In modern Asia only the air looks down and sees you as an ant. Evie said as much to her grandmother, who said a couple words Evie didn’t understand and, when she really thought about it, sounded like a cross between a parrot and a cello.
Evie’s grandmother limped into the bathroom and pulled long black hairs from the spurs of the bathtub drain. Evie stayed in the kitchen. She had seen her untangle many things and knew her hardened body strained as if she were lifting a bucket up a well.
Evie pulled at the string of the window shade, looking out. She thought the windows of the building across the street looked like eyes. White papery lids drawn at various angles over square gray holes. Against the bright beige wall they were inscrutable. As she lifted the shade the hardened bits of old rice stuck to the iron pan on the stove cast shadows and became teeth. When she heard dragging footsteps she loosened her hand and the plastic edge clattered on the windowsill. Evie’s grandmother had the nest of black in her leathery hand like a mango pit. Her mouth frowned, as if trying to detach itself from her stout body. Evie braced herself, left arm drifting away from her grandmother and behind her own thin body.
Her grandmother’s hand rose as if taking aim, the hairs sprawling violently through her fingers. Evie took a step back and at once her grandmother deflated, rubbing the hairs off her palm into the garbage can. There were no words, no shaking of heads. Her grandmother went back to her half-chopped carrots and Evie to the glass. The tight apartment on the third floor looked down on a swirl of halal smoke and people who were more the size of large African beetles than ants, carrying groceries or racing from the subway to the bus stations. Behind them a few shapes dug in the trash bags on the sidewalk for recycling they could exchange at groceries for five cents each, and the storefronts down the block blared with a familiar-looking but inscrutable language. Her grandmother’s building suited her. Evie’s grandmother wanted people to be small, but not far away. This weekend was going to be a long one.
The dining table huddled in the corner. Evie took out a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator, the one she had insisted on getting for her stay. She filled the one smudged glass on the table and drank without sitting down.
“What did you do when you were younger?” The words came out sharp and, Evie realized, suddenly foreign as her grandmother bobbed her head along with her knife’s movements. The carton sweated on the rickety wood as she answered.
“Nice. How’s school?”
Evie pieced this together from the pungent syllables of the parrot-cello language. Her fingers swept across the rim of her glass and a thin sound wailed. In the heat she slid her long sleeves up her arms, forgetting about the bruises on her left. The knife thumped on the cutting board as Evie spoke casually, in the tone of an expected answer to what she thought her grandmother was saying.
“Fuck…a.” Evie bit her mouth, cringing at her breaking courage but breathless.
“Your mom told me your grades improved a little. I think…” And Evie didn’t understand the rest. Her grandmother swept the carrots into a pot. Evie drank and swilled the pulp around her mouth, eyes shrinking as the acid stung open sores.
“Can you go out and get fish from the supermarket?” Evie swallowed.
“But my arm…cunt.” Evie added the curse halfheartedly and looked into the faint orange dregs at the bottom of the glass. Light from the window cast it into an amorphous gray shadow on the table. If only she would say something, know of her removal from childhood. Evie’s arm throbbed. In the parrot-cello language she would be forever four years old, and her grandmother would be the same to her. Here she couldn’t read or understand more than a toddler.
“…fish.” Evie felt nauseous as the language escaped her. Fine, then she would get whatever kind she saw first. From her grandmother’s wallet she drew ten dollars, relieved at the familiar currency, then descended the narrow stairs, walls around her, esophagus.
At Good Fortune supermarket Evie wove her way through the crowds, letting aisles of vegetables stain her clothes rather than touch the heaving skins of the hungry. As her left arm bumped against a corner the pain jolted her, as if a hand was encasing her flesh again, and she was holding it when she was spat out in front of the meat market. Frozen fish and rows of bright red meat sprawled across ice. A woman behind the counter was taking an order. Stacks of aquariums lined the wall and as Evie watched they scattered as if on command from the woman’s net.
They were talented fish. Evie watched them avoid the woman’s net for a good few minutes before she slipped it under one and snatched it out. The gray body thrashed and landed on the floor, and the woman looked as if she had dropped an old towel that she wasn’t sure why she was still using. Evie didn’t see her pick it up but then she had another fish, wrangling it onto a white board, and started hitting its head with a bright yellow hammer. The dull thump, thump, thump rang dully and an ache rose from its depths in Evie’s ears. After three heavy tries the fish continued flopping, blood revealing itself in its edges and creases. One last hit and blood behind the gill and it froze, eyes glazed, miniature fins spread apart and mouth open wide. Someone else came with a large butcher knife and began slicing apart the skin and flesh, flicking aside scale shards.
Evie watched them wrap the meat in plastic and hand it over to an old man who tossed it into his cart and left. She pressed one of the smaller bruises on her arm and went up, pointing at the same fish. Answered in the parrot-cello language she pointed again, to the whole body that lay on ice. The same woman gave it to Evie in the same sticker- sealed plastic and its compressed body swung like a cradle while she walked ⎯ another African beetle. On the way back Evie felt digested.
Evie’s grandmother had still not finished making lunch. Evie gave her the bag of fish, red liquid puddling at the bottom. In her pocket she had the change and she gave her grandmother that too. Evie’s grandmother’s mouth began to detach itself again.
“…fish? I wanted…fish.”
“I told you…fish, not…fish.” Evie stared. Her left arm began trembling and reached toward the orange juice on the table. It had finished perspiring but still felt cold in her feverish hand. She picked it up and put it back in the refrigerator.
“I don’t understand. You wanted fish?” Evie’s voice perched despite herself into a question. The bag swung. Her grandmother repeated the words Evie could not understand. Finally Evie made her mouth form the parrot-cello sounds of her younger self.
“Sorry. I didn’t understand.” Evie’s grandmother consumed these words, almost smiling. Then she put the fish in the freezer and went back to the counter where, Evie saw, she had rolled out a large rug of white dough. It spread toward the sink, sticking to the wooden board. A rolling pin lay on top of the mass like a carcinogen.
“My arm…my daddy…hugged it too much?” The parrot-cello words grew out of Evie’s lungs as if flour had billowed up them and she had to cough the mucus out. Evie’s words rang in the hot apartment, her frustration audible as she waited, but almost hoping that her grandmother wouldn’t understand, that she shouldn’t with Evie’s toddler-level grasp on those sounds. “Your boy.”
Evie’s grandmother did not turn until she had finished rinsing her hands, and only for a second then, gesturing toward her nose. At first glance Evie thought it had warped from the summer heat – it was oddly flattened and leaned to one side as if it were huddling close to her face. Then she saw the scar, faint.
Evie’s grandmother did not complain when Evie washed her hands and began to help her take the dough apart. They wrung themselves from the dust and Evie’s grandmother opened a window. Evie had never been to Asia, not even in her own dreams. That weekend the swarmed veins of Flushing made Evie flush at her old words. They inherited each other. They infected each other.