This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine TunnelCon II, in 1992. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.
A Wandering Soul
"Thien, ya got point. Take 'er easy."
The crew boss bent and pulled up the manhole cover, waiting while Thien clambered awkwardly into the opening and found the rungs of the ladder with his boots.
"Two jerks onna feed line if yer goin' farther in. One if ya spot the leak and yer comin' up. And if ya unhook that line, yer butt better be topside onna double."
Thien began to descend, moving with the compact efficiency of his small, muscular people. O'Brien's rough Bronx tones followed him into the darkness, but Thien didn't reply. The bark of that voice started and ended most of his days, and anyway, he couldn't have answered if he wished to. He had no voice.
His boots scraped bottom and he stepped off the ladder. He stood still a moment, letting his eyes go as dim as the tunnel he'd entered. As always, he felt as though he'd been swallowed. But there was no fear. He had not feared the tunnels since he'd realized what they were: A quiet place, a deep place. A place where ancestors walked.
Deep in the stomach of the leviathan city, Nguyen Thien Le tilted his head to look up at the white crescent of light some fifteen feet above him. His feed line dangled from it and ran toward its fastener at his belt. It was humiliating to be leashed like a dog or a young child--he was seventeen and doing a man's work, even if his skinny frame and berry-dark eyes made him look years younger. But much as he hated it, the tether could not be avoided. O'Brien wouldn't let him go down without it, since he couldn't call out for help.
Thien thumbed on his light and looked around him, utterly still for the moment. His nostrils flared as he exhaled the scent of wet motor oil and gutter stench, and drew in the cool, mineral-scented air of the underground. He smiled.
He was here for the water. The city's arteries--water pipes, gas lines, power cables--threaded throughout and under and above the Manhattan bedrock like a human's nerves and blood vessels. But he had no obligation where gas or power were concerned, other than to report any irregularities that made themselves known to him. He was here for water only. Residents in this neighborhood had reported a loss of water pressure, and he was to check for a leak in one of the mains.
I find it close to uptop, he told himself. This part of city, nothing breaks far below. Curious, mister.
Moving within the tight circle allowed by the slack in the feedline, he found little moisture beyond what was to be expected from rain runoff. He looked up at the eye of light once more, and gave two firm pulls on his feedline. After a moment, he got two back in response, and began to move deeper into the tunnel.
He imagined the clank of the cylinder unwinding above as O'Brien jealously fed out the feedline. A bulky tool pouch patted his thighs in rhythm to his gait, and he swung his light in even arcs, watching for signs of free-flowing water.
They'd localized the leak to a two-block area. In theory, his crewmates would check the pipes at the second tunnel access point nearby. One would go down while the other stayed above in contact with O'Brien, and they'd take it in turns. Hopefully, someone would find the leak before lunch.
Thien knew better. He could count on O'Brien to back him up, but Pulaski and Skink would already be on their way to the donut shop. Let the dummy go down first. He'll find it.
Not that Thien minded. He was welcome in this murky quiet, welcome among the rocks as mute as he. Somewhere ahead, precious water was escaping its prescribed path, and his job was to guide it back into its safe ways, as he'd done since a child in the rice paddies. Then, he'd dug the irrigation canals with hands and hoe; now he used a wrench and gleaming lengths of new pipe, or a soldering iron and joints. But his square brown hands were as quick as ever, and it was good work.
If luck walked with him, he might even see the ancestor-spirit he'd glimpsed once before, that had the shape of a man and an unearthly face, and light for its head and hand, and darkness for its body. An old spirit. A sacred spirit.
A half-hour later he poked his head out of the tunnel, squinting against the white glare of daylight. Horns brayed as ten o'clock traffic inched around the neon cones, so many annoyed, shiny-backed beetles. Thien coughed as he caught a lungful of exhaust.
O'Brien grasped his hand and helped pull him up. The crew boss studied his wet knees and sleeves. "Found it, didn't ya?"
Thien nodded. Skink ambled over from his reclining position against the truck. He still had powdered sugar in his mustache. "He need any help with the fix, Big O?"
A paunchy, unkempt man who ate constantly, Skink addressed his question to O'Brien, as though Thien could not be expected to form a response.
Your fat hangs over the belt, Thien threw at him silently, and turned away to stow his equipment in the truck.
O'Brien glowered at Skink. "Don't call me that, jerk. Thien, what's the op?"
Ignoring Skink, Thien removed a short, stout length of pipe larger around than his arm from the back of the truck, and held it up. He pointed to one end and raised his eyebrows.
Thien shook his head, stifling a small pang of impatience. It had all been so much easier when Norm had been alive--his second father, who understood the language of the hands. He made a "ring" with one hand and "fitted" it to the end of the pipe. Then he separated two fingers, and looked at O'Brien expectantly.
"Joint's cracked," O'Brien announced. He barely waited for Thien's confirming nod.
"Pulaski, double-time it back to the end of the block and cut off the water there. Skink, you'n the kid'll go down and patch 'er up...."
Thien tapped a fingernail against the pipe until the tiny ringing caught O'Brien's attention.
Thien pointed to himself, and then to Skink, shaking his head.
"Ya wanna fix it by yerself?" O'Brien questioned.
Off Thien's nod, the crew boss looked thoughtful. He thumbed through the yellow repair orders on his clipboard. "A guy needs some extra hands down there. Ya sure?"
Thien nodded. He turned back to the truck and started to gather tools and materials, as though the matter were decided.
O'Brien grunted assent. "Lemme call in and tell 'em which buildings we're cutting off. Then you two jokers--" he shot a look at Pulaski and Skink--"can go over to Sixty-fifth an' get started onna next sob story."
As the crew boss walked toward the cab of the truck, Pulaski nudged Skink. "See that, son? The gook's afraid to go down in the dark with ya. Better tell him yer not that kinda guy."
Skink punched Pulaski's arm. "Shut up, Pulaski, willya?" His eyes slid scornfully over Thien and settled elsewhere.
Thien took a high-powered portable lamp out of the truck. Without a backward look he descended into the hole. O'Brien would be angry that he'd gone down without a feedline. He didn't care.
Once below, he hurried down the tunnel toward the leak, heedless of the noise he made with his jingling equipment. By the time O'Brien's yell echoed down the corridor in search of him--"Thien! Dammit, boy, the feedline!"--he had set up the lamp and begun to lay out his tools.
He had also removed and stuffed out of sight the sodden rags and tape he'd found around the offending joint. Someone had made a stopgap repair, one that hadn't lasted. And that someone was not a city employee. Of that Thien was oddly, excitedly certain.
As he waited for Pulaski to shut off the main, he let the escaping water flow over his hands. In the cone of light from the lamp, his hands were beautiful, bony and brown and covered with a flowing, glassy sheet. He looked away down the tunnel, where the small stream rushed into darkness. He'd follow it soon.
The rivulet coughed and slowed to a dribble, then to a drip. He set to work, and began to whistle through his teeth--softly, so as not to pierce the silence he so cherished. In the memory of his ears was his mother's happy voice, singing one of the endless songs of war that were passed round the village.
Sitting in the doorway, Cool breeze passing over me,
I look for my family
In a sad and empty house.
With tears, I miss my father,
With anger, I hate the Viet Cong.
You brought the elephant home
To walk upon our graves.
You took our pretty country,
And sold it to the Soviets. . . .
Within twenty-five minutes he had the joint drum-tight and his equipment packed away. The job would have taken Skink a while longer, which meant Thien had the time he needed.
He found a dry spot for his tool bag and left the portable lamp behind as a marker. Taking a fat orange candle from the pouch at his waist, he touched a match to its wick and began to walk deeper into the tunnels.
This time he went noiselessly, his eyes and ears ranging ahead and to the side and behind, seeking whisper or flicker that would tell him he was not alone. His stealth reminded him of home; of sneaking along roadsides and hiding in ditches to avoid VC. Quiet, mister, quiet, he warned himself, and moved like a puff of smoke through the darkness. It was a long walk, and his thighs began to ache with the pace he set.
Even if he were not meant to see the ancestor today, perhaps there would be some sign of the others who came here to care for the spirits--the ones who made the clumsy pipe repairs, or left the burnt-end matches he sometimes found. He felt a tingle of excited dread at the thought.
He came to the place--a fissure in the smooth walls that looked like nothing more than a notch draped in shadow, until you touched it. He put his hand out, and felt the rush of air through the crack. At its base, it widened just enough for him to squeeze through on his belly, like an eel escaping a net.
He doused his candle, shoved it and his bag through the crack ahead of him, and zipped his jacket to keep it from being caught on the rough stone. Then he wriggled through the gap, holding his breath. He was in a small pocket that branched off another wide tunnel. He stood still, listening, but the only sound was his own soft breath.
His heart pounded as he stepped out into this tunnel that was so different from the one he'd come from. He looked up and down as far as his weak light reached, seeing again what had caught his attention that first day--the gritty floor that was clean of rocks or other debris; the rush of fresh air that came from somewhere above; and, most telling of all, the metal mountings that studded the walls, meant for torches. It meant people . . . or, something else.
Despite himself, Thien shivered. Honoring the ancestors should be a community rite, held before the family shrine--not a sneaky trip into a dank, empty tunnel.
With a sigh, he knelt and shook out the contents of his pouch, and made his second offering of incense--a poor sacrifice, and not even on a proper altar, but all he had. Come back, spirit, he prayed, as the burning incense sent up a ribbon of pungent smoke. Come back. I honor your wisdom. I pray for your guidance...
Today, as before, his prayers went unheeded. He waited as long as he dared, but no one and nothing appeared. Leaving the bowl as a sign of his reverence, he returned the way he had come. I come back, spirit, he promised silently. I go deeper, next time.
O'Brien was red-faced and mad as a hornet when Thien appeared. "Ya jackass! I was about to climb in an' muck around after ya. What took so long?"
Thien lifted his hands and signed a few phrases, as though trying to explain. O'Brien's face reddened even more.
"Ya know I'm no damn good at them charades. Were ya in trouble?"
Thien affected the blank, bird-like stare that usually frustrated O'Brien the most. The man heaved a disgusted sigh.
"Never mind. Well, didja fix it?"
Thien nodded, and turned toward the truck to put away his tools. He folded his face carefully, blandly around his secret.
"Ye gods, what a mess," Jacob Wells murmured, shaking his head in disgust. His lame hip stabbed a protest as he braced his hands on the desk and squinted at the maps spread before him; indeed, over every flat surface in the study.
"There's no possible way we can cope with all the leaks, is there?"
A clawed, golden hand reached past his elbow and gently settled a fragrant cup of tea by his hand. "It's like this every spring, Father."
The old man turned and shot a sharp look of annoyace at the speaker. "True, but the problem is no less frustrating with the passage of time!" he snapped.
His eyes softened as he surveyed his tall adopted son. Vincent's blue eyes were calm as he delicately sipped his own cup of tea. At twenty-three, he still had the unfinished, gangly look of youth, though he was nearly the tallest man in the tunnels and by far the most powerfully built. He was also, currently, quite damp.
"You've been out with the crews already, I see," Father said, wrinkling his nose as he caught the rank smell of tunnel mud and wet fur.
Vincent apologetically backed away a step and offered, "We're making progress."
Father snorted. "Fingers in the dike, as it were. Ah, well. We can only do our best. The city crews will be underfoot for a few weeks, that's sure. I'd best post extra sentries, and tell Mary to keep the--Vincent, what is it?"
He had caught the telltale downward flick of Vincent's eyes at the mention of city crews. "My God, have they spotted us? Vincent!"
His son raised a placating hand. "No, Father. Two crews have been Below today, but they've not seen us. It's only...."
His voice trailed away, and Father didn't need Vincent's empathic abilities to sense his son's reluctance to speak. A parent knew how to deal with that, however.
"Let's have it. This instant, young man."
As always, that particular tone commanded perfect obedience. Vincent fished something out of the pocket of his vest and meekly placed it before his father. "Rebecca found this beyond the Spiral Staircase, in a tunnel near the surface, just where we found the first one. There were candles, too."
Father picked up the small, earthenware pot and sniffed it. The faint aroma of burnt herbs clung to the little bowl, which was otherwise unremarkable, if one discounted the fact that it had no business being anywhere near the inhabited tunnels.
Father sighed. He felt sorely put upon, to have this dropped in his lap on top of the plethora of leaks and gushes and sludge that had recently plagued his underground. "No one admits to this? And it can't possibly be Narcissa's?"
Vincent shook his head, and reached to take the pot back, rotating it in his elegant hands as he examined it.
"The others all say they have no knowledge of it, and I went to Narcissa when we found the first bowl. She says only that there are others who worship as she does, and that I have looked too deep."
Father cast an appealing glance at the ceiling. "A phantom voodoo practitioner loose in our tunnels, or something even more sinister. Lovely."
Vincent smiled. "You mustn't take Narcissa's words so literally, Father. Voodoo is not the only religion that employs herbs and incense."
Embarrassed that he hadn't thought of that himself, Father leaned forward eagerly. "You're absolutely right! Perhaps we could check with some of our Helpers who practice the Eastern faiths. One of them might have come down for some purpose or other, wanting privacy. Vincent, could you--?"
Vincent nodded. "I'll see to it. Don't worry." He pocketed the bowl and headed for the exit. He was half-way down the corridor before Father's voice echoed after him.
"Vincent! What was Rebecca doing that far from home? A child her age--"
Vincent smiled, and kept going.
The teacher's mouth, round and painted pink, shaped the words with exaggerated care. Thien watched his pencil point as he transferred them onto paper.
The other students parroted the teacher solemnly, and then bent to the task of writing the sentence, leaving Thien at a point of pause in his lesson. His mind filled the blank instantly: My-fa-ther-is-dead. My fa-ther-is-dead.
He shifted restlessly in his chair and wished for the next sentence to drive out the thought, but it was like the deep toll of a church bell on a clear morning. It reached everywhere, into every open space, and he was helpless to halt the tumble of half-formed visions that swept up his throat and behind his eyes. He felt sweat break from his skin. He remembered.
Fire. It was always fire. Billows and sheets of it, racing through the small printshop where Norm had been amiably cursing the antique plumbing as he plunged out a toilet. Electrical fire, O'Brien had told him later. Already loose in the walls before any alarm had gone up, and the place full of paper. Fire was the same, in the old life and the new. It ate, it crackled and spat, it wanted water, even the water trapped in the fleshy envelopes of men.
His village, a green, bamboo pocket amid the vast Mekong River Delta, had burned after a fierce mortaring. He was thirteen, his father's firstborn, the one who would stay with the land and honor the ancestors. A good worker with a strong back.
He'd run, run from the loud dragon-belching . . . the family's hut swooping at him, close. . . . He sobbed, with his hands pressed to his ears, until a hot blow to the neck knocked him flat. No air. Blood thick on his fingers as he gagged and writhed in the dirt. The fire was eating his home. It licked through and over the hut, lunged for the forest and toward the path that led to the burial grounds, and people ran until they fell, red-spattered....
He'd awakened into olive-drab confusion, in a strange bed suspended off the floor. He'd awakened voiceless, and there was an awful sucking sound somewhere below his chin. It was a tube, and he was breathing through it.
A small piece of shrapnel had gone cleanly into and out of his throat, miraculously missing vital arteries and his spine. A medic had gotten to him, made an airway, stemmed the blood flow. The people of the American field hospital thought he was a very lucky boy. The nurses made much of him, smiling and babbling their odd tongue endlessly into his uncomprehending face.
And gradually he had come to realize that there was no one left. Everyone he'd ever known had gone to the land of spirits, and he did not know their burial places, where they might be honored, where they might help him. His family, the living and the dead, were gone. Just--gone.
The hospital could not keep him long, and later there was a place in a Saigon orphanage--really, just floorspace in an old church. He never regained his speech. The tube came out, and he breathed through his throat again, and his lips moved, but he still couldn't bring up any sound.
The doctor said it was scar tissue, and that he might learn to speak after a fashion, but Thien remained silent. If he opened his mouth, what would come out? His father's voice, his mother's, his baby sister's? Perhaps the wind through the mangrove trees, or the soft lowing of the buffalo he'd tended at day's end, or the tiny hiss of incense burning in a pot. No. His home was burnt. His voice was gone.
And then, finally, the airlift to a camp in Thailand. A barren time there, eating watery rice and avoiding the taunts of the boy-gangs who played dice all day and would not go to school. Thien had gone, but he could not speak the lessons like the others, and the teachers had no special time to give him, and he might well have remained there forever, since he was an orphan past babyhood, and crippled besides.
Until one day they came and got him off his sleeping mat, and said he was going to New York. That there was a church--"You understand church, don't you? God? Aw, hell, never mind"--willing to sponsor his emigration. He was again a very lucky boy. And they'd given him to Norm.
Norm had wanted him especially because he couldn't speak. A small, pot-bellied plumber with a ruff of dark hair circling a bald head, he was a widower whose wife had been hearing impaired. Norm knew Sign, and meant to teach it to Thien.
"Twenty years! Twenty years I've talked with my hands. I need you, mister. I don't hardly know what to do with myself, with no one to talk to," he'd said, with a big sailor's laugh. "We'll get you up to speed on the lingo, and then I'll show you some Sign. With a few shortcuts of the wife's, of course."
Norm had worked laboriously with Thien, helping him learn to understand and write English passably well. Thien had gone to school, where he excelled at algebra and played fullback on a soccer team, and went to Yankees games on the weekends with Norm. Yet Norm hadn't lived long enough to teach Thien all he knew about Sign. Two years after Thien had come to America, just before his seventeenth birthday, his father had burned to death. Again.
"Poor little bastard. Orphaned twice," O'Brien had said at the funeral. O'Brien was Norm's partner in the plumbing business. He hadn't liked Thien much, but he had liked Norm. And for that reason, once the business was sold and O'Brien had taken a supervisory job with the city, Thien found himself employed as an apprentice plumber, strictly due to string-pulling by O'Brien.
"A minority, and handicapped at that," O'Brien had said, pleased. "They'll score big EOE points with you, kid. You're eighteen now. Remember that."
Thien had left school, enrolling in evening classes instead. There wasn't much money left after Norm died, but O'Brien helped him find a room, and had him over for dinner with his noisy brood once a week. Thien was grateful. He was hazy about what might be done with a mute Vietnamese who kept outliving his parents.
Thien started. He'd missed a sentence, and the teacher was speaking again. He bent to write, and then sat helpless as he realized he'd snapped off his pencil point, a small wooden sacrifice to the past. The class went on without him.
I have nowhere to go, Thien whispered silently, to the broken pencil. The wandering one did not come.
He had promised one more try . . . a glimmer of hope opened inside him as his listless eyes fell on the date he'd written so carefully at the top of his paper. In three days, he decided with gathering excitement. One more offering. Three days to wait.
Vincent thought about the problem for the rest of the day as he and Winslow and Pascal wrestled with slippery, uncooperative, elderly pipes. The bowls and their evidence of burned incense puzzled him, but did not trouble him unduly, a fact which infuriated his father. Vincent knew that the incense-burner was not dangerous. He could not have told how he knew, and wouldn't have cared to justify his opinion to a grizzled, snap-eyed physician. He just knew.
Yet it was exciting. It was a mystery, a tantalizing bit of the unknown to disturb the even, pleasant tenor of tunnel life. In the end, he decided to go and see Le Long. The young Vietnamese and his family were very new Helpers, only recently moved out of the tunnels to start their own business. Vincent still met Long once a week to help him with his English.
After Winslow had called a halt, thoroughly disgusted with the mini-Niagara they'd discovered on the fourth level, Vincent sent one of the children with a message for the greengrocer. He felt rather odd doing it, since it wasn't so many years ago that he'd run messages hither and yon himself. He had a bath, and went to join Father for a meal.
He consumed two plates of stew amid Father's maps and grousing.
"I'd best go and see Long about the bowls," he ventured.
Father, muttering evilly over his work, didn't even look up. He waved a distracted hand at Vincent and groped for a pen.
Feeling rather guiltily relieved that he had an excuse to absent himself tonight, Vincent found a pen, placed it by Father's glasses, and set off on the long walk toward Long's home and shop.
He paced the tunnels on suede-booted feet, thinking of nothing in particular as his mind automatically collected and spoke to him the sounds of the community preparing for night. Someone doused torches with a clink of metal on metal, and a pop of vanishing flame. Mary, gentle in all ways, called gently for her charges and herded them to bed. The faint, constant din of Pascal the Elder's pipes slowed to an occasional stutter, and a quavery older voice begged a pot of tea. Evening settled easily over the tunnels, and all was at peace.
Vincent had loved this quiet time since boyhood. Then, he'd have been chased to bed by an exhausted Father; would have demanded and received a drink of water and two stories. He still loved the twilight quiet, but he no longer shared it.
Since he'd been a man, he had known a restless searching when others were tired and ready to sleep. As night approached, new energy coursed his blood, circling round and round until he must move with it, or roar. He carried in his gut an odd, formless ache that could only be soothed in darkness. Part of him, he'd come to know--and there was dread in the knowing--was for the night.
He would walk in the Park after seeing Long, he decided. There would be a sickle moon; perhaps a concert. Certainly people, whose steps and voices he could follow, though it cut him to know that he could never touch or speak to them. And if there were no people, he would run--fast, and silent, and onward until he could bear stone and stillness again.
But first, there was the matter of the incense pots, and Father's peace of mind. Vincent climbed the curves of the Spiral Staircase, bent against the wind that funnelled up from the long nothingness. It whipped his cloak and hair unmercifully, and tried--he fancied--to pull him out over the abyss. He exited the stairway at a landing midway up, climbed through a round chute he'd made himself as a shortcut, and was in the tunnel that led him, after ten blocks he took at a jog, to Long's basement. He hoped he was not calling too late.
Long was in the basement waiting for him, with the cabinent that camouflaged the tunnel entrance pulled aside.
"Vincent! Good you come."
Long's welcoming smile was all over his round face, and Vincent smiled back. "It's good to see you, too, Long."
"Come up," Long invited, with a broad wave toward the stairs. "Ba have tea for us."
Vincent followed Long up the narrow stairway, breathing a silent--and apparently, effective--prayer that the old planks would bear his weight. Next to the compact little figure of his friend, he felt clumsy and overlarge in the tiny shop. It was closed and darkened now, but still redolent with the fresh tang of onions and parsely and oranges. Long's wife and son waited to welcome him in the living quarters behind the storefront.
Vincent took the chair Long offered and accepted tea from Ba, a gentle young woman with whom he'd exchanged perhaps fourteen words in his entire life, but whom he liked very much. Baby Edward toddled over, absurdly small. He braced pudgy hands on Vincent's knees, and stared up at him with frank wonder. Vincent, quite used to this, returned the look blandly.
"Up," Edward decided, holding his arms out imperiously. He seemed happy, once ensconced on the visitor's lap, to play with the fringes of Vincent's vest and poke curious fingers into his ears.
Long beamed. "Soon he speak better than me, right?"
Vincent smiled. "Your English improves all the time, Long. But it's true, Edward will have the advantage, growing up a native."
"Your note say you have something to show me?"
Vincent nodded, and dug the two identical bowls out of the folds of his cloak. Deftly avoiding Edward's grab, he passed them to Long.
"We found these in the tunnels, with some candles that were not made Below. Father is worried. We don't know who put them there, or why."
Long accepted the little bowls and held them up to the light. Then he lowered them to his lap, his straight mink hair falling across his brow. He scraped some of the black residue out of one pot with a fingernail, and sniffed it.
"I know them," he admitted. But he still looked puzzled. "Come."
Ba took the baby from Vincent, and Long led the way into the narrow hallway off the kitchenette. He snapped on an overhead light, and Vincent saw that they stood before a closet whose interior was opaqued by a bead curtain.
Long drew the clicking strands aside, revealing a tiny shrine. He bowed before it. Somewhat awkwardly, Vincent copied him. Wooden, scribed tablets stood on a shoulder-high shelf of sorts, and there were bowls more ornate than those Vincent had brought, but of similar shape.
"It is the shrine of my ancestors," Long told him quietly. "I bring the tablets from Vietnam. They my father, my grandfather, and three before them. Sometime, I written here too, and Edward the one who burns incense and makes offerings to the spirits."
Vincent nodded his understanding, and Long dropped the bead curtain back into place and placed the bowls in Vincent's hands. "Someone wish to honor ancestor spirits with incense, but I not know why he do it in the tunnels."
Vincent's brows drew together. "I don't know either. We bury our dead far below the tunnel where these were found, in the catacombs. And I saw no shrine or tablets."
Long frowned, his eyes nearly closing. "Can not say for sure. Many of my people in this country. Was war for many years. Enemy different--war the same. People had to go, leave everything, including ancestors. And a man with no ancestors...."
His voice trailed into helpless silence as he groped for words. "This man lost, Vincent. Orphan. The spirits, they guide their children, protect from bad harm. They never far away, and they make home for you in their land. You lose them, you lost."
Vincent absorbed this, turning the enigmatic incense pots in his hands. Long's words touched him. How close he had brushed to becoming a lost soul, with no family. If it were not for Father, and the others....
"Do you think he will come back?"
Long thought about that for a long moment, squinting into the space beyond Vincent's left shoulder as though making a calculation. Finally, he nodded.
"He come back. Three days from now is--is--" He fished for the translation. "Feast of Wandering Souls. All can cross from the spirit world and go to villages again. We give offerings--food, clothes to our ancestors, and also to the wandering ones, who have no living to honor them."
Vincent's eyes sharpened at that. "Three days. I'll remember. Thank you, Long."
It was nearly time. Thien had stayed away from the tunnels since his last visit. He had gotten special things to offer at his makeshift shrine. Hope burned white within him. Surely the spirit would speak to him on this, the Feast of Wandering Souls.
After work, Thien walked ten blocks to Central Park, and climbed up on a slate-grey jut of rock to wait for darkness. He and Norm had come here a lot.
He rummaged in the bag he had brought to be sure everything was there. Satisfied, he ate some popcorn, and coaxed the bold pigeons to share his snack. After he held still for a long while, one even hopped up on his outstretched leg, and minced up the length of it.
Come, mister, he said silently to the pigeon. A smile curved his lips. To fill your belly you must be brave. And the bird plucked a morsel from his fingertips, and it was time to go.
He headed for the tunnel entrance he'd used that first day, carrying his loaded pouch carefully against his body. It was dangerous to go down without sawhorses and cones to divert traffic, and no one to see that he came out again. He did it anyway.
He used no light at first, feeling his way down the ladder until he could pull the manhole cover back into place. It settled with a melodious clang, and he surprised himself with a shiver.
For a few moments he listened, breathing lightly through his mouth, until he was sure he was alone. Then he turned on the large flashlight he carried, and went down. His light threw false figures and shadows on the walls and his footsteps seemed as loud as a giant's.
He came to a split in the tunnel he didn't remember, a place where the tunnel snaked off in two directions. Hesitating, he swung his light from one black mouth to the other. It all seemed so different at night, though this seasonless place did not know, and would never know, the tyranny of daylight.
He chose the path to his left and walked on. After a time he spotted some of the repairs he'd made in recent weeks, and was more sure of the way. He went down and down, until he could almost feel the immense tons of rock pressing the air against his head. He saw no one, and sensed no one. Far off there was the muted rush and rattle of subway trains, and, closer, the sound of water dripping. I find the leak later, he told himself, and hurried on.
He came at last to the fissure, and stood before it, feeling his pulse begin to speed. He remembered, with the eerie clarity of a dream twice dreamt, how he'd come here first, weeks ago, still raw and lost and afraid of what they'd do with him if he lost his job, the way he'd lost his father. . . .
"Stoopid little slit-eye! Watch yerself," Skink muttered, with a glare. Thien, carrying too big an armful of orange cones, had bumped into him and made him slosh a big Pepsi stain onto his overalls.
Thien cringed away from the acid tone and ducked behind the truck. He settled the cones against the bumper and looked around uncertainly. O'Brien had gone to a gas station to "see a man about a horse," and Thien had no desire to spend his lunchtime in the company of Skink and Pulaski.
Just a few feet away, a manhole cover sat ajar over the hole that gave access to the underground pipes. Thien's look brightened. Go down, he decided. Quiet there, anyway.
He slipped his lunchbag inside his shirt and climbed down into the tunnel. Instantly, the clamor of the city was blunted, and he was blessedly alone. He stood at the foot of the ladder, and grinned.
He found a dry place to sit, and ate his sandwich and apple. After he'd wadded up the trash and stuffed it in his pocket, he sat still for a few minutes, arms folded around drawn up knees. He still didn't want to go up--not till he was sure O'Brien was back. He looked down the tunnel, wondering idly where it went, where he might end up if he followed its meanderings.
He decided to find out. He had a flashlight, and a half hour or so. He'd go exploring. The tunnels didn't bother him the way they bothered his crewmates, who were forever moaning about the damp and muttering "rats and gators, for Chrissakes." You just had to watch where you put your hands and feet, and you were fine.
He got to his feet and looked one way, then the other, considering. There was something calm and unchanging down here, something that drew him. He ran his fingertips lightly over the rough stone. Cool, it felt. Solid.
He took the downward slope and walked fast, casting his light around to see what there was to see. The tunnel forked after a quarter-mile or so. One passage led upward at a slight angle and looked man-made. The other was of granite bedrock, different from the dirty, cement-girded tunnels he was used to. He chose the second.
If he hadn't been shining his light against the walls, watching the sparkle of the minerals, he'd never have found the fissure. A split in the wall like a lightning strike, that widened as it met the floor, it didn't seem to offer any opportunities for exploring. Then, he felt a rush of air against his hand and bent down to look more closely. He thought there was another tunnel beyond.
Without a second thought, he flattened himself onto his stomach and pulled himself through the gap by his elbows. He barely fit. Maybe not much good idea, mister, he told himself, panting. When he finally climbed to his feet, he stood in a niche off another tunnel; nothing more. He felt a flare of disappointment. This was hardly worth his trouble.
Or so he thought, until he noticed the floor. Though covered in a fine, even grit, it was clean of the usual leaves and small stones. Fresh air cycled through this passage from somewhere; it gave a sense of connecting two places that he might actually want to visit. And there was something odd fastened to the far wall.
When he recognized it, a cold sweep of fear shook him, and he tried to look in all directions at once, failing because his light was not as strong as the dark around him. The thing was a torch-holder. And it supported an unlit stump of wood, blackened at one end. People.
Breath hitching, eyes rolling from side to side, Thien flattened himself against the tunnel wall and cut off his light. People lived here, and he'd broken into their home, and he'd never come up out of the earth and O'Brien would never know what had happened....
But no one came. After a while, gathering his courage and holding it tight in both hands, Thien turned his light back on, and dared to move farther down the tunnel, starting at every slight echo of his own movements.
He found more torch-holders, and a set of four chiseled stairs, but nothing else. This place....this place, with its darkness and strength of stone, reminded him of nothing so much as a tomb, a burial place where ancestors' bodies were housed and where the living went to consult them.
And then it hit him, with a shock that was half fright and half joy: Maybe it was a burial place. That seemed to fit. It was kept clean, yet was not in general use, as was proper for an ancestor place. True, if any were honored here, they were not his ancestors--those he'd lost, left behind in his own land. Their resting ground had been burned black; their heroic tales lost to the world of the living. He, their son, was forever bereft of their protection.
No. This was a place of other ancestors--perhaps even the gateway to Hell itself. That idea had sent a delighted shiver up his spine, and made him scuttle back to the hole through which he'd entered. He squirmed back through the opening, feeling every moment that something might grab his ankles from the other side and haul him into the underworld.
Still. . . . He got himself turned around and inched his head and shoulders back through the opening, for one last look.
And it was then that he'd seen the spirit. Cloaked in night, carrying a torch that made the shadows go from black to brown to amber, it walked toward him steadily. Thien's blood froze in horror. His lips moved silently--Ma ruoc hon! He knew he would have screamed, if he'd had a voice. It was ma ruoc hon, the ancestral spirit come to walk him into the land of the dead.
Yet the figure had passed him, all unknowing. He'd felt the air move in its wake, and could have reached out to touch its cloak. All his muscles went soft with relief. . . until it turned, perhaps sensing that it was watched, and he saw its face, jagged in the yellow torchlight.
It was a tortured marriage of cat and man. A demon's face and a man's form--This was no ma nuoc, water ghost; or ma troi, ghost of the air. This was ma le, a wandering ghost. One who had died childless, without any connection to the land of the living, and suffered for it. Thien stared, gaping and not breathing, until it turned within the swirl of its cloak, and was gone.
Thien had remained as he was for a long time, panting softly and letting the fear leak out of him. Since babyhood his grandmother had filled his ears with tales of hell and its denizens; how the manner of a man's death determined his lot in the afterlife. What had this man done, to deserve such harsh karma?
He knew that the spirits did not move without reason. He'd been meant to see the demon, yet had been left untouched. Why?
He decided, after a while, that he was meant to help the ghost. To offer sacrifices and honor it with the burning of candles and incense, and so ease its suffering. And maybe . . . maybe it would then help him. It might seek for him in the world of the spirits and find his father, mother, and sister; tell them he still lived, and needed them. . . .
So he'd come back twice before, to burn his incense and whisper his hopeless prayers, at the proper times of the month. One could not command a spirit, but Thien saw no reason for it to reveal itself once, and not again, unless Thien himself was doing something wrong, or not doing something right.
If the wandering one does not come tonight . . . . Thien found himself at a loss for the consequences. With a shrug, he reached through the gap to set his flashlight on the floor.
He got down on his belly and inched his body through the crack, being less careful than he ought to have been. He scraped one elbow painfully against the stone. Once kneeling in the little pocket off the main tunnel, he gingerly touched his fingers to the wound. They came away sticky.
First offering, he thought. For a few moments he sat still, breathing in pants, eyes squeezed shut. Come tonight, spirit. Please come.
He set to work. He'd brought more than before--fruit, and a little flour to burn, and a whole row of squat candles. The white light thrown from his flashlight seemed somehow alien to this place and to his rituals, but he didn't click it off until the candles were lit. Then, in their dance, he laid out his sacrifices, and set the incense aflame.
Rising, he bowed before the makeshift altar, and began to pray. On impulse he Signed the prayer as best he could, and chanted it silently, following his father's phantom voice in his mind.
I pray for safety. I pray for good health and long life. I pray for my family, that they will know I still honor their ghosts, and all the ancestors who have gone to the soil. I pray for your good fortune in the afterlife, spirit. I have brought these humble gifts to ease you--
"Your prayer is very beautiful."
For an instant, every muscle locked, and Thien couldn't even unbend from his bow. Then, slowly, he straightened up, and turned his head, feeling the blood leave his lips. The spirit's eyes met his.
White eyes, his reeling thoughts told him. Blue and round like the ma duong rach mac--the slash-faced soldiers of his nightmares. Yet, the face was the same.
It stood close by, its shadow just a little deeper than those cast by his candles. It moved neither toward him, nor away.
"Ma le," Thien gasped. He did not realize he formed the words with his lips, with a rush of air through his ruined throat, as though he would speak.
"Don't be afraid," it said, in the language of his second father. In English.
Thien felt the onrush of loss like a subway train hurtling toward him, not about to stop. He lifted his hands.
Spirit? he questioned, a jerky flutter of his fingers.
Its brow furrowed. Then it, too, raised its hands--such hands; clawed and coated with fur that caught the candlelight--and began to speak to him as no one had since Norm's death, in Sign.
I am no spirit. I am real. This is my world, where I live, and you are welcome here. What is your name?
Thien didn't realize he was crying, that the great, guttural whoops he heard were his, until the spirit-man reached out and touched him. One broad palm covered Thien's shoulder in a warm, human grip, and the voice flowed over him--just as warm, just as human. "It's all right. I know. . . I know. . . ."
Father shoved and pushed with almost gleeful satisfaction as he stowed away his dogeared maps. At last! Life could return to its ordained course, now that the worst of the spring leakages were under control. And, though still livid with Vincent for breaking one of the tunnels' guiding principles, Father was the first to admit that the job would have taken an extra month without the able assistance of Thien, their newest Helper.
"Thien has promised to bring down copies of the city's maps periodically, so that I can update mine," he remarked to Vincent, who leaned nearby against the desk, tranquilly overseeing Father's operations.
"That's kind of him."
"He's been more than kind, though I still shudder when I think of how he got in. A gap--that let him right into the perimeter, under the very noses of the sentries!"
Father's grey eyes flashed their indignation, and Vincent shrugged, spreading his hands. "What can I say, Father? Virtually all of us have used that passage, and none thought that spot to be more than a split in the rock. Winslow swears Thien must be double-jointed to have fit through it at all."
"Be that as it may, it is being sealed?"
"Yes, with Thien's permission."
Father's eyebrows shot up at that. "His permission?"
"It is his gap," Vincent pointed out reasonably.
Father got ready to sputter, but then he caught the teasing glimmer in the blue eyes, and chuckled instead. After all, he himself had taught Vincent the trust in others that was even now hoisting him on his own petard. How mean-spirited, if he were to tell this innocent, "Trust only those you know."
He waved a gloved hand in his Vincent's direction, and labored mightily to make his voice gruff; to flatten out the pride he felt in his son. "Go on with you. Out. I have work to do."
Vincent went, and didn't let himself smile until he was several paces gone from the library. He had thought Father was going to have an apoplectic fit when he'd shown up with a strange young man in tow, and named him the one responsible for the mysterious incense bowls. Yet, a spate of explanatory words--Thien's prayer, his belief that Vincent was a spirit, his seeking after ancestors gone from him since the war--had softened the harsh protest and outraged glare, just as Vincent had expected. To be sure, he himself had received a peppering from Father later, but Thien was welcomed with openhanded friendship.
A month had gone by. The boy was often Below, though he'd declined their invitation to make his home in the tunnels. Instead he boarded with Le Long and his family, and instruction in Sign had been added to Long's English lessons.
Thien had explained in stilted Sign that he believed he'd be more useful to his friends Below in his present job. He could supply them with repair materials far superior to rags and tape, and he could warn them of where the crews would be. All he wished for, he'd let them know, was speech.
Vincent came to the master pipe chamber, and looked within, moving so as not to be observed by its occupants. What he saw made him give thanks, once again, for the peculiar, everyday miracle that was life Below.
Thien had to work hard to keep up with these new lessons. He sat on a stool alongside sunny-haired Rebecca, one hand poised lightly over a "dead" teaching pipe, and watched Pascal the Elder strike speech from the metal. Rebecca Signed and spoke the messages, so that he could know what the dings and taps and double-beats meant. In this way he learned two languages in one lesson--Sign and pipecode--and oh, it was hard; much harder than night school. But wonderful.
He lifted his head, sensing something in the shadows at the far end of the chamber, beyond the musical cacophony of the pipes. He grinned, knowing Vincent stood there, a black outline few would be able to spot. His very own "spirit," who had granted the guidance and help Thien had begged, though he was not a ghost at all.
"Thien! Pay attention," Rebecca demanded, swatting him on the knee. "Pascal just told you to try something. In code. He wants to see how much you remember."
Thien took the slender pipe the old man held out with a little bow. Pascal was nearly as silent as Thien, preferring to let the pipes do all his talking. That was just fine with Thien.
He held the pipe poised, formed his message in his thoughts, and tapped it out, slowly, but with no mistakes.
*I learn to speak. Vincent brought me to Below*
Thien looked toward the unmoving shadows, and tapped again.