Every Chinese New Year, in celebration, the small village had a raffle for parts of a pig. Each family was given tickets based on the number of members in the household. Hai Ling was always forced to go to these raffles, because he was a dragon and luck was on his side. He went alone, out in the biting cold, a cold that I would never experience in my life, shivering in his thin cotton coat, frozen fingers clenched tightly around the tickets, like a lifeline. The crowd gathered besides the river, barefoot children and grandparents with gnarled fingers stood in the crowd, waiting.
The pig was tied to a tree, a thick rope around its neck. It was a thin unimpressive lout, with layers and layers of dirt wedged in between the folds of its skin. It stared with impossibly black eyes, like an endless abyss, out at the villagers. None of the villagers dared to look at its face, bowing their heads, and slouching their bodies, afraid that if they showed it the desperation, hunger, need I see in their eyes, it would know what would transpire. None but Hai Ling, who stared straight into its dark eyes. He challenged it, twisting his fearsome head, and breathing fire, tail thrashing violently behind him. His eyes, flashing gold in the sunlight, bore into its sunken, wrinkled face, not even bothering to hide the truth. (You’re going to die. You’re going to be cut apart into pieces. You’re going to feed my family. And there’s nothing you can do about it.) The strength of his gaze pinned the pig down, rendering it motionless, unable to struggle. Fear and helplessness reached their thorny tendrils into its body, and even as the butcher hung it upside down by its hind legs to the tree, it stayed submissive, unable to break eye contact with the dragon.
The butcher sharpened his cleaver on the rock, the screeching sound ripping through the ears of the villagers. Then, after a quick deep cut at the neck of the animal, blood gushed, and the life flowed out of the animal, only to fill the basin below. A waterfall of red, red, nothing but red. The red that reminds me of the envelopes friends and relatives give to the children filled with money, or the lanterns hanging from shop windows in Chinatown.
The villagers stared ahead with jaded eyes as the butcher made short work of the animal. He cut a shallow slit down the stomach, only enough to break the skin, then dug his fingers into the animal and ripped. The skin came off neatly, spraying blood in every direction. The villagers lapped at it when some flickered onto their skin, like it was water from the spring of immortality. He dragged the remaining mangled, bloody mess of a body down onto a rickety table and chopped with the cleaver, each thud echoed with finality as bits of meat and blood and bone flew in wild directions. He didn’t stop, perspiration dripping down his face until the pig was arranged in pieces on the table.
Wiping the perspiration off his face with his bloodied hands, the butcher reached into the jar with all the tickets, and the raffle began. There weren’t enough pieces of pig to go around, even including the intestines, the face, and the blood. Only the few lucky ones would get a taste. The villagers looked on eagerly, jealousy brimming in their eyes when it was a neighbor whose number was called and not theirs.
Hai Ling remained unflustered, rearing his head back proudly, waiting and waiting, until sure enough, as he had known the entire time, his ticket was called. He walked towards the butcher unhurriedly, the rest of the villagers shrinking back, staring with wide eyes, as if they could hear his talons scratching eagerly against the frozen ground, and see the flash of his scales. Then, he turned around and began his long, winding walk home. He walked away sure-footed, confident, his body curled up in satisfaction, carrying a piece of the loin, or the ears, or the tongue, or the liver, or the intestines home.
Celebrating the New Year was always a small affair in my family. My father made dumplings, and although I always tried to help, I was never been able to make a perfect dumpling. I always stuffed either too much or too little ground meat and vegetables into the small thin slices of dough. My dumplings were misshapen, either thin, slouching, and falling over, or torn, oozing with stuffing; a perfect reflection of my poor culinary skills. My father would glance over at me once in awhile and shake his head, his flawless plump dumplings lined in neat rows, each exactly the same as the one before it, overshadowing my mess. My cheeks burned as I lowered my head, chanting stupid stupid stupid in my head.
We worked in comfortable silence, but I waited apprehensively, already dreading what this talk-story would lead to.
Surely enough, my father changed subjects, asking me about college and school and SATs. He always started the same way.
“You’re a junior now. You should be thinking about college. What schools do you want to apply to? When are you taking the SATs? What do you want to major in? What do you want as your career?”
I could never answer his questions. All I could do was mumble a small, breathy I-don’t-know.
Then came more stories. They were always more about Hai Ling, who used his intelligence, wit, luck, to get into a university, go to the top med school of his country, get his PhD, MD, and become a successful doctor. He even started his own one-man company, building it up from the ground with his own, sweat, blood, and tears. I’d listen in awe and humiliation, feeling myself get smaller and smaller, stuffed and weighted down with story after story.
My father continued to tell me about Hai Ling’s school years. Never studying outside of class, yet always the top student, he was so far above the rest of the students that they respected him, treating him more like a god than a dragon. They backed him up when he reared his regal head, eyes glinting gold, even if he was challenging the teacher about the material on his own tests. (Students weren’t supposed to do that; they were supposed to remain obedient and soft-spoken. The teacher is always right.)
My father was always in control, spelling out my life for me. And all I could do was struggle to breathe despite the rope around my neck. But enough was enough. Slowly, as my father rambled on and on about Hai Ling’s accomplishments with something akin to pride in his voice (what was his relation to this man anyway?), years of pent up weakness swirled violently deep within my stomach. For the first time since I was born a pig sixteen years ago, I began to open my mouth wide to speak.
My father turned his head to stare me in the face, and I froze, my mouth half open. (heknewheknewheknew). His dark eyes glinted gold, and deep within them I could see Hai Ling, the dragon, rear his head, bare his fangs, flash his talons, and whip his flaming tail back and forth. Those powerful eyes pinned me down and, as if he could read my intentions, I felt Hai Ling’s dominating presence fill my body, forcing sixteen years of pent up weakness back into the confines of my soul.
Quickly, I turned and left. My face burned, shame and failure bubbling beneath my skin as tears red as blood rolled down my cheeks. Safely hidden in my room, I cried and cried, my insides twisting as if someone was cutting me up inside, helpless and weak. I thrashed and backed up into my bookcase violently, knocking my piggy bank down. It tumbled onto the soft carpet, rolling until it lay on its side beside my feet, sorrowful and weak. Its helpless eyes mirrored my own as they looked up at me. I scooped it up with desperate fingers, cradling it tenderly close to my soul.
I shook it gently, and the coins inside rattled against its porcelain shell. A piggy bank stuffed full of anything, whether it’s Chinese New Year money or stories, would one day fill up to the brink, overflow, and break. That is a day I look forward to.
Yaxin Liu, Age 17 Grade 12, Hunter College High School, Silver Key