Terrible Mother, Errant Daughter


eileen_icon.gif mu-qian_icon.gif

Scene Title Terrible Mother, Errant
Synopsis Mu-Qian meets with Eileen to discuss the whereabouts of her son, Zhang Bai-Chan.
Date October 3, 2009

Staten Island — Coast

They used to sell boats to tourists and families. All kinds. Small kinds, muscle-powered, but all kinds within that category. Red ones with umbrellas big enough to cover whole families with four sets of foot paddles to turn the rotors, and rowboats, kayaks, even some swan-shaped absurdity-for-two, according to the chipped and faded signage, photography mapped up inside the walls. Mu-Qian had told Deckard that she wanted this place because it was on the water and she had grown up near a sea. This had been only partially untrue. Tianjin is a big place, and their equivalent of red light district hadn't been anywhere near the coast, but whenever she'd stared through the apartment window, the seafront was what she'd seen.

It was prettier than this, what she had in her head, but that's what happens when you're human. Her critics might debate that choice of word, but she's never been one to pay them much mind, and she's gotten increasingly absent from herself as of late. She hasn't thought very much about what to do if this is a trap. She still isn't thinking about it now.

It's very early in the morning, as scheduled. Seagulls gargle the gunky remains of fast food fragments a dozen yards of dingy boardwalk away, and sunrise is leaking wan, ashy-milk light through the streaky pewter of the cloud-covered skyline, its actual phase of progress uncertain. There is a thin dash-dot line of dust on the white of her skirt, shredded when Mu-Qian yanked the blinded board off the window to test the view from the inside. If she stands — right here, this angle, just so, there are no ugly buildings edging in on the periphery or lichen-eaten tankers in the way. Just the sea. It isn't pretty, but it's the sea.

In contrast to Mu-Qian's mourning whites, she dresses in dark shades to reflect the changing weather and overcast sky. Faded denim jeans sit low on her hips and are paired with a dark gray top and black cardigan perhaps two or three sizes too large for her slight frame. She wears her dark hair pinned back behind her ears with obsidian black bobby pins that reflect what little sunlight parts the clouds and glints off the silver rings on her fingers, the turquoise-studded necklace she wears around her neck and the buckles of the shoulder holster peeking out beneath her cardigan's woolen weave.

"Zhang Mu-Qian?" she asks the open air in a goose down soft voice as she comes into view, her green eyes searching the decrepit storefront for signs of life.

Or a sign of death, as Mu-Qian looks more like. Dark hair, fair skin. They have that much in common. The rest of their coloring is indeed different thanks to divergent wardrobe decisions. Fashion was obviously on the Chinese woman's mind, even with her shape abbreviated at the stomach by the wall and windowframe when she clicks forward a half-pace, pokes her head out to follow the voice to its source.

Eileen Ruskin. Her recognition is instant and visible, despite that she'd only seen the Englishwoman— around, during much earlier phases in her career on Staten Island. Mu-Qian's eyes narrow like a cat's, and like a cat's, there's an odd intimation of respect in them. She says nothing for a few seconds, before lifting her chin, in a faintly belated gesture of affirmation. "Ruskin." Eileen knows the accent, if not the voice, the way that English consonants have to hurdle over it to be heard, awkward in this departure from its native, tonal music. Her mother tongue is Mandarin.

From Tianjin. "They say you stole my son and survived my husband." The accent isn't to be mistaken for a shortage of education, apparently, or ignorance of the events that had played out on this American stage in recent history.

There's a theory that learning to speak more than one language at an early age affects the neutral pathways in the brain. Some advocates for bilingual education even insist that children who are multilingual are also more intelligent than their peers and communicate with greater efficiency. Although she's fluent in English only and does not have the same ear for subtle intricacies that Teodoro does, she possesses enough knowledge of her maternal grandmother's native tongue to understand that there's a very real risk of meaning being lost in translation; when Mu-Qian implies that she survived her husband, the Briton pauses to turn this statement over in her head, examining it from many different angles like a jeweler might treat a diamond under the scrutiny of a pawn shop magnifying glass.

"I found your son living alone in an abandoned lighthouse," she tells the older woman. "He's been staying with us since, but if you are who you claim to be, then I see no reason why this should continue. Wu-Long was a very good friend of mine and spoke of his family often."

The ease with which the younger woman says these things — or the lack thereof, can't possibly be lost on Mu-Qian. She turns her head around an oblique, bird-like angle, considering. There ought to be pallor here, maybe, something glimmering in her eyes or a sharp clasp of her hands, taut, the mumbled beginnings of a fainting spell. All of these things, there would be if Zhang Mu-Qian were maybe a little more human.

She isn't. Eileen probably hadn't expected her to be. There's nothing apparently wrong with holding this conversation through the blind socket of an open window, her conversational partner out on the boardwalk and her voice carrying to and fro on the snatch and curry of the salt wind, no shift in her demeanor or change in the register or volume of her voice to imply a renewal of grief, steeling past it, or even particular interest in secrecy. "I felt him die. It's part of my ability. The part that Flint Deckard seems to think that you can use."

Her face darkens, finally. It is only a trick of light: she's stepping back, into the hollow building, her heels clicking throatily through the acoustics of empty racks and low ceiling as she ventures toward the door. "Against Feng. Who tells me you and your Ethan Holden got him killed."

The first traces of guilt etch fine lines in Eileen's face, as precise and expressive as the folds in a piece of origami paper. It's not quite as transparent, though, and when Mu-Qian's shadow disappears from view the fingers of her right hand curl inward, beginning to drift up, up, up to her pistol's grip. Briefly, her knuckles brush against the matte gunmetal; she does not close her hand around the weapon or attempt to unclip it from its holster much as she might like to, so potent is the effect Daiyu's name has on her demeanor.

"I'm not responsible for what happened to your husband," she says, "but not a day goes by that I wish I was." Her voice makes her meaning clear where simple words do not. Emotion slivers through them, shaping each syllable to a sharp point. She pauses, then, throat contracting around a coal-sized lump that she swallows down and feeds to the dying fire of courage in her belly.

"A man named Gabriel Gray was with him when he died. You should speak with him about Volken — he can tell you everything."

The name doesn't, so to speak, ring a bell. It makes Mu-Qian look up, stilting into view with the white-feathered and gawkishly alien elegance of a crane, but there's no actual recognition registering. "'Gabriel Gray.' I would like to meet him." Curiosity instead, across the pane of her face like a breath of moisture behind something already opaque with texture or frost. Eileen isn't the only one who's wary. Feng Daiyu makes everybody nervous. Displaced Chinese patriots with too much kung-fu and a hard-on for a specific bald English terrorist tend to be that way.

Zealots. If you've ever lost somebody to Kazimir Volken— Kazimir Volken himself withstanding— you'd know to be wary. Mu-Qian takes that as it is and studies Eileen for sincerity. Thinks to herself, that Mrs. Zhang, her predecessor, wouldn't have liked the look of Eileen's nose, either. Lowai.

The doorframe hulks around her. The white of her clothes is dwindled and translucent in the shadow of the doorframe. "Flint Deckard cut out his eye to get my attention for you, but you aren't responsible for that, either," she observes, and maybe there is a line missing, some words, maybe a lot of words hacked out by the unfamiliarity of language, because the logical pregression, the butterskin of tact, the segue don't precisely go smooth when she asks: "Is that why you want to give up my son?"

Eileen's fingertips ache to occupy themselves with something. Her hands, too, don't know what to do with themselves, and as Mu-Qian speaks she fiddles with one of her rings and turns it around her knuckle, causing the solitary eye of a sterling snake to wink turquoise at the other woman. She drops her hand in the next moment and feels tension infuse the muscles in her neck and shoulders with pressure. Flint Deckard did what?

"Are you or aren't you the boy's mother?" is the question she asks in its place. "Bai-Chan deserves better than what Gray, Holden and I can offer him. I'm not giving him up, Mu-Qian. I'm returning him to his family." Just as the jungle wasn't the place for Mowgli, the Vanguard isn't for Wu-Long's son — so says this Bagheera.

There are a number of cases that Mu-Qian could probably argue through that evasive tactic, and it's visible in the knit of her sculpted brow and the brace of her hands, after, latticed across her lower belly, that she's thinking about doing exactly that. They were important questions, after all. What comes in tandem is flat silence and the woman's steady, dark-eyed stare. "I am the boy's mother. Zhang Bai-Chan.

"The family resemblence is probably not so easily seen in the way we look or even our abilities as the way we act." There's something faintly quizzical, speculative, faintly uncertain about her demeanor in parting with these words: a sociopath, speaking of sociopathy, is comparable to a blind man trying to explain his absence of sight to a seeing man, unsure of how this will figure in to their view, what emotions that might evoke. Pity, concern, hesitation, disgusted eagerness.

Her other son tried to kill her other son, once. She doesn't know, has no way of knowing what a human soul would believe Bai-Chan deserves now, four years since she last saw him, his formative years spent on a ludicrous and unknowable journey across the Atlantic. "Where is he?"

"I'll take you to him," Eileen offers in lieu of an address or even a physical location. Staten Island has too many landmarks that look alike, too many streets without signs. She knows the way like a bird knows the migratory paths of its ancestors, and for her to attempt to direct Mu-Qian to her son would be as futile as trying understand how the other woman must feel — if she feels anything at all.

Eileen Ruskin does not have a biological child of her own. Might have in another life, if it hadn't been cut abruptly short by the twitch of a finger and a bullet punched through her temple. To say that she loves Bai-Chan would be giving her more credit than she's probably due; she's killed for him, and to some people, maybe that's the same thing. "Will you come with me?"

For the woman she's talking to, it doesn't mean exactly the same thing, but those two properties do tend to coincide more than the average person likes to think about. Mu-Qian inclines her head, after a moment's thought. Steps forward, out of the shadow of the derelict boat shop, past dusty walls and gutted shelves, into the intensifying sunshine. They're like salt and pepper shakers out here. White and dark. Smudged with dirt, pragmatically clad to take it.

A terrible mother, somebody else's errant daughter, passing child in and out of custody as if either of them, really, is qualified to make that sort of decision.

"Do you need money?" she asks, polite and peremptory. Her voice is thinner out here, without the husky acoustics of the building to amplify them. She turns on a heel, syncopates her paces alongside Eileen's, to follow. "It is the least I could do."

Need does not always translate to want. They are not synonymous with one another, and while Eileen could put to good use every penny she peels up off the pavement, accepting money from a woman in exchange for her child feels fundamentally wrong.

"No," she says. "I'm satisfied with knowing that Wu-Long's son won't grow up an orphan." Satisfied that she, too, won't have to struggle with the ethicalities of raising somebody else's flesh-and-blood after all. Whether or not she believes Mu-Qian to be a poor mother is irrelevant; by coming here, she's proven herself fitter than the woman who carried Eileen to term, and that's enough.

'Satisfied' is an interesting choice of words. Not a poor one. Carries an echo with it, an inimation of emptiness that might hold its center in Eileen or Mu-Qian, and contain both within its limits. The Chinese woman doesn't reply. Allows the conversation to go dead as if they'd hung up the line. Nothing rude about it, of course: both of them at once. Mutually, the salutation tacit, not forgotten, Feng Daiyu laid aside and Bai-Chan the new objective.

The sun creeps higher, shortening the shadows at their feet as boardwalk gives way to sandy concrete.

Mu-Qian has raised the dead before, but it doesn't occur to her now, not yet, that that has anything to do with the suspicions nagging in the back of her mind. It only saddens her a little, melancholy in tandem to her grieving, that this is yet another bridge to her husband crumbling before she can reach the other side; that there was something in Eileen when Wu-Long met her that's dangerously close to gone now.

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