Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.
She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.
She was already shivering with cold.
She was already desperately hungry.
She was already an intimate of sorrow.
The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”
And Mei Ming shook her head.
Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.
“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—
“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”
“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.
“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”
“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.
The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.
“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”
In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.
It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.
It is the location of her stuff.
The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.
She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.
She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.
There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.
Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.
Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.
Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.
Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:
When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.
Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.
At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.
That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.
Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.
He has knocked.
He has entered.
“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”
Martin shakes his head.
“I’m here to help you,” he says.
He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.
The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—
Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—
Surrounding the events of the past few days.
Mei Ming studies it.
She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”
“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.
Mei Ming peers at it.
“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.
Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.
“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”
“How undignified,” Martin says.
“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”
“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.
There’s a pause.
“So,” Mei Ming says.
“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”
Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.
“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”
“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.
“So,” Mei Ming says, again.
“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.
“. . . oh.”
“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”
Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.
“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”
Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.
“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”
Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!
“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”
“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.
“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”
“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.
Pblt! Martin offers her again.
“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”
“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.
In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”
“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”