“She jumped out of perfectly good planes,” the cutler, Ting, says to me in Mandarin as she wraps freshly sharpened knives inside folds of butcher paper for the customers of her seafood and cutlery shop, Fish Cuts. Brown, crisp rectangles tied in string with limp, stingy bows. My vegetable cleaver is fourth in line. “I never understood my mother,” says Ting as she presses the soft side of her temple with a finger, like checking for the ripeness of a peach. Born in Shijiazhuang, the cutler is a 50-year-old woman with one blue eye and one brown; she talks about her dead mother who she claims had once parachuted from planes to reach endangered saltwater crocodiles basking on the edges of remote wetlands. I imagine Ting’s mother in her herpetologist heydays, gripping the opening of a Cessna 182, icy wind whipping her face, a hurricane of black hair, the world in clouds, a marshmallow confidence and unscuffed luck as she spiraled down towards Florida’s cape. What did the scientists on the idling research boats think of Ting’s mother, her red cheeks, goggles, white knuckles gripping the plastic brake handles, hair tangled in her parachute’s lines?
Ting slices a piece of paper with customer #1’s knife to show its sharpness before wrapping it. She says, “The first number my mother taught me as a child was 2000. 2000 pounds. And, 3000. Crocodilians can go through 3000 teeth in their lifetime, an endless supply. A group on land is a bask, on water, a float. Did you know?” The cutler’s worktable basks in the neon blue glow of gurgling tanks filled with live octopi, cuttlefish, bighead carp, flat butt turbot.
Every day, Ting sharpens knives for her loyal customers, tests the sharpness by scraping blades against her thumb without looking. The most dangerous her mother had ever been, Ting had confided on my last visit, was when her mother asked her in a drunken stupor to declare who Ting owes for her life. The cutler had wanted to tell her mother that, yes, her mother had carried her inside her universe for nine months. But, her mother had also dropped Ting into her grandmother’s hands for the next sixteen years to jump out of airplanes. Years later, when Ting’s grandmother died, the cutler had crawled into bed, thirty-two and aching, eyelashes wet for the next six months.
Ting, who had sharpened knives for my parents at her San Francisco shop for more than two decades, studies my face as she places knives into lidded cardboard boxes, writes, in inky Chinese, the names of her prepaid customers #2 and #3. “You don’t look like your dad. Or your mom. LanLan, whose kid are you?” She laughs at her own joke.
To orphan someone like that is cruel.
Thoughts like these tie me up in knots and never leave me once they get inside my head, like a hurricane, like teeth to throat, tangles of algae and hair all over the place.
For 2000 years, Japanese women of the sea, known as Ama’s, wore loin cloths and bare breasts while free-diving down to frigid ocean depths to catch fish, abalone, sea urchins for their families. I imagine the 1970s, the very first time an Ama pulled on a neoprene wetsuit like the one Ting’s mother wore when she skydived into the Floridian wilds. I imagine the Ama, like Ting’s mother, tugging the thick, rubbery fabric over their legs, compressing their soft thighs, flattening their nipples. I imagine the constriction, followed by the stretching.
That very first night an Ama tried to sleep in her wetsuit, tossing and turning in her tight new skin, I wonder if she dreamed of the new depths she would reach, all the tentacled creatures waiting for her in the bottomless ocean canyons.
At Ting’s shop there is the artificial sound of fish and birds–the piped-in replication of nature– wires and speakers, sticky linoleum, mop buckets of bleach. All day, the cutler sharpens and places knives into boxes, live octopi into plastic bags. She loves haggling with customers over her octopi. She approves of the elite bargainers, ones who invent the best insults for fish in order to catch a better deal. The reward: Ting would lift the largest octopus from its tank, proudly present it to her most judgmental customer. The cephalopod’s tentacles would take the cutler in, taste and feed from her skin, honoring its curiosity, its needs, even as it begins to die in her hands.
I stare at my reflection in a gurgling crab tank as Ting begins sharpening my cleaver, slowly sliding the blade over a spinning diamond grinding wheel. The crustaceans and I share my mother’s forehead–wide, flat, unremarkable. But I do not have their or my mother’s ability to swim in open waters. I am terrified of the bottomlessness, the dark, the icy water, the swells and murk. I had never told my mother about my envy, how disturbing and beautiful I thought it was when she and her swim club organized a swim around Angel Island just a few years before she had died, their courage as Chinese Americans to swim where so many immigrants like her once faced the worst of human ignorance. From shore I had watched my mother and her friends start the swim, their bright swim caps–oranges, yellows, bright purples—getting smaller and smaller until they were just dots, white foam trailing behind their crawling arms and kicking feet, everything eventually blending in with the Bay’s frigid waves until I could no longer see what was mother and what was water.
I wonder if Ting had ever told her mother that she was terrified of flying, that it horrified her to imagine her mother willingly leap from the sky into the open jaws of crocodiles. Did Ting ever look closely enough at her mother’s teeth? Did her mother’s teeth ache in the icy air as she plummeted through clouds? Did she have the flat molars of chimaera? Pointy fangs of her beloved crocodilians? Were her teeth the yellowed, bony specks that we lose as we age? Which side of her mouth did she chew the meals Ting cooked for her after her mother came to live with them?
“Did you know that cuttlefish, those eight-legged camouflaged sisters to the squid-y octopus, are transparent?” Ting asks me as I hand her a crisp $20 bill. I shake my head, no. “When they glide over pink coral, the cuttlefish look like they have pink skin. Glimmering shadows in the sand beneath them means glimmering skin. Green seaweed fingers means green fringed camouflage.” Ting hands me my change in coins before I can respond, waves me away as she goes to help her newest customer.
At dinner, I will set my table with octopus and cuttlefish. An over-bright kitchen so that I cannot hide my forehead, nose, eyes. Imagine all the light I make chewing the cuttlefish’s shattered sunlight, the octopus’ pink camouflage. I think about all the questions our mothers have left us with. What else, but these questions, belong to us? Hair to teeth, luck to tongue, blue eye to brown, flat forehead to fangs, fear to courage. Ours and not ours. An infinite inheritance. And it is never enough.
Nancy Au’s full-length collection, Spider Love Song and Other Stories, (September 2019, Acre Books), was a finalist for the 2020 CLMP Book Award for Fiction, and longlisted for the 2020 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award for Debut Short Fiction Collection. She has won Redivider’s Blurred Genres Contest, The Vestal Review’s VERA Flash Fiction Prize, and her flash fiction has been included in the Best Small Fictions anthology.