by Ysabelle Cheung
Bad habits make bad girls; bad girls get raped, their mother always used to say. Each morning the vinegar and ablutions: clawing the studs out of their ears, abrading their faces with kitchen paper, unseaming the clumsy stitches that shortened the hemlines of their uniforms. You don’t fool me.
Elizabeth, the elder of the two girls, was always running away before church, furiously chain-smoking in alleyways, her eyes ringed with a mixture of charcoal soot and glue. Mary toed the line—her face like the moon fed on apple juice—but she sang all the hymns backwards and asked God for more lipstick, rouge like the one they found in the cabinet between the Chinese bible and crucifixes.
Only once did they remember their mother wearing makeup, on the Feast of the Assumption—the day the Virgin Mary allegedly climbed up to heaven, her body carried by God, veiled in Byzantine blue. On the wall of their living room was a portrait of this sinless woman becoming saint, clouds parting like silt.
That evening their mother appeared wearing a never-before-seen dress, silvered crosses dotting ears and chest, her mouth oxblood bleeding into skin. “We’re going out,” she announced, their father trailing behind her as she opened the door. A girl, their babysitter, stood behind it. They recognized her from church.
The next morning, their mother blackened their breakfast eggs and twisted the radio down, muttering about a demon that Elizabeth must have dragged in, how her head rattled. “And,” she said, her lips still chalky with lipstick wax, her chin clotted in disgust as she gazed on her daughter: “And you look like a slut with that hairstyle; it’s inappropriate for school. Wash it out.”
The night before, Elizabeth and the girl from church had slicked back their pageboy fringes, eaten the soft chocolate saved for guests, dialled strangers pretending to be long-lost ex-girlfriends.
“But Anita Mui has this hair,” Elizabeth said.
“And I’m sure her mother would be telling her the same thing. Do you want to set a terrible example for Mary?”
Mary smirked. She was the one who had bought the tabloid magazine, the contraband from which they copied the meringue-whipped hairs of these Cantonese starlets.
Elizabeth wanted to be like Anita on the cover of her latest record, Bad Girl, which featured the singer in a satin dress and eyeshadow inside a larger shadow of herself in a dark, oversized coat. She thought of that image when she readied herself that morning with hairspray: the dual faces of Anita, one hiding bright inside the other. Instead, she was late for school, head like a jungle washed and weeping, throat tightening into a cold.
In the classroom, her teacher talked of how a group of European scientists were attempting to revive long-gone species of wild goats, pigeons, even woolly mammoths. On the projector screen they looked at animals who could spontaneously resurrect, such as the tiny wood frog which in colder climates flash-freeze—their hearts stopping too—then thaw out again in the springtime. Elizabeth thought about these intact creatures, the French scientists with their eggshell-white jackets inspecting the shimmering cells of such specimen. She was aggravated that resurrection was so sanctified, that in faith and science these rituals were interchangeable, that there was no limit to the extent of which humanity idolized purity. After all, hadn’t Jesus rolled back the stone to see the sun, just as the frogs unjellied themselves from the forest floor? Hadn’t the blessed Mother—a girl who never bled, her hymen impenetrable—ascended to heaven alive?
When their mother died of heart failure a year later, Elizabeth thought about resurrection again. That morning at the hospital, she found a globule of pearled wet in her underwear, followed by a spitting of bright red. She thought of how her mother had lived so blamelessly, how she never had to atone for her sins, she said, because she had none. If anyone had asked, perhaps her mother would have said she never bled either.
At the funeral, Elizabeth and Mary wore all white. Looking in the mirror, they saw baby ghosts, glossed and beautiful—and cursed. They burned the joss paper hungrily, clinging to the smog as if to make themselves a second life with it, Elizabeth with the secret throb in her underwear.
Afterward, their father took them to a late-night café where a lady wiped down their tables with a blue rag and ladled free soup with tiny slivers of almonds that looked like fingernails. As they ate their food he said: “You’re good girls, you know that?”
When Anita Mui passed away in 2003 of cervical cancer, Elizabeth cried and took herself to the hairdressers. The man in the overalls asked what she wanted; she gestured to an image on her phone. “May she rest among the stars,” he said. And as he anointed her scalp with water, she thought not of her mother or Anita Mui or Mary with her collection of beetroot lipsticks, but her hair like a demon, dark and hollow-eyed and smoking, washing itself out, wrangling itself down from the sky, church by church.
Ysabelle Cheung is the managing editor and fiction editor of Cicada. Her cultural criticism and essay writing has featured in Artforum, Literary Hub, and The Atlantic. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Catapult, Jellyfish Review, Brooklyn Review, and Cha.