I woke up that night with the feeling that somebody else was in my room.
Maybe you’ve had this feeling yourself sometime; most of us have, after all. It’s not that a noise or movement wakes you, but rather, the knowledge of something where there was nothing before, a change in the atmosphere of a place.
It was dark, and since my eyesight is very bad I couldn’t see much of anything. But there, I knew, was the chest of drawers against the wall, there was my work shirt draped over the back of the chair. Still not a sound, but I was all the more certain that someone was with me in the room, watching and waiting for what I would do.
As I reached for my eyeglasses on the nightstand, I knocked over a cup of water. I felt the water spreading over the wood and knew the magazine I’d been reading would be wet now. The water made a thin trickling noise as it ran over the edge of the nightstand. Cursing, I put on my eyeglasses. I didn’t turn on the light, but pulled myself up a little in the bed, and then I saw him.
In the corner of my room stood a small Chinese boy. He was about three feet tall, slender, and was wearing a trim, light colored uniform. The uniform had a single braid that looped below one arm. His face was white, his features clear and regular. His eyes were wide but unthreatening as he watched me from the corner of the room. I spoke to him from my bed.
“Hello. Hello,” I said.
He didn’t answer. I asked him what he was doing here, and how he had got in. “I didn’t hear you come in,” I said. “Are you lost?”
The boy stepped a little away from the wall, as if to let me see him better. So, he’s not afraid, I thought. I sat up on the bed, putting my feet flat on the floor, and turned on the lamp. I folded my arms over my chest. Then I reached out and adjusted the lampshade so the light wouldn’t fall directly into his eyes.
“There,” I said, and folded my arms again.
His uniform, I could see, was of a very fine-looking shiny material, blue or pink. The braid below his arm was burgundy. His shoes were small and black, with silver stitching. I asked the Chinese boy if he could talk, and whether he knew English. He raised one hand and laid it on my desk. My work papers were there; he only looked at his hand on the desk.
“You don’t talk?” I said.
“No,” I said.
I went to look more closely at him. I stood in front of him. He looked up at me, I looked down. Then I sat in the chair by the desk.
It was late and I was losing sleep. I felt a familiar pressure mounting behind my eyes and knew I’d have a headache in the morning. I didn’t know what I should do.
I leaned forward to the boy. “Look here!” I shouted. This startled him and he snapped his head up. Right away I felt bad for this. I leaned back in the chair and dropped my hands between my knees. I could hear the traffic beginning to move outside in the street.
After a while I offered the boy something to eat. He wouldn’t take anything, though, not even water. I told him that he couldn’t stay here, that in the morning I would have to contact the authorities. But for now, anyway, I said, he could rest.
I made the chair comfortable with pillows and a blanket and moved it near him. I wasn’t sure he understood what he was supposed to do, so I reached down and, somewhat awkwardly, took him below the arms and lifted him onto the chair. He didn’t object to this.
“Now. Stay there,” I said, settling back into my bed. “And I’ll sleep here. And in the morning we’ll sort this thing out. All right?” He didn’t answer me, of course, and when I turned off the light the Chinese boy was still wide awake and sitting upright in the chair. “Well, goodnight, anyway,” I said, and rolled over.
As you might guess, I didn’t sleep any more that night. The boy was there in the corner. How could I sleep? I tried to puzzle it out. Was there anyone I knew who had a boy like this? But then why leave him with me? If he had wandered in from the street, why choose my room? And how to explain his strange clothes and manners? His age seemed out of proportion to his size, though I couldn’t say for sure what his age was. And was he even Chinese? I was reminded of the young Pushkin; I don’t know why I thought this--I’ve never seen pictures or read descriptions of the young Pushkin. I’m not even sure I know who this is. That’s what I thought, anyway.
Ideas like this kept me awake for the rest of the night. I tried to hold myself still in the bed, and I didn’t once look at the Chinese boy. When there was no denying that it was morning, though, when I could hear my neighbors scraping across the floor and the water coughing through the pipes, I got up. He was still there, as I’d left him. He seemed drowsy, his head seemed to want to fall to one side, but his eyes were open and on me.
“Still there?” I said. “Well, okay.”
I had a headache, as I’d predicted. I talked to the boy while I put on coffee and got ready. I explained to him my situation, how I was a man of limited means, with many restrictions on my time and energy. There were public agencies that took responsibility for cases like his, I said. He needn’t be afraid; these were professionals, they knew psychology and so forth, and were sure to have experience in all kinds of situations, even the worst you could imagine, like wartime, for instance. These agencies could be relied on to know what was best for everyone.
I buttoned up my shirt and tucked it into my pants. “So, agreed?” I said. Nothing. “Are you trying to provoke me?” I said. He had gathered the blanket over his shoulders like a cape so that it fell down in folds around the legs of the chair. He seemed a little bored, even.
For myself, I normally have a quick bite or a sandwich somewhere along the street on my way to work. But I was worried that the boy hadn’t eaten anything yet. So I stopped and made a little breakfast of scrambled eggs for him. I set the plate of eggs in front of him and laid out a knife and fork. Now he ate. He didn’t thank me or anything; he only turned to the plate, picked up the knife and fork and began to eat, as if this was his right. He knew how to use a knife and fork.
“So you can eat?” I said. “You’re hungry, I’ll bet.” I had some milk left, so I poured him a glass of that, and then sat on the edge of the bed to wait for him. “There you go,” I said. “Eat it all up.”
My plan for that morning had been to either, a) take the Chinese boy directly to an agency, or b) go to an agency by myself and ask them to come and collect the boy. Now that it was time to leave, though, I couldn’t see myself pulling the boy out into the street. I thought of all the noise and terrible traffic and smoke outside. Who knew what trials he had been through already? He’d come in so late, and he was just finishing his breakfast; probably he would want rest and quiet now.
He laid the knife and fork across the plate and then looked up at me, smacking his lips. “Oh, sorry,” I said, and found a napkin for him. He wiped his lips with the napkin and set it on the plate. He seemed satisfied.
“Tell you what,” I said, collecting the plate and things. “I’ll go to the agency myself. You can rest here. When I get back with the authorities, well--they’ll do what they have to do. In the meantime, though, you just take it easy. Okay?”
I showed him where everything was in case he needed anything, and then left him there in my room. I did lock the door on my way out--not so much because I was afraid the Chinese boy would leave, but because of the neighborhood.
I tried to go to the agency that morning, I can say that much at least. I walked a good ten or twelve blocks off my usual route. I walked and walked. But it was already so late, and I wasn’t sure about the building. Then there were so many people, and the weather how it was . . .
“Oh—!” I said. “Tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.” With that, I immediately felt better.
All that day I thought about the Chinese boy. I worked non-stop through lunch, and left much earlier than I should have. I hurried back to my room. He was still there.
“I didn’t know what you like,” I said as I showed him the candies and things I had bought. I had some cheese and some vegetables also. “Are you okay?” I asked. The blanket had been folded over the back of the chair. Certain indications led me to believe that he had moved around the room while I was gone. Other than that, things were pretty much the same.
“I’ll make us something to eat, okay?” I said. I poured some water for him, then some for myself. “I hope you like fish.” I had bought a little fish on the way home. “Do you know how much fish costs these days?” I said. “You’d be surprised.” I wasn’t complaining--the fish was good and fresh. But still.
I told him about the agency while I cleared the desk; “I’ll definitely have to go back there tomorrow,” I told him. I set places for two, moving the candies in a pile to the side. “We’ll save those for dessert, okay?”
I prepared the fish. We had the cheese, vegetables--everything. The Chinese boy ate well. “Look at you!” I said. I think he liked the fish. “I haven’t eaten this well myself since . . . well, since I don’t know,” I said. I told him some things about my room, and how I had come to be here. I told him about my work. After dinner we had the candies. We ate all of them. “They were supposed to last a week,” I said, laughing. “Well, what the hell!”
And then this.
Coming back into the room after cleaning our plates, I found the Chinese boy standing in the middle of the floor. He stood with his legs set a little apart, at about the width of his shoulders. I stopped to watch.
The boy pointed both his arms straight into the air over his head. He slowly opened them down and out, like a scissors opening. Then, bending over at the waist, the Chinese boy grasped his ankles, tucked his head between his knees, and in one swift motion rolled over his shoulders and sprang straight up again. I was amazed. He performed the entire sequence two more times and then stopped.
How to explain my feelings for this? The display--I don’t know why--very nearly brought tears to my eyes. I clapped for him. “Bravo! Oh, bravo,” I said. “That was wonderful. Wonderful. Thank you. Thank you, very much.”
That night, for the first time, I carried the Chinese boy in my arms.
It’s been over three weeks now and I still haven’t gone to the authorities. Believe me, I’ve had every intention of reporting the boy. Now that so much time has passed, though, I’m even more reluctant to go. They’ll ask me why I didn’t report him earlier, and what I thought I was doing with him all this time. I could be accused of kidnapping, or who knows what crime.
When I come home from work he’s here waiting for me. I cook for us and take care of everything. He tumbles, and then, afterwards, I carry him in my arms. He sits upright in the crook of my arm as I walk back and forth with him in the narrow space of my room.
There’s something else, too. One week ago, the Chinese boy started to sing. He sings in a high, warbling coo as I carry him back and forth. I imagine this to be the sound of his native language. I call it singing--really I don’t know if what he does is singing or only a kind of jabbering baby talk. But there’s something at once beautiful and sad in his voice, as if he were remembering for me his home and all he misses there. I lean my head on his tiny shoulder while he sings, and I see great landscapes and villages and palaces set with fine jewels flashing azure and magenta in the sunlight.
When I look at my room now I feel bad for the boy. The blanket I’ve given him to use is old and worn, the chair is coming apart at the joints. I try to keep things clean, but everything here gets so shabby. I want so much better for him than this.
One thing I’ve decided to do is look for extra work. Although this will require that I spend even more time away from him, at least I’ll be able to afford some improvements. The extra work only has to be temporary, after all, until things are better.
And finally, today, I’ve made up my mind to bring him out. The weather is good. He’ll ride in the crook of my arm, wearing his uniform. If he doesn’t like it, we can come back in. But if he’s agreeable, I’d like to show him the trees in the park, and the trains, and how children here play. I expect some looks, naturally. People can say what they want to about me and the Chinese boy, anyway, I don’t care. He’s mine--he came to me.
Adjusting his braid, I feel a kind of expectancy rising in me. With steadfastness and hard work, who knows what I can accomplish? The boy sits lightly in my arm, cooing his song. “As long as you’re with me,” I tell him, “nothing bad will ever happen to you.” I unlock the door and open it up. The day floods in, filling my room, and I’m at once happier than I’ve ever felt before.
George Bishop graduated with an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he won the Award of Excellence for a collection of short stories. He has lived and taught in Slovakia, Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, India, and Japan, and now makes his home in New Orleans. His stories and essays have appeared in The Oxford American, Third Coast, Press, American Writing, and The Turkish Daily News, among others. He's published two novels, Letter to My Daughter (2010) and The Night of the Comet (2013), both with Random House. The Night of the Comet was named a Best Book of 2013 by Kirkus Reviews.