Green Coat out of China
Later, Anita remembers it in bits and pieces, the smell of jasmine in the water and the silky smoothness of the flower petals. Her mother teaches her the art of flower arrangement, tells her that there is no reason to stuff the jars full of blossoms; there is a special kind of beauty in the simplicity where every twist of the leaf means something, a message written in the clean lines of green stems. Never, she says, let your flowers lean against the lip; they must stand tall and proud by themselves, otherwise the whole arrangement falls apart.
Sometimes her mother presses orchids between two flat rocks in the gardens and tucks them inside envelopes of yellowed paper, sealed with not a kiss but something much more melancholic, a thumb to the crease and then her lips. The paints on her face smear.
When Anita is six years old one of her mother's girls brings a child to her; she thinks 'child' because there is no other way to conceive of this creature, thirteen and with shoulders like a grown man, but with the barest buds of breasts visible under a plain cotton smock. It bows so low before her that its head touches the ground, and Anita runs her palms over the shiny bald skull in wonder.
"What is your name?" she asks, and the answer comes so quietly that Anita has to strain to hear.
Her name is Mahoja and she falls in love with Anita right then, but Anita does not notice until she is eleven and also starts to understand just what exactly it is that the girls under her mother's employ do for a living. It comes to her written in the creases of Mahoja's shy smiles and she blooms beneath it. Joy sparks in the nonexistent spaces between their palms when Anita makes Mahoja dance with her in the gardens.
Mahoja makes her tea just the way she likes it. Mahoja will die with her because Mahoja will not be able to live on when she is dead, her great heart that flutters like a nightingale's wing beneath Anita's ear shuddering to a halt. Mahoja's tea tastes like gunpowder and dust, the barest hint of the sea.
A man comes to visit her mother after Anita turns fifteen, a skinny scrap of a bastard, hair a deep color she's only seen in flower petals and silks before, and her own blood. He spends two weeks there and Anita has never heard her mother scream so much at anyone in her whole life, foreign devil, upstart, lunatic. He dodges vases and grins at her in the garden, once tucking an orchid behind her ear before jumping the gate and sauntering off.
Her mother catches her eye and and smiles sometimes, tells her wryly that she is allowing him to make a fool of her. She is furious when he leaves. Mahoja doesn't trust him.
At sixteen Anita is as good as running the brothel by herself, under her mother's proud and watchful eye. Her mother still writes letters but there are no more orchids tucked in the envelopes, no sentimental gestures in the folding and the sending. He comes back and this time she learns his name, Cross Marian, and learns what he is doing, saving the world. She laughs and he winks, snapping off a strange Western salute in the direction of Mahoja's disapproving frown.
"What do you think of him?" she asks Mahoja later, whose hands card through her hair gently. Mahoja offers her a wry look. "He's awful, isn't he?"
The attack comes late in the night, a man who had fallen in love with one of her mother's girls, a man who they thought they would never see again after the girl died. A monster rips out of his flesh and tries to rip her mother apart, but then there is a bang and the smell of gunpowder and Cross Marian standing in the halls clad in nothing but his ridiculous leggings and a smoking pistol. He watches Mahoja unfold herself from around Anita and doesn't smile, turns and offers a hand to her mother. Saving the world, he says.
Death visits the house again in Anita's eighteenth year, her mother still and cold in her bed when the servants went to wake her up in the morning. Anita sends up her prayers and accepts the comfort of Mahoja's hand on her shoulder, tears sliding down her face one after another. Incongruously, she remembers this first: I have allowed him to make a fool out of me, and only then the flower must be able to stand on its own otherwise the whole arrangement falls apart.
Cross Marian arrives in time to see the finished grave, but offers no words and leaves just as quickly. Mahoja's arms form a safe circle from which she can watch him.
Anita has always had a head for business; she gets it from her mother, but there are some days that she folds herself into a corner of her bed and misses her mother so badly that it is a physical ache. On these days, Mahoja brings her tea and says nothing, waits for Anita to pick up the pieces of herself. Cross does not visit on one of these days and Anita is dimly grateful, listening to him talk about the end of the world and what she has to do about it. She silences him with two fingers to his lips and tells him she already knows; it is her business. He kisses her hand.
In the grass beneath the trees in the garden with sunlight making dappled patterns on her skin she watches Cross Marian dig through his abandoned coat for a nicotine fix. The light catches in his hair and she brings her fingers up as if to touch it, the impossible, the ethereal. Mahoja stands sentry on the garden path.
"I'm in love with you," Anita says, and for a second his face freezes like a caged animal. She laughs and slides her hands down her own side instead, over bare breast and hip. "You don't know what that means."
And then his gaze is speculative again. "No," he says, and sounds surprised.
A soft exhalation of amusement: "Westerners." Anita pauses. "Good."
This Anita remembers as her ship turns to dust around her, the bitter taste of ash in her own mouth. She thinks of it, of how the skin of Cross Marian's neck felt like the petals of an orchid and how they are going to save the world.
"Mistress," Mahoja says, eyes burning.
"Yes," Anita says. In the last moments she presses her palms to Mahoja's and they dance into dissolution together, tall and proud.