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The Buried Gold

The Buried Gold

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.

Nec consectetur sic transit

Nec consectetur sic transit

Most of them settle between our breasts…  Jie’s made me stop eating while I’m picking, and one day she says mei, stop eating the damn things and I say I’m not. But we can both hear apricot pits landing in the dirt below, steady as the heartbeat of rain. It’s coming from somewhere near. In the tree to the left of us, where the fattest branch meets the trunk – what Jie calls a tree armpit – there’s an orb like a stuck soccer ball. That’s what we think it is – some boy must have kicked up a ball and gotten it jammed in the tree. But the orb is fuzzy and apricot-colored and seems to be growing out of the tree itself.

We descend our trunk, dresses still heavy with fruit, and climb up next to the orb. Jie pokes it with a leaf, and that’s when we see it’s not connected to the tree at all.  It swivels around like a head, rips the leaf out of Jie’s hand. It’s an apricot with teeth where its cleft should be.  It has a vertical mouth, that opens like a zipper. It doesn’t have a face, technically, but the teeth are enough. If it’s got a mouth, it’s got a mother. The slight furring makes it almost cute, and it’s wearing a small cap of green leaves, almost like a hair-do. The apricot opens its mouth wider than its body, and we both think it’s going to eat us until we realize it’s yawning. Jie pets its furry cheek and feeds it the apricots she’s picked for herself.

The apricot-baby eats apricots. I ask Jie if this apricot-baby is technically a cannibal, and Jie says it’s not because the apricot-baby is the only of its species.  We visit the apricot-baby every day. It never moves or grows or speaks – Jie has tried to teach it Chinese, but the apricot-baby’s mouth is a cannibal, not a communicator.

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One day we climb the fence and the whole orchard is tented – big silver tarps like festival tents, each of the trees with a flag staked into its roots. Red flags mean the tree will be chopped down, green flags mean it’ll be medicated. We find out later that one of the trees had grown a deadly disease – its leaves turned blank-white like paper and fell out within an hour. The neighbors panicked and hired a tree doctor, who said there was either something wrong with the roots or something wrong with the water supply. He asks if the tree has been traumatized. He asks if the soil has been disturbed. Jie and I wonder if our digging has triggered something in the dirt, a virus seeking its way into the light, a land-mine. But mostly we’re desperate to find our apricot-baby. The trees will be fumigated soon, so Jie and I bring a kitchen knife to tear open the tree-tarps and rescue the apricot-baby.

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But the neighbors are in the orchard all day, talking to the tree doctor and knocking on the trunks, strategizing how to make their trees disease-proof, invader-free. Jie and I don’t want to risk being seen, not even for our apricot-baby. Even though Jie calls it her daughter, even though we wove it a sweater made of grass and laughed when it ate the sleeves – I know she wants to blame the baby for all of this. I know she wants to think we’re not the species responsible.

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The tree doctor says to the neighbor: this is unfortunate but predictable. There are consequences to growing non-native species outside of their indigenous ecologies. There are deaths.

A boy at work teaches Jie how to make a metal detector out of a radio, cardboard, a broomstick, and copper wire. In return, Jie lets him finger her in the sweaty kitchen of the Cracker Barrel. Jie stands and washes dishes while he’s behind her, three of his fingers spidering around inside her cotton underwear. His nails snag on her pubic hair and she hisses, twists the faucet hotter, scalds off her calluses.

Jie holds the broomstick and I hold the radio. The copper wire wraps around both ends of the broomstick and the radio is taped to one end, the clump of extra wire dragging on the ground like a tail. Jie switches the radio to AM and the morning news spits mostly static, a sound like the sea muffled by hands.