In the city of concrete and dust he biked to work in the morning and back home in the afternoon. In the evening he ate soup made of beef broth, cabbage, chili, garlic, a few slices of sweet pear, a hard boiled egg and cut buckwheat noodles, while he watched the news on the chubby TV in his main room.
At night he took out his bedding from the closet and placed it on the floor. He rested under the blotched yellow ceiling and the cracked blue-green walls, moved his eyes over them as if they were a landscape he saw for the first time. His two cats, one cream-colored and one gray, slept against his sides. Sometimes he dreamed that the walls were an ocean he floated on top of, unmoored from the rest of the world. Those mornings he woke with moist hair and cold skin.
Sunday was his day off. Then he strolled three blocks to a tea house to meet his brother and friends there.
“In the old days,” a friend said, “kings drank tea made from the dew of lotus blossoms and leaves stored among their fragrant petals.”
He wasn’t sure if he believed that.
At the start of each month, when the salary was paid, he invited his brother over for beef or pork with fried mushrooms, bean pancakes and rice, and cups of sweet tea for dessert. They sat under the golden light in the main room, legs tucked beneath the table, clinked old cutlery against stained porcelain, slurped broth and talked quietly, while steam rose into the air.
In the winter the sky was so tall it seemed to float away and the trees that guarded the boulevards were brittle skeletons of ice. He covered his head and hands with a knit hat, scarf and gloves, gifts from his younger sister.
In the spring, when he came home from work, the cream-colored cat had peed on the floor and almost emptied the bowl of water he left for the two felines each morning. He opened the door to the balcony so the small cat could use the litter box outside, and cleaned the floor. Then he washed the cat, held her gently while she scratched his hands and mewled.
Later in the evening she retched and reeled and fainted. He wrapped her in a small towel and put her in the bathroom, below the glowing heater. But when he checked on her an hour later, she had gone and left only a shell.
He told his boss about the cat.
“Don’t buy the cheap pet food,” his boss, the city council’s head of industry, said.
“It’s not good for the animals.”
On the way home he bought new cat food and put the old bag in the garbage chute. It rumbled down the metal.
The gray cat stroked his ankles with her flanks and gave him heavy glances. He poured the cat food into a chipped bowl while the porcelain sang. The cat remained healthy.
In the summer, when humidity glued the shirt to his back and the air was hard to breathe, his sister called, crying.
“The baby is sick,” she said over the clicks and the noises on the phone line. “We’re at the north hospital with him.”
“I’m coming,” he said.
The corridors were crowded with families. His younger brother was already there. They sat with their sister, her husband and their daughter behind the mustard, warm walls. Two days later the infant died of kidney failure, bloated and brown. They held each other and wept.
He went out to drink with his boss and cried into the first beer.
“Don’t buy the cheapest formula,” the other man said.
He punched him. The police informer at the back table looked at them.
“Why not?” he said. “What’s wrong with it?”
“The discount labels,” his boss said, pulling himself up, “have chemicals that are bad for you.”
“Which food do you eat?” he said, his hands clenched.
“Imports,” his boss said. “Imports only.”
He stopped drinking tea with friends on Sundays and going out with colleagues on week nights. He bought more expensive food, but not the imported brands, they were too costly. He warned his sister and brother about the food.
In the autumn, when the trees had yellowed and the sun started to pale, he fell sick after eating some rice. He spent the night and the next day voiding his innards in long, painful convulsions, praying for survival. When he could finally rest on the linoleum floor, the gray cat nudged her snout against his moist forehead and curled up against his knotted belly.
Back at work he asked his boss about the rice.
“It’s made from hydrocarbons and soybean oil,” his boss said. “It’s safe, just not as nutritious as other kinds of rice.”
“It’s not safe,” he said. “It makes people sick!”
He wanted to punch his boss again, but didn’t want to risk a midnight visit from the police.
“The hydrocarbons are inert,” his boss said. “Few reacted to them in the tests and most said they liked the flavor. It’s an advantageous product. I can let you in on the shares if you like.”
He wanted to contact other council members and demand the rice was called back, but then considered how the artificial rice had passed regulations in the first place, and changed his mind.
He stopped buying domestic food. Instead he purchased imported, expensive rice and noodles. That left no money for meat or eggs.
The next Sunday he rose at dawn and biked out of the city, along the fields and farms. The road was gray with dust, the fields gray with mud and the mountains gray with a stubble of charred trees after fire clearing. Despite his hat and gloves, the wind pinched his hands and ears. The last part of the way he rode on the back of a truck, leaned into the metal and watched the silver sun in the sky.
His father, a potter, and his mother, a grass farmer, had left a house in the countryside. He and his siblings leased the fields to a cousin and shared the income, but none of them could afford to restore the house.
He had considered becoming a potter like his father, but didn’t have the love or the hands for it, and went to school instead. With neck sore and head tight from arithmetic, history, geography, economics, he sat bent over the books. He found further education in the city, and after military service, employment in a government office. He bought an apartment on the twelfth floor of a building that housed nearly a thousand other people.
At his childhood home, he ran his eyes over the drooping roof, the broken windows, and the cracked foundation in the same way he looked at the ceiling and the walls in his apartment at night. He locked himself inside and sat with the ghost of his younger brother playing in the children’s bedroom, his younger sister ironing clothes on the dining room table, his mother preparing dinner in the kitchen, his father napping in the main room, while the wind whistled through the walls.
The yard behind the house faced the fields and the mud-filled ditches that ran between them like troughs. Red squirrels bounded in the open space. He killed two of them with his old small caliber training rifle, wrapped them in an old newspaper and put them in his bag. It was almost dark.
Photo Source: Here Kitty
What a beautiful, sad, poetic, evocative story. Thank you for this.
I’m very glad to hear you liked it. 🙂 Thousand thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
amazing story with so much back drop it almost hurts to put the story down. his sitting with the ghosts of his siblings left the strongest mark on my memory, as does the tension between city and country that you describe so well.
Thank you very much for making an insightful and positive comment to my story, Marcus! The connection or disconnection between city and country, and the way we live and what would be sustainable in the long term, has become more and more prominent in my thoughts lately. It’s probably not the last story about the issue.