Skip to content

Civil Animals

The day my cousin Weina taught me how to bicycle, we were watching a show about meerkats on the Animal Planet channel. Our Ninth aunt said, If you want to watch animals so badly, just look out the window. Animals everywhere. Walking around, free as can be.

Ninth aunt reminds us daily: all men are animals. What they require is a wrangler. Once, she was married to one, but she was unable to ensnare him properly: after she gave birth to his daughter, he strayed. He must have fled like the pied crow that had escaped the zoo and was famous from TV reports, the one whose enclosure was pierced by a fallen tree. The crow was never recovered, even after its face was broadcast for weeks straight. A film crew was sent in pursuit of it, scouring the skies, interviewing locals. Ninth aunt’s husband must have fled the same way, flying out the window, never to return to his enclosure. Maybe if the TV had broadcast his image, someone would have snagged him in a giant net and dragged him home. Out of loyalty to Ninth aunt, I kept watch at the window every night before bed.

While Weina and I were trying to watch TV, Ninth aunt spent hours lecturing us on how to find the right man. Women follow men for love, but men follow women for sex. So you have to be careful, she said. You girls should try and enjoy your single life while you still can.

Could you be a girl forever? Could death become your only responsibility?

We are eleven, Weina said. Ninth aunt shook her head and said we should try to be eleven for as long as possible. When twelve descended on us like a blade, we should duck and run away. We should join the dust under our bed. We should line up the 1s that make up our age, fusing them into a fence, 1 1 1 1, and then we should cage ourselves in the yawn of youth. Ninth aunt said that veal is the tenderest meat because the calf is kept inside a cage and never develops musculature, arthritis, wrinkles, or unrealistic ambitions. We, too, could keep ourselves tender, our meat so soft it smudges the tongue like feces.

Ninth aunt said that her thirty-nine-year-old daughter was an idiot because she let her boyfriend go without ever marrying him. Another lost animal, I thought. Outside, the sky was studded with so many crows that I couldn’t tell them apart. One of them belonged to my cousin, and another belonged to Ninth aunt. Though I tried to lure them home by waving my arms and thrusting sausages through the bars of the window, nothing could persuade them to sacrifice their sky.

Marriage was the best method of leashing a crow to your leg, but even then, he could fly away and tear off your calf in the process. Ninth aunt despaired that her middle-aged daughter was never going to have grandchildren. For men it’s different, they can go off and spawn anytime they like. But look at her, stuck in the middle of her life. No one waiting for her at home, no one but death. Don’t be like her, girls. Don’t be stupid. Time isn’t your candy dispenser.

Because Weina’s heart was more tender than a calf’s flesh, she told Ninth aunt that we could pretend to be her grandchildren for the summer. We could replace the wreckage of her daughter with our uninhabited futures. We were staying with Ninth aunt temporarily while our mothers flew back to Taiwan to bury our grandmother. When we begged our mothers to take us with them, they told us it was better for us to stay behind, that they had to protect us from the flying shrapnel of our family. That woman is the one who broke us. She had four husbands, my mother said, and back then, on the island, when you got a divorce, the children automatically went to the husband. So she gave us all up, one after another. All because she claimed that her first husband was a gambler, and the second was a pig, and the third was another pig, and the fourth was older than her father and wicked. Now we all live in the long shadow of her choices. We’re all separated and scattered like trash. Why couldn’t she just settle like the rest of us? Why couldn’t she just stay and eat shit like the rest of us? Like picking a puppy from the litter, once you choose your man, you can’t just abandon it.

All of the aunts could discuss this for hours, debating a proper framework for our family’s failures, talking for so long on the phone that the sun descended to sever the landline like an umbilical cord. The women in my family were most alive when blaming each other, discussing which animal to punish, whose decision was responsible for our ruin. But I stood at the window, looking outward, my gaze a dull blade unable to penetrate the sky’s hide. I knew we were inside the belly of a colossal animal. I knew there was no way out but through our own mouths.

When Weina pointed out that divorces happened all the time on TV and on the cover of People magazine, and everyone seemed to discuss them with excitement, our mothers shook their heads and said, Those women are celebrities, not people. They can do whatever they want because they have their own money. They never have to worry about feeding anybody. I stared at their slick images in magazines and wondered if the reason why they didn’t have to worry about feeding themselves to anyone was because their meat was already too tough to be veal: they roamed the world in high heels, developing thigh and calf muscles, turning stringy and sour.

At least we got free cable at Ninth aunt’s apartment, and we had the Animal Planet channel. When Weina spotted Meerkat Manor in the TV Guide, she got all excited. A manor is where celebrities live! But upon watching the first episode, we discovered that for meerkats, luxury consisted of dirt and family. Still, I thought it boded well. If we ever wanted to live in a manor, it would be as easy as digging a network of holes and slipping into a dirt-filled fist.

Besides Meerkat Manor, Weina and I loved the show about dogs. Every day a different breed. We learned that Saint Bernards were skilled at finding lost things—maybe we could hire one to find Ninth aunt’s husband—and that dachshunds were called sausage dogs not because sausages were made from their meat, as Weina believed, but because they were shaped like wieners. I should have raised dogs instead of daughters, Ninth aunt said, because only one can be called home.

We were calves destined to be shuttled from birth to death, the bulk of our life cut out, our meat so ripe it was soluble in light.

Ninth aunt said that it’s too late for her to become veal, that there’s not an animal in this world who can survive being soft. Soon she was going to become Auntie Canary, the woman next door who kept so many canaries that she periodically opened her window to let them go, culling her flock in half. Her window wept an endless ribbon of yellow, her birds running down the sky like snotty sunlight, though Weina and I could never find any of her canaries in the neighborhood. Weina told me they all died, unable to find food or shelter, the cruel fate of all abandoned creatures. Still, the canaries that remained in her apartment bred rapidly to succeed each other, and the size of their song never seemed to shrivel, not even when Auntie Canary began eating them, frying their bones and adopting their buoyancy, bashing her head against the ceiling. Though I called her Auntie Canary, all the other neighbors called her Old Girl, as if she were a dog. She wasn’t an old woman. Because she never got married nor had a family, she was technically still a girl. Could you be a girl forever? Could death become your only responsibility? I asked Weina, but she shrugged and said she didn’t know. What we knew of the world we knew from TV, and on TV there were no old women, least of all old girls. Ninth aunt flicked through the channels and laughed at how every actress who played a mother was only a few years older than the man who played her son. Look at this shit. The span of a human generation has shrunken to that of a hamster, she said. No wonder rodents eat their own children. If I only had five years of life before giving birth to my daughter, I’d resort to cannibalism too.

Meerkats can give birth at the age of one, Weina informed her.

Then meerkats are unfortunate creatures whose only choice is to die, Ninth aunt said.

Once, Weina and I found one of Old Girl’s canaries by the stairwell of the apartment building, perched on the ground with a tassel of black hair in its beak. We chased it up and down the cement-paved hallway until it was exhausted. Finally, it flitted into a corner by our door and sat gasping in the dark. Weina darted forward and caught it in her palms, bringing it into the kitchen. She trapped the bird beneath an overturned steel bowl and periodically slipped it a sunflower seed, though we didn’t hear it eat. That night, I let it go. I dropped it out the window and watched it plummet like rain, though sometime during its descent, its wings flicked open by some miraculous instinct, and I heard it flapping. The next day, when Weina upturned the bowl and realized what I’d done, she said I was a murderer. It wouldn’t survive without anyone to feed it. But I thought that death wasn’t the worst thing to wear. You could become a creature that followed death, wedded it. A creature whose only purpose was to pursue an end. A life that could be measured against the void of the sky. I would rather follow death than follow a husband, which Ninth aunt always warned me about. You marry a chicken, you follow a chicken. You marry a dog, you follow a dog. Everyone knows that saying. So select your future carefully. Whatever animal you choose, you must become.


Ninth aunt worked as a door-to-door knife saleswoman and staged live demonstrations for us in the kitchen, snipping a penny into quarters with a pair of meat scissors or mincing a peach pit into sand with a knife that could halve light. During commercial breaks, she spun her fruit knife on the dining table like a compass hand, and depending on who the tip pointed to, Weina or I would have to volunteer a finger for her last act, in which she pretended to saw through our actual bone, though she kept a raw chicken claw in her pocket as the decoy, flopping it onto the table for one of us to mourn as our own. Weina occasionally stole the chicken claw from Ninth aunt’s pocket and ate it in bed, baking it under her armpit, lending her salt to its skin.

Ninth aunt was fluent in knives of all kinds and could even make a shadow bleed. One time she stabbed her own shadow on the wall opposite the TV, and an entire night was birthed prematurely. She kept the knife jointed to the wall for days, her shadow writhing beneath it. She shackled her shadow-wrists to the plaster and told us that this was a reminder of what happened to little girls who went outside. Remember, I leave the house every day so you don’t have to. I’m beef chuck so you can be veal. We could get murdered out there, she said, or even worse: pregnant. Motherhood was worse than death, our Ninth aunt said, because at least death is an end to worrying.

One afternoon, our Ninth aunt yanked us into the bathroom by our waistbands and pointed down at the toilet bowl. You see what’s in here? Ninth aunt said, Nothing! Because I can’t shit at all! Because when I gave birth to your cousin, her fist came out of my asshole! And they had to sew it up! And I can’t go anymore, not even a little, I’m just like a pixiu, except my guts aren’t filled with gold. And if you ever go outside without me, this is what will happen every night! Be glad I keep you here where nothing can come in or out of you!

Though it was Ninth aunt’s job to be let into strangers’ homes, under no circumstances were we to answer the door, the telephone, or the rain knocking on the roof. Weina said it’s because Ninth aunt is getting ready to slaughter us. That’s what the knives are for. Ninth aunt’s daughter was thirty-nine, too old to be tasty, but our meat was succulent. So long as we remained inside our radius. When I shivered at the thought of a knife nosediving into my spine, Weina laughed and said that if I didn’t want to be butchered and eaten by our aunt, I better toughen up my meat by doing three hundred jumping jacks every night and exposing myself to direct sunlight.

If you hit me hard enough, she said, we can bicycle forever, go anywhere together.

At night, Weina and I stood by the bedroom window and looked down at the shirtless boys biking up and down our street in the dark, wind ripping the sweat off their backs, comets of salt singing out of their wet hair, streaking our air. From here, we could see the bones of a bike abandoned in the corner lot. Weina tried convincing me to climb out of the window while our Ninth aunt was napping, but we were four floors up, and neither of us could nudge the burglar bars aside or nibble them to the width of fishbones or pick the lock to the sky.

Without telling me, Weina made it all the way down the stairs and onto the street. It was night, and I was at the window, searching the sky for the lost crow. Through the slivered window, I saw her polka-dot pajama shirt cross the street. I thought she would keep running, all the way past the liquor store with the neon windows, past the wooden cross someone had leaned against the fence of the far lot, marking where a boy had been thrown off his bike and killed, but Weina looked up. Her face found mine like a thrown knife. I flinched, and the disturbance triggered the broken ceiling fan, the one that chopped up the air whenever flies fornicated on one of its blades. Ninth aunt woke up with a throatful of dust, and when she realized Weina was missing, she ran all the way across the street in her house slippers. She ran as if inside her was a perfect animal. Her legs outshone any memory of spokes.

When the bruises on Weina’s ass faded at last, we sat on the bed together and watched Animal Planet while Ninth aunt was out. I wanted to keep watching the windows for a glimpse of Ninth aunt’s husband, but Weina said it was no using looking outside anymore. We were calves destined to be shuttled from birth to death, the bulk of our life cut out, our meat so ripe it was soluble in light. Besides, the house wasn’t so bad, she said: in horror movies, it’s the ones who stay put that survive. But I didn’t want a long life. I wanted to ride down the street on my bike. I wanted to be a canary, delirious with a freedom that would kill me.

Today we watched the matriarch of the meerkats dig into the dust and nudge the night aside to burrow, her claws like pearls of blood. A voice explained the map of her construction, complex as a thousand-chambered heart, and announced that she would soon give birth. We watched the matriarch spring out of her hole, standing on her hind legs to scan for predators. Every emergence was a birth. I admitted to Weina that the meerkat was ugly, her fur crusted with spots of mold, a recent ancestor of our ceiling. But her eyes were a god’s. Full of divine understanding.

During the first commercial break, Weina turned to me and asked if I wanted to feel good. I looked at her with immediate suspicion. I knew that pleasure had something to do with pregnancy, that they were as inextricable as this planet and its gravity. Whenever I was warm between the legs, I knew my belly was inflating into a hot air balloon, babies swinging in an attached basket. The promise of pleasure was just a trick to get us to open our legs and accept death. But Weina repeated her question. Our sky-patterned comforter lined the bed. The light through our window was lime-sour, trickling down our cheeks, stinging our gnawed lips.

Sure, I said, wheezing through my left nostril, Maybe.

Okay, Weina said, sitting cross-legged, staring at the meerkats as they shunted out of their holes, upright and glistening. Let’s go bicycling, she said. I told her we couldn’t, or Ninth aunt would pin our shadows to the wall with a $39.99 knife. Laughing, Weina called me an idiot and slapped my forehead. She said, Where the hell do you see a bike? No, this is bicycling on my side. With her eyes still stitched to the screen, she wriggled onto her side and slotted the edge of the comforter between her legs, the sky pleated beneath her, and began pumping her legs up and down, cycling in place. I thought she looked dumb doing it, but Weina mauled her upper lip with her teeth and stared sideways at the screen, which was now as distant as a sky to me, bicycling faster and faster, her thighs staticky against the fabric, fraying the seams, sweat laminating her face, and she started breathing hard, harder than when I climbed the stairs to our apartment, a strand of spit threading her mouth to the bed, and she was bobbing her head up and down, like the meerkats when they recognized their mothers, and then her legs locked like she’d just hit the curb straight-on, her knees ricocheting forward and then loosening, lolling on the bed, and when she released the comforter from between her legs, there was a wet spot soiling a corner of the sky, deepening the blue into dusk.

I knew that pleasure had something to do with pregnancy, that they were as inextricable as this planet and its gravity.

Your turn, Weina said, twisting around on the bed, looking at me at last. In the dark of their burrows, the white-eyed meerkats slept like stars in the sky, unmoving, nailed there by someone else. When they were ejected into the light, they froze, startled by the surface, and I imagined them as aliens reentering a planet they had long ago abandoned. I didn’t know where to look, so I looked at the crack in the screen where the light widened into a gash, where the earth was knifed open and the wound was a wink. There was a world beneath the surface that not even meerkats could see.

Weina was breathing through her mouth. I looked at the sheets and made my fingers into shears, raking the stars until they loosened like earrings, the stain slick as skin. You have to think about a baby in your belly, Weina said. It will feel better that way. And you might pee a little bit.

Meerkat mothers give birth to their babies underground, said the voiceover, in order to protect them from predators. They cannibalized other mothers’ pups to ensure resources for their own children, and often banished members of their own family to prevent them from stealing. I imagined the furred baby Weina now had in her belly, the one she thought into her body, and wondered if Ninth aunt would kick her out when she found out. Are you going to eat your baby? I asked her, hoping she’d say yes. It was the only way to save her, to keep her here beside me. Weina laughed and said maybe, but babies should not be born in some tunnel, they should be born outside as bicycles, spinning to the sky. She pointed at the screen, which was now showing an underground scene, a black tunnel sewn with eyes.

Weina pushed me onto my side as I shut my eyes. She wedged the comforter between my legs, perching my crotch on a cloud, and told me to grip the front of the sheet with my fist. Now pedal, she told me, pedal like we’re going somewhere good, anywhere you want, imagine. I opened my eyes and watched the meerkats in the dirt, slipping through a bloody sleeve, and I imagined a meerkat tunneling into me, shoveling aside my intestines and sculpting its nest among the tines of my spine, giving birth to handfuls of skinless-grape pups, slurping them up. I heard my tongue flap loose against my teeth, the seams of my shorts shucked away by the sheet, the friction fabricating a heat that knuckled inside me, seeking a hole for its steam, and Weina lay down next to me and said not to forget to imagine the baby, but all I could think about was the camera turning its face away, the meerkat crouched in the dark with babies souping in its mouth, the meerkat inside me nipping open my bladder, sipping from the river of it.

Weina helped me change my pants after, saying that denim dries slow, and we better hang them out the window before Ninth aunt comes home. Soon our aunt would be shouldering open the door, cursing at the hinge that was calcified into bone, and Weina and I would duck under the bed and curl around each other, pretending our burial. Do you think they know they’re being watched? I asked her, pointing at the TV. All I could see were the meerkats poking their heads out of holes, wearing each tunnel like a turtleneck. Weina said of course, they always know we’re looking, and that’s why they spend so much of their lives in the dirt, tangling entrances and exits, confusing any light that tries to come inside. Let’s hurry before she’s back, she said, and so we folded the comforter and arranged the creases so that our stains were naturalized into shadows. Isn’t it fun, bicycling? Weina asked me. She said when she was older, she’d buy a real bike, or maybe she’d steal one from the boys outside, and she’d let me ride on the handlebars if I promised not to pee on them, and she’d bike us east to the desert where the real meerkats lived in giant eye sockets, and if I wanted, I could scoop up the babies and cradle them in my palms and save them from enemy hungers.

Okay, I said, not watching the screen anymore. I wondered how the meerkats could see underground, how they knew which babies were theirs to raise and which were prey, how to identify which appetite to answer and which to eliminate. Weina told me to lay on the bed next to her as we waited for my jeans to dry, my legs bare and glazed by TV glare, her hand slopped onto my belly. I twitched, afraid she would feel the meerkat burrowed inside me, afraid its head would pop out of my crotch or buck up from my belly button, swiveling like a telescope to spy on us, but Weina softened her hand into a rag and shined the skin of my stomach, saying that someday we would have babies and it would hurt a lot, and afterward we wouldn’t be able to sit on things or fart audibly, but she would protect me by punching me in the belly so that the baby would never grow big enough to kill us. She told me to promise her the same. Practice, she said, and wrapped my hand into a fist, folding herself over it. If you hit me hard enough, she said, we can bicycle forever, go anywhere together. I promised her, and she laughed and lugged the comforter up over our heads, and though the cotton was pestled thin by the weight of our bones, thin as a wedding veil, and the moon didn’t have to strain to reach us, it was dark enough to pretend ourselves buried, sheathed away from Ninth aunt’s knives and the world outside, unknotting the dirt ahead of us, digging for the source of our sweat, the fistful of sky she fitted between my knees, that frayed horizon we were forever biking toward.