A Short History,
It's impossible to say exactly where Roam is. A small settlement lost somewhere in a blanket fold of American terrain, between a range of mountains, a light in the forest, a sudden something in the middle of an infinite nothing—it doesn't matter anymore. But for a few golden years, long before Helen and Rachel were born, it was a sight to behold. It was once the home of a great silk factory, and its owner, Elijah McCallister, had built the town to go along with it, inspired by the grainy black-and-white pictures of castles he'd seen in a book once as a child. His ambition had been to create a new world, something he could embellish or destroy to his heart's content. With Roam he did both.
Elijah himself was a small man, five feet tall in thick-soled shoes, with the face of a sullen angel, and made up of equal parts brilliance and cruelty. He 'd had a tough life. His parents abandoned him on a park bench within a gated children's playground when he was only seven; he swung all day and into the evening before he realized they weren't coming back. He spent the next nine years in the St. Alphonso Home for Wayward Boys, and if he was not wayward before going in, he surely was on coming out.
For a year after that he lived on the streets, creating a life out of the refuse of the fortunate: shirt, pants, belt, jacket, a watch, a hat, a knife, food and drink—he found what he needed in the gutter and the alleyways, and what he didn't find he stole. Finally he got himself a place the back room of a subbasement apartment near the harbor, next door to a cobbler's shop, a room he shared with a twelve-year -old mute girl, her syphilitic grandfather, and a tall, thin man they knew only as "Jim-Jim." A lot of people in that gray and crumbling city would have said he had it pretty good, but it wasn't good enough for Elijah.
He eventually left the city and took a train to San Francisco, where he signed on as a cook on a private frigate, and sailed around the world. And there he was but two years later in a Chinese saloon in Hainan, when he spotted a young man named Ming Kai selling something pretty from a small wooden cart. A cloth of some kind. Ming Kai looked—well, to Elijah he looked exactly like every other Chinese man. He motioned Ming Kai over. Ming Kai bowed and showed Elijah his wares. Later Ming Kai would realize: this is how a life is changed. Not gradually, over time, but in a moment, a moment as simple as this one. As the tips of Elijah's fingers rested on the shiny, colorful surface of this strange and delicate object, he felt fireworks go off in his heart: it was merely silk (though Elijah didn't know what it was called yet), and Elijah had never felt silk before; there weren't many who had. Never in his hardscrabble life had he even imagined a thing as soft and cool as this, as shimmering and beautiful. Red, blue, orange, green. Every color so bright and delicious. Ming Kai smiled at him beneath his Chinese hat as Elijah ran his fingers across the fabric's surface.
"Is this made ... by people?" Elijah said. "By actual human beings? Or did it fall off an angel's back and float down from heaven itself?" Ming Kai spoke no English, but men don't have to know the same words to speak the same language. He understood exactly what Elijah meant. Ming Kai shook his head: no, it wasn't made by people—but then yes, he nodded that it was. He placed his index finger over his mouth—a secret!—and beckoned Elijah to look beneath his cart. There was a small box full of what appeared to be worms, or caterpillars, and small cocoons the size of a tooth: white, covered in thread. Ming Kai pointed to the worms, then he pointed to the cocoons, then he pointed at himself. And Elijah understood.
"Nature and man together," Elijah said, nodding. His eyes glowed with possibility. "The man and the worm." Ming Kai nodded, happy, not yet knowing how much he would regret this encounter. "It's a secret, isn't it?" Elijah went on. "No one knows how to do it in my country, not like this. But you do, don't you? You know the secret." Now Elijah had completely lost him. Ming Kai cocked his head to one side.
"Do you realize what this could mean for us?" Elijah said. "It's like it says in the book. A well-guarded secret coupled with avarice and ambition is the birth of all good things " (Elijah had read a book on how to be a successful person.) "We'll be rich, you and me!"