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Excerpt from King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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King of the Armadillos

by Wendy Chin-Tanner

King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner X
King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2023, 336 pages

    Sep 17, 2024, 336 pages


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The tunnel swallowed the train as it slid underground, deep beneath the Hudson River, where the dark turned the window into a mirror. In it, staring back at Victor, was a face he didn't quite recognize, with puffy cheeks and eyelids to match. The fingers that touched it looked like sausages whose skins were about to burst. The swelling was always worse in the mornings. At the station, he'd felt monstrous, afraid people would take one look at him and know what he had—what he was—but here with the nurse in their private car, he could relax, even though the door wasn't locked for his comfort, but to keep the public safe from him.

Earlier that summer, when Ba's girlfriend, Ruth, pointed out a small rosy lesion on his chest at the pool, he'd thought it was just a rash, but when it didn't go away, she got worried. Ba agreed to let her take him to a doctor, not their regular one in Chinatown, but a skin specialist in the Bronx. The doctor didn't seem too concerned until more lesions popped up. From the way he peered at those new sores, first through his glasses and then more closely without them, Victor knew something was very wrong. A biopsy was sent off to a lab, and a few days later, Victor was sent to Bellevue, where the doctors gave him the terrible news: he had leprosy. Because he would need aggressive drug treatment and an operation on his nerves, one of the doctors, who'd been a medical officer at Carville, urged Ba to send him to the institution. Ma, who was still in China, had always said he had the hands of a scholar, long-fingered and delicate as birds. What would she say if she saw them now? He could hardly believe these throbbing mitts belonged to him.

It wasn't just the lesions. There were other changes, too. He was getting fevers from out of nowhere, bursts of heat followed by chills. Waves of nausea and fatigue would overcome him when he'd been fine the moment before. And even though his asthma never flared up in the summer, he was having trouble breathing. Things got even stranger when he started to lose the feeling in his arms.

One day, on a delivery run for Ba's laundry, a pin poking through a package of shirts had scraped his skin, and it was only when he saw the blood on his wrist that he knew he was hurt. But he hadn't worried too much about it until his fingers swelled up not long after that, when he woke up one morning to find them tender to the touch, as if they were full of fluid. Rooting around in Ba's sewing kit for a fine-tipped needle, he thought he could relieve the pressure like he did when he popped a pimple or lanced a blister. But when the needle pricked his thumb, a searing sensation tore through his hand.

His body had gone haywire; the contradiction of feeling nothing on his arms while lightning bolts of pain were striking his hands made no sense. How could anyone feel too little and too much at the same time? It made him think he was imagining it. Or that he was going crazy.

As horrified as he was to have leprosy, a part of him was relieved to at least get an explanation for what was happening to him, though as soon as the lab results came in, people began to treat him differently. Ba and Henry got quiet on their visits, their faces solemn and still, while Ruth hovered over him, filling the silence with a constant stream of talk. Even though the doctors told them the disease was rarely contagious, the nurses started to wear gloves in his room, and a couple of times, he caught a group of young men in white coats peeking at him through the glass panel of the door. Inside, he was the same as he'd always been, but with a single test, he'd become something else. A creature so scary and dangerous that he had to be banished from New York to live with other outcasts like him.

The Bible said leprosy came from sin. In China, he once saw a beggar whose face had been covered in a grotesque mask of sores. When he asked Ma about it, she said the gods must have been punishing the man for sleeping with prostitutes or dead people. Victor hadn't slept with anyone, of course, dead or alive. And what kind of sin could he have committed to deserve such a punishment unless it was for not being a Christian? But there were tons of non-Christians in the world and they didn't all have leprosy. The doctors said ninety-five percent of the population was immune and he was just one of the unlucky five percent.

Excerpted from King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner. Copyright © 2023 by Wendy Chin-Tanner. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron 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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