Bright Perfection

Nancy Au

It is five o’clock. Walking. Work is out and home is near. I’m at my peak of thinking.

The chicken in the cage I’m carrying slides from side to side across the shredded newspaper with each step I take. I pause in front of the boarded-up movie theater Anchee took me to last year to celebrate my fortieth. I study my reflection in the smudged glass, my short black hair, the impossible cowlick that quivers in the breeze like an inquisitive antenna. I admire the cracked pillars, the crumbling brick steps. I like ruins because you can’t wreck them. I like knowing that I can’t make things worse by being there.

Our apartment building is special because there is a yard in the rear, perfect for kids. There are no kids, though, just the elderly Singaporean couple in the unit above us, the young Romanian computer programmer in the unit below, and me and Anchee. There are twenty creaky wooden steps leading to the garden from our small kitchen, and then you are standing in lavender and rosemary, swatting flies hovering around the rotten apples fallen from the small tree Anchee planted when we moved in. Over there, by the fence, is where we buried a time capsule. A thorny bush has grown over it. We’ll never know what time it is.

Anchee cannot stand to know the time. For a year, we tried to get pregnant. We made love intensely, every night. We used satin ties, knobby dildos, sleep masks to keep things interesting. Anchee would run her fingers through my hair, caress my face with her hands as I came. I would slick my fingers, rub her center, make her moan. A pleasurable, unproductive year. Our friends who could afford IVF sent us cards with sonograms showing white blurry blips of their future triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets.

Anchee has always suspected that it is me.

“My family is very fertile,” she says one Sunday after I return home carrying a live chicken in a cage. Anchee is turning thirty-four. It is one year since we stopped trying. She eyes the cage, warily. “You stand too close to the microwave, Luo. I’ve told you.”

“Eggs,” I say, holding up the small birthday bird which I carried back with me from the hippie co-op. “For us to eat. Fresh eggs any time we want them. Yolks so rich and orange, you’ll think you’re eating the sun.” I place the cage down in the center of the kitchen table.

Anchee squats in front of the bird, studies the handsome gold plumage rimmed in black, its purple earlobes, the jaunty red feather cap on its head.“What is that? Did you really get me a chicken for my birthday?”

I love the way that she buries her nose into her arms that are resting atop the table, the way she squints her eyes as she studies the bird, how her short hair falls over her ears. The kitchen smells of the steaming, dark soy sauce and fish that simmers on the stovetop. When I kiss the top of Anchee’s head, I breathe in deeply the scent of lemongrass and mango. I don’t know if it’s her shampoo or from the dish she is cooking. “I have never seen a bird like this before in my life!” I try to use my most excited tone, as if I were offering her a winning lottery ticket, to convince her that we should keep the chicken. Anchee tears off the white paper tag attached to the cage’s handle, with the name of the chicken, Bright Perfection, written in strong black letters.

“The co-op owner told me that the bird is special, shy yet headstrong, that it has a remarkable magical ability.” I describe how the old woman had busied herself with cleaning out the birdcage, removing the crumpled newspaper covered in white and green splotches of bird poop, laying crisp sheets of newspaper adorned with faces of an aging Hong Kong movie star and her husband, twenty years her junior. I describe how I struggled to hold the shopping basket filled with large heads of cabbage, potatoes, the heavy carton of soymilk, unripe tomatoes, green beans, and bags of dried lentils. “I tell you, Anchee, this is a magical chicken. The old woman said that the bird, if allowed to speak its mind, will give us the answers we need!”

“What questions would we ask a chicken?” asks Anchee, who has steadfastly refused to believe the excited whispers at the corner coffee shop of how the old woman had predicted the sex of every baby born in our neighborhood since the day she arrived—alone, bearing nothing but a carpetbag full of herbal recipes—sixty years ago from a village in China that no one had ever heard of. Anchee was not convinced, either, when I’d returned home one morning, after stopping by the coffee shop after a run. “Anchee!” I had called from our front door as I kicked off my sneakers in the hallway. “You’ll never believe what I learned about the old woman!” Anchee had not even looked up from the newspaper as I described how the magical woman had used enchanted herbs to ease the pain of a nine-year-old girl dying of bone cancer, how the old woman kept vigil for the sick, the departing—those passing on to the afterlife—joined their quiet hungry wander, humming and holding their hands until their last breaths rattle the room.

The chicken crows at midnight. Crows at four o’clock in the morning. Crows when it rains. Crows when the sun sets. Crows when sirens blare down our street. Only stops crowing to eat.

Anchee stands with her arms crossed, eyes swollen with sleeplessness, staring out the kitchen window at the soggy bantam puttering around his coop.

Helping to wash bok choy for dinner, too tired to apologize, I study a blue splotch left on the white kitchen sink, and I think about who will live in our apartment after we are gone. They will look at this splotch and think, Thank goodness there was someone else who made this mistake before/for me. I do not have to live perfectly.

“We need to get rid of that cock.” Anchee emphasizes the name that she’d given the rooster the first time it crowed.

“What can we do with it?” I stare out at the rooster, absentmindedly wiping away the condensation on the window with my shirt’s sleeve, so that I can see the bird more clearly. I frown when I feel the wet fabric against my skin, and think about how it is too cold in the apartment to imagine taking off my shirt to change.

“The neighbors are going to kill us. We can’t keep a rooster. It’s a menace. And, I can’t sleep with that racket. Roosters aren’t legal in our city. Betcha the old woman didn’t tell you that when you bought it.”

“She told me that answers are coming! The bird will tell us what we need to know.”

“We cannot keep it as a pet.”

“Then what do you want me to do with it?”

Anchee eyes me for a minute, and I shrink under her gaze.

“No no no no,” I shout. I know what that look means. “We cannot eat it! I’ve fed that thing! I built it a house! I’ve looked it in the eye! I can’t eat something that I’ve seen blink!”

Anchee is silent. Her eyes well up and I immediately regret shouting. Still tired and tender from our unproductive year, we had avoided fighting for months. She pinches the tips off the green beans before plopping them into the savory lentil stew. “I have to know,” she says after a while. “I have to know if it is me.”

On the night before we get our fertility test results, there is an earthquake. Three o’clock. The walls creak and split. The windows rattle in their frames. A glass something somewhere in the apartment shatters. I jump out of bed and leap towards the doorway, but Anchee just lays there.

“Anchee! Come on!”

“I’m fine. It’s over.”

“Come stand in the doorway with me. It’s an earthquake! Do you want to die?”

Anchee thinks carefully about this, stares up at the cracked ceiling, hands resting, palms down on the soft green quilt. Impatient for her answer, I toss a red sock at her that I find balled up at my feet.

I say, “Come over here. What if there are aftershocks?”

“Why didn’t you run?” I ask, wiping my feet off on the rug, and climbing back into bed a few minutes later.

“Because,” my wife pauses. Anchee laughs softly, tiredly, at the cock’s beleaguered crowing in the yard as the rain falls softly on our roof. “I wanted to really feel the full earthquake.” She rolls over to face me in the dark. “And if I moved, if I got out of bed… I might miss it. And, I didn’t want to miss a thing.”

The cock in the garden, rattled out of sleep, has begun to crow. I hear the sticky sound Anchee’s lips make when she smiles. I study the moonlit outline of her face, the soft nose bump and full cheeks, and think about the old woman at the co-op, how her remedies must only work with those who believe in her magic. I think about what happens to a child stretched between our two beliefs; will she be like the neighborhood’s birdwatcher club that Anchee cannot stand because they cut through the alleyway right below our window, making a racket at dawn as they gossip about their recent, birdy discoveries. Retirees who, after a night of rain, trek to the puddles in the coyote hills—the muddy, green-footed splendor rising over our small town—full of wet ponds heavy with the smell of sulfur and life. I wonder if a stretched child will be like the gather of birdwatchers who prefer to spectate life in roving packs of hungry checklists, certain of discovery if they are quiet or still for long enough. Or whether the child will be like the old woman at the co-op, and wander its life, full of ache and magic and wonder.

My feet are like ice bricks, but I keep them away from Anchee’s warm body, not wanting to startle her away from her earthquake reverie. I wonder if the earthquake was enough to crack open the hardened soil at the base of the thorny bush in the yard. I want to take a large shovel, the kind where you leap on its steel shoulders to dig deeper. I want one deep plunge of metal, and the thorny bush to lift up as if on a hinge. Will the time capsule beneath be rusted, dented and crushed under the weight of the earth? Or will it have shattered in the winter cold, the tin shards melted in the summer heat and drunken by the bush, fortifying its thorns, its gray-green petals, its hard, red berries?

In the morning, I will check for fissures in the hard dirt, signs that we can think about our future, fully, anew, no matter the results. And, Anchee, she will bury the unopened test results inside the newly opened ground. On sturdy white paper, in her messy scrawl, she will write this new commitment: No deficit. No blame. Then she will smear ink on the rooster’s sharp spurs, claws, and toes—and use the bird to stamp her signature on the dotted line. A contract, a resolve, a will to live her very best magic, loudly, with certainty, a dawn racket for all to hear.