Mei-mei tells me that she hears a mewling cat underneath the kitchen sink, stuck like phlegm in a wind-barked throat. It’s Nuo, she insists, shaking her little pigtails until she’s dizzy. I can hear her crying out for us, and it’s so sad.
Nuo’s dead, I say. We buried her in Old Man Fan’s backyard a month ago, remember? Underneath the chrysanthemum tree because you said it’s pretty like the color of Nuo’s eyes. A butter yellow, I still remember, almost liquid up-close with a black pinprick pupil.
What Mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her, I had assured Mei-mei that day as we scooped dirt onto Nuo’s body; we mixed in the dewy salt of our tears. It had seemed like a good idea at the time: to bury Nuo in the most beautiful place we know. And Old Man Fan has the nicest yard out of anyone on our block, even if he’s always showing up at our door with new pamphlets, new visions of god. He is also our landlord, so Mother smacks us pink afterwards if we roll our eyes too much.
Mei-mei presses her ear against the kitchen cabinet, murmuring Nuonuonuonuo like a demented lullaby. When I try to open it, Mei-mei blocks me with her tiny body. She can be so stubborn sometimes, my pigheaded little sister.
Finally, I reach around her, and the door yawns, revealing only the dishes we lick clean with our spit.
See? Nuo’s not here, just like I said.
Mei-mei just looks at me with pity, as if I’m the mistaken one.
That night I stay up late waiting for Mother to come home. Ever since she picked up extra shifts at the restaurant, I don’t know when to expect her.
I look around: dishes cleared; floor swept, even if it always looks dirty; Mei-mei put to bed after wrestling her away from the kitchen sink; my worksheets spread out accordion-style, equations crossed out in blue ink, but ultimately, done.
I don’t realize I’ve dozed off until I feel Mother’s palm on my shoulder, hot-tong-like.
Mother takes off her apron and sits on the couch with me, her joints crow-creaking until I feel sorry for her. I tell her everything. Well, not everything. Not the part about burying Nuo in Old Man Fan’s backyard, but I start at the beginning: how we came home from school one day and Nuo wasn’t at the door like usual, asking about our day. At first, we didn’t think too much of it; sometimes, Nuo disappears for a few days, doing what we don’t know. But then Mei-mei noticed a trail of reddish-brown vomit leading up to our closet; and that smell when we opened it; and that body on the floor, cold and still.
Mei-mei was so sad, crying yellow snot until her nose looked wind-swept from wiping. She probably loved that cat more than she loves us, I say.
Oh, is that why I haven’t seen Nuo lately? Mother massages her swollen ankles and looks right through me.
I go to bed and dream of Nuo tapping at my window, begging to be let in.
Mei-mei stops haunting the kitchen sink, but I keep a close eye on her. One day, as we’re walking home from school, she forgets her math textbook and has to go back.
I’ll catch up with you at home, okay, Jia? Mei-mei doesn’t wave goodbye. I watch her little pigtails bounce off the small of her back. She walks like an old woman, slightly hunched, and I want to cry shut-eyed as if it were my fault.
The sky oozes crimson like an opened belly when I hear loud knocking at the door, shaking me awake. I open it to find Mother dragging Mei-mei by the pigtail; chubby tears drip down Mei-mei’s nose, mixing with dirt.
Why weren’t you looking after her like I told you to? Mother demands while Mei-mei just blubbers like a broken ink pen, I’msorryI’msorryI’m sorry—
Mother says that Old Man Fan was chopping green onions when he heard scratching noises in his backyard. He shuffled out with a kitchen knife, ready for war—only to find not a saw-toothed gopher but a girl underneath his chrysanthemum tree; a shadow on her face as she dug barehanded for bones.
When he called Mother at the restaurant to complain, he warned her that Mei-mei showed all the signs of demonic possession.
Without a father figure at home to ward off evil spirits, young girls are especially vulnerable, he said. Then he told Mother that if we went to church with him this Sunday, he would waive all the property damage costs and forget it ever happened.
Do you know how embarrassing this is for me? Mother lets go of Mei-mei, who pushes past me and disappears into the kitchen.
I have forgotten how scary Mother is when she looks right at you. When Nuo was alive, she would stare down the pink-eyed rats chewing honeycombs through the walls as if she were x-raying their insides: are you meaty enough to pick clean?
I expected better from you, Jia, Mother continues. Two squashed watermelon seeds hang where her eyes should be. But instead of fear, I suddenly feel sorry for those rats, helpless like children before an uncaring god.
So what? I say, raising my voice. You didn’t even know Nuo was dead! What kind of mother are you anyway?
Later, after Mother goes back to the restaurant, Mei-mei finds me in the closet cradling my cheek, a five-fingered star blooming underneath my left eye.
Jia, Nuo wasn’t there. Mei-mei’s eyes are two full moons in the darkness. I dug and dug and dug but I couldn’t reach her, not even her bones.
Nuo, I swallow, letting myself hope. NUO, we yell together until hoarse. As if we’re the ones buried in Old Man Fan’s backyard, lost and calling for home.
Lucy Zhou is a technical writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rejection Letters, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Sublunary Review. In 2020, she received an honorable mention for the Felicia Farr Lemmon Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. She loves long-haired cats, labyrinths, and endlessly revising her pieces. You can find her on Twitter @lrenazhou.