Sunday, February 20, 2011

THE COCK by Tao Kim Hai (full story)

          You're quite right; he has certainly outlived his usefulness, and we should kill him. But my husband would never agree to it, and neither would I. Help yourself betel again, honored sister and I will tell you why.

          Yes, he's getting quite old for a rooster, and he doesn't perform his conjugal duties as he should. But there's no question of killing him, nor even of giving his harem to a younger cock. In the first place, he would fight until his crop were torn open rather than be disposed. He comes of a fighting stock-see how long and sharp his spurs are, and how curved. And, in spite of his age, he's still on his fast feet to defend his right. His feet are his most aristocratic feature: notice how the scales grow in two straight lines like the Chinese mottoes on either side of a door, with not a sign of feather between them. His mother was only an ordinary Cochin-China hen, but his sire was a real Cambodian fighting cock but I've no idea how many fights to his credit. But that's neither here nor there; it's not for his fighting blood that I value him. The truth is that he did me a great service five years ago. . It's thanks to my poor old rooster that I married the man I love.

          Five years ago, my husband lived next door to my parents. We were neighbors but the distance between us was immeasurable, unbridgeable. He had neither father nor mother; my father was ly-troung of the community. His house was a little hut built on date-palm post, walled with bamboo and thatched with water-palm leaves: my house had four rows of carved teak-wood columns, wall of white washed-brick and red-tiled roof. My father had twenty oxen and ten buffaloes, and a thousand acres of rice fields; he hadn't even a patch of ground, and raised only a few chickens. To tell the truth, he was our tadien (tenant farmer).

          Tenant or not, he was a handsome young man, the best monochord player and the fastest rice planter of the whole district. You should have heard him play the monochord in those days; it was enough to bring a goddess down from heaven. I have made him give up playing since we have married, although I love music myself. It was not all because I was jealous of his monochord; I was afraid of his eyesight, too. Everybody says the monochord causes blindness, and the better musician, the greater the danger.

          He was eighteen, and I was two years younger. We were in love, and our love was all the stronger because it was hopeless. An irresistable attraction drew me to him., in spite of his rough farm clothes and his unkempt hair.

          In his poultry yard, a young cock with green and gold plumage and blood-red comb lorded it over the admiring hens. He fought all the other cocks in the village, and galantly refused the paddy and broken rice thrown to his flock until his wives had eaten their fill: He was brave, and he was not at all bashful, either with the hens or before me. You would have said he took a wicked delight in making love to them in my presence. Then he would cock a glittering eye at me, and crow.

          One day, his master and I were talking behind the bamboo hut, where we were safe from all indiscreet eyes. Suddenly, we heard a loud "Ha, ha, ha!" We turned around in alarm; it was only the cock. My suitor threw a stick at him. He saw the stick coming and made the magnificent leap to one side, so the stick only grazed his tail. Then with an indignant "kut-kut-kut" he stalked off to rejoin his hens, looking for the entire world like an insulted sovereign. from the safety of the poultry yard he looked back at us, and like a practical joker who had just pulled off a good one, he crowed, "Ha, ha, ha-a-a!"

          Another day we found a trysting place at the foot of a big straw stack, from which we could look out over the endless reaches of my father's rice fields, the obstacle to our marriage. The accursed cock came and perched on top of the straw stack , discovered us, and beating his wings in the air as if to call the world to witness, he let out a scandalized "Oh-ho-oh-rooo!"

          In trying to chase the old tatle-tale away, we all lost sense of caution, and he was not the only one to see us together that time. Soon, the village was buzzing with gossip about us; the cock had set tongues wagging. jealous girls, and young men, too, whispered that I had lost my virtue, and the old bagia shook their heads and began to speculate on the date when my figure would show results of my fall. And of course, the rumors did not fail to reach my parents' ears.

          The cock joined the other gossips. No longer satisfied to crow all day, he started to crow in the evening, too, after the lamps were lit. His competitors, a thousand times outcrowed but still ambitious, replied from all the hen houses of the village. You never heard such a racket.

          Do you believe here in our province, honorable elder sister, that the crowing of the cock in the evening is a sign of extramarital pregnancy? In our district, everybody believed it, even my mother. My poor mother is superstitious. In spite of my tears and my denials, she took me for a lost virgin who dared not acknowledge he fall. No need for me to admit it; the cocks were there to proclaim it far and wide.

          My grandparents were summoned, and my aunts and uncles on my mother's side and on my fathers. They shut me up in my little room and held a family caucus in the living room before the altar of our ancestors. I thought my last hour has come, and I waited for them to bring me the lethal cup, the saber, and the red silk cord. Which death should I choose-poisoning, bleeding, or hanging? Would they shave my head like a nun before they force me to commit suicide? Suicide, it certainly must be, for the family of a mayor must never lose face.

          But, I was an only child, and my mother was already old. No matter what the sacrifice, the family must have another generation to carry on the cult of the ancestors. If I were to die without issue, my mother would be forced to choose a concubine for my father and to admit her to marriage bed, to cherish the concubine's children as her own. Then, too, I suspect that my father was beginning to be influenced by European ideas. Above all, he loved me a great deal, although the traditional reserve that a father must observe toward his daughter kept him from showing it. Whatever the reason, the family council decided to do nothing worse than to marry me off in all haste. And to whom, God in Heaven? To my seducer, no less. I agreed without a murmur.

          The six preliminary marriage ceremonies were gotten through with before two weeks had passed, and we were married in the strictest privacy. The formal proposal was without pomp and palaver; the betel ceremony was reduced to a little more than a tete-a-tete in everyday clothes. As for the suitor's period of probation in the house of his future wife, which usually lasts from six months to two years, we simply omitted it. No invitations on scarlet paper with gold script, no official delegation from the town council, no gift of ring-necked ducks on a brass platter, nor open-air banquet lasting far into the night. But there were also none of those more annoying jokes which most young people have to resign themselves to-the drinking party in the bridal chamber, the bed that rocks, the bridegroom who is kidnapped. We had only to prostrate ourselves: i, in a wide-sleeved dress and he, in a black tunic and turban, before the altars of our ancestors and before my parents, less to ask their benediction than to make honorable amends.

          It was a bad match, and a scandalous one; the less said the better.

          It had been agreed that we should leave our native village immediately and make our home in some distant province where we were not known. On our wedding night, we set out on the long journey, in a big barge that my parents had loaded with rice, salt, fish, and piastres. We were accompanied by two faithful servants and the cock, which followed us into exile with all his harem.

          We have been here for five years now, honorable sister, in your rich and peaceful province, and as you know, we have not yet had a child.My poor mother writes me that she spends her days running to the pagodas having prayers said and sacrifices made, in the hope of becoming a grandmother before she joins her ancestors at the Golden Spring. The poor old cock has been proved a liar. But thanks to his lies, I'm a happy woman, and he shall have all the white rice he can eat to the end of his days.

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