We are delighted to announce an original story by one of Beijing's more unique voices, Decater Collins (street name "Doc"). First, a quick interview with the Old Beijing Hand.
You've recently left China. Three words to capture that feeling?
Much cleaner air
Most memorable moment from your first year in China?
My most vivid memory from my first year in China was a trip to Yunnan, including Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge. That's when I realized how diverse China really is. There is a minority group in Northern Yunnan known as the Naxi, and they have the only pictographic language still in use today. At that point, China was still just a temporary stop, and that trip made me want to stay longer. I also had my first bike stolen on that trip, but in 14 years in China, I only had 3 bikes stolen, two of which happened in Yunnan. Go figure.
Moment you realized writing was an important part of your life?
I started writing my first novel when I was in 5th grade. I still have the notes. I started and stopped that novel several times, and finally, my sophomore year of college I started in on it seriously. I now have hundreds of pages of notes and first draft for what will eventually be a five book series, but I set it aside to work on Quitting The Grave, something a little more commercial (as commercial as a 660-page novel of historical fiction that lacks quotation marks can possibly be). I will return to that novel soon though. But to answer your question, there's never really been a time that writing wasn't important to me.
Your writing history + notable writing projects:
Picasso Painted Dinosaurs, a collection of 100 100-word stories.
Ahab's Adventures in Wonderland, a mash up novel combining Alice in Wonderland and Moby Dick.
Quitting The Grave, a murder mystery set on the Oregon Trail.
I also run a microfiction blog featuring 100-word stories.
Favorite word to use in writing:
Palimpsest. But I've only ever gotten to use it once.
A metaphor to describe what writing is?
Writing is like breathing, essential.
Anything else you wish to say?
love what you're doing with the site. I think it's a valuable addition to the Beijing community.
Let me tell you a story about a woodpecker.
A woodpecker you say? In Beijing? Is this one of those legends where a god leaves the Kingdom of Heaven in the form of an animal and rewards the hospitality of a kindly gentleman or impregnates a beautiful maid?
No. Though the gods might feature at some point, our setting is not historical China, but rather modern Beijing. And although a woodpecker should be considered an intruder in such a story, even as a metaphor, there is one, sitting in a tree near Dongzhimen. Hark, a woodpecker!
The first time I saw the woodpecker was 2002. The location, one of the few tree-lined boulevards in the center of the city. Even today, it is among the quainter streets in a neighborhood that has undergone one facelift after the other, and is now home to Japanese shopping centers, a public transportation megaplex, and an Irish pub I’m no longer technically allowed to enter.
So many years later, who can say what I was doing that day? Chances are I was late for some teaching assignment. But, upon seeing the woodpecker, I abandoned my bicycle and tried to follow as it flitted from tree to tree. I needed to get closer to confirm that I was awake and this was actually a woodpecker, not some fever dream induced by too much midnight hotpot.
There was the white speckled neck, the long black tail, the red crest. Yes, this was a woodpecker. In central Beijing! Who cares that none of my friends would believe me without photographic evidence? I was George Mallory and here was my Everest!
Between that first sighting more than a decade ago and when I moved into my final Beijing apartment, in early 2014, I encountered the woodpecker on many more occasions, in various parts of the east side, ranging from second ring road all the way to Chao Yang Park.
Was the woodpecker stalking me? Was she my true love, cursed by a witch and waiting for me to break the enchantment with a kiss? Was each woodpecker actually manufactured by Skynet and sent back through time to critical points in my life so that I might avoid a dystopian future?
Whatever the case, by 2014 I had already seen the woodpecker maybe a dozen times. There would be more.
My final Beijing apartment was, for me, a step down. I had been living in a beautiful 3-bedroom in a fancy housing complex in East Beijing. I had a gym, a shopping center, and a lake all inside my gated community. But I made the decision to move into a cramped, poorly renovated postage stamp of an apartment that barely had a kitchen and with a shower that was next to the washing machine. The layout, even by Chinese standards, was hard to fathom, what I can only describe as a pinwheel turning on a central axis.
I hated it, but it was all part of the psychological judo I was playing with myself. I figured if I detested my living circumstances enough, I would finally get fed up and leave the country all together, which had been my stated goal since I first arrived in 2000.
My life at this point in time had devolved from standard expat bacchanalia to something more akin to Dr. Doolittle. The year before, I had rescued a beagle from a village in Cao Chang Di. I walked him five times a day and used him as an excuse to get out of work early and avoid unwanted social interactions.
While I missed my luxury apartment with its bathtub and central heating, the beagle loved the new neighborhood. There was garbage everywhere, just like he had grown up on. You could find discarded chicken bones, half-empty yogurt containers, and entire jianbing's littering the sidewalks and road ways. All that was missing was the lake, which he had enjoyed wading in during the dog days (this is a pun) of Beijing summer.
But we soon discovered something even better. In the deepest recesses of my Tian Shui Yuan housing complex there was a small patch of forested land, maybe half an acre in square footage. It nestled next to the gravel parking lot, which was not nearly large enough for all the new cars of my middle class neighbors, and right behind the compound’s utilities building. It was mainly occupied by neighborhood grandparents who spent their retirement trying to recreate their childhoods by cultivating corn and cabbage.
This undeveloped plot was a godsend. I took my beagle there to roam off-leash every day. It was fascinating to watch crops grow next to severed mannequin heads and discarded luggage. Truly, this was a perfect portrait of Beijing, a postcard-sized piece of land that had somehow been passed over for development and doubled as both a landfill and a garden.
Not immediately apparent was a small, ramshackle lean-to that someone had built near the back of the miniature forest out of leftover aluminum siding. It was constructed against a particularly stolid old tree, one that was covered in thick vines.
Was this shack just to house the dozen or so stray cats that tormented my beagle every day? Or was there a person living there as well? Such a hovel might be the ideal home for migrant workers from the countryside who wanted to stay hidden from the Beijing authorities.
I learned from one of my neighbors that the entire patch of land was slated to be paved over for an expanded parking lot. He seemed enthusiastic. When I asked when the renovation would take place (hoping it wouldn’t be until after I had left China permanently), I gathered this was one of those situations in which they painted chai on the side of a building and you had anywhere from a week to a year before the demolition crew moved in.
I’m not sure when I first encountered the cat woman. Maybe I’d noticed her walking around the neighborhood, but it took several weeks before I connected her to the shack. She was the person putting out the bowls of cat food every morning. She was the person who was sleeping on the old mattress that had been dragged under the shanty.
She was old, even by Chinese old-lady standards. Living in a shack in the middle of Beijing would obviously age anyone, but she had to be at least 90. She was shriveled up like an old tea bag and wore the identical outfit every day, heavy blue work pants that were faded to gray and a lavender sweater.
In addition to being old, she was also crazy. You probably guessed that already because of the cats.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the setting of our story: a hidden forest wedged into a forgotten corner of an old Beijing neighborhood that is suffering from neglect and serving as home to one old lady, a dozen or so cats, and several vegetable plots. And, I should mention, one woodpecker.
Beijing is situated on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The dust storms, which certainly have been exacerbated by agriculture and industry, are natural phenomena that date back hundreds of years. Yet, because of all the engineering that’s been done by the Chinese government, it’s sometimes hard to remember that Beijing is a desert city, especially when it’s getting turned into a greenhouse by all the pollution or when the 24-hour thunderstorms strike because of the cloud seeding.
When these unnatural storms descend upon us, the city, which you'd think would be used to all sorts of flooding, whether from migrant workers or government officials or grey market iPhones, is transformed into an urban cesspool. Whole city blocks become dangerous whirlpools waiting to suck foolish motorists to their doom.
One such impossible storm struck soon after I had moved into my last Beijing apartment.
When you’re a beagle, being stuck in a small apartment sucks whether your owner is staying out late after work or the storm of the century is raging outside. So as the storm eased up, enough that the rain was no longer horizontal, I tried taking him for a walk. This ended disastrously as he managed to escape his leash and I had to go chase him through shin-high puddles.
Although it was mid-afternoon, the thick cloud cover made it seem close to dusk. Finding the beagle would not be easy. When he started barking, presumably because he’d treed one of the cats, I was thankful. But as I wound my way along the small path through the gnarled thicket, I started to smell smoke and knew something was wrong.
The beagle hadn’t chased a cat into a tree. He’d discovered the crazy old cat woman prone on the ground and surrounded by her minions. They were circling her and mewing, a scene straight out of Batman Returns. Because they normally ran from the beagle, he didn’t know how to react as they courageously guarded their caregiver, and so he alternated between barking and whining. When I arrived, he hid behind my leg and growled.
The regular smell of cat urine and dirt was accentuated by charred wood and wet fur. The shack was in shambles, the tree it was built against knocked over. It had been struck by lightning, and not too long previously.
The old woman was still alive but mumbling incoherently. Incoherently even if my Chinese weren’t abysmal. She was dazed and had been close enough to where the lightning hit that steam was rising off her clothes and hair.
I didn’t know what to do. She needed help but I’d left my phone at home, not wanting it to get soaked. I got the beagle back on his leash and decided I needed to go find someone with a phone. My first stop was the local xiaomaibu. Though they had closed for the storm, I could see a light inside. It was not just their shop but also their home.
I knocked, and I knocked some more, ever more insistently, until someone answered. The look on their face said it all. This crazy laowai ran out of water and he expects us to deliver a new jug during the storm of the century. I tried to explain that a woman had been struck by lightning, but I think I kept repeating that I’d found an electric fan. Finally, I dragged one of them away and brought them to the old woman. Reluctantly, he pulled his cellphone out and called for help.
It took an hour for the ambulance to arrive. It would later turn out that dozens of people died all around Beijing that day, most of them drivers who drowned trying to cross flooded intersections rather than lose face and turn around. The EMT's were both smoking cigarettes and they spent as much time sorting out who had discovered the woman as they did actually checking to see if she was okay. They started arguing with the xiaomaibu people and the only words I could understand were hukou and qian.
They wouldn’t drive her to the hospital without guarantee of payment. I strongly suspected this was against the law, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was barely competent enough to understand what they were saying.
Eventually some sort of agreement was reached and they loaded her onto the gurney and wheeled her away. She was still moving but I had little confidence that I would ever see her again. It probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I was more worried about what would happen to the cats now that she was gone than I was concerned about her.
Stop judging me. I’m the only protagonist you’ve got here.
I came by the next afternoon and didn’t see any sign of the crazy old cat woman. In the aftermath of the storm, the little grove had been completely devastated. There were fallen limbs, deep pockets of mud, scattered debris, and a damaged shack. I sat on her recliner, a grey seat that had once been in the back of a mianbaoche, and wondered what I should do. I heard the pecking of the woodpecker and found him a few yards above my head, going at the charred trunk of the tree that had been hit by lightning.
Right, life goes on.
It turned out, however, that the old woman didn’t die. After three days, she returned. It was a miracle.
A middle-aged gentleman was with her. I thought for a moment that this must be her son. Except, no Chinese son would let his mother live like this crazy old cat woman did. He was dressed respectably and drove a Volkswagen.
He was surprised to see me walking in the small woodlands and we struck up a conversation. Luckily, he spoke a limited amount of English to go with my limited Chinese.
I learned that he was a doctor who specialized in traditional Chinese medicine. He had taken it upon himself to see to the crazy old cat woman’s care. He had a jar of ointment, something that smelled like a mixture of Bengay and green tea, and she was refusing to take it, out of pride or lack of trust wasn’t clear. I never got an explanation as to whether he was there out of charity or if someone had ponied up the money for her medical care. Knowing this country, it was probably the latter.
There were two things he kept saying that I didn’t understand. The first was tuolue. He’d point to my clothes, point to the sky, point towards the parking lot, and say tuolue. I had no idea what it meant.
The other word he kept using was clearly a name, Lei Gong. It wasn’t the old cat lady’s name though, because he kept pointing to the burnt tree as he repeated it. Maybe it was the kind of tree.
I gathered up my beagle and left him to his argument with the old woman. I had a feeling he wasn’t going to have much luck convincing her. She seemed okay enough in any case. She was apparently made of stronger stuff than the tree had been.
When I got home, I looked up the words in my Chinese dictionary. Lei Gong was the name of the Chinese thunder god.
In Chinese mythology, Lei Gong was a Taoist deity. When directed by heaven, Lei Gong would punish both humans and evil spirits who had committed crimes. He had claws, the wings of a bat, and a blue face with a bird's beak. He wore only a loincloth. Some people still pray to him in the hopes that he will take revenge on their personal enemies.
Lei Gong began life as a human. One day, he found a peach tree that had been planted by the gods. When he took a bite out of one of its fruit he was immediately transformed.
I found one story about Lei Gong in which a hunter was caught in a terrible storm. He saw a child sitting on a tree waving a flag. Lei Gong wanted to strike the tree with lightening but when the child waved his flag, Lei Gong was driven away. The hunter realized that the child must have been some sort of demon and the flag he carried an evil talisman. In order to help Lei Gong, the hunter took his gun and shot the flag out of the child’s hand. Lei Gong was then able to strike the tree as he intended but, as he did so, he accidentally hit the hunter as well, who fell unconscious. When then hunter awoke later, he found a letter from Lei Gong promising the hunter another twelve years of life in gratitude. The hunter also noticed the body of a lizard on the ground, the true form of the demon.
On a side note, Lei Gong is said to be extremely prudish, and will not enter a house where copulation is taking place.
None of this made any sense. What did the crazy old cat lady have to do with Lei Gong. Was the Chinese doctor trying to say she was a demon? Was she the hunter, and had been trying to help the thunder god? Or had I misunderstood completely, and he was really trying to speak about science and engineering as academic subjects?
The other word, tuolue, means indulgence. That at least seemed somewhat relevant. Any more than 4 cats is definitely on the indulgent side.
After the crazy old cat lady returned from the dead, life in Tianshuiyuan returned to normal. Twice daily, I forgot I lived in modern Beijing as the beagle and I paraded through the wooded grove. I might have traveled to the Chinese countryside of the 16th century, or been shipwrecked on Murakami’s Cat Island. Underneath the thick canopy, not even the nearby high-rises were visible.
I started noticing a parade of black Audis coming in and out of my neighborhood. Men in dark pants and white shirts, carrying man purses and chewing on bamboo toothpicks, parked in our gravel lot, walked around and gestured vociferously, made some phone calls, and then got back in their cars and drove away. I got the distinct impression that whenever they saw the oasis of trees, they, just like me, could not believe it really existed.
Then, one day, several workers in hard hats arrived driving a bulldozer. They were clearing out the underbrush, avoiding the largest trees while running over the smaller ones. My tiny park's day of reckoning had finally come.
When they got to where the crazy old cat lady’s shack was situated, the bulldozer stopped. The old woman refused to leave. The workers alternated between hurling insults at her and idly smoking cigarettes. They really didn’t seem to care one way or the other whether she moved. Displacing peasants was way above their pay grade.
It was an old fashioned Chinese standoff. For those unfamiliar, a Chinese standoff necessarily entails a crazy old person standing athwart the aspirations of an ascendant China, as when the man in Chongqing refused to sell his apartment to developers, and so they dug a huge pit around his building, or when the old couple in Wenling wouldn’t relocate and so now their house sits in the middle of a highway. (See also: a certain picture from 1989.)
Normally this story ends with thugs hired by the developer coming to forcibly remove the recalcitrant resident, while physically abusing her for making them go through the trouble. I did not have high hopes for the crazy old cat woman’s chances. If only we were in America, where we have lawyers do battle on our behalf.
The bulldozer remained parked in the wooded lot for several days. The workers were nowhere to be seen. I’d let the beagle run around while I sat in the tall seat and imagine driving through the city. How much would a foreigner have to pay for going on a joyride with a bulldozer?
It was now several months into my experiment and I didn’t feel any closer to leaving China than I had 14 years ago. What was it about this country that kept me here? I’d never dated a local, I didn’t have a particularly compelling job, and the pollution was slowly killing me. Literally.
On the other hand, there was the expat lifestyle, which certainly had a measure of appeal. Eating every meal in a restaurant, driving around town in taxis like I was a Rockefeller, having a housekeeper come clean my apartment three times a week. I would be giving up a lot by returning home.
Tuolue. Indulgence. That’s what the Chinese doctor had accused me of. But although these comforts were nice, they weren’t the reason I was still in China. I could live without them. It might even do me some good, force me to aspire to more than what I already had.
The real answer was probably guanxing. Inertia. That was why I had moved into this shitty apartment, in hopes of motivating myself to finally make the decision to leave. Unfortunately, it was easier to just accept some slightly less comfortable circumstances than to motivate myself home.
Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
The woodpecker was back. There he was, pecking away at the charred remains of the tree. The crazy old cat woman was probably out scavenging for recyclables, and the cats had scattered, as they generally did, at our approach.
Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack.
Here it comes. That important moment of reflection that leads me to a satisfying decision and is somehow thematically tied to the presence of the woodpecker. Except nothing happened. I tried to pull out my phone and get a decent photograph of the woodpecker, so I could prove to my friends I wasn’t some sort of Captain Ahab and there really was such a thing as a Beijing woodpecker.
As always, before I could get close enough for a decent shot, the woodpecker flew away. Without any photographic evidence, it could still just be a figment of my imagination.
Another man arrived in a black Audi. I knew he was important because he was sitting in the back seat and the driver came round and opened the door for him. He was wearing dark pants and a navy blue polo. He must have left his man purse in the car.
When he saw the little patch of forest, all he said was qiguai. There were other, less important men with him as well. They led him back to the crazy old cat woman’s shack. I watched through the trees as he first attempted bribery and then reverted to insults. Neither appeared to move her.
I wondered why this woman wouldn’t take the money. Was she worried about what would happen to her cats if she were to leave? Was she just being stubborn? Was she truly crazy?
And why weren’t the police involved yet? This woman couldn’t have any legitimate claim to the ramshackle structure.
As I had been for the last 14 years, I was a spectator, but I never truly grasped what was going on. I had few Chinese friends. My Chinese level had never surpassed barely able to survive. One of the greatest appeals of expat life had always been that I could tune out conversations and feign ignorance whenever I wanted.
The laoban must have said something to provoke her, because the old woman began screaming and gesticulating wildly. She was so irate that she kept yanking up her lavender sweater, revealing her white underclothes. I have no idea what she was trying to communicate, but the men seemed taken aback by her vehemence, and they tried to calm her down. The confrontation stretched on with no apparent resolution.
I eventually grew bored and went home.
Another thunderstorm arrived overnight. This one seemed even more potent than the last. My beagle, frightened by strangers, bicycles, and balloons, shook every time the thunder struck. He whined and cuddled me while I lay in the dark. Every few moments, the room lit up as bright as day.
In such violent storms, what happens to the stray cats? Are they outside getting soaked, trying not to freeze to death? And what about the birds? Where does a woodpecker hide? Do these storms kill off all the mosquitoes, only to be replaced by new ones as soon as the eggs hatch? Or do they have a secret place they all go to wait out a storm, like taxi drivers at rush hour.
All these manufactured worries were more palatable than wondering whether the crazy cat woman would survive the night. Her shack was never very stable to begin with and its integrity had been seriously threatened after the lighting had collapsed the tree it was built against.
The next day, I found the storm had completely leveled the shanty, with all its detritus strewn across the half acre of woods. The crazy old cat woman was nowhere to be seen.
The Chinese doctor was there, though. He was cleaning up, searching among the refuse. He had gathered what looked to be the crazy old cat woman’s possessions in a pile. There was a wok, a picture of one of the door gods, two shoes, not matching, some clothing, a plastic figurine. The line between trash and something worth keeping seemed extremely blurred.
I asked him where the old woman was and he said he had come to take her home last night during the storm. He was here now to gather her belongings and feed the cats.
I helped him search among the debris and I found the ointment he had given her earlier. He unscrewed the top and smiled when he saw that half of it had been used.
“Lei Gong Teng.” He tucked the container in his pocket.
In some cultures, there’s the idea that if you save someone’s life, you then become responsible for that person. This never made much sense to me. Maybe the thought was that if you prevented the person from passing on to the afterlife, then you had some responsibility to make sure that their remaining life had some meaning.
In China, there’s an assumption that if you help someone at the scene of an accident, then you will be made to pay their medical expenses. This is like a modern offshoot of that old time belief, aided by recent court cases that have found good Samaritans liable for the people they have attempted to help.
In one case, a man was sued after he accompanied an old woman who had broken her hip to the hospital. The courts found him liable for 40% of her medical expenses, with the reasoning that no person would go so far out of his way to help a stranger if he wasn’t somehow involved in her injury. This kind of rationalization culminated with the famous case of a toddler who was run over by a truck, and the bystanders refused to stop and help her.
Together, the doctor and I raised up the fallen walls of the shanty, looking for the rest of the old woman’s belongings. A cat darted away, a dead lizard in its mouth. Perhaps the cats would be okay after all.
Lei Gong Teng. I looked it up once again. The dictionary told me it means "Tripterygium wilfordii.” In colloquial terms, it could be translated as the thunder god vine.
Lei Gong Teng is a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever, chills, edema, and carbuncles. That includes burnt skin, I suppose. The doctor had never been talking about the Thunder God. He was explaining the name of the ointment he was giving her.
Although it made more sense that he was talking about medicine, I preferred it the other way.
I never saw the crazy old cat woman again. The little forest was cleared out of all the underbrush and garbage but it remained an open lot for the rest of my time in China. The larger trees were never knocked down and I certainly saw no signs of the plot of gravel or the patch of trees being converted into a parking lot.
I eventually overcame my inertia and, at the beginning of 2015, I left China after more than 14 years in Beijing. It turns out that even though I live in a country now where I can understand the language, I still don’t need to engage with strangers if I don’t want to.
You probably won’t believe me because I still don’t have photographic evidence, but I continue to see the woodpecker, even in America. I saw it at my mother’s house, I saw it as the beagle and I drove cross-country, and I’ve seen it at the Thousand Acre Dog Park near my new home. I mean, obviously, it's not the same woodpecker. That would be crazy.
Somehow, even as the reasons to leave multiplied, knowing that Beijing was a city with at least one woodpecker made it okay for me to stay. The pollution couldn’t be so awful, the crush of urbanity not so overwhelming that it prevented nature from finding a way to survive. No matter how bad it got, I could live in Beijing as long as there was a woodpecker. I think about it at times, and hope that it’s still thriving.
Now, whenever I see a woodpecker, it’s a reminder. No matter where you might end up, no matter what the superficial differences may be, life is pretty much the same, give or take a few cats.
This week we're showcasing longer piece than usual, an alluring tale by Beijing's Deva Eveland. So let's start with the author interview! Posted Nov 18, 2015.
What inspired this piece? It’s inspired by Cambodian folklore. When I lived in Phnom Penh I was fascinated by these stories. They’re for sale everywhere as illustrated books, dirt cheap, probably for children or something. I didn’t understand them, but that made them all the more intriguing. For example, an image of two boys watching an elephant burn on a bonfire, and smoke rises up in which a green skinned being holding a golden scepter appears. What is going on? Are they cooking an elephant? Is it a funeral pyre? Is the green skinned creature the soul of the elephant?
Finally I persuaded my Khmer language tutor to try to teach me to read. The Cambodian script isn’t easy, but we went through some of these stories at a painstakingly slow pace. I frequently had reading comprehension problems that were as much cultural as grammatical. Cambodia has a very ancient civilization. A lot of concepts don’t translate and there’s no handy English language reference to look them up.
What do you want people to know about it? The King’s Crocodile Tears borrows liberally from a story about a crocodile who swallows a monk he’s trying to protect and accidentally suffocates him. The croc goes on a killing rampage until the king’s men hunt him down. I was fascinated by Ah Tone. He seemed to be the most dynamic character in the story in spite of being a monster. In the original story the king is heroic. Cambodians tend to be loyal to the monarchy, so making him a petty despot, having him unable to repel an invasion, having him influenced by a Rasputin-like sorcerer were all my additions. I also felt making him a despot might be more apt as Cambodia has been misruled probably for centuries at this point (though the king isn’t meant to represent any leader in particular).
How long did it take you to write it, what was the process like, etc? Originally I tried to write it entirely from the perspective of the crocodile but that proved difficult. The writing went quickly once I put myself into the head of the king. Since then I’ve gone back multiple times to try to prune it down to a reasonable size. I know it’s still long for a short story…you probably deserve a medal if you’ve plowed through it and you’re still reading this.
Three words to capture your feelings toward China? 听不懂
Moment you realized writing was an important part of your life? If I don’t have a creative outlet my mental health deteriorates, so this moment of realization continues to assert itself from time to time. I’ll go about my life steadily growing ever more angry/depressed/paranoid/misanthropic for no apparent reason. Then I realize it’s because I’ve forgotten to take time out to write.
Your writing history/notable writing projects: I’m revising a novel, though this is notable to me only. I’ve published a few short stories published here and there. One at Pavilion Literary Magazine, another on New Dead Families.
Favorite word to use in writing: Friendlily. Actually I’ve never used this word in a story, but I do love adverbs. They’re forbidden fruit. Every fiction writing guide cautions against them, so whenever I feel justified slipping one in, I take a dark pleasure in it. Friendlily does appear right at the beginning of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I’m jealous, even if the result is clumsy as hell.
THE KING'S CROCODILE TEARS
by Deva Eveland
“My King, the invaders have overrun the Province of Lea Houv.”
“And what is so important there?” I demand, kicking aside the slave who plucks stray threads from the embroidery of my slippers.
Lord Veasna touches his forehead to the floor. “Prasat Pech, Liege. The empire’s ancient seat.”
How wearisome. There is nothing there but ruined palaces and jungle. Some delight in picking through the debris left by our ancestors. Not I. It is difficult enough to rule this land without enduring the judgment of all those dreadful stone eyes. Let the barbarians claim the mildewed statues if they wish.
“What else?” I ask.
Another minister creeps forward. I cannot recall his name. “O Sovereign, flooding in the South threatens to decimate the rice harvest.”
I snort. The ministers fret over the arrival of more boat people. They fret over a judge beaten to death by a mob. I listen wearily to these conundrums, nodding assent to whatever their consensus seems to be. If they cannot agree, the solution that requires the least effort.
As my mind wanders, I turn to the jasmine stuffed couch where Princess sips tea. Nothing pleases me more than to watch her dance; no other embodies Sita as she. With a wave of the hand I dispatch the gloomy courtiers that I may watch her practice. A bard plays while the stage is set. He annoys me, groaning away as he plucks at a two-stringed lute. The songs are ancient ones, and he wails them as dirges for those bygone days. Sensing my boredom, servants begin to coo.
“Truly, Majesty, your eyebrows arch like Rama’s bow.”
“He is correct Sovereign. For generations our empire has not been blessed with such a handsome monarch. Your regal countenance must be chiseled from the same stone as the colossal heads of Prasat Pech.”
Before I can cuff the buffoon, a symbol’s crash begins the recital. But as I watch Princess, knee raised, fingers bent back at the knuckle in the k’bach of a leaf, she begins to seize. Her headdress topples off and lands as a golden stupa in the center of the room. When the Ravana dancer grabs her by the shoulders, the whole court freezes up like a herd of frightened deer. The only sound is the shuffling fabric of her costume as she jerks around. The Ravana changes his grip, but cannot steady her, and her face swings into his mask, spinning the tower of blue heads clockwise. Now three sets of monstrous eyes are glaring right at me as though to menace the throne itself. The masked idiot gropes around, but only manages to clutch the hem of Princess’ costume, and she flops to the ground in a burst of skittering glass beads. The fool is left holding only one corner of her sarong. There is my precious girl, her twitching bare legs fully exposed to the court. The ladies-in-waiting look down at their feet. Perhaps she is dying, but none of them stir.
“Help her!” I bellow.
But they just cower. I run up and scoop her from the ground. Looking into her porcelain eyes, I see no iris, no pupil. She chews on her tongue as a dog tears at meat. Then she falls limp. Black blood foams from her panting lips. I hold her hair back as she hacks up a final wad of scum, then lay her on the reed mat where musicians play. Doctor Rattanat creeps forward to chant over her unconscious body, his assistant fumbling with the incense. I look over the court—what good are any of them? So many frightened deer. Two guards present the Ravana for punishment. His quavering legs cannot hold him upright, so they must lift him by each arm. The stack of heads on his mask is still leering at princess as though to plot some further violation. I run the idiot through with a sword. An arrow would be truer to the Ramayana, but I haven’t the energy. Anyway my temples pound with a searing pain, so I retire to my chambers, proclaiming, as I depart, that the ladies-in-waiting are to be executed the following afternoon. The agony clouds my thinking; I announce that I shall costume myself as Rama and slay them with a bow.
The next morning I know Princess will come imploring me to spare their lives. I await her in the Garden of Longevity, sipping a bowl of rice wine. Four peons bear her upon a litter in the form of Hamsa, the king of lovely birds. Inside the gilt frame she reclines on lime and turquoise cushions. Her brow is damp with sweat, though the sun is still low in the sky.
“I would beg you, My King.”
“Do not beg.”
“You mustn’t execute them. They did nothing.”
“But flower, that is precisely why I must do it. Execution is a king’s privilege, and so I must exercise it, lest they forget who I am. I would that you grasped the order of things.”
“And I would that you as adept at slaying the invaders as you are at slaughtering my handmaidens,” she mutters.
“They conspire behind your back. They dilute your medicines.”
Princess begins to weep. Why does she wound me so? Rather than prolong an argument her frail constitution cannot bear, I unveil the special gift I have prepared for her. It is like an intricately constructed dollhouse, only for mice. There are balconies and a portico carved with bas reliefs of makaras. Behind the façade a hidden system of ladders allows the rodents to scamper from window to window. I have ordered them dyed different colors that she may tell them apart. Though she is peaked, princess smiles at the diversion. After a time she can no longer focus, and I give her leave to return to her chambers.
That afternoon I act as though I had never ordered the execution. The ladies-in-waiting are cowed, as they should be, but the ministers are not. They hover about like flies, handing me contradictory estimates of the invaders’ cavalry. Am I now a stable boy, counting horse tails and elephant trunks? For what do I pay my generals?
My dying flower. Her once honeyed voice rumbles with black phlegm. She must have coughed up buckets of the stuff by now. Her hand, though trembling, is still feminine as she draws a silken square to her face. Then my delicate blossom is wracked with spasms. Black tendrils droop from her nose to the handkerchief. Through the violent clacking of her bangles, her tears of shame, the courtiers try to conceal their alarm, but their careful nonchalance gives them away. The ladies-in-waiting hover, always smiling as they fold her soiled dainties away with tricks of palmistry. They rinse her fingertips with rosewater, adjust her tiara. Too cheerfully. They echo the physicians: “The quantity of phlegm is not so great as before. You are recovering, my lady.” Privately, they gossip about her funeral arrangements.
“Leave, all of you. Bring Doctor Rattanat.”
What can anyone do? Rattanat maintains that she is affected by evil winds, but he cannot drive them from her. His assistants coat her spine with bitter smelling medicine, and when they scrape it off with a bronze coin they press so hard they leave bruises like slender eggplant up and down her back. A week later, when the bruises disappear, they apply the hot cups. The thought of red rings branding her soft teak skin—only just healed—anguishes me. I pace up and down the patio as the physicians light their candles, on the point of seizing Chief Doctor Rattanat by his long beard. Yes, I could easily order those whiskers braided into a thorny bush where fire ants nest, but princess stays me with a tender glance. When Rattanat finishes her back looks like a treatise on lunar cycles. This helps nothing.
“My King, the port of Kompong Klah has fallen to the invaders. What should be done?”
What should be done? What should be done? Princess should be cured, that is what should be done. I refuse to lift a finger until the cure is found.
“Please, Your Highness. Their general demands—”
“You should concern yourself with my demands, not those of foreign devils. A foul wind torments Princess and attracts malevolent spirits. Now go and solve this problem. Only after will I attend to these other trifles.”
My ministers are not loyal. It is only the hope of winning Princess’ hand that keeps them from hatching a palace coup. Once I delighted in feeding their ambitions, privately letting each think he might be the one. Now, I would rather marry her to a river monster than one of these foul sycophants. All of them so eager to slip a ring on her dying finger. Not for love, no, only so that they might don the crown. My crown. I am the one who loves her. Still, let them think they are her suitors.
The ministers resume pestering me. First, they beg to levy more peasants into the war effort. Once I grant permission, they are emboldened to beleaguer me with every annoyance they can cook up.
“More boat people arrive daily, Liege.”
“Have we not border guards, Lord Veasna?”
“Illustrious Sire, they have been mobilized against the invaders. The boat people’s numbers swell and they have erected a most exotic temple. It is said the walls are washed as white as boiled rice—there are neither murals nor statues, as though their gods are in hiding. It must be torn down My King, for they are planning to install a great warlock inside it. They say he is capable of causing stones to grow in his enemies’ stomachs. He need only ball his fists to do so. Then by cracking his knuckles, he may dispel the tumors of those who pay his ransom.”
I start. “Dispel them? Cure them?”
“He is skilled in all manner of witchcraft, My Liege.”
“Leave their temple unharmed. Bring this sorcerer to me.”
“Your word is law, Sovereign.”
When the warlock enters the throne room, the court physicians are already lined up, sulking behind kindly smiles. Though the foreigner is vibrantly turbaned, the rest of his ensemble appears to be cut from the sort of tarp one finds on the floor of a fishing boat. A wisp of gray hair the length of a buffalo horn sprouts from a mole on his cheek. He smells like a cooking fire. I press my palms together and raise them so that the tips of my middle fingers are level with my eyes. It is an absurdly respectful salutation; his deranged mien would merit chest level at best. The warlock does not acknowledge or return my sampeah. Instead he creeps directly to the jasmine stuffed couch where princess lies whimpering. Doctor Rattanat coughs, entreating me to call for the warlock’s head. Ordinarily I would. Today, the physician’s discomfort amuses me more. Princess complies with the examination like a sleepy child. The ladies-in-waiting flop her to a seated position so the warlock can wind a piece of straw around her finger. As he flicks the loose end of grass, he grunts. Perhaps he is muttering incantations or perhaps suffering from abdominal gas. Next he pries open her lips with his grubby fingers as though she were a horse. Doctor Rattanat stifles another cough.
“You sound ill,” I suggest, “perhaps he should examine you next.”
“I am well My King, but your concern for my health is humbling. I do not deserve it.”
When I turn around the warlock has taken off her tiara, unpinned her coiffure, and holds her long black hair extended in his hands. He is sniffing it. The guards petition me with their eyes, but even if I were not desperate for the cure, to acknowledge the trespass so far into the examination would bring greater shame. The warlock approaches my throne neither kowtowing nor erect, but stooped. He speaks in the high, lilting accent typical of a foreigner:
“Her bones, Highness. They shall jelly before the season of rain. And her eye sockets are loose; she must scrunch closed the lids when sneezing else she loses the balls. This will only work for a while. In time they will fester like peeled lychees left on a sill. This shall attract flies. Immense ones, of a size never seen before in your kingdom. And her nails, Highness. Brittle. Brittle and also loose. Whether they snap apart like cockroaches underfoot or slip from her fingers like dead leaves, they shall not last until the mangoes ripen.”
I try to demand the cure, but my throat is so weak that only a whimper escapes.
“That is not all, Highness. Her tongue is graying. The blood, you see, which makes it pink, is draining into another part of her body. Where, it is too early to say. But when she loses the sensation of taste, check her stool for blood. Yes, bloody stool would be the best. If not, the sanguination will clot somewhere else, perhaps as ballooning in the head, or clumps that dangle from her elbows—”
I cannot bear it. I am a cavern home only to swarms of dirty, fluttering bats. From this darkness, I watch the warlock’s fingers dance in the air, drawing out the shapes of who knows what—entrails unraveling or ash being scattered into the wind. I strain to pull the image of her pure beauty up from the depths of my mind. Her perfumed hair being combed by slaves. A smile of curiosity blossoming on her lips. Her delicate hand as she dances, the thumb and middle finger pressed together as a bud, the index finger arched back as a shoot. Only this reverie keeps me from tumbling off my throne. When I recover, the court is in chaos. The ladies-in-waiting are sobbing. The physicians are engaged in a heated debate over the benefits of sliding a live snakehead fish down her throat to suck the evil wind from her belly.
“Would it work?” I ask the foreigner. He sniggers.
“Certainly, the fish could survive down there for months if she ate nothing but guppies and tadpoles. The occasional water insect, Highness.”
“But would it cure her?”
“No chance at all! None of us can cure her—”
The guards’ spears snap to attention.
“—but—” He grins at the spearmen with a twinkle in his eye.
“—if there is such a doctor, I will locate him, for I have the knowledge of far seeing.”
From the treasury I select a shallow basin of wrought silver ringed with sapphires. This piques the ministers, for the sorcerer will be allowed to keep it after the ceremony. Let them grouse. What have they done to earn their own baubles and silks? They only present me with problems. A solution would be well worth a few jewels. I have many, after all. Not so many as my great, great grandfather, but enough. The dish has a beautiful wheel of reincarnation etched in its bottom, but the design is soon submerged under a pool of blood. First, the warlock drains the throat of a peacock over it using the sharp edge of a sugar palm frond. Then he slices the leaf across my own hand. While slaves wipe my palm, whimpering and apologizing, the warlock stirs his concoction with a straw whisk.
They are closing the shutters one by one. Only golden threads of the afternoon sun sift through cracks in the joinery. It is better in this gloom, for I will not be able to see him cut Princess. There is a smell that reminds me of the countryside. At first I presume it is only the body odor of the warlock, but then I realize he is burning bunches of dried grass. No sooner are my eyes adjusting to the darkness than the smoke obscures everything again. The warlock seizes my wrist. I know it is he, for he rasps in my ear, “The moon, Highness.” He is presenting me with the round dish of blood. It could be like a pale moon, yes, as though appearing on a dark night from the mist, which is the smoke from the smoldering grass. And then I feel a terrible stinging as the warlock pinches the wound to squeeze out more blood. I try to focus on the moon, but it goes wobbly as dribbling liquid ripples the surface. In my dizziness I am swimming. Shapes congeal.
A cluster of river rocks extends from the shore beside a pagoda. Atop this rock pile sits a monk. I move towards him, swishing my tail vigorously against the current. With perfect serenity he raises two hands up to his mouth. “Ah Tone, Ah Tone,” he calls. What does this mean? It is not from any prayer I know, but I sense he is using the right words. He reaches out with gentleness to stroke my snout. His fingers tickle my nostrils. I bite his arm, softly, playfully. He laughs from his belly. The sight of such a wise teacher giggling like a child fills me with warmth. “Ah Tone,” he laughs again, and I realize it is my name. I nuzzle in his orange robes, and though my jaws are closed, a sharp tooth jutting out of my lip catches on the cloth. I feel him un-snag me with fatherly affection. Then we are splashing in the water, wrestling. He wraps his arms around my fat neck and his legs around my belly. With his stomach to my back we dive down to the bottom of the river. It is murky again. Yellow flits of light stab the clouds of swirling mud. Or no, they come from gaps in the wooden shutters of a room. The smell of brine fades, is choked out by the burning sweet grass.
I find myself flat on the floor, fingers splayed, elbows crooked, hips writhing against the dark wood. I am a human again. The ministers cower around a lamp in the corner of the room. I gnash my teeth at them and roar like a crocodile.
“Muster every soldier! Leave only a skeleton force to repel the invaders and dispatch the rest up and down the waterways inquiring at each pagoda. The monk who summons the river beast Ah Tone to play with him must be brought to the capital. Search high and low till you find him, it is a most sacred duty to the throne.”
Looking into their dumb eyes, I doubt their enthusiasm and add, “I will behead every minister under this roof unless the monk stands before me in a week’s time. So say I, your king.”
By the time the monk arrives at court, Princess has lapsed into a coma. There is no time for formalities; the healer is rushed straight to her side. While I watch his shaved brown head bobbing over the saffron folds of his robe, Doctor Rattanat sidles up to my throne with an air of urgency.
“Highness! With this new development, a cure will be far beyond the reach of a simple monk.”
I pretend that I cannot hear him over the chanting and take a sip of rice wine. Resuming in a stage whisper, he tries a different approach.
“I would be careful of this one, My Liege. The soldiers who apprehended him tell a most peculiar story.”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well, as they pulled anchor he preferred to hang back at the rear of the barge, gazing behind with a sort of expression. ‘Forlorn’ they said. At first this seemed natural, as he was so reluctant to leave the pagoda. There were throngs of monks weeping at his departure, you see.”
“Ridiculous—have our monasteries degenerated into schoolyards? Have they no self-discipline?”
“Quite right, My King. Well, he kept looking back, long after the pagoda was out of sight. So a few of the soldiers, they began to follow his eyes. He was looking at something in the water—a great crocodile. It followed the barge, Highness, maintaining a distance, but always there. It was an ill portent. Yes, quite ill, so the captain ordered them to shoot at it with their crossbows. They could not kill it, but they drove it away.”
“And how did the monk react?”
“He is a gentle man Highness. Quiet and peculiar. Fitting for a cloistered life, if nothing else.” The physician flutters his hand at the monk’s back as though to shoo him off to the pagoda. Leaning in closer, he adds, “There are still other cures My King.”
As he tells me this, he motions to his assistants. They are hauling in a sloshing urn, presumably with snakehead fish inside it. I imagine the fat, slime-coated creatures being stuffed down Princess’ throat, I feel a headache coming and signal the steward for another bowl of rice wine. No sooner do I begin to slake my thirst though, than Princess is already sitting up, rubbing her eyes. The monk has dispersed the foul wind with a simple prayer. It is gone!
“What reward may I offer you, teacher? You need only ask it, for I am king, and all that is within this realm is mine to parcel out as I please.”
The monk lowers his eyes.
“For the monastery of course! A new library perhaps, or a great golden Buddha…?”
“I only wish to return to the pagoda, Your Highness. There are many novices to train. I fear the burden is too great on my brother monks.”
Monks cannot dissemble well. He pines for that loathsome river monster, Ah Tone. There is nothing natural about a man, even a holy one—especially a holy one—bathing with a giant lizard. Besides, what if the evil winds return to torment my flower? No, the monk must remain at court. It occurs to me that if he married Princess, she would always be safe.
It is well that the monk shows little interest in the wonders of the capital, for as the war draws nearer, we are obliged to sail downriver for a period. To save face, I tell him it is a pleasure cruise arranged as a reward for his service to the throne. We make our way through the little used Moon Gate, where a cobblestone path winds down an overgrown embankment and onto the riverbank. There docks the most splendid of my royal barges. It appears as a great fat naga floating on the water, not only because of the seven snake figurehead blooming out of the prow, but also because of many thousands of tiny mirrors cut in the shape of scales and inlaid into the gilded hull. The cluster of cabins rising out of the deck are capped with layered roofs and a great golden spire that the world may know it is no mere boat, but a floating palace. My barge shines with a heavenly radiance under the sun, blinding those peasants who would dare to gaze upon it from the shoreline. I look at the monk to confirm his understanding of these things, but he is watching the coolies loading it with supplies.
“Have your parents selected a bride for you yet? You never told me.”
He looks startled.
“My Liege, I am devoted to the Awakened One.”
“It is commendable to take the cloth for a period in one’s youth and you have acted to bring honor to your parents, but one must lead a full life. Indeed, it would be tragic for a man of your talents to languish in the cloister. Surely, when you have coin, you will start a family?”
“I love women as my sisters, Highness.”
I interrupt him with a great belly laugh.
“Or perhaps your parents have saddled you with some ugly sow, and you are looking for a way out?”
“My parents were killed in the border clashes of three years past, Highness.”
For a time we watch the coolies passing bundles and urns from their tiny rafts to the royal barge.
“Well then,” I say. “You have saved the royal bloodline and I mean to offer you Princess’ hand as guerdon.”
His face turns the color of steamed crayfish. “Most Potent Sire, I am without words…”
“Yes My King would suffice.”
Without meeting my eyes, he only fiddles with the creases of his orange robe.
“There are several days until we arrive at the site of our glorious new capital. Think on it and give your answer then,” I say, pressing my palms together and raising them to the level of my nose. He folds his hands above his bowed forehead, and shakes them in submission. I leave pleased.
We set sail the next dawn. Watching scaled rooftops and varicolored flags fade into mist, I am seized with the dread that I shall never again set foot in the halls of my palace. Was this what my ancestors felt as they fled Prasat Pech? They lived in palaces of stone, and I of wood. Will my descendents live in palm thatched huts? I turn my gaze to a cluster of stilted hovels perched above the shallows. I wait for their crooked poles to disappear from view, but we do not seem to be moving at all. It is as though the current were an illusion, my barge wallowing as aimlessly as a buffalo in a mud pit. I shut myself in my private cabin and snuff out the lamp. The pain behind my eye is greater than ever. It is so strong I batter my head against the walls to try to knock myself out. The lamp smashes on the deck and I roll around in the glass. Slaves prattle at the door, but I have barricaded myself inside. Could the monk, who has after all cured Princess, also relieve my headaches? I will broach the subject when we arrive at the wartime capital.
The next morning, as I breakfast in the dining cabin, my mood improves. Through the wooden colonnades, I am soothed by glimpses of the sparkling current. Birds glide on the breeze, chasing insects and chittering their morning songs. I order one of the slaves to summon the monk. He will cure my headaches and he will agree to marry princess here and now, for I am king and that is how I wish it. But as I await his presence, there is a loud crack of splitting wood, and my breakfast catapults across the deck. Ropes snap, sailors call out, boots thump. Lord Veasna rushes in, tripping over himself to deliver the ill tidings.
“My King—the monk—a great crocodile has attacked the royal barge. It’s unbelievable…it tore up the planks with the fury of a typhoon. The teacher, deep in meditation, would not heed the shouting of the deckhands. O Radiant Lord, he is feared dead.”
Feared? Unlikely. I know this ingrate gloats beneath his exaggerated grief.
“Please Sire, I know he was as a son to you. Let his funeral be the grandest ever witnessed in our lives. If I can assist in any way… Let the procession hearken back to the halcyon days of Prasat Pech! Whatever you ask of me, I am at your disposal.”
“Very well, fetch me the sorcerer of the boat people.”
Lord Veasna stutters like a schoolboy. He would rather I were so overwhelmed with grief that I would place my confidence in him to oversee the cremation. Step by step he would weasel his way into my graces, eventually marrying Princess and stealing my crown. I can see it all in his eyes. But I do not for one moment believe the monk is dead.
“I tire of repeating myself. You asked my will, and I replied that I would counsel with the sorcerer. Now go and bring him to me.” As I speak, I jam my knife into the neck of a prawn on the floor, pulling up the impaled head as a prize. I hope Lord Veasna understands that I could do the same to him.
I meet the sorcerer aboard another barge, one with the prow of a garuda clutching snakes in its taloned fists. It is not so magnificent as the naga, which had to be scuttled after the crocodile attack. At least most of the treasure was salvaged. From the coils of cloisonné beads and stacks of sparkling diadems I pull out a small silver dish, one I won’t much miss, to act as the scrying basin. The warlock examines the filigree with displeasure.
“It will suffice Highness, if you do not wish to go so deeply into the crocodile’s mind.”
I sigh, and flutter my hand at the open chest. The warlock picks through it, and then another, before selecting one of my most treasured heirlooms. The brazier is shaped like a lotus flower with petals of electrum converging around a diamond-studded seed cup. I will miss it. Princess moans as her blood dribbles over the dish’s embossing.
“Does it sting, Flower?”
“I only mourn the loss of my inheritance, Father.”
At least her cruelty is queenly.
The leaf slices across my hand and I spurt out of the cut, blistering hot like the seed of Shiva. I fear I will dissolve into a million particles, for how can a small spray of blood hold its form in the cosmic ocean? But the warlock’s chanting presses into me from all sides, forging a new corporeality. I am a tadpole of blood, bobbing along the glittering surface.
My snout glides firmly through the ripples, holding the center of the river. Normally, I would hug the shores, but today they are dangerous, for with the teacher on my back I cannot hope to hide below the surface. As we glide down the river, astonished fishermen greet us with cries of wonder.
“Behold, a monk standing upon the back of a crocodile! Still as a statue, his robes catch the wind like a great orange sail!”
Crabbers drop their traps, farmers abandon their oxen in the fields, and grandmothers let their sour soups burn as they stare dumbfounded. There is singing, crying, chanting, and laughter, but my only care is to bring the teacher safely home. I hasten to maneuver myself into the waters of the tributary where men seldom tread.
A breeze, dappling the water’s surface, soothes us. The teacher voices his relief in a chant that hums along the ridges of my back and lulls me into a gentle bliss. My tail swishes like a calligrapher’s brush. Breathing in the cool air, I taste rambutan and follow the odor to swaying bows along the bank. A band of macaques was here, grazing on the fuzzy red clusters and perhaps drinking from the river’s edge. Their dung is sour and fruity. Stippling this musk are the fragrances of wild grasses and blossoms. But there is another odor shelved in the air. It is an unfamiliar breed of humans; these ones are foreign. A catalogue of violent deeds wafts from their bodies—caked blood, burnt flesh, stale adrenaline. Though human, there is also something crocodilian about them. It is the brash odor of a young beast who first wanders out of his mother’s territory to challenge an older male for dominance.
How can I protect the venerable teacher? Spear points gleam from the riverbank. Without thinking I unhinge my jaws and arch my back that the teacher may climb into my mouth. I will protect him inside the vault of my own belly. The teacher knows what he must do, but his hand rests unsteadily on my jaw. He is too far beyond the vulgarities of our world to understand the savage tearing of flesh. But I know, and I will shield him from them. I grunt this urgency. The teacher gingerly probes the roof of my mouth with his leg. First one foot tickles my tongue, then another, and he slips down my throat. I have felt many creatures wriggling inside my belly: Turtles, carp, serpents, shrews, macaques, and once even a young calf, but this being I must protect with my life. If I cleave to the center, gliding just below the surface, the clumsy horde will not notice our passing. I’ll vomit teacher onto the soft grasses that grow along the bank beside the pagoda. The golden spire will gleam, sweet incense wafting from its porches. As I picture the young monks running out to cheer his arrival, the image blackens. Is the grass beside the pagoda on fire? No, I am not there yet. But there is clearly smoke. Perhaps it is from the invaders, burning everything in their path. Thick smoke, I cannot breathe. I cannot identify myself. I cannot feel the monk’s heartbeat. I cannot see. I cannot breathe.
“Majesty! You are alive!”
Only the warlock looks unsurprised that I have journeyed back into my own being. My eyes are too bleary to concentrate very much on the courtiers crowded around, but I suppose they are struggling to feign sympathy. “Wine,” I groan, but fall into a deep sleep before taking even a single sip.
I have not separated my mind from Ah Tone’s as cleanly as before. My royal barge smells too strong, and sometimes I feel the monk’s heartbeat as though it were issuing from my own stomach. It is imperative that the crocodile be captured soon, for the monk will suffocate in the dumb beast’s gut long before they reach the pagoda. Unfortunately, Lord Veasna’s efforts disappoint me at every turn.
“O Potent Sire, we have captured twelve more crocodiles.”
“So, what was in their bellies?”
“And upriver? That is where you must look.”
“Each hunting party we send upriver is intercepted by the invaders, King.”
Now Princess flings open the cabin doors and strides up to my throne, a parade of ladies-in-waiting mirroring her urgency like a trail of ducklings. This barge lacks the privacy to which a king is entitled. I glance out the window at my new palace, still only a stack of lumber piled in a jungle clearing.
“Father, the coin you expend on this crocodile hunt could be put to better use. Troubles abound, and our house is not so grand as in the days of Prasat Pech.”
“But flower, that is precisely why I do it: For the stability of our house. Your groom lives still in that beast’s belly.”
“Such a groom is unlikely to produce heirs, Father.”
Princess raises an eyebrow, but I cannot interpret her meaning.
“Father, I have secured an army of mercenaries from the Kingdom of the East.”
“Ha! King Dara IV is little more than a fat rice merchant wearing a king’s crown. How much, I pray, does that greedy tyrant demand?”
Princess and I watch in silence as grunting porters take each urn and chest, leaving my cabin as bare as a beggar’s cup. When there is but one lacquered case left, I strike the hand of the lout who moves to take it, and he shuffles away.
“Not this one,” I tell Princess. “The treasure it holds is as old as our line.”
“O Great King, it is as you feared. The crocodile climbed onto the bank and ejected the great teacher from its mouth before the assembled monks. Inspecting the corpse, they were astonished to discover no tooth marks at all—he suffocated in the belly. O, it is a ghastly affair Majesty!”
Tears dribble down my cheeks. After a moment I realize that I weep in error, for I am not the crocodile, I am the king. A king does not pity. Even so, I cry for several days without interruption. It is a great annoyance. My wine turns salty after only a few sips. Royal documents are destroyed before I can affix my seal. Concubines must crouch at my bedside to mop up the excess liquid as I sleep, or else my pillow grows too soggy. Even then, my dreams are still overrun with visions of the crocodile’s despair. One night I am awakened by the screaming of a concubine: I have snapped my powerful jaws onto her pinky. She must have been too careless as she dabbed the tears from my cheeks. Her revolting, puckered face, a caricature of agony, makes me want to let go. Yet the taste of blood holds the river beast Ah Tone inside me. I roar and thrash until I have ripped the digit free, then slip back under the covers to imagine that it is Princess’ finger in my mouth.
The next morning, I do not need Lord Veasna’s breathless report to know what has happened.
“…Highness, I cannot bear to tell you…yet another crocodile attack. O Worthy Liege, it is Princess! She was bathing under the shade of jacarandas along the bank, when the demon lizard shot out of the water and swallowed her whole!”
Yes, a single gulp. I already know, and the knowledge comforts me, for she is still alive. The monk did not die at once; I felt his heartbeat weakening over several days, but the stupid beast didn’t understand why. Ah Tone’s revenge will fail.
“Fetch the sorcerer,” I command.
“Though I am loathe to add to your troubles Majesty, there are those—not I—who claim that this foreign seer has undue influence over you, which he exercises to the detriment of the very outcomes you would seek. Very incorrectly, traitors assert that the gods no longer favor your rule. Perhaps the best way to nip such nonsense in the bud would be to distance yourself—”
“I said bring him to me you ninny! Are you deaf and blind? Unless he stands before me within the day I shall slice off your ears, scoop out your eyes, and deliver them to fishermen along the docks, saying ‘The owner makes no use of these, but perhaps you can use this offal as bait!’”
Lord Veasna scurries off stooped in a continuous bow.
I run my bandaged hand over the lacquer case holding the final treasure from the era of my great-great grandfather. I open the lid and lift out the brass bowl, admiring its intricacies for the last time. It mimics a woven basket for gathering rice, symbolizing the plentiful harvests of a burgeoning empire. But the playful workmanship also suggests the undulations of nagas, the celestial custodians of the river, the empire’s lifeblood. The warlock snatches it up and turns it over, unable to find gems he could pry off to sell.
“Do you see the detail with which the scales are wrought?” I ask. “No living artisan could match it. Each is engraved with a blessing upon my house. It shall bring you good fortune.”
The warlock holds the dish to his nose with a look of impatience more than admiration.
“Of course, it is in the old script, such as we can no longer read.”
He plops it back on the deck with a shrug. Shame overwhelms me as I struggle to remember how my grandfathers would have explained the brazier’s import. When the warlock rips the edge of the palm leaf across my cut hand, the searing of the wound comes as a relief. The brazier is powerful; my essence melts right into the crocodile’s.
Men scream out their death throes in several tongues. A burning village on the shore sprays volleys of cinder into the afternoon breeze. We are hiding in the cool mud, content despite the mayhem around us. The part of us that is Ah Tone is content with the fullness of our belly. The king is content too, because he feels Princess pulsing inside. For a moment the sovereign fights to swim out into the open water to be captured, but the crocodile would rather not. Even as we hear humans crashing through the bamboo along the bank it is difficult to act. Now Ah Tone would rather jet into the open water, and the king would rather not. So we do nothing. Spearmen swarm around, yelling in sharp voices like honking geese. The sovereign recognizes them as the mercenaries he has paid for, and grows impatient for us to be captured, but the crocodile is too frightened to surrender to them. The soldiers balk, confused that we do not respond. The king is confused too, until the crocodile explains that a predator finds the courage to kill in the struggle of his prey. It seems for a moment that the soldiers might just leave again, but then the first spear flashes hot in our back. It provokes another and another. They stick our snout, causing us to twist up. The king, overcome with pain, commands them to stop.
“Stay your spears, for I am ruler of these lands. Princess lives inside me—you’ll kill her too! You have been paid to save our house, not snuff it out you rodents.”
But it is the crocodile Ah Tone who voices this protest, bellowing a guttural roar that eggs the soldiers on. A shrieking brute leaps forward and impales us with such force that his spear snaps apart. The broken shaft tears through the crocodile and the king. It slides through Princess as though she were a hunk of meat roasting on a spit inside the lizard’s hot belly. We are the blood of three beings, seeping out of a thrashing animal husk. As we diffuse into the lapping waters, our only form is the pull of the river’s current.
Beginning of Summer, May ‘91
First chapter of Mario Perez's first novel, South of the Sun. Posted Nov 5, 2015.
A siren echoes through the blackened Chicago streets like an unsteady pulse. There are people out on this late night, people who seldom find solace in slumber and would rather trundle through the Southside blocks they’ve grown to know. They skitter like spiders through the alleys trying to stay out of sight. Others are red-eyed, wobbling on unsteady feet, having had one too many and are attempting the always difficult journey home. There are those dreamers lazily lounging on their porches trying to spot stars. Then there are kids like the two teenagers who quietly climb the rungs of a ladder leading to a billboard off Ashland and Archer. One of them is named Nico and just as he reaches the top his back magnetizes to the billboard, latching itself for dear life, trying to keep his eyes from looking down. He focuses on the Sears Tower: it’s a beaming white obelisk standing apart from the other shadowy skyscrapers that reside below it. It sees everyone, even him, as he sits on the porch of his parent’s house. There were nights when he couldn’t sleep so instead he would throw on a hoodie and sit on the cold porch steps, watching the skyline as it burned white like the snowy peaks of mountains above the neighborhood. If he was able to stay up long enough he would catch his father as he left for work. Each time his father would dig his huge palms into Nico’s curly hair and hustle along the steps towards his bourbon van, having a knapsack slung over his broad shoulders as if he was being shipped off to war. Nico’s eyes shadowed his father’s receding steps, the hallow slamming of the metal door, and the low rumbling of the engine. His father usually honked, waved from the driver’s seat, and dashed off into the sleeping streets. Nico waited for the red tail lights to fade before settling back into his bed. He’d sometimes dream of his father sailing into Lake Michigan on an old skiff. Nico would watch him has he built the boat, taking ply wood off the beach and hammering them into place till it was sturdy enough to stay afloat. Eventually the boat would be done and his father would set off, alone, without saying a word. All Nico could do was watch as his sail faded beneath the moonlight.
The other kid is a tagger by the name of Abbas. He’s mindlessly etching his next piece onto the billboard with a blueberry canister of spray paint. Like a conductor his lanky arms weave along the contours of the paper creating colorful caricatures out of nothing. Beads of sweat slide off his marble forehead and over a fine-tipped nose, dropping like a faucet along a sharp chin. The spray can hisses like a snake, pausing only when Abbas needs to shake more life into it—like loose teeth bouncing in a tin cup. Abbas’s plain white shirt hangs off him like a coat rack. His eyes are so focused it looks as if he might not be aware of where he is, instead lost among the vast sea of his mind as the piece rises from the dark depths like a mythical beast. Nico watches as the piece unfold, wondering what’ll come out of Abbas head this time.
A forceful wind batters the spine of the billboard making it shake, causing Nico to lose his footing. He lunges desperately for the rail within arm’s reach and dizzyingly gapes at the rooftops below him, which seem farther away than he first imagined. He has never viewed the city from this height before. The entire landscape stretches endlessly in all directions like golden sand sprinkled on the back of space. A bitter coldness grips Nico, coursing through every vein, pore, and exposed skin. The charcoal streets start to spin like turntables, headlights from the passing cars leave burn marks on his forehead, and the scratching rails of a cargo train dig into his stomach making it curl into a tight ball. Abbas is unaffected, every subtle motion centered on his goal. Nico alters his gaze towards the tenebrous sky, hoping that counting the lights might stop the vomit from creeping up his throat. He thinks those lights are stars, but they’re almost always planes. Aren’t any stars in a place like this, his dad would say on their night drives from El Grande Orgo, a restaurant they’d frequent. There is too much noise in a place like this, he continued in a hushed tone, and most people in cities want to forget there’s a place beyond this one. Nico asked him why and his dad said it was because it reminds people that there is an escape…splattering, chunky liquid expels from his mouth. Everything that was once inside him paints the city. It drips onto the facades of the buildings and onto the grimy sidewalk. He collapses to the floor out of exhaustion. Abbas snickers but doesn’t say a word.
Closing his eyes, Nico follows the sputtering whispers of the spray can and the soft brush strokes of the cars zooming along the highway. Sandwiched within those sounds exists a chaotic screaming, a jagged, high-pitched moan dicing apart the otherwise comforting climate. It’s the sound that yanks Nico out of his stupor, going erect immediately, and seeking out the source. Two spinning blue and red’s dance along Archer Street, ignoring traffic signs, and weaving between other vehicles on the road. It’s his one job up here, but what could he possibly do if they’ve found them out. There is only one way back to the surface and it isn’t like they have to come up to get them. Nico watches the squad car jet beneath them and doesn’t breathe till it bolts off in another direction. It’s wailing wilts with time, being squashed by the city silence. Only then does Nico notice Abbas has stopped and is peering over the rails to see if they’ll be spending the night behind bars. Once the sirens recede, Abbas shrugs and finishes his piece, leaving Nico to the deepest abyss of his mind. He wants to say that they should leave; they might come back, but can’t find the words, or the courage. Instead he leans his head against the icy bars, trying to forget the fear sitting on his chest like a heavy cat, but it’s impossible. The cat has stretched his entire body over his face and makes it hard to breathe.
The squad car inches along the street contemplatively. Its headlights shut off as it slinks through the parked cars. There are two silhouettes of heads within, faceless, as if they’ve adapted to the Chicago night. Saint Joseph ruffles up his jacket, clenching the Bible tightly against his wet palms. A nervous cough makes him stumble. Leaning against a gate, he knows they’re watching. The second the car stopped they haven’t looked at anywhere else, he can feel it. Fuckin’ pigs, he sniffs, attempting to seem inconspicuous. He can’t remember how he normally stands. His left leg behind the right and his elbow over the gate casually, or was it the other way around? Licking his dried lips, he realizes he’s standing under the only streetlight that is off. Maybe this is God’s test? There is no better way to make money, so you can’t judge me. The siren squeals as it pulls into view and stops. The blue and red lights lap across the entire block partially revealing each structure. There’s no hiding from certain types of lights, he thinks. Their windows casually descend to reveal two sets of aviators staring stoically his way. Saint Joseph tries unsuccessfully to act as though he doesn’t see them, darting his composure elegantly, till they inevitably lock eyes and he’s pulled by one of the white men’s leather fingers.
Hola, officers. You’s seeking a late-night confessional for prior misdeeds?
The one closest to him peeks at the Bible clutched tightly against his chest. The officer has a buzz cut and a round hairless face. Saint Joseph’s focus is bouncing from inside the car to scouting around them, in case he needs to run. The blunt he smoked is adding to his anxiety. He can hear his skin sweating. His smile is like the Cheshire Cat smiling down at Alice as she stumbles into Wonderland.
Ello’ Padre, what’s a preacher doing on the streets on a night like this? Buzz cut snorts.
God’s work of course. The night is when those sinners need me most.
Not a church for at least a few blocks. The other squeals in a higher pitch.
God needs no roof. This is all his church. St. Joseph recites.
He didn’t notice buzz cut’s gloved hand extended at first; instead his head was strafing upwards. He was trying to find the moon. He didn’t notice the thick rug slowly being pulled across the sky. Mindlessly, he drops his Bible in buzz cut’s hands, but then curses to himself, biting his lip. Buzz cut thumbs through the first few pages, and lowers his aviators to ponder each word with his natural blues. Like a curious child, the stockier fellow next to him leans (the chair makes a squealing sound as he does) over his friend’s shoulder to get a peek. Saint Joseph recalls the prayer his mother used to speak to him when he was a child,
May you always walk in sunshine and God's love around you flow, for the happiness you gave us, no one will ever know, it broke our hearts to lose you, but you did not go alone, a part of us went with you, the day God called you home,
My old lady used to sing that all the time, when my grandpa died.
Saint Joseph forgot about where he was; about the moist clouds beginning to rumble; about the two knights of law who are looking for any reason to slap cuffs over his wrists and stuff him in a cell with other faceless spicks.
Y-yes, it’s a common requiem for the dead and for our Lord.
Practice inside padre, Ambrose are crawling on the blocks looking for something, someone.
There has to be evil, if there’s good, Saint Joseph whispers, chuckling.
You say something?
Oh no, thank you. He bows nervously.
Adios padre. Hope there are more saints like you around.
Saint Joseph lightly snatches his Bible as they pull away. Against his chest it feels warm. This was the Bible his mother read to him every night. Licking his fingers, he zips through the aged pages, filled with countless tales of sacrifice and love, till he reaches the section that he cut out where a fat wad of high-grade kush rests. He lifts it to his nose and is immediately engrossed by the scent, the feel. Opportunity exists in that pound, as well as all the other pounds he has stashed at home. Without the kush the bible is just a bunch of empty words without meaning. You can’t exist on faith, not in a city like this, he tells himself. A raindrop drums the plastic bag. St Joseph crosses himself three times before moving on, happy to have another day.
Suddenly the hissing stops and Abbas mumbles presto. Before him stands his masterpiece, created using wet paint as the catalyst and the city as a canvas. Nico lingers in place, mesmerized by it, trying to understand what it says. All art is saying something. His name Howlin18 explodes from the center of the advertisement with gold block letters, outlined with black, and above it Bug’s Bunny smugly snickering with his arms crossed and a Bull’s cap turned backwards—a perfect way to salute the Bulls and Jordan on their forthcoming playoff run. This would never be hung next to a Picasso, Nico thinks. The people downtown would spit on a piece like this; they don’t have time for trash art that some spick or nigger pissed onto a wall. If only they could see it the way Abbas did. An extension of the neighborhood they’ve been brought up in. In the south slums, this was their art. Abbas sucks up the spare spray cans with life left in them, stuffing them into a duffel bag, and then fades towards the ladder, melting into the city where they belong. Nico devours what’s been bombed one last time before mimicking his steps.
Back on the surface, Nico feels relieved, revitalized. His roots sprouted from this ground, anywhere else feels uncomfortable. A steady haze of smoke steadily wafts from the alley. Nico saunters over to it, attracted by the signals spewing into the sky. Out of the darkness Abbas appears, but he isn’t alone. A higher-pitched voice is beside him. It is a dark-eyed Asian with thin red lips and skin that glows like moonlight. She has silky bangs that try in vain to hide her eyes and a light brown birthmark shaped like a star on her right cheek. Her fingers playfully drum her tight jeans. They’re talking like old friends. Nico didn’t know Abbas could laugh.
Nico, meet Day. Her hobbies include books, long walks on the beach, and creeping up on you in the middle of the night without announcing herself.
What a charming way to introduce me. I’d been keeping watch down here for you. I didn’t know you already had help.
Nico’s his name. He doesn’t have the strongest stomach for heights, haha.
She throws Nico a half-smile. Before they get to talk, Abbas pushes himself off the brick wall and starts to trek back to the neighborhood. Suddenly they’re immersed within a viaduct. Water drips perpetually from the high Roman arches, sounding like a tongue clicking against teeth. Their neighborhood is visible past the sullen street lamps and the Tribune building. More Mexicans there than you’ll find at an immigration center. Pilsen used to be filled with Poles, but they fled west as the Mexicans swam in. Abbas cuts across the street to a high grated fence and a thick fish stench. Ducking beneath a bend in the gate and entering a thicket of weeds higher than his waist, Nico realizes the smell is radiating from the Chicago River. It gracefully murmurs beneath the waning moon, accompanied by the soft crunches of their feet. Specks of gray dots fill the sky. To the east there is an old concrete bridge that connects two vastly different neighborhoods, Bridgeport and Pilsen. Bridgeport is where the Mayor is from, mostly Irish, Nico sometimes treaded under the viaduct connecting the neighborhoods and was astonished to find apartment buildings so clean, so open. A creamy hue reflects off the ripples. Across the river there are new homes being built, a sleepy park surrounded by asphalt with one lone tree, and an empty bread factory. The water is muddy, stirring with the wind like a steaming cauldron. It’s so thick if he put his hand inside it, it may not come out. Abbas strikes a match. His face burns a fiery red as he leans in with his eyes closed, sucking up the charcoaled essence, and ignoring the activity beyond this place. Day tosses rocks onto the surface of the river. They give a few jumps before sinking into the black pool, eaten. It is like an island within the shadows, a place no light touches. Only the Sears Tower keeps its watchful gaze upon them. Nico notices an abandoned factory doused in graffiti directly across the train station. It’s rusted, pieces of its walls have peeled and eroded, and most of the large open spaces are splattered with words. A huge portrait that stands above the rest is one that reads “GRMM is ALWAYS WATCHING.”
One of the old slaughter houses, Abbas coughs, catching Nico’s curious gaze. They’d dump the carcasses right into the river. That’s why it still reeks. So much dead in this river…
Who’s GRMM? Nico asks.
Abbas’s sworn enemy, Day replies playfully.
The end of the cigarette brightens. Ash trails of the ends. When it diminishes completely Abbas speaks again,
Some say he is the best tagger coming out of the south side.
What do you say? Nico asks.
Not sure. I have been seeking him out ever since I started. No one knows anything about him. They say he doesn’t actually exist. Others say it is a bunch of cats using the same name.
Maybe it is you? Day chides. Your evil twin out to overshadow you.
You’ve got some imagination, haha.
Flicking the butt into the river, Abbas rises, stretching his lanky arms as far as they could go. The purple landscape is starting to lighten, but there is still time before the sun will rise and that first explosion of sunlight spills over the entire city. The city has felt empty lately. A meteor hit the dinner table at home, leaving a human-sized crater. Nico has been reluctant to bring it up to his mother who has gone about her daily chores unbothered, as if nothing was wrong. His father hasn’t been home for a week now and that type of absence has never happened before. Maybe he is already snoring on the chair in the living room. Nico will creep in and see him slumped deep within its blue folds, mouth wide as a bass, and barrel chest rising delicately. Before Nico gets to his feet Abbas is already disappearing inside the tall weeds, leading back to the street, back to where life exists, followed closely by Day. When he catches up with them, they’re saying goodbye.
Better call it before we’re caught in the rain.
The sky is murmuring. Clouds cling to the ceiling as if the smoke from Abbas’s cigarette created them. A moist wind clamors upon his skin. Nico is enthralled by the utter emptiness of the night. That icky twitch in his neck comes back again. He has a sudden feeling that he’s being watched, but the city reveals nothing. Not a single foot stirs on the sidewalk besides theirs.
Which way you walking? Day asks Abbas, lifting her hood shyly.
I’m taking the long way back. Nico’s headed back that way though and he doesn’t look tired at all.
Startled, Nico skips a glance at Abbas, then Day.
I know you ain’t going home, Abbas. Day’s comment comes off half-jokingly, but also half-honest.
You two aren’t the only people I know.
I don’t doubt it.
Abbas sniffs and squeezes Day’s wrist before stepping away from her. The motion surprises Day, her ochre eyes widen. Abbas throws up two fingers as he vanishes within the mist of the neighborhood. A light spray gently wafts onto them. Day hurriedly raises her hood and tightens up. All she has to do is nod her head. Nico saddles up next to her.
Abbas hustles into the alley. There are dark puddles beginning to form in the asphalt. The yellow lamps blur with the rain. The garages are all black, locked. Rainfall masks footsteps. A bulky man steps out of a yard. A hood covers his entire face as he stops in the middle of the alley like a giant door, arms crossed tightly. Abbas halts and waits. He hears more feet trundling over his shoulder. It doesn’t take them long to surround him. He keeps his eyes on the big man in his way. Abbas knew they were watching.
You’ve been walking my streets a lot at night lately, huh Abbas?
A familiar voice rumbles near his neck. Slick saunters into view. A sharp line of hair rides his chin and circles his lips. He has a dagger-like nose and eyes devoid of color, nothing escapes them. He’s wearing a tight purple suit jacket that matches his pants, a deep chocolate handkerchief stuffed in the breast pocket, and an ashy dress shirt under it all. His hands click a lighter imprinted with a Black Ace on and off, twirling it carelessly. An imp-like fellow holds a flowery yellow umbrella over Slick’s matchstick head. The imp’s name is Rufus. His front teeth are shockingly white and he has an overbite. Compared to Slick it looks like he is wearing rags.
Nothin’ wrong with taking a stroll home now and then is there Slick?
Only if you cross the wrong people. It’s dangerous these days boy. I guess you haven’t been hearing about it though since you’ve left.
Word gets out, but I have nothing to do with that remember?
Ah yes, yes. This has nothing to do with him, Slick is speaking with Rufus, spinning the umbrella as if he were about to start singing. I guess I forgot. He lowers his head still grinning, rubbing his chin. No, no that isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right. The big man moves in closer to Abbas, which makes him flinch. He didn’t want to flinch. I don’t recall letting you go so easily. That doesn’t sound like me.
But you said…
I know, I know. And see, you being family I let it slide. I was nice and let you walk, but I’m in need of extra men and it is good to have someone you can trust. I can put money in your pocket boy and that is something you’ll need when you’re out of here.
Abbas nervously stares into his cousin’s eyes. Ever since he was young Abbas as feared him.
As long as no one else gets wind of it…
Abbas, you’re clean. Well, sort of…A knife-like chortles cuts into Abbas. He clenches at his stomach briefly, feeling sick. That’s what I like about you. Don’t worry. If all goes to plan nothing will be said. As the old pirates used to say, dead men tell no tales. We’ll be in touch.
Slick ignites in laughter as the gang dissipates. Abbas is alone in seconds. The rain is really coming down. His whole body is soaked and shivering. The small puddles are turning into wide lakes beneath his feet. A burst of lightning sizzles through the orange clouds. Abbas is rooted into the wet alley, fearing what the sun will reveal to him come morning.
Nico can see Day’s face, somewhat somber, or maybe contemplative. The drops grow, exploding on the asphalt steadily. Nico isn’t sure how far he needs to go; he doesn’t even know where she lives. He trundles north waiting for her to send some guidance, letting the hiss of the rain fill their lips. Nico has heard rumors about Day and Abbas. They started dating sophomore year. It didn’t seem like they spoke at all, so it was out of the blue, and you couldn’t even tell since they never held hands in the hall or kissed: it was their proximity, their unbearable closeness, arms almost touching but not quite, that gave off the vibe. The rumor spread among the school and everyone watched their movements whenever they were together. A word seldom passed their lips, and they’d offer a silent wave as they branched off into separate classes. Maybe they were never really dating, only very close. Sometimes people see what they want to see. Nico is as curious as anyone, but hasn’t asked. He’s never been close to anyone like that...
I never liked the rain…She mutters, tightening the hood of her sweater. I always feel like I’ll melt into the ground like the wicked witch.
She was evil though. I don’t think you’ve got an evil bone in you, by the looks of it.
Little do you know…She croons jokingly, but it wasn’t just about being evil. It’s about weaknesses. We all have that.
Hesitantly, What’s yours?
She halts abruptly at the corner. The street lights flickers on and off. They retreat beneath an awning of a restaurant. They can see their reflections in the mirror: Nico’s hair is soaked, sharply stuck to his forehead. Day takes off her hood and shakes the few drops still clinging to her long hair. Her cheeks glimmer like wet mirrors.
What kept you from joining a gang? She asks suddenly. Tilting her head to one side.
Nico balks, gulping his courage along with his dinner. He can’t look directly at her.
I don’t know…I guess my dad. He’d always remind me of what they do and how they’ll amount to nothing. My mom told me he was in a gang when he was my age. He would sell weed to his classmates and steal from stores. It wasn’t till my mom got pregnant that he quit high school and got a real job to support her. There’s always one thing that could set us on a better path right? Nico chuckles, He didn’t do any kinds of drugs after that. He went straight when I was born. Besides, what would a gang want with a useless kid like me anyway?
Sounds like a good guy.
Yeah, yeah. I guess…
My dad’s a migrant too. He said my grandfather left China when the revolution started. He made friends with an American General and got his family on a battleship bound for New York just before the first bullet got fired. My dad is a worker like his dad. He has always been stern and protective. If he knew I was out right now he’d ground me the entire summer.
Why do you come out?
To experience this…her arms extend like wings…before I leave. It’s still so mysterious somehow. I fear it, but I feel it’s because I don’t understand it. I like understanding things. When I was little I tore apart my bike and tried to rebuild it so I could understand how it works. I could never get it to work right though. In the end it wasn’t about understanding. I hadn’t gained anything – to the contrary –my dad never bought me a bike after that. Still I like taking things apart. Something about destruction and creation that gets to me. That’s why I follow Abbas sometimes, you know. His creations sprout from nothing and will vanish just like that. Kind of sad, no? Isn’t that why you’re out?
I’m not sure…
…Coddled up in a corner near the window, Nico crunched the cardboard pizza while watching the ebb and flow of the cars—it was his ritual, a somewhat cleansing experience to witness the beautiful constant motion of the world that never seems to cease. The lunchroom had enough space to hold four hundred students plus every period or so. It was a dingy white with large brown tables seating ten kids each spread out in rows. There were two lines where the food was served, usually watered down spaghetti, cardboard pizza, or a mystery meat that was even a mystery to the lunch ladies serving it (the answer varied depending on which one you asked). The lunch ladies were haggard looking Mexican women, usually sweltering under the heat of the dishes, their mascara running across every crease in their wrinkled skin, and a crackled voice that reminded you why you shouldn’t smoke. Each group type sat in their specific section: breakers, bangers, ballers, populars, soccer stars, grunge heads, metal heads, nerds, and the loners. Nico fit neatly within the last category, usually claiming the spot furthest from all the buzzing that filled the room constantly, a motion that he was never part of. Then one day a mysterious plate smacked the table making Nico turn his head, being confronted by the pensive gaze of Abbas, who mindlessly dug into his food. Abbas didn’t acknowledge his sudden appearance at his table, nor did he raise his gaze to the curious eyes of Nico. Nico ignored his presence and went back to pondering the outside. Abbas was the first to break the silence, asking him what he was looking for out there. Nico was caught off guard. All he could muster was a feeble shrug.
You’re searching for something, why else would you be looking out there?
After staring at Abbas who spoke to his food, he answered. Where else is there to look? Nothing interesting in here.
They let the murmuring atmosphere fill the gap between their words for a minute, weighing the air floating among them.
If you’ve been out there, the outside, it wouldn’t mean much either, Abbas said.
Nico didn’t understand what he was getting at. He didn’t understand why he was being talked to either. Peering at the rest of the room to make sure this wasn’t some cruel joke, he realized no one was paying much attention to them. The others were happily munching on the flavorless meal, chatting with their friends, and taking advantage of every second that they had left before class started again.
Can’t find anyone from the inside, he continued, you know who I am, right?
Nico nodded his head.
No you don’t. You just know what you hear and what little you see. You don’t know who I really am. Only at night-dwellers would know the real me.
Nico nodded again, but was confused. I’m confused.
What I’m getting at is I’ve got other hobbies, the illegal kind. The kind that involves a bit of climbing, hiding…
Nico’s voice lifted a bit too high and echoed throughout the cafeteria. The kids around them stopped eating for a second and looked at them bewildered. Instead of answering, Abbas snickered and lowered his head and voice.
In that type of profession, you’d need extra eyes, a lookout, someone you can trust. You get me?
No not really. Abbas’s voice was almost a whisper so Nico mimicked it. He felt like a spy conspiring against a government.
Takes you a minute to catch on huh? I’m asking if you want to see the outside you seem so interested in, instead of just looking at it. You want to be my eyes?
Nico laughed out loud instantly. A defensive mechanism he later realized.
I can barely scribble a happy face on a napkin. What makes you think I’d want to do that?
We all start somewhere. You think Picasso was sketching masterpieces out of the womb? I got a spot I want to bomb in a couple of days. Meet me on Blue Island by the gas station at one a.m. this Friday. Don’t wear white.
Abbas vanished as quickly as he came without an answer, leaving Nico to his former sanctuary. After school, Nico laughed at the thought of him running through the streets at night with Abbas, skimping spray paint off dirty walls and climbing through yards to get on the garage to hit up a spot. The outside, the night always permeated with a harsh light cause of the menacing sounds he heard from his window and the stories people tossed about with their trash. His father got mugged on a walk back from a bar one night. It was like any other night, cold, bitter, and he had a buzz but was able to walk straight. He took a shortcut through the alley behind their house, which was a mistake, and got confronted by three teenagers asking if he wanted weed. He waved them off and tried to get by them, that’s when they pulled out a gun, emptied his pockets, and bolted. The Rodriquez’s garage door felt his father’s wrath and he was bleeding from his knuckles when he came back to the house. This image always frightened him, yet, when one a.m. on the Friday came, he found himself sprinting to the meeting place, out of breathe, noticing Abbas leaning against a light post smoking, grinning, tossing a full bag of spray cans and leading the way for their first job together…
They watch a car slowly skid by. Heavy bullets of rain pelt the hood, sounding like a hollow drum. There’s no way to tell who is inside. It doesn’t wait long at the stop light and speeds right on. Without it there’s this feeling of emptiness among the blocks. The rain patters along the streets without obstacles like kids playing in an open field.
Where’s your dad now? She asks suddenly.
Nico shakes his head absently, you mean at this moment? A twittering brushes his heart. He wishes he was in the rain. Well, to tell you the truth…he’s gone. I haven’t seen him for more than a week.
Gone? Day’s head bent southward as if the words were rolling out of her ears. What do you mean gone?
Nico doesn’t know. It doesn’t make sense to him. I don’t know, he hasn’t shown up at the house. My mom hasn’t said anything, so maybe he’ll come back. But, I got this feeling…this heavy weight on my chest telling me something happened, something’s wrong, and I can’t shake it—she breaks the flow of words with a hand on his cheek. Her fingers are like icicles. They are locked in a stare for seconds, minutes, he doesn’t know. It feels like her eyes are focused at something inside him.
Sorry, she removes the tips of her fingers, that’s what my mother does for me when I’m stressed. She rubs her fingers. The icy feeling still clings to his skin. Will you try to find him?
Try to find him? He hasn’t thought of that. How would he try exactly?
Day nods. He might be waiting for you to find him. She nudges him on the shoulder and winks at him. If you need any help, ask. I’m sure Abbas would lend a hand as well. You don’t have to search alone.
It isn’t long before she rushes into the shower, gripping her hood desperately, gleefully, and scurrying home before her father wakes up. Nico lifts his palm into the water to see if he’ll melt…nothing happens.
A voice within whispers one word, yes, yes I have to try.
It’s pouring and the water drenches his lingering thoughts. He treads in a space between awake and dreaming. A dense fog smolders off the street as if it were fuming. He knows where to go. He’s traversed these blocks so many times in his life that it would take a complete tidal wave destroying the entire city for him to forget. He remembers everything. Like a camel trundling through a desert it sits on his shoulders. A buzz runs through his ear and then wanes. The ice cold drops are pine needles bashing into his skin. The dull hum of the pale moon shivers with his steps, peeking playfully from behind the menacing pillows, but then it becomes masked once again. His eyelids sail with the motion of his heart. What will become of him and the rest of the kids on his block? Here they are, scraping through the trash of the city trying to survive. They have to live with a sin that was inherited, one they didn’t ask for: poverty.
The rain ceases. There’s a light drizzle and a ghastly howl shrouding the surroundings. Nico pauses to take a breath. He isn’t far from home. His tiredness is the reason he doesn’t see them, otherwise he would’ve caught their shadows swarming like crows ready to peck apart his soul. He doesn’t feel the first fist clock him in the back of the head. All he recalls is hitting the ground, thud, and a few sharp pangs in his abs, thump, thump, and the sound of pattering growing faint. It happened so fast, as if his own body attacked him so he could finally sleep, but when he wakes up tomorrow and sees the black eye he’ll know what happened. Some of the muddy water slips into his lips and makes him choke. Pulling to his feet, steadily, agonizingly, he limps west.
Three words to capture your feelings toward China?
Vast. Relentless, and Real.
Most memorable moment from your first year in China?
I was located in a small city in Shanxi province called Yuncheng when I first leaped into this side of the world. Being a Chicago boy that had never journeyed over the ocean, the moment my foot struck the carpeted airport and I was surrounded by countless individuals who didn't speak my language jarred me. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning and waking up in another dimension. I think my first meal is the most memorable moment for me since I learned so much about the culture through it. There I sat with two men I didn't know in some place I couldn't have showed you on a map blinking in and out of consciousness due to the long flight surrounded by countless others in a dingy alley eating more food that I could put down. I remember carefully lifting parts of a dish out of thick red liquid (blood I later found out) and asked myself what I was doing, why was I there? I came knowing nothing, no one. What better way to understand the world?
Moment you realized China was an important part of your life?
I can't say the country itself is as important as leaving the routine I was stuck in. Like Sisyphus lugging the bolder continuously up the mountain only to have it fall again, I felt myself stuck in Chicago. After graduation, I had the choice of working the same dead-end job I had for four years prior and paying off a debt or escaping. I threw nets all across the globe and China happened to be the first country to throw a up flag, waving me in. I've never looked back since.
Moment you realized writing was an important part of your life?
Writing was something I stumbled upon. There were no real sources of artistic endeavors as I grew up in Chicago. What I witnessed were people striving, trundling through 9-5 jobs, content in having a few dollars to spend once the bills were paid, If it weren't for writing I'd probably have chosen a similar life. Writing helped me forge into the deepest, darkest parts of my soul where all the answers are. Writing forced me to detach myself to better understand my surroundings. Without writing, I may have never got on the plane to China, seeking more stories to scribe. I owe writing everything, yet it asks nothing of me. What better relationship can I ask for?
Your writing history/notable writing projects:
This will be my first exposure to the outside world. I've spent more of my energy on completing this novel. I've hid away in my cave attempting to mend my creation as best as I could so it could be ready. Took me five years to reach this point.
Favorite word to use in writing: This is difficult. My favorite English word is bliss: it's a word that floats out of your mouth into infinity.I never get the chance to use it though. I'd probably say the phrase "city silence" is one I'm always excited to use. Chicago was a symphony that played constantly and lulled me to sleep.
A metaphor to describe what writing is?
Writing is getting lost in a house of mirrors with thousands of strange eyes scowling at you, waiting to see if you glare back or shrink away.
Anything else you wish to say?
I appreciate the opportunity to reveal my novel here. It's nice to see a forum for the artist can still thrive.