The owner did not try to dissuade him. Old men can be stubborn.
However, instead of heading for the door, the old man tottered toward the opposite wall. He ran his hands across it, as though it was a giant page of Braille, and then fumbled in his pockets. The owner watched him with the strange impatience of those who have nothing better to do. The old man pulled out a grubby piece of cloth and unwrapped it to reveal a small lump of charcoal, which he raised to the wall. He began with a small arc, which became a beak, and from there the rest of the bird was born: a dark smudge of an eye; ruffles of soot above the brow; feathers; and, finally, long slender legs ending in water. Neither of them had any idea how long he sketched for, as the minutes had become tangled and lost in the movement of his hands. By the time his arm dropped there were five proud cranes sketched on the wall. He folded the cloth back around the stub of coal, then wiped his hands on his trousers.
The owner inched closer to inspect the parade of birds lined up on the main wall of his teahouse, unsure of what to say.
Cranes, the old man said. No one seems to agree on the strange paths their flight follows, or the distances they cover. In all my studies, I have never found a common consensus on this matter. They are my thanks. For the tea, and the food.
He bowed his head and walked to the door. The owner opened his mouth, but was still uncertain of how to speak to the stooped man.
Have a good journey, old uncle.
The old man started down the street without looking back. The owner watched him leave. It seemed that it was the distance moving to meet him, rather than his slow and awkward steps, that gave him motion. The owner bolted his door for the final time that evening. On his way to bed he looked at the cranes staring down at him and shook his head. I would like to say that he dreamed of scores of graceful journeying birds, or the top of the nearby mountain that he had never ventured up, but the past is one thing, and dreams are quite another, so we will have to leave those to him.
The next afternoon three tables were full the most since the evenings had begun stalking back into the days. One, a musician, was a regular; since the owner was in a good mood because of the increase in trade, he urged him to play. The musician gently waved his hand in front of his face. It hardly seemed worth it. The owner tilted the swan-necked pot, refilling the musicians cup to the brim. The musician exaggerated a sigh and bent down, pulling the rectangular box up from between his feet. He took out the zheng and gently placed it on the table, running his hands across the bamboo before suspending his fingers over the silk strings that travelled across its raised bridge. It was unclear whether he paused for dramatic effect or because he was searching the corners of his memory for the beginning of a certain tune. He must have imagined himself a magician, his left hand bending the strings while his right began to pluck and swim between them, drawing up notes as if from some invisible depth.
For a few seconds as he started to play the other customers fell silent and listened, only to resume their conversations moments later, and it was a while before anyone looked at the wall. Then they saw it. Only the musician, halfway through the song and humming along as he picked, did not turn with the gasps. The charcoal cranes were moving across the wall, in time with the music. They had begun with slowly dipped and nodding heads, then the raised arch of tentative steps, and, as the tempo increased, the birds unfurled their wings. A shiver of feathers seemed to shake the whole room as the cranes started to bob and strut. The owner looked at them, scratched his head and smiled nervously. In the muddle of clapping hands, whoops and singing, the dark lines of water shifted into splashes, the wooden frames of the windows rattled to the tap of swaying beaks, and chairs and tables groaned like weary beasts as they were nudged across the floor toward the boisterous mural.
Excerpted from Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings. Copyright © 2010 by Sam Meekings. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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