NINE-HEADED BIRDS 九头鸟
My uncle always said I would be stolen by a nine-headed bird. The kind of bird that spurred the sky into night, looking for girls to kidnap from their beds. Technically, all nine-headed birds are born with ten heads, but one of the heads is severed, its neck hailing blood onto houses below, lashing the morning red. That’s what rust is: blood born from the tenth neck. Uncle always said we were cursed by these birds, that they followed him all the way from Hubei. When I asked why, he told me it was because he’d abandoned his wife there. Because of this, his wife grew nine heads and a pair of wings—delicately laced as lingerie—and flew after him. She’s jealous of me, he said. She will eat anyone who comes near me. Then he chased me around the kitchen with his arms planked out, his mouth screwed-up into a beak, his tongue tattered from all his years of chewing it at night. His bald head braised in sweat. He chased me and made the sound of a nine-headed bird: like a car gunning toward a cliff over the sea. I could see his ribs through the fabric of his wifebeater, his chest rattling, his skin pimpled like something plucked. Hornets were buried inside his bones and if you shook him at night, he woke up in the morning with a mouth full of stinging. According to his stories, nine-headed birds were called ghost cars because of the mating call they made, like anything that accelerates away. They make the sound of being left.
My cousin said Uncle was a liar: the woman he abandoned was not a nine-headed bird and nine-headed birds did not exist. But I did not believe my cousin, mainly because I’d once seen him stick his penis inside a bottle rocket and try to launch it to the moon with the force of his piss, and anyone that stupid must be a bird himself, the kind that pancakes itself on anything glass. I did not believe any of my cousins, who coordinated themselves like heads of the same bird, all of them wearing the same fist-colored scarf in the winter, giving birth in the same season, and dying within days of each other, crashing their cars consecutively or swigging pesticide from the same expired jug we kept in the basement along with boxes of broken light bulbs and DVD box sets of pirated Jackie Chan movies that were so shaky I thought all Chinese movies took place during earthquakes.
Even the chorus of my cousins’ memories seemed implausibly similar, all of them claiming to have witnessed our uncle drive his truck into a lake and resurrect himself, though half of them had not even been born then, including me. That day in Hubei, the sky was purple and puckered like a scar. Back then, Uncle worked at a factory that manufactured infant formula in silver vats. The secret was that the formula contained powdered bone, a certified source of calcium, and there were rumors that the bones were human, hand-crushed into glitter and sifted fine as flour. It was Uncle’s job to run the vats of powder formula through an industrial sifter and pluck out any pieces of femur.
Uncle neither confirmed nor denied the rumors of human bone, though he did once tell us our family was descended from grave-robbers, thieves who cut the limbs off corpses so that we could take their bracelets. There was a rumor that Yeye once severed a human head with a fruit-knife in order to better retrieve its jade necklace, a jade so clear it was soluble in light, not a crack in it but our name. But no one was willing to inherit that memory.
The day Uncle drove his truck into the second-largest lake in town, the water was yellowed like an infected iris and the workers arrived at the factory only to discover that all the vats of infant formula had been replaced with cradles, and inside each cradle was a human infant with the head of a hen. Uncle brought one of the hen-babies home to his wife, who we knew only as the woman legendary for being an extra in a movie we forgot the name of. In the scene, she screams from a neighboring window while the hero jumps out of a train. Later, the train is derailed by a Japanese bomb and our aunt appears again, this time as a refugee walking by foot along the train tracks gnarled and thrown like the limbs of a corpse. In a scene full of trees, dead birds dangle like earrings.
Uncle claimed that his wife beheaded the hen-baby and plucked it and boiled it, but my cousins said it was Uncle who did that, and either way, in order to atone for this murder, he decided to end the family line by driving the neighbor’s truck into the lake. He was sunk for two weeks—his urn already bruised with his name—when he was seen flying off the water like one of those cormorants trained to do tricks for tourists, retrieving Coke cans and plastic rings from the tin-flexed surface of the water and dropping them into plastic buckets.
After his resurrection—of which he had no memory, so he said – he decided to immigrate. He joked that he was on his second life, that he would never touch another bone again. During the summer, he slept outside with his wifebeater rolled up to his neck, belly and nipples exposed, a sunflower growing out of his beer can. He packed the cans with soil the color of scabs and grew things we had never seen anywhere but in cartoons and illustrations, flowers so vivid we thought they’d be screen-smooth when we touched them, pixelated up close. The air scrubbed his bare belly with its salt, and even in his sleep he could slap a mosquito dead before it could syringe through his skin.
Uncle once took me to pirate a movie, sneaking the camcorder into the theater by taping it to the inside of his armpit and wearing a parka. The movie was about the Rugrats and the plot had something to do with going on vacation and getting lost. Uncle laughed a lot during the movie and the camcorder bounced in his lap, almost buoyed into the air by the force of his breath. In the
end, the footage was unsellable and the Rugrats were never found. My mother said he was a bad influence, taking a child like me to do something illegal like that, but my uncle said, it’s not like you raised her anyway, always at work at the restaurant, always with your boyfriend on weekends, that man so skinny he’s a chopstick, what else does he do but skewer you, and my mother punched Uncle in the beak-nose. I never knew bone could make a sound, but his bone sang. It whistled when it broke, whistled a note so unclouded I swore it was the beginning of a song, the lyrics written somewhere on the inside of my skin. Blood hung halfway out of his nose like a rain-swollen earthworm, living there for a week.
Men are like catheters, my mother said: they drain you, but you need them to survive. But I never saw Uncle do any kind of work. He saved his money in an envelope taped to the bottom of his mattress, and every week he took out the envelope and counted what was inside it and taped it back again. There were different stories about how he got the money: one cousin said it was from selling his kidney and another cousin said no, it couldn’t be, his kidneys turned into fists and punched out of his body and his liver grew legs and ran away, ever since he started drinking so much, and another cousin said it was money he won in bets, because he was the kind of man who bet on everything, dogs and horses and pigeons and when it would rain and when the widowed neighbor’s kidney stone would finally pass, born the color of an uncut diamond, her moans keeping us awake at night, her moan like a brick through our windows, and my other cousin said no, he didn’t have enough luck to earn much, he littered his luck everywhere and we picked it up after him, and another cousin said it was inherited money from the time he turned in his landlord and burnt down the house and was rewarded for being a class ally, and another cousin said why would he be rewarded with money, wouldn’t that just make him as bad as the landlord, and one cousin said it was stolen from his wife, the one he abandoned, and another said that the wife had actually abandoned him first and that’s why he drove into the lake and didn’t die, and then one cousin said is it true she’s a bird now, and another cousin said no, but most of the other cousins said maybe, because we are a family of people who are followed.
My mother’s boyfriend, the one shaped like a chopstick, became her stalker and even once hid in my closet for three days until Uncle caught him peeing into a potted plant in the living room and chased him out while wielding a combination lock. My cousin was followed by a fish-shaped cloud that for years only rained on him, and we found out it was because in a past life he had been a country that caused a drought in another country and this was the only way to atone for it, by being perpetually soggy. Years ago a crow followed my cousin with a wedding ring in its beak, and we figured either the crow wanted to marry her or this was some punishment for having stolen dead people’s rings a country ago, and either way we probably deserved it.
Uncle watered the sunflower in his beer can and kept it by the windowsill in the room I shared with three of my cousins because, he claimed, the light was better where I was. Light followed me the way nine-headed birds followed him. Light like a key, turning inside the soft of my eye. Light like a lock swinging toward the side of my skull. With his back turned to me, he rotated the
sunflower twice clockwise and asked if I ever wanted to get married. Maybe, I said, but only to a woman, never to a man, and he said this was a good idea, as long as the woman I married was not made of metal. His wife had worked in Wuhan as a traffic director for years before she met him, and she’d been hit by so many cars that all her joints were puzzled together with alloys and it was impossible for her to immigrate because so much of her was metallic. Airport security would never allow her to pass. My cousins said this was an excuse for not bringing her, but I believed him.
I believed he’d given birth to himself, because that was the way he did things, like a forgotten god: the sunflower grew overnight from a mix of soil and beer-spit, and somewhere there was a lake he spent three days at the bottom of, learning to remix water into air, learning to live unlit.
At the bottom of the lake, he said to me, I met a nine-headed bird. Each of the nine heads was wearing a crown like the Burger King kind. Each of them spoke to me and said listen, to live you have to find our tenth head. I asked Uncle if he ever found it, and he placed his umbrella-broad palm on my head and pretended to unscrew it off my neck. Found it, he said, and laughed a corkscrew laugh, undoing his throat as it rose.
When Uncle had a stroke the day before his 47th birthday, my cousins dragged him feet-first from the kitchen to the hallway that was perpetually clogged with his corpse-grey mattress. His face turned the color of a nickel and dropped onto the carpet and was temporarily lost. None of them admitted to it later, but when he died that night, one of my cousins flipped him off the mattress to un-tape the money underneath. Each of them suspected the other, arguing about who had been alone in the room, and the whole time they argued, Uncle’s body was face-down on the carpet. Later when I flipped him back over again, his face was flat and elongated like a penny rolled through one of those novelty keepsake machines, the kind of machine you find at amusement parks.
Only Uncle ever wanted to take me to amusement parks. If you want amusement, my cousins said, just go to sleep and dream for free. But Uncle lent me pennies to crank through the machine, and I loved how skin-thin it was in the end, how the penny resembled none of the presidents, its date erased by pressure. I loved how easy its history was rewritten, forged into fiction, Mickey Mouse’s face numbed into its side. How easy it was to turn currency into memory. Uncle kept his will taped to the wall, the one that said to send the money under the mattress back to his wife in Hubei, but we never saw the money again, and we watched for which cousin would be followed next, this time by the ghost of our uncle.
But nothing followed us, not even the neighborhood strays with bald bellies, not even wind-lifted litter. Not even our shadows kept up behind us, which meant Uncle had not become a ghost or a bird or anything, and I was the one who kept looking at the sky for something with nine heads and a tenth one severed, who kept mistaking cars U-turning on our street for the sound of the bird, the motorized monotone of its grief.
The thing about nine-headed birds, Uncle always said, is that they bleed. They fight each other featherless. When they kill their prey, they retrieve each other’s eyes and try to steal the meat from each other’s beaks, but it doesn’t matter anyway, because everything they swallowed would end up in the same belly. It doesn’t matter who ate or who starved because they shared a stomach, and it’s only because they forgot this that they fought. The wife in Hubei wrote us a letter eventually, telling us she had long ago remarried and forgotten Uncle anyway, that there was no need to send anything, but out of guilt—we still didn’t know whose—we sold our matching gold chains and agate bangles and sent her the cash in a double-padded envelope. I slipped in a flattened penny impressed with the face of Donald Duck, along with a note asking if the lake was still there, the one he drove into, and if it was possible that it was a trick lake, that the water was just a tongue-thick layer and beneath it was air, air and a city, a city where all the dead are heirs to the living, where heads never outnumber their bodies and hunger is hunted extinct and the air is so fertile-wet you are watered into wings.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow and Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel Bestiary is forthcoming from One World / Random House in September 2020. She lives in New York and can be found at kmingchang.com.