THE CHINESE MAN

by Andreas Sophocleous

As published in In Focus Vol. 11, No. 3, September 2014

There used to stand, at the centre of the neighbourhood next to ours, a house fenced by a tall wall that forbade the eye any view of the courtyard or of the house itself.

For years, a Chinese man lived in that house. No one knew how he ended up there or what he was doing exactly. Several rumours circulated about him and his line of work, and nobody ever saw him going in or coming out of the house.

He was said to be a chemist, engaged in various experiments aimed at making him immortal. Some said he communicated with the spirits of the dead whilst others believed he could turn iron into gold! On the whole, this particular individual and his actions were shrouded in fear, dread and mystery.

Needless to say that, despite our fear, we were poised to solve the mystery; that’s why we lay in wait for all the villagers to go to work and for the village to empty, so that we could raid his house and discover whatever it was that was going on inside. We would approach from the back yard that was invisible from the street, and climb on one another’s shoulder to reach the height of the wall. But aside the yard, there was nothing else we could discern, and this added to our curiosity.

One time we decided, once we scaled the wall, to throw stones against the door and windows, in anticipation of some reaction. Nothing. Doors and windows remained closed as ever! There was no reaction, no movement – so much so that we actually thought everything was a fable and no Chinese man had ever been in the house.

In some place along the tall enclosure, a broad-leaved tree sprouted; we called it “bogey-tree”. When its fruits were ripe and yellowish, we collected them to make lime-twigs.

It was a long process, the making of lime-twigs. First we had to find the appropriate twigs, of wood that was hard and solid and wouldn’t bend. This type of twigs we usually chopped from sprouts of pomegranate trees, wild terebinth trees and, most commonly, of styrax. After removing the twigs’ leaves or offshoots, we tied them with a thick cord, to keep them from bending, and left them lie horizontally for several days to dry.

So, after we collected the fruits of the bogey-tree, we broke them with our teeth, removed the crust and emptied their slimy, gluey content into a trough. Then we added lukewarm water and kneaded the mixture by throwing in a quantity of honey to increase its adhesiveness. When the mixture was ready, one of us would take a large handful of it, while the other rolled each twig vertically into the handful, dipping it in the gluey material. In this manner we would make around 30 lime-twigs at a time. Anyone who had more than 100 lime-twigs was considered a great hunter.

Back then, lime-twigs were a source of income for several poor families, and many would specialize in that particular type of bird hunting. Bee-eaters where their main target, swarming as they did during July and August. They were very beautiful birds, colourful, with a large beak. They fed on bees and other insects and flocked deserted areas with low trees and wild bushes adjacent to hives. It was precisely there, in prominent positions on the trees, that lime-twigs were set up too, in order to lure the birds into resting on them in their quest to survey the area and detect their prey.

It took much dexterity and perceptiveness to set up lime-twigs in the correct position on each tree. The lime-twig had to be glued on the edge of a long and solid thick reed and, by means of skilful movements by the handler, be fixed in place on the tree so as to sustain the weight of the bird that would rest on it.

Many times there was intense competition amongst hunters as to who would be the first to set up his lime-twigs in areas (merras) known for attracting bee-eaters. On occasion things came to blows and beating ensued, as the “merra” was considered the ownership of the first to claim it.

In order to attract birds to their merras, hunters employed several methods. They either whistled in the manner of bee-eaters, or lit fires using vounnes, (bovine manure), as their odour attracted birds.

The hunters usually sat in the shade or in the hollows of big trees, usually carob trees, waiting for the swarms of birds to arrive. Before the swarms, came their leader that stood apart due to its red eyes as opposed to the usual black. With various manoeuvres and sounds, the leader would steer its group to the right area as a flock of bee-eaters moved in en masse, performing various manoeuvres and dives to trap the bees within their large beak. When they tired or wished to survey from above in order to detect their prey, they usually rested on the tree tops, where the lime-twigs had already been set up. There they became stuck and immobilized.

The moment the swarm moved in, our joy and anticipation were beyond words. In utter silence we watched and counted the number of birds that sat on the lime-twigs. But sometimes, if we were unlucky and the swarm leader happened to be trapped on the twigs from early on, he would release loud warning cries and the entire swarm would disappear in the space of a minute. Then, our prey would be limited.

After the swarm’s escape, we ran to the trees and used reeds to bring down the lime-twigs with the captive bee-eaters. Then we would free them, cross their wings to keep them from flying away and put them in baskets. The birds would bite us with their long beak, trying to free themselves; in vain. Any catch worth more than ten bee-eaters was considered a big success.

Late in the afternoon, before dusk, we used to collect the lime-twigs from the trees and, carrying our prey in baskets, proudly made our way home. The birds we would either sell to the village’s tavern or mother would fry them with eggs, or bake or boil them to serve with a nice trachana or egg-lemon soup.

*   *  *  *

When I was in my last year in High School, my wonderment at the mysterious Chinese man was resolved as follows: Leonidas’ family, who rented the house to him, had a son named Nicholas, with whom I had developed an honest friendship. Nicholas used to buy, from the village’s grocery store, foodstuff and other items necessary for the man’s subsistence. So I asked him to arrange for me to meet this peculiar being. Indeed, one afternoon, Nicholas came to my house and said that the Chinese man had agreed to meet me, after being assured I was a good boy, an excellent student and a loyal friend. Flabbergasted with the unexpected news, I grabbed a bowl from the kitchen and ran outside to our fig-tree, filled the bowl with nice, sweet figs, covered it with a clean piece of cloth and set out, with my friend, to meet the Chinese man!

He received us with courtesy and kindness. He was short, lean, had spectacles in front of his slit eyes and wore a long white uniform. I offered him the figs and he warmly thanked me. With the English he knew we managed to converse just fine. He told me he was a chemist, that he had been away from his country for many years, and that he worked on making new products for a big cosmetics company in England. He showed us his workshop – where I literally became stupefied at the large number of vials and ampules, precision weighing balances, funnels of various sizes and other accessories. Strong and piercing was the smell of different chemical substances. Then he showed us his bookcase, with a wealth of books that left me speechless. Noting my admiration and bewilderment, he took two large leather-bound volumes of “The Popular Educator” encyclopaedia and offered them to me. “These are yours,” he said, “for being a good student. Promise me you will read them.” I accepted them with trembling hands and thanked him with tears of gratitude. We said goodbye and arranged a new appointment in two months’ time, to discuss my impressions of the books.

Not even a month went by and the good Chinese man left this world. Whilst working late at night in his workshop, mixing various flammable materials together, the deathly explosion came about which caused his instantaneous death and a large fire. Due to the flammable materials and the books, the fire soon grew and within a few hours left nothing on its wake, aside ashes and desolation…

In my own bookcase I still keep the books that the Chinese man had offered me as gifts. Once in a while I browse through them as I bring to mind the benign figure, the polite posture and scientific knowledge of a researcher devoted to duty, a man who breathed his last breath living as a hermit in a small village of Paphos for the sake of science, misunderstood and anathematized by the illiterate villagers.

Translated by Despina Pirketti

 

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