The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Seventh Day

Told on the Seventh Day, after Tsi Tung’s Tale

The seventh day would be their last together. Already, the road met its first branch, at which some would depart. They all had saved their finest meats and wines for this night and their servants, some hunting game while others built the fire and prepared the spits, worked together and looked forward to the final tale as much as the merchants. At last, Lao Chi stood, his purple robes glowing warmly by the firelight.

Lao Chi’s Story

blockprint-chiselsI was born where the Yangtze meets the Han river. Now I only wish to return there. I yearn for my family and all I think on are my little daughters playing the reeds I have cut into flutes for them. As perhaps you know, the reeds blossom every autumn in the great valleys of the Yangtze and Han rivers. I would trade all my wood and ivory, copper and gold, to hear my daughters play for me tonight. Here is an old story that makes me homesick.

Lai-tse

Shir-li’s favorite pond was in a village by the banks of the Yangtze. She was a swan. When the villagers saw her they often said to one another: “In our next lives perhaps we will be like her.” Shir-li, however, dreamt of becoming like them. She remained one autumn even after the wind had driven away the last leaves.  The villagers worried for the swan. They sent for the monk, Hui-nêng. “The swan has forgotten her true nature,” they said to him, “she forgets to flee when winter approaches.” The great monk came to the village.

He came in the evening and sat by the pond. The villagers who brought him wine and dried fish said that he and the swan spoke. Hui-nêng remained until dawn and left before anyone else had woken. The swan was gone. The villagers rejoiced but were also surprised. A naked woman lay beside the water. Her skin was as white as a swan’s feathers. All were astounded. The woman was quickly taken into a home and made warm with wine and incense.  When the villagers asked from where she had come she could only answer: “Shir-li.”

The Silken Thread

The villagers did not know what to do at first. Then one among them taught her to weave and Shir-li’s skill soon surpassed the best. As one new to the world she learned easily. When Shir-li ran out of thread one day her companions, an elder woman of the village, laughed at her. “You should use your hair, Shir-li,” she said, “it is the most beautiful I have ever seen and I’ll bet it is as strong as any silken thread.” The woman cut a long strand which fell to Shir-li’s waist. Shir-li gasped. A strange and beautiful song entered her heart.

The song foretold the old woman’s life. When Shir-li finished the old woman whispered: “You are a spirit. I will tell no one.” Yet it wasn’t nightfall before the village knew. Two young lovers were the first to come to Shir-li. The girl offered Shir-li her most precious dress which Shir-li accepted. Then the girl cut a long strand of Shir-li’s hair. The strange and beautiful song came again foretelling a happy life. The lovers kissed when they heard this. Shir-li gasped dropping the dress the girl had given her. This kiss was beautiful and Shir-li suddenly wished to understand it most of all.

The Painted Fan

The villagers wanted to protect Shir-li but they could not keep her songs a secret. On a day in November, having been a year since becoming a woman, Shir-li was suddenly taken from the village and brought before the Emperor. He asked who she was. When she made no answer he asked her if she would marry him. He was moved by her beauty. “You may share in anything I possess,” he said, “and have whatever you desire.” Shir-li touched her lips but the Emperor did not understand her gesture.

The Emperor gave her a house in his garden. “The house is yours,” he said, “but you may not leave the garden.” He also had a little girl brought to her. “Her name is Tsing-Pai,” he said, “and she will be your servant.” One day he brought a painted fan made by his finest craftsmen. He said: “When this fan is folded it is like life.” Then the Emperor unfolded the fan and held it to the light. “It is called lovers at Lotus Stream,” he said. “You can unfold life, like this fan, and see what we are blind to.” Shir-li saw that the lovers were kissing. She touched the painting where the lips of the lovers met but even then the Emperor did not understand. “Marry me,” he said, “for with you there is nothing I cannot do.”

The Jade Quill

The Emperor brought gifts. Yet each time he also took a strand of Shir-li’s hair to cause her to sing to him. His armies triumphed. The lands of his empire increased. One day the little girl, Tsing-Pai, said to her: “Do you not know why the Emperor comes to you?” Shir-li could not answer. “He comes because he wishes to know the future,” the girl said, “and many women and men suffer because of his greed. Do you not know how his armies overtake the country? My father pledged my service to the Emperor because he feared him. He signed my life to the Emperor with a jade quill. What is a jade quill worth? Does it weep? Does it laugh? Does it dream? I do all these things but what was I worth to my father? He would rather have his jade quill than me. It believes that is where his wealth lies.” Shir-li wept.

When the Emperor came to her that day he was followed my many men. They were dressed in robes throated with gold and silver. Each held a gift. “All these things,” said the Emperor, “if you will marry me.” Shir-li held Tsing Pai’s hand. She looked at the jade the sandalwood carvings, vases, paintings and calligraphy. Then she took a strand of her own hair. She knelt beside Tsing Pai and wrapped it round the girl’s smallest finger. Then, with the suddenness of  understanding, she kissed. She kissed the girl’s forehead. “What choice is this?” asked the Emperor. “I offer you my wealth, myself, and my kingdom and you choose this girl!” Then,  finally, Shir-li spoke. She whispered: “I choose love.”

The Ivory Jar

“You will never leave this garden,” said Tsing Pai one afternoon. “The Emperor will keep you here as though you were a butterfly in an ivory jar. The walls of the garden are too steep to climb. I am too small for you to stand upon my shoulders.” Shir-li and the girl walked hand in hand along the length of the garden wall. When the moon rose with the coming of night Shir-li finally knelt beside a brook. She kissed the girl again, smiling. Then she took a blade from her robe and began to cut her hair. And as she did so her hair was carried off by the brook. “Why do your hands tremble?” Tsing Pai asked. She took the blade from Shir-li’s hands, who could not finish. When the last strand of Shir-li’s hair was cut the girl gasped. Before her was a beautiful swan.

Shir-li grasped the girl’s wrist in her beak and pulled her onto her back. Then her powerful wings lifted them both into the air. They soared over the garden wall. The girl hid her eyes in Shir-li’s back. Nor did she look up again until it was morning and a great sea appeared below them. Shir-li carried the girl to a seaside village. When the villagers saw the girl brought by the swan they thought she was a spirit of good fortune and treated her as kindly as one of their own children. Shir-li did not remain long. Autumn had followed them closely. Yet before she left, never to be seen again, Shir-li lifted the tip of her wings to the girl’s lips as if to kiss her. Tsing Pai, though she was never certain, thought that Shir-li laughed as she next rose into the air.

The Autumn Reed

When Tsing Pai was old enough she searched for Shir-li. She arrived in autumn at the village Shir-li had once described. The monk Hui-nêng, now old with only a wisp of  hair, sat by the river’s bank playing a reed flute. Tsing Pai bowed. She said: “This is the voice of Shir-li.” “The reeds are beautiful in autumn,” Hui-nêng answered. Then Tsing Pai saw the river’s banks covered by the white blossoming reeds. “Where do they come from?” she asked. “They are Shir-li’s hair,” he answered. Then she asked: “What do you know of her?” “Listen to the swans,” he answered, “they sing now, but only of their own passing.”

Here Ends Lao Chi’s Tale

Perhaps, the traders said to one another, we will chance to meet in the spring when we return to India. Let us collect tales this winter, to tell each other should we meet.

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Sixth Day

Told on the sixth day, after Lon Po’s Tale of the Fifth Day

Tsi Tung’s Story

Once again winter has not caught us in the mountains. Let us admire the moon. She keeps the skies clear. Is it not true that our poet Li Po drowned when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in water? My father used to recite a poem (I can only recall the beginning);  it was in autumn, on a night like this, when the moon is brightest. We shook laurel blossoms down. We made dumplings. We powdered rice and peanuts and rolled them with sesame. Then we drank wine, as we do tonight, and peered at the moon. This is how my father’s poem began:

It must have been beautiful
As the first of those evenings when frost
Gives way to petals;
When their fall is mingled
With the meeting of moths rising toward the light.

Or was it “the melting of moths”? But this is what my story is about — the moon and moths.

The Crescent Wing

Su Shir had seen the princess. It had been a mistake. He told no one. It was forbidden to look on the royal family. Blockprint ChairThe great palace itself was walled and hidden to the view of any man or woman. Su Shir made paper. His skill throughout Beijing was unmatched. Yet now, when he was not fashioning the paper for which he was commissioned, he used it to craft tiny animals. One day when he knew the princess would be passing he left a paper crane in the street. It was forbidden to remain in the streets when the royal family passed.

The princess saw the paper crane. She asked that it be picked up and given to her. When she peered at it closely she was delighted by it. Yet none among those who accompanied her knew by whom it had been created. She put the paper crane into a pocket of her robe. Many days passed before she noticed it again. She laughed for now for it seemed to her a trifle. When evening came she held it to the flame of a candle. “Ah,” she said, “do you see the beautiful green flame it makes?”

As Su Shir slept that night a nightingale came to his window. She sang to him as he dreamed. “The princess is an idle girl who has burned your paper crane.” When Su Shir awoke the next morning he recalled the nightingale’s words as though he had dreamt them. “I am a idle craftsman,” he said, “who shall remember me whether or not I make paper crane’s for an idle girl?” And each day after he had finished his chores he crafted tiny cranes and such was his skill and artistry that they were imbued with life. “Seek light my little ones,” he said to them.

When he lay down to sleep the tiny cranes flew through the windows of Su Shir’s home and into the starlit night. They flew above the city and over the palace walls. And when they came into the princess’s palace room they flew into the flames of her tiny candle. One by one they vanished in a burst of green flame. The princess marveled at these tiny creatures and stayed awake long into the night to watch them fly into the flames.

When one night the princess’s father discovered the paper cranes he grew furious. “Find the  maker,” he cried, “and bring him to me!” After the passing of a week the Emperor’s guards returned with Su Shir. They brought him before the Emperor and the little man trembled. He fell to his knees and bowed daring not to look. “Tell me why you send these paper cranes to my daughter?” he demanded. “For I have looked on your daughter,” he answered fearfully, “and I loved her.”

“Do you not know it is death to do so?” demanded the Emperor. “I do,” answered Su Shir. “Yet my daughter asks that I do not take your life,” said the Emperor. “I will take your sight instead.” Then Su Shir was blinded. The guards carried him outside the palace and threw him into the street. He might have wandered through the streets and never found his way if it were not for the nightingale. The bird sang to him and as he followed her song  she led him back to his house.

He lay down then and did not rise again the next day nor in the week following. He might have remained so had not a visitor come to him in the night. The sound of small feet and a young girl’s voice woke him. “Do not cease to make your moths,” she said, “for though you must not send them to me, it was not for me you made them, poor man, but for love.” Then Su Shir felt a tear strike his cheek. The princess wept. He felt her kiss his closed eyes and then his lips. Then she left and Su Shir rose from his bed.

He worked all night. He knew by finger’s touch which papers were the finest. He crafted a thousand of the tiny moths and before he slept he opened the doors and shutters of his house. “Go,” he said. “Go out.” Then they flew into the night. The princess did not see them. They did not fly over the palace walls. They saw the moon and they flew after the moon until their paper wings became like crystalline tear drops. In autumn, when they finally reached the moon, they were countless in number and their wings made the moonlight seem almost as bright as day. And the princess, in her father’s garden, could see the white blossoms on the laurel tree at night. Then the moths shed their wings and the wings fell like flakes of snow and fell each year thereafter, as each year more moths flew to the moon and shed their wings.

Here Ends Tsi Tung’s Tale

Ah, now I recall how my father’s poem ended.

Li Po  leaned into the water
Drunk with drink and fellowship,
To scoop the moon into his hands;
To bring it to his lips
And finally sip the liquid of its light….

Let us look at the moon tonight, my friends, and think on who will remember us when we are gone.

Followed on the Seventh Day by Lao Chi’s Story.

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

Continuing the Second Part

With his lungs filled by night, Ujin did not wander so much. You may ask if Ujin still loved Tien? He did. He followed her when her tribe packed their tents and rode their horses to another part of the land. It was for this reason that Ujin saw another ghostly figure follow the tribe. It was the ghost of autumn.

Ujin & the Ghost of Autumn

Tien gave birth to a son. His eyes were like his father’s, the Night Sky, yet they were filled with laughter. Tien called the child Basu. Yet when Basu was old enough to speak, terrible dreams visited him. Polar Bear & CubsThey woke him in the night and Tien could not comfort him. The child’s grandfather, the father of the Night Sky, called to him. Tien took Basu to bed with her and held him but the grandfather’s voice still reached the child. It stripped leaves before the season, toppled apples, bent the cattails, green, into the water, raised dust into the fields, and made the fields barren.

Then an old man came to the tents. He leaned on a hawthorn branch. His gray robes were tattered. Crows rode on his shoulders and his wisps of hair were as white as ice on blades of grass. The horses danced nervously. “Where is my grandson?” the ancient figure asked. “He is with my daughter,” said Tien’s father, who had come forward to meet him. Then the old man saw Tien and his grandson in her arms. He pointed at the child. “You will give him to me!” But Tien defied him. “He is my child,” she said. “Go home, old man!” Then the ghostly figure turned to her father. “The grass will fail. I will drive the animals beyond your huntsman’s arrow. Your people will starve. When you change your mind, you will leave the child in the fields. I will return him into the world like his father – a thing of nature.” The old man turned and left slowly by the way he had come.

Tien took Basu, her hickory bow and fled the village hoping the spirit might spare it. Strange shadows trailed her and she grew weary with fear. The voice of the spirit grew stronger as she fled. And finally, taking a branch from a fire she had built against the darkness, she held its flaming tip against the forest floor. She meant to set the forest ablaze if only to drive away the haunting shadows. Before the leaves could catch, a great paw pushed the stick aside. Ujin moaned. Tien saw it was Ujin and leapt into the bear’s giant arms. “I must leave my child in the fields!” she began but Ujin shook his head and let fall from his mouth a pine nut wrapped in willow and birch leaves.

In the morning, after Tien had come to understand Ujin’s meaning, she took Basu and went with the bear to the hill where she had first slept with the Night Sky. At its top, Ujin sat on his haunches. He peered out over the steppes without moving and when day passed into evening, Tien saw that the spirit was climbing the hill. Ujin moaned. “Will you give me the child?” the ghost asked when he stood before them. “I will leave the child in the field,” answered Tien. “He will be wrapped in birch, red maple, and yellow willow leaves.”

“Ha!” cried the old man. The crows at his shoulders cawed as he turned and left the hilltop. Then Ujin dug into the earth. When he had dug enough Tien gave him Basu. The bear cradled the child and crawled into the hole. Tien covered them over with birch, maple and the slender willow leaves before she hid herself.

When the last light left the hilltop the spirit re-appeared. He carried his hawthorn branch and walked quickly to where he thought the child lay. He struck the mound with his branch. “Go, child!” he cried. “Go to the wind, the rivers, and the fields!” The leaves stirred and flurried in all directions but it was not the child who answered the ancient spirit’s voice. Ujin towered over the ghost while Basu lay safely in his arms. Yet the spirit’s magic had worked against Ujin. His voice was gone into the winds, his strength into the rivers and his golden fur, turned white as snow, had turned the fields to yellow and gold.

Then the spirit meant to strike again but Tien’s arrow pierced his heart and then another followed. His fingers turned to twigs, his arms stretched into branches and his feet sank into the earth. The twisted and turning wood groaned until a hawthorn tree stood where the ghost had been. Where his mouth had been there was an open hollow in the trunk and the arrows still pierced it. The crows clamored in the air and returned to the tree as though called to it. Tien knew they would slowly pull the arrow out but it went deep and if they pulled it out, it would be when Basu was no longer a child – but a man.

Here Ends Lon Po’s Tale

That was Ujin’s last adventure with Tien. The bear went north. The wind, I know, still moans with Ujin’s voice and we can see that Ujin never recovered his fur from the autumn fields.

‘But tell me,’ I said to the fur trader, ‘surely the crows would have drawn out the arrows!’

‘Ah!’ he answered. ‘Every autumn, for as long as Tien lived, she returned to the Hawthorne tree to drive an arrow into it! That is the reason the crows come together every autumn — to protect their autumn trees. They think Tien will still return, for she never missed at what she aimed.’

Followed on the Sixth Day by Tsi Tung’s Story

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

Continuing the First Part

Now, Ujin’s adventures were not finished. You might think driving the autumn wind into the earth was enough? He wandered six years, sometimes in the steppes and at other times in the yellow river valley where there was always enough to eat. Then a stranger crossed the river and the bear followed him. This stranger was the night sky.

Ujin & the Night Sky

In her sixteenth year Tien’s father decided she should marry. Many suitors came offering her jade, carved sandalwood, garments, and fine metals. Tien’s father urged her to choose but Tien found nothing for her heart. Then a stranger came after sunset. Polar Bear & CubsHe was pale and his hair as black as night. When he came before Tien he was alone. Tien asked what he brought. Then he laughed. “Ha!” He threw his hand into the air and candles were snuffed as if by one breath and stars filled her father’s tent. “I know where your autumn bear sleeps,” he answered. “Come with me and marry me.” If Tien feared the stranger, she also longed for Ujin. “Leave tomorrow.” He touched her cheek. ”Go north and I will find you in the evening.”

The next day Tien took her hickory bow and a shock of arrows. She rode north into the open steppes until it was dusk and seeing a grassy hill she went to the top. She could see all ways at once. Yet she did not see the stranger when he appeared behind her. He only said: “You have come.” When he touched her face his skin was cool and she felt her thoughts grow heavy. He removed her quilted blue coat and let down her long black hair. Then he kissed her and she felt her lungs filled by his breath. “I shall come again tomorrow” he said. She lay aside her bow and sleep fell upon her. When she woke the next morning she was alone. She felt her skin. It was cool and though she wished to find Ujin her thoughts came slowly. When evening came again the stranger appeared.  Again he kissed her and her lungs were filled by his breath. “I shall come a third night,” he said, “and we shall be married.” Again she slept. She could not rise the following day but lay atop the hill desiring only to sleep again.

Ujin had followed the stranger, and on the third night, when he came to the bottom of the hill where Tien lay, he covered himself in the yellow birch,  red maple, slender willow leaves of a nearby copse. When the stranger appeared again that night Tien asked who he was. “I am the night sky,” he answered, “and bring sleep to all things.” “Who is your father?” she asked and he answered. “He is the ice, the frost in the field, the first breath of cold.” Then he said: “Tonight we shall be married and you will be another star in my cloak.” Then, because her mind was heavy, filled by strange thoughts and desires, she allowed the stranger to kiss her a third night. Her lungs were filled by his breath and he vanished as if he were a shadow breathed in by her.

Then Ujin uncovered himself and came to the top of the hill. He moaned softly and putting his mouth over Tien he breathed in and his great lungs were filled with the breath of the young woman and all the breaths the night sky had breathed into her. When Tien arose, as if from a terrible dream, she did not see Ujin. The bear had left her, filled by a drowsiness, to sleep all that winter and for every winter thereafter — his lungs filled by the night. It was then, only when Ujin slept, that the autumn night was thereafter able to escape and shorten the days to bring autumn back to the world.

Here Lon Po pauses after the second part.

To be followed by the Third Part

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

Told on the fifth day, after Ji-Yuan’s Story of the Fourth Day

“We should hear Lon Po’s tale next,” said P’ang Yün, “he has been whispering it to me since we’ve begun. He is like a mosquito in my ear.” The others readily agreed. Then one of the traders asked him: “What kind  of story is it, Master Lon Po?”

Lon Po’s Story

A tale for a good night’s sleep! It cannot wait another moment.

I am a fur trader, as you know, and on one my journeys I met another fur trader who told me about a white bear. I laughed at him. Polar Bear & Cubs‘No!’ he said, ‘he is white as white and lives where it always snows – that way he cannot be seen!’

‘In China there is no such place!’ I said to him.

‘North of the land you call Mongolia,’ he answered, ‘where the horses are like the wind. Where the women are as skillful as the men.’

‘But white bears?’ I asked.

‘The bear’s name was Ujin,’ he answered. ‘The very first white bear.’

Well, of course, I asked who Ujin was and he sat me down. Now, all of you know I am as long winded as a blacksmith’s bellows, so I will tell you his tale in three parts.

First I will tell you how Ujin caused the Chrysanthemum to grow — China’s autumn flower!

The Autumn Bear
Ujin & the Autumn Wind

In her tenth year Tien was given a bear cub. Her father had found it wrapped in birch and willow leaves. “He is an autumn cub,” her father said. “Never let him wander.” He gave her a tortoise shell comb inside of a lacquered chest. The girl called the cub Ujin. She often combed him and Ujin, who grew to love the girl, followed her where ever he could. Yet when she grew old enough, Tien’s father also gave her a horse and took her to hunt with him. Ujin saw less and less of her. Though Tien visited as often as she could, Ujin grew jealous thinking Tien preferred her horse and hunting with her father; and he unlocked the door of his cage one day to find her.

From the father’s tent in the middle, Ujin, one by one, peered into all the others. Yet without Tien, those whom he startled were soon chasing him from the settlement. Ujin might have perished had not Tien, her father, and the huntsman arrived. With her own bow still at her side, Tien leapt among the tribesmen. “He is mine,” she cried, “And I will punish him!” But Tien wept; and unseen, she broke her arrow’s tip. Ujin lay himself in nearby willow and birch leaves to hide himself. Then Tien nocked the arrow as quick as any of her father’s huntsman and let it fly.

Ujin wisely lay still. “Go far, dear friend,” she whispered, “do not think I did not love you.”

Tien’s sorrow haunted her. Though she was offered another cub it was not like Ujin. Then the autumn wind, knowing sorrow, sought out the flaws and cracks in the walls of her father’s tent. He found the girl and every night, as she slept, the wind kissed her until her face and lips were pale and her voice was weak. When the tribe’s doctor came to visit the girl the white-haired woman said there was no medicine for sorrow.

“Only this,” she said, “keep Tien from the night air.”

Ujin learned of Tien’s sorrow and because he still loved her he returned one evening when he could not be seen. Coming as close to the circle of tents as he dared, he turned his back to them and peered into the night. And he peered until a strange figure stood before him. The figure was the autumn wind. First he was a jester and danced but Ujin was not swayed. Then he vanished. He appeared again as a terrible swordsman but Ujin would not move and the wind’s sword passed through him as a wind through winter rushes. Then the wind came again as a poor farmer, agile as a leaf in moving water. He tried to creep past Ujin but the great bear caught him against the earth with his paw. The Autumn Wind struck but Ujin would not free him and finally the wind lay still. The bear, remembering that Tien had spared his life, spared the wind but drove him deep into the earth and covered him over. The wind did not climb out of the earth again except as a Chrysanthemum the following autumn and every autumn thereafter. Tien slept peacefully that night.

Here Lon Po pauses after the first part.

To be followed by the Second Part.

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Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fourth Day

Told on the fourth day, after Liang-chieh’s Story of the Third Day

redbirdJi-Yuan’s Story

Another day in the high lands – nothing but moss, shrubs and cedar. The cedar are truly like tall sentinels. Perhaps they look after me for my wife! You ask what I mean? They remind me of my story.  I bring it from the temples in the Himalayan foothills. I spend many days there and often not a single word is spoken. However, there is one monk named Sanpud who loves to talk and loves to tell a story. He said to me: ‘Here is one that tells why certain trees, the evergreens, never lose their leaves in autumn.’

The River Wife

Ti-Ling married to Tung-Po when she was only fourteen. Their love was never in doubt. Ti-Ling had wooed him with her flowers and Tung-Po wooed her with his poems. He wrote them on green paper. He nick-named his little wife the plum-blossom. He said the poems on the green paper were like leaves. “Flowers cannot blossom,” he said, “if they do not have enough leaves.” Ti-Ling put his poems in a cracked tea kettle. She sometimes threw tea leaves inside with the poetry. Her husband teased her. He said: “You are going to make tea out of my love.”  She answered: “It is so our love will not become bitter.”

The fame of Tung-Po’s poetry increased. “I must go,” he said one day, “there are great men in the city who wish to hear my poetry.” Next to their little house was the river Kiang and their boat which was their only other possession. Tung-Po climbed into the boat the next day. Ti-Ling gave him blue plums and boiled rice to take with him. Tung-Po said to her: “I will return before the leaves change their color.” Ti-Ling wept. She undid her beautiful black hair, letting it fall about her shoulders as a sign sorrow. When she returned to her house, she went to the tea kettle and took out the first poem she touched. She read it.

When I first learned to cut swords from bamboo
I did not want to play with you in your mother’s shadow pulling flowers.
If I am too old someday to even cut goose-foot for my cane
Who will still pull flowers for me but you?

Tung-Po returned before the changing of the leaves. There had been no rain. She said to him: “Our spring-bed is dry and lies in brown duck-weed.” “We have two pails,” Tung-Po answered, “and together we will take water from the river.” When they had watered their wheat and mulberries Tung-Po wrote her a new poem for her tea kettle. “I met a farmer,” he said to her as he wrote, “who said it is best not to let the seedlings shoot up too fast if you want good dumpling flour; we should let a sheep or cow graze in our wheat.” He put the new poem into her kettle and smiled saying: “But a cow and sheep is not what my poem is about.”

They might have lived happily on so little but one day he said again to his wife: “Great men wish to hear me read my poetry.” She answered: “Why should you go? At fourteen I mingled my life with yours forever. What is a great man to this?” But Tung-Po said to her: “I will return even while the leaves are still green.” “The moss will grow on the garden path,” she answered, “because two feet alone cannot keep a path.” Yet Tung-Po climbed into the boat the next day. Ti-Ling gave him rice and dried fish. “Tell me beforehand,” Ti-Ling said, “when you will return and I will pick jujubes for you.” She returned to her house when she could no longer see him past the narrows of the river. She took a new poem from her tea kettle. She read.

The spring’s dry bed is papered with cracked duckweed.
You and I must carry buckets from the river into the fields.
Will our souls also mingle like the water from our buckets
When we pour them out – you and I?

Ti-Ling wept when she read this. It was her favorite poem. She gathered the jujubes as they ripened, awaiting word from Tung-Po. When he did not return with the changing of the leaves she wrote him a letter though she did not know where to send it. ‘The rushes are dry,’ she wrote, ‘and sigh when the wind touches them.’ When winter passed, spring and then another summer, Ti-Ling cut her beautiful hair and would not let it grow back. She wrote him another letter: You said a plum blossom needs leaves if it hopes to bloom – have you forgotten?

When another autumn came Ti-Ling wrote: You said you would return while the leaves were green but how can I wait through another winter? She took the green slips of paper from her tea-kettle and tied them to the trees. And as the years passed she returned to the slips of paper she had already tied and cut them into needle-like slivers and tied the slivers to more trees until it seemed the trees were always green. When Ti-Ling was too old to see the slivers of paper, she lay down beneath one of the trees and did not waken. Yet the trees did not lose their leaves. They became the evergreens and still wait for Tung-Po.

Here Ends Ji-Yuan’s Tale

Followed by Lon Po’s Tale on the Fifth Day

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Third Day

Told on third day, after Pu-liang Yi’s Story of the Second Day

Sun

Said one trader to another: “Mistress Pu-liang Yi’s has left me as thoughtful as the nightingale that sings of nothing but thorns and roses. Let’s hear a fable of amusement!” Then the other traders agreed that they should hear Liang-chieh next.  “It has been good day for travel, let’s have a goodly fable to match it.

Liang-chieh’s Story

I cannot match Yün’s thoughtfulness and I do not have Mistress Yi’s depth of feeling. I am as shallow as a ditch. But you say I have humor and wit! Ha! Didn’t we see the sun until its very nose sunk into the southern plains and didn’t we see how the birds followed after it? When I was a child I wished to be a poet but my father said he would sooner clothe an ox in tailored silk than raise his son a poet. He made me a merchant, bless him. Here is my tale!

The Monkey and the Crane

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Love is just a word!
“What good’s a thing that can’t be seen or heard?
“What use? You cannot shake it from a tree
“Or root it from the earth. What use to me
“Or anyone? The tiger still must hunt,
“And if you cry out “Love!” it will not blunt
“Her appetite. She’d eat me all the same
“And leave me no one but myself to blame!”

*

The Crane was next. She said: “I know
“That love will never melt midwinter snow.
“It is not rain to April buds or earth
“To summer growth. The measure of its worth
“Cannot be judged by any worldly art
“Yet love is life and summer to the heart.”

*

The Crane and Monkey were the last to speak,
Then Lao-tsu said: “I see that some are meek,
“The lion and tiger proud. The hummingbird
“Is quiet. The elephant is loud. A herd
“Of bison will uproot a field. A crow
“Will squat unnoticed even in the snow.
“As all of you must know I have two suns.
“When one is in my hat the other runs
“From east to west. When one sun sets I lay
“The other in the east to rise. This way
“The sun is out no matter what the hour.
“Yet I have had no time to pick a flower
“No time to rest beneath a shaded wood
“Or sleep. Sleep would be nice. So, if I could,
“I’d like to find out two from all of you
“To whom I’ll give my suns. Between the two
“The world should still have sunlight while I rest.
“I cannot say which one of you is best
“Yet given what each said on love I’ll choose
“The monkey and the crane—the two whose views
“Were most extreme. I find each sun a jewel
“And hope if either animal’s the fool
“The other may be wise. At least one sun,
“That way, remains—a better end than none.”

*

Though the other animals feared the worst
The Crane and Monkey stayed apart at first,
Just as the Monkey’s sun set in the west
The Crane was taking hers from out her nest.
By turns they kept the sunlight round the earth,
That was, until, the Monkey’s usual mirth
Made his sun seem the brighter one to him;
And so, one day, he swung from limb to limb
Until he found the jungle lake he knew
The Crane most liked. From there he climbed into
A nearby tree until she was in sight.

*

“Ha!” He cried. “Your sun is not so bright!
“I’ve seen mine up when yours is in your nest
“And even when mine’s setting in the west,
“Yours rising makes not half the fire of mine!
“This afternoon I’ll climb a mountain pine
“That’s stretched its limbs as far as heaven’s roof
“And there I’ll lift my sun to yours as proof
“That mine is like a plate of beaten gold
“And yours a tarnished copper dulled and old.”
“Oh!” the Crane replied. “I had not thought
“To set one sun against the other! Not
“Because I was afraid! It may be true
“That your sun’s brighter, just that I know too
“It is not light but warmth that brings forth life.
“Yet if it puts an end to any strife
“I’ll grant your sun’s the brighter of the two.”

*

The Monkey thought on this. “This will not do!”
He said at last. “It stands against all reason!
“As any fool knows well the hottest season
“Is when the sun is brightest in the sky.”
To which the Crane responded: “Then why not try
“Your sun against my own where all can see?
“The world be judge instead of you or me.”
“Agreed,” the Monkey said, “as long as they pick mine!”

*

Instead of finding out a mountain pine,
When it was next the Monkey’s turn to take
His sun, he put it back instead to make
It climb again (though now from west to east!);
And to be sure its backward motion had not ceased
He sat and watched until he saw each sun
Was climbing slowly toward the other one.
The animals had never seen them both
At once! The smallest hid in undergrowth
And those that couldn’t just as quickly ran
Into the jungle fearing the work of man.
The Monkey saw and jeered at every one.
“Ha!” He said. “I see that even tigers run!
“Why if I’d known it was so easy, I
“Would long ago have put them in the sky
“And left them there.” To which the Tiger said:
“You silly Monkey! Tell us why instead
“Of gloating, why you’ve put both suns together.”
“Simple!” said the Monkey. “Tell me whether
“My sun’s the brighter or the crane’s!” And when
The Crane came next the Tiger asked again
The reason but she said the same. ‘The two
‘Of us alone could not decide. We’ve come to you!’

*

Then all the animals began to talk
And there were some who even dared to walk
From underneath the jungle shade till one
By one the others came to pick a sun
Until, as with the Crane and Monkey, they
Were at a loss to choose and could not say
Which one was best. The Snake, the first to speak,
Said: “I’ve seen both already at their peak.
“If any one of you were made to crawl
“As I, you’d know the earth is cold. For all
“The light reflected in a field of snow
“There’s nothing lives for long where those winds blow—
“The earth is made no warmer by that light
“When even through the longest summer’s night
“It’s warm. I’ll take the moonlight in July
“To January’s sun!” The Owl said in reply
That she liked neither sun. She said:“I knew
The world without them, for then I flew
“And there was never sun to light my way.
“What needed I the sun to hunt my prey
“Who hears the fieldmouse toeing through the wheat?
“In the dead of night the tiger’s not so fleet
“As I! Let all this daylight be undone!”
To which the Tiger said: “I like the sun
“That burns the brightest burning like my heart.
“I like it glistering on the breath at start
“Of day or brightly watching like my eyes
“At evening from the fields before it lies
“In shadow. When it speckles through the tree
“Against the forest floor it looks to me
“As though a tiger left his paw prints there,
“Aglow, before returning to his lair.
“I like the sun that’s burning like my heart.”
The Elephant spoke next, saying: “I part
“With all of you in what you’ve said. Of all
“I can remember best and best recall
“A time when there was both a night and day.
“The dust I throw atop my back to stay
“The sun was what the night was to the earth,
“A cooling balm against that heat as great in worth
“As all the world’s waters. There is none
“Who live for long where there is only sun
“And wind. This world without the passing night
“Is like a desert, the sun like a blight
“And all reduced to dust. Surely we must drink
“To live, and sleep at night. I cannot think
“The world was always meant to have two suns.”

*

“Ha!” said the Monkey. “Where all this runs
“Is anybody’s guess. It should be plain
“By now the sun belonging to the Crane
“Is neither warm nor brighter than my own!”
To which the Crane replied: “I should have known.
“To teach a Monkey reason can’t be done!
“Why I could sooner teach a snail to run
“Or an ostrich to dance a roundelay!
“If nothing else this, at least, is plain as day!”

*

The Tiger interrupted both. He said:
“You’d better look into the sky instead
Where both your suns have nearly reached high noon!”
Then both the Crane and Monkey saw that soon
The suns would have to meet! As if to flee
The Monkey clamored to the nearest tree.
The Crane cried out and leapt into the air;
Both knew well there was little time to spare.
The Monkey climbed the limbs by twos until
The suns hung just beyond his outstretched hand;
And even when he did his best to stand,
His tail wrapped round the branches topmost stem,
He could not grapple either one of them.
The Crane, as quickly as she could, tried too
And strained against the winds until she flew
Beside the suns but then she could not choose.
She cried “I cannot tell whose sun is whose!”
And sure enough the Monkey could not say.
He pointed, scratched his chin, looked this way
Then that. And by the time they both decided
It came too late for next the suns collided!

*

So much light none had ever seen. And still
The sky grew brighter by the moment till
There came a sound as if two great bells
Had each been struck. Then like cockleshells,
Each thrown against the other mid-air,
The smaller of the two was shattered, there,
In countless pieces, scattered through the sky!
Not a creature dared to lift an eye
But stayed where each had fled and not a sound.
Just the Monkey who’d fallen to the ground —
Felled branch by branch until he’d struck the earth.
He checked if he was still his usual girth —
His head and then his bottom. All was there.
And looking he could do no more than stare.
His sun now glowed a thin and papery light —
A watery silver hardly half so bright
As what it was. He saw the sky aglow
As with a sparkling dust. It seemed as though
The brilliance of his sun was swept away
And all the pieces sprinkled through the half-lit day.
His fiery sun was gone.
And yet the Monkey thought he’d never known
A sight as beautiful as stars and moon,
And felt content to stare all afternoon.
“Ha!” That’s all the Monkey ever said.
Some held it came from landing on his head.
But others said they’d rather grasp the joke –
And though they tried the Monkey never spoke.
“Ha!” he said. That was all. The other sun,
Jolted from its westward course, had spun
Unbroken far into the southern sky.
Yet even so the Crane still flew close by
As if she feared to let it from her sight
Unless it whirl unwatched into the night

*

Lao-tsu didn’t see the suns collide
But napping in a meadow close beside
A brook he’d woken up to find a moon
And stars had splashed the fading afternoon
With light — some stars were falling from the sky
And some left sparkling trails where they passed by.
He rubbed his eyes before he looked again
And stared, his mouth agape, and knew by then
Some unknown mischief had unfixed the world.
It looked as if a giant’s rage had hurled
The sun as far as earth and sky still met.
He thought it seemed to topple there and yet
He still could see the crane against its light
Before it finally rolled into the night.
“Where are my suns?” he cried and rushed to where
He’d left them in the crane and monkey’s care,
Yet not a single animal would say.
The snake lodged underneath a rock to stay
Until the sun returned. The owl had flown.
The Tiger skulked the jungle’s dark alone.
The elephant recalled a darker night
Before the monkey’s sun had left its light
In splintered pieces. Alone among them all
The monkey sat absorbed by what he saw,
Unmoved from where he’d fallen from the tree.
He’d curled and propped his head against his knee
To watch the spinning stars. Lao-tsu cried:
“I see the crane fly south and thought she tried
“To catch the sun before it slipped away!
“I see, as with the remnants of the day,
“The night is dusted with a glittering light!
“I see a ghostly ball ascend the night
“As if it were the shadow of a sun!
“From this I cannot reason what you’ve done!”
The monkey only looked dissatisfied.
“Ha!” he said before he moved a branch aside.
Then Lao-tsu stared at him a little while
And could not say if it were simply guile
Or if the monkey also couldn’t reason why,
Till finally both sat gazing at the sky
Together with their backs against the tree.
There was a moon and countless stars to see.
Then he finally spoke once more that night,
He said: “The sky and earth will of themselves be right.”

“Ha!”

Here Ends Liang-chieh’s Tale

Followed by Ji-Yuan’s Story on the Fourth Day .

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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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