From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Advertisement

Fiction

The Tails That Make You

Ninth

It is a few days before your suspicions are confirmed. Perhaps it is the baggy trousers your daughter has started to wear, or that she picks at her food. She will lie if you ask her outright, this you know. You throw her bedroom door open without warning, the damp towel clutched around her chest after the shower the only barrier between you. Her mouth hangs open, shrieking like brakes in protest.

“I see,” you say, staring at her exposed tail. You fold your arms, your own nine tails lowering to sweep your ankles, not quite on the ground. “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. I just wish you had kept it in a bit longer.”

She does not answer. You were not looking for a response, anyhow. “I warned you, didn’t I, that the time would come. That it isn’t easy.” You did. Every week since she was little, the litany came. Be careful. Be safe. Not like the others. Not like those on TV and in the papers. Those huli jing had been fools. If you play with fire, it will singe you.

“Why didn’t you keep it in?” you ask again. The words are not quite right, not quite what you meant to say. Thorns grow on your tongue, twisting the meaning. You see the hurt flicker across her face, but she needs to know. She needs to be warned. You see with sudden clarity how your injuries stayed with you. The wounds infected as they healed. Fur conceals a multitude of sins, but your skin is thin. Scarred and matted. You want to protect her from this. From everything to come. Into the silence, your daughter stumbles a confused apology.

“You’re still a good girl, aren’t you?” The answer she gives is the one you want to hear. She sits on the bed and you sit next to her, letting her rest her head against your shoulder. Letting tears fall although you do not know if they are yours or hers. If you are crying for the past or the future; contemplating your story, her story, all the stories. Whispered confessions and unvoiced pain. So many things to say, but your mouth is overcrowded with fear. Your tails lie flat on the bed, not quite touching.

• • • •

Eighth

She is sitting in the restaurant high chair, banging chopsticks against the red table cloth. The clips you wrestled into her hair are dangling out, the pretty dress already stained with sauce and milk.

“So unruly already. Time to teach her some manners, don’t you think?” your grandmother says, happy to cast aspersions, whatever time of day.

“She’s two years old.” You ignore your grandmother’s sharp-toothed jabs as you offer her the cheek from the steamed fish, the drumstick from the roast duck. She accepts them with barely a glance.

“Two years of being spoilt.” She shakes her head, her tails following suit. “Should have had another. A son—would’ve kept him from straying.” Your sister catches the edges of the discussion and veers in. “Ah Ma,” she says, filling your grandmother’s empty teacup, “she lost three babies.” She means well, to protect you from the onslaught. You are rendered a disinterested viewer to the tableau. Like watching soap operas again. You watch a lot of TV. After the first loss—the doctor told you to stay in bed for a month. It didn’t make a difference. Your sister said you watched too many violent dramas. Overexcited the babe in your womb. For the third one, you only watched cooking programmes. You still felt the cramps come and blood run between your legs. Your daughter had been the unexpected miracle. The exception.

Your grandmother shakes her head. “Three? That’s nothing. I lost two before birth, and Ah Yeung passed away before his first birthday. That didn’t stop me. Now I have three grown sons and two daughters. You think I worried about my health? That’s not important. Bearing sons is.”

You are not important. To your grandmother, to the husband who left you, to the cat-callers and tail-pinchers. You have always known and yet . . . You look at your daughter, anurous as yet. She is innocent of all of this, reaching for the fallen chopsticks on the carpet with an expression of utter tragedy.

She looks up, aware of the eyes on her. Creases her face into that exaggerated grin that makes most adults melt and you immediately pick her up, wrapping her close to your chest with your tails. You pinch her cheeks, her round soft arms and legs as if moulded by clay. Resist the urge to roll her into a protective ball and push her back into your belly. But she will grow, as you once did. Grow and change and learn of the sharpness of the world.

• • • •

Seventh

It is difficult to sleep in the intense humidity of an Asian metropolis. The round of your growing belly presses against your hips, and there is no room to turn in the narrow bed you now share with your mother. When she rolls onto her side with a rumbling snore, her tails touch your skin and it is too hot to bear. Like a dog in the bed radiating warmth. The recurring nightmare of giving birth to a mewing fox cub also keeps you awake. Your husband stirs from his temporary bed on the floor of the living space when you make breakfast. He does not seem to mind, kissing the top of your head and softly rubbing your bump. He smells of frying oil from the dai pai dong where he works long nights. He makes you both tea as you ladle watery congee into bowls. Predawn is the only time you have to yourselves.

“Ah Ma is taking me to a traditional doctor today. To predict the gender.”

Your husband nods mildly as he dips his spoon back into his bowl. “I thought the last fortune teller told you. A boy, he said.”

“Yes, but the dreams still haven’t stopped. And Auntie Three says I have a bigger bump, must be a girl.”

“And if it is?” The same as always. He doesn’t understand. The oldest of two brothers in his family. A blessing. He will never know how it feels to be a daily disappointment. He will never have tails to remind him of all the dangers he poses.

Your tails flick subconsciously, crowding you until you push them back down. They grow when you aren’t looking. Like weeds between the cracks: no matter how you try to hide them, they nevertheless survive. Thrive. Sometimes you are mesmerised at the wet market, the butcher’s cleaver slamming down on bone and flesh, slicing neatly as the blade gouges a deeper and deeper indent in the chopping board. You want to put your tails across the butcher block and tell him to cut. Right here.

“Then we keep trying until I can give you a son.” You see a response poised on his lips. It doesn’t matter, he will say. As long as we are happy, he will say. He is a good man. Gentle where others were rough. You married him because of this dependability, but you were not expecting him to be soft on other matters. You want to give him a son. Not just for the reasons your mother has told you—the family name or even the prestige it will bring. Because sons are safer. They don’t have to worry about shadows at night.

“You can give me a son when we move to the West,” he says. The smile lifts the bags under his eyes, but they are still there. He dreams of a better life overseas, captivated by his brother’s infrequent correspondence. But then you had to go and get pregnant, forcing a delay to the plans.

A boy, you think fervently. A strong boy will share the workload, look after you both in your old age. The life within your belly takes the opportunity to prod a limb outwards. You gasp inadvertently. The baby agrees. He agrees, you tell yourself.

• • • •

Sixth

Your wife sits next to you, her hand on the mouse. You must have at least four or five windows open on the computer. IVF clinics. Adoption agencies. Your head hurts from the jargon and your tails slap the sides of your chair impatiently. Seething air escapes through your teeth like a bleeding radiator.

“To think teenagers get pregnant rutting in toilet cubicles with expired condoms and we have to do this!” Her words have the desired effect, and your face alternates between snorts of laughter and mortification. She pats your knee, kissing you chastely on the cheek. “Still cute when you’re embarrassed.”

“Stop, this is serious. We don’t have time to fool around.” You bat her away. She nibbles your ear, whispers in it as she does. “Your tails say otherwise.”

You ignore her, too deep down the spiraling train of thought to stop yourself. “And if the baby, our baby has tails, then what?” She stills, sensing your mood. Leans back in her chair and gives you the space to breath, to let the ideas ferment rather than forcing them early. She knows you well enough by now. “Beautiful russet tails like their mother?”

“Red flags for every wanker with a hard-on in a one-mile radius.” You enjoy the way the words make your mouth curl and spit out the aftertaste.

“Your experience does not have to be their experience. We can do things differently: teach her to fight back! Don’t give an inch. Tooth and claw.”

“My mother taught me. Every day of my childhood she told me. I didn’t feel any more prepared.”

“Your mother scared you. That’s not the same.”

“Why do you think that was? She would never share the stories with me, but I am old enough now to know. We are caught in this cycle, whether we want to be or not.”

“Screw the cycle. We make our own paths.” It was something that came easy to her. Defiance. Anger. Spiked armour keeping all but the chosen few at arm’s length. But she didn’t have your upbringing. Didn’t have your tails. Can I touch them? Why so many? So few? Questions asked in hushed tones. Nervous laughter. Hands outreaching before you can say no. You clench the word between your teeth but you rarely say it, so ingrained in the core of your being to be polite. Don’t make a fuss.

• • • •

Fifth

You are walking home from the bus when your fifth tail appears, the end tickling the nape of your neck. It sends goosebumps down your back, a shiver that makes you turn your head ever so slightly and notice, beyond the music of your headphones, that a man is following you. You quicken your pace. He does too. You cross the road, taking the moment to glance behind, to see the flash of dark eyes in the autumnal dusk. The man’s face is obscured by his hoodie, but you know now, you have seen enough now, to know your fear is justified.

So this is it. You never took the self-defence lessons, never downloaded the tracker app your friends recommended. Something about holding your keys between clenched fingers, scratching across his face. Knee to the groin. You watched films, you’ve roared at the television—don’t just sit there! Do something. Easy, right? Except you know. Like trying to smooth a crumpled piece of paper to look fresh and new. The way you put off phoning your mother until you have riled yourself up and snap at her every word. You know that you aren’t the action hero. That you break under stress. More likely to weep than resist. You want to slough off your skin, pallid and useless in the face of adversity.

Your phone rings just as you scroll through your contacts. It’s your girlfriend. She starts as soon as you answer. “Are you home yet? Thought we were meeting online to watch this film?”

“Someone’s following me.”

You hear the frown on her face. “A man?” Somehow she hears your nod. “Start filming him and shouting really loudly. Right in his face!”

“I can’t do that . . . ”

“You care more about being self-conscious? About swearing? Put me on speakerphone and I’ll do it for you.”

“That won’t—”

“Put me on speakerphone! Video!”

Your desire to please others overrides everything. You obey. Her face fills your screen. With the stuttering connection, your girlfriend’s features are not quite right, like a Grecian bust melted in the sun. Her voice is tinny on the phone speaker and her select curses make you wince, but she gives you strength. You realise in this instant how much love you have for her. “Get the fuck away from my girlfriend, you crotch-wielding pervert! You think I can’t see your face? I can tell the police about your hooked nose and shitty beard. Recording as we speak. I have her GPS location and—” Her words continue, her confidence exuding from the lit screen.

The man stops, pulls his hood lower and crosses the road, hurrying down a side street as the obscenities follow him. She makes it seem so easy. Your tails curl around you from behind, squeezing round your waist and shoulders. It’s not the same though, not anything like her pressed up against your back, her chin rubbing against your shoulder blade.

“Are you okay?” she asks, still on the line as you click the lock of your front door behind you.

You can only nod. The zip of a jacket and rustle of clothes reaches to you through the fugue. “No,” you say. “Don’t come, you have work tomorrow.”

“Fuck work. I need to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine, honestly. I just need to make some dinner. It’s nothing, really.”

She uses your name. Sharp like sour plum on your palate. It makes you stop. “It’s not nothing. And it’s okay to feel scared. Let me share that with you.” Later you will. Months and years later, when she has slowly helped you shrug out of the many protective layers, you will put your tails in her lap and let her see your vulnerable belly. But not today. Today you protest, deny, refuse. Her voice is weary. Worn through like old boots. You can hear that she has sat back down, the momentum to come to your aid gone. And beneath the oil layer of relief, the deep pool of disappointment lingers. “Then call your parents at least. They’re only twenty minutes away.”

“No!” Your voice echoes down your empty apartment. You are both silent, wondering at such a response.

• • • •

Fourth

You are diligent, a hard worker and an excellent typist. You buy pretty blouses and a couple of plain skirts, a sensible pair of heels, and, after a moment’s hesitation, a pink lipstick, and you head into your first job. The paychecks are exhilarating. You give most to your mother, for room and board but also because the grey in her hair is more noticeable against the blue of her cleaner’s uniform. You try a cigarette, holding it how you imagine one of those sultry film stars might, laughing along with the other secretaries as you cough. The smoke lingers in your throat every time you swallow. And you think it is normal at first when the junior partner comes to your desk, with his dictaphone. You force yourself not to jump to conclusions when he leans over your shoulder to point out a typo, rubs a smudge of black ink from your hand after you’ve been addressing envelopes. It’s fun at first, quips that give you whiplash as your colleagues make up increasingly ludicrous stories about your life as his future wife. About the jewelry he will buy you or restaurants you could suggest. You play along, enjoying the fantasy for what it is. Trying very hard to keep a sensible head on but being pulled along in the tide.

It is late on Christmas Eve and all the others have left. You don’t mind. Better to finish the last few letters than have an extra large pile of work on your return. You hear the muted steps of his brogues on the vinyl tiles first, the noise different from the cleaner’s rolling trolley that usually signifies it’s time to pack up.

“Working late,” he says. A statement rather than a question. Your finger hovers over the keyboard and you can’t help it. You finish the sentence and hit return before you give him your full concentration. “Don’t you take a day off?” His breath smells of the single malt whiskey the senior partner had shared at lunch. You’d heard the baritone laughter from down the hallway but had been so focused on emptying your in-tray that you had not bothered attending.

His hand is on your thigh. You blink in surprise. You are not even sure when and how it has gotten there, never mind what the response should be. The other girls prepped you on lots of things: how to play indifference, what to order on the first date, how to flick your hair over your shoulder and what to wear. They did not prep you on what to do when you find yourself alone and the drunk boss is sliding his hand up your skirt. Your whole body freezes.

You jump up just before he touches your underwear, holding a sheaf of papers against you as a shield. The loose sheets, the work you have spent all afternoon on, tumble onto the floor. Spilled confetti—big and clumsy—just like your movements as you hasten to gather them all up. The motions keep you busy, keep your head from tearing asunder with it all. He’s your boss, an eligible bachelor whose attention you have not shunned. Should you? Would you? What should you . . . ?

You stop. He has buried his face in your tails, stroking them with both hands. “I swear you only had three yesterday. Four today, how extraordinary!”

Your body alternates between hot and cold, like the taps at home that scald and freeze alternatively. You gulp down the panic in your throat and feign confidence, the easy-going laughter you have seen the other secretaries use. “That’s hardly appropriate!”

“No-one is here to see. Come now, no need to play good girl with me. You’re a real fox after all.” He laughs at his own joke, arms snaking around your waist. You push them away, abandoning the paperwork, the dream of some charming romance.

“I thought you might . . . might want to take me to dinner sometime,” you blurt. It takes all your remaining strength to force the words out. Your tails push against the ground, propping you up like a four-legged chair. You see his flushed face, the loosened tie as he looks up at you and his eyes crinkle into pity. “Oh, you didn’t really? Oh, but you did. Bless you, listening to the typing pool nonsense. I’m engaged already, you see. A nice girl from a good family. I mean, I can buy you something pretty. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Something with a bit of sparkle.”

Despite yourself, despite the disgust you now feel, tears fill your eyes. You had let yourself buy into it. An idle daydream to pass the day. You hardly notice his hands on you anymore, hardly register anything at all.

“A good reference, a stepping stone. I’ll be sure to make sure you’re rewarded.” He looks at you earnestly. The whole thing has turned into an unexpected job interview. It is your fault, you realise. The pink lipstick and the shy lingering looks he mistook to be agreement. Your mother was right. You have fallen in with the other girls, the loose tongues and free morals.

When a pair of earrings appear on your desk, you never put them on. You take them home and hide them in a drawer. When you move out, years later, you try to leave them behind.

• • • •

Third

At university, far from your parents’ eyes, you take your time with your third tail. It is the first one you have felt before it arrives. You sit on the floor and brush each in turn, laying them out like rays of sun around you. Each one curls and responds to your ministrations. You kiss some men. A couple of women, too. In bars with sticky floors and darkened lights, it could be pleasant. You almost convince yourself it is enjoyable. Except the alcohol wears off and their hands are still on your tails. A plaything. Sometimes, when you are kissing them, your mind wanders. You think about what you might cook for dinner or the assignments you have to do over the next week. On one occasion you are awoken from your reverie by a sudden sharp pain and the grin of the man you have been kissing. He is squeezing one of your tails. Hard. The shock of it makes you gasp.

“Like that, don’t you, you dirty tart?” he says. The words so unexpected after his earlier flirtation. The dull pain cutting off your circulation. You cannot respond. You can, but you don’t. Your brain has stopped functioning, just screaming in your head. GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME! You bat weakly at his arm, trying to be polite. Why the FUCK are you trying to be polite? He takes it to mean something else. Tightens his grip. Leans in and whispers the nasty things he’d like to do to you. Does not notice the whitening of your face in the low light. You hit him again, ineffectually cushioned in polite laughter. You try again, but this time someone is making a squealing sound. The sound of a fox in distress.

You only realise it is you when he lets go.

Hands held palm up like you were the one hurting him. “Woah, calm down. I thought you liked it. You didn’t say no.” His face looks hurt and you have to bite your lip to stop yourself from apologising. He fades, melting into the crowd as your knees give way and concerned friends’ faces converge around you. You feel hands lead you to a chair, give you a glass of water, cooing sympathetic noises above the din.

You know that it should have been your turning point. That you should take a baseball bat to his car, destroy his reputation on social media. But sometimes it isn’t as clear cut. You want to convince yourself that it isn’t a moment. That it never happened. Because if it had, then you were the fool everyone warned you about. You keep going out, because if you don’t change, then it can’t have been a big deal. Can’t have affected you in the slightest. Keep pretending you are enjoying yourself. Keep shrinking yourself and your own needs down because you don’t want to be rude; because the witty response comes to your lips hours later in the shower, when you are scouring your skin red; because your friends say you should count yourself lucky to get the attention.

• • • •

Second

You worry for a long time about your second tail’s arrival. Press your back against the wall in PE lessons. Pick at your food at meal times, hoping to trick your body into focusing on digestion rather than tails. So when it finally appears, you feel a sense of relief. You are on a family holiday at the time, crammed into a damp cottage in the country. Your Auntie One had ignored the curled up pages of the massive A-to-Z road map—the route nothing more than a child’s scribble—cutting down a dirt path despite the private signs, despite the protests from your mother in the front seat and yourself crammed with the suitcases in the rear. Finally you all arrive. Four car loads and three generations of aunts and uncles and cousins, more Asian people than the rural town has probably ever seen in one place. The rest of the family have done much to rectify the decor already: newspapers on the solid oak dining table and handwashed socks littering the bathroom.

The middle cousin of seven, it is easy to shirk the prawn de-veining and vegetable peeling, the aunties already spilling onto the patio with their cleavers, chopping vegetables as they code-switch, gossiping in cackling tones. You watch from the shade of a generously canopied tree, wide enough to shield you from the scanning glances of adults looking for someone with idle hands. You bring a book out anyway, a grubby library book which swamps your face and has a cover serious enough for them to believe it is for school when it is in fact a book about people at the end of the world. You glance up at the end of the chapter and notice the aunties are carrying bowls back inside. They will be calling out soon, all hands on deck to fold the dumplings. Your eyes flicker to the shadows curved around your Auntie One’s back. The shapes flicker behind her as she walks, like darkened candle flames. Tails. Four; no, five of them.

You stand up, the surprise surging through your legs. “Ah, nose in a book as always. Don’t think we haven’t noticed. Dishwashing duty for you,” Auntie One calls. You obediently walk over, book forgotten on the ground.

The words linger on your lips. The questions you want to ask. Auntie One never married but she would bring a ‘friend’ to dim sum at times. For a few years it was a quiet man who always wore a crisp white shirt and a trilby, even on the weekend. You liked him. After the meal he would do the newspaper crossword with a well-chewed pencil whilst the rally of chatter rose in speed and volume. He never seemed to mind that he could not understand. Then for a while it was a different man, with a ginger beard and a belly laugh. He would order prawn toast and drink pint after pint of beer, ignoring all of the other plates on the table. You liked him less, but sometimes he got you banana fritters or a coke float and your mother dared not say no.

Tell me about the tails.

That was the question you wanted to ask. The one your own mother refuses to talk about. Tell me about your tails.

“Auntie,” you begin, voice squeaking so low that you don’t expect her to hear. She turns, stroking the full bowl of vegetables like a baby in her arms. Behind her you see the tails fanned out around her like the back of a throne. In her yellowing apron and worn sandals, she has never looked so confident.

“Oh, you grew another one. Good for you.” You are holding your tail, have habitually started picking at the white fur at its end without realising. Picking out the loose hairs has become a comfort to you, much like you once bit your own nails. But your auntie is pointing over your shoulder. When you reach back you can feel it. Another tail. Funny, there was no warning. No pain or pomp at all.

“Have you got a good brush for them?”

“Brush?”

“Oh yes, you can’t just use a hairbrush. Did your mother teach you nothing?” Her brown eyes searching for something she fails to find. Nods twice to herself as the arm around your shoulder tenses into a vice. Auntie One sweeps you into the cottage. The living space is filled with relatives and chairs and noise. “Menfolk out!” she announces. She slams the bowl down for emphasis, wiping her hands on a tea towel.

“What are you on about? We’re about to make dumplings,” your grandfather complains.

“We need drinks.”

“We have tea and water; why do we need drinks? Besides, the shop is in the village, a ten-minute drive away.”

“I want to drink orange juice. And this one deserves a cola.” The hand on your shoulder pats you so hard you flinch. Your grandfather’s face clicks into understanding and he starts shepherding others to the door.

“I don’t get it,” your older cousin says, pulling on his shoes. You silently urge him to undo the laces instead of wedging his feet in. You get all his cast offs, your single mother can hardly say no, and you’d rather the shoes are in vaguely decent shape by the time they reach you.

“They’re going to talk about womanly things,” your grandfather responds.

The cousin rolls this information in his mouth like an unfamiliar flavour. Smiles. “Well I’ll stay for that!”

“Blood and stuff!” one of your uncles adds. Your cousin blanches and hooks a finger to the back of his shoe like a morsel of food caught in his cheek. Your face burns hot, red as the blood you are supposedly about to talk about. You hang your head, looking at the thin lines of dirt between the white floor tiles. Try to ignore the backward glances you know they are casting before the door shuts behind them.

“Now,” Auntie One says, sitting down. Your mother, other aunties, three older cousins, and a toddler—indifferent and stacking bricks on the rug—remain. This is it. As embarrassing as the lead up has been, you can’t feel the floor beneath your feet. You are hovering expectantly near the ceiling fan, waiting for the great mysteries to be explained.

You? Telling my daughter how to act?” your mother says.

“How to act? A fine comment when you haven’t even told her how to look after herself.”

“My daughter does not need to know about these things. Impure thoughts.”

“She needs to know what she is, how to use the gifts she was given.”

“Of course you would say that.”

“And what exactly are you implying?” The back-and-forth shots bounce from end to end of the table. Overhand smashes, slamming harder as the words get uglier. You feel your two tails twist together, mirroring what you are doing with your hands. You wonder if you could twist yourself down like a balled-up piece of paper. “Why would I hide my tails? I am huli jing.”

Your mother hisses, a pantomime finger on her lips as if the world is listening to the mundane family argument. You notice one of your cousins agreeing, your Auntie Three shaking her head and touching her jade pendant to her lips. “We mustn’t talk about who we are.”

“Nonsense,” Auntie One waves off the comments like a bad smell. “Better we be experts of ourselves.”

“You think I don’t know what expert means. Those men like pet dogs at our family meals? Filth.”

Auntie One stands up again, her tails all bunched together as one, a pillar of strength. A piebald fox in the chicken coop. She is the eldest, so your mother has always shown her respect, until now. Your auntie’s eyes flicker to yours for a brief moment. She shakes her head. It’s not worth it. You are not worth it. With unvoiced agreement, the others start bustling around, filling the kettle and looking for pots for soup dumplings. You see the glisten of your mother’s eyes when she turns back, but you keep your mouth shut. You never do get the explanation. When the others return, you are folding dumplings as if nothing happened. Except the silence is more uncomfortable than the arguing had been.

A week later, a package arrives in the post. A thick paddle brush with your name etched in the handle. You only look at it when your mother isn’t around.

• • • •

First

You notice the first one on your way to school. The same route you’ve taken since you pedaled a rickety trike along the pavement; passed the pockmarked tarmac, the brisk dog walkers and muffled blasts of a car radio. Too busy watching your step on the black ice, your breath fogging up before you—you feel it before you see it.

You pause, hairs like acupuncture needles down your back, telling you to look back. Turning slowly, you see it. A copper tail swishes side to side, absentmindedly as if sweeping dust from the misty morning air. Attached to you. Growing from you. The fur is coarser than you expect, not the downy fleece of soft toys but a short-haired coat—thick and wiry. When you venture a hand to stroke it, the feeling spreads a smile across your face. Curling into a duvet on a winter’s night. You take out your phone to tell someone, gloved fingers lingering over the contacts list. Your best friend, your mother, your cousin . . . who?

But before you can decide, someone takes the decision from you. Tips the fermenting bubbles of excitement into the drain. The older boy cycles past on his bike but comes to a halt a few metres ahead. Foot on kerb. You will him to keep cycling, but he cannot—does not—hear the fear bouncing inside your skull. His front wheel turns back, a horse pulling at the reins, and he faces you. Eyes trained on your tail and your tail alone.

He whistles. Low. Appreciative.

You cannot remember his exact words. They do not matter. Not now. But you understand the sentiment. Even though you are young. Even though it is only your first tail, and your first day, you understand. His possessive eyes, the clench of his white knuckles against the handlebars, the tone of his voice both a whisper and a boom.

When you get to school you go straight to the toilets. You do not stop to admire your tail in the mirror, or to stroke it one more time. You simply push and prod and conceal it under your clothes, under your skin. From them. From yourself.

You are late home to dinner, but your parents are waiting for you. A mouthful of pasta fills your mouth before you realise. They are both looking at the single tail waving from behind your shoulder. They turn to you expectantly. Slowly you bring your tail around so that it mostly lies in your lap. Your heart is beating a thousand times a minute, like a flock of birds taking off. You look at your mother, at her tails that have grown thin now. Silver like dust. The words she says in this moment matter more than all of those that have come before. The weight of collective fear and guilt threatens to fall on your shoulders. A yoke imperceptible to those who do not wear it.

She lays her tails down as one across yours. Touching. Trembling. Just as nervous as you. But her face is turned up. Smiling.

“Congratulations.”

Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan

Eliza Chan is a Scottish-born fantasy author who writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore, and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. She likes to collect folk tales and modernise them with a drizzle of sesame oil, a pinch of pepper, and a kilo of weird. Her short fiction has been published in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine, and The Best of British Fantasy. You can find her on twitter @elizawchan or elizachan.co.uk.