The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Second Day

Told on the second day, after P’ang Yün’s Tale of the First Day.

Pu-liang Yi’s Story

I am an old lady and my back is weary already. I see, however, we have found a place where the trees have lain us a blanket of dry leaves. Friends, I traded in the walled city of Agra, where I met a dyer trading in silk and wool. His dyes astounded me: indigo, logwood, madder, cochineal, and Tyrian purple. I asked from whom he had learned to dye. He answered, having traveled to Hangchow, that he was inspired by the colors of our leaves in autumn. He is the story he told, explaining why leaves change their color.

The Leaves of Fallen

birds-treeWhen the Emperor died his two sons fought for the realm. The land was littered with the dead of their armies. A girl named Ti, whose beauty was exceeded only by her gentleness, loved the younger prince, who was proud and arrogant and took no notice of her. The elder brother, who loved her, was rash and ill-tempered and easily frightened her.

The brothers battled. China was like the plains – without trees. In the valleys the rivers trembled. The grasses were trampled underfoot. The snow was shaken from the mountains and the maiden wept. None may ever know the number of fallen, only the girl, who after the armies separated, went alone among them.

She wove her clothes from paper, collecting scraps as though they were the precious silk of the silkworm. Her skill was marveled at. Yet when she stepped among the dead she tore her robes to scraps again, of every color—of orange and red and yellow hue—and wrote on them; and like little poems, she placed them on each child and man and kissed their eyes closed. She did so until she had lain a leaf of clothing on every soldier, and stood among them, often, without clothing.

She lay herself down to sleep and during the night the spirits of the soldiers grew into trees and stretched their limbs out above her. No rain, no wind, nor cold could touch her; and when morning came she lay covered by a canopy that the sun itself could not peer through. As one protected, she awoke; and the grasses had lain themselves over her.

Then the brothers battled again, their numbers greater than ever. Their spears punctured the clouds coming over the mountains. Their swords reflected a thousand reddening suns. Horses raised a yellow dust and thundered. The orange and brown capes of the armies met as if blown by winds or as though swept by terrible waters together into the valleys. The maiden Ti saw that both armies could not survive. She hid herself, could do nothing; and saw the younger brother whom she loved.

His soldiers fell back and the elder brother rose among them.  The younger brother fled. He fled between the hill’s great rocks and the girl, though her paper robes were torn by briars and thistles, followed him. When she saw that he had stopped she called out to him. He answered: Run from me! The horses of my enemy beat the earth! They will slay me and slay you if you are with me!

She would not go. She bared herself, offering him her clothes. He took them and fled. When the elder brother arrived she had already put on his younger brother’s clothes. The rash prince bellowed and his soldiers took her thinking she was his younger brother. Though it was ordered that she should be slain, she said nothing. Her love for the younger brother, whom she protected, kept her silent. She was slain and left among the fallen soldiers of her lover.

The elder prince led his army away; and night came. The rain followed the night. The days and nights of the season followed. And the girl turned to dust. Then the wind came. Her dust was lifted out of the valleys for there was nothing to cover her. No one closed her eyes. No one came to lay a poem on her brow. It was a bitter wind and when it laid her dust down again on the earth the forests grieved. Then they let their leaves fall—gold, yellow and red—just as she had done for them and she slept, at last, as one protected.

Every autumn they lay down their leaves again. No rain, wind, nor cold can touch her; and when winter comes she lies covered by leaves and not the sun itself can find her. As one protected, she sleeps. And the grasses lay themselves over her.

What of the younger prince? He fled in the clothes of a woman and weeps at his cowardice. Some say he is like the moon who wonders the fields and forests at night. He would return her clothes but will not find her. The elder prince, who loved the girl, learned that he had slain her. Where can he go? Some say he is like the sun, who gazes down upon the earth day after day to undo, somehow, what he has done; but he will also  never find her. She sleeps beneath the leaves.

Here Ends Pu-liang Yi’s Tale

Followed by another tale on The Third Day

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The First Day

These are a set of tales I have tried to publish over the years. They have been soundly rejected by every publisher I sent them to – over 30. None of them can decide whether they are really for children or really for adults. And, truth be told, I don’t know either. So I put them here for all to enjoy – I am a fabulist as well as a poet. There are seven tales, one of which is written in heroic couplets. I’ll post each individually. Please let me know if you enjoy these.

day-lilyThe Seven Tales of the India Traders

Meeting in Autumn

“Master Lon Po!”
“Wise Liang-chieh!
“At last we meet again!”

For hundreds of years traders journeyed between India and China. Seven traders made a promise that if they met at summer’s end, returning to China, they should each bring with them a new tale.

They also decided, because of the season, that their stories should be about autumn. And so with the blessing of fortune, they met that autumn at the foot of the great Himalayan mountains.

They threw sticks and by these means decided who should tell the first tale. It was P’ang Yün. This delighted the other traders for they all agreed he was the most thoughtful among them and his sentiments the most agreeable. Pang Yün began his story.

P’ang Yün’s Story

My beloved friends, I have traded in the arid city of Rajputana, where the great ball of the sun kneels at nightfall to kiss the red earth. I met an ancient trading in Byssus—a cloth that is like the color of sand. He showed me his cloth and said: Is not as soft as a woman’s touch? Then I asked him, is not one still softer than the other? He smiled then and said: “I will tell you a story.”

The Naked Crane

There was a man who lived by himself. The sands of a desert reached behind him while a sea stretched before him. His only visitors were cranes who came in spring and autumn and their beauty astounded him. They were like the brilliant whites of the waves on a summer’s day. He thought the  water’s foam had given birth to them.
He lived in a hovel with one door and a window. There was one crane that peered, sometimes, at its reflection in the window. This happened every spring and autumn. Then one autumn the crane did not leave with the others but stayed before the window even as autumn grew colder. Though he was happy to see her, the man was puzzled by the crane.

She did not see him behind the window. The crane saw only her reflection, without knowing it was her own. Each day she begged the crane in the window to follow her. The wind, driving the sun southward, would soon make winter of what remained. She mistook the reflection for one whom she loved. And though she knew frost must soon come, she would not leave. There is warmth, she said, a great river where papyrus grows, where winter does not come. But her lover, though doing exactly as she did, made no sound nor ever came out from behind the window.

Then Frost came, through hundreds of leagues of sea, touching every living thing with tiny spears of ice. He moved quickly and surely, for his legs, arms and fingers were narrow and impossibly long. He paused when he saw the crane. It was not often that he came upon such a creature. Why hasn’t the north wind driven you south to Aegyptys? he asked. I await my lover, answered the crane. Do not cover the window with your ice or we will no longer see one another.

Then Frost saw that she had mistaken her reflection for another crane. He said nothing of her mistake but grinned to himself. He said that he would only spare the window if she gave him a feather. She readily agreed, for a crane may spare a single feather. Yet each evening Frost returned and each time asked for another feather. She grew cold and yet, she thought to herself, a crane may spare a few feathers for love.

As the crane peered at the window the man gradually came to imagine it was himself she peered at. Her beauty entranced him. He took a candle and placed it in the window so the crane would have light as the nights grew longer. But when the crane saw the flame burning in the breast of her own reflection she cried out. She thought she beheld her lover’s soul. Surely, she said, if your soul shines so brilliantly, you are not long for the world.

Then she wept.

Each day, as Frost took another feather, her form changed. She became more like a woman. Her wings became slender arms and her legs took the shape of a woman’s until she was left naked. Then the wind chilled her bitterly and she lay down as if to sleep. The man saw that she had changed and, as if awakened from a spell, he went out, took her into his arms and brought her into his hut.

Frost had taken her feathers and could fly. He soared into the clouds. At his touch, the world saw snow for the first time. All who beheld it were astonished. So great was Frost’s joy that soon the earth lay under a blanket of snow. Then he finally remembered the crane. He returned to the shore but saw no sign of her. He wept at what he had done and searched a day and night before he finally peered into the man’s window. There she lay. She was more beautiful than ever before. Frost fell in love with her.

The crane, no longer a crane but a woman, awoke gazing into the man’s eyes. He held her and kept her folded in blankets. He fed her a broth simmering over a small kitchen flame. When she gazed at him, though she was surprised, she also saw something familiar. Always, behind the reflection she had loved, she had also unknowingly peered at him. Now it was his gaze that held her. She did not look away.

Frost often returned and with his sharp fingers traced feathers on the glass  to remind her of who she had been. By this he meant, he would return her feathers. Yet when she saw the feathers of ice spiraling on the glass she breathed on them and melted them away with a wipe of her hand. She loved the man, held him as he had held her, and soon had children by him. She remembered the great river beyond the desert, where there was always warmth, and one day led her husband and children out of the hovel to never return.

Here Ends P’ang Yün’s Tale

Followed by another tale on the The Second Day

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