My hand hovered awkwardly above the chair I had been reaching for.
"I would like you to assemble the ingredients for me. Do you remember them?"
I couldn't help but feel that this was some sort of test. Though I had only a dim notion of what went into the egg rolls, I feared that if I failed to complete the task, she would not continue her story. Trepidatiously, I began selecting ingredients from the refrigerator and cupboards, trying to think back to what I had seen and smelled in the kitchen during our last meeting. Sister Emmanuel's face, or the few parts of it that weren't concealed by the glasses, betrayed nothing as I placed each of the items on the table. I finished by setting down the chopping knife, the cutting board, and the mixing bowl. Then I stood waiting for her judgment with my hands folded. Every so often my fingers twitched nervously.
Sister Emmanuel scanned the collection. "Very well done, Sister," she said. "You only missed one ingredient." Disappointment welled up in my chest. "A small thing," she continued, rising from her chair and crossing the room; "a humble ingredient, and easily overlooked." She returned from the refrigerator holding a single egg. "But this is what binds the entire creation together."
The shell glowed yellow in the afternoon light. She cracked it into the bowl and then resumed her story.
In those days the law did not look kindly upon anything that could be termed the "unnatural," for it was believed to have a dangerous effect on the general public. If the police had known that the notorious Red Woman of the North would be passing through town they surely would have tried to apprehend her, for she claimed to be a powerful seer with the entire spirit world at her disposal. But she was wily and she was feared. She went by a hundred different names, and in the stories they told of her she was sometimes a wizened old crone, sometimes young and sylphlike. Sometimes she was not wholly woman, and usually she could change shape. She had never been caught.
The news of her arrival spread quietly, quickly through the village. It moved like a disease: exchanged with the vegetables at the marketplace, whispered between neighbors, passed around on scraps of paper at the local school. Red Woman was stopping for a single night during her journey down the coast. She would demonstrate her power to communicate with the dead, and even to grant them speech again, for a price. There would be only one show. The old temple after sundown; one piaster per person.
Nhi and Vi were thirteen, just becoming beautiful, and the news had made its way to them from one of the young, shaggyhaired fishermen at the docks who stared for too long and raised their voices whenever they passed. At moonrise, they made their way to the Cham temple on the hill. Vi and Nhi linked arms as they approached, Nhi sweeping a long branch in front of them on the path, for snakes. There was rustling jungle to either side of them, and a noisy silence in the darkness like the sound of a held breath. A light, faintly fishy breeze was blowing in from the seamonsoon season was still a ways off. When they reached the crumbling archway they each handed a coin to a little man wearing old army fatigues, the pants rolled up to the knees. He grinned at them as they entered, and they were treated to a view of his many missing teeth.
For hundreds of years the nearby banyan trees had been slowly strangling the templetheir roots grew up through the bricks and around the columns like long gray fingers. Inside, in the middle of the central chamber, a fire on a grate cast ruddy light on carvings of monkey guards, grinning demons, and dancing goddesses. Nhi and Vi took a place on the floor and looked around at the other villagers who had come: mostly men and curious children, but there were some women there, tooboth young and oldand the twins knew that several of them were there to try to speak with their husbands or sons who had been soldiers. These women stood near the back, where the shadows hid their hollow faces.
Excerpted from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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