A short story by Hon Lai-chu
Translated from the Chinese by Jacqueline Leung
It is difficult to explain this wish of mine—to become a flea and bury myself between his two long ears, into the furry top of his head.
The apartment was eerily silent in the morning rain. Other than his soft snores fanning the back of my neck, all other sounds seemed far away, mute and indiscernible. His hand was wrapped around my waist; his leg stuck between mine. Since that evening when he knocked on my window begging for a place to stay, we’d slept like this every night, entangled in each other’s arms. We couldn’t tolerate even a bit of distance. After all, the weather was so cold, and the blankets were threadbare and damp. Only our body heat kept us warm. Not that we could get any closer; we’d never undressed ourselves, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that two bodies with completely different structures would only damage each other irreparably. If we ever mustered up the courage for intimacy, however, we would be sure to indulge ourselves fervently, desperately, until our bodies streaked with wounds.
Upon the slaughterous shriek of the neighbor’s rooster, our minds snapped fully awake. He would leave me, stepping on cold floor tiles, and shrug off the trench coat he used as a blanket during the night. Clad only in a shabby gray vest, he would head to the kitchen, kneel among the placid herd of rabbits there and blend right in. It was so flabbergasting that no one had ever been able to distinguish him.
It also rained the day we met when I opened my window to find him shivering violently outside. I promptly refused his request for shelter. “There isn’t space for anyone else here. Food is scarce and the beds are narrow. And I’m on the verge of being chased out myself. Why would my family take you in?”
“I know.” Misery emanated from every hair on his face. “But I’ve been wandering in this area for days. If I can’t find somewhere, I’ll just freeze or starve to death.”
Perhaps it was his familiar scent or the pitiful way water kept seeping into his gray fur. To my surprise, I grabbed him by the torso and hauled him into my room. Even put my book aside to make him a pot of ginger tea.
(The book I was reading was Twenty Ways to Hunt a Bear. I’ve never seen a bear or met any hunters in real life, but I find the hunters’ exhaustive need to draw blood incredulous and fascinating. As I read, I understood why Grandpa was obsessed with old films of cops and robbers. He was always on the couch watching television, laughing one moment and crying the next, probably because both professions were practically extinct now. From time to time, men in military gear patrolled past our door, aimlessly bored like criminals with no target.)
The morning after his arrival, my family didn’t even spare him a glance when he stepped out of my room. Minding his own business, he crouched to join the herd, head down and staring at the kitchen floor. My family had breakfast congee on the other side, never questioning who he was or how many rabbits they were supposed to have. It was like they were subconsciously avoiding looking at the rabbits’ faces as if, by doing so, they wouldn’t have to admit these creatures also bore traits of human beings.
One night, when the moon was garish and impeccably round, Grandpa looked up slowly and said, “Starting tomorrow, we will cook a rabbit every day, eat it, until not even its bones are left.” He claimed it was the only way to prevent the family from birthing children with buck teeth. In his mind, the reason this household had become a hideout for more and more of us—people who couldn’t find jobs or finish school, who were socially reclusive or abandoned by husbands or, like me, failed to land a compatible partner—was because of the buck teeth we inherited. They made us so ugly, there wasn’t a place for us in the world. Believing in natural orders of creation and conquest, Grandpa was convinced that eating rabbits would wipe out the remnant rabbit genes in our bodies.
No one was brave enough to refute him. At some point, my family seemed to have forgotten how they used to spend time with the rabbits every day. They would rub their cheeks against their fur, letting the rabbits wipe away their tears and blanket them with their own clothes. For a long period, we all thought the rabbits were our blood relatives, while the people in the household were just temporary tenants.
My family must have also forgotten that they were the ones who had given each rabbit a name. This was the only way they could boil a pot of water every morning, pick a rabbit from the herd, and drag it across the chopping board. Slit them open with a gleaming knife as if it were nothing more than cutting up stiff carcasses.
My body trembled uncontrollably the entire week, impervious to all forms of comfort. The table was stacked with succulent dishes of rabbit meat braised, smoked, and poached. While I filled my bowl with slivers of vegetables, my family ate in absolute relish, stopping only when my violent shaking made them lose their appetite.
“I hope it’s not the influenza that’s been going around.” Grandma gave me a dubious look as the rest of my family babbled on about having me quarantined in case I infected everyone in the apartment. I quickly set aside my chopsticks, rushed to my room, and shut the door.
“This must be a symptom of malnutrition,” he said, his eyes black and beady. “How many days has it been since you’ve had meat?” He let me bury my head into his soft chest until I was nestled deep into his grizzled pelt. Only I knew my tremors weren’t because of sickness or hunger, but fear. Not of the people or animals in this apartment, but the me who felt so foreign.
I am different from my family. I still remember the rabbits and each of their names: Leung-kum, Yuk-hing, Chi-wai, Kai-ching, Man-pun—and yet every night before I fell asleep, I prayed for one of them to be killed instead of him. I told him, told him then, how I wished I could be a flea on his head so he could carry me somewhere far, far away. But he said it was impossible. Other than here, there was nowhere else he could go.
At the sight of my desperation, and probably to appease my chronic hunger, he suggested we forego sleep at night to do other things instead. “Let’s go and have a feast.” He said he knew a restaurant in the outskirts that served intriguing vegetarian dishes.
“We could never do that!” I cried out in horror. Ever since the man-eating ruffians had appeared in the village, curfew was at nine o’clock each night. Anyone caught wandering the streets after that time was arrested and taken away to dark, unknown places.
“It’ll be fine as long as I’m in a tux and you’re in a dress.” With the composure of a seasoned dissident, he told me the restaurant’s owner had long since bribed senior government officials, and formal dress was their code. “The police will just pretend they didn’t see us.”
I managed to find him some clothes from the closet. He changed into them and led me out through a burrow in the kitchen. Amazingly, I could fit right through; I never thought a diet of frozen vegetables would make my body become so small.
Once the waiter placed six small plates of sauce on our table, he dipped his fluffy paw into wasabi and lifted it ceremoniously to my mouth. “Eat. You’ll need to taste my flesh eventually.”
I held his paw in my hands, contemplating its plump center and how soft it felt. But in the end, all I ordered was a carrot salad. “This is the cheapest thing on the menu,” I insisted.
After that getaway, I rarely refused his request to dine out at night. He wouldn’t be aware of my plan, the way perhaps I wasn’t aware of his.
When only a few rabbits remained in the kitchen, I knew I must act. I looked in the mirror, relieved to see the whites of my eyes, skin, hands, and tongue exuding a dull yellow, evidence of all the carotene I’d accumulated in my body. Underneath the bed were boxes stuffed full of carrots I’d brought from the restaurant. I could almost smell carrot emanating from myself.
At dawn, the neighbor’s rooster shrieked again. He moved to get out of bed, but I pushed him down and asked him to stay.
“What’s going on?”
“I’ve nailed the door shut with planks of wood,” I said. Outside, someone was knocking and slamming against my door, people seemed to be talking, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. His eyes were full of confusion. I told him all he needed to do was sleep, sleep and everything would become clear to him. He grabbed my arm and begged me to eat him.
“This suffering must end.” I no longer knew if he was trying to convince me or to calm himself. He started whispering in my ear all the cannibalizing habits of different species: after mating, the female mantis bites off the male mantis’s head; as for black widows, they ingest their husbands to the very last morsel…
I put my hands over his mouth and eyes. “We can only relax and wait.”
Time, neither malicious nor merciful, was not on our side. All we could depend on was the unknown, hidden deep within the depths of our bodies. If we gave ourselves over to sleep, it would emerge slowly, like a shadow growing larger and larger, bringing a revelation that had always eluded us.