The Year of the Dog
Beginnings are always difficult, especially when you have lived as
long as I have. I could start by telling you that this is a simple story
about two hearts and the way they are intertwined. But that wont
do. The Jade Emperor would not like that at all. I think I will have
to go a little further back.
In a small border town huddled at the furthest reaches of a northern province, there was an old teahouse. It was winter there, thousands of years ago. And inside was the owner, his face flushed despite the frost that had turned his windows into rivers of curdled milk. He bolted the door at the end of the night and ran a wet rag through his hands. As he moved, sweat slipped between the folds of his shirt. He had been pacing between the tables since morning. Lukewarm tea sat in a squat clay cup on one of the dark wooden tables, the leaves sunk to the bottom like broken lilies given up on light.
The teahouse was situated at the end of a long, narrow street that looked as though it had been sculpted out of ice. It was one of the last buildings before the city trailed off into tracks darkened by the reach of the mountains misshapen shadow. Since winter began, the owner had not had enough customers to afford to keep his tattered lanterns lit. Even so, he had not become accustomed to waiting. Instead, his eyes had taken on a furtive quality, as though at any second he would be ready to reach for the taper and strike the small room into life. He sat and sipped his drink, almost dropping it when he heard the timid taps at his door.
On the other side he found an old man who appeared to be at least a head shorter than himself, although this might have been due to the way he stooped and held his body at an angle, looking like his left side was weighing his right side down. He looked to be at least double the owners own age. The owner ushered the man inside, anxious to keep the cold wind from sneaking in, and guided him to a chair. He turned to light two of the thinner lanterns, which hissed at him as the oil caught. The old mans face was sunburnt and as lined as if it had been whittled from oak; his beard was like a birds nest flaked with ash. One of the mountain people, the owner muttered to himself as he heated some water. Definitely from the mountain probably hadnt even set eyes on a coin in years.
Seeing no need for the swan-necked pot perched proudly in the centre of the room, the owner filled two cups straight from the pan, adding a stingy pinch of dried leaves to each. He sat down at the same table as the old man, and both of them clasped their hands round the cups.
From the mountain? the owner asked.
The old man nodded slowly, not taking his eyes from the steam rising off the tea in front of him.
Bet its cold up there this time of year. Streams must be frozen up.
The old man nodded again. They sat in silence for a few minutes. As the owner rose from the table, the old man spoke. Do you have anything to eat?
The owner looked back at the old man for a moment, considering the scraps in the kitchen. He was embarrassed with himself, but he asked anyway, Can you pay?
The old man traced his hands across his grubby jacket and shook his head.
Its all right, the owner sighed. Im about to eat anyway. Just some rice.
Soon he returned from the kitchen with two bowls. They ate. By the time they pushed the bowls away darkness had settled like dust between the tables. Yet before the owner had time to suggest setting up a makeshift bed in the back, the old man had got up from the table.
Thank you, but I must keep moving. Ive still got a long way to go.
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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