THE PI­GEON AND THE BUM

《鸽子与流浪汉》等两篇

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓)

A city pre­pares to hold an in­ter­na­tional event, up­end­ing sev­eral lives—hu­man and an­i­mal— in the process. In these two in­ter­con­nected sto­ries, au­thor Jiang Zi­jian turns the con­se­quences of ur­ban de­vel­op­ment into hu­mor­ous slice-of-life mo­ments

Ide­test the wash­ing ma­chine on the bal­cony. With each ro­ta­tion, it would al­ways make the sound of some­one wip­ing their hand on a bal­loon, which would in turn make my head feel like it was go­ing to ex­plode. For that rea­son, I kept my wash­ing to a min­i­mum— when I was com­pletely out of T-shirts to wear, I’d do a load.

How­ever, that af­ter­noon as it was run­ning, it made a kind of raspy rhyth­mic “hoo-hoo” sound. My girl­friend kicked it, but soon, it was back to the usual squeak­ing.

When the cy­cle fin­ished, my girl­friend opened the lid, only to find a bunch of cloth­ing had been stained red. She yelled at me: “I’ve told you so many times not to put red clothes with other col­ors in the wash!” She started pulling items out of the washer and throw­ing them on the floor.

“Ah!” she sud­denly screamed and ran into the bed­room, cry­ing and hug­ging me tightly. I pat­ted her trem­bling body and asked what was wrong. She pointed to the bal­cony: “There’s some­thing in the washer…”

I walked out onto the bal­cony to a sad sight: The pi­geon’s neck hadn’t fully sep­a­rated from its body, and was wrapped up with the leg of a pair of jeans. The wings were bro­ken, and drooped like two pieces of rag. The feathers that had fallen out had balled up into what looked like a gray sock with the thread un­rav­eled; a large piece had been gouged out of the bird’s breast, re­veal­ing flesh that had been soaked white.

I im­me­di­ately thought of some­thing that had hap­pened not long be­fore.

On the rooftop of the build­ing across from me, some­one had been rais­ing more than 100 pigeons. Two weeks ago, a few men wear­ing hard hats had shown up, car­ry­ing a power saw, a ham­mer, and a curved ma­chete, and turned the empty pi­geon coop into a pile of boards. The pigeons didn’t come near, flying in a cir­cle over their heads as they watched their home be­ing dis­as­sem­bled. Their owner didn’t bother look­ing on; a man in a suit gave him a stack of cash, which he bus­ied him­self count­ing.

I over­heard the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the owner and the suited man: a large in­ter­na­tional del­e­ga­tion was com­ing to town, and the city was elim­i­nat­ing all “eye­sores.” The work had al­ready been go­ing on for a month, with old build­ings re­painted, ex­ter­nal air con­di­tion­ing units re­lo­cated in neat rows, new rub­bish bins swapped in, and large rows of pot­ted plants placed on the pave­ment. The only struc­tures al­lowed to re­main on rooftops were solar wa­ter heaters.

Af­ter that day, the pigeons would fly aim­lessly about the city ev­ery day, and re­turn to the rooftop at dusk to for­age and defe­cate. When the sky grew darker, they’d dis­ap­pear again. “This must be one of them,” I said. “Who the f*ck cares where it came from!” My girl­friend was los­ing it. All the clothes will have to be thrown out (which I thought was quite a pity). The washer will also have to be re­placed (which the land­lord would def­i­nitely not pay for)—if we could have re­placed the bal­cony, she would have.

I went down­stairs to throw away the bag of clothes with the wrapped-up bird in­side, and saw The Bum.

I’d seen many va­grants be­fore; The Bum was spe­cial. He had some of the clas­sic char­ac­ter­is­tics of a hobo—di­sheveled hair and a dirty face, tat­tered cloth­ing, not speak­ing to passersby. The Bum, how­ever, never fished in the trash bins for food scraps. He was al­ways in the same po­si­tion: sit­ting on the steps at the in­ter­sec­tion, drinking tea, smok­ing, and qui­etly watch­ing the comings and goings of oth­ers. He drank his tea out of a big bowl half-filled with leaves that looked like they had been in there for days; he didn’t smoke other peo­ple’s cig­a­rette butts, ei­ther. I’d seen him open a fresh pack him­self—and they weren’t the cheap­est kind.

When he was hun­gry, he’d pull out

HE WAS AL­WAYS IN THE SAME PO­SI­TION: SIT­TING ON THE STEPS AT THE IN­TER­SEC­TION, DRINKING TEA, SMOK­ING, AND QUI­ETLY WATCH­ING THE COMINGS AND GOINGS OF OTH­ERS

in­stant noo­dles from his bag, and go to a small nearby restau­rant for some hot wa­ter. If he was rather bored (which was just my guess—i had no way to tell if he was bored or not), he’d start danc­ing and howl­ing at the sky, like an an­gry leader ad­mon­ish­ing sub­or­di­nates, spit­tle flying in the air. I never un­der­stood a word he was say­ing. I won­dered many times how he got his in­come, but never fig­ured it out. He was al­ways there first thing in the morn­ing, and gone when it turned dark.

I hadn’t seen him for a num­ber of days; the last time, a group of urbanmanagement po­lice were chas­ing him away. He cursed and spat at them an­grily as he left, tak­ing his pos­ses­sions on his back.

I thought he wouldn’t come around again, or would at least wait un­til af­ter the big in­ter­na­tional event had con­cluded. How­ever, as I ar­rived down­stairs I saw him sit­ting at the same cor­ner. He’d cut his hair into a flat top, and shaved off his beard. I al­most didn’t rec­og­nize him. I went over to the bin, and thought about how new our blood­stained clothes were, that it would be a waste to throw them away. A num­ber of ar­ti­cles hadn’t even been stained by the blood; I could give them to him. This kind of char­ity was too in­deco­rous, how­ever, so I put the bag down a cou­ple steps away from him, and ran back up­stairs.

I watched him from my win­dow. He looked around to con­firm nobody was nearby, then opened the bag. He took out a few T-shirts and shorts, and held them up to his body, be­fore stuff­ing them in his bag. He also quickly found the dead pi­geon. He stopped look­ing, and picked it up. I called my girl­friend over to have a look. She was still afraid of the bird, and snapped at me: “Why would I want to see that? You’re nuts!”

He sat down and started to pull out the re­main­ing feathers, like a poul­try mer­chant. His move­ments were quick and skilled, and be­fore long he had fully cleaned the bird. He went over to the bin and found some scrap pa­per which he lit on fire, and then took a thin metal pole and passed it through the pi­geon to hold it over the fire. He turned it over and over as he fished out a pack of in­stant noo­dles from his bag; he took out the sea­son­ing packet and spread it evenly over the sur­face of the bird.

I watched him eat the en­tire bird, in­nards and all, be­fore I left the win­dow. When I came back later, he had dis­ap­peared as usual.

The next day, as I went out to the sec­ond­hand elec­tron­ics mar­ket to buy an­other wash­ing ma­chine, The Bum was there as usual. I saw one of my T-shirts on him—it was far too big, and the sleeves were gap­ing. I felt un­com­fort­able. I fur­rowed my brow as I walked past him. He sud­denly spoke to me.

“Hey, you have any more?” He had an ac­cent, and spoke halt­ingly.

I didn’t un­der­stand what he meant, and looked at him in con­fu­sion.

“Chick­ens…” He made a flap­ping mo­tion with his arms.

“Oh, the pi­geon. Nah, if you want more you can get some from the top of that build­ing.”

“Those aren’t mine. I go get them, wouldn’t it…would it be OK?”

“Of course, the coop’s de­mol­ished, nobody’s watch­ing them.” I was in a hurry, and paid him no fur­ther heed.

When I came back, The Bum wasn’t there. The washer wouldn’t be de­liv­ered un­til the next day, so I threw the shirt I took off on a stool on the bal­cony. I turned around, and saw The Bum chas­ing pigeons on top of the roof of the op­po­site build­ing.

Not just that, but he had car­ried his be­long­ings up top. Over the next few days, he was al­ways on that rooftop, drinking tea, smok­ing cig­a­rettes, and check­ing out pedes­tri­ans down be­low. At night he’d roll out his blan­ket and lie on top of it. He’d used the boards from the pi­geon coop to make a small shed that pro­vided pro­tec­tion from the sun and rain. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he’d go down­stairs to get some hot wa­ter for his tea from the owner of the small restau­rant. When I’d see him come back up, he’d have in­stant noo­dles in his hand; some­times I’d see him roast­ing a pi­geon, but I never saw how he caught them.

Af­ter a few days, the govern­ment learned of this new rooftop con­struc­tion. A truck came into the com­pound, and a few men in uni­forms jumped out, point­ing to the rooftop and shout­ing as they ran up. The Bum had seen them be­fore me; I was wor­ried for him. He scram­bled un­der a solar panel.

When the uni­formed men got up, they were struck dumb by the sight of him. The Bum held onto the solar panel with one hand, and waved with the other. He planted one of his feet on the edge of the rooftop, and the other he kicked with wildly in the air. He un­hur­riedly said some things I couldn’t un­der­stand, but the mes­sage was clear: “If you come closer, I’ll jump.”

The men in the uni­forms kept seven or eight paces from The Bum, one of them yelling things like: “We even evicted the pigeons, how could we have a per­son liv­ing here!”, “It’s

A GROUP OF URBANMANAGEMENT PO­LICE WERE CHAS­ING HIM AWAY. HE CURSED AND SPAT AT THEM AN­GRILY AS HE LEFT

dan­ger­ous up here, what if you fall?” and “Come down, we’ll ar­range a place for you to live.” But The Bum didn’t quiet down. Af­ter a 30-minute stand-off, they left dis­ap­pointed. Over the next few days, more peo­ple came by, but they couldn’t get him to move.

Yes­ter­day, the 10-day count­down to the in­ter­na­tional event started. In the mid­dle of the night, I was fast asleep when I heard a com­mo­tion. I looked out the win­dow, but could only see the beams of flash­lights swing­ing about. At first I heard the sounds of a quar­rel, and then of wooden boards be­ing hit. Fi­nally there was no more light, and I heard the sound of a truck start­ing down­stairs.

When I woke up this morn­ing, the rooftop was pris­tine. A flock of pigeons flew by. - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓)

come out. I’d al­ready re­searched a group of num­bers, and called the owner “boss” twice, but he was fast asleep, and didn’t hear me at all. As I was pre­par­ing to leave, I saw that the tick­et­ing sys­tem was open on the com­puter. I walked over, but I’d al­ready for­got­ten my string of num­bers. Afraid the boss would wake up, I quickly tapped some fig­ures in, and put the ticket in my pocket.

The de­liv­ery guy was on a flat-bed tri­cy­cle, with the fridge and washer on the bed. I gave him the drink, and he said “Thanks, Boss,” throw­ing the bev­er­age in the back.

“Why did you come by your­self ? I live on the sev­enth floor, and there’s no el­e­va­tor. How will you move the stuff up there on your own?” This city was about to host a big in­ter­na­tional event, and even old com­pounds like the one I was liv­ing in were hav­ing their walls re­painted. There was scaf­fold­ing all over; it would have been hard for even two peo­ple to move these things to­gether.

“Boss, my boss makes us come out alone so that he doesn’t have to pay two peo­ple. I’ll fig­ure it out.”

I re­ally wanted to see how he would fig­ure it out.

He looked at the ground, and turned to me. “Boss, I can carry them up on my back. Can you give me a bit more money?”

The fridge must have been 180 ki­los, the washer maybe 50—how could he move them on his own? He seemed con­fi­dent he could do it. Still, I was ner­vous, in case he was try­ing to ex­tort me.

“How much do you want?” I asked with a straight face.

“Up to you, Boss; 20 or 30. Just a pack of cig­a­rettes.”

I sighed with re­lief, and said po­litely. “Sure, but they’re so heavy. Will you be OK? What if you fall?”

“No prob­lem, Boss. If I break them I’ll com­pen­sate you!” He thought I was talk­ing about the fridge and washer.

He squat­ted down and pulled out a red cord, ty­ing the re­frig­er­a­tor to his back. He sucked in a breath, and stood up steadily. I was guid­ing him from the front. He walked slowly, look­ing at the spa­ces be­tween the scaf­folds, and us­ing all his strength to weave the large fridge be­tween them. We walked out of the scaf­fold­ing, and made our way to the in­ner­most door­way in the com­pound, climb­ing to the high­est story, where the apart­ment my girl­friend had found was. She thought it’d be safer up there.

He put the fridge down near the door, and I had him rest a bit be­fore go­ing for the washer.

“Don’t worry, Boss. You don’t have to go back down; I’ll get it for you.”

Just a few min­utes later he came back with the washer. I had him put it on the bal­cony, and took 30 RMB out of my pocket, hand­ing it to him. The lot­tery ticket also got pulled out. I hes­i­tated a bit, then gave it to him. “Man, this is for you. Try your luck.” “Thank you, thank you, Boss!” He left straight­away.

The next day I passed the ticket of­fice com­ing back to the com­pound, and saw a red ban­ner hung out­side: “Con­grat­u­la­tions to one of our res­i­dents on win­ning the sec­ond prize, 120,000 yuan!” I went in and looked at the pre­vi­ous night’s num­bers—which looked more and more like the ones I’d tapped out.

“Could I have won?” I spoke ex­cit­edly.

The fat boss looked at me and laughed scorn­fully. “Huh, how could you win? You crazy? I don’t re­mem­ber you buy­ing any tickets yes­ter­day.”

I didn’t worry about what he said; I just wanted to con­firm that these were my num­bers from the pre­vi­ous night. I gave the de­liv­ery guy a call, and asked if he still had the ticket.

“Boss, my boss said it wasn’t a tax in­voice, so he can’t give me re­im­burse­ment. So I threw it out. Do you want it back?”

“No, no. Don’t worry about it. Good­bye.”

I went back and told my girl­friend about it. She said coldly: “You’ve gone crazy think­ing about win­ning the lot­tery. To­mor­row, go out and find a job!”

I never bought a ticket again. One day, I passed by the door of the shop, and saw the boss post­ing up a no­tice about an un­claimed ticket. He looked at me and laughed, seem­ing to re­mem­ber me. Af­ter that, I fre­quently went by to chat with him, for at least an hour each time.

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