Ann, our Shanghai Airbnb host, met us outside the subway station. Following her lead, we dashed across the busy street and ducked into an unmarked alley. In front of us rose a three-story building with a small fenced in yard. Through the dark January night we could see the red glow of what turned out to be Chinese New Year door banners provided by the local KFC. Inside the gate there was a one-room garden house, and inside that sat a tiny, glowering old woman. Ann said something cheerful to her on her way to the steep wooden stairs, but she just sat there, silently surveying in the flickering light of her tiny television.
That gate turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Each time we returned, we tried to attack it with confidence (locks can sense your fear), but still only managed it on the first try half the time. If we struggled even a little, the door would instantly swing open, and there she would be, face completely expressionless, sizing us up for a beat before stepping to the side to allow us to pass.
When we emerged one day, she was sitting in the garden, surrounded by piles of strangled chickens. When we returned, they’d been plucked. The next day, they were dangling headless above the stairs, dripping noiselessly on our heads as we passed under. Soon, she’d disassembled them, separating pink and purple organs like earthy jewels into ceramic bowls along the garden path. Mysterious scents began to waft up to our apartment, cooking smells half remembered or never known mingling with the tobacco smoke that hung constantly in the air.
When Chinese New Year came, so did our gatekeeper’s family, noisily crowded into her tiny room in anticipation of the feast, but falling silent to watch us pass en route to our own dinner.