Hither & Yon
When Suriak was given her first watercolors she painted the garden she saw every night when she slept. In the first week she worked through the pad of paper that came with the set, and in the week after she covered the walls of her room with embankments of flowers. Her parents made sure she was never out of paper after that.
"What's that?" her mother asked as Suriak filled a sheet with splotches of yellow. "Ulder," said the man in the hat, leaning in, lips barely moving. His eyes darted, as if anyone else on the train would hear him through their prophylactic earplugs. We were the only two with ears open.
"What?" I said, too loud. The man in the hat leaned away, mouth tight, beard bristling. He didn't look at me again. They made up their minds and started packing.
"Should we bring our medicine?" Helen asked. It took Penelope a week after moving into her apartment to realize that the man who was always sitting on the leather couch in the living room was her roommate. At first she took him for an overly devoted evangelist. He wore a white, collared shirt, black slacks, and a blank nametag, and had an enormous, bushy beard. When he did not leave or try to win her over to whatever jumbled philosophy he believed, she began to see him as a fixture. There was a roommate-shaped indentation in the couch. He smoked as if the air was poison and his voice was a quiet bass. Whenever she walked by the couch he murmured incoherencies or, Penelope chose to believe, advice.
On the third day after she moved in he said, "There are no entrances. Only exits." Little Him scooted around Danni's heart, tying his strings so tight that she thought the organ would burst. Watching his dizzying journey made her thankful for the transparency of her skin. It didn't matter that she'd flirted with the waiter and allowed him to touch her knee. It was of no consequence that she'd kissed that guy in the bar when out with her girlfriends, that Holly had told Glenn. Glenn would see how much she loved him.
"I am so full of you, there is almost no room for anyone else," Danni said to Glenn at breakfast. She is too small, Kitkun thinks, the first time she enters his tiny workshop tucked between the market's stalls. Too young to have left the nest alone. Yet, despite the years of waiting, he still feels a prick of hope as she steps out of the city's unrelenting smog and over the threshold, thinking, perhaps she will be the one. Perhaps she will ask. She was broken when he met her, shattered into a thousand tiny shapes, all with jagged edges. He gathered up her pieces and carried them home.
He spread them out on his dining room table, an eye here, a fingertip there, and smiled. The damage was not irreparable. The Empty Lot on Annie's block was hot and dusty-dry in the summer, luminous with possibilities. Spiky shrubs caught bits of litter, strange jars and cans nestled among pebbles and behind rocks, and they rarely saw grownups when they played there. Magic happened all the time. She unearthed a real fossil when scraping out one of the crawling paths between shrubs that they called "war tunnels." Another time her friend Grace found a skinny old snakeskin. And when Annie punched Tommy Canallee in the stomach for picking on her brother, his nose bled.
Magic. Clara got her first clue in preschool, just before naptime one day, as Ms. Weston read aloud from a massive gleaming book of fairy tales. Clara knew most of them already, though the versions were different, and this Snow White was stabbed with a poison comb before she ever touched an apple. Others, though, were entirely new to her, stories of huts with chicken legs and beautiful forest women with hollow backs.
And then there was the giant who hid his heart so he could live forever. The tale was all about the prince, about his perilous quest to find and destroy the heart, but Clara couldn't help feeling that it was bad enough to kill a person--anyone knew that was murder--and much worse after they'd gone to all that trouble. She didn't cry, because even at four she never cried, couldn't remember ever caring enough to cry, but she felt a strange solemnity come over her at the words like a shadow passing overhead. She could imagine the giant staring with awful, pitiful eyes as his heart was crushed, and she shuddered. It took a long time for Lucy Morgan to die.
It was an unremarkable death, a slow unraveling of skin and synapses and self that inconvenienced no one and left nothing behind but dust and the lingering memory of lavender in the air. And then, after men in white suits had come and vacuumed away all the traces, sealed them in little clear bags and thrown them away with the evening garbage, nobody seemed to remember that there had once been a person there at all. I can't take my eyes off the customer's back as he approaches my gallery. My emotions are strong and mixed: satisfaction, a sense of completion, a little sadness. I hope he is happy with the painting he is bringing me.
The bell over the door jingles as he enters, and we shake hands with big smiles. He hands me the painting, wrapped in brown paper, and with care and attention I unwrap it. It is one of mine: an abstract suggesting a bowl of fruit, pear and banana shapes in teal and turquoise. I regard it with pride and, again, a little sadness before I hang it in a blank spot on the wall. Uncle Tang repeats the same proverb when he beats me: "Hitting you is loving you." He's not my uncle by blood, though he's done more for me than any blood relative has. My mother could not have had a brother anyway, due to China's One Child Policy when she was growing up in the early 2020s.
Ignoring the tingling bruises on my back, I walk to the kitchen. A few dirty plates sit in the soapy hot water on one side of the sink, not enough to prompt a Bot to begin washing. Uncle and I are the only humans running the restaurant. He was sullen when they returned from the party.
"What's wrong?" she asked, more out of obligation than interest. We were in college and in love and it was magical. You know how it goes.
Beneath the deep midnight sky, Sara and I walked hand in hand, and one of the college guards followed. We led him around the prayer area, where a medical student I didn't know prostrated before a blank wall. The finals were tomorrow and the anguish on his face was palpable, contagious. The cannery above waist level was spotless. Stainless steel countertops shone under the fluorescents and machines hummed with an oiled speed. Jolene was lucky to work at such a fine cannery. She told herself that, when she arrived each evening and again each morning when she left.
One two three, she flicked a rubber-gloved hand across the open cans, one two three, and counted the cherries as they dropped. Before her on the line was the pineapple girl, and before her the melon girl, and before her the girl who scooped shrunken orange slices. Jolene didn't know anyone but the pineapple girl, who sometimes sat with her on breaks. They were all given complimentary cans of fruit cocktail, although most of them went outside to smoke instead of eating. I don't watch the cars rushing past us on the highway, and I don't look at my brother in the backseat. Instead, I count the sparse hairs on my arm and tell myself that it's not turning into fur.
I check all the time, since my brother started turning into a dog. The teachers at school call it a tic, like they call a lot of things I do. They tell me to sit still and be quiet. They look at me like my voice is only barking--like I'm the one who's an animal. Once upon a time in a far kingdom, there lived a man who fell in love with a river, and so he married it.
One day, as he sat happily in the river, he glimpsed something. It moved swiftly beneath the surface, dark and strong. As it swam by, he grabbed it by the tail and it pulled him pleasantly through the water. The landscape was beautiful, the water refreshing, the day warm. But eventually, he grew tired. "Choose your name," the guy outside the bus says. He has a clipboard and a pen, and he is blocking her path.
She stops, confused. "I have a name." Some of my earliest memories are of books. They were everywhere in our apartment back in the Soviet Union; shelves stacked as high as the ceiling in the corridor and the living room, piles of them encroaching upon every nook and available surface like some benign infestation.
Strangers came by often, sometimes several times a day, and browsed the shelves. They spoke to my father, always quietly, as though they were in a library. Cash and books exchanged hands in either direction but there was little haggling, both parties reluctant to insult the books by arguing over their price like they might with a sack of potatoes. Walter Stanwick grabbed his usual newspaper and cup of coffee from the P&D Market on the corner of 53rd and Industrial. It was his routine. In Walter's world, consistency was the secret to a long life.
"I'm sorry, sir, but you'll overdraw your account." The balloon children dance down the sidewalk outside our house to music my husband and I cannot hear. They come with the carnival. It frightens us to see them, their balloon heads red and round, strings falling from their necks like ropes they might have used to hang themselves, though of course none of them did this. Too young. But back when the world ended, this was most everyone else's fate. Every oak in town a freshly minted hanging tree.
I shut the curtains and turn back to the room still littered with dusty children's toys. We don't speak when the carnival's here. As long as you're silent, the balloon children won't come for you. It's the noise that draws them, greedy for more music. When the sun goes down and the carnival lights go up, the round colored bulbs flickering through our sky like UFOs, the balloon children will go back, until dawn, until it is once more time to hunt. At night, we're safe. It isn't like most nightmares. When the carnival's in town, we are afraid of the sun. He was born with a heart of gold. The doctors stared at X-rays, slack-jawed, not knowing how it could beat, let alone pump blood, so they scribbled notes and prescribed unnecessary medicine, just to seem important, and sent the boy home.
Soon the child fell ill. He recovered, but he remained fragile all his life. Papa was always losing things, from his car keys to the car he'd just put them in, so when he ended up losing himself, Ansa and I figured we had more important things to do than find out where he went. If he came back, he'd bring dinner. If he didn't, we could turn his office into a TV room.
Ansa and I hatched these plans in the dark underneath our bedclothes, and spent too much money on chocolate bars. We were only two years apart, but born opposites. Ansa was much lighter than I was, born during the winter when Mam said the sun couldn't burn her brown. I used to think we had one mind, and that everything we thought was a shared thought. Callie kept her heart in the front yard, as people often do. Here, her father's oak, solid and stoic and unchanging. There her sister's rhododendron, which bloomed with pale pink flowers. One root from each plant grew into her heart, which nourished everything in the yard.
She stepped over the delicate vines of her college roommate's ivy to get to her mother's willow tree. The leaves were dry and brown, and the once supple branches were brittle and fragile. Callie turned on the soaker hose that wound around the base of the tree, knowing it wouldn't help, but wanting to do something, anything, to save her relationship with her mother. As water dripped from the hose, Callie went to the one bough that still bore green leaves on its branches, but even here she spotted leaves with a slight tinge of yellow at the edges.
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