The Old Man in Beijing: A Christmas Carol

by CG Fewston

The old man stood in the haze of China’s greatest city with two certainties on his mind: one, the haze (caused by contaminants, such as Sulphur dioxide, from Beijing’s industrial district) warmed the December day and the good earth to a magnitude when snow must retreat from the power of the human hand found in the manipulation and distortion of the climate and weather itself; and two, a warmer city meant a snowless city which also meant far fewer deaths from freezing that Christmas. But the haze surrounded the old man as he shopped along an outdoor market on a street not too far from where he lived.

At one of the shops selling nuts and dried fruits, the old man pointed at a barrel and raised two fingers. On his head he wore a proletarian hat of dulled blue, on his back he wore a coat of the same color, a hue fitting the snowless smog which left a taste of copper on the old man’s tongue.

The middle-aged woman with an apron behind the barrels retrieved a plastic bag and scooped in the dried banana chips; she tossed the bag onto the scale next to her as she must’ve done a hundred times a day and measured her portions. She did all this without emotion nor a word and with a sickly look over her face as she knew all too well her lot in life—her ultimate purpose at being given the luckiest chance at existence on the cold, gray earth she had known since birth—that she’d be scooping nuts and dried fruits out of barrels, if she were truly lucky, for a time until she could save enough to care for her grandchildren in her old age.

But the old man knew she had no children and had never married; this was another reason why the two no longer needed to speak in their interactions: the old man had met her here in this very shop when she had been a sprightly teenager with thin hips and wild hopes of leaving China for Europe.

At first the two spoke in animated bursts which could last as long as thirty minutes. Then as the years grew heavier on the old man the girl developed into a young woman with hair down to her knees. She smiled lots back then when he came into the shop for pistachios and walnuts on cold days that bit bones in two.

One day, however—years ago, years ago, he told himself—he had entered her shop and found two things had happened since they last spoke: one, her long hair had been cut to her scalp as though a mad barber sheered a sheep in total darkness; and two, grave features of a subjection too severe for him to imagine had replaced the smile she wore when she greeted him. On that day, and ever since, he merely pointed at what he wanted, she responded without acknowledging his presence, he’d pay and she’d take the greasy bills, and both of them, from that point onward, had too much to say to say anything.

The old man gently placed the bag of banana chips alongside a few other small plastic bags containing meat and vegetables inside a canvas bag he was carrying and walked out of the shop knowing they would see each other tomorrow.

The old man walked the streets of Beijing with his head hung low, his eyes squinted beneath the brim of his hat, and his shoulders slumped to either side even though he carried nothing more than the canvas bag half-filled with a few groceries for that day’s meal. No one spoke to him and he spoke to no one.

Later that night he dreamed of the shop-woman young again standing and smiling behind the barrels of nuts and dried fruits. He woke in the warm darkness, drank a glass of water and returned to bed where he dreamed a dream few city people would have.

The old man dreamed of wide open plains in the bright of day and he dreamed of hills rolling that he faintly recalled—in his heart and in no other place—seeing as a small boy. The old man was not a boy but an old man sitting on a solid horse. The horse stepped to the side and heaved heavy breaths that came funneling out the great cavities of its wet nose and mouth. The old man turned in his saddle when he heard the stallions stampeding down into the valley below him and in all their wildness he saw untarnished beauty.

He sat for a time watching the pack of horses run across the open land like a flock of birds in playful flight over open waters, and he felt pleased at all he saw.

After a time—who can say how long for time does not exist in dreams—a mare appeared on an opposite ridge and held her neck to the wind where her black mane and tail, long flowing rivers of hair, stretched and grew until she no longer seemed a horse but a strange god one must bow before and fear.

When the mare turned her gaze onto him, he surprised himself when he jolted back and had to regain a proper seat in the saddle. The look in the mare’s eyes frightened the old man—who now looked at his hands to find them young—but the mare’s eyes held an endearing sympathy which seemed to pity the man.

The man did not move—nor did the horse he sat upon—when the mare found a trail down her ridge and up to his, and she drew close to the man’s side. The man’s hand trembled as he reached a finger out to touch the mare on her forehead. He almost didn’t but when she nodded to convey to him that he must, he stretched out his finger, a child’s finger, even farther. When his finger touched the spot between her eyes he saw the wildness, and the beauty, leave her eyes.

The old man woke, still dark out, and drank another glass of water, and despite having forgotten all the images of the dream, he recalled the sensations as though the barren limbs and branches outside his window in the gray half-light did not belong to a tree at all but another creature entirely.

That same day—all the acrid sameness seemed never-ending—the sun appeared as a smudgy thumbprint on layers of cerecloth in the early morning sky over Beijing.

A Red Alert had been issued because pollution levels had climbed above 500—far beyond 300 on the air quality index which marked levels hazardous to health—so schools would be closed, but the old man on his walk to the market saw no children playing outside, nor could he see the buildings ten to fifteen blocks in the distance, only a construction crane out of all that dirty-white mess pointed a yellow arm in the direction for the old man to follow, though he required no sign nor portent to show him the way; on some days he walked without sight, the pollution had been that bad. Though he could not tell you why, the old man liked—it pleased him so—to think the smog was actually a new kind of snow that chose to remain suspended between the heavens and the earth.

A month ago, however, the temperature had dropped to -8˚C and the snows had come but today the factories warmed the city to a comfortable 10˚C and kept the air dry. Which would be worse, the old man asked himself: die a certain death in a single night from the severity of the cold or die a possible death in thirty or forty years—which he did not have—from the toxic pollutants rising invisibly day after day?

He had no answers to such questions. Life was harsh. That was something the old man knew to be true. That day, all he needed to do, was buy some meat and vegetables for his supper and to desire anything more would be impractical.

He entered the same shop that sold the nuts and dried fruits in barrels and pointed to the hazelnuts, his favorite, and raised his thumb with two additional fingers to show he wanted three portions.

The shop-woman, the one he had known for over twenty years, acted as though she knew all along the old man wanted hazelnuts. She scooped in three large portions of hazelnuts into a plastic bag, weighed it on the scale next to her, added a little more and tied the bag closed. She handed the bag over the barrels without looking at the old man, as if she were ashamed of something deep within her, as if she were wrong to be who she was, and when her right hand took possession of the five large rolls of clean bills neatly held together by a single rubber-band her left hand had to instantly come under and help catch the rolls of bills. Her eyes studied the five neatly rolled stacks of bills in both her hands before lifting to show hot tears in her eyes.

The old man, however, did not see the shop-woman but the lively young girl he had met and lost all those years ago.

In her native tongue she said, “Da shu?” She called him “uncle” because she still didn’t know his name. “I don’t understand.” The hot tears fell off her cheeks and onto the nuts and dried fruits in the barrels.

“Go,” the old man said in Mandarin. “I want to never see you again.” He turned and left the small shop and deposited the bag of hazelnuts into the larger canvas bag he carried and walked the long way home.

In the middle of the night the old man, unable to sleep, took a walk and thought of a past, his past now like a dream, that no longer existed; a past when he had been celebrated as an astrophysicist for his theories on the finite-infinite Universe.

He had concluded the Universe did have boundaries, thus being finite. Those boundaries, however, were in a constant state of being destroyed (at the origin of the Big Bang) and being created (at the edges of the known Universe expanding ever outward at a greater rate than the degrading core within, giving the impression of a “growing” universe); thereby, becoming an infinite universe.

The Universe, he had believed, was constantly being destroyed and created, and that no matter the speed or mode of travel one could never reach the beginning of the Universe (it no longer existed; equivalent to a person attempting to reach Yesterday) and that no matter the speed or mode of travel one could never reach the end of the Universe (it waited to exist; equivalent to a person attempting to touch Tomorrow); he had discovered a true representative model of Alpha and Omega.

He, as a much younger man, had finally concluded that Time is Space and that Space is Time and while one is being destroyed and created so is the other. His theory took one small step beyond the known concept of the continuum known as Space-time, that four-dimensional enigma also known as Minkowski space or Minkowski spacetime.

In the end, after too many years to count, he had failed in his mathematical proofs and had been discredited by the scientific community.

With all this off his mind, the old man found his way home again and fell fast asleep.

In the morning on Christmas day, the old man found the temperature had fallen to -8˚C and the snows, white beautiful powder, blanketed trees, cars and streets. The factories had stopped in the night and the winds had come to sweep the sky clean to a gentler blue.

The old man walked to the outdoor market to buy some mutton, and as he passed by the shop that sold the nuts and dried fruits he saw an elderly woman, who had a ghostly appearance akin to Death, in place of the middle-aged shop-woman he had given the five rolls of bills to the day before. He would never see the young woman again. She simply vanished in Time and Space. With the snows warming on the ground, the old man detoured through the park on his way home.

As the sky darkened later that evening, the old man lit two candles in a silver candelabra and sat at a wooden table to eat his supper of roasted mutton. Next to a glass of warm water was a bowl filled with banana chips.

He almost didn’t do it, as though the words wouldn’t come. But the words did come.

The old man, by candlelight, folded one hand within the other, his elbows rested on the table, and bowed his head to say, in English,

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.”


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student