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08.22.17
Our Human Neighbors

I’m a middle-aged male magpie who lives in the suburbs. Some tall poplars stand next to the primary school, and my home is set up in one of them. Originally, my parents, brothers, and sisters, as well as my grandparents, lived here, but now they’ve all disappeared.

      Let me tell you about my nest. Sturdy, beautiful, and symmetrical, my nest is something to be proud of. It’s practical and stable, with an ingenious opening. It’s particularly cozy inside. The outer layer is made of mud and grass, and the inner layer is made of fur and feathers. This dark, soft home gives us great happiness. Back then, my wife and I pulled together and worked hard to build this unusual nest! I fancied a certain attractive willow twig. It served as the best possible roof beam. Sure, it was heavy, but I was young and I picked it up all at once in my mouth. But just before I could fly to the sky with it, an urchin ran up and pounced on me with an iron-tipped bamboo pole. He hit me hard in the back. My beak relaxed its grip, and the twig fell to the ground. Even now, I can’t figure out why he wanted it. And after he picked it up, he broke it in half and fiercely stuck the two parts into the mud. I was injured and had to stop working on the nest for the next ten days. During that time, my wife kept nagging me, “Don’t irritate those people, don’t irritate those people …” I was so ashamed. After that, I didn’t dare look for stuff near the primary school. I went over to a hill and carried wood materials back. It was a long way away, and sometimes this took a whole day. I would carry it a while and then rest a while. I admired my wife: she could always find suitable materials in this neighborhood. She was much more efficient than I. The main thing was that she had never provoked those people; I don’t know how she had managed this.

      In the end, we did finish the nest before winter. At that time, twenty-one magpie nests were built in these poplars, like babies born to these trees. I had compared all of them to ours. I felt that the nest my wife and I had built was the most impressive and its design the most ingenious. It was also much cozier than the others. Maybe we were congenitally different from the others, and had a kind of innate skill? But my wife never thought of it in this way. For some reason, although our nest was well fortified, I felt uneasy, worried that people would shoot us. When I crouched there at night, I was afraid that some schoolboy would quietly climb up the tree and smash our nest with a tool. I couldn’t help feeling anxious; this was a consequence of my injury. Still, it turned out okay; our lives were tranquil and meaningful.



 

 
 

Now let me tell you about the small garden. Behind the school was a little garden that no one took care of. Wildflowers grew there—rhododendron, balsam, canna, gardenias. So many varieties! The soil was fertile, and an abandoned pool was filled with dried leaves. The little garden was where we foraged for food; it supported us. We often went there for meetings—we would have discussions as we hunted for food. We made an awful lot of noise. The sound of magpies is hard to take, but the monotonous language is full of warmth—and you may understand it if you only try.

      A skinny woman often sat on a stone bench next to the pool staring at it blankly. I observed her for a long time. How were she and the pool connected? Had her children drowned in it? Or was she thinking of committing suicide by throwing herself into the pool? I thought her gaze was eerie. But my wife didn’t think so. She said this woman was intellectual and sentimental. My wife’s perception was always accurate. One time, I was searching for insects under the rhododendron. When I looked up, I saw that the woman had passed out and fallen off the stone bench. At the moment, no one else was there—not my wife and not our neighbors, either. I was extremely worried. I hopped onto the woman and screeched loudly, over and over. Later, she slowly regained consciousness. The first thing she did after she came to was to grab me. God, I’d never been captured before. I didn’t move. My heart was beating like waves in a big river. She stood up slowly, took two steps, and knelt down next to the pool. The pool was full of water. What was she doing? She pushed me down in the water. I don’t know how long it was before she threw me into the wildflowers and walked away. I recall that when I was in the water, I actually felt sort of lucky. I was drenched. When the wind blew, I shook from the cold. It was then that I finally realized that I hadn’t died. I was still alive. And the several insects I had found were still beside me. I had to carry them back to the nest; my wife was sitting on her eggs at the time. I hastily mustered my energy, spread my wings, and let the wind blow the water away and dry my wings. I shouted to myself, “This is wonderful!”

      My wife listened quietly to my story, her eyes shining with emotion. Later, baffled, she asked me, “It’s impossible to understand what’s going on in people’s minds, isn’t it?” I absolutely agreed with her. I certainly couldn’t understand what I had just experienced. Afterward, I ran into this woman one more time. I couldn’t help approaching her, but she didn’t pay any attention to me.



 

 
 

I’d also like to tell you how my magpie relatives gradually faded away. It was really lively back then! First thing in the morning, our singing could be heard everywhere. Human beings thought that our language was too monotonous, too ear-piercing, too intrusive. Wherever we gathered in large numbers, people glared. We were too self-absorbed. It was understandable that people reacted this way. To tell the truth, I didn’t like it when we made too much noise, either, but as soon as we got together, no one could control himself: everyone made a screeching sound. It was really unpleasant. How had we come up with this kind of language? I thought about this frequently, but I couldn’t understand, no matter how hard I tried. When I was a child, I asked my father about this. He glared at me and told me to shut up. He said indignantly, “How dare you doubt your own species?” After that, I didn’t dare ask anyone.

      Our silhouettes were everywhere—in the little garden, on top of the nearby classrooms, and on the playground. Temperamentally, we were carefree birds. Why wouldn’t we speak out loud? The weather was so good, there were insects to eat, more family members were constantly being hatched, there was entertainment everywhere, we had new games to play every day—We had millions of reasons to yell and make noise. Those kids who chased us with bamboo brooms unexpectedly turned into our playthings, too. We teased them, and they held up their brooms and hit at us repeatedly. Their faces flushed as they struck out at us. They were annoyed. That was truly our golden age, the age of sunshine!

      The school gardener was a woman more than fifty years old. She had small eyes and a sallow face, and often wore an artificial smile. She loved watching the children chase us. She raised her long arms and slapped them on her thighs, unable to contain her mirth. This disgusted me. She spent much of her time watching us, as if she had nothing better to do. I thought this was quite fishy. But she treated us well. She dug out the earth next to the shrubs with a hoe, exposing the insects to attract us.

      Later, I noticed that it was because of this school gardener that some of us began disappearing. No one knew how they vanished; no one saw any magpie being hunted and killed. The plot was carried out quietly. Everyone except my wife and me thought highly of the school gardener. That assessment reminded me of what my wife thought of the skinny woman next to the pool. Could it be that people who were near magpies were all fond of killing? My father said that this woman “clearly understood the profound mysteries of the natural world.” In Father’s eyes, she was almost an irresistible spirit. And so Father sacrificed himself early.

      It was a pleasant morning when Father and I went to the playground together. The ground was damp from an earlier shower, and—from a distance—we saw the school gardener digging there. I was touched, thinking that she was really considerate of us. We flew over and saw the school gardener remove her red-orange work hat and raise it to the sky when she stretched. She looked at us out of the corners of her eyes with a jeering expression. But that lasted only for a split second; then she put on a poker face. On the alert, I put some distance between her and me. As I looked for insects, I kept stealing glances at her. Her body was piping hot. I wanted to run over and peck at her butt! But Father wasn’t the least bit alarmed by her. He followed close behind her, as if he were her pet. On another side of the playground, children were shouting; they were apparently fighting. Several children fell to the ground, while another group continued fighting. I didn’t like seeing bloody scenes, so I turned my back.

      Later on, I ate too much and got sleepy. I lay down under a bush and dozed for a short time. When I woke up, Father was no longer there. The school gardener was gone, too. The red-orange hat had been placed on the bush. I thought Father had gone home, and so I flew back. But Father wasn’t there.

      The strange thing was that Mama knew Father had disappeared from the school gardener’s side, yet she kept complaining that Father had “gone off to live a comfortable life alone.” She was rather angry, but not at all sad. I didn’t understand why. I unintentionally mentioned the red-orange work hat to Mama. I didn’t expect that Mama would grow excited:

      “Oh, that’s it! That hat! Oh, that’s it! That hat! Oh …”

      She screeched on and on—repeatedly making the same irrelevant point. All I could do was leave.

      Later, when I told my wife about this, her reply was also irrelevant. This was the first time I had felt alone.

      My wife, however, said something that made me uneasy. She said, “You need to care more about your mama.”

      I felt she was implying more than she said, and so I was more careful.

      The next day, I went to the school again. The school gardener was still weeding and acting as if nothing had happened. I put a lot of distance between us. In the entire morning, only a few neighbors came by. My ma didn’t show up at all.

      When I went home near evening, my wife told me that my ma had disappeared.

      “But I was watching the school gardener the whole time!”

      “You’re really set in your ways,” my wife reproached me.

      My wife didn’t tell me what she guessed, but I thought she knew what was going on. Sure enough, three days later, as we were at the door to our nest watching the sun set, she said, “There are all kinds of ways to play the game. You have a one-track mind.”

      I didn’t utter a word. She was right: in fact, I wasn’t good at considering all angles. I couldn’t imagine where my mother might have gone. I had perched here for ages. Crossing over to the other side of the school enclosure would be out of our domain. If we saw a confused guy fly to the west side of the department store, we would be frightened almost to death. Of course, no one would try such foolish things except for one crazy bird. Sure enough, he had never returned. But Mama hadn’t gone crazy; she was always clearheaded. Still, my wife was quite good at predictions, but she wouldn’t tell anyone.

      A few days later, one of our neighbors in the next tree went missing. That was a stretch of scary days: in three months, only ten birds in our clan were left—and that included our two children. That’s when my eyesight began blurring. Time after time, I saw overlapping images everywhere. Even when I looked at my children, I didn’t see two of them, but six of them. Only when I looked at my wife did I see just one image. As for the neighbors, they became a large flock of countless things. And so, I still felt surrounded by an enormous clan. My wife was happy that I felt this way; she didn’t want me to feel downcast because of loneliness.

      But one noon, they all disappeared, leaving only my wife and me. I stood on a branch of the poplar and saw a lot of children and some adults running around, all grasping long bamboo poles and shouting. Even I—a magpie who was not very nimble—could sense disaster coming. My wife laughed grimly. Not seeming to mind one bit, she was pecking at a hole on the branch, as though researching whether or not something was escaping from the inside. Suddenly, I began to suspect that I was seeing a hallucination produced by my double vision. When I asked my wife about this, she calmly answered: “That’s it. It’s a hallucination. However, an urchin is climbing the tree; he’s destroying our neighbor’s home. He’s efficient with his tools.”

      The whole tree was swaying, and I didn’t dare go over to watch. I said to my wife, “Let’s fly away.”

      “No.” She said resolutely, “We’ll go home.”

      “Why go home now? He probably intends to smash our home, too. We have no way to defend ourselves from humans.”

      But my wife was going home, and I’d better stay close to her and enter the nest.

      Snuggling up to each other, we shivered at the door of our home. I heard her heart thumping. How strange this was: her heart was in her chest, and yet I could hear it; my heart was in my chest, and yet I couldn’t hear it at all! At this moment, my vision was very clear; I saw no overlapping images. I saw that red-orange work hat. It wasn’t an urchin just now. It was the school gardener. She climbed up until she came face-to-face with us.

      My wife inclined her head, as though flames were shooting from that person’s eyes. She said to me, “This is truly surprising: I saw your mother in her eyes.”

      Nothing happened. She clumsily and slowly descended, and our gaze followed her into the distance. Why did she have to destroy our neighbors’ nest? It had been abandoned long ago. Was she threatening us?

      That night, my wife and I felt terribly lonely: we buried our heads in each other’s wings, and we each sensed a deep cavity in the other’s body. But after just a day passed, both of us felt stronger. We even went so far as to fly to the playground and wait for her to appear, but the school gardener didn’t show up again.



 

 
 

Okay, let me talk some more about those people. There were more and more people, and they built houses along the little roads in front of and behind the school. Originally, there had been only two thatched cottages here which seemed to belong to two school janitors. Now, there were at least fifty houses with tile roofs. The residents were people whose identities were unclear. They didn’t like to talk, and their faces were expressionless. In the morning, each of them went out carrying a bag; men and women dressed the same. I had stopped over on their eaves and heard the din they made inside. They often came to blows inside the house, sometimes even breaking the windows and frightening me. But as soon as they went out, they turned taciturn and melancholy. I wondered what kind of work they did. Were they under a lot of pressure?

      My intuition told me that these people were hostile to us and I said to my wife, “You were right in telling me not to provoke those people.”

      It didn’t occur to me that my wife would say, “These people aren’t the same as those people from before. We should get in touch with them.”

      I had always respected my wife; many of the things she said to me were predictions which were realized later. Then how was I to understand what she was saying now?

      I perched on those tile roofs and watched them and eavesdropped on their conversations, and when they flung the bags they were carrying onto the tables at outdoor bars, I went so far as to fly over there right away and rummage in their bags. But my cleverness in such trivial matters didn’t do any good: I didn’t discover anything, and I had no idea what I should do to “get in touch with them.”

      I noticed that the way my wife treated those people was neither servile nor overbearing. She often went to the ditches near their homes to grab insects to eat. Sometimes, she perched on their doors and watched cock fights.

      “Their passion for life went up a notch today,” she reported excitedly to me.

      But as I saw it, they didn’t have any passion for life. They merely had a kind of unusual pastime: to shut the door and fight (maybe it was a quarrel; I couldn’t get a good look at what was going on inside). What did my wife mean by their passion?

      “You’re really getting old. Didn’t you notice that they’re consuming more and more kerosene in their oil lamps?”

      “What oil lamps?”

      “The ones that light their homes at night.”

      Measuring the level of passion for life by the consumption of oil in the lamps? All at once, I got it. My wife was remarkable! Just think: these glum people were exhausted from working all day in the city. After eating and cleaning up, they lay down and went to sleep: that certainly didn’t count as feeling passionate about life. But now, they lit the oil lamps at home and engaged in all kinds of activities (I don’t know exactly what activities). Sure enough, this was a huge change!

      To verify this, my wife and I furtively flew over to those rooftops and squatted there. We heard explosive sounds ringing out of every house. Sometimes, bullets even flew out of their windows and whizzed in the air. Hearing all of this, my wife and I were both frightened and excited. We wanted to fly away, and yet we also wanted to stay here longer … oh, what exciting nights those were! Oh, the exciting sound of wine bottles dropping and breaking! Oh, those odd cries that were unlike human sounds!

      After we returned home, my wife said, “We’re really lucky.” I remember that when she said this, we were distinctly aware that a huge monster had climbed our tree, and our nest was shaking violently. This had never happened before. My wife and I were thinking the same thing: this was revenge for our having eavesdropped on their indoor activities. In that moment, we could have flown away, but for some reason we didn’t move. We stayed trembling in the nest, hoping that the thing would quickly descend.

      Later, something happened. We passed out, but we didn’t die. We were shaken out of the nest and fell to the ground. What kind of fierce beast was this?

      “It’s the school gardener,” my wife said.

      “Impossible!” I shouted. “The school gardener is just an old woman. How could she be so heavy? That thing is like an elephant. Look! The old poplar tree has been crushed and three branches were broken!”

      My wife said nothing. She was deep in thought, her expression absent-minded.

      Maybe it really was the school gardener. Her hat had fallen under the tree. Maybe she was a shapeshifter.

      I flew several times toward the playground, but didn’t see her. Probably she had really retired.

      Our nest sustained a little damage, but we repaired it. The people living in the tile houses were quiet in the daytime: they went into the city quietly and returned quietly. On weekends, the women washed clothes, and the men dug some holes behind the houses, but we didn’t see them sow any seeds. My wife eventually joined them. Strutting, she landed on their table and on their stove. I shivered for her.

      These people still acted viciously toward me. When I tried to get close to them, they looked as if they were saying there was no need for me to exist in this world. I despaired.

      I began to miss the skinny woman from the pool in the small garden. Where had she gone? How could she have disappeared without a trace? She evidently wasn’t a teacher in the school, and she wasn’t part of this group of people. Could it be that she lived in the city?

      In the middle of the night, those houses caught fire, perhaps because someone had created too much of a disturbance and knocked over an oil lamp, igniting something flammable. This seemed the most likely to me. It was a magnificent sight: my wife and I perched on a poplar twig and took it all in. The conflagration turned half the sky red; even the school classrooms were illuminated. How could the fire be so big? It was as if people had dumped a large quantity of kerosene into the fire. Even harder to understand was that no one escaped. We didn’t see even one person on the road. My wife and I smelled scorched flesh. We were shaking. For some reason, we had an urge to fly into the fire, but we restrained ourselves.

      An hour passed, and then another hour. The fire was still roaring. What was happening? The fire kept changing. At first, it was golden yellow, then red, and at last—three or four hours later—an eerie greenish blue. I don’t know where the flames came from, soaring so high. I suddenly had an idea: I was so scared that I fell down under the tree, because my whole body was paralyzed.

      “I know what you’re thinking,” my wife said softly beside me. “I’m thinking the same thing. It must be corpses that are burning. What else could it be?”

      I was speechless. I saw those raging flames and unexpectedly felt like crying. Was I really sympathizing with those people? Of course not: they didn’t need sympathy from me. I was nothing but a magpie. Slowly, I moved alone toward the nest. And so we endured a terrifying night—I staying in the nest, my wife staying outside.

      Not until the sun was high in the sky did my wife and I leave our nest. We flew over to those houses that lay in ruins. The fire had gone out earlier, yet traces of smoke were still visible. We jumped into the houses whose windows and doors had been incinerated, but it was vacant inside: there was no furniture, nor were there any people. My wife let out a loud sigh: “These people were so refreshing!”

      In fact, that’s what I thought, too, but I had never been able to express it as precisely as she did.

      People wouldn’t live here again for a long time. I was depressed.

      When my wife and I flew over to the public toilet, we saw a familiar figure. That’s right: it was the school gardener. She was scooping out the holes the men had dug; these holes covered the entire area of residences on this street. She focused on loosening the mud in the holes with a rake. We covertly flew behind her to have a look. What we saw was inconceivable: inserted into each hole were several white bones—some big, some small. They stood like mushrooms.

      I was stunned. I couldn’t help but screech. The old woman had turned toward me. As soon as she saw me, I calmed down. She looked both startled and admiring. Evidently, my reaction wasn’t as bad as it could have been; she seemed to understand me. And, surprisingly, my wife’s expression was exactly the same as hers!

      Ha-ha—Is the story I’ve told today long enough? I’ll stop here and continue tomorrow.


Longtime Conjunctions contributor Can Xue’s most recent novel published in English is Frontier (Open Letter). She was short-listed for the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature for 2016 and received the 2015 Best Translated Book Award for The Last Lover (Yale University Press). Her story in Conjunctions:65 Sleights of Hand is from her novella Story of the Slums.
Karen Gernant, professor emerita at Southern Oregon University, collaborates with Chen Zeping in translating contemporary Chinese fiction. Among their translations are Can Xue's Blue Light in the Sky (New Directions), Five Spice Street (Yale UP), Vertical Motion (Open Letter Books), and Frontier (Open Letter); as well as Zhang Kangkang's White Poppies and Other Stories (Cornell East Asia Series) and Alai's Tibetan Soul (MerwinAsia).
Chen Zeping has published widely in his field of Chinese linguistics. In collaboration with Karen Gernant, he has translated several contemporary Chinese writers into English, including Can Xue, Zhang Kangkang, Alai, Yan Lianke, and Lin Bai. He has taught in the United States and Japan and is also a professor at Fujian Teachers' University.