The Little Store of Ash

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James Wouaal

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Old Shanghai was dying, it was losing between three and six streets a day. The modern city was strangling and stifling it among its skyscrapers. Soon, in a few years at the very most, it would have disappeared. 
Through its narrow and overcrowded alleyways trotted Mr and Mrs Yao. She, clutching her purse, and the their joint life savings, to her heart. He, clearing a path through the crowd, casting suspicious glances at everybody and continually signaling to his wife with a shaky, impatient hand. 

The old man cursed the whole world as he pressed through the tide of humanity. He cursed more specifically the unknown maker of the map he was constantly consulting and which did not correspond to anything in his surroundings. Six times already, he had had to lower himself to asking for help from one of those countless fly-by-night merchants whose stalls seemed to have no purpose other than to slow down the flow of the stupid crowd. 

The traders in question invariably held forth in interminable speeches, oozing with obsequiousness. They claimed to have been waiting since the day they were born for the singular honor of rendering a service to such marvellous lost people, then they sent them to get lost a bit further away.
But the couple’s persistence and some considerable luck led them in the end to the minuscule store they had been looking for for three hours. 

A little wooden sign swung on the end of a chain, three feet above an ancient, worm-eaten door. It had an owl painted on it, signifying that here they were in contact with the other side.
The couple glanced around once more before Mr Yao made up his mind to knock at the door. He jumped sharply back when it opened suddenly before he had even knocked a second time. Before he could moved aside, a wrinkled but firm hand like a piece of old oak shot out of nowhere, seized the old man by his collar, and pulled him inside. As for Mrs Yao, she achieved the amazing feat of literally passing through her husband so that she found herself inside before him. 

It took them a few seconds to get used to the gloom and make out their host a bit better. He, with a fixed smile on his lips, waited until the eyes of the old couple had focused before he bowed to them.

“Good day, honorable future customers! One store for life, one for death. Which side of these two farces brings you to this place?”
The room they had found their way to was full of the most incongruous chaos. Turtle shells, fans, musical boxes, ivory cigarette holders, opium pipes, and all the motley junk that usually haunts that type of place. 
“Well, we would be interested in seeing what you can offer us,” replied Mr Yao. My wife and I will soon be leaving Shanghai. We want to start a new life, a life which has always been denied us here. You see, Mrs Yao and I are both orphans, we have no ancestors to honor and have always suffered because of that. Our friends despise us and our neighbors snigger behind our backs. We are going to move to Jiangsu and expect to end our days there with some respect.” 
« I understand perfectly! What you have come here looking for is that family, those ancestors. Well, you could not be in a better place. Let’s leave these miserable trinkets and go through to the other side of the world store.”
So the couple followed Mr Lee, the fortunate owner of this double business, and in his wake hurried down a spiral staircase leading to a long corridor which took them to the strangest of rooms.
The smell of the place struck you like an uppercut. For Mr Yao, who had been in two wars, it recalled that of a horse that had been dead for three days. His wife, however, did not seem bothered by it and looked around with a sort of suspicious amazement at the odd displays in the strange room.

Shelves which had obviously held books in previous times were arranged in a sort of hesitant geometrical shape. They now bore funerary urns. Mr Lee began to speak.
“You seem surprised, most noble clients! I am a very modest storekeeper crushed by the responsibility of a large, ungrateful family, so I purchased all these display stands in an auction at the time of the Cultural Revolution. A revolution which, despite what its name might suggest, decreed that culture was against the law, and that books were the playthings of the lazy bourgeoisie. But let’s get down to facts.”
“Does your stock of incense also come from a long-distant auction sale?” responded Mr Yao. “But you are quite right, let’s talk facts! Or rather, ancestors. What can you offer us? Bearing in mind that my wife and I are bordering on penury.”
“Well, it is obvious that if you want an altar worthy of the name, the very minimum we should give you is a father and mother each!”
“That goes without saying!”
“At the moment I have a special offer on old soldiers! We could mix you a General decorated by Mao in person, accompanied by a lieutenant injured in the Great War, and add two wives from the old aristocracy.” 
“The very thought makes me tremble, but could you give us an idea of the price of such a foursome?”
“Well, given that all our dead have their papers in order and that we will need equally irreproachable adoption certificates...”

“Ad-ad-adoption certificates?” stammered Mr Yao. 
“Of course, my business does not do things by halves, and whether he is a General or a simple peasant, the parent purchased here is adopting!”
“But he is dead!”
“Of course, but nowhere does the law say that a dead person is not allowed to adopt! A welcome oversight, you must agree. Our services obviously take this additional charge into account, but you will thereby find yourself placed in a lineage which is completely unassailable. Of course, all our goods are ends of line, and no distant cousin will ever turn up to ask you where you’ve sprung from.” 
“And that much-vaunted price?” 
“Well, let’s see. One General, one lieutenant and two noble ladies, plus pedigree and official adoption, you should get away with twenty thousand yuan!”
“Twenty thousand yu-yu-yuan! Do you think we are billionaires? What if my wife made do with a somewhat less injured sub-lieutenant and I had a Chiang Kai-shek General?”
“We don’t deal in traitors and our only sub-lieutenant was indeed injured, but I can add – for no extra cost – a great-uncle who came in this morning, a Shaolin monk who is almost a saint.”

Two hours later.
“So, to sum up,” said Mr Lee consulting his notes. “A third-rate General, a sergeant, a courtesan and a woman from the lower ranks of the nobility for the parents. Plus a grave-digger uncle, as well as our Shaolin monk, two nieces, a grandfather – also a free gift from the company –, together with two musician cousins who died of diabetes, tax-free. The whole lot for seventeen thousand yuan.” 
“We did say sixteen thousand five hundred, but OK, I am exhausted and I can’t argue anymore! My lovely wife will pay you half of that sum on account, and the rest upon delivery of the urns and the papers.” 
That was when Mrs Yao, who had been walking methodically round the displays since the bargaining began, decided to make herself heard. 
“No!” she interrupted, coming back to them with a dusty urn in her hands. “This deal will only be done if you let me exchange that dreary sergeant for this wonderful poet I’ve just discovered. It’s not up for negotiation or bargaining, and I’m taking him with us right away.”

The two men could only give in and that is how Mrs Yao was able to receive visitors without any shame in her modest residence in Jiangsu and show her guests past the most charming of altars.

The curious and attentive guest would not fail to notice the famous poet Shi Jing in a gleaming urn, yet modestly displayed near to his new, reconstituted family.

Translated by Wendy Cross


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