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All Things Hollow

—Rosie Hong

All Things Hollow

          Hunger is to give the body what it knows it cannot keep Ocean Vuong

          When the sparrow died, its body was lodged between the roots of a ginkgo sapling. When Popo saw this, she uprooted the carcass and took out a shovel, reminding me how dead things should always be buried in the ground. “That’s how we remember them,” she said, nestling the sparrow in the dirt, pulling its plumage back to reveal its underbelly. “So we won’t forget about them. Even things up there.” She believed that all dead things in the sky were eventually pulled down by gravity. “See this, Ying.” She nudged the sparrow’s body, its ribs shuddering in defiance–too heavy to keep it afloat. “But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.” She warned me of a woman who ventured too far up there until she was pulled from Earth’s grasp. “That woman. I think that woman was your mother.”

          My mother had left me when I was still a name in her womb. She had chased after a man that was supposedly my father–a man who couldn’t bear to watch my mother’s belly ripen into a daughter with his face. A few weeks after my mother vanished, Popo had found me wilting beside the supermarket. Despite my raw body and tattered plumage, she immediately recognized me–folding in my right ear to reveal a large brown mole identical to hers. That day, Popo had cradled me in her arms, knocking in neighboring villages, begging if anyone had extra space in their home. “I am already in my 60’s. I can’t take care of a child,” she had argued. But when they all shook their heads, she reluctantly took me home, promising herself that she would raise a fledgling correctly this time–a fledgling who learned to take root in soil. A fledgling who sought after horror stories of her mother who became sky bound for a man.

          “What happens next?” I mouthed as Popo buried the carcass in a layer of mulch. “Does she eventually find him?” Popo tilted her head and curled her lips. I looked down at the sparrow, its half-lidded eyes and beak snapped open in hunger. It didn’t seem like it wanted to be remembered.


          Popo once told me that my bones were so weak they would snap if I met a bad husband. “I grew up with a body full of broken bones,” she said. When Popo was pregnant with my mother, her husband chickened out when he heard the news. “So that bastard abandoned us,” she cursed. “And left his untamed spirit with your mother.” With these stories, Popo did whatever she could to keep me in her grasp, so I wouldn’t end up like them.

          In the supermarket, she leaned over me with one hand clutching a pouch of coins, the other knitted around my shoulder. “Bié zǒu diū le,” she reminded me. “Your bones are hollow like those birds, so you must cling to me, or someone will sweep you out of my reach.” She taught me to plant my feet deep into the ground, latch my heels to earth because my bones were weightless. “Like this.” She nestled her feet into the supermarket’s freshly mopped floor, heels dragging behind her as she ventured through her routine of picking the best duck to roast in the oven. I followed her, sliding my crooked legs along the aisles, then over the burning asphalt of the parking lot with one hand clasped in Popo’s pocket, the other attached to her wrists like the string of a helium balloon.

          The pavement burns my soles. I’m heavier than a balloon. Isn’t this excessive? When I complained to Popo, she always argued that this was better than getting my wings clipped like other girls. “They couldn’t go anywhere, cooped up in their bedrooms.” When I asked her what place was so morbid girls had to be shackled to their beds, she pointed to somewhere above, tracing her fingers along half-mouthed syllables of “There, or there, or there.” From then on, I would peer at the skyline every time we left the supermarket, eyeing anything that recalled death, anything forbidden. I found myself tracing the bellies of sparrows darting boundless above. Their bones were raw and hollow like mine, but the sparrows flew by themselves. They clung to nothing but their own bodies.

          At the dinner table, Popo took off her apron, her hands slicked with duck grease. She threaded her chopsticks through the roasted bird, peeling the skin to reveal white flesh. “Popo,” I tapped her arm. She plopped pieces of duck breast into my bowl. “How come the sparrows don’t hold onto anything?” Why can’t I venture away like them?

Popo lodged a duck bone between her gnarled teeth. It snapped in her jaws. “This is what happens when a bird that cannot fly grows too ambitious.” She twisted the remaining joints with her thumb. A graveyard of broken bones piled up beside her, all hollowed from their memories.


          House sparrows abandon their nests two weeks after birth, only to return a few months later to lay a new brood. Popo warned me to never trust information like this on the internet, as all sparrows were liars, never circling back home. But sometimes, she secretly believed they did. She cracked the porch window half open at night and sprinkled roasted sunflower seeds on the doorstep in hopes of luring her daughter home. Every time, the squirrels would end up raiding the seeds, and Popo would dump a new bag before scanning the perimeter of the house for any signs of her daughter. When she came back empty-handed, she cursed my mother’s foolery, warning me with tales of girls mimicking sparrows. Girls who tried to pocket fistfuls of warmth from their youth in their bellies before taking off. “Stupid girls,” she spat, slamming the door of the pantry stocked with sunflower seeds, “become birds plagued with this kind of hunger.”

          When I searched up hunger online, I found images of skin thinning over bones, ribs unfurling from barren chests. When I asked Popo what hunger looked like in girls, she leaned over and grabbed a fistful of air under my ribs. “You can’t see it. Only feel it. It’s a kind of hunger that even mothers can’t satisfy for their daughters.” She described girls who grew up to be mothers with hollowed bodies that wanted to be warm and nested in a loving household like all sparrows seemed to be. Mothers who yearned for fleeting love from men they fawned over, so they blindly followed them. “They abandoned their memories, children, motherhood. You cannot try this, Ying. When your father left your mother, he took that feeling away. And look at where she is now.” She pointed to the same place she always did, weaving her fingers through a film of clouds, then curling them into fists pressed against her chest. As if she was caught in this hunger herself. As if she was praying for her daughter to come home in the form of a sparrow–body whole and warm and loved–instead of a starved girl who looked too much like her.

          That night, Popo pulled out a photo album tucked under the nightstand. It was so old the spine cracked every time she pressed her thumbs against a page. She started from the back and flipped through empty pages where photos used to be, then through photos of a teenager who looked too much like me–cheekbones sharpened into knives, torso twisted into an hourglass, plumage woven into two braids. She flipped to the front, tracing her fingers over the border of a photo. “Your mother. This young,” she mouthed. “Wasn’t she pretty?”

          In that photo, my mother was a girl halving mooncakes and popping peach soda by a creek. Her plumage was sheathed under her raincoat. Unlike other photos in the album, my mother’s belly was full and warm with sweets, not tattered or twisted or hollow. Wasn’t she pretty? I asked myself. What more could she have wanted?

          As bedtime stories, I created tales of my mother’s childhood–a girl cracking sunflower seeds by the doorstep while Popo combed and untangled her plumage behind her. In one scene, my mother and Popo sunbathed on the front porch, hair glued to their flushed cheeks, bellies bloated from gorging on watermelon, sticky beaks snapped shut. In another, my mother–a tamed fledgling who had yet to bear a child–learned with Popo how to build something whole. And in every scene, I asked my mother the same questions: Were your bones hollow from birth like mine? Do you remember? Are you still hungry? I tried to answer them myself, clawing at sounds in my throat for any reason to explain my mother’s absence. Every time I answered, the words splintered into syllables, coughed up as sharp gasps of air.


          In all my dreams, a woman with my mother’s face leaned against the wall behind the supermarket. Her knees were tucked in to protect her pregnant womb. I was a fledgling, circling around the roof, the night lights flickering in familiarity. She unwound her body into something young–eyes half-lidded, mouth gaping open, ready to take flight. Her belly softened into something like a child’s, hollow enough to float. And as she unfolded from the earth, I saw what she left behind. A daughter–her back digging into the parking lot, arms stretched above, watching as her mother spiraled upward into something warm and pulsing and alive. As if, from the beginning, the daughter had already learned this hunger for the sky.

          When I told Popo about these dreams, she cursed herself and told me that this was inevitable. No matter how much she warned me of the sky, like many girls, I still dreamed of it–dreamed of the same thing my mother did. “Dreamed of the same thing I did five decades ago. Girls wanted to be lost. Once girls experienced girlhood, they wouldn’t leave it.” Popo crouched beside me on the porch, retelling her girlhood in the past tense. How, at that time, she was pregnant at fifteen with my mother, teetering between girl and motherhood. How girls like her who tasted motherhood wanted to revert back, to experience first love and egg yolk mooncakes again. And although Popo didn’t cave to temptation, my mother had seen the hunger through her. How Popo perched on the kitchen window every morning, watching mothers part with their daughters like a recurring dream. “Our hunger is searching for something we had, Ying. To make full from what’s hollow.”


          I searched my body for all things hollow–clenching my weightless wrists and snapping my beak open and closed when I lost Popo in the supermarket aisles–trying to find the place where hunger took root. I never found it because my hunger only appeared at night. It bloomed roots in my hands, bridged the space between my mother and I as I rummaged through traces of her in my dreams. When did hunger take her? Was my birth her sin? I would wake up with my clammy palms lifted toward the ceiling fan, sometimes reaching for my mother’s face, sometimes something faceless, sometimes a shadow.

          By the time I opened the photo album, grime had filmed the cover. I flipped through the pages, picking out photos with my mother’s face. More than half of them were missing by now, including the one with the mooncakes and peach soda. When I showed Popo the empty pages, she admitted that she had tried to bury the photos under the ginkgo sapling. “To remember her,” she said, following me as I rushed to the backyard.

          What do I remember? I bent over a barren patch of land, the scarf Popo had wrapped around me unraveling, wind whipping my right cheek. What can I remember now? The photos were gone, resurfacing every time it rained, carried away by the wind until they too were sky bound.


          In one dream, I snuck under the ginkgo sapling and dug out what was left of the sparrow. Water pooled between the roots where it was buried. I bent down and split open the tomb, fistfuls of mud sliding off my fingers. I uncovered the carcass of the sparrow, its plumage whittled into yarn. The sparrow’s bones were too heavy to keep it afloat, so I rewound its body and buried it back.

          In another, I felt something pulsing through the mud. The sparrow was whole and warm and breathing–a machine of hollowed bones. And as it pushed itself out of the ground, it split open its mud-caked wings, snapping its beak open in hunger.


ROSIE HONG is a writer from Houston, Texas. A 2024 YoungArts Winner with Distinction in Short Story and 2023 Scholastic Gold Medalist, her work is published or forthcoming in Rust & Moth, The WEIGHT Journal, Bowseat, and others. She is the co-founder of Fleeting Daze Magazine and edits for Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine.

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