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The Scumbling

By J. C. Changmore | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/j-c-changmore/ | J. C. Changmore
Edited by Rowan Morrison || Narrated by Su Ling Chan || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
Alcoholism, animal cruelty, animal death, blood, death and dying, mental illness, self-harm and suicide, violence
4800 words

These tough juvie kids are scared of everything—mice, roaches, ghosts. The mice don’t bother me. Never did. Same with the roaches. And the thing to know about ghosts is that they’re only here because somebody’s keeping them here. I don’t mean like with a Ouija board or any of that kids’ stuff. I mean literally someone is keeping that ghost around. Caring for it. Feeding it. Blowing on that last spark of life that keeps the dead from being all-the-way dead. They can hold on for a little while on their own, but not long. They need our help. Until they don’t.

• • •

I was eight when Mom died. Died most of the way. At first, our windy house on Lake Michigan was filled with people. People with lo mein casseroles and platters of fruit. People saying things like, “We’re your family now,” and “Your mother loved you very much.” 

They said things they thought I couldn’t hear, too. 

“You kinda always got the sense the art came first.” 

“Still, to lose a mother so young?” 

Auntie Mai, Mom’s sister, thought I should get a dog or a cat. Mom had always said no when I wanted pets, and I didn’t want to break Mom’s rule just because she was gone. But Auntie Mai didn’t ask me. She asked Dad. 

“I think it would be good for Eliza to have something to look after,” she told him. Auntie Mai wore black like at funerals on TV but had on a white armband. “Something to focus on. It might be good for you, too.” 

Bô-ài, Mai,” Dad responded wearily. I understood the Taigi dialect they’d brought with them from Taiwan, but I’d never learned to speak it. “I’ve already got Eliza to look after.”

Auntie Mai shook her head. “You sound just like my sister. What about something small? Something easy?” she pressed, tenacious like Mom. 

“Like a goldfish?” Dad asked. 

The next day, Auntie Mai brought me a little plastic cage filled with sawdust. The lid was blue and had a carrying handle. Inside was a mouse.  

“Fish are so cold, don’t you think?” she asked. 

I almost told her that Mom wouldn’t want it. But when I took the cage between my hands and peered in at the little mouse all alone in the sawdust, my chest got tight. He pressed his paws against the plastic wall like he was reaching out to me. Like he trusted me.

“She didn’t always know how to show it,” Auntie Mai said, “but your mother loved you very much, you know.” 

• • •

Mom had used the laundry room in the basement as an art studio, and it was there she’d spent most of her time. Mom had lots of bad-mood days, but on good-mood days, if I was quiet, she’d let me come in and watch her paint. I’d sit on the floor, and she’d call me her muse and tell me about the famous places her paintings were going to hang one day. 

After the funeral, when everyone had left, I creaked down the basement stairs as I had done a million times. The house still reeked of ceremonial incense. I breathed it in and imagined I could hear Mom at work. Feathering colors together on her palette. Smudging texture into a landscape. The dab dab of squished-brush highlights making my head buzz. The door to the studio was open a crack, and as I reached to push it open, I froze. 

Scritch scritch. 

The scritch scritch of the palette knife on canvas, scraping one color into another. For too long, I couldn’t move. A thousand voices in my head urged me forward, but my bones sat senseless. Then my body boiled, and I burst through the door, “Mom” on my lips. 

The studio was empty. Paintings leaning against each other like too-close, half-toppled dominoes. Easels standing in a copse. Stacks of turtle shells Mom had collected. Dried flowers hanging in bunches from the ceiling. Filled as she’d left it, but empty of life. 

The window blinds were scraping across the sill, letting a flicker of sunlight into the basement. I pulled the string and dropped the blinds fully with a clang. 

 “Eliza! Cha bó-kía, what have you done?” Dad’s voice at the door startled me. I whirled around. The room had suddenly gotten dark, as though hours had passed in a wink. 

“I… I…” I stammered, following his gaze to a painting of an empty pasture Mom had left on an easel. A black figure was clumsily spattered across it, the paint still wet. Dad strode into the room and snatched the brush from my hands—a brush I had no memory of picking up—and dragged me, crying and paint smeared, from the room. 

“Her last painting,” he croaked through clenched teeth. “You’ve ruined her last painting.” 

• • •

Dad locked the door to Mom’s studio after that and forbade me from entering. I wanted to do as he said, but I couldn’t get the painting out of my mind. I had to go back. 

I wedged myself into the laundry chute in the bathroom above the studio. The fit was tight enough that I slid slowly down to the bottom, claustrophobia rippling through me as I struggled to squirm out. 

The studio was dark, the easels standing like sentries. I snuck among them, half afraid they’d come to life, and standing in front of Mom’s last painting, raised my little penlight. 

Click. 

I saw my mother. She stood, tall and out of place, like she was about to step out of the painting, her black hair blown back as if by wind, the half-smile on her face at odds with a passion in her eyes. The likeness, the life—it was worlds away from the clumsy brushstrokes Dad had blamed me for. She seemed ready to step off the canvas. 

Something caught in the corner of my eye, and I flashed my light to see what it was. Mom smiled back at me, her wet-paint eyes glinting in the light. Another painting. Another unremembered wet brush in my hand. More paint splashed on my clothes. My shoes. A murmur in my ear raised every hair on my body. 

You’re a natural, my Eliza.” 

• • •

That was how it started. When Mom was alive, I had competed with her art for attention and always lost. After she died, though, her art brought us together. Closer than any living mother could ever be to her daughter. She came to me as a blur in the corner of my eye. A humming in my ear. Trying to look straight at her just pushed her away, the blur gliding out of sight. 

You know you can’t,” she’d whisper, so I contented myself with what she allowed me. 

But I could feel her. Feel her slide into my body from behind, a tingle running down my arms like they were falling asleep inch by inch. If I fought her, I could keep the sleep from spreading and stay in my body alongside her, be there with Mom as she painted through me, for the first time in my life really sharing her love with me. With time, it got easier to stay awake. 

Dad wasn’t doing so good. When he was home, he drifted around or sat in the dark, drinking out of brown bottles, mumbling to himself in Taigi. He felt less alive to me than Mom. No one brought food anymore, and even Auntie Mai had stopped visiting so often. I begged Mom to let me tell him, to let me bring him to the studio. I thought feeling her presence might bring him back. But Mom said that he wouldn’t understand. If I pushed her too hard or tried to carry her upstairs with me, she melted away, so I stopped asking. 

Dad didn’t get home until really late, so I’d rush home from school and slip down the laundry chute. Mom would be there waiting for me, and we’d paint. She would whisper to me about her favorite artists. About Monet’s lilies and Goya’s Black Paintings. About what they’d done and what we would do together. About El Greco and Van Gogh, who weren’t appreciated till after they died. 

When Dad got home hours later, right before bedtime, Mom would bleed out of my body. She’d plead with me to come again the next day, and I’d shimmy back up the laundry chute to meet Dad and play with Franklin, the mouse Auntie Mai had given me. I spent more time with that mouse than with any living creature. He kept me company anytime Mom and I couldn’t paint.

But then Dad caught me. Mom and I had been at it for hours, and I was so focused I hadn’t heard him unlock the studio door. He found me with my brush raised against a billowing, murky landscape. Seeing him standing there, swaying just a little bit, the bottle he seemed never to be without clutched in his hand, I flinched and felt Mom drain out of me and away. I was scared of what he might do. But this time he spoke softly, his words slightly slurred. 

“How’d you do that? The clouds?” 

I hesitated, unsure of what to say. “I kinda paint one color on top of another so that the under-color shines through in, like, hazy glimpses,” I said. “That’s how you get those spooky shadows and stuff.” 

“It’s called scumbling.” Dad squinted a little. “The technique.” Mom never taught me what to call things. She just kind of did them. 

“Your A-pa knows a thing or two,” he added, taking a drink that threw his whole body off-balance. Dad was an engineer and not an artist, but he’d always loved art. That’s how he’d met Mom—at one of her shows in Taiwan back in the day.

“You know, in China they were using drybrush a thousand years ago. Long before Westerners.” Dad loved to talk about everything Chinese people had invented first. Glass. Noodles. Upstairs, in his office, he set his bottle down among a growing collection and pulled down a book on Chinese art. “Shuǐ-mò style. It means ‘water and ink,’ because they painted in ink. Like watercolor painting.” 

I’d seen paintings like these before but had never really looked. Gray mist hung like scarves on black mountains. Black and blood-red koi. Sooty trees. Dad could see I was interested. He almost seemed happy. 

After that, he unlocked the studio door, which was a good thing. I was getting too big for the laundry chute. 

• • •

With the studio door open, Mom and I could paint even with Dad home, so long as he stayed upstairs. I practiced on my own, too, using some India ink Dad had given me, because Mom hated it when I wasted her good oils. I mostly painted Franklin. My work wasn’t as lifelike as what Mom and I could do with the oils—the watery ink made him look like a mouse made out of storm clouds—but I was getting better. Dad let me keep some of his Chinese art books in my room where Franklin and I could pore over them at night with a flashlight under the blankets. I liked how the paintings looked and made me feel, and for the first time I wondered if any of my ancestors had painted. 

Mom wasn’t impressed—either with the paintings I’d done alone or Dad’s books. I wanted to try painting together in the style of those lonely misty mountains, but she wasn’t interested. 

Shuǐ-mò style—so primitive. Amateurish. More feeling than skill,” Mom said. Mom had always looked to Europe and the Americas for inspiration. Her Western style made her paintings stand out in Taiwan, but in America pretty much everyone painted that way.

Still, Mom was driving me to paint in the style she was used to. She had become cranky and unhappy with our work. She blamed my thick fingers, which she said felt like oven mitts. Finally, she flew into a rage one night and knocked one of our paintings from its easel. 

I can barely hold a brush with these fat fingers.” Her whisper was a hiss.

“I’m trying,” I sobbed. “I’ll do anything.” So she told me what I could do—whispered it softly in my ear. 

I went upstairs. I heard the rattle and squeak of Franklin running on his wheel as I walked into my room. I took the lid off his cage and he stopped, curious. I picked him up by his tail, and he made a half-hearted attempt to crawl up it before giving up, hanging and pawing pink and white at the air, his black eyes shining wet like paint. I let him dangle for a second and then turned my hand so he sat in my palm. 

“You’re going to meet Mom, Franklin. Would you like that?” I kissed him and put him in my sweater pocket. 

In the studio, I sat on the floor and, with cupped hands, set Franklin down in front of me. He wriggled his nose and explored a small area, respecting his limited freedom. A mouse skull is easier to crack than an egg. I didn’t know that until later, though, so I used a hammer I’d found in the garage. It would’ve been enough to kill a person, the wallop I gave little Franklin. The ridged face of the hammer crunched through his tiny head, rang off the concrete floor beneath it, and sent painful vibrations down the hammer handle into my arm. 

I felt awful, like nothing I’d ever felt then or since. I felt like I’d killed the last mouse on Earth. But the soft whisper of Mom’s voice brought me back and reminded me why I’d done it. That I hadn’t finished. I pinched Franklin’s tail again, limp this time, peeled him from the floor, and placed him to one side. 

Mom told me what to do. I started with the pool where the hammer had rung and, when the blood from the tiny skull wasn’t enough, I grabbed one of Mom’s palette knives and cut roughly into Franklin’s stomach. More blood flowed, and I continued painting, drawing the narrow brush up when Mom whispered, “Now up,” to the right when she said “Right,” and so on. It was a simple symbol to start out with. Easy for her to teach and for me to follow. 

When I finished, I placed the little mouse on top of the rune and watched the blood smoke and slowly fade into nothing. Mom sighed, her voice thicker now. More substantial. Immediately she poured into my arms, more fully than before, breaking some film that until then had separated us. 

Let’s paint,” we thought. 

• • •

The paintings improved. They were more like what she’d done when she was alive. Maybe better. And there was something new, too. Even as Mom grew stronger, even as she continued to dismiss shuǐ-mò painting as too basic and old-fashioned to be of interest, skills I’d learned from Dad’s books bled into our work. 

It was slight at first. A blurred outline here to give a sense of distance. A bold stroke there to bring personality to a river. But one day, without either of us realizing it had happened, water and ink had become essential to our developing style. It was like bringing fish ball soup to school and eating it alongside tater tots from the cafeteria. The mix shouldn’t have made sense, but it did. 

Auntie Mai came to visit again on my birthday. I was terrified she’d ask to see Franklin, so I distracted her by bringing her down to the basement to see our paintings. They startled her at first but, as I brought one out after another from the stacks and piles, I saw there were tears in her eyes. 

“You are truly your mother’s daughter,” she said. “You’re keeping a little part of her alive.” My eyes snapped to hers, but I kept my face very still. 

With Auntie Mai’s encouragement, I started to submit our work to competitions, winning awards Mom had only dreamed of when she was alive. I was in newspapers and magazines at only ten years old.

“Listen to this one.” Auntie Mai read aloud, after a gallery in Chicago had given us our first show, “‘In her combination of classical Eastern and Western techniques, child prodigy Eliza Tai’s eerie landscapes defy categorization. Owing as much to Chen Rong’s Nine Dragons as to the work of J. M. W. Turner, Tai’s brushwork blends multiple traditions in a haunting syncretism.’ 

“This is the same critic that called your mother’s paintings ‘derivative’! She was so angry I thought we’d never hear the end of it.” Auntie Mai shook her head. “Your mother would be so proud.” 

“I know she is,” I said, confident. Mom was becoming the painter she’d always wanted to be.

“You’re living out your mother’s greatest ambitions,” Auntie Mai told me. “When we were little, she never stopped talking about her paintings hanging in museums. Leaving Taiwan, studying in Paris. If she hadn’t met your father—” Auntie Mai forced a smile. “But then we wouldn’t have you, now would we?” 

• • •

I kept Mom in mouse blood for years, getting another one whenever my fingers thickened or she got weaker. After Franklin, though, I stopped naming them. Keeping the dead alive takes work. Like great art, it requires dedication. Sacrifice. But it’s more like math than art, all the symbols and rules you’ve got to learn. Lucky for me, Mom knew them all already. 

After we won a few big competitions, Mom got more frenzied. I started sixth grade, but she kept me home a lot. Dad hadn’t been going to work so much either, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was drinking more and only got out of bed to sit for a few hours at the desk in his office upstairs. He stopped cooking, but I got pretty good at boiling frozen dumplings and Shin Ramyun for dinner. Whenever I really messed up and Mom got mad and left me, I would go find Dad. But other than that, I saw less and less of him. 

Once, when it had been too long between mice and our control was slipping, I spilled an ink bottle on a painting in the middle of an hours-long session. With what she had left, Mom seized control and smashed the bottle on the ground, cutting my hand, then poured out of me and away. I wrapped my bleeding hand in some inky rags, leaving a red and black swirling mess on the floor, and went upstairs to Dad’s office. He was sleeping on the couch with the blinds down because it was still light outside and wouldn’t wake up until I shook him. 

Lí teh chhòng sía,” Dad mumbled in Taigi. 

“A-pa?” I said. “A-pa, wake up.” 

Dad opened one eye. It was bloodshot and yellowy. “Cha-bó-kía, daughter, what are you doing?” His words slurred. 

“I hurt myself,” I said after a pause. Dad didn’t respond, so I crawled onto the couch and curled up into him, cradling my hand. “A-pa, do you believe in ghosts?” 

“Hmm?” Dad mumbled. “Your nainai saw a ghost once. They come because they’re hungry, you know.” He yawned. “She said everybody dies twice. First you’re a regular ghost, and then you fade away. Or get reincarnated. But not the hungry ones. They don’t die the second time.” He shifted to get more comfortable. “They stick around to try and do what they didn’t do while they were still here. But they can’t. Can’t get enough. Always hungry.” Dad smacked his lips a few times and swallowed. His breath smelled like medicine. “Your nainai said it had a throat too small to hold up a head, and a huge belly.” 

“A-pa,” I started, getting around to what I wanted to ask. “If… if Momma came back—” 

Dad put his chin to his chest to look down at me. “Your mother’s gone, kim-kía. She’s not coming back.”

“But Grandma—”

“Your nainai was a Buddhist.” He rubbed his palm across his face. “She believed in that stuff.” 

“But aren’t we Buddhists?” 

“Your mother maybe stayed a little bit. As a regular ghost. But everybody dies twice.” Dad had closed his eyes again and spoke slowly. “We don’t want them to be hungry, and you shouldn’t be hungry for them.” 

“But isn’t it bad to die?” 

Dad didn’t answer, and after a moment, I realized he had fallen back asleep. I pressed myself against him, burrowing my face into his shirt like I used to do when I was little, and tried not to think about what he’d said. 

• • •

After that, I didn’t go to Dad very much. I mostly stayed in the basement with Mom. We painted all the time now, painted until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, painted with no sense of time passing or of day or night, painted until my arms ached and I begged Mom to stop. But in the end, she always convinced me to keep going. 

Please, Eliza,” she’d moan.This is my legacy.” 

I wanted to paint, too, but eating so little and sleeping so little—it was hard. I made mistakes. My body got stiff and sore and didn’t do what either of us wanted it to. She got irritated, more than before, sometimes throwing down the canvas and disappearing for days, even weeks. I’d rest at first, but then, terrified that I’d driven her away, I’d kill mouse after mouse, scribbling all the runes I knew, hoping to bring her back. Once, I even trapped a rabbit. But I didn’t like that. I hadn’t known rabbits could scream. 

Then Mom was gone for a month. Two. I was so frantic that I tried to tell Dad about Mom, but I couldn’t get him to understand me. It was like trying to talk to a baby. He smelled bad and didn’t look at me when he spoke and struggled to remember my name. I called Auntie Mai when I started running out of food, but I couldn’t find her, either. I was worried Mom had died her second, final death, but I did everything I knew to make her come back. To make her forgive me.

Blood caked the basement, stank. Days of cutting and tracing symbols and lying in filth. I had given up hope and sat sobbing in despair, knowing Mom was gone forever and it was my fault, when a breeze stroked my face, humming in my ear. I felt so peaceful. Mom filled my arms, and I was so full of joy I would have done anything to make that moment last forever. To never lose her again. 

She whispered that she was sorry for leaving, sorry for losing her temper. She explained to me that she hadn’t wanted to leave me and she didn’t want to leave me ever again. She asked me if that was something I wanted, and I did. I said I wanted that very much. She promised she could stay but told me she needed my help. She told me she loved me. And she told me what I had to do. 

so that I can always be with you, my Eliza.

She took me upstairs to her old room, footfalls muffled by the carpet. From the door, we watched Dad sleep. He was so thin, and his breathing sounded uncomfortable, like how you breathe when you feel sick. He’d pinned up some of our paintings next to framed paintings Mom had done while she was alive. The photos of Mom we’d had printed and framed for the funeral were stacked like books by his bed. The air smelled sour, and we had to be careful not to kick any of the empty bottles as we walked. I stood over Dad and listened to his breathing. 

My hands gripped the hammer. It seemed to float in the air above me, like I was hanging from it rather than holding it up. I hesitated.

“A-pa?” I whispered. Delicate red veins branched across his face like lightning. I imagined painting them. 

Then we brought it down hard, hooking the claw into his eye. His body shook, and before he could scream, I raised the hammer again and brought it down over and over. It broke into his skull like a clay pot. He wasn’t much harder to kill than Franklin, in the end. 

He would have been heavy for me alone, but Mom and I dragged him down the stairs, thump by thump. A dark red slick leading to the basement. The blood pooled under him, and my head spun, and Mom convulsed in my body. I blacked out. 

When I woke up, I saw what she had done. Strange, complicated symbols I didn’t recognize were scrawled on the floor, the walls, Dad’s chest. Dried blood blackened my hands and the front of my clothes. And for the first time in all those years, I saw her. She was balled up in the corner of the room, on the concrete floor, a wretched thing. Her hair bedraggled, her clothing loose and torn. 

“Momma,” I whispered. “Did it work? Can you stay now?” 

She watched me silently through matted ropes of hair. She turned her head, and I could see her neck, inhumanly shriveled, as slender as my two fingers. 

“Please, Momma? Don’t leave me again.” I was sobbing. Seeing her face brought it all back. Bursting into the studio after school that day with “Mom” on my lips. A flash of her, how I’d found her. Swaying. The sound of the rope rubbing on the rafters. 

Scritch. Scritch. 

Mom smiled and slowly stood up. She walked toward me. She kissed me on the forehead, held me. Her stomach, strangely bloated, pressed against my face. We watched the runes boil, the smell of burnt iron filling the air, the symbols fading. 

• • •

I don’t remember what happened next. Auntie Mai found me, out cold, my clothes sticking to me, sticking to the bloodied concrete floor. She didn’t get what had happened. Not till later. She thought Dad and I had been attacked or something. When I came to, I got really mad at her for chasing Mom away. She never asked about Franklin. 

The house sold cheaply because of how Dad had died. Auntie Mai told me that a nice young family, the Robinsons, had moved in to look after the place. I felt sorry for them. The way I had felt sorry for Franklin. 

The house didn’t sell again after what happened to the Robinsons. I wondered how she’d gotten them all to the basement. If she’d had help, like I’d helped with Dad, or if she’d somehow done it on her own. The house sat vacant. Windows broken. The deck rotting. It became a place for teenagers to drink and scribble on the walls. 

After Dad and all the stuff with the court, they sent me here, to Hillbrook. To juvie. It isn’t so bad. They make us do school every day but then mostly leave us alone. The other kids complain about the mice and the roaches, but I’m glad they’re here. Sometimes I can catch a mouse, but mostly I sit on the floor and pinch a cockroach in two. I squeeze each half from bottom to top, like tubes of paint, spewing guts and muck into a mound on the floor, and finger-paint a simple blood rune. Usually, I’ll start with the first one Mom taught me. It’s my favorite. 

Nothing happens—the gunk dries but doesn’t boil, doesn’t disappear. I think maybe she doesn’t come because they don’t have the paint or brushes she likes. It would be pointless. But it’s good to practice the symbols. I’m running out of room on my walls from practicing. I’m fourteen now, and they’ll have to let me out when I’m older, and then I’ll go back to the house. 

Mom will be waiting for me. And we’ll paint. 

J.C. Changmore is a pseudonym--the trenchcoat Connie Chang & James Blakemore throw on when they grow tired of being two people. They started writing speculative fiction together shortly before marrying, figuring that if writing together hadn't split them up, nothing would. Connie often draws on her experiences growing up in Michigan as a first generation Taiwanese-American to shape their stories--sometimes in terrifying ways. Outside of competitions, this is J.C. Changmore's debut publication. You can find them on Twitter at @Changmore_J or on their website at Changmore.com.
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