The Sultan & Winter: First of Several Parts


There was a city, the pride of Arabia, ruled by a Sultan called Myrrha Haajj.  By guile and by force he’d gathered the wealth of Africa within his palace walls.  His desires were his possessions.  King WinterAnd of his possessions his most beloved was the garden he displayed to any and all who visited him.  Yet this was the one possession he could not keep.  After winter, the garden he cared for both day and night fell to ruin.  Not a single blade, leaf, or flower could withstand autumn’s thin breath.  All crumpled to nothing.  The Sultan brooded winter after winter.  It seemed there was nothing to be done.

Still his wealth was admired by all who visited him.  It might have been so always if legend of his garden hadn’t reached the ears of summer.  She is a vain and proud season.  Yet if she is proud she is also generous, willing to lavish on all things her warmth and abundance.  So when she arrived late one day, almost autumn, she was pleased and flattered by the garden of Haajj.  In the shape of a beautiful woman, wearing an embroidered flowing gown, she appeared in the garden itself.  There she so enjoyed its beauty she remained well into the start of autumn.  Haajj was delighted.  He questioned all his servants to find out who she was.  Yet so soon as he went to find her she vanished and nothing he did made her reappear.   Autumn never touched the garden.

When summer finally did leave Haajj hardly spoke.  His garden crumpled into layers of leaves and wrinkled petals.  His prize possession turned to sticks and twigs.  He soon began to plot a way to keep summer in his garden forever.  He commanded his people to build a tower – the tallest ever built.   At its top would be a room filled with the garden’s fruits.  Hand woven tapestries would hang from the walls and ceiling.  Rugs of the softest and thickest wool layered the floor.  A mattress filled with the petals of the desert poppy would be laid in the room’s middle.  When it was finished, the tower could be seen from hundreds of miles around; and from the tower as much land could be seen.  Most importantly, however, the Sultan’s garden could be seen in all its beauty.

Every day Haajj climbed the long spiral staircase hoping to find summer lodged in the room.  As it happened, when autumn was about to begin, summer came again to visit the Sultan’s garden.  She quickly went to the tower, always eager to see what she hadn’t seen before, and she peered into its topmost room.  You couldn’t have seen her had you been there.  You might have felt a warm breeze or the sun might have suddenly broken through the window.  You might have smelled the outdoors – its warmth, its moisture, its feeling of growth.  As it was, she entered the room; and being sure no one else was there, she once again assumed a woman’s figure.  She lay down on the mattress, spread her rich golden hair to both sides, and, contented, allowed herself to sleep.  Still, when Haajj climbed the long stairway, he saw nothing.  Even  so he suspected she was there.  The garden did not crumple.  Autumn had not come.  The room was full of the earth’s fragrances.  He quickly and quietly ran down the stairs.

“Quickly!  Quickly!  Quickly!”  He gathered his most skilled craftsmen.  “Summer is in the tower.  I know!  I did not see her yet I know.  You must all do as I have told you.  Be quick!  She will not know what to do at first, so you must be quick or else.  Go!  Go!  Go!”

Haajj was the cleverest of Sultans.  He knew well how to trap summer.  He had thought long and many nights.  Iron might imprison a man or woman but its bars could never imprison summer.  He could have shuttered the windows and yet, the slightest gap, and she would escape as easily as warmth escapes in winter.  Glass!  What a clever man the Sultan was!  Only glass could capture summer.  So it was that he sent his craftsmen to seal the tower’s windows.  Summer would stay!  His garden would be forever free of autumn.

When summer woke, wanting to see the garden, she went from window to window.  Yet each one was covered by glass.  She had never been trapped before.  She only understood slowly.  And once she did, she wept.  Water gathered on the glass and the window panes.  All the plants and furnishings in the room were gradually covered in a warm dew.  It was a strange sight.  It puzzled the Sultan when he first peered into the room.  Yet he did not think of tears.  His selfishness consumed his heart.  He thought only of his beautiful garden while summer wept.

As autumn turned to winter word spread quickly.  Winter hadn’t touched Haajj’s garden!  More and more came to visit.  Haajj’s vanity joyed in victory.  Haajj, at last, possessed a treasure no one but he could claim.  Travelers came from the world over just to spend a day in the garden’s groves.  Haajj delighted in its display.  And yet, having enough, he soon wanted more.  A garden wasn’t enough.  In his tower he had captured summer.  What did she look like?  Was she as beautiful as legend?  What secrets did she possess?  What could he learn?  These questions soon consumed Haajj.  His garden was entirely forgotten.  Then, one night, he climbed the long stairs to the top of the tower.

“Where are you?”  he asked at the threshold to her room.  “I have stared into your room countless hours and still I cannot find you anywhere.  Why don’t you show yourself?  Perhaps only women may behold you.  Yet I have felt you.  You sweetened my skin when I lay in the summer fields.  You were my blanket when I owned no blankets.  You embraced my wonder.  You sang me to my dreams.  You gave drink to my desire.  You dressed my heart with joy.  Won’t you show yourself to me?”

She did not appear.   Haajj was answered only by the water which dripped from every edge of the room.  “I know you are there,” he said finally.  “Will I ever let you go?  I don’t think I will.  No.  I will never let you go.  You will let me see you someday.  I have patience.”  Yet Haajj didn’t have patience.  He slept little that night.  And he was miserable when morning came.  His servants said nothing.  They knew when the Sultan was angry.

Continued: The Second of Several Parts

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.


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.


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.