When livestock catch sight of Xin Qiza, the Butcher of Longzhan Town, they realize that this is their doomsday sun. They take fright, even though that isn’t a butcher knife strapped at his waist — it’s just his beloved pipe.
Winter or summer, as long as it’s sunny, Xin Qiza needn’t light his pipe with a match. In one of his pants pockets is a fist-sized convex lens, and in the other a clump of birch bark. Whenever he feels like a smoke, he pulls out the lens and turns it towards the sun, concentrating its rays downwards as if they were rushing to town on market day. He generates a flash point, then extracts a paper-thin slice of bark, holds it under the lens for it to catch and lights his pipe.
Of course, starting a fire from the sky isn’t always so easy. On a bright summer’s day, the lens can filch fire in an instant, but in the dead of winter, the North Wind howls and the sun is weak, and fire comes slowly. Still, Xin Qiza is patient. Tobacco lit by the sun has a unique fragrance, he says, and is worth the wait. The lens that he keeps on his person is like a hired hand: he can call him whenever he likes and order him to his heart’s content.
His pipe and lens aside, Xin Qiza’s treasures comprise butcher knives of every description — they are the utensils upon which his livelihood depends. He can’t help but adore them. Amongst farm animals, though, his affection engenders hatred!
After several decades as the Butcher of Longzhan, a bloody bouquet hovers tenaciously about him, and for these animals with their acute sense of smell, it’s like a hidden River of Death, something with which they could not be more familiar. So when he appears by the waterway, and the cows, horses and sheep catch sight of him, no matter how luscious the grass where they are grazing, they raise their hooves and gallop off. When he strolls on the streets and in the alleys, if sunbathing pigs spy him, they tremble and crawl on their bellies, and the odd one loses control of its bladder. When a neighbor’s dog encounters the butcher, if it doesn’t retract its head like a turtle and scamper back to its master for refuge, then it approaches ingratiatingly and licks his shoes, as if appealing for a permanent stay of execution. Xin Qiza doesn’t wear leather shoes. If he did, he wouldn’t need to shine them. [end]
(Partial excerpt from Chi Zijian’s new novel, Peak among the Mountains (群山之巅, 迟子建 著). Translated by Bruce Humes. For full excerpt and information on English language rights, contact Ms. Li at firstname.lastname@example.org . Read more about Chi Zijian here.)