Translated from the Chinese by Alice Xin Liu

 
When I worked at the Hongyi Public Security Bureau, I liked to strip down to my shorts and go wash in the river. I was getting ready to wade in one day when I saw my colleague Zhou dragging a skinny guy towards the station. He called to me: ‘Stop what you’re doing, I’ve caught the guy! He says he knows kung fu.’

I washed off and went back to the station. The crime was stealing dried sweet potato and cured meat. Not a serious offense, but not his first, either – he was always eating other people’s food – and we’d gone all the way to Changken Village to bring him back. We’d known even before we went that he was an orphan, had many surrogate mothers and fathers, and not a pot to piss in.

A while ago, he’d disappeared for a few months. Ever since his return, he’d been calling himself ‘a master.’

‘So you’re a master?’

My question made him tremble. He got on his knees and begged. We’d brought him here to teach him a lesson, and after that we’d planned to release him, but out of nowhere a wave of cruelty came over us, and in a fit of passion we wanted to torture him.

‘Show us a move if you’re a master,’ Zhou said. So the thief slapped his left wrist with his right hand, took a deep breath of air, spread his legs and sat down in mid-air. We laughed instantly. His legs shook uncontrollably. Zhou went over, put his hands on the guy’s shoulders and pushed down, the way trainers used to do at the police academy. I went over and aimed a kick at his butt. I said: ‘A good student remembers this is how the move’s done.’

He fell to the ground before I finished talking. We laughed even harder. A moment later, he stood back up in earnest, put both his arms up and then sat down in mid-air again. I was feeling awkward by this point, so I said: ‘Do you know anything else?’

‘I know some Bone Shrinking.’

We were ecstatic. We trapped his hand in between two desks and told him to slip it out. He made sounds of pain, but he did it. We tried it ourselves, and realized we could do it too. That didn’t count. So we had him try to slip out of a pair of handcuffs, which he couldn’t. He claimed he didn’t have the energy today. ‘I need to meditate,’ he said. ‘If you don’t let me meditate for half an hour, it won’t come out.’ We thought this was a joke, so we cuffed him to the railing outside the table-tennis room on the second floor, locked the door and went to get food. When we put the cuffs on, Zhou said: ‘Oh, he’s a master, and he knows Bone Shrinking, so he’ll shrink.’ When we tightened the cuffs, he yowled with pain.

After we were done eating we played cards and then looked for folks to play chess before remembering the petty thief. We’d made up our minds to let him go, but when we got there we saw only a pair of handcuffs. So we set off as if he was a real criminal. We decided there were only four ways he could have gone, and split into four groups to look for him. We ran until we were out of breath, but didn’t see a trace. When we headed back, heads drooping, we saw people gathered outside of the station, all looking up at the sky and pointing.

The idiot was standing on a ledge between the first and second floors, shaking madly.

‘Come down!’

‘I’m afraid.’

‘What’re you afraid of?’

‘I’ll fall and die.’

The petty thief had slipped his hands out of his cuffs, escaped through the window into the director’s office, hidden there until he realized that we had gone after him, then tried to climb down to the ground. We found a ladder to help him get down, slapped him a few times and let him go.

 

Extracted from Guaren by A Yi.

Photograph by Steve Evans

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