Ba doesn’t know where he buried the gold. Ma chases him around and beats him with her soup ladle. Hours earlier, it had looked like we were hosting a funeral, all of us standing in the backyard with a shovel for Ba, a soup ladle for Ma, a spoon for me and Jie to share. We dug with everything meant for emptying – piss buckets, rice bowls, shoeboxes. We even used the spatulas gifted to us by the church ladies, after their days-long debate about whether or not Orientals even used spatulas. It was decided that we didn’t but that we should. Hence our collection of spatulas, different sizes and metals and colors. Ma mistook them for flyswatters. Then she used them to spank us, selecting a spatula based on the severity of our crimes.
Last week Jie got the metal one for talking to a white boy at the Cracker Barrel where she washes dishes. Ma is always worried we’re going to have white babies, ghost babies. White people in our dialect are called devils, which doesn’t make sense because they’re the ones who gave us this god. Who taught us how to brush our teeth and pee into porcelain and monogamize. Our pastor has breath that smells like a burial. You can smell every stage of rot on him: like his mouth’s a mousetrap and he’s never cleaned out the kill. Even Ma says he’s got his mouth and anus switched around. Says his tongue must play tag with the devil’s ass. When he sermonizes, everyone in the congregation holds their breath like they’re swimming through the sound, trying to surface safely at the end of his sentence. He shuts his mouth and we sip air again. At sermon’s end, we come clawing out of church like evacuees.
Try getting kissed by a mouth like that. I drank straight vinegar for a month. He liked to watch Jie and I swim the creek behind the church, and when we climbed out he pretended to be birdwatching, reading the sky for some rare breed. But really those binoculars were trained at our breasts, nipples the darkest he’d ever seen, acorning our otherwise plate-shaped chests. He took me to his house once, two floors with a door painted minty, and asked me to eat from a jar of honey with my pinkies only. He paid me in pennies. Flies and ants followed me home, lured by my honeyed chest and chin and knees. I woke with ants stitching a line down the center of my body, splitting my breasts into opposite coasts.
The church wives gave us honey too. Ma told them that Orientals don’t sweeten tea. Don’t sweeten anything. We prefer salt and sour and bitter, the active ingredients in blood and semen and sweat and bile and scabs. Flavors from the body. Jie and I both quit our old jobs – we got infections from the chicken farm. Something in the droppings made our hands grow thick green scales like a chicken’s feet, and the sawdust flooring of the coop chipped away at our lungs. So Ma let us quit. Then Jie got the job at Cracker Barrel and I stacked citrus at the miles-away grocery store, arranging oranges into non-phallic towers, sometimes attempting a house with crates of cola. I’m not good at it yet. Every shape I stack looks like a casket.
Ba says he’ll find the gold soon. Ma beats him again, this time with a pair of high heels (also a gift from the church wives). Ba says he’ll remember where he buried it all. Ma throws a flowerpot (seeds via the church wives). Ba enrolls us in the daily effort of digging; we dig until our arms ache for amputation. Then Ba dances the shovel too deep, hits water. Except it isn’t water, it’s a sewage line, and later the landlord/pastor tells us to leave it be. The rest of the month, we wade the river of everyone’s shit, still digging, still convinced Ba can remember, still convinced memory is contagious. And if we only stand close enough to him, we’ll catch what he lost. We’ll recover everything.
The gold was what Ba brought from the mainland to the island. He was a soldier then, though he was only good running and hiding: he’d once slept in a well during the Japanese invasion, watching the sky scab over and bleed smoke. After twenty years of gambling on the island, in a city named after its tendency to flood, he lost the gold then won it back and back and back again. He met Ma at a mahjong table. She could have been his daughter, and the locals said she was so poor she ate only the wood-like hearts of pineapples, her tongue skewered by splinters. She had three children already and one dead husband. The local boys said she was ruined from the waist-down but still eligible from the waist-up. So she wore a heavy skirt that tarped her like a nun. They married in a not-church. Ma gave her three already-daughters to her parents and birthed two new ones with Ba. I’m the second of the new ones. We’re the two she kept, brought here, beat.
Ba always said that gold is the only stable currency. That’s how all the refugees paid their way to the island. In wartime, land is worth only the bones it can bury. A house is worth only the bomb that banishes it. Gold is fixed, is bone. Gold can be spent anywhere, anytime, in any language. Even Ma always misread the slogans on the back of American coins: In Gold We Trust. That’s why she thinks we’re compatible with this country. She still believes we can buy its trust. We are bought by our beliefs.
Decades ago, after their wedding, Ba buried the gold on a beach in Ma’s hometown. Then he dug it up to take with us, reburying it here, in this yard we don’t own, in Arkansas, which Ma liked because it sounded like Ark, as in Noah’s. All of Ma’s words are from the Bible. Most are single-syllable: Job, Ark, Lot, Wife, Smite.
Ma says the only way we’ll ever unbury the gold is if we shoot Ba’s skull open, extract the memory ourselves. Ma tried it once. Ma pointed a pistol at Ba’s head and said bang, thinking it would scare the memory into fleeing his head. It didn’t. Ba wet himself and Jie had to mop the floor. Apparently, Ba needs a war. Ba needs something to buy that would save his life. Or else, Ma says, we’ll continue feeding all our wealth to the trees. Ugly American trees that grow moss like pubic hair.
We consider other strategies: if we borrow a bulldozer, we can flip the whole yard over like a pancake. But we need our money for that, and our money is buried like a body. Jie suggests we hang Ba by his feet, upside down, so that all his memories flow upstream and pool at top of his skull, easily accessible. I tell her it doesn’t work that way, but Jie is in high school already and takes biology class, meaning she knows how to diagram a body, meaning she’s drawn me a penis with veins and everything, shown me a hole or two it could go. She pulls down her pants so I can see. I ask her to show it on me, but she says not yet.
Ma prays to God and Guanyin, in that order. She asks for Ba’s gold to fall as rain or grow limbs and climb through the window or shoot out of the soil as metallic shrubbery. Ma’s incense is homemade: she shaves soft wood from our birch tree and skunks the strips with her jasmine perfume, then burns them in bunches. We watch our smoke give birth to the night.
Jie promises to teach me to read. She teaches me out of the Bible and we sit under the trees by the creek, the ones with sap-scabbed trunks and fruit hard as fists. Jie says she once saw two white girls kissing in the creek. She says this in Mandarin, where the word kiss sounds like the word clean, so I think she means two white girls cleaning the creek. Why? I say. Jie says Because God made them like that and I think Ma is made that way too, a compulsive cleaner, someone who calls the sky a stain, who believes bleach can solve a bruise. Jie and I avoid cleaning anything by climbing trees, pretending we are monkeys, swinging to steal the neighbor’s apricots like we are Sun Wukong thieving a peach of immortality from the garden of gods. He was punished for this, but we can’t remember what the punishment was, so we swallow our apricots whole and without mercy. We shit the pits out. They rattle the pipes when we flush.