SO MANY of the girls were lost. Miss Guo would just look at them and see the truth and the future all in one glimpse. Lost. She watched them eat, and their eating was unruly, unpleasant, too ravenous and eager…too hellish and desperate, if the truth was told. It should have taken no time at all for any of them to learn and have confidence in the facts of orphan life: that food would always be provided them, that it would be nutritious and of a good quality, that it would be savory and pleasing to the taste. But nothing changed as the time went by. They ate as though every last bite was the end of all food. They served themselves, then sat and consumed it like jackals tearing flesh from the carcasses of dead prey. They drew their legs up underneath them and crouched above the bowls. They looked around at the others as though each was a hated rival. They were suspicious and protective. Miss Guo saw menace in their eyes, saw them dare the others to make the smallest move. Where was the valued spirit of sharing, camaraderie and cooperation, which Miss Guo always tried to emphasize? It was dead to these girls, and they to it.
When had this changed? Miss Guo traced it back the five years since KarenWOODS came from America. KarenWOODS was only an I. Inside of her there was not even an ounce of WE. Not even an eyedropper full. And Miss Guo knew well the wise logic of eyedroppers, from which a little went a long, long way. Most nights she would suck the small blessing of laudanum mixed with paregoric onto her tongue from the tiny brown mouth of an eyedropper. The medicine spread through all of her like a sweet doughy kiss from the lips of one of her older orphans in the bygone years when orphan girls were affectionate and grateful and loyal to her. Thus launched, she swung softly through the night as though in a jungle of gracious vines, each leaving her off exactly where the next one began.
Sometimes KarenWOODS came to shake her awake by her shoulders in the early hours, KarenWOODS returning from her nighttime wanderings with some little treat for Miss Guo. A carton of pig feet soup from Li Cha’s, or some little airline bottles of Grand Marnier or Drambuie.
“I love you, Miss Guo,” KarenWOODS would often say, Miss Guo squinting up through the dark of her little bedroom. How had the girl grown so tall? How had she taken over everything? How had she become the one who bestowed small favors upon Miss Guo instead of the other way around? Somehow Miss Guo had cooperated in making the world of the Open Hearts Orphanage entirely friendly to the wishes of one small girl. And now she was large and powerful, whereas Miss Guo was tiny and weak.
“Thank you, KarenWOODS. I love you too,” said Miss Guo, hoping that the girl would not hear the little bit of fear and worry and recognition of an unspoken and true affection. She felt like a baby as KarenWOODS looked down at her, smiling, those big teeth a dull on-and-off gleam in the dark.
“Would you like some more?” KarenWOODS picked up the bottle of medicine.
“Yes,” said Miss Guo. “A little. Yes.
In one motion the girl unscrewed the cap and squeezed the rubber nipple. Miss Guo parted her lips, welcomed the tiny cold eyedropper tip, and felt the medicine trickle into her mouth.
“Goodnight, Miss Guo.”
IN THE morning there was often a cloud in her thoughts. She lay in her bed in the early dark fearing everything, seeing all life as dangerous and closing in upon her. But then daylight brightened the walls and the cloud soon lifted, leaving Miss Guo feeling brightened enough that she would rise to her feet and get the day moving.
In the kitchen she joined Mr. and Mrs. Bao to make green tea, hardboiled duck eggs, and congee. And, for KarenWOODS, Nut Honey Cheerios with two percent fat milk, which sometimes one or two of the other girls would also choose. How amazing it was that Shanghai had now changed so much that Mr. Bao could find Nut Honey Cheerios with such ease!
In wishing for the restoration of past graces, Miss Guo’s fond hope was that KarenWOODS would find some way to leave China, or perhaps even only Shanghai, or only this part of Shanghai, and never come back. But the girl was just 12 years old, too young to take life in her hands. Miss Guo realized that she only had such a thought because KarenWOODS had been so good at taking Miss Guo and the orphanage into her hands. Though Miss Guo also found it quite curious that none of the other girls seemed to be at all devoted to KarenWOODS. Instead, they kept their distance from her and developed that intense individualistic self-concern that filled Miss Guo with such grief owing to the loss of the old communal virtues. “When I was a girl,” she sometimes said out loud while alone in her room after teaching the morning lessons. There was always something more that she intended to say, but the five words usually seemed best left alone, as though they summed up such a distance of change as to need no further details.
During lessons the girls sat sullen in a circle. Some slouched in folding chairs or instead left their chairs unsat-in and lay on their backs on the floor staring up at the ceiling. (Miss Guo long ago gave up insisting on the use of chairs or proper posture.) She began by discussing the news. She asked what the girls thought about the poor economy. The government was determined to stimulate demand and invest in growing the consuming class with higher wages and new jobs. For too long it had depended on export markets, but now it had to turn its attention inward. “Is that the right and heroic course to pursue?”
Miss Guo never knew when one of the girls might say something. She had learned to let the silences stretch, not to break them too quickly with an answer or another question. She kept still and quieted the panic in her head. And finally someone would ask her a question.
“Will there be any jobs for us?” asked Hua.
It was a silly self-centered question. “There are always jobs to do,” Miss Guo said pleasantly. “The better question is will there be good jobs, the kinds of jobs people want to do?” That was a sign of how much Miss Guo had fallen under the influence of KarenWOODS. For she had now come to think it was important what jobs people wanted, rather than what the nation most needed its people to do, how the leaders of the nation had decided people must best contribute. In this way, Miss Guo believed, she was becoming an American!
After the news they would discuss a book they had read. The dreamy girls who lay on the floor and looked at the ceiling never had a thing to say about the news, but they often liked to talk about the books. This week it was “The War of the Worlds.” It was a tale by a British author about the pervading outside influences that threaten the state and its people. Yes, the outside influences are guised as invaders from Mars, but there was no mistaking Mr. Wells’s meaning: that one must never cease one’s principled resistance against outsiders who are trying to change the nation. And that was the view she expressed to the girls.
Li, who had been lying flat on her back, lifted her upper half into a sitting position and disagreed. “Could it be that the Martians have something to offer to England? Why is their influence always thought to be bad? Aren’t the people of England too closed off in their thinking?”
Then Qiao, who slouched in a folding chair, said she thought it was more of a romance than a political commentary. “This whole book the man is separated from his wife. But then he finds her again at the end. I imagined that she never stops thinking about him, all that time, even though he is far too busy to think about her.”
They read all of the books in English. It was Miss Guo’s plan to broaden the girls’ outlook beyond the neighborhood, the city, the province, or the state. Everyone must learn English. It was now the most popular foreign language among Chinese students—more than Russian, more than Spanish or German or Portuguese. (People boast that educated Chinese often speak English better than many Americans do!) When the girls became sixteen, the doors of the orphanage would spit them out forever. It was good that they have some useful skills and understandings.
KarenWOODS often skipped the morning lessons. She would instead catch up on the sleep she had missed in her wanderings around Shanghai. Her usual chair sat empty. No one dared to claim it, so it kept to itself a sort of ghostly presence, an emanation of its missing occupant. Everyone moved around it with care and solicitation, as though KarenWOODS’s sleep might be troubled were the chair to be jostled or even too-closely passed by. To Miss Guo this was one more sign of the other girls’ fear, not affection, for KarenWOODS.
LONG AGO, two years or three, KarenWOODS had come to Miss Guo and asked why they couldn’t all go to the school two streets away. It was “weird,” the girl said, to be in school in the same place they all ate and slept. In the place known as Petaluma, she said, “We kids were not taught in our homes. We went to a school, and it was too far away for most of us to walk to it.” So, why was it not possible to go to a place so close “that you could throw a ball and hit it?” (This was another of the many things KarenWOODS said that were drawn from the language of the American spirit, which could not stand stupidity in any form.) Miss Guo explained that the Shanghai government and the Catholic Church, out of a delicacy for the feelings of orphans, paid money for the girls to be separately educated. Miss Guo was therefore paid to be their one and only teacher.
“But you don’t know everything,” said KarenWOODS. “You only teach us what you know. But isn’t there so much more?”
“There is,” said Miss Guo. “It’s true. But some other teacher might not know the things I know. Nobody knows everything.”
“But what about math? Math is important,” said KarenWOODS. “You must know some math…”
Miss Guo liked to think that she taught the mathematics of human interaction, how people collided with, influenced, and changed one another, much in the way KarenWOODS had changed Miss Guo. But KarenWOODS wouldn’t have understood. The books Miss Guo picked for the girls to read were all ones in which a change occurred. And what was mathematics if not the set of rules for various operations that combined numbers in ways that produced new values? But Miss Guo offered no further argument in defense.
“You make a good point, KarenWOODS. I will bring in a teacher of mathematics one day every week.” And KarenWOODS rushed behind the desk to hug Miss Guo, as though math might in some way change everyone’s lives.
Miss Guo knew a British-born man named Harold Courtney who lived only blocks away and spoke excellent Mandarin. He was retired from his career as an electro-mechanical engineer and did some teaching at the nearby technical university. He had designed special high-speed and high-efficiency motors for commercial and industrial applications, such as rapidly taking up or playing out the cables that controlled the rising and descending of elevators in tall buildings. She had introduced herself to him in the market one day after often seeing him walking his aging dachshund—the dog dressed in a little strapped-on coat—up and down the street. And after that he would sometimes sit with Miss Guo in the shade on the front veranda, the dog asleep at his feet. So she asked him to teach the girls math. And he agreed.
“I will need a rolling blackboard. And yellow chalk, because yellow is easier to see and remember.”
“I have these things,” she said.
“Just one day a week.”
“Yes. To start.”
And he did start. The girls were quite keen on him at first. He was dashing and brought the dog along. He lunged at the blackboard to emphasize some point about remainders and dividends, and the tip of the chalk exploded in a puff of yellow dust while the blackboard teetered back and forth on the verge of falling, though it never did.
He gave them elevator problems to solve: In a twelve-story building of a certain height, using cable of a certain thickness, what diameter must the two-foot-wide steel spool at the top of the elevator shaft be in order to take up all of the cable needed to lift the car to the top floor? Or given the size of the car in square feet, its weight in pounds when empty, and cable of a certain number of twined strands and rated strength, how many passenger pounds could the car safely carry?
“Close your eyes and think before you start your calculations,” he always urged them. “See the problem in your minds.”
Of course, every one of Mr. Courtney’s problems was actually many problems combined, each needing to be broken down and solved separately. And this he helped them do with generous hints that told the story of how people designed technology systems, piece by piece, until there was a fully integrated solution to the human problem at the heart of the system’s reason for existing. Miss Guo enjoyed sitting quietly in a corner of the room, pretending to be busy with something else, while Mr. Courtney showed how mathematics conquered so many practical difficulties.
But he asked the girls to call him Hal. And Miss Guo disapproved of this, as it encouraged informality. At first, the girls themselves resisted. But then slowly, one by one, they started to use the tiny word of his nickname. First it came out “howl,” then “hall.” They worked on getting it right. Instead of practicing their word problems, they practiced calling each other Hal. And they all learned to do it properly after a while, so that it came out sounding casual and intimate.
Hal’s arrival for lessons, now twice a week, no longer excited the girls; it was just the normal thing. He was not dashing anymore, and the girls had tired of the little dachshund, which smelled and expelled gas and did nothing else interesting during the lessons. It just lay on the floor in the corner, wearing one from its funny little wardrobe of coats. Miss Guo sometimes thought it was dead there, or that it would die there someday soon. The hair on its muzzle was almost all white, and it sometimes had trouble getting up even though the distance to stand was so short. Mr. Courtney once told her that dachshunds have weak spines and live shorter lives than other dogs, but Monty—the name of the dog—had reached the age of twelve with no sign of deterioration. The same age as KarenWOODS, thought Miss Guo.
But the girls had learned from Hal to regard mathematics as a highly practical field. Miss Guo followed up with them on days when Hal didn’t teach. She talked about the engineering profession. She imagined that hers would someday become an orphanage renowned for producing important innovators. She closed her eyes and foresaw a ceremony of thanks and honor in which a colorful sash was draped over her shoulder or a medal placed around her neck as she blushed and smiled. In her brief remarks she would thank KarenWOODS for inspiring the addition of mathematics to the teaching curriculum.
Another change since KarenWOODS arrived was that more and more of the girls Miss Guo takes in are from problem adoptions. None but KarenWOODS was returned from America, but there are girls now who were sent home from Japan and Australia and New Zealand, and one returned from Thailand. So all these girls are growing up together, enjoying the benefits of being with other girls who have felt the same wound of rejection by the adopting mother and father. It is as though KarenWOODS exerted some force of magnetism out into the world, and others like her were drawn right in. Sometimes Miss Guo thought it had all the markings of science fiction.
The worldliness of all these sent-away girls is sour and brittle, Miss Guo believes. They have learned too well the lessons of exile: Nothing lasts, no one can be trusted, the gift of love is never uncomplicated or without conditions. So Miss Guo sets about to be the one adult who will last, who will every day earn their trust, and who offers them love without qualifications. With all of these items there are difficulties. The slouchy girls see trust and their connection to others as always fragile. They repel Miss Guo’s determined efforts at affection. It is as though they have marked such behaviors as off-limits and lacking any possible utility in their lives. Hugs and smiles and sweetness are never to be encouraged or taken seriously. They are only a curious quirk of Miss Guo’s personality that can, with time and disciplined reinforcement, be sanded down to nothing. And Miss Guo often feels herself being sanded.
Only when something interests the slouchy girls do they ever pay attention. If it doesn’t interest them or they see no practical way to apply it, they turn dreamy and let it pass over them or by them like an unheard whistle or an unseen sparrow. And, unlike KarenWOODS, they prefer to remain inside the orphanage. They have no natural curiosity about the streets beyond, the people they do not know, the possibilities for accidental encounters or inspirations. They are not adventurous or hopeful. They are so unlike children, Miss Guo often thinks.
But Hal Courtney did once take them out for a ride on the Transrapid, the world’s fastest train. It reminded Miss Guo of the book Madeline when they left the orphanage in two straight lines, two girls abreast, and made their way on the Metro out to Longyang Road, where the Transrapid begins its short run to the airport. Miss Guo had never ridden it, for she had no reason anymore to go to the airport.
The day before the outing, Hal Courtney diagrammed the principles of a magnetic-levitation train on the blackboard. “The train has no wheels. Electricity propels it along a track, called the guideway. The train is lifted an inch or so above the guideway by strong electromagnets. So, you see, it rides on a cushion of air, a soft cushion that offers no friction, no resistance.” Hal drew a two-tipped arrow between the track and the body of the train. Miss Guo saw invisible magic in that space and thought it was a miracle.
“Thomas EDISON,” she said excitedly. Everybody turned and looked at her.
“What about Mister Edison?” asked Mr. Courtney.
“Oh, you know, just e-lec-tri-city,” said Miss Guo, and Mr. Courtney smiled and nodded slowly.
On the train the girls slouched in their seats. But when the speed climbed up and up and up, they seemed enlivened by it, drawn upward by the train’s surprisingly quiet exercise of power. Miss Guo recognized the point at which the things outside the train’s window turned to blur and could scarcely be seen as things all to themselves. It was as though the whole of life began aging too quickly. She looked around to see if the girls would turn gray and wrinkled and wizened by the experience of these few minutes of lickety-split transport. Hal Courtney sat next to Miss Guo and began to cry great tears of joy and shake his head. In Mandarin, he whispered to her, “I am so awed by the possible future.” Miss Guo patted his hand. She too was awed. By the time they reached the airport she felt there had been some small but permanent rearrangement of her thoughts and molecules and internal organs. All of her had raced ahead through time and could never again be quite caught up with.
The next day, the girls, led by KarenWOODS, gave their own peculiar reactions to the train: “Everything ugly turned beautiful,” she said. “When you can’t see the truth of it, any person or thing can seem wonderful. But then the train slows down again and you see what it is.”
Hua said it made her happy to see everything disappearing and melting together. And Li said she liked the danger of it, the feeling that, at any moment, something might have gone wrong.
SOON AFTER that trip on the train, something did go wrong. Mr. Courtney was attacked and killed by a young man with a knife. It was a terrible shock. He was walking Monty in Fuxing Park when the man came up to him and stabbed him for no reason. The park was crowded, and people nearby watched in horror. The young man ran away, and Mr. Courtney fell to the ground. Police said that he must have been dead in the first instant, the knife’s blade having struck him straight in the heart. Monty lay down beside Mr. Courtney, and the witnesses observed that the dog didn’t seem to understand what was wrong with its master. “Dogs are stupid,” someone said to the police, who were asking for a description of the killer but found that the witnesses paid attention only to the victim and his dog.
“The area was filled with people, and the killer struck very fast and ran off immediately,” the police investigator told a reporter from the English language Shanghai Daily. “No one had time to even know what was going on before he had escaped from the scene.”
When Mr. Courtney missed two math lessons without calling to explain, Miss Guo went to his house to see if he was sick. After ringing the bell and getting no answer, she approached a neighbor and learned of the crime. The neighbor said perhaps it was someone with a dislike of Westerners, or perhaps an angry student from the technical university where Mr. Courtney taught young engineers.
The next morning Miss Guo told the girls of the tragedy. “I am sorry to have such a sad thing to tell you,” was how she began. She had no idea what to expect from them. They were surprised, of course, and quiet at first, and she had a keen awareness that the sharp sound of her voice, as it gave out the news, still hung in the air of the lesson room after she was finished.
But soon the girls turned curious, eager to know the details. It was vast Shanghai, and violent acts happened often in such a city. But in all her life Miss Guo had never known someone who was murdered. It seemed unimportant to her what the exact circumstances had been. It was enough to know that Mr. Courtney was dead and gone. “I don’t have very many details,” she said. But that was a lie. She held the newspaper in her hand. It had sat on the table in the front hall for several days without anyone picking it up and noticing the small article about the murder of a British national and long-time resident of Shanghai. When Miss Guo said she had few details, what she really meant was that she didn’t think the girls should care so much about the details.
But she unfolded the newspaper and held it up. “I do have this,” she said.
“Then read it to us,” urged KarenWOODS. And others echoed her. So Miss Guo read the article out loud. When she got to the comment that dogs are stupid, many of the girls laughed.
“Be quiet!” Miss Guo commanded them.
Miss Guo felt sharply the loss of Mr. Courtney. She enjoyed the little visits with him and Monty on the veranda. Mostly, they were quiet together, but sometimes there were bright bursts of conversation during which she noted the slowly escalating avidity with which they exchanged their views, how they leaned closer together over the sides of the wicker chairs in which they sat. She supposed they were close in age. She liked his trim tall posture and the way he dressed in the English gentleman’s style. He had a handkerchief that peeked out from his tweed jacket’s breast pocket as a sharply folded triangle. Sometimes, to her small shame, she imagined taking him to bed with her and teaching him the soft lessons of her paregoric and laudanum eyedropper. Now, of course, she was ashamed to recall such foolish notions. Instead, all she could think was that she must make a loving home for Monty.
She walked the next day to Mr. Courtney’s former home, which was a carriage-house on the grounds of a larger house in which lived a Swedish diplomat. There she saw Monty on a long tether tied to a stake in the ground. He trotted over to her, wagging, and turned his white muzzle up to her face. She looked around, saw no one, and simply bent down and unclipped the end of the lead, picked him up off the ground, and took him back to the orphanage. She told Mr. and Mrs. Bao to experiment with things that a dog might like to eat.
Some of the girls seemed unhappy to see the dog again. But Miss Guo didn’t care. “He is here to stay with us. We will all take care of him. He is an orphan too. He is one of us, and he should be treated to good care and friendly companionship. He is old, and it is the only decent thing for us to do.”
She took him to her room and allowed him to try out places to sleep and relax. He seemed to like many different places. She went and filled a bowl with water and put it in a spot on the floor, and right away he went to drink from it. It made her so happy to hear the sound of his tongue darting in and out of the water. She sat in her chair and watched and sighed, marveling at the unexpected efficiency of canine drinking. For soon the bowl was empty, and there was only the sound of Monty’s tongue sliding over the damp ceramic.
ONE AFTERNOON that week, KarenWOODS came to see Miss Guo in her office. The girl almost never knocked before entering but would open the door as though the office were something they both were entitled to occupy freely. This time, however, she knocked.
“Yes,” said Miss Guo, expecting someone else but seeing instead a distraught KarenWOODS. There were tears in her eyes and her face was red.
“What is it, child?” she asked.
Miss Guo thought of herself as a kind of benevolent Catholic sister. Although the orphanage enjoyed the support of a Catholic charity, she was officially nothing of the sort. But she appropriated for her use what she believed to be the style of a gracious and caring nun, someone who ministered compassionately. It was, she supposed, this choice of demeanor that had led her into showing KarenWOODS such leniency and indulgence over the years. And now, seeing the distress in the poor girl’s face, she felt the reflexive inner melting as a kind of approaching, onrushing doom.
“What is it?” she asked again.
KarenWOODS came in and sat in one of the two chairs in front of Miss Guo’s desk.
“I have been so sad about Hal, about Mr. Courtney.”
This admission surprised Miss Guo. She had never thought the girl had much respect for Mr. Courtney as a teacher of math.
“We are all very sad, KarenWOODS,” said Miss Guo.
“Yes, I know, I know. I really do, Miss Guo. And I know you especially liked him very much.” Miss Guo here detected a slight raising of the eyebrows. “But, you know, I had such a close relationship with Hal. I am having trouble thinking where to turn.”
Miss Guo sat very still and said nothing. She could see that KarenWOODS was waiting for the next thing to happen, and Miss Guo weighed in her head and heart whether she ought to simply urge the girl to persevere and shoo her out. But instead she allowed the room to remain quiet. It was what she had learned to do with the girls during lessons: Make the silence grow and grow until someone among them could no longer stand it. But she saw the steadiness in KarenWOODS, her determination and ability to outlast whatever length of silence Miss Guo might attempt. So it soon became clear that the only thing for Miss Guo to decide was exactly what to now say and how to say it.
“Well, then, I am glad you have turned to me, KarenWOODS.”
“Yes, Miss Guo. I knew you were the one who will understand. I mean, who in the world is out there for me who can take the place of Hal? Who else can I find who will put himself inside of me at night?”
MISS GUO then had to listen to everything. She sat with perfect stillness and let the dark story pour into her. KarenWOODS went to Hal for extra help some nights on her word problems. “I loved the pictures they painted in my head,” she said of Mr. Courtney’s vivid puzzles about elevators, steam and gas engines, and electric motors. When Miss Guo thought KarenWOODS was sneaking out to play in the streets and soak in the bright light and noise and excitement, she was instead, two or three nights a week, visiting Mr. Courtney for tutoring.
“He saw the engineer in me,” she said, “and it made him happy.”
“I’m sure it did,” said Miss Guo, who would sometimes think she saw nothing but cunning in KarenWOODS. KarenWOODS now looked right at her with the face of a tiny bird, eyes wide and little beak trembling open as she waited for the half-chewed worm.
Then, one night when she was eleven, as they sat close together in Mr. Courtney’s study, KarenWOODS felt the great warmth of his body “leaking out through the stuffy English clothes he wore.” She experienced that warmth as though, in the scientific gravitational sense, it were attractive and pulling at her powerfully. Miss Guo thought back to some of the old English novels she had had the girls read. She pictured Mr. Courtney as Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield Manor in Jane Eyre, fresh from a gallop with his horse and dog on the moors, his horse-heated flesh slowly shedding the skin of the night in front of a blazing hearth. The girls loved Jane, an orphan like themselves. The passion of Jane and Rochester excited them. Though Miss Guo has no particular memory of KarenWOODS having cared for the book or even given any hint of having read it. Indeed, if she bothered to come to lessons she often sat stone silent.
“I leaned my head against Hal’s shoulder,” she said. “I put my hand on his knee. His pants were furry and rough. He was kind of like an animal. We sat there like that for a little while, without me or him saying anything, and then I felt his arm go around me tight. Nothing in my life, Miss Guo, has ever felt so good as that did. So exciting.”
“You were eleven years old.”
“Yes, I know! Isn’t it silly?”
Miss Guo endured it all, the dirty progress from innocence into sin. By the girl’s account, it was she who initiated everything. Hal—Mr. Courtney—was a shy accomplice. He simply indulged her, allowed her to do what she liked, made no attempt to stop her, to be an adult with a moral code.
“What did he say?”
KarenWOODS shook her head. “There was no talk at all. He didn’t say anything. If he had, I would have shushed him.”
“You were eleven years old,” Miss Guo said again.
KarenWOODS shrugged. “It didn’t feel like that. It was just us two, nicely going along with each other. And it was all supposed to happen this way.”
She made the seduction sound so agreeable, so sweet. Miss Guo was not a worldly sophisticated person. Perhaps (who could know?) there are some children born into their thrilling biology without any consciousness of age or appropriate inhibition. Perhaps there was some earlier American wound of abuse that destined KarenWOODS to these disturbing events. And, of course, perhaps, after all, she was making everything up. It was all a lie, and none of it happened—she had never even set foot in Mr. Courtney’s house. The knock on the door of Miss Guo’s office and the telling of this fantastic story were nothing more than a game with which to amuse KarenWOODS and taunt and cause despair in Miss Guo.
For despair is what she felt. The story now spilled itself across Miss Guo’s many fond memories of Mr. Courtney and Monty sitting with her on the veranda. They drank tea and either talked or didn’t feel the need to talk. The dog stretched and yawned, stood up and walked in a drowsy circle and dropped back down again. And the whole inventory of Miss Guo’s recollections was darkened by the spreading stain. The voice of KarenWOODS rolled on. She was becoming pornographic.
“I made Hal’s penis hard and spread peach jam from England on it and licked it off.”
“Most remarkable,” said Miss Guo. She imagined that her demeanor gave nothing away. She was like the psychotherapist who cannot be shocked by anything. Or, on the other hand, she imagined that her face was a map that showed all of the spreading stain. Being unable to see herself, Miss Guo had no idea which face was true. The other possibility was of course that Mr. Courtney was a predator who forced himself on the girl, and now she was changing the story around to give herself back some power and control. But why would anyone do that? And, besides, she had only ever experienced the KarenWOODS who always took control and got her way and could not be defeated at anything.
When it was over, when the silence finally fell between them, it was as though there were no other girls in the house. The door to the office was closed. The halls beyond it might have been empty. The world might have paused in its turning and held its breath. Though she tried to seem placid, Miss Guo held within her a dense clump of distress whose weight pressed painfully downward, sinking toward the cushion of her chair. Her hands were folded on the surface of the desk.
“I’m so sorry for what you have gone through, KarenWOODS,” she said. “And for your loss.”
What else was there to say? In a small number of words she had covered the multitude of possibilities, from utter deviousness to genuine grief and abusive injury. KarenWOODS nodded briefly, stood and left the office, leaving the door ajar. Slowly, the world came back. Mrs. Bao brought tea and sliced fruit. Miss Guo heard footfalls through the ceiling from the floor above. Monty the dog, whom she had completely forgotten about, got up from the corner and came over to her, looking expectant, as though it wanted food or needed to be taken outside to relieve itself.
So Miss Guo finished her tea and fruit, and then went for a walk with the dog during which she had the thought to not come back.