The Singing of the Bluebird

A short story by Yuan Jinmei, translated by Kevin McGeary


The bluebird called. Its singing was cheerful and crisp as water flowing into pale blue rock, notes spun as sweet as mints.

The bluebird's singing would always start before the man and the woman woke up. Upon hearing the bluebird, the man awoke. He reached out but the woman wasn't there. The man turned over to look around and saw the woman leaning against the window looking at the bluebird, her golden hair reaching down to her waist.

He walked over and started caressing the woman's locks, whose colour he adored. She turned her face to him and looked at him with eyes that were as blue as the singing bird and said: "It has laid four eggs."

The man looked over and saw in the tree outside the window an untidy bird's nest in which lay four eggs, paler than jade. The bluebird sang triumphantly as the twigs he perched on swayed to the rhythm of his song and the morning breeze. The man smiled and planted a kiss on the woman's face before putting his hand on her stomach in which lay their unborn baby.

The man came from a poor fishing village in China. He knew that to be a man, he had to become a husband and father, but he never imagined ending up with a golden-haired foreign woman, let alone father the child of one.

He often told the woman a story his mother had told him: a fishing boat was on a very long stretch of river on a starry night.  The breeze blew small waves towards both banks where they would break against the black cliffs. The man's father pulled out a pair of scissors and washed them in the river, he then lit the blade until it turned blue. He turned to the moon and bowed three times before holding the scissors up in the moonlight to cool. He used the scissors to cut the umbilical cord that connected the man to his mother. As he came into this world screaming, he was breathing the river air.

The woman stared at him with her blue eyes. She knew nothing of the story of her own origin. Like all Westerners, she was born in a hospital...quite boring really. She hated the smell of hospitals. They didn't smell like people. They smelt like repair shops.

The man grew up in the embrace of hills and rivers. Most of his childhood stories are about hunting for food: catching crabs in the cove, seizing wild rabbits in the mountains, finding the cicadas on bamboo sticks and, having done so, cooking them and eating them.  He knew the name of just about every edible type of fruit or plant. Hunger had taught him all the tricks of survival.

The woman felt a strange jealousy. She didn't know food could be such a source of happiness. All her life, she hated the noise of restaurants and to her, eating was just a necessity, like doing homework. "To her, bread and cheese were not the food of people, but more like lubricating oil that was added to machines."

As a child, the man would go to the city to attend school. In the summer he held a satchel above his head and swim more than five kilometres down the canal to get there, standing in the sun to dry off before class began. In the winter, he would run along the rail track beside the canal. The ink in his pen would already be frozen by the time he got to school.

He lived like this every day for years, running from village to city, jumping from the boat to a university." It was running like this that led him to leave behind poverty and ignorance. It was running like this that led him to enter the woman's country and buy a car that would set him on the road, the road to a laboratory, the road to a supermarket, the road to the city hall, and the road into this woman's heart. 

The woman was overcome with admiration. When she was a child, a school bus would pick her up from her own doorstep and, like a robot, her education took place in mechanical stages.  From primary school, she stepped up to middle school, from middle school she stepped up to university. She knew that the next step after university was supposed to be a good job, but she had had enough of being a robot.

Even when she went to a nightclub to dance, she couldn't shake off the feeling there was something robotic about her actions. Having a wild night was just a case of the robot temporarily malfunctioning, the next day she would sit in her car and obey the traffic lights. She was so obedient she seldom even thought about the law or her responsibilities. The woman wanted to be a woman, she wanted to be herself. It was when she was thinking like this that she met him.

The first time they met was on account of her hair. The woman once saw a cute little boy in a Chinese pictorial with his hair done in the shape of a peach. This hairstyle really brought out the vibrancy of his face. She took the pictorial to her hairdresser and asked for that hairstyle. The hairdresser like a robot followed the instruction using the picture. The woman was left mostly bald around the back and sides and in the middle was a peach-shaped crop with a golden fringe in front.

The man was reading in a library when he saw this blonde "peach." The owner of the peach was sitting at the table opposite. He couldn't help but laugh and when he did, he put his head down again. His book was full of lines and digits and he read every page. This was tiring, so when he wanted to relax, he snook another glimpse at this blonde peach, which made him laugh again.

That whole afternoon, when the man wanted a laugh, he would take a quick look at this "peach." When the woman finally opened her mouth, she asked what was funny about her appearance. The man explained that when he was a little boy, he had a similar haircut. The woman then asked him to tell her a story of his childhood. He talked and talked and this led to them starting a story of their own.

The woman really liked him.

The man said to her: "Before there were machines, people had to do all kinds of things for themselves." 

The woman said: "There are many things I would like to do, but the only thing I'm able to do is be a robot."

The man said: "In the days before machines, life was full of toil. My mother had to hand wash all of our clothes in a pond or the river. Up to the age of five, I would still wear seat-less pants and a red apron so my mother wouldn't have too much washing to do."

The woman began to picture a small fishing boat floating on clear water and a little boy crawling in and out of the boat with his bottom showing.

The man said: "My parents lived on a boat all their lives. Both of my older sisters and I were born on it."

The woman then began to picture a little boy and two little girls lying on the deck staring at the sky, speaking when they felt like speaking and following the sounds of nature and the rhythm of the waves. And when a strong wind came down from the gorge, they would be unprotected from the elements and leave their lives in the hands of the water while singing a hymn to Mother Nature.

The man saw the innocence in her blue eyes and realised he liked her. Upon seeing a soul that had been cleansed by civilisation, he became conscious of his own lack of sophistication and felt ashamed. Yet the woman didn't mind at all. Every time he looked at those pure blue eyes, he realised that in conversation he would have to revert his understanding of life to that of a middle school student. He decided to protect her so, as soon as her hair grew long again, they married. Shortly after, they moved into the home where the window faced a bird's nest.

Just as the woman was about to have the man's child, the bluebird laid four eggs. Every day she would go to the window to check whether the eggs had hatched yet and tell her husband about the tireless efforts of the bluebird to protect its eggs. When the baby birds were born, she suddenly announced to her husband that she didn't want to have her child in a hospital, she wanted to have it without the help of modern science. She wanted the man to do what his father did, light the blade of a pair of scissors and cut the umbilical cord himself. 

The woman thought that this decision would delight her husband, but he just smiled, patted her shoulder and said: "Don't talk nonsense."

The woman insisted that she was being serious. She didn't want her child to take the same road as she did. The child should be born in the wild like the morning dew, not in one of those boxes that stank of disinfectant.

The man was still smiling as he said: "If you don't have a doctor there, giving birth will be even more painful."

The woman said earnestly: "If pain is part of the natural process of a woman's life, I wish to experience it. I don't want drugs and machines to kill a part of this process. Only after experiencing this pain can I truly experience the bliss of motherhood. The pleasure of being a mother in this way must be more profound than finding a child lying next to me once the anesthesia passes.

The man said: "You don't know the meaning of pain. Do you think my mother enjoyed giving birth to me in a fishing boat?"

The woman said: "It is true that I don't know the meaning of pain, but I wish to experience it  and learn what it means to be a woman, like your mother. Why can't you help me the way your father helped your mother?"

The man got angry: "This is utterly ridiculous. I am already a scientist; I won’t regress to the point of becoming a midwife."

The woman laughed and said: "Do you think that what you've gained is worth more than what you've lost?"

The man said: "I have struggled so hard to get to where I am. How could I let my own child be born in the wild?"

The woman said: "It's absolutely fine, the bluebird looks after its own offspring in this way."

The man thought to himself that the woman had temporarily lost her mind and would not be able to practice what she preached. In the heat of the moment, she would surely lose her nerve. For the few days after, he just dropped the subject and expected the woman to forget about it.

But the woman didn't forget and started to make her own preparations. She made her own baby clothes and got on the phone to call for a midwife to come. The man didn't understand why the woman wouldn't drop the idea, but the woman was happy to do it and every day she would listen to the bluebird while waiting for the baby to come into the world.

As the day approached, the woman showed no sign of changing her mind and the man reiterated his position. The woman still gave him daily updates on the progress of the bluebird's eggs. The man took it upon himself to prevent his wife from making this anachronistic error and got an obstetrician to come over and explain to her that giving birth in a hospital was safe. Giving birth without the help of a doctor was dangerous for both the child and the mother.

The woman explained that she wanted to establish her own and her child's nature, she didn't want to give birth to a child that had already been enslaved to the machine. The weakness of modern man is due to the excessive intervention of civilisation. She wanted to be like the people of Sparta, placing her newborn straight into a cask and starting her new life as a mother.

The man thought the woman had completely lost it, and he invited a psychiatrist to talk to her. After having a conversation with the woman, the psychiatrist told the man that she had something called "civilisation phobia," meaning that she wanted to escape from this society. The man didn't understand what having a baby had to do with this society. What did his woman's willingness to go through an unnecessarily painful birth have to do with civilisation phobia? The woman said coldly: "You people are the ones who are suffering from nature phobia. You don't even dare to understand your own nature. You don't understand how you are related to the bluebird."

The man was now really angry and he thought her insanity was all due to the bluebird. He picked up a slingshot in front of her and – using a skill he had learned as a child – fired several rocks at the bird. The bluebird was singing in its usual carefree way while perching over its young when a rock hit it on the chest and knocked it off its tree and down to the ground.

The woman screamed in horror and ran downstairs to get to the bird. When she found it she picked it up and its little body slowly went stiff in her palm. The woman looked at the man with her blue eyes that were full of tears and hatred. The next day, the woman and the four eggs were missing.

The man raged like a lion as he looked everywhere for the woman, but she was nowhere to be found.

That night, the man threw himself onto the bed dejectedly and asked himself something he had never asked before: "Why do women get these whims?" He gazed in the direction of the empty nest until he fell asleep. He had a dream in which a demon invented a magic mirror which would show people whatever it was they lacked.

He and the woman ran around the mirror playing hide and seek. When he stood in front of the mirror, the things he was accustomed to were all there – mountains, rivers and a child with a red bib in a black-and-white photograph. Those things then slowly turned to what he lacked – money, a business and all the marks of civilisation appeared in dazzling neon. The mirror continued to coerce the man into seeing the valuable things he once had as being trash that he would throw away in exchange for some fancy tricks.

The woman stood on the opposite side of the mirror and faced him as she said: "Don't throw those things away. Those are the things that I lack!" He didn't know what the woman was seeing in the mirror, so he asked it: "Mirror mirror, what are you made of?" The mirror answered: "I am made of desire." At that moment, the man understood what he had done wrong, but didn't understand why he had done it. The mirror then said: "Don't worry, follow my instructions and when your children are standing on the other side of me, they will take responsibility for your mistake." The man uttered in his sleep that he shouldn't have killed that bluebird.

The bluebird was dead and the comforting sound of its singing was gone.

 In the morning, the man was woken up by the screeching of an alarm clock. He woke up to the sound of a heartless machine and reached out. The morning was as still as death.

Yuan Jinmei (袁劲梅) is a writer and professor of philosophy at Creighton University. Read her Sina blog

Kevin McGeary is a Guangdong-based songwriter, musician and translator who works in international communications for a Chinese company

Read the original Chinese of this story in 读者 magazine here