Li Gang clawed at his burning throat. It couldn’t have been drier if it had been made from old shoe leather. He knew he must somehow moisten it but, for three days now, the thought of water made the muscles in his neck constrict, the actual sight of it was more sickening to him than the dehydration was painful.
He sat at the window, watching the street below, but even this required so much energy he decided to rest on his bed. He slowly pulled himself up from the chair to cross the room, but before he could reach the bed, the muscles in his legs seized up, and he collapsed on the floor. Perhaps the floor was as good a place to rest as anywhere. Wrestling his way up to the bed would be more work than it was worth.
The old man rested his head on the worn carpet. Was this what people meant by dying of old age? Was this how it all ended? He had imagined it more like a light, slowly fading away. Long ago, his knees had become stiff, and then his back had become chronically sore. His sight seemed to blur more every year and it was getting harder and harder to remember small things—like which day the girl came to wash the dishes and prepare his food, and how long until his pension check would arrive. Things like the day of the week or where he’d left his glasses completely eluded him, but this had been the case for quite some time.
For years after his wife had passed away, he spent most of his days at the park with the other old men, playing Go or sunning his songbirds in their small round cages on the branches of an ancient cypress tree. But the birds had died, along with some of his friends, and walking to and from the park seemed too much for his heart, as well as his body.
In the end, he was just too lonely. The only two people in the world that had mattered to him, his wife and their daughter, had both died, and over the years, he became filled with a loneliness that ached more acutely than his sore knees and bad back. The loneliness was a kind of gangrene that spread up from the toes and fingertips, but rather than consuming the cells of his body, it consumed all sense of caring. Caring about tomorrow. Caring about whether or not he changed his shirt at night before going to bed. Caring even to measure out the rice and water for the rice cooker. The loneliness had crept up his legs and arms and drained away the energy that had once driven him to get up every morning and bicycle to work, day in and day out. Now it barely left the energy to simply sit and stare—at the age spots filling the skin on the back of his yellowing hands, at the yellowing walls, or out into the thick yellow air—remembering what used to be.
He had expected death to creep up on him similarly, to slowly consume his energy until the torch that had been his life would burn down to a tiny flicker, small enough to be blown out with the passing of a breeze. And that was how it had been, until about two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago, he had caught a nasty cold. The date he remembered easily, unlike the rest of the minutiae of his life, which slipped by, not sticky enough for his fading memory to grasp. He had fallen ill on the day after his birthday. His neighbor, Xiao Ma, had remembered the date and brought him a special dinner, a hotpot feast, fondue chinoise, with his favorite mix of sesame and Sichuan pepper sauce for dipping—a sauce which had required a special trip to a well-known hotpot restaurant to procure.
It had been the most exciting event of his year.
But the next day, he was struck with a cold, maybe even the flu. Instead of spending the day at his window, savoring his memory of the flavors from the night before, he had shivered and nearly frozen to death in his bed, even though he’d somehow managed to pile it high with every spare blanket and coat in his flat. The next night, when Xiao Ma had looked in on him, she’d seen he was sick. It had been late—she was a nanny for a family downtown and hadn’t arrived home until 9:30 pm, but she had taken the trouble to go to the Chinese medicine pharmacy across the street to get some appropriate herbs. She had made a pot of tea with the herbs and set it, along with one poured cup, by his bed. Her employers were taking her with them for their family vacation the next day to Sanya, the fashionable resort island in the south of China, but she had promised to check on him again in a week and a half when she returned.
After she left, he had been too lonely to bother drawing his hand out from under the blankets and drink the tea. The loneliness that had been abated by her presence returned as soon as she had left the room and the gangrene seized up his extremities. It reclaimed his arms and legs and resumed its methodical climb to his spinal cord, gaining new territory it had not possessed before. The tea went cold, and the old man fell asleep under his pile of blankets.
Four days later, he had nearly recovered, something he wasn’t sure he had expected. At his age, a common illness can be the scissors that snip the life strings from the puppet forever. But then the sickness had returned, like an alligator to its stashed kill to finish off its work. Before he’d become strong enough to tidy away the cold pot of tea and glass of undrunk herbal medicine, he’d been struck sick again, nearly twice as hard as the first time. Now, more than a week after Xiao Ma had boiled the herbs, the pot and cup were still there, next to his bed.
Li Gang raised his head from where he was lying on the floor to look at the kettle, and dry heaved at the sight of the clear glass of yellow liquid. If there had been anything in his stomach it might have been thrown up. His throat locked shut. Until four days ago, he had thought he’d recover. Then, with a slam, he had been struck with this stiffness that weakened him and made the sight of water unbearable.
Li Gang laid his head back down on the dusty carpet. The floor was as good as the bed. Besides, there was a baby on the bed. No, not a baby, a young girl. There wouldn’t be room for him next to her. He tried to call out to her, but the noise that emerged was more like a bark—a dry, rasping cough. The girl on the bed stirred in her sleep, turned toward him, but continued in her dreams. His lips moved. “Aiai,” they mouthed, but his voice could not make the sounds of her pet name.
She was back.
She was there.
He wanted to touch her—to reach out and hold her—but his arms were paralyzed. His body was too heavy to move. He looked down at the disobedient arms that refused to pull him up. He willed the energy back into them. He somehow came to his knees, but when he looked up, when he reached to touch the girl on the head, to stroke her hair—she was gone. He fell forward, his head thudding against the pine board of the bed frame. The bed shuddered and made the teapot rattle on the bedside table.
Xiao Ma had told Old Li she would check on him as soon as she was back. She called him Old Li in the same respectful way she called her own grandfather ‘Old’. It was after ten at night when she finally arrived at their building and found herself standing in front of his door. She wouldn’t have gone in so late but felt guilty he had no one else to care for him. She wasn’t even sure anyone else knew he had been sick, so she quietly turned the handle and tried to keep the door from squeaking as she pushed it open.
The apartment was pitch black, and although she hated to turn on a light when she knew he must be asleep, she reached up to the wall and flipped on the overhead.
The front room was empty. It looked like nothing had been touched since she’d been there a week and a half before. She tiptoed through the living room to the bedroom, leaving only the front light on to illuminate her path, expecting to see a heap of blankets on the bed that vaguely indicated someone buried underneath, asleep.
But the bed was empty. The thick glasses Old Li took off only when he went to sleep were lying undisturbed on the small table, but the rest of the room was a wreck. The blankets were strewn about, hanging off the bed and falling onto the floor. The ceramic teapot had fallen to the floor, its spout broken. A large, dark stain on the carpet had half dried where the tea had spilt. The lamp on the bedside table had been knocked over and fallen across the bed. It looked as though a madman had been locked inside.
Xiao Ma hadn’t been in the bedroom more than a few times, doing what she could for an old man who needed help from time to time. It hadn’t struck her as a particularly tidy or clean flat, but in general, Old Li seemed to have a certain prideful order to it. It might be a little dusty, but never messy. Xiao Ma’s nose involuntarily wrinkled up. There was a foul smell—feces, or urine, or both.
She looked around the torn apart room. It almost looked like someone had broken in to rob him, but it wasn’t the kind of place where you would expect to find much. But no, she thought, the front room hadn’t been out of sorts. Only here. It looked and smelled like the cage of an animal that hadn’t been fed or watered for a week. Where was Old Li though? She looked around again. Her eyes rested on a bundle of clothes in the corner. Then they focused on a pair of white socked feet.
“Old Li!” she exclaimed as she rushed over, realizing the pile was, in fact, the old man. What had happened? Was he hurt? Why was he sleeping on the floor? She put her hand on his arm, trying to stir him or check if he was injured.
As soon as she touched him she knew something wasn’t right. The body was cool. Not warm or burning with fever as it had been the last time she’d seen him. The old man’s form felt stiff and tepid, like meat that had been hanging on a butcher’s hook all day, cold and heavy. Lifeless.
Her gaze went to his face, his neck twisted unnaturally up and away, giving her only a profile of the gentle old man. His tongue pressed out of his mouth, like a toddler who’d been trying to force out a piece of unwanted food. The skin of his face was waxy. His half-opened eyes looked both angry and confused, as if he were somehow surprised to be lying where he was, dead.
Xiao Ma stood up and retreated from the old man’s body, clutching her arms tightly around her, shielding herself from the unseen spirits that surround the dead. She backed away, not daring to take her eyes off the lifeless form.
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