The burning building had excited him.
He felt the burn of it begin to consume him, insatiable.
He closed his eyes and lay on the floor, the map spread beneath him, his arms wide.
He was a bat, soaring over the city, random in his flight.
He could see it in his mind’s eye.
He would cut up his pillowcase for wicks.
Many wicks from a single garment, their origin joining them forever in his mind.
He would set the fires, he would wait, he would watch.
There were all the houses, all the city, all the world.
Jae came smiling out of Bloomingdale’s, skipped across Michigan Avenue against the light.
Jae always got like this when she shoplifted.
Jae said it was a better high than glass, even.
She reached down into her jacket and pulled out a long silk scarf embroidered with green and white birds.
“Those dumb fucks never knew what hit them!” she laughed. “I’m like a goddamned cat.”
“Hermes, baby. Look at the tag.”
“Holy shit. Five hundred bucks? You gotta be kidding.”
“Snagged it off a mannequin. I know what to look for.”
Jae spit towards the store. “Dumb fucks.”
“So many things you have acquired,” said the Master. “You must tell me their stories. What is that there, on the shelf?”
“That is a wedding vase, Master. It belonged to my grandmother.”
“My father’s astrolabe. He bought it from a Chinese seaman in San Francisco.”
The Master nodded. “So many things you have acquired and arranged around you. A story for each of your objects.”
He paused. “It is you who gives them context. When you die, they will lose their meaning. They will be a pearl necklace in a bag with no rope to connect them.”
“That’s gorgeous,” she said. She took a pull from her bottle. “Seriously.”
“You gonna share that?” I held out my hand. I took several swallows. The sunset was gorgeous, but that didn’t matter. I sighed.
“Mr. Sourpuss,” she said. “So you got fired. Big deal. You’ll get another job.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe I don’t want one. Maybe I’m no good.”
She took back the bottle. “Good. Self-pity. That’s a great strategy.”
“Look, I’m just venting. Don’t you be angry at me too.”
Her eyes flared. “Angry? Me? Why would I be angry?”
I didn’t answer. She got up, walked away.
He got it in his head, so. It was a fever. No amount of lickings could discourage him. The old man whupped him so bad the last time he like to have died. As it was, he got laid up for almost a week before he got back to it.
I reckon he did find it, though. Them stones was all took apart, piled neat by a hole as big as a breadbox, square as you please. Of course we never did see him around here again. Whatever he found in that hiding hole was all he ever wanted.
“My nona used to trap songbirds,” she said. “In Torino. She told me that they used to string nets along the trees. In the morning they would bring ladders and pluck them out by the dozens.”
“That’s cruel,” said the boy.
“They were starving,” she said. “You know how that feels.”
The boy knew. “Can we catch them too?”
“Nobody can eat them now,” she said. “The birds are why everybody got sick.”
“The birds?” It seemed unlikely.
She went to the window. “The flu came from birds. They gave it to the pigs, who gave it to us.”
Ernando heard something scuttling in the ankle-deep water. A rat, maybe. Ships were famous for rats. It was pitch black down in the hold, the air close and fetid.
Boarding this ship had not been planned. He’d seen the freighter and decided right there, rowed the stolen skiff out to the mooring and shimmed hand-over-hand up the the anchor chain to squeeze through the hawse hole high above the waterline. In utter darkness he’d slid down the chain to the unventilated cable tier deep inside the hull.
It was probably day by now. He wondered if he’d made a mistake.
Even when they know I am out here, even when they are certain, I can outwait their certainty.
I am as patient as a stone.
As the sky.
If a man is certain or suspicious, he will be wary.
He will watch himself, prepare.
His wariness will act as a shield.
Killing a wary man does not have the same effect.
If a man is prepared, when he dies it is as though he dies in battle.
It is better, then, to strike seemingly out of nowhere.
To become the hand of fate or the wrath of an offended creator.
I don’t know who dared it, but the rule was the rule.
Dare me, I’ll do it.
Anyway, it was me drew the short straw.
I squeezed through the loose board and snuck up through the weedy underbrush.
Near the the edge of the property there were a lot of broken bottles and trash people sometimes pitched over the fence, but by the house there was nothing but dead weeds.
I went to the open window you could see from the alley, black like the mouth of a corpse.
I stood under it for a minute to work up courage.
“We were so worried. Papa heard shots.”
He removed his coat. It was always a surprise, how thin he had become. I suppose we all had. “I’m fine, ma. Don’t worry. I’m always careful.”
“Were you able to get it?” Papa asked him. I could see he was trying to guard his eagerness. To shield himself from disappointment.
He reached into his pocket with a look of triumph and pulled out a muslin-wrapped parcel. “A whole loaf!”
Papa got to his feet, clapping. “Splendid! A feast! I’ll get the knife.”
I knew we should save it, but I said nothing.