Novel Excerpt: Queen Fatty
After school, Fatty tied her siblings to the dining table at home, then headed across the courtyard to her friend Mui Mui’s building.
Fatty found the one-eyed cat licking a plastic bag out front and scooped her up. The sei baat po had the strangest cravings and could often be found tearing into a piece of bamboo, wood, or loose cement, slowly consuming Sai Tau Village, piece by piece. That’s why her breath was so rotten, why her farts smelled like the courtyard, but it didn’t stop Fatty from kissing her damp nose and crusted eye socket. Had it ever contained an eye? she wondered, as she wiped an ant from her friend’s lip. She smashed the ant and fed it back to her. The cat purred.
“I’m going to pinch your ban zau!” Deaf Man’s Son screamed. He chased Little Pig across the second-floor landing of Mui Mui’s building and downstairs to the courtyard, where a pack of children cried, “Pinch it!” Flathead Boy, who was known for his kindheartedness, was the only one who stood back, mumbling that maybe they should leave Little Pig’s ban zau alone. But when Deaf Man’s Son ordered him to pin down Little Pig, Flathead Boy pushed the crying child to the ground and slapped him hard. Fatty hated Flathead Boy the most. He never wanted to beat anyone up. And that’s why he did. Once cornered, all his dread and kindness exploded into violence.
Mrs. Gwok stepped out of her first-floor unit with a baby on her hip and screamed at the children in a mixture of Cantonese and Shanghainese, but the children’s cries and her screaming infant drowned her out. Next door, Ming, a teenager who worked the night shift at a plastic flower factory, stuck his head out the window and told the children to stop playing with each other’s gaus or he would come down and rip them all off. “Great!” the children cried. “Brother is coming to play! Let’s see if we can’t pinch his----”
As usual, Ming gave up and blasted his radio, but Fatty thought that the soft guitars, wimpy vocals, and English words were too gentle to convey his rage. Upstairs, Mrs. Chin, an elderly woman from Toi Saan, laughed from her second-story window. She was the only other adult in the building who was home and awake during the day and was charged with looking after her grandchild, Beautiful, but everyone said she was too demented to control her and her friends. Fatty thought the old thing was sharp enough. Why else would she hobble to her doorway for a better view of the fight? She popped her false teeth into her mouth and, stabbing her cane in the air, yelled: “Get him, Flathead Boy! That bastard Little Pig never helps me up the stairs.” Then: “Fight back, Little Pig! Wai, Fatty! Can you carry me down? My leg hurts.”
Fatty ignored Mrs. Chin and carried the cat up to the room Mui Mui shared with her father and fourteen-year-old sister. Mui Mui wasn’t there, and the room looked as if it had just been ransacked. Clothes spilled out of an old suitcase and cloth bags. The rice bag and water buckets, which were usually stored under the bed, were scattered across the floor. The photographs on the shelf lay face-down, amidst sticks of half-burned incense and piles of ash. The room was stuffy and smelled like Mui Mui’s sweet, tangy sweat.
After school, Mui Mui was supposed to finish stitching the hairnets her sister had brought back from the factory the previous day, so she would have less to do when she returned in the evening. Instead of a hairnet, Fatty found a scrap of fabric in the sewing machine with “Ma” stitched in red thread. Beneath the salutation, a long vertical line stretched down to “Mui Mui”. Maybe the line represented everything that Mui Mui couldn’t say. Maybe it was a severed tongue. A sigh. Maybe it represented a road leading mother to daughter, the path from their hometown to Hong Kong.
All the people in the neighborhood—and some of the children—had left behind their families and hometowns in southern China to crowd around this courtyard. Fatty often wondered about life on the mainland. When addressing the past, villagers sighed and shrugged their shoulders, and if compelled to speak, offered a brief history in mumbled fragments: “Japanese boys,” “war,” “nothing to eat.” Why did they come to Hong Kong? Wan sik! It was the law of the village. Adults uttered those words so often Fatty could see the imprint of wan sik on their lips. Unlike Fatty’s parents, who’d journeyed to Hong Kong during the civil war and had their children in the city, the Fungs had snuck down to Hong Kong from Pun Jyu five years earlier, when Mui Mui was nine, so that her father and sister could find work in the factories and send money back to her mother and three younger sisters who’d stayed behind. Mui Mui cried about her mother when one of her letters arrived, but what really upset her were potatoes, though she would not explain why. At the sight of a potato, she’d break into a sweat and scream, “Get that thing away from me!” Fatty was never to mention or think about anything potato related in Mui Mui’s presence.
On the roof, Mui Mui was so absorbed in the fight down on the courtyard that she didn’t notice Fatty approaching with the one-eyed cat trapped in her arms, ready to drop it on top of her head, an ongoing practical joke that the girls played on each other. She looked so thin, as if the sky had sucked the meat straight off her bones, leaving only skin and eyes. Why is the sky so cruel? Fatty thought. Why does it swallow everything except the parts that can feel?
Fatty wasn’t any better than the sky. She had no appetite for sadness, so she headed for the stairs. The cat saw a cricket and growled, fighting for release from Fatty’s grip. Fatty let her go. The little cat also had to wan sik.
“Fatty!” Mui Mui said. “What’s wrong? Why are you running off?”
“Calm down,” Fatty said. “I’m just coming over here to pick my nose.”
“I’ve been watching you since you left your house. I said to myself, ‘The way Fatty’s sticking her butt out, I can tell she’s going to play a trick on me. And the way she’s holding her arm makes me think…’”
“That’s better.” Fatty proudly examined the dried snot on her finger. She flicked it over the side of the roof, aiming for Flathead Boy, who was counting with his eyes closed. They had grown bored of torturing Little Pig and moved on to hide-and-seek, but Mrs. Chin called out for him to seek revenge.
“Why were you going to leave?” Mui Mui said. “Does my ear look very ugly today?” Her ear consisted of a flap of skin and a little lobe. Though there was no hole, she claimed that it could hear.
“It looks tasty,” Fatty said.
She had made the mistake of answering honestly once when Mui Mui asked if her ear was very strange. She told her friend that sometimes it was hard to concentrate when they were talking, because the ear looked so delicious, and ever since then Mui Mui thought that people were always secretly thinking about it.
“What’s that on your arm?” Mui Mui asked, as she approached.
Fatty hid her wounded arm behind her back.
“That smelly cunt,” Mui Mui said. “Your mother’s only good at beating people up. What did she do to you this time?”
Fatty felt as though she were a piece of cloth trapped beneath the needles of her friend’s eyes. They were pretty eyes. Big and bright, long lashes. Still, it was rude to scrutinize a friend, and ruder still to declare what you saw: “Your arm must really hurt, if you won’t show it to me.” Even the little ear stared at Fatty. Everyone knew that deformities had secret powers. Though the ear couldn’t hear what she said aloud, maybe it could hear Fatty’s thoughts.
“At least I have a mother,” Fatty said.
Then she was eating the shit-speckled roof. Mui Mui never told people to “eat shit.” She simply slammed your face into the nearest pile. As Fatty fought the urge to vomit, Mui Mui pummeled her kidneys and cursed her ugly dark body filled with trash and the semen of old perverts. Then she turned Fatty over, pinning her arms down with her knees, and slapped her. Fatty felt her head hit the edge of the roof. There was no railing. One push from Mui Mui, and she’d fall two stories and splatter onto the courtyard to become the one-eyed cat’s next snack. She knew that the little cat would have no qualms licking her up, and she was confident about Mui Mui’s ability to kill her. (Could they be friends otherwise?) Mui Mui was thin, but hunger made her vicious. Her face shone with tears, snot, and sweat. She spat on Fatty, pried her lips open, spat again, then again. Fatty felt Mui Mui’s saliva drip into her mouth, but she refused to swallow the poison. “Da sei nei,” Mui Mui said as she pummeled her, and for a moment, Fatty thought she really might die.
She always lost the first round—she needed to. If she didn’t sense defeat, she couldn’t fight. Now she licked the blood off her lip and pushed Mui Mui off. She punched her friend’s slimy face, gnawed on her neck, grabbed her little nipple and twisted. Mui Mui screamed, and Fatty threw her head back and howled. They rolled across the roof, clawing and kicking, tearing out hair. Mui Mui struck the wound on Fatty’s arm; Fatty bit her friend’s little ear. You chicken, you fat pig, you potato, potato, potato.
“Hurry up, Mui Mui!” a voice cried out. It sounded like Little Pig. “Teach Fatty a lesson!”
A crowd of children huddled over them, urging them to fight, pushing them away from the edge of the roof when they got too close.
“Mui Mui, add oil!” Deaf Man’s Son said.
“Don’t let Fatty win!” said Flathead Boy.
“Don’t let her think that she’s queen!”
“Why is she queen? More like a slave!”
No one ever cheered for Fatty, so when she fought her friend, she felt as though she were also fighting all the other children, who were forever trying to topple her reign over the village.
“Wai!” Mrs. Chin yelled from downstairs. “What’s going on? Someone carry me up!”
Fatty bit Mui Mui’s good ear and drew blood. Mui Mui sobbed, “How could you? How could you chew up my good ear? Now I’m really disabled.”
Knowing that tears signaled the end of the performance, the crowd drifted back down to the courtyard. Fatty and Mui Mui fought a couple times a week, so the neighborhood children, whose parents couldn’t afford toys, games, or trips to the movies, had come to rely on them for entertainment. “What should we do now?” Little Pig said.
“Weren’t you cooking some rice at home?” Beautiful asked.
“Fuck, it’s probably burned now. Ma’s going to kill me when she gets home.”
“Beautiful!” Mrs. Chin yelled.
“Grandma, calm down. I’m coming home.”
Fatty stared up at the sky and panted. The sky panted too and bled. The Downbeats played over the courtyard, mixing with a communist anthem, and the sound of Deaf Man’s opera as he returned from work. Her skin was hot, but inside, she felt quiet and cool. The cat licked the salt off the soles of her feet. Fatty glanced at Mui Mui lying next to her, holding both ears. She felt closest to her friend in these moments, when they lay together in silence, recovering from what they did to each other.