The Cleverness of Crows

Kerry Ryan

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My career as a parasite began in the womb. Mama was hospitalized because I took so much of her blood. When I was born, she ran out of milk and a wet nurse was hired from the village. After a month, the nurse could do no more and recommended her cousin. She too admitted defeat.

I sucked the poor women of Parauapebas dry. Mama said if you stood on our balcony at night, you could hear the hungry babies crying all the way down in the village.

It was different with my older brother. He was a sick baby, a weakling. He died when he was only a few months old.  They didn’t talk about him much, though once I overheard Mama say that the only good thing about her first pregnancy was that she hadn’t got fat. She was proud of her Chinese physique, her tiny waist, her delicate wrists. Sometimes though, if Papa was taking her to a company dance, she’d stuff tissue in her bra like American high school girls do in movies. I don’t think he ever noticed.

I’m neat and slim as my mother was. Flat-chested too, but I have other attributes. I have Papa’s big Brazilian eyes. Lying eyes, my mother called them. When my parents first met in China, Papa told her he was the richest man in Parauapebas, but he wasn’t—not then at least.

After they moved to Brazil, every day but Sunday, Mama would change into a cocktail dress and wait by the dining table for Papa to come home from his office. They drank white rum, always with sugar on the rim of the glasses, and picked at the meals the maid brought from the kitchen. Papa would put down his fork and light a cigarette between mouthfuls. Mama only smoked between courses. They both died.

Mama went first then Papa. His funeral was the same day I finished university and the day after his lawyer told me there was no money left. Alone with nothing, I sold the family home and applied for an American graduate scholarship. The application form was a great work of fiction, but I was awarded full funding and a dorm in one of the best houses. Before I left home, I paid a Uruguayan doctor to sterilize me, no questions asked. He told me I smiled during the operation.

I’d been struggling at college for six months when the great Eduardo Lanca was invited to give a talk. I fought hard to get a ticket, though at the time Lanca’s reputation impressed me more than his poetry. One of Brazil’s favorite sons, he’d had every honor the government could bestow. Our greatest living poet, they said. Others said he was the greatest poet of all time.

The day before he arrived, I had two corsage orchids shipped direct to my dorm from Brazil. They’d been air-crated in a cool-box, and when I opened the packaging, dewdrops had gathered on the purple petals. Water from home. Gently, I tasted each tear with the tip of my tongue.

Before leaving for the recital, I fastened an orchid on my bracelet; the other I clipped in my shining black hair. In the auditorium, the American boys stared but I ignored them. They were only boys; they had no real power.

Lanca’s secretary, a skinny Portuguese in an old cord jacket, helped him onto the stage then stood protectively behind his chair. As Lanca began to recite, his blind eyes—as white as boiled onions—moved as if he could see the vast audience, some clutching his first book of poems published over fifty years before.

At the end the audience queued for a chance to exchange a few words with the Maestro. I slipped in beside a boy close to the front. He was too polite to make a fuss. Instead he smiled, showing off big Yank teeth, and talked to me in a way he thought clever and attractive. I pretended to listen until we reached the end of the line, then swiftly, I took his place and approached Eduardo. I leaned down close and, in Portuguese, said, “Maestro, thank you for your poems. The second made me almost weep for home.”

He sniffed the air like a bush dog in wet season. “You smell of Brazil.”

Cattleya labiata—corsage flowers,” I said, “I have one for you.”

As I attached the orchid to his buttonhole, I recited in perfect Mandarin, Li Yu’s poem about sorrow and regret.

He listened with his head cocked, but when I finished, he stamped the floor with his stick and barked, “Mandarin, of course. But what does it mean? What are you saying to me?”

I wasn’t intimidated. I laughed and said, “I’ll tell you if you invite me to dinner.”

“Dang ran, dang ran,” he said in halting Mandarin. “Of course, of course.”

I moved away to wait by the exit, winking at the secretary as I passed and laughing at the start he gave.

Mama told me that in the Jingxing mining district crows scatter stolen bread across the lake-water and wait for the greedy fish to swim to the surface. Then those clever black birds swoop down and snatch the silver fish right out of the water.

After he proclaimed himself exhausted, Eduardo was escorted off stage to loud applause. At the exit I heard him ask in English, his blind eyes searching, “Where’s the pretty girl? Where’s the queen of the orchids?”

Everyone stopped and looked around, but I was waiting and together, we continued the slow shuffle to the cars outside.

“How do you know I am pretty, Maestro?”

“I can hear it in your voice.”

He winked—a rapid shutter movement across a snow-white lens.

When Eduardo returned to Brazil, I returned too and enrolled at his university. They were pleased to award a Harvard alumnus a scholarship. I told them my graduation certificate was lost in transit and soon enough, they stopped asking.

Instead of attending classes, I went to Eduardo’s study every day. He called me his reader and made them pay me a wage. His secretary was soon forgotten.

There were no books in his study.

“What am I to read to you?” I asked.

“Read me the story of your life, Scheherazade.”

How could I explain my Chinese mama with her peroxide blonde hair, her American soap operas, her tissue-stuffed bra? And Papa who, during the Cultural Revolution was forced to watch as my baby brother was drowned in a well? How could I tell Eduardo that the party officials only allowed Papa to leave China because they knew he had died with his son? How could I explain that it was not my father but my father’s ghost who sat down to dinner every evening to smoke between mouthfuls?

I lied. Every afternoon in Eduardo’s study, I regurgitated family stories I’d read in thick novels by Chinese-Americans; I spun tales about imperial princes and princesses; I claimed I was descended from the Han dynasty. As he listened, his blind eyes roved seeing a past that did not belong to me. With his mouth open, saliva crusted in the corners, he was a baby bird, hungry to be fed the worms of a dead past. In that study with the shutters closed tight against the afternoon sun, he sat in silence and he ate. He ate what I fed him.

The university was forced to withdraw my scholarship; I hadn’t submitted any papers. I was called to the Dean’s office and, unable to meet my eyes, he offered me a position as a poetry tutor.

“How many classes a week?”

“Five or so.”

I frowned.

“Three?” he said, scratching a little at the stain on his tie.

We settled on one every fortnight.

The academics began to invite me to dinner with their partners or the bolder ones would ask me to meet them alone. After coffee, a manuscript would be pressed into my hand or they’d request an appointment with Eduardo. I knew that secretly they called me the Great Wall of China, but I didn’t care. I was becoming Eduardo’s eyes and ears and soon enough I would become his voice.

The first time Eduardo and I had sex I wore a mask. The kind of mask you wear in a bright hotel room so you can sleep during the day. Of course, I told him I wanted to feel as he did; I wanted to be blind so that my other senses were heightened. But the truth was I didn’t want to see his naked body that was so like Papa’s before he died: caved in, waiting for death, a coffin body—thin, bony, with skin that sagged. Before we went to bed, I drank rum with sugar around the rim of the glass.

That night Eduardo slept for hours. I’d made him recite his poems over and over again. He mixed up stanzas and repeated lines many times, but I hadn’t allowed him to stop. I fed on his mumbled words as he fed on my body.

When he woke at last, we had breakfast on the terrace. He was in a wonderful mood, talking in great, grand tangents about the global economy, philosophy, Freud. He kept leaning over the table, pressing my hands, running his fingers over my face, calling me his little sparrow. I knew he was mine.

When we finished our fruit, I asked him why his royalties would go to his natal village when he died. Hadn’t he escaped from that place as soon as he was able? What had those strangers ever done for him when I had already done so much?

“You tell me you’ve never been happier in all your years, but perhaps I should leave and allow the villagers to move in here with you. Perhaps you’d prefer that.”

He took his hand from mine and shaded his eyes. His shoulders quivered. I split an orange into segments and I waited.

Finally, he raised his head and looked straight at me. Those curdled eyes—I had to stare at my plate.

“I am a fool,” he said, voice cracking. “And there is no fool like the old fool.”

I dared not breathe.

“Have you read Reis?”

I shook my head as if he could see.

“When Reis was an old man, blind like me, but not a fool like me, he wrote: ‘The loneliness we taste at the end of our lives is by far the bitterest.’ I don’t want to taste it again. I can’t.” He searched the table for my hand; I moved it on to my lap. He sighed then said, “After coffee, I will call my lawyer.”

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