Excerpt of Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings
(Page 3 of 5)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
By evening the next day customers were crammed in two to a
chair, with others squatting on the floor. The owner barely had
room to move between the babbling crowd, so the long neck of his
teapot preceded him around the room. Despite the snow piling up
outside, the teahouse bristled with heat as the gathered musicians
bustled and sweated, each trying to outplay each other with increasingly
wild flourishes. Everyone was watching the birds dancing and
darting for fish where the flaking wall met the sloping floorboards.
They drove ripples across the water and sent shudders through the
finely etched lilies as they shifted from leg to leg. It seemed that
the birds could do anything but stop moving. The thudding music
was drowned out by shouts as one launched itself upward in flight.
It pushed itself higher with frantically fluttering wings, and then
it began to soar: tucking its legs under its plump form as it flew
across corners and looped over window frames and above doors,
conquering the whole circumference of the crowded room.
The owner soon had more coins than could fit under the wonky
floorboard in his small bedroom. As he drifted to sleep that night his
face was lit by a broad grin, which did not disappear despite the cold
winds creeping under the door to interrupt his dreams. Was it that
he believed the world could be changed by a single act of kindness?
With hindsight he would consider himself naïve, and curse himself
for investing meaning in possibilities that usually belonged only to
stories told by old ghosts like me. One thing was certain: he did not
question what had happened. Why would he? His pockets were full
and his arms sore from brewing, stirring and pouring. If the birds did
dance as he slept, to the unschooled music
of wind-rattled cups and
creaking chairs, then he was happily unaware.
Months passed, and every night was the same, with locals as well
as people from distant villages huddled in the now famous teahouse
to watch the dancing cranes. Late one night, as he was mopping up
small streams of spillages, the owner heard someone banging on his
bolted door. He opened it, half expecting to see the old man returned,
but instead found himself face to face with two of the city guards.
They were stocky men, proud of the uniform they were always
dressed in as well as the power that went with it.
As of today this establishment has been requisitioned by the city
government, one of them said.
His eyes scurried over their hands, looking for an official document,
then above their shoulders, searching for the local magistrate.
He saw neither.
You have two hours to vacate the property. Well be waiting here.
But why? he stammered. I dont understand. Ive paid the taxes.
His words trailed off. The guards stood silently in his doorway.
He understood, and slouched, deflated, towards the backroom.
Once there he took his bedsheet and lay it on the floor. Within an
hour he had filled it with his things his winter fur, a rice bowl,
the precious swan-necked pot and the handful of coins he had managed
to stealthily extract from under the floorboard. He bundled it
up and hauled it over his shoulder. I should have been expecting
this, he thought. There was no point waiting around. He did not
consider fighting, bribing or pleading with the impassive guards as
he slunk past them onto the street. Neither did he yet believe, as
he would come to years later, that the teahouse walls were skin
peeled from his back, rubbed raw beneath the weight of his possessions
as he wandered further from the city, into the winter.
The governor was a pot-bellied man not much given to smiling.
He appointed his gangly nephew as manager of the newly acquired
teahouse, and, after dismissing the guards, sat and pushed the
wooden beads of his tall abacus from end to end, attempting to
solve an impossible equation in which the variables continually
shifted shape to elude him. His nephew arranged for posters to be
hung up around the city, depicting in bright colours the fabulous
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.