My mother blames everything that goes wrong in our lives on the slaughterhouse next door, but I know better. She thinks it’s the violence that comes from the kill, that it leashes itself into our bones and makes us the way we are. She’s wrong. It’s always been festering inside us, a lineage of rot. Besides, we’ll never move. The apartment was dirt cheap on account of the smell in the summer, and we can’t afford anywhere better. We got a good deal, my mother likes to say, because no one likes to be that close to hunger, to see how ugly it truly is.
When I am so small I would believe anything, my sister convinces me that my mother is fattening me up to sell to the butchers.
“You’re lying,” I say.
“Why else would they keep two daughters? In China you wouldn’t have even existed because you’re the second kid.” My sister is four years older than me and the smartest person I know besides our father. In hushed tones, as if she fears that my parents will find out, she tells me about the ways they kill daughters in the mainland. They are long, slow deaths: drowning, starvation, suffocation. “It’s always the mom who does the killing. Punishment, for not having a boy. Maybe we’ll eat the pig that ate you, and that way you’ll, like, always be a part of us,” she says, grinning. “A hong shao rou sounds so good right now, doesn’t it?”
“Stop lying,” I plead. “Mommy and Daddy love us. They would never do that to me.”
But my sister knows she has won. “That’s why Daddy always says that raising a daughter is like watering someone else’s fields.”
She’s speaking in English, but when I look at her, bemused, she repeats the phrase in Chinese, and I hear the echo of this, the same knifepoint of snarl, that lives in my father’s voice.
“It means that you raise a daughter just to give her to another family for marriage. God, don’t you know anything?”
In the end, this is what makes me believe her. When you accept that your parents never wanted you, it is not so great a leap to believe that you’ll be butchered. That being meat is more useful than being a daughter. I picture a field of fat brown pigs, squealing and sweating as pieces of me rain down from the sky. The man who will be my husband waiting to swallow me whole.
For days I refuse to eat, whetting my hunger against my death. Finally, during dinner, my mother throws me onto the dining table and holds me down. It is an ugly, messy affair: my foot lands in my sister’s bowl. My father’s tea bleeds across my pant leg. My mother presses one arm against my chest and forces pickled fish and rice down my throat with the other. I weep, thrashing against her like a pigeon bucking flight.
“It was harmless, really. Girls do this sometimes,” I hear my mother tell my father later. “If we wanted to save more money, we could have let her starve a while longer.”
I am going to Chinese school on Sundays and getting very good at Mandarin. For example: the word “gui” can mean expensive or ghost. I am assigned practice sentences to write. A daughter is expensive. A daughter is a ghost.
Once, when I am in third grade, my mother pulls me out of class in regular school. “We’re going to surprise your dad at work,” she says. I do not yet know that earlier that day she’d been fired for stealing from her job at the Thai restaurant. She’d been ladling the leftover frying oil into plastic takeout bags, taking them home to cook with. The bags, warm and yellow like urine, knocked against her thighs as she walked home.
My father is a teller at the bank in the mall, the translator for all the rich Chinese families that come in. Once, I ask him what a teller is, if he gives people stories to take home. He laughs, the sound of a coin falling flat onto the ground. “What worth are stories, silly girl? I give them money.” I ask him why he doesn’t give our family money; he falls silent.
We pick up my sister along the way and wait in the food court, where my mother says he stops by for lunch. He likes Panda Express.
We wait at a high circular table with thin, spindly chairs, the ones you have to climb into. My sister monitors every other table, glaring at the stragglers. I play with the hem of her skirt until she slaps my hand away. My mother looks down at her lap, fiddling with her fingers with a serrated nervousness, elastic as a tendon.
I am the first one to spot my father as he walks into the food court. “Go hug him!” my mother orders, rocking the back of my chair and tipping me out.
I scamper up to him and drape my small body along his legs. “Daddy, Daddy!”
My sister approaches, more hesitant. My mother follows. “Look, I brought your daughters,” she says in Chinese.
I look up—my arms still wrapped around him, my hands starting to rummage around in his pockets—only to see him frown at my mother. “Who the fuck are you?”
Because it is some other Asian man in a cheap suit, not my father at all. I see it now: the nose flatter, the pockmarked mole missing. Not my father at all. My mother apologizes over and over, translating her mistake in all the languages she knows.
The man grumbles in another Chinese dialect, something none of us understand. As he leaves, shaking his head, I wonder if he’ll tell his wife and kids about this when he returns home.
Minutes later my father comes—my real father—but none of us go up to him. We watch as he approaches one of the storefronts and buys himself a combo meal with fake Chinese chicken. He sits at a table all the way across the food court, so far away that when I squint he looks like a weevil, just a body in a chair with tall legs. My mother, sister, and I all look on as he carefully unsleeves a pair of disposable chopsticks, splintering the wood in two. He takes his time, bringing the chicken to his lips and opening dutifully. At home he shovels it all in, loud the way Chinese people are, not knowing how to close their mouths around the thing they’re swallowing. But here he is slow, unhurried. He looks up from his food before each bite, glancing around, like he knows he is being watched. But he never sees us. He is so small, so American. I cannot bear to look away, afraid that if I do, he’ll disappear. Afraid that he is not my real father after all.
My father always beats my mother with an open palm. The sound moves slowly, muffled in the room I share with my sister. “Listen,” my sister says to me, tears streaking eyeliner down her face. She claps her hands together until there is only this, the sound of the distance between skin closing. “Listen, it’s a party. Everybody’s clapping.” It is the kindest thing she ever does for me.
My sister and I will never talk about these moments, when we are pressed into our beds, clapping into the dark to forget.
My mother gets a job cleaning at the slaughterhouse. She works the night shift, coming home just as my sister and I are leaving for school. I am waiting by the door with my backpack on after her first day. I scream when she comes through the door bloodied, believing my mother has been murdered and her ghost is here to haunt us. I don’t stop until she closes the distance between us and presses her body against mine, ruining the outfit I spent fifteen minutes picking out beforehand. I don’t care. I am so glad she is here.
It is supposed to be temporary but years pass, and I become used to the sight of my mother in the morning, braised in blood. At some point, she begins to steal the butchers’ cleavers. I open a kitchen drawer one day in sixth grade to find it full of knives, the blades catching the brown afternoon light passing through the window. I think of her in the slaughterhouse in the dead of night, surrounded by carcasses, hiding a knife under her clothes, the cool metal pressing against her skin.
There are two patches of grass outside our apartment building that my father turns into his own little garden. My mother hates it, says that the land belongs to the city and we’ll get in trouble if anyone finds out. But she knows that the gardening reminds him of when he worked the fields with my grandfather back in China. I help my father dig, loosen the grass from the earth, and plant chopped leftovers from our meals. Later, when I tell my sister about the project I’m helping him with, she laughs, says: You can’t plant food under the ground and expect it to grow. You’ll only get rot you can’t see.
But my father keeps at it, tending the earth, his hands gentle in a way I thought he’d never been taught. He comes home from long hours at the bank and goes to his little garden. Soon there are large stalks of green: scallions, Thai basil, leaf parsley. With one of the thin blades my mother brings back from the slaughterhouse, he cuts down the stalks in one motion. I will learn later to recognize what he used as a boning knife, useful for the delicate cuts needed to separate meat from intricate bone. I follow him into our home, watches as he places the scallions, still dressed with dirt, down onto the dining table triumphantly. “We’ll be having cong you bing for dinner tonight!” Even my mother is smiling.
When I think of my father now, I see the dying sun flooding around his bent back, his brow labored in a furrow, his hands mouthing at a mound of planted dirt; and I love him so much, love him as a tooth loves rot, gives in to it fully.
In Chinese, the word “gun” means roll, as one might command a dog. But combined with “kai,” or open, it means fuck off, drop dead. Of all the things my father calls my mother, and the ones she calls him back—horse’s ass, dog’s shit, stupid cunt—I hate it most when he tells her to gun kai, because he is giving her permission to leave.
Once, he strikes my mother so hard it knocks out one of her teeth. She spits the tooth out onto our floor, blood spouting from her mouth like the last dregs of a watering can. I launch myself at my father’s legs, begging for him to stop. As he shakes me off, his foot lands into the soft of my belly and I yowl, sobbing even harder. He kicks again. I think of yelling for my sister, who ran to our room the second the screaming started, but I know it won’t help.
My mother has gotten up, walking calmly to the kitchen. She reappears with a meat cleaver, the biggest we have, and begins to chase my father. She runs him out the house as he screams obscenities in Chinese that even I don’t know.
Then she turns to me, raising the cleaver beside her head, two faces of blade. She looks at me as if she doesn’t recognize me at all. This is what it must look like when a ghost possesses you, a rending from everything you know. “Mommy,” I cry, “Mommy, it’s me.”
The knife falls, blade first. It carves into the hardwood floor, a mark we’ll never pay off. Gui.
My sister goes as far away for college as she can. I do not blame her, and I know she will not return. I am fifteen now and realize that I might never leave. I begin to take shifts at the slaughterhouse.
All the years we lived beside it, all the years my mother worked there, and before now I’d never been inside. From the way my mother comes back from work, like some poor white girl at the prom in a horror movie, I’d pictured a place of carnage. But the slaughterhouse is quite clean, orderly. There is the declawing area, the splitting area where the butcher’s saw lives, the cooling chambers. There are lines of animals strung up on hooks, bodies curved like the delicate waists of little girls.
I help the butchers find the tools they need, hold back cuts of meat when they need to get close. Mr. Yang tells me, with my clever hands, I could be a proper butcher’s assistant. Once, he takes me to the killing floor, where the animals are stunned and shackled. He shows me how to stick the pigs, where one precise slice severs a large blood artery and allows the animals to bleed out. I watch as the pigs shudder against their restraints and then go slack. Their entreating eyes turn clear, until they are nothing but carcasses primed for the cutting, so open and forgiving.
Kneeling next to the bathtub, the linoleum floor kissing my bare knees, I wash the blood out of my mother’s hair. Her face is already purpling with hurt. I wonder if I could fling salt at her to cure her. If we aren’t that different from meat after all.
“Do you remember when I used to brush your hair?” She is lying in the bathtub, stooped low so the water from the spout runs over her head.
I don’t, but nod anyways.
“You are so understanding,” my mother murmurs. She pats a sudsy hand on the top of my head. “Not like your sister. Or your wretched father. You’re the only thing I did right.”
I close my eyes and picture pieces of meat raining down from the sky, so familiar and forgiving.
“He wasn’t always like this, you know,” she says after a while. “Back before we had you girls, he was a different man. This country changed him. You changed him.”
As we sit in the silence together, I know we are both replaying the scene: my father cracking her head against the dining table. The awful sound it made. I do not tell her that while she was running the water for the bath, I caught my father in the kitchen trying to cut his own hand off, horrified, finally, by what it was capable of.
Whenever I have a shift at the slaughterhouse, I think of my sister and where she might be. As I’m putting the knives in order, she could be taking a midterm, or laughing with friends in the dining hall. There is a story she used to tell me whenever she was mad and wanted to scare me. It never did manage to, but it goes like this: The girl had been abandoned as a baby. Her mother dropped her into the dumpster behind the building, where all the entrails and the worst parts of an animal, the ones not even a dog would eat, were thrown out. The baby crawled out and found her way into the slaughterhouse, which was blood-warm as a womb and reminded her of her mother. She weaned herself on the blood of pigs.
When the girl was small she’d sleep in the open carcasses that hung from the ceiling, swaddled among soft sinew. She teethed against the lacing of ribs and grew strong swinging from empty meat hook to meat hook like a playground. How I would have loved her, this feral thing.
When things begin disappearing from the house, I know what is happening. My mother has always been good at taking what she is owed. I confront her only when I notice all the toothbrushes are gone.
“Would you really leave without me?”
My mother is silent as she takes me to the room that is now my own and begins to gather my things. An old fear rises in me. What use is raising a daughter? It’s as if you’re watering someone else’s fields.
My Chinese is too good now for some old proverb to scare me. “Ma,” I say, in the language I learned from violence. “I know where we can go.”
Before we leave, though, there is something else we must do. Together we dig the dirt up from my father’s garden plots with our bare hands, unearthing white bulbs of scallions, making sure to leave nothing behind.
There is a story about a mother and daughter who live in a slaughterhouse. They say that if you walk into a slaughterhouse, any slaughterhouse, and go past the machinery, you’ll see flocks of animals being split, their last breaths lancing up their throats. If you go further and enter the cooling chamber, you’ll find two women nestled among the hoisted carcasses. If you’re very quiet, you can stay a while and watch them prepare their next meal. The sharpening of the knives, the salting of the meat. How they will never be hungry again, never let themselves get small enough to be swallowed.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen