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Bao Hu sat in darkness, waiting. His cave was always silent, at first. Next to the entrance, a giant redwood tree grew. It’s only because of it that Bao Hu always found it, day after day. He was wrapped in a simple coat and a rifle sat nested on his knees. At first, the only thing he could hear were the murmurings of the Yangtze outside the cave, but as time was passing, he began to hear other things. The dripping of some waterfall deeper in the cavern, the sound of wings brushing against each other, the sound of mice biting into a pomelo fruit. He was not alone, he realized, when he heard the subtle breathing of hundreds of creatures waking up around him. It was a realization that he had every morning – he was not alone. The speckles of moonlight on the cavern walls became holy candles to him, his rifle a staff and he himself, a monk in this monastery of rodents. But he wasn’t a monk, he remembered, as the moonlight was disappearing, and the sun began to replace it – he was a hunter, and he didn’t come here to pray.
It wasn’t long before the entire cavern was bathed in sunlight, and Bao Hu could finally see the ceiling. It looked pitch black at first, a dark river flowing above his head, but then he noticed the wings and the noses poking out. The bats were still sleeping, he had to do it now. Bao Hu raised his rifle over his head, closed his eyes, and fired.
The rifle jolted backward, plunging into his knee, hurting him, the echoes of the gunshot bouncing of the walls. What came next was even louder – the bats, they all screamed at once, scratching each other as they tried to escape the cave. Bao Hu threw himself onto the floor, covering his head with his jacket, as a maelstrom of bats passed above him, the sound of their wings was the beating of some demonic drum coming from deep inside the cave. Bao Hu thought he had woken the Devil himself.
But before he could be truly scared, the bats were gone, gone into the December morning, looking like nothing more than pidgeons from a distance. As Bao Hu rose to collect himself, a single bat fell to his feat, stretched out and bleeding.
That is when he first saw them – at first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Small humanlike beings, dressed in mandarin robes, walked from the shadows. Their raceless faces showed only solace, as they gathered around the dead bat. Speaking strange tongues, Bao Hu was unsure whether they muttered a prayer or a curse.
„May dragons fly for this one“, was the only thing he understood. Then, as quicky as they came, they vanished, and Bao Hu was almost certain that they have never appeared. It was still early morning, his mind was restless.
He grabbed it and put it inside a bag. Then, calmly, he walked out of the cave, into the morning light.
The bag hanging loosely over his shoulder, he made his way down a steep slope that led to the banks of the Yangtze. He sat under the giant redwood tree to rest for a bit, it was one of the last in the area, overgrown with highways and rails, which were, as of yet, silent. In front of him, the Yangtze river was waking, small sampans started to appear on its waters, the fishermen lazily pushed their oars into the river, propelling their tiny boats forward, towards the marketplace of Wuhan, where they would try to sell their fish. Bao Hu felt sorry for them since they were no match for the larger fishing companies – their armadas patrolling the South China seas, catching more fish in a day than these people would in their lifetimes.
‘Here they come’, Bao Hu thought to himself, as a large fishing junk came steaming out of the morning fog. Spewing black smoke it took up half the river, making the canoes move out of its way. The redness of the sails was all to clear to anyone who saw them, indicating that even though they were private companies, with connections all over southeast Asia, their allegiance was still with the People’s Communist Party of China. This was one of the many ironies that Bao Hu would witness today.
By noon, he reached Wuhan, the blue tents of the marketplace were seen from afar, as were the smells and the sounds of distant haggling. It was a maze of tents and cages, filthy dark restaurants and chop shops, and the odour became thicker and heavier the deeper he went. There was a man sitting on the street, beautiful turqoise turtle shells stacked next to him, like bricks. There were reptile rooms, where snakes hanged, opened up, from the ceiling. Huge rooms where wild Persian monkeys shared cages and faiths with common rats of Wuhan. There were the pools where the mouths of crocodiles were shut with bolts of steel, and plastic pots where crimson crabs walked around. There was a room with a giant birdcage surrounded by merchants drunk on rice-spirits. It was moving with yellow and Bao Hu’s eyes grew wide as he recognized the creatures within – yellow songbirds, perhaps the rarest in all of China.
They were all food for a hungry nation.
There were small hunters like himself, people with no knowledge but the knowledge of the locations where beasts gathered. There were farmers and street men, villagers from the Yangtze basin or the affluent citizens of Shanghai itself. They owned the clothes on their backs, or whole corporations, but regardless of that, they all shared the need for what was found, slaughtered and traded here. In the most horrible of ways, the whole of China was here.
Then, Bao Hu found what he was looking for. A small indoor restaurant with a flashing neon light. He walked in passing through a crowded dining area and into the kitchen. There, a large man was standing over a giant couldron with a sign that said ‘Wu Shin’s Dragon Soup’. The second irony was that there weren’t actually any dragons inside. Really it consisted of various vegetables, sauces and additions, but the main ingredient were bats. Bao Hu handed the man his bag, and received around 500 yuan. His bat was then torn apart, his skin peeled off, wings clipped and burned, and his headless body thrown into the sizzling cauldron of Wu Shin’s dragon soup.
Before he left, he turned one last time, and saw Wu Shin caughing into the cauldron. Probably just a cold, he thought, and left. A week later, the West celebrated the New Year’s Eve of 2020, and Wu Shin’s dragons flew around the world.
Fran Kušan Munjin, 4.e