Gege and I throw cockroaches on the stove. They die into dust and glitter our nostrils. Roasty Roachy, we call this game. We pluck them like scabs from the carpet or skewer them with a tooth-sharpened chopstick and then we fry them on the stove our mother lights with the matches she stows in the crack between our sofa cushions because one time Gege used the matches to set his fist on fire to set off the alarm in the hallway to flood the entire building, which our mother says is owned by a woman who owns sardines. As a species, our mother says, she owns sardines, as a species. She sponsors entire seas. That’s how she’s so rich and owns every ceiling in the building. Gege wants to flood the hallway into an aquarium so we can be sardines, though we don’t know what sardines look like: I say they look like feet without any skin committed to them and he says they look like slivers of the sun. The sardine-owning woman asks who flooded the hallway – it was a disappointing flood, nothing ever reaches our necks, though I tell Gege it’s good since we don’t know how to swim, so how would we sardine, and he says we’ll be the dead kind that float, not the living kind that shine – and our mother tells us to lie and say we don’t know. But our neighbor Guan Ayi says I know it was those two tao yan gui who did it, I have seen them in the hallway bathroom, salting the sink with their piss, I have seen them throttling their tongues, squirming them under the crack beneath my door, I have stepped on their tongues like a cavalry of cockroaches. I say actually it wasn’t me at all, it was only Gege, look at his fist wrapped in frozen ham slices, his knuckles cuddling blisters. After our mother locks us in the cabinet under the sink because we have been fined and it has been added to our debt, which is a word Gege has to explain to me by gouging out my baby tooth with his pinky and saying, see, now I owe you one of mine, choose wisely, I prick open all his burn blisters with a fishbone I find under the sink. I lick the silver pus off his knuckles and imagine it’s what a sardine tastes like, like suckling on the sea’s nipples. I ask how you get to own a species, and Gege says it’s easy, you discover it and name it. In the dark, he knits our knees together. Outside I imagine it’s raining, drops flocking to our windowpane like flies to meat, but it’s just our mother turning on the sink above us, rinsing something to the bone, and besides, that window gave up on giving us light and retired into a wall. In the dark Gege rolls his eyes back, showing me their bones. Sometimes he does it for too long, and I worry that he won’t be able to roll them back over again, that they’ll flail around in his sockets like the roaches we flip over before forking into the fire. I ask Gege how we can discover a species and he says they’ve already all been found and eaten, so we have to go to the bottom of the sea or the backside of the sky. Water riots through the pipe pressed to my spine, and I imagine this is what the ocean sounds like, swallowing. Look, I say, swimming my hands in front of his face. What should we name them, Gege says, his eyes magnetized to my hands, and all I can see when he speaks are the wicks of his teeth, the many he owes me. I don’t say a name because I don’t know enough of them, and our mother says that children should grow ears and not mouths. She says she’ll pay us a penny for every word we don’t speak, and that’s what we should think about, our promised pennies dangling from the ceiling like rain, our tongues sandpapered into silence. But all I can think about is how our mother has reined herself to yet another debt, how Gege yanked a curtain of water down from the ceiling but it wasn’t long enough to reach the floor, how cockroaches can survive underwater because we can’t get them to drown, not even when we fling them into the sink. Gege says I would like to own roaches if I can own anything, because they know how to swim and lay eggs and survive starvation, which are things I can’t do, and they burn too. Gege rotates his fist in the dark like a boiled moon and says there’s too much water inside of bodies. In the corners we hear roaches extending their legs, waking between our knees, evicted from the light outside. I steady the fishbone in my hand and tell Gege to get ready, I am going to prick open the pipe until it peppers us with the sea and we will compete with the roaches to see who can outlive this cabinet, who can starve the longest. We will hold our breath until our names flicker out like flames.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her short story collection, Gods of Want, is forthcoming from One World in June 2022. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com // Twitter: @k_mingchang