This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Mental health issues
- Self-harming behaviors
鶼鶼 chien1chien1 (Wade–Giles), kimkim (Cantonese Standard)
lit. a pair of interdependent mythical birds, each having one eye and one wing
fig. an inseparable couple
Bodies pressed together, we soar over the mountains of Guilin and come to a stop on a verdant peak. We fold our wings together, the iridescent feathertips of my wing resting over yours. You bear our weight on your leg; when you tire, I bear our weight on mine. We work our two eyes together.
The river below glitters with a million shades of sunset; small boats drift across its surface, marbling those resplendent colors. A zephyr rustles through the trees and whips up the scents of all the flora and fauna around us. We take flight again, our wings perfectly synchronized, and glide over the water.
The little boats scatter, making way for a larger ship that emerges from around the bend. The sight of this ship feels wrong, a gash in the landscape—whereas the other boats are small bamboo rafts lashed together with hemp rope, this ship is a hulking thing, sleek and angular against the rolling curves of the mountains. It smells of fire, but not a wood fire. Something older, dragged up from the earth, acrid and wrong against the petrichor of the mountains.
One shout, followed by another. Humans burrow up from within the boat; they unlatch a mechanism and aim it at us. We climb higher, but it’s too late—pow! A long, low whoosh comes up behind us, and knotted rope entangles us, drags us down from the heavens.
We thrash our wings, kick our legs, but the net holds on tight. We are large among birds, but small among humans. They crowd around us, block out the sunlight, and enclose us in a box. Our hearts flutter together, beating fast, faster, staccatos of panic in our chests. The gaps between the slats offer us the tiniest room to breathe. We crane our necks to see out, but they’ve draped a black cloth over our crate, hiding us from the world.
We have no sense of time in here. Sometimes, when they remove the cloth, a hint of sunlight streams through; other times, the room is dark. The only constant is the rocking of waves beneath us. They feed us half-spoiled fish scraps and we gobble them down, but it’s never enough. We tremble against each other.
As the days pass, we wane together. Anxious, we mutilate our bodies; we’ve plucked out many of our feathers, the glittering emerald and scarlet strewn about in our crate, feather-threads rumpled askew. Only the pale color of ginkgo trunks stripped bare remains on our chests.
When we finally reach land again and the humans take us out of the ship, the smell of the ocean remains the same as that of the ocean back home, but we only recognize half of the stars in the sky. They’ve shifted and rotated, resting in a different place against the sea-black of night. The humans take us somewhere where there aren’t any trees, transfer us from the crate to a cage. We squawk, our voices hoarse; they rattle our cage, squawk back, and we quiet down.
Their voices echo off the walls and create a forest of chatter that we can’t understand. I bury my head into your neck, close my eye, and we’re left with just your half of the room. You cock your head and peer at a small group of humans in conversation.
They feed us better fish here. There’s no river inside, but the brightness of all the metal fixtures reminds us of water anyway. One day, when the humans let us out of the cage to fly around in a large room, we mistake a shining table for a puddle. We come to a stop on its surface, expecting our feet to sink into cool water and mud. But while the tabletop is cold, it does not yield.
Something aches within us.
The humans seem excited the next time they remove the cloth draped over our cage. They murmur among themselves as they take us to a room we’ve never been in before. They lay us on our back; we struggle against them, clawing at them, thrashing our wings, but still they clamp down on our legs and necks, strap our wings to our bodies. They retreat. We can still see their shapes around us, but there’s something dividing them from us.
Buzzing, louder than a million cicadas screeching together, fills our ears. Leagues of lightning flash, arcing purple-bright over our bodies.
The lightning strikes and tears us apart.
The world goes white.
I wake up alone.
I can bear the weight of two kim, but not of one. I struggle to stand, my wing weighing me down; I balance myself only for a moment before tumbling. I reach out for you, but I can’t find you anywhere—you’re not by my side, nor do I feel your presence in any other way. I want to crash myself into the cage, throw myself around until I can get out and find you, fill this gaping hole in my heart, but my one wing doesn’t cooperate without yours, and my one eye can only see half of what we saw together, and my one leg keeps giving way without your weight to balance us.
You can’t be dead. I can’t be alive. A single kim doesn’t make sense—the humans separated us somehow, but why did I survive? Did I not love you enough?
I inch myself over to the door. I struggle to stand, gather my energy, then throw all my weight into my inevitable fall, hoping that somehow, somehow, I can break past this lock.
I crash into the cage until my entire being bleeds.
(Except, without you, I am not entire at all.)
They take me to another room. I glower at them, but my heart hurts, I haven’t eaten, and I’m too weak without you to resist. A young human lies on an angled table, eyes closed. Wires cling all over to the human’s body like leeches; the human breathes, but barely. I sense little vitality. The humans cover me with leech-wires too, all the while braying amongst themselves.
Lightning flashes and the sight of it again shakes me out of my melancholy, hurls me into a panic; I close my eye and flutter my wing—except I can’t move my wing, not anymore. Everything’s whirling and I’m caught in a typhoon, ripped from my body, every thought needle-sharp as it draws across my mind, everything a thousand fires and flashes. I ground myself somewhere else, but the entire landscape shifts. My body feels different. Smells grow and diminish; I hear so much more, and the range of noise overwhelms me. I open my eye—my eyes—and find I can only see what’s before me. So many colors have disappeared. I have to turn my head—I can turn my head—to see anything else.
A lump of beige dappled with bright green and scarlet and black lies still on the table beside me, and I think: A bird. I am a bird; I was a bird, but the bird is dead and—
And I’m still here. I’m still alive. I am no longer the bird; I am this wingless thing, this four-limbed thing, this human. Somewhere in my memories lies the sensation of flying through the sky, but also visions of other worlds: tall buildings, automobiles that smell just like that ship—diesel, my mind supplies, that smell is burning diesel. From somewhere within bubbles up a word: Meisun. A name. My name.
These memories aren’t mine, and yet they are mine. They’re distant though, so distant, and recalling them is like trying to grasp the shape of pebbles on the bottom of a murky pond.
"You’re conscious," someone says. Before, their words were just sounds, but now I recognize them and understand them.
Or maybe I’ve always understood them.
"Who are you?"
"I’m—" I hesitate. I’m ready to answer, but I’m not ready to answer. A flurry of memories whips up; I try to catch them one by one, but suddenly I want to retch, and instead I shake my head and let everything settle back down. "I don’t know."
As the person before me takes notes, I steal glances back to the bird body. I know it’s me, but I also know that it can’t possibly be me.
"Where is the other bird?"
I try to tell this person your name, but kim don’t have names. Why does the emptiness where your name should be hurt so much? I swallow and nod at the bird body.
"You separated us into two. That one is—was—me. Where is the other one?"
"Oh. It died after we severed the bond. We’ve preserved the specimen. This one will also be preserved."
My head spins; I raise a hand up to steady myself. Something glints: a bracelet circles my wrist, and the letters stamped into it read REVIVAL. When they catch me looking at the bracelet, one of them speaks up.
"Your identification. We’ll continue to monitor you, and this just shows that you’re part of our project."
My stomach churns. This thing is a mockery of a jade bangle. It’s silver and dead, nothing like the beautiful greens and browns that I dreamed would encircle my wrist, if only I had the money to purchase a piece. The light flashes off the bracelet again—in my mind’s eye, I’m soaring, and I see water gleaming with sunlight.
I furrow my brow.
When have I ever had a need for anything like a jade bangle, or even the right kind of limb to wear one?
As they keep me here, I recall more about myself and the world: It’s 1949. We’re close to San Francisco, in Berkeley. I’ve been in California for four years now. Days bleed together, all of them the same: the researchers take my vitals and ask me to recount my memories. Each one is a double-exposure, ghosts overlaid on ghosts; some days, it’s all I can do to shake my head and say that I can’t speak any more.
Gradually, though, like water wearing down stone, the double visions begin to fade, and I can filter them more easily. My memories start to congeal, bit by bit. When I get to the point where I can recount complete narratives, the researchers breathe out a sigh of relief and prepare me for a meeting that they tell me is very important.
Representatives from the NIH come to tour the facility. Dr. Ackerman, who’s worked with me the most, explains to me that "NIH" stands for "National Institute of Health" and that they’re the ones who fund their research. He’s going to need me to speak to them later. I nod.
After Dr. Ackerman comes back from brunch with the representatives, he guides me from my room to a meeting room. I’m seated in a stiff, high-backed chair in the front; Dr. Ackerman stands beside me. The low, warm hum of a slide projector fills my ears. He drones on and on; I don’t fully understand what he’s saying, even if I do understand most of the words he’s using.
". . .Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, is the last option for treatment-resistant mental illnesses, but retrograde amnesia is still a common adverse side effect. . . kimkim, or Oriental Lovebirds, are two individual birds who have fused into one; they are part of the mythology of the celestials, but they are indeed real, and even their feathers have potent medicinal uses. . . energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only transformed. . . as we’ve shown in this first phase, it is indeed possible to reverse the bond between the two birds and store that energy in cells. . ."
He switches slides between his words, each click punctuating the rapt silence. The panel of unfamiliar faces before me nods and scribbles in their notepads; I struggle to stay awake. Then, I hear my name and look up.
"Meisun here is a unique case—our study also partners with the Revival group at Stanford; our colleagues there have shown that, while energy transfer from living animals into comatose humans can effectively bring them back out of their comas, the inadvertent transfer of animal sensory systems and reflexes leaves an indelible mark on the human, who is often caught in a state of being half-human, half-beast. . . because Oriental Lovebirds are renowned for their healing prowess, we hypothesized that perhaps the effects of transfer would be lessened; we extend that hypothesis to the ECT study and theorize that smaller doses of energy would cause little to no transfer and also prevent amnesia. We have high hopes, as our hypothesis for the Revival study appears to be correct. Meisun, could you tell our guests a little bit about yourself? You can start with where you’re from."
I nod. I’ve discussed my memories so often with Dr. Ackerman and the others that this is becoming routine.
"I was born in Toisan, and most of my family still lives there. My parents married me to a Kam Saan haak, a merchant who was already here in California. I traveled here in the bottom of a boat." I pause. "I was in a box—no, no, that’s not right. It was just very cramped, like being in a box. And then once I got here, I was detained at Angel Island for months."
One of the representatives raises an eyebrow. "And what was that like?" he asks.
"It was—it was lonely. Difficult. I was in a cage—a jail cell. The only thing there to keep me company was the poetry all over the walls, all from other detainees." I frown. I feel like I’m missing someone, that there’s a hole in my heart. You, I think, but recalling details of you is like trying to cup water in my hands.
The representative nods. Another one looks up and scrutinizes me, his eyes a vibrant green, and I think of forests in the mountains.
"Can you tell us about your husband, your life here?"
I nod. "We had a little shop in Chinatown. Hard work, but we made enough money that I could even send some back home. We never made enough to be rich, though." I smile ruefully. "I didn’t think I’d settle down here, but it looked like that was happening. And then—"
My heart skips a beat. I close my eyes, and I remember a sound—pow!—and things flying toward me. I tremble, but still I speak.
"Then the riots—people coming in to burn down Chinatown, and then they shot my husband, and they captured me—no, no; they surrounded me and beat me down and I remember everything hurting and then lightning—a storm?—and then there was. . ." I take in a shuddering breath. "Nothing."
The first representative shakes his head in sympathy. "I’m sorry."
"Well, Dr. Ackerman," one of the representatives says after a moment, "this is indeed a very promising case, and you present compelling arguments for an ECT trial with Oriental Lovebird energy. We’ll get to work on renewing your grant and the Revival group’s grant; expect confirmation from us within two weeks."
Dr. Ackerman grins. He looks at me and places a hand on my shoulder. The touch feels unfamiliar, strange.
"Wonderful job, Meisun."
A few people begin to join the facility, all of them with bracelets like mine, but I find that I’m skittish. I dart away from them and spend most of my time in my own room, with its bare walls and sparse furniture, its window facing out toward an expanse of unfamiliar trees. Sometimes, I gaze out and a memory flashes across my mind: a forest from above, like I’m flying, and then I close my eyes and I am flying, and you’re pressed up beside me, and we’re so whole and complete together.
Then the memory fades, and I’m left remembering that the only person beside me had been my husband, who I’d never come to love. Who, if I’d loved, would have been a betrayal of you.
Dr. Ackerman knocks on my door one day and I let him in. He’s carrying a few bags; there’s someone behind him. I tilt my head quizzically.
"Meisun, meet your new roommate," Dr. Ackerman says.
The woman behind him is about my age: somewhere in her twenties. Her black hair, the same color as mine, flows over her shoulder, but their styled waves are limp. The hospital gown she’s wearing renders her formless. She looks tired, empty almost, but when she sees my face, a small smile touches her lips.
"Nei kong Kwongtungwa?" she asks softly. I find myself smiling in return.
"Hai," I reply, and I realize just then how sweet Cantonese is to my ears, how it untangles my tongue and my heart when I no longer have to cottonmouth my way through English.
"I’m Yaulan," she continues in Cantonese. "And you?"
Dr. Ackerman shakes his head. "You people always sound so angry when you speak," he says. I look at him, puzzled.
"We were just introducing ourselves," I say in English.
"I figured," he replies. Beside him, Yaulan rolls her eyes and mouths Gweilo, and I fight to suppress my laugh. "Well, get comfortable with each other; Yaulan is part of the trial and will be staying for a while."
Over the next couple of days, between Yaulan’s diagnostics sessions, we talk about our pasts, our families, our lives. I’m still mixing up memories, but Yaulan’s patient with me and doesn’t seem to find me strange. She talks about her parents, how they had a dumpling-making machine, but then—she breaks eye contact and looks out the window at this point—it was destroyed during the riots, and she and her parents had barely gotten out alive.
"I feel kind of bad for leaving them alone to manage the restaurant—I was working as a server, but now that I’m not there, my mom will probably have to work twice as hard—but, well, this is probably my only chance for treatment, so. . ."
I catch her eye. "Treatment?"
She’s quiet for a long time, and then she finally speaks. "I. . . I tried to kill myself. Twice. It was stupid, but. . . Sometimes I can’t stop myself when I start thinking about it and then—" She breaks off and takes a deep, shuddering breath. "I’m sick and this might be my one shot at staying alive."
My heart skips a beat.
"I’m sorry," I say, because I’m not sure what else to say.
"I just hope it helps."
You return to me in a dream.
We’re bird-shaped again, the two of us; we sip dew from leaves, the water crisp and cool against our throats. We kick off the branch and take to flight; the branch springs back and casts dew into the air, throwing glittering points of light into the sky. We coast over the surface of the river; you spot a silver fish gleaming just below the water, and we plunge in. The river fills us with calm, presses against us in a soft embrace. We surface with the fish and land on a branch; we feed each other.
I wake with tears in my eyes. It takes me a moment to remember that I’m human, and by the time I do, the dream has started to slip away from me. Someone should be pressed up against my side, but my waist, my hip, they’re empty and unconnected, a curve unfilled.
It’s past 11. I didn’t realize I’d slept in so late; when I turn over, I see Yaulan sitting on her bed with her back to me.
And I see you, superimposed on her.
I sit up with a jolt. Yaulan looks back at me, and then it’s only her, and she gives me a tiny little smile.
"I was afraid you’d never wake up," she says in Cantonese. My heart’s beating a galloping rhythm against my chest and my mouth feels dry.
"You’re. . ." I say, then swallow. "Did something. . . did something happen?"
"Well, I had my first ECT session," Yaulan says. "It was. . . strange. I’m not sure if I feel better, but at least I don’t feel worse."
I feel it: our bond, our energy, torn away from both you and me. I recoil, and Yaulan frowns.
"Is something wrong?"
"It’s nothing," I say, my hands trembling. "I just—had an odd dream, and. . ."
And you were in it, only that’s not true. It wasn’t her; it was you.
Yaulan leaves for more interviews and testing. I sit on my bed alone; I take a few deep breaths, and suddenly everything fades and I’m left feeling lightheaded and confused over having such a strange reaction to Yaulan. The tide of nausea ebbs, and I let out a sigh.
When I look up, I find that the room feels too big without Yaulan in it too.
I’ve begun therapy with a psychologist, Dr. Roberts. He tells me that I must fight off the bird memories when they intrude, but I still find it difficult to do so. It feels so real in the moment, so compelling, that I want to cling to them and try to salvage some of that feeling of being whole with you. But when I tell Dr. Roberts this, he shakes his head and tells me that I must let go of these memories, or I’ll be a human forever haunted by experiences that I didn’t truly have.
I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t think I want to let go of those memories and forget that they ever happened, that you ever existed. I just want to get to a point where I can think about them and they don’t send me into a ruminating spiral, one that leaves me wasting hours as I’m caught in my own conflicting thoughts.
Yaulan’s struggling, too. I see her smiling more these days, but sometimes she still looks hollow, still hunches over and refuses to talk to me. Then there are the times when she’s just come back from ECT and I almost can’t bear to look at her; the energy emanating off of her, sparking energy in me, makes me remember you and again I’m recalling Guilin, recalling Toisan, and I’m lost in my memories again.
On Saturdays, though, I don’t have to go to Dr. Roberts, and Yaulan doesn’t have to go to ECT; we can do activities or go out on supervised excursions together. Nurse Florence takes us to a café. I’ve never liked coffee and find the taste of it too bitter against my tongue, too harsh even with cream and sugar, but Yaulan drinks her coffee black and savors every sip of it. Seeing the coffee warm her up makes me smile myself.
On another Saturday, Yaulan and I stay inside for an art class. She’s much better at making the flowers and birds look like actual flowers and birds. I feel self-conscious about my misshapen figures, but then Yaulan looks at my painting, her eyes glittering with delight.
"Wow, Meisun," she says. "Look at those colors! You’re a natural. My colors always feel so flat."
I look between our two paintings, and I guess mine is a little more vivid than hers. I wonder, though, if we could combine our skills, perhaps we’d create a perfect painting.
Nurse Florence also supervises us while we use the kitchen the next Saturday. There are no knives in here, so we can’t really cook, but we can still bake and do things that only require mixing. It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival and Nurse Florence has never celebrated it before; we show her how to make mooncakes. Without the special molds, our mooncakes come out lopsided. The Chinese characters we write onto their surfaces aren’t as pretty as the ones they sell in the store, but the end results are still delicious.
Through every Saturday, I can’t help but think how much I like spending time with Yaulan, how well we get along together. Only when Monday rolls around and we have to go back to therapy do I remember the unease in my heart.
Yaulan’s told me before that her terrible thoughts come and go, that she considers feeling better temporary, but I’m still not prepared for it when she crashes.
"I’m never going to be better—I’m never going to be free of these thoughts—I was doing so well and then I wasn’t; there’s no point."
She’s slumped in a corner, her hands over her head.
"But that’s just the thing," I say, kneeling down beside her, "you did get better, so you can—"
"But it’s always going to be like this. Always."
"You don’t know that; none of us know the future."
"I just—" Yaulan starts sobbing, and the sound of it breaks my heart: her breaths hitch, and her words come out wavering; there’s so much pain laced through every syllable, so much pain that cuts straight into me. "I wish I didn’t have to deal with this. I wish I could just be better. Sometimes I am, but then I start feeling sad again, and I want to kill myself again. I want to throw myself out the window right now, too; I want so bad for all of this to just be over."
My heart skips a beat. I place my hand over hers.
"It’s hard. I know, I’ve seen you; it’s so hard," I murmur.
She lets her hand fall from her head. I stroke my thumb in little circles against her skin, and I give her a sad smile.
"But look at you, you want to do these things, but you’re not. You’re going on living anyway."
She looks up at me, her eyes red-rimmed, but doesn’t say anything, only takes in more shuddering breaths.
"Lanlan," I say, using the nickname I’ve come to call her, "let’s just go to sleep, yeah? Let’s go to sleep and see how you feel in the morning, okay?"
For a moment, I wonder if she’ll be angry, if she thinks I’m treating her like a child. But I’m not; I’m just trying my best to be gentle with her, to calm her down. Finally, she nods.
I help her up. We squeeze together in her bed. She curls up against my chest, still crying, but silently now. Her tears soak through my pajamas and dampen my chest. I stroke her hair and sing a lullaby my mother used to sing to me, tell her some of my favorite stories, tell her to rest for now, to sleep.
Even when her breaths finally even out, I still hold on to her. She’s so warm, such a bundle of light; I fear that if I let go, her light will go out. Only when I fall asleep do I let myself relax.
The next day, Yaulan’s eyes are puffy from crying. She looks at herself in the mirror, prods at the newfound creases in her eyelids, and makes a face.
"I want my monolids back," she says. "I don’t look like myself."
"You look lovely," I say, and Yaulan turns, frowning.
"Are you making fun of me?" she says, putting her hands on her hips. She’s trying to play it off as a joke, but I can tell from her tone that she’s feeling hurt.
"No, I’m serious!" I say. "Really, you look fine."
She lets her hands fall and sighs, her stance slumped now. A flush rises to her cheeks.
"I feel so silly for. . . what happened."
I get up and give her a hug. She’s tense at first, but then she relaxes into me. I rub her back.
"Sometimes things like that happen," I say. "It’s okay."
After a moment, she breaks away from me. She’s looking at me like she doesn’t believe that I’m real, and for a second, I start doubting myself too, start wondering why she’s looking at me like that—but then she speaks and interrupts my thoughts.
". . .You’re really not going to scold me?"
I furrow my brow.
"Why would I scold you?" I ask. "You told me yourself, you’re sick. I wouldn’t scold you for coughing; why should I be angry with you for your mind’s illness?"
She’s scrutinizing me, like she’s testing me. Then, she smiles at last.
"I really like you, Meisun," she says, and I blush. "Really. I’m glad you’re in my life."
Her words linger with me for the rest of the day. I find that I like her too, in a way that feels both familiar and terrifying. It’s a swelling in my chest and suddenly I remember you. Would you be upset? We had bonded for life, after all. But what happens when your life is over, yet mine goes on?
I’m still feeling anxious when I walk into Dr. Roberts’s office later that day.
"Is there anything on your mind?" he says. "You seem distracted."
"I. . ." I pause. "I keep thinking about—about my partner. The other bird. About how we were supposed to live and die together, but I’m still alive. If I were to be with someone else—would that be okay?"
"You aren’t a bird, Meisun," Dr. Roberts says, and anger flares in my chest.
"But I am," I retort. Then, I doubt myself and add, "Or, I was."
"Then you aren’t a bird anymore," Dr. Roberts says, his voice level, and suddenly something shifts within me. "You’re human now, and you live with humans now, all right?"
Part of me resents him, but part of me considers what he says.
I am human.
And maybe humans love differently.
This Saturday, Yaulan and I go out to the beach under Nurse Florence’s supervision. It’s a beautiful day, with cirrus clouds pulled loose across the gentle blue sky; we pack lunches and bring a picnic basket. Yaulan wears her favorite deep blue cheongsam, and I wear a white one. She teases me for being so modest, my cheongsam looser against my body, and I stick out my tongue at her.
I tell her and Nurse Florence stories about Toisan in between bites of our sandwiches. Nurse Florence nods, acknowledging my words, while Yaulan listens wide-eyed; she’s never been to China before.
"Maybe we can visit Toisan together someday," she says.
"I’d like that," I reply.
We explore the beach, climb into the caves, and I’d regret wearing my white cheongsam if not for the fact that I’m having far too much fun. We climb back out onto the sand. Yaulan picks up one shell, and I pick up another; I scour the sand for an unbroken shell, one with that perfect mother-of-pearl sheen.
When I look up, Yaulan’s already several paces ahead. The setting sun turns her into a silhouette; the wind whips at her hair and the skirt of her cheongsam as she walks barefoot in the sand. She holds her arms out, like she’s balancing herself on an invisible beam. I see her soaring in my mind’s eye, and suddenly my heart aches.
She’ll never be you, but she’s not meant to. She had no part in them taking away our bond, and if our bond helped her so, was that such a bad thing? Besides, she’s human, and so am I; we’re not meant to be joined together like kimkim. Love for humans means flying side-by-side in the same direction, two separate beings working together.
I catch up to Yaulan and grasp her hand. She turns, surprised, and a grin spreads across her face. It’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed, but even so, sadness still lingers in her eyes, in the way she holds herself.
But that’s okay. I’m not expecting magic, for us to live happily ever after. All I want is to be beside her and hope for the best.
I lean in and kiss her forehead, and in that moment I think, I love you.