“The Wagers of Gold Mountain” by Steve Berman, (Lethe Press 2011).
San Francisco, the Gold Rush days. Ji Yuan’s brother Chen is sick with fever. The food and medicine Yuan has been able to purchase with his meager wages from the shirt factory haven’t made his brother any better. It seems likely Chen will die, and soon, unless Yuan can either obtain stronger medicine or secure divine intervention. Well, maybe not divine. Amita Buddha hasn’t responded to any of his pleas, but Yuan has heard of a strange shop run by a pair of evil spirits who are said to grant wishes for a price.
Yuan finds the shop and confronts its two strange occupants – a woman and a man, Manchu and American, respectively. Right away he knows they aren’t ordinary humans:
Hang-ne reached out with cupped hands and caught a measure of smoke drifting off Buren’s cigar. She molded it with her nimble fingers until the wisps took shape. She then blew across her palms and a grey swallow ruffled its feathers.
What a great analogy for the written word. Recently I had occasion to listen to an audio recording of this author’s story “The Price of Glamour”. The actor who provided the narration did an excellent job, and I highly recommend downloading the file and listening to it. Still, a little ways in I caught myself comparing the recording to a fully produced stage or screen performance, and realizing I didn’t need anything more than the written words. As much fun as it was to listen as the performer created different voices for the characters, it was superfluous. I’d already heard the different voices when I read the piece, just as I’d seen the clothes the characters were wearing, though no costumer had sewn a stitch. I’d seen the snuff box and the glamour without the aid of a prop person. I’d watched Lind scale the wall of Bluebottle’s rag shop without a scene designer, cinematographer, or cameraperson. Though there was no CGI team I saw imprisoned fairies, freed, fly from cages. Sitting in my car, utterly rapt, I found myself thinking, over and over again, “This is better magic.”
It’s true. The written word lets you connect directly with another person’s mind, across time and space. It lets you walk in many other people’s shoes. It allows you to craft entire worlds from nothing—from smoke, from ink—and those worlds don’t last for merely a few weekends or even a few years, they exist forever. What else is that, if not magic?
The evil spirits Hang-ne and Buren give Yuan a magic key and send him on a quest to find a hatchet which turns out not to be a hatchet at all. Nothing they say can be taken at face value, it’s all a trick. The thing I like most about the story is that Yuan has nothing with which to work except an honorable nature and his wits. In other words, he’s the perfect everyman. Don’t have a gun, endless cash, or superpowers? That’s okay, neither does he, but he prevails, and it’s fun to watch and see how he does it.
On a side note, unless I missed something or have forgotten an earlier story, this is the first story I’ve read by this author which did not contain an LGBT element.