Nick Jensen ’15
On Tuesday I woke up halfway through my 9:00 class so instead I walked to the Chocolate Salamander Café. It was raining but it was also very hot so it felt like you were being coated in a warm and viscous layer of turquoise paint. I didn’t have a rain jacket because it didn’t rain in Texas and I thought a sweatshirt would be sufficient but it was clinging to my shoulders like an awkwardly affectionate uncle and I kept looking backward because I thought
someone was bumping into me. Nobody was.
Fuck was it hot. I rolled up my sweatshirt sleeves and on my arms appeared rain droplets like bubbles of methane gas ascending toward the light of a match. I’m dumb thinking it was hot in Tacoma since I’m from Austin but it was, okay? My mouth tasted like iodine and I wanted an
espresso because I need coffee like everyone else.
The Chocolate Salamander’s logo is a black salamander with a pink tongue licking its own tail. Like an amphisbaena, sort of. An amphibiasbaena. Part of the tail is dripping as the salamander’s salivary excretions catalyze the breakdown of the chocolate cells composing its
own body. Dripping like oil from a broken pipe. The Chocolate Salamander sells truffles in
these little pink and gold gift boxes and they’re good gifts for your first date with a girl. They also have these actual chocolate salamanders, but girls are supposed to give those to guys even though guys don’t get orgasms from chocolate like girls so the girls usually get to eat them anyway if they’re dating somebody nice.
But most people go to the Chocolate Salamander to get coffee. There are like 50 Starbucks locations in Tacoma because it’s Washington and all but everyone I know just goes to the Salamander. It tastes better anyway or maybe I’m just a hipster. So is everyone I know so it
works I guess.
I didn’t put my sweatshirt on the coat rack. I never do. I ordered my coffee and found a table. There are thirteen tables. One of them has this weird stain in the corner. I don’t know what substance formed it but it looks like a person being surrounded and suffocated by three blankets. I didn’t happen to sit there on this particular occasion. I sat at the table that I had been sitting at when a woman wearing a t-shirt and pants came in and yelled at the manager about her coffee tasting funny a few weeks ago. She looked very compact, like a lot of energy and ambition had been compressed by titanic pressure. Maybe she goes to my college.
I couldn’t think of a five-letter word for ‘inert’ ending in ‘l’ so I marooned my Tribune at
the other end of the table and looked around the room. I looked everywhere, like eyes were
growing out of my skin.
There was a woman sitting on a couch. The Salamander has these two chartreuse couches near the window. They’re pretty comfortable but you can’t bring your coffee or chocolate over
there. Usually people read in them. This woman wasn’t reading. She was looking around too.
She didn’t look out the window much. I guess if you were being contemplative, out the window
would be a good place to stare ponderously because it was raining and staining the glass like a
slime mold. But she was only looking around the café, like me.
I decided to talk to her. She wasn’t crazy hot but I’d be down to fuck her. She was some kinda Asian. She was clearly bored so I figured I’d give her some conversation.
She saw me approaching. “I’m Miranda,” she said. “I know it’s weird but my dad is
super into Shakespeare.”
“I’m Zach,” I said. We shook hands.
I asked her if she liked chocolate truffles.
“I don’t eat saturated fats,” she said.
“Oh. Well it certainly doesn’t look like you eat them.”
“What do you like to eat?” I said.
“I’m trying to avoid taking pleasure from food, but I like bananas.” She did not sound flirtatious.
“I like grilled chicken. That’s pretty healthy,” I said.
“Men like meat.”
“Yeah, vegetarians aren’t real men.”
She grimaced slightly, like a clown whose nose had fallen off. “I dated two vegetarians,” she said. One of them was an asshole, so I broke up with him.”
“That sucks. What happened with the second one?”
“We went to Point Defiance and he told me that he didn’t find whale song haunting, so I broke up with him.”
“You sound like quite the heartbreaker.”
“Maybe, I guess. I’ve only broken up with one other guy. The rest broke up with me.”
“Why did you break up with that guy?”
She exhaled loudly, like a dying balloon animal. “That was Mark. That one was the saddest. He was very funny. After I told him about the silly squirrels that would always run around my yard in Hyde Park he rented a squirrel costume and sang a song about a squirrel with a machine gun cane and a bulletproof coat. It was from a cartoon about a secret agent squirrel. I cried from laughing so hard.” She smiled like a Venus flytrap.
I frowned like a pitcher plant. “But why did you break up with him?”
“Oh.” She stopped smiling. “I told him a story from my childhood, and he laughed at the end.”
I was puzzled. “Was it a funny story?”
“No. It’s a wrong story.”
“I don’t know that I understand. Would you tell it to me?”
We looked at each other for a moment.
“Oh, I thought you were going to make me promise not to laugh at the end,” I said.
She took on a new facial expression. I couldn’t tell if it was sad or angry or fearful. I’ve
heard of some studies or something about teenagers being worse at differentiating facial
expressions than adults. I always thought it was some kinda bullshit to get parents concerned
about their kids drinking.
“I can’t stop you from laughing,” she said. “But if you do it will make me very sad.”
“All right, I understand. Please tell me the story.”
“Okay,” she began. “1600 years ago, on the banks of the Khalkar River in Ariana, there lived a mother and her three daughters. The area around the river was desert, and the nearest town was forty miles from their hut. The daughters had grown up without ever seeing a person besides their mother. The youngest daughter was very small but also very clever.
“The daughters and their mother only ate fish. They once had vine of white grapes growing around their fence, but it withered on the day of the youngest daughter’s birth. So the mother and her daughters spent all day among the reeds in the river, reaching into the mud to find fish to eat. The daughters took turns cooking the fish, while the mother spent every evening
hunting for rubies in the sands around the hut.
“One evening, the youngest daughter was cooking the fish, because it was her turn. The other two daughters sat by the fire and told each other riddles. Their mother came out of the hut
carrying her ruby-bag.
“’Why do you always hunt for rubies in the evening?’ asked the eldest daughter, who had never known why her mother did this. ‘You’ve never found any.’
“The mother put down her empty bag of rubies and said, ‘Once, before you or your sisters had been born, I was tending our grape vine when a man on horseback rode by my hut. I asked him why he had come to the Khalkar River, where nothing lived but fish and grapes.
“’He said, ”I seek the rubies of King Arsames. They are buried within these sands.”
“’And so I have searched for the rubies, to buy us a grand palace in Liu-Chien-Shih.’ The mother picked up her bag and walked into the night.
“When she returned in a few hours, her bag was missing. The daughters gave her a fish that the youngest daughter had cooked.
“’Where is your bag?’ asked the middle daughter.
“’A vulture carried it away,’ said the mother. ‘And I had finally found the rubies!’”
Miranda stopped and looked at me. I made sure I didn’t laugh.
“Is that the end of the story?”
“No,” she said. “Would you like to hear the rest?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay,” she continued. “The next morning the mother and her daughters went into the reeds to hunt for fish. But they discovered that all the fish had died. The eldest daughter suggested that they collect the dead fish and eat them, but the mother warned that the fish were probably cursed.
“So the mother and her daughters returned to their hut. By this time the mother was very old and weak from her nights in the desert hunting rubies. So she told her daughters, ‘Go to the
great city Liu-Chien-Shih and find yourselves work in the market on the river,’ and remained in
their cracked, earthen hut. She gave them each a flask of water from the Khalkar River, water
that smelled of dead fish. She also gave each daughter a small box and told each not to open hers until she was in grave danger. That of the eldest daughter was bronze, that of the middle
daughter silver and that of the youngest gold.
“The daughters walked together to a very tall pistachio tree where they had often played.
“Wait,” I said. “Why didn’t the mother and her daughters eat pistachios?”
“The tree was very tall and they didn’t know you could eat them,” said Miranda. “May I continue?”
“Okay. So at the pistachio tree, the daughters saw that there was a triple fork in the road
ahead. ‘We don’t know how to read Liu-Chien-Shih, so the best course of action is to take
separate paths and hope that at least one of us reaches the city,’ said the middle daughter.
“The other daughters agreed with her plan. The three hugged and kissed each other, crying, and finally parted at the triple fork.
“The eldest daughter was disgusted by the smell of her water, so she walked a very long way without drinking. She was very thirsty and tired, and was about to fall over when she saw a
pool of clear water flanked by a grove of palm trees in the sands ahead. She hurried to the oasis and drank from the pool. Afterwards she sat down in the shade. Soon she fell into a deep sleep.
“When the eldest daughter awoke she saw a serpent curled up next to her. The serpent greeted her and asked her for a drink of water.
“’Why do you not drink from the pool?’ asked the eldest daughter.
“’In the pool there grows a beautiful yellow water lily which secretes a juice that will cause me to become vulnerable to my own venom and kill me,’ said the serpent.
“’I’m sorry, dear serpent,’ said the eldest daughter, ‘but my water smells of dead fish and
it will surely kill you as well.’
“So the serpent became furious and bit the eldest daughter on her ankle. She screamed curses at the serpent. ‘My family’s descendants will crush your family’s descendants under their
heels!’ she yelled. The serpent slithered up a palm tree and disappeared.
“The eldest daughter remembered that her mother had given her a gift for use when she was in grave danger. She opened the bronze box. And what do you think was inside?”
“Um…” I said.
“Sorry,” said Miranda. “My mother always asked me that at this point in the story. Would you like to guess?”
“Okay… antidote to the snake’s venom?”
“That’s what I said the first time, too,” Miranda said. “Okay, inside the box were 40 gold
“Wait, wouldn’t the eldest daughter have heard them jingling?”
“No, they were tied in cloth. May I go on?”
“Okay, so the eldest daughter found 40 gold coins in the box. She knew that they would not help her bite so she cast them to the ground and collapsed underneath the palm tree.
“By this time the middle daughter had traveled very far. She drank only a little of her
water which smelled of dead fish before vomiting and collapsing by the side of the road. When
she regained consciousness, she saw that a serpent had slithered up to her side. She was barefoot but she knew that serpents were dangerous, so she crushed it underneath her heel and continued to walk.
“After a while she was feeling very tired and thirsty. Eventually she came upon a cave in some rocks and decided to rest, hoping it would be cool. Inside she found a group of 40 thieves.
They had amassed a vast treasure of rubies and kept it in the cave. They quickly tied up the
middle daughter in a golden chair.
“’We will not rob a maiden,’ said the leader of the thieves. ‘But we will only release you
if you give every one of us a golden coin.’
“The middle daughter remembered her silver box and begged the thieves to untie her so she could open it. They released her bonds and she opened the box. And what do you think was
“Uh… antidote to the snake’s venom?” I said, thinking I’d caught on.
“That’s what I said the first time too,” said Miranda. “Okay, inside the box was a beautiful ruby ring. The thieves saw that the middle daughter didn’t have the gold coins they wanted, so they tied her up again.”
“By this time the youngest daughter had reached a tall mountain. The road went over the mountain so she decided to rest before embarking onwards. When she awoke she saw that a serpent had curled up next to her.
“Now the youngest daughter was very clever, so she decided to trick to the serpent into helping her. ‘Great serpent,’ she said, ‘your scales are brighter than the dawn and your fangs are longer than the road to Liu-Chien-Shih! Truly you are the strongest and most powerful of beasts!’
“The serpent swelled with pride at these words. It slithered quickly in circles to demonstrate its agility.
“’Oh, and you must truly be the swiftest of beasts, swifter even than the cheetah!’ continued the youngest daughter. ‘I imagine you could easily outrun and kill that gazelle.’
“She pointed to a gazelle that was perched on a rock nearby. The serpent immediately slithered up the rock and bit the gazelle, which did not attempt to run away since it had not seen the serpent. The gazelle soon died of the serpent’s venom. The serpent returned to the youngest
“’Such masterful skill deserves an extraordinary reward,’ the youngest daughter told the
serpent. ‘I will cook you a feast worthy of the royal court of Liu-Chien-Shih!’
“So she built a fire and cooked the gazelle’s flesh. After the serpent had eaten its fill, it
curled up and fell into a deep sleep. The youngest daughter crushed it underneath her heel. Then she ate the rest of the gazelle and rested until the morning.
“After she awoke the youngest daughter continued her journey over the mountain. She walked up the steep path for several hours before she found a cave hidden in the rocks. The midday sun was very hot and she was very thirsty, because after she drank all her water that smelled of dead fish she had vomited it all back up. So she decided to rest in the cave.
“Inside the cave she found 40 thieves. These were different thieves than the ones that the
middle daughter had encountered, but they too had a great treasure of rubies. There were many
rubies in the desert in those days. The thieves tied up the youngest daughter.
“’We would not dare rob a maiden, but we will free you only if you give us forty gold
coins,’ said the leader of the thieves.
“Now the youngest daughter was very clever, and decided to free herself a different
way. ‘Great king of thieves,’ she exclaimed, ‘you are so handsome and noble! Please, take my
body to use as you would!’
“Now although the youngest daughter was small, she was very beautiful, and the leader of the thieves decided that this was an acceptable alternative to the coins if the youngest daughter
agreed that after the leader had enjoyed the maiden, the rest of the thieves could use her as well.
“The youngest daughter agreed, and for 40 nights she went to bed with a different thief. The thieves fed her well on rice and lamb kebabs and gave her sweet water to drink. After-“
“Wait,” I said. “How old was the youngest daughter?”
“I don’t know,” said Miranda. “The story doesn’t say. I always pictured her around six or
“And she has sex with these adult thieves?”
“She has to, or she’ll be imprisoned.”
“Isn’t she imprisoned for 40 days anyway?”
“I suppose… you’re right, I guess. But I did tell you the story was wrong.”
“I can see that. So how old were you when you first heard the story?”
“Six, I think. That’s probably why I picture the youngest daughter at that age. She’s the
heroine so I identify with her.”
“Well,” I said. “Did your mom tell you this story?”
“Yes. I only ever heard it from her.”
“Did she tell it a lot? That’d be a dreary way to grow up.”
“No,” said Miranda. “Only three times before she died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about her death.”
“It wasn’t your fault!”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I felt like I was sweating soap.
“Anyway, she only told me the story three times. The first was when I started first grade. The second was when we moved to Sacramento, when I was 11. The last was when I left for college last fall. She said it was a story for journeys.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I felt like I was watching a man bury a child in sand.
“Well, would you like to hear the rest?” said Miranda.
“Okay, so after the youngest daughter slept with all the thieves, they gave her a basket full of food and water and sent her over the mountain. She walked for several hours until she came upon a very old, frail man sitting on a rug. She saw a river nearby and remembered her mother’s words.
“’Is this the great city of Liu-Chien-Shih?’ asked the youngest daughter, who did not know what a city was.
“’Yes,’ said the old man.
“’Is this the market of the great city?’ asked the youngest daughter, who did not know
what a market was.
“’Yes,’ said the old man.
“The youngest daughter was overjoyed. ‘I would like to work for you, great man of the
market!’ she said.
“The old man frowned. ‘I only take princesses to be my apprentices. Are you a princess?’
“The youngest daughter did know what a princess was, but she decided it would be prudent to lie and say she was one. ‘Yes,’ she said.
“‘I do not believe you,’ said the old man, who had become angry. ‘If you are a princess,
where is your ruby ring?’
“The youngest daughter was frightened by the old man. She remembered the gold box
her mother had given her and hoped that it contained something to keep her out of danger. So she opened the box. And what do you think was inside?”
“Okay, this time it has to be the antidote,” I said.
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Miranda. “But no, it was a ruby ring, just like the one
the middle sister found. So the youngest daughter showed the ring to the old man, and he took
her on as his apprentice.
“He forced her to sweep the rug for 16 hours a day and fed her only occasionally. He did not like princesses because he had been spurned by one in his youth. The youngest daughter
lived out the rest of her days in misery on the rug at the side of the road. But that was okay
because she had been walking away from Liu-Chien-Shih the whole time.”
I thought Miranda was finished, and I was happy that this part of the story wasn’t funny so I wouldn’t be tempted to laugh. But after a momentary pause she spoke again.
“The eldest daughter woke up after fainting from the serpent’s bite. Because she drank from the water lily pool before she was bitten, the venom did not kill her. She saw that the serpent had slithered into her flask and died from drinking the water that smelled of dead fish.
She picked up her 40 gold coins, filled her flask with water from the pool and continued on her
journey until she reached Liu-Chien-Shih, where she bought a small palace with her 40 gold
coins and found work in the market near the river.
“After the thieves tied the middle daughter back up, they noticed her ruby ring and decided that she had to be a princess. So they untied her and cooked her a meal of rice and lamb
kebabs and took her to Liu-Chien-Shih, where she wed the prince and found happiness in the
“One day the new princess of Liu-Chien-Shih went to the market near the river because her servants were all sick from eating poisoned rice. She saw her sister working at a fish stall.
“’Sister, sister!’ cried the middle daughter, princess of Liu-Chien-Shih. ‘I have finally
been reunited with you!’
“They embraced and the middle daughter brought her elder sister to her palace, where
she became an exalted member of the royal court. The two sisters lived out the rest of their days happily in the court of Liu-Chien-Shih, and only once spoke of their lost younger sister.
“’She was very clever,’ said the middle daughter, princess of Liu-Chien-Shih. ‘I’m sure
she found happiness.’”
“Is that the end?” I asked.
“Almost. There’s a little part that’s sort of different. Would you like to hear it?”
“I suppose I have to.”
“No, I could stop there.”
“No, please go on,” I said. I felt like I was walking through a whale’s throat.
“Okay. A few centuries later a man came down the road that the youngest daughter had been enslaved by the old man on. And he saw the dead youngest daughter’s ruby ring sticking
out of the sand. So he put it on and walked to Piandjikent, which was the great city of the age.
Liu-Chien-Shih was long destroyed. When he reached the city, everyone saw his ruby ring and
declared him the lost princess, and he lived out the rest of his days happily in the royal court.”
I tried not to laugh and succeeded. I felt like I was drifting through the void of space and my eyes were boiling.
“That was the end,” said Miranda, who looked stoic. “Are you laughing?”
“No,” I said.
“Good. If I were dating you, I wouldn’t be breaking up with you right now.”
I thought about using that remark as a springboard to invite her back to my dorm, but I knew if I fucked her I’d be thinking of that six-year old girl getting gangbanged by thieves the
“Well, thanks for the story,” I said.
“Really?” she said. “Most people feel weird after I tell it to them.”
“I do feel weird. I feel horribly weird.”
“Good, that’s normal. So did Stanley and Dave and Ben and Todd and Stacey.”
“She used to be my best friend.”
“Once we went swimming in a river near my house. This was in Sacramento. And I caught a frog and I kept it as a pet until it died. She didn’t like it. She said it smelled like dead
Today I didn’t have any classes after my 9 until 3, but I wanted to leave so I told Miranda
I had to go to anthropology.
“I’m happy to have met you,” she said.
“Likewise,” I said.
I left the Chocolate Salamander. It was still raining so I couldn’t see through the window very well. I went back to my dorm and took a nap. I’d been out way too late the night before, and the espresso wasn’t enough to wake me up.
I never saw Miranda again, but a few weeks later I saw a little girl sitting on the porch of
an apartment building. My first thought was that her parents made her sweep the floor all day
and that’s why she wasn’t in school. My second thought was wondering how many men had fucked her senseless, and how happy her innocent older sisters were with their friends and in
their classrooms. She had bright, clever eyes, and I wished that she’d been born a little less