Lucy Zhang "Xian Dan"

Dad likes salted duck eggs but the eggs from Mei Dong Market are too salty. Not even porridge can dilute them enough. I used to think the greenish-gray color of the whites was normal: slice any store-bought egg open and you’d be greeted with the same moldy-colored denatured protein surrounding a dried yolk shriveling in on itself, peeling away from the edges and oozing oil. I imagine this is what happens to your face after aging. Mom decided we should make our own. She doesn’t know where to buy fresh duck eggs so we use chicken eggs instead. She places the eggs on our counter, under the sun. They have to sunbathe, she tells me. I don’t even sunbathe, I reply. I wonder if the sun makes the eggs happier somehow—mom is a big proponent of happy food making happy stomachs. I can’t deny the sun’s comfort: I’ll lie by the glass sliding door, stomach down, legs under the light, trying to warm up because dad refuses to turn on the heater. Just give him that much, mom tells me when I insist on bumping the thermostat up one degree. Dad is the kind of guy who could earn all the money in the world but would still set timers in the bathrooms to ensure our showers didn’t exceed five minutes—it takes two minutes for the water to warm. He put plastic buckets in the bathtubs to collect shower water to wash rags and old sponges. He refused to let us toss watermelon rinds into the compost bin even after we left teeth marks in the wedges, and would refrigerate the rinds to pickle or stir fry later. A few summers ago, he tried to cook the watermelon’s remaining hard-as-a-helmet shell too, but mom balked. I pull the blinds up so more light can shine through, blanketing both the eggs and my face. I used to think I could raise chickens from the eggs refrigerated in the side aisles of the grocery store, the cold preserving them in state until I was ready to free them from recycled pulp cartons and hatch them into the world.

Mom boils a pot of water and stirs in an unmeasured bowl of salt. Then she breaks off the arms of a star anise fruit snap like she’s cracking fingers, splitting away nails, the kind of sound you never get to hear in over-the-top, scream-filled torture scenes—quiet, brief, evenly-paced and you’d think it’d last forever even though we only have ten fingers, the star anise only eight horns. You can go crazy from that sound, your hair leached of pigment, a full Marie Antoinette transformation. I wonder why mom has more white hair than dad. Maybe caring for dad has finally stopped her stem cells from producing melanocytes in her hair follicles? Mom lets me toss an old, wrinkled piece of ginger and dried licorice root into the brine because she knows salt will overpower the aromatics, and dad won’t notice a thing. I like to think I’m making a difference, though.

I place the sun-kissed eggs in a plastic container half-full of baijiu, rolling them to soak the sides evenly since mom won’t let me use enough baijiu to submerge them completely. Alcohol is expensive and dad wouldn’t want us wasting it on eggs. I’m not even sure he knows we’re using the baijiu like this, and I suppose it doesn’t matter since the doctors forbid him from drinking. Although mom will still sneak him Maotai. You’re just catapulting him closer to death, I tell her. But this must be one of those things only older people can understand—the equivalent exchange between a few more years left with us and a porcelain bottle of liquor. Mom says I’m too young and one year of life is proportionally worth more to me, so of course, I’d value time the most.

After the brine cools, I drop the eggs in, holding my breath every time an egg plops into the fluid and hits the container bottom with a thump, watching for cracks. It amazes me when an egg does crack just lightly enough so the thin membrane beneath the shell manages to prevent its inner guts from spilling. My younger self would take this egg to hatch first. It’s so eager to become a chick, but it’s not ready yet, I’d tell mom who’d be standing by the stove under a rumbling vent, rubbing her temples as she waited for the oil in our burnt and dented wok to heat. Not ready for what? She’d ask. Not ready to die, is my answer, although back then, I’d say not ready to live. The incubation period is about three weeks, but I once spent two months waiting for a chick to peck its way out; it became a sunny-side-up breakfast instead. It also takes around three weeks for the salt to seep into the yolk. Mom stores the container on our counter, the spot behind the sack of rice, where the sun never reaches. Now, we wait.

Bio: Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, The Fourth River, New Orleans Review and elsewhere, and was selected for Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions. She is losing sleep over a novel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.