“Tell me again about the night I was born.”
Li Shing drags the comb through her daughter’s oil black hair. Impermeable, like a starless sky reflected against a dense sea. Or a fish’s opaque cloudy eye as it gasps at the bottom of a boat. Li Shing’s fist accidentally brushes the creature’s clammy gray neck, and she tries not to shudder.
Instead, Li Shing honeys her voice and says, “It was autumn. A few weeks after the moon festival. When I carried you, you kept fluttering in my stomach. Just like this.” Li Shing forces herself to plunge her hand into the water and tickle the top of her daughter’s slick ribs.
She laughs and squirms, her thick powerful tail throwing waves against the cave walls.
Li Shing continues. “And then one night you were ready to come out. I was coming down to meet Baba at his boat.”
“And you were at the ocean.”
“And I was at the ocean. And the tide was just coming in. Then you gave a hard kick and I knew you were ready to come out. And when you came out—”
“The tide was there, and I fell into the sea.”
“Yes, right out of my arms.”
“And that’s when you saw my tail.”
“I thought you swam away from me. I started to cry and call for you. And that’s when you swam back into my arms.”
“And then you knew I was your bao bei.”
“Yes,” hesitates Li Shing. It’s a nickname she has trouble using, but it’s one her husband, Wong Wei, says often to the creature floating in the water. “You were our Pearl.”
At her name, Pearl props her webbed hands against the pool’s edge and turns to her mother. The lantern catches Pearl’s two black eyes, ringed by gold, so they shine predatorial in the dark. And when Pearl’s thin human lips turn up into a smile, her small, barbed teeth glint.
A shiver whips down Li Shing’s spine as she folds her hands in her lap, careful to hide how they shake. Even after all this time, she is still afraid.
“Our bao bei,” says Li Shing, less for Pearl and more to remind herself. “Our sweet girl.”
• • • •
In truth, it went like this.
All throughout the pregnancy, Li Shing dreamt of knives scraping inside her hips. She’d wake up in her and Wong Wei’s bed, sweating and clutching her stomach as her muscles twisted underneath her skin. As her belly grew, her appetite waned. Everything made her feel sick. The most she ate was rice ground into a paste, which she sipped by mouthfuls throughout the day. She no longer accompanied Wong Wei to the boat. Just the sight of a fish, gutted, with its clustered ballooned insides dangling, out made her ill.
“Is it supposed to be like this?” asked Wong Wei. He rubbed her back in slow circles, holding a bowl of boiled ginger that, whenever she was ready to drink, he raised to her lips.
“I don’t know,” moaned Li Shing. This was their first child. She heard from other women it could be hard. She watched other women in the village carry children, but not like this. It felt as though everything inside Li Shing was being directed towards the child. Even her fingernails grew brittle, ridged like evaporated wood.
She wasn’t sure what she had left to give. Until one day, laid out in bed, Li Shing felt a giant hand press down inside her hips. When her water broke it smelled briny. “It’s coming,” she called weakly, but Wong Wei was gone from the house, already at his boat. When he came home later that night, he found her on all fours on the floor, struggling to push.
It was two hard days of labor, going on three. “Why is it taking so long?” cried Wong Wei.
Li Shing didn’t hear him. Or the low groan she made laying in their soaked bed. She floated on the ocean, pulled by the center of her stomach further from the shore. Wait, I’m not ready, she tried to call out. Then there was a final tug, and Li Shing felt the pressure suddenly leave her body. She heard Wong Wei sobbing at the foot of their bed, stared at the thatched ceiling of their home. Pain burned everywhere.
“What do I do, what do I do?” asked Wong Wei over and over to himself as he clutched an armful of rags that keened in the gray dawn light.
“What happened?” She could only whisper. It surprised her that she sounded so weak.
“Li Shing,” his voice cracked. “You’re okay.”
“The baby?” She tried to sit up but her body didn’t move.
He hesitated, but as Li Shing kept reaching out to see their baby, he crouched next to her and pulled back the cloth. At first Li Shing didn’t understand why Wong Wei was holding a fish until her eyes finally settled on one curled, translucent hand.
“What should we do,” he asked.
• • • •
Li Shing had heard of nine-tailed foxes, crafty spirits who shifted into a man or woman. Nüwa and Fuxi, a sister and brother who had the bodies of snakes and the faces of humans. But they were just stories, tales told her as a child. Myths did not squirm in Wong Wei’s hands, or pump blood through blue veins visible underneath its nearly transparent skin. Its body was covered in what looked like dried milk. The creature had flared fins for ears, and a flat slit nose. And where there should’ve been a bellybutton, the skin dipped into a long flippered tail.
Occasionally in the village, a buffalo calf might be born with a deformed leg, or a duck lay black misshapen eggs. The animals were usually killed, or left in the mountains until it surrendered to another mouth. Wong Wei suggested he take it deep into the woods, or toss it into the sea, and return alone. “I’ll do it Li Shing, just tell me,”he said, trembling. Whatever was in Wong Wei’s arms, it gave small mews until it gathered enough strength to cry. It was one long high-pitched noise. Li Shing shivered, imagining what noise it’d make if it screamed, and who her soft-hearted husband would become afterwards, crawling back into their bed.
“No,” she said.
The child died, they told the neighbors. They erected a mound of rocks and burned the ruined sheets. For months, the creature cried from a corner of the house in a basin filled with saltwater. At first, Li Shing struggled to look at it. She felt so tired, her body deflated from the birth. She laid in bed, feeling as heavy as a sinking stone. And so Wong Wei was the one who chopped up pieces of fish and fed it, at first with chopsticks. Then with his fingers. Until one day Li Shing heard a splash and Wong Wei laughed. The laugh shocked her. It echoed like a slap. How could he?
After the first few months, the creature started to press up against the basin’s edges. It curled its fingers over the rim, its eyelids opening and closing horizontally at them.
“It can’t stay here,” said Li Shing.
“What about the cove?” suggested Wong Wei. Not far from the village, there were isolated caves. The village children were discouraged from playing there. Even seasoned divers had gotten lost in the underwater tunnels.
“It’s close to the sea. Perhaps she will like it,” added Wong Wei.
Bits of fish and blood wafted in the creature’s tub. It had already eaten, but even full, it cried. Li Shing wasn’t sure what it wanted. “Let’s see,” she said.
In the middle of the night, Li Shing and Wong Wei carried the creature in wet blankets. They made their way down the jagged rock face to the caves. Clouds covered the moon, and Li Shing had to be careful where she placed her feet, leaning into Wong Wei’s free hand as he steadied her. “There,” he pointed. Nearly imperceptible, a slit in the rock. They slid in, one by one, their ankles dragging through water until they stumbled into the cave.
The lantern light bounced off the jagged walls. Their footsteps muffled, and Li Shing felt as though the cave drew them in and held them, promising to keep them safe. A pool of water churned in the center, fed by sea water pouring in. That was where Wong Wei plunged the blankets into the cold water and unbound the creature free. It disappeared beneath the surface, and for a moment Li Shing wondered if it had left, but to her disappointment it appeared on the other side of the pool, chirping.
“She seems happy,” said Wong Wei.
They decided to leave the lantern. They moved towards the entrance and heard a sudden rush of water. The chirping suddenly became a wail as the creature tried to pull itself from the pool with its feeble arms.
“We will be back tomorrow,” yelled Li Shing over the noise.
The creature still flopped and struggled, tumbling into the pool with loud splashes. Water poured onto the rocks and over their feet. Next to her, she felt Wong Wei hesitate.
“Maybe we shouldn’t leave her,” he said.
Outside, just beyond the cave, the clouds had parted. The moonlight painted the beckoning beach and the comforting rock face back to the village. She gripped her husband’s arm and pulled him with her to leave. The creature’s wails grew muted, and soon there was only the lapping sea, and the crunching stones and shells underneath their feet as they returned home.
• • • •
Like she does every morning, Li Shing wakes up when it’s still dark. She runs cold water over her puffy face and grabs the basket she filled with fish from Wong Wei’s nets the night before. Years ago, Wong Wei offered to make the trip in the morning, but Li Shing insisted she be the one to carry the burden of feeding Pearl. It was only right.
On the path to the coves, as she nears Liu Wei and his son bent over in their garden, Li Shing pulls her coat tight against herself. She sees them check heads of cabbages and luffa for caterpillars. Li Shing buries her chin against her neck and tries to pass before they see her. Since Pearl’s birth, Wong Wei and Li Shing have kept to themselves. Whenever she spoke with someone from the village, Li Shing imagined Pearl circling in the cave’s dark waters. Even at night, Pearl still swam in Li Shing’s mind, with her other unborn brothers and sisters; Li Shing never allowed Wong Wei to do more than caress her—even when her desire made her feel like they were young again, hiding among the reeds and clutching each other’s bodies. Before Pearl. Now, how Wong Wei could even want her after everything, Li Shing didn’t understand.
“Ay, Li Shing! Good morning,” calls Liu Wei.
When Liu Wei’s son straightens next to his father, Li Shing stops and draws in a deep breath. He towers next to his father. Wasn’t he a boy, clutching a rooster and walking down the dusty path just yesterday? Li Shing shoulders her heavy basket of fish and hurries away from Liu Wei and his son. Seeing Liu Wei’s son scares Li Shing. How hadn’t she noticed? He had become a man and nineteen years were gone. Disappeared like a dried tide line in the sand.
Pink grazes the horizon by the time Li Shing nears the cove. She no longer needs to look carefully when she steps, her feet guided almost by instinct. As she squeezes past the entrance, she brushes aside hanging dried red seaweed. Orange conch shells of various sizes litter the floor. Wooden figurines of animals one would never find by the cove—water buffalos, eagles, and boars—sit on a rock higher above the water. Li Shing sees Wong Wei has whittled a new one and added it to the collection, a sun-bleached horse made from driftwood.
The pool water is still. Yesterday’s basket emptied. Some mornings, Li Shing hopes yesterday’s basket will still be full when she returns. That the heavens will have intervened so that one day the cave will be empty, and Li Shing can leave the coast and walk around the village, free.
Bubbles form in the pool and Pearl’s face breaks through the surface. Water slides off her shining pale cheeks. Her hair billows around her like silt. “What did you bring me?” she asks.
Li Shing lowers the basket so she can see. Pearl takes a drooping striped mackerel and bites into its limp back. Her wet chewing fills the cave. “Mama, can you bring live fish?” asks Pearl.
They did, once. Wong Wei came straight from the boat and tipped a thrashing basket of fish into her pool. The fish seemed to trigger an instinct in Pearl, as a white membrane slid over her eyes and her teeth extended from her gums. Li Shing couldn’t see anything through the frothing waters until the foam dissipated, and all that was left was swirling pink chum and Pearl, licking her fingers.
“Perhaps next time,” says Li Shing. In Pearl’s other hand, Li Shing notices a flash of yellow. “What is that?” she asks.
Pearl unfolds her webs and reveals a chrysanthemum. Li Shing picks up the flower and turns it over in her hands. It matches the patch of chrysanthemums that grows more inland, near the village, close to the forest. At least a half day’s walk from the coast.
“Where did you find this?” asks Li Shing.
“In my pool. It came in with the tide,” says Pearl.
Li Shing returns the flower to Pearl, who snatches it back. Li Shing is unsure why Pearl is lying. Wong Wei must have given the flower to her. She reminds herself to ask him later. The first mackerel has disappeared, and Pearl reaches into the basket for another. She opens her lamprey mouth again and tears off the mackerel’s head. It takes her two bites as the head clings onto its spine. Li Shing looks away.
“I’ll go see Baba at his boat. He should be ready to leave,” says Li Shing, standing up.
Pearl rummages through the rest of the basket as Li Shing makes her way to the opening. “Mama,” calls Pearl. “Baba said I might be able to swim in the ocean. When can I go?”
Pearl has stopped eating. Li Shing can never read her expression. She felt she might as well be looking into the face of one of the fish in Pearl’s basket. Li Shing offers a reassuring and large smile. “Soon,” she says.
She waits to see what Pearl will say, but Pearl simply returns to the basket and pulls out another fish. Li Shing leaves before she has to witness Pearl rip it with her teeth.
• • • •
In the hours before Wong Wei returns to shore, Li Shing is by herself. She drives her hands into the garden, mends any nets, sweeps the floors, and throws vegetable peelings and rice to the chickens. But when there’s nothing to feed, no people to hide from, it’s these moments she dreads the most. The quiet stretches where all Li Shing has is time to ask herself what inside her created Pearl? As she chops long green strands of water lotus to fry with garlic, and slices luffa to be stewed, Li Shing runs through the list again.
That time she played outside, heard her grandmother call for help, and ignored her. That time she saw the most perfect, sweetest pear on the ancestral offering table and stole it. The times she ran away with Wong Wei at night, when they were young and not yet married. How she never felt guilty for any of it.
She thought she’d been a good daughter and a good wife. She thought she’d never been notably cruel or unkind. Yet here she was, cursed by someone or something, nursing an evil inside her that could change a child into a monster. She imagines a part of her, deep inside, polluting everything around her. How could Wong Wei promise Pearl she’d swim free in the sea? Li Shing could see it, Pearl spreading their illness, like blood in water until it creeps onto the shorelines of other villages. Exposing Li Shing for the sickness she truly is.
• • • •
Just as the sun begins to slip, Wong Wei returns, holding a cleaned and gutted mackerel.
“Lao po,” he greets her.
“Lao gong,” she says.
By the time the fish finishes cooking, rice steams in the air. She lays out the food as he grabs the bowls and chopsticks. Even as she sits next to him, his neck and fingers still smell like salt, his clothes fried by the sun. She breaks the skin of the mackerel with the tip of her chopsticks. Wong Wei digs out the sweetest and tenderest part of the fish, the mackerel’s cheeks, and places it in Li Shing’s bowl on top of her rice, like an offering, before he says, “I am thinking of taking Pearl with me fishing.”
“What if someone sees her?”
“We can leave earlier so no one sees her. I’ll only tell her to come out when we’re far away enough.”
“We don’t know what she’ll be like once she’s out there.”
“She can’t stay in the cave forever.”
“She can’t leave.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
In all their years of marriage, Li Shing never has heard Wong Wei raise his voice. Even now, he shakes his head and sets his chopsticks down, his eyes fixed on the table as though he suddenly can’t bear to look at her. What comes out is low and disappointed. “You keep her locked up like a prisoner. She’s not a monster,” he says.
Li Shing’s heart slices in two, feeling a space suddenly yawn between her and her husband. “Neither am I,” she says.
• • • •
Li Shing can’t sleep. Wong Wei sleeps with his back to her, and the unmoving moon sits outside their window. It is hours before sunrise, even earlier than she normally wakes, but Li Shing gets out of bed and stares at the basket of dead-eyed fish, ready by the door. Last night Wong Wei packed it as Li Shing rinsed their bowls. Neither of them spoke, even as they settled into bed.
Li Shing had always taken comfort that Wong Wei was with her that night. That after they wrapped Pearl in a blanket and placed her in the tub, he had been the one to gently wipe down Li Shing’s aching body. He propped her up to eat, for the first time in months, a baked fish. He even helped her administer poultices to places where she had torn. She had always hoped he perhaps forgave her, even when she could not forgive herself. Last night showed her he did not.
Li Shing wipes her eyes as they sting. As she has done for nineteen years, she runs cold water over her face and grabs the basket of fish. In the pitch black, Li Shing carries a lantern. No one is out, even Liu Wei’s garden is deserted as she passes. Nearing the caves, she catches sight of the roiling ocean waves. She tries to imagine the mast of Wong Wei’s boat on the horizon, and Pearl’s tail flashing next to him as they make their way deeper into the gray distance. For a moment, she thinks she can even hear Pearl’s laugh.
A bobbing light catches her eye. Li Shing’s heart sinks as she sees it come from the cracked entrance to Pearl’s cave. It glows, brighter and brighter, accompanied by the sound of someone whistling, until Li Shing’s breath seizes in her chest. She sees Liu Wei’s son emerge, clutching his own lantern.
“Ay! What are you doing here,” demands Li Shing. The basket of fish drops on the ground. She doesn’t feel their slimy bodies slide off her feet as she runs at him. When he sees her, Liu Wei’s son leaps from rock to rock, his long limbs and young body serow-like, outpacing Li Shing as she scrambles to catch him. His untucked shirt flutters like a giant moth in the dark.
She slips and pulls herself after him, barely registering a sharp sting in her leg. Her heartbeat drowns out even the sound of the waves and the wind—everything except her own voice, screaming, “Come here! What are you doing there!” She is nearly behind him, close enough to see in the light of his lantern a red circle on his neck, rubied with scabs, punctured by a perfect circle of teeth.
“I’m sorry!” he yells. For what, Li Shing doesn’t understand. He disappears over the ridge, and Li Shing suddenly grows tired. Her leg burns. Blood trickles to her ankle. A swath of skin is missing from the inside of her shin, scraped clean from where she fell. Li Shing limps to the cave’s opening and trembles before the slim crack, afraid to go inside. Wong Wei was wrong; Pearl is a beast. What might’ve happened to Liu Wei’s son had she not come earlier?
“Mama, you’re early,” says Pearl. “What happened to your leg?”
“I fell,” says Li Shing, settling herself and the basket next to Pearl’s pool.
“Does it hurt?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Why are these fish covered in so much dirt?” asks Pearl. Its long taloned fingers flick pebbles and grit off the mackerel, before she washes them in the pool.
“Sorry, bao bei. They won’t be dirty tomorrow,” says Li Shing. She picks up the comb by the pool’s edge, next to another freshly plucked chrysanthemum. Li Shing combs the creature’s hair as it nibbles on the fish.
“Pearl, has anyone ever come to the cave? Besides me and Baba?” asks Li Shing.
Pearl’s tail stops swaying in the air and her flat piscine eyes turn to Li Shing.
“No,” it says. “Why?”
Seeing how easily it can lie, Li Shing feels something in her body freeze, like ice. “I wanted to check that you are safe. You can’t always trust other people,” says Li Shing, pulling the comb through the creature’s hair, deciding what to do.
• • • •
On the path home, Liu Wei’s familiar back bobs among his garden. She wonders what his son might’ve said to him about what he uncovered in the cove. As he hears her footsteps, he leans against his scythe and stares.
“You are out early today,” comments Liu Wei.
“Wong Wei needed help.”
“Fishing must keep him busy. He has many mouths to feed.”
Li Shing clutches her empty basket, feels the bone of her knuckles strain tight against her skin. “Yes, he does,” she says. “Goodbye.” She begins to walk, turning over Liu Wei’s words. As Liu Wei’s house drifts into the distance, Li Shing tells herself he doesn’t know about Pearl. That he only meant that Wong Wei sold fish to the village, and business was good. But she feels no comfort from her own words, only the metallic taste of fear. It’s like sucking a coin at back of her tongue.
• • • •
In truth, there were moments.
Like the night when Pearl still lived in the house and cried when Wong Wei was gone. By instinct, Li Shing offered it her finger. It very carefully closed its mouth around it. Li Shing felt its teeth around the base of her knuckle as it began to suckle, the blacks of its eyes narrowing to sleep.
Or once, when Pearl swam deep into the cave’s pool and then popped at the surface, making the chittering noise Li Shing eventually associated with laughter. She did this until Li Shing’s clothes were soaked and Li Shing, too, was laughing. Or the pieces of broken, colorful sea glass and tiger-striped hermit crabs, scoured from deep within the caves, presented as gifts into Li Shing’s lap.
But then there were the other moments.
Li Shing standing on the beach with another villager, frozen with fear as she saw a gray tail appear in the ocean. “Look, a dolphin,” they said, making Li Shing’s heart drum against her chest. Or the dreams at night, almost every night, where Li Shing is at the bottom of the sea, and Pearl and others circle around her, baring their long angler teeth while Li Shing drowns, alone.
• • • •
By the time Li Shing limps home, Wong Wei has already left to take out the boat. She washes the wound on her leg and wraps it. Once her leg is bandaged, she changes her clothes, muddy and damp from where she fell.
Outside the house, on the wall, Wong Wei hangs his fishing hooks and spears. Li Shing hobbles to the wall and examines the tools. She sees Wong Wei’s harpoon, which he used for tuna when he sailed further down to the South China Sea. From Wong Wei’s recounts, he sank the weapon into the tuna’s thick sinewy bodies before he pulled them thrashing onto his boat, and pinned them to the floor as the giant fish opened and shut its mouth, soundless.
Li Shing takes down the harpoon and tests its weight in her hand. Tomorrow she will release Pearl into the sea but not before she shows Pearl the harpoon and lets her touch its sharp edge, still colored from the last time Wong Wei used it fishing. Leave and don’t come back. If you do, I’ll kill you. These are the words Li Shing rehearses in her head. They are the words, she tells herself, that will keep all of them truly safe.
• • • •
Li Shing sweeps the floor then checks the garden. She waters the leafy greens and makes a note that the daikon might be ready for harvest soon. At first, she doesn’t hear the commotion rippling through the village. But soon she notices people running to one another, and then in pairs and groups, racing in the direction of the cove. She wipes her dirty hands against the front of her pants as her chest tightens. Please, she begs, please.
“There’s something at the cove!” she overhears someone yell.
Li Shing runs. As she stumbles along the path she’s walked twice a day for so many years, Li Shing prays that Pearl is still hidden in the cave. Li Shing never asked for anything, so she asks for this: Just one more day.
On the beach, Li Shing sees her neighbors and friends. Faces of people she once visited as a young woman when it was only her and Wong Wei, newly married and fresh to the village. Neighbors who left baskets of apples and rice on their doorsteps. Only now they have all grown so old, and they stand with their children, some even holding their children’s children, clustered by the water, so Li Shing cannot see what they are looking at. As her feet collapse into the crumbling sand, Li Shing struggles across the beach, until finally she pushes people away to see.
Pearl. Sitting on the rocks with Liu Wei’s son, who holds her webbed hand in his. A bouquet of chrysanthemums appears as though blooming in her lap, and Pearl glistens in the sunlight. Her iridescent scales flash like thousands of abalone shells.
Her beautiful, hideous daughter out in daylight for everyone to see.
Li Shing shakes, unable to stop herself in the middle of her entire village. It’s over, she thinks. Her legs buckle, and she sits down hard on the sand, clutching herself, trying to stop herself from shaking.
“Mama! Mama!” Pearl’s voice calls over the noise of the villagers’ voices.
Li Shing sees once again Pearl’s pointy smile. Her village murmurs among themselves as they scrutinize her daughter. But then she sees a woman (who is she? Li Shing doesn’t even recognize her face), reach out to carefully stroke Pearl’s slick tail. Pockets of people hold back, staying at the periphery. But a few others join the woman and they touch Pearl’s fins, her arms, her sleek skin. They run their fingers through her daughter’s dark hair, lifting it into the air like the wing of a black drongo taking flight. And in their eyes, Li Shing sees something glimmer. Through her trembling, she recognizes what it is. First in Liu Wei’s son as he gazes upon Pearl. And then in others as they drink in her daughter. Not the hard brittle glaze of fear. Instead, Li Shing finally sees it, like mica in the sand.
Awe. Gleaming awe.