Even though the aunt overstaying in my bed with me slept with the door open, she kept sweating, her stains molding my territory. Ma’s room rejected her for the smell, or the constant bickering. So Aunt filled my bedroom. I quietly inched away to avoid infection.
The only other relative Aunt had left was her son in Sydney, my allegedly rich cousin who loved fancy houses with poor internet—he rarely picked up her video-calls. I listened to Aunt recycle her claim every day: soon she’d buy a one-way ticket to Australia for a sea-view retirement as soon as her son could find time to begin her visa application. “Don’t miss me when I’m gone,” she hummed as she waited for the call to reach him. “Look, he bought me this phone when he last visited.” Its glass screen was spider-webbed, paint chipped like shredded skin, but her pride was unshattered. Australia didn’t answer. I yawned and turned over, not sure if I would miss her.
Aunt seemed to have been named for the sounds she makes: her response to everything was “O, O, O, O, O,” but her mouth formed an oval instead of a circle, tuning the sound into an allegro of barking. Ma corrected me and said that grandma chose Aunt’s name for protection. The uglier the name, the easier to survive. Grandma’s first two children died before they could speak, and she was determined to protect the third in her simple feral way—by turning a name into a leash. Aunt came out strong and hairy, perhaps too hairy, which made grandma embarrassed and grandpa suspicious. So for Ma, grandma went back to normal names with civilized wishes, like Flower.
But grandma had forgotten one thing: beasts do not have mercy for beauty. Ma was the pretty daughter who slept with the door locked and the light on, the Flower sister Aunt slapped, pinched, and bit. Once, she scarred Ma’s arm into wrinkled petals with a red-hot poker. Aunt hit her sister because Grandma loved to beat her, the Dog daughter, the unbreakable one. Grandpa watched with indifference. After eighteen, Ma ran as far away as she could, thinking that she could escape the family with whom she shared blood but not bloodthirst.
She was wrong about both beliefs.
Whenever Ma told me these stories, her footnote was always “I can’t believe I’m related to them.” And I always nodded, feeding her the loyalty she lived on. It saved me from the coat hanger, the slipper, and the feather duster she used to keep the shine of grandma’s altar.
Aunt cleaned our house to cover the rent, but the house was never clean. She experimented with cooking, but the soup she made was brown, muddled by pot burn stains. Ma was infuriated and made Aunt eat all the food she had wasted, became more furious when Aunt actually ate it. When Ma cooked dinner, Aunt dished out the better pieces to Ma and me—the drumsticks, fish bellies, egg yolks—like paying tributes. Then she turned her back to us, guarding the more meager bits in her own bowl as though someone might try to steal them. I couldn’t tell if I reached my chopsticks into her bowl which one she would choose: family or property?
We took Aunt to a buffet the day Ma got a raise, and Aunt swept all the salmon and ham and steaks until her burps could attract flies. I acted like I didn’t know her, but I ate the salmon she tonged to my plate. “Tastes good, right?” she muttered to me, “I pushed a woman away to get the fattest slices.” Neither Ma nor I replied.
The night I proved my kinship with Aunt, she and Ma had been fighting over a broken bowl, hidden at the bottom of the trash can. Aunt said it was an accident, and that was why she didn’t say anything. Ma said grandma didn’t name Aunt wrong, dog mouth full of lies, Aunt knew it was the bowl grandma left to Flower. Then they turned to me, both red-eyed and puffing. Aunt sounded sheepish. Ma was holding the ashes.
“It was an accident,” I said, “I saw it.”
The house fell silent for a while. Aunt grabbed a towel and turned away to wipe her eyes. Ma looked at me with disgust. She put the pieces on the altar, picked up the duster and dragged me into the bedroom. Aunt was banging hard trying to get in, but the door was locked. Ma raised her hand, cried in despair, “Liars. Liars. Not my own child. Don’t worry. I will beat the lies out of you. Your Ma’s here to fix you.” She repeated those words as she whipped.
Grandma was wrong—the name was not the leash. Flower or Dog, we were the same, new containers of old rancor. I closed my eyes, embracing fate like catching a Frisbee. Outside, my aunt barked.