Translated from Chinese by Jennie Chia-Hui Chu
My big brother Da Ge, who was the son of my father’s first wife when they were still living in the country, was much older than me. We weren’t close. He spoke to my father in a country dialect—even though his mother was long gone—just to show that he was the firstborn. But he was always good at one thing: letting me admire his birds.
“Come quick, I’ve got two new titmice. They’re the best ever. Come over now.” He called on the phone one day from his house.
Da Ge had all kinds of pet birds. His house was filled with birdcages hung all over. The two titmice he got this time were petite, chirping tenderly with voices thin as silk threads. I stared at them intensely. They didn’t dare to stare back.
“Titmice are very hard to breed; only Mu’s family in Bo Di County knows how to raise them. They gave me these two. Look at the birds closely. Can you see what’s happening?” Da Ge said.
I looked the birds over carefully. And again. Still, I didn’t seem to see anything out of the ordinary, only that one bird was always pecking the other’s feathers. Were they fighting?
“Ah, you were able to detect that there was a problem!” Da Ge said, with a superior tone like a senior official that annoyed the hell out of me.
Da Ge pointed to one of the birds and said, “Know what? He’s sick. He has ringworm on his back.”
I moved closer to the bird. Sure enough, on its back, there was a spot where the skin was red and the feathers had grown sparsely. Da Ge said it was a common problem with artificial breeding. He didn’t know why, and there was no cure.
“Can you treat it with medication?”
“No, the bird will die. I tried.”
“What do you do then?”
“Nothing. Just let it be.”
“Can you do something? He’s so small. Anything at all?” I said, all of sudden feeling tight in my chest, as if somebody seized my heart.
“You don’t understand. That’s the absurdity of the whole thing. Do you know why the other one is always pecking the feathers out of this one?”
“Because of the ringworm. He gets itchy and he calls out. And when he cries, the other one pecks at the spot right away until the itching stops. Whenever and wherever.”
I stared hard at the titmouse. Sure enough, every time the bird with ringworm called out, the other fell on him and pecked the spot. Not only that, he rubbed his beak back and forth gently, as if he were scratching away the itchiness. The sick one narrowed his eyes, immersed blindly in ecstasy.
“Oh my. It’s unbelievable!” I said, lamenting, “Even birds can be this close.”
Da Ge was silent. I felt I had said something wrong.
A few days passed. I asked Da Ge if I could see his yellow titmice. I was worried. Da Ge said, “Come if you want, soon, or there will be nothing to see.” I got into the cab right away. It was a bit of a ride from my place.
I went straight to the titmice. To my surprise, the birds were kept in two cages that were about half a foot apart. They were facing each other, standing on the side of their cage, crying with their silky voices.
“Why are you separating them? Why?” I demanded.
“I can’t let the healthy one work too hard. He’s going to die of fatigue,” said Da Ge coolly, lowering his head to fill his pipe with tobacco. He liked smoking his pipe.
I was agitated, my eyes fixed on the two yellow titmice. The one with ringworm kept crying. Whenever he cried, the healthy one hopped up and down, trying to reach over, sticking his beak out between the cage bars. They kept at it until both birds were so tired, that from deep inside their throats, came the hard cries, long and thin, as if they were from a distant past. Then the titmouse with ringworm closed his eyes, and opened, and closed again while the healthy one kept on calling. I could feel his sadness from seeing the other one suffering but not able to help. The sorrow bled every feather.
Many years went by and Da Ge passed away. But the two yellow titmice never ceased hopping—and hopping—in front of my eyes.
Frank Chen was born in Tianjin, China. He is a well-known Chinese American novelist, poet, short story writer, and columnist who writes under the pen name Chen Jiu. He has won the 14th Bai Hua Literature Prize, the 4th Yangtze River Literature Prize, and the First Sun Yat-Sen Literature Prize. Chen currently lives in Queens and works as a database administrator for New York City government.
Jennie Chia-Hui Chu is a writer and translator based in Boston. Her work has appeared in print and online, with publications including The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe Magazine, Brevity, Asymptote, and Pathlight. Two of her essays were recorded by NPR’s All Things Considered.
“Two Yellow Titmice” appears in TLR: Babel Fish