Authors: Alexander Chee
. Copyright Â© 2001 by Alexander Chee. All rights reserved.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Edinburgh / Alexander Chee.
1. Adult child sexual abuse victimsâFiction. 2. Korean AmericansâFiction. 3. Gay youthâFiction. 4. ChoirboysâFiction. 5. MaineâFiction. I. Title.
PS3603.H44 E35 2001
First Picador USA Edition: November 2002
Cover design by Martha Kennedy
AFTER HE DIES
, missing Peter for me is like swimming in the cold spot of the lake: everyone else laughing in the warm water under some too-close summer sun. This is the answer to the question no one asks me.
The time that I think will be the last time I see Peter, isn't, as it happens. There'd be one more to come.
My grandfather lost his six older sisters to the Japanese during World War II. Gone and never heard from again. Comfort women was what the Japanese called those they stole for their soldiers. They were girls, though.
My grandfather tells me the first stories I hear about what a great animal the fox is when I am a child. Foxes rescuing children in danger, foxes with magic rings.
Korean name, Yowu
. Years later when I read in college about how the fox is a demon in Japan, I think of him. I ask him about it when I come home and see him next.
Anything kill Japanese, my friend, he says. Fox, bomb, Chinese. Anything. My friend. He's a gaunt now, hollowed, a silver-haired hat rack, beautiful in the way of anything missing something else. He has a picture of his mother and sisters on his wall, beautiful women almost identical to each other in the manner of old families. Of his sisters my grandfather has one left, born after the others had been stolen. He'll die still missing these sisters who used to run along the beach tossing him back and forth between them.
After his sisters were taken away, the Japanese occupying force sent my grandfather to Imperial Schools. My first language is Japanese, he tells me. English far away. But, okay. Be like a fox, he says. Okay. Sometimes, right after he told me, I would look at him and wonder what it felt like, to have the print of your enemy all the way inside you, right into the way you shaped your thoughts. But I know now.
The fox-demon often takes the shape of a beautiful girl. You fall in love with her and she leaves and you live for thirty days more afterward and die of missing her. She can breathe a fireball, a will-o'-the-wisp of electric air. When she marries another fox the sun shines and rain falls, at the same time, for one day. It's considered good luck, days like this, for the fox trouble ends for that day. Fox-demons can change their shapes at will, assuming the forms of lost loves long dead. There are stories of how noblemen and their wives in ancient Japan had picnics and watched the foxes change shape on the hillside, transforming from armies to castles and back again in ritual battles. When possessed by a fox-demon you can fly and walk through walls. You can hear the demon speak through you in a second voice.
The Lady Tammamo was a fox who fell in love with a man and took the shape of a woman in order to marry him. Her hair remained red and so she was feared, for at that time in Korea the only people with red hair were said to be demons. She was very beautiful, in the way of fox-demons, and her husband loved her. And she loved him.
She bore her husband children, all sons. After some trouble in their village, for which she was blamed, they left and moved to a tiny island between Korea and Japan where they settled and were accepted by the fishermen there, who had seen many things and were not afraid of her. I'll be safe here, she told her husband. And she was. Rumored to be from Mongolia, she told people, when they asked her where her clan was from, that it was a place where the sky bent the earth.
When her husband died and his family came to burn his body, she stood by him and stoked the fire under him. Her husband's family watched her, afraid. Would she turn back into a fox, now that her husband was dead, and kill them all? Make their skulls into helmets and hunt the fishermen? She smiled at them, pressed her hand to her husband's cold face, and stepped up onto the fire, which then rose until the family could not see them. The fox can breathe a fireball, if she likes, and so she did, and it burned husband and wife both to ashes.
Her children, now without their mother, never learned to be foxes and so her descendants have lived as ordinary men and women since. The village sometimes wondered why Lady Tammamo fled into the fire when fox-demons can live to be hundreds of years old. Some felt they'd been wrong, and that perhaps she hadn't been a demon after all. The children, seen sometimes selling their fish in the markets, were so beautiful and kind to everyone. You couldn't see the red in their hair unless the sun shone right on it, and then you'd see it, red threads among the black.
My father tells me the story of her when I find a red hair on his head, growing from his left temple. This is all that remains of her, my father tells me, when he tells me the story. And he pulls the red hair out of his head and hands it to me.
When I show the red hair to my blond mother, she laughs. He always pulls that hair out, she says. I had a red-haired great-grandfather, you know.
My hair is brown. But in my beard, the red threads grow. I shave them. My name is Aphias Zhe. Aphias was the name of a schoolteacher in Scotland five generations back on my mother's side. Zhe is the name every man in my father's family has been called by since that first day we fished the sea between Korea and Japan, five hundred years ago. Aphias became Fee in the mouth of my friend Peter, and Fee became Fiji in college. But Fee is the name that stuck, because Peter gave it to me.
This is a fox story. Of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.
I AUDITION FOR
the Pine State Boys Chorus on an afternoon at the end of November in the year I am twelve years old. The audition, I recall, is my own idea. In a gray-stone cathedral's practice room, somewhere near Longfellow Square in Portland, Maine, I sing, for a square-headed, owlish man, a series of scales that he plunks out on the piano, his pink fingers playful over the black and white keys.
It's good, he says. Your voice. You've got a terrific range.
On a clipboard next to him, a list of names. Some have been checked off. The afternoon sunlight in the room lights stained-glass windows of Bible scenes I can't recognize, due to inattentiveness in church. The light casts them as brilliant colors on the bare wall opposite me.
When I sing, I feel that I am like the wall is now. This is why I have come.
Do you know any songs, he asks. He looks down toward me as if I might run from the room.
Christmas songs, I say.
He unfolds some music and hands it to me.
I sing Silent Night. O Come Let Us Adore Him. Good King Wenceslas. Angels We Have Heard on High. That one's my favorite, I say, when I am done. I've never heard my voice alone with a piano before. The quiet that follows, when I stop singing, seems new, too.
Rhythm, too, he says.
My science class has taught me that breathing turns the air inside you to a carbon, a little different from smoke, but a little like it. We have this in common with flames. We are just slower. I take a breath, waiting. Impatient.
I am looking for boys just like you, he says, finally, and checks my name off the list.
I leave with the folder of sheet music for the first rehearsal, given a seat in the choir right away. In the car on the way home I can't wait to start. I remember the director's odd soft handshake. I'm Eric, he'd said. But there's another Eric in the choir. So I am Big Eric, and he's the little one.
Did you hear me, my mother says right then, as she drives through the early-evening traffic on the bridge between Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
No, I tell her. I didn't.
In Korea, my grandfather tells me when we get home, everyone knows all the songs. Sometimes, like in a musical, everyone starts singing. He makes Korea sound like a place made from happy families and wisdom, and it makes me wonder why he's here, in Maine.
The next day the Korean American Friendship Association of Maine arrives for a kimchee-making party. Here in Cape Elizabeth, a town still half full of farms, we live on several acres that overlook the marsh at the town's edge. Thirteen families arrive and fill the yard with their cars. Their dark-haired children coming running and yelling for me. Aphi-as, Aphi-as, they yell. Their parents divide, the mothers into my grandmother's kitchen, the fathers into the garage. The mothers chop cabbage in the kitchen, mince peppers and fish. The fathers take beers and shovels and head to dig the hole where the giant barrels of kimchee will sit.
My grandfather and grandmother live in what was once a barn, converted for them into an apartment and connected to our house by a breezeway, where my father stores firewood. I've hidden here. My grandparents moved here from Korea a few years before. There was some turmoil, my father says of it, when people ask. He redid the farmhouse for them himself with these men who are headed to shovel the hole. My mother needs her own kitchen, my father had told my mother, who laughed. No, really.
Korea is in trouble, my grandfather will say. Every now and then, he will follow it by saying, Maine, Maine is okay. Many fat people. But okay. My grandmother will say only, I am here for my grandchildren.
The other children frighten me a little. I can't speak Korean, my father's decision, and so I can't understand them much of the time. How you like funny-funny, round-eyes, they ask me and my brother and sister, whenever they play a joke on me. My brother Ted and sister Sam, both younger, find them funny. While they distract themselves with my Monopoly games, I slip out the back to where the men are digging.
Look, my grandfather says, chuckling. Here's fox. And he picks me up. His strength surprises me, and he sets me down. Fox dig hole, look.
The other men talk in Korean around us, including my father, and I can tell they haven't heard him. English falls off their ears. I sit and watch them and wait for the hole to appear.
I meet Peter in the first rehearsal I attend. The other boys and I do not talk to each other beforehand, but we set our voices side by side as if it were no matter at all. In this practice chapel, the twenty of us sit in metal chairs that ring as we sing through the first part of an early-December night. Some boys I recognize from my town, the others are unfamiliar. The one beside me looks up at me now and then as we sing, making little faces. His white-blond hair is like candle flame.
Almost all of these boys are blond. Which is to say, I am the one who isn't.
Boys, Big Eric, the director, says. Please say hello to our newest members. Aphias Zhe, Peter O'Hanlon. And at his name, the blond boy next to me looks up at me and says, You're new too?
Are you Chinese? another boy asks.
No, I say. Korean. Half. Saying it always makes me feel split down the middle. Like a cow diagrammed for her sides of beef.
I'm part Indian, Peter offers.
The rehearsal continues. At the end we wait on the curb for our parents to come and pick us up. Do you want some, Peter says, and holds out a can of chewing tobacco.
No, thanks, I say. He burps red spit into the street.
Come over and ride bikes, he says.
Okay, I say.
He walks and I feel the air come off him toward me, wherever we are. His sounds reach me wherever I am, not the only sounds I can hear, but the first ones: they trample all the others. My mother calls him a towhead blond, the word, apparently, for that kind of hair, so pale, so bright, it seems to be what sunshine reminds you of.