Archives for category: Published Story

11.19.13cube

The Oniomancer
The Chinadoll denies she’s a thief. She swears she’s never stolen anything. She finds things, that’s all. She’s always found things. From street curbs and trash bins and secret city places, things come to her like hungry cats.
She’s delivering a Priority One Hour to some bigwig at the Hyatt Hotel when she finds the cube. Talking heads from the tube, with their techs and camera crews, are swarming all over the lobby. Craning their necks to get a gander at the headline of the hour.
Fame scenes cut no ice with the Chinadoll. Not when she’s hustling down another zip code. The suits check out her fuchsia croptop, fourteen motley hoops banging down her hearwings. Lone Ranger mask drawn in kohl across her peepers. Beat-around black leather, rude girl rags. Security guards glare at her like she just crawled out from under something.
Then there it is: a small object getting kicked around by all those shuffling feet. Tumbling here, tumbling there across the tessellated marble floor. The Chinadoll can empathize.
So she scoops.
It kind of bounces up into her hand, this perfect cube. Size of a medium Rubik’s. Iridescent like mom o’ pearl. Strung from a stud on its crown on a superfine chain with the high, silvery sheen of platinum. It hums. Not a machine hum, but a soft rolling purr-purr.
Little hungry cats. How the Chinadoll loves you.
Quick as a wink, she stashes the cube in her T-shirt pocket. Dashes across the lobby, takes the elevator upstairs, makes the delivery. The bigwig’s got a girlfriend lounging on the bed, so he doesn’t come on to her like some of the drop-offs do.
Down she goes, zooming through the lobby again, and the scene has suddenly gotten weirder. Everybody jazzed, talking in loud, excited chatter. A voice of authority crackling with feedback issues garbled commands. “Nnnn—stay calm, and proceed in an orderly fashion—eeee!
She doesn’t stick around to find out what’s the hassle.
The cube pokes through her pocket like a Picasso nipple. A Real Find, Chinadoll. Not for nothing is she known as an oniomancer. And she thought she was down on her luck. Knows right away she can’t tell Flash about this. For sure, don’t let Bulldog see it.
Out at the rack, she unlocks her Schwinn.
From inside her pocket, the cube hiccups. The soft little sound of a lost thing that’s been found.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll came to see finding as a gift, though she didn’t always see it that way. She first discovered finding when she was a sorry little five-year-old named Suki Fong. It’s possible she found things before then. But that’s the first time she remembered the finding.
And what came after.
It was a fresh autumn day with a bit of wind, and Mama had come home from shopping on Grant Avenue. Pink cardboard boxes of dim sum and fried rice dangled from one of her hands, a whole roast chicken swung from the other. Papa was in the living room, watching ninja moves on Channel 60. All Chinatown smelled of Sunday supper.
The kids were in their playground: the sidewalk in front of Yick Sing Meat Market. Ben and Jimmy quarreled over a blue paper dragonfly kite. May and Kim whispered over a pocket mirror and a contraband lipstick May had shoplifted from Three Spirits Pharmacy.
Suki, the youngest of them by some years, sat alone on the curb and sniffed roast chicken. “Go away, baby,” May had ordered. Jimmy had pushed her. So she scratched in the gutter by herself, hummed lullabies, picked at scraps. From the TV inside came clatter and shrill sounds. She could hear the bloodcurdling scream of some ninja lopping off a demon’s head, made tinny by Papa’s ancient Sony.
With that thin, scratchy scream, the finding feeling came. Empty cup contentment. Waiting but not waiting. Nothing-full.
A crumpled wad, the soft gray-green of a dried herb, skittered past Suki’s toes. She scooped it, smoothed it flat across her knee. She saw small pictures on the crinkled paper strip. There was a tiny old-fashioned car and tinier pedestrians. A grand building with tall columns. On the other side, a curly-haired grandpa who wouldn’t look at her, but that was okay. Suki knew curly-haired grandpas didn’t look at a Chinese girl like her unless they had some evil on their minds.
She smiled. She smiles to this day at that tiny Model T.
From inside the apartment came Mama’s wail. “Cheat me! Mr. Yee cheat me! And rent due! I go back!” She ran out onto the street, dragon-faced. Stopped short in front of Suki.
“Oy!” Mama said. “What that you got there, girl?”
Suki held up her find.  Grateful for attention, any attention, from Mama.
She snatched the bill from Suki’s hand. “So here my ten dollar. Mr. Yee didn’t cheat me. Where you get this, girl?”
“I found it, Mama.”
Mama jerked Suki up off the curb by her skinny arm and hauled her inside. Suki heard May and Kim giggling.
“I say where you get this, girl?” Mama demanded,
“I found it, Mama. I found it.”
Mama slapped her across the face, one two three times. Suki’s lip stung against her teeth. She tasted shame.
“I teach you not to be a liar,” Mama said. “Youie? Youie?” Papa grunted, tore his eyes away from the TV. “This girl, this runt, this accident, she steal money from her own mama. And rent due. You teach her not to steal.”
“But I found it, Papa. I found it!”
Mama slapped her again. Papa stood, unbuckled his belt, slid the leather strip from his pant loops. Mama wrestled Suki over the kitchen table, pinned her arms down on the greasy oilcloth. Then Papa lashed the belt across her tiny butt, smack smack smack. Suki couldn’t count how many times.
That’s when she learned not to show or tell.
She would have given up finding, if she’d known how. She didn’t try to do it any more than she’d made Mama forget the birth control on the night five years ago when Papa knocked her up with a fifth child. A pinch-faced, unwanted little Suki.
But not long after her first humiliation, some-thing else tumbled into her hands like the temptation of an evil spirit.
Mama sent her out before dark for cooking oil. It was a lovely cool evening, the breezes scented with coming winter. Lipped with arabesques of light, Cathay House Pagoda shone against the scarlet dusk. Suki skipped down Grant Avenue, filled with the unaccountable joy of childhood.
At the edge of her eye, she saw something. A scrap bounding across the concrete like a wind-blown leaf.
The finding feeling came. A ghost push. Seeing and not seeing.
She scooped.
It was another piece of that velvety green paper. This time a cocky, bushy-haired fellow looked her right in the eye. Andy Jackson. A twenty dollar bill! She could hardly believe it, having only just learned the dark passions such velvety green paper inspired.
She carefully folded the bill, tucked it in her jeans pocket. She brought the cooking oil back to Mama. The next day, she bought herself a bag of candied pineapple rings at Mrs. Lee’s sweetmeat shop, a jade ring at Canton Bazaar, a tiny ivory horse at Shanghai Fine Arts, and one of those polyester bags that passes for embroidered silk, all green and purple chrysanthemums. She kept a dollar ninety-seven in change.
And said nothing to anyone.
But secrets can be hard to keep.
*   *   *
The streets around the Hyatt are jumping. State-of-siege cha-cha-cha. The wind socks grit in the Chinadoll’s eyes, sending tear tracks down her facepaint. She dodges cop cars, minding business.
Bucks her bike, rolls onto Drumm Street. Hauls out her cell phone, punches up headquarters. The dispatcher at Speedster & Company has her on for one last pickup at 815 Market.
Shoot! She’ll have to pedal her ass eight blocks west on a slow but steady uphill grade. It’s nearly five o’clock in the p.m. and she’s cat-o-nine-tails beat.
For luck, she fishes the cube from her T-shirt pocket, checks it out. The closure on the clasp is out of whack, so the lock won’t lock. No wonder someone lost it. What a cheap piece of trash, this clasp. She can’t imagine securing a chain of such fine links to hold a cube of such rare beauty with a safety catch that isn’t secure and can’t catch onto anything.
She bites the clasp, shaping the metal with her teeth. There you go, baby.
The cube feels warm, tingling, jingling, like a fistful of hot copper.
Not for the first time, the Chinadoll wonders how things of true value can be treated by the world with such disrespect.
*   *   *
Finding—it was Suki’s pleasure, the search for treasure amid the doldrums of daily life. Just a kid, she stalked the streets alone.
And found things all the time.
Sure, there was junk. She found knuckletop computers the size of a postage stamp. What excuses did the scamps around town tell their lovers when they didn’t message? She found flat plastic rectangles with miniature holograms and necklaces of numbers. How many credit lines got hacked due to lost credit cards? She found Ziploc bags filled with white powder that tasted bitter. What illicit dreams had been abandoned in shadowed alleys?
These things meant nothing to a kid. Just junk.
Some things, though, were truly treasure. She filled soup cans with coins, preferring pennies and dimes. Made a twelve-foot daisy chain out of red and blue rubber bands and paperclips in cool shapes. Stockpiled chewing gum packets and breath mint rolls, hundreds of them perfectly packaged, the safety seals still sealed.
She saw treasure everywhere, the hint of it, the glint of it.
She hid everything in a secret place.
Finding seemed so natural in the free-for-all of the City. Maybe the wrong of it was she got something for nothing. Mama said they had to pay their dues. Papa said they had to work hard. And finding was so easy. Things fell into her hands with no work on her part. No dues paid. That had to be why she couldn’t show or tell.
Too easy. She had to wonder if other people found things, too. Surely they must.
In a bold mood one day, she asked her sister May, “Do you ever, like, find things? You know, on the street?’
“What do you mean, Suki?” May said sharply.
Bad timing. That afternoon, May had seen that Suki had seen her smoking Marlboros with her boyfriend in Washington Square Park.
“Find things on the street? Like some bag lady, some street person, some Vietnamese? You stealing again, Suki? You’re stealing again, you little creep, you spy. Mama!”
Mama searched the bedroom Suki shared with her sisters and found her secret place—two Kinney shoeboxes beneath her underwear and socks. Mama found all things she’d found and took them away. Even the jade ring and the ivory horse and the purple-green bag, pretty things Suki had bought, fair and square. Mama had Papa take off his belt again.
She should have known then she should have given up finding for good. Turn away from the shimmer when she saw it. Finding should have been like any other unhealthy habit, subject to will and discipline.
But Papa’s belt, Mama’s slaps, her brothers’ and sisters’ jeers, they insulted her. Wronged her.
And like a benevolent devil confirming her conviction, not long after Mama took her things away, she found her first Big Find. Lying right in the middle of the sidewalk on Broadway near the corner of Kearny.
From the edge of her eye, she saw the glitter. Gutter-bound daystar. Maybe worthless, maybe wealth. She guzzled the empty cupful. She scooped.
It was a solid silver key with a handle in the shape of a four-leaf clover. Inside one heavy loop, next to the jeweler’s stamp of authentication, was a Tiffany trademark. Inside another loop, the logo of the car the key fit. A Mercedes Benz.
The silver dazzled in the sunlight as she turned the key over in her hand.
Suki knew at once the key was a sign. An omen. A promise that the best revenge would be hers one day. Never mind that the lock the key fit was nowhere in sight.
She walked back through Chinatown in a dream.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll slings the superfine chain over her fuchsia croptop, dropping the cube inside her T-shirt. It nestles against her skin, stinging her cleavage like dry ice. She picks up the package at 815 Market, drops it off at the Civic Center. Then scoots back to the headquarters of Speedster & Company for her daily bread.
She skids Market, slides New Montgomery, bops onto Mission. A ghost-gray candy cotton of fog rolls in from the ocean, chilling her bones. Then her hearwings yow with a bike messenger’s cry, an earsplitting banshee shriek.
“Yee Wee Wing Fooong! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Ain’t he sweet. That’s Flash’s yell for the Chinadoll.
*   *   *
After Suki found the silver key, she started a new stash. She found new secret places. When fall term began at Chang Wo Elementary, she kept her treasure in her school locker where Mama would never find it.
She liked school. She didn’t understand most of what they tried to teach her—having learned words like “rapacious” and “perspicacious” from Jimmy’s Fantastic Four comic books—but she was quiet and did what they told her and kept to herself.
She found lots of things in the school halls. Bottles of Robitussin Extra-Strength Formula; packages of Trojan rubbers; cartons of Camel nonfilters; a pair of soft turquoise mittens spangled with solar chips that kept the winter chill off her hands.
She loved those mittens.
She developed standards. She no longer took the worst junk, baby stuff like rubber bands. She kept three Kinney shoeboxes in her school locker, one for junk worth taking, one for cool things, one for actually valuable things. She carried the silver key in her jeans pocket. But she never showed it to anyone.
And she might have still liked school and done what they told her if she hadn’t found the ball of wastepaper.
It was early March, just before spring break, and the school halls were charged with the tension of tests being taken. There she sat in the girls’ lavatory, perched on a potty after taking a tinky. Pondering how she, of all twelve-year-old people, could possibly write an essay about the doctrine of manifest destiny on her history exam.
Suddenly a ball of wastepaper bounced merrily in, as if someone had flung it under the stall door. She picked it up, smoothed out a sheet filled with teeny, tiny rectangles.
The time was half-past nine. She was half awake. She walked out of the stall, gawking, doing a slow eureka. Then a hall monitor burst in the lavatory before she could think or explain. The monitor dragged her down to the principal’s office.
Then everyone got dragon and talked at her too fast in English.
The ball of wastepaper turned out to be a crib sheet for a test in a class she wasn’t even taking. No one cared. She got detention for the rest of the semester. They couldn’t prove a thing, but a report that she was a cheater went on her permanent record that was transferred when she started Galileo High.
At home, Papa got out the belt. Mama’s face got dragon every time she looked at her. May and Kim, who were prom queens at Galileo, wouldn’t say hi in the halls. Ben, who’d become assistant manager at Chung Quon Imports, declared that everyone in Chinatown knew Suki was a cheater, a liar, and a thief, and took his belt to her for shaming the family. Jimmy, starting at City College in business administration, made her lick his shoes.
She ran away. The cops did their own finding and brought her back. She cut school. The principal put her on probation. She flunked classes. Papa took his belt to her until her back was riddled with scars.
She tried to reform. She did community service at an old people’s home. She ran errands for Mama, cleaned the whole apartment every day after school. But five-dollar cans of litchi nuts, cut-crystal ashtrays, cashmere sweaters kept tumbling mysteriously into her hands, into her backpack, into her shopping bag. Store clerks accused her of shoplifting.
She gave everything back, but it was no use. On her seventeenth birthday, Galileo High expelled her. Mama said out.
Finding—it was Suki’s curse.
But as she trudged past Yick Sing Meat Market for the last time, something beckoned, shiny and sweet, at the curb. She laughed and did not laugh. She wept and did not weep. No one was there to say or not say what she was doing was wrong.
She scooped.
It was a charm, the kind that hooks onto a charm bracelet. A tiny ship of solid gold, three tiny sails unfurled with golden wind.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll spots Flash’s waist-length mane, crowned by the yellow propeller on his beanie, as he ducks down the stairwell into Speedster & Company’s basement digs. She does the duck down, too. The digs are full of razzmatazz and dooby stench and bike messengers yapping it up. Mohawk greased high over his coffee-bean brow, Mug the manager bends over the books of account.
The Chinadoll scores her commissions in cash, considers gourmet for dinner. Maybe a Martinetti dry salami and a bottle of Settler’s Creek Chablis instead of her usual peanuts and a pint of milk. Hey, this babe is rich.
Her whoop-dee-doo must be more than her daily sweat-and-tears ought to merit, because Flash is eyeballing her, grinning his zen grin.
“Hey, Chinadoll,” he says. “You find something today?”
“Nope. Stash your own trash.”
That guy. He of all people would know, just by looking at her, that she Found Major today.
Because Flash is an oniomancer, too.
*   *   *
There’s this poignant word of advice from the I Ching that goes, “It furthers you to cross the great water.” Meaning, move your hindquarters, fool.
Suki’s little golden ship was a sign.
From Chinatown, she fled to North Beach, past the strip joints on Broadway, the Italian eateries on Columbus, the literati cafés on Grant Avenue, and on to where the Tower Hotel crouched halfway up Telegraph Hill.
There Suki leased a room. Once a bohemian hotel, the only beats at the Tower now were dead-, not -nik. On the age-worn front door, someone had taped the sixteenth card of the Tarot. The wicked shrieking, lightning striking, an edifice of madness tumbling down.
Cozy place.
A room the size of Mama’s clothes closet with an odoriferous mattress and an orthopteran zoo, cost fifty George W’s a week. The communal john down the hall boasted special effects.
Then there was her lovely next-door neighbor.
“Hey. Hey. You. Bug,” said a voice like a rusted-out muffler as she lugged her meager possessions into her room.
A bunch of white kids at Galileo High called the Chinese kids that—bug—so she turned, assuming the voice was addressing her.
“Gimme five bucks, bug.”
An ugly hulk blocked her passage in the narrow hall. Her nose came up to the swastika hanging over his leather-vested chest. She gave him three dollars, which was all she had left after the hotel manager had taken two weeks’ in advance.
That was just the beginning. Bulldog bullied her daily. He extorted her money, stole her food, dirtied her clean towels. He hid water balloons over her door, set a mouse loose in her bed.
When she didn’t receive his direct attention, she cringed beneath his constant presence. The heavy-metal rock he blasted. The rattletrap van he parked in the towaway zone and revved up at five in the morning, waking her with its hacking motor, sending noxious fumes in her window. The steady stream of rag-tag women who, for reasons Suki could not fathom, found Bulldog endlessly fascinating. The notorious dealers, bikers, and rowdies who came by to pay their respects and wound up trying to beat Bulldog’s brains out. When the fistfights started around midnight, beefy bodies would crash against her flimsy wall like Godzilla taking on King Kong.
She considered her options. Trap guns, trip wires, poison. A black widow spider set loose in his bed. A pipe bomb under the wheels of his van would do the trick. Kablooey! at five in the morning. Or it was just possible she could electrify the communal shower from the phone booth in the hall.
She plotted how one day Bulldog would get his.
*   *   *
The Chinadoll clears out of Speedster & Company before Flash can case her much longer. The guy has an eye for detail, like any self-respecting oniomancer should. If she sticks around much longer, he’ll spot the cube nestled under her T-shirt, the superfine chain at the back of her neck.
She hightails it out of there. Up Third Street, to Sutter, to Kearny, to Columbus Avenue. Hustles down her humble repast at Rossi’s Market, beelines up Grant Avenue to the Tower. Scoots into her room.
Bulldog is nowhere in sight but through the wall she can hear his rusted-out voice jabbering next door. At least she knows where he is. She deadbolts her door, flops on her mattress, chills out.
Then she flips the superfine chain up off her neck, takes the cube in her fingertips. Gawks at it. Golly, what a Find. What a strange thing. A pretty-pretty, so shimmery. Full of wonder, she strokes the cube’s iridescent flanks. Smiles at its purr-purr.
Suddenly, the cube begins to glow, pale blue at first, then blushing violet. Warm, then hot. Hotter. Oh no! Has she inadvertently turned on some switch? She strokes its flanks again, frantically hoping to undo whatever she just did.
The purr becomes a roar.
The Chinadoll’s fingers sizzle.
*   *   *
Suki would have loved to rely on finding. Make it her career, explore the subtleties, refine her technique until she could call finding an Art. But rent came due, and she hadn’t found so much as a dime in three weeks.
She couldn’t rely on finding, not yet, that much was clear.
As for a regular job, what could she do? She was Suki Fong, high school expellee extraordinaire. She had no credentials, no connections, no confidence.
She found the Help Wanted flier thumb-tacked to a telephone pole on Sutter Street.
Speedster & Company welcomed any body as long as you could perform one simple task—pedal a bike all over town, uphill and down, eight hours a day, and not, repeat not, get yourself killed in traffic. Through the gridlock, in the rush hour, past massive buses and brute trucks, the lonely bike messenger tempted fate with the faith of a zealot.
For despite smart phones and emails, despite microwaves and pixels, the world still required the actual transfer of things. Contracts with original signatures. Computer equipment. Flowers and chocolate. Really hot lingerie.
The urgency of delivery lent drama. A messenger had honor. Responsibility. Gods and human beings have always depended upon messengers.
Suki said as much and more at her interview.
Mug the manager hired her on the spot. Paid a week’s wage in advance so she could eat a little better. “Kid, you gonna need some more meat on them bones,” he said and tucked a Luna bar in her hand.
In no time, Suki learned about Flash, Speedster’s star, the fastest, most reliable bike messenger in town. An urban legend all his own. Every messenger knew and respected him. To every passing messenger, he gave his tribal cry, “Yee Yee Heee! Hah Hah Haaah!”
Even the suits knew him, his waist-length hair, the ferret face with granny glasses, a red-and-yellow beanie with a yellow propeller that told which way his wind blew. Newspaper columnists wrote stories about him. How he’d broken his arm three times, for speed’s sake. How one day, when he’d accidentally locked himself out on the exterior stairwell of a first-floor office, he’d hopped over the railing and dropped to the concrete, only to be arrested by a passing cop.
Suki wasn’t in Flash’s league, not yet, but she was inspired by his example. She razored off all of her black waist-length hair except a strip down the middle of her scalp which she bleached platinum, and streaked broad strokes of fuchsia dye across the remaining crew-cut. She had a skull-and-crossbones set inside the petals of a rose tattooed on her left biceps. She blew the first ten Abe Lincolns she’d earned on kohl, vintage velvet, recycled leather.
She became the Chinadoll. She found face.
*   *   *
The cube turns scarlet neon, red-hot as an explosion. The room vibrates, then lurches crazily.
To read the rest of “The Oniomancer,” and discover what terrible troubles the Chinadoll gets into further with her unusual gift and whether and how she manages to survive, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge, if you like.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!
Meanwhile, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection”—The San Francisco Review of Books), in which “The Oniomancer” also appears, is in print and an ebook in eighteen markets on Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Ladies-Stories-Lisa-Mason/dp/1981104380/.

 

10.18.17.3.ATHENA.IN.BOX_NEW

Greetings, my heroic patrons, fans and readers and people considering becoming patrons, and curious visitors!
Please Stay Safe! I don’t need to repeat all the instructions you’ve been given by governments, health officials, and the Internet. You’ve heard enough.
As for me, I can’t go out for exercise, have been using my stepper for physical therapy, and—ow ow ow!—the right hip and leg are much worse with the stepper after the violent criminal Attack on me. But enough about me.
For the April Patreon, I am presenting an exciting April 2020 Excerpt from CHROME, my new speculative five-star-rated novel.
I’ll post a patrons-only full rendition of my delightful story, “The Oniomancer,” about a humble Chinese-American girl who discovers she has a special talent. The story was originally published in 1988 in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, in foreign editions of Asimov’s, and in 2017 in Strange Ladies: 7 Stories.
An Afterword about the inspirations for the story (there are several) and research will be included.
For the April Writing Tip, I’ll discuss the use of metaphor in genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) and why you should tread lightly with such “literary” writing in genre fiction.
And I’ll review (and give my recommendation of) a 2004 independent movie, “Sideways,” about a fortyish writer, struggling to get his first novel published, who takes his best friend, about to be married, on a bachelor party in the wine country.
Did you know you can post a one-time pledge on my Patreon page? Or for only two bucks per post, or more if you like, help me recover from the violent criminal Attack on me.
Stay Safe! Did I say that already? People can’t say that enough! Stay Safe!
Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, an offer to edit your writing sample per submission, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

TRArt1BIG

East Bay folks (people living in Oakland, Berkeley, and Piedmont), here are five restaurants we really like. They all deliver or you can pick up yourself. Support them! Selfishly, I don’t want them going out of business!
China Garlic on Piedmont Avenue. The best Chinese food I’ve ever had. Shrimp dishes for me, veggie dishes for Tom (and various meat dishes—chicken and pork). The vegetarian egg rolls are so delicious, Tom wants three orders of those the next time we order—which could be this weekend! We live about two miles from the place; the food was delivered, steaming hot, in less than twenty minutes. They also deliver as far as Berkeley.
Miss Saigon on Grand Avenue in Oakland. We’ve been ordering from them for years. They have noodle and rice dishes, shrimp and vegetarian (and various meats—chicken and pork). Their vegetarian egg rolls are so delicious, we already place three orders. They come with a special Vietnamese dipping sauce and fresh mint leaves. They also have a fryer, offer fresh fried fish and fried shrimp. I can live without candy, cookies, cakes, and pies, but every now and then I get a hankering for fried fish.
Barney’s on Piedmont Avenue. This started out as an award-winning beef burger place. Now they also offer turkey burgers, salmon burgers, and vegetarian garden burgers, and whole wheat buns. Their big claim to fame, though, is their fried mushroom and zucchini bowl, their curly French fries, and especially their onion rings. I can live without sweets (see above), but there’s nothing like an expertly cooked onion ring! I think they deliver via Grubhub, we just pick up.
Round Table Pizza on Grand Avenue. Round Table used to be a cheap, undistinguished pizza place. They recently mailed me a coupon. They’re not cheap anymore (no pizza place is) and they’re not low quality. They offer two vegetarian pizzas, one with spicy tomato sauce, one with garlic sauce, and different vegetable toppings, so they’re two distinct pizzas. They deliver throughout the East Bay, but we picked up. It was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
And Los Canteros also on Grand Avenue. We love Mexican food–once again fish for me, vegetarian for Tom–and this is some of the best Mexican food ever. They have a salmon dinner and a spicy shrimp dinner for me, which come with a very good green salad–and rice and beans and corn tortillas all of which I give to Tom. Their burritos are enormous (with several options for the kind of tortilla you want, sauce, guacamole, type of beans, cheese), and their veggie-and-cheese quesadilla is wonderful. Our neighborhood Big Market makes the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted, so we usually get a carton of that there, but the restaurant has good guac, too.
Post your favorite local restaurants that deliver here!
Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, an offer to edit your writing sample per submission, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

From the author of Summer of Love (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Summer-Love-Travel-Lisa-Mason/dp/1548106119/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/summer-of-love-a-time-travel-lisa-mason/1104160569.
The Gilded Age (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Gilded-Age-Time-Travel/dp/1975853172/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-gilded-age-a-time-travel-lisa-mason/1106038566.
The Garden of Abracadabra (“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy . . . I want to read more!) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1978148291/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-garden-of-abracadabra-lisa-mason/1108093507
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Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Ladies-Stories-Lisa-Mason/dp/1981104380/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/strange-ladies-lisa-mason/1115861322.
One Day in the Life of Alexa (“Five stars! An appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms”). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. Order the beautiful trade paperback NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/One-Life-Alexa-Lisa-Mason/dp/1546783091 or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/one-day-in-the-life-of-alexa-lisa-mason/1126431598.
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition, A Lily Modjeska Mystery (Five stars) On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. SOON IN PRINT!
Shaken (in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Hummers (in Fifth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Daughter of the Tao (in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn) on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Every Mystery Unexplained (in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tomorrow’s Child (In Active Development at Universal Pictures) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria (in Full Spectrum 5) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
U F uh-O (Five Stars!) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tesla, A Screenplay on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
My Charlotte: Patty’s Story on Barnes and Noble, US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, and Mexico.
“Illyria, My Love” is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, Mexico Kindle, and India Kindle.
Please visit me at Lisa Mason’s Official Website for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, and blogs, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!
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11.5.15.SIXTYTHIRD.NOOK

This is an ebook adaptation of Lisa Mason’s novelette, “The Sixty-Third Anniversary of Hysteria,” published in Full Spectrum 5 (Bantam). A Postscript and a list of Research Sources follow.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Bast Book
Copyright 2012 by Lisa Mason.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books ebook edition published March 2012
Praise for Books by Lisa Mason
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Phillip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Summer of Love, A Time Travel
A San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year
A Philip K. Dick Award Finalist
“Remarkable. . . .a whole array of beautifully portrayed characters along the spectrum from outright heroism to villainy. . . .not what you expected of a book with flowers in its hair. . . the intellect on display within these psychedelically packaged pages is clear-sighted, witty, and wise.”
—Locus Magazine
“A fine novel packed with vivid detail, colorful characters, and genuine insight.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Captures the moment perfectly and offers a tantalizing glimpse of its wonderful and terrible consequences.”
—The San Francisco Chronicle
“Brilliantly crafted. . . .An engrossing tale spun round a very clever concept.”
—Katharine Kerr, author of Days of Air and Darkness
“Just imagine The Terminator in love beads, set in the Haight-Ashbury ‘hood of 1967.”
—Entertainment Weekly
“Mason has an astonishing gift. Her characters almost walk off the page. And the story is as significant as anyone could wish. This book will surely be on the prize ballots.”
—Analog
“A priority purchase.”
—Library Journal
The Gilded Age, A Time Travel
A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Public Library Recommended Book
“A winning mixture of intelligence and passion.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Should both leave the reader wanting more and solidify Mason’s position as one of the most interesting writers in science fiction.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Rollicking. . .Dazzling. . .Mason’s characters are just as endearing as her world.”
—Locus Magazine
“Graceful prose. . . A complex and satisfying plot.”
—Library Journal
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition (A Lily Modjeska Mystery)
Passionate Historical Romantic Suspense
5 Stars
“I really enjoyed the story and would love to read a sequel! I enjoy living in the 21st century, but this book made me want to visit the Victorian era. The characters were brought to life, a delight to read about. The tasteful sex scenes were very racy….Good Job!”
—Reader Review
The Garden of Abracadabra
“So refreshing! This is Stephanie Plum in the world of Harry Potter.”
—Goodreads Reader
“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy….I want to read more!”
—Reader Review
“I love the writing style and am hungry for more!”
—Goodreads Reader
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria
Diary
6 May 1941.
We’ve arrived at last after months in Casablanca, which I once remembered fondly & now loathe. Sold all my good white linen bed sheets for Moslem shrouds to raise money for our sea passage. The Faithful must meet their Maker wrapt in the colour of purity, but I would’ve slept on straw, on mud, on a bed of nails to leave Africa.
Every day we were in danger. Everyone knows B.B. supported the Loyalists in Spain & wrote editorials for La Revolution Surrealiste & corresponded with Trotsky, for godssake. Fascists in every bar & café. Nazis, too, now that Rommel has taken over the Occupation & his officers carouse their days away. The Soviets will make mincemeat of you within the year, B.B. told anyone who would listen. Didn’t care a fig who listened in. Every night I feared the knock on our door, which thankfully never came.
As for our sea passage, I have little to record. I was sick, B.B. was sick. Everyone sick & absolutely grey with fear. We sailed on a Union Oil tanker, The Montebello. A favorite sport of Nazi U-boats, torpedoing a merchant ship with refugees aboard. No more than a rifle or two to defend us, should we be attacked. Every day the radio told of another sinking–in the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, & all hands lost. Nazi U-boats take no prisoners, save no survivors bobbing amongst the waves. I began to wonder what it must be like to drown. Your hair streaming up into sunlit waters, your feet plunging into blackness below. The fearsome struggle to breathe–would it be swift or slow? Would you notice fish? When would they start nibbling at the lobes of your ears?
I had to set this journal aside. Force myself to stop conjuring up horrors.
When we hobbled ashore at Tampico, I fell on my knees & kissed the beach. I mean literally. B.B. laughing & lurching about on his sea legs. I can still taste the sand on my lips. Filthy, but marvelous. The marvelous taste of our deliverance.
Nothing but the shirts on our backs & two little bags between us. We haven’t got a penny.
It’s completely true what Breton says of our destination.
Mexico is the Surrealist place par excellence. The land blazes with a savage golden light. A tiger light. The jungle spreads its tendrils to the very edge of town & the leaves of certain palms possess a clarified green the like of which I’ve never seen in Britain nor in Europe, save perhaps Tuscany. Blossoms have their wanton way in every window box, on every street corner, through every crevice in the ancient stone walls. Brick & mortar are no match for the lusty thrust of Life. I love the lascivious pinks, the regal purples. I spied a scarlet that actually throbbed, as if the colour of blood was pulsing from a newly opened wound. The natives wear their modernity lightly. As if civilization is but a garment to be donned or disposed of at one’s will.
I should like to feel that unencumbered of my past.
Thanks to the small refugee stipend paid to us by the Mexican government, we have found an apartment on Gabino Barreda, near the Monument to the Revolution (B.B. likes that, a poetic touch). Three horrid little rooms in a decaying stucco tenement. Plaster crumbling off the walls, scorpions in the kitchen. Other vermin, too, I fear. Mother would faint dead away at the sight of the pit in the floor that passes for our indoor plumbing. There is an alcove off the bedroom, though, which has light nearly all day & a terrace overlooking the street, which is delightfully picturesque. B.B. says I may take it for my art studio. The landlady (upon whom B.B. has worked his usual masculine charms) came by with two white, blue-eyed kittens, brushstrokes of fawn on nose & paw. She says they are Sealpoint Siamese such as I have not seen since Mother’s house in London.
Enchanting & I wept, realising how much I’ve left behind. How much the war has taken from us. The simple pleasure of kittens.
How can I not be happy?
Mexico City
“To the late Doctor Sigmund Freud,” says Gunther, raising his shot glass in a toast.
“To the great and monstrous Id,” says Enrique.
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” says Wolfie.
“Hear, hear,” adds B.B., a bit anemically. Poor man, he is not well.
Cheers ring out all round. Nora raises her glass as a courtesy, too weary to cheer. Tequila spills over her fingers, stinging the cut on her thumb she’d got unpacking B.B.’s papers. He needed everything ready by morning so he could start work on his new play. While he’d slept like the dead, she had labored long into the night. Their two bags no longer seeming so little or so sparse of belongings.
Nora knows these three merry fellows from Paris during her café days. Gunther and Wolfie are a pair of Hungarians, Enrique a Greek. Now they are all displaced Surrealists. A new nationality of their own. The tropical climate suits them, Nora is pleased to see. Gunther has grown positively stout on rice and beans, Wolfie sports an alarming mustache, and Enrique, well. Enrique is ever Enrique, a sly smile wrapped around a cigarette. Now he wears a jaunty straw hat and a white linen shirt, having retired his black Basque beret to a drawer along with his black wool scarf.
Exiles in Mexico City they all are, this ragged gang of painters, poets, and pundits. They’ve fled from everyplace a Nazi boot has kicked in a door or threatened to. Hungarians and Swedes, Austrians and Russians, British and Spanish and French. The Mexicans and Peruvians–Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Cesar Moro–serve as centers of gravity for these wayward comets. If not for the war, half these visionaries and rabble-rousers would scarcely be on speaking terms with the other half. But the war, now safely far behind them on the Continent, has taught strange and marvelous tricks to a pack of aging mongrels.
Gunther flings tequila into his throat, chases away the sting with a gulp of black beer. B.B., always one to follow suit around his comrades, flings a shot and gulps, as well, though flamboyant gestures do not become him. Never a robust man, B.B. has weathered the war rather badly. He has been leached and winnowed into something peevish and frail, his finely made face worn-out with worry. His hair has ebbed to the top of his skull, exposing the enigmatic dome of his forehead. Ever the intellectual, B.B. has assumed such an intense introspective air that people pause around him, even when he’s liquored up, and await an oracle.
“To Freud? How passé.” A woman’s voice, ironic, incisive, cuts through the male bombast and swoops into Nora’s eager ear. “Still stuck on nasty old Sigmund, what a pity.”
Valencia sweeps into the parlour of her house, smiling in her ironic way. She plucks the shot glass from Nora’s hand, offers a tumbler rimmed in salt. “Try this instead, cherie. Lime and tonic, with crushed ice. A much better way to sample tequila for the first time. We are not barbarians like Gunther and your poor old B.B.”
Nora, a little nervous, reacquaints herself with another famous face from the Paris days. Valencia, always towering, has transformed herself here into an Amazon queen, voluptuous and formidable. She wears her fiery chestnut hair in an unkempt mane that tumbles around her face and down her shoulders. Her bold Spanish features are much as Nora recalls. The huge dark eyes, the left one slightly askew. The rapier snout of a conquistador. Bee-stung lips of a shady lady. Altogether a splendid face, if not exactly pretty.
“Valencia, hello again,” Nora says, taking the tumbler. “Thanks ever so. You look marvelous.”
“You, too, cherie. Though a little frazzled around the edges, eh? Still, ever our English beauty. Drink up.”
Nora plucks at her threadbare blouse, abashed. You never could tell if Valencia was taking aim or only skewering your own self-doubts. If Valencia is an Amazon, Nora is a fairy-queen. Queen of the gnats. So petite and unassuming, few ever notice her, despite her pretty face and lustrous sable curls. The war has worn her down, too. She is much too thin, much too pale. Bad food, days brooding belowdecks, and despair have bleached all the colour from her English cheeks. Fleeing Fascism is fashionable only in theory. This she has learned the hard way.
Nora slides the tart taste of lime down her throat. Thirsty, so very thirsty. For refreshment. For friendship. Mexico City sits at the top of the world. They say the air is always bone-dry.
They say the Kahlo-Rivera circle is an arid place, too, harboring much public animosity toward correspondents of Trotsky like B.B. Not that Nora ever wrote to the famous revolutionary herself. She’s just an artist. But she shall surely be painted by the same brush by Frida and Diego.
Suddenly B.B. is at her side, gripping her elbow. Solicitous, fatherly, though of course they are lovers, he takes her tumbler. “I don’t think she should,” he says to Valencia.
Who regards his gesture with narrowed, glinting eyes. Tigress eyes.
“You are having a drop yourself, B.B.,” Valencia observes.
“Yes, but I am ever the drunkard. Whereas my little Nora hasn’t touched drink in ages, not the whole time we were exiled in Casablanca.” He sets her tumbler on a side table. And that’s that, in B.B.’s scheme of things. “Be so good as to tell me what is wrong with Freud, Madam Valencia?”
“Hah! Tell me what is right about Freud.”
She sweeps Nora under her arm, reclaiming the tumbler as she goes and restoring it to Nora’s hand. “You must come and see my art studio, cherie.
Nora shrugs and rolls her eyes at B.B., who is scowling. What can she do, swept away by a force of nature?
Valencia and her husband Renato own a house on Via del Rosa Moreno, five blocks west of Nora and B.B.’s apartment. No horrid little rooms or crumbling plaster for Valencia. Renato has money. The place is a palace. Whitewashed ceilings, Moroccan arches, great expanses of floor paved in terra cotta tile. There is an interior garden with a fountain. Valencia’s art studio, which opens onto the garden, has an adobe fireplace and native grotesqueries displayed on the walls. There is an Olinala jaguar mask with genuine fangs. A Michoacán devil mask, post-Cortez, bearing a striking resemblance to a Satan of Catholic inspiration. A Tlacozotitlan bat mask, a jungle nightmare held aloft by carved wood wings.
Nora is dazzled. But then Valencia has always dazzled everyone. They met among the clique surrounding Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy. Valencia slept with the great men, one after another. Breton himself had noticed her since she, sloe-eyed and slender then, was the sort of femme-enfant he craved like candy. Plus, she possessed unbeatable cachet: Valencia was a budding Surrealist artist. She painted interior landscapes. The shadows of the subconscious mind whirled and writhed across her haunting canvases.
Nora had been awed by Valencia then, too, and not a little envious. She had slept with too many of the less-than-great men, with the too-beautiful poet who wound up preferring gin and boys, and she was still painting competent Italian countrysides. Olive trees and Etruscan ruins, what rot. Nora hadn’t yet discovered how to paint past her eye. How to explore the depths of pure imagination.
Now Valencia is the great woman with whom lesser men are privileged to dine in Mexico City. For the great men like Breton and Tanguy have had the means and connections to escape the ravages of Europe in New York City. In the years since Paris, Valencia has become well-known in Surrealist circles, if not to the larger public. Peggy Guggenheim shows her paintings at Guggenheim Jeune Gallery. Valencia has collectors. Not many, but enthusiastic. And rich.
Among the canvases stacked in the studio, Nora spies a painting of a sphinx. She stoops for a closer look. Not the Egyptian monument nor the ripe she-beasts of Louis XIV statuary, but a vixenish creature with tabby-cat’s paws and a child’s face. The creature crouches in a decaying mansion, toying with a human jawbone, broken eggshells, a tidbit of bloody meat.
Something jars Nora, gazing at this strange image. Something takes her back to Mother’s house, the great rooms deserted. Everyone had gone to church, and a cousin, a rawboned boy fifteen years to her ten, stood towering over her. There were eggs. Eggs she’d dropped on the floor beneath her knees, and a whitish scum smeared across the tiles. A whitish scum lingering in her mouth.
No, that didn’t happen. You were dreaming, darling, Mother said when she stammered out her story. Cousin came with us to church. Cook must have dropped the eggs.
“Valencia, this is smashing,” she says, shaken. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Is this a new direction for you?”
Valencia starts to answer, then presses her finger to her lips, for now the men are strolling into the art studio, laughing and bickering. Tequila fumes rise off them, an alcoholic miasma. Nora bites back her words, cut off from further conversation. Well, but of course, it’s a party. B.B. hooks his elbow around her neck, as he often does, dangling his forearm across her collarbone. His hand hanging over her heart.
“So, Valencia, my dear, have you seen much of Frida and Diego lately?” Gunther says.
“No, not much at all. Watch your step, gentlemen, that canvas took me four months of heart-wrenching work. Rivera is in poor health, you know. Frida attends to his every need, as if he were still a little boy in his nappies.”
The men trade uneasy glances. Some of them revere Rivera, some despise him, but all consider the internationally famous, famously charming, and charismatic artist to be some kind of deity visiting this poor mundane world at his leisure. Valencia’s gibe makes them fidget, Nora observes, even if they suspect it’s true. Yet who can object? Valencia knows Kahlo and Rivera better than any of them. She is–what is the American expression?–she is in the know.
“Come now, ma belle, Valencia,” says B.B. Ah, Nora thinks, here it comes. “You have not set out for us your objections to Doctor Freud. The greatest analyst of the human mind in our times.”
“Oh, my, haven’t I?” A wink for Nora. And a little twisting motion with her fingers beside her lip, as if she were a Spanish gentleman adjusting his mustache. Very disconcerting to the gentlemen present.
“You have not,” B.B. asserts, assuming his lordly professorial air. Though he’s weaving on his feet.
“Well, to start, Freud hated women,” Valencia says, laughing as though this is quite a joke.
“Oh, that is not true, Valencia,” Gunther says. “The great doctor spent hours and hours with his madwomen.”
“Didn’t he, though,” says Enrique with his sly smile.
“You are all absurd,” B.B. says in such a commanding, condescending tone that he silences everyone. “It is Freud, madam, who first explicated the existence and causes of l’amour fou attitudes passionelles. The supreme means of ecstatic expression at which you women are so adept.” At that, he peers at the painting of the sphinx.
“Ah, Hysteria,” Valencia says. “The divine madness of women.”
“To the Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria,” Wolfie says, less clearly, and raises another toast of tequila. He cradles the bottle in the crook of his arm.
“Now, Wolfie,” Valencia begins. Taking aim, indeed. “Do you wish to live forever in the shadow of Breton? As for me, I’m still annoyed by the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria. An event rather in questionable taste, even for Surrealists, don’t you think? How like Breton, publishing photographs of those poor lunatics at Salpetriere Hospital. As an artistic statement! All of them women, of course, in psychotic fugue and various stages of undress. You’d rather have your women mad than freethinking, eh, B.B.?”
Nora waits, breathless, for her lover’s answer.
“I agree, the quality of the photographs was rather poor,” he replies in a mild tone. “But Breton’s lack of talent as a publisher is not the point. Come now, admit it, Valencia. Sigmund Freud was the first man in history to truly understand women.”
“And what did Freud understand, pray tell?”
“Why, that women are the link to the subconscious mind.”
“Whose subconscious mind?” Valencia says. She clarifies, “The subconscious mind of whom?”
“Don’t be obtuse, Valencia,” B.B. says. “Freud exalts Woman. She is the link to the Id of the Artist. To the darkness. To the lurking dirtiness. She disturbs the Poet, and She compels him. She penetrates his every inhibition. She unleashes his forbidden desires, oh yes. She is the key, the trigger, the perfumed bomb. She is that onto which his passions may be projected. She is his fantasy, and his fantasy fulfilled.”
“A blank slate, is that what you mean, B.B.? An empty vessel with no thoughts or talents of her own?”
“She is my Muse,” B.B. says. He squeezes Nora’s neck so tightly she winces in pain.
“Dear old B.B. So dependent on women, after all.” Her glinting eyes turn to Nora. “And what about you, cherie? Is he your key, your trigger? How does he compel you when you paint your vision?”
Nora blushes. She has no answer.
“As for me,” Valencia declares, “I am my Muse.”
Diary
22 June 1941.
V. has changed my life. We see each other nearly every day. Teacher, soul-sister, friend. Muse, indeed, for she challenges me to look beyond the surface of the world. To look deep within myself & my imagination. To view our Art as a Calling & a Quest, not merely decoration for the rich.
Gossipmonger, too. V. is filled with talk about things going on everywhere. A spider tugging at each strand of her web for juicy morsels. How I adore it! She claims Kahlo has such a mustache on her lip from pleasing Rivera too much. You know what I mean. Certain prostitutes on the Rue de G develop the same problem, she says, with a twist of her imaginary mustache. I don’t know if this could possibly be true, but it makes for an awfully nasty rumor. Kahlo is a tragic figure, of course, with her grievous injury & her beautiful tortured paintings & having to cater to Rivera with his temper & his mistresses. Yet as much as I do truly pity her, I find her theatrical & intimidating & have not sought out her company, nor she mine. In any case, B.B. disapproves of her & Diego, but that’s politics.
V. studies a Swiss psychoanalyst, one Carl Jung. Once Freud’s disciple, Jung was cast out of his circle over theoretical/political dissension. V. adores Jung almost as much as she despises Freud. Jung is on to something when he talks about the subconscious, V. says. Rather than the repository of eroticism & primitivism (as Freud would have it), the subconscious (for Jung) is the repository of occult wisdom & magical powers. “Magical powers” being a metaphor for one’s inner strengths & talents. Jung does not actually believe magical powers exist, does he?
Like Freud, Jung believes the subconscious is essentially female. Intuition feminine, too. If this is so, then Woman is not only erotic, but also occult.
V. is deeply moved by these ideas. I’m much taken, too, but not quite sure what to believe. (I read V.’s books in her art studio. Don’t dare bring them home, should B.B. find them & throw them in the trash.)
Yesterday at the market V. & I found a plant with strange, egg-like fruit. We didn’t know what it was, had never seen such a thing before. V. told me to run & fetch my brushes & bring them to her studio, which I did, posthaste. We placed the plant in her garden & arranged my brushes around it. V. claimed the light of the full moon would fall upon everything & the Alchemical Egg would bless my brushes with creative power. Together we composed & then recited an incantation & danced like dervishes & drank a liter of red wine, all of which I found quite amusing. V. assured me this is not frivolous, this is inspiration. This is Magic. Lord, I will try anything to overcome this block of mine.
On my way home I found a tiny bird’s nest which had fallen to the pavement. A sticky little ball of twigs & spider silk & tucked inside, an egg no larger than a gumdrop. I picked the nest up & placed it in the crotch of a lemon tree next to the sidewalk. The very moment I did this, mother hummingbird flitted up & hovered, as if in thanks, blinking at me with her tiny beady bird eyes. I prayed: Oh Alchemical Egg, give birth to Me.
Silly, I know, but there you are & I was so happy, thinking this is a very good omen.
Started pencil sketches for a new painting tonight. My first work in Mexico City: a woman curled up inside of an egg.
Mexico City
Nora is exhausted by the time she arrives home from the advertising agency. The downtown bus was running late, she’s been running a fever for a week, there is nothing decent in the cupboard for dinner, and, to top it off, B.B. is in a foul mood again.
“Where have you been?” he snaps as she drags in the door.
“At work, of course,” she snaps back.
“At Valencia’s again,” he says. On principle, he cannot object to her friendship with the great Surrealist Artist, but he chafes at her devotion to her friend just the same.
“At work,” she repeats. “And at Valencia’s,” softening her tone, for what is the use of quarreling with B.B.? “I wanted to visit the cats.”
Nora could not afford to keep the Siamese kittens, who have transformed themselves into sleek little chocolate-cheeked panthers. Valencia, who is such a cat lover that friends have nicknamed her Felina, gladly them took in, but it’s discouraging. Nora cannot afford to keep cats. Nora cannot afford much more than their rent, rice, and beans. She cannot afford new shoes. She lines the insides of her once-fine Italian leather pumps with newspaper. She cannot afford a new blouse. She washes perspiration stains out of the weary old cotton with lye soap and a scrub brush. The advertising agency is pleased with her projects, simple but energetic pen-and-ink drawings extolling the virtues of aspirin and hair tonic, but they only pay for piecework, which amounts to little.
B.B., on the other hand, does not work in any gainful way. After losing his family’s house and land in Vienna to the Nazis, he has been paralyzed with grief though–Nora reminds herself–he never worked in any gainful way before then, either. He is unable to face the daily stringency of reporting to an office. He feels he does not speak Spanish well enough to translate or write for a local newspaper.
In any case, he’s started the new play. How can I write for a newspaper, he wants to know, if I’m to write the new play? Sometimes Nora thinks B.B. would be content to live in the streets and beg for food, all for the sake of the new play. Still, the play is his salvation. Everything he lives for. If not for the play, he tells her, I would have hanged myself a year ago.
This frightens her, this talk of hanging himself. Nora has loved B.B. for years. She reveres him. He was a great man, a poet and a playwright respected in Paris, in all of Europe, by Breton himself, an entire decade before she met him. She, his young lover, cannot possibly allow B.B. to live in the streets and beg for food. Let alone hang himself.
Still, there is the troublesome fact that he has written nothing significant in the year after their exile and flight. Oh, a page or two since the day she unpacked his papers upon arriving in Mexico City. She must be patient, she tells herself. He’s returning to his work, thanks to her. You‘re all I have left in the world, he tells her. You are my Muse.
“Did you get cigarettes? Tequila?” he growls now. Tobacco and booze fuel him. He must have cigarettes and tequila if he is to write the new play.
“I forgot we were out.”
Nora has hidden cigarettes in her little art studio for herself, for the hard-won moments when she can be there, painting. Her secret stash, which she refuses to share. Having to work has considerably slowed progress on her new painting. Yet Nora goes to the advertising agency and takes in sewing when she can because she would not be content to live in the streets and beg for food. She must at least have rice and beans. At the least the apartment on Gabino Barreda. She can do without new shoes and new blouses, but she must have paint. She must have canvases.
“Well, give me some money,” he says, “and I’ll go fetch everything.”
She gives him the last of her money for the week, and he goes out in search of cigarettes and tequila. She washes her hands and her face in the washbasin in the corner. Still mopping her neck with a towel, she drifts to his desk.
His work is put away, as usual, or covered up with a sheet of blank paper. He has not felt ready to show her the play, he says, and she respects that, the fragility of a new creation. She twinges with guilt at violating his orders not to disturb his things, but she’s not disturbing anything, she’s merely peeking. She picks up his ashtray, which needs emptying, anyway, and observes he has left a sheet of paper in his typewriter. Out of carelessness, his hangover, or deliberately, she cannot be sure. There, on the half-typed page she reads:
JUSTINE
I beg you, Master! Please, not again, I cannot bear it!
MASTER
(chaining her left ankle to the bedpost)
Yes, again, my little love. One day you will beg me for it.
Nora goes to the kitchen, puts rice on to boil. She heats oil in the skillet and fries the last of the curling tortillas. Hot grease spatters her hands. She feels nothing. Nothing but the anger in her heart. When B.B. strolls in with his cigarettes and tequila, she bangs the skillet down and stomps out to the living room.
“So. The new play,” she says, tapping her toe, crossing her arms, tucking her grease-spattered hands into her armpits. “You are rewriting Marquis de Sade? A new Sade play?”
“I told you to stay away from my desk,” he says mildly.
Ah. Deliberately, then.
“What are you thinking, B.B.? Where is the audience for a new Sade play? Who gives a damn about Sade when Hitler has chained up all of Europe? When he lusts for Russia, for Africa? For the whole world?”
The radio and the newspapers are filled with the news. Hitler’s troops invade Russia! The Wehrmacht deploys two hundred divisions! Aimed at Leningrad, at Moscow, at the Ukraine. The Soviet army stumbles in chaos. Bombs decimate hundreds of Soviet aircraft on the ground. The planes hadn’t even had time to take off. The Stalin Line lies in ruins, Stalin himself is in a stupor.
“On the contrary, the times are exactly right for Sade,” he says, pouring out a shot. His hands shake and he spills tequila on the table. He laps the liquor up like a dog. “Hitler violates in the realm of politics and suppresses the personal.”
“Well! That is hardly a Surrealist revolutionary statement, B.B. That is bloody monstrous.”
“Monstrous! Yes! Exactly right, my little Nora! My play shall prove that violation in the realm of the personal will liberate our politics. When the common man sets out to explore the extremes of his fantasies, his exploration causes his society to become a more liberated and tolerant place.”
“And why, pray, is that?”
“Because the common man need not sublimate his desires and act out those sublimations and suppressions against his fellow citizen, his coworker, and his comrade.”
Nora does not know how to refute this theory.
B.B. grins at her silence. “Marquis de Sade was a great sexual revolutionary, fully conversant with his subconscious mind. A man who penetrated his secret obsessions without the benefit of Freudian psychoanalysis. Breton greatly admires Sade, you know. He says the man was a Surrealist, a pre-Surrealist. I cannot wait to show him my manuscript!”
“Sade and Freud and Breton,” she says. “Such cozy bedfellows. Comrades in despising and degrading women.”
“Oh, I see,” B.B. says coldly.
“You see what?”
“Madam Valencia’s influence has begun to confuse you. Sade, of all men, believed in the liberation of Woman. He believed Woman should be freed of her maternity, of her domesticity. Is that what you really want, Nora? Babies and housework?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers. This is only too true. She fled the bourgeois life long ago, searching for something more.
“No, you don’t, nor should you. Because you are an Artist, my little Nora. Do you really serve me so much? Do I demand a brilliant dinner? A spotless household? Heirs bouncing on my knee? No. I free you, Nora. I give you the key to your freedom so you may pursue your Art.”
The anger in her heart flares hotter. “Dear me, I didn’t realize you held the key to my prison.”
“Of course I do. Men always hold the key. Sade understood this.”
“Sade,” she says, “was a madman.”
“His prose style is exquisite,” B.B. says mildly.
After their rustic dinner, B.B. insists on making love. Nora resists at first, then gulps lime-and-tequila, and lies down on their bed. She does not fear B.B. She may be petite, but she’s stronger than him in many ways and much younger. He has never physically harmed her. She is certain he would never try. Yet she wants to know–how has he changed, if Sade is on his mind? What liberation will he bring her, if the liberation of Woman is the object of his creative inquiry?
But he is tender and respectful, as always, and she is both relieved and inexplicably disappointed. B.B. does not live his Art. His Art does not authenticate his life, his relationship with her, or his reckoning with the world. His Art is no Calling. It’s an entertainment. An entertainment no one will be entertained by. Especially her.
As he strives for his climax, she runs her fingertips down the slope of his back. The little knobs of his spine are so delicate. For a moment she believes she could crush them, like eggshells, with her thumbs.
To read the rest of this fascinating story, discover what momentous event Nora dreams of, discover her disastrous relationship with B.B., and read the Postscript about the real artists the story is based on and the sources I consulted, friends, readers, and fans, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
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Three years ago, when I was crossing the large parking lot of my market with a full cart of groceries, I noticed a diminutive, white-haired woman struggling with her cart.
I pushed my cart next to my car, then rushed across the lot to her. I asked her if she needed some help, she said yes, and I took the cart from her, pushing it to her car, which she pointed out to me. She opened the trunk, I lifted her groceries in, she thanked me, then I pushed her cart to a cart stall.
As I walked back to my car, several people smiled at me and said, “Good for you.”
It wasn’t a big deal. She clearly needed help, I provided help. Of all my family members (and there are not many of them), I most loved my maternal Grandma Mary. I appreciate and respect Little Old Ladies.
Five years ago, I went to New York City to attend the Author-Editors Reception of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which has since been discontinued by SFWA). I booked the Super Shuttle to and from JFK Airport to my mid-Manhattan hotel.
The Super Shuttle promised no more than ten passengers, but our driver packed in at least twenty. The Shuttle stopped at every airline terminal—there are dozens. Plus JFK was a mess, with construction and detours everywhere. A passenger said, “Hey man, we’ve been here over an hour and we’re still not fucking out of the airport!”
The return trip was no better with passengers threatening to sue if they didn’t catch their flight in time. When I came home, I told husband Tom, “I’ll never take Super Shuttle again. All the private cabs have a standard fee from the airport. It’s worth every penny.”
I’m not surprised that Super Shuttle has shuttered recently.
On the incoming trip, I got on the Shuttle with a man who had been on the same jet from San Francisco. We sat side by side with our carryon bags behind the driver, exchanged business cards, and struck up a conversation which lasted all of the miserable six hours the Shuttle took to get from JFK to my hotel. He turned out to be a computer security specialist en route to a lecture he was going to give to a board of a big bank. He was very curious about my writing career. He regaled me with stories about the computer hacks he helped resolve, I regaled him with stories about where I get my fiction ideas, research, and publishing.
The driver, while he wasn’t furiously beeping his horn, hopping sidewalks (literally) to get around trucks and traffic jams, and making U-turns, was fascinated, listening to us. And told us so when we got out at last at our respective hotels.
I was quite stiff, after sitting for six hours on a Shuttle seat. I had a large traveling handbag and my carryon bag on straps over my shoulders. The computer specialist (he was a large man) disembarked first, and then I stood with my bags at the precipice disembarking from the Shuttle. The drop from the Shuttle doorstep to the street was at least two feet, maybe three. I’m not tiny at five foot six, neither am I huge. And the drop loomed before me. The computer specialist stood chatting with the driver. I suppose if I’d asked him, he would have helped me down from the Shuttle. But I didn’t. And he didn’t.
As I sort of fell down to the street, I felt keenly disappointed that, after six hours of conversation, he didn’t think to help me off the damn Shuttle.
Husband Tom is always gracious. He always holds open doors for people, men or women, and has been rewarded with his share of women snapping, “I can open the door myself.” To which he says nothing or “You’re welcome.” He helps neighbors who are moving in, carried a large television set into our elderly neighbor’s living room. He always walks on the street side when he and I are strolling on the sidewalk, opens doors for me (which I appreciate), and helped me in and out of my car a year ago when I was unable after the Attack. Tom is courteous to me, to everyone. He is a gentleman.
Many more years ago, I went to New York City, this time to meet my book editor at Bantam-Doubleday-Dell. Tom (another Tom) took me to lunch at a restaurant, all scarlet Art Deco décor, the entrance of which was accessible only by a heavy revolving glass door. We had a discussion about how a gentleman should handle a revolving door. If memory serves, Tom Dupree, the editor, was of the opinion that a gentleman should enter the revolving door first to set the door in motion, and the lady should follow. That way she didn’t have to push the heavy glass, but only enter the door and walk through. I thought that was an excellent suggestion.
We’re living in rude, mean times, during which total strangers assault one with profanity. Everyday courtesy is not just a gesture of gentility, a sign of respect of men toward women, of the younger toward the older, but of everyday kindness. If and when I’m eighty years old and need help pushing my shopping cart across the parking lot, I hope someone will be there. In meantime, as long as I’m able, I’m here to help. I don’t think twice.
Join me on my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more!
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

TaoCoverSmall

I.
Dragon
Sing Lin skips down Fish Alley, seeking fresh shrimp for Master’s supper.
She swings her wicker shopping basket with a frivolous hand, her young heart bobbing with innocent joy. The city air is ripe with the odors of raw sea creatures and sandalwood incense, of the mouthwatering scent of peanut oil smoking in someone’s hot wok.
A mooie jai just doesn’t skip down the streets of Tangrenbu, not on most days. Certainly not on a day as fresh and crisp as this, with sunlight sparkling high above and a cool west wind from the sea. A day which Cook would have gladly savored for himself.
A lucky day.
But Cook has injured himself. His ankle has swollen up like a bundle of newspapers left out in a night rain. Cook took a wrong step into a pothole on Jasmine Avenue, and now he cannot step at all.
Cook had seized her skinny arm as Sing Lin had knelt over the wash basin, scrubbing the sheets for Master’s bed. He flung her to her feet and said, “Here, you lazy girl, go get two pounds shrimp for Master’s supper, and make quick.”
“Yes, Cook,” she murmured.
Sing Lin had washed her hands and face, and retied her queue, and smoothed the wrinkles from her black cotton sahm. And she set out with Cook’s coins and her wicker shopping basket, her young heart bobbing with innocent joy. Shrimp is double good luck because, first, here she is, out of the house in such a long time. And because, second, Master will let Cook give her one spicy fried shrimp with her usual supper of boiled rice and greens. “You the shrimp girl, anyway,” Cook joked in his dour way. “Master bought you for ten pieces of gold, plus five pounds shrimp.”
Two more skips and a hop and a jump, and Sing Lin finds herself among the peddlers of Fish Alley. They are, one and all, clad in blue-denim sahms. Yet all are not alike in the throng of blue tunics and trousers, a truth that even Sing Lin’s eyes can discern. The ones wearing jaunty felt fedoras have taken to the new ways of the city. The ones in embroidered satin caps have not. And the ones who cannot escape their lot in life no matter where they flee to wear the flat straw cone of peasantry. They are, one and all, men. There is not a woman in sight, unless Sing Lin peeks at her own reflection in a shop window, and even she’s not a woman, not yet.
Master employs many men just like the fish peddlers in his drayage business along the waterfront. Once she overheard him talking to Cook. They are not, of course, human beings, Master had said. They are oxen to be led by a ring through the nose. Later, lying on her straw pallet in the pantry, Sing Lin had wondered for a long time what Master must think of her.
Now she glimpses the longing and the bitterness in the fish peddlers’ eyes and something else, something strange and disturbing. Anxiety casts a shadow on her happiness, and she is only too aware she does not belong here. After all, a mooie jai just doesn’t skip down the streets of Tangrenbu. It’s not a proper thing. Not on any day.
Fish Alley is not really much of an alley, and certainly not at all an actual street on which horses and wagons travel as they do on other city streets. It is only a mean, narrow passage permitting pedestrian traffic from east to west and back again. Ancient shacks line its gutters, tenements abandoned long ago by fortune-seekers, their claims staked out now by landlords and merchants like Master. Within these shacks dwell the peddlers and the draymen of Tangrenbu, men tripled up to a room, drifting in and out of the city with the fickle tides of bust or boom.
The clapboard walls are covered over with bulletins, strips of red rice paper announcing the news near and far in bold, black slashes of calligraphy. Sing Lin spies a t’ai chi adorning a lintel, a little circle comprised of two teardrops, one red, one black, with a spot of each color in the opposite drop. The t’ai chi is triple good luck, that’s what Cook says. First, for the red, which is yang, thus fiery and excitable, and, second, for the black, which is yin, thus cool and restful. And third for the spots, which rouse restfulness into excitement, and calm excitement into rest.
Oh! A t’ai chi!
Sing Lin is positively glowing with good luck.
She strolls among straw baskets bulging with the sea’s bounty. There are speckled black oysters tossed on handfuls of dank seaweed. Mottled green crabs with their slow, pinching claws. And shrimp, of course, translucent blue and sooty like ill-made glass before they spill into the wok and cook up clean and deliciously pink. She pauses before a basket of salmon, lovely lithe creatures paved in silvery scales. Some of the fish are still flopping. The air is tainted with their brackishness and the smell of their blood. Sing Lin’s heart catches at the sight of the salmon struggling in their death throes.
“Hey, you little girl. Why such a sad face?”
Sing Lin turns, startled. A girl? A girl! Another girl! Whoever sees a girl in Tangrenbu? Yet it’s true, another girl stands beside her. In a black cotton sahm just like hers, a wicker shopping basket slung over her arm, ‘her queue wound around her head in an ebony crown. She is taller than Sing Lin by a handspan and very skinny. Her face is as round as the moon, her eyes almond-shaped slivers of mischief, her skin as flawless as a piece of polished ivory. Her laughing mouth quirks to the left as if she would tell you things you didn’t especially want to hear, but she’ll insist on telling you anyway. Around her neck she’s strung a black silk cord which holds, on the end of it, a tiny t’ai chi. Little shadows pool beneath the high bones of her flat cheeks.
The fish peddlers stare at her—Sing Lin can’t help but notice–as if she is a two-headed, five-legged pig.
“Well? I’m waiting for your answer,” she says. Ah. A little empress she is.
“I’m. . . .I’m sorry the pretty fishes must die.”
The girl mimics weeping and a face full of sorrow, then grins. “Your heart is too soft, little girl. Salmon is delicious! It will put some meat on those matchsticks you call your arms and legs.” She widens her eyes and drops her mouth, the very picture of scandalized disbelief. “Don’t tell me your master is so cruel he never lets a little girl like you ever taste salmon.”
Sing Lin stares down, ashamed. Her big bony toes bulge out of her straw sandals. Peasant toes. She is not someone who tastes salmon, but then–she lifts her chin–she doesn’t want to admit that to this bossy girl. “Sometimes Master gives me spicy fried shrimp with my rice and greens.”
“You mean one little shrimp, don’t you?” At Sing Lin’s abashed nod, the girl throws back her head and laughs, a sound like the tinkling of a silver bell.
The fish peddlers murmur. Sing Lin is only too aware of their eyes. “Don’t laugh like that,” she mutters. “They’re all looking.”
“Ho! Let them look. Come over here into the shade with me, if you’re so worried.”
The girl takes her arm and draws her into the shadows beneath a balcony. The balcony has a great curved railing painted the rich velvety yellow of an egg yolk. “I am Kwai Yin.”
“I am Sing Lin.”
“You are mooie jai?”
“Yes.”
“Me, too.”
The language they once spoke in the old country is as vast as the ancient land from which it had sprung. There are so many dialects that Sing Lin, a girl from the north, would have trouble understanding Kwai Yin, a girl from the south, if they spoke in their mother tongues. So they twist their tongues around another language altogether. The pigeon language of the new country. Of Tangrenbu.
“Where’s your master’s cook, anyway?” Kwai Yin says, looking her up and down. “What’s a girl like you doing, gadding about Fish Alley?”
“Cook stepped into a pothole. Now he can’t take a step!” Sing Lin suppresses a giggle, nervous and not a little awed. This bossy girl, a mooie jai, too? And her master lets her taste salmon? What else does her master let her do? “What’re you doing, gadding about Fish Alley?”
“Shopping, of course.” As if such a pastime for a mooie jai is nothing.
Which it is not. Not in Tangrenbu.
Sing Lin is bursting with questions, but her throat clenches. The balcony may shield them from the sun and from the fish peddlers’ eyes, but affords no relief from the stink of a bin filled with offal. She spies fish heads and fish fins and husked shrimp shells, the flat little mitt of a manta that wandered into some fisherman’s net. Sing Lin wrinkles her nose, presses fingers to her throat. “Oh, let’s go someplace else!”
But Kwai Yin peers into the bin, avid with curiosity. “Wait, wait. Look there!”
And there, next to the manta, lies another dead little creature, speckled gray, serpentine like an eel. But it is not an eel. It has four fragile legs, each tipped with a foot, and stubby toes, and claws as thick as darning needles. In the way that a sea horse resembles a horse, the tiny head resembles that of an ox. There are bovine ears and round eyes, a broad snout with flaring nostrils. The jaws hang slack, baring fangs that would have given your finger a nasty bite.
“Poor thing,” Sing Lin murmurs. “What is it?”
“Your heart is way too soft,” Kwai Yin says. “That is lung.”
“What is lung?”
“It’s a dragon. Did you ever see such a lousy little dragon?”
“A dragon! That’s a dragon?”
“I know, it was so tiny and weak. Thrown away with the fish heads. The sea must be awfully full of poisons these days.”
Sing Lin eyes the creature. “But there’s no such thing as a dragon. Not really.”
Kwai Yin whips around, her eyes flashing. “Then what is that, I ask you? It is lung, the dragon, I’m telling you, one of the four Fabulous Creatures. Usually he’s bigger and stronger than ten oxen. And his roar! Usually his roar shakes the rooftops off castles. Usually he’s handsome and powerful and brave. Ignorant girl, don’t you know anything about the four Fabulous Creatures?”
Sing Lin shakes her head. Yet she will not stare at her toes, not now. She’s eager to learn. “Please tell me.”
“They are the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Unicorn, and the Tortoise,” Kwai Yin says in her imperious way, counting out the creatures on her fingers. “My Teacher taught me this, and many other things.” She adds in a voice not quite so proud, “I had a Teacher once, you know.”
She pulls Sing Lin away from the vile bin. Angling down from the balcony is buttress of iron scrollwork, which reaches halfway to the street. Kwai Yin slings her basket handles over her head, and leaps up, and seizes the scrollwork in her fist. She walks her feet up the wall, hooks her leg over the buttress, and straddles it, flushed and triumphant. Mounted on her perch, she leans down and holds out her hand. “Come on up. Let’s get some fresh air.”
Sing Lin slings her basket handles over her head, too, and leaps up, and seizes Kwai Yin’s hand. She walks up the wall, too. Kwai Yin pulls her onto the buttress, and they climb up onto the cool stone floor of the balcony. They sit with their legs sticking out beneath the egg-yolk yellow railing and dangle their feet, gazing down at Fish Alley.
Sing Lin is tingling with excitement and also with anxiety. She’s never done such a bold thing, climbing up on a stranger’s balcony. She glances over her shoulder. “What if the man who lives here comes home and finds us?”
“What if, you silly girl? Do you think he’s an ogre who will eat us?” She grabs Sing Lin’s arm and pretends she’s chewing on it, which makes Sing Lin laugh. “Stop being afraid of things that don’t matter. Now, listen. My Teacher said, the four Fabulous Creatures are manifestations of the Tao. Just loaded with so much luck you can’t even believe it.”
Sing Lin peers down at the little dead dragon. How could that could be lucky?
“They are rare and flighty things, the four Fabulous Creatures. You just don’t see a Fabulous Creature every day of the week.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon in my whole life. Not even a little one like that.”
Kwai Yin bobs her head. “Me, neither. My Teacher said, if ever you see a Fabulous Creature in the world, it means that the Tao is near. That the magic of the Tao will touch you.”
Sing Lin shivers with delight. “Magic!”
“Yes, but just look at that lousy little dragon. I see no Tao in Tangrenbu. I see no magic for mooie jai like you and me.”
Sing Lin does not want to be so easily discouraged. “But maybe magic will come!”
“Maybe.” Kwai Yin shrugs. “When did you come to Tangrenbu?”
“In the Year of the Tiger. The Swallow brought me here.”
There was a time when Sing Lin could not speak of that time at all. Of how her father sold her to a slaver in the seaport. Who sold her to the master of a clipper-ship named for a quick-winged bird. It didn’t seem right that a ship with a lovely name like the Swallow was a notorious slave ship, but so it was, carrying illegal human cargo from the old country to the new.
How grateful she’d been when they dragged her out of steerage and off the hellish ship into the cold sunlight of Tangrenbu. Grateful when they stripped off the filthy rags she’d worn for weeks. Grateful still when they stood her up, naked, on an auction block, and an auctioneer displayed her to a crowd of merchants. Grateful at last to go to Master for ten pieces of gold, plus five pounds shrimp. She is mooie jai, fated to serve at Master’s beck and call. She is grateful for one spicy fried shrimp with her boiled rice and greens.
She can say no more about the Swallow. What’s done is done.
“Oh ho, in the Year of the Tiger,” Kwai Yin is saying, her tone as tart as green oranges. “And how many celestial creatures did you count before the Tiger?”
Now Sing Lin grins. She likes this game of recounting the celestial creatures. She may not know anything about the four Fabulous Creatures, but the twelve celestial creatures, the creatures each of whom who rules over each year, these she knows well. Cook often asks her to recount the celestial creatures, too, and suddenly she realizes he has asked her this so she will remember how old she is. “I remember the Year of the Dog, but only a little because I was little.”
“Go on.”
“Then came the Boar, the Rat, and the Ox. Then the Tiger.”
“So you were five years old when your father sold you?”
Sing Lin says nothing. She cannot even say “yes,” though it’s true. “What about you?”
“Well, I can recount two more celestial creatures than you,” Kwai Yin says in her haughty way. “I saw the Monkey and the Rooster come and go long before the Year of the Dog.”
“Oh!” Sing Lin is delighted. Kwai Yin is two years older than her. Like a sister!
But Kwai Yin is stern, quizzing her further. “And after the Year of the Tiger?”
Sing Lin thinks carefully. “After the Tiger came the Hare.”
“Yes.”
“After the Hare came the Dragon.” She doesn’t want to look at the little dead dragon. “After the Dragon came the Snake. Oh, I’m afraid of snakes.”
“Now that is something to be afraid of. Once I picked up a sack of rice shipped in from the old country. And there, coiled underneath the sack, was the prettiest little piece of string, the color of a shining emerald. And do you know what that pretty little string was? It was a bamboo viper, the most deadliest snake in the whole world! If my master himself hadn’t pulled me away and killed it, I wouldn’t be here at all, talking to you.” She smiles at Sing Lin’s wide eyes. “Go on.”
“After the Snake came the Year of the Horse,” Sing Lin says cautiously. “Now it is the Year of the Ram.”
“Correct. And the new year coming?”
“The new year coming is the Year of the Monkey. I like the Monkey. He’s the Trickster. He likes to play games.” She improvises. “He’s the protector of bossy girls.”
“Yes, yes, very good.” Kwai Yin rewards her with a squeeze of her hand. “I was born in the Year of Monkey.”
“Then the new year coming will be your best lucky year!”
“Ho! Lots of luck, but who knows what kind.” A door suddenly bangs behind them. Kwai Yin cocks her head. “Oops, I hear the ogre. We better go!”
She swings herself over the railing, slides down the scrollwork, and leaps to the street–very much like a monkey. Sing Lin follows, clumsy with panic, banging her elbow hard on a strut of iron. There will be a bruise she will have to explain to Cook.
“Come on!” Kwai Yin says.
The girls dash away from the ogre, who is only a withered old man leaning over the yellow railing of his balcony with a perplexed look. They come to a breathless halt where the alley empties out onto Jasmine Avenue. A horse and hansom clatter by, and people stride by, too, clad in denim sahms or in the grand sweeping robes of merchants. Men, all of them men.
Men who stare at two mooie jai.
The girls press themselves against the wall of a dry goods shop, both alarmed, both trying to become invisible.
“I have seen twelve celestial animals come and go,” Kwai Yin says, shrinking from the traffic, her manner no longer so bold. “That’s why my master makes me eat salmon.”
Makes you!”
“Yes. Till my belly can hold no more, and sometimes I feel a little sick.”
Sing Lin cannot picture this tall, skinny girl eating so much salmon. For one thing, such rich meals have added no meat to the matchsticks she calls her arms and legs. Sing Lin should be glad Kwai Yin can feast so well on rich food her master insists that she eat. But her heart catches, like when she saw the salmon fishes dying. “Why does your master make you eat salmon till you’re sick?”
Kwai Yin says, cold and grim, “Because I must grow fat before I go to meet my fate.”
II
Phoenix
Sing Lin skips back to Master’s house, carrying two pounds of shrimp in her wicker basket and a handful of copper coins in change. More coins than you might think. After meeting Kwai Yin, she’s started feeling bolder herself. She smiled sweetly at the shrimp vendor instead of casting her eyes down and, in return, he gave her a very good price and a very nice smile of his own.
Cook, taking his ease in the servants’ quarters, his swollen ankle propped up on a cushion, counts out the coins. He glances up at her, startled, and parts his thin lips, revealing two fence rows of teeth stained brown by tobacco. Cook’s rendition of a smile. “Very good, girl. I tell Master you not so lazy, after all.”
“Thank you, Cook. Is there any other thing you wish?”
A tough little knotty man, like an oft-tied leather shoestring, Cook regards the whole world as if deciding how to skin and gut and slice and boil it. Sing Lin averts her eyes from him and keeps her own mouth from smiling. She’s fresh and rosy-cheeked, her hair disheveled from the sea wind, she’s unaccountably happy, and she knows Cook notices this. She knows he is speculating just exactly how she came up with the extra coins and is deciding whether or not he approves of her cleverness.
He doles out another dime from his leather purse.
Late sunlight slants over the western hills, casting long shadows over Tangrenbu. But the day is not yet done.
“Yes, another thing. Go to the sweetmeats shop and buy some sugar plums for Master’s dessert. And a coconut candy for you. But just one. And bring back change.”
“Yes, Cook.”
“And, for goodness sake, put something over your sahm.”
Cook lurches to his feet, and takes off his jacket, and pulls the garment over her shoulders. “Tuck up your hair, take a hat.” He knots her queue into a coil at the nape of her neck, jams his slouch hat over her head. The hat is way too big and smells of Cook’s sweat and his suety hair oil. She giggles, already too warm beneath the jacket and hat. Cook shakes his finger at her. “No laugh. You must pass for a boy. I made a mistake earlier today. I cannot send a girl like you alone into Tangrenbu.”
“Cook, why are there no mothers in Tangrenbu? Why no girls?”
He yanks the jacket over her scrawny chest. “The governors of the new country have passed laws. These laws say we cannot bring our wives or our daughters from the old country to Tangrenbu.”
“Why?”
“Because we came here to work and make a new life, but the governors and the people who live here do not want us to stay and make a new life after the work is done.”
Why?”
“You’re too old to ask why, why, why like a baby child.”
“But why?”
He buttons up the jacket all the way, from her neck to her thigh. “The governors fear us. If we cannot bring our families to Tangrenbu, the governors hope we will return to the old country when the work is done. But many of us cannot return. I cannot return to my wife and daughter. After all my work in Tangrenbu, I cannot save the fare for my sea passage. It would be better for me to make a new life here with my family and pay for their fare. I very much want that. But if I have no fare for myself, have can I provide fare for them?”
Sing Lin ponders that. “Cannot stay, yet cannot go. Cannot go back to family, cannot bring family here to settle down. Like a fish caught in a net, thrashing about.” She thinks of the dead dragon, but decides not to tell Cook about it. Beneath the tough nutshell of his face, she can discern the kernel of his sorrow.
“Yes. And so here we men must stay alone, in Tangrenbu. And here in Tangrenbu, there are only mooie jai and–” But now Cook claps his jaws shut.
Sing Lin is puzzled and a little frightened. “And who else, Cook?”
“And daughters of joy.”
That sounds lovely to Sing Lin’s ears. She’s reminded of Kwai Yin, of her own joy today. “Oh, I should like to meet a daughter of joy.”
“No, no! Never, never meet a daughter of joy.” Cook frowns and dark shapes move in his eyes. “You listen to me, girl. You must never go to Soot Alley. Never go to Bleak Place.”
One time, in the Year of the Snake, Sing Lin had walked with Cook past Bleak Place. It was a dreadful dark alley in a labyrinth of many such alleys in Tangrenbu. She recalls the strange, birdlike cries she’d heard when they passed by. She recalls how they’d seen men dragging something out of one of the shacks. A burlap sack that might have held the corpse of a large dog. How the men had tossed the sack onto the flatbed of a garbage wagon, and how Cook had made her hurry.
“Never, never go to those places,” Cook says and darkness moves in his voice. “For that is where the daughters of joy are kept hidden. You sabe?”
She isn’t sure if she understands, but she says, “I sabe.
And she sets out for sugar plums for Master’s dessert, plus one coconut candy for herself. She brings back the coins in change, which Cook takes, along with the candy. He splits the candy in two, giving her half, and pops the other half in his mouth. No matter. Half a coconut candy is well worth another taste of freedom.
*   *   *
To discover what Kwai Yin’s terrible fate is, Sing’s danger, Tao Magic, and the rest of the Four Fabulous Creatures, visit my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 for the full story of “Daughter of the Tao” and become a patron. Help me recover from the Attack and get access to delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
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Just in time for the Chinese New Year on January 25, 2020.
In 1996, the (now-late) editor, writer, and my dear friend, Janet Berliner had a hot streak. She wrangled excellent deals for three anthologies with Big Publishers, for which she commissioned me to contribute stories, including a story for this anthology, Peter S, Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn.
Yes, that Peter S. Beagle who wrote The Last Unicorn, which got made into a successful fantasy animated movie in 1982. Peter and Jan had been friends going way back.
The gorgeous hardcover anthology was published by HarperPrism (a division of HarperCollins) in 1996, then also in a mass paperback edition, and in several foreign countries.
Jan’s proposal to me (once again) could not have come at a better time. I’d recently finished The Gilded Age, a time travel which takes place in 1895 and in 2395, as well as Celestial Girl, A Lily Modjeska Mystery, a four mini-book series and a passionate historical mystery which takes place exclusively in 1895. I was conversant in the Chinese presence in America and ancient Chinese mythology.
The project was ably suited (once again) to my resources at hand. I wanted to write about a Chinese unicorn, not the conventional European mythical creature, but I first started with the Thames and Hudson beautiful large-format paperback, Unicorn, which, lavishly illustrated, covers just about all of the European mythology. Then, too, the dependable J.E. Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols, which covers symbols and their meanings among all cultures worldwide. Yes, there’s an extensive entry for unicorn.
But I specifically wanted a Chinese unicorn, and so I turned to C.A.S. Williams’ Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives. The Chinese unicorn has a specially nuanced meaning, a “Dragon Horse,” and is one the Four Celestial Creatures. You’ll have to read the story to find out what the other Creatures are. No other author in the anthology had a Chinese unicorn! And other authors included Charles de Lint, Karen Joy Fowler, Robert Sheckley, and Ellen Kushner.
Here’s what one reader had to say about “Daughter of the Tao”:
5.0 out of 5 stars
A beautiful novella!
“The characters in this little book jumped off the page and you really cared what happened to them. It is a rare talent that can do that so well! This was a compelling tale of a girl sold into slavery as her culture allowed. I found myself hooked from the very first page as I followed her through the twists and turns of her life. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a character-based story with a touch of magic and fantasy to it!”
To read “Daughter of the Tao”, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and become a patron. Help me recover from the violent criminal Attack on me and you’ll get access to delightful new and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more