Excerpt of Bamboo and Blood by James Church
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The muffled whiteness fell in thick flakes, a final
quickening before winter settled into the cold, hard rut of death.
Halfway up the slope, pine trees shifted under their new mantle. A few
sighed. The rest braced without protest. In weather like this, tracks
might last an hour; less if the wind picked up. If a man wanted to walk
up the mountain and disappear, I told myself, this might be his best
Fix these lenses, will you, Inspector? Theyve iced up again. Where
are the lens caps? Every damn time, same thingthe caps vanish.
I brushed the snow from my coat and glanced back. Chief Inspector
Pak was scrambling up the path, the earflaps on his hat bowed out, chin
snaps dangling loose. No matter what, the man would not fasten those
snaps. They irritated him, he said; they cut into his skin. Unfastened,
they also irritated him. Gloves irritated him. Scarves irritated him.
Winter was not a good time to be around Pak, not outside, anyway.
The binoculars hung from his neck by a cracked leather strap already
stiff with cold. Twenty years old, maybe thirty, East German made, and
not very good because the Germans never sold us anything they wanted
for themselves. The focus wheel stuck, even worse in cold weather, so
objects jerked into view and then out again. We had bought ourselves
two choices: blurred or blurred beyond recognition. Cleaning the snow
from the lenses would make no difference.
Here. As soon as he caught up, Pak thrust the binoculars at me.
Cant see a damned thing. He fiddled with the snaps on his chin
strap. I dont like snaps, did you know that? Never have. Too damned
difficult to undo in the cold, especially when youre wearing these
damned gloves. If you have to take off your gloves to work the snaps,
what have you gained? Who invents these things? Does anybody think
anymore? Does your scarf itch? Mine is driving me crazy. Do something
with these lenses, would you?
I felt around in my pockets for something to use. There was nothing
but a few sandpaper scraps and two wood screws, one a little longer than
the other. They both had round heads, with slots that didnt fit any
screwdriver I could ever locate. Not useful, I thought to myself. So why
had they been in my pockets for years, transferred from one coat to another?
The coats would each be discarded over time, but the contents of
the pockets were impossible to throw away. Simply because you dont
need something at the moment, my grandfather would mutter when he
found what ever Id put in the trash pile, doesnt mean its worthless. I
could hear his voice. Look ahead, hed say as he carefully examined the
discarded object before handing it back to me. Dont forgetbamboo
scraps and wood shavings. Even two thousand years ago some damned
Chinese carpenter knew enough to save them. When the kingdom ran
out of everything else, he used the bamboo scraps to make nails. Got
him in good with the Emperor. Do you suppose youre smarter than he
was, do you imagine the present is all youll ever have? I never knew
what to say to that.
Maybe that was why so many things ended up in my pocketsa
subconscious bid not to run afoul of my grandfather, but also a bid for
an unknown future, a sort of materialistic optimism. Maybe even
Marxist in a way, a pocket theory of labor. After all, somebody made
those two useless screws, though they were metal, not bamboo.
Inspector. Many animals hibernate in cold weather; I drift into
philosophy. Inspector! Pak pointed impatiently at the binoculars I
was holding. My thoughts drifted back to the lenses. With what was I
supposed to clean them? There was nothing I could use in my pockets.
Did I have dried grass in my boots? Was I expected to use my hair, like
one of the heroines in a guerrilla band of old, scouting for signs of the
Imperial Japa nese Army in the icy forests of Manchuria? I stamped my
feet to restore a little feeling. The real question was, what were we doing
here, hours from anywhere, squinting up at a mountain of frozen rock
and groaning trees, our ears burning as the temperature plummeted?
Mine were burning. Paks earflaps were loose, but at least they were
Bamboo and Blood. Copyright © 2008 by James Church. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Thomas Dunne books, an imprint of St. Martins Press. All rights reserved.