em x. liu

Em X. Liu is a writer and medical graduate who is fascinated by stories of the flesh, above all. Chronically cold-blooded, Em nevertheless resides in Toronto, Canada. emdashliu.com

SUCKLE, SWALLOW by em x. liu

In my mouth, your name is silt and sweet freshwater, like the stream that bounded you and yours into that space the rest of the village didn’t dare cross. Yong’en—Yong—En—Yongen. 永 for forever and 恩 for a kindness. It must have meant my kindness; you have never been kind to me, my Yongen. When we were girls you would organize the other kids so that as soon as my attention flagged, they would peel away from me–your long hair and shrill laughter flickering on the wind at the front of the pack. It was a shock every time, a reminder of my own freakishness. Proof of your own belonging. We understood each other in this way, marginal from each other. At the end of the day, we were the two who would sling our patchy knapsacks over our shoulders and trudge the long way down a longer dirt road back to the nothing and nowhere place we came from. You would kick every stray scrap of metal you found, just to see how far it could skitter. Yongen, have you ever loved me as I love you? I love you. I love you like I love the solid handle of an axe in my hands, the surety of its useful violence. I love you the way I love the chick we raised into meat, enough to slit your throat myself. I know now that your mother hired me not because of my inherent talent—although I have learned quickly what is expected of me—but for my unique ability to shoulder a necessary cruelty. Yours, and then later, mine. *We all wondered about the pigs your family kept, away from the rest of the animals. The day your grandmother died, some upperclassman asshole paid off the funeral home to tell him if anyone showed up. And, of course, no one did. What supposedly were her ashes were interred in the community shrine and we dutifully visited every Zhongyuan with our fragrant joss and tacky paper bills that came in stacks, plasticked together straight from the city. We mourned. I stopped trimming the ragged edges of my hair in solidarity with you, close enough to be considered a familiar person by now. Your mother spoke idly about her at dinner, each of us drinking the rich, steaming pork bone broth that fed us that winter. When we got in a childish spat–a pillow fight–we spilled your grandmother’s hair all over the ground. Still speckled pepper and not entirely grey. When your mother hurried into the room, sewing kit in hand and sterner than she’d ever been, I finally understood the peculiarities of your family. Your spirits were stubborn, sticky. Leave anything of the body unused and the soul would never rest, doomed to wander the earth, unaware.  Your mother startled at night, when you were too deep in sleep to notice and I was in the kitchen, sharpening her tools. She clutched at my sleeve often, paranoid that she had not done enough, that something of her mother was left behind, her essence congealed in a leftover morsel of her body like meat fibres stuck between her teeth. To leave anything behind was anathema to her–unfilial, ungrateful. She would have eaten clay had it been baked with her mother’s leftover blood, gobbled it down like soup tofu, its dark red delicacy. * I abruptly remembered the first time I had stepped foot on your family’s land—your mother was teaching you how best to butcher: she had your small hand encompassed in hers, fingers wrapped around a wicked blade. One cut, Yongen, she said, and you twisted your face inelegantly, like you were about to cry. But you didn’t flinch when you made the fatal slash. Your mother took the now-dead animal from your hands and drained its thick, dark blood from the clean cut you made so well. That night, we tossed the sweet chicken meat with mala spices, peppercorn and fresh onion; we fried the skin and licked crispy fat off our lips. When we picked the bones clean, we tossed them back into the already steaming broth, meant to last the week. You could never handle your spice, so I carefully scraped all that gritty red off your food, poured just enough soy sauce over to salt it well, and you ate what I fed you. Your mother offered me a job and a place to stay the next day. It was my job to scrub the bleeding basin clean—not a drop left over, she said, and I instinctively knew she meant it literally. I rubbed the little plastic tub until my fingertips hurt and wrinkled, rinsed it out half a dozen times so the water ran out clean and clear as a spring when I was done, and your mother gave me a chicken bone still bursting with marinated flavour to suckle on as reward. Afterward, she told me to chew hard until the pieces splintered under my molars. Swallow. *How did we end up here, Yongen? The branch, splitting you open. The dirt road with its skid marks like regret. I’d fallen beside you, but I was intact, miraculously. Your soft mouth, open in a scream. *“Did your mother make you eat after lao lao’s funeral?” I asked you, my teeth against your skin. You opened your mouth and moaned, low and long. “Don’t make me say it,” you panted, grasping onto my arm. “That’s so fucked up.” “What about Xiao Lu? When he drowned in the river that year?” Your cousin, pearly eyed and dimple-cheeked. Fat rolls still on his chubby arms. It was a strange year. All our crops flooded too, that fatal river overflowing with fresh rain, but our table was plentiful that spring. We feasted. 五花肉 bubbled in wine and dark soy, a rust coloured marinate that swallowed the gritty pieces of rock sugar greedily. A broth so thick and freshsweet it warmed me up inside out for the whole evening.“Don’t,” you said again, but I could see it in your eyes. Saliva flecked your lips. I wondered if you were thinking of that abundance again. Or if you were only scared. *You blinked, one fat tear rolling over your cheek. “You’ll take care of me?” you asked. “After?” I imagined your mother dutifully stuffing her own mother’s hair in that pillow. I imagined myself winding your long hair into braids, bundling branches with it, ready to burn. Carefully, I rubbed my way up your spine. You watched me with wide eyes, your lips parted. Through the blotchy red and your pinked eyes, I thought there was the beginning of some flush suffusing your face. I had left your hair half cleansed; some of it fell across your lips and left behind easy strings of crimson, your own blood streaking your mouth. My fingers found what I was looking for. The branch was thick, twisted, its surface ribbed where it pushed its way into you. The edges of you around it all soft. Skin taut. Slippery with more fluid. I leaned into you and you pulled me in close, your other hand winding in the waist of my shirt. “Please,” you told me, and for the first time, it wasn’t some form of denial, so I hugged you tender and started working you open. I fucked you before I ever kissed you, Yongen. The branch primed you for it, introduced the notion of being open to your body, at once so soft and yet so unyielding, but I was the one who pulled you apart. You clung to me as I eased the tip of my finger into you, crooked so I could find the right angle. Your lips moved soundlessly, your eyes fluttering shut. I slipped in one, then two, rocking slow enough to ease you into it. Your skin was stubborn. Even with the ragged edge, you tore so slowly. “Trust me,” I said, even marred and terrified, you answered me automatically with a soft sound, a nod. I would be grateful to you, Yongen. I would leave no trace behind.  

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