The fairies play mahjong while I shower. I reach for the block of soap which is less a block and more a sad flake that cracks between my fingers. I toss the other half of the flake down the drain. The water hits my skin so lightly I wonder if the showerhead is broken. Then I remember this is how it always is. Can never take a proper shower. Can’t afford an apartment with better water pressure on one person’s salary. Through the water, I hear tiles clack on the kitchen table. The fairies can play mahjong for hours. I dry and dress and find the Pyrex container of orange peels and place them on a plate for the fairies to nibble. Everyone is more pleasant, more amenable on a full stomach. So about my firstborn, I begin. The fairies toss several coins to the winner, giggle when the coins scatter and one rolls off the table. They wait for me to pick it up. Sheng nu! Leftover woman! We don’t want your nonexistent firstborn, they titter. We want your soft-shelled turtle.
I was twelve when my mom bought a soft-shelled turtle from the Chinatown seafood market. She carried it in layers of paper and plastic bags all the way back from New York City on the one-hour (occasionally longer) train ride. We found an empty row of seats and placed the bag on the ground. It didn’t take long for the turtle to tear through the first bag. When I pointed it out to my mom, she screamed ai-yah, and the man sitting across from us stared at the tiny, sharp black beak poking out from the plastic. Then at us. My mom fussed, adjusted the bags, positioned them tightly between her feet; you could tell she was trying to keep something alive from escaping. Why can’t they eat chicken like normal people? said the man’s facial expression. Stop staring, I thought. Stop staring. Stop staring. Stop staring. Maybe if I had known my mom would react so strongly, I’d have stayed quiet. I’d have faith in the turtle, that it’d only peek out from the bag, sniff the smokey, stale scent of the train, retreat into the darkness, leaving its fate up to us. We got home and put it in a bucket filled with a shallow layer of water. Hours later, my dad cut off its head and separated its blood from the shell and body. He trashed the organs and blanched the turtle and boiled it in soup, topped with Goji and red dates. It’s good for you, lots of protein, helps with anemia and fertility, my parents told me as I forced it down.
I receive a turtle as my thirtieth birthday present from my parents. It shifts its head and snorkel-like nostrils left and right, scratches its webbed, three-clawed feet against my sink. I don’t know how they expect me to cook it.
The faeries like to eat soft-shelled turtles. They like its thick and tender and collagen-full skin, its gelatinous and chewy shell, its soft meat. They believe it will make their skin supple and radiant. Although they seem radiant enough as it is. They also like to make a wreck of my kitchen, digging up ancient bags of dried kidney beans or millet and spilling them on the floor to trip me up. Cleaning is a good habit of a wife and mother, they snicker and I sweep up the mess and retreat to my bedroom, to my twin-sized bed from college, to my long time companions: Bumbly Bee Pillow Pet and its partner in crime, Ms. Ladybug Pillow Pet.
The faeries don’t bother with cleaning out the organs. They place the live turtle into seasoned soup and raise the heat slowly. As the temperature rises, the turtle drinks the soup in an attempt to cool itself down. Sometime before the soup comes to a full boil, the turtle is already dead. The faeries smack their lips and slurp down the soup and meat whole. Very good, they say. High-quality turtle. They empty their bowls. No leftovers. Not yet.
Listen to Lucy read "Soft-Shelled Turtle" below:
LUCY ZHANG (she/her) is a writer, software engineer, and anime fan. Her work has appeared in Litro, Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at www.kowaretasekai.wordpress.com or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.