What Mrs. Ngai taught us about the drought: it has dried our hides for many lifetimes and will last long after we’re fodder for flies. In the meantime, don’t flush the toilet until it’s thick with shit, at least as thick as birthday cake batter, and don’t take showers more than five minutes long. Don’t water your lawns, though none of us had lawns, only chain-link fences that crows flew into, shredding themselves into fog. We only saw the lawns in commercials and on TV shows where it was always raining. A sound like dropped spoons, like growing feathers. When we first saw rain on a television show about a blonde family, we asked our mothers if someone had slit the belly of the sky, if this was bloodletting. That’s rain, they said, having been born on islands where women carried rain around like screwdrivers, where the rain was made of extinct species: one time it rained birds with wings on their feet and feathered lizards with four-tined tongues and fish with human eyes.
Mrs. Ngai handed out a water-preservation chart. Every time we flushed the toilet we were to color in the Clip-art of a toilet. Same if we ran the sink while brushing our teeth or turned on sprinklers or took a shower. The less you use, the more we’ll last, she said, and we didn’t tell her that sometimes we couldn’t afford water, state-declared drought or not, and so we learned to borrow from each other, lugging pots and buckets and woks full of water back and forth between each other’s houses. Sometimes the sun raised the price of light and we loaned our daylight from other cities, tallied the days we’d have to give back, but at least we had nights, at least the dark was free and we could eat as much of it as we wanted, mouthfuls of nightgristle, and one year MiMi spooned into the sky too deep and hit bone and that’s how the moon was exposed. Our mothers cut the water-preservation chart into toilet paper squares.
What our mothers taught us about the drought: it was caused by Nuba the drought goddess, the daughter of the Yellow Emperor. She gouged out her eyes and resewed them to the top of her head and ran naked across the land, screaming, and that’s what causes California to shrivel like a salt-laced snail and that’s how the sea became desert. Nuba’s scream evaporates everything, even bodies, and with her eyes sewn to the top of her head, she evil-eyes the sky and scares it dry. If the sky’s so scared, why doesn’t it wet itself, we ask, our mouths blurred with thirst, but our mothers never answered. At school, we told Mrs. Ngai: we can’t end the drought with chart papers and conversation – conservation, she corrected – but we can end it by hunting Nuba and gouging out her eyes, for real this time. We could behead her with our watermelon machetes. With the samurai sword – real, with a rind of rust that could be blood – that our cousins found underneath their floorboards in Yilan. We would bring Mrs. Ngai her eyes like uprooted orchid bulbs. With all the water we’d free, we could grow her a garden, we could raise a lawn on the blacktop, we could feast our feet on puddles, which we imagined were silver as mirrors when you stepped on them.
Mrs. Ngai was disturbed by our plan to redistribute the sky. We said it was unfair for it to be wet in some places and sandpaper in others. The tops of our heads were chafed bald by the friction of clouds balled like steel wool. But she ignored us and printed us new charts, and this time our mothers used them to wipe dust off our windows we shut like fists.
There was a girl named Sylvia Li that we all called Saliva Li, because her mouth was always lassoing its spit around without any aim, looping around our wrists and necks, slapping us in the face. We tried duct-taping her mouth closed, tucking her braids under her tongue, stitching her shut with needled tanbark, but Saliva Li was slimy as an eel and shuttled out of our grip, slobbering onto the blacktop. It was Saliva who said we should hunt Nuba on our own, that if we pierced enough holes into the sky it would spatter at least something like Kool-Aid, the blue kind sipped by children in commercials who toss around inside swimming pools. Saliva Li once claimed to have a swimming pool, but when we went to her house and she pointed into the backyard, there was only an unspooled roll of tinfoil taped to the concrete, and Saliva and her six siblings lay on their bellies and pretended to paddle across it. Pathetic, we said to each other, that Saliva pretended tinfoil into a swimming pool. If you can see your face in it, it’s water, Saliva said, and for a second it looked maybe-fun, lying belly-down on the tinfoil, sliding across it, the sun nicking our chins. But we laughed and ran away, laughed at how her windows were so small a mosquito had to squeeze through them, laughed at the corner of the door where her mother got angry and kicked a hole through.
We hunted. Saliva said we would search the streets for a woman with eyes on top of her heads. She would be wearing sunglasses as a decoy, but when we finally found her, when we flicked the glasses off her face, her sockets would be blank and then we’d know, we’d snatch off her wig, and on top of her scalp would be her eyes resewn, one skewed to the left and the other to the right. We hunted in pairs: one girl to swipe the sunglasses off Nuba’s face, one girl to muffle Nuba’s mouth and prevent her from evaporating us with her scream.
I was paired with Saliva Li. I know the other girls paired me with Saliva because I used to eat the ants that crowned the redwood tree. The girls used to gather around me and dare me to eat the queen, the one with wings, but all we could find were the soldier ants, fat and bruised as my pinky-tip. I knew I wasn’t the only one: our mothers taught us to eat most insect species, grasshoppers and ants especially, because insects were the best at surviving. When the world wrinkles into a fist because of this drought, insects will be the last things alive on this land, and so will you. So we learned to nibble off wings, spit stingers, but I was the only one who ever ate the ants in public. They paired us together, me and Saliva, though I thought it was unfair: Saliva Li flung her lips at every word, misting us when she spoke, teaching us to lean. At least I learned how to speak like snow. How to dissolve every word on my tongue before saying it. Saliva spoke like a category-four hurricane.
Saliva had a secret boyfriend. I saw him once coming out of her house, a boy wearing a belt, the buckle big as my fist, and I thought: what kind of boy wears a belt like that unless he’s looking to bind something. His waist caved like a vase. Only later we discovered it was a secret girlfriend, not a boy at all, and one of us, we don’t say who, wrote on her desk: YOU ARE DAMMED. Damned, I said, there’s a silent n. It’s just not spoken. Not dammed. That’s what you do with a flood. But no one ever erased it, not even Saliva who sat there, deepening each letter with the dagger of her thumbnail.
We walked down the street together, though I walked ahead of her so that everyone would know I wasn’t following her. And Saliva didn’t talk to me, just showed me the knife she brought with her, a cleaver, her mother’s, broad as our faces: she held it ahead of us like a mirror, but I didn’t like to see my face next to hers, reflected symmetrically. I sped up, but she did too, and then we were shoulder to shoulder, waiting for women to emerge from the Ranch 99: watch for the ones wearing sunglasses and sun-visors, full face, though we soon realized this was all the women. We scattered across the parking lot and toward the sliding doors, flipping up visors and batting sunglasses off the faces of our mothers, looking for the source of our thirst, the scraped-clean sockets. But all of the faces were occupied with eyes, and finally the security guard chased us from the lot with his Taser humming in his hand, and Saliva was running ahead of me, mouth cranked open, spit necklacing around me. Spit thick as reins against the side of my neck.
Shut your mouth, you dyke, I said, leaping on top of her, frying her face against the pavement: stop getting all over me. Beneath me, Saliva pinched me in the ribs until I flinched, then rolled over onto her back. I saddled her belly, bounced on top of her. After that time she invited us to a pool party and revealed a sheet of tinfoil, I stayed behind. I showed her the way I ate ants, licking my fingers and stroking the seam on the tree so that many ants stuck to my skin at once. She demonstrated with me, licking her fingers and then mine, spitting out my name as if sending it into orbit, and I thought: this is rain, this is rain, her mouth churning words into water.
Shut up, I said again. On the sidewalk, on top of her, she opened her mouth so wide I could see what she’d swallowed, a sandwich full of safety pins, metallic rain. So wide I thought I could kneel inside her. Then she screamed, a sound that curdled the clouds into cheese, that grated the roofs like callouses, a scream that evaporates seas, lifts water by its skin, slaps the sky so silly it forgets rain for a century. I hackle-rise into the sky, pried off her body, summoned to return again as rain.
Your name is Tiffany, like the jewelry company. Like the color blue, that color like a cartoon sky or a sucked-hollow bone, like the blue that shawls sour milk, like silk, the blanket your mother bought you on a business trip to Shanghai, real silk, embroidered with rabbits on the moon. The first night you spend with it, you wet your bed and your mother says that’s real silk and real silk never dries when wet, but she still lets you sleep next to her after you sling off your underwear and wear your bathtowel like a skirt, she still tries to launder silk with a snot-like substance your brother claims is horse brains. Tiffany, like the name, the name every Chinese girl knows as her own. You want to be the story of a color. The protagonist of the sky. You want to live inside a rabbit. You remember a story your brother once said to scare you, about a man who cannibalizes his own son: the meat morphed into rabbits inside his mouth and he spit out a litter of them. You like rabbits, but only the ones embroidered on blankets, the ones that live on the moon and never wet the silklight they’re stitched to. Your brother is always trying to scare you by saying that girls named Tiffany all disappear. To where, you ask, and he says that they turn into rabbits, rabbits without their skin, rabbits born from the mouth of a man. You don’t sleep with that silk blanket anymore, sheened with your pee and reminding you of rabbits writhing alive like severed hands. Give me an example of a Tiffany who disappeared, you ask your brother, and he says: every rabbit still living. He hunts them in the backyard, skins them, leaves the organs at your bedroom door like living jewels, floundering in the light. At night you tie twine around your wrist, pretend it’s a Tiffany bracelet. You bruise your earlobes between thumb and forefinger, dreaming of Tiffany bean earrings, silver, except you have no holes there, so you dream of a girl to gut you. She arrives one day with the head of a horse, her teeth broad as cleavers, and when she skewers through your earlobes with safety pins, you stay silent. You hide the blood in your mouth. It is dawn when you talk. Are you a Tiffany too, you ask, but she is the head of a horse and can only snort. You stroke her nose with the back of your hand, ask to ride her away. Prying open her mouth, nudging her teeth open like windows, you search for the rabbits inside her maw, but they must have all run away and become native to the moon. You want a planet too, orbited by Tiffanys, girls circling like Saturn’s rings, but the horse-head girl is gone in the morning and you forgot to ask her to clean your silk blanket, the one your mother still hangs from the branches of the sycamore, opening the page of its shame for the sun to read aloud. Tiffany, like the name of the girl who embroidered bible phrases onto your screen door with dental floss. She was your neighbor before she moved back to Anhui. Her mother chose her name from the jewelry catalogue, Tiffany like the color of a raw oyster, veined. Your brother was right that she disappeared, but before she left, she taught you every way to suppress your water: don’t drink anything four to eight hours before sleeping. Dry your bladder out like a persimmon. Skewer it on a stick and roast it. Don’t look in the mirror before bed. Don’t touch anyone two hours before the moon’s hung. Don’t dream of girls with horse-heads, girls who answer to the squeeze of your knees, girls who grant holes in your ears to seed Tiffany beans, who gift you a blanket made of water that laps between your legs until you say your own name: Tiffany, the color blue, silk, rabbits unraveled from a blanket, stain bordered clear as a country, girl who wets her dreams, who cannot wring herself of wanting, who wakes instead, deferring disappearance.
Listen to "pretty bones" by yeule, selected to accompany "Drought Goddess" and "Wet dream," below:
K-MING CHANG is a Kundiman fellow and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel BESTIARY is forthcoming from One World/Random House on September 8, 2020. More of her work can be found at www.kmingchang.com, and Bestiary can be preordered here.