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The Epitaphs
i. migdal babel

On my day off, I drove my aging father to his death in the quaint town he had frequented after the navy when he was bouncing between jobs. On the phone, two nights before the fated trip, was the first I had heard him speak of this place. Though I believed him, doubts soon set in, and I wondered whether his claim was a phantom of his condition. At the time of his story, I would have been ten years old, yet I had no memories of him ever talking about this town, which was peculiar given his fondness for reminiscing. Either I had not been as attentive as I thought or my father had been hiding something of the utmost importance. During the drive, I was so preoccupied by the unusual circumstances that I did not even feel proper sadness about saying goodbye to the most influential man in my life, who had raised me on his own in my mother’s absence. My father navigated us some distance outside the city, almost an hour’s drive, where an unfamiliar road branching off the main one brought us through the Banda Woods and let us out onto a two-lane road squinched between steep green hills and a cliff, the bay spread out below like a quilt. On this winding road, we descended like drifters until we were at sea level, close enough to see the pearly sand inside the crystal blue waves crumbling fifty yards from the shore and its sinuous dunes. I was so mesmerized by the idyllic scene—the beach and road devoid of life—that I lost any sense of passing time and forgot about my father’s illness and my own fruitless existence. But then, out of nowhere, the town loomed before us, its dusty sign reading Death Valley, Population: ∞. I slowed to a coast, then a crawl. As an avid driver, I was shocked to have never encountered this place, which recalled the 1940s or ’50s with the spare frame homes, the shark-like cars with bulging lights, the checkered-floor diners and soda shops, the brick town hall with its white frontal pillars, the men in loafers and suits and the women in shin-length dresses and low-rise heels, everything wholesome and prim. Once my first impressions faded, however, I noted with growing bewilderment that all of the pedestrians were elderly and had a spectral, tulle-like sheen, sharpened by the sun. Perhaps, I thought, it was just that time of day when the children were in school and the young parents were at work and the seniors had the run of the streets. When we reached the grassy park at the heart of the town with its tables and benches and central campanile, my father directed me to make a rounded left at the sundry store, then a hairpin right at the pharmacy, landing us on a seedy, rubbish-strewn street. He had me pull in front of what appeared to be an old bar named the Rainbow Beaker, though the slanted leg of the cursive R overhanging the frame was partly missing and alone in its flicker. My father explained that he used to be a bouncer here part-time (around when my mother had left to be with her high school boyfriend), sacking rowdy drunks to the music of the house big band. This stirred a memory in me, possibly from those days, of my father stumbling home late in his aviator shades with a bag of greasy dumplings that we ate together at the skinny table in our narrow kitchen. “Those were some of the happiest days of my life,” he said now, looking out the window. “Getting paid to whack people in the face.” “What a dump,” I said, and he laughed. When I was about to turn off the engine, my father seized my hand and kissed my cheek, saying he had to go and not to follow him. Once settled in, he would contact me. No sooner had he stepped out of the car than his body was sleeved in the same tulle-like sheen as the other townspeople. I sat watching him through the rolled-down window; he stood like a statue, gazing up at the busted sign, when a car pulled up behind me, one of the vintage sharks, baby pink with matte silver trim. Out climbed a man in a stained white tee and gray overalls, with a thin mustache and burly forearms. Without greeting me, he approached my father toughly, but then they touched each other tenderly on the shoulder and leaned in close, their cheeks almost brushing. The man had a grim, lopsided face, and as they pulled apart, the nicer half warmed. My father followed him into his car, and they sped off with a roar, leaving me in the dust. Worried that my father was in some kind of trouble, I tried tailing the car around the corner, but by the time I made the turn, the car had vanished. I panicked and zipped around in search of the police, but there were no stations or patrol cars to be found. The sun was setting fast, there was no one on the streets now, and the town was turning transparent in the widening orange glow. I hit the gas and seemingly, in a single breath, with the night closing in around me, drove back to my flat in the city, where I hopped on the phone with the police, who said no such town existed, and even if it did, it was not in their jurisdiction. That night, I stared out my window and had a hard time falling asleep, but finally, out of exhaustion, I did, arms folded on the windowsill, and dreamt of a white field abloom with bright blue daisies, each with a face in its pistil singing horridly off-key. A few days later, I was back at the shoe store, sliding strangers’ feet into shoes, bedeviled by thoughts of my father, and when not at work, I was at my easel, doing paintings of feet from memory. My manager had been under the impression that I was in the hospital because of a story he had seen on the news about a car crash involving a woman who looked like me, and he had even tried to visit me, he said, but had been denied entry, all of which served to confuse me more and deepen my brooding. Glad that I was well, my manager shrugged off the subject, and my life went on more or less as before. Or sort of did, because each time I tried to drive back to Death Valley on the weekends or holidays, I could not locate the road that cut through the woods, only an unbroken blur of bushes and trees. Once, in exasperation, I parked at a spot where I estimated the road to have been and proceeded by foot, only to have my venture end with a humiliating rescue by forest rangers who had spotted my car on the side of the road. When I could manage, I inquired around the city and sifted through the libraries for information on the town, but to no avail. Neither road nor town appeared on any modern or historic maps, and no one I asked, young or old, showed any sign of recognition. Even the rangers who had rescued me had been baffled by my questions, which alone should have been enough to affirm the town’s nonexistence. During this time, it became apparent to me that I had acquired a certain reputation. People dodged me on the street and at work, where I casually queried customers as I helped them with their shoes. The consensus, which I refused to accept, was that the woods have always been the woods—interminably dense and ridden with wolves. A young man in glasses at the library, who assisted me with accessing the older maps, recounted an experience similar to my own, where he drove his mother to her death in a white brick complex in the hills, which, to my amazement, he never tried to revisit, nor thought to. I had no idea where this place was that he described, yet he spoke about it as if it were widely known. He peered at me over his glasses, speaking matter-of-factly about this delicate episode, and when he was through, he returned to sorting magazines and children’s books, penciling strings of characters into the ledger before him. The only other compelling information I found that day was in a book by a local researcher about spirits and dreams and the cycles of existence, which had a section about a hooded figure who appears to people in their sleep, inviting them to a strange astral town, where those who visit are fitted with new identities and memories and are never heard from again. The author, conveniently deceased, posited this figure to be a representation of death and reincarnation and believed that science would explain the phenomenon away, like sleepwalking or the hypnagogic feeling of falling. The book politely dismissed the local theory as an urban legend, that the hooded figure was an actual man from the past, the head of a religious sect, who had purportedly discovered the secret to eternal life but at the cost of being a demon forever, devouring souls not from brutality but for company. Whatever the case, as someone who swears both by science and the notion of the afterlife as a real physical place but with mythic dimensions, an Eden or Babel, I respected but also recoiled from the dispassionate, academic stance of the book and was piqued by the diagrams and exotic pictures and, in particular, the layman’s theory, which I was learning about for the first time because I did not grow up in the city. But once I stowed the book away, I found myself where I had begun, only more frustrated. One evening out of the blue, two years later, my father called me when I was fixing a steak dinner in the kitchen—not on the phone, but through my open window, a bodiless voice in the rain. This was the last time I would hear from him, and my life by then, for better or worse, had returned to what it had been before his passing, the same soulless job and rectangular flat where I persisted in my painting, which was also headed nowhere. Outside, the downpour was so loud I had to fill in some of the blanks in our conversation, but what I heard for sure was that my father’s health was great, and he was bouncing at the Rainbow Beaker again and socializing with friends, having the best days of his life. The last remark reminded me of something he had said when I was in high school—that I would reflect back on those days as the pinnacle, that it was all downhill from there—when he urged me to live in the moment despite the pressures to look toward the future, which never came anyway. As we spoke, it was almost as if no time had intervened between the present and his passing. He apologized for the curt way he had left me in the car, and when I asked him about the man with the forearms, he said he was a bunkmate from the navy, who was now his roommate along with two other men from those days. Before saying goodbye one last time, my father said he looked forward to my joining him someday, sooner rather than later, which seemed an ominous thing to say. Wondering then who it was that I had been talking to, I stood speechless at the window in a pensive daze, the silence swelling around me like an infinite balloon. A week or so after this, coincidentally or not, I saw the hooded figure in my dreams, just as he was illustrated in the book, beckoning to me in the middle of the white field with the blue daisies, which were now faceless. Around this time, in the world of the waking, about a block from the shoe store, a new road opened up, one that led to a bridge that arced into the air over a fault in the earth that had not been there before. Seeing the bridge unused every day except for the squalls that swung it about, I asked myself whether it was really there—fault, road, any of it. And today, even as the city population dwindles, as reflected in the decline of shoe sales, the bridge endures, and though people now use it freely by car and foot, I refuse to, for fear of where or who it might lead to, imaginary or not.


ii. the windbreaker man

Wanting to die, but only in the minds of those who knew him, Narcissus faked his death at sea. He taped a note to his reclining chair that read, “Please water my plant, don’t search for me,” though search his parents did for weeks, even after the coast guard called it quits and declared his death official. In the first days of his death, lodging in a hostel and the bleachers at the park, Narcissus had second thoughts and wondered if he could return to his old life amongst the living and what excuse he might give to explain his absence. He considered saying that he’d been lost at sea and washed ashore some provinces away, stricken with amnesia, or that he had been abducted by marauding pirates before hatching a plan to escape. Yet, though the son of a river god and a nymph, he was no sailor or waterman at all, making the ridiculous latter scene the more plausible tale. After much woeful reflection, Narcissus resolved to devote himself to death, if only to save face, but in the wake of his funeral, where his beloved plant and a regally framed photograph of his face stood in place of his body in the open casket, and which he attended in disguise (sunglasses and sun hat, high-top sneakers and a windbreaker and jeans, none of which he was known to wear), he found himself pleased to see people crying for him and singing his praises. Unwilling to give up the places and people he was still attached to, he took up a room under the alias of Finias in the house of an ailing plumber on the outskirts of the Second Eastern Province near the border of his home in the First, fetching groceries and supplies and medicines and keeping the man company in exchange for food and board and a small stipend. In his time off, wearing the same disguise he had worn to his funeral, Finias, sneaking back west, stalked the family and friends he had had as Narcissus, charting at his desk his thoughts and observations in a batch of notebooks, and, in spite of how scrupulous he was, he became the basis of a ghost story known as “The Windbreaker Man.” So unquestioning was their belief in the finality of death that none of his past family or friends who saw him over their shoulder at the market or the park with the bleachers or near their children’s schools thought to do anything except hurry off, much less talk to him, and being the sort of anomalous occurrence that begs to be related to someone, the story spread and mutated first among relatives and friends, then proliferated like a weed across the First Eastern Province, settling firmly into its lore. Eventually, however, Finias moved on and his old attachments were replaced—he had procured a new plant and married the plumber’s niece, who birthed him numerous progeny. But, inevitably, the day came when he felt again the urge to die—not fully, but in the minds of those who knew him—so he faked another death at sea, taping a note this time to the foot of the bed, and reemerged in the Third Eastern Province under the name of Tiresias. And in this new life, as before, he haunted the people he had known as Finias, no one confronting him, whether out of fright or disbelief (who knew?), and passed once more through the same ordeal of letting go and rebuilding, of half-hearted dying and haunting. In sum, there were no fewer than five creepy tales circulating through the chain of provinces inspired by the man’s posthumous wanderings (not to mention the notebooks he had kept, archived under various heteronyms). In conclusion, as the story goes, way out in the Tenth Western Province, the man of many names passed away—truly, and apparently, at peace, having had ample practice—with his plant at his side in a hospice by the sea under the simple name of John, the balmy setting as he had always envisioned, regardless of his name, Finias or Tiresias, or Michel or Thomas, or the man he had been before all, whose name was lost to time.


iii. pranksters

In the beginning, the couple’s troubles stemmed from a dispute about cryonics that erupted on the balcony of their home as the worst thunderstorm in history cracked and flared in the distance. Such were the couple’s means that their problem was not financial but, rather, philosophical and pragmatic, and if ethics were a coin, the woman and the man were on opposite sides. Loathing the present era nearly as much as death itself, the woman wished for her and the man to be preserved for a chance at something better and more permanent, with no struggles or illness or petty stupidities, an idea that the man found repugnant and insolent to the wisdom of nature, to which he deferred in all things. Even if they were stored and revived, he dreaded waking up in some horrible dystopian prison, prodded by clinicians more dreadful than those of the present. No one, not even he, could predict how humanity would evolve during their stasis and whether their bodies would remain in trustworthy custody. In the man’s eyes man was a despicable creature in decay, whose morality, after a stunning ascent culminating in the gothic cathedral and democracy, was now on a downward trend. Death, to its credit, was the only effective liberation from the madness of the hive, a universal cure for hubris. Unlike her husband, who was convinced that a void like the one before birth comes after life, the woman was not so sure. But, whenever she tried to express this, the man ended the exchange by saying that she was an “agnostic” and it was a “waste” to debate someone who had no side. Either there was something or there was nothing, and not choosing was a sign of cowardice. But this, the woman knew, was nothing but bravado and typical of her husband’s dogmatic mind. As they reclined in lawn chairs on their balcony, she gestured at the storm as proof of an overarching design to the world, the lightning forking down the clouds in the shape of faces even the man could not deny.
     Chuckling snidely to hide his annoyance, he asserted that the brain sees what it is wired to see, nothing more or less, and accused his wife of being primitively credulous, despite acting like a demagogue and failing to address why man was wired like this to begin with, paraphrasing his pet philosopher on God and Nature’s unspeakability, as if that would dissolve their feud, but, even still, the woman felt that his reference supported her position more than his. After all, on the topic of the hereafter, she spoke modestly of symbols and myths and used fewer speculative terms than the man, who arrogated a kind of scientific infallibility; what her husband derided as “cowardice” was to her the only sensible viewpoint, and besides, how was he so confident that eternal rest followed life? It sounded more like anesthetic self-persuasion than a viewpoint earned by reason. Surely everyone knew of heaven and hell, and how some of its apologists believed that even the dregs of mankind were welcomed if they sincerely repented, even at the doors of death. But no one, in the woman’s judgment, seemed willing to give hell its due instead of treating it fancifully, as a gutless threat to inflict on children. The bar to enter heaven was so risibly low there was no reason to cower before the alternative. It was hell that was the rarefied clique and heaven the public orgy—the exalted virgin in the shadow of the whore, with their names switched. Death as unlimited blankness was, to be sure, a frightful prospect, but what if heaven and hell were real and neither was as promised, and the lord of heaven named God was but a puckish demiurge who slandered Satan’s good name? If one could stay alive, one should, she felt, for it was the only guaranteed mode of being.
     As the storm wound down, the woman established a truce by conceding the merits of the man’s position and asking nothing of him in return, but the next day, she signed them up for Evercare, the leading cryonics program on the market, using a stealth account to fund the endeavor. Luckily enough, her husband died young from heart disease, oblivious of his wife’s subterfuge and what lay in store for his body. At the moment of his legal death, with his wife sobbing by his bed, the cryonics team, on standby in the hall, rushed in and transported the man’s body to their state-of-the-art facilities, where they subjected him to the process of preservation and placed him in a giant metal vat in a stadium filled with countless others. Meanwhile, the woman lived—impatiently—to the grand age of one hundred, watching closely the developments in the field of cryonics and never remarrying because she believed she would be with her husband again. Centuries later, after she too had been preserved in a giant metal vat of her own, the woman’s wish was realized on the day of their resurrection at Evercare, now a thousand times bigger and operating under the name of AVA; having survived its own trials of death and rebirth, mergers and acquisitions, dilutions and bankruptcies, the company was now a keystone of society, a veritable religion and necessity. After untold losses of life (the names of the dead etched into a stone edifice in the company’s lobby), its founder, whose portrait was everywhere, reportedly became the first person to be reanimated successfully, and though skepticism abided about his true strength and nature, mere figurehead or not, he appeared in public exclusively at AVA’s anniversary events, where he was venerated as a king with his ethereal looks, delivering his homily on a grandiloquent stage set far from the crowd as a finale, its brevity redounding to his mystique.
     Upon awakening, it felt for both man and woman as though only a second had passed, and even as the woman cried tears of joy at their reunion, the man panicked and became violent in the unsettling presence of people in full-body gear orbiting his body. When he lunged for the neck of the spindly old lady who had her arms outstretched with an eagerness that terrified him, he was promptly sedated, and later, he came to in a bed, bound by an invisible contraption that numbed his limbs, surrounded again by oddly suited men and a woman he now recognized as his wife through the wrinkles and wavy silver hair. Throughout their debrief and reintegration, the man found himself mortified by his wife’s betrayal, and even more mortified by the ancient age of her body. Even though, in a manner of speaking, the dead could now be raised and senescent flesh restored to youth along with many other wonderful advancements, despite having invested their assets in AVA’s special fund for patients—including their home, sold at the woman’s death—they could not afford anything beyond the basics in their new lowly station, not even the cosmetic restoratives that were so commonplace. And so, through this second chapter of their life together, set, from their perspective, in a futuristic version of their hometown—which looked nothing like the wonderland in the sky that the woman had dreamed of, instead recognizably similar to before, with some eye-catching new structures and neighborhoods—the couple were seen as oddities wherever they went, like a walking vintage print of an old mother and son ambling hand in hand down the street. Repelled by the stares and ever-present chaperones, they confined themselves to the AVA dormitories where the revivees were quartered, some temporarily and others, if they failed to integrate, for good, and were observed at all times, provided with food and drinks and things to occupy the time, but once the honeymoon sparkle dimmed, life nonetheless became tedious for most. There was no returning to the past they had cherished, and the only way out, which was no way out indeed, was to enlist in the labor force or the military. The man once visited their former street and house, both mostly unchanged, where he saw a couple lounging on the balcony just as he and his wife had centuries before. The instant the man waved at them the couple retreated indoors, and the man hurled curses at them which grew in fervor until his chaperone sedated him and the AVA agents arrived to cart him home.
     Before long, the man and the woman came to another crossroads in the form of a dispute about whether to end their lives out of boredom, if just to remember what was on the other side—spurred one day by a chat in the mess hall with a group of fellow revivees, many of whom had become attracted to the idea of death that had once appalled them. The risk-averse wife, despite the ostracism she felt from those around her, was still inclined toward life, while her husband was squarely in the camp of death. This time, as she had done before, the man ended the fight by dissembling assent, and the next day, behind her back, he signed them up for the company’s life-cessation protocol, which was gas administered through the vents as one slept. On the chosen night, after the couple lay dead in bed, a sanitation crew in polyethylene suits tidied up the rooms and transported the bodies to the incinerators, and though they were declared dead (their names graven in the lobby stone), they found themselves waking up once again, but this time, bodiless, their minds inlaid in some intangible stratum of their surroundings that were so alien that the man and the woman suspected they had been swindled by AVA and were now in a dream where it was night everlasting and the land was forbidding and its dwellers subsisted on arthropods and grotto water, living in huts of stone and black jagged caves riddled across an escarpment that rolled up into the purplish clouds, barbed and lightning lit. The woman, reminded of that long-ago storm that was the backdrop of their seminal balcony dispute, fancied that she and her husband had now become those craggy visages, two of many, strobing across a cloudscape for the living to ponder, or that the faces they had seen back then had been their own from the future facing aft. Nothing about this disembodied existence felt remotely familiar—but how could it with its uncanny physics and colors and shapes, the insane task of nonstop thought and speech (now indistinguishable) to make up for being bodiless, like treading water atop a void or the perpetual motion of a shark? And why did these haggard, half-nude wretches mumbling in pidgins have bodies while the couple did not, or was everyone here afflicted with the same interior logorrhea and body blindness? Moreover, the woman was livid at the man, who was livid at himself for bringing them to this godforsaken place. But with nowhere or no one else to go to, after they roamed the wasteland for days, she forgave the man, and the man forgave her, and as they forged deeper into this nether region in search of a home, drawn toward a headless pyramid in the distance, monumental with its trapezoidal faces illumined by lightning, they argued about whether there was a way back to the AVA dormitories, or, failing that, something more beyond the veil at hand.


iv. attic believers

After twenty-one years of living and one night of portentous dreams, so jubilant was the young man about his impending death, having wearied of feeling so poignantly the suffering of the world, that he hosted a farewell party under the guise of a summer gathering, where he, always so withdrawn and cold, was the cheeriest his family had ever seen him, yet so besotted and raucous were the festivities that no one seemed to notice or question the oddity playing out before their eyes—when he danced, they danced along with him, and when he sang, they sang along too. The dream, or rather vision, that set this into motion saw the young man in the middle of a desert shadowing a gaunt old being in a flowing white cloak that hid his feet and the ground around him as he sprinkled water from a potbellied jug on the faces of children sleeping in rows and bestowed on their noses kisses of breath that changed them into trees; in the end, when the young man received his communion, he transformed into the most spectacular tree in the boundless forested landscape. Waking and standing on his mattress with his arms outstretched in a Y, the young man was prepared for his conversion into something greater, and some nights after the gathering, lying in bed with his hands folded on his stomach like a meditating sage, he pictured death in its limitless varieties and guessed at which would be his and whether it would be swift and painless or lengthy and harrowing—given a choice, he would opt for a stroke or a boulder tearing through his room. As the minutes and hours wore on and death did not manifest, he drummed his fingers on his thighs and fell into a despair that would last for thousands of years, in which he stayed in the attic of the family manor, forgoing the washroom at the base of the stairs and his customary stroll through the open market and its alleys in his tunic and straw hat whose brim drooped on the sides to his waist, dedicating himself to the contemplation of death until it came, and as a man of God, he refused to consider suicide, fending off such thoughts with prayers. If God wished him to live, then live he would, even if hermit-like and depressed, and he kept begrudgingly fit with a routine of push-ups and sit-ups in the mornings and evenings, sitting in meditative worship every sunset in one of the pentagonal chinks of light shaped by the rafter windows. Throughout the day, depending on the placement of the sun, these luminous polygons on the slatted wood floor turned into amorphous puddles or were undetectable except as pale shadows or discolorations; the man stared at their metamorphosis daily, the lights and shades warping into mystical shapes adorned with dust sprites. Once his generation of the family passed away, unbeknownst to the man—though notes apprising him of the news were slid beneath his door—the responsibility of his care devolved, and every day someone left glasses of juice and plates of fruit and cheese and empty jars at his door with the black-studded iron bands, then returned on tiptoe to fetch the dirty dishes and the jars of waste with their lids screwed on courteously. In this way, the tradition of caring for the old man was perpetuated through the generations at the immutable old estate that crowned the city, with no one ever definitively seeing his face, hearing only footfalls faint enough to pass for figments of the mind; stories were passed down of accidental sightings of him cracking open the door without clothes, his beard blanketing his skeletal frame and his fingernails dangling to the floor. As he grew further in kinship from his caretakers, he became increasingly a burdensome heirloom, but one so ingrained in family ritual and sealed in an ironclad trust that no one dared oust him from his monastic enclave. But little did everyone know—and it would not be known until an errant boy of ten, somewhere far down the old man’s lineage, trespassed into the high-ceilinged attic and met with an ungodly sight and stench—that their ancestor had at some point perished from natural causes and was now a skeleton with a big straw hat draped over its skull splayed atop a yellow-brown stain on the twin bed against the wall just beyond the light’s reach. The boy backed out of the room and tumbled down the stairs, not to his demise but to a weeks-long sojourn in bed attended by nightmares and flashbacks. A family meeting, headed by the boy’s father, was convened in the second-floor room overlooking the trellised gardens, where pressing matters, either private or civic, were deliberated and decided upon, and despite everyone’s agreement as to the anomalousness of the situation and the need for secrecy from the public, no one had a clue what to do, and until they did, out of an abundance of caution, it was decided that they would not alter the old man’s schedule and space, and if the attic must be breached, a special outfit like the man’s tunic and hat would be worn. Thus, even after the revelation of his death, itself only the beginning of the mystery, the longstanding traditions around him were fortified and sustained; the food and drinks and jars continued to be left as offerings to the man, who was kept as he was on his bed, but with one exception: every fortnight his family took turns polishing his bones with a brush and warm-water cloth. All of which spurred the question, taboo to discuss, of who or what had been consuming all the food and juice and putting out the soiled plates and jars of waste and moving about on the floor upstairs. If the old man had become, as in his dream, that lone spectacular tree among many, then it must have been his spirit, or some persons he entrusted with the window key—another family, another tradition (or an underground cult of his own concoction)—to maintain the illusion of his persistence through time.


v. sugarcane state

My decision to end my oldest friendship, my friendship with Fen, had nothing to do with cruelty or envy, nor was it pleasant or easy for me to do, as those who know us both would suggest. As it happens, although I say “end” as if it is unquestionably over for Fen and me, the last act of our relationship remains ongoing, and, at times, I accept that things between us may be endless since it is impossible to forget someone whose likeness is so ubiquitous, both in print and the print of memory. As children, we lived three houses from each other and shared the same group of friends, playing “monster” in the tangle of trails in the cane that populated every parcel of land in the state that was not the business district or the schools or one of the seventeen numbered neighborhoods speckling the sea of green islands linked by a spindle of roads. The region, flat as a table for hundreds of miles and enfolded on the horizon by hills that became mountains, looked from above like an intricate crop circle before harvest, equally organic and geometric, and was aptly nicknamed “The Sugarcane State” after our titular crop, sought out by confectioners everywhere. Because of the great distance between neighborhoods, one could feasibly grow up with doubts about the reality of every neighborhood except one’s own (and going from one to the next was like foreign travel), never mind the world beyond the head-high cane, hence our stereotype of being stubbornly provincial, which we are, having only two races and no noteworthy seasons (only rainy and less rainy, warm and warmer), no sea to stoke or humble the mind (I was twenty when I first saw the ocean in person and nearly dropped to my knees in awe at the majestic sight of water not hemmed in, but doing the hemming, its beauty marred only by the laughter of the friends I was with, perched along the bluff at dawn). I would submit, though, that the joke is just a joke and the cane field was our sea, but unlike the actual sea, if we wanted, we could walk right through it and, at worst, run into a coven of spiders, lose our way and face a gauntlet of teasing, although, to be fair, speaking from experience, becoming lost in the cane was a claustrophobic torment not to be downplayed. On our more daring days, another game we played was a variation on the game of chicken, but instead of riding bikes at each other, we lined up on the red dirt at the edge of the field and raced into the green in a contest to see who could go farthest. I was rather good at this, better than I was at monster, which was a variant of tag that called for a speed and ruthlessness I did not have. Playing chicken, which was predominantly mental, I was able to dissociate from my body and pilot myself as a ship, second only to Fen with his breakneck tack that saw him sprinting off the block headlong through the stalks. The difference between Fen and me was that in the times that I did win, I would stop immediately, while Fen, even with a victory secured, would keep pushing as if to test himself, once—in his words—popping into the yard of a “bucktoothed fat man” who clambered after him with his pistol and dogs. Fen and I, our records aside (which had him ahead), were equals insofar as we were the sole competitive spirits our age, steelier than the rest who regressed into babies when the clearing receded from view. Over time, advancing through intermediate and high school and beyond, I fell out of touch with the others in the group, gradually, then all at once, whereas I continued to make time for Fen who would inform me about some of them (figuring too, ambivalently, that he was reporting on me), and I pretended not to care when he did, though I was secretly stimulated by his reports of their successes and follies. Fen, not to brag, probably saw more of me than anyone else from the old neighborhood, but, what with his aloof and ingratiating ways, I knew that he instilled in most people a sense of specialness and the feeling he had places to be. And it certainly did not hurt that we ended up, for separate professional reasons, in the same big city across the nation from our hometown. Because of this, our boyhood habit of hanging out carried into adulthood, fluctuating with the rise of adult duties, Fen in acting and me in accounting, though whatever life changes were afoot, we put time aside to play poker and drink and go out at night, a kind of communion with the olden days, the present steeped in senses past. But in the mornings after, I would be spent and forlorn as ever, the price of good times. Even if I was earning a better living than him, I was a nobody in my line of work, but Fen, though far from a star, had been in enough productions, even if only in supporting roles, to have stature among his peers, and at the parties I sometimes accompanied him to, he was fawned over by strangers and associates, catching stares from across the room thanks in part to his commanding height. By comparison, in those days, in an equivalent social setting with my colleagues, where I never once brought Fen, no one I did not already know personally would bat an eye at me with my average frame and squarish face, bland except for my mother’s parrot nose, the perfect foil for Fen’s oval countenance. An outsider looking into our respective worlds would have perceived Fen in his as consequential and esteemed, and me in mine as fungible and gray. In a word, for me, seeing him even only once a month was, for all its nostalgic pleasure, stressful and complicated—I was certain Fen crossed my mind more than I did his, and sometimes, on a whim, I felt I wanted nothing more to do with him, yet rather like an addict, every time he summoned me out, I went, taking wholeheartedly to the confidence-high his presence gave me, despite knowing I would later be sickened by thoughts of myself as a parasite (a trait I hate in others only because of its excess in me). In a matter of days, the distaste would ease, and I would find myself anticipating our next outing, and then the sequence would repeat. Until, that is, I stopped liking Fen altogether, unequivocally, and suddenly became wary of him as a friend and a human being. Everything changed between us that night I overheard him fighting on the phone with his girlfriend in the hall during a break in the card game. As host, I was refreshing the pretzel bowl and picking trash from the green felt tabletop, and there were other guests too, but they were too engrossed to hear anything. He had to stay late—Fen explained in an adamant whisper, heedless of the microphonic effect the halls had on his voice—because of his “research” into my roommate (my older sister, whom I will keep unnamed) that comprised, among other things, covert photography and recording. When he returned to the room, I feigned ignorance, and for the rest of the night, I played the fool and he his usual self. Some years before, as everyone is aware, my sister had been charged with murdering her state senator fiancé but was cleared for lack of evidence and witnesses, becoming in the process a public face and fodder for dinnertime chatter. The public, slightly more than half of whom thought my sister was the monster, was dying to know everything about her and the senator’s life, pestering her with questions about infidelity and national loyalties, domestic abuse and ties to organized crime, even dietary habits and hygiene, as if delving into the core of people were so straightforward. It was under this duress that my sister moved in with me to evade the stalkers and snoopers who clumped like wasps every day around her brownstone steps in the morning and on her homecoming from the clinic where she worked as a nurse administrator. Initially, diva that she was, she was in heaven with all the attention, good and bad, fulsome and damning, shouting down hecklers and posing for pictures, giving interviews and signing autographs, but even her big head had its limits, and in time, she came to detest being noticed, even by fans who, seeing their own plights in her, felt that her dead man was the monster and she its victim-cum-slayer. Venturing outside became so arduous that my sister, able to subsist on a bequest from the senator, resigned from her job, and whenever errands called her outdoors, she went makeup-less, dressed incognito in unisex clothes and hats and shades, but otherwise shut herself in, in front of her television, I assumed, since it was always blaring. Soon, sprigs of her red hair began cropping up on the floor, along with scabs and chips of dry skin, and, now and then, she invited friends over, who worried about her condition, which waxed and waned with the weather and progressively worsened into patchy baldness and psoriatic-looking skin. Even though I admit most of these things about her openly now, there was a time growing up when I could not believe that there were these unseen sides to my sister, who was consistently reserved and obedient at home, where I saw her most often and assumed in error that she was there as she was everywhere. In school, according to her teachers, my sister was a class clown and a terror, disruptive and sassy and mean, which I had never seen or heard about because of the age gap between us (we were never in the same school at the same time). My parents, who were, like Fen’s parents, managers at one of the cane processing factories, thought it was a case of mistaken identity, and in their conference with the principal and her teachers they asked whether there might not be another girl with an identical name. But there had been no mix-up. The school was just as stunned to learn of her life at home as we were hearing of her antics at school. It was like we were assembling a puzzle, the school with its pieces, and we with ours, and even still there were pieces missing. It seemed that there were, at least, two distinct people living inside my sister, and one was a complete stranger to us. With all this in mind, I could understand why all these years later, Fen, having been my confidante back then, became obsessed with the enigma of my sister after she made the news, intent on netting any clues or slips, flashes of instability or rage, to confirm his suspicions of her being a murderess. A lay psychologist with his shelf of thumbed-through treatises, Fen was tantalized by the chance to observe in the wild such a rare specimen of man, which was all part of a scheme to adapt her story for the stage and screen in hopes of attaining the A-list status and worldwide plaudits he had longed aloud for since we were boys reclined on our knoll in the middle of nowhere. After that night of cards and revelations, I stopped accepting Fen’s invitations and offering any of my own, fabricating a family emergency that required my sister and I to go home indefinitely. I instructed my sister, who had once confessed to being attracted to Fen with his vague resemblance to her dead fiancé (only tanner skin and bushier hair), to avoid him at all costs and never to answer the phone or door if he came, warning her of his crafty theatrics, the crocodile tears, the vain displays of pathos and sycophancy. In keeping with his probing ways, Fen showed up twice, unannounced, over the next couple of weeks, rightly skeptical of the story behind our abrupt departure. As he stood at our apartment door knocking so long and emphatically that the raps themselves felt like a soliloquy, calling out our names and chanting comically orotund greetings (“Hel-low-oh!”), my sister and I crouched in the foyer like chasees in a slasher movie, crimping our breaths, my finger to my lips and my sister giggling invincibly like a girl half her age. Though Fen quit coming after these visits, he hounded me with messages that were friendly and lightly nosy in the beginning but became by and by swear-ridden, plaintive, and enraged, which stirred up remorse in me. But with each message—to impart a sense of busyness or lack of interest—I let more and more time pass before replying and upheld the facade of our “family emergency” (cryptically revealing that it was “spiritual” in nature—a crock, clearly, which was why I fronted with it; saying “medical” would have been begging for it from the self-proclaimed clinical guru in Fen). The excuse did have a kernel of truth to it, since every family has its secrets to stash, and I was no longer comfortable with someone of Fen’s acumen and ambition being on the inside. The last time I saw him in person—a year and a half after we had split—was on the platform at the train station, either at the Stadia or on Fifth, where on mischievous impulse, having been ambushed by a stiff clap on my back, I pretended to be someone else entirely to the bitter, awkward end of our random meeting (I had a philosophical case, however my hair was longer and I was fitter), availing myself of the guards when Fen, who had gained fifteen pounds—for a role, I gathered—would not let me be. Fen, in due time, went on to write and produce his play, which I read about in a magazine before my sister and I burned it out of gleeful spite in a metal waste bin on our balcony one evening. The play was, on debut, a moderate success off, off Main, enough to irritate me to no end as it was obvious that his scurrilous “drama” was about us and even contained—I was ninety-nine percent positive—verbatim transcriptions of conversations between him and me and my sister. To the delight of the audiences in the four cities that his play toured, it pushed the popular, groundless theory that my sister was a criminal psychopath. In the pressers, Fen was candid about his relationship with my sister and me yet denied a link between us and his work, which he claimed was strictly fictional, and its general facts were transposed slyly enough for him to have a case; the dead senator, for instance, was now a dead actor, and my sister not a nurse, but a costume designer. None of this is to imply that I know what happened between my sister and her fiancé (the official line was that during a quick stretching break he had died in a freak fall provoked by the wind while hiking the infamous Triple Peaks that claims a bounty of lives every year—replaced in the play by a nameless building—that it was by fluke that the wounds on his body looked like claw marks and bites), nor did I care to dig, not only so my sister felt safe around me, her dutiful brother, who would not pry into her life like everyone else, but to protect my own blind spots for the sake of the family and for myself. As much as I wished to know the truth, which I am happy to say I no longer do—and the same goes for our father’s earlier disappearance—I had to place other priorities above it, even if this meant living in perennial darkness.

Ryan Choi's books include In Dreams: The Very Short Stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, the forthcoming Three Demons: A Study on Sanki Saitō’s Haiku, and The Dada Scribblings: Poems by Jun Tsuji. He is an editor at AGNI and lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was born and raised.