In the mouth of every memory, my mother. Light glinting along her jaw like teeth. She is halving heads of Chinese cabbage, fists of cilantro. I can't cut vegetables because she keeps the knives out of reach, afraid I will become accustomed to violence. I am limited to peeling potatoes and carrots. Scrapes and small scratches. When I nick my knuckles, I don't find the cut until I notice the well of blood. The reversal of hurt. My mother says I'm lucky, to lose something so easily. To have a wound with no memory of it. She ghosts against the scar silvering her wrist, veins thinning into tree trunks. She knows anger the way an ax knows wood. The back of her hand flat as a blade. We flinch when the clock strikes twelve, and she shelves the cutting board behind the sink, sheathes all the knives. She clears away a space for me at the counter before softening each grain of rice in warm water, placing her hands in the pot. Instead, rust between each joint. When we sit together, our shadows merge like metal fevering beneath the same forge. Still, the temperature rises and a degree of separation remains between us.
My mother is always hovering, holding herself back. When she was pregnant, she was told to expect a miscarriage. She would confront her reflection in the glass, dragging her nails against her face, gasping open. She thought she was unrecognizable. Instead, she looked like her mother with more of her hurt. When she went to the hospital, she clenched her fists until the veins came to the surface of her skin for air. A birthmark blooming beneath her ribs in memoriam. The only thing that you are capable of carrying is grief, her mother said, and she believed her. How my body was buried in her body and she was so grave, so cold and unmoving as the nurse delivered me like news of a relative's death. The nurse told her to hold her child and all she could see were her hands, rivering in red. Then I screamed and she started to sob, said take her away, I keep hurting her. We were each other's only family. There was no one to tell when I was born.
My mother doesn't speak of the hospital but still, I mistake the stretch marks clawing my waist with the white tissue on her stomach from the pregnancy. Beneath my fingernails, the cuticles scaled with rust. In the department stores, I start searching for larger, looser clothing, which means more stitches, longer scars seaming the fabric. The salesclerk comments that we don't look like we're related, our faces too different, wounds too foreign, and my mother feels relief in a flood. I flush. Sometimes, I measure my body against my mother's body and I am larger than her anger. I outgrow her grief, submerge in smaller memories in which I slot into her shadow like a child, heartbeat still inseparable from her own.
In the bathroom, I imagine a gap between my thighs, wide enough to show gums, and skin my teeth. When I double over, each hurt is reflected into two. The pads of my fingers softening with spit as I try to ingest the prints and regurgitate a different, changed body. Instead, I climb into the belly of the bathtub and replicate birth, come up to the surface of my grief for air. I keep emptying my lungs as if screaming but nothing leaves my throat so I hold the backs of my knees, pull the patellas closer to my heart in a fetal position. I can name every limb in this body but not possess it like a ghost returning home. On the other side of the door, my mother is standing against the wood, pressing her palms against it as she tries to detect the quiet pulse of my gasping. Her hands are heavy and mine are heaving. We are separated only by a few syllables.
When I sit at the table that evening, my mother offers me a bowl that she had filled with her memories of me, mouth sticky with sweet rice, soft fruit. Instead, I trace the pattern of blue rabbits and bluer moons. I think about Chang'e and the loneliness of hunger as my mother mirages a second stomach, swallows the leftovers from her own attempt at loving. She knows how to eat for two but she still gets sick. I hold back her hair as she empties. My fingers soft on her shoulders, small circles on her spine. She bends her body into a fetal position and I pull her toward my own. I feel so full of fossilized griefs so I dig my fingernails deep and excavate my ribcage, clear enough space to carry this wound without speaking of it.
My mother starts eating by herself in the evening, solitary and shadowless. When the light begins to thin, I cradle my head against her collarbones as she stands still and wooden, sheathing her hands against my sharp bones, my serrated back. How the body opens to both tenderness and the touch of a blade, leaving a threshold where we can linger before we close our mouths like doors. There will always be a distance between us. I am not my mother. It is easier for her to love an echo of her body than her body.
Ai Li Feng is a young writer with work in Waxwing. She reads for the Farside Review.