"Do you see this beetle?" my father said, pointing at its shiny back with his pencil. "Just think - it's mathematical fact! Even the tiniest insect has as many points on its back as the entire universe." He tapped his pencil by the beetle several times. "Life is like that," he mused. "Think about it! The tiniest insect contains infinity on its back: each life contains as much meaning as all of history." Then he leaned forward and blew a quick, sharp breath on the beetle, which unfolded tiny translucent wings, lifted into the wind, and flew away.
I called Hannah that night. She was spending the summer in Chicago. I said, "Who knew? Dad's getting mushy." I felt like a traitor as soon as I said it, but I had to put the sarcastic note in to get her to listen.
"Not interested," she said.
Hannah had called me a couple days before she disappeared, crying because the baby of a woman she worked with had died the night before. I'd suddenly hit a wall in my dissertation, and when Hannah called I hadn't slept for days, and had spent the morning pacing, swiping at a blackboard I had put up in my living room.
"He's dead," Hannah wept as soon as I answered the phone.
"The baby," Hannah sobbed.
"Marjorie's, a woman from work."
A wave of relief passed over me. "Jesus Christ," I said. "Are you trying to scare me to death?"
"Her neighbor's children threw her baby out the window while she was at work."
"Holy shit," I said. "Who was watching it?"
"How's your friend?"
There was a sharp intake of breath. "How do you think?" And then a pause. "I'm not really close to her. I tried to find her phone number, but it's not listed."
"Oh, Hannah, that's awful," I said, and wrote What the fuck? on my blackboard, quietly so she couldn't hear the chalk.
On cue, Hannah started to cry again.
"Stop," I said. She didn't even know these people.
"They were only twelve years old," she said. "I don't know how to deal with this."
I didn't respond, outraged somehow that she could take this woman's tragedy and try to make it personal. As though the world hurt her in particular and no one else. Some people have real problems, I wanted to say. That woman whose baby died, she has problems. "Hannah, please don't cry," I said, but that only made her cry harder. I waited for her to stop. I could think of nothing to say that would help.
A couple months after Hannah disappeared, the kids who had thrown the baby out the window went on trial. I followed the case out of some perverse loyalty. It turned out Marjorie wasn't a colleague of Hannah's, but a cleaning lady who worked in her building. She lived not in Hannah's trendy North Side neighborhood but in one of the South Side housing projects.
Her surviving son's name was Kevin. He was ten years old. The neighbor's kids had been giving him trouble for some time. The lock on his door had been broken for weeks, and they had come to rifl e through the things in his house, to eat his mother's food.
When they came he was sitting on the sofa watching cartoons; his baby brother was in his lap.
Roadrunner was outwitting Wile E. Coyote, whose Acme mail- order products never quite got the job done. Boulders, buildings, pianos hung suspended in air a beat too long. Roadrunner zoomed fearlessly beneath impending doom, but Wile E. Coyote, always too slow, was flattened on the desert landscape. That day his neighbors asked Kevin for candy. They pulled his baby brother out of his lap and pushed him. He began to cry, but he had no candy. So they held his brother, dangling him by his legs out the window. His brother loved it, gurgled with laughter, held seventeen stories above the ground.
Kevin's eyes met the boys' who held his little brother. There was no sound when the boys let go. Through the open window they saw an empty sky.
Excerpted from Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung. Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Chung. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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