This story won first place in the MAYDAY 2022 Flash Fiction Contest.
During Lantern Festival, I compete against Brother to see who will fill up with tangyuan first. We shovel down plump balls of red bean or peanut butter or sesame paste, imagining them stacked one on top of the other, filling our feet, legs, torso, all the way to the tops of our heads like Beanie Babies bursting with plastic pellets. The winner gets to wait at home and set firecrackers loose to scare off children—more a formality since the kids already stay far away from us and our devil faces. The loser must bring the lanterns we’d painted to the shrine deep in the forest. There, they’ll kneel and pray to be less ugly. We were born with asymmetrical eyes, snake-like smiles, skin that sags like collagen has forsaken it, and when people see us, they look away and whisper prayers to undo whatever curses we spread. As we chew the dough and try to unstick our gums from sugar, jaws opening and closing like automata, saliva-digested food spewing from our lips, Brother tells me I am beautiful, more beautiful than the white snake spirit who moves like a scarf, an unraveled noose, a silk sash pinned to a tree by branches as sharp as diamond hairpins. I tell Brother he is more beautiful than the golden crow who burns earth with radiation and explosive flares, who incinerates us, and upon its disappearance, freezes us. We slurp another round of tangyuan and imagine the rice flour adhering our skin together, pulling our faces taut, vanishing the slack until our cheeks grow smooth as a bauble. When we take a break to breathe, we look at each other, hold our gazes, and avoid blinking for as long as possible, like staring long enough might vanquish the curse. The loser must wear kneepads to the shrine because kneeling on the stone leaves bruises otherwise. The winner stays locked in our room to avoid being seen. I can tell Brother is about to throw up. He doesn’t handle black sesame well—too fragrant, too oily, too grainy like sand—and while he closes his eyes and purses his lips, trying to keep it all in, I eat another three tangyuan, tickling my gag reflex, trying to time it just right: both of us bursting open, spilling rice balls, trekking to the shrine in the dark, barely able to see. We prefer it this way.
LUCY ZHANG writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, The Rupture, The Offing and elsewhere. Her chapbook HOLLOWED is forthcoming from Thirty West Publishing, and her micro-chapbook ABSORPTION is forthcoming from Harbor Review in 2022.
HEATHER HUA, born in 1996, is a multidimensional artist in illustration, comics, and animation. Born in Zhejiang, China, and higher educated in the US, Hua is fluent in Chinese, English, and Japanese. She graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology in 2021 with an MFA in illustration and holds a BA in Economics from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, she is based in Los Angeles and working as a freelance illustrator.