river soot

River Soot

In Issue 74 by K. Meera

I.

I had wanted a dog. Preferably a small one, with a spot over its eye so I could’ve called it “Spot” without anyone questioning the name. Then, when I finally went to middle school in the fall, I’d have secured my place in the classroom. Now, though, I would settle for a dog that had no spots on it at all, as long as it was a dog. I looked down at the bag in my hand, the water-filled plastic straining with the weight of its contents, like Jimmy’s mom’s belly before she went to the hospital so she could have the baby that was growing inside her. Jimmy says he preferred her big belly because his brother cried too much, and I’d agreed with him, but that was before.

“Say thank you, Gracey,” my mother said, her eyes dry and red from a hangover. More often than not, her eyes looked that way. It made her green irises stand out, but it gave them a sickly appearance. When I continued to just stare at the bag, she nudged me until I muttered a small “Thanks, Jimmy.” I was not thankful. And I couldn’t care less what the Pastor at Dad’s church said about lying; I was too annoyed to tell anyone the truth right now. Jimmy blushed and then looked up at his mom, smile missing his front two teeth. Who loses their front teeth at thirteen? He’d always said he couldn’t wait for the rest to fall out, and I swore to myself in that moment I would steal those teeth. I’d hide them under my pillow before he could, and my mother, who still pretended I believed in the Tooth Fairy, would give me a dollar. Then I could buy a Spot.

I kept looking at his present, thinking about how I would never get a dog now and how Jimmy had known I’d wanted one, and yet he’d still decided to go to that stupid booth with its stupid prizes. Why couldn’t a dog have been one of the prizes? And who puts fish in bags anyway? It ruined what could’ve otherwise been a perfectly good water balloon. The fish looked up at me, but only because its entire head was facing upwards, its tailfin weighed down in the water. The dull black pupil of its eye swam in sickly golden. I looked at it harder, trying to find my reflection in its unblinking gaze. When I looked into Jimmy’s eyes, his pupil swallowing the blue in his eyes almost entirely, I could see myself, a tiny, monochrome figure. If I squinted, I could make out the dark, almost entirely black hair that I shared with my aunts, my father’s sisters. I couldn’t make out the green in my eyes, though. Those I got from Mom. The goldfish opened and closed its mouth wordlessly.

When we got home, I threw the baggie on my bed. The fish sloshed around in its watery prison, resting on my soft duvet. I looked at it contemptuously, before pulling the chair to my desk out. The one bad wheel squeaked in protest and the sound irked me. Everything was annoying today—the pale pink of my walls that had faded with the years, the chips in the wood of my desk, Molly’s clutter on her side of our shared room, and, most importantly that stupid, stupid fish. I sighed and let my head drop down on my books. Downstairs, I could hear the door open and close, but otherwise it was silent. Probably Molly coming home. She’d stay downstairs until she had to sleep, holing up in the guest room she claimed every time I stayed over. I knew the silence wouldn’t last for long. The carnival was my chance to bond with Mom, and tomorrow, Dad would come to pick me up. He had me Wednesdays through Sundays over the Summer. Then the silence would disappear, and the shouting would ensue, followed by tearful goodbyes, and then a too-long car ride to Cincinnati. I rested my cheek on my crossed arms, looking out through the open window, and waited. Behind me, the fish laboriously swam around the confines of its plastic prison, waiting with me.

II.

“You want to play the license plate game?”

“No.”

“What about billboards? Billboards are always fun.”

“I said no.”

“Grace, you father is really sorry he couldn’t make—”

“Please stop talking, Nina.”

My stepmother bit her lip and then looked ahead. I wouldn’t have dared talked that way to Dad or Mom or even Molly, but Nina never said anything to discipline me. I knew it probably wasn’t the best idea to antagonize her—I learned that word from the vocabulary book Mom had given me—but I didn’t understand what was so great about her that Dad left Mom. I hated Nina because she’d wrecked my family and made me live with her.

At first, I’d been really excited when Mom and Dad broke up. They’d waited until the summer to tell me, but I’d already known for years and years and years. Mom had a “drinking problem” and Dad hadn’t slept in the same room as her for a long time and, in the spring of the year I’d turned ten, he’d finally moved out. It took a whole year, though, before they actually went through with the divorce. I’d been really happy, because Connor’s parents had split up the year before and he’d gleefully showed us all the presents he’d gotten. “Now I have two birthdays!” he’d said, smile wide. I’d wanted two birthdays too and then it finally happened.

What Connor had left out was that there would be days in court. Long, sweltering days sitting in an old courtroom that was built before air conditioning had been invented, while Mom cried silently, and Dad looked stoically ahead, staring at the judge’s neck as sweat rolled down it and disappeared under the white of his collar. I remember looking to Molly for assurance, since both my parents seemed like they didn’t want to look at either of us, but my sister was indifferent. Her green gaze roamed listlessly around the room, staying on everything a second too long before moving on. I’d asked her what she thought of everything when we got home. She told me I was a child and to stop bothering her.

Never trust “nice” adults. They’re never actually nice; they always want something from you. I wish someone had told me that before I spoke to the man with the salmon slivers for lips. He looked like he felt he could never get them wet enough. When he asked me who I thought I should go with, I said Dad, partly because Molly had been especially mean to me that morning and she had chosen Mom, and partly because it had been so long since I’d actually lived with Dad. I missed his eggs. Then they told everyone that I wanted to be with my father, and I’d never seen my Mom look that betrayed before. Not even when Dad told her about Nina.

The funny thing is, when I first saw Nina, I’d thought she was gorgeous. She was tall, slender. That first day, her dark hair had been put up in a bun, the sort of style where you couldn’t really tell where all the hair went because it was tucked within itself like a conch shell. I’d imagined that when she unraveled it, it would fall to her waist in silky waves, like in one of those shampoo commercials on TV. She looked like she could be in one of those because she had a very pretty smile, the kind where her teeth peeked out just a little, like small white petals between the fullness of her lips; they stood out against the darkness of her skin. They were all lies. Her hair barely came to the top of her little chest, it wasn’t sleek and shiny, and she had broken my family apart into little, tiny pieces. Fish food. I was ashamed that she was so beautiful.

III.

The fish barely moved in its tank. Sometimes, I would look at it after a long while and it would have disappeared from the spot it had been in before, but I’d find it again. It wasn’t hard to find, a small fish in that bare tank. I hadn’t named it. Nina had suggested different names and I’d ignored all of them; the best name was no name at all. Then Nina had agreed with me, biting her lip again as she looked at it and that had made me mad. She had that worried expression on her face that I’d come to understand meant that one of her patients wasn’t long for the world. See, Nina wasn’t a real doctor; she was an animal doctor. Maybe she hadn’t been smart enough to treat real people. She didn’t know how to treat me, that was for sure. Still, despite my fish’s undetermined expiration date, she had offered to take me to the pet store.

“No! I don’t want to go!”

“Your fish can’t stay in that plastic bag forever, Gracey.”

“Don’t call me that.”

For the first time, she’d looked frustrated. Her eyes looked like little sheets of slate in her beautiful face, and the more I pushed her, the more it flaked away. She’d pinched her lips together until they’d turned white and left me with my fish and my thoughts and my room that still smelled like fresh paint. It had been a year and yet the smell still lingered. When I came back home that day from day camp, my fish was in a tank. She’d left little stones and things in a bucket with water dripping into it from the tank. I threw it all away. The fish with no name crawled through the water regardless.

Unlike Mom, Dad didn’t let me have a phone. He said I could call anyone I wanted on the landline and to leave Mom’s old flippy-phone back at her house. He didn’t think it was necessary, he said. I was eleven years old, and all my friends were a five-hour drive away. They’d punished me to the suburbs of Cincinnati, with its perfect little houses, within their perfect little spaces, a murky river running through the horizon they tried to block out. The least they could do was give me a cell phone so I could call my friends.

I missed the Cuyahoga, the river back home. A little stream came off of it near my old backyard, and Molly and I used to catch frogs back when we were younger, and she was nicer. Molly and I’d empty our pencil cases and take them down, hollering when we managed to successfully catch the slippery things. We’d let them out in the house, one end of a piece of twine around their fat bodies, the other around our fingers. The frogs hopped around, leaving wet patches around the kitchen. Then Molly turned fourteen.

Almost overnight, her back obtained a writhing red and green dragon as big as my arm. I saw it one day as she was changing, cut in half almost exactly by the black band of her bra. When she caught me looking, she snatched up her T-shirt and pulled it on. She glared at me, told me that if I told anyone I was fucked. That was the first time she swore at me, and I didn’t like it. But I didn’t dare tell Mom or Dad, so I told my Nai-nai because she was visiting, and I’d been seven and had no one to turn to. I wish I hadn’t. Nai-nai’s face had turned dark, like smoke had descended over her ancient features, and she’d lifted herself up off the couch, gathering the folds of her dress as she hobbled up the stairs.

I’d tried to help her, but she’d swatted my little hands away and gone up to the room Molly and I had shared. “Zhao si, niu niu,” she’d said, crossing herself, “she’s asking for trouble, little one.” I’d hid out in the pantry while yelling shook the walls. Words slid through the walls like vengeful ghosts, words like diu lianand “loose” and bu yaolian. They had jostled for space in my skull. When my parents came home, Nai-nai took my father aside and told him that she’d warned him when he married Mom, white trash, “gao bizi” she’d said. I’d touched my nose self-consciously, wishing for the hundredth time that I’d said nothing when I’d had the chance. Dad didn’t refute her.

Molly didn’t care. She dyed her hair blue and started smoking thin little cigarettes with her friends at our frog-catching spot and when I found her, she flicked the butt into the water and told me to fuck off. Her friends snickered; I watched the butt float away, a nasty, queasy feeling sloshing around in my stomach. I tried to tell her what I’d learned with Mom, about pollution and the three R’s; she laughed in my face, telling me about the time way, way back, before any of us were born, when the river was so nasty that it caught on fire. Then she flipped me off, called me a homeschooled child, and walked away. It had never been my fault that I was homeschooled. Molly had been homeschooled too! I didn’t understand what made her different from me.

I waited up for her that night and tried talking to her again, but she told me I was meddling. When my lip had quivered, she rolled her eyes and scooped me off my bed and deposited me on the floor. We played Connect Four for a long while that day, and she told me that being homeschooled was the worst thing in the world and that Mom was just a drunk hippie who’d never wanted to leave the 80s. I asked her what that meant, but she was fourteen and she didn’t know. All she said was that she only lived with Mom because Nina was a bitch, and they’d try to control her. She said she wanted to be her own person, and Mom let her be that person because she couldn’t do anything about it. We’d kept playing Connect Four. She’d never really apologized for yelling at me by the river, and I never tried to see her there again.

My ceiling was red, and it made me think of the fires as tall buildings, columns of heat rising and swirling into the air like an angry God. I thought of it burning everything in its path as the river carried it down towards people and bridges and people on bridges. Where would they have gone? They couldn’t have run away, and they couldn’t have jumped into a flaming river. I wondered how they’d wrapped their minds around it. I could hear their tinny voices in my head shouting “Help! Help!” as if they had shrunk; it felt like the sun had somehow pulled away from its place in the cosmos and rested itself within the confines of my cranium. Cranium, another word Mom had taught me. The sun shrank; my skull was a lantern. When they’d burnt down to their very basics, their ashes would slowly float into Lake Erie, entire people reduced to swirling, chalky eddies that disappeared into the blue depths. A final, watery grave. I looked at the horizon, at the buildings of the city so far away and the brown Ohio river. On fire or not, the Cuyahoga was so much more beautiful.

I rolled over and reached towards my backpack, the duvet sliding under me. In the front pocket, my mother’s flip-phone rested, looking worn. I looked for Connor’s number and when I located his number, I carefully typed the message: this place sux :’(

He replied quickly: lol!!! send pix!

I knew I technically wasn’t allowed to send pictures over text. Mom said that it cost too much, but it was one time and one time only. It would be just fine and I’m sure she’d understand. Just this once. I positioned the camera carefully over my window, taking a grainy picture of the view. It took ages to send. When it finally did, it was another ten minutes before Connor replied: eww luks soooo gross 😛 come back idiot

IV.

It was Sunday. It was Sunday for God’s sake, which meant that Dad was supposed to take me to church with him. Just Dad and Grace. Just us. We’d sit together at congregation and make fun of Mrs. Liu’s ridiculous hats, or Angela Chen’s impossible flirting. I’d fidget and stick my tongue out at any of the other kids and hold on tightly to Dad’s hand when we’d have to go up to the alter for the eucharist. I hated how the little flat piece would dissolve in my mouth, but Dad had always said to never chew.

After, he would talk to all the other churchgoers, and he’d nod and tell them about his dental practice, about a patient who nearly bit his finger, or how one didn’t spit when he told them to and swallowed instead, and they’d all laugh. Angela would lay a hand on his neatly pressed suit and say in a breathy voice, “Oh, you’re so funny Mr. Yu!” and I’d roll my eyes. That’s how Sundays were supposed to go. That’s how they always went.

It was our own little tradition, something we’d started once he’d moved to Cincinnati, because Mom thought church was for people who didn’t know what science was. Dad had just replied that there was free wine at church so, clearly, she should, logically, be there. That had started one of the hugest fights I’d ever seen. Mom’s eyes were redder after that. I couldn’t tell if it was because of all the crying or the bottles of wine she kept under the sink. In any case, Sunday was a day that I spent with Dad. I hoped he’d still take me to that ice cream place Nina didn’t know about now that she had come with us, uninvited.

I squeezed my knees together as my stepmother squished into the pew. She’d done her hair up real nice, ironing out all the little curls so her hair was smooth again. The corner of her lip had disappeared into her mouth. I glared at her, wishing, hoping, praying, that she’d just keel over and collapse onto the plastic birds that had alighted onto Mrs. Liu’s hat, knocking it clean off, creating a scene. Why was she here? She wasn’t supposed to be here! She was supposed to be home or having brunch with her friends at some upscale restaurant, even though she hated mimosas and saw nothing special about avocado toast. I wondered which of the two had finally done her in that she’d join Dad and me. I decided in that moment that I hated mimosas and avocado toast too.

Mrs. Liu leaned back and smiled at Nina, sizing up the newcomer. At first, my stepmother seemed nervous but slowly, her body relaxed, and her lip slipped between her teeth, springing to fullness on her face. I turned my glare to the older lady as she chatted with Nina, telling her about her cat and how she wished her late husband hadn’t fed him so much. Nina’s face was animated, telling Mrs. Liu that she would definitely help her out if she so needed, who clasped her hands together, birds rocking precariously on the brim of her sun hat, and thanked my stepmother profusely. Her dark eyes had a cold glint to them as she smiled and turned around. I could hear her whispering to Mrs. Huang about Nina. “Hulijing,” she muttered. Gold digger.

Nina’s face was radiant, the Mandarin unfamiliar to her ears. My ears turned hot as she told my father she thought that they liked her. “Hei guizi,” Mrs. Huang whispered back, too low for my father to hear, and the older ladies giggled amongst themselves. I recoiled, as if stung. Nina looked happy as she turned to my dad and reached over me to squeeze his hand. His narrow eyes disappeared in the crinkles of his crow’s feet as he smiled and squeezed her hand back. I’d had enough.

I struggled out from between them, breaking apart their entwined fingers. “I need to go to the bathroom,” I said, trying to keep that hot, deep shame from seeping into my voice. His brow furrowed and he looked to my stepmother, who immediately offered to go with me. My refusal was short, a simple “no” and I walked away. There was so much more I wanted to say that I couldn’t, and if I didn’t leave, the fire in my skull would explode outward and kill me. That or I’d cry like a little baby.

I left through the side door and went around the building. The steeple loomed over me, spearing the cotton-candy clouds that drifted across the sky. I squatted near the bushes at the back, the large white cross mounted on the brick wall looking down accusingly at me as I pulled out my phone from the little handbag slung across my body. Just one quick call, and I’d go back in for all my sins to be forgiven. If God could forgive Mrs. Liu and Mrs. Huang and all the other ladies, He could forgive me.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Molly.”

“Grace?” My sister sounded out of breath.

“Yeah, I thought you said you had my number stored.”

“I do—get off, Will—I just didn’t expect you to be calling.”

“What? Who’s Will?”

“None of your business—I said, get off—now, what do you want?”

“Nothing...I just...Nina came to church with us and...I don’t...it’s...” My voice faltered and died in my throat. I didn’t know what to say, what to feel. I couldn’t get the warmth of Nina’s eyes out of my head.

“Hurry it up, Grace, I’m not exactly free right now.”

“Yeah! She’s in bed with me!” Another voice chimed in. A guy’s voice. Molly yelled at him for a moment then I heard laughter, a delighted shriek from my sister, and the line went dead.

V.

I watched as the TV showed a woman crouched forward, tossing goldfish left and right, separating them from each other. All the girls went in one tank, all the boys in another. I wondered if goldfish had feelings. I wondered if they knew that their friends and their siblings and their lovers were just a wall away and that they needn’t be scared. The woman squished two fish together, their undersides pressed against each other in the air as little eggs dropped into the water. Gills struggled up and down, trying desperately to suck oxygen in.

The goldfish would never see their daughters and sons because that wasn’t the way of fish farms. No, the little babies were kept together until they were separated by size and then dumped into a different container. The sorting was horrifying to look at, little fish swimming desperately away as workers dipped large soup ladles into the water and threw them one by one into a strainer. When they were done, the strainer was lifted up, water running through the holes in its bottom as what seemed like thousands of little fish bodies clamored silently, their little tails waving up and down as they jostled together, one on top of the other.

I fled the room, trying to burn the images out of my skull but there were only tears, no fire. I sat in front of the goldfish tank, watching my fish swim with the fish-equivalent of a limp. I wondered if he’d gotten that from being tossed in a fish sieve, if some other fish had accidentally flailed too hard and knocked No-Name’s tail down a couple inches from where it was supposed to be. I sniffled.

For an old lady, Nai-nai still had the ears of a bat. She’d finally agreed to come live with us. It’d been three years since Ye-ye had died, but she’d been stubborn and stayed at her old house in China. When she’d finally given in, she’d put her foot down. She didn’t want to live in France with Gu-gu Lin because she thought the French were dirty, and Gu-gu Mei lived in the Netherlands, which was an affront to Nai-nai on two different accounts—large Caucasians and socialism. She’d said that if she was going anywhere, she’d go to America to be with her son, even though he hadn’t the least bit sense in women. Then she’d leased out the family home that rested right on the banks of the Yellow River, near the southern border of the Shanxi province.

I’d been there once when I’d been a seven-year-old baby and could speak Mandarin perfectly. Nai-nai’s house had looked like it came out of a dream—all curved roofs and carvings, pillars of dark wood rising forever like it was still the tree it came from. She’d made me and Molly congee the first night, so we wouldn’t get sick from all the travelling. Then she introduced me to the kids who played outside the gates and hauled Molly away so she could teach her some manners. She’d never forgotten my sister’s tattoo. The kids hadn’t been nice. They’d teased me about my green eyes, and when I’d tried talking like Dad had taught me, they’d laughed and called me “xianjiao.” When I didn’t understand why I was a banana, they’d handed me one and asked me to peel it. Then, the oldest boy leaned in and showed me—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I wasn’t Chinese to them. I stopped speaking Mandarin.

It didn’t matter. In the tidy, efficient way that Nai-nai did things, she’d gotten all her affairs straight in less than a month and had moved into our floral guest room by the end of July. She’d initially joined Dad, Nina, and me when we went to church, but the English exhausted her and instead, Nina drove her to the service in Mandarin before joining us. That hadn’t made Mrs. Liu or Mrs. Huang any nicer to her, but Nina was oblivious, and I was the one who’d had to put up with it. Still, it meant Nai-nai was happy, and that mattered more to me than anything.

I knew seeing me cry didn’t make her happy, but I couldn’t stop as I watched that stupid goldfish go round and round. My grandmother let me cry before gathering me up into the folds of her skirt. I’d watched her stare at her old qipao for a long time before she’d chosen the more modern cut, but it still had swirling patterns up the hem, so whenever she walked it looked like she had come abruptly onto the earth from a cloud of smoke. I felt like the child I was in her lap.

“Xiao Endian,  do not... wor-ry,” she said, her tongue weighed down by the foreign syllables. She coughed again, cleared her throat, as if willing the language to bend to her needs. Nai-nai’s Mandarin was so much better than mine, and yet she tried her best to speak in English. Occasionally, she’d lapse into her mother tongue, and she’d find her words again, but she always switched back so I could understand her.

“He...works ver-y hard, no?” she said after a pause, and I nodded. No-name did work hard. He’d been in his tank for a month or so now and hadn’t given up yet, even though his tailfin had been squashed and even though he didn’t know his parents or his brothers and sisters.

“Liyu tiao Long Men, xiao endian.” The Mandarin flowing effortlessly from her thin lips. She smiled down at me and gestured to my goldfish. As he swam, his top half bobbed up and down, like he was nodding.

“It means ‘The carp has leaped through Dragon’s Gate’,” I said to him, “it means you’re working very hard and that one day you’ll have what you’re working for.” I didn’t know what he was working for. Why did he keep swimming? Nai-nai coughed daintily into the kerchief she’d pinned to the front of her blouse.

“Do...do you know?”

“Do I know what, Nai-nai?” I asked her. She struggled to find the story in English until I said, “Wo... wo ting.” I knew the grammar was wrong, but I was sure I could understand. When she spoke again, she spoke slowly, clearly, making sure I understood as she went. Even though the language had dried up in my mouth, my brain still put everything together like I’d never forgotten how.

The Yellow River was where it all happened, she explained. I wondered if the Yellow River was like the Cuyahoga, if fires ever floated across it. In the Yellow River, she said, many carps wanted to turn into dragons. She pointed to No-Name. He was a kind of carp too, she explained. A royal one, the kind kept by emperors. But if he’d had his reign of the river, he’d have joined the others as they swam upstream, brows beating against the current until they reached the Long Men, the legendary Dragon Gate, cut through the mountain by Yu the Great, who stopped the floods in China.

“Like Noah and his ark?” I asked and she nodded.

“Like Noah. But Huangdi Yu took...took away the gr-eat...dams, yes? Dams built by his ba-ba Gun, and let...let Yellow River pass through. Made sure yulong...still swim up...to Long Men...complete jour-ney,” she said slowly. I nodded. Only seventy-one fish made it up the falls. Nai-nai’s eyes shone like a little girl’s and for a moment it seemed like we’d traded places. She said that the carp flew over the edge of the falls, upwards into the sky, the scales of their twisting tails glinting in the sunlight as their bodies elongated. Then the huck-huck of her coughs rattled her little frame, and I reached over and patted her back. I could see it in my head; seventy-one dragons in their sky, their bodies twisting amidst the clouds like the silk ribbons of Cai Dai Wu Dao dancers. As soon as they disappeared into the sky, rain fell in my mind’s eye, because the carp-dragons let the rain down for us. The dragons’ scales shimmered with moisture, light reflecting off one and then the other, until each droplet encased a rainbow. I wondered if the rain they brought put out the fires on the Yellow River. I wondered if they could bring their rains to America too. My goldfish swam wordlessly in his tank.

“Ai, Grace, you are...cold? Ach, too cold this count-ry,” Nai-nai said. She wouldn’t accept no for an answer as she tucked me into bed and felt my forehead. I wasn’t cold; there were dragons in my head. The fire in my cranium hissed under the downpour they brought. “Ach, you...are not good. Wait,” she said, her throat dry, and then left my room. I could hear her careful measured footsteps down the staircase. I looked up at the red ceiling, wondering if Dad would let me paint dragons on there. I snuck a peek at my goldfish and sighed. There was no way he’d ever be dragon. Not in a million trillion years.

V.

“Grace, you ready?” Molly called.

The sun shined down on me, the warmth of its rays barely cutting through the chill in the air that had been ushered in with the advent of August. There was a tree at the end of our driveway. I didn’t know what kind of tree it was. The leaves had already begun turning yellow, like little goldfish on stalks, waiting to fall so they could be placed in bags and sent to carnivals. But I knew that’s not where goldfish came from. No, they came from farms. At least that’s what the documentary I’d found Nina watching told me. At first, it’d been strange that farms could be underwater, but when I’d kept watching, carefully hidden behind the wall of the TV room, my curiosity soon turned to horror. I would never forget, not even if I got amnesia like Ye-ye had.

“You saw Nai-nai one time. Just one time,” I muttered, my eyes becoming moist. “Why are you even here?” She pinched me. “Ow! Stop it, Molly!” The tears were coming fast now, and the tree became a blur of golden. I thought of my grandmother, frail and alone in the coffin we’d had to build specially for her.

Nai-nai had been with us less than a month before she got sick. She’d been painfully quiet about how much she disliked moving here, but I’d seen her talk to Nina about how different everything was. I’d wished my grandmother hated Nina as much as I did, and at first my wish seemed to have come true, but as the days progressed, Nai-nai had softened towards her considerably. Towards the end, Nina drove my grandmother to church nearly every day, then drove her back over her lunch break. As much as I hated my stepmother, I was glad my Nai-nai had had a friend.

“Shh, Gracey.” Molly’s arms wrapped around me as I threw myself into them, sobbing tearlessly, wordlessly into her neck. Molly’s tattoo peeked out from under the collar of her starched black dress. The dragon’s bright red eye seemed damning as it slithered off my sister’s back and into my ear, stoking the dying embers of the flames in my skull until they reared into frenzied fire.

VI.

Sometimes Dad liked to smoke. Back when we all lived together, he’d take his cigarettes out onto the porch, tapping the pack against his palm rhythmically. He’d get through half of one before Mom got on his case.

“Seriously? Seriously?” he’d say in an exasperated tone. Then he’d snuff it out and cast it off. The bent cigarette would lie limply between the grass as he took a walk. Mom would gather Molly and me and take us up to her room, seating me on her knee, Molly at her feet. She’d sing to us then and tell us that everything was going to be okay. I’d wished Dad smoked more because even when Mom’s eyes got redder and redder over the years, every time he smoked, she’d yell at him, he’d leave, she’d take us to that room, and we’d spend time together. Our rituals made me feel complete somehow.

Dad would come back smelling like smoke and sigh when Mom descended upon him with the force of a thousand Cuyahogas. I’d often sneak out when Mom wasn’t looking and pick up his crumpled cigarette so I could throw it in the trash. When he’d smoke in the winter, I never managed to pick any of them up as he chucked them in the snow. They’d melt through the first layer so quickly, and before I got to them, the cold of the wind had already frozen them over. In the spring, when our backyard had thawed, little pieces of faded orange would reappear like the daisies popping out of the slush.

The last spring, after Dad had moved out, the butts remained for all of two days before they disappeared. Then Connor, Jimmy, and I had decided to be particularly nosy one summer afternoon, when Molly had left to drink beer in a warehouse because she thought she was so cool, and I found about fifty of those butts in a Mason jar. It rested at the very back of her deep junk drawer, the lid of the jar sealed tight with plasticine to stop the smell from leaking out. The orange had faded on some, dirt caked between the spent cigarettes. Dusty water spots covered the inside of the Mason jar. When Jimmy had asked me what I’d found, I quickly thrust it back inside and grabbed some flimsy material instead. My friends had looked at me in horror and I’d realized that it was some silky, slippery lingerie, bright pink with black spots. We’d dissolved into a chorus of ewww’s and then laughter as we tried to put everything back where it belonged. When they’d left for the day, I’d gone back to see the jar.

Now, though, Dad smoked in his study. Nina didn’t approve, but I’d heard her say that if he kept his space well-ventilated, he could do as he pleased. There had been a brief moment when he’d switched to a pipe, like the one my Ye-ye had before he died. It’d gone to Dad’s cousin, Bo-fu Albie. When my uncle had come to visit with our cousins, Dad’s pipe mysteriously disappeared. He said it just wasn’t for him.

I looked at No-Name the goldfish as its fins paddled in circles, like helicopter blades in slow motion. Over the week its condition had worsened, and it had slowly begun keeling over to the side, tail flopping limply downwards. Occasionally, when the will to live hit it, it would right itself, but that lasted for only a few minutes before it went down again. Its scales had dulled considerably, not that it was ever any beauty in the first place, but whenever it managed to face the light from the window, the sun lit up that bulbous orange eye.

The door to Dad’s study was shut, but not locked. It never was. I crept into it, imagining I was a ninja like in the stories Nai-nai used to tell me, a stowaway on a pirate ship, everything but littlest Grace Yu. His lighter lay in plain view atop the magnificent mahogany secretary desk—a gift from Mom for Dad’s fortieth birthday. The lighter itself was shiny, catching the last rays of the end of summer. Soon, I’d have to go to school. Nina had argued with the school district to give me a chance to be in a better school, and I was brought in for examination, like a little frog cut open in a biology class. Molly had told me about those. It’d successfully curbed my appetite for high school. In any case, Madeira Middle School would have a new student in its Grade 7 class. I knew I’d be the smallest, as I always was, but I’d seen the brochure in Nina’s handbag, and I knew it would be a lot better than being homeschooled by Mom. It had words like “unique blend” and “student leadership” in it, and I very much wanted to be a leader.

Dad’s Zippo weighed heavily in my hand. I swiped it, quick as lightning, like a robber, a thief in the night who would never be caught. I knew I was too old to be playing pretend, and it was only half of it I swear. I had other reasons for wanting his lighter. Quietly, I crept back to my room. Everything would have been okay if Nina had just stayed in her half of the house, away from my room. But no. My stepmother was lousy, nosy, and just plain rude. And that was before she burst into my room, her curly hair extending from her head like rays of the sun, looking almost as angry as Mom used to when Dad was on the porch, smoking like a chimney, but her anger held only nine-hundred forceful Cuyahogas.

“What is this?” she said, breathing heavily. I thought she meant the lighter at first and then I realized she was holding out a piece of paper.

“I’ll tell you what this is, Grace. It’s a bill. A phone bill! Your Mom just sent it in the mail saying your father and I should pay this since you’re living here now! You’ve racked up hundreds of dollars on a phone you shouldn’t be using!” I froze. I forgot to breathe. I imagined I could see steam coming out of her nostrils, like I did when Mom yelled and shook me. That helped me breathe again, but I was still like a little cube of ice in the ice tray, stuck to the cold, rigid plastic. My lower lip trembled. I’d sent a couple, several photos to Connor over the past month or two, but I didn’t think...I didn’t know...

And what are you doing?” she said, the volume of her voice increasing with each syllable. I didn’t know when I’d started crying. All I know is that I’d dropped the lighter into the goldfish tank and had started wailing. Nina had never yelled at me before. I didn’t think she was capable of it. It felt harsh. It felt comforting. I didn’t know how it felt, and I shoved my face into my hands and cried some more. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to go home. But home meant no new school, and stupid Jimmy who I hated now, and Mom sleeping in on days she had to go to work, and Molly never, never talking to me. But I wanted my river. I hated this new one.

“Grace,” Nina’s voice was gentle. She pulled my hands away from my face. The skin of her palms was rough, light where the rest of her skin was dark. I felt like they should’ve been softer; it was beautiful Nina after all. When I looked at her through fat, bulbous tears, her eyes had returned to flesh where they’d been slate, chipped away to the last layer. They weren’t quite all black, more so a very dark brown. She wiped away my tears with her rough hands.

“Grace, why were you trying to set your goldfish on fire?”

“Because he’s dead and I wanted to see if he was enough pollution to be like the Cuyahoga,” I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve. Nina looked confused, so I kept going.

“Before I was born, Molly said that the Cuyahoga caught on fire. Because it was so dirty and polluted. The fire was so high, and it burned all the people in Cleveland and then washed the ashes to Erie. I wanted No-Name to go to Erie too.”

Nina bit her lip, that sign of worry I’d come to know.

“Did Molly tell you all of this?”

“Just the part about the river burning. I imagined everything else.”

“Gracey, you know no one died in that accident, don’t you?”

I looked at her, surprised. I was so sure they had.

“No, I didn’t. But if it was so big people should’ve died right?”

“Well...the one that I know, the one that your...Grandad...saw in ’69, no one died in that one,” she said. I didn’t know what grandad she was talking about; my Ye-ye had never been to America. But I could tell she was telling the truth about the fire, that much I knew and that’s all I needed to know. Everyone else had lied to me more than she had in that moment. A little lie in her voice was okay.

“And your fish, he’s not dead but...”

“Soon,” I said. She nodded.

“Soon.”

VI.

“Is it the same temperature as his tank?”

“Yes, Nina,” I said.

No-Name had wilted like a three-day-old bouquet in the weeks that’d followed his unsuccessful cremation. He no longer had the strength to right himself and just floated perpetually at a forty-five-degree angle, gills opening and closing like sails on a ship. Even his fins had stopped their frantic paddling. He simply floated across the tank. Nina couldn’t take it. One afternoon, she came home early. My day camp had long since finished, and she said she wanted to take a look at my goldfish, a private consultation, free of charge. I obliged. After I’d failed to set fire to my fish, and thoroughly ruined my father’s best lighter, I’d lost any small interest I’d had in the goldfish. At this point, Nina could do whatever she wanted with it.

I’d followed her out onto the porch. Nina had gotten out a tub and prepped the water—something about chlorinating it—and handed me the task of checking the temperature to make sure it was the same as the tank. She had estimated it almost perfectly, just a degree or two off. She’d mixed a little bit of the tank water, some warm water from a prepackaged thermal carton, and then just plain tap water in the tub, then scooped up a little of its contents in a separate Tupperware and set it aside. When I was done measuring the temperature, she handed me a little bottle.

“This is clove oil. It’ll help put him to sleep,” she said. I shrugged.

“Why can’t we just flush him. That’s what Jimmy did with the other fish he won.”

Nina looked scandalized but quickly rearranged her expression into what she seemed to think was a more understanding one.

“You can’t simply flush a fish, Grace,” she said, tucking a strand of inky hair behind my ear.

“Why not?”

“Because a sick fish will release toxins, poison, into the water. It’s not good.”

“Pollution?” I asked.

“Exactly. After we put him to sleep, we’ve got to bury him in the garden. Now, add fifteen drops of this—be very careful—to this water I’ve set aside,” she said, holding out the Tupperware. I did as she’d asked, counting softly under my breath. The numbers hissed into the chilly air and disappeared in the sunshine like smoke. At fifteen, I capped the bottle. Nina shut the container, shook it vigorously. It was almost comical to see her like that, her entire frame shaking with the motion, like a tree in a storm. When she stopped, the water in the Tupperware had turned cloudy. She added some of it into the tub of water, whose temperature I’d carefully measured; it was barely a couple drops, and I couldn’t see anything different with the water. I suppose some poisons are like that—silent and invisible.

Then, with exceeding gentleness, she cupped her palms around the goldfish, placing him in the water. She motioned for me to add the rest of the oil-water concoction. It dropped into the clear water, the noxious cloud sinking rapidly downwards over the fish before dispersing. Fifteen minutes later, he was well and truly on his side. Nina cradled the fish in her palms. He bobbed up and down as she made sure he was asleep, magnifying a single grotesque eye in the little waves she created in the tub.

Then, she looked at me. Her eyes seemed to flicker orange for a second and then, when I’d blinked to clear my eyes of what was obviously sunlight, had turned glassy with tears. Her voice was steady though when she said, “Grace will you mix a teaspoon of the oil with water and shake it like I showed you? The poor thing...” She turned to look at the fish. I did as she said. I didn’t understand how she could care about something so stupid—it was a fish. And not even a good one. It’d had a wonky tail, barely did anything, it didn’t even have a name! Did it matter how it died? I looked at Nina as I shook the Tupperware. She was moving No-Name gently from side to side, through the water, as if teaching it how to swim. I wondered if he could feel how rough her palms were, the wedding ring on her finger that rested on his back, how loved he was, if he could feel anything at all. I doubted it. He was a stupid fish.

Five minutes after I’d added the new mixture to his tub, No-Name died. We buried him in a shoebox lined with little water plants. I thought about how I threw away the ones Nina had gotten me. I buried the little fish in his three-foot grave, thinking of my Nai-nai, hot shame dripping down my face in salty tears. I felt a little bad. He might have been a stupid fish, but he was still a stupid fish whose plants I’d thrown away, and who I might’ve flushed down the toilet and polluted the Cuyahoga if Nina hadn’t married my dad and stopped me.

“It’s hard losing your first pet, Gracey.”

I didn’t mind that she called me “Gracey.” It wasn’t my favorite thing, but I’d get over it eventually, I hoped. I could tell Nina did too because she only used it occasionally, lovingly.

“He wasn’t even a pet,” I said, my tears collecting at the point of my chin, dripping onto the black dress I’d put on.

“Of course, darling,” she said, pulling me to her side as we stood in silence.

Evening had fallen. In the horizon, the Ohio river remained brown. Past that, almost five hours northeast, the Cuyahoga slowly made its way to Lake Erie, and even further than that Huang-he cut through the Long Men mountains, our family’s ancestral home on its banks. Somewhere northeast of my future, there would be a dog, perhaps one with a better name than “Spot.”

Rain fell as Molly’s dragon slid out of my mouth, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. All I could see was tears; they drowned the rainwater in their breadth, and my head felt like it had fallen into all the water that was filling it up, becoming the center of all the rivers I’d known, filled to the brim until they flooded their banks. Yes, he’d have a better name than “Spot.” I’d name him after Yu the Great, or some other hero. Maybe that new school in Nina’s brochure would teach me new stories, but they’d never be as good as the old ones. One day, he would dig up No-name, and it would be a conversation we’d have to have. We’d visit Nai-nai in her grave and we’d swim upstream through the river with fires burning all around us, trying to catch us. We’d swim off the edge of the waterfall, and we’d make those fires ourselves, deep in our bellies and through our throats and into the sky. And if we weren’t one of the seventy-one, we’d take our chances with the fires that burnt us down to the bone, and then further, further until all that was left was ash, swirling together indistinguishably into Lake Erie with all the other burnt people and nothing would ever change.

Liyu tiao Long Men—we’d fight for nothing to change ever again, we’d fight for things to change forever. Even if, at the end of the day, all we became was river soot.

About the Author

K. Meera

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K. Meera is a writer from everywhere and nowhere, although most recently Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chennai in India. Their work has appeared in Café Shapiro, The Dragon Poet Review and Bring Your Words: A Writers’ Community Anthology. Navigating new facets of their diaspora and what their queerness means within that diaspora, Meera attempts to write these into their work through ideas of memory and body. They often spend their time attempting to navigate Seattle’s public transport (and, inexplicably, always getting lost), drawing and pining away for their cat back home in Michigan. They can be found on Instagram @kmeera.docx.

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