We remember the day Cecilia arrived because the sky uncapped itself and shook a storm against the classroom windows till Sister Margaret told us to duct tape the glass. For safety, she said, her fingers roped with rosary beads, and we bowed our heads and said yes, Sister, but secretly we wondered: Why? You always say that Jesus will protect us and that God will save us and that the Holy Spirit moves within us. That’s when the principal walked Cecilia in, trotted her across the room like a fighter cock, which made us laugh because that’s what Cecilia looked like: a fighter cock sent to the butcher’s block. Wrong place, we wanted to say. This classroom isn’t for you. Cecilia didn’t care. She gave us a spur-toothed smile and said her name all pristine-like: Ce-ci-li-a. Syllables like fishbones, we whispered, because Jenny Wong’s Yeye had been cottoning our heads with fairytales, and the way Cecilia said her name sounded like a secret, the kind made of fishbones buried in four pots underneath a bed, the kind with a heroine and a cloak of kingfisher feathers and cave-dwellers who didn’t know better. Yes, we nodded to each other, Cecilia thinks she’s Ye Xian, our Chinese Cinderella. She thinks she’s better than all of us.
Cecilia wasn’t beautiful, but we dreamed of her anyway. We’d swap stories before Kumon or when Sister Margaret was busy praying for our souls. She ate my toenails, Kevin Tsang would say, and then Tiffany Lee would say, no, she was piercing my ears the way my sister did. Jenny Wong dreamed of Cecilia’s incisors because Cecilia’s teeth were perfect like a kitten’s – sharp and cute, hidden by lips so fine we joked they were twin papercuts, sucked lemon-thin. We even told this to Cecilia, just to see what she would say. Maybe it’ll scare her, Jenny Wong giggled, but she was wrong. Cecilia just smiled and said: Of course you dreamt about me.
Her unflappability irritated us. Who do you think you are? we thought, and then one day Kevin Tsang actually asked Cecilia during lunch, his spit anointing her glass-blown forehead. But Cecilia only stared back, her eyes gazelle-intense. She gripped her pre-calc binder like it was holy and then she said: Meet me after school tomorrow. Where? The forest behind the 7-11. Which 7-11? The one closest to school. Sure, you better be there.
Cecilia wasn’t in class the next day and so we thought she’d bailed on us. Still, we skipped Kumon and headed towards the woods once school let out. Just in case, Kevin Tsang said for all of us. We shouldn’t have doubted because Cecilia was there, just as she’d said. What did she look like? A pale thing beneath a tree so wide we’d have to ring it with our bodies to hug it. Here amidst the green, she seemed to flicker – her face a wound, her body a snake, her fingers tadpoles swimming in the dusk. Who are you? we asked, feeling something in our stomachs ripple and flatten. Nuwa, Cecilia said, and we shivered because the name rustled the edges of our minds. When we remained silent, Cecilia opened her mouth again, and where we expected teeth and tongue and gums we found instead a deep emptiness. Why are you here? we asked not with our voices but our minds. Cecilia answered us with a sound like the floods in Zhengzhou – a terrible hum-swoosh-chug – we knew because we’d watched the news the night before as our parents fretted about our cousins’ cousins and their sunken homes. Call me Nuwa, Cecilia said in that primordial voice, and then she sang to us about how she missed us and how once, long ago, she’d made us by lashing mud with a rope like a John Wayne cowboy. The story scared us. We weren’t used to thinking about ourselves as anything other than fully formed, and we trembled. Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway, Kevin Tsang thought aloud, and Nuwa laughed out static and told us that she’d made the horses that the cowboys rode, too, had shaped them with her fingers and warmed them with her own belly.
What do you want from us? Tiffany Lee asked then. After all, she was the kindest of us, the one who’d dreamt of Nuwa as a body seamed with sisterhood. What might we do for you? This question must have been the correct one because Nuwa nodded, her long lobes wobbling. We bowed our heads in shame, caging our tongues as we realized our mistake in addressing a goddess with our typical brashness. If only we’d asked Nuwa what she wanted! We hoped with our hearts that Tiffany Lee’s kindness could make up for our vulgarity.
But Nuwa said nothing. Instead, she butterflied her hands along our shoulders, pressing us down until we knelt in the dirt. Like praying, Kevin Tsang thought, and we shushed him mightily with our minds even though Nuwa shook her head. She said: Prayer and formalities aren’t necessary. I just want to be close to my children. And then she filled our mouths with her fingers, unhinging our jaws so they buckled around her knuckles, round and bright as garlic bulbs. Ashes to ashes, Sister Margaret liked to say, and we thought of how useless she and her God were, because here was our goddess, our mother, our Nuwa, planting us in her earth. We tipped our faces up towards the familiar zip-unzip of rain. How slick we were for our Nuwa!
My children, Nuwa said, and we shimmied our shoulders, knowing what she said to be true and right. Nuwa bent down and suddenly her fingers turned into steam that filled our stomachs and made space for her mouth against ours. She took turns with each of us like that, even the girls, jackknifing our lips until our tongues were sundae-numb. My children! Nuwa said again, her girl’s face a cut pear, her eyes twin pips. We sighed into her nostrils and our breath misted back into our faces. My children, Nuwa said a third time, and then she stretched open her mouth, wide like a pond, as we coughed up a curling gas that condensed into pebble-like seeds. Nuwa looked at us with something like yearning, or maybe it was pity. We don’t recall this part, because she dug her impossible hands into the ground and we were too busy staring, hook-lipped and fish-mouthed, as Nuwa turned our spat seeds into stone teeth. She used them to fill in the holes in the sky, the same holes that Sister Margaret had us pray about after storms, the ones we’d been told were angels’ peepholes but which we now knew to be something older and more sacred than winged infants with their fat sectioned off like bugs’ bodies. Mother! we cried. Our voices caroled in the air, and Nuwa gave us one final smile before stretching herself membrane-thin, so thin that we breathed her in and felt her plaster along our lungs and bellies. She laughed inside us, yawning our guts deep with longing, and we ran home as the land belted out our names. Jenny Wong, Kevin Tsang, Tiffany Lee, it sang, carouseling the syllables until they spangled the night.
At home, our parents fussed at the sight of us, pulled strips of land from our forearms and spoke to us with fogged eyes. Where did you go? they asked, their voices half-stern, half-reverent. We told them: We went to see the earth. We went to see our mother. Our mothers frowned. We’re right here, silly, they said, but we shook our heads until we were sent to bed.
That night, we dreamt of Nuwa shaping our bodies with silt and salting our faces with her tears. We grew fingers of mud, which hardened into clay, and when we opened our mouths to speak, nothing came out except the rumble of earthworms and strings of shit. Waking up was difficult, and we trudged to school with strangeness along our gums. Did we remember our dreams? Maybe not right away, but they soon came back, swirling behind our eyeballs once Tiffany Lee coughed up a tooth and then a seed. When Sister Margaret screamed and ran to fetch the holy water, we gave each other secret looks and licked our lips, sucking on them as if they were pith. The taste of our mother still hung in our throats, and we smiled as we swallowed in unison, tasting earth in our mouths, Nuwa on our tongues.
Celeste Chen lives in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Velvet Giant, X-R-A-Y, The Blood Pudding, No Contact, Shenandoah, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @celestish_ and online at celesteceleste.carrd.co/.