When she was thirteen, Mr. Hollis told her: “There’s never more than two, Cherry. The magician and the magician’s apprentice.” That was the first year, and she spent her time sloo-o-owly magicking water from one glass to another as he read the newspaper and drank the coffee. Magician’s apprentice had to get the Starbucks. Caramel macchiato, no foam, extra hot, which was a yuppie drink if you asked her (but nobody did). “Quarter in,” he’d say, and she’d concentrate on the liquid shivering from cup to cup. “Now half. Slower.”
There was definitely something to be said about being Mrs. Lim, even into the Underworld: something about comfort, something about privilege, something about a status quo carried into the afterlife. The previous matriarch that bore the title of Mrs. Lim had moved on long before Mrs. Lim got there, but since Mrs. Lim had not liked the domineering nature of her predecessor, this did not bother her overmuch. One of things to be said about being Mrs. Lim was that during Cheng Beng, she received many, many presents.
The American boy, whose name was David, had always collected things. Coins, minerals, seashells, insects, and even house-brand bars of soap from hotels in his family’s travels. His collections helped him know who he was when so much of life did not; and the things he collected did not make him bleed, when so much of the world—the sharp, angular things of it—did. When you bought an old coin in a store, the coin didn’t bruise your skin or scratch your fingers.
It was always a relief on the ward when midnight came, bringing the late-night caretakers in their faded scrubs and sensible shoes, carrying their little trays of sweet oblivion from bed to bed and room to room. They passed among the patients like the Sandman himself, leaving even the most devoted screamers sleeping peacefully. The silence wouldn’t last, but oh, it was sweet for a little while. The more damaged patients—the ones who’d been waiting years for sanity to make a house call.
“Are you all right?” The voice, sharp and worried, shot out of the pocket of shadow to her left. Startled, she turned and found herself blinking at a cop, one of the ones who patrolled the park on foot. In the last light of dusk, she could just make out his half-frown, his badge, the hand resting on a nightstick. He reminded her of her father. She shivered and pulled her sweatshirt more tightly around her. She should have brought warmer clothing, but she wasn’t going to be here long.
I was in line at the supermarket, fixing to buy me some beer, when I decided to tell my story. I’d just seen the headlines on the papers saying JFK had been successfully cloned by alien tax professionals and Elvis was living his life as a woman named Loretta Stills in New Jersey. Way I figure, a bit more truth can’t hurt: My name is Cain. The Good Book is flat-out wrong about me. Most folks ask two questions about me. They want to know why I killed my brother.
I remember as children we were warned about the women who drove the unmarked white vans that circled around our neighborhood during those long hot summers, in particular creeping slowly down the boulevard which ran alongside the park, where if you positioned yourself at the right angle, I suppose in front of the swings, you might be able to see a flash of a child’s private yellow underwear as they pumped their legs upward.
If you were a certain kind of person with a certain kind of schedule in the early sixties, you probably saw a show that some friends of mine and I worked on called Acres of Perhaps. By “certain kind of person,” I mean insomniac or alcoholic; by “certain kind of schedule,” I mean awake at 11:30 at night with only your flickering gray-eyed television for company. With any luck, it left you feeling that however weird your life was, it could always be weirder.
Many years ago, in Shangdong Province, there lived an unfortunate farmer by the name of Dou Zhuo. Like most of us who walk this teeming Earth, he was trapped in the circumstances that fortune had provided him. He owned a patch of land that supported crops only after backbreaking effort, and then with results that betrayed its resentment of the demands he put on it. His cucumbers were bitter, his cowpeas difficult to boil, his leeks over-pungent, his pak choi stiff, and his edible amaranth hardly deserving of its name.
The first time the wrens sang at night was three years ago, when I used a rusty saw to cut off Pa’s left foot. The birds drowned out his screams. Wrens don’t normally sing after sunset, but I wasn’t surprised by it. Birds are known as spirit carriers in mountain lore. When someone dies, birds of all kinds carry them back and forth between this world and the afterlife, so folk can keep watch over their living loved ones, even after they’re gone.