Ratface by Daniel Post
The first of the green tour buses makes its way through the stagnant fields, a kick of dust in its wake. I wait with some of the other children, the boy has yet to be unveiled. We stand along the crumbled remains of our city wall. This is why the buses stop here on their way to X’ian. The soft ladies like to see fallen walls and clay soldiers. They will not be ready for me. I am not in one of their books.
The doors wheeze open and the first of the tourists appears. It is a thin man with a white beard. He is small with slanted eyes, but he is not from my country. He fans himself with an open book. On the cover is a picture of orange kite. He looks down and side-steps by me.
Next is a woman in a pink and white floral dress. She will be the one. She steps from the bus and holds a cloth over her mouth. Some of the smaller children run up to her and paw at her pocketbook, but I stay back. I do not need to beg. My face says enough. She will find me.
She opens her purse and places a coin in each of the children’s hands. Her husband steps from the bus and pushes her along, but it is too late. She has seen me. She stops and the husband looks too. He raises the camera in his hands and then reconsiders.She wades through the other children and places a hand on my cheek. I smile and she recoils – sometimes I forget about my teeth. She rummages in her purse and a small mirror falls to the ground. She doesn’t see this, so I cover the mirror with my foot. Then she pulls out twenty Yen and folds it in my hand. Twenty Yen. Paper money. I am done for the day. She holds my face in her hands and says words I do not understand. And even though I told myself to never wish it again, I wish I could go home with her.
I have seen my reflection a few times since I lived with the woman: in the dusted glass of a tour bus, bent across a fish bowl, and once in a puddle. None of them were like this. I hold the mirror at arm’s length in order to see my entire face. I am a rat. My jaw is sharp and narrow from the shovel. My teeth crowd forward curving back my lips. My skull is small and streamlined with two large curves above my ears.I cut a pear I stole from the market and begin to rebuild my face. I stick the pieces between my cheek and gums to reconstruct my jaw. I cut a small sliver of fruit and slip it over my front teeth, pulling my lip forward. I push my hair forward over my ears. If I do not smile, I look normal. I look like a boy who runs in the field with his father trailing an orange kite behind him in the sky. I look like a boy who falls asleep nestled in his mother’s lap. I look like a boy who has never felt a shovel across his face.
It is amazing how something so large and powerful can sneak up on you. The earth under your home can swell and saturate with water and slowly start to swallow you, as you curl warm in your bed. I hear splashing; it is the boy. I had always imagined this time would be different. I had thought I would hear the voice of my father warning me against the river’s return. I imagined I would follow his voice to safety.
But it is the boy. He stands over me with the crutch I made him under his chin, balancing the weight of his head. He is nearly blind now, the crush of the stones strangling the nerves in his eyes. He reaches out with his feet, unsure of what is happening. I press my eye to a gap in the slats of the wall. The rain dives and rises like a school of fish. The river spills yellow tendrils into the field. The time has come for my new life to begin.
The water rises fast. It is at the boy’s waist in an instant and I am suddenly aware of the weight on his head. I struggle to loosen the leather straps but they have hardened into place. This was his last day. The woman wanted to leave them on tonight because she believed the full moon would press its gravity upon the earth and set the stones once and for all. He would join me at the crumbling wall tomorrow and the tourists would weep in droves. We celebrated his arrival with fish head soup and a red candle.
The woman stumbles into the room. Her hair is down around her face. She stares at the boy. She had been drinking from her black bottle all through dinner and now she is not herself. She grabs the knife from the butcher block and shuffles over to the boy. The water is up to his neck now. She hacks at the leather straps and releases two of the stones before losing the knife in the water. She fishes for it a few times and gives up. She pulls the boy to her and stares back at me. In the distance a woman screams.
I break the seat of a chair and float it over to them.
“Tree,” I say. It is my only thought.
I charge out across the field but the soil is loose and pulls me in. The woman follows carrying the boy. There is a surge in the river as one of the dikes breaks upstream. I am curled under a wave that pushes me forth to the tree. I scramble up a few limbs and then turn to find the woman.
The water circles her and the boy. She is swimming now, her black robe fanned out around her. The weight of the boy is pulling her under but she will not let go. She fights. She looks up at me as her arms flail against the current. Her chin pushes just above the water’s surface. Her eyes are small, defeated. And I know now that we are all she has. And I know that we are loved.
I want to stretch down my arms across the distance and pluck them to safety. I want to pull the limbs from the tree and make a raft for all of us to float down the river to Jinan. We will set ashore near the great oil fields there and we will find prosperity. And the woman will be removed from all the things that have made her hard and she will love us and we will be a family. I want to stop the river. But of course I do nothing. I always do nothing.
The woman grasps at a passing piece of wood, but it can’t support their weight. She goes under, then springs forth coughing. She will not be able to hold the boy up any longer. She will want me to leave the tree and help. But we will not make it. The boy will drag us down with the weight of his ugliness to the quiet depths of the silty undertow.
She gasps and reaches to me. “Nyo,” she says, “please.”And I go, because that is my name.