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The Old Chinese Shop (Part 2)

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When he awoke, he found his world so drastically altered that he thought he had dreamed. The sun shone and tickled her, just as at home when her mother opened the curtains. The cat, leaning against it, purred and wanted to play. Just like the kitten at home when he was allowed into his room. Where was he now? It was still across the screen, obviously. The damp walls of the house steamed in the sun and the mother of this family baked flour cakes in a brazier. It smelled good and Milred felt good, though now she inhabited a world that was completely foreign to her.

He realized that they were watching him. It was a stare and heavy, though not aggressive. He was rather curious and interested. The look belonged to the girl who, sitting next to her mother, took the burning cakes and put them under a rag, always looking at him. Milred sat on his makeshift bed and ran a hand through his disheveled hair.

He stroked the cat, which he immediately jumped to his knees, and smiled at the girl who, though a stranger, had welcomed him through her gaze. They were huge, intense eyes, fruit-shaped. When the girl stood, Milred saw that she was tall and thin, taller than he, though not older. He put his mother’s last cake on a tray, along with a glass cup filled with steaming liquid, perhaps tea, and set it all before Milred. He shooed the cat and went back to his seat. The mother had not even turned around.

Milred devoured the cake as if he had not eaten for months. It was the first time her stomach had accepted food well. As soon as it was over, the girl approached with another cake. The boy wanted to refuse, to ceremony, but eventually he ate it. This time, he ate slower, to taste better. The mother had left and only he and the girl were at home. However, he seemed to hear a muted radio. Finally, after her eyes had become accustomed to the contrast between light and shadow, she discovered the presence of the family grandmother. It was covered by a black veil and her hands were fingering a third. He swayed and hummed incessantly. After all, the noise he had heard did not come from a radio.

  

Milred wanted to laugh. The girl guessed what had happened and laughed too. Milred liked wars and chocolates, but he didn’t like girls. At school I never played with them because I thought they were so stupid. They used to join in small groups whispering instead of playing ball or running, as he and the other boys did.

But this was not a girl like the others. This was almost a friend, because she guessed what he thought without imposing himself. For example, Milred wanted to go out and take a walk, and without her saying so, she would get up. The boy put on his shoes and went to her at the street corner.

At a street corner because, contrary to what I had thought, this was not a detached house. It was part of a village built on the edge of a cliff. A village with playing children, busy adults, and donkeys carrying bales. As soon as they saw Milred, the younger ones gathered around him, asking questions endlessly, without his realizing what they were saying. The girl approached and sent them away, in which she was promptly obeyed.

She asked her to follow her, though she said no words. At one point the cliff led into a canyon that widened as they walked. On the now-dry riverbed were cascading shops and houses, as lively as the pedestrian street of a city in time of sale. With the difference of the lights, always lit there, and the noises and odors, here in profusion. Milred was not afraid, though everything was strange to him. Maybe because the girl’s presence made him feel at home. They sat by a fountain eating ice cream.

The girl still didn’t speak. Milred even thought it might be dumb, because she began to draw for him. He drew a large house on the floor and put his father, mother, grandmother, and cat inside. The two boys he drew outside the house, walking away under the bombs, rifle in hand, must have been brothers. He erased everything with his hand and then drew a flower, pointing at him. Her name was Flor. Milred savored the sweetness of this unexpected friendship. I had already forgotten the war and the surprises of video games.

  5

  

It was very hot when Flor asked her to follow her. They had just eaten. There was no sun at home anymore, though it still shone outside. Life seemed to have taken a break. The cat slept in a cool corner and her grandmother had stopped humming. The village had an abandoned air. The dogs no longer howled and the children had hidden. But Flor did not walk toward the village. He walked towards the desert.

Despite the scorching heat, he walked fast, sneaking through the thorn bushes. Milred feared losing sight of her several times, but the girl always waited for him. They walked for a long time until they came to a landscape dominated by huge cacti. Red-flowered cacti and giant arms, so high that they completely covered the cliffs they had left behind.

Even if he wanted to, Milred wouldn’t know how to turn back. Not that he intended to do so, for he placed absolute trust in Flor. As they walked, it showed him little things: a snake, whistling away; a pointed-billed bird, frightenedly leaving its nest inside the cactus; a funny rat that jumped like a kangaroo; an aggressive scorpion, which retreated from tail to tail. Sometimes he didn’t even see what she wanted to show him. There was life everywhere, even if it seemed like only the warm air was moving. Milred finally understood where Flor wanted to take him. Between two giant cacti, he uncovered a rocky promontory that rose through the forest.

  

Once at the foot of the rock, Flor began to climb it, agile as a monkey. Milred was exhausted. Scratching his hands and knees, he made it to the top without complaint and without asking for help. His winning spirit had gotten the better of him. The girl was already sitting, still and still in the scorching sun. He looked like an Egyptian figure with almond eyes and sweat-damp black hair. It was the first time that Milred had found a girl beautiful. So far, I’ve always seen them without seeing them. He sat next to her, smiling to cover his tiredness, and wiped the sweat off his forehead before looking up. I had never seen anything so beautiful. Except at the movies or… you didn’t remember where.

The flat spot where they were sitting was the kind of place the Indians go to see the smoke signals. The horizon looked like a landscape out of a western: there were expanses of cacti out of sight and mountains that looked like benches for giants, plunged into an absolute and distressing silence, broken only by the crackling of stones, which seemed to vibrate under the heat. Flor wanted to share with him the beauty of his country without having to hear his compliments. His pride in belonging to that place needed no confirmation.

As she stared and listened, Milred had ceased to feel the scorching heat of the sun on her skin. Her shoulder was now touching Flor’s, but Flor had not moved away. On the contrary, she leaned against him calmly. The boy could hear her heartbeat as fast and nervous as it was soothing. Unknowingly, he was surely in love, because it took him a moment to realize the menacing clouds that clouded the horizon.

  6

  

The light had changed. The sun was now cloudy, as if night would fall early, too early. An artificial bluish light bathed the place, made of a thousand flickering dots. A video screen light. Milred was the first to react. He got up and shouted:

– Watch out, Flower!

He never knew if her tranquility was due to surprise or if he knew what was going to happen.

– Watch out! He is choosing the odds and the game will start!

  

Somewhere there was an anonymous player, staring at the screen, on the side of the world that had been Milred’s. His guess was confirmed by a volley of bullets that bounced off where they were. It was the game Manhunt. Milred knew him for playing him, although he didn’t like him. Weapons and scenery were chosen, but the principle was always the same: in a desert, in a savannah, or in a rainforest, some frightened savages were chosen, who had only their legs to defend and escape, and who owed their salvation only to a perfect knowledge of the place.

Milred didn’t like this game because it was too cruel. They had to leave the promontory as soon as possible. They were too exposed. He took Flor’s hand and led her to the first flaw in the rock she found. They would take shelter there before attempting a descent, which would always be dangerous.

  

Flor recovered all her reflexes. In fact, I had not even lost them. Her face, beautiful and impassive, could keep secrets, conceal her most immediate feelings. He watched the cliff carefully, looking for a safe descent.

 – Over there! He whispered to Milred.

They would be able to escape. The boy recovered his spirits. Flor knew the terrain well and he knew all the panoply of weapons the player had, the tricks he would employ. They would win this match. Milred knew from experience that the rock cavities they would use to descend would prevent the player from hitting them.

He also knew that the player could throw nets to catch them. When he saw one of them, he diverted Flor from his path.

– Wait! He hindered her as the mesh of the net caught a piece of rock. – Let’s go now!

They finally reached the foot. From then on, the terrain was unfortunately more open but also more conducive to a quick escape.

  

Milred tried to imagine what was going on in the player’s head. She could imagine him sitting in the chair with his arms outstretched or lying on a rug as he had once done. He must have been accounting for the lost capital, the wasted shipment of weapons, the passing seconds with no points earned. Certainly it made up for the frustration by nervously poking popcorn, which she would put in her mouth with her full hands.

“Let’s get some rest,” suggested Flor.

Milred remembered that if he couldn’t reach people, the player would try to hit animals. Earned fewer points, but always better than nothing. And so it was: as soon as a little owl left the shelter, it was soon pulverized. Several animals found death in this way, joining the player’s odious record.

– And now! He must have forgotten us.

They rushed toward the larger and taller cacti, which, however, offered them ineffective shelter.

– Stay there!

  

They should disperse. Together they were too easy a target. Milred headed for a new refuge. A gust suddenly destroyed a cactus’s outstretched arm. The fresh juice fell over Milred’s forehead, as if it were blood. They were back at the point of view of the player.

– Run Run! He said to Flor.

A net descended over the plant behind which she had hidden. The girl managed to get out of the shelter without being caught by the net, but a bullet scraped her hand. For the first time, his face lost its usual placidity and grimaced in pain. But soon comforted his friend:

– It was nothing. Just a scratch.

“Cretin!” thought Milred. “All this for a mere hundred points more. You must be happy.”

It was Flor who had to point the way to the village. Only she could find him. Milred sketched a plan. She had caught a lizard with huge teeth, although it was harmless. He hesitated to sacrifice him, but had no alternative. He threw it behind him, and while the other was predictably spending the ammunition on the poor bug, Flor had moved a few paces away. Until it took a step further. The player had pretended to stop paying attention to his favorite prey, but he remained alert. The girl was shot deadly in the back. It hung in the air for a moment, then fell slowly, turning to red desert dust as it touched the ground.

– Flower! Flower! Shouted Milred.

  

He began to run, hoping in vain that he could still embrace the sweetness of her body. Projectiles roamed freely around him, and Milred had now ceased to take precautions. He raised his arms, as if addressing the one behind the screen, and asked:

– Please, stop! This is no longer a game. It’s about the Flower, it’s about me…

It was hit in the chest, which would give the player maximum points. He had just enough time to imagine the winner’s enthusiasm on the other side of the screen. Then, like Flor, it crumbled into a thousand pieces before disappearing into the desert vacuum.

  

  7

  

When the next day Milred’s mother found him lying on the room’s wool rug, he was very afraid. And with good reason. The room was turned upside down. The cuddly toys were all scattered, the posters torn, and the broken television had fallen off the shelf.

– Milred, my son! Milred! – called the mother.

With wild eyes, as if he didn’t see her, the boy muttered a series of incomprehensible words that referred to a girl named Flor, whom her mother had never heard of. He went to get help.

By the time the doctor arrived, Milred was a little calmer. The doctor, who had known Milred for many years because he was the family doctor, noticed a broken game console and scattered boxes everywhere. He recalled certain articles he had read about video game abuse, which he had never taken very seriously so far.

– This guy is always very nervous. Care must be taken. Peaceful activities and rest is what I prescribe. There is nothing serious.

– Nothing serious? Stammered Milred. – That’s what it says! For me it was not, but for the…

He couldn’t even pronounce her name.

Sensible and obedient, he took all the medicines he was given. I didn’t need a doctor. I needed the old Chinese. As soon as he could leave, he went straight to the store, where he would find the key to the puzzle. When she reached the right street, she slowed her pace. The store had not changed. The lights were out and the windows were dirty, as usual. At the door, in black letters on a yellow background, someone had written:

  FOR SALE

  Sure, sure, he thought.

There was no explanation.

But would it need any? Jacques Venuleth The Boutique of the Vieux Chinois Paris, Hachette Jeunesse, 2003 (Translation and Adaptation)

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