1966: the year of hinoe-uma, or “fire horse,” when birth rates in Japan declined sharply due to the superstition that women born in that year would have strong personalities.
And every evening, with the downpour
going sour in my mouth, I wanted to be anything
but girl. Listen to the sound of my decaying:
a bedroom mirror in contortion, a rabbit
shrieking beneath dirt. A highway
and its blistered rind of animals. I was born
in winter of the horse year, the creature
with brains of anvil and a heart swollen
with fury, forging muscle from cast iron and only
grazing when there are too many thunderclouds
in the sky. The horse has porcelain jaws and
slaughterhouse eyes. She swoons at the sight of meat
but scours for leftover bones anyway, scrubs ash
from her body the next morning and leaves it
darkening at the rims of the bathtub. At night,
she listens to the voice of a man rumble
in her mind like music, mouths it like a song
on the radio or some animal to tear apart and chew.
Now there’s blood in my teeth and I can’t help
thinking of you, horse, haunting in your flintstone eyes
and diamond teeth as I stagger through
the darkened streets. I can’t see straight but try
to trace every sore spot on my body, gnaw
at my palms and feel them soften to fruit.
Before me, the roads glitter like sweat on skin,
every light source beneath the sky quivering
birdlike and small. Inside my chest, the horse unfolds
into a beating muscle, sinewed from melted iron
and wildfires that redden the air with each breath.
And finally, the cities and highways with their
beast-lined arteries fall silent,
her heartbeat loud and pulsating
filling every chamber of this world.
My great-grandmother was a snowshoe hare
who had red eyes and ate meat. In Nanjing,
death clung to the sky like a pockmarked glove,
bleeding oil onto the winter fields below.
Every girl grew up with hands the color of
smoke and eyelids ringed with bruises, mouths
darkened from night terrors and a hunting season
sanctioned by men. Grandmother was half woman
and half rabbit, and when the army arrived in Nanjing,
she hung herself from the ceiling like a frozen steak:
every pore bloodless and glistening with winter,
reeking of soil and rotten fruit. When the soldiers
came to burn her house down, the fat in her skin
evaporated and floated into the ceiling like a small ghost.
Years later, my great-grandmother describes the
fire as if summoning the memory from a séance:
the ground spitting out heat like pumpkin seeds,
like a new season shedding its vengeance —
it took them weeks to put out the flames.
I never forget what it's like to be afraid: the seafloor
contained within a body, the ocean open-mouthed
and bent double, a boy twisting himself
like a necklace of oil around my neck.
When winter arrives, I resurface choking
on fish bones and saltwater flushed with blood,
the prayers of every rabbit girl on my lips:
let the flames rise in blistering harvest,
let them set me ablaze so I won’t ever be touched.
Annie Cao is a writer from Colorado. Her work appears in the Kenyon Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Hunger Mountain, and the Apprentice Writer, and she has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, the Poetry Society of the UK, and Columbia College Chicago, among others.