This work first appeared in Yemassee 22.1.
A man named Tienan taught me how to survive in China—it was all in the mouth. He taught me the way of positioning the tongue in order to be understood, the way of sucking on bones, on crab cartilage. The way of loving was in the mouth.
Though I loved him, I abandoned him, believing this to be the rational thing to do, because after all, what future could there be for two such different people? But on a night months later, a night soon after Zhuhai’s rains dried, I sought him again, and we did not sleep. We traded dazed bursts of memory. Remembered the vinegar smell of saliva. Remembered crescent-moon clavicles. We lingered over the new things—new scars, countable ribs.
The next morning, certain Chinese entrepreneurs brought out the tiger claws. Business is done quickly in China, and overnight, the claws were shipped in and disseminated around the city of Zhuhai. While shopping for breakfast, I saw them by the supermarket, laid out on the sidewalk next to rhinoceros horns. Full tiger feet, covered in frail hairs with dried, white tendons reaching up from ankles. Thick, long nails. Each foot so carefully preserved, so drained of anything to remind me it once was living flesh. I looked at them and glanced away, the way one looks at a beggar with no hands.
I had become used to ignoring things—prostitutes beaten on street corners, their bright lips, bright blood. The children outside McDonalds, intentionally mutilated and crafted into professional beggars. They would write chalk messages on the sidewalk I couldn’t read, webs of tangled symbols. As a single English teacher living in China, with only a few Mandarin words at my disposal, I was powerless to do anything, and I was becoming used to this powerlessness.
I passed another set of tiger claws on the sidewalk near my apartment, then I saw more near the wet market, so named for its fish stalls, the buckets of water and live fish, shrimp, eel. The claws were selling. I saw a tiger foot that had single toes and nails cut off. The knife had dug into the foot in the shape of a v, and the exposed flesh was white, dry, hollowed. I looked too long at one of them. The man squatting next to the display, not more than twenty-five years old, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, said to me with eager, clumsy pronunciation, “Tiger claw!” I walked away without a word, as though afraid someone would notice me staring with ashamed curiosity.
But who was there to watch but the Chinese? And the Chinese, I imagined, would tell me, “Tigers are strong. Cure yourself.” They would tell me how for centuries, tigers have given them strength. They would not say this is magical thinking, an attempt to make sense of the world by assuming power can be transferred simply through touch, proximity. They’d say instead, “Tigers have power. You’ve been so tired. Regain your strength. Sleep peacefully, and trust no harm will come to you.”
Tienan once told me his grandmother had given him the dust of tiger claws in a jar, and it still sat on a shelf in his home.
Before he’d left that morning, my hands had been hot and shaking as they’d groped for a cigarette. Because with daylight had come the understanding that it was over again. For Tienan and me, our past together was as far from the present as East was from West. His toes had dragged across the floor with “s” sounds and “sh” sounds while he paced my floor. We knew we had made some kind of fundamental mistake. We were picking at the threads we were made of. Pick too much and you unravel.
So I felt unraveled, unwound, as I imagined someone buying one of the tiger toes, and the man sawing into the dried flesh, the money exchanging hands, that person walking away with such faith and grinding the flesh into dust.
I am no stranger to faith, however irrational. My preacher father used to sit me on his knee and tell me that whosoever causes someone to fall from faith, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the sea. He would fold his hands around mine and tell me, “Close your eyes,” and my back warm against his chest, his chin prickling the top of my head, we’d pray. We are all children of God.
The Chinese call themselves the children of dragons, but it is the tigers that live among them. So they grind tiger bones into dust and drink it in wine. They boil its muscles and say it cures rheumatism. They think, in this way we harness the strength of tigers, make it our own. Tiger claws can cure insomnia, tiger fat can relieve rheumatism, the eyes cure epilepsy and malaria. The penis is an aphrodisiac. The nose cures epilepsy. Tigers are good luck. Power against evil spirits. Prosperity.
Magical thinking. The mind sees similarity and assumes causality. Beet juice is red and therefore good for the blood. Liver-shaped leaves cure livers. We locate power to transfer it. Contagious magic: when things come into physical contact or even just share a space, they retain their connection even when later divided by distance.
Tienan and I would re-build distance between us—time, space, and the ideas our fathers’ fathers passed to us.
But that day, when I returned home, I lay, damp with summer sweat, on a bed that seemed to smell like him, or I was imagining it as I relived the night and the moment of his leaving over and over. Tienan. Tie nan. Iron man. He is the son of the dragon. I would use him. And I would drain him and hang him around my neck, if only to harness his strength. I would grind his bones to dust and become drunk on him. I would carve off his dick and make a soup of it. I would do it. I would break off his fingers one by one, use them slowly to make them last. But this is because the skin he has, smooth and webbed with cracks and equators, highways and ridges, is a landscape I recognize, a place I feel at rest. His eyes, dark and splashed with light, can bathe me with something like warmth, something like being known.
I ought to have told him, lay with me a little while longer on the millstone you have hung around my neck, and together, we will pass through the eye of the needle, or together we will drown in the sea.
Elizabeth Horneber is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is a host for the Weekly Reader radio program and the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Blue Earth Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Silk Road Review, Monkeybicycle, and Profane.