Jan 13, 2022
7 mins read
This is the first part of a novella to be published monthly here for my Kindred Spirits and on my Patreon for Tiers 2 and 3 patrons. Hope you enjoy it! I include a little video at the end for those who want some background on the sound of Chinese zheng or just want to hear some lovely music.
This far into fall, I’ve seen enough leaves that I no longer pick up every vibrant specimen I see. Except for this one, blown up against the threshold of Caffè Della Macchina, where I'm about to work a much-needed double shift. A bright yellow gingko leaf. I look around for a tree I know I won’t find. Since moving here this spring I've explored every street in this neighborhood and there are no gingkos outside the botanical gardens, three miles away. This is a fluke of the wind, and thus full of sudden meaning. I visualize exactly where I'm going to place the leaf on my 'altar to impermanence': in front of the postcard from my ex-girlfriend, showing a picturesque sakura explosion in Kyoto.
Lio, she wrote, You would love this. XO Beth. X for canceled, I thought. O for nothing. I'll burn the card along with everything else I need to shed from this year when the winter solstice comes around. And my collection of leaves, I'll release to the wind, adding some color to the snow-covered world.
I bend down to pick up the new treasure, and freeze in mid-reach as I notice something infinitely more unusual about it: its surface, glowing in the early morning light, is covered with writing. Every centimeter of it, in a hand so regular it could almost be typeset.
“Oh wow,” I murmur in wonder. Somewhere, some brilliant artist is missing their work. Escaped on the wind, hopefully after it was Instagrammed. Maybe it's signed; I'll never be able to tell without my glasses on. Or I shouldn't be able to. But the moment I pick up the leaf, my hand humming with a pulse of faint but undeniable energy, the words reach my eyes as clearly as if they've been magnified.
Thank you, whoever you are. Thank you in advance because I think if you can read this, you're able to help and I hope you're willing. Sleep on this, literally: under your pillow. I'll explain tonight. N.
The rational part of my brain reasserts itself with a jolt. I force a laugh, amazed in a consciously I-am-neither-crazy-nor-having-a-supernatural-experience sort of way. Whoever this N. is, they're my kind of maker. Surrealists will save the world.
I gently tuck the leaf in my pocket while I fumble with Della Macchina’s key code. This time of morning, only Julia, the owner, will be here. I think about sharing my peculiar find with her, but no. The woman is all-business, and unless you're talking about the distinguishing characteristics of regional Ethiopian coffee or the latest oolong from Taiwan, she won't engage with you. And even then, her striking amber eyes study you sideways, like you're some other species that only recently picked up human language. No, I'll save it for Dolores, the master roaster, with whom I'm angling for an apprenticeship.
But when Dolores comes in and waves at me in her friendly but preoccupied fashion (talking on the phone as always, until she has actual work to distract her) I find I've changed my mind. Before I left Seattle, I promised Preeti, my therapist, that I'd work on my need to share everything, and I've done a good job so far, with only a few errors. (The glaring one would be Beth; Preeti would challenge the claim but clearly I’d terrified her, just like all the others. We haven’t talked about it yet. I hate video calls.)
What would happen if you kept something for yourself? she asked at our last session. And I purposely said 'for' yourself, not 'to'. What is the worst thing that would happen if you just hung on to something, for no other reason than it gives you joy?
It felt like a radical concept. Happiness independent of others. Middle child issues, I suppose. I finger the leaf in my pocket, and could almost swear that it responds with a tiny bit of warmth. Like it approves.
I've never worked anywhere quite like Della Macchina. There’s a vibe to it that’s sort of equal parts The Matrix and Wonderland. This is thanks to the Cocoons—comfy, woven personal nooks suspended from the ceiling beams, each one kitted out with a low-bluelight lamp and a multi-purpose power outlet for all the freelance coders and data-wallahs who call this space their office. There are dozens of them and each one's occupied today. Morning moves into afternoon at a Monday clip, with a new order for me to deliver to the over-caffeinated customers (in my mind I call them ‘caterpillars’) about every five minutes. I feel sorry for them, and a little guilty. That I'm not in their place. That I got out of it, no matter how insane it seemed to cash everything in and start over. But every day, just before my normal shift ends, I thank the universe for the fact that I did, and that I ended up here, the home of 'the Floating Hour'.
Every afternoon at 1:59 PM, there is a deep, distant-sounding toll of a bell. One minute later, Julia shuts down the WiFi, and the electricity—reducing the light to whatever makes it through the windows, and our service to whatever drinks we can prepare with water heated on a beautiful big wood stove – and she sits by the window and plays the guzheng, a Chinese zither, for a solid hour. The outage is usually followed by a wave of curses and groans from the caterpillars, and some complaints from customers who aren't regulars. But for the next hour, everyone who doesn't storm out will sit in whatever light remains, and listen to Julia's music, and cope with the fact that the only world they're connected to is the one right in front of their faces.
Of course some of them keep those faces to their screens, working offline in the gloom for as long as their laptops or tablets have a charge. You'll ruin your eyes, I think, channeling my father as I close myself out of the cash system. And as often happens lately when I say that, it brings someone to mind: the girl who used to come here before some actual visual impairment took her out of the game. Or that's the story I've built around why she hasn't been back in months.
Nadiya was her name. A shy type, though she was one of the few caterpillars who actually bothered to get a refill at the counter. Pretty, with big dark eyes, which she kept averted most of the time. We only had two conversations, if you can call them that. The first time, when she correctly identified the WolfSkullJack werewolf on my t-shirt, and blushed to the tips of her ears, it made me think seriously about dating again. But she retreated, and there was not another word but ‘Thanks’ until the day I learned something was going on with her vision.
Floating Hour struck while she was getting a refill, and as the bell sounded, she took off her glasses, massaged her sunken eyes, and said 'Finally.' She looked pale and nauseous and oddly scared. Then she said, half to herself, 'I can't do this anymore'. I told her I could relate, but she shook her head in this haunted, sad way, like she didn't think I could. She actually had to get me to read for her what was on the pay screen because she wasn’t able to, and then the power went off anyway so she got a free one. That was the last time I saw her.
I see that look on her face now, in my mind’s eye, as the reverberations of the bell subside. There's a space of a few minutes after the power goes off that, no matter how long you've been working here, you just want to stand still and listen, and breathe, and vibrate. Blackout silence, I think to myself, is golden. And in the pocket of my jacket, the gingko leaf hums again.