Inside a Worker’s Work Shed, a Tale of Mice and Men
Editor’s note: In “A Constellation of Laborers” published in 2022, nine workers interested in literature wrote about their work, lives, and aspirations. Guo Fulai was a farmer in his home province of Hebei, before moving to Beijing to look for work. He now works in event installations, and has published his works in the magazine Beijing Literature.
I have been working in an urban village in Beijing for almost six months. Surprisingly, what stands out to me most during this period are the mice that shared our quarters with us.
Our main work involves building stages and various iron frames for an event installation company. During the week, more than ten workers will crowd into a small shed, which serves as our temporary home. Outside the door are two rows of tall and thick poplar trees. When the breeze blows, every leaf waves to the people on the street, but they all rush by without paying any attention. No one notices us in the shed beside the road.
The shed is provided free of charge by the company, and it is decent to live in, or at least it shelters us from the wind and rain, and you can eat and sleep there.
Rest times are dull. Since we all come from different places and are only barely acquainted, we have little to say to each other. There is no television or computer in the shed, and we don’t go out on the streets since we’re short of cash. During breaks, we all just sit around.
After dinner one evening in March 2015, with nothing to do, we sat on the sides of beds and halfheartedly tried to talk with each other. Suddenly, Bian Chen shushed us. He pointed to a bucket by the door, where a mouse about six centimeters long half-circled the bucket, then jumped to the edge of it, and then bent down to lap up some water.
In the sunset, its gray hair glowed and its slender tail swung upward like a whip about to lash. After drinking a few mouthfuls, it looked up. Its small eyes, like black peas, quickly glanced at us, alert. Seeing us not move at all, it bent down to drink more.
Li Bingqian couldn’t watch anymore — maybe he was troubled that the water in the bucket was what we used to wash ourselves. He raised his foot, but before the word “go” could get out and his foot came crashing down, the mouse had already dexterously jumped off the bucket’s edge and ran under the bed.
Now, we had something to talk about. We talked about our experiences with, and interesting stories about, mice. When it was my turn, I told them about the mice that performed acrobatics in Wuqiao, my hometown in Hebei.
An acrobat used a long, thin wooden stick to rhythmically signal to them. The small white mice would sniff and look around, obediently following the route designated by their master. They would climb up the edge of some wood, climb over a bamboo curtain, go into a maze, and then jump onto a spinning wheel.
After running in one direction for a while, a small bucket of water was raised to drinking height. As the mice jumped towards it and attempted to drink, the bucket would drop. Then, water would be brought up again, and when the mice wanted to drink again, the bucket would drop again. This funny show always made audiences laugh.
As soon as I finished, Bian Chen said, in anticipation, “Why don’t we catch a mouse, so that we can train it? It will give us something to do after work, and it might even be fun. What do you all think?”
Li Bingqian shouted out first: “How are we going to go about that? Mice are dirty. If you see them every day, you’ll lose your appetite.”
Liu Yuanzhong chimed in, “I think it’s a good idea. I’ll make a trap to lure a mouse, but of course, we need to catch it alive.”
At last, eight votes were in favor, one vote against, and two abstained. The resolution to catch a mouse passed.
Using a wire cage that we built, we actually did catch a small mouse. Its thin, weak body jumped here and there. Sometimes it even bit at the wire cage.
Bian Chen sighed, “Boy, the mice in Beijing really are beautiful.”
Li Bingqian said, sarcastically, “How do you know these are Beijing mice, anyway? It’s not like they carry ID cards.”
Liu Yuanzhong echoed: “That’s right. These days, Beijing and China even have webworm moths that came from America and AIDS that came from Africa. Not to mention those clever mice so good at drilling holes they can take a bus, a boat, or an underground tunnel. They are much more capable than us migrant workers from the countryside.”
Bian Chen spoke up: “Anyway, I like this little mouse. I’ve decided to hang the cage by my bed. It can keep me company.”
Liu Yuanzhong: “Well, maybe this is an unmarried female mouse. Be careful not to be seduced.”
Li Bingqian retorted, “Whatever its gender, it’s a different species. I wonder about your taste — you like anything!”
I had to speak up and meditate: “You obviously haven’t read “Liaozhai” (or “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio,” a collection of classical Chinese, mostly supernatural stories by Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling). It has a lot to say about foxes and scholars falling in love and getting married.”
We didn’t expect that every day after work we’d have something to look forward to. Opening the door, we didn’t chat like we used to, but slowly crept to the rear of the shed to see what was happening in the cage.
We found that there was always another mouse of around the same size accompanying the mouse in the cage when we weren’t in the room. One person suggested we should catch it too and put them together. Another said to just let the mouse out of the cage and let it return to the free world.
Liu Yuanzhong shouted out: “Did you notice how that mouse traveled so far and hard just to be with this one? Look, it started in a pile of sand by the western corner of the bed of Zhu Shibin from Gansu province, passed by the territory of Zhou Kui from Henan province, turned under the bed of Guo Fulai from Hebei province, and then went to the place of Bian Chen from Shijiazhuang. The wire cage is like Beijing Railway Station. It couldn’t have been easy. I don’t know how many roads it runs down every day just to see this mouse it likes. I agree we should let it go.”
Bian Chen shouted, “No! I’m not ready yet.”
Soon afterwards, the company asked us to go to Suzhou to work for a few days. When we got back, we noticed that the mouse in the cage had died. But even after examining it, we couldn’t figure out how it died. But everyone was quite sad.
In the end, Bian Chen silently carried the cage to the field by the north road of the village, and carefully buried the little mouse that had accompanied us for so long, bringing excitement to our dull working lives.
Summer drearily enveloped our shed again. We were all too worn out to talk, much less about mice.
This article is an excerpt from the book “A Constellation of Laborers,” jointly published by Horizon Books and Shanghai People’s Publishing House. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Stdemi and Sino View/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)