necessarily a bad thing, except in his case.” When things with our mother didn’t work out, he went for Aunty, who was too busy slinking away to her next spur-of-the-moment adventure that he eventually declared her an old auntie, not worthy of his personal knowledge of anti-aging remedies to keep the face tight. I wait until the store clears out of customers, hopping from foot to foot by the counter. Sensing my impatience, he takes his time counting the change.
“What you want? More candy to rot your mouth?”
“A remedy, a cure. I need one.”
“No remedy will undo your bad choices, or your addiction to sugar. And you can’t afford my prices anyway. Did he come to collect you? The Swede.”
I shake my head.
“Ah, so now you only have your poor old auntie, and she’ll be off in a second. Your mother on the other hand was quite a woman. Spiritual, blessed with knowledge, taken too soon.”
I dig through my pockets but realize I left the apartment with no money, nothing to offer. I chew on my bottom lip until I taste blood, my knees wobbling when I think of Anna changing, new parts emerging, the terror on her face as she loses all words, all language. Seeing my face, Mick Lyn leans over the counter.
“Don’t worry so much about the Swede. It wasn’t fated to work out between them. Two roosters, all peck, no bite.”
The stubborn, angry sounds of Anna in the apartment, the intense rage in her eyes. I can feel her in the store with us, becoming more animal with every moment that passes. I go over to the door and turn the lock, flipping the sign to BE RIGHT BACK.
“Hey now, what are you doing?”
I lean over the counter on my tip toes and swipe at the collar of his Easy Mart vest to get his full attention. I try to explain as best as I can, describing Anna, a pair of tall unnatural horns growing from the top of her beautiful head. I tell him about her promise at the funeral, a sort of curse, made real by powers beyond the ceiling, beyond our control. I hold up the matted hair in my hand like it’s alive, a part of Anna now.
“Alright, alright,” Mick Lyn says, stuttering. He grabs a plastic bag and gathers up as many shrink-wrapped packets from under the counter as he can fit, throwing his Easy Mart vest on the counter. On the way out of the store, he swipes a jumbo candy bar, my favorite.
“Here,” he says, “on me.”
The apartment is a disaster, the television overturned, the screen smashed in, the couch ripped open, white stuffing floating all over the floor. Aunty stands in the center of the chaos, her arms loaded with plastic bags, her pink uniform rumpled at the collar. She doesn’t turn to look at us when we open the door.
We all stand perfectly still to watch the last of Anna, her lower body turning into the bushy legs and black hooves of an ox. Its head is as big as four hands spread open, with hair so thick and wild only its eyes and the tip of its nose appear from a nest of matted brown spirals. Full size, its hooves pound on the cheap wood floor, sending rumbling vibrations up our spines.
“Why,” Aunty says, holding her face in her hands. “Our unlucky year.”
“You weren’t kidding,” says Mick Lyn. He prods at the trail of dark hair left behind, tracing the half-moons of hoof marks on the floor.
He collects a few strands of hair and goes into the kitchen to find a pot. He throws in the hair and other shriveled up pieces of animal from the bag he brought with him, striking a match. I go into the top drawer and find the dull blond lock, adding it to the pot for burning, releasing the imprint of my nail on the bag. It will take time for the medicine to work, he tells us once the pot has died down to ash. Don’t worry, she will come back.
“No thanks to you, you charlatan,” Aunty said, pointing at the door.
She sweeps up the mess, trying to put the stuffing back into the pillows and gathering up the hair all over the floor, refilling her beer fridge just so she can empty it again. The hoof marks are wide and deep, like the mark of any animal, rat or rabbit, ox or even our mother, balancing on her toes, returning from the afterlife to look for us. That night, I leave the best stale bun on a plate on our doorstep, placing it on the old mat. It sits there for months, while we come in and out of the apartment, until it turns, so changed it’s unrecognizable.
“Aiya, time to give it up,” Aunty says as she settles into the couch.
But it stays for so long we almost forget it’s there, our bodies huddled close together in front of the television, watching with the sound on low so we don’t have to hear the women scream.
Rumpus original art by Peter Witte