The dim room was luxurious, the bed deep and warm. Under his cheek the pillow was sleek. But he was in a bad place, a body of misery and pain. Impossible now to even drown himself. At home he might have simply swum out past the reef and into the wide Pacific until he sank into oblivion. It was no longer possible, not in this cold foreign land. Curled in on himself in the twilight, he shivered even under the strange heavy covers.
Uncle Tad sat beside the bed. How long had he been talking, in that slight English accent? “…What happens to you isn’t you. You can choose what to become. Turn over a new leaf, and begin again, eh? England’s no good for that. But the U.S. is great.”
The Japanese had pounded it into him that he had to reply, respectfully. He opened a green eye a crack. “How did you get me out, sir?”
“You’re an American citizen, lad. Probably the luckiest day of your life, when you were born in Los Angeles. Don’t know where your copy of the birth certificate’s got to. But I was there when you were born. Your father gave me a copy, since I was Johnny on the spot, and I kept it safe. When I heard you were at Fort Drum I sent it to Mack. It took him some while, waving it at the Army brass, but habeas corpus won the day.”
He sheered off again, shuddering. The agony of some memories was like pouring salt into an open wound. But he didn’t close his eyes. Uncle undid the clasp on a yellowed manila envelope and slid a stiff document out. “The three of us, when we were boys, we were hardly ever apart. So Zed named his sons after us. Your big brother Narong’s middle name is Richard. But yours is Theophilus, after me.”
The birth certificate had last name first in the Asian style, carefully pecked out on a typewriter that needed a new ribbon: Sze Daishin Theophilus.
Was he going to accept this fate, or fight it? This was the moment to make the break. The trapped animal, tearing its own leg off to survive. He plunged into it, this last and first chance. If he didn’t, this moment, he never would. “No.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“If I’m going to start afresh, sir. That’s not my name.”
“Ah.” Under the feathers of white mustache Uncle’s mouth dropped open, revealing a smoker’s yellowy brown teeth. “All right then. That happens a lot here too. Americans like names that are easy to spell. What d’you want me to call you?”
He lay back on the pillows, quivering in reaction. For the first time in … he couldn’t remember. But he had snatched control back. The reins of his life were in his own hands now. Too bad his grip was so weak. He looked at his large hands on the counterpane. The big bones stood out like a skeleton’s, the red spots on the right palm like blood. “My name is See. That’d be simpler.”
“Misspelled deliberately.” Uncle spelled it.
He must look like hell warmed over, the way the old man spoke so gently. “You didn’t call me sir before the war. Call me uncle, as you always have. We’re family. That’s a good move. Sze is hard to pronounce and spell. Anyway, you have to use the Western format. Your surname is See. Do you want to be Salik, what your people called you?”
“No. Never!” He levered himself upright and waited for the dizziness to pass. “I have to close the door. This is the end. I’m never going to talk or think about the past, ever again. My name is … Stephen. Stephen See.”
“Right-oh.” Uncle cocked his white head. “Why Stephen?”
“Non serviam, Uncle. I will not serve.”
“Ah. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Books run in the family. Yes, do what you have to. Healing is the first job. Worry about everything else later.” Uncle took the birth certificate back and slid it into its envelope. “I’ll introduce you to the girls that way. Stephen.”
“Oh, Arlena comes by when she can. Kentish cousin, won’t trouble you with the connection, it’s distant. She’s doing her training at Berkeley. There aren’t any dorms for women who want to be doctors, so she’s been boarding with another student, Carole. Two women doctors, can you imagine? They have some go-getters here in the States. Women as good as any man.”
That was a low bar for Stephen… He was Stephen now. The name sounded utterly fake, like a paper mask. “Even I don’t believe in him.”
He had not realized he was speaking aloud. Uncle Tad halted in whatever he was burbling. “Here’s a notion. Something that might help.” He rose creakily to his feet and fumbled in the capacious front pocket of his baggy old-man trousers. “That’s my big talent, you know. Ideas. I knew this would come in handy someday.”
He set something into Stephen’s hand. It was small but surprisingly heavy, a brown egg. No, it was a pine cone, a fake one only an inch across. Close-folded bronze scales were worked with utter realism. The thumb instinctively ran over the curved edges, cool metal that looked like wood even if you peered closely.
Uncle grinned at him. “There’s a secret to it.”
Stephen shook it. “Nothing inside.”
“See that little stem, at the top? You can just dig your pinky fingernail into the curve. Yes, harder. Can you feel it in the crack? Like the head of a pin. Push it.”
There was a tiny click, and the pine cone swung open like a book. It was the neatest trick in the world. Tiny hinges were hidden in the crevices of the cone scales. The flat oval surfaces parted in the middle were creamy, smooth and blank.
“Ivory,” Uncle said. “They used to paint miniatures on little bits of ivory like that, before photography. Ladies might’ve carried them in a locket. This is a man’s pocket piece, serves the same function. Probably meant to hide an image of the wife or mistress. But you, you can write your new name here. And carry it with you. An aide-memoire.”
Stephen pressed the halves together. The blank surfaces clicked together with a secretive solid noise. The joins were invisible. You would never know the pine cone wasn’t solid. “Where did you get it?”
Uncle Tad grinned even more broadly. “The one and only time your father took me on a pirate raid, this was my share of the loot. I carried it around for years, until I thought to take it to Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue. Even their master jeweler couldn’t say where it came from. But the man had a powerful magnifier, and spotted the pinhead catch.”
Hidden. He didn’t need to write on the ivory. Nobody could see it. “I like it,” he said. The first possession of Stephen, not Salik, not Daishin. He had begun.