Brass Heads

by Lita Kurth

In the early morning, not far from Shanghai, workers take the bus or ride their black bikes to a vast shed. Bosses leave their cars in a giant lot. Discarded metal arrives by ship and train from a hundred countries and takes up eighty acres.

At this factory, men and women work apart. Women can concentrate enough to sort the myriad kinds of aluminum scraps. Men are better at smashing, melting metal, turning appliances into steel that somebody later turns into money, Mao’s face on the paper in blue and red like a baby blanket.

Of all that money these toilers see a hundred and fifty dollars a month, enough to buy a bike. If they still have time and energy at the end of a twelve-hour day—and before the bike ride home—they can play a game of soccer on the factory grounds.

One morning, sorting through the shaky mountain of computers, stoves, refrigerators, and pipes, two men find statues, just the heads, but well-preserved. Once the works of brass are separated from a pile of rusty trash, wiped off a bit, they still look good.

“Can we display them? Put them up on pillars?” they ask the boss.

He consents. It’s patriotic.

People throw these things away: a grandfather’s wind-up pocketwatch, many a penny, crucifixes, kettles, and now these statues. Every employee, even the ones who only got to second grade, saw those faces in schoolbooks. They still remember reverent hymns to saints who led the nation, crushed the enemy, saved the workers.

In the full-body statue, one of the figures wore a suit and greatcoat, a goatee and moustache. He had a concentrated look, no hat. Hands in pockets, he gazed toward the distance yet to travel. Now his head lost from the body seeks a vision beyond the dumpsters.

The other hero had more hair and wider lapels, but also a moustache. His boots were black and he looked straight at you, not off into the future.

The workday ends, and men and women form a line, callused hands on handlebars. Out the gates and across the guarded moat, they travel to their tenements. Lenin and Stalin, the severed heads, bless their coming and going.


Editor’s Note on Brass Heads:

The Brass Heads is not Lita Kurth’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are:

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