On the longest night of winter, under a clouded moon, the physician follows a winding dirt path out of the city. It is Dōngzhì, a time for family reunions and worship, for tomorrow the light returns.
The cold nips his ears, gnaws his bones. The physician wrests his hood up against the gale.
At the outskirts of the city, the homeless huddle. They stare at him with gaunt cheeks and anguished eyes. Hunched statues, frost gathering on them like mould. When he passes, they do not blink.
Their ears are bluish-red and blistered, blackened at their edges.
The physician feels too young, his knowledge inadequate. It frustrates him, that there is no cure for this. Winter feeds on the body, first the ears, then the nose, fingers, toes.
The physician feels the acid of his ambition in the pit of his belly, the hunger for legacy.
He steps into the darkness of his ancestral shrine. The temple is empty. His ancestors’ names are written on dusty tablets, looming above him in the gloom. The physician lights candles and joss-sticks, then offers up food on the altar. This year, gruel is all he can afford.
“Zhòngjǐng,” says his grandmother. She hunches in the shadows, her lips cracked and purple.
The physician jumps, then stills. “Help me,” he prays, “help the people.”
They are, he thinks, one and the same thing.
His grandmother indicates the holes on each side of her head. “How can I hear your prayers? Give me ears.”
She hands him a bone-sharp knife.
Zhòngjǐng walks out into the night. The wind soughs, like a woman in pain. There are ears aplenty he can choose from. No one would care.
He plucks a pair like flowers from a garden. No blood, the girl already dead. He knows thousands of herbs by heart, and as he slices, he recites them in his mind. Honeysuckle for sore throats. Earth-violets for fevers. Sophoras for haemorrhoids.
Nothing for winter’s bite.
The homeless shift around him, a torpid wave of unease. They lack the strength to protest.
“What use have I of dead flesh?” His grandmother’s howl sears his ears, scores his face with sleet. The ears are papery, shrivelled like dried mushrooms. She whisks them away. They tumble down the road, vanishing in mist.
His grandmother trembles, hurling flurries of snow around him. The rot on her cheek darkens. Lines branch from her mouth like fractals, deepening with shame.
The physician plods on.
He grabs a sleeping girl nestled in her mother’s corpse. Her blood freezes as quickly as it flows.
Sluggishly, he wipes the stain off his hands. Like her, he is too numb to feel.
“Too cold,” his grandmother snaps. Icicles shatter beneath his boots, white spattered with red. “They hurt my teeth.”
She always liked her food scalding. When times were good, the neighbours crowded together in their stuffy hut, gossiping while she cooked for them. He remembers her squatting by the fire, fanning the flames for hours. Zhòngjǐng was a spoilt child, often ordering his doting grandmother about—Nǎinai, make me rice cakes, Nǎinai, re-heat my tea.
Now his grandmother studies the small, curlicued petals of flesh, and sighs. “Poor girl.” She shudders at her own need. The offering crumbles in the wind.
He does not ask why she has to eat them. The spirit world is symbolic. It is the gesture that nourishes the souls, keeping the living dutiful and the memories of ancestors alive.
Zhòngjǐng goes home. He packs a few things from his kitchen. On his way back, he picks a pretty pair: round and dainty, with thick lobes for good luck. The girl cries, a thin, unearthly keen.
At the shrine, he kneads flour into a dough, and wraps the ears in it. Carefully, he covers every curve. It is an art that takes multiple attempts. He lumbers out and in; he smoothes dough over the delicate whorls and crevices until he gets the perfect pair. Then he boils them in a broth, so his grandmother would not see the truth and weep.
Smoke rises, pungent and alluring. His grandmother slurps hungrily. When she hears his voice, her little body shakes with tears. She holds her arms out to him.
“Nǎinai,” he calls, his voice breaking. He is a boy again, running to her lap, sucking his thumb while his grandmother strokes his hair with her floury, bird-boned hands. Hands rough and browned and gnarled with age, but healthy. It feels like spring and summer, when he lays his head against her chest, when he soaks in the warmth of her ribcage and hears within it an echo of her heart.
Beneath the tablets of his ancestors, Nǎinai cradles him close, and murmurs in his ear.
“You will do our family proud, as the greatest physician of this age.”
She sweeps an arm out and bowls of broth appear, steaming, smelling of meat and incense. “Pretty-ear dumplings to expel the cold.”
One by one, he feeds them to the people. They stir, the elderly and abandoned, the many who have lost their ears, their fingers, the tips of their toes. They cup piping bowls in their hands and gulp. A ripple flows across the statues, like a hot breeze over melting ice.
They sit up, bones creaking, stretching their stiff necks. Their bodies still bear traces of decay, but the blue recedes from their skins. They reach for him with feather-touches and whispers of gratitude.
The physician works tirelessly. He treks to and from the shrine, where the bowls of dumplings do not run out. He makes mental notes, recording his observations, prepared to leave his mark in history. He feeds those who cannot feed themselves.
It is the longest night of winter, but silently comes the sun.