Claude took a deep breath. That seemed like a good place to stop, so he did. But his students looked unconvinced.

“Not magic,” complained Zeya. As in: spells are for enchanted transmutation, not changing someone’s mind.

“Not enough,” complained Dao. As in: bitchy neighbor princesses deserve some kind of actual punishment.

“Not possible,” complained the boy who’d suggested turning her into a frog. As in: homo-amphibian metamorphosis might not be real, but it’s still more credible than Aggie getting over Poppy’s secret.

But Claude felt better. He realized this was what his father had been up to all these years, not entertaining his children but perfecting his world. If you wrote your own characters, they didn’t disappoint you like real people did. If you told your own story, you got to pick your ending. Just being yourself never worked, but if you made yourself up, you got to be exactly who you knew yourself to be.

Under Pants

At the ends of their long days, Rosie and K retired together to the cafeteria and a quiet plastic table and chairs—backyard furniture purchased by college students at a grocery store in another world—and ate and talked. Rosie was always anxious to get to a cell-phone signal or a computer and try Penn. She was anxious to get back to the child she had brought to the jungle with her, a child who was, by all accounts, working wonders in the classroom, wonders about which she longed for details like raindrops long for the sea. K had daughters as well as sons as well as a husband to get home to too, not to mention that the food at home was probably better than in the clinic cafeteria, which had to feed five hundred patients and their families every day, but Rosie and K sat together quietly every evening anyway, sometimes talking, sometimes breathing pungent steam off of hot tea and saying nothing at all.

Rosie told K all about Seattle and her own hill tribe, about private-practice family medicine, then about Wisconsin and the ER at UW, the farmhouse, the burgeoning family, the love affair, the storytelling, her sister, working her way backward through everything that mattered. K told Rosie her story backward as well. Medic at the border clinic, rewarding work in hard conditions over long days, two boys and two girls at home too young yet to leave for so many hours, a Burmese husband-soldier who’d lost too much in the war to heal, a three-week trek through the jungle to a whispered-about clinic which might be able to help, which turned out in fact to be able to help, not to cure the husband but to employ and empower the wife, and that was something, all the way back through the months of war in Burma that preceded his injuries that preceded their flight, all the way back to her childhood in northern Thailand before she crossed the border with an uncle for unspecified reasons, a childhood that sounded poor and lacking to Rosie but which K described as full of color and soil and possibility.

At the beginning, as they got to know each other, it was all surface details, rough sketching rather than precise portraiture, autobiography instead of memoir. They had not had long enough together to become close friends yet—though in fact, after Rosie left, they kept in touch for the rest of their lives—but they were both mothers, so they shared that instantaneous connection Rosie knew so well from years of being exactly that. You could sit down with another mom, even one halfway around the world whose life was very different from your own, and find easy conversation, shared spirit, someone who understood why you might bring your ten-year-old into a malarial jungle rather than leave him behind, someone who understood what unspeakable things sometimes befell children and to what lengths you might go to fend them off, someone who saw the horrors and the threats and the carving up and the carving out and also how hard they were to schedule around and how little they cared about your job and how much they wanted just to be touching you all the time and what they looked like when they first woke up in the morning and how they learned to talk and walk and read and how quickly they outgrew their clothes and how it was to live every moment of every day in that world—even the moments when someone else’s kid was shitting thousands of tiny larva into a bucket, even the moments when someone else’s kid was shaking with a fever whose cause you could not discern, even the moments when someone else’s kid had her own baby stuck against her pelvis, draining her life in its efforts to be born.

So Rosie’s question, though it seemed both rude and random, was neither out of line nor a subject change. “Can I ask about your kids?” She slurped unadorned noodles from a plain broth which somehow, via who knew what crossed wires, tasted like her mother’s matzo ball soup.

K’s tired face lit up.

“How?” asked Rosie.

“How?” K grinned. “You mean, how I get them?”

Rosie blushed and nodded, concentrated on her noodles, reconsidered those sedimentary layers she’d realized K harbored all those weeks ago.

“Because you have noticed … I am like Claude.”

Rosie’s glasses were fogged from the steaming soup when her head shot up, so she couldn’t see K clearly. “No. I mean yes. I mean yes I noticed you are … like Claude. But I didn’t notice you’d noticed Claude was … like Claude. How did you know?”

“I cannot know how I know,” K smiled smugly. “He seem not comfortable in body. He seem more than what he seem.”

“He is,” Rosie said. “She is.”

“What is name at home?”