A coin clinked into the plastic container wedged between his thighs. Grasshopper nodded his head in thanks vigorously as the man strode away, leaving a trail of dust behind. It stung his eyes but it was good because it made his eyes red and watery, and people tended to give more when they thought he was crying.
Business was good on some days. However it was a struggle to even collect 20 yuan on others. Foreigners were the best. They would take pictures of him, a young boy clad in scraps of discarded clothes, malnourished and deformed, sitting along the sides of the busy street. When business was bad, he would pose for the photos too, spreading his toothless mouth into a grimace and pulling off the blanket to show his absent feet. They would always pay for the photo with extra coins they had, sometimes even with a note or two.
It was way past midnight before the van came. He poured the coins into a pouch slung over his neck and used his hands to drag himself to the van across the cobbled street. The neon lights blurred as he lurched forward, his thighs rattling on the cobblestones. He had to be fast or the van would leave without him, another forgotten waif huddled under rags in a row of homeless bodies, like tombstones in a concrete cemetery.
He could still remember how life was like with legs. The moist grass beneath his feet as he ran in the yard, paddling in a pool while a halo of air held him afloat, curling his legs amidst the tangle of blankets on his bed. In dribs and drabs, the memories would come back to him, ephemeral scenes that dissolved as he tried to grab hold of them.
They hauled him into the van and took the pouch of coins. Rat face counted the coins and smiled in approval. Perhaps he would get extra gruel today. The new boy sitting opposite him was whimpering but he would stop crying soon. His arm still bled from the stitches and his left eye oozed pus every now and then. He would have told him that it was good for business, to have pus and blood but he doubted the boy would understand his grunts. New Boy was dressed in city clothes the day they brought him in. He had overheard Nurse saying something about him having too little blood. Perhaps that was why they only took one arm and an eye.
That night, he slept next to New Boy in the room they all shared. There were eleven heads in the room and around twice the number of limbs shared amongst them. Roach was the first to become completely limbless. Rat face had said that it was good for business but realized it took too much work to lug roach onto the streets and back so the rest could keep their remaining limbs.
As moonlight filtered through the jagged cracks in the splintering roof, it illuminated the heap of children huddled together, deformed limbs twitching and lips stretched into rare smiles as they fell asleep. It was the only time their minds could wander to better places, to the ethereal memories and sweet release that only dreams had the power to give. They clutched each other with their maimed bodies, the only familiar things in their world of undeserved desolation and cruelty. New Boy’s eyes rolled beneath his eyelids as he watched a firework display with his mum. Roach grunted as he picked his way through the meadow of untamed grass towards his farmhouse. Grasshopper had the widest smile on his face as he remembered a woman in white, singing in that beautiful voice of hers as she danced in the rain while he watched and clapped with his stubby hands, like an angel in a wide expanse of falling stars.
The next day, they took his other eye. It fell to Grasshopper to bring New Boy around the den, one lurching on two hands, and the other lurching around blind. The weeks passed and the bleeding stopped, but the whimpering did not. While the whimpers annoyed the others, Grasshopper enjoyed keeping company with New Boy as it made him feel important and useful again. Perhaps there was also satisfaction at being a tad more superior and senior than the other boy. The two boys slowly became inseparable and a brotherhood formed between the two boys who had lost everything they once had.
The day New Boy started speaking, everybody crowded around him to listen. He was one of the few who could still speak with proper words and as he was older than the others, he could still remember his life before they took his eyes. New Boy said his real name was Shao Lun and he was from Beijing. His brother was kidnapped when he was young and his father turned to alcohol and gambling. His father borrowed heavily from the loan sharks who harassed their family when he was unable to repay his debt. However, one day his dad treated the family to a nice restaurant and told them that he had managed to repay his debts by starting a business and even asked Shao Lun along on a business trip. The business meeting took place in a pub and his dad had gone into a room to speak with his business partners while he waited in the adjoining room. That was when some men had grabbed him and pulled him into a van parked outside. He said his father did not hear him shouting for help, as the music was too loud.
Grasshopper liked listening to the New Boy’s stories, as he had never known a life outside begging. He listened in rapture as he talked about the family he had, the streets in Beijing, the food he used to eat, the brother he lost when he was little. Sometimes, he would even sing for Grasshopper, the same song the woman in his dreams sang while dancing in the rain.
Grasshopper could still remember how he met Rat Face. He was with his mother when it happened. It was raining and his mum was singing to him for he was afraid of thunderstorms. They were in a city mall to pick out a present for his birthday. He could still remember the faint scent of his mum’s perfume as she crouched next to him, caressing his head and humming while the storm raged outside the mall. He could remember the jostling crowd as people rushed for cover within the cramped confines of the mall, the smell of their cloying sweat mingling with the musty stench of the rain. That was when a man bumped into his mother and Rat Face appeared to pull him away into a nearby stairwell. Something was stuffed over his mouth, burning him as he tried to call for help. The next thing he remembered was the darkness and pain as Nurse stood over him, gloved hands covered in blood. He had been strapped to a table, splinters digging into his arms. That was when he recognized the shoes on the bloody stumps next to him and he realized he could never walk again.
When Rat Face first started sending New Boy out to collect coins, Grasshopper was made to beg on the street opposite to keep an eye out for the blind boy. It was bad for business as the coin was split but he did not mind. There was once, when he had dropped his coins into a nearby ditch, New Boy had split his coins with him so that Rat Face did not whip him for not collecting enough. They both did not have food that night but at least he did not have to sleep on his stomach while his back wept red tears.
One night, before they slept, New Boy showed him a pile of coins he had kept in the rags that bound his elbow where they had removed his hand. He said that he was saving enough to escape. Everyday, he kept one more coin in his rags. He probably did not realize that he would not be able to hide away enough coins to buy a ticket to Beijing and moreover, how would he read the train signs when he was blind. He did not say anything though, as all he could do was grunt.
Business was good the day he saw his mum. It was a cloudy day, close to the New Year so the streets were crowded. Lights twinkled from every surface in hues of red, orange and yellow. Makeshift stores cluttered the streets, with storeowners screaming their wares at people squeezing past. Children crowded around whirling displays of toys while the adults sampled treats that shopkeepers promised was made from pure beef. It was amongst all the chaos and disorder that he saw her. Like a lone, white island surrounded by the fiery sea of red, she was standing at a stall, long hair fluttering in the wind, in the same dress she wore the day they got separated. She looked the same as she did seven years ago. He stared at her from across the road, his mind an uncomprehending mess, as he froze in shock while tears welled up in an unbidden surge of emotions.
He started crawling across the street to her, weaving between legs, which quickly got out of the way of the mutilated child crawling across the street. He lost sight of her for a moment and panicked, heart pounding, before seeing her again, at another stall selling umbrellas. He tried calling out, but all that came out was a gurgle as his toothless mouth tried to form the words. New Boy, he could still speak. He started lurching forward with more intensity, towards the blind boy sitting at the curb.
He tried to tell the blind boy that he had seen his mother but he did not understand his words. He just asked if the day had ended. She was slowly walking away, never once looking at the two boys on the street. In desperation, he tried throwing the coins he had at her, but it fell short. People were starting to take notice of the anxious boy without legs though, and the children were squealing in excitement at the unexpected wealth falling from the sky. In desperation, he ripped off the rags on New Boy’s hand, letting his saved coins spill out in a foul mixture of blood, pus and corroded metal. He grabbed a handful of coins and threw it in her direction as people started surrounding them, blocking out the sight of her.
That was when New Boy started punching him as he groaned and moaned with all his strength. It was Rat Face who pulled them apart and carried him back to the van as it started to rain. Blood mingled with his tears as he looked across the mass of heaving bodies to see his mum one last time, holding the hand of another little boy and staring at him, not a hint of recognition on her face. That was the last image he remembered, as he was strapped to the wooden table back at the Rat’s den. It was the image seared into his mind as Nurse poured burning liquid into his eyes. And he would always remember, hearing her over the rain as Rat Face carried him away, her sweet voice singing in that melody he remembered, Rain, Rain, go Away.