Benfu passed the cigarette store and for a moment he fought the sudden craving that overtook his thoughts. His wife had finally got her way when he'd stopped smoking a few years before, but there were days he could almost taste the sweet tobacco, he wanted it so badly. It was a welcome distraction to hear his friend call his name from where she perched on the next front stoop, peeling peanuts. His mouth watered at the sight of the treats in her bowl. He would have liked to be able to bring some peanuts home to add to their own simple dinner. Occasionally the woman saved a small bag behind her to hand over to him, but not today. He had many friends in the neighborhood and one had even complimented him long ago by telling him he was a big man with an even bigger presence. He didn't quite know how he had a big presence but it had sounded nice. Always known as soft-spoken and wise with his words, he found that when he had something to say, others usually listened. "Zao, Benfu. Cold day, eh?"
Benfu raised his hand to the woman and smiled. "Good morning to you, too, Lao Gu. Yes, very cold. But don't worry, spring is coming soon!"
These days he was so used to being cold that he no longer thought much about it. At least there hadn't been any snow this seasonsaving him the trouble of carrying his load when he couldn't get the cart through. Sure his cough was worse in the cold, his old joints ached, and his gnarled hands cramped from the hours spent wrapped around the handles, but instead of dwelling on it, he chose to focus on other mattersmatters like finding enough discarded items to earn enough for a day of meals for his family and if he was lucky, enough to put some savings toward their monthly rent bill. But first, his self-imposed obligation needed to be fulfilled for the day.
"Zhu ni haoyun, Benfu." She wished him luck and went back to peeling.
No small talk was needed because there wasn't anything new to discuss. They'd been passing each other for the last fifteen years and only stopped to catch up every month or so, unless either of them had news worth interrupting their chores. The woman was widowed and Benfu had known her husband back in the hard days. But those were times they didn't talk about.
Benfu continued with his cart and hoped his morning would be uneventful. He didn't wish to find anything out of the ordinary as he turned past the block of buildings. He really didn't. He always wished to find nothing except trash. But sometimes something other than trash found him. Now in the alley between two buildings, he guided his bike around soiled refuse bags and a line of jumbled bicycles, then heard the first mewl coming from a pile of boxes. He hoped it was nothing but a new kitten, strayed from its mother. That would be the best scenario, for Benfu could help it find the rest of the litter and then go on with his day as usual. But the closer he got to the huge pile of trash, the more that hope faded. He'd heard this same sound before and he scolded himself; he should have known the difference from the start.
Sighing, he stopped the bicycle and climbed down. He walked over to the pile of cardboard boxes. Lifting them carefully and tossing them aside one by one, he dug down until he finally found the right one. As he paused to look at the labeling on the side of the cardboard, a couple at the end of the alley stopped and pointed at him, then moved along.
Gently he picked up the box and carried it to his cart. He carefully set it on top of the pile of trash he had collected on the way over. Opening the two flaps, he peered into the box and immediately connected with tiny dark eyes.
"Aiya," he muttered softly, so as not to scare her. The baby was very youngmaybe only a few hours or possibly a few days old. She lay in the box fully unclothed save for a scrap of a red shirt with frog ties and a few balledup newspapers scattered around her. Benfu wrinkled his nose as the smell of urine wafted up from the soaked box. He noticed her umbilical cord still hung from her tiny button, already turning dark from the lack of sustenance running through it. From the weak sound of her mewling and the mottled color of her skin, she didn't have much time left.
Excerpted from The Scavenger's Daughters by Kay Bratt. Copyright © 2013 by Kay Bratt. Excerpted by permission of Amazon Publishing. 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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