“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.
When Claudia’s six-year-old daughter Jane disappeared, Claudia was making love to a man who was not her husband. All her life she’d made mistakes and here was one more, worse than the others. This was in the house of Jane’s friend Magda. Magda and Jane were downstairs playing an aggressive doll game they’d invented; Claudia and Magda’s father were in the guest bedroom. He’d steered Claudia away from the master bedroom, the way he might any old house guest on a tour of the upstairs.
I was walking to my car from San Francisco’s 22nd Street Train Station when I first saw the old man. He was on the wrong side of the chain-link fence that separated the sidewalk from the steep rocky slope that led down to the train tracks. The station was an asphalt platform beside the train tracks, set at the bottom of a ravine. Steps from the platform led up to the street, but no steps led where the old man was walking. The only way to reach that particular spot was to climb a six-foot concrete block wall.
Vocations don’t grant vacations. I’m supposedly on holiday in London when I get an offer no reporter could refuse: to see a unicorn in the wild. I’m with my friend Samantha, hanging out at her Dad’s pub after a long night’s clubbing, still wearing our dance-rumpled dresses, dying to get out of our heels. Sam’s father, Will, is tending bar tonight, so it’s the perfect spot for late-night chips and hair-of-the-dog nightcaps. Plus, most of the clientele is over fifty. We wouldn’t have to spend all evening judo-throwing chirpsers.
Then the Bird of A Hundred and Eight Names gathered together her three new children, and she said, “You have passed our people’s tests and joined our ranks, and may leave if you wish. But leaving will take you among the Alabar, who collect salt in their bare hands and have no fear of rust, and call themselves merely people. Some among us speak slightingly of them, for their lives are short and easily ended, and they don’t protect one another as we do. You should be more wary.”