Five Wounds

Five Wounds

Image credit: Sofie Praestgaard.

I met Lily at a church called Five Wounds. She claimed to be part-Portuguese, though she looked the same as me. I’m from Hong Kong, she said, and Hong Kong used to be a lot of other places. She sat next to me on the pew, steering her knees into mine, and in the dim, she slimed her hands in Vaseline and posed them in her lap like glossed frogs. I wanted to suck the meat off them, to floss my teeth with her fingerbones. I moonlight as a ghost, she said. You know Halloween Haunt?

Yes, I said, I know Halloween Haunt. Every year they transformed the amusement park into a fog-fuddled zombie ground, building haunted houses and haunted high school gymnasiums and haunted freak shows where painted zombies lobbed sugar skulls at you or chased you with rubber chainsaws. Last year it got shut down by the city, which claimed the performers were going too far – some zombie had cornered a girl into the bathroom and spat foam at her and waved around his spray-painted knife, and she’d had a seizure on the cement floor.

Lily said she’d worked that year as a part-time ghost, not the cheap bedsheet kind – a real ghost, she said, like a Chinese one, hungry. You know, with my entrails gowning me, with my mouth narrow as a knifepoint, with my kidney following me like a fish. She floated between kettle-corn booths and draped herself in the smog produced by barrel machines and didn’t go for the obvious scares – no props, she said, no running and screaming and chasing anyone with a hose full of smoke – all I did, she said, was touch my thumb once to the back of a girl’s neck. Then I drifted away. And she was spooked, I knew it, I saw her look back at me, but I wasn’t there, and that was scarier than those boys with their revving chainsaws and their glow-in-the-dark skullcaps, I’m what disappears. See, she said, slinging out her hand, pressing a wet thumb to the back of my neck, retracting again. See, she said, you scared?

I said we were technically in a sacred place, so no. She laughed, and I asked if she saw that girl have her seizure. Is it true, I asked, that you can accidentally bite off your own tongue in the middle of one? No, she said, that girl’s tongue was still in her mouth when the ambulance got there. I mopped the bathroom floor after they took her away and I didn’t find any tongue. I did find some tampons and a necklace, though. This one, she said, hooking her thumb behind the chain around her neck and jerking it toward me. The faux-gold chain was gritty with rust, and the pendant looked like the twisted-off head of a fork. That’s just temporary, she said, I’m going to get something real to hang from here. Maybe a crucifix, I said, and she laughed. I only go to churches cause they’re quiet, she said, and I told her that she wasn’t being very quiet. True, she said, and laughed again, a tinfoil laugh that sounded like something being punctured.

It was my first time in Five Wounds, and I hadn’t noticed Lily walk up behind me and sit down. For a second I’d wondered if she was some kind of specter, if Christians believed in ghosts the way my family did, if I was supposed to pocket a leaf before entering so that its life force would repel the dead. But Lily was not a specter: when she sat down, the back of her bare thighs suctioned to the dark wood, and when she tried to cross her legs, the sound of her skin unfastening from the pew echoed off the walls. I only entered because there was a sign in front of the church marking it a historical landmark, and I wanted to know what was historical about it, besides its height and the amount of dark it could stomach. Lily introduced herself to me and said, do you know why they call it Five Wounds? No, I said, revising the idea that she was a ghost and instead casting her as a tour guide. Me neither, she said, but I like the specificity. Five wounds. Just five.

Five is a lot of wounds, I said. You can die of just one. Why five? Lily smiled at me and said, the Portuguese must have a hang-up with blood. I would know, I’m part. That’s why my eyes are kind of light, she said.

But when I looked at her, when I leaned in and really looked, I couldn’t tell that her eyes were any lighter than mine. Her eyes were the same, pupil and iris made of the same churned water, her hair the same length as mine too, though straighter and darker, the kind my mother called broom-hair. She could bind her hair with twine and sweep spirits from the corners of this place. It’s a good thing that girl didn’t bite off her tongue, Lily said, because you need your tongue for a lot of things.

I wondered if she was flirting with me. Yeah? I said. Yeah, she said. You need it to pray. You need it to say your name. You know, I should have been the one to scare her. I wouldn’t have left her shaking on the floor like that. I would have held her head, I would have pried open her mouth and made a fist around her tongue to protect it. I would have kissed her. I wouldn’t have let her be trayed and taken away.

It’s good she was taken away, I said, because I couldn’t think of what else to say. She needed to be treated at a hospital. Lily turned to me again, though I was trying to look at my own clasped hands and pretend to pray.

I followed you in here because I could tell you wanted to be followed, Lily said. I did that at the Haunt too, when I was a ghost. I followed the girls who wanted to risk their tongues, to have their necks thumbed.

I don’t like churches, I said. I’ve only been to one once, another one. It was a funeral for one of my relatives, an uncle who converted to Christianity when he was forty. I didn’t understand why, until my mother explained that a fortune teller told him he had bad karma and must atone for his crimes in a past life. He must have converted to escape his debts, I said, but it didn’t work, because he died a few years later of bad lungs.

Lily laughed at this story. You can’t run, she said, that’s one of the lines we used at Halloween Haunt. You can’t run! And of course they’d try to run faster, and they enjoyed it, running from something. Because whatever is ahead of you can’t be worse than what’s behind you.

That’s very profound, I told her. I would like to feel that, I said. Then stand up, Lily said, stand up and I’ll chase you. But I stayed sitting, and so did Lily, and she started to tell me a story, about how her mother had a limb made of wind. She couldn’t ever hold on to anything, Lily said, she could only assault it. She whisked up dunes of dandruff, she bruised everything she touched. She carried her limb of wind everywhere. There’s no way to sever something made of air.

What happened to her, I asked, and Lily said that she was gone. Eventually her entire body assimilated into wind, and now she rattled bodies of water and induced storms in other countries and occasionally visited her daughters by wind-burning their chins and suspending their skirt-hems, lifting them to the ribs.

The story was a lie, but I didn’t mind. I could tell that Lily lied a lot. What a lie needed was a believer, and I was willing. I’d come here willing something, willing to be seen, and Lily was turning toward me again, her hands on my shoulders, swiveling me toward a window, stained-glass, of a woman getting stabbed. I bet you that’s one of the five wounds, she said, and I laughed. What crime is she paying for, Lily said, waiting for me to answer, waiting for me to corroborate her lies, and I said, I’m not sure, but she looks thirsty. Maybe that was it. Thirst! Lily said, of course.

At my uncle’s funeral, the priest read aloud a passage, something about how the lord was a shepherd leading the souls of the dead to pasture. My mother said she could respect that: a shepherd was a peasant, and we were peasants too. She reminded me of this every morning, that we used to reel rivers in like rope, that we used to bury our dead before cremation was invented, before bones were converted into paper currency, and somewhere in an unnamed field was a century of our dead, all their bodies corralled into one ground, and there was nothing more holy than that dirt. When I die, my mother said, find that field and herd me into it. I don’t want to be alone. My uncle requested to be buried whole, but it was too expensive for us to buy a plot of land, so we cremated him and buried his ashes in the dirt beside the highway. There were hundreds of crosses staked into the sand there, some made of popsicle sticks and others made of bicycle handlebars or deer antlers. Whenever we drove by the highway entrance, my mother and I said hello to our uncle and held our breath so that he wouldn’t be jealous of our lungs and rob them from us. This way is better, my mother said, this way we can see him for free, and look how he’s never lonely. I wanted to say he probably was, since all the cars and buses were just passing by, none of them deliberately looking for him, but instead I said nothing.

Lily said that she didn’t know of any gods who were shepherds, only gods who were goats. I laughed and took her hands in my lap, lifting them to my mouth, licking her knuckles into bells. When the girl had her seizure, I wanted to know, was she alone? Yes, Lily said, the zombie ran away. He got scared when she fell to the ground, growling foam. That’s funny, I said, and Lily nodded. She said that if I really wanted to know what she felt like, we should get on the ground together and try it together, having a seizure. Wasn’t that what happened when you were possessed by spirits, when something godly wore your skin, when the dead had no exit?

Lily stood up and walked to the aisles, kneeling on the carpet, and then she slumped onto her back and splayed her limbs, rattling her ribs into silver music, her mouth open and her tongue out, glittering the air with spit. I stood up too, walking toward her, leaning over her body, kneeling to cage her head in my hands. Her eyes were rolled all the way back, blank as pearls, and her teeth were threaded with blood. Stop, I said, stop it, but she didn’t listen to me. She started to scream, the kind of movie-scream that slit open the screen and let in all the wrong kinds of light. I tried to shove my fingers in her mouth, but she kept screaming. I sprawled my body on top of hers, her belly buoying mine, but she only opened her mouth wider, wide enough to worm into her throat and indebt myself to her dirt.

K-Ming Chang

is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Her debut novel Bestiary (One World/Random House, 2020) was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice. Her short story collection, RESIDENT ALIENS, is forthcoming from One World. More of her work can be found at

All contributions from K-Ming Chang

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