The sun has just dipped behind an apartment block of grey concrete, and gold-hemmed clouds are fanning its rays across the sky. It is the unreal sky of communist propaganda posters, hung from the stratosphere: a continental stretch of faded silk. Beneath it, the muted, dusky silhouettes of hills are shaped like the tall police helmets I remember from England. Nearby, low plaster buildings are sketched in charcoal by the smoke from decades of red fire; the lumber yard is piled high with chopstick logs; mosaic roofs of smashed, pot-blackened egg shells.
Jia Jia’s father made all the furniture himself, down to the chopsticks he whittled from pieces of bamboo. Soon he will return home carrying a live chicken by the legs, which he will kill by a slice to the throat, draining the blood into a metal bowl on the bathroom tiles. The blood has a texture like jelly when it’s cooked. A bundle of greens will then be washed in a plastic bowl in the same position. Once the chicken is plucked, it will be chopped up on a thick slice of tree trunk with a cleaver and boiled. The pot of fresh chicken parts and spring green vegetables is eaten with red rice from a sack in the bedroom.
As we eat, the background cries of a period kung fu drama meld with the diatonic melody of the local tongue. I sit in a bubble of incomprehension on my stool, periodically downing beer with Jia Jia’s father, and concentrate on chewing meat from the bone. Upon the hour a large red LED clock announces the time and plays an electronic tune.
It is dark outside now and the air is cool. Firecrackers illuminate the yard with strobing flashes, painting flickering shadows of trees on the cement factory walls. But the cement factory casts its own dusty shadow over everything here: now, even the leaves of the trees are frosted grey. Each day, the factory eats away more of the mountain with deafening blasts and ships it off to the cities. By night, the shudder of the train is the only sign that this place is connected to anywhere at all, its plaintive horn a call to all these tiny people sitting under bare light-bulbs, a call that says I am not alone in this train and you are not alone and we are none of us alone, although we are dwarfed and half-forgotten in the vastness of this land.
Lying on the wooden boards of the bed Jia Jia’s father made, I listen as the train fades into the sounds of crickets and human breathing. In the morning I will awake to a sunny day and the sound of three clarinets playing old Chinese songs in the yard, last night’s firecrackers littering the ground like bright red blossoms. Someone will be pumping water into a bucket, cockerels crowing, children laughing, old women bickering over games of mahjong, and I will be thousands of miles from home.