We Were Buried Before We Were Drowned

Grandpa tells me the baby at the bottom of the lake is waiting for someone to pull it free from twisting kelp and billowing jellyfish.

“Kelp and jellyfish tossed in vinegar and sugar make good salad,” I say.

Grandpa takes me to the edge of the lake to go fishing, but it’s not real fishing since he doesn’t know how to use the modern salt-proof, ergonomic rods, or what kind of bait to drop. Instead, he brings a plastic bag of boiled egg yolks and crumbles some into my palm. He lets me sprinkle them above the net he holds just under the water’s surface, waiting for fish to swim over. Most of the fish escape before he can lift the net. Grandpa blames age for his dull reflexes. I offer to hold the net, but he makes me handle the egg yolks, tells me I don’t have enough experience to understand the many manifestations of escape instinct. “Is that what the baby is?” I ask. “A manifestation of escape instinct?”

“Where girls choose death.” Grandpa nods like he sees dying babies as often as he sees sunsets. “Not the superior option these days, but back then, you were more useful drowning than growing up into a woman with slippery fingers like your mom, unable to hold on to a man.” Dad disappeared when I was born, claiming he wanted to start a company in Beijing and never returning. It’s because you were such an ugly baby, I wanted to disappear too, Mom used to tell me. After my birth, she was never able to walk more than a mile again without hunching and called me the “death bringer”—killed her back and her marriage. Mom later found Dad’s photos on WeChat through a distantly mutual friend: Dad grinning with his arm around a young woman with a head the shape of an egg.

Grandpa swipes the net out of the water, barely lifting the tail of a fish into the air before it manages to flop back into the lake. I pinch another chunk of egg yolk and crumble it over the net, clouds of white blooming where the yolk breaks apart like chalk dust. I cross my arms as we wait for another swarm of fish to detect the food.

Mom calls us in for dinner. Dusting his pants as he gets up on his knees, then feet, Grandpa begins his slow trek back, shuffling in tiny steps, unhurried but with direction, like he’s absorbing the world while walking past Mom’s gourd garden into the kitchen. I lay stomach-down where Grandpa was, staring below, trying to find signs of this baby: an air bubble, a pale bundle of mass too soft to be a rock, too solid to be seaweed. The baby should already be dead, lungs filled with water, body feasted on by shrimp and crustaceans, hands and feet broken off and washed to a faraway shore. Our ancestors once drowned baby girls because they could only afford to feed sons. According to Grandpa, burials on land took too much labor, and when done half-heartedly, dogs dug the bodies up too easily. And no one wanted to feed the wild dogs—they already nabbed plenty of chickens from the coop, and Grandpa said the loss of one chicken meant an egg shortage which led to a money shortage which led to a rice shortage until they could afford a new chicken.

All I see is water flowing, the occasional fish swimming past, dragonflies dancing on the surface, a blurry version of my reflection disturbed by ripples. Mom calls again, and I yell back an acknowledgment. But I stay put, shifting my weight into my elbows, pulling myself closer until my upper body hovers over the water and I must dig my feet and legs into the ground to avoid falling in. It’s faint, but I notice a dark mass, although it’s too muddled to make out a shape. I move my arm through the water, trying to reach it, but I’m too high up. My shirt grows soggy, water trickling down my arm and toward my neck, dampening my collar. I stand and roll my pants up to my thighs. I slip easily out of my shoes which are too worn and one size too large and move them far from the wet soil. Then I walk into the lake. As the water rises from my calves to knees to right above my kneecaps, I near the mass. When I get close enough, I kick my leg toward it, trying to brush against something, gauging if it’s just a plain rock or not. The impact feels sponge-like, the tip of my toes sinking into something and then rebounding slightly. I gulp in air and bend down, submerging myself, letting my body follow the direction of the water resistance before reaching for the mass. The moment my fingertips touch its surface, it latches onto my finger: a tiny hand gripping my pinkie. With my other arm, I cradle it to my chest and rise for another breath. Both of our heads break the surface. The creature begins to cry, a deep hollow rumbling sound like I’ve unleashed a tiny earthquake. Shh, I whisper. I rock it in my arms. I say, Look at the clouds, some are shaped like dragon’s beards, and others like overstuffed fish balls. I begin to ramble. Have you ever seen a white moon sink and become yellow? That’s what an oyster cake is: white before deep-frying, a golden crisp afterward. Are you hungry? Grandpa says babies have less sensitive stomachs than you might think—toss some dirt into their diets, forget to wash the cabbage once in a while. Kids these days are too clean. That’s how all these crazy allergies pop up. I grab several leaves over a patch of grass beside a tree and rest the creature there. Grandpa might be okay with me bringing it back home, but Mom will demand I put it back where I found it. I’ll be back, I say. The creature opens and closes its mouth but no sound comes out. I can only hear the faint pops of its lips touching and separating over and over. I reach for a thin, smooth tree branch and snap it off. I rub it on my shirt and place the stick in the creature’s mouth. It begins to chew, saliva soaking the wood and dripping down its chin.

Mom asks why I’m dripping water into the kitchen, and I tell her I thought I could catch a fish with my hands and fell. Grandpa is chomping into a baozi, the movements of his jaw slow and contemplative. He says he needs to think through every flavor before swallowing because who knows when his taste buds will no longer pick up on the subtle sweetness of the chives or the gaminess of the pork. I strip in the bathroom and toss my soaked clothing in a bucket. It’s the same bucket I use to rinse my underwear clean when it gets stained with period blood because Mom thinks it’ll pollute the rest of the laundry. After I finish showering, Grandpa is already asleep, and I sit at the table to eat. Mom has put away the bao because she’s afraid they’ll dry out, but she leaves me with rice and pickled cucumber and boiled tofu. “Eating meat and flour is not good for you anyway,” she preaches. “That’s how I’ve kept your skin so clear.” My good attributes are all from her. My bad attributes, like the too-squat nose and my lack of coordination which renders me useless at ballet, come from Dad.

When Grandpa and I go fishing again the next day, I am determined to show him the creature. He might know how to take care of it, where I can hide it from Mom, what it’ll look like when it’s grown. I wait for Grandpa to catch up to me. He can walk faster than his current pace, but he likes to take his time strolling, soaking in the same sights over and over even though he insists they’re all different. “Look at these trees.” He points to the rows of cherry blossoms that frame the sidewalk on our walk to the lake. “They’re talking to each other,” he says. “Letting each other know when there are insect attacks.” I later look this up: trees can send chemical signals into their roots through their mycorrhizal networks to their neighbors who react by upping their defense genes. I had always thought trees were the strong and silent type, so you’d never be more alone than a tree. But at least I know the creature should be well protected under those branches, leaned against the trunk.

I make it over to the creature first. It’s sleeping quietly, chest rising and falling. I pick it up and bundle it in my arms and run-walk to Grandpa, who’s still eyeing all the trees like they’ll start dancing if he stops watching. “Look,” I tell him. “I found the lake baby.” I extend my arms, bringing it close to Grandpa’s face. He turns his head toward me and then the creature and sighs. “Aiyah, why did you do that? You’re not supposed to take things from where they belong,” he lectures. I pull the creature back close to my chest. It’s warm against my sweater, like a mini heater, I think. It tosses and opens its eyes and begins to cry, and I can feel its deep rumbling sound vibrating through my arms.

“What do I do?” I ask Grandpa.

He shakes his head. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s displaced. It’ll never be content here.”

“Why does that mean I can’t do anything?”

“Kids these days think they can save everything. You’re still young, there are lots of things that just need to be left alone. It’s already enough work to take care of your own body.”

Grandpa is no help so I try to hush the creature. Once there was a man who asked a fox for a sheet of its skin to make a coat for his beautiful wife. The fox wanted to know what it’d get in return, but the man had nothing to offer, I whisper to the creature. I will take half of your wife’s skin in exchange for a full sheet of mine, the fox said. So the man peeled a tiny fraction of his wife’s soft, pristine skin, but by the time he was done, his wife was no longer pretty and he saw no need to make her a fancy fox-fur coat.

The creature coughs and stops crying. Grandpa sets his net in the lake and watches carefully for passing fish. Nothing swims by. The water is so still you could mistake it for a mirror floor. According to Grandpa, taking the baby made the fish disappear. Without the discarded daughters sacrificed to the water gods, the gods will strip their domains of fish and send floods large enough to reach distant lands. I tell Grandpa that’s impossible, and the only reason fish aren’t coming is because I’m not baiting them with any egg yolks. He insists I’m wrong, and I don’t care enough to set the creature down and risk it crying again. For several minutes, we are quiet aside from his small movements of swishing the net back and forth as though to coax fish toward him. At least Grandpa didn’t freak it out, I think, stroking the creature’s head. It doesn’t really look like a daughter, although I’m not certain what a daughter should look like. It has short pin-like strands of hair, not short enough to be soft fuzz, not long enough to be woven back in a coiffure of knots and twists. Mom said if a man saw you with your hair down, they’d be forced to serve your family for three years, but only if your hair was super special, capable of maintaining a pitch-black luster even when you’re old and withering. I can do that with hair dye, I told her. She laughed and said nothing mattered if it wasn’t “all natural.” I wonder if the creature is “all natural” or if the water gods did anything weird to it. Normal, natural babies don’t last long in a lake, especially not unwanted ones.

Grandpa doesn’t force me to toss the baby back in. He seems content moving the net back and forth through the water, grazing algae and cattails, pushing water lilies away. It’s not like we eat the fish we catch here. Mom buys larger whole fish from Lion Supermarket, and I doubt the water gods around the world have decided to withhold all seafood from us just because I’ve displaced one of their lake babies.

When we return, I carry the creature back, and Grandpa complains I’m introducing bad omens to our house. But when we arrive and Mom complains about Grandpa spending too long straining his back and me not watching him carefully enough, he quickly pulls her to the kitchen and begins to ramble about Mom’s garden and why her opo squash never grow large enough, and I am able to slip in with the creature secure in my arms unseen. I stack a pile of sweaters and pillows on my nightstand and rest the creature there. It breathes, twitches an eye, shifts its body in the fabrics until it’s satisfied with the nest, then resumes sleeping. Looking at it comforts me, and it seems pretty cozy bundled in cotton too. I feel we’ve got a kinship of sorts—as daughters, as omens.

Lucy Zhang writes, codes, and watches anime. Her work appears in Westerly, Apex Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and Absorption (Harbor Review, 2022). Find her on Twitter/X @Dango_Ramen.