Excerpt of Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings
(Page 4 of 5)
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On opening night a trail of lanterns led to the freshly painted
door. The gangly manager welcomed all the new patrons to the
refurbished teahouse, bowing to his uncle who sat sullenly in the
corner flanked by two visiting mandarins, a specially summoned
court musician and a local general. Thin and tanned waiting boys
poured jasmine tea, and coins began to clink. The musician played.
The cranes seemed for a moment to be staring back at the expectant
faces studying them. The water at their feet dimpled, and
they raised themselves up, their proud necks extending and their
feathers a blur as, one by one, they pushed forward and flew. From
their slender throats calls burst out, spurring each other on as they
ascended. The new customers cheered, and even the restrained
mandarins laughed and clapped.
It was the governor who first noticed that they were shrinking.
His mouth opened but he did not speak. Everyone began pushing
toward the wall, and in the crush the musician dropped his instrument.
The music splintered into the sound of broken strings and reproachful
shouts. The cranes got smaller and smaller as they glided
toward the horizon line, the brink of sight at the top of the wall.
They were scribbles, then thumbprint smudges, and then they were
gone. For a while nothing happened. Soon, however, the teahouse
was empty except for the governor and his tearful nephew, who
sat listening to the mumbles of the crowd as they filed down the
street. Neither of them moved, nor gave voice to their doubts and
recriminations. Outside the cold wind blew a blank poster onto the
roof and whipped the door closed. They did not bother to bolt it.
Bian Yuying had been thinking about the story of the dancing
cranes all morning how so much can turn upon a single act of
kindness, how so much might depend upon the whims of history.
How nothing is ever as you expect it. She thought of her husband
lying in the hospital, then picked up her bags and started moving
again. Cranes are a symbol of fidelity, she thought; they mate
for life. She could not recall how many times she had heard the
story of the dancing cranes, half sung by storytellers in teahouses
to the rhythm of squat drums when she was a child, then in the
confines of the stone-walled bedroom where her husband had told
it to their children, and later their grandchildren. Each time, the
story changed a little, though this had never bothered her. It was
in the differences that she located the tales restless heart, which,
like the cranes, would not allow itself to remain still. The cranes
represented karma, the delicate balancing act of the universe that
rewards good acts with rewards and evil acts with punishment.
Everyone gets what they deserve in the end. Yet after all she had
been through, Yuying was not sure that life was ever that simple.
Her back ached from leaning against the wall for so long. She
enjoyed wandering through the older, narrow streets, on her way
back from the hospital. They reminded her of the house she had
been born in seventy years before, the house where she was married,
the house she fled from and returned to, the house where
her father died, the house her mother was thrown out of after the
revolution. A house of hopes and hopelessness. She always had to
remind herself to turn left towards the main road, to head back
to her daughters third-floor flat near the massage alley instead of
wandering on towards the courtyards and houses guarded by stone
lions, deeper into the past. Yuying soon came to the bridge over the
murky river which sliced the city in two. It looked to her like the
discarded skin of a huge water snake, shimmering where the light
fell with the flow. She was nearly there.
Climbing the stairs was a slow and precise operation, and when
Yuying first reached the apartment her hands were shuddering too
much to direct the keys into the lock. Finally in, she sat down on
her grandsons bed and stared out of the window. She pulled open
the wooden drawer, and, from beneath her neatly folded winter
layers, extracted a small album. It fitted perfectly in her lap. Only
a couple of hours to kill, and then she would return to the hospital,
with a plastic box of fresh dumplings, to resume the bedside vigil.
She pushed the door closed and flitted quickly through the album
to the penultimate page, on which there was a black-and-white
print no bigger that her palm.
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.