A large bird perched motionless on the metallic brown domed roof of the museum, its long neck haughtily stretched out. If it were not for the slight ruffling of its dark russet feathers in the wind, it might have been a statue carved onto the rooftop parapet. Nearby, swallows carrying tufts of straw in their beaks were darting to and fro between the white pillars beneath the dome and then disappearing behind the intricately carved stone inscriptions. “They’re probably building nests hidden away in the crevices,” thought Old Liu. “But what’s that great big bird doing up there? It doesn’t seem to be planning to build a nest.” Sparrows were noisily flitting about in the trees nearby, but the large bird still did not move.
The afternoon weather was hot and humid, and Old Liu had had no customers for most of the day. Several of his fellow stall-holders had given up and gone in search of a cooler breeze, but he vigorously fanned himself while he screwed up his eyes and peered up at the roof.
“How could it be making a nest in such an open place where there’s nowhere for it to hide? It must be waiting for something!” Satisfied with that conclusion, Old Liu brought his eyes back to scrutinize the wide plaza in front of him. His stall was positioned next to the bronze statues of oxen at the entrance to the museum and there was a large bodhi tree behind him. Although it was just the start of summer, the leaves were already beginning to fall, and as they blew hither and thither in the warm breeze, it seemed more like the onset of autumn. “If it weren’t such a hot day,” he complained, “there would surely be a few more people down on their luck coming in search of me.”
Sudden peals of thunder came from above, and when he looked up, he saw that the whole sky was quickly becoming engulfed by dark, threatening clouds. It was time to pack away his stall, put away the tools of his trade, and go and look for the shelter of a pavilion in the park behind the museum. But to his surprise, soon after he got there, the black clouds dispersed. Then, finding himself in the middle of a crowd of people milling about, he moved to the shade of a willow tree, and there he gradually slowed down to appreciate the gentle scene before his eyes, a vista of green all around him. Through the fronds of the tree hanging down over a pond, he watched two small turtles being carried on the back of a larger turtle as they traversed a moss-covered rock in the middle of the water. Standing at the side of the pond and gazing at the alternating dark and yellow glinting in the sunlight on the ripples of the water, he was undecided what to do. Suddenly a flurry of goldfish appeared in front of him and paused for a moment before turning round and darting away. Old Liu let himself follow them to the side of an arched bridge where several children were throwing fish food into the water, and some even tossed in a whole can in one go. “So that’s what attracted the fish!” he mused. Entranced by this scene, he went over to the machine that dispensed fish food, but in the end, after feeling the loose coins in his pocket, he abandoned the idea. Intermittent thunder still rumbled above, and the sky clouded over once more. Mothers rushed over to collect their children and most of the visitors dispersed, but Old Liu still lingered a bit longer. He noticed that the fish had scattered, and only then did he go and find the shelter of a nearby thicket of vines. “Rain, it’s going to rain,” the remaining children shouted as they scampered off to find cover, and then the park was almost completely devoid of visitors.
All afternoon Old Liu stood alone under the vine thicket, but in fact not a single drop of rain did fall. Annoyed at being tricked like that, he took a chance and went back to his original place to set up for business once more. His was the only stall open, as the other two fellows were nowhere to be seen. “Packing up so early!” he muttered, feeling a quiet sense of satisfaction tinged with loneliness. He sat down and switched on his light-bulb in preparation for the throng of people that would soon be leaving work, and there he waited till it was almost totally dark.
“Come on, let’s go.”
“Hey, I haven’t seen anything.”
“Hurry up! It’s getting dark, and my mum will tell me off.”
Every evening, by the time Old Liu got back home, the children mooching about outside his house had all dispersed. Everyone went to bed early in this place, and though Old Liu tended to stay up a bit later, the whole area was pitch black by about ten o’clock. Not even the buzzing of insects punctured the stifling silence of the night, and the deathly stillness verged on the oppressive.
When the sun rose, it left everything torpid and lifeless in the small, remote village. Among the cheaply-rented illegal dwellings that were dotted about, there was plenty of short grass along the side of the road, but any frogs to be found there had long ago been caught by the children. At the onset of the rainy season, the unpaved paths turned into muddy quagmires and the profusion of weeds spread into the middle of the road, making the houses on both sides seem to sink even further into the ground. But then, throughout the hot days after the end of the rains, the air became unbearably heavy. In the distance, the old dykes sheltered the area from any wind from the south, and even the cats and dogs grew lethargic in the heat. A few scrawny chickens and ducks had sought the shade of trees and were listlessly pecking away at some seeds scattered about on the ground....