A short story riginally written in 2008 (The last Year of theRat).
Crawford’s business trip to Beijing was coming to an end. Tomorrow evening, after a grueling but successful negotiation involving a triangle of conflicting interests each armed with teams of lawyers, he would take the red-eye home to London.
Crawford needed a drink. He headed out of the Shangri-la hotel, grabbed a cab at the front door and headed for the Legation District, the old U. S. Embassy which now housed a collection of restaurants and bars. He settled into his bar stool where the city’s finest lychee martini could be had and sipped the first of what would turn out to be a few.
It had been a good trip and the results would earn him kudos in London. And money. Lots of money. He felt a satisfaction in putting this deal together in spite of the lawyers who always seemed bent on winning their point rather than finding the common ground. “God! I hate lawyers!” he thought to himself. Nit pickers.
The three principals involved in this complex transaction had already shook hands on the deal’s structure; as far as Crawford was concerned the lawyers were there only to put the details already agreed to down on paper.
But no. Heaven forbid it should be that easy. They immediately began squabbling over the details and needed to be constantly reminded of points to which their respective clients had already agreed. It was harder to get the lawyers to agree than the principals; more like obstacles to be overcome than hired hands.
Now it was time to relax. Now he had a whole night to indulge his other passion – Chinese bronzes. Crawford had been collecting each of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac. Each was a fine antique bronze, mostly from the Yuan Dynasty. He had eleven of the twelve zodiac animals. He was only missing the rat. This year, 2008, was the Year of the Rat; a good omen that he would find the perfect piece to complete his collection.
He left the Legation bar and headed to Nanluoguxiang hutong in the Drum and Bell Tower District. The hutong, a narrow alley built some 700 years ago housed several kilometers of shops, from chic to kitschy, large to tiny. Crawford would hunt in the shops for the bronze rat.
Under the influence of the lychee martinis Crawford strolled the hutong peeking in windows and doorways paying particular attention to the “antique” stores. Most of the shops sold fakes – good fakes, but fakes none the less. Crawford would not settle for a fake. And Crawford knew his bronzes.
It was dark now and getting late. Many of the shops were closing as Crawford realized the lychee martinis seemed particularly potent tonight. He suddenly spied an alley way he had never noticed before. Narrow, dark and leading off to the right. He peered into the darkness; there was a soft light he could see. Was there a shop down this alley?
Crawford made his way down the hutong and stood in front of the tiny shop.
Bronzes!! He could see bronzes! He noticed a little bell ring as he opened the door and stepped inside. He felt as if he had stepped into a Ming or Qing Dynasty shop. Everything smelled of age.
And the bronzes! He picked up a statue of Hou-Chi, the ancient god of the harvest depicted as a kindly old man with millet stalks growing on his head. It was exquisite.
Suddenly Crawford realized he was not alone. An old man with long gray whiskers, dressed in the finest Mandarin style stood in front of him. On his chest, the Mandarin square with two cranes embroidered in the silk which once indicated the wearer was an official of high rank. On his head a queue; Crawford had never seen a Chinese man with a queue which had disappeared with the coming of Sun.
The old man spoke perfect English. “May I help you?”
Crawford’s Mandarin wasn’t so bad either. “I am seeking a particular piece to complete my zodiac collection; a bronze rat of finest quality”.
The old man demurred. “I am sorry but I do not have what you seek; perhaps I can interest you in something else”. It was then that Crawford spotted the bronze rat in a corner of the tiny shop partially covered by a silk robe hanging above it.
“Here it is! What about this one?”
“That rat is not for sale!” replied the old man in Mandarin.
Crawford had to agree the rat was splendid which made him want it all the more. “How much?”.
“It is not for sale!”.
“Come now; everything has a price! Crawford offered a significant sum and then increased the amount in the face of initial rejection.
Finally, the old man lit a pipe and offered to sell the rat on one condition.
“If I sell you the rat you must agree to never bring it back. No refunds! Do we understand each other?”
Crawford gladly agreed and took his rat wrapped in red paper; after effusive thanks he left the shop, his prize rat under his arm.
The light in the shop ent out as Crawford made his way out of the hutong, still a bit tipsy from the martinis. It was now pitch dark and the streets were empty, the hour well past closing time.
As he walked seeking a cab or a rickshaw he heard faint noises behind him. He turned to look and saw a rat, a live rat sitting on his haunches staring at him. It’s eyes were red. Crawford was used to seeing rats in Beijing. He laughed and continued onward still seeking transportation. It seemed like everyone had disappeared from the streets. The alleys were deserted.
Walking toward a main drag Crawford heard more noise behind him; this time somewhat louder. Rat noises. He turned as spied half a dozen rats. When he stopped, they stopped. Sat on their haunches and stared at him, eyes glowing. Making rat sounds.
Crawford began to walk faster. The faster he walked they faster they walked. When he stopped, they stopped. Now there was lots more of them. Red eyes. Rat squeaks.
Crawford speeded up half walking, half running, a bit of fear now overtaking him. No matter how fast he moved the rats kept pace, gathering in numbers as he trotted toward the park. Now Crawford was scared. He couldn’t shake the rats, red eyed and squeaking like mad. Yet they didn’t attack him – when he stopped they stopped.
Crawford reached the shore of the lake in the park, not another soul in sight. Hundreds of rats stopped and stared, squeaking louder. It suddenly dawned on Crawford that the rats were not following him. They were following the bronze rat!
In a moment of inspiration and desperation Crawford heaved his beloved bronze rat into the lake. Instantly, the rats rushed passed him and poured into the water. Over a period of a few minutes the squeaking stopped and it was all quiet.
Crawford sat down on the grass shaken and catching his breath. After a half hour or so, the fog of the lychee martinis lifted he headed back to the hutong, turning into the narrow alley to the front door of the tiny shop.
He banged on the door ignoring the sign bearing the character for “closed” hanging in the glass door. Finally the old man came out from the back of the shop waving his hands. “No refunds! No refunds!!”.
Crawford smiled as the oldman opened the door a crack.
“I don’t want a refund!”. The old man was happy.
“I was just wondering”.
“Do you have any bronze lawyers?”.
Happy Lunar New Year!