- This Is How It Always Is
“To become monk?”
“To be not hot?”
“Not that either.”
“You want hide?” said the third little girl, Zeya.
And that was it exactly. “Yes. I wanted to hide.”
“But why? You so pretty.”
At home, you did not call boys pretty. Pretty meant girl. But probably it was a foreign-language problem because there was no way these little girls thought he was one. Was there?
“I was … angry,” Claude half explained, but the girls’ faces lit with comprehension.
“Oh angry,” they agreed all around with huge smiles and much clasping of Claude’s and one another’s hands. “Angry very good reason.”
Interrogating him was probably a pretty good way to learn English, and Claude didn’t have a better idea, but he put a stop to it anyway. They couldn’t ask very many questions before they were ones Claude wouldn’t answer, answers they wouldn’t understand even if he were willing to give them, even if he knew the answers, which he did not. He didn’t want to think about those answers, or even those questions, anyway.
Then he remembered the origami fortune-tellers PANK had been obsessed with in third grade. Aggie’s uncle had shown them how to make them one rainy Saturday afternoon, and soon every worksheet, homework assignment, and notice home got folded into a square that got smaller and smaller until each plane revealed a color or letter or secret symbol to choose from and each corner untucked a final question. With the paper folded into bird beaks over your first fingers and thumbs, you opened the bird’s mouth, closed, and spread, closed, opened, closed, and spread, as many times as the fortune-teller directed, and at the end, you had to answer the question thus revealed by the origami gods.
Claude got a precious sheet of paper—the school seemed to have so little of anything to spare—and wrote four questions in the heart of the heart of it. He let Zeya be the first fortune-teller. He was going to do it, but they were all bouncing-while-trying-to-sit-still excited, and Claude remembered being an eight-year-old girl.
The first question went to Mya: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Next life?” said Mya.
It took Claude a minute to understand what she was asking. “This life,” he assured her, then tried again: “What job do you want to have when you become an adult? If you could have any job in the world?”
Mya looked like she had never considered this question before. “What my choice?”
“Anything.” Claude opened his hands wide to hold all the options. “Whatever you want.”
Mya trolled for ideas. “What you want when you grow up?”
Poppy. This answer burst into Claude’s brain uninvited. He wanted to be Poppy when he grew up. He knew if Jake Irving heard this answer, baseball announcer would sound much more plausible by comparison. If Claude wouldn’t grow up to be Poppy, he couldn’t imagine growing up at all. This was another thing he and the pigtailed little girls had in common: none of them could imagine growing up.
Since no one—not the pupils, not the teacher—could think of any answers, the second question went to Dao. “What is your favorite subject in school?” That had been the kind of question PANK had asked one another even though they all knew each other’s favorite subject in school as well as they knew their own.
“What is subject?”
“You know, like math or reading or art or whatever.”
They all looked at him blankly, so he tried a different way. “What is your favorite part about school?”
Dao brightened. “Oh, we love school.” She seemed to speak for all of them. “First time.”
“This is your first time in school?” They were eight. How could that be?
“My father sick so we come long way to clinic. Then he die and I am sad. But then I live here, go school, am happy.” She had taken the fortune-teller from Mya and was tapping her fingers together within its tiny walls.
Claude thought he felt wind on the damp back of his neck, but the air was still as stone. He had always heard adults say something took your breath away because it was beautiful or surprising in a good way or precious like a baby. But this really did take his breath away, and it was the opposite. This was loss that ruined your life leading straight to gain that saved it. It wasn’t silver lining; it was a whole silver sky. Claude was totally over fifth grade, but even he could see that school was a miracle for Dao except she couldn’t have it without first becoming an orphan. It was the least fair thing he had ever heard in his life, which, considering the state of his life, was saying something. But Dao, Mya, and Zeya were all nodding and smiling as if Dao’s were as good an answer to “What’s your favorite subject in school?” as science or social studies would have been.
When he origamied that first paper fortune-teller that long ago rainy afternoon, Aggie’s uncle had wiggled his fingers over it and sung a bunch of nonsense words which, he promised, turned it actually magic so that now it would tell real fortunes, reveal real secrets. Poppy’s hands were shaking so hard on her first turn she could barely operate the bird beaks. She was terrified she’d count out her number and color and letter and symbol and untuck a panel that read: SECRET PENIS!! Of course, Aggie’s uncle was just teasing, and of course, even at eight, she had been pretty sure that was the case all along. But as awful as that would have been, it was still less upsetting than the answers untucked here.