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. I
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 dancing cranes.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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