Siren Song

Kuei-hsin Chang

Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

Dr. Joseph Friedman has coaxed seven babies through Mother’s vagina to date. When she had carried the fifth one a full thirty-two weeks, he made several attempts to press on Mother’s swollen belly and rotate the baby’s head downward to avoid a breech birth. But seven days later, it was back in its original position—hands clutched to its chest, skinny knees plastered to its body, its hips near Mother’s pelvis. Dr. Friedman eventually gave up, telling Mother that I might flip into a headfirst position on my own during birth. In any case, Mother was clearly a strong woman who had gone through labor many times, having given birth to the baby’s four older brothers—if anyone could cope with a breech birth, it was her.

Mother didn’t bother worrying about a breech birth or a normal birth or any other kind of birth. Her wide pelvis had slid out her first four sons quickly and easily. Even a scaly dinosaur that found itself inside her would follow the breath of her command and slither out from between her mighty hips. She simply had no time to worry about the knob of flesh growing inside her—from when she woke at five thirty every morning to when she lay down at ten thirty every night, she toiled as patiently as she did in giving birth. All the newlywed girls around invited Mother to sit on their new beds, hoping that her fertility and growing tonnage would bring them good luck.

In her lifetime spent in the village, Mother had only known work, labor, and sweat. Even though the fetus in her belly had already passed its due date by ten days, she had long forgotten how far along she was and certainly didn’t believe in getting hung up on these kinds of modern medical calculations.

After she’d worked each day into the ground, Mother shouldered two buckets of laundry down to the riverbank at dusk for the best part of the day. Daughters and mothers gathered at the river to wash; no matter if they were just young buds or already sighing at the window, newlyweds or getting weighed down with children, widowed or in the last years of marriage, they were all there, their breasts rocking in time as they pounded the laundry. Swelling or spent, each pair of breasts marked the women either as reproductive apparatuses, as those about to become one, or as those who had already passed that time of life and been lain fallow. Their tongues worked faster than their hands, and more spit was produced than sweat comparing quality of husbands, numbers of children, significance of lovers, prices of items, and occasionally tallying the rights and wrongs of in-laws and the long and short of it in bed.

When the laundry was done the women washed themselves and swam in the river. The banks of the river at dusk were forbidden to men while the women bathed, and this short period of time before they went home to make dinner constituted their only respite from work all day.

Sitting on a rock mopping her sweaty body and overdue belly, Mother suddenly felt the baby thumping, swimming. A voice yelled towards her:

“Your water’s broke—”

Mother looked at the women splashing in the river and felt the breaking waves making their ambush. She looked down at the first gushes of the rushing tide spurting out of her, saw herself spouting water like a fountain in a public square.          

Mother stood up from the rock and walked towards the river. When I almost drowned as a toddler, Mother used to grumble that it was that crowd of worthless women that impelled her into the river and resulted in my incurable fixation with water. It’s true that they urged her off the bank—like Mother, they had no idea how many months the baby was at and only knew that water eased birth.

When Mother had me she was twenty-six. Aside from a wide pelvis that hinted at her wealth of experience with delivering babies, she was still supple and young; I might as well have been her first childbirth. Her frame balanced evenly like the keel of a large boat, she clasped her belly in both hands and glided into the water, slender as a seahorse. The women were submerged up to their necks in the deepest part of the riverbed: Mother joined them as they splashed around her. Just before the sun dropped behind the mountains, they all clambered up onto the riverbank to towel off, dress, and gather their buckets of clothes.

Mother moved toward the bank like a skiff skimming over the water, and when she climbed out of the river she suddenly felt much lighter, as if she had shed a heavy burden. Looking down, she saw that her stomach was deflated, her belly empty, a dripping string of innards swinging below her hips.

“Sister, your—”

The women—particularly the girls who weren’t married yet and the old maids who had never managed it—shrieked.

Those familiar with the feeling of a suddenly shrunken uterus instantly recognized the dangling thing as the umbilical cord that had given me nutrients. They dropped their laundry, shouting, and moved downstream while buckling their belts. The women had only gone a few paces when they saw me being tossed along by the current: at six pounds, eleven ounces, twenty inches long, my back curved around my body, I was the spitting image of a boiled shrimp. My head covered with matted hair bobbed and I waved my tiny hands to the people staring at me onshore. A strong woman of thirty jumped into the river and pulled me up onto the bank.

The river cleaned and tidied my body, washing away the blood and mucus of birth. Aside from my paper-thin skin and a malleability that might have allowed my body to be folded inside a basketball, I didn’t look like a typical newborn. I had a knowing smile that only three- and four-year-olds start to have, and I wore it all the way to Dr. Friedman’s office. There, the old Londoner used all kinds of medical equipment to examine me. Assessing the shape of my skull, the doctor decided I had been born head-first, and so smoothly that Mother herself hadn’t even noticed (further testament to Mother’s pelvic prowess).

The matter of my severed umbilical cord still remains a mystery in the hospital records. Friedman had three theories: that it was ripped off by the current, that it had snagged on a rock in the riverbed, or that it had been chewed off by some river creature. The old doctor said, “I’ve always liked to go fishing there, but it has so many river crocodiles. Their teeth and jaws aren’t quite strong enough, so they eye their prey—human included—pull them down under a log, and wait for the bubbles to stop before setting themselves on them.”

Three days later, Mother swayed over a single-plank wooden bridge and left the town’s only clinic with me. Beneath the bridge ran another small river, about chest-deep, the sweet sound of water flowing out beneath Mother’s feet and into the bosom of the sea. Mother was familiar with every crack in the plank and the movements that her body weight might prompt. She had always hoped to give birth to a girl, but another strapping young man was never a bad thing.

The water under the bridge was clear and fast. A group of climbing perch and gourami swam underwater, dragonflies and swifts flitted across the surface, and a kingfisher sang merrily from the shrubs nearby. I slipped out of Mother’s breast and leapt like a fish into the sea.

A school of shrimp shot up my throat; I sneezed and scattered them back. In the torrential current, the giddy churn of liberation, I turned somersaults over and over and shat. The sunlight glancing off the riverbed made the underwater world look like the floating dome of a jellyfish, my scattered droppings like a school of swimming plankton. Dr. Friedman’s and my recollections of the river are completely different, indeed. For when Mother took me, drenched and shocked, back into the doctor’s office for an examination, he still chuckled about those weak-jawed crocodiles whom he made out to be as cute as rabbits.

When I was still a toddler, Mother cradled me in the bathtub. The warm water trickled over me while I moved my arms and legs like a turtle, grasping for a memory of floating.

One day, I figured out how to pick my arms up off the floor while rocking forward with my hind legs. In front of me was Mother, shouldering two buckets of manure on each end of a long pole—the swing of her movements made me want to tag along after her.

Mother first drew water from the little well near our vegetable field to mix with manure, then shouldered the heavy buckets on a pole and set off to fertilize the vegetable patch. Another kind of movement lay there that diverted me away from Mother’s heavy sway; its cool scent seduced me even more than manure. A pool of dark and mysterious water that beckoned rapturously... Mother heard a strange sound, and called out for me as she kept fertilizing the vegetables. When I didn’t come waddling over as usual, she cast her eyes around the garden and they froze on the last spot that I had been: the well.

Meanwhile, the whole earth was damp and wet. Butterfly wings heavy, but bones as supple as a reed, I opened my hands and feet to embrace the water. As a gurgling noise escaped my throat, warm urine spurted out of my penis.

Mother leaned down the well as far as she could. With one hand on the mouth of the well, she braced herself; with the other, she found my ankle, and wrenched me, and my water-logged stomach, out of the well. Right hand around my waist, left hand whacking my back, she forced a watery yellow liquid from my mouth. She laid me on my back and pumped my heart with her venerable calloused hands, then propped me up again and thumped my back. Then she laid me down again, repeating the cycle.

The neighbors working in nearby fields came rushing over, piecing together the story they would have to carry to their husbands and sons getting ready for work and school. Even after my heart stopped beating, everyone was still trying to lend my parents a hand. Mother cried, Father’s eyes were red. My pre-school brother had neglected Mother’s instructions to look after me; he had set off on his own with slingshots and arrows to shoot birds. Now he worried what his punishment might be—one time after smashing one of my toy cars, Mother had whipped his butt with coconut palms.

"Storms arise out of clear skies...I’m so sorry." The neighbors were about to leave when a gush of black water erupted from my mouth. My eyes blinked a few times, as if I was about to start crying again over that toy car—Mother had beaten me to life again like a bedsheet.

I have no idea why I climbed over the edge of the well, a good head taller than me, when I had just learned to walk. Afterward, I had no recollection of falling down it. It’s just a blur now: some amniotic fluid, fetal hair, cells taking shape and a tangled grove of red twigs crystallized to form my memories. If my own body fat induces nostalgia, the amniotic fluid I ingested at birth must have made me mad.

At night I see shark fins cutting across the black water while a dolphin jumps above the surface, emitting an infant wail. A singing pod of whales discharges mist like flaring comets. An invisible inheritance lives in my blood, passing through me from the previous generation to the next.

I stand on the slimy wooden bridge only twenty centimeters above the water, its cool vapor seeping in through the veins in my feet. The sound of the water is resplendent, the waterweeds lush, the moss rotted to the core, the plants onshore verdant. The ends of my hair are daubed with dew, the soles of my feet are like duck webbing. Four of my elder brothers doggie paddle and dive in the river, popping in and out of the water. They always pass their clothes and shoes to me on shore, not letting me play in the water even though I'm already five.

I squat on the wooden bridge and let the water splash over my feet and backside, my back curved and hard like a turtle, my belly soft like a newt. I climb into the reeds and let loose the last bit of gas I got from green beans and yams. A heavy load of calcium slides with it into the water. My brothers notice I am not on the bridge and immediately split up into search parties. They find me under a piece of floating wood. After this brief state of emergency I slowly revive to sharp reproach. I giggle, then violently vomit up a mixture of silt, wood, grass, and brilliant multicolored fish.

Uncle gave Mother and Father two little pigs. To grow water cabbages that we would use for their feed, we built a little pond behind the new pigpen. The pond was small, but it teemed with life—there were water turtles, crickets, leeches, and squirming worms. Thanks to the thick manure that flowed from the pen, pondlife was abundant. At the pond’s edge grew coconut, jackfruit, rambutan, and mangosteen trees, reaching their roots to touch fertile water. The leaves were supple and moist, hoarding water within the trees, the fruit itself meaty and wet.

In every corner of the house the singular stench of manure could be smelled at all times, soaking into my blood vessels and nerves, souring my mouth and leaving a salty taste on my tongue that wouldn’t go away. The pig smell made sleep sweeter at night and woke me up with vigor, but sometimes the stench would make me suddenly tense.

Rising from the pigpile of sleeping brotherly bodies, I leave the stuffy mosquito net, my shorts damp with piss. Half-naked, I swat mosquitos, crush snails and centipedes underfoot. Then the bitch and her pack of pups yelps everyone awake—Mother slings open the window and shines a searchlight on the chicken coop and pig pen, searching out the chicken bandits, tarantulas and boa constrictors. Big Brother rests a machete in his hand and Fourth Brother grabs a slingshot that’s felled many wild birds. Mother tests each weapon and finally settles on an iron rake. I gnaw on the water cabbages and pig droppings, my teeth chattering, my whole body trembling. Even though I stand in the center of the pond, the water only comes up to my chest. As the beam of the flashlight circles the pond and lands on me, I stuff a piece of rotten wood in my mouth. The next day I am running a high fever with diarrhea.

I couldn’t tell you how many times it happened: One second I would be standing in the shade of the jackfruit tree on the bank of the pond, the next the water was rising past my shoulders. After hide-and-seek with my family ended, I crouched in the pond letting the water soak my chin. My hands sifting for clams in the muck on the bottom, water cabbages in my hair, I peered out in all directions. Cupping a frog ovary in my hands, I slurped the wet gob into my mouth and spit out a squirm of newly hatched tadpoles after sucking a few down.

My family began to pay more attention to my movements—after big rains, the pond swelled and they had to rescue me more than a few times.

I would push open the gate in the fence and walk towards where my older brothers paddled around in the river. The torrential current drew my steps forward as the sound of the water rose in my blood and a droning pounded in my ears until it felt like they were going to explode.

The birds around the water weren’t scared of me, and I liked to watch their long legs and beaks. Whenever my family yelled for me to come in, the climbing perch would dive under the surface, the frogs would disappear with a plop, the birds would fly away, the dragonflies would scatter, the big lizards would scramble higher onto the bank. In the shock and commotion, I, too, would duck down under the water.

One time when my family and I were visiting relatives, the adults sat in the living room chatting and the kids were all sent away to play. Stars and children are both creatures of groups, but somehow a dim spot in the middle of the commotion allowed me to disappear. Relatives found me within minutes. In the carefully tended fishpond, I found my hands grasping at the base of the fake island underwater and my mouth burbled out bubbles as I dislodged countless decorative aquatic plants. My permanent teeth hadn’t come in all the way yet and my lower jaw was still as weak as those helpless crocodiles that Friedman described, but still I tried to bite a carp that passed by. Donning a water lily like a hat, I floated my eyes above water only to see my uncle and several aunts looking back at me. The family dogs snarled in my direction, eyes reddening.

My grandmother invited an old woman back home to perform a Daoist cleansing on me. I sat in a chair. The old lady circled a ceramic bowl of sacrificial rice over my head and intoned in a trembling voice: “A-xing, come home, don’t be afraid. Come back to your loving home. Your parents are waiting for you, your siblings are worried about you, your friends miss you. Come home, come back to your happy home...” In addition, the old woman noted that my skin was sallow, my frame was thin, my hands and feet clawlike. Without a doubt, there was an evil presence between my eyebrows—the water demon had already struck down my spirit.

The neighbors recommended an exorcism. I heard someone saying I should have incantations done on me, that I should drink chicken blood, and eat the dick of some animal. My father, however, didn’t subscribe to these kinds of folk prescriptions. He was a first-rate carpenter and stood firm in his belief that all things he created would never fail to float in water, including his son. For her part, Mother was a devout Catholic. Whenever she made her confessions to God she would start swearing up a storm, grumbling about how Friedman never reminded her to wait at the hospital for my birth, and how the perfumed river hid crocodiles with mouths full of rotten teeth.

Meanwhile, kids and teenagers alike continued to drown in the river. My family kept a strict eye on me, and when they couldn’t watch me they would lock me up in my room with a grate fixed over my window. I would pace aimlessly and fidget around for something to do. I invented games, talked to myself, took stock of my sores and blisters and took aim in the pisspot or through the gaps in the window bars. I stared at the scummy water of the pond and lapped up the scent of chicken, duck, goose, and pig shit drifting on the air. When I was bored I fell asleep, and in my dreams became a rotten piece of wood floating on the surface of the pond while below sat the mossy rocks, the soupy shit, and the dead cat.

As I grew up I became clever and charming, and began to leave places with water behind. From the time I started going to school I abandoned my bad habits around water. Overjoyed at my transformation, my family put extra meat in my bowl at dinner and regretted the severe punishments they had subjected me to. Grandmother gave thanks to the water demon for releasing my soul, Mother gave generously to the temple donation boxes, and Father the nihilist whacked together a small desk and chair for me. Apollo had blast off, astronauts strolled in space, the Beatles were cooler than Jesus and I grew into a sci-fi, rock n’ roll kid who awed and vexed the teachers of our village school. So many rivers, ponds, water tanks, barrels, and wells lay along my way, but I had no choice to but to leave them for a while…

Next to the pond, in the highest branch of the rambutan tree, I sit peeling the fruits’ fresh red skins, stuffing the grimy sweetness into my mouth, cramming my teeth with pulpy flesh. I eat until my maliciousness is sated, my bad thoughts gone. I have spent exactly half my life now with my blood split between being type A and B, and now that I’m twenty-one I should resign myself to seeing the good life pass me by. After all, with my day of birth straddling Gemini and Cancer, I’ll never amount to much. The branch sways in the breeze, the surface of the pond swims in my eyes. Under cover of the jackfruit, rambutan, and coconut trees, the strangeness of the water’s edge is amplified. I retch and excrete, letting the chickens, ducks, and geese forage for my roundworms below, just like I used to chew on pig droppings, sawdust, water grass, and swimming carp. Always under-nourished, at one point I even had appendicitis. I am still waiting for a clean gut, a normal-colored shit. I imagine I am flying; I see the pond from above, like looking down into the pit of a latrine. Then I pinch myself, soften myself, and am transplanted into the pond: I let the water run through my throat, esophagus, gut, and then let the water flow back out again through my gut, esophagus, and throat.

translated from the Chinese by Anna Gustafson