One guppy left. The ghosts must be hungry. Who next after the fish? Two Sins sprinkled a few flakes into the tank, onto his tongue – Chen averted his eyes – then went back to mending the electric fan. Air conditioning sub standard. Contract never to be renewed with diabolical American company. Mandarin pop jangled out of the kitchen - which was still serving dumplings and hot crayfish – interspersed with weather reports. Tomorrow or rather today would be eighty-six degrees. Humidity heavy. No chance of precipitation. Not a blue sky day. Not a kite flying day.
Two Sins moistened his lips with the glass of tea he kept on the counter and Chen gave a thin smile. As a child all manner of mythical beasts and birds, giants and celestials had sailed over the hutongs. Now the only kites to be found were the ones from Weifang sold to the tourists. When you couldn’t see the Fortune Plaza there wasn’t much point flying anything, even an aeroplane. Smog out-seasoned the seasons, vying with the willow catkins in spring, summer sandclouds from the Gobi desert, the bitter winter snowflakes, sealing the city off in its own iron rice bowl.
“How would Lanfang* have trained his eyes in modern-day Peking?” Two Sins directed the question at Chen who was taking a rest, regaining his strength for the game with a bowl of golden broth. Not understanding the allusion, he drank noisily. A long black hair floated in his soup and, feeling those unblinking red irises upon him, he closed his eyes and swallowed quickly.
“He would have had to come to my poor establishment…”
Manners dictated a slight demur. Chen gave a soft slurp, fighting the hawking reflex.
“Kept his eyes lustrous in here till the dawn lanterns.”
“Indeed.” Chen inclined his head, returned to the game.
His opponent was biding his time like the Yangtze river. His reaction times were slow, he placed small bets and stuck on a low hand whereas Chen played with characteristic bravado. Hit bust hit bust hit hit win. He’d beaten the dealer three times in succession, won the price of a small car though he’d never owned one. Omens were good apart from the solitary guppy and the vertical chopsticks in a teahouse on Shanxi Xiang. Blackjack was better than dried seahorse for clearing the liver, cleaning the blood. He imagined his opponent an Englishman who pruned roses, carried an umbrella for status. Greetings to your mama, he chuckled, jabbing the mouse with his one good hand. Greetings to your papa. Lily would get her Versace sunglasses this month, some ox tongue, good medicine. Her parents in Hunan province would get their remittance. Son would ride the Bulletbowl where the American swimmer had won gold medals. They would both get better.
Chen relaxed, took a handful of salted nuts, listened to the student in the next door cubicle swearing in the middle of an elaborate war game. Peony cigarette smoke filled the small café which was airless, windowless as befitted its previous existence as a brothel where men of means came to taste the pleasures of ‘clouds and rain’. The electric fan fluttered pleasantly now like the wings of cooling butterflies – or was it Chuang Chou waving his arms in a dream? Chen watched Two Sins drying kiwis on a string above the counter, wondering if he might use the allusion on him in a moment of comparative ease, after he’d paid his debts.
It was then that the old river, unpredictable as always, began to bellow. His opponent placed a large bet. Chen sat up, wiped his mouth. A very large bet. Yes. Play on. His finger twitched the mouse. His opponent sped up, took risks. Hit hit bust. Hit hit bust. Hit hit hit five card flush. Chen very quickly lost the price of the small car he’d never owned. He decided his opponent must be an American who looked at the big fat meaty ducks on the pond and let them live. Time passed. Two Sins gave more credit. Chen played on. Houses were bought and sold in this lifetime; emperors throned and dethroned; sky burials performed, limbs sliced and brains mashed with barley for the flesh-eating god Dakinis; pearls passed from tooth to glass to flame, tested for purity. By the time dawn’s bony fingers had rifled the city, prodded the ancients out of bed to their taichi, their turnpikes and see-saws, Chen had lost the price of four good-sized family cars. He was the upturned raft in the Yangtze river. There would be no Versace sunglasses for Lily, no good medicine, no trip to Happy Magic Watercube for his son. The electric fan was no longer cooling. Chen sat hoping he was a rich man just dreaming he was Chen.
Sometimes when he thought of the future all he saw was the past. The lanterns twisting in the village trees where he had courted Lily. The girls promenading on the roof of the crocodile shoe factory, toasting their nuptials in sorghum; and Lily running swift as an Olympian in a pair of those crocodile shoes to Beijing. His parents had been reticently pleased though he knew they feared a drop in the money he could send. He did not disappoint. Not at first. The factory paid good wages exporting cowboy masks to Utah; ornamental cigarette lighters to Germany; coarse European wigs to the balding French and Swedes. In two years his boss had upgraded to a black Audi, though they laughed when he took longer to get to work than he had on bicycle. Son had watched him chop a Hershey bar in half with his electric windows.
Two Sins beckoned and Chen got up wearily. They began with pleasantries.
“And how is your wife?”
“A little better.”
“I have tiger bone for her.”
Tiger bone was a costly ingredient; Chen’s fingers spread in surprise.
“Put the qui back into anyone. Raise a worm this could. Get an old man salty wet.”
Chen reddened. Did Two Sins know the secrets even of his intimate life? “Not necessary. Not necessary.”
“And for your son.” A foil pack of condensed milk sandwiches. “A favourite with the little ones. Handsome boy your son.”
“Not at all,” replied Chen as was customary. “Small head.” He paused, gazing apprehensively at the black tear tattooed into Two Sin’s left cheek. Tear shed for a life taken so they said. He waited always for a new one to appear. “And your cousin in New York?”
“Hah!” Two Sins spat. “She writes they don’t wear slippers and mix their food up on the plate in a revolting way. The women coarsen their faces up to the sun and feed their babies in full view. May as well be back in Sichuan province making corn stalk houses for grasshoppers, picking tea with son strapped to her back.”
“Peasants,” Chen agreed and turned to go.
Two Sins’ shadow caught up with him at the door.
“Uncle has arranged a small meeting on Saturday in Kwaloom teahouse.”
The teahouse where Chen had seen the vertical chopsticks only last night.
“There is a little work to be undertaken. If you are willing.”
Nothing moved in the impassive face but the red flickering irises. Chen’s palms itched with sweat. So he was to be the tame cormorant Two Sins used to fish with. On a leash, unable to swallow, yet not quite asphyxiated.
“Bring some fruit. A mango maybe or some Red Jade apples. Uncle likes the traditions.”
Chen bowed once more, stepped out into the dawn. There were many different paths to the river. He wished he knew the right one, wished he had the gift of calling spirits, spinning them back into life like silk so that he might ask their advice. A sparrow bustled at his feet, scratching for bugs and pilfering corn from the stalls spilling live chickens, red peppers, warm dough sticks. A pair of early risers were giggling and taking photographs of an old woman who was pointing a half-eaten tomato at them. They were dressed as if to go skiing in their goggles, their masks, their North Fake jackets. Chen sidestepped them before they could ask him the way to Tiananmen square. All the tourists wanted to view Chairman Mao’s formaldehyde bloated corpse, climb the Great Wall or at least buy a tee shirt that said they had climbed the Great Wall; hunt the stalls for Louis Vuitton bags, confiscated Beethoven tapes from the Cultural Revolution, opium scales, painted human skulls.
On impulse Chen spent the last few yuan in his pocket on a goldfish kite for his son, two soda cans of Tibetan air. It was a gimmick, of course, the canned fresh air, aimed at the tourists who passed out in their hotels after a day’s sightseeing in the smog. All life now was a gimmick, a gadget, an app, a blurb, a disembodied tweet, a faceless game of blackjack with unknown gods. People floated, aimless as dragonflies. There were no threads left to hold them.
Chen went home bearing gifts in his one good hand, slowly climbing the steps to the room his boss had given them as compensation after the accident. It was small, stifling, the house backing onto a railtrack. Lily and Jin still slept, their breathing laboured and hoarse but he dare not open the window for the trains that lurched up from the country to Beijing. He wondered if they could ever go back, if the village would welcome them or shun them, if Two Sins’ tendrils could reach that far. Lily sighed in her sleep as though dreaming the same dream and Jin turned, wriggled, exposing his little sampan of a bottom. Chen covered him gently, placed the kite on the floor so that he might see it straightaway when he woke. He still had hopes that his delicate fine-boned son would grow fast, eventually becoming skilled in martial arts, particularly the long sword after his paternal grandfather. They’d always given him the best: cow powder packed with vitamins and the glass jars scientifically proven to build brain and bone. Not the milk from his mother’s own small pert breasts, not the liver and fish heads Chen had grown up on. They’d wanted better for Jin. Sometimes Chen felt he was in the middle of a big fat hoax, the bad joke in a firecracker and the only way out was to explode.
He yawned, his eyes like chicken grit, his mouth bloody. Softly, he ring-pulled the soda cans above their heads. Was it his imagination or did a faint scent of incense funnel into the room? Tibetan air. Air that had touched the temples of penitents, throbbed with the recitation of sutras. Air that soared with the wedge-tailed eagles, tickled the nose of a mouse hare, brushed the ears of an antelope. He lay down on the floor beside his wife and his son.
“Let there be one good sleep,” he prayed, “where their hearts are easy as the soft wild creatures that sip reflected stars in the snow cold streams, taste the radiance of the moon. Let there be one good sleep where their souls swoop and glide in the breath of the divine.”
*Mei Lanfang was one of the greatest practitioners of Peking opera. Believing his eyes to be insufficiently expressive for stardom, he exercised them by following the flight of pigeons, gazing at the flickerings of an incense flame and staring at soaring kites against a blue sky.
Zillah Bethell was born in Papua New Guinea. She graduated in English from Oxford University. Her first novel, Seahorses are Real, was published by Seren in 2009 and the second, Le Temps Des Cerises in 2010. Her short stories have been published in magazines including New Welsh Review. She lives in Maesteg, South Wales.