Chen Xiwo

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

The child has adopted the family cockerel as a pet. When a government official wants a bird to carry out a sacrifice, the father sells it to a couple of butchers. The distraught child stows away in the butcher’s van and hangs onto the cockerel in an attempt to stop it being slaughtered.


“You’ll get yourself sliced up!” the butcher man threatened.

He reached out with the knife. He was going to execute my cockerel. The blade approached the bird’s neck and, in the struggle, I thought it might slip and cut into it. I hesitated. And in that second’s hesitation, my hand was pulled away by the onlookers.

Luckily, my other hand was still holding on. I threw myself forward but was grabbed again. Again and again I charged, but every time I was pinned down. They had hold of my hands, and it was like I was swimming across a lake but I couldn’t get to the opposite shore, the water was so powerful, my legs were exhausted. It was out of reach, and I was out of strength.

At this point, I started berating the cockerel: You have a go too! Here I am, trying to save you, and you’re just sitting here waiting to be saved! It’s your life! You’ve got claws, haven’t you? Your legs are tied but you can move your claws, and your talons are long and sharp, not like a duck’s clumsy webs, move them! The cock seemed to understand, and scrabbled a bit faster. Of course, it had been trying to claw the man before now, because it knew how to save itself. But the man grasped its legs and talons, and turned his head away and out of reach. The cock scrabbled uselessly in the air.

So the cock only had dummy weapons, and my weapons had been pinned down, and the executioner was gripping his weapon in his hand. I knew the odds were against us. All I could do was beg: “Please don’t kill the cock!”

“Not kill it? Then what’ll we sacrifice?”

“The sacrifice is important!” agreed the butcher woman.

“I know, I know . . . ” I was trying to show I understood. Maybe I could stall them. “But sacrificing it like this . . . it might do more harm than good.”

“Listen to him!” The butcher man smiled.

“It’s true, it’s true!”

“How could a sacrifice be harmful? It’s a generous gift, everyone likes gifts. The Immortals, too.”

“This cock is a special spirit!”

“It’s just specially fierce!”

“It broke a china bowl!” I burst out. I showed him. The cock had kicked the bowl so hard it broke, and the fragments had been swept over by the wall. I looked around for the butcher woman, hoping she’d back me up. But she didn’t.

“So what? I can break a bowl with just one kick!” said the man, and he looked as if he was going to do just that, but the butcher woman came out and stopped us. 

“Stop messing around!” she told him quietly.

Her eyes were on him, warning him, but the man was proclaiming loudly, like a cricket in summer: “A broken bowl brings wealth!”

“But a broken bowl is a bad omen too,” the woman said. “You might not care, but what about the bureau chief? And Mr. Wang the director? Won’t they care? It’s not your sacrifice!”

“Then better not tell the bureau chief. He’ll think we can’t get anything right,” said the butcher man.

It suddenly dawned on me what they were up to . . . they didn’t care if they made a botched job of it, so long as the bureau chief was none the wiser. All that loyal servant business was fake. But why should they care at all about the bureau chief’s sacrifice? Well, of course, I knew the saying that when the bosses go under, they take their drivers with them. So this pair would do whatever it took to protect their boss, but most of all, they were out to protect themselves.

“You can put it right, can you?” the butcher woman went on. “You’d better! A bit of bad luck and we’ll be in trouble. Like, the government inspectors might turn up, and you know what means!”

That gave me an idea: I’d tell the bureau chief about the broken bowl. He was so superstitious, it might spook him into letting my cockerel go. I shouted:

“Bureau chief! Bureau chief!”

The butcher woman clamped her hand over my mouth. Did she really think that would keep me quiet? I wrenched my head around and flung her hand off.

“I’m going to tell the bureau chief!” I cried.

The hand landed on my mouth again and I couldn’t shake it off no matter how hard I tried. The butcher man got moving too, and his knife blade approached the cock’s neck again. Just a little closer and he’d be touching it. If I didn’t do something, the cock would die. And once it was dead, it couldn’t come back to life again. I became very calm, I didn’t try to shout, I just let out grunts, urgent grunts, to let them know that I had something important to tell them. The butcher woman took her hand away.

“Let me give it a stroke?” I begged. “One last stroke!”

I wasn’t being unreasonable, and the butcher woman agreed, and told the man to wait while I stroked it.

“Hurry up then!” said the man.

I nodded. I went up to the cock. When it saw me, it relaxed. I gently stroked the long iridescent feathers on its neck. Its body yielded to my touch, just as if I’d saved it from slaughter. It didn’t know this was the last goodbye. I did, and that made it all the more painful. I pressed my face to its belly and burst into tears.

Today there was no escape, I thought, but at least I could make sure it suffered as little as possible. I said this to the butcher woman. “Sure! We’ll make sure it doesn’t hurt!” she told me.

That was some consolation. After all, she was a woman with a woman’s soft heart, like my mum, like the cockerel’s mum! But it was the man who was going to use the knife. “Please don’t hurt it!” I begged him.

“Sure, sure . . . !” he dragged out the words.

It was a perfunctory reassurance, but no doubt meant to sound emphatic too. I knew it was perfunctory, but I made myself believe it was a solemn promise. What else could I do? The cock looked inquiringly at me. It trusted my judgment. But I still had suspicions that the man was going to make a mess of it and I turned my attention to him. All he could do was shake his head. But that wasn’t enough for me. I was adamant. That felt good. I pressed home my advantage: “You got to be gentle!”

“Of course he’ll be gentle!” said the woman.

“Sure, sure . . . !” the man repeated.

And he held the knife out again, until the blade almost touched the cock’s neck. It was a good thing that the cock’s head was bent backward and the butcher’s hand was in the way so it couldn’t see the knife. I started to talk to it; that way, when the knife came down, it would all be over quickly and it wouldn’t feel any pain. “It’s all going to be fine!” I said. I watched the knife blade out of the corner of my eye. It pressed against the tender flesh. The bird squawked. But it didn’t bleed, it hadn’t broken the flesh. The butcher tut-tutted. I reached out and pushed the knife blade so it scraped against the edge of the flower pot. I was sharpening it, and I was buying time.

“You said you’d be gentle! You said!”

“I am being gentle! It’s just that the blade’s blunt.”

I sounded like I was clutching at straws but when you thought about it, it was obvious you couldn’t do it quickly with a blunt blade. I’d seen a cock killed with a blunt knife and it was like a saw, working away until eventually the neck broke. So I had to make him sharpen his knife. The butcher rubbed the blade back and forth a couple of times, then exclaimed:

“It’ll be quick now!”

Quick . . . he meant he’d kill the cock quickly and cleanly. Still, it was better to get it over with, a quick death was better than a slow painful one. Like dunking the frog straight into boiling water, you had to be decisive. The butcher brought the blade close to my bird again. I shut my eyes. The cock squawked and I opened them, to see a cut. There was no blood yet, but I could imagine how painful it was. The cock was struggling as hard as ever. I took it in my arms. I wasn’t trying to stop the butcher, you had to accept fate, I had to get the cock to accept its fate. But the cock was struggling. It glared at me, as if to say: “You betrayed me!”

The cock had no idea how hard I was trying, no idea how hard I’d tried to negotiate with the butchers. Of course, it was the cock who was going to die, not me. How could I speak on its behalf? But I really was doing my best for it! I felt like I was a national leader, and the cock was one of the masses, it had no inkling how hard I was working for it. Hah, the masses never appreciated what the leaders did for them! “No, no . . . !” I wanted to explain to the cock, but of course it couldn’t understand, and there was no time. Even if it could understand and if there had been time, it was never going to accept it. Put yourself in its place. Would you resign yourself to death? There was no reason to. And every reason to want to live.

But the problem was that he already had you in his grasp, your wings pinioned to your sides, so how could you get away? You were going to die whether you wanted to or not. You could die relaxed or you could die struggling. You’re a cockerel, you were always going to be killed, and there are only two ways to go, a good death and a not-good death. “Stop fretting!” I told the cock. “Just one chop and it’ll be over.”

The cock raised its head, as if to say: “But why me?”

“Because you’re a cock!” I said. I knew I was making no sense, I sounded stupid. But that was what everyone believed, right? And at that moment, I felt that what people believed made sense. Everyone believed that eating chicken was right and proper, that was why you reared cocks and hens, to eat them. Even people who called themselves dog-lovers ate chicken.

The cock lifted its head again. I knew it wasn’t convinced. “The world is full of cocks and hens. Why did you choose me?”

Right, but who asked you to grow so big and fat? We had to choose you. A sacrifice needs a big fat bird. You should feel honoured, you’ve landed the laurel wreath! And suddenly my mind filled with images: a pig wearing a laurel wreath, a cockerel wearing a laurel wreath, my dad wearing a laurel wreath for being a champion grain producer, frontline troops in films wearing laurel wreaths, my primary school pals wearing laurel wreaths for emulating the young hero Lei Feng. The rest of us used to jeer at them, but now at this solemn moment the image seemed sublime, not preposterous or laughable. Believe it or not, if you have to die, it’s glorious to be a sacrifice. You’re offering your body for the greater good, and what could be more momentous than that?

“You’ll win glory!” I told it.

But the cock carried on struggling. After all, it was only a cock. I blamed myself: It was me who reared you so you grew so big, it was my fault. I’m to blame! I told the cock. But we can’t turn the clock back, you’re big and fat now, and they’ve chosen you, and that man’s got you in his grip. Whether you want to be or not, you’re going to be the sacrificial victim. Too bad.

This wasn’t the moment to reason with the cock, all I could do was cajole it: “Just one blow, just one slash, and you’ll be free. Then I’ll give you lots of nice food, and play with you, you’ll have so much . . . ”

I was kidding it, but I was doing it for its own good. Didn’t we all, unwittingly, kid ourselves all through our lives, right to the end, kid ourselves that the Bodhisattva will “bring all beings across the sea of sufferings?" As those thoughts passed through my mind, I felt there was no going back. I had to deceive the cockerel, so I said to the man (but really my words were intended for the cock):

“Just one slash, right?”

“Yes!” the butcher man said impatiently.

“You hear that? Just one slash!”

The bird cocked its neck to one side, as if to show the cut and say: “He’s already slashed once!”

“I know, I know. But one more slash, all right?” I said.

The cock didn’t answer. It shook its neck to and fro but it wasn’t a long neck, not like a duck, so it couldn’t move it much. The man pressed its head back again. The cock gave a loud squawk.

“You see, that’s what happens when you don’t do what you’re told!” I admonished it. I was a traitor. “Do what you’re told!” I looked across the man’s hand at the cock. Tears were actually falling from its eyes. I had never seen a fowl cry. It reminded me of seeing oxen cry before they were slaughtered. People always said oxen were closer to humans than poultry, but this cock was pretty close, it understood things, it understood perfectly well what was coming. I felt almost heartbroken. But there was nothing I could do, it had to endure and accept its fate. “Your head’s on the block,” I told it as I wiped its tears. I stroked its head.

I heard it mutter: “But I don’t want . . . ”

“Do as you’re told!” I told it gently. Words of comfort, lying words, clichés all . . . I felt weary. In this state of lethargy, I waited for the butcher man’s knife to fall. Eventually it did, and the cock struggled. Suddenly I realized that I shouldn’t have been lethargic.

The bird was looking at me beseechingly, as if it were saying: “No, no! I’m begging you, tell the man, I don’t want . . . ”

“I know, I know,” I said.

Actually, I was in a dilemma, I didn’t know what to do. I carried on lethargically coaxing the cock:  

“There, there, be good now! Just one slash, just one.”

It was treading with its feet, and I knew it was saying: “I don’t want . . . ”

“There, there!”

It trod harder, not in a threatening way at all, it had given up by now. Its movements seemed almost graceful, like someone laying down their arms and talking reason. That gave me another chance.

“Just one more slash and then he’ll let you go.” I remembered how they used to bribe me when I had to have an injection as a kid.


“Really! It’s nothing!”

“All right then.”

But its cockscomb was still erect and I knew its neck was rigid. And that meant that when the knife came down, it would really hurt. I stroked its neck comfortingly and it relaxed, but it carried on resisting feebly, and emitting threadlike squawks. This was disobedience lurking beneath obedience, or vice versa. I felt a sharp stab of distress. This was killing it tenderly, and it was going obediently to its death! Its claws were punching harder now. I told it silently, I brought this on you, I set the trap for you, I deceived you, I’m despicable, evil . . . ! I couldn’t drag this out any longer. I hardened my heart. I shot the man a look, meaning: Do it. He picked up my meaning, and made another cut.

The bird struggled and squawked: “That hurt!”

“I know, I know . . . ” I said.

It was still struggling.

“I know it really hurts,” I said.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed with distress: “I know how much it hurts!” I wailed.

But the cock wasn’t about to forgive me.

“If you don’t give in, they’ll get angry and you’ll die anyway!” I threatened it. “They’re fierce!”

It was as if it couldn’t die unless it put up some resistance. I despised myself. They wanted it dead and I kept persuading it that it wasn’t going to die. “Just one slash, eh?” I wheedled again.

The cock suddenly figured it might not die. It stopped struggling, and looked at me as if to say: “Really?”


“You guarantee it?”

“I guarantee it!” But how could I guarantee it? I looked at the cock. It had given in, its comb had flopped over one eye. On foreign TV, before someone got killed, they were blindfolded. That was a civilized way to execute someone, civilized slaughter. Maybe blindfolding someone really did calm you down, you couldn’t see the cliff edge as you gave up your life. The cock had stopped squawking and struggling and had handed itself over to me. I was the only one it trusted. And now I was leading it to its death! I was the executioner too. But what could I do? I was willing to commit the crime, just so long as the cock didn’t die a painful death. I felt like the hero of a tragedy. No, more of a scapegoat. There was a church in my village, where the faithful often talked about scapegoats. That was the fate of a saviour, to take on both merits and sins. I suddenly felt like I was in a different realm.

But I really could not take on this guilt. The scapegoat had a divine mother, but mine was ordinary, just someone who sold and butchered cockerels. Behind that scapegoat there was God, but I had no god behind me. The people around me only believed in themselves, in their lives, living was the imperative.  Probably the cock didn’t believe me, and had known from the get-go that it was going to die, it just wanted me to have a bad conscience. But that I would not accept. I had to push the responsibility onto someone else, onto the one who was going to kill the cock.

“You’ve got to guarantee it, too!” I said to the butcher man.

The butcher man had had enough. He refused. The butcher woman gave her guarantee: “Sure, sure!” she said.

But I told it: “You can’t believe anyone’s word nowadays!” I was suddenly filled with gnawing doubts again.

“You’re daft, talking to the cock like that . . . ” said the butcher man. The woman stopped him: “Don’t go making things more difficult!”

“You’re too easy on him,” he told her.

I thought I’d gone too far as well.

“Now you listen to me,” I said to the cock. “They’re all blaming me, I’m getting the blame, but I only did it for you!”

The butcher woman said to the man: “Are you going to do it, or are you just going to argue?”

What did she mean? Do what? They were talking in some sort of secret language and I didn’t understand it. I made myself feel I couldn’t understand them, I thought hard, I acted confused, I really was confused, so I could string things out a bit more. As I thought hard, the man whirled his arm in the air, and the cock struggled as hard as it could, but it couldn’t squawk anymore.

A stream of blood spurted out.

I threw myself onto the butcher: “What are you doing? You gave your word and you’ve broken it! You’re a liar!”

I’d never agreed to let the cock die, I only agreed to a scratch. But the butcher man went back on his word, he’d cheated me. Now it was all too late, and I burst into tears. I wanted to believe I’d been deceived, that I’d made an honest mistake. But actually, I couldn’t help taking the blame on myself. That was the only way I could accept myself, the only way I could bind myself to the cockerel, the only way I could soothe the huge hurt in me.

The cock was struggling for its life. That was all it cared about, it had lost faith in me, I had deceived it. It didn’t believe in any saviour, only it could save itself. It twisted its neck and escaped from the man’s grip. I’d always known that these birds had flexible necks, but I never thought that such a slender neck could be so strong. The cock leapt upward, then flipped over, which made the blood spurt into the air like a fountain. I’d never seen anything like it, and I was appalled.

The cock actually managed to free its whole body. It landed on the ground and rolled around. The man went to grab it, I tried to stop him, but he managed to get hold of it.

All that blood seemed to make the butcher twitchy, he didn’t want to shed any more of it. He twisted the bird’s neck around, pinning it under its wings, and threw it down again. It landed with a thud, its claws scrabbling energetically. I was worried that it was soon going to lose all its strength, scrabbling like that.

“You’ll get your comeuppance for this, both of you!” I shouted.

The man shot me a glance and went to wash his hands. I ran to the cockerel, but before I could get there it stood up. It extricated its head and neck, and had somehow managed to free its wings, too.

It glared at the butchers, the man and the woman. I called it but it ignored me, just glared indignantly at me. It was a bit wobbly on its legs, but it started to walk regardless. The wound was still oozing blood which trickled down its chest and left drops on the ground behind it. The man went to grab it and tie it up again and I yelled:

“Don’t move! I told you, that cock’s divine!”

They looked startled and I knew I’d had some effect, so I raised my voice. I wanted the oh-so-superstitious bureau chief to hear me and come out.

He did. He looked at the cock. It was staggering around, but still standing tall and strong. In fact, its comb, still erect, hadn’t faded at all, it fluttered like a red flag. With each step it took, it showed more vigour, even arrogance. The bureau chief was facing it, inadvertently moving as it moved, or rather moving out of its way. It stepped, he stood stock-still, then stepped too. It went left, he went right. It made a circle, he circled too, and the butchers followed along with him, in fear and trepidation. It was like a stage performance in which the hero subdues the enemy. Here, the cockerel; there, the rest of them. And that included me.

The cock suddenly gave a cackle. It was spine-chilling. The chief shuddered.

“Who got this cock?” he asked.

“Me,” muttered the butcher man.

“Killing the cock to scare the monkeys, eh? . . . who had that idea?”

“It wasn’t me!” cried the butcher, almost falling to his knees with terror. “It was my wife, no, it was Mr. Wang. He told me to buy the biggest, strongest bird I could find!”

“Idiotic idea!” said the chief. “Let it go.”

“Release it to life!” said the butcher man, cleverly putting the most auspicious interpretation on it. “Yes! Release it to life! That will accumulate merit and deliver you from suffering!”

How ridiculous. Did these people still believe in the divine? Surely they believed in nothing except themselves, or in whatever served their own interests. Whether they killed or released this cockerel depended on whether it would bring them profit or harm. For the driver, if his chief went down, then he went down too. For the employee, if the director went down, she’d lose her job. They were insects, chained to their interests. They had no respect for the gods, only terror. Their superiors evoked nothing but fear in them, but they embraced that fear! They feared them like children feared their grandparents, viciously, wickedly.

“I’ll release it for you!” I cried. I ran to the cockerel, picked it up, and fled. I wanted to get away as quickly as I could. Even though it had a cut artery, even though it was going to die, I still wanted to escape with it. I was afraid the bureau chief might change his mind and my feet took wing. Just as I was leaving, I bumped into the chief’s wife, and she called to me but I pretended I hadn’t heard and ran on.

“Thief! Thief!” she cried.

“Shut up!” the chief yelled at her. “You can’t do anything!”

With the cockerel in my arms, I ran all the way home.

translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman