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by Catherine Kim


Her mother’s corpse was a quiet, hollow thing: a garden of briars and brambles wrapped in thick roots and bleached bones. Fat insects with bright shells and narrow limbs crawled down her branches, chasing streams of red sap that exuded the heady fragrance of burnt sugar and old leaves. Her arms wrapped tightly around Summer’s neck, clinging to her back with sharp spines and the soft gore of crushed berries. She spoke tenderly into the girl’s ear, like a long sliver slipping under her skin. Whispered in glass chimes with a wicked tongue even as her body groaned with the deep surrender of an old tree felled for lumber. The corpse pleaded for sunlight and rice wine and her dead husband, for paper pictures she could tear and scatter like seeds from a withered fruit: slow objects she could pet and hold and keep. She wanted, just as deeply and as emptily as when she was alive and had a stomach of flesh and that flesh had memories of hunger. The corpse wound tightly around the orphan as if to eat the girl alive: loose bark and limp weeds tangling with human hair and moths with wings the colour of her eyes. And Summer wondered when she’d become the parent, and her mother her child, in this strange new world where the dead spoke softly as the living vanished helplessly into the sky. She thought back to when her father was alive but sick, and her mother would come home in the middle of the day, exhausted and adrift after being fired from another job. Lamenting her broken English like language was a lump of coal in her mouth, lingering with an old heat and tasting like extinction. “You’ll do better than me,” she’d say in her native Korean, and Summer would feel her heart lurch in her throat, like the trill of a magpie foraging twigs for an empty nest. It was an idle thought, and unworthy of them both, but the girl had carried her dead mother on her back for a lifetime and a day, and the sun was pounding hot drumbeats from above with every step she took down the long road to the ocean. And with each fresh burst of pain from the open sores on her feet, the corpse would bloom another flower into being, gentle and ugly like the plump crown of a garden weed.

“I want you to know,” the corpse began, a cloud of pollen spilling from her lips. “I don’t hate you for what you’ve done to yourself. Once upon a time, I was just as afraid as I was disgusted, and seeing you in a dress was like watching a building collapse from the inside. You had such a bright future ahead of you, and I’d given so much of myself so you could have a better life than I did as a child. Instead you turned out to be a transvestite.” Her body shook with a slow and tangled laughter. “Drowning yourself in the fantasy that the world would bend around you to make everything right. Like a child diving to the bottom of a deep river, believing God would hear his prayers and turn him into stone.”

Summer trudged wordlessly down the road, her neck sore from her mother’s grip and her arms rubbed raw from the rough bark of the dead woman’s legs. The heated asphalt simmered through the thin soles of her slippers to cook her feet. They passed through the remains of a ghost town: pretty like a picture and as vacant as a postcard. Parade barricades blocked off the side streets from the empty traffic, while wooden boards and canvas sheets covered the windows and the signage of abandoned shopfronts. Downtown was blanketed in an overgrowth of twisting roots that tore through plaster and wrapped around telephone poles, thin limbs dangling from power lines and bleeding violent smoke. Hazard signs warned of brimstone and disease with foreboding symbols and bright geometry. A large iron bell lay cracked on a shattered stretch of sidewalk, fallen from a church spire hanging over the main street like a tired threat. Summer heard the warbling of birdsong and the thump of heavy wingbeats, but when she looked to the sky, she saw only the feathers they’d left behind. And the dead woman continued to mourn in hushed whispers, picking away at the girl’s unkempt hair with knotted fingers.

“We have this much in common,” the corpse clawed at a stubborn tangle, tearing out the offending hairs by the root. “Your grandmother didn’t think very much of me. Like I was a sad little doll that came bundled with my brothers, something to clothe and feed and beat with the heel of her fist whenever it made too much noise. I hated her too,” she admitted, her stems budding thorns. “Not for her cruelty. I hated her for being poor.” A housefly flew out of a gap in her teeth. “For being a fishmonger’s wife, coming home from the market with the stench of saltwater and blood, embarrassing me in front of my friends with her darker skin and crass tongue. Most of all,” she craned her neck and spat out a fat beetle, “for being so satisfied with what we had, when she should’ve wanted more for her children.”

“My mother once told me not to depend on a man who’d never had to gut his own meal,” the corpse recalled with an open grin. “I brought home a man whose hands were soft and weak. From a white-collar family, blessed with a degree from a good university and spoiled with an exemption from the military. Your father should never have wanted for anything much,” her grin stretched with blackened gums and wooden teeth, “but he had such dreams. He’d marry a young wife in a big church to the clamour of ribbons and bells. Move overseas to study English Literature at a school in America. Spoil his children with his steady love and heavy discipline. Visit the homeland over the holidays on a professor’s salary and reputation, with gifts purchased from Western brands and many pictures for his youngest sister’s photo albums. And he needed me, you see?” Her smile ground into splinters. “He’d never have worked for his ambitions as much as he did, if he had no one in his life who knew how much it could take from you, to climb a ladder from the bottom when your hands are hot and blistered. Dreams are always kinder in your imagination,” the corpse flicked the girl on the temple as she stumbled over her own feet, “when you’ve never felt their loss stolen away with each pound of flesh.”

Summer cracked the ache from her neck as she approached the wreck of a city bus blocking the road ahead. She pried open the doors with a huff of effort and climbed up past the driver’s seat, where a uniform lay in the shape of a man like a mock-up of a crime scene, or an open casket without a body. A public advisory burst through the static on the dashboard radio, a steady voice instructing citizens to shelter in their homes, avoid gathering in public spaces, and to stop listening to the news to prevent the spread of panic. Several of the seats were occupied by stone statues, pockmarked with age: two lovers asleep in their embrace, a schoolgirl clutching her backpack like a shield, a man with the head of a snarling lion baring its teeth, and a tortoise with a thick stele atop its shell. Summer pried herself loose from the grasp of her mother’s corpse, which had wrapped around her hips with long, gnarled roots. She settled into a pair of seats near the back of the bus with the corpse straddled atop her knees, the bark of her mother’s chin scraping against her shoulder, muffling the woman’s voice into the flesh of her exposed neck. The vehicle’s engines groaned like the belly of a beached whale, belching out black smoke with the stench of burnt tar.

“What a small and useless dream, to be a woman!” the dead mother shivered. “To hollow yourself piece by piece, until you’ve lost more of yourself than you’ve retained—given to the care and feeding of other people’s gardens.” The suspension creaked, and the corpse squirmed with discomfort in Summer’s lap. “Sucking the marrow from your bones to feed your nest.” She twisted her head to the side and unhinged her jaw. A wet frog crawled out of her throat and plopped onto the floor of the bus, followed by a snarling mass of worms, a full set of human finger bones, and the guts of a music box plucking the last notes of a folk song. Summer pounded her mother’s back with her fist, and the corpse spat out a mouthful of brine, before settling her head back into the nook of the girl’s pulse. “You had more than I was ever given,” she rasped, loosening her hold on the girl’s quickly bruising arms. “Just by being born a boy. You ruined more than I could ever give you, when you decided being an honest freak was better than living a good life as a quiet husband.”

And the corpse curled up into herself like a plant exposed to an open flame. Her knees tucked into her chest as her arms swelled and split into a hundred sickly limbs, swallowing her form in a canopy of blossoms and leaves. “Give me my son back,” the dead mother begged, her nose buried in the crook of the girl’s jaw. “Give him back to me, and I’ll forgive you for everything. He meant so much to me—I love him still. I could never hate you,” she confessed, a stray twig caressing her cheek. “Not when I can still feel the bones of his face buried beneath your skin.” Summer tightened her grip on the corpse as the woman heaved in grief, insects skittering back into their burrows and flowers seeking shelter in their buds. She cradled her mother in her arms, an open hand rubbing circles into the wood of her stomach as she mouthed the words of a lullaby into her naked skull: A mother’s hand is a medicine hand!

Back and forth, Summer rocked the wild, hollow thing in her grasp, as she shut her eyes and followed the corpse into a dream. A girl knelt in front of a garden on the shore before the Pacific, grasping the dark shaft of an iron hatchet in her sweaty palms. A dead woman taught the orphan how to craft herself a magic boat using lumber felled from her overgrowth. And she guided the girl through the steps of a matricide: how to dismember her limbs with quick strokes, peel the bark from her flesh with her fingers, and pull the splinters out of her nail beds by sucking sharply through her teeth. Swing, crack! The dead woman sung a parable of a woodcutter who sought a blessing from a river spirit. As an offering, he threw his axe into the river, and the spirit emerged from the waters to bless him with a golden fortune: enough so he would never again have to blister his hands to keep himself fed. But when the woodcutter reached out to claim the gift, the river spirit stole away both his offering and the fortune, disappearing into the water and leaving the man to mourn the life he could have lived. Beads of sweat trailed down the girl’s cheeks as she worked, stripping the garden of all its many plants: from lemon bells and trout lilies to ribwort and chickweeds. She dug out the amber from her mother’s eyes and plucked the berries from her stems. Picked the most vibrant of her flowers and tucked them into her hair. She gorged herself on her mother’s fruit and adorned herself with the woman’s jewels, until her belly swelled with fullness and her body glimmered with borrowed sunlight.

And Summer traced a slow path around her mother’s corpse, piling stones and clumps of earth and tired arguments together into a makeshift grave. Kneeling before the mound she prayed, with her heart in her mouth, and her hands and her head and her knees in the dirt. Once upon a time, back when Summer was young and sexless, her mother brought home a plastic bucket with a live catch from the market and taught her only child how to gut a fish. They’d used the bathtub as a trough, and afterwards her mother had rubbed liquid soap deep into the lines of her palms, shivering with a nervous energy and wearing a guilty and beautiful smile. “You’ll do better than me,” the woman had said, and for once her voice had shaken with doubt. I was meant to be better than her, she’d muttered to herself, and neither then nor after had Summer's hands felt so clean. And so she prayed before her mother’s grave, pouring out a hundred regrets and a lifetime of longing: a failed marriage, a missed childhood, hospital bills and a foreclosed home, evenings spent together like strangers passing by in the dark, drifting further and further apart as the girl hung from a knife’s edge, stuck between filial duty and personal freedom. She sat back on her haunches and waited, as saltwater clung to her skin and bile crawled up her throat: watching for the first sign of a fresh root to crawl through the rocks of her mother’s grave and grasp for sunlight.


Catherine Kim writes stories about identity, kinship, and desire. She majored in gender studies at Harvard College.


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