Last week I flushed my sister’s ashes down the toilet. I fed the bowl the dust that used to be Yun’s body and watched as the water whirled it around with its cold tongue. Afterwards I flushed a few more times, just to make sure I hadn’t missed any leftovers.
Yun had requested her ashes to be flushed. She explained that she wanted to be removed like waste and poured into a hole, because she entered the world through my mother’s hole and wanted to leave through another. She wrote all of this on a note I found next to her dead body. For Shaun, it stated. Use the toilet. I don’t want to be buried. I want my body to scatter. I want to be fluid. I hid the note from my father, who wanted to toss Yun’s ashes in the ocean instead.
After I flushed my sister, I went to the kitchen and drank cherry Kool-Aid as a toast to her, the colored sugar still sitting at the bottom of the cup, staining my teeth red. I used to hate cherries as a boy, because I believed my sister was born from the fruit. Because I once heard my father tell another father that he knew what his daughter tasted like. Because when he used to change Yun’s diapers he stuck his thumb inside her and popped her cherry while digging around. Small as a pit, he told the other father, shaping out a hole with his fingers. You could plant seeds inside.
My father also mentioned Yun tasting sweet. I decided it wasn’t a good sweet, like the fistfuls of M&M’s us kids used to cram in our mouths, but a sickening adult sweet, like bile and icing mingled after purging cake. I only understood what my father meant after I slept with a white girl in college, who said I had the tongue of a dog who never learned how to lap up water. By then I knew what my sister really tasted like. Back in summer camp, she let seven-year-old me bite her arm to taste her myself. Her skin did not taste like the fruits my father compared her to: cherries, strawberries, papaya. Instead she tasted salty and electric, her hairs sticking on my velcro tongue as I sucked her wrist between my teeth.
In camp, my sister’s greatest failure was never teaching me how to hold my breath underwater. She saw that girl Lillian push my head under the pool and force me to stay submerged for a minute. She watched how Lillian would pinch my arm if I tried to fight her off, nails so sharp that my skin bruised blue. As Lillian counted to sixty, I realized what people mean when they say that you’re not a body but instead a brain. The only organ who can will its own destruction. Only my brain could beg my lungs to stop breathing. My lungs, however, were persistent—not just on breathing, but on living and never surrendering to water.
When I came out of the pool coughing, Yun decided she would train me at our pool back home. Whenever she and I practiced, I liked to look at her underwater before the chlorine stung my eyes. She looked serene, with her eyes closed and her hair spilling out like ink. She said she could hold her breath as long as she wanted to because her brain was stronger than mine. Mine only knew panic; hers could command her body like a hypnotist. Later in her junior year of high school, Yun would be known as the girl who died after tying a plastic bag over her head. I kept telling everyone that she didn’t choose to die—her brain did. And her lungs found fighting futile.
Once when she was nine and I was six, our parents took us to the beach. We wallowed through the cool, gray-blue water, searching for seashells and pebbles to collect in pails that had our names written on. We then felt the sea’s sudden surrender to low tide against our ankles. The sea and shore ceased their pushing and pulling against each other. A sandbank emerged from the water like a giant’s belly, rising from its nap. The two of us scurried toward it, yelling, An island! An island! while our parents chased us, warning us to stay away. They told us our island would soon disappear, but that was perhaps why we willingly took off in our sandals, toes grating against the sand, rocks, and broken seashells. We liked the rush of transience, always forgetting the crash that came after it.
From the shoreline, Yun and I watched the ocean eat away at the island. It’s gone, she murmured with sadness, and I felt the weight of her words fall into the water. We did not know what loss was, but we instinctively began the ritual of burial. We found a rock with candy corn stripes and buried it with our shovels, telling ourselves that it would somehow burrow and find its way toward the sunken island. We told ourselves we would remember the island forever. But as we walked back home, I looked back and realized I had already forgotten the color of its sand. I would later remember it was the color of an orange sunset. It didn’t seem right, but it was the only description that made sense. Sunsets are never a singular color of orange, blue, yellow, or pink. The hues waver, as if the gods had painted them over the sea’s surface.
Yun never believed in gods or heaven, but she loved the sky so much that I didn’t think it was right of her to die in her home, so rooted to the earth. She photographed sunsets every evening and kept them in an album, naming them each after a boy she fell in love with: Hector, Aidan, John. She even named one after me, for Shaun, birdbrain, Dad’s purer favorite. My memories with Yun were always in relation to flight—her pretending to fly on swing sets, doting over robins on the tennis court, and admitting one night to me that she’d once climbed on our roof to see what it was like falling down from it. She didn’t jump. She slipped off, and because the roof wasn’t that high from our driveway she only hurt her knees.
Yun liked flying because she believed she was a baby bird in a past life, who leapt off a tree and wasn’t caught by the wind’s embrace when she tried to spread her wings. She said it was because mother birds push off their babies from their nest to teach them how to fly, and she sympathized with the babies’ desperation as they tried to flap back towards their mothers. I assume she saw our own mother as a bird, one who had flown off without warning on Yun’s tenth birthday. Maybe our birdhood was a curse, I said to her, because we could not fly. Our father never taught us, always leaving our nest to fuck other birds. Yun insisted on calling our birdhood a blessing, a lie she must’ve told herself incessantly as she yearned for flight. In eighth grade she built a birdhouse and attached two Lego figures on it, one with her black hair, one with my buck teeth. She tied them to a string, and on windy days watched them spin in the air until their heads popped off, sighing when hers fell before mine.
I don’t believe Yun wanted to die. I believe the cliche that everyone says when people kill themselves, that she just wanted a way out. I believe that my sister was impatient, and when told that it gets better she decided she didn’t want to wait. I don’t believe Yun died to spite anyone—our father, our ghost mother, the boys she dated, the neighbors who knew her as Daddy’s whore because of what he did to her as a baby. I believe that she always knew she would die young. Since childhood, everything between us was a farewell. Each letter or photograph she dedicated to me, each goodnight we exchanged before we fell asleep, the way she said—on the day we found the island—to look at the ocean one more time, just in case we didn’t come back. Even though we came back many times to that same spot, each time a person further from the children we once were.
When I finished my Kool-Aid, I opened the fridge and took out leftover chicken. I skinned the bones clean with my teeth and burned them in the backyard while my father spent the night with the Italian woman who lived two blocks away from us. Then I crushed the remains and poured them in the urn. When my father and I went to scatter the ashes the next morning, I thought about my sister and breath, held mine until we arrived at the shores where Yun and I had discovered our secret island. My father tossed the chicken dust into the ocean and kissed it goodbye with his fingers. I watched from behind, releasing the tension in my lungs, letting my laugh be buried with the roar of the sea.