A mere beat of a moment after the rush hour madness has subsided and the lavish-Post Chinese New Year- lanterns have come out to play, a flash of peculiarity ignites the boulevard. Something shifts as the usual hustle and bustle builds to a crescendo, perfectly in rhythm with the dancing ladies of the square. Of what it is, she isn’t quite sure. She mentally notes down the transformation of the strawberry sisters with that of a weather-beaten lady selling freshly roasted chestnuts from the back of her rusty bicycle. She breathes a sigh of relief as she spots the flower man in his usual spot, smack bang on the little island in the middle of the road. He doesn’t have any sunflowers today and she doesn’t have any money so she darts her eyes in the opposite direction and scurries past, afraid of making him think he’s lost her to another flower man with possibly pinker bunches. She doesn’t like to let people down, it’s one of her niceties and yet, also one of her biggest downfalls in the society that she finds her feet currently sunk into.
She has soup on her mind. Her Father’s lentil soup which originally belonged to the two Bettys, her late, doting grandmothers. Tonight she will attempt to recreate this taste of her childhood and as she runs through the recipe in her head she almost misses it. She glances at the small crowd gathered by the road and a sliver of hope that it’s the strawberry sisters enters her mind. It’s not, it’s most certainly, bewilderingly not. It’s a camel. The biggest camel she’s ever seen and there it is, just lying by the road, invisible tears mangled in it’s fur, it’s head bowed low tickling the once empty patch of road. She immediately looks away and continues on her way, but to no avail. Her feet won’t carry her a step away, her hand won’t reach into the bag to grab the phone that her head is telling her to grab, to document this exact moment. Her heart beats faster and her eyes begin to water. She wishes she could scoop out her never-ending flow of tears and drop them into the camel’s eyes for fear of his completely drying-up. This isn’t the desert. This isn’t a zoo. This isn’t some mountain pass on a Mongolian moor. This is China in all it’s chaotic glory and calamity. This is the side of a motorway in Shenzhen on a Thursday night at 8pm and she doesn’t understand anything that is going on.
In China, life can be strange, strange in the sense of nonsensical. This moment just topped every previous bizarreness and then took it to the next level, that of cruelty and sadness. The chattering crowd surrounding the camel shifted from toe to heel and back again. No camera shutters were heard clicking, no laughs echoed in the darkness tinted with a red glow, and no action was taken. People stared and murmured mutterings to their partners, then picked up their shopping bags and headed into Walmart to buy their eggs.
A parting quickly arose and she peered in. Huddled next to the front foot of the camel was a bearded man. He was extremely dark-skinned and his hair was as black as midnight oil, slicked to the side with grease and sweat, or both. He had no hands, and he clasped a calligraphy brush between his mud-encrusted toes. His delicate written words were fleeting, failed attempts at a cry for help. His tears had caused a tsunami of ink to leak onto the road, mixing with the dirt, tar and dry camel droppings. His body shook back and forth and a frayed, flimsy length of rope connected camel to companion.
As she stared into their eyes she could tell that neither of them were there of their own accord. This was a situation that involved a deeper, darker third party. Perhaps these menaces glanced on from the slippery bridge overheard or from the cosy, steamed-up windows serving piping-hot dumplings, twinkles of delight and hunger in their eyes for every penny dropped onto the paper of calligraphy, the calligraphy running into the drains and disappearing, almost as fast as the dreams of dignity the bearded victim and his desert friend once had.
She keeps walking. She wants to stop, scoop the bearded man up and place him on the camel and point them in a north-westerly direction towards home. But that just isn’t possible. Instead she averts her eyes, glancing back only twice to make sure she saw what she thought she saw. She hurries home, shaking and practicing the conversation about cruelty against humans and animals that she plans on having with the next Chinese person she sees, who she hopes might be able to help. The security guards are eating, the front desk ladies have gone home for the evening and she notices warm lights peeking out from closed curtains. She doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t even know the word for ‘camel’ in Chinese.
The next morning she’s awoken by a shade of blue. As she runs for her bus to join the daily penguin parade, she notes the camel droppings dotted around the square. There’s no distinct trail, it’s as if they just disappeared into thin air, carted away to some other square of dancing ladies in some other far-flung city filled with cracks in the roads that contain little compassion, if any at all.
The 113 pulls up and she jumps on.
Image sourced from here.