Fall 2019 Contest Fiction Finalist: Sachi & the Yurt

No one in our leafy suburb had ever seen anything like the yurt. When I was seven and Sachi was ten, Dad built Sachi her “reading yurt” in our backyard. It was fifteen feet tall with a white cone roof. He hung shiny stars and planets from its inner lattice rafters. Mom said she didn’t mind the yurt, but she missed looking out back into the uninterrupted horizon of towering trees. I loved sneaking inside the yurt. Inside felt like a genie’s lamp and I pretended the skylight was a crystal lid. I’d lay on my back in my puffy baby blue coat and gaze at the hideous beetles and moths gliding across the dome like I was underneath an insect ice rink. Or I’d carefully pick up Sachi’s books, tracing my fingers under the words she read, feeling closer to her than I ever did when we were together. Often, from outside the yurt’s zipper window, I observed Sachi while she read. Sachi seemed to like books about Ola Hanson and Ibn Battuta most. “The Islamic Marco Polo” one cover claimed. We were only vaguely Christian on Dad’s side and the word “Islamic” felt daring to behold. This wasn’t so long after 9/11. Other times, inside or outside the yurt, I’d stare at the folds of Sachi’s belly or ponder how her chin disappeared into her neck. Sachi ate just like me. I didn’t understand why her body was so different. But I couldn’t look away. Dad said Sachi was going to be an explorer, see the whole world. Mom said she just wanted Sachi to be healthy, happy. It seemed like a lot to wish for one daughter.

When Sachi was in eighth grade, she failed half her classes. Dad didn’t understand. He had never gone to college, never traveled far outside the Pacific Northwest. He had all his hopes pinned on Sachi. He responded by taking her on special trips to Powell’s Books and the ice cream parlor where the servers wore straw boater hats and an upright piano player played “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” Just him and her. They’d come back radiant, smelling milky, singing.

Mom responded to Sachi differently. She forced Sachi to join me and her on “rigorous hikes.”

“Thanks a lot,” Sachi would seethe at me when we were alone and halfway through Tryon Creek’s misty forest trail. Mom would be up ahead, lost in her own thoughts.

“It’s not my fault,” I’d respond, but Sachi never cared about what I said.

This was also the autumn two eighth graders broke into the school nurse’s office and stole the tin of cards where the nurse had recorded each students’ health details, including height and weight. The young thieves photocopied the cards and taped them throughout the halls. By the first morning bell, the janitor had removed the photocopies, but ruin was already imminent.

“Hey,” some freckled kid said to me at recess. “Is it true your sister’s name means whale in Japanese?” Dad was white and Mom was half-Taiwanese; I didn’t know any Japanese. I had no idea what my sister’s name meant. Some other kids gathered around me.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sachi means whale.”

I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t even care if Sachi lost weight. I just wanted her to feel like the rest of us, like me, more confused, less sure of what she liked and didn’t like. I wanted her to see that she was more like me than she and Dad realized.

Usually when we walked home from school, Sachi ignored me by keeping an open book in front of her face. That afternoon, she lumbered home without her shield.

“You okay?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” she snapped. “I mean about school.”

Five foot. Two-hundred and forty-one pounds. That was Sachi. Fatter than any other eighth grader. Girl or boy. And double the most popular girl.

“If you tell Dad, I’ll kill you,” she said and pushed me down onto our neighbor’s lawn.

I never told anyone. I really believed she would kill me. And for the rest of the year, Sachi was called Whale. The week the eighth grade read an excerpt of Moby Dick, Sachi refused to go to school and hide in the yurt. From then on, the worst kids called her Sachi Dick and eventually, Whale Dick.

It was too late for me to do anything.

In summer, just as school was finishing, Dad was diagnosed with cancer. It had spread to the lymph nodes in his neck. Mom said they caught it too late.

“He never went for annual check-ups,” she sighed.

At this news, Sachi moved into the yurt. I began finding all kinds of wrappers inside. I still don’t know where she got them. As Sachi grew fatter, Mom restricted her diet further. She made clear soup for dinner but gave me extra money to buy more lunch at school. Everyone fought all the time. I began going to sleepovers. I joined track, charcoal class, photography. I sketched Dad’s hands and he hung the sketch over the portable hospital bed mom had set up in the dining room. I even began reading books I chose myself, not just Sachi’s leftovers.

In his last months, mom moved dad into a hospice facility. The facility was fifty minutes away. Mom said we could only go visit Dad if we rode our bikes.

I went every day. But Sachi refused.
The first question Dad usually asked was “Where’s your sister?”
I always told him Sachi was studying hard, that’s why she couldn’t be there.

“When she explores the world, you better remind her that her old man loves her,” he’d say, laughing.

I promised I would.

Sachi stayed in the yurt all the time. One afternoon, I eyed her through the window. She was splayed on a pillow reading The Hundred Dresses, a book I knew Dad had given her years before. I gazed at her enormous arms pancaked to her sides. The skin looked like mortadella, blotchy white and pink. Beside her was a can of Coke and a package of miniature powdered doughnuts. I knew I wasn’t supposed to think Sachi was gross. But I did. Eating, eating, not going to see Dad. Reading with a little smile on her lips. She was becoming the whale the other kids called her.

I whipped open the yurt’s flimsy door.

“You’re a terrible daughter!” I yelled. “You’re so selfish. You care more about yourself than dad!”

I steeled myself for a mean reply, but Sachi took her time placing her book on her chest. The book rose and fell with her heavy breathing.

“That’s not true,” she finally said.

“Then come with me. We can take a taxi!” I thrusted my palm at her, revealing a stack of dollar bills. Around her mouth clung a ring of white sticky powder.

“Where’d you get that?” she asked.

“I didn’t eat lunch this week.”

“I’m not going.” She wrestled with the plastic, trying to get another doughnut out. “Not yet.”

“You literally only have to walk to the taxi door! You can’t be that lazy. No one is that lazy!” I was thinking, you’re Dad’s favorite and you know it. “What more could you ask for?”

“I don’t like doctors. Doctors always look at me funny.”

“What do you even mean?”

“They look at me like you’re looking at me right now.”

“I’m not looking at you any kind of way.”

“Yes, you are.” She held my eyes and with her plump hand, she stuffed the entire doughnut into her mouth. She chewed with her mouth open, staring at me, cake fluff falling down her chin. I could taste the overwhelming dryness of it, the sugary dust sticking on the roof and sides of my own mouth.

“You’ve always wished you were me,” she said and swallowed hard.

I felt like I was choking.

I glanced around as if there was a weapon for me hidden somewhere in the yurt. “You know I wasn’t gonna tell you this,” I said. “But I heard Dad say to Mom that it killed him to see you like this. What he wanted more than anything was for you to show up at the hospital and be normal. Healthy. Before he died.”

“He didn’t say that,” she whispered. But her eyes widened. Her lips tightened.

“Believe whatever you want. But he’s embarrassed by you. We all are. It’s probably best you don’t go. You’re right. You’ll break his heart if he looks at you now.”

I couldn’t stay after I said it. I ran from the yurt and into my bed, under the covers.

Eventually mom lifted her rule on biking to the hospice. But Sachi didn’t go say goodbye to Dad. I sat by his bedside while thinking about telling Sachi that what I had said wasn’t true. Yet, whenever I was home and looked out back, I saw the memory of Dad building the yurt for Sachi as she hopped around him, laughing, dancing wacky to “Little Bitty Pretty One.”

During Dad’s final days, I did ask Sachi if she wanted me to bring him anything, a letter, a message. She said no.

In the fall of my sixth-grade year, I became obsessed with college. Every Wednesday night, I watched Felicity on the WB. I dreamt of going faraway to Parsons in Manhattan. Most evenings, Mom stayed in bed in our dark house. She left money on the counter for me to order pizza for dinner. I asked if I should order enough pizza for Sachi. In the past, Mom hadn’t allowed Sachi to eat pizza, but now mom started saying sure, whatever. “Let her be for now,” she’d say.

I seemed to be only person in our family looking forward. It wasn’t that I didn’t miss Dad. I just didn’t want to be like Mom or Sachi. Eating pizza alone at our large dining room table, I wondered what kind of person I actually was.

One evening, buried in Dad’s things, I found a photography book by someone named Laura Aguila. My heart fluttered in my chest—my name was written on the inside cover! But slowly, as I leafed through the glossy pages, my heart froze again. In her self-portraits, Aguila’s fleshy body curled alone on rocky tundra or reflected itself in a lake. In one, her belly hung to her knees as she hefted a skinny woman onto her back. I gripped the book and yelled to no one, “Even when you bought something for me, you were really thinking of Sachi!”

When summer finally came again, mom remembered she had a big problem in the backyard. Mom gave Sachi a choice: she could go to a special high school in Utah that Mom had found online or to Keelung, Taiwan, where Mom revealed distant relatives lived.

“A new climate, healthy food, you’ll be better,” Mom told Sachi.

The special school was run by Mormons in the middle of nowhere. I checked the school’s website. It claimed to combine a rigorous academic program with life-changing nutritional training and exercise. “Entering students are not required to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but many students do find strength, fellowship, and a sense of belonging here and decide to become closer to Jesus by joining the Lord’s Church,” the website claimed. You could clink an album of glowing students with fat “before” and slim “after” photos.

I thought the choice was easy. Taiwan! Why would someone want to go to Utah? To be surrounded by super religious people? People who were happy and fake nice all the time? I told Sachi, “You could even learn Chinese. That will look so good on your college applications.”

But Sachi chose the Mormons. Actually, first she chose nothing, then Mom threatened to fill the yurt with concrete if Sachi didn’t make a choice.

In August, when Sachi was packing, I crept into her yurt.

“What are you doing?” she asked

“Just thinking,” I said. I looked up at the skylight. “Maybe I’ll ask Mom if I can go to Keelung instead.”

I expected Sachi to protest, to say that didn’t make sense. That she was the one who was supposed to explore the world. But without saying anything, she dropped a stack of her books into a large brown box with “Natalie” written across it.

I froze, surprised to see my name in Sachi’s chicklet lettering.

“That makes sense,” she said. “I read the sky is moody in Taiwan. I bet it will be inspiring for your drawings.”

I wish I could say I grabbed that moment. That I said, “Hey Sachi. The truth is dad never…” But just imagine it—Sachi heaving herself across her yurt to gather more books, so satisfied with herself, so joyful. Scott Joplin playing from her boombox. Somehow the lightness of her foot even lighter than my own.

About the author

Originally from Philadelphia, Samantha Neugebauer is an emerging writer living in Abu Dhabi. She is an Instructor at NYU Abu Dhabi, an editor for the Painted Bride Quarterly, contributor to the podcast Slush Pile, and staff writer for Postscript Magazine. In 2019, Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF) awarded her 2nd place in their quadrennial Creativity Award in Literature for her short story “Transit عبر الحياة”, which she co-wrote with poet Amna Alharmoodi. She is a first-generation college graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she developed her own concentration on the American Dream.

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