King Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Bao is a Chinese farmer, alone since the death of his wife. His small farm is being expropriated by the government..

Submitted: November 16, 2013

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Submitted: November 16, 2013




His red hen, Tian Ma, had gifted him four eggs just past first light.  He hungered to scramble the basketful and also a thick slice of fried ham, which would be the last meat of the pig, Liu Chen, who Bao blessed and slaughtered the week before the Moon-Cake festival.  He also wanted bok choy sauteed with oil and garlic, and a salad of curly spinach and cut long beans dressed in black vinegar, lemon grass, and sesame oil.  These foods were of the earth he had tilled for thirty years.


First he prepared the salad and set the wood bowl on the counter where it spun before quieting beside the paper the government had addressed to him.  When the first letter came, it had seemed peculiar and interesting to him that the government knew him--his name, his address, his ownership of a 60 mou farm that had long belonged to his family.  He had not understood that he had any relationship to the government.  By the most recent letter, which sat on his table, he had come to know that he did, that he stood in their world, and they in his, boots on his soil. 


His grandfather had carved the bowl from a bit of a grand sugi tree he had been fortunate enough to receive and it had been with the family at meal time for generations, and also served as a mixing bowl for the poultice his wife would make to cool the fevers of the children when sickness sapped their vigor. 


Heating the ham over his burner, he watched its edges form a blackened belt around pink flesh that bubbled with juices and sent up a richness of smell that excited his hunger.  The fat that remained in the pan would flavor the eggs he already had spun with herbs.  They left the pan cleanly and left behind a thin skin of grease to glaze the vegetables.  Now they tenderized over the heat.  He watched for the sharpening green that told him they had been well kissed by the heat.His foods filled his largest plate.  He relished the composition of colors and textures they made and stood to admire them and feel his gratitude.  


Outside the house, he moved one of two wooden chairs onto the floor of loose boards that the rains had cemented there.  He had made four chairs by his hand when he was under 15 years, tutored by his father.  The number of chairs told that he had hoped for two children.  But only one was permitted .  Had his wife borne a second child, the authorities would have discovered who he was and taken it away.  Had his heart been stronger, or harder, in his youth, he would have recognized the government's tall shadow in this early grief.  The fourth chair became the one for a guest.  After his wife died, he needed only the one, unless his son or another visitor came. to sit with him.  He sometimes thought of what they would have done had the one child been a daughter.


He pulled beside him a tall crate of wood.  His brother in law, Cheng, had fashioned it for use as a table in the year before Cheng developed the large tumor in his stomach, which took his life.Before eating, Bao decided to draw water from his pump, which was 20 paces down the hill, in a small gulley that sat to the auspicious north side of the house.  With its handle painted a strong and cheerful red, the pump drew water from the well that never had failed them.  Its steadiness made it a permanent presence in Bao's heart and mind.  During hard times, he dreamt of it at night and knew that it spoke to him of sustenance that came from a place in the heart of the earth.


The vista from the well included his field draped like Huan's shawl across the shoulder of the hill.  The vista now included a crane, standing tall and arrogant over the landscape.  At times, he believed it to be an animal, perhaps a king dinosaur, tyrannosaurus rex, of whom he had learned as a child in school, or a king dragon, known to him from stories.  He thought he might be able to sense its spirit or soul if he stood in silence and directed his lidded eyes toward it.  He hungered for that communion.


Bao believed in the soul of every living thing and he poked and plumbed for a soul even in things non-living if they were used for some purpose.  He believed they might carry the soul of the user, that it might rub off like a substance from the one to the other.  Or perhaps the object had its own spirit independent of maker or user.  He could not decipher the soul of the metallic colossus and that troubled him, especially in this moment.  Perhaps something was present that he could not detect, perhaps for lack of a right attitude.  He was not a man who liked to make erring judgments.  Might it be that his wisdom would increase could he feel the soul of the machine?  He imagined his wisdom flaring, catching the high currents in the air, could he detect the intention in the machine's spirit.  Still, his efforts failed.


The government had sent both the letter and the crane.  The government was huge, like the crane, but was it wise or of some other character?  When he imagined the government, he imagined first a mountain.  In the mountain was a giant.  The giant was standing over the entire valley in which he and his kinfolk lived, shadowing it darkly.  He once had imagined he should bow down to any force so great.  Recently he had witnessed things, with his own eyes, given to him by God, that had altered his perspective. He thought of a story he had read, that claimed to be true, of a tiny elephant--its mother killed for ivory--who had sought familiar comfort in the shadow of giant trucks.  Then a truck took the orphan's life.


He carried back the water, to enjoy it with the food he had prepared.  The meal was a very good one.  Its many flavors and textures of goodness were greater than any words he knew to describe them.He took time in eating the meal and drinking the clear bowl of water, which brought the sky and clouds beneath his eyes because the day was bright.  Finished, he washed his dishes and set the cup on the hook his wife, long dead, had screwed into the undersurface of the cupboard.  He still saw her lower her head and turn it in order to see beneath the cupboard.  Strands of her hair, gray and wiry, came loose from her hair knot as she worked.  She had removed her glasses and set them on the wooden counter, as she did whenever she did close work.  He always found her habit curious because his was the opposite.  He depended on his glasses for close work and always gave thanks that he had them.  He thought them a fine gift of science and learned doctors.


For all the years they lived in the house, they had no door lock.  But he had fashioned a bolt lock of strong wood some months earlier, after the second letter.  It felt strange to lock the house that had belonged to him and his wife.  He did not think she would like the lock.  He asked her forgiveness.  He wondered whether she would recognize the locked house as her own.  Although he had a lock now, he did  not use it when he closed the house door behind him this afternoon.  He wanted to leave the door free to move in the wind in whatever way it desired, and to bang and sigh should it wish to speak.  The home had a deep soul.  It should have a choice in how it would conduct its remaining life, just as he had a choice.


Before he left his yard, he gathered two armfuls of wood and built a small pyramid.  Normally, he would light a fire from the one coal he kept burning, then he would remove the coal to the metal tray where he kept it, beside a cool coal that would be the next one to provide him with fires.  This time, he set the coal within the pyramid so that it, like the wood, would burn to ash.  He stood back to see which way the day's light air would carry the smoke and was pleased that it would glide north, the direction of his walk., so that he might keep it in sight for quite a distance.  He squatted a while beside the fire, observing its life, the strength and quick shifts of its color and movement. 


A dark emotion had at times filled his stomach in the days since the last letter, and during which the crane lifted its head above the horizon.  The darkness came now and ballooned inside him until it pressed tight to the walls of his belly.  Shutting his eyes, he tried to feel its contours in order to know it better.  He kneaded it as if it were a cake of dough, feeling it and shaping it.  Then he opened his eyes again to the fire, whose sharp beauty informed his search.  What was the thing inside?  A rock.  A tumor like the one that killed Cheng?  A pile of sodden leaves?  It was all those things but also a fire.  Perhaps the fire at the center of all things had loaned it its own keen edge.  Bao tried not to be knocked to the ground by all he contained, but to keep it as a flame in a firebox.  He had never before met, nor held within. such a flame.  Though perhaps Huan, had, when she had lost the second child to the knowledge the government would own it.  She had understood the spirit of the king dragon long before he had.  Here now was his own flame.  Fear sat like a white owl on his shoulder and yet he treasured the bright flame.


Now, in walking from his house, he turned back to watch the fire build.  He regretted only that Huan's spirit would need to find a new home.  And that his children, and his grandchildren, would have no family home to visit and honor.  Nevertheless, he was at peace.  He knew his wife's spirit to be resourceful.  It would find its way, as would the children if he, their ancestor, was guided by good intentions.  Perhaps he and Huan would be able to discuss what he had done.  He did not know.  He did not understand all that would come.


When he reached the square at the heart of the village, he spent several minutes at the edge, his back rubbed by the tall grasses planted there.  He let the grasses obscure and embrace him.  From his enclosure, he located a spot where one could see beams of early evening light flying between the square's soulless cement and the source of all daylight, the great sun, far to the west, no higher from the Earth than the bounce of a good rubber ball .


He did not count the people on the square but judged them to be about 20 in number.  Several were very old people, older than he and more stooped in their walk.  Several were youngsters who shot across the open space in the way that special stars cut across the sky.  He had heard those stars were dying, but he questioned that.  The children no doubt were early in their passage, God willing.  He did not wish to trouble the minds of the children and that concern stopped him.  He questioned one time more his need for the eyes of others in this moment of declaration, but concluded, as before, that his course was right.  His purpose was a broad one, broader than the self.


He waited until the softening light stirred the parents to lead their children home, for the evening meal and then for sleep.  He waited until the air began to unfurl its evening chill.


When he opened the can, his nose twitched at the rich smell of the gasoline and his eye admired its clarity.  He wondered what human hand had refined that gasoline, which, like many blessings, came from the Earth, his home until now.  The thought of its abundances--how many more thoughts would he know?--glassed his eyes with their last tears.


The flame would be beautiful as well.  He doubted it would hurt him.  It would cloak him in beauty and would climb up to the Heavens in blue and in his favorite color, orange, the color of shizi and peach, two fruits so different in the quality of their skins, though both skins were delicate.  He was not worried about the pain.  Many would fear it, he knew.  But he had suffered many sharp pains of the body, and some of the soul.  His worry was for the children, for the home that should be theirs.  He was creating a signal fire, as men had done through the ages, and asking that others read his writing.  The gasoline was cold on his skin and lifted the small hairs.  He glanced to the south and nodded at the rising scrawl of smoke.  His own flame trembled as it rose, but then it steadied and its colors began to sharpen.



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