Nova Pacifica, 2313
Ms. Coron pointed to the screen-board, on which she had typed out a bit of code.
“Let’s diagram the call-graph for this classic LISP function, which computes the n-th Fibonacci number recursively.”
Ona watched her Teacher turn around. The helmetless Ms. Coron wore a dress that exposed the skin of her arms and legs in a way that she had taught the children was beautiful and natural. Intellectually, Ona understood that the frigid air in the classroom, cold enough to give her and the other children hypothermia even with brief exposure, was perfectly suited to the Teachers. But she couldn’t help shivering at the sight. The airtight heat-suit scraped over Ona’s scales, and the rustling noise reverberated loudly in her helmet.
Ms. Coron went on, “A recursive function works like nesting dolls. To solve a bigger problem, a recursive function calls on itself to solve a smaller version of the same problem.”
Ona wished she could call on a smaller version of herself to solve her problems. She imagined that nested inside her was Obedient Ona, who enjoyed diagramming Classical Computer Languages and studying prosody in Archaic English. That would free her up to focus on the mysterious alien civilization of Nova Pacifica, the long-dead original inhabitants of this planet.
“What’s the point of studying dead computer languages, anyway?” Ona said.
The heads of the other children in the classroom turned as one to look at her, the golden glint from the scales on their faces dazzling even through the two layers of glass in their and Ona’s helmets.
Ona cursed herself silently. Apparently, instead of Obedient Ona, she had somehow called on Loudmouth Ona, who was always getting her in trouble.
Ona noticed that Ms. Coron’s naked face was particularly made up today, but her lips, painted bright red, almost disappeared into a thin line as she tried to maintain her smile.
“We study classical languages to acquire the habits of mind of the ancients,” Ms. Coron said. “You must know where you came from.”
The way she said “you” let Ona know that she didn’t mean just her in particular, but all the children of the colony, Nova Pacifica. With their scaled skin, their heat-tolerant organs and vessels, their six-lobed lungs—all engineered based on models from the local fauna—the children’s bodies incorporated an alien biochemistry so that they could breathe the air outside the Dome and survive on this hot, poisonous planet.
Ona knew she should shut up, but—just like the recursive calls in Ms. Coron’s diagram had to return up the call stack—she couldn’t keep down Loudmouth Ona. “I know where I came from: I was designed on a computer, grown in a vat, and raised in the glass nursery with the air from outside pumped in.”
Ms. Coron softened her voice. “Oh, Ona, that’s not . . . not what I meant. Nova Pacifica is too far from the home worlds, and they won’t be sending a rescue ship, because they don’t know that we survived the wormhole and we’re stranded here on the other side of the galaxy. You’ll never see the beautiful floating islands of Tai-Winn or the glorious skyways of Pele, the elegant city-trees of Pollen, or the busy data warrens of Tiron—you’ve been cut off from your heritage, from the rest of humanity.”
Hearing—for the millionth time—these vague legends of the wonders that she’d been deprived of made the scales on Ona’s back stand up. She hated the condescension.
But Ms. Coron went on. “However, when you’ve learned enough to read the LISP source code that powered the first auto-constructors on Earth; when you’ve learned enough Archaic English to understand the Declaration of New Manifest Destiny; when you’ve learned enough Customs and Culture to appreciate all the recorded holos and sims in the Library—then you will understand the brilliance and elegance of the ancients, of our race.”
“But we’re not human! You made us in the image of the plants and animals living here. The dead aliens are more like us than you!”
Ms. Coron stared at Ona, and Ona saw that she had hit upon a truth Ms. Coron didn’t want to admit, even to herself. In the Teacher’s eyes, the children would never be good enough, never be fully human, though they were the future of humanity on this inhospitable planet.
Ms. Coron took a deep breath and went on as if nothing had happened. “Today is the Day of Remembrance, and I’m sure you’ll impress all the Teachers with your presentations later. But let’s finish our lesson first.
“To compute the n-th term, the recursive function calls itself to compute the (n–1)th term and the (n–2)th term, so that they could be added together, each time going back earlier in the sequence, solving earlier versions of the same problem . . .
“The past,” Ms. Coron continued, “thus accumulating bit by bit through recursion, becomes the future.”
The bell rang, and class was finally over.
Even though it meant they had less time to eat, Ona and her friends always made the long walk to have lunch outside the Dome. Eating inside meant squeezing tubes of paste through a flap in her helmet or going back to the claustrophobia-inducing tanks of the dormitory.
“What are you going to do?” Jason asked, biting into a honeycomb fruit—poisonous to the Teachers, but all the children loved it. He had glued white ceramic tiles all over his suit to make it look like an ancient spacesuit from the old pictures. Next to him was a flag—the old Stars-and-Stripes of the American Empire (or was it the American Republic?)—his artifact, so that he could tell the legend of Neil Armstrong, Moonwalker, at the Remembrance Assembly later that evening. “You don’t have a costume.”
“I don’t know,” Ona said, twisting off her helmet and stripping off her suit. She took deep gulps of warm, fresh air, free of the suffocating chemical odor of the recycling filters. “And I don’t care.”
Everyone presenting at the Remembrance Assembly was supposed to be in costume. Two weeks ago, Ona had received her assigned artifact: a little, flat metal piece with a rough surface about the size of her palm and shaped like a toy spade. It was dark green in color, with a stubby, fat handle and a double-tined blade, heavier than its size would suggest. It was a family heirloom that belonged to Ms. Coron.
“But these artifacts and stories are so important to them,” Talia said. “They’ll be so angry that you didn’t do any research.” She had glued her artifact, a white veil, over her helmet and put on a lacy white dress over her suit so that she could enact a classical wedding with Dahl, who had painted his suit black to imitate the grooms he had seen in old holos.
“Who knows if the stories they tell us are true, anyway? We can never go there.”
Ona placed the little spade in the middle of the table, where it absorbed the heat from the sun. She imagined Ms. Coron reaching out to touch it—a precious keepsake from a world she will never see again—and then screaming because the spade was hot.
You must know where you came from.
Ona would rather use the spade to dig up the past of Nova Pacifica, her planet, where she was at home. She wanted to learn about the history of the “aliens” far more than she wanted to know about the past of the Teachers.
“They cling to their past like rotten glue-lichen”—as she spoke she could feel fury boiling up inside her— “and make us feel bad, incomplete, like we’ll never be as good as them. But they can’t even survive out here for an hour!”
She grabbed the spade and threw it as hard as she could into the whitewood forest.
Jason and Talia stayed silent. After a few awkward minutes, they got up.
“We have to get ready for the Assembly,” Jason murmured. And they went back inside.
Ona sat alone for a while, listlessly counting the darting shuttlewings overhead. She sighed and got up to walk into the whitewood forest to retrieve the spade.
Truth be told, on bright, warm autumn days like this, Ona wanted nothing more than to be outside, suitless and helmetless, wandering through the whitewood groves, their six-sided trunks rising into the sky, the vibrating silver-white hexagonal leaves a canopy of mirrors, their susurration whispers and giggles.
She watched the flutter-bys dance through the air, their six translucent, bright blue wings beating wildly as they traced out patterns in the air she was sure was a kind of language. The Dome had been built on the site of an ancient alien city, and here and there, the woods were broken by hillocks—piles of angular rubble left behind by the mysterious original inhabitants of this planet who had all died millennia before the arrival of the colony ship, alien ruins exuding nothing but a ghostly silence.
Not that they’ve tried very hard, Ona thought. The Teachers had never shown much interest in the aliens, too busy trying to cram everything about old Earth into the children’s heads.
She felt the full warmth of the sun against her face and body, her white scales coruscating with the colors of the rainbow. The afternoon sun was hot enough to boil water where the whitewood trees didn’t shade the soil, and white plumes of steam filled the forest. Though she hadn’t thrown the spade far, it was hard to find it among the dense trees. Ona picked her way slowly, examining every exposed root and overturned rock, every pile of ancient rubble. She hoped that the spade hadn’t been broken.
Ona hurried over. The spade was on the side of a pile of rubble, nestled among some tinselgrass that cushioned its fall. A small spume of steam was trapped under it, so that it seemed to be floating over the escaping water vapor. Ona leaned closer.
The steam held a fragrance that she had never smelled before. The spume had blasted away some of the green patina encrusting the spade, revealing the gleaming golden metal underneath. She suddenly had a sense of just how ancient the object was, and she wondered if it was some kind of ritual implement, vaguely remembering the religion excerpts from Customs and Culture class—ghost stories.
She was curious, for the first time, whether the previous owners ever imagined that the spade would one day end up a billion billion miles from home, on top of an alien tomb, in the hands of a barely-human girl who looked like Ona.
Mesmerized by the smell, she reached for the spade, took a deep breath, and fainted.
East Norbury, Connecticut, 1989
For the Halloween dance, Fred Ho decided to go as Ronald Reagan.
Mainly it was because the mask was on sale at the Dollar Store. Also, he could wear his father’s suit, worn only once on the day the restaurant opened. He didn’t want to argue with his father about money. Going to the dance was shock enough for his parents.
Also, the pants had deep pockets, good for holding his present. Heavy and angular, the little antique bronze spade-shaped coin had been warmed by his thigh through the thin fabric. He thought Carrie might like to use it as a paperweight, hang it as a window decoration, or even take advantage of the hole at the handle end to turn it into an incense holder. She often smelled of sandalwood and patchouli.
Picking him up at his house, she waved at his parents, who stood in the door, confused and wary, and did not wave back.
“You look dapper,” Carrie said, her mask on the dashboard.
He was relieved that Carrie had approved of his costume. Indeed, she did more than approve. She had dressed up as Nancy Reagan.
He laughed and tried to think of something appropriate to say. By the time he settled on “You look beautiful,” they were already a block away, and it seemed too late. So he said, “Thank you for asking me to the dance,” instead.
The field house was festooned with orange streamers, plastic bats, and paper pumpkins. They put on their masks and went in. They danced to Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” and then Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Well, Carrie danced; Fred mostly tried to keep up.
Though he still moved as awkwardly as ever, the masks somehow made it easier for him not to worry about his lack of the most essential skill for surviving an American high school—blending in.
The rubber masks soon made them sweaty. Carrie drank cup after cup of the sickly-sweet punch, but Fred, who opted to keep his mask on, shook his head. By the time Jordan Knight began to sing “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” they were ready to get out of the dark gym.
Outside, the parking lot was filled with ghosts, Supermans, aliens, witches, and princesses. They waved at the presidential couple, and the couple waved back. Fred kept his mask on and deliberately set a slow pace, enjoying the evening breeze.
“Wish it could be Halloween every day,” he said.
“Why?” she asked.
No one knows who I am, he wanted to say. No one stares at me. But instead all he said was, “It’s nice to wear a suit.” He spoke carefully and slowly, and he almost could not hear his accent.
She nodded, as if she understood. They got into the car.
Until Fred’s arrival, East Norbury High School had never had a student whose first language wasn’t English and who might be illegal. People were mostly friendly, of course, but a thousand smiles, whispers, little gestures that each individually seemed so innocuous added up to you don’t belong.
“You nervous about meeting my parents?” she asked.
“No,” he lied.
“My mom is really excited about meeting you.”
They arrived at a white raised ranch behind an immaculate lawn. The mailbox at the mouth of the driveway said “Wynne.”
“This is your house,” he said.
“You can read!” she teased, and parked.
Walking up the driveway, Fred could smell the sea in the air and hear the waves crashing against the shore nearby. There was an elegant, simple jack-o-lantern on the steps before the front door.
A fairy tale house, Fred thought. An American castle.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Fred asked from the kitchen door.
Mrs. Wynne (“Call me Cammy”) was shuttling between the kitchen table, which was being used as a cutting/mixing/staging station, and the stove. She smiled at him quickly before turning back to her work. “Don’t worry about it. Go chat with my husband and Carrie.”
“I really can help,” he said. “I know my way around a kitchen. My family runs a restaurant.”
“Oh, I know. Carrie tells me your Moo Shu Pork is excellent.” She stopped and looked at him, her smile even wider. “You speak such good English!”
He never understood why people felt it important to point that out. They always sounded so surprised, and he never knew what to say. “Thank you.”
“It really is very good. Go on now. I have this all under control.”
He retreated back to the living room, wishing he could stay in the warm, almost-familiar heat of the kitchen.
“A terrible thing,” Mr. Wynne said. “Those brave students in Tiananmen Square. Heroes.”
“Your parents,” Mr. Wynne continued, “they were dissidents?”
Fred hesitated. He remembered his father reading the Chinese newspaper they got for free from Chinatown up in Boston, showing the photographs of the protesting crowds in Beijing.
“Stupid kids,” he had said, contempt making his face red. “Wasting their parents’ money to riot outside like the Red Guards just so they can pose for the foreigners and their cameras instead of studying. What do they hope to accomplish? They’re all spoiled, read too many American books.”
Then he turned to Fred and shook his fist threateningly. “If you ever dare to do something like that, I’ll beat you until you can tell your ass apart from your head again.”
“Yes,” Fred said. “That’s why we came here.”
Mr. Wynne nodded, satisfied. “This is a great country, isn’t it?”
Truth be told, he had never really understood why, one day, his parents had woken him up in the middle of the night; why they had gotten on a boat, then a truck, then a bus, then a big ship; why, for so many days, they had ridden in the dark, the tossing and tumbling of the sea making him sick; why, after they landed, they had hidden in the back of a van until they emerged in the dirty streets of Chinatown in New York, where some men spoke with his father in menacing tones while he nodded and nodded; why his father had told him that now they all had different names and were different people and they must never talk to foreigners or the police; why they had all lived in the basement of a restaurant and worked there for years and talked endlessly of how to save money to pay off the debt to those menacing men and then make more of it; why they had then moved again, to East Norbury, this small town on the coast of New England, where his father said there were no Chinese restaurants and the Americans were too stupid to know that he wasn’t much of a cook.
“A great country, sir,” he said.
“And that’s the face of a great man you’re holding,” Mr. Wynne said, indicating his mask. “A real fighter for freedom.”
After that week in June, his father had gotten on the phone every evening, whispering deep into the night. And suddenly his father told him and his mother that they had to memorize a new story about themselves, about how they were connected to the students who had died in Tiananmen Square, believed the same things, and were hopelessly in love with “democracy.” “Asylum” was mentioned often, and they had to be prepared for an interview with some American official in New York next month, so that they could make themselves legal.
“Then we can stay here and make lots of money,” his father had said, satisfied.
The doorbell rang. Carrie got up with the bowl of candies.
“Carrie is always adventurous,” Mr. Wynne said. He lowered his voice. “She likes to try new things. It’s natural, being rebellious at her age.”
Fred nodded, not sure what he was really being told.
Mr. Wynne’s face lost its friendly expression, like a mask falling off. “She’s just going through a phase, you understand. You’re a part”—he waved his hands vaguely— “of . . . of how she wants to get a rise out of me.
“It’s not serious,” he added. But his expression was very serious.
Fred said nothing.
“I just want there to be no misunderstandings,” Mr. Wynne continued. “People tend to belong with their own kind, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Over by the door, Carrie gasped and pretended to be scared by the trick-or-treaters and expressed admiration at the costumes.
“Don’t get the wrong idea about what she’s doing with you.”
Carrie returned from the door.
“Why so quiet?” she asked. “What were you two talking about?”
“Just learning about Fred’s family,” Mr. Wynne said, his face again friendly and smiling. “They were dissidents, did you know? Very brave people.”
Fred stood up, his hand in his pocket, fingers wrapped around the little bronze spade. He fantasized throwing it at the face of Mr. Wynne, which strangely bore some resemblance to his father’s.
But instead, he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it’s so late. I should go.”
Hong Kong, 1905
“Jyu-zung—” William’s father called again. He was as loud as their neighbor futilely attempting to quiet her colicky child.
Why does everyone in Hong Kong have to shout? It’s the first decade of the twentieth century, and everyone still acts like they live in villages.
“It’s William,” William muttered. Even though his father had paid for his expensive education in England, the old man still refused to use his English name, the name he had gone by for more than a decade.
William tried to focus on the book in front of him, the words of the 14th-century Christian mystic:
For thou hast brought me with thi question into that same derknes, and into that same cloude of unknowyng that I wolde thou were in thiself.
He plugged up his ears with his fingers.
For of alle other creatures and theire werkes—ye, and of the werkes of God self—may a man thorou grace have fulheed of knowing, and wel to kon thinke on hem; bot of God Himself can no man thinke.
The book, The Cloude of Unknowyng, had been a parting gift from Virginia, who was surely the most radiant of His works and one William longed to have “fulheed of knowing.”
“Now that you’re going back to the mysterious Orient,” she had said as she handed him the book, “may you be guided by the mystics of the Occident.”
“Hong Kong is not like that,” he had said, unhappy that she seemed to think of him as a mere Chinaman, though . . . he kind of was. “It’s part of the Empire. It’s civilized.” He took the book from her, almost, but not quite, touching her fingers. “I’ll be back in a year.”
She had rewarded him with a bold and radiant smile, which, more than all his high marks and the praise from his tutors, made him feel like a proper Englishman.
And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese to my love that thing that I cannot think. For whi He may wel be loved, bot not thought. By love may He be getyn and holden; bot bi thought neither.
“Jyu-zung! What is the matter with you?”
His father stood in the door, his face red with the exertion of having climbed up the ladder to William’s attic room.
William pulled his fingers from his ears.
“You’re supposed to help me with the preparations for Yu Lan.”
After the mellifluous music of Middle English in his head, his father’s Cantonese grated on his ears like the clanging of cymbals and gongs in Jyut kek, the native “folk opera” that was undeserving of the name, a barbarous shadow of the real operas he had attended in London.
“I’m busy,” William said.
His father looked from his face to his book and then back again.
“It’s an important book,” he said, avoiding his father’s gaze.
“The ghosts will be parading tonight.” His father shuffled his feet. “Let’s make sure the spirits of our ancestors aren’t ashamed, and we can try to comfort the homeless ghosts.”
To go from reading Darwin, Newton, and Smith to this, to appeasing ghosts. In England, men were contemplating the possibility of knowing all the laws of nature, the end of science, but here, under his father’s roof, it was still the Middle Ages. He could easily imagine the look on Virginia’s face.
He had nothing in common with his father, who might as well be an alien.
“I’m not asking,” his father said. His voice grew hard, like the way the Cantonese opera actors ended a scene.
Rationality suffocates in the air of superstition in the colonies. His determination to go back to England had never been stronger.
“Why would grandfather need this?” William asked, staring critically at the paper model of an Arrol-Johnston three-cylinder horseless carriage.
“Everyone appreciates things that make life more comfortable,” his father said.
William shook his head but continued the task of gluing headlights made of yellow paper—intended to simulate brass—to the model.
Next to him, the surface of the table was covered with other offerings to be burnt later that night: a paper model of a Western-style cottage, paper suits, paper dress shoes, stacks of “underworld money” and piles of “gold bullion.”
He could not resist commenting, “Grandfather and great-grandfather must have poor eyesight to confuse these with the real thing.”
His father refused to take the bait, and they continued to work in silence.
To make the tedious ritual tolerable, William fantasized that he was polishing the car in preparation for a ride through the countryside with Virginia . . .
“Jyu-zung, could you take out the sandalwood table from the basement? Let’s lay out the feast for the ghosts with some style. We shouldn’t argue any more on this day.”
The pleading note in his father’s voice surprised William. He noticed, suddenly, how bent his father’s back had become.
An image came unbidden to him of himself as a young boy sitting on top of his father’s shoulders, which had seemed as broad and steady as a mountain.
“Higher, higher!” he shouted.
And his father lifted him over his head so that he could be above the milling crowd, so that he could see the exciting costumes and beautiful makeup of the folk opera troupe performing for Yu Lan.
His father’s arms were so strong, and kept him lifted high in the air for a long time.
“Of course, Aa-baa,” William said, and stood up to go to the warehouse in the back.
The warehouse was dark, dry, and cool. This was where his father temporarily stored the antiques he was restoring for customers, as well as the pieces he collected. The heavy wooden shelves and cubbyholes were filled with Zhou bronze ritual vessels, Han jade carvings, Tang tomb figurines, Ming porcelain, and all manner of other wares that William did not recognize.
He made his way carefully through the narrow hallways, looking impatiently for his prize.
Maybe in that corner?
In this corner of the warehouse, a ray of slanting light from a papered-over window illuminated a small workbench. Behind it, leaning against the wall, was the sandalwood dining table.
As he bent down to pick up the table, what he saw on the workbench stopped him.
There were two identical-looking bubi, ancient bronze coins, on the table. They looked like palm-sized spades. Though he didn’t know much about antiques, he had seen enough bubi as a child to know that this style was from the Zhou Dynasty or earlier. The ancient Chinese kings had cast coins in this shape to show a reverence for the earth, from which came life-sustaining crops and to which all life must return. Digging in the earth was a promise to the future as well as an acknowledgement of the past.
Given how large these bubi were, William knew they must be very valuable. To have an identical pair was very rare.
Curious, he looked closer at the coins, which were covered in dark green patina. Something didn’t seem right. He flipped over the one on the left: it gleamed bright yellow, almost like gold.
Next to the coins was a small dish with some dark blue powder inside, and a paintbrush. William sniffed the powder: coppery.
He knew that bronze only looked bright yellow if it was freshly cast.
He tried to push away the thought. His father had always been an honorable man who made an honest living. It was unfilial for a son to think such thoughts.
But he picked up the pair of bubi and put them in his pocket. His English teachers had taught him to ask questions, to dig for the truth, no matter what the consequences.
He half-dragged and half-carried the table up to the front hall.
“Now this looks like a proper festival,” his father said as he placed the last plate of vegetarian duck on the table. The table was filled with plates of fruit and mock-versions of every kind of meat. Eight place settings had been arranged around the table, ready to receive the ghosts of the ancestors of the Ho family.
Mock chicken, vegetarian duck, papier-mâché houses, false money . . .
“Maybe we can go to see some opera performances in the streets later,” his father said, oblivious to William’s mood. “Just like when you were little.”
Forged bronzes . . .
He took out the two bubi from his pocket and placed them on the table, the gleaming side of the unfinished one facing up.
His father looked at them, paused for a moment, and then acted as if nothing was wrong. “You want to light the joss sticks?”
William said nothing, trying to find a way to phrase his question.
His father arranged the two bubi side by side and flipped them over. Carved into the patina on the reverse side of each was a character.
“The character forms from the Zhou Dynasty were a bit different from later forms,” his father said, as though William was still only a child being taught how to read and write. “So collectors from later ages would sometimes carve their interpretations of the script on the vessels. Like the patina, these interpretations also accumulate on the vessels in layers, build up over time.”
“Have you ever noticed how similar the character ‘jyu’—for the universe, which is also the first character in your name—is to the character ‘zi’—for writing?”
William shook his head, not really listening.
This entire culture is based on hypocrisy, on fakery, on mocking up the appearance for that which cannot be obtained.
“See how the universe is straight forward, but to understand it with the intellect, to turn it into language, requires a twist, a sharp turn? Between the World and the Word, there lies an extra curve. When you look at these characters, you’re convening with the history of these artifacts, with the minds of our ancestors from thousands of years ago. That is the deep wisdom of our people, and no Latin letters will ever get at our truth as deeply as our characters.”
William could no longer stand it. “You hypocrite! You are a forger!”
He waited, silently urging his father to deny the charge, to explain.
After a while, his father began to speak, not looking at him. “The first ghosts came to me a few years ago.”
He used the term gwailou for “foreigners,” but which also meant “ghosts.”
“They handed me antiques I had never seen before to restore. I asked them, ‘How did you get these?’ ‘Oh, we bought them from some French soldiers who conquered Peking and burned down the Palace and took these as loot.’
“For the ghosts, a robbery could give good title. This was their law. These bronzes and ceramics, handed down from our ancestors for a hundred generations, would now be taken from us and used to decorate the homes of robbers who did not even understand what they were. I could not allow it.
“So I made copies of the works I was supposed to restore, and I gave the copies back to the ghosts. The real artifacts I saved for this land, for you, and for your children. I mark the real ones and the copies with different characters, so that I can tell them apart. I know what I do is wrong in your eyes, and I am ashamed. But love makes us do strange things.”
Which is authentic? he thought. The World or the Word? The truth or understanding?
The sound of a cane rapping against the front door interrupted them.
“Probably customers,” said his father.
“Open up!” whoever was at the door shouted.
William went to the front door and opened it, revealing a well-dressed Englishman in his forties, followed by two burly, scruffy men who looked like they were more at home in the docks of the colony.
“How do you do?” the Englishman said. Without waiting to be invited, he confidently stepped inside. The other two shoved William aside as they followed.
“Mr. Dixon,” his father said. “What a pleasant surprise.” His father’s heavily accented English made William cringe.
“Not as pleasant a surprise as the one you gave me, I assure you,” Dixon said. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a small porcelain figurine and set it on the table. “I gave you this to repair.”
“And I did.”
A smirk appeared on Dixon’s face. “My daughter is very fond of this piece. Indeed, it amuses me to see her treating the antique tomb figurine like a doll, and that was how it came to be broken. But after you returned the mended figurine, she refused to play with it, saying that it was not her dolly. Now, children are very good at detecting lies. And Professor Osmer was good enough to confirm my guess.”
His father straightened his back but said nothing.
Dixon gestured, and his two lackeys immediately shoved everything off the table: plates, dishes, bowls, the bubi, the food, the chopsticks—all crashed into a cacophonous heap.
“Do you want us to keep looking around? Or are you ready to confess to the police?”
His father kept his face expressionless. Inscrutable, the English would have called it. At the school, William had looked into a mirror until he had learned to not make that face, until he had stopped looking like his father.
“Wait a minute.” William stepped forward. “You can’t just go into someone’s house and act like a bunch of lawless thugs.”
“Your English is very good,” Dixon said as he looked William up and down. “Almost no accent.”
“Thank you,” William said. He tried to maintain a calm, reasonable tone and demeanor. Surely the man would realize now that he was not dealing with a common native family, but a young Englishman of breeding and good character. “I studied for ten years at Mr. George Dodsworth’s School in Ramsgate. Do you know it?”
Dixon smiled and said nothing, as though he was staring at a dancing monkey. But William pressed on.
“I’m certain my father would be happy to compensate you for what you feel you deserve. There’s no need to resort to violence. We can behave like gentlemen.”
Dixon began to laugh, at first a little, then uproariously. His men, confused at first, joined in after a while.
“You think that because you’ve learned to speak English, you are other than what you are. There seems to be something in the Oriental mind that cannot grasp the essential difference between the West and the East. I am not here to negotiate with you, but to assert my rights, a notion that seems foreign to your habits of mind. If you do not restore to me what is mine, we will smash everything in this place to smithereens.”
William felt the blood rush to his face, and he willed himself to let the muscles of his face go slack, to not betray his feelings. He looked across the room at his father, and suddenly he realized that his father’s expression must also be his expression, the placid mask over a helpless rage.
While they talked, his father had been slowly moving behind Dixon. Now he looked over at William, and the two nodded at each other almost imperceptibly.
And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese to my love that thing that I cannot think.
William jumped at Dixon as his father lunged at Dixon’s legs. The three men fell to the ground in a heap. In the struggle that followed, William seemed to observe himself from a distance. There was no thought, but a mixture of love and rage that clouded his mind until William found himself sitting astride Dixon’s prone body, clutching one of the bubi, poised to smash its blade into Dixon’s head.
The two men Dixon had brought with him looked on helplessly, frozen in place.
“We don’t have what you’re looking for here,” William said, breathing deeply. “Now get out of our house.”
William and his father surveyed the mess Dixon and his men left behind.
“Thank you,” his father said.
“I suppose the ghosts got a good show tonight,” William said.
“I’m sure grandfather is proud of you,” his father said. And then, for the first time that he could remember, his father added, “Jyu-zung, I’m proud of you.”
William did not know if what he felt was love or rage, and as he looked at the two characters on the upturned bubi on the ground, they seemed to waver and merge into one as his eyes grew blurry.
East Norbury, Connecticut, 1989
“Thank you for having me to your house,” Fred said. “I had a great time tonight.” He spoke stiffly and carefully kept his distance from her.
The waves of Long Island Sound lapped gently at the beach at their feet.
“You’re very sweet,” she said, and held his hand. She leaned against him, and the wind lifted her hair against his face, the floral scent of her shampoo mixing with the smell of the sea, like promise mixed with longing. His heart thumped. He felt a tenderness in the middle of his chest that he was frightened of.
Across the bay, they could see the bright red lights of the Edley Mansion, which was being run as a haunted house for the week. He imagined the delighted screams of the children, willingly thrilled by the lies told by their parents.
“Don’t worry too much about what my dad says,” she said.
“You’re angry,” she said.
“What do you know about it?” he said. She is a princess. She belongs.
“You can’t control what others think,” she said. “But you can always decide for yourself if you belong.”
He said nothing, trying to comprehend the rage in himself.
“I am not my father,” she said. “And you’re not your parents. Family is a story that is told to you, but the story that matters the most you must tell yourself.”
He realized that this was the thing about America that he loved the most: the utter faith that family did not matter, that the past was but a story. Even a story that started as a lie—a fib—could become authentic, could become a life that was real.
He reached into the pocket of his pants and took out his gift.
“What is it?” She held the little bronze spade uncertainly in her hand.
“It’s an antique,” he said. “It used to belong to my grandfather, and he gave it to me before we left China, for luck. I thought you might like it.”
He felt compelled to be honest. “My grandfather said that his father had saved it from foreigners trying to steal it from the country, and the Red Guards almost destroyed it during the Cultural Revolution. But my dad says it’s a fake, like many things from China, and not worth anything. See this mark on the bottom? He says it’s too modern, not really old. But it’s the only thing I have from my grandfather. He died last year and we couldn’t go back for the funeral, because of . . . immigration problems.”
“Shouldn’t you keep it?”
“I want you to have it. I’ll always remember giving it to you, and that’s a better memory, a better story.”
He bent down and picked up a small, sharp rock from the beach. As he held her hand with the spade coin in it, slowly, he etched the letters of their initials into the patina, next to the older character. “Now it has our mark, our story.”
She nodded and solemnly put the coin into her jacket pocket. “Thank you. It’s lovely.”
He thought about going home, about the questions from his father and the worried silence from his mother, about the long hours ahead of him in the restaurant tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, about college, now a possibility if he could show his citizenship papers, about one day making his own way across this vast continent, now still hidden under a cloud of unknowing darkness.
But not yet. He looked around and wanted to do something big, to commemorate this night. He took off his jacket, his shirt, kicked off his shoes. He was naked, maskless, costumeless. “Let’s go for a swim.”
She laughed, not believing him.
The water was cold, so cold that diving in made him gasp and think his skin was on fire. He dove under and then popped back up, and shook the water from his face.
She called for him, and he waved back, once, and then swam toward the bright lights on the other side of the bay.
The reflection of the red-lit Edley Mansion in the water was streaked, mixed with the bright white from the moon. As his arms moved through the dark blue sea, jellies glowed against his skin, like hundreds of little stars.
Her voice faded behind him as he swam through the stars and stripes, fractal, ambiguous, tasting of salty hope and the deliberate sting of leaving behind the past.
Nova Pacifica, 2313
Ona woke up in the middle of a busy street. The light was dim, and it was cold, as though it were dusk or dawn.
Six-wheeled vehicles shaped like sleek finned sea-darts rushed by both sides of her, seeming to miss her by inches. A glance inside one of the vehicles almost made her scream.
The head of the creature inside had twelve tentacles radiating from it.
She looked around: thick, six-sided towers around her rose into the sky, as dense as the trunks of the whitewood grove. She dodged around the speeding vehicles and made her way to the side of the street, where more of the twelve-tentacled creatures ambled by, paying no attention to her. They had six feet and a low-slung torso, with a shimmering skin that she wasn’t sure was made of fur or scales.
Overhead, cloth signs etched with alien markings fluttered in the wind like leaves, the individual symbols made up of line segments intersecting at sharp and obtuse angles. The noise of the crowd, consisting of incomprehensible clicks, moans, and chirps, coalesced into a susurration that she was sure was a kind of language.
The creatures paid no attention to her, sometimes barreling right into her, through her as though she were made of air. She felt like a ghost in the stories that some of the Teachers used to tell when she was younger, an invisible being. She squinted to find the sun in the middle of the sky: It was dimmer and smaller than she was used to.
Then, suddenly, everything began to change. The pedestrians on the sidewalks stopped, swung their heads skyward, and lifted their tentacles toward the sun—at the tip of each appendage was the black orb of an eye. The traffic in the street slowed and then ceased, the occupants of the vehicles stepping out to join the sun-gazing crowd. Silence fell across the scene like a veil.
Ona looked around the crowd, picking out individual groupings frozen in tableaus like photographs. A large creature wrapped its forearms protectively around two smaller ones, its tentacles trembling noiselessly. Two aliens leaned against each other, their tentacles and arms entwined. Another one, its legs unsteady, supported itself against the side of a building, its tentacles lightly tapping against the wall like a man sending a message.
The sun seemed to glow brighter, and then brighter still. The creatures turned their faces away from the sun, their tentacles wilting in the new heat and light.
They turned to gaze at her. Thousands, millions of dozens of eyes focused on Ona, as though suddenly she had become visible. Their tentacles reached toward her, pleading, signaling.
The crowd separated, and a small creature, about her size, walked toward her. Ona held out her hands, palms uplifted, uncertain what to do.
The small alien reached her, deposited something in her hand, and stepped back. Ona looked down and felt the ancient, rough metal against her scaled skin, absorbed its heft. She flipped the spade around and saw a mark that she did not recognize: sharp angles, hooks, reminding her of the markings on the fluttering signs.
A thought came into her mind like a whisper: Remember us, you who treasure the old.
The sun glowed even brighter, and as Ona felt warm again, the creatures around her melted into the blinding, bright light.
Ona sat under the whitewood tree, fingers wrapped around the small bronze spade. White plumes of steam continued to erupt from the hillocks around her, each perhaps another window into a lost world.
The images she had seen went through her mind again and again. Sometimes understanding comes to you not through thought, but through this throbbing of the heart, this tenderness in the chest that hurts.
As their world was about to die, the ancient people of Nova Pacifica, in their last days, focused all their energy on leaving behind tributes, memorials of their civilization. Knowing that they themselves would not survive the sun that burnt hotter and hotter, they embedded their six-fold symmetry into every species around them, hoping that some would survive and become living echoes of their cities, their civilization, their selves. In their ruins, they hid a record that would be played when triggered by the detection of something made, aged, layered, still preserved because it was valued, so that they had some reasonable expectation that the owner would have a sense of history, of respect for the past.
Ona thought of the children, frightened and uncomprehending as their world burnt up. She thought of the lovers, poised between regret and acceptance, as the world outside collapsed against the world between them. She thought of a people trying their hardest to leave behind a trace of their existence in this universe, a few signs to mark their passage.
The past, ever recurring, made up the future like layers of patina.
She thought of Ms. Coron and the naked faces of the Teachers, and for the first time, she came to see their expressions in a new light. It was not arrogance that made them look at the children the way they did, but fear. They had been stranded on this new world, where they could not survive, and they clung to their past as fiercely as they did because they knew that they would be yielding their places to a new race, the People of Nova Pacifica, and live on only in their memories.
Parents fear to be forgotten, to not be understood by their children.
Ona lifted the small bronze spade and licked the surface with the tip of her tongue. It tasted bitter and sweet, the fragrance of long-dead incense, of sacrificial offerings, of traces left behind by countless lifetimes. The spot where the steam had blasted away the patina, next to some ancient etched marks, was shaped like a little person, gleamed fresh and new, the future as well as the past.
She got up and pulled off a few pliant branches from nearby whitewood trees. Weaving carefully, she made them into a crown with twelve radiating branches, like tentacles, like hair, like olive branches. She had her costume.
It was but a brief scene glimpsed through the cloud of unknowing, a few images that she could barely comprehend. Perhaps they were idealized, sentimental, constructed; yet was there not a trace of authenticity, an indelible seed of the love of a people whose past meant something? She would show them how she now understood that digging into the past was an act of comprehension, an act of making sense of the universe.
Her body was an amalgam of the biological and technological heritages of two species, and her very existence the culmination of the striving of two peoples. Nested inside her was Earth Ona and Nova Pacifica Ona and Rebellious Ona and Obedient Ona and all the generations that came before her, stretching back into infinity.
Steeped in memories and the beginning of understanding, a child of two worlds picked her way through the woods and among the hillocks toward the Dome, the surprisingly heavy little spade cradled in her palm.
© 2013 by Ken Liu.
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