The pathos evoked in Chang Ta-ch’un’s “Birds of a Feather” revives memories of Pai Hsien-yung’s (1937-) celebrated Taipei jen (Taipei, 1971; English translation by the author: Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream, Indiana University Press, 1982). However, unlike Pai’s characters, who are fond of taunting the Taiwanese for their “rusticity,” the Shantungnese soldier in Changs story is free of such provincial chauvinism. Chang and Pai belong to two generations of Taiwan writers. Not only do Pai’s ta-lu jen (mainlanders) subsist on dreams of their hometowns, but the fervent hope of eventual repatriation is the very raison d’etre of their exile. Sobered by more than thirty years of harsh political reality, the old serviceman from Northern China entertains no similar expectation. And it is precisely his attempt to cure his homesickness by making his chicken coop a proxy home that generates the story’s profound sorrow.
The youngest of the authors in this anthology, Chang Ta-ch’un is uniquely equipped to ponder the fate of the aging ta-lu jen in the context of Taiwan’s acquisitive society. A Shantungnese born and raised on the island, Chang speaks Taiwanese and is for this reason a bona fide native. Yet the loneliness of his parents’ generation haunts him with such tenacity that in the end it becomes his personal solitude. “Birds of a Feather” is executed with admirable restraint. While his ancestral lineage with the mainland affords Chang compassionate insights, his awareness of contemporary values checks his sentimental impulses and redresses the balance of economic fact and familial piety. Chang Ta-ch’un’s stories are gathered in Birds of a Feather (Chi-ling t’u, Taipei, 1980). A graduate of Fu-jen University, he is now in the employ of China Times (Chung-kuo shih-pao). His reportorial experience has found its way into his stories of crime and violence in the underground world.
Translated by Hsin-sheng C. Kao
I hung up the phone and walked out of Platoon Command Headquarters. Outside, the bright, clear sky, untainted by clouds, extended all the way to the eastern reaches of the horizon, where a continuous line of low structures of red brick and grey tile marked a small town. The rich fields that stood between me and the town were a fertile green. In the distance several figures were heading my way along the ridges between the paddies. The sun splashed down from straight overhead. I squinted my eyes and saw that my watch was pointing exactly to twelve—twelve o’clock on the very day that I had been stationed for two whole months on this long beachhead.
The figures on the ridges drew even closer, and they turned out to be farm children from the town. I turned around and walked toward the trees of the windbreak. The cackling of chickens burst from within the windbreak. There in the woods, where motes floated in myriad rays of sunlight, I could make out the faint outlines of chicken-wire fences and chicken houses, and also the strong body of a man, the muscles of his left arm swelling, his chest, shoulders, head, and face dripping countless coin-sized drops of light and dark shadow nonstop as he moved about.
Already the four squad leaders had come out, each from his own base of operations, to greet me with a salute.
“The order has been given! Division Command phoned: The war game ‘Operation Golden Wind’ is to begin. We need to break camp immediately. Within six hours, all personnel and equipment should be in the trucks and every installation in our present defense area should be restored to its original condition.” I paused a while, then when I raised my eyes, there emerged from the woods stout Ts’ai Ch’i-shih. He came to a stop, standing in the sunshine, clutching under his left arm his huge red-feathered, black-tailed rooster. It was like a statue, its head and comb erect, its entire body marked with spots of sunlight, the feathers between its neck and breast flapping in the howling wind from the sea.
“Special attention!” Still staring at the rooster’s bright curved beak with a pointed tip, I added: “Except for individual and group equipment, no other items may be brought along.”
They nodded their heads. Ts’ai Ch’i-shih drew yet a few steps closer behind them. Yu Huo-yao of the Third Squad, as if having suddenly remembered something, thrust out his chest and said: “Reporting to the Platoon Leader! What about the chickens? The chicken fences . . .”
“The chicken fences have to be gotten rid of, the chickens . . . you are to deal with them yourselves.” I couldn’t help but turn around and cast a glance over the small town, those farm children all squatting out there together. “Sell them!”
The day when I left Headquarters to report here, I met Ah-ch’ing, the youngest among that group of children on the ridges between the paddies. He was squatting in a ditch; he caught one earthworm without fail every time he reached his hand out. I saw he had a plastic bag stuffed into his waistband, inside of which were twenty or thirty crickets, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, and other such insects.
“They’ll die of suffocation, kid.’’ I commented without a second thought, having stopped to look.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re going to be fed to Uncle Ts’ai’s Big Belly.”1 He didn’t even bother to turn his head, but concentrated on searching in the ankle-high rice seedlings.
“What? Fed to whom?”
“Ai-ya! . . .” He very impatiently turned around, pointed to the west side of the windbreak and said: “Didn’t I say Uncle Ts’ai’s Big Belly?” So saying, he bent over again and paid no further attention to me.
It was only after I took charge of the troops that I became aware of the fact that my comrades were raising chickens in the woods. I got to know Ts’ai Ch’i-shih, who seemed unable to carry on a conversation without making reference to his hometown in the mainland. I got to know the boy Ah-ch’ing. And, of course, I also got to know these some thirty chickens, each of which was given a name and a serial number by their master, Ts’ai Ch’i-shih. Among Ts’ai’s birds was one rooster whose back towered a full foot and a half above the ground when it stood erect. He was therefore called “Big Pillar.”
The four squad leaders ran past Ts’ai Ch’i-shih to go back to give out the orders. As if he had not seen them, he walked forward a few steps and let go with his arm. Big Pillar immediately spread both its wings and flew for about ten feet in the direction Ts’ai’s arm was pointing. As the rooster touched the ground, it stirred up a cloud of yellow dust. Ts’ai Ch’i-shih then brought his legs together and gave me a military salute: “Reporting to the Platoon Leader! Do you want . . . want us to sell the chickens?”
“Hurry back to where you belong and do what your squad leader tells you.”
He said nothing more, but saluted me with a brisk “Check,” then raised his arm, gently calling: “Here!” At this, Big Pillar hopped a couple of paces, leapt with its whole body, and flew back to Ts’ai Ch’i-shih’s arm. Gently brushing the dust off its neck and wings, Ts’ai marched away in huge strides. The shining black feathers of the tail, clustered thickly under the back of his arm, waved gently like a flower in vigorous bloom.
The fellows of this group had arrived here six months earlier than I had. Not wanting to waste either manpower or local resources, in their spare time after making patrols and standing guard they had put themselves to work at the simplest form of production—raising chickens. In the woods of the windbreak, an area some 1,800 meters in breadth and 10-odd kilometers in width, they built chicken houses. Some of the men, particularly serious about their project, even had chicken-wire fences installed on all four sides. And there were others who were more ambitious: they frequented the neighboring small towns to study the ways the farmers constructed their chicken houses, in order to improve their own. With the passing of time, however, the spare-time project became more for pure amusement than for profit. Of course, there were those whose sole purpose in raising chickens was to make money. As Yu Huo-yao was always saying: Someday, when he got discharged from the service and returned home, this chicken money would indeed become handy when he married and raised a family.
Yet Ts’ai Ch’i-shih differed from the others, just as his chicken fence was different from those of the others: there was no wire; rather all the fencing was hand-woven of selected pine branches, sealed inside and out with yellow mud. When the conversation turned to the subject of that fence, his comrades would laugh at him: it was made that way so that his chickens wouldn’t be hurt by fence wire. Of course the jokes did not stop there. Either explicitly or implicitly, he and his chickens had become a source of amusement for the others. But no matter how vulgar and crude the language became at times, Ts’ai Ch’i-shih just grinned slightly, showing a row of somewhat tarnished gold teeth.
The third night after I reported in, a billowing sound, either from the sea or from the trees, swept over from the woods of the windbreak. Taking advantage of the bright moon, which lit up half the sky, I strolled leisurely to have a look at each of the sentry boxes. Before I stepped out, however, Deputy Platoon Leader Liu told me: “If between the base of operations and the sentry box you happen to see someone, the chances are it is Ts’ai Ch’i-shih—his chicken houses are there and he doesn’t leave them, even at night.” Perhaps Liu was concerned that I might be alarmed by some unexpected noise, but be that as it may, I walked straight to the area where the Second Squad was stationed.
At first I heard heavy footsteps pacing back and forth, followed by a gruff but muffled voice quietly muttering a few scolding words, and then all was quiet again. Tracing the last dying echo of the sound that reverberated in the air back to its source, I stealthily drew closer and leaned against a pine tree. Next to the tree was a ramshackle old bicycle.
The trees in the clearing were rather sparse, and there in the middle of a mud-walled enclosure stood an extremely large chicken house. I saw a man in a T-shirt and shorts, his short-cropped hair shining silvery in the moonlight, his back toward me, his arms wrapped around his chest. Suddenly he pointed to the ground in front of him, saying in his strong Shantung accent: “What do you think this is? Your old home? You want to eat white rice? Seems to me that you’ve already forgotten who you are. What’s wrong with what you’ve got?” So saying, he bent over to lift a package of something, and dashed it to the ground. There arose the cackling of chickens.
I moved forward, and there on the ground was a split-open package of feed with a medium-sized black chicken standing to the side.
“Just wait until your Brother Ah-ch’ing comes back, I’ll ask him to feed you shit! If you’re still so choosy, Idiot Number Two, if you’re still so choosy it’ll serve you right to starve you to death! Now beat it and get to sleep!’’ The man raised his arm, and the black chicken beat its wings and leaped into the chicken house. Heaving a long sigh, the man squatted and began gathering one handful after another of the chicken feed, putting it back into the feed trough.
When he realized there was someone behind him, he turned his head quietly while his body remained motionless, his left hand reaching ever so slowly toward a firewood hatchet by the door frame.
“You must be Ts’ai Ch’i-shih!’’
“Yes?” He briskly stood straight up, his hatchet in hand, his eyes beaming and alert. Then after one or two seconds, he threw down the hatchet and ran toward me: “Platoon Leader?” He opened the door for me, mumbling some words of apology.
I pointed to the cot in the chicken house, “Do you always sleep here at night?”
“From now on, go back to the base to sleep!”
“Report to the Platoon Leader, I’d never neglect my duties . . .”
“Go back to base to sleep!”
He saw me off at the fence, his dark, expressionless face glistening in the moonlight. Even when he stole a look at me, there was no trace of grievance in his eyes, only the soft glow of moonlight. In an instant, even I forgot—forgot my reason for making him go back to the base.
At two-thirty in the afternoon, the job of checking the defense installations was finally completed. I handed over a detailed list of damaged items to the administrative master sergeant, relaxed a bit, and prepared to go have a look at each squad. One foot out the door and I felt the sunshine penetrate me, giving me a feeling of satiated heaviness as if the sun had been hanging forever at the same spot without even the slightest movement. The group of children previously so boisterous had been driven away by Deputy Platoon Leader Liu. The only one left was little Ah-ch’ing, who sat alone under a ch’ieh-tung tree2 by the rice field, his hands pressed against his cheeks as he stared at me from afar.
At the opening into the windbreak were Yu Huo-yao and two others, all wearing broad-brimmed rainhats and unbuttoned white shirts that revealed their bare chests, their hands motioning profusely in argument. Next to them stood two motorcycles, a bamboo chicken cage resting on each rear seat. Taking notice of my approach, Yu Huo-yao lowered his head with a frown and waved his hand: “Forget it, forget it! I’ll accept your price, but the weight has to be accurate!” This said, he lifted the whistle from where it hung on his chest and blew it sharply. Immediately ten comrades emerged from the woods, each holding two long skewers to which were tied chickens, thrashing and flailing their wings.
I took a detour at the Fourth Squad’s defense area, then returned to my round of inspection. Some of my comrades were busy tearing down chicken houses, others were tying up the chickens. And among their loud laughter and conversation, there was nothing but talk of how to spend their chicken money. I judged by their speed that there should be no problem in handing over the base by five o’clock as planned.
Passing by the Second Squad, I saw that Ts’ai Ch’i-shih’s mud wall had been completely leveled, his pine branch fence neatly folded. The chicken house was only yet half done with, but the thirty-some chickens had been divided into seven or eight iron coops. He was occupied trying to pry loose a long nail in direct sunlight.
“Busy all by yourself, eh?”
He turned around suddenly, his balding head slick with grease and sweat, which covered his whole face. He wiped a bit with his hand: “It’s okay! Too many people could ruin my work.” As he spoke, he noticed that a long nail had come out crooked; he took up a hammer to straighten it. He examined it several times to see if it was straight, and, satisfied, put it aside.
“Two chicken buyers have come from town; you are going to see them in a little while, huh?” I said these words only after gathering all my courage, for it was all too clear to me that an unusual bond existed between Ts’ai and his chickens.
He stopped with the work in his hand and, looking over his chicken coops, replied to me with a grin: “Yes, Sir.”
I took my leave, but after walking only ten steps or so, I couldn’t help but turn and take one last look at him. He was still standing there in a daze, his hands crossed over a small branch, his face half buried in his T-shirt sleeves, looking much like a chicken suspended in midair. The crowing of a cock came from behind him, and though I knew it must be Big Pillar, from where I stood it seemed as if it were Ts’ai Ch’i-shih who had cried out.
Everything was still in an uproar outside the woods. Two chicken coops had already been packed half full. Some of the more vicious birds had fought one another early on, and shreds of brightly colored feathers flew out constantly from the bamboo holes. Yu Huo-yao, sidling himself into the cushioned seat of a motorcycle, was shouting loudly to two squad leaders something to the effect that it would be convenient to do the counting all together; his listeners nodded in agreement. The chicken buyers removed their hats and cooled themselves by fanning the hats with a noisy rattle. Ah-ch’ing also drew near, gathered up a fistful of feathers, and crinkled his nose as he smiled at me saying: “A shuttlecock!” Suddenly, a white wing pushed out from the coop and flapped about furiously, unable to withdraw back inside through the tight bamboo hole, leaving the bird’s neck exposed for another grey cock to peck at fiercely. Ah-ch’ing ran up to me and pulled at one of my trouser legs. His other hand held a plastic bag full of bugs. He suddenly thrust up that bunch of chicken feathers:
Another fierce fight broke out among the chickens.
One day upon returning to Command Headquarters after checking the guard posts by the harbor, I met Ts’ai Ch’i-shih, who, having done his sentry duty, was feeding insects to the chickens, together with Ah-ch’ing. The black chicken named Idiot Number Two flapped its wings, swooped down off its roost, knocked two chicks out of the way, snatched up a grasshopper, and gulped it down.
Ts’ai Ch’i-shih then threw down the plastic bag, stepped forward, and picked up Idiot Number Two by the neck, slapping it on the beak: “Starved blind, you little bastard? Do you know who they are?” Waving a pointing finger after the chicks that had run off: “Yellow Flower is your little daughter, and Pearl is your sister-in-law, see? How come you don’t recognize them? What did I teach you? ‘Even the fiercest tigress will not eat her own cubs,’ huh! Damn you, little terror! You’re at home now, and if you can’t make your grandma love you, your uncle care for you, someday when you leave home who the hell is going to watch out for you? Why don’t you do some good while you’re still young? Taking from others! You little bastard . . .” Having spoken, he tossed Idiot Number Two to the brown dirt, raising a cloud of dust. Immediately it rushed over to the foot of the wall and cocked its head, looking at him.
Ts’ai picked up a few black feathers that had fallen to the ground. Walking toward me, he forced a bitter smile: “He really knows no discipline! He’d be impossible if I didn’t scare him up a bit, I’m afraid!” His fingers twisted the feathers back and forth, spinning them like flower petals; then crouching down to Ah-ch’ing, with his chin held high he said: “I’ll tie a shuttlecock for you.” Seeing that he seemed to deliberately want to hide something, we took up the topic of the shuttlecock and began to talk. He told me that the best feathers for a shuttlecock are those from either side of the chicken’s tail, where they are relatively straight with just a slight curve; the down around a chicken’s neck is also long enough, but when the shuttlecock is struck, it won’t soar as high nor have strength in its rebound. He also mentioned that he had been able to hit a shuttlecock very well since he was four years old, and that he could tie his own from the time he was seven.
“That was when I was back home.” He slowly stroked the beard stubble under his chin: “At thirteen I left home, and on the day of my departure my brother fought with me over a shuttlecock. I got a sound thrashing, too! Oh . . .”
Ah-ch’ing moved quietly to the base of the wall and was gently petting Idiot Number Two’s spine.
“You, you got no relatives here?” I asked.
He stared at Ah-ch’ing: “Let’s see, how many years is it now?”
His large, rough hands on his waist, he stood there, his body tilted to one side. As dusk drew near, it grew dark within the woods much faster, and what light did filter through from the sky was no longer discernible. However, I could clearly see the many folds of his skin, from his earlobes down to his chin and neck, as if his skin had been piled up and released countless times and now just hung there flaccidly. Big Pillar gave a low crow, flew out of the chicken house and thrust out his neck, then sprang to the top of the wall. He stood steadily facing the other side of the woods, where the western sky was tinged with a faint red. It was the source of the light that filtered through the woods.
After the chicken merchant had forced the white chicken wing back in through the hole in the bamboo cage, he smiled at me, tipping the rainhat on his short, unkempt yet slick hair as a kind of greeting. He then shouted to his partner, mounted his motorcycle, and, while still busy starting the engine, asked Squad Leader Yu: “Will four more cages be enough?”
“That’d be plenty!” Yu Huo-yao counted the money, then began to count it all over again, then suddenly, as if he just remembered something, he added: “Let’s see! Wait, wait a second, make that six cages.” He turned toward us explaining: “There’s all of Ts’ai Ch’i-shih’s family.” A surge of laughter rose from the side.
“Be in the trucks on time.” I kept them in line: “Keep track of the time for me!”
“Yes, Sir.” Unrestrained cheerfulness welled up from the corners of Yu Huo-yao’s mouth.
The two others also looked very happy, but not quite as happy as Yu Huo-yao. Just as I was about to leave, I overheard one of them saying: “When I was feeding them, I never thought the money would roll in like this! Looking at each, one after the other . . .”
“If we had been able to feed for another six months or a year, there’d have been five hundred or even a thousand more catties, then I’d even have enough money to raise children!” Yu Huo-yao moistened his fingertip with saliva: “How many catties for you?”
“How many catties for your squad? Let’s weigh the big birds first.”
I still vaguely remember that dusk which had swiftly turned dark within a short period of conversation. In those vast deep woods only the sound of Big Pillar soaring up and down could be heard. Ah-ch’ing, realizing that Ts’ai Ch’i-shih was angry, had crept home quietly.
“Here!” Ts’ai Chi’i-shih called, raising his copper-dark arm, and Big Pillar landed on his elbow with a jump and a beat of his wings. Like a hunter holding a falcon, Ts’ai stood up straight: “Big Pillar is really very smart. He can stand guard to watch the house without being as menacing as a dog. The old folks in my hometown used to say that chickens are nightblind, that they need either a dog or a goose to guard them; but I don’t believe it, Platoon Leader, just look at him! Big Pillar cuts a figure just like a hawk!”
“For sure!” But as I reached out my hand to stroke Big Pillar’s neck, it swiftly dodged its head and poised its sharp beak at my fingertips. “It really is quite sturdy! How much does it weigh? Seven, eight catties?”
Taken somewhat aback at first, Ts’ai’s expression froze: “Reporting to the Platoon Leader, my chicken . . . isn’t to be weighed!” Then, appearing apologetic, he laughed somewhat drily: “This one, I’ve never weighed, never once weighed.”
Now it was my turn to feel embarrassed, as if I had forced him to do something he had no desire to do. I could only offer vacant words: “Oh! . . . That’s right . . . Big Pillar, what an interesting name, Big Pillar.”
“Interesting, huh!” He led me into the chicken house, put the chicken on its roost, and lit a candle. In the flickering light of the candle, the cot, now shifted somewhat further back in the interior, revealed itself. I though of what Second Squad Leader Ch’en had told me: Ts’ai was still constantly sneaking back to his chicken house to sleep and returning to the base in the early hours of the morning; yet he never missed his guard duty. Ts’ai pulled out a bamboo stool for me to sit on, while he himself stood away inside, as if to hide the cot. “Big Pillar, that’s my nickname alright. I was called that in my hometown. In those days . . . but, well, what’s the use of bringing up corny old stories, what’s the use indeed.”
He moved forward to toy with the candlewick and trimmed off a spark, which flew into his huge shadow cast on the wood-frame wall. To the side of the shadow was a row of hand-carved clothes hangers, and there, his knapsack with a feather sewn onto the shoulder strap.
“You’d better be heading back to the squad, it’s getting on mealtime.” I finally broke the silence. As I got up, “Big Pillar” Ts’ai stretched his neck a bit. “When I get the chance, I’ll chat with you again. We could chat about our old hometowns, how about it?”
“Yes, Sir, I certainly will.”
Walking out of the mud-walled enclosure, I turned back again but couldn’t see even the least bit of candlelight leaking out. I called out: “Ts’ai Ch’i-shih!”
“Present!” And he came rushing out.
“Oh, by the way, if you prefer to sleep here at night, then by all means sleep here; no need to run back and forth.”
He grinned, showing his tarnished gold teeth: “Yes, Sir! Thank you, Sir!” He then raised his hand, to make a gesture at once like a salute and yet not like one, waving two circles in the air. As a breeze blew through, he appeared to be limping a bit, his T-shirt stuck tight to one side of his body, the other side blowing free.
First there was the sound of a motor. Then chop, chop, chop, Ts’ai Ch’ishih was cutting down his chickenhouse. Big Pillar’s beak was pecking tap, tap. I slowly opened my eyes; there was the shiny black telephone sitting in the sunlight that slanted in from the west window. Orders: Operation Golden Wind. Someone shouting: “Ts’ai—Ch’i—shih.” “In my hometown, I was called ‘Big Pillar,’” his words were still ringing in my ears. I put on my hat. My watch was pointing to four-thirty. I walked out.
“Ts’ai Ch’i-shih! . . . Your chickens! . . .” It was Yu Huo-yao.
A motorized three-wheeled handcart was parked in the middle of the yellow dirt road between the woods and the rice fields.
“Hurry up! It’s almost sundown!” The slick-haired chicken merchant appeared quite impatient. “Well, do you want to sell them or not?”
Ts’ai Ch’i-shih picked up a towel and wiped his hands, walking slowly. Little Ah-ch’ing threw down the things in his hands and bounced over from the ch’ieh-tung tree.
“What’s the matter?” The sturdy figure blocked the opening to the woods, his shadow slanting across the ground to some length, with the head cast right at the chicken merchant’s feet.
“The chickens! Do you want to sell them or not?” He took a few steps forward, the shadow’s head climbing up his ankles even as he tread down upon it.
“Sell? . . . The chickens?”
“Of course, what else?” Yu Huo-yao stuffed a bundle of money into his pocket: “The boss, Mr. Chu, has been waiting for quite some time, so hurry up, hurry up. He has other things to do after this! . . . Look, Platoon Leader is also here. Everybody’s waiting.”
“Sell?” Draping the towel over his shoulder, he didn’t budge. Ah-ch’ing pulled at one of his trouser legs: “So many, many feathers, shuttlecocks, shuttlecocks!”
“How about this, I’ll give you a special deal: egg chickens, thirty dollars per catty; meat chickens, thirty-five; the small ones, not figured by the catty, each chick . . .”
“No weighing, none of them are to be figured by the catty. I’ll sell! Okay . . . but not by the scale. My chickens are to be counted by the head! No matter what the size, every one, two hundred dollars each. The hardships I’ve gone through in raising them can’t be measured on a scale, cannot . . . Two hundred dollars is a bargain. I . . .”
“What? Two hundred?” Boss Chu raised two fingers, waving them back and forth: “Are you kidding me, mister?”
Ts’ai Ch’i-shih took up his towel to wipe his face, the shadow of his head traveling to the other’s groin. He gently pushed Ah-ch’ing aside with his huge palm: “Originally I hadn’t planned on selling them at all, not unless I found a proper buyer.” The blue sinews snaking in his forehead, a pearl of sweat oozing out to drip into the dirt, he continued: “I’m not putting the squeeze on you for money!”
“All right, all right, thirty-five a catty, the same price for all of them.” Chu was wearing his rainhat. Yu Huo-yao, astonished at his offer, fidgeted his fingers in his pocket and looked as if he wanted to say something but swallowed it down.
“No bargaining, two hundred!”
“He’s kidding me!” Chu pulled a long face toward us on his side, and said to Yu Huo-yao: “Squad Leader Yu, I don’t want this guy’s chickens. What airs! As if his birds are a kind of golden geese! Let him kill them himself for food, and I’ll bet he’ll get diarrhea! . . . Mister! I don’t want to buy them. You keep them, just keep them!”
“Uh . . . can’t we calm down and talk this over, Boss Chu?” Yu Huo-yao said, drawing his hand out and patting his trouser pocket, then tapping Boss Chu’s shoulder.
“I don’t want them! What a lunatic!”
Ts’ai took one step forward, his shadow now covering Chu’s entire body: “Let me tell you, Ts’ai Ch’i-shih is not to be had at any cheap price!”
The motor started up, drowning out Ts’ai’s voice, then raising a cloud of dust-yellow smoke as the cart drove off to the south down the main road.
Ts’ai shouted out once again: “I’m not to be had at any cheap price!” he then turned and rushed back into the woods, emerging a little while later pushing his ramshackle bicycle, which he immediately mounted to ride away.
“Ts’ai Ch’i-shih!’’ I blocked the path of his bicycle: “What are you doing? We’ll soon be on our way. Don’t make trouble!”
“If I may report to the Platoon Leader, I’m okay.” He looked at me, his eyes appearing extremely peaceful, like the moonlight of the other night. “Honestly, Sir, I wouldn’t . . .”
I made way and he mounted his bicycle. Ah-ch’ing ran to meet him but tripped over Ts’ai’s raised leg, and immediately burst into tears. Ts’ai quickly dismounted. Unable to console Ah-ch’ing, he crouched there worrying, as a steady stream of sweat dripped down all over him.
After crying for a while, Ah-ch’ing suddenly stopped and gasped: “A shuttlecock! . . . Big Belly’s shuttlecock, I want it!”
Ts’ai didn’t respond but only squeezed Ah-ching’s shoulder firmly with his huge palm, then turned to pick up the bicycle from the ground, and rode off along the field ridges, his back disappearing from view, merging into the silhouette of the little town. While here, the feathers that littered the ground were already covered with dust.
The first group of troops being sent to take over arrived at Command Headquarters at five o’clock sharp. After handing over some official papers, Deputy Platoon Leader Liu led some of them around on a tour. I made use of the free time to make a few phone calls to check up on each squad’s progress in its assigned preparations, and received word that all equipment would be completely organized at five-thirty and the men would be in the trucks at five forty-five and ready to depart at six o’clock sharp.
“Squad Leader Yu!” I added: “How is he? Is everything okay?”
“Reporting to the Platoon Leader, everything is okay. He just went out to buy a bundle of incense, a few packs of sacrificial paper money, very normal for him.” As soon as he finished, I could hear him cover the receiver on his end while he laughed to himself.
“Have you notified Second Squad Leader Ch’en yet?”
“I’ve already informed him, and he said he’ll take special note of it.” The muffled laughter of others near the telephone could be heard again.
I hung up, but I still had a feeling that the matter had not been settled. Looking out the window, I saw that the ubiquitous little Ah-ch’ing was still around. Deputy Platoon Leader Liu and his group, however, were laughing and chatting as they returned from their tour. I went outside, the heat of the sun was more tolerable now, as it had already sunk halfway below the flat roofs of the Headquarters and slipped among the treetops of the windbreak.
“Platoon Leader Huang, I’ll tell you something funny: you should have left these chicken houses to us.” A lieutenant handed me the list of damaged items, and I was just about to reply when a figure came running out of the woods. I recognized Squad Leader Ch’en, carrying on his shoulders two military knapsacks, one of which clearly bore on its shoulder strap the imprint of a feather:
“Reporting to the Platoon Leader!” Ch’en said.
I made a gesture with my hand to the people lined up opposite us, and Deputy Platoon Leader Liu led them inside.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Ts’ai Ch’i-shih has dug a huge pit in the woods, and taken the chickens, along with their cages, everything—and smashed them all to bits with a wooden club! . . .”
Not waiting for him to finish, I ran as fast as I could to the woods.
Legs spread, Ts’ai stood there, steady as ever, the long shadow of his body falling into the depths of a large rectangular pit. Therein lay six or seven iron cages, tossed around in every direction and utterly smashed, a scene of mutilation beyond recognition. Chicken feathers were scattered everywhere. Then, just when I decided that I couldn’t bear to look any further, I saw him turn around, holding Idiot Number Two in his hand. He said, as if he hadn’t seen me: “This time it’s not your fault! Little bastard, even if you were cruel, even if you were greedy, I want you to die bravely, you little bastard. Don’t complain now . . .” Having spoken, he broke its neck with a crack, threw it into the pit, and raised his arm, saying:
“Come on over here!”
“Ts’ai Ch’i-shih!” I shouted as I firmed my fist. The list of damaged items was crumpled into a ball.
Big Pillar sprang to its original position, from I do not know where, fluttered the feathers of its entire body, erected its brilliant red comb, and lifted its head, and then stayed motionless. Ts’ai Ch’i-shih said nothing, only stroking lightly all its shimmering feathers. A teardrop rolled down from the corner of his eye, flowing all the way down the folds of skin on his neck and then vanishing completely.
The moonlight of that night, perhaps of many nights hence, appeared, penetrated the tiniest cracks in the woods, and what fell on the human body was no longer coinlike bits of shining daylight, but rather a vast expanse of untinted clarity.
“Do you still remember?” Ts’ai Ch’i-shih leaned against a pine tree with his eyes closed. Tucking Big Pillar under one arm, he stroked the feathers of its neck with his free hand while he murmured as if in a dream: “On the day of departure, you still fought with Idiot Number Two over a shuttlecock, and your father hung you up and gave you a sound caning. Oh Big Pillar, a man can only be had for good price! It just can’t be argued...”
Again, the sound of another “crack!” I looked away.
“Go pay back the life you owed someone!” He sighed and threw the rooster into the pit, where it landed with a dull thud. Turning around, he picked up a bag of chicken feed and threw it into the pit. Three bloody claw marks showed clearly on his left arm.
He glanced at me, then as if some important thought had just occurred to him, he suddenly jumped into the pit to pluck a bunch of feathers from either side of Big Pillar’s tail. Putting them in his breast pocket, he jumped back out and grabbed a shovel to start filling the pit with dirt.
After the hole was filled, he got into his military uniform and put his hat on properly. He then took three sticks from his bag of incense and lighted them, together with a bundle of sacrificial paper money, while chanting: “Little guiding spirit, please honor my prayer, and lead the whole family of them back to . . .”
I came out first. Each truck was already positioned in its proper place. Two new soldiers were still covering their mouths, laughing over Ts’ai and his chickens.
“Who dares laugh again? Slap your mouths shut!”
The wind within and without the woods of the windbreak quieted down suddenly, as the sun sank to the corner of the sky from whence the winds came.
Ts’ai Ch’i-shih came walking in the breeze toward the road. Under the ch’ieh-tung tree, he fondled Ah-ch’ing’s hair lovingly, took the bunch of feathers from his breast pocket, and stuffed them into Ah-ch’ing’s tiny hand, saying: “Learn to make your own shuttlecocks!”
Then, as the trucks’ engines started up, he ran over to me and told me quietly: “Reporting to the Platoon Leader! I’m okay, except, my price wasn’t cheap!”
I watched him turn and get into a truck, which left its tire tracks behind as it sped off to the north, its two small red taillights shining persistently through the churning smoky fog. I started my jeep, and in the smoky fog before me there seemed to be a number of fluttering dark forms, kicking yellow dust as they touched ground.
Was it Big Pillar and his family?
1. “Big Belly” (Ta-tu-tzu) is nearly homophonous with “Big Pillar” (Ta-chutzu)—Ts’ai Ch’i-shih’s pet name for his black-tailed rooster—hence the boy’s playful mispronunciation.
2. Ch’ieh-tung tree, also called ch’ung-yang mu or ch’iu-feng, is the Chinese name for Bischofia javanica, which grows mostly in tropical areas.