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Claw marks

     If I’d known, of course I’d have kept the damn cricket. Or… maybe not. Writers can’t pass up a good opportunity.

     The pet store owner bobbed his white-haired head to one side and then the other as he released an impassioned torrent of guttural invectives and no small amount of spit. He jabbed a nicotine-stained finger in my general direction.

     His young clerk hastily jumped into the fray. Dressed in a Lucky Jade Dragon t-shirt promoting the store, he said, “My uncle insists a cricket is a fine companion. People have kept them as pets for a thousand years.” The thumb-sized bug in question sat in its cherrywood cage, chirping.

     My fellow teacher Llewlyn swallowed a laugh and whispered in my ear, “Bollocks! That’s not what the old man said.” I had figured as much. After seven months in China, I could make out key words such as “dàbízi” and “Měiguórén.” (Big nose and American.)

     I told the young man behind the counter, “Please tell your uncle I need to return the cricket because it chirps all night. I can’t sleep.”

     The nephew complied, setting the old man off on a new blast of frustration.

     The owner’s nephew explained, “The cricket offers his stridulation – Sorry. Sometimes, I choose a bigger-than-needed word. – his song. It is a gift.” In fact, he spoke better English than most of my students. Leaning in, he whispered. “Besides, they only live for a month or two. And they are delicious fried in sesame oil.”

     “That’s fine,” I insisted, trying not to turn up my big nose at crunchy snacks, “but I’d like something quieter. It’s for a small apartment, a conversation starter for when I have girls over.”

     Llewlyn chuckled with Brit smugness. “Good luck,” he said. The old man narrowed his eyes, looking first at Llewlyn and then at me. Llewlyn was right, of course. Teaching all day and writing all night left me little time for dating. I’d met two girls in seven months. That worked out to one day trip to the Summer Palace followed by a snub and a two-woo-hoo-stand followed by an awkward break-up over WeChat. I was as thirsty as the Gobi.

     I didn’t even hang out with my students after class, unlike Llewlyn. The government agency that hired us had no rule against fraternizing, but teenagers bored me. Beyond online games, they had no conversation in them. The only reason they were in my class reading A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Gatsby, and The Old Man and the Sea was because their parents demanded they get into the best American colleges, so they could get high-paying jobs. 

     I’d worked long enough at various office jobs to know I wanted to be anywhere else. At the ripe old age of twenty-six, I’d come to the conclusion that corporations existed solely to enrich the lucky few. I wasn’t lucky. I figured China was a land of exotic adventures and offered a chance for a Liberal Arts Major to soak up some culture and turn it into a novel or three. In truth, no one cared whether I was good at teaching. They wanted me there to listen to me speak so they could one day sound like a Měiguórén.

     The owner’s nephew thought about what I’d said and conversed with his uncle. The old man took a drag on his cigarette – smoking was as ubiquitous here as jaywalking and belching – and led me through his little shop. We went past a cage holding two cute kittens and several open-topped pens containing bunnies. I shook my head near each, and the old man pursed his lips in disgust.

     Finally, we came to an aquarium teeming with animated silvery flecks. The old man pointed as if to spear one.

     “I don’t really want fish,” I said.

     He pointed again, lower this time, and stomped his foot.

     “I think you’d better take whatever he’s pointing at,” a bemused Llewelyn said. “Just trade him back the cricket and throw in an extra ten yuan.”

     The younger man at the counter looked over and nodded.

     “Fine,” I said.


     The next day was Monday. I stood in front of my class, called up a PowerPoint on the smart board, and began my best impassioned, well-practice rant. “All writing must contain truth, beauty, and love. Truth: writing must obey objective logic, or for fiction, an internal logic of its own. Tell me early whether your vampire can fly or not and stick to that rule; no ex machina twists at the end! Beauty: for this class, that means learning proper grammar and vocabulary. Every object, place, or person has a proper name. Learn it! That means reading everything you can get your eyes on, from Mark Twain to JK Rowling.” A few of them stirred at the plug for Harry Potter. “Try reading a good translation of Liu Cixin.” That got a bigger reaction; they were hot for The Three-Body Problem.

     I wrapped it up. “Love. This is the biggie. You must make certain your story comes from a place of love. Anger pushes readers away. The world has enough hate, enough cynicism. What it needs is empathy, compassion. Without love, you’re not making art; you’re just giving your inner demons a forum to scream obscenities.”

     I waited for questions. One young man whose father ran a medical supply company looked around and then raised his hand. “Will this be on the college entrance exams?”

     Was I reaching the impressionable minds before me? Who knew? Teaching was a gamble, as indeed was my nascent writing career.


     As promised, Satchmo said not a word as I dutifully filled out the query form. My new roommate’s hinge opened a little so he (she? it?) could wave his filtering filaments in the bowl’s water and have a meal. My mind flashed on my little brother showing me his half-chewed Fluffernutter sandwich. No matter. Satchmo was a good, quiet companion. If he didn’t share much, it’s only because he was a little shellfish. (Good writers employ puns.)

     Back to the query: Genre? Body Horror/Fantasy. Pitch? A katana haunted by the master swordsmith Sengo Muramasa meets its match in a willful teenage schoolgirl who wields the cursed weapon to exact revenge upon her mean classmates. What about theme? Use of motif? The online forms weren’t interested. Most likely, my passion project would remain unsullied by human eyes. Instead, a computer would search for keywords: Taylor Swift, homoerotica, one million TikTok followers. Finding none of these, it would generate a standard rejection email.

     Satchmo commiserated, blowing one of his singular pearlescent bubbles. I’d broken down and bought him several tankmates. Each in turn had, however, shuffled off their mortal scales. Three midget lobsters – crayfish, really – made quick work of the sushi. I didn’t bother to name the lobsters; their feeding habits were kinda gross. Satchmo, on the other hand, possessed character. My imagination stuck Satchmo in my favorite episode of a campy old TV series, which I kept loaded on the laptop for when I got homesick for silly American culture. Robin’s green boot stuck out from his crenulated mouth as Batman rushed to the rescue.  

     Even as I was finishing up the current query, the internet vomited an email from a Misti Rumplay of the BiblioBug Literary Agency. I’d submitted my query months ago.

     No big surprise: Thank you so much for your query and the chance to read your book. Unfortunately, the material did not grab me. This is a subjective business. Hopefully, you will find someone who will embrace your work with the conviction necessary in the current market.”

     I had racked up scores of nearly identical emails. They didn’t even mention my book by name. For professionals who dealt in creative writing, agents showed a lack of color and variety when composing their rejection letters.

     “Didn’t grab you?” I muttered. Then I yelled it. “Didn’t grab you! Who the hell are you, anyway? God, you’re all one big soulless business, looking for a quick knock-off of the latest mega-hit. Sure, I could sell my books, if I were a celebrity or a politician.” No one read those books; they skipped to the tell-all bits to see who screwed who. Great writing. I screamed again, “Grab you? I wish! I’d like to grab you and throw you out the window!”

     With that, I picked up my mouse and flung it at the far wall. Since the apartment was tiny, it wasn’t all that far. The mouse cracked, and a piece flew off, plunking into Satchmo’s tank. Satchmo blew a bubble of surprise. I retrieved the plastic shrapnel from the tank, dried my hand in the previous day’s underwear, drank a beer, and went to bed.


      A dull thud not far from my head woke me from my usual light sleep atop the stiff platform that was my kang. My phone said it was just after two. An earthquake, I wondered, or a large truck passing in the night, or my fat neighbor stumbling in after enjoying too much baijiu? As I set the phone back down, I heard a heavy flapping, like someone shaking out two freshly laundered bedsheets for drying. Most of the tenants used their tiny porches as dryers and storage since few of us apparently had dryers… or closets. It was an odd time to be doing the wash, though. A sudden scrape of steel against stone curdled my thoughts. The shrill noise lasted only one terrifying second.   

      I sprang up with my phone. I could have fumbled the flashlight on, but I didn’t feel like frying my retinas. My newsfeed was blank, thanks to the Little Chairman’s censors and a crappy VPN, so the page gave me enough white to see by. Nothing appeared out of place in the ghostly glow. Breathe. Whatever had made the noise had been outside. I checked the sliding glass door to my porchlet. It would have been nice to let the cool night in to stir my apartment’s bachelor musk, but I kept the door shut against the city noise and pollution. Now, it was half-open. Reaching over the edge of my kang – almost a dikang, since it left precious little floor space – I slid the door closed.

      Too tired to think about it, I stepped into my tiny WC (if you don’t know, be grateful) and peed. Then I went back to sleep. 


      Later that morning, I was dressing when I noticed the singular change in my tiny apartment. The bitty lobsters were scurrying over the bottom of the ten-gallon tank, picking their way through the empty gravel, looking for food. The gravel should not have been empty.


      Like an idiot, I immediately checked under the table and around the floor. Exactly how a clam jumped out of an aquarium I did not know, but this one had. I called out, “Satchmo!” I wasn’t sure about clam ears, either. No matter; there was no trace of him.

      Already running late, I got my second, and much larger, surprise of the morning as I was checking the laundry hanging on my tiny enclosed porch. I had one sliding window open on either side of the porch, which was barely large enough to hold me, and forget about putting a table and chairs out there. Mine is a corner apartment, packed in with thousands of others in a neighborhood a mile or so from Tiananmen Square. As I reached up to grab a clean shirt (well, as clean as Beijing’s filthy air left it), my eye went to a stark new detail.

      Something had dealt the quoins a glancing blow, deeply etching four V-shaped grooves into the concrete.


     My students were already seated, pulling out their essays, when the young woman walked into my classroom.

     “I am shen,” stated the slender girl in a white dress.

     “Shen? Actually, I didn’t get any paperwork for a new student. You’ve already missed a week of class.”

     She never broke eye contact. “I have come to grow meaningfully from your wise teachings.” She quickly added, “And from knowledgeable books.”

     It was the nicest introduction I’d ever gotten from a student. “Well, I suppose you can take a seat.”

     And so, it began. Shen sat quietly, never raising her hand in class or speaking to the other students. Afterwards, she’d come up to me with observations and questions that left me fumbling for a response.

     “Gatsby possesses great wealth and property? Daisy must submit to Gatsby. She does not, and the ending displeases the thoughtful reader.” Or “In The Prince and the Pauper, why does Tom not order Edward to undergo murder rather than relinquish the throne of power?”

     She was not as young as my other students. She was mid-twenties, closer to my age. She carried herself with a confidence I’d have expected in someone much older. I found it hard to look away. Shen’s hair and eyes shone dark, as if drawn by the sure hand of a skilled calligrapher. Her full lips promised the sweet tang of candied jujube fruit. On a simple leather thong around her slender neck, she wore a single silvery-lilac pearl, far too large to be real. Then there were her formidable nails, lacquered in cinnabar and detailed in delicate gold characters.

     While the students took turns reading aloud from A Rose for Emily, I couldn’t help but stare at those nails clacking on the desktop. Those characters approximated the Oracle Bone Inscriptions I’d seen in the museum. Thousands of years old. If modern characters slashed the parchment with masculine aggression, these displayed feminine sensibilities. They were rounder, more organic, embodying a primal architecture equal parts creation and destruction.  


     As I said, the rules against fraternization were less an official thing and more my own personal code – a rule book Llewlyn had not read, by the way. He tried to shake me of this personal prohibition that night over dinner and drinks.

     We chose Haidilao Hot Pot, which was noisy enough with the usual slurping and burping, and more so thanks to a loud TV. The news opened with a gushing report on the Little Chairman. He had given “an important speech” on modernizing the People’s Liberation Army and blah blah blah. A photo op found a perfect array of trim officers in starched uniforms, standing missile-straight and applauding in synchronous. Front and center, the Little Chairman slumped in his seat like a day-drinking housewife, his pot belly spilling over his belt, unconcerned with any possible criticism. No one criticized the Little Chairman.

     “Try the pig ear,” Llewelyn practically screamed, holding a chewy bit in his chopsticks.   

     Llewelyn was the closest thing I had to a friend, despite the fact that he was already burning his forties. Hailing from somewhere (or something) called Stoke-on-Trent, he had a blue-collar background, living as meagerly as a 19th-century coal miner. It was no wonder he’d decided to chuck that life and teach abroad. “I’ll never go back. I won’t let the beast eat me.”

     Over pork ribs, I fumbled out some hints that I was interested in one of my students, and he perked up.

     “This Zhen sounds mysterious. It’s high time you went native, Jules my lad. Ask her out,” he needled me. When I tried to demur, he scolded, “Stop being such a melt.”

     “A what?” I shouted over the noise of the restaurant. Someone at the next table was blasting TikTok, reviewing snippets of soul-sucking media with sound effects lifted from Hanna Barbera. Critics said the CCP used TikTok to deliver propaganda. I thought it simply made people stupid and docile. Whatever.

     “A melt. Oh, what’s the American term for a craven sod?”

     “Wimp?” I volunteered.

     “Chickenshite.” Llewelyn anglicized it. In any case, he was right. “What is required here is ten seconds of bravery…” waving two fingers at the server, “which comes in liquid form.”

     By the end of the night, my thoughts were liquified indeed.


       What did I know about Shen? Did she have family? Besides Western Lit and Composition, what were her interests?

       As it happened, asking her out took exactly ten seconds, even accounting for my hangover.

       “You have written a book?” she mentioned as the other students were filing out.

       “A novel.”

       “Please, I would like it to read. Let us discuss this sincerely as we walk,” Shen said. It wasn’t a question.

       The next thing I knew, we were holding hands, strolling under a row of camphor trees. For a time, we talked about my book. She nodded, only commenting that it was about a Japanese sword. “Chinese blacksmiths forge in the heat noble swords of great victory.”

       I felt an instant bond, as if we had known each other all our lives… or longer somehow.

       Sitting on a bench, she said matter-of-factly, “Your quest for finding an agent has been unrequited.”

       This struck deep, and I’m afraid my bruised ego burst like a rotten tomato. “Others get in. Nobody wants to touch my haunted katana story, but Smythe-Beachcroft just signed a deal with Netflix to make a series out of his space nazi books. Space Nazis! Give me a break.”

       “Gou pi,” Shen commiserated.

     “I read that stupid series. He used every lazy trick: blank sheet between every chapter and ridiculous spacing - 32 lines per page - to push it barely past two hundred pages per book. Fifteen books. The plot wasn’t worth a short story!”

     “What do self-absorbed agents require for making acceptance?” It was a question I’d asked myself a million times.

     “Different agents have different rules. Some want nothing but vampire stories. Some take self-help books. There are enough self-help books to stack to the Sun; they should tell people they’re not broken and should get on with their lives. There are agents who want stories about the Jewish experience, or the Black experience, or the Hispanic experience, or the left-handed Vanuatuan experience, all for people who have already experienced things but figure it doesn’t count until someone experiences it in a book. Celebrities and politicians get instant approval because folks wanna know who they slept with. Then there are agents who only buy stories about cancer patients, assorted bunches of downtrodden victims, or LGBTQers — I’d turn lesbian if it’d sell my book.

     “No matter what the agents want, it seems like they’ve already written it in their minds before I send anything in. Misti Rumplay from BiblioBug said, and I quote, “the material did not grab me.” I trailed off, not wanting my anger to spoil the moment.

     Shen squeezed my hand and said, “You will try again in three days.”

     Why not? Here I was, sharing a bench with a beautiful girl, so my luck had obviously changed. The cicadas worked themselves up to a fever pitch, pointing out the obvious: Beijing was hell in July.

     “It is too hot here. Xi’an was a more tranquil capital city of pleasant breezes.” Before I could respond to Shen’s latest charming non-sequiturs, she tilted her head and pointed up at a series of red placards fixed to the trees. 

     “Those are everywhere, ruining the scenery, a gift from the Little Chairman,” I said. “Party slogans: ‘Young people must learn the Party’s rules’ and ‘Honor the Party.’”

     “Why does a party need so many rules?”

     “It’s not that kind of Party; and, no, it’s not fun.” It took me a moment. I had another rant inside me. It was definitely not a good idea to voice such thoughts in class, but here in private, I decided to see how Shen would respond. “They’re no different from anyone else. Communists, capitalists, socialists... at the end of the day ideology means nothing.”

     Shen’s mouth pursed down to a single jujube and migrated to one side. “Mmmm,” she intoned in a thoughtful manner, staring at the placard. “This little chair-man, he is no son of heaven. His merit does not earn red signs.”

     “It all comes down to a few old men forcing their will on others. They grab power, money, and of course, women.” I instantly regretted bringing up sex so soon in our relationship, even in the abstract. Shen was so damned sweet and –

     “The emperors of ancient times understood that all glory is fleeting. The lamp of life burns brightly but not long. You are my emperor. Take me home now, and we will make sex.”

     It was a sharp turn in the conversation. I could not form the words, but my eyes certainly let her know I was on board with the idea.

     We took the jammed Beijing subway for a twenty-minute commute. Shen led me through the two transfers, we exited the station nearest my apartment. I didn’t even realize until that point that I’d never given her directions. I had questions once we got home.

     We kissed deeply as soon as we got in the elevator, and our lips never parted until we were inside the apartment. She pulled away, smiling, and took a look around. There wasn’t much to take in. The kitchenette was smaller even than the one I’d had in Providence. It was a kitchenettette. The aforementioned WC will go undescribed save to say it was tiny. My crap took up the unused half of the kang. I had zero chairs, as the kang left me no floor space; I used it to sit on. And there was an armoire, stuffed with clothes and boxes and my long-neglected guitar, and a writing table, where I kept my laptop. 

     Stepping round the kang as best she could, she glanced for a moment at the aquarium, running a cinnabar-red lacquered nail along the rim and bending down to affectionately wave a finger at my pet lobsters. Then, she stepped onto the porch. Craning her neck, she regarded the neat row of grooves in the concrete. “Four forward talons.” She held up one hand, tucking in her thumb, leaving four finger-claws. “An emperor’s dragon.”

     “Really?” I wasn’t following.

     “Only the emperor may have a dragon with five toes. Anyone else must have four, or be beheaded.”

     “Good to know.”

     I had questions… but… her movements in that tight summer dress…

     She hurried over to the laptop and began typing. Had I left it unlocked? I didn’t usually do that.

     “Here. Rumplay. New York City. That’s a long flight,” Shen said, looking up from my email.

     “Fourteen/fifteen hours, plus layovers.”

     “Twelve. No stops,” she said confidently.

     I had questions… questions her warm jujube lips pressed straight back into my own throat. Before I knew it, that silvery-lilac pearl was swaying above me, forward and back, forward and back. Lovely. I was wrong. The pearl was real. She was real. Shen was my life’s pearl.


    My post-coital stretch ended in a sharp twinge from the region just under my left scapula—directly behind my heart. In the half-light, two cunning eyes reflected gold from some source I could not identify. Shen regarded me with amusement as her tongue explored the fingers of her right hand. The facile muscle that had thrilled me so just hours before now darted beneath her long cinnabar nails, savoring tasty evidence of our tryst. I had no doubt that when I checked the bedsheets, I’d find bloody spotlets. Mine. I knew with equal surety that I’d need both a hand mirror and a wall mirror to view my new permanent brand.


     “Not Zhen. Shen.” To prove it, I reached into my work pouch, where I kept my students’ papers. Rifling through them, I couldn’t locate Shen’s latest essay. “Anyway, it’s Shen.”

     “Oh. I thought you were mispronouncing it like you do everything else.” Through a mouthful of dumplings, Llewelyn added, “That’s not a given name – at least, I don’t think so.” 

     Llewelyn looked it up. He had a better VPN than mine, and it managed to get past The Great Firewall of China! I could get email on a good day, but I couldn’t Google or check the weather because the CCP and the Little Chairman was afraid that might lead to *gasp* free thought. Another alternative was to pay for roaming data. I could take a cab somewhere nice and have a big bowl of cold noodles with three sides of vegetables and a Coke for less than the price of one day’s roaming data.

     Llewelyn tried several times, shaking his head but getting the same results. “Fine. Straight from Professor Wiki: ‘Shen may be spirits, goddesses or gods, ghosts, or other. A shen is a shapeshifting clam-monster or dragon that creates mirages.’ It says they have a special affinity for the affairs of humans. Sounds fairly accommodating as myths go.”

     “Accommodating to what?”

     Llewelyn took a long gulp of his Guinness Extra Stout. How he could drink that stuff… “To the person hearing the myth. Most ghost stories, or any stories for that matter, rely on the reader’s imagination. It gives them that extra zing of veracity.”

     “Why would a spirit care what happens to me?” I said it even as my brain screamed: Satchmo!

     He stared blankly at me. “Why don’t you just ask her? Or – here’s a wild thought: you could actually introduce her to me. I mean, the two of you are shagging and all.” I nearly spit out my dumpling. “I could ask her some of the things you’re too puss-snoggered to ask.” I’m pretty sure he made that word up on the spot.

     He was right, as usual. It was long past time I introduced Shen to my friends – my one friend. “I will. She’ll be back in a few days. She says she needs to get some things done.”

     The scratches on my back twinged. I wouldn’t call it painful, just… insistent.


    I pulled out my laptop and set it on the table. There was an email alert waiting for me from the BiblioBug Literary Agency. To my amazement, the note said they were reviewing my book a second time. Could I send the full draft? Yes. Yes, I could. My hands flew over the keys, attaching the updated draft – the sword was now Chinese – back to BiblioBug. I noticed that the name on the return address had changed. It was a nightmarish time for literary agents, thanks to impossible competition from Amazon. Revenues dried up, agencies dwindled, and desperate agents flew out the nearest window, seeking someplace better.

    I hit send and looked up. Shen was standing on my porchlet, tucked in amid my shirts and pants.

     “Have you been there the whole time?” I asked, taking her hand and walking her in. “You’ll never guess what –”

     A smile. A kiss. It was a simple spell to make me forget what I was saying.

     My luck was definitely improving.

     Even my VPN started working.


      The next morning, Shen looked at me with a serious expression. “Jules, why do you write for the world?”

       “I think you just answered your own question.” It was true. I wrote for anyone out there who’d read it and, miracle of miracles, let my words sink in.

       She considered this.

       “I wish to write for the world as well. Is this permitted?”

       “It’s why you’re in my class.” We talked about it briefly, and then I logged her into the laptop and let her be.

       While she wrote, I death-scrolled through Facebook and my newsfeed.

     Lots of pictures of dragon sculptures. I checked the ones at various palaces and counted toes. After an hour, I came across an item in the news-of-the-weird section. Manhattan Demon Attacks Woman. It was nonsense, of course, the kind of police blotter news that paid the light bills for trashy media outlets. The article quoted an unnamed woman’s as saying she felt “invisible claws grab” her at her desk and force her out her third-story window. She fell to the pavement below, suffering numerous broken bones and other serious injuries. The writer conceded that the woman was also undergoing a psychiatric review. The blurb concluded with a melodramatic and unnecessary line to the effect that the demon was still at large.   

     “This is wild, Shen. It says –”

     She cut me off, thrusting the laptop into my hands. There on the screen was her composition.

     I read page after page. It was a lovely, lyrical dissertation on youth and freedom, the kind of thing that belonged in a literary review. I started to reread one section aloud, and she joined in so that we spoke in unison.

     “Two swans with chests to contain one steadfast heart for the pumping of blood pipes did locate destiny on the harmonious lake of the lamenting willows.” 

     Her writing brimmed over with spurious syntax steeped in quaint non-sequiturs. 

     After a moment, I slipped on my teacher’s hat. “We say ‘weeping willows.’” We carefully went through her pages. I fixed some of the syntax, though, in truth, I liked her version better. Beijing paid me, however, to exorcise such cultural tags from my students’ prose so as not to rock the boat of Western conventions. In other words, I taught them how not to stand out.

     Finding something of a balance, we agreed on a final draft. It was her work, heart and soul, and she beamed with pride. Next, we hit the internet, looking for local publishers. This was China, of course, so all of them were state-run. “The Little Chairman has his fat thumbs in everything,” I joked. We chose one that seemed as though it might be a good fit, and I helped her navigate a lengthy submission form. It required her to enter her address. She became agitated to the point that we agreed to list my apartment.

     For the next several days, Shen virtually glowed. She encouraged me to begin work on a new book, which I did. I wanted to write about a love affair. The words came out cloyingly in a school-boy gush, but no matter. I had a good idea where it was going, and I could tone down the hearts-and-flowers in a later draft.

     At Shen’s insistence, I checked my email twice a day for updates on her story.

     “It can take a while,” I told her one evening, after a week. “Let’s get some sleep.”            

     In the early morning, I awoke with my arm sprawled across an empty kang. The laptop was open; it was this light in my eyes that had awakened me as much as Shen’s absence. I checked the computer.

     It was opened to our shared email account. There on the screen were heart-breaking words, I’d seen dozens of times, with a decided Chinese twist. “The Committee feels your work is not appropriate for the revolutionary spirit of the People.”

     Not only had they rejected Shen’s lovely story, but they’d used Party nonsense as an excuse. This was clearly the work of the Little Chairman and his minions. Like his namesake decades ago, the tubby politician was a ruthless climber, currently in the process of winnowing out any writing – indeed, any thinking – that didn’t line up with his stated ideology. I knew what she must be going through. It was the same thing all over: narcissistic groupthink. Either reflect the wonderfulness of me/us, or your soul’s work gets chucked out with the trash. 

     It was then that I heard an upswell of noise from the street below. The glass door was open again, and my ears registered sirens and a commotion of upset people. I rose, naked, and walked out on my porchlet. In the lightening sky, a column of smoke rose into the air, from the direction of the Great Hall of the People.

     The words blew through my lips like air from a deflating balloon. “What did you do?”


     As things played out over the next few days, Shen said very little. I wanted to talk to Llewelyn, but not knowing how to explain things, I kept making excuses about getting together.

     The school was closed – as was everything across China – so, we sat on the kang and watched on the streaming news feeds as the huge somber procession made its way through the streets of the capital.

     I also read and reread one email from BiblioBug; they had found a publisher who was willing to read my book! Shen assured me – and I believed her – saying, “You will bring knowledge and wisdom to the world.”

     I urged her to resubmit her work, or perhaps to try another composition. She adamantly refused. In my mind, I resolved to convince her. There was an ineffable beauty inside this unique being, something primal, wed to the heart of the world. If I was meant to write my truth, she certainly was. Together, nothing could stop us.  

     My life had suddenly become more complex than I’d ever imagined, of course, but things were looking bright. Shen shared in my excitement, and this made it all magnificent. She was my dearest one, my muse, my toughest critic, my biggest fan. There is nothing in this world or any other that is better than sharing success with someone you love.

     Still, I had questions. On my back was a four-talon scar. Not three. Four. I couldn’t stop wondering… what promise could the future hold for someone marked by an emperor’s dragon?