Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureFall 2016
By Michelle Zhuang
The garden of my body is growing. My sister tells me, while we are perusing the Walmart greenhouse, that I need a little color on me. She chooses violets when I really want sunflowers, batting my hand away when I reach for the small labeled packet. “But then how would you walk?” she asks, laughing as she presses each small seed into the freshly packed dirt of my hand.
Later that night, I take a spoon in my left hand and dig out the violet seeds from the flower pot of my right until dirt strews across the floor of my small single-window apartment. The kitchen floor goes dark until I can no longer see the cracked beige tiles. The cat winds his way between my legs, and I shoo him before his little paws can smear dirt into the carpeted areas of my apartment. I tap my pot on the table once, twice, feeling the reverberations through my wrist up to my shoulder until I sense the warning pressure of the red clay about to split, watching the last small seeds trickle out from the empty chalice onto the floor.
The first time I cracked it was the last time I was allowed to play at a friend’s house. My body hadn’t grown to match the weight, and I walked tipped, hobbling about while my flower pot dragged behind me, scraping and chipping against the concrete of their cul-de-sac. Amy, my friend, was small but fast, quick as a whip – she hadn’t learned to slow down for anyone yet – but she was more akin to a pinball, ricocheting off of any surface she could find. When she crashed into me, I toppled over and felt the clay crack and crunch under my body, small shards digging into my wiry legs.
The adhesive didn’t set in the cracks for a night, so my mother had me sit upright at the kitchen table the whole night. My wrist had trembled as I struggled to hold the flower pot upright, watching the clear adhesive glitter in the dim yellow light. My sister had taken that opportunity to bring out her washable paints and sat there with me, splashing garish yellow and clown blue onto my pot until you could not see the dusky red underneath.
And now she wants to plant violets in me. I vacuum until late in the night, ignoring the angry knocks from my neighbors, leaving no trace of my betrayal. I scrub myself raw in the shower until I can’t see a single particle of dirt in the pot’s cracks. I watch dusty red water swirl down the drain, gurgling as it slips into darkness.
The next day, Mr. Carson doesn’t call me in to attend to his house, so I head out for Walmart once again. The bus ride is long; a little boy stares at my hand with such awe that his mother has to pull him away, averting her eyes as if ashamed to have even been caught looking at it. She mutters an apology, and I wonder what it is really for.
Few people are at the store so early in the morning, so I make my way to the greenhouse with ease. Tinny Carly Rae Jepson bounces off the walls as I shuffle through the seed packets, resting the pot on a nearby shelf. I see the clerk watching me, making sure I don’t knock my hand into anything and spill half-dead succulents and cacti onto the concrete floor, or even start stuffing seed packets by the dozen into the pot. I’m tempted to run it across the shelf just to watch him flinch at the sound.
My mother once told me that there were more people like me who were born with different parts than others. I remember I asked her one day in the fifth grade, after breaking the pot for now the seventh time. The crack was not so bad that time; it didn’t reach my wrist, where blood would start to seep out, and no parts were lodged into my flesh. I remember my heart, beating heavy and slow, and how it began to speed up once my mother told me that there was a woman who was born with the tail of a fish who had lived in her neighborhood when she was around my age. Her wheelchair, my mother narrated with glimmers of childhood awe, had a small tank where the foot support would go. The water would ripple gently whenever the woman moved, her tail slowly undulating as she rolled off to her destination.
“It’s something that is unique to you,” she had said while my mind still swam with fish tails and I Am Not Alone. “It will get better when you’re older.”
“Is that all?” the clerk asks me as I slide the sunflower packets across the counter. His eyes flit behind me, and I know that the minute I leave he is going to check the shelves to make sure I didn’t break or take anything.
He sighs, a mixture of resignation and relief. “Five-twenty please.”
On the bus, I pack two seeds into my hand and its freshly packed dirt, watching them sink into the soft brown soil. The bus is quiet, gently rocking back and forth, the squeaking and rumbling somehow muffled by the lack of chatter. The seeds in the open packet tremble with the vehicle’s vibrations; some jump out and clatter onto the floor like broken teeth.
I spend the day staring at my hand, holding it upright on my kitchen table. A few times, I tilt the pot slightly to see if the dirt will tumble out, but I always pull it back upright, too afraid to let it tip completely. The sunlight hits my arm, warming my freckled skin. The cat curls his body around the sunbaked pot as usual, intent on his afternoon nap.
My sister texts me two times that night while a pot of spaghetti bubbles on the stove.
6:40 PM: *hey how r u? r the violets growing ok*
6:41 PM: *do u need to water them or do they just grow on their own? ive been wondering about that*
“Maybe you should spend less time wondering,” I mutter, and the cat meows with agreement as I stir the spaghetti, my right arm upright like a totem. Just to be safe, I run my hand under the faucet until the smell of wet soil mixes with the smell of boiling pasta.
Buds do not appear until a week later on a Saturday morning, when I wake up to see small sprouts gently curling up from the dark soil. When I lift my hand towards the window, the thin, miniscule veins of the leaves silhouetted by the early sun cast shadows on my face. The cat is curled up by my hip. Gently, I reach over to tickle his chin with the sprouts, and he meows irritably.
My mother texts to ask for pictures of the flowers, and I oblige, sending her a small picture of the sprouts resting underneath the cat’s chin. Two minutes later, I receive a bright yellow ‘thumbs up’ emoji and a link to “A Beginner’s Guide on Raising Plants: How Not to Kill Your New Children in Ten Minutes Or Less.” I add the book to my Amazon wishlist and close the page.
When I arrive at Mr. Carson’s house, he takes one look at my hand and asks, “Can you still clean the bathroom?”
He moves aside and I slowly wander in. Newspapers are stacked willy-nilly on the small kitchen table, the bottom ones covered in dry coffee. Dishes are scattered across the kitchen; a few particularly old, caked ones lie in the sink. I catch a glimpse of the clutter that has accumulated in the cramped living room.
Mr. Carson used to be more embarrassed when I came over to clean, but now he simply grunts and waves his hand before hobbling out to his backyard to watch the squirrels fight over birdseed. I wait for him to close the creaky porch door, watching him as he shuffles and falls into his splintering rocking chair. The matching one next to it sways in sympathy, and he reaches a gnarled hand to stop its motion.
The sun is beginning to lower in the sky when I finish cleaning, but I wander to the back porch anyways to check on Mr. Carson, grabbing a blanket from the couch on my way out. His face, grizzled with age and worry lines, has smoothed out in sleep, giving him the appearance of a worn paper towel. I place the blanket over him along with a note (pot roast in the fridge, don’t worry, there’s no dirt in it) and gently close the porch door on my way out.
When I was in high school, the only job advertisements I could find for people like me were for lab experiments. Ninety-day trial to see if we can make your parts normal, they said. We will pay you one hundred dollars at the end of the sessions (warning: this experiment has no guarantee to succeed and we will have you sign a waiver so you can’t blame us for any misfortune). I searched on forums to see if anyone had tried them, and I saw post after post condemning the experiments, calling them ableist with no guarantee to work. One man who had scissors for a mouth wrote that he had tried the experiments, and nothing had happened other than exceeding damage to his liver and kidneys. They ended up racking up his hospital bills through the roof that not even his measly one hundred dollars could fix.
I would listen to my sister, at the local state college and always back for weekends, gabbing about work to my mother, and I would try to quell the anxiety and jealousy in my heart. I couldn’t understand how she could complain so much about work when I was worried I wouldn’t find any at all.
On one of those weekends, she brought home her first boyfriend, a tall lanky boy in Philosophy with a fuzzy undergrown mustache. He took one look at my hand and wrinkled his nose, but didn’t say anything. He smiled thinly when I waved hello. After dinner, I heard him talking to my sister, attempting to discuss the ethics of keeping such an ugly mutation and the possibility of prosthetics. ‘You want he - them to live a fuller life, don’t you?’ he said, his voice creaking and nasally. I remember her silence as she struggled to find the words to correct him, but in the dark of the hallway, toothbrush rolling around in my freshly cracked pot, her silence felt like an admission of shame.
When she broke up with him, several weeks later and a few days before Christmas, she cried into my mother’s shoulder for hours while we watched bad rom-coms. When Mom asked her why they split up, my sister simply shook her head and said, almost petulantly, “Because he’s an asshole.” But even as she sniffled her way through When Harry met Sally, I couldn’t find it in myself to comfort her.
She texts me twice that night, just as I am about to go to bed. Flower emojis litter my screen, accompanied by a singular cat meme.
I send back a winking face before I turn off the light, gently propping my right hand up on my stomach.
A few weeks later, the sunflowers finally bloom. They are getting heavier now, their stalks reaching higher and higher. Some mornings I’ve woken up with my hand outstretched towards the window, the faces of the sunflowers turned towards the light. Their leaves are beginning to unfurl bright green. Sometimes, I catch the cat staring at the leaves and sniffing them, debating whether or not to begin a feast.
I’ve taken to sitting at the back of the bus on my way to work so that the flowers don’t droop onto anyone. A few times, my hand tips over accidentally with the sheer weight of the flowers, but they never fall out, and neither does the dirt. I stick bus tickets and pencils in the dirt for safekeeping.
When I send my mother pictures of the flowers, she asks me if they drag on the ground when I walk.
“No,” I tell her, my ear pressed to my phone as I lace my sneakers up.“They’re not that long yet.”
“Well, be careful. You don’t want to tear them in case it might hurt you.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll see you next week. Love you.”
“Love you.” Click.
I planted orchids in my pot once before, when I was in middle school, on a dare from my friend. The plants bloomed wrong, the buds withered and dry, the stem knotted and twisted. The soil became as crumbled as the plant itself, constantly trailing dirt behind me as I walked no matter how upright I kept my hand. After two weeks, I scooped out the dirt and threw it on the ground. The roots splayed on the ground like broken limbs.
My sister stops by suddenly, while I’m resting my hand on the coffee table as I eat leftover mac and cheese, watching reruns of Saturday Night Live. I forget that she does this when I’m least expecting it, or when she has amazing news that she can’t bear to keep from me for another second.
She doesn’t say anything when she sees my hand, gold instead of violet, but sits down across from me on the couch, ignoring my hand poised halfway to my mouth with a spoonful of dripping cheese.
“Are they going to keep growing?” she says, her lips pursed.
She stares at the flowers as if she can bore holes in them with her eyes, cut them at the roots simply with the power of her gaze. The flowers are long enough that when I rest my hand on her across the couch, the sunflower petals tickle her face. She withdraws, staring at them as though they are insect legs.
“I don’t know. If they get too long, I can cut them so that they can grow back later.”
“You wouldn’t feel it if you cut them?”
“I don’t feel it when they touch anything.”
A flicker of doubt runs through my mind, and I pause to contemplate if I would feel the sharpness of a finger being severed if I cut them. I wonder if blood will trickle out of the stalk instead of water.
“You could have just told me you wanted something else, you know. You didn’t have to do this.”
“I did, but you didn’t listen.”
“In the fucking store.”
“Oh.” She stops, her eyes flickering away guiltily. “Sorry, I guess.”
“You have to listen to me sometimes when I say I want something.”
She shuts her mouth, gently rolling the skin of her arm between her fingers. She has always done this, even when we were kids and she didn’t know how to say she was upset, so she would pick at her skin until it bled. I tilt my arm up to tickle her with the petals, and she squeals, twisting away and gently kicking at me with her leg.
“I still think violets would have been pretty.”
“Then you should plant them. Just, not in me.”
She wrinkles her nose. “It sounds so gross when you put it like that.”
“Well, that’s what it is.”
“Ugh.” She looks at me, her eyes soft. “I’m sorry.”
I don’t say anything, instead raising the sunflowers to place them gently on her head. She does not flinch this time.
Eventually, when the flowers grow so that their faces drag into the hard concrete, I take a pair of shears and slice them at the base of the stalk. They fall to the floor with a small thump; some leaves fall off of the stalk to flutter gently to the ground. I stare at them for a while, swaying slightly as my body readjusts to the loss of weight on my right arm. They leak small droplets of light pink water from their stems.
Now, the sunflowers shine bright in their glass vase, the water covered in dried petals and dead leaves. Mr. Carson doesn’t say anything about them or the sudden shortness of my right arm, but I catch him staring at them sometimes when he doesn’t think I’m looking, a small smile gracing his face.
The garden of my body continues to grow strong. Where the stalks were severed now grow small sprouts armed with flower buds, ready to bloom once more.
Michelle Zhuang is a senior in Illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. This will be their first journal publication. Michelle lives in Rhode Island with their cat, Dexter. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org