Jamie Lu

Pearl Fishing 

My aunt gifted me a necklace of pearls 
dredged up from distant oceans. 
She warned me that many girls before me 
had choked on or (been choked by) cheaper treasures. 
You should be grateful that these ones are proper. 
She said madness was unbecoming, 
that I should carry my head well and bare 
my neck to the world. 
To encourage decapitation? 
A sharp click of the tongue—reverberating 
through marble halls that spanned 
the past and the future. 
To show off your pearls, darling. 

It was a noose made of iridescence, 
the same moon-white pallor 
desired for all of us insanity-prone girls. 
To improve my lumbering gait, 
I was given stilts 
that made walking treacherous; 
one misstep would send me careening— 
pulling the noose taught and 
snapping my jeweled spinal cord. 
Or worse—the necklace would 
split and pearls would cascade into 
dusty corners like the rolling heads 
of decapitated dolls. 
It was a precarious way of living. 
It was not living at all. 

I was a macabre, long-legged amalgamation
of a mother’s mother’s father’s expectations;
I was always on the verge of something—
on the precipice of one mighty release. 
I had a cry of my ancestors’s overlaid voices
building in the back of my throat, 
I had a desire to run, I had many 
desires—I was soulful, intrepid, wayward, unruly.
I wanted to sink to the floor and be 
swallowed by the carpet, upon 
which shone golden slants of afternoon sunlight.
Unbecoming to lie on a carpet.
Then let this be my unbecoming.
I wanted many things. I wanted to be
unafraid of these things. 

Amid radio chatter at family gatherings
I learned that madness was hereditary,
passed from tight-fisted mothers
to throttle-necked daughters. 
Torched in the grass were 
cautionary tales of bright-eyed
young things who lost their heads
going pearl fishing. 
They were tragedies—tapestries
of impatience, indulgence, 
unbecoming hanging in the 
hallways that spanned the past and
the present. I myself did not 
want to be a ghost story. 

The precipice shuddered and dipped
like a creature lowering its head
to the water to drink. I unbuckled
my feet from the stilts and slid down
onto a speckled embankment. 
I imagined opening my mouth to
drink the sea—my body swollen
and bulbous, soft and malleable. 
I imagined waking up with circles
under my eyes and warmth on
my cheeks. I imagined swallowing
the sun and spilling radiance upon
the cold, headless girls in the hall,
clawing down tapestries, 
spinning epics out of ghost stories.
There where I sprawled on the shore
I broke the necklace off and let the
pearls roll in the sand, where I plucked
them up and devoured each one—
chewing, swallowing— 
until the sea roiled in my stomach
and I was satisfied.

The Bug

My Sunday night dinner of leftover pork ribs is interrupted by a faint buzzing noise coming from underneath my dining room table. Instinctively, I lift my feet up and scoot my chair back to search for the insect—likely a bee or a dragonfly—that must have invaded my house during the celebratory graduation barbecue my parents hosted for me earlier that day. 

I’ve always had a fear of bugs. Amphibians and reptiles I can handle, which Madison B. from woodworking class in 10th grade said was very abnormal for a girl, because in all reality I should have hated all three groups. Not that I trusted Madison B.’s opinion. She always carried an overwhelming scent of tangerine on her clothes—and tangerine was second on my list of major dislikes, right under bugs. 

I might like insects more if my older brother, Aris, hadn’t decided to like them first. When we went outside to play treasure-hunt as children, he had always claimed the butterfly net for himself, leaving me to lug around the metal bucket my parents used to give the truck its monthly wash. My bitterness over the net—a fancy thing made out of cheap faux bamboo and shiny silver thread—soon morphed into a stubborn hatred against the creatures it was designed to catch. 

During those days, summer dawns broke bright and sweltering on the horizon, and our unkempt suburban backyard unfolded before us, tall yellow grass and unfettered weeds swaying in the heady breeze. On some afternoons it was the African savannah, on others the Amazon rainforest. We set out, explorers in search of animals to add to our scientific journals (which were, in fact, water-damaged composition notebooks that had gone unused during the past school year). 

Naturally Aris would return from his escapades with whatever crawling things he’d captured in the net, and I returned with muddy knees, dirt under my nails, and a collection of squirming lizards that I make-believed to be ferocious gila monsters. 

We stopped collecting creatures when our parents had the pool built. Plastic green turf and white pavement replaced the tall grass, and the geckos, frogs, and snakes relocated to less-developed backyards. Sometimes I’d find a dried-out lizard carcass here and there, but for the most part, it was only the bugs that remained. I eyed them as they floated on the surface of the artificially-blue water or buzzed around the decorative lamp posts my parents installed around the patio. But Aris loved the pool, even though he wasn’t a very strong swimmer. I should have spent more time keeping an eye on him out there. 

Under the dining room table, I find that the source of the incessant buzzing was a house fly that’s been turned over onto its back. The thing seems to be in great distress—black hairy legs flailing, mouth pincers opening and closing in a silent cry for help. Its writhing body convulses with each angry buzz for attention. I swallow and return to my dinner. I’ve read somewhere that the common fly only lives for about 30 days. Perhaps this one is now reaching the end of its fleeting existence, which likely involved frequent visits to the week-old mound of uneaten bacon I’d left on the kitchen counter. Not a terrible way to live when the alternatives were alleyway garbage bins or wild animal feces, I muse.

I consider ending its misery now, but find myself unable to leave my chair. A morbid thought arises in my mind at the thought of crushing the creature beneath my foot. Perhaps on my way to the kitchen to dispose of the pin-sized corpse, I might fall and snap my neck, and my limbs will thrash out around my own immobile body, and the bug and I will die together like tragic lovers. Who would come to end my misery? If I was left here long enough, what insects would creep in to devour me? 

A memory resurfaces—the summer my uncle passed away on our patio. He was always a sickly man, but that week he’d been suffering from a worsening fever and asked to be moved outdoors to alleviate his chills. We laid him on the bone-white recliner by the pool, and Mom watched as he slept, the sweat glistening on his forehead like oil. Occasionally she would fan him with a newspaper, and when her shoulders began to tremble, I thought maybe she was laughing because he’d woken up and told her a joke, as he always did during times of distress. But when she turned her head and I saw the mascara-tinged tear tracks on her rosy cheeks, I knew something terrible had transpired. My uncle, apparently, had died in his sleep. I found this out when my mother summoned me to fan the body while she went inside to call the funeral home. 

Despite my efforts, mosquitos and other flying things still took up residence on my uncle’s exposed skin, and gnats swarmed his face, landing in spotty heaps across the ring of moisture around his neck. I just about lost it when my feeble fanning was not enough to keep a beetle from crawling into his gaping mouth. Being young and prone to panicked outbursts, I frantically beat his face with the newspaper, but his head lolled to the side as if untethered from the rest of his body, and I wondered for a moment if I had disturbed him enough to resurrect him from the dead. The shock of it just about killed me, too; my brother came out and found me out cold on the ground, fan still in hand. I can only imagine my parents’ horror at the scene. 

A knock sounds at the door, startling me out of my stupor. I push out of my seat and bolt away from the kitchen, glad for an excuse to put distance between me and the dying thing. I open up the door to find a package waiting for me on the soiled Welcome rug, but I don’t bother to bring it inside. I shut the door behind me and decide I’m not hungry anymore—that it’ll be nice to take a walk and enjoy the vestiges of fading sunlight. Lady dusk is a lush tapestry of indigo and blush-pink tonight, as she always is. Why she blushes so frequently, I can never figure out. Perhaps right now she’s seeing something obscene take place on the ground below her. I wonder, then, if dusk ever feels true horror—if it fears being wiped away into darkness every night. Is it a restful slumber she willingly falls into, or is she dragged, roaring, down below the horizon? 

I think of my uncle and his admiration for my brother’s insect collection—specifically the ones he kept pinned up on his bedroom wall. It was my uncle who really got Aris into the craft, and my parents indulged it because the shared interest gave the two a chance to bond as my uncle’s health declined. Some of Aris’s more unique specimens he purchased from antique curiosity shops we visited on road trips through the Carolinas. Others he caught and pinned himself, which I found to be a painfully troublesome hobby, since he often left his display cases and magnifying glasses and other apparatus lying around the house no matter how often Mom

urged him to tidy up. I should have been more patient with him, but there were only so many times I could find wrinkled moth carcasses on the bathroom sink or jars of wasps under my bed before I lost my cool. I went on a rampage one day, ferociously ripping one of his display cases off the wall and smashing it into the corner of his desk. The common swallowtail inside was damaged irreparably, much to my satisfaction. 

My uncle, of course, heard about the incident and gently reprimanded me at the dinner table the following night. 

“How would you feel if someone took your dead body and pinned it up behind a glass case after you died?” I demanded, stabbing my fork into the soft flesh of my baked potato. “It’s totally gross.” 

Aris rolled his eyes. “It’s really not that serious. You’re too sentimental.” 

I wrinkled my nose. Sentimental. I despised that word. Madison B. in woodworking class used it so often in the wrong context that it became nonsensical to me, and Aris only picked it up when he started dating her. What was so wrong with being sentimental, anyway? 

“For one thing, I’d be flattered,” my uncle said. “Imagine if someone found me so interesting that they’d want to keep me and admire me forever. It’s like immortalization. I’d never be forgotten.” 

Perhaps my parents remembered that particular conversation, because we ended up having an open casket at my uncle’s funeral. His body was dressed nicely and placed in a white box with gilded edges and a glass sheet overtop. They laid his head on a silk pillow and crossed his arms over his chest, so that he looked like a great pharaoh of Egypt—a relic that historians might put in a museum and adore forever, just as my uncle had adored Aris’s bugs. Our family immortalized that moment in our memories—so I suppose my uncle got his wish after all, though probably not in the way he intended. 

“Too bad we can’t stuff him and pin him up in the guest room,” Aris joked tearfully as we peered through the glass at the dead man’s rigid form. He looked as though he were made of wax rather than decaying flesh—handsome even in death, wearing the same tuxedo he’d donned at my parents’ wedding 14 years ago. 

“Promise me you won’t hang up any more creatures,” I whispered to my brother on the car ride home. 

Aris hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. He always was a kind brother. I didn’t know it then, but my request was quite selfish. It robbed him of the only thing he really had left of our uncle. It was cruel of me; Aris had a right to hold on to that piece of their relationship, and I stripped him of it. 

Maybe if I’d bothered to spend time with him and our uncle on the pool deck and appreciate their macabre interests, those glass cases that were once Aris’s most prized possession wouldn't be stuffed in the back of a storage closet somewhere, collecting dust. There would still be someone to admire those bugs. They never would have been forgotten, as my uncle said. 

A car backfires somewhere in the distance, and a flock of birds erupts from the canopy of oak trees that surrounds my suburban neighborhood. I shiver. I've lost track of time, and now it’s

dark out, and there are moths orbiting the wrought-iron lamp posts that stand like solemn guards at intervals down the deserted asphalt road. My thoughts ricochet between the past and the present. Did I lock the front door before I left? What kind of moths are those? Swallowtails, perhaps—like the one I destroyed by shattering my brother’s display case? 

The ruined specimen—with its bright yellow coloration and black stripes—littered in broken glass and mutilated beyond repair. A section of its wing had broken off and was still pinned to the back of the case when my brother went to inspect the damage. The rest of the body was on the floor, crushed, legs and thorax bent at gruesome angles. Deeming the wreckage unsalvageable, Aris stuffed the case and the swallowtail into a plastic bag and ordered me to toss it in the neighborhood dumpster. But it was late at night and I was afraid and guilty, so I hid the bag under my bed and forgot about it the next morning. 

Feeling strangely melancholy, I come to a streetlamp and stop, enjoying the comfort of the orange glow emanating through the lantern’s grimy glass. The dim light illuminates a trail of ants traveling past my foot like a river and coagulating at a point further down the sidewalk. I follow them with eyes first, then on foot, hoping with morbid curiosity to get a glimpse of whatever poor creature the ants have surrounded. After passing the edge of the lamp’s reach, I pull out my cell phone and aim the flashlight at the ground. 

Something elongated and rubbery glares up at me with empty eye sockets and a wide, horror-stricken mouth—an expression of perpetual mortal fear captured in the lizard’s dying moments. A puck of ice settles in my stomach. I lurch backward, covering my mouth with my hand. I feel as if I’ve stumbled across something sinister and criminal—like a murder scene. 

The worst part is, it all feels too familiar. I’ve been here before. I’ve seen the same blank, lifeless look long ago; the same rubbery skin—except it’d been bloated and purple the first time—and the same gaping mouth, overflowing with artificially-blue water as I’d hauled the body out of the deep end and flung it onto that awful, sun-baked pool deck. 

Back then, my shock rendered me useless; I stumbled away and collapsed in the shade of the lanai instead of performing those life-saving procedures the health class instructors at school had drilled into me time and time again. I gasped and floundered, as if I was the one who’d drowned. The terror of it was overwhelming—paralyzing, stinging, like venom. My brother’s bulging eyes pleaded with the darkening sky, who did nothing but continue to blush, as if she found the whole scene quite amusing—as if she couldn’t care less whether he lived or died. 

I wanted someone to blame, but the sky was guiltless. She had watched millions of creatures meet far more grisly ends. Life existed for only an instant—as common and transient as a flash of lighting. Nothing could be saved from the inevitability of rot. Nothing could become immortal as the sky was immortal. 

Guilt worms into my mind like a ravenous parasite. If I had moved faster, I might have saved him. I might have kept the display cases from being moved into the storage closet, might have saved my mother some mascara, might have learned to stop being so sentimental, might have made a friend out of Madison B. from woodworking class, might have never wasted time

calling the funeral home for the second time in the same year, might have finally gotten over my fear of bugs. But I didn’t—and I am still afraid to this day. 

I turn my phone flashlight off and bolt like a spooked rabbit, plunging myself into darkness as I weave through the neighborhood. The black silhouette of my house rises like a mirage in the distance. A mosquito whizzes by my ear; I shake my head savagely to keep it from getting tangled in my hair. I remember running like this when my mother found me frozen and trembling on the lanai an hour after I first discovered Aris’s body. Her shriek shocked me into motion. While police cruisers and ambulances formed a barricade around my house, I dove under my bed and discovered the plastic bag filled with Aris’s broken display case. I clawed madly at the knot, dumping the contents out onto my floor. 

I’ll make it up to him, I thought. When he comes back, I’ll show him I’ve fixed it. With shaking hands I picked apart the shards of glass and splintered wood, searching for the swallowtail in the fervent way Madison B. would search for her vape in the depths of her backpack 30 minutes after taking her last hit. I wasn’t very successful—not at first. But when Mom came into my room late that night with red-rimmed eyes and a mouth smelling of alcohol, she found me smiling in triumph, a dead moth clenched tightly in my bloody hands. Of course, I never did get the chance to beg for my brother’s forgiveness. And I never fixed the display case, either. 

Those same hands now sweat profusely as I unlock the front door and dart inside, leaving the package by the soiled welcome mat. I already know what it is: a graduation gift from Madison B.’s parents—Madison B., who would have also graduated from 12th grade this week if I had made friends with her, if I’d bothered to ask her how she felt, if I’d been at the party where she and her designated driver drank that from that spiked punch bowl and skidded into a concrete barrier on the car ride home—leaving an ash trail behind them like dying comets. The image of the lizard carcass stays imprinted on the corneas of my eyes as I race into the dining room and throw myself onto my knees and army-crawl under the table. I scan the carpet for a black, writhing speck, holding my breath to listen for the sounds of frantic buzzing. 

Then I see it: the fly, still on its back where I left it. My heart drops—I am too late. The buzzing has fallen silent. 

The wings are still, the legs suspended in rigor mortis. 

I am too late. 

The fly is already dead.

I Was Born in Water

I was born in water. A tub, filled to its brim with waves that sloshed over and onto the bathroom tiles. It was a room that smelled faintly of lavender and would later smell of bleach. The midwife’s methodical hands swaddled me as if packaging an item on the assembly line, then sent me out in a floating basket. 

I grew up in a flooded house. There was no roof, only a clear dome that held within it a handful of perpetually stormy-gray clouds. Some days the clouds would only rumble in warning. Most days, they poured bullets of rain amidst winds that sent ten-foot swells out in every direction. I grew kelp for hair, but my roots found no hold. 

When my basket became too large for me and tipped over, I learned the necessity of keeping my neck above water. I was never taught how to swim—only to claw at cabinets and cling to driftwood. I learned to hide when occasional passersby would shake up the house and peer at my flailing form through the clear dome, their watchful eyes magnified and distorted. I had never learned how to swim, but I had certainly learned how to keep myself from drowning. 

When I was let out of the dome, I emerged with wrinkled skin and webbed feet. I was young and naive, with nothing but the skin pulled taut on my back and the scars of growing up in a wild, tumultuous home. Flooded streets branched out in every direction; channels pumping sea water through the bloated remains of a drowned earth. I waded through murky canals in hopes of finding something—not dry land, for I did not know of such a thing. Instead I searched for hands to anchor me, to pull me out of icy waters, to touch me, to soothe my swollen joints and wrinkled skin. The hands that I did find were too accustomed to forming fists; I seemed to attract all the wrong people, perhaps because I did not know that I deserved better. I was to anchor myself or drift on forever, and when I found I could not do the former, I set out to journey beyond the submersed suburbia. 

Later, I found myself by the rapids and lost my footing; I bashed my head on the rocks and became disoriented. It was the first time I felt myself truly drowning. It was not a calm drowning, either. It was frantic—it was thrashing and foaming and grasping for stones with raw palms and bloody fingernails. I fought like an animal, because only an animal’s desire to survive could have saved me then. My humanity weighed me down to the riverbed. 

I sat in the mangroves for a long while after that, so long that I began to feel the tingle of moss springing to life on my shoulders and roots growing from my tired feet. Here snakes entwined with my arms and herons watched me from the banks with pinprick eyes, before becoming courageous and finding a perch on my upturned head. Great ridge-backed things with scales and jaws swam in lazy circles around me, taking time to nurse my wounds. I could have rested forever, if I knew how to. I could have let myself fade. Not a violent death, but a death all the same. 

Still, I had traveled too far and would not stop now. Or, perhaps I did not know how to stop. I had grown in a flooded house, and I had waded through a flooded earth. I was a survivor, but I did not know how to live in any other way, or to associate love with anything other than drowning. I feared that if I stayed for too long, my head would swim with the realization that I had left one dome only to wander around in a larger one. The whole world was a dome. Whoever

was watching me from outside of this one, I would never know—I did not want to know, for they must have been cruel to watch and do nothing. I did not want to be saved. I wanted to be seen and to be told that there was more to life than drifting, to be given direction on a planet where I had been spun around in circles for far too long—a cycle of tragedy I could not escape. 

Not long had passed before I had made my way to the ocean. I continued my drifting with the pull of the tides, admiring the wonders that swiftly passed me by. I amassed a small island of the items that would not weigh me down—a desperate attempt at finding buoyancy in material treasures. Barnacles and other things clung to me; I became driftwood myself. My legs bore me down and my skin thinned and began to dissipate like paper. The salt stung my eyes, the kelp grew long and heavy on my head, floating out in a long train behind me as I crested over tumultuous waves. I believed I could exist there forever—until one cold dawn, when I first laid sight upon an island in the distance. It was no larger than my smallest finger, a gold fleck on the horizon, a point upon which my gaze could rest and my body could angle itself toward. 

I do not think what I did upon seeing the island was quite like swimming. It was wilder, more desperate—it was clawing at water, clawing for what had evaded me my entire life. Sandy banks. Warm sunlight. A place to rest among others (for I did see smoke rising from the island, which I assumed meant I would find companionship there). So I threw my legs out behind me. I abandoned my floats—buoys and driftwood and other things I had gathered—and ventured out alone. I saw the island grow larger in my fading vision. I saw places to cast anchors. I saw the skies opening up—cloudless skies, endless skies—a break in the dome. I saw dry land. 

In another life, I might have made it. In another life, where I had learned to swim, where I had not been so desperate, I might have washed up on those shores. As it was, I did what I could; I clawed, and when I was unable to drag myself through the harsh sea any longer, I sank. My body dissolved, and I found solace in those fathomless depths. I became one with the waters that had claimed me from the very beginning.

About the Author: Jamie Lu is a 17-year-old Filipino-American writer living in Florida. Her writing journey began simply, in a quiet suburban home with large windows that let in golden afternoon sunlight. She is inspired by her parents' stories of childhood, Filipino history, the people she encounters, the macabre, the divine, and everything in between. She is an alumnus of the Adroit Summer Mentorship Program for Fiction and a recipient of a Gold Key from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. For her, stories will forever shine a beacon of light into the midst of all of life's obscurity.