Fiction / December 2017 (Issue 38: Writing Hong Kong)

Stolen Kidney

by Hon Lai Chu, translated from Chinese into English by Andrea Lingenfelter

Everybody knew W by the way he walked, like the letter "Z".

Actually, it wasn't just his gait, that distinctive way of moving, that set him apart from the crowd. There was also the process he used to cultivate and cook his food. Some people said he understood soil and food, while others said he could see inside people to their organs and viscera and spot what was missing. Others still said that he was a scheming politician whose plan was to gain people's faith in order to bamboozle them, and that his ultimate goal was not just merely to capture people's hearts but also to obtain land rights. The agriculture class he started had used education as a vehicle for planting seeds in people's brains and was a poker-faced declaration of war on landowners.

"In any case, he belonged to that minority of people who look like the letter Z when they walk." Even among those who had serious misgivings about W's ongoing efforts to win people over, the moment someone brought up W's idiosyncratic gait, there would ensue a pregnant and admiring silence. This place had never before seen anyone who could walk down the street with such conviction. By this I mean that practically everybody else had chosen the same way of walking, ramrod straight and speeding along as if chasing a gazelle. Sometimes I really wish I knew why they all rush around like they're in a walking race, when there's nothing in front of them but a vague landscape—either a cluster of bobbing heads, or else a bunch of utterly expressionless windows atop some piece of architecture.

There were people who went so far as to say that W was a god, particularly those who'd eaten the food he cooked. Adopting a playful tone, they would reveal something that no one else dared admit: not whether or not they thought W possessed greater abilities than ordinary people, but rather that they were just too exhausted to give serious thought to anything and were thus easily captivated by anyone or anything with a tinge of the occult.

"If he's not a god, then why won't my palate let me forget him?" T, who had fallen into a vortex of depression after visiting W's restaurant, told me this at a group meal. By that point, T had become as spindly as the last barren limb of winter.

Sometimes I too yearned to close my eyes for a moment and let those people's words waft around inside my head.


"You should eat a lot," W said to me. His tone was hard to resist. In the restaurant (which was actually W's house, as he'd remodeled his home into an establishment that offered food to the public), sunlight had climbed up to fill all of the window and was eyeing us so hungrily and greedily that it threatened to see right through our skin. Apart from me, there were no other customers. W said that most people eat quantities in excess of what they need, but the more they eat, the more famished they feel, and their stomachs feel like bottomless pits. "On the other hand, people who refuse to eat experience a growing sense of fullness, and they no longer need connections or interactions with the outside world. Ultimately, food is simply a bridge that links us to the outside world," W said.

I told him I wasn't there for a cure. "I'm just curious about the food you cook." I was looking for a tactful way to keep him from going on and on about his theories.

But he was undeterred and pressed on with an endless stream of detailed explications of the key points of his ideas. It wasn't until long after that I realised that this patter had been part of the menu he'd designed for me, and it didn't matter whether I liked it or not. I'd made a reservation, and guided by the principle that one doesn't waste food, I would consume it all.

"If you want your food to be truly digested inside your body, it's not enough for you simply to eat it." He continued: "You must simultaneously be food yourself and be ingested into someone else's stomach. In this way, you and the person who consumes you will both be nourished."

"Yes, but if I've been eaten, wouldn't I disappear? I wouldn't be me anymore."

I sensed the absurdity of what W was saying, but I wanted to preserve the polite atmosphere. It seemed that this was the only way to keep everything around us from imploding.

"No, that won't happen," he reassured me with a smile. "Everyone who's been eaten will become an even better person." When he smiled, his eyes looked like a pair of fish floating on his face, but before long they swam off in another direction.


Closing my eyes didn't have any effect on real life, though sometimes it did bring me a sort of happiness. Every now and then, when I was riding the bus to W's restaurant, I'd run into friends who had known me a long time, and they would all say I'd changed, that I looked like an apple, newly fallen from a tree and not yet spoiled, but gleaming in a way suggesting that little flies might soon emerge from its shiny surface. I thought this was because I could hold to some simple beliefs, which firmly repressed whatever thoughts might have brought everything down.

Each time I went to the restaurant was time spent alone with W. He would close all the windows and pull down all the blinds so that we couldn't see the shifting light and shadows, and time seemed to stand still. Clouds of aromatic steam filled that white house: a vat of chicken soup that had simmered overnight; a platter of tomatoes, basil and potatoes; a tureen of chestnut, thin dried tofu rolls and braised pork ribs; grouper steamed with ginger and scallions; or perhaps tofu braised with fennel. "Your deficiency is in your liver. As a result, you get stuck for long periods in these gloomy funks," he said. I told him repeatedly that this was not true, that I was usually quite cheerful and upbeat, but I gradually stopped arguing, because disputes would have frittered away what little light remained in that room.

When we had eaten all the food on the table, W would take me into a dark room. It was as quiet as the airless depths at the bottom of the sea. Then he would suck on me like a fish, which made me feel as though I truly was a blade of sea grass or a branch of coral waving in the current.

After the time reserved for lunch had passed, he would see me to the bus stop, always with these words: "You're not missing anything, right?" I would smile in assent. I couldn't possibly tell him, or perhaps it was difficult for me to admit to myself that I was weakening, and that my frailness was exceedingly close to pure joy. If I could just lie in bed and not get up, I would eventually turn into a pile of dry bones, which would nourish the soil.


They brought me to the hospital, and when I woke up, the doctor asked me: "When did you lose your left kidney?"

"You couldn't find my left kidney?" I finally recognised something I thought had happened to someone else.

"Did you donate it?"

"Not that I remember," I said. My lips were getting chapped.

So I gave W a call, and before I could say a word, he asked me when I was going to come to his restaurant again. He was very hungry, he said, and he couldn't last much longer.

"Why did you steal my kidney?" I knew that if I didn't find out exactly what had happened, I would never again be able to eat anything he cooked.

"Because you wouldn't have given it to me voluntarily," he confessed. "In the course of their life, every stingy person is bound to run into at least one thief." He laughed smugly, as if ever so pleased with his turn of phrase.

I put down the phone and pressed it to my heart. After a while it had warmed up.

From then on, whenever I felt like telling someone about my missing kidney, without realising it I would start walking like the letter Z, but I wasn't the only person walking that way. When I opened my eyes, I saw grey specks floating in the air, a seashore blanketed with discarded objects, a sky like a gigantic cage and a beggar willingly cutting off his own limbs. I also saw that at busy times of day, there were people walking like Z's on every street.


At the end of my sick leave, I returned to the office. Lowering my voice, I asked the coworker at the neighbouring desk: "When did it all start to happen around here, these changes, including changes in how people walk?"

My colleague gave me a meaningful smile: "It's always been like this here, nothing's changed at all." With that he turned away and buried his head in a pile of documents. The room was swollen with the sound of fingertips tapping on keyboards, and the sound was like a wall, rising rapidly from the ground until it reached the sky.
































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