Outside the Little House, Old Stone was talking about geese.
‘Their intestines. That’s the best part,’ he said. ‘The best goose intestines come from White Family Town; do you know why?’
‘No idea,’ I said.
‘The women there have strong and slender fingers. The perfect kind of fingers for plunging into the goose’s asshole and yanking out the entrails while it’s still alive. They do it with precision and determination. They do this in a flash to preserve its tenderness.’
‘I’m a vegetarian.’
He shook his head. ‘Why?’
I thought about how to reply.
‘That’s no good,’ he said. ‘Plus, I don’t think I’ve seen you eating since you came here.’
‘I don’t feel hungry,’ I said.
He turned around to the table next to us and shouted, ‘Small Bamboo! Can you talk some sense into this girl?’
Small Bamboo had fallen asleep in his chair. It was almost 3 a.m.
‘Anyway,’ he said, turning back to me, ‘guess which part of the cow the yellow throat comes from?’
‘Ha!’ He reached for his beer and took a long pull. ‘I’ve asked more than a hundred people this question. Nobody’s got it right. It comes from the cow’s coronary artery. And it has to be the right one. Because the right one’s thinner than the left one so it gets cooked very quickly in the hot pot. Do you know how many seconds it takes to cook the yellow throat?’
‘Eight seconds. Lots of people overcook it. That’s why you should never throw a piece of yellow throat into the pot. Hold it with chopsticks and dip it into the soup. Count to eight and take it out. Only this way will it be crispy and chewy.’
‘I need to go to bed now,’ I said.
‘Sure. You go.’ He took another mouthful from his beer bottle.
‘Aren’t you going to sleep?’
‘Ah no, no, I’m fine. When you are old you don’t need to sleep. I’ll just get another beer.’
He stood up and walked into the Little House. The light was still on. Sister Du was curled up on a booth seat, snoring. I watched through the window as Old Stone went behind the bar, grabbed a Tsingtao and returned.
‘I’ll ask her to put it on my tab in the morning.’ He slumped back into his chair.
‘I’m going now. Good night.’ I stood up and walked back into the tent I shared with Vertical.
Small Bamboo had brought me to the Little House three days earlier. When he bumped into me, I was sitting on a bench outside my apartment compound, reading a book.
‘Hey, Pigeon,’ he said, coming swiftly across the street towards me. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Just reading,’ I said, waving my book at him. ‘To kill some time.’
He tilted his head and read: ‘The Plague. I didn’t know you kids still read Camus.’
‘Some of us do.’
‘Where are you staying these days?’ he asked.
‘I’m camping in the courtyard, with my neighbours.’ I pointed back over my head.
‘That’s no fun,’ Small Bamboo said. ‘Why don’t you come with me to the Little House? We’re all staying there in the square: Old Stone, Young Li, Six Times, Vertical, Chilly and lots of other poets.’
‘But I don’t write poems,’ I said.
He grinned. ‘It doesn’t matter. Just come with me.’
We walked to the Little House. The buses hadn’t been running since the 12th and there were no taxis. Small Bamboo had smoked three cigarettes by the time he finally remembered to offer me one. I told him I didn’t smoke.
‘You’re sensible. Cigarettes kill you.’ He nodded, taking out another one and lighting it up.
We went across the Second Ring Road and turned into Ping’an Square.
‘Wow,’ I said.
The sunken square was brimming with tents, of various sizes and spectacular styles, their colours ranging the full visible spectrum. Small Bamboo pointed at the building at the far end of the square and told me the Little House was on that corner. We descended into the square and wove our way through it. The tents were clustered closely together and cast shadows over one another. People sat outside, eating, chatting, bartering. Vendors elbowed past with their baskets, selling food, magazines, t-shirts and cosmetics. Kids chased each other, laughing. We steered through, Small Bamboo nodding at acquaintances and friends. Ahead of us, I saw a gigantic scarlet tent. It looked like a castle.
‘That’s Young Li’s,’ Small Bamboo said. ‘One big living room and three bedrooms for him, his wife and two kids. There’s even a kitchen inside. God knows where that prawn got it from!’
It was a warm late May afternoon. The air was stale and humid. We walked from the sunken square up the steps and arrived at a run-down pub. Above, three big white characters hung, which said: The Little House. A dot in the first character was missing. A large group of men and women—poets—sat outside, drinking beer. Small Bamboo introduced me: ‘This is Pigeon.’
‘Pigeon!’ they called out together, like a choir singing.
‘I’ve heard about you,’ one of them, a man in his forties, said. ‘You’re the kid who writes fiction.’
A middle-aged woman in a red floral dress looked me up and down. ‘You seem like a smart kid,’ she said. ‘You should write poems.’
‘Ignore these old drunks,’ Small Bamboo said apologetically. ‘You go sit with Vertical.’ He pointed me to a table on the side, at which a young woman and two men in their twenties sat. They waved at me gleefully.
Later I realised they were all in varying degrees of drunkenness. Some had been drinking since Monday; some had started on the evening of the 12th. Sister Du, the owner of the Little House and Small Bamboo’s cousin, had driven her mini-truck to the wholesale market outside the city three times to restock beer. The supermarkets nearby had nothing left.
‘And all of these rats here, they don’t even bother to pay,’ Sister Du said. ‘“Put it on the tab,” they say—but nobody ever opened a tab!’
‘I’ll have a tea please,’ I said, taking out my wallet.
‘Ah come’n take a beer,’ she said and opened a Tsingtao for me. ‘I’ll put it on the tab.’
I took the bottle, walked outside and sat down at the table with Vertical, her boyfriend Chilly, and Six Times. A woman with a basket approached, wondering if any of us would like to buy some turtles. She lifted up the lid, revealing the little turtles inside. They were luminous, as white as pearls.
We were admiring the turtles when the alarm rang out in the sky.
‘Always this time of day,’ the woman said. She covered her basket and went away.
That night I washed my face for the first time since the 12th and slept in Vertical’s tent. There was moaning coming, off and on, from different directions. Someone sang until the small hours. Eventually, I slept like a dead person and did not dream of anything.
It was 2008. My father had been dead for six years. My grandfather had died in 2000 after having a stroke outside a convenience store. My first aunt, she’d lost her life in 1998 due to a haemorrhoid removal operation. My uncle had broken his neck in the summer of 1990, when going for a dive in the river with his friends.
‘Both of my parents died in 1989,’ Small Bamboo said, ‘my mother at the beginning of the year because of diabetes; my father at the end of year, in prison.’
‘My girlfriend has been dead for ten years now,’ Old Stone said. ‘She struggled with anorexia for years and killed herself in the winter of 1998.’
‘You prawns!’ Young Li puffed out a mouthful of smoke. ‘Can we talk about something else? Haven’t we had enough of dead people?’
‘Shall we have a game of Mahjong?’ Old Stone suggested.
After they left the table, I took out my book and began to read. The TV was on in the next room, and Sister Du and the waitresses were watching the news. They wept.
Six Times wandered over and sat down beside me. ‘What are you reading?’
I showed him the book.
‘Camus,’ he said, ‘Interesting. Do you like him?’
‘He’s alright,’ I said.
‘You should read Márquez,’ he said, ‘Love in The Time of Cholera is a better choice.’
I put down the book and looked at him. ‘What are you getting at?’
He smiled shyly. ‘Vertical and Chilly are having sex in my tent. Shall we go to Vertical’s tent and have sex as well?’
I thought about his proposal for a while. ‘Okay,’ I said.
We walked into Vertical’s tent and removed our clothes. He touched me briefly before entering. We hugged and moved towards and away from each other repeatedly. I felt cold the whole time because I was lying on the ground. He cried when he came.
Afterwards, we sat outside the tent, sharing a cigarette.
‘Four days ago I was a non-smoker,’ I said.
‘Five days ago I had no idea there’d be an earthquake,’ he said. ‘What were you doing?’
‘I was giving my cat a bath,’ I said. ‘And you?’
‘I was trying to fix my laptop,’ he said. ‘How’s your cat?’
‘She ran away wet. Hope she’s dry now. How’s your laptop?’
‘Dead.’ he said.
‘I heard earlier on TV,’ I said, ‘that the number of casualties is now two hundred and sixty-two thousand, three hundred and fifty-seven.’
He took the cigarette and smoked. ‘You have a good memory,’ he said.
The alarm rang again. It rang sharply and ceaselessly across the city.
Sister Du rushed out of the Little House and shouted: ‘Another one is coming! The news just said there’s a big aftershock tonight! A 7.8 to 8-magnitude one. The government is telling us to seek shelter.’
‘Relax, cousin,’ Small Bamboo said, half-turning from the Mahjong table. ‘We are already in a shelter.’
That night, nobody could sleep. We went into Young Li’s tent and sat down in the living room. It was surreally spacious, furnished with a pair of ivory four-seater leather sofas, one white armchair and a cream chaise longue. There was even a bookshelf.
Small Bamboo sat down in the armchair. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said, slapping his thigh. ‘This is a palace.’ Young Li and Six Times walked in, carrying a square table. They put it down and flipped up four curved extensions. An enormous round table emerged.
We all stared at it. ‘Bloody hell,’ Small Bamboo said.
‘Old Stone asked me to get a big table for dinner,’ Young Li said.
‘If this is the table we’re sitting at, I’ll need a telescope to see the dishes,’ said Chilly.
‘When the aftershock comes, we can hide underneath it,’ Six Times said, knocking the tabletop.
While Old Stone was busy cooking in the kitchen with Calm—Young Li’s wife—and Sister Du helping out, we talked about him. Apparently, after his girlfriend died, Old Stone immersed himself in the study of how to make the perfect twice-cooked pork. From there, taking it dish by dish, he had become a chef and a reputable food critic. He had published three books: Love and Lust in Sichuan Cuisine, The Pepper Corn Empire and The Night We Ate Armadillos. The last one was a collection of poems.
‘I actually have the books here.’ Young Li stood up and searched on the bookshelf. ‘Here.’ He took a book out, leaned on the bookshelf and started to read: ‘“When language becomes corrupt, we need to talk about fish. Are fish happy? someone asked, a long time ago. You have no idea because you’re not a fish. If a tomato knows a fish well…”’
‘Is this the poetry book?’ I asked.
‘No, it’s his cookbook,’ Young Li said and pushed it back.
Everybody laughed. I laughed with them. We drank beer.
Calm came out from the kitchen. She wore a purple apron on top of the red floral dress. She dropped a stack of bowls and chopsticks on the table and said, ‘The food is coming.’
We pushed over the sofas and each grabbed a bowl and chopsticks. As we took our seats, Sister Du carried out the starters on a tray and put them down one by one: chicken feet with chilli pickle, fried fish skin with coriander, marinated pigs’ tails and thousand-year eggs with green pepper.
The poets cheered and dived in.
‘What can Pigeon have? She’s vegetarian,’ Vertical said.
Young Li examined the dishes. ‘Fish skin? There’s no meat in it.’
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘I’m not really hungry.’ I drank some more beer.
The starters were gone within minutes and Sister Du delivered more dishes: hot, steaming and aromatic. Old Stone’s signature twice-cooked pork was served, followed by braised pork belly, stewed pig feet with fermented black bean, sautéed pig kidney and liver and braised pig knuckles with bamboo shoot.
‘Where does he get all this stuff?’ Chilly marvelled, jabbing a knuckle with his chopsticks.
‘Old Stone has connections,’ Young Li mumbled between chewing. ‘Do you know who his father is?’
Chilly shook his head. ‘No, should I?’
Young Li spat out a bone and disclosed a name that I had learnt in my Local History class at elementary school.
‘Seriously?’ Chilly said.
‘Yep.’ Small Bamboo nodded. ‘This prawn could have been sitting in an office in the central government now if he hadn’t got the wrong girlfriend and joined the protest with her at the wrong time.’
‘Our generation is just fucked,’ Young Li said.
‘We’re fucked too,’ Chilly said competitively.
They continued arguing while the second round of food was brought out. This time: sliced beef in chilli oil, stewed beef brisket in casserole, spiced calf ribs with Sichuan pepper corn and beef offal soup.
The room was filled with hot steam. I sneezed.
‘Can I get you anything?’ Vertical said. ‘Poor Pigeon, you must be starving.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said.
She looked around the table. ‘How about the soup? I can get you some soup without offal,’ she said.
‘Uh, okay,’ I said.
She ladled me a bowl of offal-free soup. I stared at it and drank. The soup flew into my mouth and diffused into my guts, like a long, soft exhalation. It made me think of when my grandfather carried me on his back to the cattle market to see the cows. They smelled like manure and peat. Their eyes were the eyes of Buddha. They looked at me.
‘Can I have another one?’ I said, ‘with offal please.’
We were all devouring like wretched beasts. It began to rain outside. The rain fell, drumming the roof with an urgent rhythm while more food was served. We had a round of poultry: chicken, duck, goose, quail and ostrich; and then six kinds of fish: rudd, sea-bass, mandarin, silver jin, golden chang and fugu; afterwards some rare delicacies whose names I learnt from the others: boar, abalone, soft-shelled turtle, muntjac, and armadillo.
‘Bloody hell,’ Small Bamboo said, his chopsticks gnashing. The rain fell in torrents.
A group of beautiful women walked out from the kitchen, wearing shiny silk dresses embroidered with pearls. Their hair was embellished with small crowns and colourful feathers, their lips glossily red. Together, they held a huge brass pot, in which a dense and hearty chilli stew bubbled, exuding a brawny fragrance of meat, chilli pepper and Chinese five spice. It was head stew, and had been extremely well-cooked so the heads cracked, mushed and melted together—some eyes were missing, some noses crooked, lots of tongues stuck out. They were the heads of men and women.
My stomach turned sharply. I bent and threw up under the table.
The Night We Ate Armadillos
By: Old Stone
About five in the afternoon Small Bamboo asked me
to have dinner with him and his friend Boss Huang.
Huang has got some rare delicacies he told me.
In a private dining room Huang locked
the door and served us a huge pot of braised
Dig in, said Huang, it’s a first class national protected animal
so we are all committing crimes together.
Speaking of criminals, said Small Bamboo
The armadillos were Chairman Mao’s favourite
when he was a guerrilla
in Jinggang Mountain
back in the old days
The day after the dinner party, a real crisis set in. It had rained so much the previous night that the water had swept through the wreckage, where hundreds of thousands of bodies were still buried, and into the reservoir.
‘Now we’ll have to drink skin-flavoured water,’ Chilly said.
‘Ew,’ Vertical said.
We were sitting outside the Little House. Old Stone had advised us earlier to relax and not to worry about the water. There were at least eight or nine cartons of beer stocked in the Little House so we should be well-hydrated for another couple of days. ‘Trust me, before we finish the beer somebody will sort the water out,’ he concluded, and went to join Small Bamboo, Young Li and Calm for a game of Mahjong.
The rest of us sat, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. In the centre of the square, a man was standing on a table, looking down at the crowd and shouting: ‘One last ticket to Beijing! The train leaves at ten tonight! Any higher offers?’ In the opposite direction, a young nurse held a megaphone, calling: ‘Volunteers needed! Volunteers needed! The bus leaves eight a.m. tomorrow at the community medical centre!’ A group of teenagers chased a boy out of a convenience shop a few doors down. ‘Give us the milk you cocksucker!’ A woman walked by in front of us, weeping, holding a small child in her arms.
‘It’s like watching a movie,’ Six Times said.
‘I feel troubled that I’m not really sad,’ said Chilly.
‘I’m not very sad either,’ Vertical said. ‘And you, Pigeon?’
‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said slowly. ‘All of this is great material. But I don’t think I’ll ever write about the earthquake.’
‘I’ll never write about it either,’ Six Times said.
‘And what do we say when many years later people ask us about the big earthquake in 2008?’ Vertical said.
‘We can talk about the aggressive beer drinking,’ Chilly suggested.
‘And the endless sounds of intercourse at night,’ Six Times said.
‘And the banquet Old Stone cooked for us,’ I added.
Vertical looked at me and smiled. ‘Is everything alright, Pigeon?’
A woman screamed in the square. A tent fell. Some young men shouted loudly.
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘You’ve mentioned that dinner a number of times already,’ Vertical said. ‘And you’re reading Old Stone’s poetry book.’
‘Young Li lent me the book,’ I said. ‘But I find it difficult to understand.’
‘Poetry is not for understanding,’ Chilly said.
Six Times drank some beer and said, ‘Think about it this way: when you write a story, you’re essentially creating a dish. You want people to see the meat and the veg and even to smell the fragrances. But they can’t actually eat it. They can only imagine the taste of the food by interpreting the image of it.’
I thought of yesterday’s dinner again. They all seemed to have forgotten what happened.
‘But none of these matter to us,’ Six Times continued. ‘We poets come into the room and we simply chomp on the fictional dish you’d created. We eat up the food and shit it out later. And the shit is poetry.’
Chilly laughed and clapped. Vertical and I laughed as well.
That night, I stayed in Six Times’ tent and we made love like primitives. There were no condoms so he came on my belly. Later, to help me clean up, he poured some beer on my belly and wiped it off with his socks. I told him I would prefer to have dried sperm on my belly than cold beer and dirty socks. He said he was sorry.
Afterwards we slept. A series of 4 to 5 magnitude aftershocks came, rocking us into deeper dreams. In my dream I had a conversation about the earthquake. I remembered it clearly even after waking up. My deceased father sat in front of me, his face stained by a thick tawny paste, his nose crooked. And he asked me: ‘How do you know this is all real and happening? How can you be sure you haven’t already died in the earthquake and are just living the afterlife?’
I told Old Stone about my dream and he laughed for quite a while. ‘That is a very Zhuangzian dream,’ he said.
‘You could say that about every dream,’ I said.
‘Have you ever eaten butterflies?’ he said. ‘I haven’t had butterflies per se, but once in Kunming I had caterpillars. They were nicely deep-fried, lightly seasoned with chilli pepper power and cumin and tasted like crispy air.’
We sat outside the Little House, facing the square. Nearly one-third of the tents had disappeared, leaving discoloured spots on the ground, like the surface of the moon. Young Li’s giant red tent remained erected.
‘How much longer do you think we can last without water?’ I asked.
‘Not long,’ Old Stone said. ‘But you might surprise yourself… When I was about your age, I went with my girlfriend to a protest and we sat at Tianfu Square for three days without eating or drinking.’
I imagined the landmark in the centre of the city and Old Stone and his girlfriend being young and bony. ‘And then what happened?’
‘I began to shake around lunchtime on day three. The horror was in my gut and I suppose I just lost it. I cried and begged my girlfriend to leave with me because I thought we were going to die. Eventually she caved in. We left the square and got back home. Then I made us noodles with tomato and fried egg.’ He smiled and signed in satisfaction.
Before I could answer, he continued: ‘My girlfriend threw up at the sight of the noodles. She could not eat for days, only sips of liquid. In time, she developed a sort of eating disorder and it went on and off for years. When it was good, she’d devour whatever I cooked for her. But when it was bad, she couldn’t at all stand the idea of food. If I mentioned breakfast, she’d scream.’ Old Stone looked at me. ‘You remind me of her, sometimes.’
I was about to say something when the others came back in Sister Du’s mini-truck, carrying boxes and bags of bottled water, milk and other stuff. Small Bamboo sat down by us, unscrewed a bottle of water and gulped down half of it. ‘Motherfucker!’ he exclaimed. ‘I’ll never drink beer again.’
‘Where did you get these?’ Old Stone asked.
‘The community medical centre,’ Small Bamboo said. ‘Sister Du heard a new batch of volunteers had arrived from Xi’an, so we called over.’
‘You prawns,’ Old Stone said. ‘These are for the victims of the earthquake.’
Young Li sat down and started taking cartons of cigarettes out of his box. ‘We are the victims,’ he said. ‘We’re all enduring.’
A man walked by. Young Li whistled at him and threw him a bottle of water and a carton of cigarettes. He caught them swiftly and trotted away.
Later, Chilly, Vertical, Six Times and I sat by the flowerbed, eating tins of braised pork and sweet chilli fish.
‘These are not very good,’ Chilly said, exerting himself to swallow.
‘Xi’an people don’t know how to cook. They live on noodles,’ Six Times said.
‘Taste fine to me,’ I said.
Six Times turned to me. ‘Since when are you eating meat?’
‘I think Pigeon has a crush on Old Stone,’ Vertical said.
They all looked at me and I said: ‘What?’
‘You’re reading his book all the time. You put it right beside our pillow,’ Six Times said.
‘Because I’m trying to understand poetry,’ I said. ‘Plus, I finished Camus.’
‘Can I have Camus? I’ve always wanted to read The Plague,’ Chilly said.
We then talked about The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Not far from us, Old Stone, Small Bamboo, Young Li and Calm were playing Mahjong on a square table. Calm wore a green cardigan on top of the red floral dress. She cheered, pushed down her tiles and clapped her hands. The three men handed in their money. The others were watching TV inside the Little House. The volume was loud, announcing that the government was installing a new water filtration system in the reservoir. ‘We are fighting minutes and snatching seconds,’ it said.
For the first time in many years, I felt a tingling of contentment. I ate meat and drank water. I had a bed to sleep in. Soon, I would go to my bed and have a dream about butterflies, and, just like Zhuangzi, I would not be able to tell if it was me who dreamt about the butterflies or a butterfly who dreamt about me.
Two days later, the water filtration system started working and people began to return. By the end of July, there were four hundred and sixty-two tents accommodating one thousand two hundred and fifteen campers at Ping’an Square.
In the beginning of August, the police came with loudspeakers and hoses. ‘The earthquake is over! Go back to your own residences! Stop disturbing public order!’ they called out. After two days’ fighting, they dispersed the campers and cleared the square.
I went back to university and began to apply for overseas PhD programmes while finishing my Masters. The following year, I got an offer from the United States and left China in September. In the East Asian Studies department, I met a fellow student who cooked the best braised pork belly and later became my husband. In 2013, we moved to Minneapolis when he was offered a postdoc position in the University of Minnesota. We both became addicted to Korean food there. Two years later, we bought a small house near Victory Memorial Park. It was quite a drive to the university, but the place won us over with its proximity to a popular dim sum restaurant. Instead of getting my doctoral degree I got pregnant in the autumn of 2015. My gestational craving was marinated pigs’ tails and it persisted even after the baby was born. We had another child in March 2017.
I didn’t go back to China in all that time, not until October when my cousin called and told me my parents’ old apartment was going to be demolished because it was on a planned light train route. So I flew back to handle some paperwork with the Provincial Land and Resource Bureau.
During my one-week stay, I heard from a mutual friend that Old Stone had just died in hospital, nine months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
I took a taxi to his wake. At the Chengdu City Crematorium, a white marquee was set up in the courtyard and inside Old Stone lay in a red coffin. On one side of the coffin, three Sichuan opera actors were performing traditional plays while two professional keeners cried on the other side, knocking their foreheads to the ground like hungry chickens.
There were quite a number of people in the marquee, but I didn’t know any of them except for Old Stone. I stood in silence, bowed in front of the coffin and went to the registration table to leave some money. When I got there, I saw a man in his forties sitting behind the table. He looked extremely like Old Stone back when I’d met him in the Little House.
‘Hi.’ He looked at me and smiled. ‘Are you a friend of my big brother? Thank you for coming.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry for your loss.’ I handed in six hundred kuai, hoping this was still the market price for a death.
He took the money and smiled again. ‘There is refreshment outside. Have some food.’
‘Thank you, but I’d better go now. Again, my condolences.’
I was on my way out when I saw a short and stout man in his late thirties walking towards me. I looked at him and he looked at me.
‘Pigeon!’ he said. It was Six Times.
He paid his tribute of two thousand kuai and we stepped outside together. He took out a pack of cigarettes and asked me if I still smoked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘But I’ll have one.’
We sat down by a flowerbed. ‘Where have you been all these years?’
‘I went to America,’ I said.
‘I thought you might have. Small Bamboo went there as well. Have you met him?’
‘No, I didn’t know he was in the States.’
‘Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he ended up in Europe,’ he said. ‘A lot of us have left, and I’ve lost track of who went where.’
We chatted, updating each other with the basics. I told him I was working on a historical novel. He said he was involved in the Chengdu-Beijing maglev high-speed train project.
‘When it’s finished, it will take less than four hours to go to Beijing,’ he said through a puff of smoke.
‘Wow,’ I said.
‘This is the future,’ he said.
We smoked and showed each other photos of our children. When we finished the cigarettes we put them out on the ground.
‘So,’ I said. ‘Do you want to go somewhere and have sex?’