From the author: Xuanji is convinced that she is destined to meet Carl. And she's convinced that Amy is in her way.
Xuanji tried to reread one of the earliest articles about Carl, but the glare on her reader was blinding and she could only see her own reflection. Not that it mattered. She had read the article numerous times and knew it by heart. She knew Carl was not a real name. Carl was a name, but it was not his. He had a designation. He was real, but his name was not. She knew everything by heart. But still, she liked to read the articles as if just published, as if this was all new. It had been many months since Xuanji had first read about Carl-who-was-not-Carl and she wondered if she would ever start noticing the days pass again. All she wanted to do was read about him. She boarded commuter ferries despite no job, she walked the city's docks and walkways, stopped to read again in the too small shade of buildings crumbling into rising water. She had no appointments, nothing to take her elsewhere. Her mother had seen to that. Her mother with her investments and real estate, her mother with her busy life and desire for the uncomplicated and unavailable. Mother and her money to cushion them from the world. Commuters looked so sad, so tired. Not Mother. Mother just looked old. She always had, even in ancient photos, a young woman dressing in old woman clothes. Mother was old now, Mother lived "alone." That was how Mother described it. "Alone," the falsehood of the word grating and screaming at Xuanji. Mother's ancient servant hobbled around the apartment, caring for her. His hair was now the color of his white in white eyes, and when Xuanji would visit he would smile and call her "the young miss." He would call her this because Mother demanded it, expected it despite Xuanji's obvious resemblance to him. She had his jaw, his nose, and one white in white eye. Her father she had never called "father" would welcome her to the home, would show her the same painful deference he showed everyone, painful because it truly was no different than what he showed strangers, and would disappear because to stay would clutter Mother's vision of what she called her "empty, forgotten, lonely life."
Xuanji had just visited Mother the week before. As usual it had spurred a brief period of intense creative output followed by the need for a recovery from her creative bouts. She was struck by migraines almost weekly after which her poetic output was a flood. She was in the midst of such a flood. She walked the docks, rode the ferries, watched the commuters and monitored the workers. She saw ferry after ferry come and go, water froth-white across its cutting, city-green further away, the maws of windows still visible on the lower-floors of the buildings tall enough to rise from it, darker spots like graves where buildings fully submerged sat beneath the surface. And then she would sit and write, long streams of words. She did so now, kneeling on the dock, pockets full of rocks. There was a quality of drowning in her process.
"I worry I won't be able to breathe," she told her handmaid, Janna. "Then pain ends and the words flow and I can see the river bank."
Every poem finished was like swimming to shore.
Janna half-smiled. She was technically in the employ of Xuanji's mother. Xuanji had no income. She did nothing but work with words on paper, wander the streets and docks, and spend hours in strange shops that sold long ignored items. Xuanji knew what Mother must have said about her to Janna. It was something she'd said about her since she was twelve. She said it in front of Xuanji, sometimes to her.
"Xuanji is a special case. Something to be handled, carefully." Xuanji had set out many times to prove Mother wrong, but something always got in the way, and in her disappointment she would tumble into one of her episodes, and when she emerged she would find reasons for her mother to fire whomever had been caring for Xuanji. The reasons were petty, and often not entirely true. None of them had actually ever stolen from her, that she knew of, but perhaps they had and gotten away with it, or had planned to. Xuanji knew Mother understood the reasons were simply excuses, but the handmaids were fired for this and that. Not yet, Janna. Xuanji hadn't yet figured this one out yet, hadn't yet decided on what to complain about. Janna was quiet. Janna did as she was told. Janna followed at a discreet distance. It was almost as if Janna didn't care.
Xuanji tried to find some shade in which to read about Carl. He was in the news less frequently. Searches resulted in his name being used to drive web traffic, his image attached to articles with no connection. It was maddening. She was stuck with old articles or nothing.
There was no shade. She should have printed some articles out. She had paper with her, notebooks and scraps, but she liked that for her poetry. Paper for reading was less familiar, less comfortable. Xuanji put away her reader and looked absently at the dock. Janna stood nearby, her back pressed against a light pole. The pole would be hot in the sun, Xuanji thought. Janna must be sweaty, uncomfortable. She ignored Janna as Janna pretended to ignore her. She felt for the rocks and washers in her pockets along with bits of string tied to them. The wire. Rocks were gathered at the ruins of the financial district, foundations turned to quarries. She liked them best. Large. Once expensive stone turned to rubble.
She knelt beside a bench and searched her bag for pen and paper. She was in the mood for the expensive paper at the bottom. She hadn't used it yet, but now it felt right. She pushed her hand through layers of scrap paper, receipts, torn ads, stacks of construction paper. She wondered if she was able to tell which pieces had been written on. Was she that sensitive? She thought maybe she was. She reached down to the lowest, oldest corner of her bag. How long had she carried the notebook she sought? There it was, still wrapped in plastic, paper so thin she could see through three sheets at once.
Janna stood nearby. Why did they both pretend there were no benches? This section of the docks overlooking Fifth Avenue was like a boardwalk. Wide, benches lined the rail, some facing the water, others the shop windows. Yet here they hid. Xuanji kneeling, Janna sulking in wire-thin shade. Why?
Xuanji's head hurt. Probably from the sun, but she preferred to blame the rush of creativity, the launch of one of her moods. She pressed the pen against the paper, so thin it nearly ripped, and wrote three crisp lines. When she was done she replaced the pen and tore the page from the book. She'd written in the last page of the book So that when the poem was read the torn edge was on the side opposite from usual. To trick the reader. To test them. She tore it free and appreciated the torn edge on the opposite side, appreciated her own miniature rebellions, then replaced the notebook. She had a chopstick in her bag. Stolen from Mother, it was a family heirloom, a wedding gift to her grandmother, ivory with a single embedded pearl in the handle. Less chopstick than wand. At its thinnest tip it was smaller than a pencil, less than half as wide. And strong. She had thought of testing how strong, seeing how far she might bend it before it snapped, but decided against it in the faith that it was strong enough. She laid the stick across the paper and rolled it into a tight scroll, barely a finger long. It looked like a short paper straw. It slid off the stick, was rubberbanded, and then she slid the rolled paper behind her ear as she reached back into her bag.
Janna stood against the building. If she had any thoughts about Xuanji's actions they didn't show. Xuanji wondered what the little woman thought of her. All the other maids had fussed or questioned. This one stood by in her tight jeans and watched through tinted glasses. This one didn't care. She watched or didn't, thinking invisible thoughts. Maybe Xuanji preferred the complainers, the ones less inscrutable.
Xuanji found a baby food jar in her bag. There were only two, and one larger, maybe a jelly jar. Carrying too many was cumbersome. Too many and she clinked everywhere she went, like Mother’s tea cart, like her cocktail trays. Xuanji removed one of the smaller jars and turned it in the sunlight. Clean enough, or nearly so. Bits of something. She washed them after pulling them from recycling bins, but not as well as she might. Still, it was clean enough.
The rolled poem just fit in the jar. The cap screwed on tight. She pulled a rock from her pocket. It was smaller than her fist. She imagined it just big enough to fill an eye socket. She had wrapped it with black wire, a simple double loop, each perpendicular to the other, and twisted round itself to prevent movement. Where the wire twisted she had left a loop. String was already tied to it, the remaining length wound round it like a spool. This she unwound and wrapped twice around the top of the jar, along the edge if the lid, pulled tight and knotted. She held the string at the middle, the stone and the jar hanging beside one another. Both leashed to the other. She looked up at the building behind her. Carl lived there. She was sure of it. She had read about his artwork, had read about the store he shopped at. She knew the store, spent a few days outside and on the third day realized that Carl had walked past her twice already. She had been looking for workman's clothes, coveralls, utilitarian. Her father's outfit. She hadn't expected this casual attire, the paint splattered tee shirt, the jeans. Not her father she thought. She had recognized him and then followed him. It was as simple as walking with him. He was without guile or suspicion. She was never without either. It was the difference in how they saw, she thought. He had two pure eyes. She only had one. She had followed him home and had done so many more times. Sometimes to his door. She had not yet gone in. She knew he sometimes had visitors. A man who visited on weekends. A woman who worked at the gallery and the art supply store.
He lived there. She knew it. She wondered if Janna knew it. Was she curious? About why they were there? About the jar? About anything? She held up the jar and rock by the string, held them up as if showing them to the building, as if Carl were watching from his window.
"What do you suppose I should do with this?" she asked Janna. Janna shrugged. Janna didn't care. Janna was without guile or suspicion or curiosity, which meant Janna might as well already be dead.
Xuanji walked from the bench to the dock. It floated on the water, tied to the boardwalk by chains and a series of planks that allowed it to rise and fall with the tide. She watched the people walking on the boardwalk. They ignored her. There weren't that many. It was the middle of the day, the middle of the week, it was an hour before the next ferry. High above them in the white sky cabs flew past. They left nothing but a distant hum behind them.
Xuanji dropped the rock and jar into the water. They splashed in together, and the jar bobbed back up, bottom up. It sank slowly. The stone pulled it beneath the surface. The dock bobbed with the water. How deep is it, she wondered. How long until the stone rests on the old avenue's macadam and the jar dances above it like a glass balloon on a string? How long before the string rots? How long before the jar is released and floats away?
Xuanji turned half an eye toward Janna.
Was she watching? If she was she hid it well. The sun's heat suddenly seemed too much. Xuanji touched her head, her hair hot to the touch, the pressure inside unbearable. She looked at the water, at the spot where the jar had disappeared. The spot. A spot. It was a gray disk. It was a disk without shape or color. The water moved behind the disk. A blind spot, a migraine. She let the blind spot float out above the water and blot out the features of anything she sought to focus on. It was a kind of destruction. She sought out lampposts, shop signs, people. Faces. She looked at Janna and wiped Janna's face away with the blind spot. Janna might have been looking back. Xuanji didn't know what to be filled with hate felt like, but she imagined it was how she felt at that moment with Janna's missing face.
"I might die here," Xuanji yelled. Then, in a whisper. "I might fall in and drown."
If Janna reacted Xuanji couldn't see it. A knocking sound echoed across the water. Xuanji looked for the source. If it came from anywhere it came from the water. She wasn't certain it came from anywhere, maybe in her head, but she left it behind as she walked up the dock to the walkway.
When she had gathered her bag and returned her scraps to it she walked back the way she had come. She didn't look to see if Janna followed. She was paid to follow.
They had walked a block when Janna called to her. "Do you do that often?" She sounded like she was right behind Xuanji, but when Xuanji turned around Janna was ten paces behind and not even looking at her.
"I'm only putting them where they came from." The words rose up from the water. They returned to the water. Xuanji thought Janna a fool for not recognizing how simple it all was. "They belong in the water."
Janna shrugged, unconcerned. Her face was still missing. "I don't care about that," she said. "But if we're coming outside a lot I'm gonna bring a hat or umbrella. This sun is intense."
"Is it?" Xuanji asked, and only after she said it did she realize she was shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. The blindspot had grown and turned to a ring and it made a halo around Janna's face. It was unearned divinity. Xuanji wondered which of her eyes saw it. And then she knew she would have to lose Janna. It was too soon to lie to Mother and get her fired, but she couldn't go about her day with a girl who carried a ring of light above her head that she had done nothing to deserve.
She must lose Janna before reaching the art supply store. She couldn't wait. She couldn't do it near the store as it was too obvious a location. Xuanji was an artist, Janna had seen this. Janna would know. Janna would find her and shine her light upon her. Xuanji instead headed away from the art supply store toward a coffee shop she knew that had a partially submerged second exit. She bought herself and Janna iced coffees and then excused herself to use the restroom. Beyond the restroom was a set of stairs descending just a few feet but just far enough that water sat as high as the bottom step. It was sometimes higher, sometimes lower. Tides are fickle, make choices we might not. The exit wasn't closed off, not even a warning sign. Who in their right mind would want to step in the water that was eating the city? Xuanji didn't mind. The water was cool and the saltiness of it stung unseen cuts. She splashed down the hall. The water would cover her tracks. Even from someone as focused as Janna. Even someone with a halo. She looked back down the hall to see if she was followed. Only a white-in-white eyed worker watched her, a bin of filthy glasses in his arms. She raised her tinted goggles, a forced gift from her mother when she was just a child, a leash she hadn't yet been able to snap, and showed him her one white eye. As if this was a badge. As if it explained anything. The worker looked at her and turned back to his work. Like Mother's servant, he had much to do.
She fled down the half-submerged hall and out a door into what had been an alley and was now a knee-deep canal. One end led to deeper waterways, boat traffic and boardwalks, the other to slightly higher streets not yet swallowed by the East River Bay. She lifted her bag and followed the deeper path.
She went chest deep before reaching a floating dock and ladder. She wasn't the only one in the water. The lower end of Manhattan, the Projects and the feet of the bridges served as anchor points for flotillas. Hundreds of workers commuted to the city by raft, the luckiest just walking the few dozen yards through waist deep water. Merchants with floating display cases hawked drinking water and sandwiches. Xuanji had followed the current from the alley to this inflow of people. She hadn't felt like one of them. She thought of her poems and jars and wire bound rocks, she thought of how she planted them in the silt around the edges of the city's waterways. She didn't feel like she was one of these people, but she felt as if she made these people. She climbed the ladder and did as the commuters did: she rung out what could easily be rung out, she pushed water from her skin with her hands, and then she ignored the dripping and the wet so deep it washed her bones. She walked away, patient enough to let the sun bake her dry.
When she reached the art supply store she was only damp. She walked in and regretted it immediately. It was cool and shady and humid in the store. She walked up and down the aisles. There was a display of small notebooks, like the ones in her bag. She picked one up and walked to the cashier. It was her. The woman Carl spent so much time with. She was with him in news article photos. She sat beside him during interviews. There was something disturbing in her caretaking of Carl, something matronly. She didn't understand Carl. She cared for him. Like a pet.
Xuanji's skin felt wet and her mouth dry. She was dehydrated from nearly drowning on Sixth Avenue, and knew she had nearly drowned, despite only being wet to her chest, despite the lack of struggle or splashing. Death doesn't require struggle. It would have been perfect if she had drowned, she decided. She could have been the final punctuation to the drifting words. Or not. Maybe just silt. Maybe just another silence.
In her vision another disk, a growing halo. She should have known Janna and the woman would be in contact. Probably Mother's doing. Xuanji had mentioned the store one too many times, she had made Mother suspicious. Janna was Mother's eyes and ears. And like all the women Mother hired she was weighted down with Mother's sweet lies, sweet concerns for Xuanji, sweet needs to care fore her special daughter. The old crone planted lies in the women's ears and Xuanji was forced to watch the fruit ripen. Mother had connected the dots and then connected people to the dots.
Xuanji was still in an aisle, unseen. She waited a minute, counting seconds to herself, like she did as a child waiting for Mother to notice she was missing. She hid in closets and cupboards. She played at disappearance. Now she played invisible, until at last the woman with the growing halo turned away and Xuanji walked out the door. Another unearned halo. False divinity plagued Xuanji.
On the boardwalk across the street was a bench. Xuanji could wait there. She walked uptown to the nearest footbridge and doubled back. She sat on the bench and waited for her vision to return, for her sweat to dry. Only when the halo reached the edges of her vision and the headache was draining away did she realize she had stolen the journal. She held it as if it held divine truth instead of blank pages. She held it up to her forehead, to stop the glare, to hide her face, to channel God. In her other hand was a bottle of water. The contents of her bag were spilled out at her feet. How long had she been there? Across the canal someone approached the store. It was Carl. That was how long she had been there: Long enough.
… … …
She gathered her spilled items. She hurried. Carl was fast. Everytime she had followed him into the store he had taken only moments to collect what he wanted. Even with the hugs of the cashier and the strange, halting conversation with her and the manager his visits to the store were no more than five minutes.
She refilled her bag and waited. It seemed heavier now, and nothing had gone in easily. It was as if she had more jars and bottles than before. More scrap paper, more journals, wire, string, rocks. Less bag. Perhaps she needed a second bag. Mother would know, but she would never ask Mother.
Minutes stretched. Xuanji was anxious. There was no other exit. Carl had entered but not left. She was certain. It had been too long. She rushed to the footbridge and back, craning her neck as she ran to keep the store in sight. It was the hottest part of the day. No one moved outdoors if they could avoid it. Except Xuanji, who ran.
Xuanji was normally a person who saw herself from above, the way a puppeteer sees marionettes. She was a person who saw how she was perceived as she waded through the world. But as she ran she lost this. It was as if she ran at last into her own body, into her head, and she had no idea how she might look or how she might be perceived until it was too late, until she had run full speed and sweating into the store and pushed a pile of fliers off a shelf near the door. Papers fluttered around her and she looked up into Carl's face, his white in white eyes focused on her.
"Why haven't you left?" she asked.
"I'm waiting for Amy," he said.
And then she was out of her body again and able to see herself. She was panting and red faced. She was sweating and loud. She had made a mess and demanded something from someone she didn't know. She was a crazy person. She turned and walked away. She still held the stolen journal, or was this a new one?
Beyond Carl was the manager.
"Can I help you?" she asked. She was stepping away from the registers. This wasn't Amy. Amy was the other one. The one in the photos. The videos. But this one was also protective of Carl. "Hello? Can I help you?" She repeated. Who were these people, thinking they could keep Carl away from her?
Xuanji held up the stolen journal. "I just realized I walked out with this earlier."
The manager's expression softened.
Xuanji walked forward. She had to concentrate. She wanted to vomit. The steps forward made her stomach lurch. She held up the journal.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It was a mistake."
The manager took the journal. She nodded and said something Xuanji couldn't hear. The headache had turned to a whine in her ears, a buzzing. It felt as if a drill was pressed against the base of her skull. "I'm sorry, I'm not feeling well." The room was growing around her, even the floor seemed too far away. She turned to leave. Carl stood at the door. He held a hat in one hand. In the other a journal like the one she had just returned, and pencils rubber banded together.
The manager said, "Are you okay?"
Where was Janna? Xuanji was abandoned. "I need fresh air. I'll be fine." The manager was still talking but Xuanji ignored her.
She stepped into the heat of the sunlight and felt better. It was being indoors. Something toxic inside. No air. They were poisoning her. She still felt ill but every step was a little easier. The buzzing faded.
She found a bench. It faced the dark water of an alley littered with plastic containers floating in debris and sea foam. It calmed her. She thought about her poems, decided against writing, against bottling the results, against dropping it from the raised walkway. She preferred to be closer to the water when she planted her thoughts.
She closed her eyes. She couldn't nap, but she could pretend.
She pretended for an uncertain length of time. Long enough to imagine burning the store down, releasing the poison air, revealing what was inside. She didn't think it had been long. Voices approached from behind. Carl. Carl's voice. Telling someone that he had waited. Amy. Telling Amy he had waited. Xuanji looked over her shoulder as Carl and the woman named Amy walked past her. Neither looked her way. Why would they?
Xuanji followed them to the ferry. She didn't plan it, didn't think about what she was doing. It just happened. It felt good. Her feet had returned to the wood of the walkways. She heard her footfalls. She heard the splashing water. There were no halos.
When they reached the dock there was little room under the sunshade. A dozen people already packed tight beneath it. Amy and Carl squeezed in--Amy because she wanted shade, Carl because he followed Amy. Xuanji stood at the edge of the shade. It was like a barrier. Xuanji looked at it, at her feet. She gave the line between light and shade the respect an electrified wire deserved. She would never cross it. Animals behave stupidly and go where they are not welcome. Xuanji was not a stupid animal. People shuffled in the confined area of shade, and Amy smiled at Xuanji. She was making room.
Amy said, "Don't roast yourself. There's room."
Others beneath the shade coughed and rolled their eyes. There wasn't room. Everyone knew it, especially Amy, one of the last to escape the sun, but people enjoy the lie of being polite. Xuanji stepped forward and the difference of temperature allowed a sigh to escape her lips. She was not a stupid animal, but she could pretend to be one.
"I know," Amy said. Her smile was wide, and her teeth whiter than Xuanji wanted. "So much better, right?"
Amy kept looking at Xuanji, and Carl joined her. The two of them looked at her as if looking for cracks. Xuanji thought of the insects she had skewered as a child, roaches and flies caught in the dark rooms of Mother's apartment, rooms she had been warned not to enter, in her hand Mother's stolen pin cushion, shaped like a tomato and sprinkled at the top with the heads of a dozen needles and pins. She would pierce the insects through the abdomen and into the floor or wall. She would watch as they pushed uselessly with such thin legs, beat furious with transparent wings. She would come back days later to find them dead, or gone, collected by Mother's servant, the pins returned to the pin cushion, the pin cushion to the sewing box, sewing box to the cupboard, and on and on.
Xuanji knew secrets were best kept in the open.
… … …
Xuanji said, "You work at the art store, don't you?" Amy nodded. "I've just come from there. I did the strangest thing. I accidentally stole a journal." Xuanji smiled and shook her head, feigning embarrassment.
This was easy, Xuanji thought. Secrets in the air. Carl at her side. Amy laughing.
Amy said, "I've done that. Walked out of stores without paying. I once took a basket of groceries home. Including the store's basket."
The women laughed. Carl watched their faces. He sought some clue, some link in a chain of gaps. Xuanji smiled at him, at his white-in-white eyes, smiled at Amy who returned the gaze. Xuanji knew Amy was puzzled about why Xuanji didn't ask "Is this him?" And she knew the piece that they lacked, her own white in white eye, hidden behind her goggles. Carl would know when he saw.
Amy said, "Where are you headed?"
Xuanji smiled wider. Time is purchased in lying grins. She didn't know. Didn't even know which ferry they saw approaching. It bleated at them. It's engine hissing. Beneath it she heard the rattle of her bottles and jars, her words.
"Prospect Island," she said.
Amy's smile widened. "So are we."
It was easy. The trio boarded the ferry and claimed a bench near the back. It was under a small awning and as the ferry got underway a breeze moved over them. It was quiet and cool. The engine's hiss was somehow quieter than it had been when they watched the ferry approach. Except for the recorded announcements of arrivals and departures no one spoke.
Beyond the rail skyscrapers danced with light reflected from the canals. The buildings that still housed offices were cramped, windows stacked with boxes, or busy with people. Abandoned buildings were flat, muted, no glass to reflect and dance--boarded up, collapsing, windows busy with stale air and pigeons planning their day.
Xuanji watched Amy ignore all of it. Her eyes were down. She looked at her hands. Xuanji wondered why. Around them people stared, or read, or wandered the deck. A crewman collected trash, pulling a bag with him, hand out to passengers who looked ready to forget that cup, that napkin. He was a beggar for cleanliness. Xuanji didn't need to see his eyes to see they were white-in-white. She wanted to pull off her sungoggles and show her own eye. “I see as well,” she wanted to say. “I see the garbage and decay.”
She had managed to sit beside Carl. He sat to her left, the side her special eye was on. She leaned across him, felt as if she could feel his eyes on her, and watched Amy watch her hands. "Are you an artist?"
There was the slightest of pauses before Amy nodded.
"Yes," she said.
Xuanji turned her head to Carl but continued to lean across him as if speaking to Amy. She wanted to rest her head on his chest. This was easy. Traps are simple when you know the prey. "And you? Are you an artist?" She had to lead him, she knew. She had seen the awkward interviews and long pauses.
"I paint," he said.
Xuanji nodded. Amy looked at her and then at her hands again. Her expression said she understood Xuanji knew who Carl was. They all knew who they were, Xuanji thought. Carl and Xuanji looking at the ferry, the buildings, the dancing light. Amy at her hands. Xuanji knew Amy was no artist. Her world was inside her head. She didn't look up. She didn't see. Xuanji's left eye twitched. She saw everything. She wanted to lift her goggles and show everyone how to see.
… … … …
They arrived at the island as the sun was passing noon. The docks the rested atop the submerged brownstones were massive. Bigger than Xuanji remembered. She wondered at the size. She wondered when she had last been here. As a child? With Mother? That seemed impossible, though it made sense. Mother had grown up in this part of the city. She had run it's streets when it had streets. She had played in the park before it became an island. Xuanji recalled the steeple of a church that they passed just before docking. It rose twelve feet above the water, the rest of the church below them. Someone had covered it with garlands of red and white flowers. It was scrawled with graffiti so exquisite that it seemed to explain why the church had been built.
They stopped at the Carroll docks and made their way across the gangplank. Amy had grown quiet and protective. She whispered to Carl instead of speaking aloud. Carl didn't whisper. Carl couldn't. Deceit and secrets were not in his makeup. Xuanji was suddenly so proud to have her father's eye. The forgotten servant, the lie Mother lived with.
The walkways were a series of bridges linking what had been apartment buildings. Now they served as warehouses. When they at last reached the stairs leading to the dirt of the island itself, no longer on the walkways above murky water and half-submerged trees, Amy tried to dismiss Xuanji.
"It was nice meeting you," she said. "Perhaps we will see you on the ride back." She smiled at Xuanji. Only Amy's mouth smiled. The rest of her face was a warning. Amy’s eyes did not smile.
"Maybe," Xuanji said. She also smiled. She became aware of not having a headache. She could see everything, almost too much. She saw every pore of Amy's skin. She saw her breath, the air moving in and out from her, currents and tides of air. Xuanji could see air. Carl was why. He had taught her to see. She held out her hand to him, "I'll see you later," she said.
"Okay." He took her hand. Someone had taught him to shake hands, and she was glad for it. They shook hands as Amy watched and waited, her face a scowl.
Xuanji stepped away. An empty grin pained her face and her feet felt unable to reachthe ground. Was she floating? Was she floating yet tied to an anchor? Carl.
She walked from the docks and stopped, placed her bag atop a stone wall and made a show of looking through her bad for something that didn't exist. Her goggles hid her eyes following Amy and Carl. Amy looked back twice, and Xuanji managed to keep her face toward the bag, her hands moving items aside, the nonexistent item still beyond her reach. All she found was all she had: her scraps of paper, her jars, her ball of bone-white string. She waited until they had gone beyond the gate of the park before following. This was easy.
If Amy knew Xuanji was following it didn't show. If Carl knew he wouldn't say. She hid from Amy, dared Carl to spot her. He did. Several times. She could tell.
They walked across the orchard fields to a path that brought them to the inner fields known as the Nethermead. Another climb to the top of Mount Prospect, and they were looking south, past the ruins of buildings left to crumble, a last municipal gasp at forming a flood wall. From there the bay could be seen. It was still not named, a dozen titles from locals but nothing official. Great Brooklyn Bay. Coney Bay. Anything to hold onto the mooring of what came before. Some cannot see when things are gone.
The glimmer of the water broken by the dots of houses that weren't yet rubble, but soon enough, foundation washed too often by the in and out and in again tide. Strength is in the droplets, not the stone. Further out the shimmer of houses raised on poles, the pride of prideful deep-southern Brooklyn, those who would be damned before they would leave, be damned by their not leaving, and in their refusal become a symbol and tourist attraction, survival in opening their homes to tourists, their kitchens into cafes. The Gravesend standing village battling the Sheepshead Flotilla for tourist money. Entire neighborhoods lifted atop supports, only black dots at this distance, a horizon of ellipses leading the eye to the empty space of when they would all eventually fall into the water. But not now, not now.
Xuanji stood near a monument at the end of the path leading to the top of Mount Prospect. Parrots heckled in the trees above her. Bits of conversation tickled her ears. They had heard so much and knew nothing.
Carl and Amy walked to the edge of the path for a better view. Amy did all the talking. Of course. Xuanji was aware of the view, the light playing across the water, the discordant parrot song overhead. Some part of her was taking it all in and holding it for a day in the future when she would need it, when daylight on your skin and free-flowing fresh air was a luxury. Now all she knew was Amy pointing to the horizon and smiling, talking to Carl as if he couldn't already see more than Amy ever would. He saw but didn't speak. He was like her, taking it all in and storing it, letting it out in droplets. Who was Amy? What was she? She smiles, gestures, almost like a real person, Xuanji thought. Carl looks, follows her gaze, but he sees more. He sees me, she thought. And then he turned and looked at her, his eyes on her, and she removed her goggles and looked back, and when Amy turned her back and took a few steps Xuanji climbed the path to be closer. She didn't believe she could get to Carl without Amy noticing, did she? No, certainly not. She wasn't sneaking, didn't try to keep silent, instead just walked to him and stood in front of him, the goggles in her hand, and in the other a large rock, the size of a fist. Smooth and gray and sweaty in her palm, gripped, hurting her hand she squeezed it so hard. Carl watched her approach, turned his hand as if accepting something from her, lifted it in a odd approximation of how people present something of beauty and worth.
He said, "You were on the ferry."
The sun was lower in the sky. In her eyes the light buzzed. Or, she thought, in her one eye, her good eye as she now thought of her white-in-white eye. Her true eye. The light buzzed there and she saw the electricity in Carl, and behind him Amy. Stupid as a deer she stood and watched Carl and Xuanji understand and see one another. Behind Amy the edge of the path, and beyond the path the thin waters of Coney Bay, reaching inward over asphalt and sidewalks, over playgrounds and schoolyards, mile after mile of chest deep water holding secrets and begging for more, waiting for Xuanji to plant them.
Her hand hurt from squeezing the rock. She looked past Carl at Amy. Carl wouldn't move, she knew. He would stay and watch. Amy would move. Xuanji knew she had to be fast.
"Hi," she said.
She didn't want to spook Amy, so she spoke quietly. Strays respond to a little kindness. She would wait for the stray to speak back.
Instead, a voice from behind her said, "Xuanji, we have to go."
Behind her was Mother's errand girl. She held a hand above her eyes, shading to see. She was sweating and grotesque. "Come on," she said. Her voice was flat, as if she was merely making sounds without meaning. They had no emotion behind them. She didn't actually care for Xuanji, yet she needed her to follow. Xuanji looked down the hill at her, then back toward Carl and Amy. Amy stood beside Carl, a hand on his arm. The little housemaid took a few steps up the hill. She sounded like a goat. Thudding. "Xuanji," she bleated.
Xuanji held the rock. It didn't hurt anymore. It felt warm and wet, as if holding it had bright it to life. It pulsed in her hand. She looked down at the little goat calling her name and felt the naked eyes on her, the girl, Amy. Even Carl. She felt the nakedness of her own eyes and the goggles in her hand. She couldn't see well. A gray spot floated before her, the size of a hand, of a face. It removed the faces of those she looked at but she could still feel the eyes on her. Too much seeing. Not enough.
Xuanji walked down the hill to the goatmaid. The girl was disgusting, reaching out for Xuanji's hand and leading her away like a small child. She looked over her shoulder but the gray in her vision blotted out the places she looked so that she couldn't see if Carl watched her or not.
The girl held her hand all the way to the ferry dock. A private taxi bobbed at a smaller dock, the pilot pulling on a pipe and watching them approach. The girl loaded into the taxi and climbed in after. She took Xuanji's hand again and Xuanji looked at their clasped hands and made them disappear into the gray. She could still feel them. They still existed, were still real. In the clasp she felt Mother. Not her hand, her presence. This goatmaid whose name she couldn't remember, if she had ever known, this disgusting girl-thing was the presence Mother craved, and Xuanji knew she wouldn't go away. Not this time. No amount of begging or claims or lies would rip this goat’s hand from her own. Mother had found what she wanted.
Xuanji freed her hand and put her goggles on. She could still feel the pressure of the goatmaid's grip. She tried to rub it from her palm. A small hole of vision had broken into the gray. The blind was becoming an "O" and growing to the edges of her vision.
"I need to go somewhere." She said this to both the goatmaid and the driver. Only the goatmaid replied.
"We are going to your mother's. She worries."
Xuanji watched the back of the pilot's head. He didn't turn or react to their conversation, but he listened. Xuanji could tell. He knew who had his fare.
"I have something I have to see." She tried to sound weak, but heard the accusation in her own voice. It wasn't working. "Please."
No one said anything for a long time. A radio in the front squeaked. If it was voices, they weren't human. Xuanji knew what they meant. The similarity to her own thoughts was comforting. She breathed deeply and listened to them and what they might say. It was as if the parrots of the island spoke from the radio.
She said, "I'm sorry, I've been terrible." She rubbed her hands together and reached into her pockets, her bag. Was she searching for something? She couldn't remember. "If you take to this one place I promise I won't ever ask to go back again."
Her bag was so full and heavy. So many balls of string. Why had she ever needed so much? Had she ever had that many words? She had so much and so little to say. "Please. You've done a good job. Mother will know. I'll tell her."
The stupid goatmaid shifted. Her hair was tied in a band, pulled back from her goat face. She didn't look at Xuanji but sighed. "Where?"
Xuanji give her the address and prayed it wouldn't sound familiar. The goatmaid looked at her and shook her head. A debate was rattling around in there, Xuanji knew. She could hear it clang in the goat's skull like an acorn in a can.
"That's where you went this morning."
"You dropped things in the water."
"You want to go find them? In the dark?"
This will be easy, Xuanji thought. Goats are stupid. "No. I want to add to them. Just one last time."
The goat sighed again. It shook its head and leaned forward and spoke to the pilot. He nodded and pressed some buttons on his dash and if the small boat turned it was imperceptible.
The goat looked at her. "I've been in contact with your mother all day. I'll give you this one trip, but never pull shit like this in me again."
"Never again." Xuanji smiled at the goat, but her hands kept searching and found another ball of string, a broken jar, and the rock from the island deep in her bag. The string felt strong, the jar cut her, and the rock she squeezed and wiped slick with her blood.
She forced the goat to wait for her after they disembarked. She stood on the gangplank from the lower dock watching the water-taxi putter away. The goat bleated for attention behind her, but she ignored it. The sun was gone, the sky low and black with clouds. Carl's building stood to her left. She might never see it again, but that was fine. There were other links in his pattern. The store, the island. Amy. Everything fit as it ought, she thought. The taxi was gone and the walkway silent. Carl and Amy had gone deeper into the island, they would be a while, and it was that time in the evening when everyone is either home or out, the walkways empty, building windows bright or black, high-rises half-lit.
The goat bleated a warning about Mother, about telling, about bat-shit-crazy, and Xuanji stopped looking for the water taxi and looked at the water. It would be cold, but it was low tide, and near the ferry dock there was a bundle of cables dipping into the water, some repair equipment and warning signs and heavy blocks of cement holding the cable to the dock. So many blocks, too many for sure. One or two wouldn't be missed.
The goat bleated about her phone and phone calls, and Xuanji reached into her bag, the cut on her finger tickling like a pin shoved into the skin as she sought the broken jar or the rock. Either would do. It didn't matter. Things would fit into her hand as they ought. Things would fall and bleed as they ought. Things would anchor and float in the water as they ought. This would be easy.