by Amanda Mei Kim
The woman took her daughter’s hands and gently pushed them into the compost pile.
“Feel this heat,” she said.
The girl wriggled her fingers in the hot pile of decay and felt the vegetable matter and the grubs twisting under her fingers. The acrid smell burned her nose.
“Hot enough to kill weed seeds, insect eggs and just hot enough to kill the bad funguses,” said her mother.
They turned the compost with their hands. “Out of this comes new life, you know.”
For the girl, a little farm on the California coast was the center of the universe and her mother, Shinobu, was the creator of life on earth.
My mother wandered through the orchards inspecting all the old, split and rotten stumps, looking for signs of new growth—a shiny green leaf on a spindly stem, a root which had twisted back up to send a new tree out—she was always looking for her lost child, her miscarriage, but never found him. . No matter how many times we turned the compost pile or dug a water trough around a burned or blighted tree stump, we never saw that sign of life. People used to believe that miscarriages were monsters. I know this because my last foster parents believed that magic and secret messages could be discovered in old books. I had stacks in my bedroom, the histories of medicine, of science, of wombs, of women, of needles and knives. Every “monster” belonged to a type, some were formed by a small or narrow womb, or by a mother who sat too long or sat with her legs crossed or who had received a blow while “great with child”. The most common monster was the kind created through the imagination, bad dreams and evil thoughts. But what about us, the monsters who were created outside the womb? Nobody studies us or gives us names even though we are in the millions. I think, in the world, there are just a few of us who are miracles, but most of us are monsters, at least that’s how it seems.
In their sadness, her father, disappeared for days on end while her mother started to eat like a wanderer. Shinobu strung together chilies, dried tomatoes and green corn in bunches and hung them along the curtain rods. She made beef jerky, chicken jerky and smoked fish. She ate everything that she desired and nothing else. This woman with her lengths of twine and her hands smelling of salt ate as if she had no home.
One day, her father Kenji came to the porch and called for the girl who was wearing a pair of coveralls with several full pockets on the front. Hiro had been gathering tunas, cactus fruit, using a magnifying glass to find the transparent spines. Her fingers were dotted pink with blood. They drove to the bus stop, barely a shack with four benches, two inside and two on the platform. “Who’s coming? Where’s he coming from? You can tell me,” she said, kicking her heels against the bench legs.
“It’s a boy named Matías.”
“Where is he going to live?”
“With his aunt, with Lupe.”
Hiro grunted softly. Guadalupe worked in the packing house, except for strawberry season when she picked berries. She had quick hands and was light on her feet. Sometimes, Lupe offered to spray the girl with perfume or gave her the stubs of old lipsticks, something she did not want but accepted politely. However, she did smell of Maja soaps, even on weekdays. Hiro slid off the bench all the way down to the ground where she sat cross-legged, hunched over her magnifying glass.
Her father looked down from his paper, “Be careful with that.”
“I’m just looking,” she turned to block the sun as she searched for spiders and termites in the wooden platform.
The Greyhound bus from Los Angeles barely stopped to let out a fourteen-year-old boy with a small bag of clothes. He had brown, brown eyes and a smile like a flash of light on water. But he was not what Hiro expected. His clothes were dirty and he had gaps in his teeth. On the drive home, her father asked the boy questions in Spanish but he was so polite that he answered in a military style, with his eyes straight ahead. The girl at his side ignored him. They drove past the packing shed to a small cluster of farmworker houses and left him at Guadalupe’s where he sat on the porch, like a plaster animal with his enormous eyes and expressionless face.
At the time, I didn’t know how small our cosmos was. Through the magnifying glass, it seemed infinite. We lived in a small town, and within that, it was only my mother and father who would die in a fire, my baby brother or sister, whichever it was, and that boy and his aunt, who ever mattered to me.
If I had known then that I would be an orphan and sent to live with strangers, I would have asked Matías what it was like to be a child and alone in the world. It took a dozen foster homes in far-off suburbs and cities to teach me that you can never go back to the same place unchanged, that eventually, you come to belong to a place and not your people; that for the rest of your days you will be driven by a mindless hunger, the fear of loss, the desire for love and the pain of trying again, yet again. Hunger, fear, desire, pain, forever a reptile.
Ron, the only brother worth remembering has brought a cup of cottage cheese with apple sauce on top, a lighter and a little smoke. He probably wants me to get up and read a book, do some studying, work on my math, but I’m in bed and it’s still dark out, so I will sleep for a while longer.
In the afternoon, the workers came out of the packing house, blinking their eyes in the light. Their hands were layered with wax and dirt which came off in little balls when they rubbed their palms together. They shaded their eyes from the sun and hit their pants, drank the cold black sodas that Hiro had brought them and then threw their bottles in a box when it was time to go back in.
The tomatoes rolled down a padded funnel, passing in front of the workers who sat on stools or wooden boxes or stood. They packed them by size and quality. Matías worked an air gun, tacking three-quarter inch staples into wooden slats, his arms jerking visibly when the staple punctured the wood, while Hiro walked around with a red wax pencil marking the boxes and putting the flats onto the conveyor belt. Her father stood under the light. He had one eye on the boy stapling the boxes and the other on his aunt, Guadalupe, who sat lightly on the edge of her box, her hands moving so easily that he imagined she was sitting on the shore sifting sand between her fingers.
Ron stroked my forehead until I feel asleep, exchanging the cold compress on my head for a hot towel around my feet. I woke in time to see him closing the door behind him. "Why are you doing all this?" I asked, but he was gone already, so the words flew out the window like little birds, indistinguishable from each other.
I’ve known Ron since I was fourteen years old. When we first met, he was almost eighteen and ready to age out. Our foster parents were the usual religious freaks who lived at the edge of the desert. Our father, Daniel, wore a wooden crown at dinner, and would “smite” us. We weren’t allowed television but we were surrounded by old books left over from from estate sales or found in library dumpsters. Daniel and his wife Sharon used them to create their house rules. “One for each of you,” said Sharon dishing out boiled potatoes, “the book says that plain foods will drive out vanity and other evils,” and we were punished according to the “law,” whatever that meant.
Ron told me to find him when I was ready to leave. I never even thought about it until I ran into him by chance, two years later. He was working as a clerk in a gas station mart the next town over. A neighbor was taking me for a motorcycle ride and stopped to fill up his tank. I thought I saw Ron through the window and came inside.
He had cool gray eyes and a shaved head, skinny, all angles and bones. He looked harder than I remembered, probably from working nights in the gas station.
“Ron, it’s me.”
He was staring through the glass, at the neighbor who would jerk his head back and flash his false teeth whenever he caught them slipping out of place.
“Are you about ready to leave?”
Unexpectedly, I said yes.
“Do you need to say something to him?” he nodded toward the man waiting by the motorcycle.
“Not really,” I left through the back door and waited on the loading dock until Ron’s shift was over.
The neighbor never said a word. No one came to the gas station to ask about me. Oh well, she’s probably better off. At sixteen, they don’t look for you, they just check a box in your file, “missing from care”.
One Sunday, Matías wrapped some chile rellenos in a clean cloth along with a pan dulce. Lupe always had sweet things in the house, fresh fruit juice, pan dulce, cookies, piloncillo. And though she was his aunt, she felt more like a cousin to him. He opened the screen door and breathed deeply. There was still a low buzzing in the air, from insects that had not yet been warmed by the sun.
A figure passed between the rows of trees. It was the girl. He followed her through the grove to the narrow opening of the barranca where the eucalyptus trees created an arch over the sharp canyon and watched her pull mugwort and wild rosemary into small fist-sized bouquets and bury them under sticks and leaves. She turned and began running up the barranca, jumping from rock to rock, her feet sliding down the sides of the rocks until she caught herself and was midway up the next. He kept to the sides, with his head low and his pole tucked under his arm. Where the canyon split in two directions heading into the hills, he lost her and fell, panting into a pile of soft damp malva leaves, which had opened themselves for the morning mist and were now closing.
My senses are evolving, not just the familiar five, but other ones. What use are eyes when scallops with their rows of little eyes can only see motion, and then not all motion, just quick movements and slow? The starfish is just as capable and has no eyes, just photosynthesizing tips which tell it what is light and dark. When it’s light, I smoke and stay up for days and days, and when it’s dark, I sleep for nights.
One afternoon, after the work was done, but there was still light in the sky, the boy followed the girl and found her in the barranca, hiding underneath a fallen tree, waiting for his footsteps to pass. If it had not been for her scuff marks in the soil, he would have walked by, but instead, he went around the log and climbed on top of it. He laid himself down lengthwise and broke off pieces of twig which he tossed at her. She rolled out and looked at him.
“What are you doing down there?”
“Nothing,” there was a long pause in which each considered whether or not to continue this conversation or find something more interesting to do.
“Have you seen the fish yet?” he asked pointing to a shallow bend in the creek.
She shook her head no and he led her to a place where tiny lemon-colored crawdads were shuffling under the silt.
“These aren't fish,” she said, pulling them out one by one, “See, no fins, no tail fins, no gills, no circles in the eyes and,” she said tossing them back in the water, “they don't swim.”
“I wonder if they taste like fish,” he said. He opened his bag and handed her a cob of corn, still steaming inside of its charred black husk. The kernels were brown and tasted of smoke. Hiro remembered the smell of fire early in the morning.
She stood and poked a stick into the silt watching the crayfish spill out of the plume of dust.
We lead short, compressed lives. In a single day last spring, I woke up with no plan at all, and that night, ended up in an underground bedroom with the windows covered by boxes. Like most stars in the sky, no one knows our names and we are forgotten as soon as someone looks away.
In the town, everyone had three-quarter moon smiles, where the lemons etched away the enamel in their teeth, leaving them with blazing white, brilliant smiles. Matías got his after a few months. At a picnic, he had taken a piece of dry ice and rolled it around in his mouth, while people laughed and shouted at him to spit it out, Mati stop, you’ll burn yourself, you’ll never eat again! He never made trouble, never complained, but he did not like his aunt's house and having to hide whenever he heard the truck waiting in the driveway.
The first night in Ron’s narrow basement apartment, we fell asleep on the double bed. There was nowhere else to sleep and it was clear that there would never be enough room for a second bed. He wore sweatpants and I wore a long sweatshirt. We weren’t exactly brother and sister, but we had slept like this before. On many occasions, we had been banished from the kingdom and forced to sleep on the floor of the garage, with a piece of cardboard beneath us and a sheet above us and the light on for decency’s sake.
I woke up before him and looked closely at his torso, which seemed oddly thin to me, but only at certain points. The section of arm, just above the elbow narrowed slightly before it flared out again into muscle. His shoulders were bony eaves covered in tattoos that were already faded from too much sun. There was an area where his chest seems small, but the rest was normal and there was a tiny circle of downy white hairs around his belly button.
In the early light, I crawled over him to inspect the other side, but before I could start, he rolled on to his back and asked me what I was doing.
“Nothing,” I said.
He hung his arm over my shoulder and I shut my eyes and listened to the radio that we kept on all the time to hide our voices.
Hiro and the boy sank to the bottom of a swimming hole, bordered by rock faces which met somewhere below them in the sand and the mud. They sat underwater on the moss covered rocks and stared up through streams of particles: motes of dust, empty seed hulls, crushed bits of insect skeletons. From the bottom of a pool, they watched the clouds being pushed across the sky by trade winds, the North Pacific drift and El Niño, from two thousand miles away. The water filled their mouths and they blew it out, creating new currents. They linked their skinny brown arms and waited for the sun to fall.
There is something alive in Ron’s touch, in the way it goes from one place he's touched to another. Each of these sensations extends through the skin and continues on in the bloodstream, in memory, forever ricocheting around in my body. This afternoon, I ran my fingers along my scalp and discovered small bare areas. I counted twelve of these dime-sized spots. I could feel how smooth my scalp was underneath, how soft the new growth and how spare. It might have been like this for weeks, but I never noticed.
Matías watched as the patrón stepped down from Lupe’s porch. He met the man in the path, but did not speak. For a moment, Kenji glanced at him, saw a dirty, skinny boy and then he remembered. He turned, “You’re a good worker,” and handed him two dollars.
When Ron came home from work, I asked him about this balding, he touched the spots with his fingers. “I didn’t want to scare you,” he said. He is gentle with me, never recoiling, never worrying that whatever I have might be catching. When my mouth is dry, he keeps me supplied with licorice and root beer.
“What you need is to drink more milk, you need a little vitamin D, that’s all. Just a couple more months.”
He has thought it all through. In a few months, I’ll be old enough to go straight to a G.E.D. class instead of back to high school where I’d have to live with another family, with more neighbors. Miraculously, against all odds, we were safe for a time.
The legs of water bugs did not puncture the surface of the water, creating tiny indentations, pressing against the bubble which never breaks. They skated across the creek’s surface, around leaves and piles of rocks, in and out of eddies. For a time, they gathered where the water broke before spilling over a boulder. They were pulled into the circles of currents, spinning in pairs or threes, around and around until they were ejected from the whirlpool. Hiro tested the same waters, floating on her back, too large to spin, her body rotated slowly. The sun dried her skin and she smelled of algae and granite. From the banks, Matías watched and waited his turn.
At dusk, the girl stood along the creek bank and called out, “O, yoy, yoy, yoy,” letting her voice rise until the coyotes called back from the black shadows of the mountains.
“Don’t do that!” He pulled her down by the arm. She was wearing a nightgown and sneakers. Underneath her gown, her skin was covered with scabs from flea bites and sharp twigs, a strand of barbed wire hidden in the weeds. He felt through her clothing for these raised lines and welts, bits of hardened blood like sap. They found each other’s watery bruises. Some came from hard falls or carrying boxes on their bony shoulders, but most could not be remembered. Sliding off a rock or slipping down the roof of a house and falling into a pile of leaves.
“We’re going to get in trouble soon.”
"Lupe knows about us, she asked me.”
Hiro hung her head down.
“Your father will know next,” he said.
“How do you feel today?” Ronald woke me up with his hand on my belly. He just finished working two shifts and the sun was setting.
“What did you do yesterday?” he asked, handing me the pipe.
“I cleaned the walk out front, at night, when it was late.”
There was a woman who stood on the street corner every day, yelling at cars, “I am alone, I’m here, I’ve been stabbed.” She always left puddles of soda, partially eaten sandwiches and smashed ketchup packets on the sidewalk near our window.
“Really late, like three or four in the morning, no one saw me,”
“I trust you.”
“You’ll never guess what she says.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“She says, ’I’m dying, I’m here,’ and nobody does anything. She’ll go on for hours.”
“That’s okay, she’s fine, she always comes back, so she’s fine.”
“I guess that’s right,” I guess that’s what it means when you get up every day and face your loneliness, you’re okay.
Hiro came back from the chickenpen one day and found her father striking a bush. He jabbed a stick into the bushes. Hiro heard crying and screaming coming from the bushes. Kenji yelled, “Come on out of there. I know all about it.” Over and over, until the boy shut up. Mati came out, bruised and tear stained. He did not look at Hiro as he ran home. That was the last time she saw him.
From then on, whenever Kenji saw his daughter in the fields or the packing house, he would say, “Get up. Get inside, you've been out long enough.” Hiro went back to the house and sat in the kitchen with a book, until her mother came in to make dinner and said, “Haven't you sat there long enough? Go outside.” There were three days of that before Lupe found someone who could drive Matías back to the bus stop and send him back to the deserts of Calexico with a sack full of avocados, some clothing and a fishing rod.
The night he left. I opened my window and found a small cairn on my windowsill, a cracked green glass marble, a piece of string and a sand dollar. When I returned to the barranca again, he was not there to meet me, and I would never see him again. Soon after, it would be my time to leave. Matías could return to Calexico and leave again, as many times as he wanted, but I could never return to Aviso and no one would take me in. They said I was slatternly, sideways and worse.
Hiro climbed the slick tin roof of the packing shed and flashed a pocket mirror into the sun. In the middle of the dirt road, she marked out three dots, three dashes, and three dots with sticks. She said his name into her fist and threw it into the wind. She tied strips of aluminum foil to the tail of a kite and sent the kite high up above the trees. She set damp leaves, twigs and oilcloth on fire in a metal bucket, sending smoke signals to the boy.
Ron brought home a black and white photocopy that had been taped to the gas station’s bathroom wall. It was an image of two people, a man and a woman, screwing on top of a copy machine. The bottom of the page had been cut so that people could tear off phone numbers. He dropped it in front of me, “Look at this. This is the stupid shit that is happening in the world.” It was sketchy but I could see the shadows of flattened buttocks and a black crack from which emerged what looked like a crow or a penis. The copy was smudged from having been handled and nearly half the tabs had been torn off.
“This is how people get sick.”
Ron’s parents died of AIDS and drugs. He was determined not to die of AIDS. My parents died in a fire and I think I might have died with them. I touched my face, which is covered in itchy scabs and pockmarks. He handed me a lottery ticket and some smoke and told me again that I wasn’t a monster for accidentally, but most likely, killing my parents in a house fire.
“But I did it.”
I held my breath until my vision started to turn dark and leaned against him with my arm over his shoulder. His bones were vibrating under his tee shirt. I whispered, “You’re doing a good job.” His body shook for a moment and then quieted. We stayed as still as we could, as long as we could.
Amanda Mei Kim is fourth-generation Californian and Bay Area resident. She is a graduate of Brown University (BA, American Civilization) and San Francisco State University (MFA, Creative Writing). She received the James D. Phelan Literary Award and completed residencies at Yefe Nof, Hedgebrook and the Fine Arts Work Center. She was selected by the incredible Ursula K. LeGuin for her writing workshop at the Flight of the Mind. She is an emerging writer who has not yet published.