The Beggar Woman
A Short Fiction by Cameron Brtnik
The Beggar Woman
The beggar woman brushed briskly by us with her shopping cart: trash, empty Taiwan Beer bottles, old, stained t-shirts, water-damaged books, magazines with their covers torn and corners curled in, tin cans rattling around inside like they were thrown in a dryer. This, even though it’s a common sight in Taiwan, this woman made me feel uneasy as she passed us; I felt she looked right at me even though her head faced forward and her eyes remained on the prize (I’m assuming a junkyard to exchange her hard-earned junk for some coin), I feel like her eyes, like a frog’s eyes, were multidirectional, like her vision was 360′. I really felt like she stared straight into my face as she passed… And then she turned the corner and she was gone. I felt a surprising sense of relief – I didn’t mention this to my girlfriend who was walking independently, unaware of the woman’s intrusive (or imagined?) gaze. As we walked another block, on our way to a local cafe to while away our Sunday, suddenly she appeared again from a side street (damn she must’ve been hustling!) Her cart was still full – maybe she had veered off to pick up some other junk, a discarded tire, pieces of a broken chair – and she was staring straight ahead (to our left). I looked over and my girlfriend, who was texting away, either letting her BFF know how exciting her day was going be sipping coffee and playing Candy Crush, or already playing Candy Crush, didn’t notice the lady, and I decided to point her out this time. “Hey baby, doesn’t that old lady look weird?” I asked, trying to sound oblivious and unconcerned. She looked up, saw the lady, shrugged, and went back to crushing candies. We were nearing her again, and I could sense the lady somehow observing us without looking directly at us, like one of those new 360′ cameras that were becoming all the rage. I started to slow my pace, reaching my hand out and grabbing Julia’s, feeling safer like putting on a seatbelt in a taxi, when the lady suddenly bolted forward, cutting off a car who had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting her – she didn’t flinch. She made it across and disappeared down another side street. I knew the cafe was coming up on our right, and was looking forward to sitting down with a warm cuppa coffee and reading my new Stephen King novel Under The Dome. We arrived – I’ll admit I looked over my shoulder to make sure the lady hadn’t suddenly crept up behind us – and we got our usual table on the patio. We ordered our drinks, opened up our book and Candy Crush respectively, and fell into our lazy Sunday routine. Our drinks arrived, and I nearly forgot about that creepy old woman when suddenly she appeared in front of the cafe… (Wasn’t she on the opposite side of the road?) She reached over the railing, towards our table, and my heart jumped into my throat – my girlfriend didn’t even look up from her candy-filled screen – and grabbed the receipt off our table. I breathed a silent breath of relief. The woman shoved the receipt into her pocket, but didn’t move. I tried opening my book to give her the hint (“Hey lady, we’re trying to enjoy our Sunday here, leave us alone okay?” I could hear myself saying in my head, but because I didn’t speak Chinese I kept silent). I peeked over the pages and she was still standing there, like in a trance, or waiting for something…”Can you tell her to go away?” I asked my girlfriend. “Zou kai!” she replied, without looking up from the colorful candy sprites. The woman didn’t budge. “Zou kai!” I attempted, but it sounded even weird to my ears. Suddenly my girlfriend put her phone down, stood up and yelled at her in what I can only imagine consisted of insults, expletives and curses. And the woman (I’m not sure if she could even understand any of it) slowly started pushing her cart away, wheels screech screech screeching from not being oiled in years, her tired, bruised, atrophied legs following behind like the cart was her master, her body its slave. Now she was muttering something, to herself it seemed, in neither English nor Chinese, just unintelligible gibberish. And just as soon as she had appeared, she was gone, on to her next plunder of trash and treasures. I turned to thank my girlfriend– but she was gone. “Baby?” I said, loud enough to hear on the patio. No response. I waited a few minutes, assuming she had gone to pee or complain her latte wasn’t frothy enough. When a few minutes passed I started to worry (why??), so I got up and went inside. “Have you seen my girlfriend?” I asked in my broken Chinese, horrendous but passable. “Mei you”, the waitress replied. I knocked on the bathroom door and received a knock back. “Baby, is that you?” I asked, slightly embarrassed. No answer. I went back outside but she wasn’t on the patio. I walked to the sidewalk and looked up and down the street. I couldn’t see her, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the old woman parked at the end of the block, her back facing me. Almost like she could sense my eyes, she turned, her cart leading her body in tow almost like they were one; a human centipede. And I could make something out in her cart, something that hadn’t been there before: a large, dark shape, almost large enough to be a…human.. her hair….Julia…….and she was gone, turned down another side street like a million before, to fill her cart and survive another day.
Cameron is a fiction writer living in Taiwan, and lover of all things macabre cbrtnik.com