Short Story Sunkiller
We wanted to embellish her legend, but now we were only the witnesses of her want.
She told everyone she was a god, but she was just alone. Like yeah, she gave us apricots from her tree so sweet you wouldn’t believe, but she also had a habit of decapitating her lovers. She never used her own hands. She seduced a crab out of its Ranch 99 tank and trained it to pinch off her first husband’s head. Crab claws aren’t very sharp, and the neck was just kinda severed partway and had to be removed fully with a bone saw and then resewn to the neck before he was buried. They determined that he didn’t die of massive blood loss but of a shellfish allergy so severe he died the moment the crab claws touched him. We didn’t directly witness any of this shit, but yeah, we know all about it. She had a son too, but she fed him mud until he exploded. Some people say she’s like this because she got her umbilical cord knotted tight around her neck when she was born and accidentally hanged herself, dangling down between her mother’s legs, and the lack of oxygen caused her to momentarily seek alternative fuels to inhale, like pure human evil, but we think it’s unfair to blame every death on birth.
We call her Lin Ayi, but that’s just because our mothers say we have to. Behind her back we call her Ama, though one time Seth Hsieh called her that to her face while going to door-to-door selling Cutco knives, and she swiped the blade right out of his hands—I think it was one of those small ones for peeling root vegetables—and pinned him to her carpet and was totally going to shear off his foreskin, except he was already circumcised (“So American,” she said, rather disapprovingly), and so she cut off just one of his balls. That’s what Carrie Chiu told us when she went down on Seth at the Memorial Park because she’d rather do that than look at Fourth of July firecrackers, fuck the flag and all—and she saw he only had one ball and he broke down completely and told her the whole story of his castration. Carrie said she thought it was kinda badass of Lin Ayi, but none of us tried to confirm this story, and we didn’t say anything when Seth tried to spread a rumor that he got his ball surgically removed after being strapped too tightly into a Formula 1 Ferrari, which apparently do have these harnesses that, like, cut off circulation to the crotch region, but we know he’s never driven anything fast in his life, just a rusty bashed-up lawn mower for his dad’s yard business, and he goes slower than snot in that thing.
None of us had ever contacted a god, so we were pretty excited when Lin Ayi committed herself to divinity (more like insanity, Carrie said). All of us grew up in the apartment building across from Lin Ayi’s house, though it had the structural integrity of an anthill and collapsed into sand so often that our mothers strapped giant sifters to their backs so that when the building shuddered into crumbs, they could scoop us out one at a time, rescuing us from our accrued dust.
She told everyone she was a god, but she was just alone.
What kind of god do you think she is? one of us asked. Like a vengeful one or a pathetic one that can’t even spare us a handful of rain or remove a fishbone from our digestive tract? Cindy Liu said she was probably the latter, given that we’d been in a drought for, like, a millennium and still didn’t have enough water in the shower to reroute into the cracks of our asses. Jenny Zhu said she was probably a made-up god, like the god of Bad Perms and Radish Calves and Flat Noses, but we knew she was just bitter that Lin Ayi had hair that ran thick as egg yolk and had really well-formed calves, like she’d tiptoed out of the womb and had never needed her human heels, while Jenny had crooked bangs she’d cut herself, steeply angled like an entry wound. Our mothers didn’t talk about any gods, except for the ones that had caused the drought: They said there were ten suns in the sky, each of them taking turns so that they never burned out or lost even a whiff of their wattage, and because of their insane collective strength, all the moisture had been banished from our bodies, which was why most of us had difficulty summoning enough saliva to swallow a full mouthful of doufugan. Long ago, these ten suns had all roosted together, strung across the sky like a bracelet of bad news, and they roasted every living thing into medium-rare meat. The ten suns feasted on the meatball of this planet until one brave warrior aimed his arrows at the sky’s slack face and shot nine of the suns down, saving a portion of the population from becoming digestible, and we were descended from those survivors.
So be glad you’re raw inside, our mothers said, or someone’s sun will find a reason to consume you. A long time ago, men came to our island and called us raw, uncooked. They said we were savages for not learning to serve ourselves medium, at least. They rinsed our kneecaps into dishes, collecting them in stacks, which is why there are always so many damn dishes to do, one for each of our knees. We fled the men to the mountains and froze ourselves raw, never to thaw ourselves for anyone.
So if nine suns were shot down, one of us asked, how come we’re still roasting? And our mothers said nothing’s dead for long: The warrior forgot to consume the skulls of the suns, and because of that, they grew back with full heads of sizzling hair. That’s how we knew Lin Ayi probably wasn’t a god like this warrior, because she never forgot to eat the bones of things and because she wasn’t detail-oriented enough to destroy anything. Once, a few of us replaced her doormat with a bed of eggs, and she was so devastated at having crushed perfectly good cage-free eggs that she swore to exact revenge, but she spent so long imagining ideas and listing them aloud (eat our toes, turn our pubic hair into candlewicks, bludgeon us to death with a giant marble egg, but how to locate such an egg, etc.) that she never got around to solidifying her rage. All her emotions lacked bones.
Still, a few of us hoped, and a few of us even got on our knees and prayed in front of our windows: Lin Ayi, Ama, if you really are the god who pried open the lid of the sky and lifted us out, if you really hunted the suns that tried to sear us on both sides, plotting against the pink inside our bodies, then touch us just once, touch us anywhere, so that we may know only a fraction of all fears, so that we may outlive the teeth of others, so that we will be the last people alive when the warrior aims at the sky and the world unwraps its eyes.
Instead of doing any real godly duties, Lin Ayi sat outside every afternoon on her driveway because she once saw a movie about rich people who dallied away the days on their wraparound porches, but because she didn’t have a porch, the driveway became her stage. We passed by her on our way to our shifts at the car wash or to the temple or to the grocery store to replace the leek shoots our brothers shoved up the stray dogs’ butts, and she was always just, like, there. We asked her what movie she was copying and she didn’t remember except that all the women wore hats, so she wore them too, except they weren’t really hats, it was more of an upside-down wok she was wearing. We tried not to pay attention, except when one day she came walking out with a stuffed man. It was made of pillowcases stuffed with cooked lentils, and it drooled brown all the way to the sidewalk. She propped up the pillowman on two bamboo poles, the kind our mothers used to whoop our asses, and then she called out to us. I’m setting up an archery target, she said, and we were like, what? Why? And she told us she used to be an Olympic archer. For what country? we called back, and she just pointed down, which we interpreted as hell.
She had a clothes hanger in her hands, bent into a bow, strung with twine like the kind you use to tie up butchered meat. Scattered on her driveway were whittled twigs, some of them kind of twisted like arms, too brittle-looking to pierce anything, but she shot them anyway. None of them hit the pillowman, and we had to duck to avoid getting spitted by her arrows. We decided that she was a liar. You are not an Olympic anything, we shouted from a safe distance, across the street in front of our building. I am, she shouted back at us, and that bitch had a really big mouth. My target wasn’t the man, she shouted. He was just a decoy. My real enemy is the sky behind him. And she laughed with her teeth rolling around in her mouth like dice.
There wasn’t really a sky in our city, just smoke and smog and other things that turn your boogers completely black, so that picking your nose is like mining for coal, except worse because the boogers aren’t worth anything. Our mothers said to let Lin Ayi continue, because some women, some women, they said, some women need to shoot at a pillowman and puncture all his nonexistent organs in order to tolerate the hollowness of their own lives. Okay, mothers. We just thought she was on drugs, and not like the turn-your-spine-into-a-slingshot-and-catapult-you-out-of-your-own-body kind, but, like, the kind that makes you shit out your kidneys. Except that somehow she always knew our names and could summon us with them.
Shit really started to happen when the seven Suns moved in. Seven Sun sons, all shitheads. The Suns were church people, not just every-Sunday kind of people, but, like, crucifix hanging from the rearview mirror of their secondhand Hyundai, and a missionary uncle in another country tricking people into taking copies of the Bible by hiding baggies of flour or rice or beans in them, because nothing can convert you like hunger. And when they moved into the duplex next to Lin Ayi in December, they set up a full nativity scene on their lawn, lit up and everything, a manger and a baby Jesus, a doll that closes its eyes when you lean it back, which reminds us of our fathers, who are so stupid you can throw a bag over their heads to make them believe it’s night. We thought the Suns would be the same, that beneath this towel of smog they’d shut their eyes and sleep and leave us all alone, but they manicured their chain-link fence and knocked on our doors to ask for a hose attachment, as if we could even afford the water in our sweat.
Our street was curved like an eyelash, and on one side was the apartment building dimly lit and cemented like a slaughterhouse, with floors you can hose down, and on the other side were the beige-painted duplexes, Lin Ayi’s chipped-tooth driveway, and, now, the Suns and their windows taped up with newspaper, either because they didn’t want us to look in or because they wanted to protect their paleness, which our mothers say we should be doing more, because women aren’t born white, they are tutored into their color, and they spurn all suns to look white as wives.
We watched the Sun sons, seven of them all squeezed into the back seat of that Hyundai every Sunday, on their way to their knees. When they stood in line for a photo in front of the nativity scene, they looked like a row of teeth. Shiny. And we wanted to punch them all out. We wanted to rearrange their mouths. They wore white wifebeaters and jeans and Lin Ayi liked this a lot, said it was just like the movies. Maybe she wasn’t a god after all and only wanted proximity to divinity, which disappointed some of us. A few of us believed she could be the real thing, and we didn’t like to see her admiring the Suns when she was supposed to be their slaughterer. We waited for her to prove that she molded this world, that she maintained the rarity of our meat so that we could be free. But to see her mouthful of drool as she gaped at those boys, that family, we wondered if she was really a savior or just a great dispenser of saliva. We wanted to embellish her legend, but now we were only the witnesses of her want.
Suddenly she was doing a lot of archery practice in her front yard. One of her stray twig-arrows scratched the windshield of their Hyundai, and one of the Sun sons, probably a younger one given the width of his limbs, crossed over into her driveway to say it’s okay, you can pay us back in installments. Our mothers watched from the roof of our building and said, Look, that woman has a whole driveway that slants, a mountain she’s the crown of, and she’s got it set up for carnage. Why doesn’t she just plant some flowers or something? What kind of world is this, that she owns her own place but spends all day outside, maiming the clouds?
Lin Ayi told the Sun son she was very sorry about the windshield, and that she would indeed pay for the damage, and that she could also give archery lessons as a form of payment, and, like a dumbfuck, the son said yes. He wrangled the other Sun sons into archery practice too, and so now we couldn’t even leave the apartment building because so many whittled twigs were being shot into us. A girl can’t bleed in front of anybody, our mothers said. And nobody wants to be reminded of what’s inside us. So we stayed in our apartments with our windows shut and watched the Sun sons and Lin Ayi nick the stains off our building, exposing the bone color beneath, reenacting divine feats without us.
Lin Ayi was acting like a shao za bo. Like, it was disgusting how she petted their necks when they ran across the street to pull arrows out of stray cats and return them to her like her caddies. She licked their biceps and raked their eyebrows with the tip of her tongue and at one point even straddled the pillowman, pretending to be adjusting its head, except it didn’t even have a head. We’d like to adjust her, but all we can do is watch since we’ve got no more blood to spare for her games. The sun continues to evaporate our innards.
What kind of world is this, that she owns her own place but spends all day outside, maiming the clouds?
At one point during the week, the youngest of the Sun sons, who was the height of her hips, took his hose over to her driveway and asked to wash her duplex. That’s when we knew they were all going to die. She was going to pin him to her sun-sticky driveway and eat his ribs. Her skin was made of flypaper, that’s what we decided. They orbited around her, haloed her with their hum. And the oldest one was the worst, the one who was always throwing out his voice like a rope to grab ahold of, playing at being a savior, and he kept coming over to her door with AAA batteries and bone chopsticks and skinned pears and extension cords saying things like, I think you might need this. What Lin Ayi needs is to be thrashed into remembering her godly status—nothing life-threatening, but just enough to break a little bit of nose. That nose we all despised and deified, so high-bridged you could walk across it. The rumor is that she got one of her knuckles grafted onto her face, but we couldn’t see her hands at our distance.
Lin Ayi always answered the door really late and with some kind of knife in her hands, like, Oh, you’ve caught me, and then she invited the Suns inside. We shouted from across the street, You idiots, look at where her hands have been, but they tottered inside one at a time and one fewer always came back out. The Suns never noticed. Somehow, she had roped them into a world she controlled, and we were exiled from it. A few of us were jealous that we were never invited, that she was never generous enough to personally grant our deaths. Meanwhile, those Suns were her guests, always gathered around on her driveway to say, We will bring pillowcases next time, a soldier of pillowmen for you to skewer, and she waved her knife from the doorway. By the time it was down to four Suns exiting her duplex, three missing, we started taping signs to our windows that said DO NOT GO IN. LIN AYI IS A DECAPITATOR AND CRAB WHISPERER. TURN AROUND. GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES SOMEWHERE ELSE. PLS. But they never turned their heads to look across the street at us. Our mothers said the city was going to tear us down eventually and replace us with condos, and there was even a sign that they stabbed in front of our building that said CONDOS COMING SOON, which some girl graffitied to say CONDOMS FOR COMING, which none of us thought was that funny. It’s not like the city could read. Meanwhile, we kept a twenty-four-hour watch on the Lin duplex to see where she was keeping the bodies. Some of us said maybe she was cannibalizing them, and maybe the back unit of the duplex was piled with their limbs individually saran-wrapped. We watched her chimney at night to see if there was smoke coming out of it from impromptu stove cremations, but nothing. And we watched for boys climbing out of her windows at night, running down the street naked and with their heads decapitated into glossed hams, but nothing.
Finally it was down to just two Sun sons, and we were starting to think maybe Mr. and Mrs. Sun were pretty happy about being neighbors with Lin Ayi because two sons are so much easier than seven. They didn’t know about her possible godhood, about how she was going to gatekeep fate. They didn’t know the stories our mothers told us, and they had no sense of impending disaster. At least now the Sun family could all fit comfortably into their Hyundai SUV instead of putting the smallest two in the trunk and accidentally leaving them inside there. So basically it was up to us to save the last of the Suns, to try our own chance at godhood. At this point we were going to have to start pissing out of windows because our plumbing was so backed up from all of us staying home, avoiding her archery practice. When the last two Suns, one little and one with shoulders made of bread, knocked on her door that Sunday with some kind of rope in their hands—double suicide pact?—we opened our windows all at once and said, TURN BACK. FIND ANOTHER SKY TO DIE IN.
They didn’t even look at us. Lin Ayi was not even that hot, we thought. She was literally like our mothers, who we thought were beautiful but only because they looked like us. Her hair was dyed the color of cold. She had nice knees that were completely hairless and shiny like plucked fruit. But the Suns liked to stand in front of her pillowmen on the driveway and basically beg to be pierced through. This time, Lin Ayi answered the door without the clothes hanger bow under her arm, and we thought, Maybe she’s finally retiring . From across the street we could see she was smiling. She shut the door, and the two Suns stood just staring, and the shorter one was crying, soap opera sobbing, and some of us thought maybe she’d eaten enough of them and was no longer hungry. Others of us thought that our single warning had been enough, and soon they were going to transfer all their worship to us.
Then the two boys went home, the taller one dragging the younger one, and later that morning we saw Lin Ayi come out to do archery practice on her own. She was standing with her legs very wide. The pillowman at the end of her driveway was a new one, this one with limbs, made of socks and shirtsleeves. Steam spiraled out of his gouged mouth, and we knew he was cooked through, a body that had been rid of its rawness. We could never aspire to such doneness. Her aim was still terrible, and we ducked back behind our windows. At least, we thought, when the future tenants moved into their condos, Lin Ayi would find a way to feed them to the sun. Later that morning, the two remaining Suns got into their Hyundai with their parents and drove away in their creased shirts, probably on their way to pray in the wrong direction. Lin Ayi didn’t look at them once, and her arrows were rapid-fire now, sleeting against the side of our building. She shot so fast it looked like she had twenty arms, and maybe that’s what she did to the other Suns, slice off their arms and surgically attach them to herself.
We learned later that Lin Ayi cut the brakes on the Sun-family Hyundai, and all four remaining Suns flew off a highway bridge and were crushed like soda cans. There were no suspects, but Lin Ayi was smiley for weeks, and we saw her bury a pair of kitchen shears beneath her shrubs. There was a funeral, I think, which most people attended for the free food, since we didn’t know much about the Suns except that they were prey, incapable of being saved. At that point, we decided to just break into Lin Ayi’s duplex and see what kind of slaughter she’d authored. If we didn’t find bodies, we were okay with just a stain. We went together one night and took kitchen scissors with us. One of us picked the lock with a bobby pin. We forgot to bring flashlights, but we’d just gotten our teeth whitened and could smile in front of ourselves and that was enough light.
The duplex had pocked walls, moles of mold all over. But other than that it was totally normal, with a kitchen and a carpet and a ceiling fan and a sofa. The TV was on and muted and for a second we were like, Where is that light coming from? but it was just a woman’s face on Dateline , her teeth making ours redundant. We couldn’t decide where to look, so we just stood in her kitchen and opened her steel freezer door and looked for frozen organs in there. But the freezer was empty, so we knew at least she wasn’t an organ harvester, which was disappointing because we could appreciate a hustle like that. But the Suns were sacrificed for nothing, no new world dawning, and so we decided to unhook the cleaver from above Lin Ayi’s sink and stab her in her sleep. That’s a fast death , we thought, and we kinda hoped she would bleed a lot. Maybe we’d all get on TV and finally someone would film our side of the street, with a voice-over like, This is where the ruthless killers were incubated. We kept passing the cleaver back and forth between us, not sure who would take the first stab, but finally one of us was like, Oh my god just go, so we went down the carpeted hallway to the only closed door.
Inside it was empty. There wasn’t even a bed or a dresser, just a blank room. There was something hanging on the back wall, a bedsheet or a curtain, blue and smelling like gasoline. Behind it was light. We approached the wall with our hands out, elbows brushing in the dark, and we lifted the blanket with our hands. Behind it was a hole in the wall, white and the size of a man, and through the hole there was another room. The back unit. You go, we said, no you go, you go, you have the cleaver. We just stood there and waited. There was something breathing ahead of us. An arrow came out of the dark, but it was just a sharpened toothbrush, skimming one of our many eyelids. There was a little bit of lost blood, but nothing we couldn’t replace. We backed away from the hole, and Lin Ayi came running out with her clothes hanger and a handful of chopsticks.
You better duck, she said, but we ran. At the door, one of us turned around, but she wasn’t there anymore, and the TV was gone and replaced by a dilating hole. Inside the hole were wires all tangled together and veining. We ran back to our side of the street, where there were burglar bars on the windows and doors so no one could get in that easily. Lin Ayi should learn something from us about security, about locking all possibilities outside of your body. We didn’t know it then, but one of us stayed behind and looped around the duplex, into the backyard. She’d gotten stabbed by the projectile toothbrush and had a collar of blood on. Later we would rip her stitches open, punishment for her hubris, but for now she was in the backyard. Her skin whipping up a scab. She was dazed and kind of wandering around, one hand on the chain-link fence. The yard was empty except for the apricot tree, which was growing like / instead of | and clearly wasn’t eating much rain. The fruits fell and made moon-craters in the dirt.
She walked forward and saw there was something in the center of the yard, like a lake draped over the night, except it wasn’t reflective or anything. Crawling forward on her knees, her blood dragging behind her like a leash, she reached the edge and looked in. It was deep, deep enough that it was kind of hard to see the bottom, except there was clearly a woman’s torso planted in the mud. At first she thought it was someone sawed in half, but it was Lin Ayi waist-deep in dark water, naked. The first thing she thought was that Lin Ayi had a really nice neck like waterfowl, sleek, green-sheened. Lin Ayi plunged her hands into the water and brought out a white dish, shiny as the bones of our kneecaps, spitting on it and wiping at it with the heel of her palm, drying it with her hair.
Here, she said, looking up. Catch this. Long ago you lost it. Lin Ayi threw the plate to her, but it was too fast to catch, so it shattered against the sky. Shit, Lin Ayi said from below, broke another bone. She sighed and bent down into the water and pulled out another dish. Do you always do your dishes this way, the wounded-us called down to her, but Lin Ayi said, Shut up, I’m trying not to break this one. When she was done sudsing the plate with her tongue, she floated it on the surface of the water, then reached down into the deep for the next one. There were six dishes floating beside her, opened like flowers, like those paintings of blurry water lilies. Lin Ayi called up: Do you recognize us?
She floated on her back, the dishes converging to cover her crotch before scattering across the surface again, spinning so fast they might helicopter out of the hole. These are the Suns, she said, but I’ve made them into moons. They make pretty light when they break. Want to see? She grabbed the plate floating at her left elbow and flung it up so high it disappeared for a second, and then she stood up in the water and threw something in her left hand, an arrow. You girls are so silly, she said, you don’t know. It’s better to be slaughtered than saved. I’ve given the Suns another shape. No world deserves to be reborn. I can only transform.
Somewhere above the street, the arrow bull’s-eyed the plate and shattered it. Pieces of it came down for months after, rain that chipped our skin. You should thank me, said Lin Ayi, leaning into the water. Without me you’d never get a good night around here. I looked down into the water and there were five plates left, clinking and chiming, and one of them wavered and blurred. I realized it was the moon, a reflection. A sixth shape, not solid. This one, Lin Ayi said, stroking the moon, is not for shooting. She kissed the water there, and it filled her mouth with light, licking where she’d lost a tooth. When we stood that night on the roof, there were six fistbones in the sky, the Suns we didn’t save, didn’t mourn. The Suns she bartered for a gentler light. It was the only moment we ever truly believed she was a god: when she bent her head and watered her tongue, her jaws trembling like the rings of an uncertain planet, telling us that nothing was ever dead for more than a day, that at night the moons were born to release us from domesticated sleep, awaking feral dreams. Dreams in which each of us were pierced by Lin Ayi, arrowheads touching our breasts as gently as her fingertips, the feathered shafts whispering to our ribs: What will you become, now that I have gifted you your end? We lined up and slung back our heads, pretended to draw our bows, aimed up at all we couldn’t touch. It was light when we let go.