Beitang City, Wuxi, China, 2010
On a cloudy day in early January, Benfu stood outside his house and held the red pail under the spigot, waiting for it to fill. Today was a good day; when he pumped the handle, the old pipes didn't moan and rattle too much before deciding to cooperate. But he didn't mind it so much either waylike him, the piece of iron was ancient but stubbornly kept going. And anyway, they had a history together, and if a man could feel affection for a thing, then Benfu absolutely did. A silly fondness, but there all the same, for it was the very same temperamental water spigot that had been the matchmaker that brought him and his precious Calli together so many years before.
When the water reached the top, he pushed the pump handle down and carried the pail across the street to the old widow's house. Quickly he filled the tins for her chickens and used the last of the water on her pot of herbs hanging in her window box. He looked at the chicken droppings and considered cleaning them up, but that was a task Widow Zu usually took on and he didn't want to deprive her of that joy. And anyway, nothing was worse than the smell of chicken dung on a man's hands.
Chuckling, he returned to his yard across the street, got on his bike, and headed out for the day. Twenty minutes later, he pushed his rusted threewheeled bicycle slowly up the steep hill and turned the corner. Around him the streets were coming alive. Morning vendors were opening their stalls and stacking displays of fruits and vegetables, sweepers cleaned the sidewalks, and early commuters bustled to work. As he strained to push the bike, the cars, electric scooters, and other bicycles rushed past him. Most paid him no attention, for he was just one of many laborers out at the crack of dawn trying to get an early start to the day. With his weathered brown face and deep wrinkles, he blended in, but unlike some of the men his age he passed who were doing their morning Qigong exercises or sitting at makeshift tables while playing cards, Benfu still had a job to do. Even though he had lived on earth for over six decades, he could not retire.
He struggled the last few feet, listening to his water canteen bumping against the metal bar it was tied to and thought about how much the city had changed over the years. At least his side of Beitang CityOld Town Wuxi as some called itstill kept some of the old charm, while new Wuxi had grown with businesses and even many foreigners coming in to make their mark. Benfu was a transplanthe'd been sent to Wuxi as a teenager by his parents to escape the danger of Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. It was for his protection, they'd told him as they cried and bid him good-bye. What they had thought would be a better life for him was an unforgettable time of trauma and hardship. And though he'd never intended to stay for so long, fate had intervened and Wuxi had become his home. But that was long ago and he'd survived many more hard times since thentimes that were better left unspoken of, times that made a day like today feel like child's play.
At the top of the hill, Benfu mounted the bike again and with shoulders bent over the handlebars to add more weight, he pedaled slowly. He was already tired and that irritated him. He'd always been known to be bigger and stronger than most, but for the last year he just couldn't shake the cough and heavy feeling that had enveloped him. Passing the line of street breakfast stands, he winced at the sudden squeaking from the rusty back wheel of his bicycle. As it began to bump and turn haphazardly, he hoped it would last the day, at least until he could ask his daughter to take a look to see if she could repair it. If she could, that would save him some valuable coins that he could avoid paying the local repairman. He was lucky to have the transportation, and the three-wheeled bike was fitted with a makeshift cart on the back, allowing him a way to haul things home without carrying them in a basket on his back as he'd done for years before.
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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