First Place Winner / 2022 Wintermute Writing Contest

Content warnings: death

My father's tattoo shifts in memories. In some, it's the blue of dead ocean; in others, it's black like whale skin. I remember it lay crooked on his forearm, as if a spirit grasped him there and left a reminder that he escaped, but not for long. Always when I tugged at his sleeve for a peek, he grinned and promised to show it to me later before turning away. I recall a tendril of it sticking out, a suckered arm like that of a starfish.

No one in the village can recall details of his arrival–some say he drifted into town with the spring wind and landed on my mother’s balcony without warning. He endured the neighbors' assessments of his origin with smiles and the crinkling of his amber eyes. His occasional spurts of native tongue sounded like no language foreign or provincial, his bright vests and robes resembled no known country's costume, and the star-shaped dumplings he molded with his knuckles were delicious but comprised of indeterminate ingredients. When he clarified his birthplace, the people would pinch their brows as the name evaded them, in both its romanization or the indexes of the local library. My father was a nowhere man. Sometimes I believe he blossomed in my mother's arms on a lonely day so she could have someone to love. He was the puppeteer of my every dream; he instructed me to smile without cramping my cheeks, to whistle bits of food out from my teeth rather than floss, to hold a flower up at the right angle so the wind could carry it away.

The eclectic magic of both my mother's and father's cultures folded our house into a pop-up greeting card of warmth and color and light. My mother told parables of our town and the beasts of the peaks that encircled it, how to sleep with your nose tilted north so they couldn’t catch you by surprise. In between chuckles, my father narrated the triumphs of his people in their soft language. Our sofa was a sailboat cutting through the seas of the carpet, the mast forever steered towards my father's homeland. The living room's glass chandelier illuminated a celestial palace of which my parents were king and queen.

Still, my father was an outsider, and the unwelcoming air of public spaces reminded him of that every day. He wiped strangers' spittle from his embroidered tunics. His bright eyes attracted unwanted sneers in the market because he had married into a people who came in earthy tones like mud, like stone, like beige sand. The townsfolk theorized he was a malevolent spirit or a warlock. Or perhaps he was a con man who played a stunt on a trusting waif, leaving her with a freak of a daughter. One evening I saw him on his knees, sobbing because my mother and I forged his portion of my university application because he couldn't grasp the mechanics of our tongue enough to fill out a form because his words were tinted with hues of his home. I never asked why he came to our township or left his country. And he never explained.

My father always did as told. Perhaps that was what ended it all. When the summer air was heavy with bugs and demons, the mask of sleep sheltered me from the verbal combat downstairs. My mother throttled him with accusations, told him to leave, and never return. He unzipped the house and turned it inside out, removing everything of his and everything that would remind us of him. I awoke to my mother's nails stroking my hair and tearstains on my comforter.

How could I describe it? I’d never prepared or even thought of what life would be like without him. Sometime after my twelfth year, I went through a phase, or rather a phase that went through me, like the moon’s reflection over water: full, waning, waning, new. One night I tore out locks of my black, velvety locks in my sleep, awaking with my hair flopped to the side and soft at the ends, like feathers. Those days, I couldn’t recognize myself anymore, my chest swelled with promises to nature I was not yet ready to keep, my twiglike thighs expanded into logs, my head a greasy ball of yearning. In this liminal period, my sight seemed to blur in the mornings, or perhaps mirrors just behaved differently around me, and when I saw myself hunched over the washroom sink, I could see the inklings of a beard forming, of my father’s jawline, traced over mine. When I shook my head or blinked, they would disappear. I was a girl–I knew it wasn’t possible. Where was I going, where had I gone? And where was he? As I tossed around at night, a steel string pulled me up out of bed before it snapped like it did each night and my mother came rushing in, waving her hands around the headboard to show me that there was no string, nothing hanging from our ceiling but cobwebs and stale air, and that made my face twist up more and the stream of hot salt flow faster, further into me. I found temporary solace at the only fabric stall in the town market, drafting and tossing patterns to create robes like the ones that my father wore, all from memory since he’d taken them all away with him. Eyes closed, I ran my fingers over the cheap imitation textiles after hours of prodding at them with a sewing needle, and if I was tired enough I could trick myself into believing I was in his arms again and he was telling me stories. I paid the merchant every stone for those textiles, no matter how high the prices were. When I gave up on trying to reconstruct his costumes, I would wrap myself in the small hill of cloth, and all the time think of how they didn’t smell like him. I didn’t like the labels they tacked onto me at the youth academy and later the university–witch, sorceress, halfling–but I was determined to find myself in him, practicing vocal exercises to deepen my voice, trying different diets to make my skin, my hair look more like his. My mother sank into melancholy, leaving the house’s bedroom only when I brought her out to eat and relieve herself. In a way, I became him, or the closest thing. When the shadows stretched long in the afternoons when I worked the fields, I harnessed their malleable black limbs and tried to form the impression of him beside me as I trudged the sidewalk alone, and for a while, our shadows would dance together, and I lied for a second Yes, it’s enough to pretend.

Since he left, a sickness blew over me like a sandstorm. Physician after physician peered into the translucent boils on my left forearm. They peered back like the eyes of hungry insects. When they throbbed and pulsed, I felt they might fly out from under my skin. At night, I scratched them until they burst open, and when they did, they dyed my bed the color of my father's eyes. The boils sealed themselves closed by sunrise. The doctors labeled my illness an anomaly and prescribed painkillers that I tossed away, so instead, we all swallowed the probability that they would never heal. “A result of stress and grief,” one of the physicians called them. I lurked in the village at night and slept through daylight, dreaming of my father's tattoo. What happened next was anyone's guess. When the boils finally crusted over and sloughed off, underneath was a tattoo of a sea star, its arm outstretched and reaching beyond the mountains.

Kirsten Liang is fourteen years old but wishes she were seventeen so she could watch R-rated films. Her work has placed in many competitions for students: on an international level in the 2021 National Flash Fiction Day Competition hosted by fingerscommatoes, on a national level at the 2021 and 2022 Scholastic Writing Awards, and on a state level at the 2022 National History Day Competition. She is in love with too many celebrities.