I learn about the trolley problem when I’m eight years old and my cousin explains it, laying out sidewalks of soldiers with limbs frail as willow branches. Here, he says, you can pull the lever and kill one person instead of five, step into responsibility for death like an oversized jacket too heavy on the shoulders. He runs a toy truck across the sandalwood floor and snaps the branch-bough legs off five soldiers. I learn about the trolley problem and wish I hadn’t.
The issue here is not choosing one or the other, but whether you will disturb the pre-ordained path of the cosmos, sear the mark of slaughter into your melted skin and rip seams in the threadbare spool of justice. There are no do-overs. There are no elegant solutions, only abstract problems.
Chinese grandparents speak often of the concept of yuanfen—a turn of a relationship, decided by destiny. People you knew once and have since run into again, parallelism in past lives, a deck stacked in your best interests before you were born. The truth about yuanfen is that it doesn’t account for the girl I ran into at a hawker center and still can’t leave behind. The truth about yuanfen is that it can’t explain why my mother tells me anything is better than symmetry in relationships, in marriage, in love, that anything is better than two girls rhyming home with each other’s heartbeats. Yuanfen can’t explain why my mother wants to forget me.
I sit next to my cousin on the couch. We’re watching Star Trek, surrounded by scratched-up Teresa Teng records and DVDs of preschool plays, mee goreng stains rolling neon over sheepskin carpet. The same as clay-silted waters in the bending Yellow River. On-screen, the admiral oversees a simulation session, his brow set and face stippled with pixelated pores. The camera quality metastasizes like dust-blooms on a sheet of Plexiglas. I shuffle closer to watch, ignoring the Stefanie Sun CD case digging into my leg. The simulation is about a ship called the Kobayashi Maru, and this, too, is one without a clear win. A choice of rescue or restraint. The Starfleet can decide to act or do nothing; step into the line of fire and don the responsibility for soul-sapped bodies, or float through space, ignoring the distress signal and the cries of people aboard the Kobayashi Maru. This choice is never memorialized in the fossils of long-dead things; it merely echoes forever.
My family’s favourite time of the month is the full moon. It means reuniting, cracking open the bones of your ancestors to find your history. The time the gods beckon one to turn heel and head back home. Wai Po tells me this while I pluck the silver hairs from her head with a pair of rusted tweezers; tells me about the fifteenth day of the month and the midway point to anemic courage, about the coming of spring, fish markets, mooncake moulds and fourteen-day festivals that last only until the vast light of dawn has settled in our chests like a salve. The moon, in Chinese, means rescue. Yue—moon—is a synecdoche for the month, the fulcrum on which time is weighed.
A layer of mud sweeps over my skin, apathy thawing into panic like a gas lamp-lit beneath the ribs. I stand in the shower and the mud doesn’t come off. I scrape at it with razor-blade nails and scratch peach-pink lines into the skin of my underarm and the mud doesn’t come off; bloodless, blank, bound to me like it’s been mooncake-moulded to my soul and still it doesn’t come off, so I drop to my knees and a sob rips stitch-by-seam from my throat. Surrounded by patches and puddles of watery, radioactive blood coaxed from my flesh, arms sore. Thirteen years old and begging for a God with which my ancestors had to be saved. Praying post-apostasy in desperation or disbelief, praying to find a half-month miracle—a mother who knows how to let me go and still chooses not to.
The first time my mother hits me in public is at the roti tisu breakfast stall and I keep saying sorry, sorry, sorry when I don’t know what I’m apologizing for, just that ‘sorry’ is a form of currency we trade in; a stock in sadness, co-owned. The scars on my underarms throb with regret.
So here’s what I mean: I’m sorry I love you and I’m sorry you had to love me. I’m sorry I’m still attached to you like an amputated bow-arm of the Yellow River. I’m sorry I don’t know how to leave you behind.
The night of the full moon, Wai Po sits me down on the sofa. Star Trek is playing. She slaps me on the cheek for daring to look away while she speaks and then she says yuanfen can only do so much before the rest is up to you. It is your right and your duty, she tells me, to ignore yuanfen if its calls lead you wayward. The scars throb. I pull up the sleeve of my sweater and scrape the skin, absently, just to soothe the itch. When she asks if I understand, I say yes. The mud doesn’t come off. Five people or one. The line of fire or the scope of safety. That night at the dinner table, my mother stands up and says to all of us: life is full of small graces, and we should be thankful for them instead of focusing on the grievances.
Graces and grievances, Mother. The grace is that you didn’t throw me away. The grief is that you might. The grief is that if you did, I wouldn’t blame you. Because from the moment I was lifted between your legs, screaming and bleached in blood and all of six pounds, I’ve been trying to prove my body is mine instead of yours, and maybe that’s why the ship still needs saving.
Sophie Choong is a fifteen-year-old student in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has been recognized by the Royal Canadian Legion, the League of Canadian Poets, and Paracosm Literary Journal, among others. In her free time, she enjoys drinking green tea, playing video games, snowboarding, and watching Ghibli movies.