Once when I was seven, I locked myself in the bathroom because my brother was threatening to tie a firecracker to each of my wrists and explode me like a melon. It was my cousin Henry who knocked on the door and coaxed me out with a dollar bill. Look, he said, crumpling the bill in his fist. Now close your eyes. My mother always told me not to shut my eyes around a boy, not even my own cousins and uncles and especially not my grandfather, who once impregnated thirty girls and a herd of goats in his hometown, if you can believe what my aunts say as they’re undoing their curlers every morning. But I shut my eyes anyway, because Henry was more bone than boy: he was so skinny his legs resembled the bamboo poles my grandfather used to whip us with, his shins flexing like bowstrings beneath his weight, and his wrists were narrow enough to reach through the wooden boards of the neighbor’s mold-crusted fence and tempt the white dog that was rumored to eat only live meat.
It was my brother who first challenged Henry to stick his hand through that fence. You’ve got wrists like a girl’s, he said, looking at Henry and then me. I knew my brother was jealous that Henry was so much taller than him, than all of us – my mother said it was because his father was Korean and that’s why his last name was a syllable we couldn’t puncture with our tongues. Koreans are tall, my mother said, and handsome like movie stars, but I could only imagine Henry as the casualty, the corpse in a war scene, the ghost eating light straight out of the sky. We all watched as Henry agreed to jimmy his hand through the crack in the neighbor’s fence, the one my brother had poked eye-holes into. It was the only house in the neighborhood that had a wooden fence and not a chain-link one, the house sheathed in shadow, and all I could see were trees with bad haircuts bobbing above the fence. If you got too close to the fence, a dog slammed its whole body up against it, snarling and wrestling the air for its breath, rattling the boards, and I could see flashes of the beast through the holes my brother poked: white fur, teeth, a collar maybe. Henry didn’t know there was a dog because he was new from Taiwan, though all we could see that was different about him was a vaccination scar on his right arm, raised like a pearl, and the fact that he had wrists like a woman, whipping the light around like a bracelet. So Henry didn’t know and got up near the fence and stuck his hand through the crack while all of us watched. His hand slipped into the slivered dark without even a splinter, easy as an eel, and I almost gasped at the grace of it, like watching a fish flee a fist.
Then the dog charged the fence, hauling its teeth and barbed tail. I turned and ran away, ran home before its teeth could tattle on me. My brother told me later there was no scream or blood or anything, that the dog came bounding but Henry didn’t run, didn’t even pull back his hand back through the fence. It was true: the dog came right up and sudsed Henry’s palm with its tongue, licked each of his fingers clean as a blade, nuzzled his wrist. At first I didn’t believe it, demanding to see Henry’s hand, the evidence of its severance, but it was true. His hand was unscarred, silver with dog-spit, baptized in it. My brother and I always avoided the fence, flinched from it like a backhand. We thought the dog wanted to drag the blood out of us, unfurl it into a carpet. We never once thought it just wanted to be touched. We never knew it was so leashed to need.
After that, my brother left Henry alone and I believed his hands holy: they touched you tame, touched you tender. I spread a rumor about them, and all the pregnant ladies in the neighborhood came asking for Henry-the-one-with-the-hands-that-tame-beasts-no-not-that-boy-that-ugly-boy-who-looks-just-like-his-father-I-mean-that-one-the-skinny-tall-one-yes-touch-my-belly-right-here-yes-here-and-make-my-son-of-course-it-will-be-a-son-a-gentle-one-yes-grant-him-goodness-replace-his-father’s-touch-with-yours-thank-you. I even convinced Henry to start wearing gloves to protect his hands: you have to save your touch, I told him, don’t spend it all at once. Now his hands were paler than the rest of him, the color of Coca-Cola-yellowed teeth. When Henry asked me to shut my eyes, I did. He told me he had a trick. I pretended I was praying and Henry was our saint, Our Saint of Saber-Toothed Mutts. I could hear the dollar bill folding in his fist, the sweat on his chin. Open, he said, and when I did, he opened his right hand. Staged on his palm was the dollar bill flapping its wings, folded into a bird, each crease so sharp I wanted to run my tongue along it and dye it into a cardinal. It looked like the crows in our neighborhood that ate roadkill, except smaller, except it lived on Henry’s palm and opened its wings and beat them twice. The dollar-bird turned its head from side to side and opened a green beak, calling to me, except its voice was knotted deep in its belly and refused to unravel. Close your eyes again, he said, and when I opened them, the bird was folded into a ninja-star, and then it was a six-petaled flower, and then it was an anteater, an elephant, a water buffalo, all of them with wings, all the animals he must have seen in another country, a country with a sky wide enough for every species.
When I asked him how he’d learned to fold things, Henry said he was taught by a Japanese man who owned his apartment complex back in Taichung. Then one day the Japanese man raised the rent and Henry folded his homework into a real samurai sword and beheaded the landlord. Dogshit, I said, and he laughed, said I should believe him: after all, wasn’t he the one who tamed the dog with a single touch? Then he unfolded the dollar bill, smoothed it flat against my palm, and told me to finalize its form. I spent all of that night on the upper bunk, listening to my brother sleep-fight with his own pillow, trying to fold that dollar bill in the dark. But my sweat wilted the corners and the bill shirked every shape I tried to show it.
In the end, I slid it into my pillowcase where my mother hid a good-luck charm in a plastic bag, a square of red paper with a word I couldn’t read. Years later, after Henry’s funeral, I burned both the charm and the dollar bill I’d kept all those years, both faded almost blank, both made illegible by light. My mother was the one who found out first that Henry had been mugged and stabbed on our street, and I laughed when I heard, laughed because I knew Henry only kept ones in his wallet. Every fold, he always told me, is felt. A place to pocket pain. His mother in Taiwan wept into the phone and asked us to send his bone fragments back to her, but my mother said they were too brittle to be shipped internationally.
In the backyard, I broke off one of the neighbor’s fence-boards and burned it. It loosened like a baby tooth, the fence weak-kneed with rot that must have been growing inside the grain for years before we could see it. First I burned the charm, browned in my sweat, the word spreading like a rash. Then the dollar bill, its edges frayed. The flame fingered upward, folding the bill into a new shape, a white-hot dog made of smoke, and I reached forward thinking it was Henry’s hand in that fire. I made a fist around the flames, the light, remembering his hand through that fence and how he didn’t even flinch, even knowing what was on the other side, the teeth of what he couldn’t see. He opened his hand and reached for me.
K–Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel Bestiary is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020. You can find her at kmingchang.com and on Twitter @k_mingchang
Featured image: Truenos Alegres by Rebeca Isabel Garcia