It began when Lito saw the woman in white.
The first time, she just stood there, staring at him. He only saw her for a second, and thought he was dreaming awake.
The second time, she held a gun to her mouth, and a small yellow seahorse swam in slow circles through the air around her head.
Somehow, in the same way he knew which way was up, that the woman was the seahorse and the seahorse was her. The woman wept, and the seahorse stopped to curl his tail around the barrel of the gun, his fins quivering.
The third time Lito saw the woman in white, she shot herself, and the seahorse dissolved into flecks of golden light.
When it was over, Lito told himself it was the strangest day of his life, and he had better just count it as an outlier and move on.
Of course, it was all about to get a lot stranger.
The day after Daniela moved in, Lito was out for a morning run on the Paseo de la Reforma when he smelled a blast of humid air scented with cardamom and coriander, and his vision changed.
The people on the street were haloed in golden light like angels. The buildings had it too, though not as bright, and the dogs on leashes, the trees, and the sky had only ghosts of it, like a distant wind.
On the black wrought iron fence on the inner edge of the sidewalk, which had been empty a moment before, there was a cat.
She ran along the fence, keeping pace with Lito, one paw in front of the other. She was a Siamese cat. Like all the people on the street, she was surrounded by a nimbus of golden light. And Lito knew, in the same way he knew about the seahorse, that he was the cat, and the cat was him.
He stopped running and took a moment to catch his breath, chest heaving. The cat stopped and watched him with her huge blue eyes. Finally, he said, “What’s your name?”
Another jogger passed him and gave him a wide-eyed stare. He was talking to thin air. He didn’t care. He needed to understand this cat who was him.
“I don’t know,” said the cat. Her voice was like his, but higher, sweeter. “I don’t think you ever thought to name this part of yourself before.”
Lito stared at the cat. She was beautiful. Lito long believed that the most beautiful parts of himself were the ones he worked to create, through the spark that fueled his acting and the everyday challenge to love Hernando as he deserved. But Lito didn’t create this. She just was. Had been, the whole time. He didn’t even have to try.
“I will name myself,” said the cat, “because I know what you feel. I will be Epifanía.”
“I like that,” said Lito. “Do you remember when we went to that producer’s house who had a Siamese cat?”
Epifanía flicked her tail. There was a laugh in her voice when she said, “Yes. You saw it leap in the air to catch a piece of fish that fell off one of the appetizer plates. Then you started teasing it with bits of fish to see what it would do to get one. When you got bored of the game, it kept pawing and meowing at you to get you to play again. It couldn’t stand that it wasn’t the center of attention anymore.”
Lito rubbed the back of his neck and smiled. “I really ought to be embarrassed.”
“I’m not,” said Epifanía. “That cat knew what it was doing. It wouldn’t have gotten nearly so much fish if it hadn’t put on a show, eh?”
With that, the golden light faded. So did Epifanía. But she was still there. Lito could feel her purring inside his chest.
And then Lito saw a Korean woman in the mirror instead of himself. She was surrounded by golden light, and beside her was an equally golden porcupine.
Lito looked down at the porcupine. On his side of the glass, Epifanía stretched out a paw and pressed it to the mirror. On the other side, the porcupine did the same, pressing the image of his paw against hers. The porcupine spoke to Epifanía in Korean, and she to the porcupine in Spanish, and somehow it seemed perfectly natural that they could understand each other, and that they were saying the same thing.
“Are you for real?”
Lito wanted to ask Epifanía the same thing. But he didn’t, because he wasn’t sure what he would do if her answer was no.
Epifanía and the golden light stayed with him for the rest of the day, as well as a lingering irritation in his mind and body that made everything just a bit too much. Epifanía yowled and hissed, because when she complained, nobody could hear.
Except the Korean woman and her porcupine. Tears ran silently down the woman’s face as Lito vented to Hernando and Epifanía screamed and arched her back. The porcupine took a step toward her, quills raised. “Please stop screaming.”
Epifanía stopped. Suddenly, she just felt bad for the porcupine, who didn’t seem to be any happier than she was. She took a step closer, and almost extended her head to nuzzle him – except she didn’t know which of the porcupine’s fur held a spiky surprise underneath. It might be selfish of her, but Lito thought maybe it was best she let him bear his pain in peace.
Lito’s eyes locked on the gun.
He’d watched this scene a hundred times on screen. He’d played this scene. He knew what happened next. He picked up the gun and let his lips part for it as if for a lover.
“We both know this isn’t real.”
The focus of his eyes shifted away from the gun. Epifanía watched him from the other side of the empty hot tub, her blue eyes glowing in the moonlight.
What do you mean? Lito thought.
Epifanía heard him. Of course she did. She was part of him. “You don’t have a permit to own a firearm. Neither does Hernando. This dramatic gesture of yours is a fake and you know it. So why are you doing it?”
Slowly, Lito lowered the gun from his mouth, letting his lips close. “It’s what people do,” he said, “when the love of their life leaves them.”
“It’s what you do in the movies,” Epifanía said. “But there’s more to life than movies.”
“Is there?” said Lito. He pointed the gun toward the sky and squeezed the trigger. A flame rose up from the gun’s muzzle. His spit on the gun’s barrel gleamed in the firelight. “Everything in my life is a lie.”
“Is it?” said Epifanía.
The wide, warm stretch of the Mexican night closed off into a cool, damp prison cell. The Korean woman and her porcupine huddled in a corner, looking so much smaller than they had been before. Lito paced back and forth in the cell, his feet itching with her restlessness. Epifanía sat still, but her tail switched back and forth in time with his steps.
Finally, he stopped and faced her. The woman and the porcupine stopped staring at the floor and looked up at him and the cat. “Are you for real?” Lito said. It wasn’t the first time he’d asked, but this time he needed an answer, once and for all.
“Yes,” they said in unison, woman and porcupine.
Lito could feel it was true. The woman’s name was Sun. She had named the porcupine Gasi, the Korean word for espina, a thorn. She felt like a thorn: buried in her father’s flesh, inconvenient, picked off and thrown away. Lito wondered what Sun now knew about him.
“Thank you,” he said, and let the prison cell fall away. At least he knew this much: the strangest part of his life was real, even if nothing else was.
“Just a little lie,” Lito said. The cool air of Berlin prickled at his bare legs. But even as he said it, he looked into the fierce, direct eyes of the eagle-owl perched on the flank of Wolfgang’s prone body and knew that he could not tell it. Those were the eyes of a predator that locked on its prey from above and dove for it. No meowing and purring at humans for pieces of fish, not for this one. Wolfgang was a different animal.
Lito knew he could lie in the dirt in Wolfgang’s place. It would be as easy as falling asleep and waking up in his own dream. It happened before, with at least one of the others, though he hadn’t known it at the time. He knew it now, and that made it different. The eagle-owl was there. If he answered the call of his body to Wolfgang’s, the eagle-owl would be perched on him. The eagle-owl was not Lito. The cat was Lito. He thought of Wolfgang reaching out to pet Epifanía as if she were some stray that had wandered in. It was wrong.
The eagle-owl was not Lito’s to touch, but she meant that Wolfgang could not tell this lie. Lito could. Maybe. He’d never had to act with a real gun pointed at him. If he said the wrong thing, Wolfgang would die, and who knew what that would do to Lito? But the man Hernando deserved to love would at least give it a try.
He looked Wolfgang in the eye. “May I?”
Wolfgang hesitated. He looked between the eagle-owl, Lito, and Epifanía.
“What’s her name?” Lito said softly.
Wolfgang blinked. “I haven’t given her a name. She’s just mein Uhu.”
“Maybe you should give her one,” said Lito.
“Why does it matter?”
“Because she’s yours, and I need to be with her to save your life.”
Wolfgang stared at his eagle-owl for another moment. Then she swiveled her head toward Epifanía and said, “I will be fine. The cat and I are not so different, after all.”
Lito closed his eyes, and fell into the dream of being someone else. Someone with talons digging into his knee instead of a whiskered nose. Lito was not an eagle-owl. But somehow, it felt like she belonged there.
“Then there’s the animals,” Lito said.
Hernando’s eyebrows rose. “There’s more?”
“Are you psychic with animals now too?” Daniela smirked. She always managed to do that: smile and laugh even when everything was going crazy. If only Lito could be like that.
“No. It’s this sort of vision I have. I can’t really control it. It gives people this golden glow, like a halo. Children have it less. So do things that people make. This whole apartment has it, especially the art. Plants and animals and the air have barely any at all.” Lito spent longer than he’d care to admit in front of the mirror, watching golden currents weave around his and Epifanía’s faces. “And it lets me see my animal. Will – that’s the police officer I explained about – calls it a daimonio. It is the soul made into the form of an animal that speaks of who we are. When the vision comes to me, I can see and speak with my daimonio. Her name is Epifanía.”
“Daimonio,” Hernando murmured. “Like the daimon in Plato’s Apology. A guiding spirit in the mind of Socrates that helped him make important decisions in his life.”
Daniela leaned forward in her chair. It would be better if they could be all together on the couch for this, but Hernando and Daniela needed their space for now. “What kind of animal is Epifanía?”
Lito smiled. “She is a Siamese cat.”
Daniela’s face lit up. “Do we have daimonios too? Is Hernando’s a cat like yours?”
“Perhaps,” said Lito. “But if that is true, I can’t see yours. Only mine, and the people I am connected to.” Though how he wishes he could. “And I don’t think Hernando would have a cat. He is not so needy and dramatic as I am. I think he would have something that is clever and speaks beautifully. Like a mockingbird, that stitches together the songs of other birds into something new.”
Daniela clasped her hands together in front of her chest. “Awww.”
Hernando reached out and touched his arm. Lito leaned into the warmth of his hand, longing for more. “I grew up with two cats in the house. Did I ever tell you about that?”
Lito shook his head. “Tell me.” He wanted to hear everything there was to know about Hernando.
“Their names were Esmeralda and Rubí. One day we realized that for the last month we only ever saw one cat at a time. It was like they were taking shifts at being our cat. We investigated, and Mamá found a litter of kittens in a drawer of an old desk we meant to throw out for ages before. They were Esmeralda’s, but Rubí took care of them whenever Esmeralda went off to hunt her mice. They hid the kittens from us, but together they were able to raise them without our help. Yes, they were needy and dramatic and secretive. But there was more than that.”
Lito couldn’t hold back any longer. He got up, joined Hernando on the couch, and kissed him. Sun appeared for a moment behind his eyes, feeling the soft scratch of Hernando’s beard on her face inside her prison cell. She pressed her palm against her cheek and hummed just a little at the sensation. Lito nuzzled that beard with his cheek. Hernando certainly wouldn’t mind him sharing it.
He felt the couch shift as Daniela sat on his other side. “I wish I could see her. Your Epifanía. Couldn’t you draw her or something?”
Hernando reached behind Lito and squeezed her shoulder. “Lito can’t draw even a stick man, Dani.”
“I can’t,” Lito admitted. “But maybe one of the others can.” He got up and found pencil and paper in the end table drawer. He sat down, rested the paper against his thigh, and reached out with his mind. He felt the sway of a boat’s deck, and Will’s clammy forehead against his lips. Riley lingered in his mind like a half-remembered tune as he used the deftness of her hands to sketch Epifanía, paused in the middle of licking her paw to look at him with a laugh in her eyes. By the time he was done, Epifanía herself was curled at his feet, purring.
“Who did that?” said Daniela. “It’s really good.”
“I did it. I just had some help from Riley. She’s a musician from Iceland.”
Hernando rested his chin on Lito’s shoulder to look at the drawing. “I’m glad she laughs at you.”
Lito widened his eyes as if he were offended. “Why?”
Hernando kissed his temple. “Because someone has to remind you not to take yourself too seriously when I’m not around.”
“You don’t have to worry what will happen when you and Daniela are not with me. I have seven other people I can call.” Lito looked down at his feet. “Right, gatita?”
Epifanía rubbed her face against his leg. Hernando and Daniela couldn’t see her, of course, though they squinted down at his feet and tried. But in a way, they could. They saw the parts of him she represented, even better than Lito himself did. Somehow, it didn’t seem to surprise them that she was beautiful, this face of his inner self. And that kind of vision was better than anything Lito knew how to do.