Writing Chinese

Andrew Wormald Translation

The Chickens

Translated by Andrew Wormald

Judging from the enormous cages that had been laid out at the roadside, my friends were sure that February’s chickens would be as big as cows.

So we ran along together down to the street, but soon discovered that the grain we had brought with us was unnecessary. Instead of the resplendent chickens we had been expecting, those cages were crammed full of large breasted women that looked for all the world like mothers. They seemed very indignant trapped inside their bamboo cages, the foreign sounds coming from their mouths as alien to us as the squawking of actual chickens. Squatting down beside them, we could see where their makeup had smeared and run to reveal pallid faces with lips still painted red as blood.

As we were trying to decide whether these women might have eaten all the chickens, a couple of policemen came and shooed us over to the other side of the road. They took out a roll of black tape and proceeded to cordon off the area where the cages had been placed. When they had finished, they pulled their overcoats tight about themselves, muttering to one another about having to be out on such a bitterly cold day. “That’s the best we can do,” said one to the other, “the prisons are already filled to overflowing…” But as we were getting ready to leave we still had no idea what those women might have done to be locked up like that.

“They’ve been smuggled into the city to be sold as stand-in mothers,” said a young boy in a headscarf perched on a nearby railing. “If you had enough money you could buy one too…” He let us each take a drag on a cigarette he’d purloined from his father’s shop, then showed us a photograph of a beautiful looking woman with one breast exposed. (At the time, none of us knew that this woman was his mother – the very woman responsible for breastfeeding him.) So with that, instead of going back to our drab little schools, we decided to take our valuables down into the street to try and make some money.

As the weather got colder and colder I spent most of my time huddled down behind one of the other boys, my arms draped over his shoulders and my left cheek pressed against the back of his shaved skull. I would dream of the lustrous chickens that still had not been brought to market, picturing them shaking out their wings and flying away over the tops of our heads. But when I opened my eyes the women were still there, pressed together in their cages at the side of the road – frozen silently in place by the cold as though merely a part of the wintry roadside landscape. From time to time one of the policemen would roughly yank one of the women’s heads through the bars, stuff it beneath the folds of his coat, and then quietly muffled sounds would float across the street to where we sat. When this happened the face of our young informant would take on an air of disdain, and he would puff away at his cigarette no longer offering to share anything with the rest of us.

It didn’t take us long to realise that the dribs and drabs of men passing by had no interest in our goods – they just wandered up and down, casting agitated glances in the direction of the caged women. Sometime later we noticed that this steady stream had become a crowd so, running to a nearby footbridge for a better look, we saw for the first time just how the men of our city were as numerous as rats. Every one of them was there, a heaving mass that extended away from the spot at the harbour side where the mothers had been left. We realised that the women were woefully insufficient in comparison to this mob, and resigned ourselves to the futility of ever having one for ourselves.

The young boy in the headscarf was now nowhere to be seen, and neither was my shiny new school badge or my friends’ jumble of hankies, slippers and candles. Even the spot where we had been crouching was gone, swallowed up in the crush of men now gathered around the women and their guards. The only thing for it was to weave our way through their trouser clad legs, trying to find a way back off the street.

When I did finally get home it was to find the floor of our living room completely awash with water. My younger sister was sitting there in the middle of an enormous plastic bathtub, her body submerged beneath the steaming hot water with only her pitifully tiny looking head exposed to the air.

“There’s nothing to eat,” she said. “Dad took all our pocket money with him when he went out.”

I was surprised to notice that I didn’t feel hungry, but merely spread my hands out wide in front of me. “You haven’t seen them,” I said, with just the slightest exaggeration, “they’ve got breasts as big as footballs…”

But my sister appeared not to have the slightest interest in what I was telling her. She was just poking away at a small towel that floated beside her in the tub, squeezing air into it so that it ballooned up from the surface before quickly squashing it flat again. “Perhaps someday I’ll be just like those women,” she said. “Perhaps they’ll turn me into a stand-in mother and send me away for sale in some other city.”

“Then you’ll know just what I’m worth,” she said with a self-satisfied laugh as her stick thin body came bursting out of the water.

Filled with an indescribable anger I tried to push her back into the tub, causing it to topple over and sending yet more hot foamy water gushing out over the floor. She cried and struggled uselessly, but I needed to make her understand that by now dad and all those other men would probably have swept the cages bare. If we went back to that footbridge, the whole place would most likely be deserted – a dried out river bed fading away into the darkness of the night.

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