Writing Chinese

Karen Curtis Translation

Chickens

Translated by Karen Curtis

They were guessing, from the sheer size of the cages on the street, that the February delivery of chickens for the city would be as fat as cows.

I ran along with them to the main street. To my surprise, the grains I brought with me had no use. The cages were packed, not with the brightly colored chickens we expected, but with women, fullbreasted like new mothers. Between bamboo bars, their scowling faces spat a foreign language, incomprehensible as chicken cackle. Squatting by the road, we could see that the rouge on their faces had dissolved to reveal startlingly pale visages and painted, blood-red lips.

Perhaps these women had eaten all the chicken, we began to discuss, but the policemen on guard shooed us away to the other side of the road. With black tape they cordoned off the street where several giant cages had been unloaded. Pulling their overcoats tight, they grumbled about having to stand all day, on the streets in the freezing cold. “What else can we do? There’s no more room in the prison.” When it was time to go, we were still wondering why the women were locked up in cages.

“They were smuggled into the city as mastitutes. Substitute mothers, that is. Anyone with money can buy them.” It was a boy with a bandana around his head, perched on a fence. He offered us a puff of the cigarette he had stolen from his father’s shop, and then, for a minute each turn, a peek at the photograph he kept hidden in his clothes (at the time we had no idea, and nor did he, that the pretty woman with one breast showing in the photo was the mother who was feeding him). None of us doubted his explanation. For the next few days, we decided not to return to our monotonous classes but instead, to carry to the sidewalk all the items from our homes we thought were salable.

The streets were getting increasingly cold. Most of the time, with my arms around the neck of the boy squatting in front of me, my left cheek pressed against his smooth bald head, I fantasized about the flame-colored chickens still to be delivered to the city, flapping their wings as they flew past. Yet when I opened my eyes, all I could see were the caged women on the other side of the street, frigid, silent, like props in a wintry scene. Every now and then, a policeman would wrench a woman’s head from the cage and shove it into his overcoat; only then would we hear a sort of sucking sound coming from there. Whenever this happened, the boy with the bandana would sneer as he smoked by himself, without offering us a puff again.

We soon realized that the accumulating passersby, who barely noticed our goods, were simply loitering and staring agitatedly at the caged women. When did the crowds start to gather? We ran up the overpass and saw, for the first time, that the males in our city were numerous as mice. The line of men stretched along the entire street all the way to the edge of the sea – the dumping ground for mothers. All that was left of our city were these men. It was then that the tragic reality dawned on us: compared to the men, the number of caged women was miserably small. None of us boys would be getting a share.

The boy with the bandana had disappeared, together with my shining new stainless steel school badge, and the handkerchiefs, slippers and candles that the others had brought. There was no longer space for us on the street; the swarming crowds had surrounded the policemen and the cages. In the end we had to search for a way out by crawling between their legs.

I returned home to find the living room floor splattered with water. My sister was sitting in a big plastic bathtub, her whole body immersed in steaming hot water, with only a pathetically tiny head visible.

“We have nothing for dinner tonight. Father has taken away all our pocket money.”

Strangely I wasn’t feeling hungry at all. “You should have seen their breasts,” I gesticulated with both hands. “They were big as balloons.”

My sister seemed uninterested. She was playing intently with her floating towel, squeezing air into it till it blew up like a ball then deflating it. “The day will come when, like them, I’ll be transported to another city to be sold as a mastitute.”

“Then you’ll know how much I’m worth,” she grinned, her stick-thin body suddenly emerging from the water.

An inexplicable rage overtook me as I pushed my sister back into the water and overturned the bathtub, spilling hot water and bubbles everywhere. Her screams and struggles were pointless. She should know that by now, Father and the other men would have already ravaged the cages on the street. If we climbed the overpass this very moment, we would find a scene of desolation on the main street, like a hollow, dried-up river bed stretching into the darkness of the night.

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