Reread the archives, always.
Dad’s left ring finger is about a nail shorter than it should be. Legend has it that his father chopped it off when he was just a baby. My paternal grandpa died before Dad ever came to New York and I’ve never seen a photo of him. He probably looked a lot like Dad, though. Mean, bushy brows, keen cat eyes, sharp nose, a wide jaw and crooked teeth.
I can see grandpa now, in the backyard of a one-story house on the outskirts of Tianjin. It’s Fall. He’s surrounded by trees and tall, wheat-like grass. He’s wielding an ax, dressed like Paul Bunyan. I don’t know what Chinese men wear to chop wood, so the American reference point will have to do. Besides, it makes the story more palatable, trust me.
Dad’s barely a year old, lying on the chopping block, wailing, ants crawling into his full head of jet black hair. His fat baby fingers clutch the air until grandpa plucks one up at random and, with surgical precision….THOCK! That tiny sliver of flesh and bone comes flying off.
Come to think of it, considering an ax’s head is about as big as a baby’s, it was probably a hatchet. Or maybe just a whittling knife. Something small and limber enough for infant amputation. Either way, grandpa’s reason for mutilating his son was the same one Dad had for dropping me as a baby. Both of them loathed crybabies. Only a few months ago, Dad told me that after grandpa was imprisoned and tortured by the Red Guard, his mind was never the same. “But he was a mad guy to begin with. Simply mad,” Dad said. Grandpa was prone to mood swings and intense acts of rage. Cutting off his first-born’s finger was just the tip, so to speak.
I wonder what happened to that soft bit of flesh and bone my grandfather lopped off. Perhaps he threw it out, like Dad did with me and mom. A short ring finger fits since Dad’s on wife number four. But even before he left, he’d already checked out. When he wasn’t at work, he was with his mistress, coming home long after I’d gone to bed. And when he’d lost his job, he “borrowed” money from Mom to take me on “playdates” with his mistress’s daughter. And when it was just me and him, he made my guts curdle, my blood nitrous.
One time, I’d made a mistake on the piano. He screamed at me to play it over. Over and over, I fumbled, and his voice boomed and snarled and barked, louder with each misstep, louder with each sob I unsuccessfully stifled. I was afraid he’d slam the cover over my small hands, hands that could barely stretch across four keys. But instead, he threw a heavy, hardcover book. It hit my thigh. The spine left a long bruise: a large, purple slug that writhed under my skin for more than two weeks. When I showered, I tried to clean my legs without looking at them.
I’d like to think that my erroneous ivory intonations had offended his classically trained composer sensibilities. But he was just like that whenever he was displeased. He once said that if we were in China “discipline,” as he called it, wouldn’t be a big deal. And recently he said he’d never laid a hand on me. But you don’t have to use your hands to abuse a child, especially one who wanders into stories as easily as a fish swims downstream.
Telling her about lao touzi, a shriveled, decrepit, child-eating man who hides in the attic and twisting her wrist while dragging her to said attic, well, that’s just one form. Another is letting your child see you get arrested for abusing your wife, letting her see the blood splotched on the comforters, the broken television and air purifier, old, brittle plastic in small shards that stay hidden in the gray carpet until they nick your feet. See, the seeds of PTSD are both numerous and diverse.
Or perhaps Dad kept his baby fingertip as a souvenir. Put it in a box until the skin shrunk and flaked off to reveal a smooth white pebble, as small as the Citalopram I now take every day. It’s your standard SSRI antidepressant, something Dad’s mom could’ve used. I’ve never met her, but according to Dad, she was extremely dependent on her husband and after he died, loneliness swallowed her up. “She’d always been emotional and weak,” he said. “She couldn’t be alone,” he said. She was staying with my aunt when she overdosed on sleeping pills.
I asked about her, what she was like. “She was into the classic romances,” he said, “she lived in her own head.” And once, after she’d found out about her husband’s affair, she was so furious, Dad overheard her wonder aloud to herself, about whether she could kill someone, what the consequences would be. Dad told me he would never forget that moment.
Until I started asking questions, no one ever talked about mental health in my family. It’s simply not the Chinese way. We bury things. We let the roots dig deep and wide until they’re tangled in all the crops and choke the life out of what is meant to give us life. If I’d known that the desire to turn everything off ran in the family, I may not have tried so hard to follow in Grandma’s footsteps. I would’ve started meds earlier. And while they limit the intensity of my emotions—that is, instead of 0 to 11, my volume only goes between 3 and 7—for now, it’s worth it.
Or maybe Grandpa fed the fingertip to the chickens. I mean, you’ve seen pigeons eating discarded chicken wings in New York. Food is food. But now, I know I was wrong. About everything. Last week, I called my mom, telling her I was working on this story for a workshop on mental health. She told me it was a saw and that dad was older, like a toddler. He’d been curious about what Grandpa was making and stuck his finger in the way. He’d done it to himself.
But I don’t care about the truth, because the legend makes so much more sense. It decodes my family’s past and my own. It makes sense of a man I know very little about. And it makes sense of the blood that runs through me, the DNA that preordains something I am fighting to tame, fighting to soothe, fighting so that someday, I won’t have to fight so hard.
New York City native Camilla Zhang is a prose and comics writer who has been published by School Library Journal, The Mary Sue, Reading with Pictures, Top Cow Comics, and Crossed Genres. She is a VONA 2017 alum who studied under Marjorie Liu. Camilla self-identifies as a pansexual Chinese-American cis woman. She is driven by the desire to make the world a more empathetic and compassionate place. She is currently represented by Cecilia Lyra of P.S. Literary.