In five days, while on vacation, I’ll turn 37. Might as well be 40. Since I won’t be around to revel in the dozen or so “Happy B-Days” on my FB wall, I decided I’d leave a gift behind for you all, instead. Here’s my rough draft of chapter 18 of I, ZOMBIE. Do not enjoy.
18 • Chiang Xhen
There was meat hanging in the window: Chickens strung up by their necks, pork wrapped in twine, little hooves in prayer, half-rotten fish frozen mid-dive, their dull scales cracking off and fluttering to the ground like leaves from a shedding tree. The meat was rotten. The air was heavy with the stench of it being locked tight in that tiny shop for days and days. Clouds of flies gathered. The meat had long since been appetizing.
Two chairs lay tipped over beneath the meat, old and ornate chairs of carved wood. The shop owners used the chairs to hang their daily offerings and to adjust the signs on which prices daily fluctuated. Chiang Xhen roamed the shop in meandering circles, bumping into tables, her inhuman and lonely grunts filling the darkened space, her young eyes occasionally falling to the fragile chairs lying on their sides, her thoughts drifting toward her parents.
The crowded city made for a strange life for a young Chinese girl. Her parents had been born in China, while she had been born in this tiny microcosm, this span of city blocks made to look like someone else’s home.
Sure, she got out of Chinatown occasionally—but not often. Her parents took her to museums and concerts. They stood before large canvases and her mother showed showed Chiang how other people made brush strokes, what a hand both confident and relaxed could produce. Both of her parents stressed hours of practice. There, look at how that woman in the first chair plays violin, how her hand lays over to the side, just the edges of her fingers sliding up and down the strings.
Chiang complained after one concert that she was only ten, and that it hurt her fingers to twist them that way. When they got home that night, her mother took her aside and unwrapped her feet and pointed to them, and Chiang kept future discomforts to herself.
Her parents had been born in China and had brought much of it over with them. But it was a warped version of home, Chiang discovered. The more she talked to her friends, the more she found that her parents held in their hearts a fantasy version of their birthland. Chiang was now eleven, and had only that year discovered that dragons weren’t real. They never had been. It made her question the dinosaurs from that museum, too.
At her one-room school, they learned a lot of politics. Her teacher didn’t know English. She spoke more of the news at home than she did of the city. Chiang learned without meaning to that she was lucky to be alive. That back home, her parents may have decided to not keep her. And here, she could have all the brothers and sisters she wanted.
She didn’t argue with her teacher, didn’t mention her mother’s feet or the way her father looked at her with sadness. She had only begged for a little brother once. Her parents had yelled at one another all night, making it hard to sleep. So whenever her teacher spoke of such things, Chiang gazed out the window at something else.
Usually, it was the bold stripes on the flags of Little Italy, which every year her people encroached more and more. When she mentioned this to her father, that she felt badly for the Italians, he had shrugged. Pounding a flank of meat with his wooden hammer, he had explained to her that some people care more about where they come from than others. He told her to feel sorry for them about that while he hammered the meat with more anger.
Chiang had felt sorry for her father that day—and for the meat.
She made another circuit of the shop, her parents‘ shop. She had never been so hungry in all her life. The days had gotten away from her—not for lack of counting or so grand a number, but her mind wandered as it grew dark and light again outside. Strangers occasionally pressed against the glass, eying the meat, deciding it wasn’t for them. This much hadn’t changed. Tourists, turning their noses up at delicacies. Laughing and taking pictures. Only, they didn’t take pictures anymore. They paused with their horrible wounds. The disgusting display was in reverse, now. And then they lumbered onward.
Chiang wondered how long this would last, how long before everyone died for good. She ran that last day over and over in her head. School had been cancelled suddenly, parents arriving for their children, people running in the streets. Only, they hadn’t been screaming. That scared her the most, the wide eyes and slack jaws from the adults hurrying away with their children in their arms. In the movies, they were always screaming as loud as they could while a Chinese version of Godzilla crushed buildings beneath its scaly feet. Instead, there had been silence, which was unnerving because it wasn’t right. Everywhere, people scattered, legs hurrying, no time for screams at all.
Or maybe they didn’t want to draw attention. The sick were already in the streets. It was difficult to see them, for they moved slowly. They didn’t stand out. Not until you bumped into them, looking for your parents, fighting the crowds to get home, and a kind stranger took your hand, bent down to see if you needed help, and bit off your fingers.
Chiang made another lap of the shop. She had never been so hungry before. Even waiting until the last customer was served before her mother made something in the back had never been this bad. Nothing had. She’d lost count of the days spent circling the shop, but it had been three since she’d had anything to eat. Three days with the hunger driving her mad.
A newspaper fluttered by outside and pressed itself to the glass. It was like a tourist, peeping in. Headlines from those last days were spread across its face—news of an outbreak entirely under control. Until it wasn’t. Chiang wondered what was happening in China. She thought of her school teacher and all her friends, wondered what had happened to them. As the people passed, she looked for anyone she knew, but they were all tourists.
The newspaper flapped off on the breeze. Where it had pressed, Chinese characters painted with a young and unsure hand could be seen against the fading backlight of another counted day. The characters were supposed to say: 人生. Rénshēng. Life.
Outside, it would have read this way. To the tourists, of course, it meant nothing. Just backdrop that lent Chinatown its authenticity. For locals, of course, it promised healthy ingredients and traditional medicines. Eternal life.
Chiang had laughed when she’d seen it from the inside. After she had drawn it for the third time, washing off each attempt with a bucket of water and a rag as she attempted to satisfy her mother’s exacting standards, she saw what it meant in reverse. From the inside, the brush strokes were backwards. It looked more like shēngrén. 生人. Stranger.
A stranger life. Life as a stranger. A girl growing up in a home away from home, people she didn’t know peering through the glass, taking pictures of and pointing at the delicacies hanging in the window. It was funny how that worked out. Like the characters knew all along that this was coming. A secret only they knew.
Chiang laughed in her mind. It was the only place she could laugh or cry anymore. She wanted out. She wanted to run, to skip and shout and scream, but knotted chains hung from the doors of the little shop. Her parents had locked them all inside, had locked away their one precious girl while she grew sicker and sicker, and they worried more and more.
Two chairs of ornate wood lay tipped on their sides. There was flesh up past the knees that might sate her painful hunger, but Chiang could circle and circle and wave her arms and never reach any more. She had eaten all she could. She was powerfully hungry and all alone, and meat hung in the window of her parents’ shop.