“Do you think trees have heads?” Wenjie asks, scanning the tree from its base to its branches. “Or maybe its whole body is a head? A brain?”
This single tree grows both Bing and Rainier cherries. She is convinced it’s a magic tree but Yuan says the tree was grafted. Apparently, you take a slice of one fruit tree and insert it into a matching incision in a host tree, wrap it with some electric tape, and at some point, the veins will flow together until they share a vascular system, like an ocean. “It’s all about combining different tissues,” Yuan explains. A chimera tree, Wenjie thinks as she counts the few yellow-pink cherries, dwarfed by the deep red ones. She imagines the head thief doing something similar: take the head of a smart person and put it on the body of a strong person, and suddenly you’ve got a strong smart person without the taxing process of transforming a bundle of cells into a baby then into an adult.
She points to one of the ripe, plump Rainier cherries and Yuan plucks it from the branch and places it in her palm. She rolls it softly, feeling for its firmness, before popping it in her mouth. It tastes more like a cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher than a real cherry: saccharine, without much acidity or depth, cheap yet addictive.
“You think we can graft a lime tree onto this?” she continues. “Temper the sweetness with acidity.”
Yuan shrugs but doesn’t stop her from trying.
Wenjie pretends she is the head thief, snapping young shoots from a neighbor’s lime tree and trimming its base. She digs her fingernails into a flaking section of the cherry tree’s bark and peels it away, a spry flap revealing a bright green layer of tissue. Then she inserts the lime shoot into the bark and winds tape around and around until the connection point is completely concealed. She will be the best mock head thief, one who won’t leave scarring, not on the neck of a branch, the skin of a human.
When you get a better head, you become a better person, Yuan told her after she confessed to stealing an untouched, still-plastic-wrapped mooncake from the bakery’s dumpster. It had been a white lotus-stuffed mooncake rather than the much-despised salted egg yolk one. She thought she’d receive praise from the rare discovery: one huge moon cake to split between them and even then, the cake was dense enough they’d still be full from half. But Yuan wasn’t the same after the head theft, slapping the cake out of her hands instead of praising her. Before the new head had been grafted onto Yuan’s neck, Yuan let her do anything: collect food from trash cans in the wealthier neighborhoods at night, update their scoreboard of rare finds—sealed jars of sesame butter, a graphing calculator preprogrammed with Tetris, untouched chicken gizzard skewers coated in togarashi—and when Wenjie started skipping school to make up for sleep lost to treasure hunting, Yuan told the school she was sick.
Wenjie carries around the steel shears, cutting multiple branches from the same tree so she has options to choose from. This must be how the real head thief does it: selects from an arsenal of heads and ranks them for irregularities and disease.
“I’m going to make a tree with one hundred different fruits,” she tells Yuan after cutting enough branches to fill her arms up to her chin. She drops them to the ground and spreads them until they’ve covered the grass and she has to tiptoe to avoid snapping them. “As long as you pick more cherries,” Yuan says before disappearing into their tent propped up by ropes that have begun to fray around the tree trunks. Another thing that changed since Yuan’s head was stolen: Wenjie used to never be left alone because Yuan insisted memories could only be made with others. They did everything together: crawling on hands and knees behind the grocery store at night, searching for fallen coupons for free coconut-egg bread even though only Wenjie could fit her arm under the crates and shelves. Or when they would sneak into the dingy mock-temple that was only a room filled with statues of gods with triangular beards and long, banana-like ears and the pungent scent of incense, and Wenjie would watch Yuan pry open one of the donation boxes, loosen the screws with brute strength, and snatch a wad of cash. But now they don’t adventure around for loose cash-filled boxes or into the nooks and crannies where forgotten things hide. She is stuck picking cherries and Yuan is doing who-knows-what. Yuan even looks different now: a fiery shade of skin tone, a wide mouth that reaches from cheek to cheek, a thin and pointed nose erected like a wall between Yuan’s face. Wenjie knows she shouldn’t doubt: the head thief only replaces stolen heads with better ones, after all. But it has been a long time since she and Yuan ate a pastry plucked fresh from the dumpster, even one without any egg custard filling or scallions, composed only of flour and sugar and air.
When Wenjie finds blood soaking her crotch and polyester pants, at first she thinks she sat on the bag of cherries they’d picked for the orchard owners. Yuan is still sleeping so she quietly sneaks out of the tent to pick another bagful. Maybe Yuan won’t notice, won’t slap her cheek and accuse her of wasting effort and money. But as she reaches for the cherries, the ones weighing the branches down towards the ground like bags of gold, red continues to spread throughout her pants, trickling down her leg and onto the edge of her sock. She presses on her leg, trying to find the wound, but as her fingers climb her thighs, she feels no familiar sting of a cut, as though the blood had just decided to leak. Wenjie drops the cherries onto the dirt and returns to the tent, shaking Yuan awake.
“There’s blood,” she says. Yuan stares at the red-now-browning stain. “You’ve got too much yin,” Yuan replies. And there’s nothing Wenjie can do about it. Yuan explains the blood just needs to come out; if you try to keep it in, you’ll go crazy. You’ll start scraping your stomach empty with a curette, gnawing through onion peels and orange rinds because normal food will feel too soft and delicate, plunging yourself into ice water to remind yourself how to feel cold.
Yuan forbids Wenjie from washing their clothing together, from trespassing onto Yuan’s side of the tent, from grazing Yuan’s hand because right now her blood is poison, a sign of death, and now she will die every month until there’s no more blood left to give, and only then will she have the right amount of blood, pure enough to rinse away all the years of oxidation and rust caked under her fingernails.
“You won’t hold my hand?” Wenjie asks. Of course not, is the response. Yuan with the previous head wouldn’t have said no. Old Yuan would’ve laughed and asked to get drunk off the blood together, cultivating Gu with their endless supply of hemoglobin and witchcraft. But now Wenjie can’t ask Yuan to reach the higher branches for her, to drop cherries in her hand and graze fingertips against palm—not until Wenjie’s body stops dying, and she has no idea when that’ll happen.
The next night, after a day of stretching and balancing on piles of trash to grab the tallest branch and cast down its fruit, after an evening of stabbing other tree branches into wedges of the cherry tree and mummifying the connections with tape, after Yuan goes to sleep, the head thief visits.
“Will a new head stop the bleeding?” Wenjie asks. The head thief shrugs. Maybe, depends on the head. “Will Yuan like me better?” Maybe. “Will my current head become dog food?” Maybe.
She pulls down her collar so the thief can get a better look at her neck. Yuan isn’t here to tell her it’s bad to expose your neck to strangers—how some people like that sort of thing: thin skin blanketing the spine, like soybean paper wrapping rice, a fragility meant to be protected or broken. Old Yuan never told her to cover up her neck or wear baggy jackets, but rather to tuck her chin toward her chest if someone was trying to choke her, to build her endurance so she’d be ready to outrun anyone.
“Do you still have Yuan’s old head?” She asks. The thief points to the picked cherries in the bag. Wenjie reaches in and pulls out a handful. She offers the fistful to the thief and drops them into its gaping mouth—there’s no bottom, she notices as she peers down its throat.
“I’m not allowed to do anything anymore,” she says, sitting on the ground as the thief chews and swallows, downing flesh and seed whole. The head thief nods slowly, as though waiting for Wenjie to fall asleep so it can complete its heist.
But she doesn’t—she insists on working through the night, and maybe someday, her productivity will earn Yuan’s praise.