The Umbilical Telephone
In our house we have a big beige telephone, absorbent as a loaf of bread. It turns stale when we’re silent, so we talk as much as possible. We talk to spurn death, to keep every creature fresh. The phone plugs into the kitchen wall, and we’re not allowed to pick it up when it rings, not even when it says our names personally, because the telephone is a terrible gossip who will leak ancestral secrets too damp for our digestion. But the whole house leans in to listen, the walls clasping together like palms, the stovetop growing ears, the chairs limping close on their lopsided legs.
The telephone was installed before the house was built. At first it was plugged into the ground, and neighborhood girls could pick up the receiver and eavesdrop on tree roots and flower testicles and soon-to-be-extinct vegetables ranting about the lack of rain. They could also hear worms rejoicing that there was no rain, because when it rains, they get flooded out of the mud and the girls slurp them into their nostrils, which the worms find disorienting and rude. The daughters could also hear dead people gossiping underground, because the urge to talk shit is subterranean, a staple in every state of consciousness: Can you believe my funeral was so cheap? one of them said. Better than me, the other said. I got buried next to the sidewalk, beneath a municipal tree! Some shit about how much easier it would be to visit me! But a lot of people litter here, and not deliciously. All inedible bits, glass bottles and cigarette butts. I haven’t had anything to eat this century!
Then, when the house was built, the telephone received its own wall in its own kitchen, where it is hooked now, the receiver arguing with the raccoons who raise their young inside the walls and shred the electrical wiring.
The telephone’s cord is umbilical. Plastic hadn’t been invented yet when the landline was installed. The cord is purple and pulsing, fat-veined and bulging in the middle where it must have swallowed several handfuls of beetles. Our mothers wrap the cord in duct-tape and saran-wrap, a blood-soaked waistcoat, and tells us never to approach with our tongues unsheathed: If we nick the cord, our lineage will hemorrhage.
It is through the umbilical telephone, throbbing like a flayed snake, that our mothers speak to the island. The island is full of complaints. Where did all my daughters go? the island asks. The island is a mother because everyone leaves it. The island asks, why don’t you nibble inland? Why don’t you become blood and follow the stream of this umbilical cord, reentering my premises? Why don’t you tell the girls about me? Why do you say, things were different then, expectations were different then, I let your father say such things to me, humiliate me in this way, shut the car door on my knuckles, tell me I cannot leave or he will kill himself, because I was born to shoulder other lives, I was born to be sorry on behalf of his actions, but I cannot remove myself any more than I can remove my own bones, because I am different, I am some other animal, and this is where I belong, mothered by the dirt of degradation? I am strong, yes, I am your mother, yes, I do not allow those beneath me to yank me around by my umbilical cord, but it is different, yes, it is different with him, because I was born on a planet whose gravity is not yours? I was born to flower on this unforgivable planet, while you are free to find other meaning? And you will never be able to trim me free of this orbit? Is that what you say to your daughters? Is that how you tell them to unhand their hopes, to save themselves? Is that why, for generations, they will be reaching out to you with both hands and an open belly button, gaping for the plug of their umbilical cords, long gone, so that they might return to the lives they lived in your bodies, when you shared the same blood, when your mind was their mind, when there was still hope that they could, through the welding of your flesh, change your fate and chisel your choices into their own weapons? You must forgive your daughters. They want only to control what they cannot. They are parasites, wanting to grip you like steering wheels, to pilot you from inside your skin. They think they can fix the hurts you have been handed, the ones that still haunt them. Tell them to focus on their own damn lives.
The problem with an umbilical telephone is that the quality of the call is not very good. Sometimes you can’t hear a voice above the glugging current of blood, and all you can do is tune into a stranger’s soured heart. No worries, our mothers say, sometimes you need to sacrifice quality for longevity. Our mothers talk for a long time with their mothers and their mothers’ mothers and their mothers’ mothers’ mothers. They talk after dinner every single night, lining up to dial the umbilical telephone, laughing or weeping or cursing as they twist the umbilical cord around their wrists and ankles, as they try to wrangle the signal, squeezing the cord like an udder to milk out the love they want, the love they never received in any kind of writing, wringing the cord into the width of trickling water when they don’t want to hear anymore, ripping the cord out of the wall when they get angry. Then apologizing, kneeling to sew the cord back into its socket, to lick around it, to draw a belly button on the wall with a laundry marker, blue-black and smearing like mold, pulsing with our pasts.
HELLO GOOD MORNING, our mothers shout. They assume it is always morning on the other end of the line. Our mothers’ mothers’ mothers know how to voice our veins, how to articulate every twisted artery in our bodies: How can you avenge us? they ask.
In response, our mothers multiply their offers, offer flimsy alternatives: By punishing our careless sons and flaying our faithless husbands? By refusing to pay retail prices? By blowing up our daughters into balloons and then snipping the strings so that they can’t ever be reeled down and married to the terror of meat? By telling them to go, go, go as we allow our sons to go? By teaching them not to pave the street like roadkill, allowing any old vehicle to eviscerate their souls? By teaching them the word no, which was obliterated from their vocabulary at birth, the n given to night and the o offered to ghost? But our mothers’ mothers’ mothers do not answer. They know it is too late. Too late. When our mothers had not yet known us, there had been a chance: if only we knew how to speak through the thickness of amniotic fluid, we would have been able to say, No, not him, never him. Run away. But since our cords were snipped, we have lost a direct line of communication, and now our help is limited to mumbling in the backseat of cars and rolling our words around in our rice bowls.
One day, we are playing underneath the kitchen counter, taking turns dangling like monkeys. My cousins Mandy and Yangyang teach me how to hook my heels over the countertop and hang upside down, our braids flipping up like beef tongues, our fingers gripping the edge of the counter so hard that our knuckles split. Hermit crabs crawl out of them, and we are glad that they are leaving us. We are hollow no longer, housing nothing but our hunger.
We can’t explain it, the need for girls to dangle upside down. It’s a necessity. On every playground, in every house, a girl dangles upside down. It’s because our blood distrusts this planet’s gravity, which is designed to entrap us, and so we chase our thoughts upwards, filling our skulls into fishbowls. If our skulls do not hug all of our blood, we feel a kind of weightlessness, like our minds will marry into a bird’s family.
That day we dangle from the kitchen counter, the umbilical telephone rings. The ringtone is three million fish leaping out of the sea, an endless silver ribboning. The call is coming too early, and our mothers are not home yet. Mandy says we should pick up anyway. Yangyang says no, we’re not supposed to pick up the umbilical telephone, because it secretes information that we don’t need, and how will we carry its awful excess? We know too much already.
Mandy wins, and she slithers up to the wall and picks up the telephone. She nods once, twice, even though nodding is not audible. Still, the umbilical cord is flexible and transcribes her movement, rippling when she nods, so that whoever is on the other end can understand her chin’s intentions. After a few seconds, Mandy hooks the phone back into the receiver. The umbilical cord jumps a few times, bucking with blood, and then settles into its usual lankness, drooling down the wall.
What did it say? Yangyang says. Was it our mothers calling to yell at us? I say.
I heard our mothers, but they sounded like they were growing gills, Mandy says. It sounded like they were talking from three or more mouths at once. But I think one of them said, when you’re finally born, save the cord. Don’t bury it or eat it or burn it or throw it away or some stupid shit like that. Keep the cord, pickle it, and someday, when you’re stranded somewhere so far from any memory of your mother and your teeth ache because you’ve been gnashing on all the miles you’ve traveled without anyone asking where you are going and how I might meet you there, you’ll plug the cord into a surface, maybe the soil and maybe the sky, maybe your own belly button or maybe a lover’s butt, and when you dangle upside down at just the right angle, a voice on the other end will say hello, it’s me, your mother, why aren’t you home? When are you coming over?
One day the umbilical cord telephone detaches itself from the wall, its mucus plug popping out wet as an eyeball, and it slithers into our throats, exiting through our assholes. It strings us into jewelry, routing our blood into a bracelet. We match our mothers, but smaller. We have joined the chain of their deathless communication, their unintelligible longing. We become pregnant with everything they have given up: diplomas, a trip to see penguins, days and days of nothing, money, lovers with gorgeous hair, our bellies swelling and swelling. The pain is bearable, even precious, when we are together and can expel it as laughter.
Between our legs, we dribble a trail of names, abandoned hobbies, forbidden pets. When we walk around the neighborhood in loose formation, we drag the umbilical cord along the ground, and cars leap into the air to avoid running over it. They understand the sacred nature of our chaining, the threading of our torsos. We are comforted by the company of the cord. We eavesdrop on each other’s intestines and swap remedies for constipation and loose bowel movements. We digest worlds into worms, and when our mothers’ mothers’ mothers call us to ask, how will you avenge us? all our blood will chorus at once, gargling bells. We are the lyrics to their losses, and we will inherit their song, this sinewed silence, and repeat it for all our lives and deaths, praying for its extinction, for the day when to remember is not to mourn or to rage but to rain upon the world. To beat the ground until we can grow from it. To become beasts gutted of goodness. To be free.
K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice books Bestiary and Gods of Want (One World/Random House), and two forthcoming books, a novel titled Organ Meats (One World) and a novella titled Cecilia (Coffee House Press). She lives in California.