If the shuffle’s been thorough, the next hand is random. The cards emerge as bequeathed by chance, either with some splendid combination that guarantees a win, or more often with no synchronicity whatsoever, a collection of images that means nothing and therefore functions as a loss. All wins are temporary, and all losses more than you can afford. But if you’re at the tables, you play. Shuffle, and winning or losing depends entirely on the order in which they land.
She says her name is Holiday, but I know she’s lying. I remember her face. It was all over the news for weeks, years even, but of course she doesn’t know that. I briefly consider telling her, saying something like, “Hey, did you know you’re a star?” But that would necessitate bringing up the subject of her death, and I’m not clear if she knows that she’s a ghost, or that almost everyone thinks her parents killed her. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing any kid should have to hear.
Ever since the discovery of the eighth continent, we’ve all had to come to terms with the presence of a landmass we never knew existed. In this age, wherein it often feels like every inch of mountain and valley has been charted, crossed, and geocached, how could we have been blind to a continent floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? We suppose, like the mapmakers of a millennium ago, we were blinded by our self-assured scientists and their navigational tools.
The pain of losing something so precious that you did not think you could live without it. Oxygen. The ice breaks beneath your feet: Your coat and boots fill with water and pull you down. An airlock blows: Vacuum pulls you apart by the eyes, the pores, the lungs. You awaken in a fire: The door and window are outlined in flames. You fall against a railing: The rusted iron slices through your femoral artery. You are dead already.
Old Au saw the thief first. Squatting in the garden, she commanded a long view of the east road; gray flagstone straighter than nature amid the green scrub and bramble. Rich soil breathed its scent around her as she took an offending root in one hand and her garden knife in the other. Between the moment she began sawing and when she pulled the first tangle of dirt and pale vegetable flesh out of the ground, the thief appeared, a dot on the horizon. She worked as he approached. His cloak hung limp in the humid summer air.
The Wizard Niccolo was not happy. At the age of 183—youthful for a wizard, but improbable for an ordinary human—he had thought certain things well out of his life. Sudden changes in his daily routine were one. And romance was another—even if it was his familiar’s romance, and not his own. “Could make an omelet with it, I suppose,” he grumbled to that familiar, the tiny dragon Olivia. She sat on the cluttered mantle, wrapped around her egg, still marveling at its production and entirely too pleased with herself.
All winter, the sisters make their beds in fruits. Ingrid sleeps in a pomegranate, Yasmin in a persimmon. At night they enter the cocoons they’ve carved from each warm globe. The flesh conforms to their flesh. Mornings they emerge sticky, and Yasmin, the smaller one, coats her legs in a lotion of persimmon pulp. The pulp is like soft, wet hair. Ingrid thinks this style flatters Yasmin, as if she’s wearing fashionable stockings. Ingrid, on the other hand, emerges like she’s been caught unawares in heavy rain.
In the very heart of winter, the forest holds its breath. Frozen earth sleeps without dreaming; brittle sunlight breaks and scatters in gasps between the trees. The girl walks through the woods, boots crunching the crusted snow. There is always such a girl, walking alone. Little footprints point the way back to a clutch of hovels; she peers half-dazzled through shadow and snow-flash. A basket hangs dispiritedly from her arm. Sausage end. Hardened loaf. The creeping doubt in spring itself.
On the morning after my tenth birthday, spring sunlight dapples the stone slabs of the road in front of our house through the blooming branches of the pagoda tree. I climb out onto the thick bough pointing west like an immortal’s arm and reach for a strand of yellow flowers, anticipating the sweet taste tinged with a touch of bitterness. “Alms, young mistress?” I look down and see a bhikkhuni. I can’t tell how old she is—her face is unlined but there is a fortitude in her dark eyes that reminds me of my grandmother.
I woke early—or perhaps didn’t sleep. My body is still adjusting to the time zone hop from Southern California to the islands north of the Scottish mainland. Orkney. A series of islands, many of them uninhabited, in the cold North Atlantic Sea. To the east is Norway. To the West are Iceland and Greenland. In other words, it’s chilly even in the summer when there is endless light. It’s stunning, aside from the dead guy currently at my feet.