Excerpt of Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings
(Page 2 of 5)
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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.