Ants Eating a Bone by Rosebud Ben-Oni
After hearing his brother lost everything in China, Li Wanping writes to him from an internet cafe, suggesting he move back to New York; there’s plenty of space in the basement of the Woodside house, on the street with the young trees.
A week ago, at dinner in the Dongbei restaurant, Sister Chen told him the news. There is nothing left to keep Baochen in Fuzhou— even his wife has shacked up with the new Taiwanese developer of the Modern Freeway Mega Mall. That fox even plans to raise Baochen’s only son in Taipei. Never mind that Baochen had dedicated the last ten years of his life turning their ancestral village into the pride and envy of its xianjishi, or county-level city. The wrecking balls and bulldozers are coming for the new shops on Overseas Happiness Road. No more skin sticking to the green plastic chairs and tables outside No Name Cafe and Coffee, under the neon lights that come on while the sun’s still up in the hazy sky. Even the farms and neighboring towns will be razed to the ground to make way for the eight-lane freeway. Soon all the paved roads will lead to the Mega Mall. It is the new xianjishi— it no longer matters what you did, Baochen. It never did.
Wanping examines the dimly-lit screen, and then deletes what he wrote. The cafe is cold despite the space heater under his feet. The winters seem to be getting longer, and he wonders if Baochen can readjust to them, relearn the bone-chilling winds that pushed them around the exposed, elevated platforms along the 7 train, the unreliable, graffitied trains of their childhood that exaggerated every New York winter.
They hadn’t spoken in almost seven years since his brother left for Fuzhou. Wanping still remembers that just before stepping into the line at security at the airport, Baochen reached into the front pocket of his tailored suit and pulled out a check. Wanping was too astonished to say anything, much less when he saw the large sum; by the time he recovered, his brother was waving good-bye. He was flying First Class and didn’t have to wait in the long line snaking all the way to the sliding doors, where passengers clashed on the curb to squeeze in.
Wanping never forgave his younger brother for shaming him. During the first year of their separation, Baochen would call him once a month, and left variations of the same message: Brother, how are you? I am well. Okay, catch you next time. Wanping would listen, and then erase the message, feeling satisfied he heard Baochen’s voice while withholding his own.
It was through Sister Chen that Wanping learned within a year of his arrival in Fuzhou, Baochen married the daughter of a local official and became Director Li, representing the Municipal Development and Reform Commission. He handled the building permits of the entire xianjishi. As each man in his village is fighting to build the first skyscraper, it’s a powerful position— but not more powerful than a Mega Mall.
Wanping sighs and hopes his brother will not return to Woodside. He gazes outside the spotted window at the Irish pub, the Korean market, the Colombian bakery. Recently, an enterprising Nepalese couple opened a Himalayan restaurant. It was much more upscale than those found in nearby Jackson Heights, the portions dismally small. To his relief, it didn’t last one year; still, Wanping watched for young people in tight jeans who, after the more fashionable cafe closed, brought their laptops to the diner next door. They never came to this cafe, with its cramped seating and fluorescent lighting; there were no couches to sit for hours on end. Wanping did not understand how they could afford to do this. Baochen had always said that migration of such people was good for businesses, but not if you lived in the area. Better to not tell him about the Himalayan restaurant, he decides. Imagine such a big man living in the basement of our childhood home. It had only been a year, Baochen, and then you gave up after a year of leaving the same message, and never called again.
Wanping shuts his eyes tight and lets out a low moan. When he opens his eyes, a woman who was using a computer next to him has logged out and moved a seat down. If only Sister Chen had not told him. If only there was more than to offer outside the window, more than the sad, plastic Christmas tree cowering in the plaza. Someone has ripped down the holiday banner “Woodside on the Move” from the lampposts again— it’s already February. By five in the afternoon, it will be night. Better get home soon, Wanping think as he arises, his eyes aren’t so good in the dark.
Just as he’s about to log off, there is a parting in the overcast, and a thick wave of dull, dusty light seeps through. Wanping’s eyes tear at this sudden emergence, which brightens quickly and then fades, and it is then he sees just right outside the window, surrounded by the grey slush of the dirty streets, a patch of pure white snow in which a sparrow perches.
The sparrow does not despair, Sister Chen would say.
He spends the rest of the hour watching the bird, which perches in the snow, sitting very still, even as wind picks up in speed. He writes to Baochen how at first he thinks it’s frozen-dead until it suddenly flies up and then lands right back down. When people pass by, turning their scarf-covered faces away from the wind, it doesn’t fly away.
Sparrows are an invasive species, Sister Chen once told them. They thrive wherever they go, especially in urban areas. They take over abandoned nests, or sometimes those just built. They chase away much larger birds from feeders. Plain, small and scrappy, like our people, Sister Chen said. Mao never liked us, trusted Fujianese least of all because we could so easily leave things behind, because we would not stay put. Mao included the sparrow in his Four Pest Campaign, said they were no better than mosquitoes, rats and fleas. Bloodsuckers, spreaders of disease. And yet the more Chinese people chased them away from their roofs and crops, the more locusts took over the skies and the fields. We in Fujian saw this and during the Great Famine, we in Fuijan began to empty out and take over abandoned and forgotten parts of other cities. The fluorescent-lit, austere corners of the world, the boarded-up warehouses, the ground-level studios. We will sleep six to a room and even our businesses that serve as a front we will make profitable, we waste no time, we will live where and eat what anyone else doesn’t want.
The brothers did not learn about Fujian and sparrows in school, although Wanping had found out on his own that sparrows were one of the few species of birds not protected under any wildlife laws.
He writes to his brother of these things, rather than ask for the particulars of what led to the loss of his family, his job, his reputation. He writes the sparrow perches in the snow because this is how it fights. Because it wants to say, ‘I will perch in the cold, on the cold, because I’m not made of twigs. Because I can, because you can’t.’ And when others pass by, it chirps loudly so they’ll turn around. It makes the most of that single high note, so others will look back and see it is still there as they then rush off in droves, scarves and coats flapping in the wind, always in search of warmer, more sheltered quarters.
When their mother died, Sister Chen took them in because there was no one else. Wanping dropped out of high school and went to work; two years later, Baochen received a full scholarship to Fordham after winning an essay competition.
He wrote about their mother, a poor seamstress who raised two sons after her husband deserted the family. The lack of emotion in the writing, his cautious use of adjectives and precise telling of events, were all mistaken for sophistication and an unusual maturity for someone so young. While he was still in college, Baochen had talked Sister Chen’s husband Uncle Long Gun to opening up a mostly-legit car service in Flushing and letting him run it; the business did remarkably well. Before he graduated, Uncle Long Gun sold it so that Baochen would have money to start his life in Fuzhou.
As a child Baochen easily won people over with his indifference; it made them feel safe, that he was candid and trustworthy, while young Wanping’s excitable nature made others uneasy. He was always focused on the wrong things. Once he proposed to Baochen that they talk in Bad Hong Kong Movie Subtitles, such as “Jubilant Moon Cloud Affirmations” as a way of saying hello and good-bye, and “Sparrow You Fortune! in Flushing” whenever each wanted to wish the other luck because Flushing was where Sister Chen lived with Uncle Long Gun, and Wanping revered her above all others, even if he did not heed her warnings.
Though they came from the same village, Sister Chen isn’t a blood relation and Uncle Long Gun wasn’t really his uncle, but a revered elder of an East Broadway tong which had long since splintered off into less honorable factions, soldiers of fortune who’ve no respect for the code of tongs past. It’s just like in Beijing and other big cities where the skyscrapers are going up too fast without the proper foundation. Too many paper tigers, and not enough long-distance runners, Uncle Long Gun would say. So how good an eccentric like Li Wanping stayed away from the nightclubs, the prizes at school, the big wrist watches, the showdowns along East Broadway.
After Uncle Long Gun died, Wanping stepped in as a filial son as the couple had no children. At least once a week he takes the 7 train to Last Stop, Flushing to see Sister Chen, a woman who’d spent some thirty years in New York without learning a word of English, eating at the same restaurants that were Chinese-owned, even those Cambodian and Vietnamese. The most outrageous moment in her American life was venturing into a Dongbei restaurant, only to conclude that the cumin-crusted lamb ribs and excessive use of vinegar were the despair and regrets of a sour and coarse people, like those things that grow too close to the ground, bitter from feeding off dust and debris. Have you ever seen a sparrow wallow in its dust bath? Have you heard a sparrow complain, a gossiping sparrow, an antisocial sparrow? Of course not— it will join a flock of wrens or pigeons to survive. It will sleep six hundred to a tree, make do with clumps of abandoned nests. The sparrow does not despair. The sparrow does not spread pestilence any more than unrest, because the sparrow, even when it is not moving, will never rest.
And yet even after she said this, they returned to the restaurant many times to consume the pungent dishes that made each sweat in a fretful sleep all night long.
A few days after Wanping sends the email, they meet there for dinner again and share a dish of garlicky potatoes, peppers and eggplant so acidic with vinegar that it brings tears to both their eyes. Sister Chen wipes her face with her sleeve and asks him if he’d heard anything yet.
Wanping shakes his head. He does not tell her that he contacted Baochen, that he wrote in such a way that suggests that he bought back the entire Woodside house. So that Baochen would realize his mistake in the airport, so that he wouldn’t come back.
Sister Chen pats his hand. Even in his failure, Li Baochen must be a busy man.
Wanping watches blow her nose into her napkin. Baochen would’ve never allowed Sister Chen to consume such a meal when she was so old and sick she could barely finish a bowl of broth. Baochen never had wished him “Jubilant Moon Cloud Affirmations” or “Sparrow You Fortune! in Flushing,” nor committed to memory the tales or maxims doled out by Sister Chen, although he sent her money and a short letter once a year that mentioned as little than if he hadn’t written anything at all, for then Baochen was still a man who lived in eternal possibility. He dwelled mostly on the tongues of others because even when he wasn’t moving, he did not rest. Li Baochen was not a man who stood in lines, nor did he argue with bank tellers, utilities, unions, or bargain at common stalls for a price better than shopkeepers offered. To engage in such mundane, trivial dealings would somehow have disgraced an entire people, to see someone like him falling into the common, at the edge of obscurity.
Suddenly Sister Chen pushes her bowl away and asks Wanping what he thinks Baochen will do. Wanping shrugs and pours them some more tea, but she stops him. Listen: Baochen’s troubles in Fuzhou are no small matter. There’s no coming back when all one knows is exponential flight, she cautions. It is unnatural for a bird to never land.
It is most unfortunate, she shakes her head. No one wants to see him come back to America and grow old on these streets, broke and of no use. We would have to speak of him as if he’s dead.
After seeing Sister Chen home, Wanping returns to Woodside cheerful, convinced his brother will remain in Fuzhou or perhaps follow his wife to Taipei. None of it really concerns me, Wanping thinks, when he suddenly realizes he’s whistling a Sandy Lam song, popular during the days when he and Baochen struggled against the fighting words of the Irish punks down the street, how they struggled just to sit on their own stoop, while just a few blocks away their father, the only Chinese man in Saints and Sinners, gambled and drank himself into debt.
In those days, Fuzhou people in New York still called the boys’ father CEO Li, though the reverence was gone, replaced by a new mocking tone. By that time, CEO Li no longer cared.
He wasn’t particularly close to his sons; the only time he spent with them was briefly in the morning. CEO Li would hide behind a newspaper, smoking and sipping his tea. Then he’d leave for his fruit and vegetable store, the same one Wanping manages, although it’s now owned by two Korean brothers and bears their name.
CEO Li never made it home for dinner, yet his wife always laid down a place setting and filled his cup. His perpetual lateness never bothered Baochen, who was a sound sleeper while Wanping would lie awake all night. He’d pretend to go to the bathroom, hoping to catch sight of CEO Li coming in. How did Saints and Sinners smell on him? Wouldn’t he admonish his son for pretending to go to the bathroom, admonish him for staying up so late? His grades were slipping, Baochen brought home As even in Gym, Baochen could sleep in a room of six hundred and speak fluent English in his dreams— Father, Father, listen to Sister Chen. She smuggled you and Mother over here in the hold of a cargo ship. The sparrow does not despair. The sparrow even when it is unmoving does not rest.
Every night it was the same. After washing the dishes, his mother would curl up on the couch and fall asleep with Johnny Carson, the food growing cold on the table, congealing into hard, glossy matter that shone in the fluorescent lighting. Once Wanping tried to clear away the bowls, but she awoke and slapped away his hands: Son, this how you give face? She’d send him off to bed with a curse about “a waste for the wasteful” that wasn’t meant for him.
By morning the table was cleared and set for breakfast, but Wanping spied on her night after night, and over time it seemed that she wasn’t keeping his father’s place at the table out of hope. It was the way she cooked dishes just for CEO Li– and allowed no one else to touch– that reminded him of the way Sister Chen attended to her family altar in her Flushing tenement, throwing away fruit at the first sight of a brown spot and replacing it with a fresh offering.
How often did those hands, stiff and bent by rheumatism, slap his away when Wanping would visit and reach into the garbage for what she’d discarded? Don’t shame us like that. She often spoke in the collective, and at times Wanping was frightened it did not include him. Her health had been failing since he’d been born, and she’d struggled against those hard times just as she had as a young girl who escaped the Japanese invasion of Fujian. She’d crossed a river carrying her brother on her back after the Japanese bombed the bridge leading out of her village.
Once when she’d broken her hip, and Uncle Long Gun bought her the best wheelchair he could find, she’d tell this story, of the stronger, more able men who’d given up too soon and had been carried away by the current. During those months she could not walk, she remained the voice of every operation; Uncle Long Gun was merely her driver. She would’ve never let her husband disappear into the night, nor would she sleep out in the open for all to see, long after Uncle Long Gun died and left her to cross the rivers of her memories on her own, all over again.
At the time, it seemed Wanping was the only one who understood what this meant. But how could he warn his family? Sometimes he wanted to save them. Sometimes he wanted them to all drown. Sometimes, as he gazed at the newspaper his father hid behind, he wanted to impale his chopsticks upright into his rice bowl, to show that he and Baochen were eating meals alongside their mother’s offerings for someone not yet dead.
But Baochen would’ve slapped them down immediately, and quickly return to his meal, so as not to shame his older brother whose curiosity and melancholy made him the weaker son, so as not to shame their father whom he no longer counted on.
Baochen would never have the same affection for the Woodside house as his brother. He would not understand why a 31-year-old man would leave Sister Chen’s brand new laundormat in Flushing, where she made him manager, to work for the men who’d bought his father’s store in a fire sale, which in the end had not saved CEO Li from debts owed. For how long, Wanping, will you waste yours days trying to piece together what you lost?
Like ants eating a bone, Sister Chen said when Wanping told her of his decision to rent the basement of the Woodside house. Only she was not praising his perseverance. She knew what happened there. She would not discuss her role in it. Instead she refused to visit him and warned: To live among ghosts will not keep away demons.
That night, Wanping stands outside the Woodside house. It was taken from them almost 25 years ago, on a much warmer February night than this. Baochen had been away at a weekend retreat Upstate for the Gifted and Talented. It was him, sleepy Elder Brother with the failing grades, who’d come home alone to find the front door swinging open, creaking in the first gentle breezes of an early spring.
When he stepped inside, he was surprised to see the door to the basement was open too. The one rule that CEO Li had established, the only thing he’d asked of his sons, was to keep that door shut and to stay out of the basement.
Standing in the entranceway, Wanping called out a greeting, but no one answered. He knew he should close it and go upstairs to shower, but suddenly overcome by the quiet of the house, he found himself descending the narrow, rickety stairs. Halfway down he stopped. In that windless room where their mother privately washed her delicates by hand, where their father stored homemade rice wine his sons would never taste, the body swung from the rafters. Wanping was still standing there, in his dirty clothes, hair matted under a knock-off Mets cap, when his mother came home, her arms laden with opaque orange and blue plastic bags. He never asked why she’d gone to East Broadway that day by herself; usually she and her sons went to Chinatown together on the weekend.
Two cops showed up at the Woodside residence. They waved away his mother’s ranting, broken English, and spent most of their time on the top floors, snooping. More than once they asked how many people lived there. When Wanping finally pulled them down to the basement, they ignored the bruises on CEO Li’s body, the absence of a chair in which the man would have had to climb to reach the rafters 9 feet above the cold linoleum. Instead they barked how lucky the family was to have all their papers in order. His mother, in turn, made him promise to never tell Baochen about what he’d found, preferring to tell others that CEO Li had suffered a fatal heart attack. She moved her sons to a tenement close to Sisten Chen in Flushing, which at that time was becoming New York’s newest Chinatown.
Wanping never stopped thinking about the loss of the Woodside house. He thought about it more than the loss of CEO Li. Now, as he tries to fall asleep under its basement rafters, half-rotten and beyond repair, he’s filled with an odd cheerfulness that comes in knowing the full extent of damage, when so much else is unfinished business.
A few days later, Li Wanping waits for Sister Chen in a Vietnamese pho restaurant in Flushing, watching Chinese soap operas with the retired snakeheads and gamblers who frequented in the after-hours. He often has wondered if one of those old-timers was the one to whom CEO Li had racked up the debt. Sometimes he wonders if it was Sister Chen herself, and out of regret, took care of the brothers. But having known so little of CEO Li while alive, and after all Sister Chen has done for the family, he’ll never seek revenge. Nor will he ever tell Baochen the truth. Not to protect his brother, but so that he can remain here for the rest of his days, so that he can get high on the smell of the old men’s ginseng liquor and smoke, so that he can read what their languid eyes say to the television. To the back-stabbing Imperial advisors. To the Emperor’s son, that buffoon easily seduced by insidious dancing girls, his sloth and narcissism more harmful than all the famines combined.
For things are much calmer in the community now, after the Jade Squad and Feds cracked down on the snakeheads and tongs in the community. Wanping likes the quiet that follows defeat. Sister Chen, a woman among cutthroat men, once commanded great respect among the Fuzhounese as one of the best snakeheads, but now, with all the business potential in China, the profession has fallen to scum who never keep their word to those they smuggle in, tacking on extra charges once the illegals arrive stateside.
Sister Chen rarely reminisces how she lifted whole pockets of the Fujian province past Hong Kong and Bangkok, and into Canada, steered her countrymen down the icy waters of the Niagara. When customs caught on, she stuffed entire villages into the cargo holds of freighters headed toward the Atlantic.
In the restaurant, the old men rarely speak at all, preferring the drone of the television, the smoky indolence of that dimly-lit hole-in-the-wall. They occupy large round tables, grizzly faces bent low over small plates of marinated meat and steaming bowls of tripe and tendons, sprinkling generous helpings of bean sprouts and cilantro on top with shaky hands.
Unlike so many smuggled immigrants, who slaved away in sweatshops and kitchens for nearly a decade, CEO Li owned his own business and the Woodside house in only two years. He did not send his American-born children to be raised by their grandparents in Fuzhou, like other Fuzhou-born parents, but had them in private school until his death.
Like skyscrapers going up too fast without the proper foundation,nothing will last, Uncle Long Gun had said. Too many paper tigers, and not enough long-distance runners.
That such a man like CEO Li had lost his way with gambling, that he resorted to snakeheads for money was a loss of face that would keep the tongues wagging all the way back to Fuzhou until Baochen returned to their parents’ village, a wealthy man. It was a shame that he too would fail, though this was due to a most unfavorably honest nature. Perhaps the best men in the family are cursed with great success that ends in equally devastating failure.
But not Li Wanping, the elder brother, the lesser brother. He trusts the quiet after the defeat; only there can despair not find him. In the end, when Sister Chen is gone, he’ll sit at small tables across from strangers who eat quickly and leave without a word. He won’t envy the unspeakable bond the elders share, their ability to come together by remaining in solitude, for it is they who are suffering in exile, not him. He knows better, he will squander all the legal forms of his citizenship that allow him to travel so easily, remain a straggler in the mud, his soul inseparable from that thin thread of a life stretching along the 7 train from Woodside to Flushing.
He is smiling when Sister Chen arrives; he doesn’t notice how her hands are shaking when she sits down. Now he has something real to say. Now he can tell her that along he is the sparrow and not Baochen.
And just when he moistens his chapped lips, Sister Chen reaches across the table and grabs his hands. For a moment, her brow falls so low it seems her whole face will collapse, that she’ll lose face in a public place. She bits her lip, and then tells him the village is now gone. Everything has been torn down to make way for the Mega Mall. In place of their village will be a freeway. Eight lanes of paved road, she emphasizes, looking down at their hands which are shaking visibly. There is nowhere for them to return now.
Wanping stares at her, astonished. He pulls away as a waitress comes with two menus and sets them down without looking at them. Outside it begins to rain. A traffic cop comes in, and orders duck wings to go, pretending not to notice the smoking in the restaurant.
Wanping sits back in his chair and tries to think. But he can’t think of anything, he’s already forgotten what she said, and when he opens his mouth to speak, nothing comes out. He looks at Sister Chen whose brow is low again. She is rubbing her temples. She chews her nails. Her face has crumpled. The rain outside is falling harder, and the window fogs up so Wanping can no longer see outside. The waitress hovers nearby, growing impatient with them.
Sister Chen reaches for his hand again, but he crosses his arms against his chest. She takes slow, deep breaths until her face surfaces from the wrinkles pulling her down, and everything falls flat. The table wobbles though neither is touching it. Wanping is looking over her shoulder, trying to make sense of the obscured shapes of darkness and light flashing by in the window, when she tells him that she is leaving tomorrow, she is going to live somewhere among those eight lanes of paved road. It was from there that Li Baochen called yesterday and informed her of his decision to stay, that he was squatting in the rain with a broken heart, only it was not broken by his adulterous wife.
About The Author
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater, where she is currently developing a new play, Shamhat, for part of their 20th Anniversary Season. Recently, her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize at Camera Obscura. Her work appears in Arts & Letters, Review Americana, Existere, Structo Magazine, Borderlands, Confrontation, and Maggid: A Journal of Jewish Literature. In Fall 2011, she spoke at the Women in the Arts conference as a playwright; the lecture, now titled as “Semaphore Toward Emptiness: A Meditation on Women and Jerusalem,” has been published by Trans-Portal. This past summer, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts selected her essay “On Writing Quimera and other Fears,” also based on her work for New Perspectives, for their State of the Art Feature.
Last but not least, Lantern Review recently ran a column about language and culture that cites this story. You can read the article here.