Once upon a time, there was a hunter and a huntress who lived at the edge of a forest, just where the sand began, abutting a long, low desert valley. Long ago, in previous lives, the hunter and huntress had met, loved, lived in a city that stood at a moderate distance, its jagged rooftops and skyscraper antennae visible on the horizon for several weeks every fall when the air was cool and thin and clear. They had moved to a small home in the forest to make an escape. Sometimes an escape is a last resort, and sometimes it comes first.
* * *
The Story of the Huntress
Sometimes an escape is the story of two people, sometimes only one is left to tell the story.
There was a time, when she was still living in the city, when the huntress found that she had reached a point of peak beauty, peak prowess, peak child-bearing age, but she was trapped by the shape of her family. Years before, she had made a deal with her mother, that she would forever, unto her mother’s death, be her interpreter, from Chinese into English, in all matters, in all interactions, in all intake and output of language. In return, she would be granted the flow of ancestral blood in her veins, the blood of a true huntress.
She would be an animal, fanged or feathered, claws and fur, eyes that tunneled through the dark at the speed of light, the most delicately sensitive nostrils, earlobes like James Bond microchip seashells. She would smell your blood even before you were born, and she herself would smell like blood. Her heart, it would grow to be small, contract wildly, to the size of a slim, sleek animal heart, the sturdy, knowing quiver of a rabbit heart, quick to scavenge, quick to ravage.
The huntress had been eager to agree to this exchange of languages, the giving and receiving of passports between worlds. Be gifted the gift to fuck all else. In the eyes of the huntress, the access to huntress blood was as close as she would ever get to being rid of her skin, the skin of a girl.
Bring me the snip of a puppy’s tail, some snails, some entrails, rusted nails. The taste of animal is all blood, all texture. No girls allowed, no nice, no sugar, no spice.
Her salivary glands throbbed, filled.
* * *
The Story of How to Carve With Vinegar
As a young girl, I couldn’t be rid of my skin fast enough. I scratched and scratched, at the inside fold of elbow where tiny rashes formed, at the backs of my knees. Heat rash, eczema, dry skin patches, inflammations, ichthyosis, psoriasis, hives. Half of me was already a reptile, the other half that wasn’t desperately wanted to be, craved new scales. Every chance I got, I took the class reptile home with me for the weekend. This was allowed with all the class pets; some years we had incubators and eggs and then little fuzzy chicks we could take turns borrowing for the weekend, or other years, butterflies or silkworms. A mulberry tree, giant, took up a large chunk of the enclosure that was the recess backyard at Bonita Canyon Elementary School. We tore leaves off, tossed them into shoeboxes. I dreamed of setting the cool, pale silkworms free, high up on the tree, what must it be like to live on top of and among your one provider.
I took home snakes. I took home iguanas. They were native to me, native to my surroundings, desert snakes, rattlesnake warning signs, sand, dust, lizards sunning on heat-scorched rocks. I held the iguana, felt its dry, fragile body, its small bones, beneath the wrinkled, thin papery skin. I dreamed of molting, shedding. My skin was so dry it cracked into tectonic plates, separated. Not just on my hands and feet, but on my arms and legs.
And then, many things at once. My period, a bleeding that wasn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, seem like real bleeding. What was this? A monthly monstrosity, to be monthly cut down to size. Bleeding without a wound, unless if I was the wound. Pimples on my face, angry, the perfect reflection of how I felt. Which came first, the anger erupting inside my head, or on the surface of my body? I wasn’t sure. But I dreamed of being pure and perfect and smooth and new, beneath it all. I began getting rashes on my feet, on my toes, between them. These small bumps turned into tiny blisters, that my mother diagnosed as athlete’s foot. I was boiled down to two things, my body and my hatred. I wasn’t particularly athletic, didn’t even get to reap the social benefits of being an athlete, and now I had athlete’s foot? My toes itched and stung, hot beneath my socks and shoes. The blisters sometimes oozed, dried, and cracked, crackled like caramelized sugar. Everyday after school, my ritual was to tear off my shoes and socks, my socks sometimes stuck to my feet at certain sticky points, a slight yellow brown stain where the rash scraped open had absorbed into the cotton sock, and go into the bathroom, hop up on top of the bathroom counter, and stick my feet into the sink, washing them one at a time with soap. Drying them off carefully. Applying more anti-fungal cream, or shaking on some sprinkles of anti-fungal powder.
At night, the ritual was more grim. After showering, I would go back downstairs in my pajamas, with a sweatshirt or blanket if it was cold, and it usually was, and from under a small side table, I retrieved a large glass mixing bowl filled with vinegar and covered in plastic wrap. I would tear off several paper towels from the roll on the countertop, and then I sat down in the darkened downstairs, at the dining table, in my usual chair, usually with homework or a book, and put my foot in the bowl. Usually it was just one foot or the other. Sometimes I switched out the vinegar with fresh vinegar from a large plastic jug of Heinz white vinegar. I watched the time on the oven clock, twenty minutes, but usually I sat for thirty or forty, desperate to be purified to the bone.
Sometimes I cried, a sour flood to the eyes, slowly dripping in streaks down my face. Mostly I read about blonde teenage twin girls with mirror-image dimples on their cheeks. Afterwards, I would look at my feet, temporarily not itching at least, not oozing, but pale softened wounds, tiny gaping craters where the blisters used to be, white-edged and soggy. I have faint scars on the tops of my feet still from those days, months, years. I don’t know what eventually cured me, I think it was mostly a phase of my adolescent body, and I grew out of it, that it had to run its course no matter what ointment or home remedy my mother had me apply. But it was too late, because it was sitting there alone at that dining table, that began my inability to separate pain from healing.
* * *
Things that are curved sharp as white carvings:
-the whites of eyes, on either side, both eyes
-paper towels, quilted, perforated
-the edges of pages, books of fables, horror, how-to, nature guides, love stories
-the tip of the ivory dagger
* * *
When the huntress was a teenager, she realized that all girls carried the blood of beasts. Was it a negligible amount or just enough? Enough to know that this being just half of some animal, being not quite something, seemed a curse. When she stood at the kitchen sink, helping her mother peel carrots, she dreamed of taking the wood-handled peeler to her own body, starting from the bottom of her feet, the long motion, the raw rocky sound of scrape, one take. Skinned in strips. Underneath, something pure, red jeweled pulp of blood, smooth white skin of reptile scales, a slither and a snap. All fall down. Clay soldiers tumbling over like strewn debris.
And so she and her mother made the deal. Seated at her old place at the dining table, the huntress rubbed her fingertips against the shape left from a small chipped-off piece of the veneer, that left a vaguely animal shape of a lighter wood beneath it. She imagined it a quadruped of some kind, vaguely shaped with smooth edges like an animal cracker.
There was no contract, no paperwork. Just the huntress, using her body as a bridge between her mother and anyone else, between one world and another world. Her mother had already ruined her in many ways, always telling her, you know, little doll, there is really no interiority in the Bible, and look how long those stories have lasted. The huntress took this to mean that feelings could be kept inside, and a story could still be erected in front of them, acting as an acceptable stand-in for intimacy, love, dimension, a life lived.
Her mother told her that Nathaniel Hawthorne was her real father, and other times that she was Rappaccini’s daughter, and these two facts somehow did not conflict. Hawthorne and Rappaccini might as well have been the same old white man, white hair, wrinkled, thin papery skin, an austere seventeenth-century type, only ever existing in my mind in portraiture form, a cold marble bust, his hair a smooth hard helmet like the Ken dolls of the 1980s, his neck swathed in a combination of five different collars, cravats, neck scarves, and other pointy or starched or bunched up modes of swaddling, constricting, or bundling the neck. Only alive through his writing—his books or declarations or poetry or epigrams—which I read out loud or silently in my own voice, the ideas transferring from a page of paper into my body, passing into me, traveling through me like blood. The historical gap between me and them was so wide, so alien, that I was forced to use my own body, my own voice, as a stop-gap. Now you are mine, I thought.
The point being, that I didn’t mind that this was the father that my mother tossed my way. It was kind of a dream come true, to have a claim to real America. Dreams of Puritans and hysteria and cold and barren one-room schools, in places like Massachusetts, places that were the entryway to America, which was pretty much the same thing as The American Dream. Places which were related to Plymouth Rock, and the Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria, and pilgrims and fire-and-brimstone preachers named James or Jonathan or George. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. John Donne. I wanted to be a plain girl, named Abigail, or Agnes, or Agatha, pure and plain, filled with piety, a dull wooden doll kind of girl, who somehow got filled with light, and filled with the flame of witchery or adultery, and delivered into a heavenly bouquet of flames. Cleansed by fire.
Instead, in my twenties, I castigated ex-boyfriends for the sins of their fathers, who sculpted tiny men with huge penises. And now, in my thirties, I myself was a sculptor, of women with huge pussies. I sculpted all the women I hated, all the current and ex-girlfriends of my current and ex-boyfriends, of my love, the hunter. It is an old story, to hate the other woman. It is so easy, after all, to hate the other, and to hate the woman. I never met the hunter’s other woman, but I knew her. If we wander into the universe of fables, we know what we are to learn: what girls are made of (of nice, of sugar), and what boys are made of (of snipped off puppies’ tails), and, well, the hunter’s other woman, in this world, would have been made of the parts of a man, I would say: dark forest soil and the menacing wetness of green plants, incisor teeth dripping saliva, poised to puncture, and blood-matted fur.
After I conjured her ghost—I was curious, I couldn’t help it, who was she, where did she get the balls—she would not leave. I had hopes I could stash her somewhere I didn’t turn to so often, but she was always just at the periphery of my vision, always just in the whites of my eyes, which meant I was perpetually turning toward her, trying to catch a full glimpse. I have had other ghosts in my past; those ghosts all left. As I understood it, that’s what ghostly things were supposed to do—be spectral, partial, fleeting, translucent in both space and time, only flimsily hanging onto a presence.
But the hunter’s other woman ghost lingered. I’d seen photos of her before, on computer screens, on phones, paintings on gallery walls, in photographs in process, photo prints sunken on the bottom of developing trays in a community darkroom, wobbling under the weight, a face staring up from watery chemical depths, as if a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. It did not prepare me for her presence in the form of the physical sensation of objects, of plant and animal parts. It was springtime, and everyday, as I walked home from work, staring up at the bare tree branches, the buds slowly butting out, slowly protruding their alien green tips, I felt her growing. When I got home, and cooked dinner, and sat down in front of nature documentaries, I could feel her staring back at me through the eyes of dam-busy beavers and lanky, light-on-their-feet wolves. At the end of the escape route, this is where one gets spit out. The filled green mountains of panda refuges in China gave me the feeling of leaves being chewed, prickling their ways inside my veins.
* * *
In all of her memories, the woman transforms into something fecund, something green and vital turning and twisting out of moist dark soil, or else a bird, a wolf, a predator, the fastest, most camouflaged thing, something with feathers or sharp teeth, a tough hide, shiny scales. The huntress changes and adjusts her memory at will, to ensure this outcome. Because, the next time she is given the once-over, elevator eyes dropping her to her knees, this is the tale she wants. And if her clothes are to be shed, you will see this narrative clearly written on every single visible inch of her body. And if she is to be chopped into two, split halves writhing, even then. Limbs thrashing, mind crazed and grasping at memories of past hours spent in a forest, in a city, with her love, the hunter, in a raging country—even then will her body tell you something that her tongue cannot.
Bonnie Chau is from Southern California, where she ran writing programs for young students at the nonprofit 826LA. She received her MFA in fiction and translation from Columbia University. She is a Kundiman fellow, a former bookseller, and her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Flaunt, Timber, Drunken Boat, The Offing, and other publications. She works at Poets & Writers in New York City.