Writing Chinese

Kristen Robinson Translation

Hens

Translated by Kristen Robinson

The sheer size of the cages in the street made them think that the hens shipped into the city that February must have been as plump as cows.

I ran with them into the street but the feed I brought turned out to be useless. Instead of the brightly coloured hens we had hoped for, the cages were packed full of women with big, motherly breasts. They showed their angry faces between the bamboo bars, but the words that came from their mouths were as foreign to us as the clucking of a hen. From where we squatted on the roadside we could see that the colours on their faces had melted away revealing their abnormally pale skin and each mouth painted blood red.

We were debating whether the women had eaten all the chickens when the police who were guarding them sent us to the other side of the street and sealed off the road and the many large chicken coops with black tape. They pulled their coats close and complained about having stood all day in the cold street. “Nothing for it, there’s no room in the prisons.” Even afterwards, we never found out why these women were being kept in cages.

“They were trafficked into the city as substitute mothers; anyone with money can buy them,” said a boy in a turban, sitting on the handrail. He gave us each a puff on a cigarette that he had stolen from his father’s store. Then he took out a photo he had hidden on him and let us look at it for one minute, so none amongst us doubted him. (At the time, no one, including the boy himself, knew that the pretty woman with her breast exposed was his mother and that she was feeding him when the photo was taken). Instead of going back to boring old school the next few days, we decided to go out into the street with anything that could be sold from our houses.

The streets grew cold. Most of the time I crouched down with my arms around the neck of another boy, my left cheek pressed against the back of his smoothly shaven head. I imagined those brightly coloured hens still outside the city beating their wings as they flew overhead. But when I opened my eyes I still saw the women crammed in the cages on the other side of the road, now too cold to move, silent, just another part of the cold street scene. Occasionally the police would force a woman’s head from the cage and into their coat and only then would we hear their clucking. When this happened, the boy in the turban would give a disdainful look and light a cigarette. He never offered us any.

It didn’t take us long to realise that the ever-increasing numbers of passers-by were completely disinterested in our goods. They were just loitering in the street, nervously watching the women in the cages. When on earth did the crowds arrive? We ran onto the overpass. For the first time we understood then that our city had as many men as rats; the line snaked down the long road, stretching to the sea – the place where the mothers were abandoned. All that was left in our city were these men. We came to the sad realisation that the men far outnumbered the women in the cages; there would be nowhere near enough to go around.

I don’t know when the boy with the turban left. My shiny new stainless steel school crest and the things brought by the others, handkerchiefs, slippers, candles… they had all vanished along with him. Our spot on the road was gone too. The people swarmed the police and the cages and we had to crouch down and find a way out between their legs.

When I got home, the living room floor was splattered with water. My sister was sitting in a giant plastic tub, her whole body submerged in the steaming hot bath. Just her tiny head protruded.

“There’s nothing to eat tonight. Father took all our spending money.”

Strangely, I didn’t feel hungry at all. I deliberately held wide my arms. “You should have seen them! They had breasts the size of beach balls,” I exaggerated.

But my sister didn’t seem to care at all. She was entirely engrossed in toying with a

facecloth that floated on the surface of the water, squeezing air in and making it swell up like a ball, then squashing it flat again. “Maybe one day I will be like them, a mother substitute shipped to another city to be sold.”

“Well, then you’ll know how much I sell for.” My sister gave a satisfied smile and her twiglike body suddenly emerged from the water.

An inexplicable rage made me push her back in. The tub overturned, hot water and soap suds gushed across the floor. She yelled and struggled but it was in vain. She should know that our father and the other men had most likely already sacked those cages on the street leaving them empty. If we went back to the overpass now we would see the desolate street, like a dried up river bed, reaching out into the black night.

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