I Have Been
Looking For You
by Susanna Kwan
I arrived here on Thursday at dawn, and not an hour later my fingers were blue.
It’s winter here on the other side of the world from you, the best season for produce. There is a fruit that is ripest this week, the most festive time of year around these parts, and it smells like a mix of fresh berries and spices. It’s not large, maybe plum-sized, and has a coarse, stubbled crust. The whole town has grown their nails to the perfect length, about one centimeter, for optimal peeling. Packed inside are hundreds of tiny, sweet, bulging pods, softer than pomegranate arils, but more durable than the plush pulp of most citrus.
Everyone’s hands are stained blue from prying into the fruits. Fingers are too large for a delicate extraction. You lose half the juice just bringing it to your tongue. My arms are like those of the impulsive children, with lines of color trailing down to my elbows, like melted sapphires.
If you were here, Mom, I know you’d make the best jams and pies from this stuff, or a crumble, or a tart soup. They’d let you into the kitchen at the bakery downstairs from the room I’ve rented. They’d feed you and add your creations to their menu. They’ve convinced me to finish out the week here, so I’ll stay just a few days longer before taking off.
* * *
I met a young man with fire for hair. I woke when he sat beside me on an overnight bus going away from the coast, my left shoulder glowing from the heat. Davy looked apologetically at me, noticing I was awake, and I smiled and tried not to let my discomfort show. He had to lean slightly forward so as not to ignite the polyester seat covers. It must be terrible, to always be in danger of setting anything close on fire.
After a brief chat, he found that I had no set itinerary and invited me to visit his town. He was on his way back home to see his family, after having been away at school for several months. I accepted his invitation.
Everyone in his town has fire-hair. Nothing looks particularly out of the ordinary, but the cars all have removable roofs that are always open and nearly everyone carries a small fire extinguisher in their purses or pockets.
His family was nothing but hospitable. His parents took my coat and bag and sat me at the table in front of a bowl of peppery soup. His younger sisters sat across from me, whispering and nudging each other. They slid down into their seats and asked in tiny voices if later they could braid my hair.
Davy’s mother’s hair is very short—dark purple with small licks of orange flickering through. It reminds me of your old gas stove, when I’d watch at your side as you set up your grand pots of oxtail stew on each burner, the flames at my eye level. His father’s hair is purple as well, but much paler, almost white. Both of his sisters have hair like his—deep orange with brilliant red tips that shoot out about a foot off their foreheads.
They’ve been so kind to me these last two weeks, letting me stay in Davy’s old room while he sleeps in on the couch. The beds have a lightly padded, flame-resistant board to rest the head upon, and are a reasonable distance from the walls, most of which have smoky black stains from when the children were younger and not yet aware of how lively their hair got in sleep.
I’ve been up close to them now. The girls have youthful skin with satiny marks at their hairlines, but Davy and his parents are covered in scars all over their bodies. Most are concentrated on their cheeks and necks—uneven patches, subtly discolored. Their hands curl oddly at rest where the skin is tighter from old burns. Davy’s father has a dark, raised rectangle on his right forearm from what looks to be a skin graft.
Last night, as Davy packed up to return to school, his mother asked me to stay. She knows I have no more family left—I told her about what happened to you—and she says there is no reason for me to wander about aimlessly, and warns that it’s dangerous out there for young women traveling alone.
“We’re happy to be your family,” she told me. “You don’t have to carry on all by your lonesome.”
I was so close to staying. I’d already unpacked my things into Davy’s old drawers, and when he left this morning, he kissed my forehead and said, “I look forward to visiting all three of my sisters on my next holiday.”
But before bed, and after I’d decided to give staying here a serious try, Davy’s mom tried to set my hair on fire. She assured me she’d done it before—turned normal hair into fire-hair—and that while it was sometimes difficult to manage and there was always a burn risk, I’d be instantly a part of the family, the entire town.
She brought out a wide, white candle. My heart was glowing. Mom, I was so happy to have found them. I really imagined myself staying there, permanently. But when she brought the flame to my straight black hair, there was only smoke, a crackling noise, a terrible smell. No gorgeous flames, no warm colors. Sizzling clumps fell on my shoulders like ruined comets, searing briefly at my skin.
She swatted frantically at my head and swore it had never failed before, was baffled there had been no successful transformation. I wept a bit, too, not because of the burns on my shoulders, and not because my hair was nearly gone, but because I could see, through all of the crying mess, the way she was looking at me. Like she was disappointed in me.
She promised it would be okay, that it wasn’t the law that I have fire-hair, but I've decided that tomorrow I’ll go. She’ll insist that I stay, I know it. She’ll worry after me and say, “But who will take care of you? Who will make sure that you are safe?” But I know I can’t stay here.
* * *
I came to this town after leaving Davy’s family because I heard that people had recovered the things they’d lost here. One woman I met on the road told me her husband had disappeared on a jog twenty years ago and never returned. Ever since, she’d been unable to feel anything. She came here and did what the townspeople said, and within days a weight returned to the left side of her chest, pulsing and thumping in her ribcage.
She told me the story that had brought her here initially. She’d met a couple that had never been able to carry a child to full term, had despaired for a decade, losing hope again and again. When they arrived, the mayor heard about their story and came personally to welcome them. Together they hiked the highest hill and, after following a series of precise instructions, the woman descended feeling sudden life in her belly. The mayor told her to expect healthy twin girls in short time. The couple stayed here until the babies came, terrified that if they left, she’d instantly miscarry. Two rosy-faced girls were born in the fall.
When I arrived here yesterday, a young woman greeted me as I stepped off the bus. She told me she knew I had lost someone and had been expecting me. I wasn’t surprised. I was ready to have you back.
At dusk last night, she sent me out to a dark, damp field with a blanket to sit on and instructed me to watch the skies very carefully. The first star would appear around eight o’clock. I was to begin counting then, and when the hundredth star emerged, I was to direct up into that star, with all my might, my wish to have back what was gone.
It was difficult to keep an accurate count, but I was diligent and my attention did not wander, despite the blurred noise of a live orchestra I could hear coming from the center of town. I counted to a hundred, your star sparkling there to the west, and wished with everything in me to have you back. I wished for you to be there when I got home, with steamed fish and a pot of porridge, waiting for me, asking after my journey.
I went back to see the woman when I finished, but her grave expression told me it hadn’t worked.
“But I did exactly as you told me.”
“Perhaps you miscounted,” she replied, eyes narrowed. “Tomorrow night, try again. But it must be the hundredth star, or it will not work. You will not recover what is lost to you.”
So tonight I tried again, and I’m certain that I wished on that hundredth star. Afterward, I made my way back to the town center, but as I neared, the lively sounds I’d heard from the field faded, and when I arrived, there was nobody here. I couldn’t find the woman, I couldn’t find anyone at all. The silence was very thick, complete. I went to retrieve my things, but I couldn’t find the hostel I stayed at last night. I tried to return to the field, but I couldn’t find the road that leads there either.
* * *
This afternoon, someone was irretrievably lost, wrapped and folded into the sea. Just gone. She was strong and fierce—I could tell by the way she moved—so I didn’t expect it when she and her surfboard were towed under.
I hitchhiked for a few days to get to the coast, thinking that being near the water might calm me. My last driver let me off near the beach, and I saw a crowd gathered down on the sand. It was a protest against cargo ships carrying cars to a nearby port. From the shore, I saw dozens of surfers twisting atop the curve of the waves to stop the freightliners in the ash-green water. The crowd formed a line along the beach, slapping the vellum surface of their drums and singing in harmony, also in opposition to the ships. The noise made me uncomfortable, the same way parades and demonstrations back home do. But I envied them. They acted with such conviction, knowing exactly what they stood for and why they were there. The surfers maneuvered the waves as if they owned them, toes gripping the edges of their boards as they glided across the swells and prevented the ships from advancing.
It was then that she disappeared, sucked in a sudden instant beneath the water. The remaining surfers dropped down on their boards, trying to see below the mirrored surface of the sea. The ships inched forward. I rushed to the water’s edge and craned my neck, looking for a flailing hand, a splash, any indication of her.
Soon an engine drove onto the sand and sent a fireman up a vertical ladder. He perched there at the top with binoculars, monitoring the barrier of surfers as his colleagues paced, inutile, on the beach. It reminded me of the time the neighbors across the street had a fire, and we watched from the sidewalk as the flames rose to the second story, then the third, and as the firemen erected a ladder and climbed to the roof, you pulled me closer and promised me that everyone inside would be okay. It was winter. The trees were holding onto their last scarlet leaves. How did you know they would be saved? You always seemed so certain.
I gripped the sand with my toes, feeling waves of uncertainty rush through me. It was an impressive protest, but in the end, a boat with glittering red sirens arrived and pulled the remaining surfers from the water, wrapping them in red towels, and the ships continued on their way, leaving violent white water-clouds behind them. I was relieved that the surfers they were safe and angry that everyone had let the girl drown. I left before they returned to shore. I didn’t bother looking for a place to spend the night; I caught the next train out of there.
As my train took me inland, I thought about the girl, the surfers, the unsuspecting sea life, the darkening water, and the stacks of cars inside of the ships, vessels within vessels, built from dull, storm-colored metals. The afternoon played on repeat in my mind: the silence that fell over the crowd when she dropped down into the ocean, the resignation in the surfers’ bodies as they boarded the rescue boat, the plaintive song the crowd began to sing as the boat returned.
I knew everyone would continue on their way despite losing the girl, agendas unchanged and morals intact. They would come to believe that she had gone peacefully, a hero who carried with her a cause. Perhaps her grieving mother would not think so, or perhaps her mother was among those singing on shore, her voice proud and shining through her loss. It was like those stories of martyrs and noble princes I begged you to read to me. You always did, but with disdain, and when you turned the last page, you would kiss me and remind me that there were many ways people could be brave. I did not understand what you meant then, but I see now the strange nature of romantic sacrifices and the weight of it feels unbearable.
My skin and hair are sticky from the salt in the air. Those mournful hymns are with me, even though I am far from the sea. You must be shaking your head at me now, wondering if I’ll ever find a place that fits.
* * *
It seems inevitable that I’ve come to this town although it wasn’t easy to find. Travelers I’ve met have consistently directed me here, in case I don’t find what I’m looking for and get too tired. I caught a series of buses and trains that snaked through lush, overgrown farmland and petrified forests, finally arriving to this place, carved into the blue mountainside.
This town is tiny and easy to move through, its streets forming a simple grid. It extends for twenty-five well-lit square blocks, with roads running north to south and east to west. Each corner building has a rounded edge, to ease the sharpness of all the ninety-degree angles.
My travel guide says the Numbing Rooms are in discreet locations, tucked between gift shops and ice cream parlors, usually with an unassuming awning and a waiting room visible through the front windows. Identifying one feels like a pleasant accident, like the times we’d happen upon a new bread shop or yarn store when you brought me along on your errands.
A woman with pink cheeks and red lips greeted me from behind the reception desk. She smelled like lemons. “How can I help you, sweetheart?”
“Well, I’ve heard about this place from a few different people. They recommended that I check you guys out, you know, if I ever really needed to forget—well, not forget—something.”
“Someone, you mean?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to completely forget her.”
“Of course not, darling. We don’t offer amnesia services here. What we do is we Numb.”
“Yes, exactly! I want to be Numbed.”
She nodded. “Very good. Have a seat. I’ll get someone to help you out in a jiffy.”
She gestured toward the ochre velvet armchairs, their cushions holding gentle impressions of their last occupants, the buttons and seams worn. The peppermint tea she brought me cooled my throat and warmed my insides.
After a short while, an assistant brought me into a tidy office for a consultation with a man named Mr. Gold. He wore a starched lab coat and his graying hair held a soft wave. He propped his elbows on the oak desk, clasped his fingers, and asked me right away what it was that I needed to Numb out.
I told him about the afternoon you disappeared, how we searched your usual routes, fanned out across the town looking for hints of you. We found your bicycle in a clump of trees, battered and twisted, with a torn scrap of your yellow linen dress hanging off the jagged gears. But we couldn’t find you. We found no notes, no breadcrumbs, no footprints in the mud. Not even a hairpin or one of your hoop earrings. If you had screamed, no one was there to hear it.
He drew blood samples, did a full-body scan, had me fill out a questionnaire on my medical history, and sent me back to the front room for a long wait. I flipped through magazines on parenting and gardening, and finished what I could of a crossword puzzle.
Then he told me I wasn’t an ideal candidate for Numbing.
“Well, I’ve gone over the results of your tests,” he said. “And while we’re sympathetic to the sudden loss of your mother, we don’t think that attempting a permanent Numbing procedure would be a good idea. We don’t believe it would be entirely successful on you.”
I repeated to him how I’d come a very long way, that Numbing was my only hope.
He smiled, tilting his head a fraction. “You’re very young, and I know the grief in you is hard to carry. I want you to understand—our team really did take into consideration your story, and I must admit that even in a place like this, we don’t often encounter sadness quotients at your level. But take a look at this.”
He pulled my chart out of a large yellow envelope, attaching a transparency of my body scan to the light box mounted on the wall. The dark masses of my organs floated inside my glowing skeleton. The image seemed to vibrate with life. Flickers of silver coursed through my bones, nerves, and veins, like frantic, lost particles.
“These are your scan results. It’s rare that we see this, but rest assured, we know better than to tamper with it. What this means is that no matter what we do, we can’t extract the sorrow from your bloodstream.”
I stared at the image, stunned. “I don’t understand.”
“Well,” he said, tapping a pencil thoughtfully on the light box, “what we’re looking at here is a lifetime of ache.”
* * *
After the Numbing Room incident and Mr. Gold’s diagnosis, I decided to stay for a while.
“Think about sticking around and seeing what comes next, young lady,” the old man who runs the corner grocery said with a wink as he tossed bruised fruits and wilted vegetables into a scrap bin.
My bags have grown heavy—I’m still carrying these letters I’ve written for you, but I still have no address to send them to. It is too late for me to go back home. Surely they’ve packed away your things by now, donated those fur coats and glass vases to the thrift shop, scrubbed the walls and corners of your dust. I won’t be able to get back inside. I picture a net of lacy moss stretched out over your house, overgrown and endometrial, thickening daily, blocking my way in. If I returned, the house would not remember me. It is not my place. It does not want me there.
There are quite a few odd men here, real-life ghosts wrapped in huge felt blankets, who drift down the sidewalks or peer intently into gutters, studying the leaves and garbage caught against the grates. The grocer disposes of his broken produce just after sunrise each day. The woman who sells coffee and cookies from her cart has already learned my name and has taken to giving me two of everything I order, insisting that I am too thin. Winter storms rain down on the roof of the attic I have been offered in exchange for my role as a baker’s assistant. We rise before dawn, mixing batter and kneading dough. I’ve been working on a recipe for a rhubarb berry tart, and they think I might have a knack for this. I guess we’ll see.
The last two months have been very cold. I’ve had to purchase sweaters and a proper coat to stay warm when I step outside. I take long walks and am surprised at how pretty my neighborhood is. The snow here is pink and has been for the past six years, according to the grocer. For a decade before that, mint-green snow blanketed the terrain, giving the illusion of a blooming winter crop, followed by a brief but well-remembered season of silver snow.
In my dream last night, you sliced up salted fish, black mushrooms, and bamboo shoots to mix into rice. Your mustard greens sparkled with oil. There were vanilla cupcakes for dessert, with frosting made from scratch. The particular curl of your fingers as you directed the knife. The spices you added for taste when I wasn’t looking. The exact temperature of the bath you would draw for me. The way you shuffled about at night, too weary to lift your feet. You are beyond replication. You were whole, and now you are vanished.
I’m going to stick out the rest of the season here, see what springtime will bring. I don’t think I’ll write anymore, but I’ll be thinking about you all the time. You are the silver pulsing through me. You are pieces of light built into me.
Susanna Kwan is a writer, editor, and illustrator. She has received fellowships from Kundiman and the San Francisco Writers' Grotto and has an MFA from Vanderbilt University.