Store of Ashes
Old Shanghai was dying, losing between three and six streets a day. The modern city was strangling it among its many skyscrapers. Soon, in a few years at most, it will have disappeared. Yet, through its narrow and overcrowded alleyways trotted Mr. and Mrs. Yao. She, clutching her purse and their joint life savings; he, clearing a path through the crowd, glancing suspiciously at everyone and signaling to his wife with a shaky, impatient hand.
The old man cursed the whole world as he passed through the waves of people. He cursed the maker of the map he was constantly consulting, and which didn't seem to match any of their surroundings. Six times already, he'd been forced to ask for help from one of the countless fly-by-night merchants whose stalls seemed to have no purpose but to slow down the flow of the crowd.
The storekeepers in question held them up even longer with their interminable speeches. They claimed they had been waiting since the day they were born for the singular honor of rendering a service to such a marvelous lost couple, only to send the man and woman down the wrong path yet again. But the couple's persistence and some considerable luck eventually led them to the tiny storefront they had been looking for all morning.
A little wooden sign was hanging on the end of a chain, three feet above an ancient, worm-eaten door. An owl was painted on it, signifying that here they would be in contact with the other side.
The couple glanced around before Mr. Yao made up his mind and knocked at the door. He jumped back when it opened suddenly, and before he could move aside, a wrinkled but firm hand shot out of nowhere, seized the old man by his collar, and pulled him inside. Mrs. Yao followed close behind.
It took them a few seconds to get used to the darkness and make out their host. He waited, with a fixed smile on his lips, then bowed. "Good day, honorable future customers! One store is for life, one is for death. Which side of the coin brings you to this humble place?"
The room they had found their way to was full of the most incongruous chaos. Turtle shells, fans, music boxes, ivory cigarette holders, opium pipes, and all the motley junk that usually haunts dusty vintage shops.
"Well, we would be interested to see what you might offer us," replied Mr. Yao. "My wife and I will soon be leaving Shanghai. We want to start a new life, a life that's always been denied to us here. You see, we are both orphans, Mrs. Yao and I. We have no ancestors to honor and have always suffered because of that. Our friends look down on us and our neighbors snigger behind our backs. So, we plan to move to Jiangsu and expect to die there with some respect."
"I understand perfectly! You have come here to look for a family, your ancestors. Well, you're in the right place. Let's leave these miserable trinkets and go through to the store on the other side."
The couple followed Mr. Lee 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 like an uppercut. For Mr. Yao, who had been in two wars, it recalled the smell of a horse that had been dead for three days. His wife, however, didn't 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 at one time, were arranged in a sort of hesitant geometrical shape. They were now bearing funerary urns.
"You seem surprised, noble clients!" Mr. Lee's voice broke the air. "As I am a very modest storekeeper crushed by the responsibility of a large, ungrateful family, I purchased all these display stands in an auction during 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 business."
"Did your stock of incense also come from a far away auction sale?" responded Mr. Yao. "Sorry, I digress. You are quite right, let's talk facts. Or rather, let's talk ancestors. What can you offer us? Bearing in mind that my wife and I don't have much money."
"Well, it's obvious that if you want an altar worthy of the name, the very minimum we should give you is a father and a mother each."
"Yes, certainly. That goes without saying."
"At the moment I have a special sale on old soldiers! We could mix you a general decorated by Mao himself, accompanied by a lieutenant injured in the Great War, and add in two wives from the old aristocracy."
"The very thought excites me, but could you give us an idea of the price we'd have to pay for that?"
"Well, given that all our dead have their papers in order and that we will need equally irreproachable adoption certificates..."
"Adoption certificates?" stammered Mr. Yao.
"Of course, my business doesn't do things halfway, and whether he is a general or a simple peasant, the parent purchased always adopts the buyer!"
"But he is dead!"
"Of course, but the law doesn't mention that a dead person isn't allowed to adopt! A welcome oversight, you must agree. Our services obviously take this additional charge into account, but, as a result, you'll find yourself placed in an irrefutable lineage. Yes, yes, we're always very thorough. Don't want any distant cousins turning up to ask you where you've sprung from."
"And what about the 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 yuan! Do you think we're billionaires? What if my wife made do with a somewhat less injured sub-lieutenant, and I had a Chiang Kai-shek General?"
"No, sir. 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's practically a saint."
"So, let me see if I have this straight..." said Mr. Lee, consulting his notes. "A third-rate general, a sergeant, a courtesan and a woman from the lower ranks of nobility for the parents. Plus a grave-digger uncle, as well as our Shaolin monk, two nieces, a grandfather – thrown in for free – and two tax-free musician cousins who died of diabetes. The whole lot will cost you seventeen thousand yuan."
"We did say sixteen thousand five hundred, but okay, I'm exhausted and can't argue anymore. My lovely wife will pay you half of that sum now and the rest upon delivery of the urns and the papers."
Mrs. Yao, who had been walking methodically around 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, still today, Mrs. Yao happily receives visitors without any shame in her modest residence in Jiangsu. The curious and attentive guest never fails to notice the famous poet Shi Jing in a gleaming urn, modestly displayed next to his new, reconstituted family.