Flesh and Bone

Chung Wenyin

Artwork by Jiin Choi

Mother made a sound similar to that of a gazelle as she slapped my arm and waist after stroking my body.

“When did you get so fat? Didn’t you know big upper arms are a sign of old age?” she said, swiping the donut that I was munching out of my greasy hands.

I suddenly remembered that when I was in high school, during a social gathering, a boy sarcastically said to me, “Looks like you’re having a grand time at Party High.” I was overweight because of the stress of studying for tests day and night. My weight problem subsided during college when I was in love and love disciplined my appetite. But this year, I had started to gain it all back. Somehow, I had developed habitual chewing side syndrome and unconsciously fell back into my eating addiction.

Mother wanted me to see Zhen Gushi, a “bone-fixing master,” right away. She handed me his business card. “Now!” she commanded. I slowly struggled to get up from the sofa, as if the extra weight had tired me out.

A religious show was on TV and I had been watching it. The host was expounding on how earth, water, wind, and fire, united to form the thirty-six contaminated elements of the human body as soon it is out of its mother’s womb: skin, hair, toes, teeth, nose, bones, flesh, marrow, tears, urine, saliva . . . He spoke about Gandharvas, the divas in Buddhist cosmology who feast on sweet scents. I closed the door behind me and wished I could become a Gandharva—then I wouldn't have a body to worry about. “As my past is being dismembered, I can get rid of my obsessions in life . . . ” The wave of sounds from the television in Mother’s third-floor apartment followed me and dissipated only when I reached the first floor. The TV was always loud, as if it were not enough for Mother to have to live with her nearly blind eyes; she was also losing the battle for her hearing.



I learned that Mother’s eyes had started to deteriorate when I noticed that she had misread the label and bought tampons instead of toilet paper. She would push the emergency alarm instead of the flush button when she was using a public toilet. Her knees were often bruised from bumping into who knows what. And she’d trudge really slowly even in places familiar to her. Within her limited field of vision, she would experience wisps of shadows-clouds-membranes, evil fog the steel color of rain, strikes of lightning, and swarms of black flies constantly buzzing about. She got used to her condition, naïvely believing this was the way it was meant to be for anyone who was old. “Nobody knew that your grandmother was blind in one eye. The glass ball popped out of the socket when she died,” Mother said.

My vision also experienced wisps of shadow last year.

And the other day, when some little canines came out of nowhere and brushed by me while I was walking, I thought that I might become Mother’s guide dog one day.



The card had an address in Wu Gu.

Like a wounded lion, I got on my “Little Lamb” motorbike and sped along San Chung Su Houng Way. I heard that when he was a young man my father had rented a field to grow vegetables along this road. The Earth Gods Temple and the One Hundred Good Deeds Temple that had once stood next to the meadow had moved. New features had been added—parks, bike lanes, and walkways—as if they were the only things ever to have existed here. No more history. The only trace of the past was the evidence of an atrocious typhoon that had flooded the Way one year. After the disaster, the water gathered in a depression and formed a wetland now full of knee-high grass—what was once a savage act had become a tender touch, like lovers making love, and afterward becoming trapped in deep, standstill memory.

I rode past Lu Guan village where Aunty and Uncle used to live until Uncle retired from the army and they moved into a new apartment. They often still visited the old home to play Mahjong. I thought of the son of Uncle’s distant cousin—a boy with a mundane face whom I have long forgotten—with whom Aunty had wanted to match me up. I had just graduated from college, naive and a little mischievous. Yet all of my aunts were nervous; they thought I was already too old to find a husband on my own. I wasn’t worried, not then, nor in the years that followed, until one day, when I carelessly mentioned that I was nicknamed “snake waist”—meaning “slender waist”—at a family dinner, everyone at the table looked at me as if I were lying, and I knew I could no longer remain glued to my chair, like I were a part of the furniture, broken by time, waiting to be fixed, or worse, consumed as firewood.

This is why even Mother couldn’t stand to stroke my body any longer. She denounced my waist with her hand and her remaining eyesight, and gave me the card that she deemed could change my life. She didn’t know that, aside from a not-so-slender waist, I was having pain in my lower spine from hunching in front of the computer day in, day out. My legs, aching from an old injury from working in a fast-food chain during my college years, had also begun to torture me, especially in the mornings after I got out of bed.



Nestled in Guanyin Mountain, Wu Gu was a peculiar place. The gray landscape was an amalgam of factories’ aluminum rooftops and the concrete residences of military families. It was bustling. Manufacturing plants, painted in an odd color—something neither green nor blue—were everywhere. A few dye mills along the river had contaminated the water, coloring it blood red, and after a time, it carried the sheen of liver.

Black clouds were hanging above my head when I found the apartment of Zhen Gushi. I rang the bell and the door opened onto a pitch-dark stairway leading up to his place. Though it was daytime, it was so dim that I had to watch my step so as not to fall. The master greeted me at the top of the stairs. I was a little discouraged at the sight of his bald head. How could he reshape my body when he looked as though he couldn’t take care of himself? But then I looked again. He was fit, arms solid, not a bit of fat, his body slender, and his skin was soft and smooth. That boosted my confidence.

“I want to play your back.” The master threw me a gown that had an opening in the back and told me to change into it. This was the first time I had heard anyone use the phrase “play your back.” Sexy. If it weren’t for Mother, who prepped me for this trip psychologically, I might have thought that I was about to be sexually harassed.

As I took off my clothes, I surveyed the room. The space was clean and simple. Carefully arranged reproductions of Ming dynasty furniture hinted at the master’s humble yet elegant taste, the complete opposite of that of my mother. Mother had a very practical approach to home decor: glasses were for drinking water; lamps were for lighting rooms; cookware was to make food to satisfy hunger. She didn’t care to embellish her living space with beautiful yet unnecessary accessories.

But she cared about my looks. 

“Xiaona, women look old if they get fat,” she said. She watched closely for any changes in my body, constantly afraid that my protruding belly meant that I was carrying some man’s child.

“Not true!” I cried out, “I ate too much and gained weight.”

“Well, if the weight is caused by binge eating, you could lose it,” she said.

But Mother didn’t want me to see a dietitian because Aunty had told her that my fat was not true fat; it was because my bones’ shape had changed, stretching the flesh. “It’s all air, your flesh is breathing in air,” said Mother. I laughed hard at the thought of that until my belly ached.



Even though Mother cared so much about looks and health, she couldn’t help that she was now gradually sinking into a sightless and soundless world. When I thought of this, I asked Zhen Gushi if he could cure Mother’s eyes. “Very, very slowly,” he said. “Optical nerves are extremely thin; they don’t function when they dry up. It’s like how a computer won’t work without its power cord.”

My own optometrist had warned me that there was a 40 percent chance that I would inherit Mother’s eye problem. But then, I might not. “It would be better to check your eyes sooner than later,” he said. I had some tests done—entopic vascular perception, retinal health evaluation, field of vision, etcetera. My pupils followed the light on the screen as if they were floating in the Milky Way. “When you see any kind of light—strong, weak, even the slightest flash, you should push the button, so we can see how far and how wide your sight reaches,” said the doctor. When the tests were done and my pupils left the “Milky Way,” I squinted my eyes in the harsh fluorescent lights and made my way out of the room. I waited for my medications with other patients, mostly elderly. Afterward, I walked out of the hospital, and under the effect of the eye drops the world in front of me blossomed into flowers of blinding light, and cars flashed by at a dizzying speed. I imagined a handsome young man would carry helpless me across the road. I thought of the time that Mother had come to the hospital to check her eyes all by herself, and when she was done and walked out, all she could see were patches of gray. Luckily, a woman saw how helpless she was and guided her home. The woman kept asking Mother if she had any family or if she wouldn’t be alone.

“You’re my daughter, but you’re not even as dear as a stranger,” Mother complained to me afterward.

Don’t do me wrong, Mother. Your daughter didn’t know you were going to hospital.



Just as I was remembering Mother’s hospital visit, two glass cups the size of rice bowls suctioned at my shoulder blades like two rattlesnakes that wouldn’t let go of their prey. The blood rose up into the cups, and the pronounced pain snapped me out of my recollection.

“Looking at your bone structure, I can tell that you’re someone who can endure hardship,” said the Zhen Gushi.

This surprised me. I always thought of myself as a person who would rather live an easy life.

“I’m going to stick the acupuncture needles in now,” warned the master.

I had already prepared myself to be dissected. He rubbed alcohol where the needles would go in, fingers sliding down my spine, writing an S.

“A middle size S; its curves not too large or too small. Your bone structure is different than others,” the master said. It would need time and space—meaning a long time—to get the frame back to normal.

Zhen Gushi was an artist. With his magic fingers, he pressed needles into my body. Soon, I was stuffed with silvery pins, like those bronze statues used for practicing acupuncture. “I have to separate your bone and flesh first,” said the master. This was a necessary step before fixing the frame of a spine. Without loosening and separating bones and flesh, the spine might be injured during the treatment. If bones and flesh were immovable, more time would be needed to detach them.

As I lay there, I pictured my mother complaining about her own flesh and blood not being there when she was sick and needing the woman’s help to guide her home.

“You’re not fat, you have air in your flesh. When the air goes away, the flesh will attach to the bone and you’ll look skinnier,” said Zhen Gushi. I was rewarded with some relief after an hour’s pain.

So all this year, I have gone there once a week or every two weeks. Mother happily reported my diligent attendance at Zhen Gushi’s to my aunt, as if she could already see me in a beautifully transformed body.



“Your heart has been wounded for a very long time, and your blood is the color of ebony,” the master said one day, looking like a high monk of Mt. Omei standing in a pure space. “You had a fall, a very serious one.”

I tried to think. Was it the time that Mother took me to shop on her bike when I was little and I tumbled from it before she could park? Was it the time that I fell from the banyan tree when playing hide and seek in elementary school? Or was it that time I fell after twisting my ankle the wrong way? Maybe it was when, during college, I rode with my boyfriend on his motorcycle and we crashed into an electrical pole. Or was it the time that I fell from the stairs of an after-school tutoring institution because my arms were full of my students’ test results? Yes, I had fallen, and fallen often.

Pisces have no legs; they fall easily.

I saw a little girl in the dark, crying while doing extra schoolwork as punishment. Stroke by stroke, she penned each character squarely: 小熊有一個夢, 小熊有一個夢, little teddy bear had a dream, little teddy bear had a dream . . . ten–twenty–thirty times. It was getting dark outside. The black-crowned night heron cried ya-ya-ya, and her eyelids felt so weighted with lead that if they shut, she wouldn’t be able to open them again. I saw the girl looking at her father, who lay in a wooden casket, in grave sleep. He wouldn’t wake up, no matter how her mother cried and shouted and punched and shook him. I saw the girl sit in a soft chair that someone had picked out of the trash and write and write and write, for years. Her spine gradually twisted into an “S” because it could scarcely bear her weight. The curved spine spelled out the story of her past.

In pain, I saw a body of the past, a body dismembered by time and sentiment. It was the heavy soul that mutated the body. Flesh needed to breathe, but oftentimes, it sucked in muddy chi–air: air from the pressures of life, air from the burden of emotion and heartfelt passion.

“If bones are straight and tendons are soft, the heart is open, and circulation unblocked,” said the master, who stood behind me. He seemed very satisfied with the result of “playing” my back.

He appeared lightened, as though he had completed a masterpiece. “I can separate the flesh and bones of others. I even separated my own,” he said suddenly. I learned then that his wife had left him and took their son with her. No wonder I always saw him taking in patients, one after another, on the clock, like a train on schedule, nosing out every hour on the dot.

I gave him time and space and got back a remodeled self. I felt relaxed. My bones were straighter, and chi no longer flew about in all directions.



My days of being “fixed” are finally over. I’m now sitting in a café remembering Zhen Gushi—the lean master who knew martial arts, who stroked my back more than any other man. Right next to the café is a donut shop. Thank goodness that I don’t have much of a craving for donuts.

“No child drinks coffee. Quit running around like crazy. I’m talking to your aunty,” says a woman to her little girl; her female companion sits beside her. I saw my childhood once more, alive in a world of women’s chitchat. I no longer feared. And the girl I was, who had sat next to her mother and aunts, looked happy. Memory can be rewritten. But can I take things less seriously and yet still be conscious of all that needs to be considered? Can life be uncomplicated yet sensitive? Zhen Gushi’s face surfaced with a smile: “Yes, you will be a good example; you’ll be your own testimony,” he answered. Ah, Zhen Gushi transformed into the monk from Mother’s TV screen.

The last time I saw Zhen Gushi was when he was about to travel to his dream land of Shangri-La. He wanted to see the cave where he had once practiced meditation, as though I were his last patient and after me, he would practice no more. I thought about Buddha. Before Buddha attained nirvana, he waited for one of his disciples to visit him. He wouldn’t die until this disciple, an old man who trekked over the mountains and across rivers, arrived so he could teach him Dharma. I didn’t have the old man’s spirit. All I did was get on my “Little Lamb” and reach the Shangri-La body transformation.

And the “snake waist” has reappeared some.



“Come, look up,” I say while applying eye drops to Mother’s eyes. Her eyes don’t stream clear tears anymore; they shed blood the color of a red sunset. Years of tears transformed into a ghastly sight—two rivulets of blood. Suddenly, Mother’s hand pinches my waist. “Good, you haven’t gotten fat again!” she says, a satisfied smile appearing on her rigid face.

Flesh and bone, together or separate, is still flesh and bone. I fasten the cap on Mother’s eye drops. At the bottom of the medical case, I find another eye drop bottle that has my name, Chung Xiaona, on it. I want to slow down the beauty and pain of this inheritance between flesh and bone. After all, Mother and I, flesh and bone, have been stuck for so, so long.

translated from the Chinese by Jennie Chia-Hui Chu