I did not hunger
for spawn of my own. Had I not seen enough women with regrets, deep as the furrows they carved with their feet? Groaning beside the ox while their men held the whip, bellies bursting beneath sweat-stained tunics as they labored to feed children that wriggled like newly hatched eels in the rice paddies. No. I belonged to my hut, and the grind of my pestle keeping time with the crickets in the jade mountains. My education was the rough bark that expels a child from its mother; my nighttime companion was the sweet reed scent of lu gen. Tending to herbs, I was content to leave my womb undisturbed like virgin earth.
Now I want
him, pale and refined as the crisp Western collar circling his neck. The firstborn son of wealthy farmers, returned to the village with a head full of barbarous medicine. In the confines of his sister’s birthing chamber, our hands touched, seeking the curve of the infant’s skull beneath her taut skin. On a table, the twin metal snakes of his instrument – a stethoscope, he called it – entwined around my ceramic cup of herbs. Together, we pushed and rolled the infant so its feet would not cross into the Diyu, the earth prison where a soul’s time is measured according to the gravity of its sins. Afterwards, he pressed an embroidered coverlet in my arms. Payment, and a token of my gratitude, he said. In the cloud-covered night, we scented the coverlet with our bodies, and I learned to read the calligraphy of his limbs.
And I pray,
in the dark womb of the temple: let me marry him, and if not, let me have his child. But agarwood smoke chokes me, and the only thing that grows are the whispers of the women. She has bewitched my son – he no longer feeds me the smooth cheek of the fish from his rice bowl, his mother says. Her voice hisses in the chamber like an unsheathing sword. Look at her bold eyes, her unbroken spine. She will refuse to bear the household work like a slave, says Madam Zhu. I delivered three of her babies. She ought to know better – she is only a poor orphan, after all, says Madam Fan, who sold her daughter for a bag of gold. A woman like that is capable of all sorts of wickedness, says his mother, and her words constrict around my throat, curling tighter than the incense coils hanging from the roof.
Yet I yearn
to laugh in their faces. Don’t they know my body has betrayed me? Despite my knowledge, no herbs can make me fertile; no child will disrupt the straight lines of their family branches. The villagers do not listen. They beat on my door as thunder ruptures the sky. Tearing through my hut, they cast my scales in the dirt and crunch the fragile skeletons of my herbs underfoot. Fingernails carve small moons into my arms. In the shadow of the mountain, they haul me to a barrel suspended over a vat of boiling water. Steam the evil spirits out of her, his mother says. And he watches – oh, all he does is watch – as vapor scalds my skin and the screams tear themselves from my throat.
Look at what you’ve done,
I say. At the ghost gate, Ox-Head ushers me in with his trident, his horns gleaming in the firelight. In the caverns of the Diyu, the wicked wail, their blood slick on the tree of knives, but I stamp my feet into the earth and raise my voice to the living. By driving me out, you have invited me in, and the time between reincarnations is long. Look to your children, who sicken. Save your husbands, who drown in their boats along the river, their flesh to be consumed by eels. Lift the lid of your clay pot. Watch the maggots wriggle in your rice.
Lacey Yong is an emerging Chinese-Canadian writer. Her creative nonfiction and short fiction has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Microfiction 2022, and she is working on her first YA steampunk novel. She lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband, a baby on the way, and more manga than she has time to read. This is her first speculative poetry publication.