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Sundown. A freight train from the North comes to a rocking halt at the old depot. A young man, jolted awake, feels the train shudder to a screeching stop; lumps of coal shift noisily under him as he squints into the blinding depot lights; people are running up and down the platform, which is blurred by steam and the settling darkness; there are shadows all around, some stilled, others restive.
Time to jump. Five Dragons grabs his bedroll, dusts it off, and carefully tosses it to the roadbed, then leans over and jumps, effortlessly as a bundle of straw, landing feet first and uncertain on alien territory, not knowing where he is. Cold winds from nearby fields carry the smell of lampblack. He shivers as he picks up his bedroll and takes one last look at the tracks, stretching far into the murky distance, where a signal light changes from red to green. A rumbling noise pounds off the depot ceiling above and the tracks below; another train is approaching, this one from the south. He ponders trains and railroad tracks; even after two days and nights of being tossed around atop a lumpy coal car, he feels oddly detached from the whole experience.
After threading his way through a maze of cargo and passengers, Five Dragons heads for town. He has gone three days without food, until his intestines seem to be oozing blood. Taking a small handful of hard kernels out of his bedroll, he tosses them into his mouth one at a time. They crunch between his teeth.
It is rice. Coarse, raw rice from his home in Maple. Poplar Village. The last few kernels disappear into hi mouth as he enters town from the north.
Runnels of water in the cobblestone street from a recent rain glisten like quicksilver. Streetlamps snap on, immediately carving out silhouettes of an occasional home or tree; the air in the squalid northern district, home to the city's poor, stinks of excrement and decay. Apart from the hum of spinning wheels in nearby textile mills, the deserted streets are silent as death. Five Dragons stops at an intersection, near a middle-aged man sleeping under a streetlamp, his head pillowed on a gunnysack. To Five Dragons, who is dead on his feet, it seems as good a place to rest as any, so he sits down at the base of a wall. The other man sleeps on, his face absorbing the pale blue cast of the streetlamp.
Hey you, wake up! Five Dragons says. You'll get a cold that way.
The sleeping man doesn't stir. Dead tired, Five Dragon assumes. Travelers from home are like stray dogs; they sleep when they're tired, wherever they are, and their expressions -- lethargic and groggy at times, ferocious a others -- are more doglike than human. Five Dragon turns and looks at the gaudy painted advertisements or the wall behind him: soap, cigarettes, and a variety of herbal tonics in the hands of pouty, pretty young women with lips the color of blood. Tucked in among the sex women are the names and addresses of VD clinics. Five Dragons grins. This is the city: chaotic and filled with weird things that draw people like flies, to lay their maggoty eggs and move on. Everyone damns the city, but sooner or later they come anyhow. In the dying light Five Dragons sees the legendary city smoke rising into the air, confirming his image of what a city is: one gigantic smoke stack, just as Maple-Poplar villagers had told him.
As he gets up to leave, Five Dragons glances over a the man lying under the streetlamp. He hasn't moved, but now his tangled hair is covered by hoarfrost. Five Dragon walks up and shakes him. Wake up, time to get moving. Cold and hard as a stone. Five Dragons holds his finger under the man's nose. Nothing. A dead man! he screams as he turns and runs. How could he know the man was dead? Up one unfamiliar street and down the other he runs, but the bluish face of the dead man follows him like a hornet. He is too shaken to look back, too scared; dark shadowy shops, factories, and piles of rubble streak past until the cobblestone street ends at a wide and might river. Lanterns fore and aft cast their light on the dark hulks tied up at piers; some men around a pile of cargo are smoking cigarettes and talking loudly; the smell of alcohol hangs in the air. Stopping to catch his breath, Five Dragons sizes up the waterfront, with its late-night occupants. Still shaken, he must calm down before deciding where to go next.
They saw him run up to the wharf like a scared rabbit, bedroll over his back, his face ashen, neck and nose coated with coal dust. They had been sitting in a circle eating peanuts and stewed pig's head and getting drunk, but nos they were on their feet watching the scared rabbit.
Where's the fire? Abao grabbed Five Dragons by the collar. What did you steal?Rice
A Novel. Copyright © by Su Tong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.