Sic Transit Tokyo
Sei pressed her cheek against the cold glass; strips of black mountains tore by under lantern-blue clouds beyond her wide window. She knew a man was watching her—the way men on trains always watched her. The train car rocked gently from side to side, hushing its charges like a worried mother. She chewed on the ends of her dark blue hair. A stupid childhood habit, but Sei couldn't let it go. She let the wet curl fall back against her bare shoulder blades. She stroked the glass with her fingertips, shifted her hips against the white of the carriage—she was always moved to do this on the long-distance trains which crisscrossed the islands like corset stays. They were so pale and pure and unfathomably fast, like iridescent snakes hissing down to the sea. The Shinkansen was always pristine, always perfect, its aim always true.
Sei's skin prickled as the man's eyes slid over her back. She felt their cold black weight, shifting her shoulders to bear up under it. He would be watching the small of her back now, where her silver-black shirt fell away into a mess of carefully arranged silk ropes and tin chains. He would watch her angles under the strings, the crease of her legs beneath an immodest skirt, her lips moving against the glass. The little wet fog of her breath. She could almost tell what he looked like without turning her head: good black suit, a little too small, clutching his briefcase like a talisman, probably a little gray at the temples, no rings on his hands. They all looked like that.
Sei turned, her blue hair brushing her hipbones. Good black suit, a little too small, clutched briefcase, freckles of gray in the hair. No rings. He did not seem startled or doubled over with desire as they sometimes were. He was calm, his answering smile measured and almost sweet, like a photograph of a soldier lost in a long-ago war. Coolly, without taking his dark eyes from hers, he turned over his left palm and rested it on the creamy brown edge of his briefcase.
His hand was covered in a mark she first thought horrible—it snaked and snarled, black and swollen, where fortune-teller's lines ought to have been. Like a spider it sent long web-spokes out from a circle in the center, shooting towards the pads of his fingers and burrowing into the tiny webbing of skin between them. She took a step forward, balancing expertly as the car sped on, and stared. It was something like a little map, drawn there by an inartful and savage hand. She could make out minuscule lettering along the inky corridors: street names she could hardly read. There seemed even to be an arcane compass near his thumb. As she leaned in, the man shut his fist.
"Sato Kenji," he said, his voice neither high nor low, but cultured, clipped, quiet.
He quirked an eyebrow briefly, slightly, in such a way that no one afterwards might be able to safely accuse him of having done it. Sei knew the look. Names are meaningless, plosives and breath, but those who liked the slope of her waist often made much of hers, which denoted purity, clarity—as though it had any more in the way of depth than others. They wondered, all of them, if she really was pure, as pure as her name announced her to be, all white banners and hymeneal grace.
She balanced one hand—many-ringed—on her hip and jerked her head in the manner of a fox snuffling the air for roasting things. "What's wrong with your hand?"
"Nothing." Kenji smiled in his long-ago way again. She quirked her own eyebrow, also blue, and delicately pierced with a frosted ring. He gestured for her to sit down and, though she knew better, they sat together for a moment, her body held tense and tight, ready to run, to cry out if need be. Their thighs touched—a gesture of intimacy she had never allowed herself with another passenger.
"I think you like trains rather too much, Sei." The older man smelled of sandalwood and the peculiar thin scent of clean train cars.
"I'm not sure how that's any of your business."
"It isn't, of course. I like them, too. I own a car, I have no need to ride the Shinkansen back and forth from Tokyo to Kyoto like some kind of Bedouin. It's an expensive habit. But love is love, and love is compulsion. I must, and I do."
He gently tapped the brass clasp on his briefcase and drew out a slender book, bound in black, its title embossed in silver:
A History of Train Travel on the Japanese Isles,
by Sato Kenji
Sei ran her hand over the cover as she had done the window glass. Her skin felt hot, too small for her bones. He opened the book—the pages were thick and expensive, so that the stamp of the press had almost made little valleys of the kanji, the cream-colored paper rising slightly above the ink. Kenji took her hand in his. His fingernails were very clean. He read to her with the low, vibratory tones of shared obsession.
A folktale current in Hokkaido just after the war and passed from conductor to conductor held that the floor of heaven is laced with silver train tracks, and the third rail is solid pearl. The trains that ran along them were fabulous even by the standards of the Shinkansen of today: carriages containing whole pine forests hung with golden lanterns, carriages full of rice terraces, carriages lined in red silk where the meal service brought soup, rice-balls, and a neat lump of opium with persimmon tea poured over it in the most delicate of cups. These trains sped past each other, utterly silent, carrying each a complement of ghosts who clutched the branches like leather handholds, and plucked the green rice to eat raw, and fell back insensate into the laps of women whose faces were painted red from brow to chin. They never stop, never slow, and only with great courage and grace could a spirit slowly progress from car to car, all the way to the conductor's cabin, where all accounts cease, and no man knows what lies therein.
In Hokkaido, where the snow and ice are so white and pure that they glow blue, it is said that only the highest engineers of Japan Railways know the layout of the railroads on the floor of heaven. They say that those exalted engineers are working, slowly, generation by generation, to lay the tracks on earth so that they mirror exactly the tracks in heaven. When this is done, those marvelous carriages will fall from the sky, and we may know on earth, without paying the terrible fare of death, the gaze of the red women, the light of the forest lanterns, and the taste of persimmon tea.
Sato Kenji looked up from his book and into Sei's eyes. She knew her face was flushed and red—she did not care. Her hands shook, her legs ached. She could not harness her breath. She did not need these trains for simple transport either, but longed for them, the cold rush of their passing as she stood on the wind-whipped platform, the slink of doors sliding closed behind her as the train accepted her as its own. That ache had begun long before Kenji had come on board. She felt their hands touching, their train-haunted hands. She took his book from his easy grip and held it to her, her heart beating against it, as if to read it through bone and flesh and leather, directly, needfully, ventricle pressed to page. A kind of knowledge passed between them—she would not return it, and he would not ask for it back.
Instead—and later she would wonder why she did it, why such a thing would have occurred to her, and will never be able to say—she took Sato Kenji by their linked hands and led him to the rickety, shivering place between the carriage cars, where the wind keened and crooned through the cracks in the grating and the white walls gave way to chrome. She kissed the gray of his hair. The space between them was thick, crackling, and though she told herself that it was unwise, a reckless thing, she moved through that wild, manic air and into him, his mouth, his skin.
He buried his face in her neck and, as though she weighed nothing, hefted her up against the carriage door, her blue hair flattening against the glass. Sei let out a small cry, like the whistle of an engine, and ground against him, shifting to let him enter her, his breath warm and even against her collarbone. His palm was pressed against her back, the black mark hot there, a sear, a brand. Sei clutched his book against his back and shut her eyes, feeling the train jerk and jolt against her. She felt enormous, cracked open, as though she had taken all of the great train into herself, as though the shuddering, scholarly thrusts of Sato Kenji were the loving gestures of her beloved Shinkansen, only guided by the man with the briefcase, guided up and out of him, guided into her, guided across the silver tracks of heaven.
Cities of the Bees
There is a place on the interstate where the last black fingernails of Los Angeles fall away and the whole of the San Joaquin valley spreads out below the mountains, impossibly golden, checkered in green and wheat and strawberry fields and orange groves and infinitely long rows of radishes, where the land is shriven of all the sins of palm-bound, artifice-mad Southern California.
November knew that place, knew it so well that her bare foot on the gas pedal throbbed as it approached, as her little green car, heavy with produce, crested the last rise in the tangled highways of the Grapevine, and the light began to change, gratefully, from raw, livid brume to a gold like the blood of saints. Her throat caught as the great, soft fields unfolded below her, yawning, stretching all the way to San Francisco and further still, to the redwoods and Oregon, all the way up.
She had often imagined, as a girl, when her mother drove back and forth between the two great cities of the west, that I-5 went on simply forever, past Canada to the North Pole, where the center divider would be wrapped up in ice and the bridges cut out of arctic stone. Even now, charting the coast in her own right, she sometimes thought of ignoring the off-ramps and speeding up and up, to the cold stars and fox-haunted glaciers. But in the end, it was always the city of St. Francis that stopped her, and the rest of the world was lost behind a curtain of fog and gnarled red trees.
She could never escape the feeling of strange Spanish holiness that California bestowed—the cities named for saints, angels, benediction. The capital itself a sacrament. Like communion wafers she tasted the places on her tongue, the red roof tiles blood-vivid. Her own blood bisected the state, her mother, retired, warming her bones against the southern sea, her father, dead ten years, buried in the wet northern moss.
They met in the south, on a dock far out in the frothing turquoise Pacific, her young mother in rolled-up olive overalls with a great long knife in her hands, slaughtering a small blue shark she had caught by accident, trying for salmon. She was bloody to her elbows, her clothes a ruin, arterial spray across her cheek. Her father tied his little sailboat to the pier and she looked up at him over a carcass of silver and scarlet. They had both laughed.
Long before he died, November's father was gone, up north, away from his wife and the sea. They could not bear each other, in the end, and perhaps a thing begun in blood and death and salt must end that way. They could not live with less than three mountain ranges to separate them. And between them they strung their daughter, and like a shining black bead counting out refutations of love, she slowly slid back and forth, back and forth. Finally, she had settled on her father's country, and left the loud blues and golds of the south, unable to bear them herself.
She did not live in San Francisco, of course. She could not afford it. But she was drawn to it, rising up from the bay like the star of the sea, resting in a shell, all blue veils and promises of absolution. And at night it was a mass of light at the end of all those bridges, all those highways, looking east with huge black eyes.
November kept her father's grave in Benicia, holding tenuously to the town's boldly proclaimed blessings, and with the grave she tended sixteen hexagonal beehives. She had named all the queens. She kept for them pristine and intricate gardens to flavor their feet, and the honey in turn, and it was this golden science that occupied the small and guarded territory of her interior, even as she traveled the long, slow road out of the desert, her trunk full of sleeping yucca bulbs and infant jacarandas, their roots bound up in earth and linen. Even as she found herself turning from the last scrap of highway and into the interminable column of cars creeping across the great iron mass of the Bay Bridge.
How we are willing to wait, she thought, like a line of penitent adulterers at a white altar, to be allowed into the city. How we gather at this dull gray gate, knowing that the golden one is a lie. It is only there for show. The faithful know that God lives nowhere near gold. The tourists gawk at the orange cathedral, while the wise gather here, in the low and long, waiting patiently to hand over their coins and be permitted, for a moment, to look upon, but not touch, the mass of jewels and offerings in which San Francisco wallows.
November drove slowly in, and the water below her was black. She sought out Chinatown reflexively, found a shop cashiered by a spectacled biology student which sold star anise and scallions. She loved Chinatown at three in the morning—the reds and greens were muted, shadowed into black by the gaps between streetlamps. It was secret, lonely; every pink neon character seemed brave against the dark.
It took skill, a mapmaker's skill, to find an open restaurant that would not turn a lone woman away, sure that her cup of coffee and wonton soup are hardly worth the effort of clearing a table. But on that night of all nights, November needed only a half an hour's cartomancy before she found one, and the starchy benevolence of a plate full of steaming soup dumplings, braised pork, and peppered oysters.
The booth was hard, cracked vinyl the color of a Chevrolet interior left in the sun for twenty years. A television mounted in the ceiling corner flashed the news from Beijing without subtitles. Thus, her attention wandered and fell on a young woman in the next booth over sipping soup, her bright blue eyes belying Chinese features. The two women watched each other for a space, the only customers in an empty cafeŽ, until finally, the other woman placed one delicate finger against her iris and deftly slid the contact lens aside like a curtain, quirking a smile as the wrinkled lens showed black beneath.
When November tries to remember this night a year from now, she will think the woman's name was Xiaohui. She will be almost sure she can remember the ring of the name, falling into her ear like a little copper bell. She will remember that they shared dumplings, and that the woman was a Berkeley student, a historian who knew the names of every one of Mohammed's grandchildren, and could recite the drifting census data of the ancient city of Karakorum, where the Khans raised tents of scarlet.
November had only her bees. They suddenly seemed paltry to her, poor and needy.
Excerpted from Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente. Copyright © 2009 by Catherynne Valente. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.