Flash Fiction: Chinese Mermaids by Stephanie Isan

Windansea Beach, San Diego (photo by the author)

The small cross-section of Sabina’s detached labia lay dormant on her vanity, next to her collection of half-chewed lippies and glitter polishes. It was red and slivered like a tongue, worming about stickily as she cupped it in her palms—this vulnerable, almost alien once-part of her, snipped off moments ago with trembling fingers and her mother’s scallion scissors. Sabina inserted a tampon, cardboard applicator and all, and the bleeding muted enough for her to walk. She hobbled towards the kitchen, stuttering in step like a newborn giraffe.

Sabina rinsed her hands, blood quivering down the stream of water. Sabina wondered if her mother had ever considered trimming her labia. But her mother didn’t have droopy, brown, wrinkly old-man labia lips that flapped like a set of gaping wind shutters.

“Your vagina is fine, Sabi,” said Sabina’s mother, Marina, earlier that day. “I don’t know why you’re so worried about that, of all places. It’s not like anyone can see.”

“What about yours?”

“I suppose they got kind of long after giving birth. I don’t really know.”

“Fantastic. So your labia lips are so dainty small that you don’t even care. I bet I get my labia genes from Dad.”

“Your vagina is beautiful, bao bao.” Marina turned in the mirror, examining her rear. “Do I look fat in these jeans?”

Sabina nibbled on a baby carrot, one of the few snacks allowed in the house. “You look fine.”

“Fine?”

“Skinny, okay?”

“Thanks, bao bao.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m thirteen. I’m basically a woman now.”

“Woman or not, you’ll always be my baby.” When Marina smiled, it was familiar, yet uncanny, like rearranged furniture or an off-tune lullaby. Sabina missed her mother’s old face, the one she could no longer remember. Months ago, Marina returned from a “transformative, lifechanging” vacation from South Korea. Double eyelids, straightened nose, and patches over her cheeks where lasers had shaved off her freckles. When the swollen bits healed and the bandages were removed, Marina wasn’t just younger. She was a stranger. But Marina only cared that stores started carding her again for her weekly box of Zinfandel.

“Did you hear that?” Marina clapped her hands, spinning in her kitten heels and Alexander Wang leggings. “The cashier asked if I was your older sister!”

At dinner that night, Sabina’s grandmother, her Ahma, had said her daughter was a psycho, a shen jing bing.

“A long time ago, they bound women’s feet.” Ahma sawed at the keto beef and broccoli, against and with the grain, then eventually grabbed the scallion scissors and sliced off a bite with gusto. She made a face as she ate, disgusted by the replacement of sugar with monkfruit, cornstarch with xanthan gum. She whispered to her granddaughter conspiratorially. “They couldn’t walk far from the house. Started from when they were five. Their bones would break for months. Snap, crackle, pop! Like that cereal. My great-grandmother had lotus shoes that your dolls could wear.” Ahma tapped two fingers, crablike, miming a size no larger than her index finger. “Even then, she had the biggest feet in her village and no one wanted to marry her. She couldn’t even stand without teetering. Now your mother is doing the same. She can barely walk two steps without sitting down because she’s too skinny or puffy somewhere. Legs like a monkey. Tripping over herself constantly.” Ahma took a bite of cauliflower rice and washed it down with a gulp of her martini. “Can’t even give birth to sons.”

In her youth, Ahma had collected pregnancies like cheap stamps and costume jewelry. Marina was the rare survivor in a sea of miscarriages, plucked safely to delivery, but she wasn’t miracle enough to satiate the thirst for a boy. Ahgong kept pushing, pushing, pushing and every few months, Ahma woke up in a pool of blood not entirely her own. With each miscarriage, Ahma breathed in more baijiu than air, more stupor than grief.

“But she mostly just moped in bed, sucking down generic Xanax and booze while your grandfather cheated and blamed me for not having a dick,” Marina had said, after Ahma went to bed. She swam fingers through Sabina’s dark hair. “Don’t listen to her, Sabi. She’s just being a dramatic, old—” Marina’s eyes twinkled, “—witch.”

Marina tapped Sabina’s nose. “You should be grateful. I got you in one try.”

Sabina never knew what to say. Had she been born a son, would her mother let her eat bread? Would her Ahma stop smelling so sickly sweet?

Hands dripping with water, Sabina tiptoed back to her room. Every step sent needles gutting through her crotch, lightning shocking her spine, a dulled blade twisting her insides. She lay apart, legs like a starfish. Red blood crept onto cream white sheets. Her mother would ask, maybe, but she could say it was her period. Her first period.

Sabina dragged out the tampon string, like the tail of a rat, and tossed it aside. It was soaked to the core. She pulled apart the swollen pieces between her legs, then poured a capful of peroxide. It foamed immediately, reacting hotly with her blood, cresting past her thighs.

Blood swept across her sheets in a lazy, growing wave. Sabina clutched at her legs, shaking, her face paling with a sheen of hot sweat. She poured more peroxide. Bubbles burned her skin. She wept quietly into a gnawed fist, refusing to cry out, because at night, her Ahma was drunk, shitfast asleep drunk, and her mother needed, desperately needed, her beauty sleep.

Stephanie Isan (she/they) is a queer Taiwanese American writer, poet, and software engineer. She was born and raised in the San Francisco bay area and currently lives on the US east coast with her dog, two cats, and partner. You can find out more about her at stephanieisan.com

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