Ancient Chinese secret... - Editor
The Bones of Miracles
by Nik Korpon
With the barrel of a gun trained on him, Mr. Chan blinked once and stifled a yawn. The man in the Reagan mask cursed and jabbed the muzzle into his cheek, pulled it back and gave him another fair view of the gun that threatened to paint the bamboo wallpaper of his store a vibrant shade of grey matter. Mr. Chan wasn’t nervous, though, and it gave his eye the look of a target, concentric circles of iris and undilated pupil. Cartoon noises seeped from the apartment above them. He wondered if his daughter was still watching Looney Tunes. He swallowed a laugh, an image of himself with a finger stuck in the barrel of the gun and Reagan with wisps of smoke curling like errant hairs—his own private Daffy Duck cartoon—lodged in his head. In the back room that served as both a storage space and the Chan family kitchen sat four large simmering pots.
The summer breeze blew through the holes in the burlap curtains hanging in the windows. Reagan startled, checked behind him, pushed the muzzle of his gun further into Mr. Chan’s wrinkled cheek. Hung from the ceiling by braided thread, thirty-odd sets of wind chimes knocked against each other, a hollow soulful noise like a wooden xylophone. The tone echoed off the cracked tile floor the color of dried bone and a tsunami of funereal sound waves filled the room.
Although the rest of the neighborhood was round-eyed, it was his wind chimes that gave Mr. Chan his reputation. The carving was so exquisite that a man from the Visionary Art Museum approached him once, offering a place in the self-taught artist exhibition. He later declined, citing the store’s long hours and the lack of anyone else to run the business. But it was more their tone than the artistry, the way they turned a person to a lump of gooseflesh, froze their blood into pellets, that made the chimes renowned.Lured by the hope of establishing a comfortable life, the Chans settled in Baltimore. The city wasn’t big enough to support its own Chinatown, though, and after a brief stint as a cook, he managed to piece together a life for him and his wife by hocking stalks of lucky bamboo and chopsticks emblazoned with the Buddha’s image. Endless months crept past, filled with white rice dinners and powdered grape drink more lilac than purple. He re-dressed the pots of bamboo, promised virility and wealth and prosperity. The customers, though, seeing a shop filled with the magic bamboo yet run by an anemic man and a barren woman wearing a dress patched with newspaper, chose to stick with the more reliable cigarettes and Boh Boy scratch-off tickets. Three times during a single spring, Mr. Chan gave his wife their bowl of rice and went hungry after a robber had made off with the cash drawer.
‘Open the register,’ Reagan said. He cocked the gun again to show that he wasn’t going to take any crap and checked his pocket-watch. Mr. Chan counted the bills individually, squared off each pile. The wind chimes sounded their tone and Reagan cringed, tried to cover his ears, muttering to shut those fucking things up. A brief sizzle in the back room when a pot boiled over. Eyebrows furrowed, Mr. Chan glanced over his shoulder to see why the simmering noise was louder and bit back a smile. Wedged between the lid and the pot was a swollen thumb.
‘I said hurry up!’ A dull crash and Reagan spun around, swinging his gun wildly as if he was aiming at particles of dust.
‘Cat,’ Mr. Chan said without looking up. The muzzle against his forehead, he pointed at the ceiling. ‘Our cat likes to play on the bookshelf.’
‘Just give me the money,’ Reagan said. He exhaled a fierce breath through his nose, dug his face into the crook of his elbow. ‘Fucking stinks in here.’
Several further re-dressings and the bamboo finally fulfilled their promise. A picture of the Chan’s infant daughter assumed a prominent position in the store, thumbtacked above the register. Like water seeping through sand, the register began to fill, though whether because of the magic bamboo or his constant public adulation of young Sue, he wasn’t sure. An extra pack of cigarettes here, a quarter in the penny tray there. One woman pulled her jacket lapels over her crucifix necklace as she bought a plaster statue of the Buddha. Small miracles sustained Mr. Chan, while the family bowl of rice sustained young Sue and Mrs. Chan.
Though looking comprised of mainly reeds and wet sand, young Sue did grow. Mrs. Chan cut burlap rice bags lengthwise and hung them in the windows. She embroidered the edges with a family pattern, using mint dental floss. Mr. Chan happened on a bright yellow pile of discarded tiles when returning from the park one day, and piled them in the shopping cart that functioned as car and baby carriage. Sue helped remodel, picking lilies from a neighbor’s rooftop garden. Tiny chattering and an ethereal floral scent filled the store. Every night Sue ate her fill of rice, and Mrs. Chan would go hungry only twice more. After her last missed-meal, their business would begin to grow as quickly as their daughter.
‘Don’t forget the safe,’ Reagan said.
Mr. Chan shook his head, said they didn’t have one. He smoothed fallen grey hair back over his exposed scalp. A wet thump in the back room. A second pot had boiled over, and sitting on the food-splattered range was a chunk of flesh, waterlogged and drained of color.
‘Bullshit. You always got one. Where else would you put the money?’
‘Ancient Chinese secret.’
Reagan slammed the butt of his gun into Mr. Chan’s cheek, put the muzzle back in his eye. ‘I said give me the rest of it.’
Mr. Chan rubbed his face, letting the tone of the wind chimes soothe his throbbing cheek. Reagan’s gun danced in the air, his ragged breathing audible through the mask, and covered his ears.
‘I said shut those things up!’ He lashed out and tore two wind chimes from the ceiling. Pale beige shards covered the floor. Peasant scenes and fu dog battles, curtailed early. Rivers cascading over rocks, divided into trickles. Mr. Chan shook his head and sighed. He whispered a prayer while Reagan stomped the pieces to crumbs and, in the time it took Reagan to smash another piece, Mr. Chan sunk the Fleur-de-Lis end of a fireplace poker into Reagan’s temple.
Sue had hit her growth spurt several years earlier than her friends and the Chan family bowl of rice seemed to be shrinking. Mr. Chan sucked at the bones of miracles in order to give Sue extra rice, which still wasn’t enough. Sue seemed to keep the same mass but change dimensions. She grew vertically and shrank horizontally. Mr. and Mrs. Chan only withered.
A week after her last missed-meal, Mrs. Chan took Sue to play in the park. Moments later, a man with a stocking over his face barged in and ransacked the store. Mr. Chan’s hands trembled as he collected the money, equal parts fear and rage. He was at a loss to where he would find more rice for his daughter—or even miracles for himself—and it wasn’t until the man with the stocking face ripped the picture of infant Sue from the wall that the Zen ocean washed over Mr. Chan and everything focused to a single point: the tip of the Fleur-de-Lis end of the fireplace poker leaning against the wall.
With the man’s feet still post-mortem twitching, Mr. Chan dragged the corpse of the stocking-faced robber into the kitchen. He heard noise upstairs and hoped that Sue had only forgotten to turn off the television. The absence of footsteps led him to believe that they were still at the park. At the thought of her name, though, panic snaked its fingers through his chest and forced a sweat to his face. He scurried around the room, emptying cabinets, dumping out drawers, checking behind the refrigerator for a secret passageway he hoped he’d always overlooked. Anything to hide what had just happened and protect his family. Hands knitted over his head, Mr. Chan stood in the middle of the floor clenching his eyes, trying to will away the body. A large pot teetered on the edge of a shelf, causing a minor heart attack when it hit the ground. He tossed it on the stove and resumed pacing the room. Sunlight streamed through the open window and glinted off the set of knives he’d bought on the promise of a job as a chef. He stood still, looked at the body, at the pot, at the knives, at the body. Through the heartbeat in his ears, he listened to the television noise upstairs to make sure he was in fact alone. He took three other pots from the cabinet, then splashed water over his face, swallowed hard and picked up a knife.
He finished in under an hour; his stint as a cook had lasted only two weeks and his knives were still sharp. Three times he paused to steel his nerves. After mopping the floor, he locked the doors and went upstairs to take a scalding shower. He took the family out to dinner that night, an event usually reserved for Christmas or Sue’s birthday, and stopped by a pawnshop to buy a hot plate for the apartment. When Mrs. Chan raised her eyebrows, he explained that he’d seen a rat in the kitchen and no one was to go down there until he removed it. One of the windows in the pawnshop had been smashed and the owner covered the hole with plywood and magazines. As Mr. Chan explained the infestation to his wife, Sue drew on her face with a marker. She pointed at a page from National Geographic, pictures of African tribesmen wearing lavishly carved bones through their noses.
Reagan was heavier than he appeared. Knowing this would be a lengthy ordeal, Mr. Chan drew the curtains and locked the front door. A silver pocket-watch fell from Reagan’s pants. Mr. Chan breathed on it then polished it with his shirt. There was engraving on the back. To John Jr.: Stay true the path and capture The Dream. He shook his head and whispered a prayer over John Junior’s body, then wrapped the watch in a handkerchief and set it below the cash register. In the kitchen, he covered his face with a towel and scooped bones from the pots with a strainer spoon then set them on a towel to dry. When customers joked to each other about the smell, he’d always nodded and smiled in a way that said I don’t understand what you’re saying and never bothered to correct their misconception that it was just the way Chinamen smelled. He poured the liquid into buckets and set them aside to cool, then put on rubber gloves and went about dividing John Junior into pots.
When John Junior was busy simmering, Mr. Chan climbed the fire escape to his neighbor’s rooftop garden and poured the buckets of sludge over the soil. Some time ago, they’d marveled at how well his fertilizer worked. Ancient Chinese secret, he’d told them. It had been his way to repay them for not scolding Sue when they caught her taking their lilies.
The garden fertilized and the bones drying to be carved into wind chimes the next day, Mr. Chan went to the market and bought three carrots and a stalk of celery. He joked with the owner for a few minutes, a heavy Romanian man who felt a sort of kinship with Mr. Chan. Like with the Chinamen smell, he never bothered to tell the man that he was really born in New York, not China, because the man found so much joy in telling post-Communism horror stories. He laid a few coins on the counter and bid the man a good evening, then returned home to shower and cook dinner for his family.