Rainie Tsai Learns to Suspend Her Disbelief, Which Is Impressive, Given the Immense Weight of It, and Anita Hsia Presents Her Skeletal Assumptions
Rainie passed the empty lots where stray dogs steeped in their shadows, asleep. She hid her wrists in her sleeves. Once, Anita told her that getting bitten by an animal meant you were chosen by its species and would transform into one of its own. Since then, Rainie decided to shy from teeth and shelter her current shape. She preferred her borders not be breached. As she passed the shade of the sycamore, she did not step into its shadow, though she knew its shadow contained restorative properties, which she discovered once when she and Anita fell asleep with their legs knitted through its raised roots. They woke up hours later with perfectly exfoliated skin and no eczema on their knuckles.
Still, Rainie avoided walking alone to any part of the tree, ethereal or physical. She walked up to the lot instead, pretending that she was not stargazing at the strays, indulging her fear of fangs. She told herself she was walking in a straight line to the grocery store to buy a pair of new flip-flops for her mother, who insisted on the sanctity of clean feet, which had been violated by Rainie’s hourly regurgitation of sand onto their carpet. Rainie’s mother disapproved of her eating sand, even after Rainie said (in truth, she was repeating Anita) that eating sand was actually good for certain birds, since it provided important friction in their digestive system. Maybe in the next life you’ll be birds, but not this one, her mother said. In this one, you have a bad chin and good manners. Buy flip-flops only.
Before Rainie was allowed to go to the store by herself, before she was accompanied by the weapon of red thread around her neck, she used to go with her mother and brothers on certain free evenings. One of her mother’s favorite stories, which were few—she tended to accumulate stories like seeds, but never planted any—took place when Rainie was little and used to sit in the shopping cart as her mother pushed her through the seafood section. The whole back of the store was bright with displays of fish, some filleted and some still zipped into their skins, others gargling in tanks. According to her mother,
Rainie had pointed at every fluorescent display and mumbled, Working. Not working. Working. Not working. It took seven trips before Rainie’s mother realized this was a precise system of classification: All the foil-bright fish swimming in tanks were Working, and all the fish flayed on banks of ice were Not Working.
Working, Not Working. Rainie didn’t have a word for living. Whenever she saw Anita greet the sycamore by rubbing her haunches on its trunk, Rainie wanted to turn away. Even now, walking past the tree for the third time this evening, she wondered if the sycamore was Working or Not Working. She decided she didn’t know the tree personally enough to label it anything. Another time, Anita asked her to classify their own bodies as Working or Not Working, and Rainie hadn’t answered.
I don’t know, Rainie would respond now, how I would sort us. She only knew that Anita was alive in a way that watered everything else around her, alive with such generosity that she gave it away without knowing, resuscitating the sycamore and the sidewalk and the walls of the duplex that cleaved them apart, and a part of Rainie wanted to not be touched by it. Wanted to function without feeling everything, feeding its history. Anita wanted to tackle those fish tanks to the ground, release the fish, and render the hallways into rivers, but Rainie was relieved to walk away from those shallow fish-eyes, their foggy jelly. Those fish-eyes gaped at her, pickled and unknowing, forever static in their tanks, safe where she stranded them. When Rainie left the seafood section first, threading herself through the dairy aisle, Anita stayed behind with the aquatic species, circling the same lobster tank, waiting for Rainie to return. Since they’d decided to be dogs, Rainie was at least comforted by the knowledge that Anita was waiting for her. Every morning by the door, just like a stray, her mother said. Waiting to be fed or pet.
Last week, Anita tugged her to the lot when the dogs were sleeping off the heat and curdling on the surface of the blacktop. Yards away, the sycamore cast its shadow over them like a tent. Grabbing Rainie’s wrist, Anita dragged her to the chain-link fence, pointing at their rusted mouths and claiming that she saw a boy pissing through the fence, his penis slotted through the hexagonal hole. He was following your rule, Anita said. He was doing it in the lot, just like the dogs! Anita sounded impressed, but Rainie said it sounded like a recipe for tetanus. Skin was thinnest on your private parts, she said; it was what her mother told her: Scrub the folds of yourself gently and silently, and don’t linger too long in your own shadow. Don’t press your own pleats. Touch was only a tool.
But Anita laughed and said it was true, she’d seen it, and even better than that, she’d spotted a red dog squatting on the other side of the fence, catching the arc of piss in its open mouth, bathing in it, rolling pearls of it down its spine. When Rainie said again that this was a lie—she’d never seen one of those dogs catch anything, and she’d thrown plenty of sticks and pebbles at them through that very fence— Anita shook her head and said, You lack self-belief. Rainie rolled this statement down her spine, but somehow it lodged itself, and even now, as Rainie walked past the fence yet again, she thought of what Anita said next: Let’s try it. Let’s try being the boy and the fence and the dog. Rainie asked which she was supposed to be, and Anita said, You choose. It felt like a test, so Rainie said she would be the boy, since he had amazed Anita first, delighting her with his ability to pierce the fence and stitch himself into it. She was relieved when Anita seemed pleased by this answer. Try it, Anita said, but when Rainie pressed the whole front of her body to the chain-link fence, which was neon-hot as a grill, she found that she had nothing to fit inside the holes of the fence except her fists, her wrists. Anita observed her posture, walking around her a few times, then tapped her own nose and said, You need a boner first. That’s what you need.
As Anita continued to pace behind Rainie, stepping on her shadow until it was ragged, Rainie finally asked what a boner was and how to become one. You don’t become a boner, you own one, Anita said, standing directly behind her. Or is it that you carry one? I forget. Rainie turned her face so that her other cheek hissed against the fence, bearing its share of the heat. She imagined herself patterned now, like those mottled dogs in the lot beyond her, who had no word for ownership, who craved it all the same. Until Anita released her, Rainie thought, she would not move. Okay, Anita said, since we don’t have a bone between our legs like raccoons do—she’d once found a severed raccoon tail beneath a parked car, and inside its sleeve of fur was a bone, broken in several places and knuckled like a finger—we will just have our shadows act it out.
Standing beside Rainie, her legs a stray’s length apart, Anita pressed her heels into the concrete and faced the fence. To her left, her shadow slanted across the sidewalk, slashing it in half. Copy me, Anita said, and extended her hand as if she was going to shake someone else’s. She lowered her hand so that it seemed like a stalk jutting from her crotch, her fingers nudging through the hole in the fence. When Rainie glanced down, she saw that Anita had limbed her shadow, amending the body written on concrete. See, Anita said. If you just looked at my shadow, you wouldn’t even know that’s my hand. I could call it anything. Rainie, despite her instinct to dispute everything, couldn’t help but agree. If you considered only the pavement, you might think Anita owned a beak instead of a crotch, that her three- dimensional body matched her shadow’s flat anatomy. Later, Anita would use this as so-called proof that she could invent anything. For now, Rainie opened her mouth in wonder. For now, Rainie was not sick of Anita staring down at her shadow when they walked on the street or the sidewalk, hooking her fingers behind Rainie’s ears to impersonate horns, or instructing her to lift her skirt so that their shadow could have wings, despite the risk of attracting perverts.
But when Anita’s fingers pushed deeper into the fence, the dogs woke. Their tails snapped up like antennae, tuned in to the sky’s bad mood. Rainie grabbed Anita’s wrist and pulled her back. Dragging her home by the elbow, Rainie ignored Anita’s protests about how she wasn’t ready to leave, how she hadn’t even finished peeing yet. You know you couldn’t actually have peed through that fence, Rainie said, unless your fingers are faucets and your palms are bladders. Anita studied her hands so closely that Rainie regretted saying this, and when they were home, Anita asked if her palms could be bladders, or storage containers for prayers. All skin is just a bottle, Anita said, so what can’t I contain?
Rainie reminisced on all this, as she was prone to do. Anita is action, Rainie is reflection, Rainie thought, though she knew Anita would snort at this and say, What’s the difference? Why sort us? But Rainie had been doing it since she was a toddler in the seafood section, and it was difficult for her to stop. Giving up on the grocery store, she circled the lot three times each and then went home, counting the sidewalk cracks and crossing them out with her feet. At home, Rainie told her mother it had looked like it was going to rain, so she decided to turn back. Her mother didn’t say anything about how it was clearly not going to rain, as it had not rained in years and the TV was contemplating the possibility of importing clouds. Rainie had no excuse for returning with empty hands, except that every time she neared the sycamore, no matter if she was walking sideways or forward, its shadow always seeped into her mind and redirected her intentions.
That night on the middle bunk of her bed, Rainie looked up at the slats of the top bunk where her brother slept, his toes tapping on the end of the bedframe like the percussion of rain. For as long as Rainie had lived here, she remembered only one rain. It had happened when she was very little. She felt no affinity for the wet, and though her mother said it was a relief to finally have rain after centuries of drought, Rainie threaded her head through the doorway and immediately retracted it: The rain was mouth-warm, and it felt like being relentlessly pelted by her brothers’ spit, except the sky had no forearm she could bite in retaliation. But what she remembered best was the aftermath of the rain.
The next day, she and Anita stomped through the gutters and plucked earthworms, writhing like intestines, off the silver pavement. The sidewalk was veined with golden water, everywhere a mottled mirror. There was one puddle near the lot that was deep as a sleeve, wide as their torsos, and when they kneeled and reached their arms into it, they couldn’t feel a bottom.
The puddle was so bright that Rainie believed she could pocket it like a penny. But Anita warned her not to remove it. I’ll investigate further, Anita said, slipping her leg into the puddle’s mouth, and it swallowed her to the socket. When Rainie asked her how it was possible, since there had never been a meteor crater here, no explanation for why the water gathered here so endlessly, Anita said it was clearly a portal. Something was waiting to emerge, to breach the skin of this sea. She made Rainie wait with her under the sycamore tree, and when it was afternoon, the puddle alert as an eye, Anita dragged her over to the water and pointed down.
When they looked in—even now, Rainie wondered if this was some prank of the rain—they saw the faces of dogs. Rainie turned her head to catch the dogs craning over them, but they were not there. They existed only inside the sidewalk, their faces surfacing in the puddle. Their fur was patchy from years of licking one another roughly, and their ears were perfect corners. Water dribbled from their chins, a miniature rain. The skin of the puddle shivered, though Rainie was not stepping in it at all, despite her desire to smear those faces away, to turn from whatever fate was revealed. Anita didn’t seem startled at all to see those dogs and instead wrapped her hand around Rainie’s elbow and tugged her gently, as if to give them some privacy. As they backed away, their heels numb against the sidewalk, the surface of the puddle vibrated like a drum skin, and a paw punctured the membrane, then several paws, then dozens of paws, dogs bursting out of the water, a whole pack of them, streaming out onto the sidewalk, shaking out their fur like capes, water spattering everywhere. They nosed at the chain-link fence or lunged down the street. The pavement beneath Rainie’s feet vibrated for miles, bruising her soles, and she resisted the urge to run toward the sycamore and climb its branches.
Anita stood her ground. There are more about to be born, she said. Kneeling, she pressed her palms to the ground and memorized the rhythm of the dogs as they ran along the underside of the pavement and gushed from the hole, hundreds more. Their paws clapped against Anita’s feet through the concrete, meeting in applause, while Rainie felt them muffled, a distant stampede. Rainwater surged up from the puddle, cresting over them as the dogs geysered out.
The next day, when the world was once again crowded with overlapping droughts, the dogs gathered in the lot, bathing in saliva instead of rain. That was the beginning of their kinship with the strays. Rainie asked what the dogs were doing inside concrete in the first place, and Anita said it wasn’t their choice to fossilize. They had to wait for the rain to make a door, for this world to grow pores.
Excerpted from Organ Meats copyright © 2023 by K-Ming Chang. Used by permission of One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.