Gravel – Anthony Statham

The boy chewed madly on his lip as his eyes fought to bug from their sockets while the elderly Chinese woman used meticulous care in removing the slivers of glass and other debris from his bloody wounds. His arm from wrist to shoulder was a messy labyrinth of grated, bloody lines. Rain had dumped from the sky in the early morning hours and then again in the afternoon, and he fell in the street. The boy had seen a dog and chased after it in hopes of patting its head. The result was a dastardly fall and a tumbling slide through the days collected trash. A beer bottle lay broken and shattered along the curb’s edge, not an intentionally venomous gift left for any lethal purpose – just dumb luck.

To say the glass ‘got him good,’ would be an understatement.

And so the mother watched the old Chinese woman delicately attended to her son. Though, it wasn’t her son’s gasps and groans that occupied the mother’s attention, but rather the shocking, gruesome scars that tracked up and down the old woman’s arms.

She scratched at the knuckle of her thumb, as was her habit when anxious, and asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if she wore long sleeves?”

The translator sat in the corner, undergoing her own fascination with the woman’s scars.

“I don’t know the ‘norm’ here, but where I’m from that would never fly. It’s unsettling.”

The son flinched and let out a yelp of pain. The mother lifted her wide butt and let it hover about an inch above the seat. “What’s she doing to him? She needs to be careful. This country, I swear.”

The old woman removed a long, angled piece of glass from the boys arm. He winced and shuddered, his gaze averted from the several gills of flesh made by the shards. The razor sharp glass glistened with sticky blood under the greenish light of the room. The old woman dropped it into the metal tray where it made a clink.

“Hello, Earth to China girl. Do you understand me?”

The translator spoke quietly, her voice a skillful reserve of calm. “I think it’s best not to distract her. For your child’s sake.”

The mother rested into her chair again. “Well, it’s still a little shocking. Maybe business would be better if everyone who came here didn’t have to see.”

Her son seemed to be on the verge of fainting, his face a pallid yellow.

However, the mother took no notice. “It’s rude, really, is what it is. How much does a sweatshirt cost?” She spoke to herself mostly, and then toward the small room, “What happened to her?”

The translator had been wondering the same thing. Her curiosity got the best of her and overpowered the general annoyance of the mother. She politely asked the old woman what happened, in Mandarin.

The old woman righted the glasses on the bridge of her small nose and gave her full attention to removing another sliver of glass. Then she set her metal tools in the bloody dish and cleaned the boy’s arm with a washcloth. His eyes were squeezed shut. She applied lotion to the nastier bits and when finished used a tissue to reach into a pocket and removed a lollipop which she then handed to the boy. He took it, the carnage temporarily forgotten, but before he could enjoy it his mother snatched it from his outstretched fingers and put it inside her purse.

“No candy for you, young man. Not after that stunt you pulled today.”

The old woman pushed away from the boy. The wheels on her little stool were loud with rust. She opened a drawer in the meager desk and removed a bag of bandage wrap. “When I was younger, still a woman, but younger than the woman you see before you, I lost my husband and daughter.”

The mother asked, “What did she say?”

“My family went to Badaling Safari World. Originally the plan was for my husband to take my daughter, one of their weekend outings. At the last moment I joined them. A friend had backed out of plans we had, so my day was free. The drive took a long time and by the time we arrived we were already exhausted and hot. All of us as a family were irritable. I sensed it was my presence that changed the mood.”

She pushed her stool toward the boy and gestured for him to sit again.

“The heat was excruciating. It was the dead of summer during a heat wave. Now that we were there it seemed my daughter had no interest at all in seeing animals. We drove past several areas where there were supposed to be animals but they were all in hiding, probably from the unbearable heat. My daughter was very cranky. At noon we stopped at a rest area for snacks. My husband stayed behind claiming it was too hot. My daughter was inside the shop before I was even out of the car. When I walked into the store she avoided eye contact with me, which was odd. The store didn’t have vanilla ice cream, so my daughter threw a fit and stormed out into the sun. She was livid like only a child can become when they don’t get their way. But I could tell something else was bothering her. Regardless, I was embarrassed and went outside to confront her for the behavior. I asked her how she would feel if her father knew the way she was acting. She scoffed at the mention of his name and said something under her breath. My husband had been watching us and he turned away as soon as I looked at him.” She unspooled the bandage and began to wrap the boy’s arm.

“What is she talking about? What’s wrong? Did her disgusting tools have bacteria on them and she’s just now bringing it up?” The mother asked.

“Eventually we got back in the car and continued the tour. My daughter was still angry and the air conditioner was giving fits. I tried to console her but it only made her angrier, which began to challenge my own temperament. The more I tried to appeal to her decency the further along she went, growing like a burning forest – until she erupted. She climbed out of the car and slammed the door. We were warned several times not to get out of the car. They told us over and over again when we paid. But I only remember thinking how odd it was that my husband was listening to American rock and roll and utterly avoiding the situation unfolding right before him. I hadn’t noticed until the door slammed and my daughter was not in the car.” Her eyes glazed slightly, trapped in memory. “The only thing I could think to do was roll the window down and demand she get back in the car immediately. So I did just that, but she refused. She stood in the sun, her shoes crunching in the gravel at the edge of the road. I raised my voice and told her to get back in the car right now. She stormed off. My husband ignored both of us. He looked ahead at the empty road. I had to get out of the car and go after her.”

“This is ridiculous. What could she possibly be telling you?” The mother took the lollipop from her purse and put it in her mouth, then spoke to her son for the first time, “What did she smear on you? Does it smell? Can you read the label? So help me God if it’s some kind of ridiculous ‘Ancient secret’.” The boy looked at his mother with a pitiful, expectant expression. “The juju crap these people believe in.”

The old woman continued, “I followed my daughter, scolding her as she walked along the road toward a shaded tree line. She turned finally and yelled at me with tears streaming down her cheeks, and I had never seen her so furious. Her eyes burned into me with something more than anger, it was the purest rage. I was consumed by confusion. She told me I didn’t know anything about my own husband and that he… he’d leave me to be with her. She said that she wasn’t a virgin anymore and that he loved her. She said I was in the way – I was always in the way. But I had no time to comprehend any of it, how I felt. I relive the moment everyday but it’s no use because that’s when I saw it.”

The translator asked, “Saw what?” She was almost off her stool now, leaning forward in a clutch of curiosity.

The mother interjected, “Oh, it speaks! I thought maybe you’d gone mute and dumb. Are you going to tell me what she is saying?”

“What did you see?” Asked the translator.

The old woman lifted the boy’s arm and wrapped from his elbow to shoulder. He gritted his teeth as a light blush of pink exposed itself through the wrap.

The mother pointed at the little splotch. “Be careful!”

“A tiger appeared from the tree line. It was surreal. I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. We hadn’t seen any animals all day and now there it was. It hunched its head so low I could only see its shoulders, these jagged points cutting through the grass. My daughter must have seen the sudden change in my face and mistook it for heartbreak. Her face contorted into… a mask of hatred. She told me I deserved it.” She paused to clear her throat. “The tiger moved forward, silent and horrifying. All that I could hear was the thumping of its paws in the grass and my heart pulsing in my ears. I ran toward my daughter, my body operating on instinct, the need to protect what I had brought into the world. My daughter turned her head to look and the tiger overtook us.” The old woman swiped her hand through the air.

The mother flinched. “What’s wrong with her? Is she having some kind of fit?” She grabbed the boy and pulled him toward her. “Is she dangerous? Does she wear a bracelet that tells us any special medication she’s on?”

The old woman spoke quietly. “The tiger raked its massive claws across my daughter’s back. She fell forward and screamed. I don’t know how to describe the sound. Next I felt a blinding sensation, my vision temporarily white. When I opened my eyes all I saw was blood.” She touched the scars on her right arm. “We tried to run but it was little use, the tiger kept batting at us.” She touched the other scars. “My husband was in the car. I heard him yelling to us through the open passenger door. He said, ‘Hurry! Hurry!’ but he never came to help us. When we reached the road the tiger was basically on top of us. We were only feet from the open car door. My daughter fell down and as I reached to grab her I slipped in the gravel. I fell hard and hit my head on the rocks. The gravel was wet and sticky with our blood. The tiger had too much momentum and it ran over me. I heard a noise. It was loud like a car crash, broken glass and creaking steel. I heard my husband screaming. I tried to look up to see him but I was too disoriented. The tiger was in the car. Its legs were half-out of the open door, kicking frantically. The car tipped and rocked. ” She touched the wounds in her arm. “I didn’t feel these at the time.”

“He’s still bleeding” The mother snapped her fingers in front of the translators face. “If she focused a little more on the task at hand instead of talking incessantly-”

The translator snapped, “Be quiet.”

“I could smell the tiger. It smelled like grass and wood smoke and iron and copper. It kicked again and again and its claws ripped at me. I tried to summon the strength to slam the door on it, to somehow get the beast into the car and away from me. But I couldn’t do anything. I was crippled by panic and in shock. I could barely move and I had no feeling in my arms. I remember thinking how odd it was to see my own bones through my skin. My husband was screaming and screaming until he suddenly just stopped and all I heard was the music. It was so loud the speakers were distorting. The tiger kept bucking the car and making these ungodly snarling noises. The windshield cracked with each repeated blow. My vision kept fading in and out and as I was falling into unconsciousness I heard sirens tear through the air and the hammering footfalls of the Park Services. I gathered every ounce of strength and crawled through the bloody gravel to my daughter. I called her name but she gave no response. There was so much blood, more blood than I’d ever seen. I reached my hand out and touched her face and he last thing I remember was thinking I was looking at myself at her age.” She paused for a breath and then continued, “A major artery had been severed in her leg. I learned that later in the hospital. The tiger knew where to strike… or it was just luck- bad luck. I don’t know.”

The translator let out her breath. She didn’t know how long she’d been holding it for.

The mother pretended to examine the bandage job as if she might know a good wrap

job from a bad one. “He’s still bleeding. Look, here and here.”

The old woman raised her head. “He will scar. They won’t be awful like mine but they’ll show.” Her eyes glistened with wetness, the twisting pain of memory.

“What did she say? The mother stood up from her chair and pulled her son to her side. “Do we need any ointment or anything? What was it that she put on him?”

The translator was silent.

“If you’re going to ignore us as if we’re not here then we’re going to leave. And I don’t think I should pay. She didn’t stop the bleeding.”

The translator looked at the old woman’s scars and wondered how anyone could live with such violent, literal reminders of a loss like that. Without diverting her gaze she brushed the mother and son away with a limp hand. “Go, your son is fine.”


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