Once upon a time the Chairman
ordered the complete destruction
of the “Four Pests” plaguing China:
bedbugs, roaches, rats, and sparrows.
Bourgeois birds, he called the sparrows.
Sparrows stole the seed the farmers
sowed and compromised the harvests.
So, throughout the country, loyal
citizens would gather under
trees and eaves where sparrows nested
and make such an awful racket”
banging pots and pans together,
lighting reels of firecrackers,
singing patriotic ditties”
that the sparrows fled in terror.
When the frightened birds alighted
on a nearby branch the loyal
citizens went chasing after,
banging pots and pans together,
lighting reels of firecrackers,
singing patriotic ditties
till at last the bourgeois sparrows
who had ruined recent harvests
dropped from sheer exhaustion, many
dead before they even landed.
The adults being dead or banished,
citizens then pulled the nests down,
stole the eggs, and killed the hatchlings.
Fried, the birds provided protein
and a welcome change of diet.
In the first two years that followed
there in fact were record harvests,
(though by then the Chairman, having
learned the birds ate mostly insects,
called off the extermination),
but the third year, swarms of locusts
landed and, without the sparrows
to eat them , devoured the harvest.
When at length the crops recovered,
they grew thickest in those places
where a worker, starved, exhausted,
had expired and lay buried.
Seen from overhead, these fertile
patches looked like human bodies.
Body shadows, people called them.

Articles by Bill Coyle

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