Creative non-fiction / December 2016 (Issue 34)

Ma-mi's Tail

by JinJin Xu

Ma-mi said we were descendants of monkeys. Feel the bottom of your spine, she said, feel how it protrudes from your skin, right above your butt, it's your tail. The tail that shrank back into us.

I reached behind and touched the round bone.

It runs in our family, she said, in Jiangxi we were close to our ape ancestors.

She was always standing up or lying on her bed, face down. The curtains were drawn in her bedroom no matter the time of day, and I'd sneak into the darkness, guided by her smell. Her years spent hunched over at her desk job had ruined her back and her sleep, so during the day, she slept.

It's because of my tail, she said, guiding my hands into fists. Here, hit right here. And obediently, I straddled her back and drummed my fists against her lower back, rhythmic, skin and bone, her body sounded hollow.

When my friends said their mothers beat them, I asked if their mothers ever asked them to beat them.

My ma-mi asks me to beat her, I bragged.

Riding upon my ma-mi's spine, I pretended I was astride a horse. Clap—clap—my fists against her skin. 驾 Jia! Faster! Ride on!

My fists were my hooves—clap—clap—I was at once rider and horse, riding her, galloping along.

Ma-mi, my horse mother, a descendent of monkeys, born in the year of the horse, ridden by daughters and uncles and men.

Even then, I knew that Ma-mi never found sex pleasurable. Don't let men touch you, she told me, again and again and again. Not on the bus, not on the streets, no, not even your boyfriend.

Ma-mi sighed with the claps of my fists; I slowly beat the breath out of her.

Higher. Lower. The pillow muffled her commands.

I lifted up her silk nightshirt to gallop higher, her pale skin crawling with blue veins. I'm sore right here, she indicated, hit harder. She sighed with pleasure and finality as I traced her spine up and down, finding the spot of her pain.

Clap—clap—my fists slowed, her breath slowed, I rolled right off her back, closed my eyes, and faced her soft sighs.


When I stopped venturing into her darkened room and hid behind my books, reading and writing and calling boys in a language away from her, I would hear her wandering out of her room after sun down, ghostly in her white bathrobe, to look at me through the crack of my doorway.

Go away! Do you think I can't hear your footsteps? I yelled, my head buried under the reading lamp, in a voice I imagined the American daughters in my books yelled to their mothers.

Does your back hurt? she asked.

No, not really, go away.

She looked at my stooped posture and stepped in from the dark hallway. I tucked my phone in between the pages of my book, closing it.

Stand up. Our tails are monkey.

Write "米" rice, with your head, follow the strokes, up, left, right, then back and write the horizontal line, then vertical and back left, right.

Look, do it slowly, like this. Are you really doing homework?

I stood and followed.

Up, left, right, drawing my neck through the horizontal axis. Down, left, right.

I felt my vertebrae cracking, the little chain of bone loosening, one by one, and going down down into my tailbone. My head was heavy as I rolled it around and around in the grid of "rice," left, right, forward, back, I was unscrewing the attachment of my head to my neck—I looked at Ma-mi, at once puffed up and small in her bathrobe, our movements in sync—maybe I should just take it off and really shake out my bones.

 JinJin Xu started writing to open up the liminal spaces within herself: freeing up half-remembered memories, reconciling her Chinese and English selves and allowing herself to exist in between languages, between the past and the present. She left her home, Shanghai, to study English and Art History at Amherst College, where she served as editor-in-chief of the College literary magazine and hosted a weekly poetry radio show. Her work has been published in The Common, Circus, AASIA and Amherst Soul. She is currently working on a collection of prose-poetry about mothers and daughters, exploring the act of remembrance and its effect on the female body.

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