In the beginning of his dying, Agong rode the bus up and down the coast of California with no money and no English and no pants. A woman at a bus stop called to tell us there was a man straddling the bench like a pony, alternatively simulating hoof-noises with his boots and neighing through his nose. His spit was like a yo-yo string, a glistening strand that descended from his mouth before being slurped back up again.
Ama had trained him to do that—No leaking on my floors, she said. The woman who found Agong at the bus stop had seen the phone number we’d painted on the back of his windbreaker with glow-in-the-dark acrylic, below which we wrote Do Not Approach. Ama said she considered tying a leash to him, but it was hard to find a rope long enough when she didn’t even want to share a room with him. Find me a rope the length of an ocean, and I’ll tie the knot myself, she said.
We were told to pick him up somewhere in central California, where the sun stank like a gone-bad egg and strawberries were sold in baskets by the side of the road, sweet as toothache. In the middle of the school day, my armpits still jungled with gym-class sweat, my mother drove us down in our bruise-colored station wagon. The car was so hot the windshield steamed, but when I tried leaning out the window, she rolled it up and said, We aren’t dogs, so don’t act like one.
We found Agong piled inside a bus stop along an orchard road, fallen fruit bruising the dust. His bare legs were hairless as a boy’s. He couldn’t say his name. By that time, he knew us only by voice. My brother carried him bridal-style, balled in his arms. Agong looked crumpled and ancient, his face illiterate in the light. A sleep written so deep I knew we would never know his dreams.
We folded him into the backseat and drove away, the dark chasing us home like a stray. When Agong gurgled in his sleep, his tongue frothing like a dog’s, we realized he was choking. We took turns holding his mouth open, scooping out spit with two fingers, flinging strands out the window. They stuck like stars to the night.
The first week he went missing, my mother started a fire. We told her to quit burning trash. They don’t do that here. But on the weekends, so early in the morning no one could complain, she lit our kitchen waste in a wet blaze: thrice-boiled chicken bones, fishbones finer than hairs, Styrofoam trays wet with meatprints. It smelled like a cremation.
That Sunday, my mother threw our landline into the fire. Plastic wilted off the wires. My mother had been on the phone with my grandmother all week, speaking in a dialect I only knew the dirty version of. But I understood that Agong was missing, and that my grandmother blamed my mother’s karma: All the men in your life are born to leave you, she said. Now look. And my mother said: Your Ama, that lying [ ]. That [ ] woman.We knew it wasn’t the dog, which grunted when it was beat. Our Agong was utterless.
While the phone was still ringing, my mother burned it. The smoke grew shrill. Our neighbors across the street were a Suzhounese family of nine who fermented fish in a bin labeled “compost,” and though they stank worse than us, they complained about our trash fires to the landlord, who called our mother, who pretended not to speak English.
Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, she forgot not to understand. When the landlord said for the tenth time, We don’t burn anything in this country, especially not in public, my mother said, Then where do the dead go?
The first time we heard our grandmother beat our grandfather, we thought she was hitting the dog. We never had a dog, but there was a neighborhood stray with an old man’s face. It was incontinent, dragging a river of piss up our driveway every morning.
We knew it wasn’t the dog, which grunted when it was beat. Our Agong was utterless. We only ever heard my grandmother’s voice: You [ ] man, bringing me to this [ ] country [ ] you can’t [ ] even [ ] the family? That night, we checked Agong’s body while he slept. A blood-thin song trickled out of his mouth. That night, I dreamed of my grandmother in the yard, feeding the chickens out of her left hand. With her right, she practiced the width of their necks.
She lunged into the soil, tore out thin white carrots that glowed like rib bones. She always wheezed after a good growing or a hard beating, then sat all night in front of the TV, watching soap operas about women who married their husbands’ ghosts when they didn’t return from war. In one of the scenes, the wife doesn’t want to sleep with her ghost husband, so she tricks him by dressing a dead goat in her clothes, then tucking the goat into her side of the bed.
But the ghost husband isn’t tricked. He gets revenge by cleaving the goat open and sewing his wife into its body. When the wife-goat is slaughtered and spit-roasted for a village feast, no one ever finds out who they are eating. But my grandmother always fell asleep before that part.
Once, I caught Agong trying to saw his hand off in the kitchen with a bread knife, and when I asked him why, he said he caught it touching him. He said he caught it stealing, reaching through his ear to rob his thoughts. When I was a child, his favorite game was hiding that hand. When we asked him where it was, he would open it behind his back: in the center of his palm we found a toy. An opera doll, a green plastic parachuter, a magenta yo-yo.
Once, after a rainstorm, Agong leapt into every puddle in the city, trying to erase the face that was watching him, there, there, right there, right there, right there. Once, he called my mother by the name of his first wife, a woman he left behind on the mainland, not knowing the military would never let him return.
Not knowing that his mother, a second wife, would be beheaded and buried boneless, a warning to bourgeois polygamists. My grandfather mistook summer storms for the humidity of war. The military, the military. He pointed at the neighbor’s American flag, flapping red and white. And for a second, I saw it too. I saw it. Not a flag, but a skin of fire stretched over a bone-bleached field.
Agong fought two wars, one against the Japanese, one against the Communists. Both times, he lost. There are 11 bullets in his body. He buried his medals and money in a tea box in the backyard, but we never found where. One time, my brother and I decided to help.
We wrung out every bush and herb and root in the garden, hosed the yard into a crater and panned for his gold. We were whet for ruin. When our mother got home and saw what we’d done, she beat us with the hose still on, water chasing our blood to the gutter.
Because my Agong came without papers, we weren’t allowed to call the police whenever he was missing. We weren’t allowed to call the ambulance that time he burned himself at work, mistook a sink of frying oil for the fat-colored Tainan sea he first learned to swim in.
He was the strongest swimmer, even among a village of fishermen. He even saved one of his sisters from drowning, though the other sister, the one he doesn’t mention, was so small she slid quietly out of his arms and tucked herself back into the tide.
The third time he went missing, we found him in a Chinese pharmacy, grinding a dried ginger root against his teeth, swatting away the sunlight. We paid for the ginger and left, and when Agong saw our reflection in the window, he spat at it. The spit glittered our faces.
When I asked my mother what was wrong with him, she said he had a memory disease. The worst disease I knew was a sore throat, so I said, Let’s make him drink a syrup of memories. My mother laughed a ginger laugh, bitter in the back of my throat.
We always lost Agong at drugstores, grocery stores, any place with aisles that could outsmart him. At the grocery store, he liked to touch all the cans and spin them around, the ingredients-side of the label facing outwards. We had to twist them all back around, the name-side out.
At home, we tried to find a label that matched Agong, a name for everything inside him that had gone missing. The first time we flipped him onto his stomach, he was asleep on the sofa—my brother joked that we’d finally get to read Agong’s backside, his ingredient list. We pretended he was a soup can, rolling him over as slowly as we could, my brother rotating his hips and legs while I turned his shoulder and neck.
Then he was on his stomach, still asleep, still deep inside his own body. We smelled it before we saw it—the shit-stain spanning the whole seat of his pants. The stain was blood-colored, still wet. We yelled for our mother and she looked at him once, a glance too quick to really land. Then she flipped him back over, said we’d seen nothing.
At the grocery store, my brother and I folded Agong into the shopping cart. Agong was almost skinny enough for the kiddy seat, his collarbones jutting like coat-hooks. My brother and I took turns searching for empty aisles. When we found one, my brother stood with the cart on one end, and I stood on the other. He shouted Pass! before shoving the cart as hard as he could. It sledded down the mop-slick aisle, Agong gripping the sides of the cart like his cage.
On the other end of the aisle, I waited to receive him. I stopped the cart with my body, its metal muzzle burrowing into my stomach. The cart gathered force and lifted me too, and now I was gripping the front of the cart as Agong and I skidded together into a row of yogurts. The cart collapsed on its side and Agong crawled out, vomiting into his bowled palms. The vomit collected there briefly before leaking onto the floor. His vomit was a perfect white, almost pearly.
My brother slung Agong over his back and we ran out of the store shouting Yogurt spill in back of store! Clean up in the ethnic aisle! We thought of all the times we saw our mother on her knees, scouring a stain from our floors, and how free it felt now to publicize our stains, to make our insides public.
While searching for an aisle vacant of white housewives, my brother and I had translated the names of each row: Cereals. Sauces & soups. Asian & Hispanic. Wines & spirits. Agong had been asleep until he heard the last one. Spirits? They sell spirits? We’d used the word gui, meaning ghosts. Wine & ghosts. In America, everything’s for sale, my brother said. He winked at me. Agong shook his head and made us promise we wouldn’t sell him when he was dead.
Ama hired an exorcist. She said Agong smiles in his sleep, his teeth unnaturally neon, nudging all the night from her room. She said his eyes 发光like they’ve been ripped from electrical sockets. She said Agong chirps when he thirsts and barks when he hungers. Screams when he’s touched, but was silent when he burned himself last week (he tried to wash his hands in the pot of boiling rice). The exorcist wore a purple robe and carried holy water in a shatter-proof plastic bottle; he brought a bible and a wooden cross nearly my height.
He said that exorcisms are not one-time procedures, like a surgery or a birth; they’re perpetual as life itself, and we have to follow his steps or the devil will return. He said the devil is a chronic illness, and I asked if Agong’s was contagious.
The exorcist said it’s possible, depending on how deep the infection is, and I said Yes, it’s deep, it’s ass-deep in him. The exorcist crossed himself and told me to watch my language or I’d catch the devil too. He said to keep my mouth closed, or I’d give the devil another hole to enter me through. So I said nothing else, just watched the exorcist rehearse his steps:
I. Identify the symptoms.
-eyes that 发光
-loss of memory, sense of direction, depth perception, language
II. Purchase paraphernalia.
Ama sold her wedding bracelet—a rib of gold with a jade pebble as its heart—to buy a rosary and a crucifix. The crucifix was plastic, and I sat on it by accident. I didn’t want to confess I’d beheaded Jesus with my butt, but Ama found out anyway and whooped me with the crucifix’s headless body.
III. Perform the rite.
The exorcist read from the Bible, some of it in Latin, the rest in English, so I had to translate for Ama. There were words I didn’t know in Chinese, so instead of infernal I said fire under the floor, instead of soul I said leftovers, instead of clean I said whiten.
The night after the exorcism, Agong grew wings. Not big shining angel wings, silver-blooded and holy, but dirty little pigeon wings, one wing unfurling from each armpit. My brother and I were sponging him in the tub when they brushed our wrists, flicking open when we lifted his arms over his head. When we lowered his arms, the wings curled back in on themselves, nestled in the sweat-socket of his armpits.
The wings were dusty-looking, brown and mottled in pattern, and when we tried to stroke them with our fingers, they shied from our hands. My brother asked if Agong was becoming a bird or an angel, and I said, Same difference. Either way it meant he’d fly away, desert us for another domain. Either way, he was preyed for or prayed for.
When Ama found out about the wings growing from his armpits, she clipped them with a pair of nail scissors. But they still groped for flight, thudding against fabric, and we had to cut holes in the armpit of all his shirts. One night, when Agong was asleep in just his tank top, Ama plucked the wings out of his armpits with tweezers—the bones slid out easily, like blades.
She’d learned the technique from beauty school, said she once ripped away a man’s beard with just flypaper. Ama said she’s the master of removal, even tore out her own daughters’ wisdom teeth with just a fork and sewing thread for the stitches. Ama said there’s no such thing as a “painkiller”—if some part of you is injured, her strategy is to render something else more painful, distracting the body from its original hurt.
When the wind tilted me off the branches of her kumquat tree, I broke my collarbone in two places. While we waited for the ambulance, she slapped me to keep me awake. She pinched the meat of my thigh until it purpled, redirecting my hurt to her hands.
Every Sunday, Agong would take me to the dollar store. By the cashier, there was a revolving stand of “abridged classics” books, and I would read and re-read Rip van Winkle and Arabian Nights and The Odyssey until all the stories became one story. Agong was illiterate in two languages, so every time I read a word I didn’t understand, I made sure to taunt him, to point and ask him what it was.
I liked that my mouth could purse around the hard coin of any English sound, that I could write every letter seed-small. But even when I tried, Agong was never shamed. He never tried to read. He only smiled, his gold-capped teeth cheapening the light. When we walked home, he always tried to hold my hand, so I learned to hide them in my pockets.
When we reached the door, I’d run into the house and shut it before he could enter. I wanted to hear him beg, to paw at the door like an old stray. I wanted to be the one to let him in. But he never said anything, only stood silently outside until I was afraid he had left.
A while after he stopped walking, my brother and I searched one last time for his money. My mother said there wasn’t any, there never had been. But we kept looking. We finally decided to check that one suitcase under the sink, the one he never unpacked, the one no one ever let us near. Buried inside his own body, he could only watch as we cut it open, the zipper long broken.
We always assumed it was full of immigrant clichés: light-riddled bones or decaying incense or ghosts in glass bottles. But when we opened it, we found dozens of toys: plastic wind-ups, 50-cent keychains, miniature tops. The kind he used to hide in his hand. Among the toys were a severed pair of wings, bloodless and tied together with twine. A bouquet of bones. Ama had not thrown away his wings, or burned them in a bucket like she’d claimed; she’d even kept them together, twinned in death, tethered to no body.
At the bottom of the suitcase was a lining I mistook for cardboard. But I saw that they were books, dollar-store abridged classics stacked two-by-four. Some were repeat copies. I wondered if he meant to buy them for himself or give them to me. I opened the cover of one, nearly expecting to find his name beneath This Book Belongs To. I tried to imagine what his handwriting might have looked like: something broad-looped, dark-faced, heavy-handed. Lines direct as veins. I imagined how he might write my name, which is half his name.
My brother, bored, left to collect the vat of piss from under Agong’s bed and pour it into the street drain. I was too afraid to bathe my grandfather, though I knew he once taught me to swim, tucking my head underwater until I learned to live without breath. I asked my brother to bring me a pen. I wanted to write Agong’s name in each of the books, to mark them his belonging. It was only when I began writing that I realized: though he had long forgotten my name, I never knew his.
From Apogee Journal (Issue 14). Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2020 by K-Ming Chang.