It was 1978 and my mother’s name was god. That winter, she got paid a dollar to act in a nativity scene. She thought she’d been hired to play Mary, but she was actually just one of the goats in the barn. Baby Jesus, played by a loaf of bread wrapped in a blanket, slept in the manger with a pencil-sketched face. My mother got on all fours and wore a woolen blanket draped over her back, socks over her fists for hooves. She flossed a few strands of grass into her teeth for realism. The girl who played Mary was blonde.
The following fall, during her second year in Arkansas, my mother registered for high school. On the school registration form in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, there were three options to select from: N, O, W. Negro, Oriental, White. She wore a pewter crucifix clasped around her neck and her hair in a braid was so long she could tie it into a noose and hang someone from it.
In the auditorium on registration day, which her sisters said she had to attend because she was the only one still young enough to learn anything, my mother could read most things on the form up until N, O, W. She’d invented her name and date of birth. She left inoculations blank. The English she’d learned on the island had all been absorbed from living near the US military base: democracy, Free China, invade, retaliate, retreat, retreat, stay. All the other kids had come with their parents. My mother’s sisters were already at the cow farm, tugging on udders to loosen the milk. The hiss of hot milk hitting the tin bucket sounded like pissing, and my mother’s sisters always resisted the urge. Peeing meant less time for milking, which meant less pay. They held it in until they’d walked back to their tinsheet house, and by the time they were home they couldn’t hold it any longer and ran straight to the creek. They squatted to piss into the mud, dyeing the river a ripe gold as the sunset above competed with the color inside their bodies.
My mother had never seen cows before: on the island, the only animals for eating were pigs. Oxen were worked in the fields until there was no meat left on them, their bones like softening knots. They fell over and died in the middle of plowing a field, flies dewing their eyes. But pigs could eat anything: bones of other animals, shitpiles, stillborns, amputated limbs.
On the form, my mother checked every box she couldn’t read: N, O, W. The teacher with hyphenated eyebrows read my mother’s form and said Honey, you’re an O. My mother didn’t like that everyone here spoke with a sweet mouth: honey, sweetie pie, sugar. Her oldest sister’s arms were slatted with scars from cutting sugarcane, where the field grew thick with bladed leaves like mouths of teeth. My mother would lie about those scars to me. She’d say they are given by god when we do bad things or don’t believe. I learned not to believe her when she claimed to have lived so close to Bill Clinton that they practically shared a street: I checked on a map once, and Little Rock is nowhere near Pine Bluff. He was so close I could have spit on him, my mother says. She purses her lips to prove it, spits with the precision of a bullet. It lands on my left cheek, hot and holding on. I know it’s a test I’ll fail by flinching, by wiping it with my sleeve, by trying to be clean of her.
There was one other O in the whole school. Her name was Ruby Chew, which my mother says is a dog name or a whore name. Next to the military base in Taipei there was a GI bar where the girls gave themselves English names: Mary, Katie, Annie. My mother’s middle sister considered becoming one of them, buying a cotton dress with no sleeves and a matching belt, practicing her English vowels in the mirror, undoing her mouth like a button. But before she could speak English for real, she got pregnant by a local boy and couldn’t fit into her dress anymore. She tried aborting the fetus by eating rat poison, but her baby by then was bigger than a rat, so instead of dying it was born early with eyes that had not yet separated into pupils and irises. Its eyes like egg yolks stirred into the whites.
My mother quit school in 1981 and got a job painting chicken coops with insecticide. Ruby Chew’s family owned a grocery store in a town 21 miles away, and my mother had only ever seen the back of her head. Ruby Chew sat in the front row with the smart ones, her black hair a beacon. My mother tried talking to her once, but Ruby Chew claimed to speak no Chinese, which my mother still doesn’t believe. Don’t believe girls with dog names like Ruby, she says. The American soldiers had loved all the stray dogs in Taipei, the way they could be taught to follow, to heel, to answer to any name you fed it. They whistled songs without names and the dogs came, drooling in ropes, chased by their own bodies, ribs distinct as fingers. My mother still remembers the pitch of those whistles, the anthem that begins with an O, the mouth making a wound for its hunger to sing through.
She tells those stories just to make us guilty, my sister says, calling me from California. Our mother lives there with her now – after her first stroke but before the second one – where she cooks for my sister’s W husband and OW children. My sister came home one time and found our mother standing over a frothing sink, bent and furiously scrubbing the freckles off my youngest niece’s face. Why can’t she live with you, my sister says. I explain that I have a wife, though not legally, and that our mother’s definition of sin is its own dictionary. The last time my mother and I spoke face-to-face, at a Chinese restaurant in Austin I chose for its neutral territory, between the East Side she would soon leave and the high-rise apartment I rented in Downtown, my mother says you think I don’t know you? I cut the cord between us myself. Every year my mother changed the cord’s fate: when I was little, she’d say she fried my umbilical cord in a pan and ate it cradled inside a hot dog bun. Then she’d say she burned it and it squirmed out the fire like a worm, then burrowed back into the soil where it bred. Now she says she’s saved it, that when she dies she’ll use it as a phone cord to call me from the afterlife, connecting her mouth to mine.
My wife brings home the cross-section of an actual human spine. She’s training to be an orthopedic surgeon, a profession that I am still unable to pronounce. She shows me the O of the cross-section, the marrow like a crystallized sponge, and I think about how something solid-trunked on the outside can be so full of Os. She explains to me how marrow multiplies, bone making more of itself, the O of cells doubling infinitely, living and dying symmetrically. At night, I coax the Os from her mouth like a string of pearls: O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O. The bed rivering with sweat. Even when we fall asleep apart, we wake up back-to-back with our arms out, reaching for each other in the wrong direction.
The one time we fight: You act so white, she says. She says I won’t speak Chinese to her in public because my mother never taught me properly. I don’t tell her about 1978 and my mother dressed like a goat, kneeling in a faux-barnyard while Jesus is born, about the river whose bottom my mother never found, whether it even existed or if the water went on forever, whether she would have stayed in school if the teachers hadn’t called her sweetheart instead of her name, if the boys hadn’t said I bet her cunt’s the size of a keyhole, if the military base in Taipei had been farther away and not where my mother was born, where she rose out of her mother like a single fist, the O I echo from, the O that collars me. I don’t say I am waiting to be released. Instead, I say I’ll learn. I say I’ll be braver. I call my mother and she prays for me. She aims her tongue like an arrow and shoots me down a blessing. She tells me stories in a loop until the beginning and endings touch and knot together, my birth arriving before hers, scars on her arms before the cane has grown in, the girls getting pregnant before the soldiers arrive, everyone on the island an immaculate conception. On the phone, I wait for my mother to hang up, but she waits too. The silence clings like spit. I remember the time she snuck me into the YMCA pool and taught me to swim in the deep end right away because it’s how she learned: each of her sisters holding a limb. She tried to hold onto me, but I kicked off her chest and slipped under the water like a blanket. When I woke, I was above my body, watching my mother blow into the O of my haloed lips, the on-duty lifeguard trying to pry her off me. My mother held on. She kneeled and prayed for me to be born again as a word, my head crowning out of her mouth.