She had shoulder length red hair, pale white skin, and freckles. She was wearing a small black leather jacket over a green dress, both of which were soaked with melon guts. Blood ran down her face, over the tops of her small breasts and down into her cleavage, where it had begun to stain her dress.
I was by her side in an instant, leaping the barrier between us and dancing over empty chairs with supernatural grace.
She was stunned. I had seen enough people hit in the face to know that. She was leaning back in her seat, staring up at the lights in a daze, and coughing blood.
“You need to sit up,” were the first words I said to her. They sounded strange in my own ears; I hadn’t spoken English in years. I slipped one hand behind her head and tilted it forward, pinching her nose with my free hand.
“You’re fine,” I said. “You’re fine. It’s just a nosebleed. In a second you’re going to—”
She coughed again, spewing blood all over my robes, then whimpered.
“It’s fine. It’s just blood draining out of your sinuses.”
“Your robe,” she mumbled in a sick, nasally voice. I was still pinching her nose.
“I have plenty of robes.”
I held her like that for some time, picking bits of melon out of her hair and brushing it back. Whoever had been sitting beside her had moved away in the commotion, so I took their seat and released her.
She took the sleeve of my robe and used it to wipe her face, then let out a shuddering sigh. “Okay. I’m good.”
“I’m very sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me.”
She was still holding onto my sleeve. I realized she was studying my hands, so I held one out for her to examine. She took it in both of hers and held it close, running her thumbs over my scarred knuckles.
“Your hands are so…” she began, then her brow furrowed and she looked up at my face. “You were speaking English. You aren’t Chinese? You aren’t Chinese!”
“I’m from New Bedford. Massachusetts.” I was barely aware of the words dripping out of my mouth. Her eyes were distracting.
I forced myself to look away. My brothers were breaking bricks with Iron Palm.
“How is it you can do that? With the bricks? My teacher wants us to write a paper on it.”
She nodded. “It’s for my philosophy class.”
“Philosophy,” I repeated.
“Yes. Do you know any philosophers?”
“I know Abbot Xingzhan. He is the wisest man I’ve ever met.”
“No, I mean really famous ones, like Socrates and Plato. Dead ones.”
“Oh. Like Confucius. And the Buddha. I know those. Is that what you are writing about? Eastern Philosophy?”
“No, no. The class is on empiricism. We’re reading Hume and Spinoza—rationalists from the early Enlightenment era. The paper is on Qi, the mystical force your literature claims is responsible for all of your great feats. We’re supposed to come up with our own hypothesis for how Shaolin monks do what they do.”
She let go of my hand and reached under her chair, retrieved a bookbag and ruffled through it with a sudden vigor.
“Ah! Here!” She pulled out a single sheet of paper with PHL 232 – An exploration of Empiricism emblazoned across the top. “Hume’s Maxim, from his book, Of Miracles. It says, ‘Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.’”
I didn’t know what that meant, or why she was talking about dead people, but Shifu De Yang was just beginning his famous spear trick. Two of my brothers propped the butt of De Yang’s four meter long spear against the arena wall and lowered the tip to our Master’s throat, then stepped away.
De Yang fell into a Tongzigong balance stance, breathing loudly and rhythmically, channeling his Qi into his throat. With a shout, he lurched forward, pushing the speartip with his throat until the weapon’s shaft doubled back on itself.
“Is that the miracle you came to witness?”
She sat quietly for a moment, tapping her free hand against her lips. “It’s not common in nature,” she began. “But it’s still frequently observed. The Shaolin do stuff like that all the time, right? It’d be miraculous if a random person from this crowd could do that, but you?” She squeezed my hand. “You feel like you’re made of stone. What did you do to your hands to turn them into… these things?”
“I punch a stone wall for a few hours every day.”
“Seriously?” she sputtered. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“And your Master? What does he do to his throat?”
“He hangs himself by the neck for as long as he can. Or, he used to. He can do it indefinitely now.”
“Oh.” She looked confused. “Wait, he hangs himself? That’s crazy! Why do you do all of that?”
It was my turn to look confused. I looked down at her hand, still clasping mine. Her fingernails were long and red. She smelled like strawberries.
“I don’t know.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Bao, standing over me in the aisle.
“Time to go,” he said in Mandarin. “Is she okay?”
I nodded and stood, but the girl tugged at my sleeve. “Wait,” she said. “Take this.”
It was a book. I took it from her without looking and stumbled away, following Bao back to the other monks. For some reason, I didn’t look back at her. Couldn’t look back at her.