Birds

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A Nutmeg Mannikin bird. Photo by Noel Reynolds.
Photo by Noel Reynolds/Flickr

“Birds” is one of the interrelated stories in Tianqiao shang de moshushi (Magician on the overpass), published in Taiwan in 2011. The entire collection is set in Chinese Plaza (Zhonghua shangchang) in downtown Taipei in the 1970s–1980s.

I began raising birds the year I started elementary school. 

Before that, I went to the wet market with my mom every day. My elder brother, who’s a year older, was already in school. For me, the market was like an amusement park. My mom always put me in the small rattan chair on the front of her bicycle, which gave me a good view of each and every stall as if I were a princess on an inspection tour. I wished I never had to go to school.

One day I noticed a peddler with several small cages; there were probably a few hundred birds in them. This was the first time I had seen the peddler, and the first time I had seen anyone selling birds. The birds looked like sparrows. Because it was so crowded in the cages, they kept flapping their wings, sending the millet chaff in the air. I asked him what kind of bird they were.

“Black beaks.”[1]

“Huh?”

“Black beaks.” 

“Black beaks. How much?” 

“Ten bucks.”

Ah, ten bucks. I need ten bucks.

* * * 

The next day when my mom took me to the wet market, I tugged at the fringe of her skirt the whole time and repeatedly asked for a yogurt drink, which at that time was a luxury. My mom flatly refused and brushed aside my hand. But I was persistent and kept at it. My whining really annoyed her. At last, she threw me fifty cents to shut me up. 

In the evening, I watched Mom organizing the stamps with tweezers as if piecing together a map of the world. That’s why each time we sold some rare stamps I was heartbroken.

Over the next two weeks, I exhausted all my resourcefulness, helped her with cleaning, and dusted the cabinet that displayed the stamp collection. You remember the store my family owned on the second floor of the plaza?[2] Many of them belonged to my grandpa, my mother’s father. It was because of him that we opened the store and I got interested in stamps. Not many people understand the joy of collecting stamps. Up until I went to college my life had been limited to the plaza. All those photographs, paintings, and people on the stamps, all those special designs memorializing certain milestones were marvels in my eyes. It was as if they were letters we received from numerous people telling us about their countries. In the evening, I watched Mom organizing the stamps with tweezers as if piecing together a map of the world. That’s why each time we sold some rare stamps I was heartbroken.

Two weeks later, I had finally saved up ten dollars. I told my brother about my plan. The next day, when I went to the market with Mom, I would use the excuse of buying a yogurt drink to slip away. The truth was, I bought a black beak, which the peddler put in a tiny paper box. I placed it in a shopping bag used in my family store and took it home. My brother was nice to me, so he would never divulge the secret. 

For fear of being discovered, I kept the bird in the paper box even after I had taken it home. We could only drop grains of rice through the two tiny holes on the top. We also cut up the yogurt bottle and made a tiny bowl for water. The bird skipped about in the box; sometimes it made a soft beeping sound. I was so excited that I got goose bumps along my backbone. We thought we could raise the bird inside the box forever.

The following morning, I was so eager to see the bird that I opened one side of the box slightly. But the bird was visibly scared of me as it withdrew quickly to a far corner of the box. Through the hole I saw a twinkling star. For reasons I couldn’t explain, my heart leaped up all of a sudden. Do you know what a wonderful feeling that was? It was the same feeling I had many years later when I saw the Czech stamps of the twelve zodiac signs for the first time.

My brother and I couldn’t sit still the whole day. Every few minutes we would run to the small box and through the tiny hole exchange a look with the bird, if only for a second. At dinnertime, I opened a slit of the box and tried to see what it was doing; taken aback, it panicked and made a run toward my eyes. Then it flew away. 

That night I cried all night. My mom never figured out what I was crying about; she became so annoyed till she couldn’t hold it back anymore and gave me a good beating. For the first time I felt that I had lost something more important than ten dollars. 

* * *

After the bird had flown away, I was listless for quite a while. The summer ended, and I started elementary school at last. I found it terribly boring to sit in the classroom; the only thing that attracted my attention was a tree on the campus. Inside a hollow was the nest of a colorful bird making a guoguoguo sound. It was years later that I learned the bird was called Müller’s barbet. In those days, nobody knew the secret that Müller’s barbet once made a nest at an elementary school in downtown Taipei. Before my very first midterm exam, my mom promised me that if I scored in the top three she would buy the bike from Little Lu next door, who no longer wanted it. “Can I get something else?” “As long as it doesn’t cost more than the bike.” “How much is Little Lu asking for?” I queried. “A hundred dollars,” said my mom.

A hundred dollars! I exchanged a look with my brother. Mom said as long as it didn’t cost more than the bike. That was the first time I made it to the top three in my class. After that, the honor would always go to you, the class president whose family ran a bakery, and Mosquito at the hardware store. I never got another chance. It was the only time in my entire career at elementary school that I scored so high, and I was rewarded with a pair of ten sisters.[3] Back then my mom had no way of knowing that it was the only time I would make it to the top. She was on the verge of tears as she went on and on about how smart I was to the family that made bamboo containers in Building 8. She even bought me a small bamboo cage. That day I loved my mom so much that I swore when I grew up I would take care of her till the end of time, never getting married. 

* * *

My brother and I nailed a piece of board to the low wall outside the covered arcade and put the cage on top of it. There they were: one male and one female ten sisters. The male bird was ochre-colored, and the female was black and white. Both of their tails had been trimmed—I heard that pet stores did this to all birds so they wouldn’t fly away. Every day after school, my brother and I would take the cage down and change the newspaper on the bottom. Sometimes cockroaches hid under the newspaper, scaring me to death. My brother would act tough and boast, “Come on, what’s there to be afraid of?” as he stomped on the cockroaches with his eyes closed. The survivors would scram into the used bookstore next door or the store owned by Mr. Tang, the tailor. 

 

I burst out crying. My wailing was so loud that it woke the neighbors on the second floor. Mr. Tang later said that it was the most disconsolate wail he had ever heard since the founding of the Republic of China.


One morning when I got up, I didn’t hear any chirping. When I ran out to the cage, I saw the two birds lying dead in a corner of the cage; their feet and bottoms were badly torn, their wings stained with dried blood.

I burst out crying. My wailing was so loud that it woke the neighbors on the second floor. Mr. Tang later said that it was the most disconsolate wail he had ever heard since the founding of the Republic of China.

Later, your brother told my brother that the birds were killed by rats. The rats must have climbed up the wall along the wires at night, landed on top of the cage, and let down their tails inside the cage to scare the birds. The scared birds fluttered around, but since they couldn’t see in the dark they ended up frozen in a corner. Then the rats crept over without making a sound and bit the trapped birds. Their pointed mouths went through the gap between two ribs of the cage and gnawed on the reachable parts of the birds.

I still remember my brother saying, “It must have taken the birds a long time to die being gnawed on like that; they probably bled to death.”

Both my brother and I burst out crying. 

* * * 

After the ten sisters died, for a long time I didn’t want to raise birds again. “It will be like feeding them to the rats,” said my brother.

Time passed. One day I was standing by the magician’s stall on the overpass. I saw someone telling fortunes with a white Java sparrow. The fortune-teller looked like a burned churro: tall, greasy all over, always dressed in black—black socks, black outfit, black newsboy cap. He covered the tiny cage with a piece of black cloth. When a customer came, he would remove the black cloth and let the bird out. The bird would pick out one of the long wooden prayer sticks, each with a different word on it: “career,” “love,” “fortune,” and so on. Then he would proceed to tell the customer’s fortune. The white bird was amazing, working this way on the overpass but never trying to fly away. Later, I heard from your brother that it’s because the fortune-teller had raised the bird since it was a baby. Each prayer stick the bird took would cost the customer ten dollars—as much as a black beak!

I don’t know if you still remember the time the magician borrowed the bird from the fortune-teller for a show. That is the most incredible magic trick I’ve ever seen.

The magician borrowed the cage from the fortune-teller and announced to the audience that he would do something special. His only request was that the fortune-teller would not touch the cage no matter what happened.

“This is extremely important. I won’t do it if you can’t promise me,” said the magician. The fortune-teller nodded in consent.

The magician removed the black cloth to show the audience there was indeed a living, bouncing bird. Then he covered the cage and used his left eye to look at the cage, his right eye at the audience. I always thought that the magician’s eyes looked ominous. After a minute—no, maybe just a few seconds—the magician briskly unveiled the cage: inside was a baby chick whose soft down was sparse, eagerly looking for millet grains with an open mouth and unsteady steps. Even if we dismissed the trompe l’oeil, which is all magicians’ trade, where did he get the chick? The fortune-teller was in a daze, too. He stretched out his right hand, but the magician slapped him on the back of the hand, this time using his right eye to stare sternly at the fortune-teller, his left eye looking into the distance.    

“I told you not to touch it.”

The audience whispered as the magician covered the cage with the black cloth again. He closed his eyes, mumbled something to himself, and lifted the black veil. There, the chick was changed back to a Java sparrow with pure white plumage. It was as if we all had been bleary-eyed a moment earlier. The more we tried to picture the chick, the more uncertain we became if we had actually seen it. A hearty applause erupted. The grown-ups threw down many coins. To our surprise, the magician raised his hand to indicate that the show was not over yet. He put the black cloth back on; this time he didn’t even recite a spell. In a flash, as the magician used his right eye to look at the audience on the right side, his left eye at the audience on the left, he pulled off the black cloth. I heard a sad cry uttered by the fortune-teller and the audience—it was the same as mine a few months before at the sight of the bodies of my ten sisters. 

The Java sparrow was dead.                         

There was no wound, but the white bird was lying on the bottom of the cage, its claws stiff and curled, its eyelids closed with only a slit. The eyeballs showing through the slit made it clear that life had left the tiny body. It was beyond doubt it was dead; there was no way to train a bird to fake death. Not much earlier, I had seen a pair of gently closed eyes. The thin eyelids gave no sign of life beneath them. Gone, dead, something had flown away from the tiny body. But somehow my intuition told me that this Java sparrow was the same one of a moment before; it’s just that the bird had aged. It had died of old age, not some unexpected cause. Somehow the feeling persisted. Even now, thirty some years later, I still have that feeling when I recall the scene.

The fortune-teller couldn’t help reaching out his hand to grab the cage. Not only that, all the while he was cursing at the magician for having caused the bird’s death. The magician hurriedly stopped him with his right hand, while the other hand covered the cage with the black cloth. He uttered a loud call, as if to awaken the fortune-teller from a stupor. He used his body to form a barrier between the fortune-teller and the cage behind him, so we couldn’t see the entire process. “Get out of the way, you stupid fortune-teller!” the audience yelled. The black cloth was lifted; like rewinding a reel of film, the Java sparrow was perching on the bamboo stick in the cage, alive as ever, tilting his head and looking at the surrounding crowd. It had the same look in its eyes as a few minutes before.

“If you had touched the cage, the bird could not have made it back,” the magician said in an angry, grainy voice. The fortune-teller felt like he had done something wrong and at the same time had done nothing wrong. 

“But why?” I mustered up courage and interjected.

The magician gave me a hard look with his right eye. “Because it was in magic time. Once magic is under way, the time around the cage is not the same time we are in on the overpass. If anyone interrupts magic time with any part of his body, the bird cannot come back.” The magician continues: “It will stay in magic time, never to return.”

* * *

They say that the magician only did that trick once. That was 1979. “How can you remember it so well?” you may ask. Because that year the post office issued a stamp in commemoration of Rowland Hill, who invented stamps. Originally, postage was based on weight, the number of pages, and distance. Mailing a letter was expensive; only the rich could write letters to those faraway, but the poor could not afford it, though they missed their loved ones. Rowland Hill was the principal of a primary school, but he was critical of the postal system. He wrote a pamphlet titled Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability in 1837, in which he called for “low and uniform rates,” charging a penny for any domestic letter weighing under half an ounce. His proposal became immensely popular and caught the attention of the government. It is said that the Ministry of Finance even issued a call for stamp designs offering £200 as the prize, and they received more than 2,600 entries. However, none were selected by the panel of judges. Hill was one of the judges, and he came up with a sample based on the forty-nine designs that had been selected in the preliminary round. It won the approval of the other judges and became the first postal stamp. I wonder if Hill got the prize money. Doesn’t it sound suspiciously like cheating? Regardless, it is because of him that the world started pasting a tiny piece of paper on an envelope and sending it to many distant places. 

It was also during that year that my dad, who had left my mom eight years before, sent her a long letter. I watched her reading the letter with a stony look in her eyes. After signing one of the pages, she put it in a new envelope, licked a stamp with Rowland Hill on it, affixed it on the envelope, and mailed it. My dad had left home before I was born; I had never met him. Only once did I see a photograph in my mom’s album that I suspected was my dad. With a lacy edge, the photograph looked like a stamp. 

Have you ever licked a stamp? I used to. It tasted salty and slippery, as if the tongue were trying to affix some words on the back of the stamp. 

* * *

Back then, how I wanted to be the magician’s assistant, a beautiful female assistant! I actually asked him, but he said his magic didn’t require an assistant. “I have always performed alone, and will continue to do so. A magician who needs an assistant is not a first-rate magician.” 

Though I didn’t become the magician’s assistant, I was determined to raise Java sparrows. I wanted to raise them when they were babies. When they grew up, I would teach them how to pick out prayer sticks, how to lay eggs, from which chicks would be hatched. Then I would raise the chicks and teach them how to pick out prayer sticks. . . . This way I could tell fortunes for ten people at a time.                 

After much research, my brother and I found an aviary on Guilin Road in Wanhua District that carried Java sparrow chicks. After the Chinese New Year, when we got our “red envelopes,” we told Mom that we were going to the public toilet. In fact we ran all the way to the aviary and bought two Java sparrow chicks, one white and one black.

Of course we got a good beating from our mom, but soon she gave in. The old bamboo cage had several ribs broken by the rats, so she bought us a small iron cage. We wiped off the tears that got us a new cage.

Following the instruction of the aviary owner, we soaked millet in water for half a day, then we folded cardboard into a tiny spoon and fed the chicks. When they saw us coming near, they opened their mouths unbelievably wide and chirped noisily. After they had had enough, a protrusion was visible on their necks, which later I learned is called ingluvie. Birds store food there and digest it slowly. When I was raising the two chicks, I would blow on the down of their necks so as to check whether or not they had eaten enough. The chicks grew day by day; finally they got their first full plumage. The black bird was so handsome, and the white bird had sparkling eyes tinged with melancholy when it looked at me, as if she had something to say to me.

We named them Little White and Little Black. If they mated and had chicks, some would be white, some black, even some gray. I began to picture in my mind a brood of Java Sparrows of different colors flying around in my home. But one day your brother came to my house to check the gender of the two birds. He grabbed them and blew on the down near the bottom. 

“Both are male,” your bother said.

“How do you know?”

“The female has a reddish bottom.” I didn’t believe him. I thought Little Black was male and Little White female. I could tell by the looks in their eyes. 

After we had Little White and Little Black, my brother and I took turns bringing the cage inside every evening. But it irritated Mom because cockroaches came in, too. My brother had to work harder to exterminate them; even I gathered courage for the birds’ sake. Of course, the cockroaches worked even harder to breed little cockroaches to battle our slippers. Sometimes I got nauseated at the sight of dead cockroaches. Even when they were flattened, their feet moved as if trying to crawl back from the underworld. 

We would dump the dead cockroaches in the garbage can upstairs where the fortune-teller lived because we thought it’d be disgusting to have so many dead cockroaches in our own garbage can. Once I saw a pack of cards in it, not your ordinary cards but with naked foreign women on them. The one on the ace of hearts was a red-haired girl wearing red nail polish; she spread her bottom to show some kind of strange-looking flower. Upon seeing the picture, my face started burning.      

* * * 

One morning when I woke up, I didn’t hear the birds chirping. An ominous feeling arose. I rushed down from the attic and ran up to the cage. Little Black’s head and neck were gone, with only the lower body left. The body and feet of Little White were gone, with only the upper body left. The two halves that remained were hollowed out, as if they had been so carefully cleaned that they could be used as finger puppets, with not a trace of blood and the innards. 

I remember I uttered a shrill scream, probably waking up all the residents in the plaza. I put on my slippers and tromped toward the staircase. I ran to your home on the first floor and knocked on the iron door. I still remember that you opened the door with sleep in your eyes: “Give me five minutes.” I shouted, “It would be too late!” I borrowed the super glue your dad used on shoe soles and ran back to the third floor. I was panting so hard I nearly fainted. I pried open the tube of glue with my favorite Little Angel pencil and applied some glue with the broken pencil to the edge of the half-bodies of Little White and Little Black. I used too much glue in some spots that it got on the feathers and turned them yellowish and dark. I tried to glue the two birds back together. 

My brother stood beside me and cried, “It’s no use, it’s no use!”

* * *

I remembered you telling me once that your mom caught you eating sugar cubes and threatened to chop off your hand. You asked her if you would grow a new hand. She said, “No, but you can glue it back on with the super glue.” “Really?” She said the super glue your dad used for shoe repair could glue anything. “Don’t those soles work just fine, so long as they are not immersed in water?”

I also remembered you saying that when applying the super glue, you should not press two parts together right away; let the glue dry a little before you press them tightly and wait a few minutes for the glue to set. You said your dad told you the super glue was good for everything. That I remembered.  

While I applied the super glue, I blew on the half-bodies of the birds. Slowly, they gave a strange smell; it was as if the smell made it impossible for the eyes to open, and I was trying to dispel the smell. After a few minutes, I glued the two halves together and then covered it with the sky-blue handkerchief that Sister Orchid had given me. I remembered what the magician once had told us: “When you do magic, you must not think about anything other than the object of magic as if it really existed; you must forget everything else and visualize the object as if it were real.” I closed my eyes and visualized a live bird under the handkerchief—my Little White, my Little Black. Magic time was turning slowly, returning to a certain moment.

I lifted the handkerchief.

* * *

In that very moment, my hand felt a slight quivering, as if a long winter had turned warm all of a sudden and a bare tree put forth a few leaves under the wrong impression that the season was changing.

Nothing changed. Though I joined the half-bodies, Little White’s eyes were still softly closed; she was not looking at me with her melancholy eyes. They were dead, gone, not coming back, no matter what magic I used. Then, my tears poured down like rain, drop by drop, on the feathers of the two birds.

In that very moment, my hand felt a slight quivering, as if a long winter had turned warm all of a sudden and a bare tree put forth a few leaves under the wrong impression that the season was changing. I saw Little Black’s feet twitching, then Little White’s eyelids opening a slit, showing a starry glow in its baby eyes. My lips trembled. My brother by my side opened his eyes wide and, as if sleepwalking, reached out his hand and touched Little White and Little Black. Instantly, the starry eyes turned glassy, then wooden. As if the super glue stopped working, Little White and Little Black separated abruptly and went back to being two halves. Something had disappeared, never to return. 

* * *

Later your brother told me that what had killed Little Black and Little White was probably not rats but cats. Only cats would eat all the innards and lick the blood clean. There were cats everywhere in the plaza, roaming freely on the walls and between the store signs. They gave birth to kittens on the neon signs on the balconies or in the storage closets of public toilets. The kittens would snuggle together, too young to prey on birds; they were just curious about birds, curious about play. Then someday they would know how to kill birds. But I would not blame them. Cats are born to kill birds. 

My only regret is that I didn’t stop my brother the way the magician stopped the fortune-teller. If I had stopped my brother from touching the bird, perhaps all would have stayed in magic time, quietly, undisturbed.

Translation from the Chinese
By Michelle Yeh

Born in 1971, Wu Ming-yi is a Taiwanese writer, painter, designer, photographer, environmental activist, traveler, and blogger all rolled into one. Over the last decade, he has produced an impressive body of work, especially with his fiction and nature writing. Wu studied advertising at Fu-Jen Catholic University and received a PhD in Chinese literature from National Central University. He has been teaching literature and creative writing at National Dong Hwa University since 2000, where he is a professor in the Department of Chinese. 

Translator’s Notes

1. The nutmeg mannikin has a black beak in the shape of a fountain pen tip.

2. The plaza refers to Chinese Plaza, Zhonghua shangchang. It was built in 1961 and consisted of eight buildings connected by an overpass in downtown Taipei. It was the busiest area in the city in the 1960s–1970s but declined afterward until it was torn down in 1992.

3. Society finch or Bengalese finch. 

Editorial note: Michelle Yeh’s translation of Wu Ming-yi’s essay “Sitting Quietly for Trees” is in the eco-lit special section of the May 2014 issue of WLT