Ten Thousand Houses

Story by Sarah Richman

Jian’s mother once told him that pain has ten thousand houses. Pain moves often. You might find her unpacking her closet in your knees one day and putting up her paint chips in your ankles the next.

His mother had stirred the soup as she spoke. It wasn’t long after Jian’s father got sick, and he was still well enough to eat.

“The older we are, the more houses pain has to live in.” His mother turned the heat down on the stove, letting the soup hiss down to a simmer. “We do what we can to convince her to live somewhere else. Until then, zai zai, pain is our guest.”

Jian had frowned, his feet dangling from the wooden kitchen stool. “Pain is our guest?”

His mother nodded. “Just like any other. We have to be patient with her and give her what she needs to move on.”

Jian remembers thinking this over. He remembers picturing pain living in his father’s stomach. Folding her socks neatly in his belly, sweeping its floors.

“What if pain doesn’t leave?” he asked.

His mother had looked down at him and sighed. She’d put a callused hand on his shoulder, gently, smelling of corn and ginger and sweat. “Then we learn how to live together.”

Years later, the cardboard sign on the side of Jian’s pharmacy stall in the market reads like a list of pain’s ten thousand houses. Rheumatoid Pain. Leg Pain. And so on.

Jian sits on a warped metal stool in the stall doorway, shaded by a green and white umbrella, watching his would-be customers walk by. He wonders where pain lives in them, if she does. In the stooped shoulders of that woman in the black tee shirt, maybe, or in the hips of that older man carrying a bag of fruit.

They don’t stop to buy anything. The thin red plastic bags that Jian and his wife had hung up along the walls dangle, unused, limp in the heat. A fly lands on one of the ears of corn in the bin between Jian and the passerby. He doesn’t have the heart to swat it away. It is, he realizes, the first visitor that his stall has had all morning.

Jian could help these people. He could help all of them, if only they would stop and ask. He could ask them where their pain had made her bed, where she lines up her sandals, where she scrubs her dishes clean. He could give pain what she needed to step back, nod, and know that this house was in good order, that there were other places to go.

The fly on the corn finishes grooming itself and takes off into the humid air.

Maybe someone else will stop today. Maybe they will tomorrow. Jian leans back against the thin red plastic bags on the wall and rubs his neck. He will be here when they are ready. He keeps the pharmacy stall open every day, just like his father had.

Jian’s father had made sure the stall was never closed, not even for a morning. Not even as sickness carved him hollow, whittling his face down until it was as thin as a corn husk. Not even as pain moved into places beyond the help of any bowl of soup.

After all this time, Jian can still picture pain’s face, lined and familiar, turned to the sound of the next house where the rafters are just beginning to bend. He can see it, clear as the scale in front of him. He can see her ears prick. He can feel the unwavering rhythm of her footsteps headed to the next of her ten thousand houses. He can even smell her, corn and ginger and sweat and tears and sawdust.

Jian knows her well. They had, after all, learned how to live together.

Sarah Richman is a writer and public affairs professional based in Washington D.C. Her fiction and poetry are published in literary magazines and reviews across the United States and Scotland. Visit sarahrichmanwriter.com to learn more about Sarah and her work, and follow her on Twitter at @itssarahrichman

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