Wing Tek Lum

                              The Butcher

            There are many joys in living here,
            And just to see it through is something gained. --T'ao Ch'ien

Half of the top bunk is his,
that is he takes the night shift
sharing it with a late-night short-order cook
who cares for nothing,
not even a sweet bed to call his own.
The butcher does not have much more,
just what he wears or is in his pockets
and what he has saved in his small tin trunk
sealed and scented with camphor—
a second set of clothes and shoes
for festival days and funerals,
his ID papers, an IOU and a little cash,
a stack of letters, two or three photographs
and two or three clippings,
a pressed flower,
and a gold chain for the watch he once wore.
The room is small and spare
littered near the windowsill with cigarette butts
where his cousin, the oldtimer, always sits
reading the daily papers
or a broadside on revolution in the old country.
His cousin who occupies the lower bunk
never likes to go out
and with the bathroom down the hall
and a bar and grill on the ground floor
delivering dinner up to him
at the same time every night
it seems like he never does.
But the butcher loves the streets
or where the streets may take him.
Often he dines at the family clubhouse
bringing vegetables or a small fish from the docks
to share with those who have come in
from the country or another island
and need a place to stay
and fellow members and relatives to chat with.
Many remain after dinner to play dominoes or cards
but the butcher just watches
preferring to exchange a bit of lore or gossip
with the families who drop by
to pray to the Great Aunt in the front hall.
Whenever an opera troupe or an orator comes to town
the butcher is sure to attend.
Fire or flood relief drives
can consume his spare time,
and if a clansman dies
he will join in the collection.
When he returns to his room
the butcher sleeps soundly without dreams
in spite of the after-work rehearsals
of the music society next door.
At dawn he awakes to the rooster crows
that punctuate each back courtyard and alleyway.
For breakfast he lingers over
his usual freshly squeezed orange juice
and rice with ham
at the corner coffee shop;
it is named after an ancient palace
and he tells the counterman with a smile
that his is as close to one
as he would ever choose to get.
As he leaves, the cashier often goes over
the almanac predictions for the day.
The butcher has never believed in destiny
but is too polite to say so;
he waits until he is out of sight
before he shrugs his shoulders.
On his way to work he passes an old banyan
where he recalls on an earlier morning
in the slanting sunlight
he saw a woman with a thin nose
and hair as pale as lightning
who looked like a girl
he might have married.
The owner opening up his store
always nods to him with deference.
The first customers arrive
as they set out the barbeque loin and roast pork
on hangers near the chopping block
that the owner will man.
The owner also collects the cash
leaving the butcher to work the second block
which is reserved for raw meat.
With his fat cleaver
he chops, carves, slices, minces, and trims.
Soon he is surrounded
by curly intestines and lumps of tongue,
the glutinous feet, slabs of spareribs,
pork chop, pork loin, pork butt,
pork belly, kidney, and liver.
He sells to the big restaurant facing the river,
the temple next to the chicken coops,
a few wives carrying their children,
the grocery store owner, the bald tailor,
and the letter writer who never stops talking.
Sometimes the kerosene peddler will curse him
for leaving too much fat.
Sometimes the barber will bring over
a can of soy bean milk as a gift.
He sharpens his knife when business is slow.
He remembers the sage's admonition
that to preserve the blade
the cook must seek the play
between the joints in the bones.

Wing Tek Lum, Bamboo Ridge: Journal of Hawai'i Literature and Arts, #52, 1991.