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.
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