K-Ming Chang

Updated: Feb 1

Momotaro


Every night, Mama told me the story of Momotaro, the boy born from a slit-open peach who saved his entire village from a child-eating giant. The village monster hungered for the belly buttons of children, but because Momotaro was born from a peach and therefore had no belly button of his own, he was immune to the village monster and decapitated it easy with his sword. But Baba told Mama that she wasn’t allowed to tell me Japanese stories anymore – remember, he said, what the Japanese did to our people, and how my grandmother lost her left wrist, and why I had to grow up wearing fiberglass sacks that sanded my skin and turned me hairless – she no longer told the story to me. For a while, there was a girl next door named Momo. She lived in the front unit of a duplex, which meant she was rich, since only rich people owned windows that faced the street, while the rest of us – if we had windows – only had a view of the back-alley that our brothers clogged, or of the empty lot where the stray dogs sometimes ate their babies. Every spring, the back-unit kids bet which dogs would survive, which bitches would succeed their parents as the ass-biters and butt-chasers of our neighborhood. One year, animal control came and bagged up all the dogs and then there were only possums, which also ate their babies, but no one wanted to bet on possums. That was the same year that Momo moved into the front unit with her mother and father and older brother. Mama said we should go find out what school she went to and what temple they prayed at, but Baba said they were Japanese and must not be spoken to or about – their very presence, he said, was an omen. An omen of what, I asked him, but he said shut up, we are not talking about them. They got a shiny tin mailbox – we didn’t have mailboxes on this street, since mail was usually just thrown at us, and because mail was usually bad (bills, debts, letters from the yimingju). The idea that someone could want mail, and that it needed to be housed in its own separate and roofed unit was strange to me, and so I watched from the street as Momo stood on her driveway and painted the mailbox pink. Because she lived in the front unit, she had forever-access to the apricot tree on the driveway. Overhead, the branches clenched into fists. I walked up behind her and asked what she was doing. I meant it in the way everyone here meant it – what are you doing, as in stop doing that and go inside before I sandal you. Momo said that pink was her color. My name means peach, she told me. Yes, I said, I already know that. Momo like Momotaro, the boy cut out of a peach, squeezed out like a seed. I didn’t know that people could own colors, but the casual way she said it made me believe her, that pink belonged to her the way a cavity belonged to a tooth. After she finished painting the mailbox – she told me not to come near and smear it, and I said what if a bird flies over and shits on it – I asked if she wanted to come play with us. With who, she said. Us, I said, meaning me and the street. Okay, she said, so I took her to the empty lot behind the duplex and showed her the hole in the gnarled fence where you could shimmy through as long as you weren’t a woman yet, with hips. That’s what Mama always said to me, that someday I would acquire hips that would no longer allow me to trespass on certain territories. I didn’t know how or where I would get hips, but I hoped they’d at least be free. Momo laughed at me. She pointed at herself and said here, these are hips, everyone has them, but I didn’t believe her, since she was able to snake in through the hole in the fence. The lot was full of dumped things – there was a sign on the fence that said FINE FOR DUMPING, but English had no authority here – and the dirt was mountained with stained mattresses, old vacuum cleaner bags, bent bumpers, random glass, DVD cases, fistfuls of probably human hair. Momo skirted the fence and said this was all garbage, but I told her one time we found a birdcage here, and inside it, a live parakeet with peach-colored cheek feathers and a blonde beak. What did you do with it, she said, and I told her we bet on it. We bet how many days it would live without food or water. In the end, I said, some predator got it, a raccoon or a stray. Momo asked, why didn’t you just let it go? You can’t bet on something you set free, I said. I told her that’s what we did here, bet on things, because our Babas always told us that chance was the only thing that got us here and born, and that we needed to be attuned to all possibilities. Momo said, I don’t have one those, a baba, so I don’t know about that. She squirmed through the hole in the fence and said her parents told her not to touch garbage or glass because it could hurt her. There was a game we played once, I told her, where we went barefoot in the lot and ran back and forth across it and then checked our soles afterward, counting how many shards of glass we’d mosaicked on our skins. Whoever bled the most would win. Whoever could pluck the glass out whole was going to be a future surgeon. Momo said she was going home. Standing on the other side of the fence, I couldn’t see her whole – I could only see pieces of the light that the fence let through its fingers. She had a face like a peach, firm and furred, and I wondered what could brush against her life and bruise it. She had a face that was rinsed and sunned and set on a shelf to sweeten. Let me ask you something, I said, before you leave. Do you have a belly button? Momotaro didn’t have one, since he was born from a severed peach. You have parents, but maybe they sucked you clean out of peachmeat, too. Momo stared at me through the fence, and then she lifted her shirt and said, here’s mine. Her belly button was the lidded kind, and I was afraid it might blink at me, rolling a bone eye in its socket. I told her to come closer to the fence, to tuck a finger in, to prove it was real. It could be drawn on or stitched onto her stomach by her mother, a fake flap of pork fat. I remembered I had a cousin who used to play glass-foot with us, who told us that the way you get pregnant is through the belly button, that the best way to prevent pregnancy was to stitch it shut. We watched her squat on a rain-riddled mattress and thread the needle through her thinnest skin, crimping the edges, knotting it off when she was done. It got infected later, and Mama had to slit open the threads with a pair of nail clippers. Look at mine, I told Momo, lifting the hem of my shirt. But mine’s real, I said, my mother undid me here. Yours is fake, fruitborn. Momo said I was crazy. She said, my parents say you I shouldn’t be talking to you. Then she turned and ran from the fence. I saw the soles of her shoes, speckled with pink paint and bits of glass that dazzled the cement behind her, and I was proud of what I’d embedded in her step, what she carried without knowing. When her family left a few months later, Mama complained that they never talked to any of the neighbors, that they didn’t even chip in for funerals, that they never even shared the apricots from their driveway tree, not even the hard ones or the dribbling rotten ones. It was only after they left that we resumed thieving from the tree, battering the branches with a bamboo broom, catching the apricots as gently as we could, cradling them in our mouths. They were sour to the stone, barely any meat on them, and none of them were big enough to bear babies. I thought that my mother’s story was a lie, that there was no such thing as finding a free peach that floats along a river’s spine, a boy waiting to be plucked from it. There was only ever a tree on someone else’s property. We pursed open the fruit with our thumbs, saving the seeds to plant in the empty lot behind us, flicking them like shards of bottle-glass, praying for the trees to grow up before the lot got bought.

K-Ming Chang / 张欣明 is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

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