The Animal Tales! • The Third of Several Fables

3. One Bad Apple

A fable that follows: Where Luck Goes!

Turnips“Disgusting!” said the Magpie, riding atop the pig’s back. “Why would anyone want to eat chicken!” “Snort,” answered the pig. “Why,” said the Magpie, “if I weren’t so smart, I’d be a chicken too. Barbaric! Imagine eating me! And look at you eating those muddy apples! Who wants a muddy apple? Yuck!” And that was when the magpie pointed to all the shiny red apples at the top of the nearby apple tree. “Look!” said the magpie. “All you have to do is walk onto the roof of that shed and you can have as many shiny apples as you want!”

“Snort!” It was true! The pig wanted those apples! The pig climbed the barrels stacked next to the shed but with his very first cloven step on the tin roof, down he slid! Just as the pig was about tumble from the roof to the ground, he wrapped his tail round the lowest apple branch. And there he hung and hung. The animals came and went. “Such an ugly apple!” they said. “Like a peach with hooves!” said others. “It shall not be a good year for apples,” said the farmer’s wife. “Snort! Squeal! Snort!” squealed the pig. At last the branch broke and the pig landed on its nose, flat from that day forth; and its poor tail never uncurled. The lesson was all too clear.

“You can always shine a muddy apple.”

Be it known that this fable is followed by: A Pig Out of Mud: The Fourth of Several Fables!

The Sultan & Winter: The Fifth & Last of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Fourth of Several Parts

Morning came.  Haajj hurried to the top of the tower.  The painter was fast asleep.  Yet upon his canvass was the most beautiful woman imaginable.  Haajj stared at it wordlessly.  It bothered him.  He wanted to see summer himself.  Haajj nudged the painter with his foot.  The little man suddenly stirred to life.

King Winter“Forgive me!”  He shuffled to his hands and knees.  “My miserable talent offends you!”
“Tell me,” said Haajj, wishing to test the painter, “how do I know this is summer?”
“I have painted,” answered the little man, “she whom you have trapped in the room.”
“How is it,” asked Haajj, “that you can see her and I cannot?”

“You cannot see her, exalted Sultan, because you look for her.”
“Is this a riddle?” asked Haajj.  “I shall have you skewered!”
“I am the leg of a flea,” cried the poor painter.
“You will paint another picture,” said Haajj.  “Paint the blue rose.  Once you’ve painted it, cut it out.  And once you’ve cut it out, work with it.  Make it look real!  ”

Haajj left with the painting.  And he carried it with him through the palace, all the way to the throne room.  Winter was waiting.  Haajj seated himself.  He was careful to turn the painting away from sight.  He wanted to hear winter’s answers.

“Will you show me summer?” winter asked?
“What are your answers to my questions?” Haajj asked in return.
“My mother,” said winter, “is the shadow of the flying crow.”
“Your father?” asked Haajj.
“My father,” answered winter, “is the sound of the still wind.”
These were clever answers.  If the questions had been impossible to answer, winter had given answers impossible to question.  Haajj was intrigued.  He waited for winter to answer the third question.

“Will you show me summer?” asked winter.
“Where are you from?” Haajj asked.
‟I come from the leaf,” said winter, “floating in the blackened well.”
“What were you,” asked Haajj, “before there were wells?”
“I was the leaf,” winter replied, “and before the leaf I was the digger of the well.”

“So be it!” Haajj returned.  “You have answered my three  questions.  It is without doubt that you are winter. You shall have what you desire.”  Haajj turned the painting.  “You bid me show you summer.  Here is a painting for you to carry with you so you may gaze upon her to your heart’s content!”
“I will not cease,” said winter angrily, “until I have freed summer.”
“You have always done so,’ Haajj replied, ‘but I will not let you free her.”

Winter glowered.  He was not content to be outwitted by a Sultan.  He drew his long grew cloak tightly over his shoulders and left without a word.  Haajj gleefully stepped from his throne.  What would winter try next?  Almost in answer a bitter cold wind whistled through the palace and into the throne room!  The painting, which Haajj had offered winter, spun into the air, lifted in a great swirl, and was torn to shreds.  Haajj leapt aside.  Yet the wind as quickly circled him.  The remnants of the painting lashed at him as they spun.  Haajj covered his eyes.

At the instant he did so the wind vanished.  Where had it gone?  Haajj hurried out of the throne room.  Winter was after his key!  When Haajj reached his own vast room its double doors had been swung wide open.  He could almost see the wind.  Drawers were sucked open and all the things in them were lifted out, as though a tiny hurricane had filled the room.  Haajj leapt into its midst.  Its cold nipped and bit at him.  He reached to close one of the drawers the winter’s wind had opened.  A sword, one of the many hanging from the walls of Haajj’s room, sprang to life.  As if held by an invisible warrior, it danced between Haajj and the drawers.  When Haajj moved one way, the sword moved also.

“You will not find the key!” Haajj shouted.

He drew his own sword and leapt at the other.  Paper, clothes, sheets, pillows, and all things alike began to swirl swiftly about the room.  Metal rang out as sword met sword.  Haajj slashed at the wind and the sword fell.  Yet as it struck the floor, two, three, then four more swords sprang from the wall.  Held by nothing, they spiraled round till they surrounded him.  Haajj picked up the sword just fallen.  With a sword in each hand he cut at the four that swirled around him.  They jabbed at him, poked at him, and stabbed at him. All else in the room was caught up in wind as winter searched for the key.  Yet try is it might winter  could not find it.  Haajj roared with delight as one by one he cut down the four swords surrounding and dancing around him.

At the next moment the wind rushed out the window.  All the things  caught circling the room crashed to the floor.  Bits of paper trailed out the window and fluttered to the ground.  It was as though the leaves of a tree had all been shaken off at once.  Haajj stood in the middle, both swords in hand, gloating at his victory.  What would winter try next?  He hurried out of the room.

Afternoon became evening.  Winter did not return, yet Haajj knew he would.  He ordered all his servants – his cooks, his waiters, his waitresses – to prepare a grand feast.  There would be seats for his generals, his admirals, the bravest of his soldiers, and one seat at the end of the table, left empty, for winter.  The feast began.  No one asked for whom the empty seat was.  One does not question a Sultan.  Yet as the feast turned to a loud revelry a cold wind suddenly caused  all the candles round the room to flicker.  Like smoke pouring into a bottle, the wind poured into the chair.  Winter appeared.  All the guests became silent.  Haajj lifted his glass to figure at the far end of the table.

“A toast to winter!” Haajj pronounced.

Everyone silently raised their glasses.  Some stared at the apparition.  Some quietly slipped a hand to their knives or swords.  Some shook so from fright they could hardly keep from spilling what they held.  Winter looked at them all.

“Without winter,” said Haajj, “I would never have my summer!”

All drank the toast.  Winter sat motionless.  His hood half covered his face.  His thin fingers encircled the arms of his chair.  His gray cloak dipped into a small bundle at the floor.  Only his eyes showed the depth of his anger.  None dared to look into his eyes but Haajj.

“Have you given up?” Haajj asked.
“I have,” said winter.  “I admit defeat.”
“You lie!” said Haajj.  “But what does it matter?  I know you do.”
“You have outwitted me,” winter returned.

“You are winter?” asked one of the generals.
“I am.” said winter.
“It was in winter you took my first born child,” said the general.
“Your child,” said winter, “begged a kiss from me.”
“She had been a beautiful woman!” said the general.
“”Her heart was small,” said winter, “and the fever which burned in her was great and caused her much pain.  She desired the cold of my lips.  She lives.  She laughs.  She visits you often.  She is the breeze when you have played too much in the sun.  She is the frost on the window and the light in your room.  Would you have had her become a cripple?  She loves you more.”

“You are a tyrant!” said a brave soldier.  “You take our food from us!.  You blast our regiments with a killing cold!  You bury us in ice!  You are a tyrant!”
“Do you think you alone suffer?” asked winter.  “You cut the earth.  Your hard boots trample her.  Your hunger ravishes her.  Your weapons puncture her.  Your anger steeps her in the tears of mothers.  Shall I not cover those wounds?  Shall I not soothe the broken field with snow?  Shall I not hide the tender grass and seedlings with snow?  Shall I not cover her aching brooks with ice and snow?  If you were kind, you would love the things that love you.”

“You are winter?” asked a young servant.
“I am,” said winter.
The servant knelt at winter’s side and kissed his hand.
“Why do you love winter?” Haajj asked the young boy.
“Every winter,” said the boy, “the river between my village and the village of my lover is turned to ice.  The river has drowned many men in summer.  It is white with anger then.  Yet when winter comes he stills her anger.  He teaches it to be silent.  And I, when night comes, can walk across it into the arms of my lover.”

“I wish to know,” winter said to Haajj, “where you keep the key.”

Haajj laughed.  “I wear it always.”  He tugged at a chain around his neck so all could see where the key hung.  “And so it shall remain until the day I perish.”

“Then summer is lost,” said winter.
“No,” said Haajj, “she is mine.”
“I ask one thing from you,” said winter.  “Give me a painting of yourself.”
“I have many,” said Haajj.  “Choose whichever you desire.”

“No,” said winter, “as you are now.”
“And you will never return?” asked Haajj.
“Never,” answered winter.
“So be it!” said Haajj.  “Summon the painter!”

And so, while all watched, the painter painted Haajj.  Winter knew well what he was doing.  None rivaled the painter.  There was nothing his eye missed.  His genius captured all in its perfection.  And this, in this little man, is exactly what winter wanted.  So soon as the portrait was finished, winter took it, held it closely, studied it, gazed at it without pause.  Haajj was pleased with himself, even flattered.  Yet he could not help but feel it had been too easy.

“You are a master,” said winter to the painter, “I shall reward you little man.”

Haajj, again, was flattered.  Yet he wondered what it was that winter gazed at so intently.  The ghostly figure finally stood.  He stood to his full height.  Satisfaction burned in his eyes.  He set the painting aside.  Haajj suddenly realized his mistake!  There, in the painting, was the key!  The little man had painted it perfectly!  Haajj stood in a rage.  What could he say?  Winter reached into a glass of water.  When he pulled his hand out, he held the key, made of ice!

“Stop him!” Haajj shouted.

Yet in an instant winter melted into a mist.  Haajj rushed out the banquet hall.  He crashed though doors, through hallways, through the rooms of the palace until he reached the tower.  He leapt up the steps two at a time.  Haajj was many things, but he was not as quick as winter.  Just as he reached the top, winter turned the key and opened the door which imprisoned summer.  A terrible wind rushed out, nearly throwing Haajj back down the steps.  Summer was free!

“You lied!” Haajj shouted at winter.
“I promised you I would never return,” said winter, “and I will not.”
“Haajj!”

Haajj turned.  Summer appeared.  She was radiant.  Her beauty shone like a summer’s day.  Yet there was no kindness in her eyes.  Her hair floated in the air like tiny bolts of lightning.

“Why did you trap me?” she demanded of Haajj.
“I loved you,” said Haajj.  “I desired you.”
“You shall have what you desire,” said summer.  “Your garden shall be ever green.  Keep all your possessions.

Your wealth shall be unsurpassed forevermore.  Yet if you, or anyone should leave, you will never again find your way back to this city.  Nor  shall any, who seek to find your city, be able to find it.  To the land that surrounds you, your summer shall be its curse.  Never speak my name again.”

“Give me the blue rose!” said Haajj.

But neither summer nor winter answered him.  Instead, summer gestured at the rose and the flower vanished in a white flame.  Then winter, and summer following, swirled into winds which spiraled out the eyes of the tower.  But Haajj had outwitted them.  He had hidden the real flower.  The flower consumed by the flame had been the painter’s.

The clever sultan was given much to think on.  Was it better to have your heart’s desire, or was it worse having none to show it to.  The land surrounding his city, under the angry summer’s sun, became the vast Sahara.  The city, always at the horizon, fooled traveler after traveler.  Though they tried, some desperately weary, none could ever reach it.  And the city, as if made with air, became a curse to the desert.  ‘Beware!’ said travelers, ‘of the Myrrha Haajj! ‘None have reached it! Beware of the Mirage!’  Haajj might have left and, if he did, he might even have found a way back.  The blue rose, it is said, was once seen in Cairo!

The Sultan & Winter: Fourth of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Third of Several Parts

Haajj didn’t know the boy had been autumn.  He also didn’t know the girl had been spring.  Yet when winter came to visit the Sultan felt very ill at ease.  Winter was disquieting.  His skin was white as paper.  He was thin.  His fingers curled out from his hands like gnarled little branches.  King WinterHe walked slowly.  And, as though to protect him, he always kept a gray cloak wrapped tightly around him.  He never smiled.  Yet of his features, the strangest were his eyes.  If you were to look at him, you might imagine a terribly cruel man.  Yet his eyes were kind, and fragile, and beautiful!  And once you saw them you could never forget them.  If his body seemed ruined, his eyes burned with perfection.

It was long into night when winter came to Haajj.  He had only just celebrated one of his many feasts.  His guests were gone and he, finding himself alone, sat musing at the end of the banquet hall’s giant table.  It seemed, indeed, that he possessed anything a Sultan could want.  He twirled his knife idly in his hand.  Haajj was about to leave when one of the great oaken doors quietly opened and the tall pale figure of winter crept into the room.  Haajj quietly watched as the ghostly figure sat at the opposite end of the table.  It was almost difficult to see him.  Gold and silver candelabras spilled candle light in every direction.  And all the plates, bowls, glasses and bottles collected it.  Haajj peered through all the glitter.

“I have come,” said winter, “to see your most prized possession.”

“Does everyone have a key to my palace?”  asked Haajj.  “The evening is ended.  There is no more food.  We have drunk the wine.  The embers are gray in their beds.  Come back tomorrow.  Then I will grant you audience.”

“I will not go,” said winter, “until I have seen your most prized possession.”
“You will do as I say,” said Haajj, “if you ever wish to see the garden.”
“I do not wish to see the garden,” said winter quietly.  “I have come to see  summer.”
“Summer?”  Haajj felt suddenly ill at ease.  “Who are you?”

“I am nothing,” said winter.  “I am nobody.”

“Surely you would rather see my garden,” said Haajj.  “It is magnificent.  All the world’s flowers are there.  I’ll show you my favorite! – the tiger lily.  Or what about the fringed gentian?  What about the blue columbine?  Or have you seen the small-bracted dayflower?  See the garden!  I’ll show you a place to sleep under the sparkle berry tree.  And you can rub the catkins of the pussy willow against your skin.  You will never find a more beautiful place!”

“I want to know,” said winter quietly, “what does summer look like?”

Haajj was quiet.  He fidgeted.  He didn’t know what summer looked like.  It was the one thing he didn’t possess.  What could he say?  The strange visitor awaited his answer.  Haajj had none.  He needed more time.  He needed to think.  He slumped in his chair, then he straightened.  He rested both his elbows on the table, then he straightened again and rubbed his forehead.

“Come back tomorrow,” Haajj finally said, “if you want to see summer.”

“Very well,” winter said, almost whispering.  The narrow figure stood and walked slowly back to the oaken door.  Without turning, he closed the door behind him.  And Haajj, being sure he was alone, hurriedly left the banquet hall.  Whoever he was, Haajj decided, he were someone to be reckoned with.  He went straight to the tower.  Perhaps he could find a way to trick summer.  If he could entrap her, he could surely find a way to see her.

He climbed the long spiral stairs of the tower.  He peered into her room.  He could see nothing.  Haajj began to pace.  There was an artist, it was said, who could paint all things in their minutest details – nothing escaped his eye.  Perhaps Haajj could not see summer, but surely a great painter could.  He would have summer painted.  Perhaps the strange visitor would be satisfied by a painting.  Haajj at once ordered his guards to summon the painter.  The painting, he knew, would have to be finished by tomorrow.  So all was prepared.  The painter, once he arrived, was told to discern summer wherever she was.  And he was not to sleep until he had done so.

When Haajj awoke the next morning, he at once went to learn of the painter’s progress.  Yet, far from having painted summer, the poor little painter was beside himself with excitement.  He had done nothing.  “I shall have you strung up!” said Haajj furiously.  “Where is my painting of summer?  Did you sleep all night? You are worthless!”

The painter at once fell to his hands and knees.  “O exalted Sultan,” begged the little painter.  “Forgive me!  Spare me!  I am a mere nothing!  I am the spit of a camel!  I am the belly of a lizard!  Spare me, O exalted Sultan!”

“Get up.”  Haajj stared at the empty canvass.  “Why have you done nothing.”
“Last night,” said the painter, still on his knees, “as I was readying myself to paint summer, a strange visitor came.  As I thought you had given explicit orders for no one to disturb me, I at once assumed you  had sent him.  How else should anyone come to the tower but by your permission?  I am miserable.”
“Go on,” said Haajj.
“He asked if I possessed a key to the door.”

“You do not,” said Haajj.
“I did not,” said the painter breathlessly.  “I told the visitor you kept the key hidden.  And that it was forbidden for anyone to inquire as to its hiding place.  Then, I witnessed it with my own eyes, he put his lips to the glass and summer came to him!  I am miserable!”
“Then what happened?” asked Haajj, very worried.

“O exalted Sultan!” cried the little painter, “I could do nothing to stop him!  I am miserable!”

“Yes, yes… miserable.”  Haajj gestured impatiently.  “Get on with it!  What happened?”
“Summer appeared,” said the painter, “and they kissed with the glass between them.  It was a beautiful kiss!  I have never seen anything like it!  When there lips parted, as if from both their mouths, a rose appeared! – a blue rose!  It was like a wisp of smoke at first, then summer touched it and it softened into a blue rose.  It is still in the room!”

Haajj looked.  In the center of the room lay the blue rose.  It lay as if it had just been picked.  It was the most beautiful flower he had ever seen.  Haajj rubbed his chin.
“What did he look like?” Haajj asked.
“He was a tall man,” said the painter.  “I could not see him well.  He wore a gray cloak.  I could only see his face.  I was afraid of him.  I am a painter.  I am miserable.  I am sure he could have crushed me like the snail beneath the Sultan’s exalted foot.”

“It is winter!” said Haajj, who was too clever not to know.  “So this is what happens when winter kisses summer!  We have flowers!  When summer kisses winter?” Haajj mused, “- perhaps snowflakes!”
“What is your will?” asked the painter, back to his hands and knees.  “I am your pathetic servant.”

“You will not leave here until you have painted summer,” said Haajj.  “You are miserable.  You are pathetic.  You are, of course, a genius.  It is said you are the greatest painter in any land.  The eyes of genius miss nothing.  Therefore summer cannot hide from you.  Do not allow yourself to be distracted again.”

Haajj walked slowly down the winding stairs of the great tower deep in thought.  He would need to be very careful.  He would, of course, have to be cleverer than winter.  And what of the blue rose?  Yet something more to torment him.  He wanted it.  Yet if he opened any window summer would be quick as lightning.  As he neared the throne room the Sultan put on his fabulous crown.  And as he walked into the throne room winter was waiting.

“I grant you audience,” said Haajj.  “What do you desire?”
“Will you show me summer?” winter asked.
“I will.”  Haajj seated himself upon his throne.  “Yet first you must tell me where you are from.  And you must also tell me who your parents are.”

Winter had never been asked these questions before.  The Sultan was a clever man.  One does not ask the river where it was  born nor who its parents are.  Winter mused.  The answer could not be careless.  It would not do to be outwitted by a Sultan.
“Will you show me summer when I have answered,” winter asked.
“I will,” said the emperor, “when you tell me where you are from and who your parents are.  If you cannot answer I you will not see summer.”
“I shall return in morning,” said winter, “with my answer.”

The Sultan & Winter: Third of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the Second of Several Parts

A red carpet stretched the length of Haajj’s throne room.  It ran beneath towering marble arches, between long rows of glistening soldiers, until it ended at the feet of Haajj’s throne.  As always, he sat above any visitor, giving them only the briefest time.  King WinterHe was a Sultan with much on his mind.  And they, as always, came to see the garden.  It pleased Haajj.  It was his garden.  And his guests liked him for his garden.  Then, not long after the boy had come, a young girl came.  She was hardly what she seemed.  Her beauty astounded.  Her perfection enraptured.  She was love in the heart.  She robbed everyone of their selfishness.

She walked where she wished.  None questioned her.  The doors opened whichever way she chose.  She wore no shoes.  Her hair was white.  Her clothes were mixed with green and gold.  The sun danced through her legs and arms.  She was as a little princess. In her every movement she somehow summoned beauty.  Yet she glanced at all with a wary cleverness.  When she entered the throne room Haajj leaned forward to see better who it might be.  “Who are you?” he asked.  “You seem a child and yet I think you are older.”

“I am neither.”  The girl laughed sweetly.  “I have come to tell you a story.”
“Surely,” said the Sultan, “you would rather play in my garden.”
“Surely.”  The girl smiled.  “I have come to see you!”
“I am a busy man,” said Haajj.  “I am a Sultan!  What time do I have for your story?”
“You will listen.”  The girl shook a finger at him.  “I will speak to you and you will listen.  It is a long story.  It touches upon you.  You must listen to it all.”

Never before had anyone dared to speak to him so.  “Yes.”  He could think of nothing better to say.  “Yes.  You will tell me a story.  I command you to tell me a story.  You have traveled some distance to tell me a story, so it befits me to listen to your story.  I am listening.”

The girl sighed, stretched till she stood tip-toe, then relaxed.  “Once upon a time there was a poor plowman with barely enough land to feed him through the winter.  He had no children.  He had a poor little dog which always stayed by his side.  And he had a wife with whom he shared his few possessions.  He asked little from fate and fate answered with little.  Yet one winter came when even all his summer’s toil left not enough to spread across a dinner table.  The plowman felt his bitterness deeply.  His silence broke and  he angrily marched into the night.  He would finally speak with fate.

‘I am a poor plowman!’ he cried.  ‘Have I ever asked to be wealthy?  Have I envied my neighbor?  Have I stolen from my friend?  Have I ever desired more than what befit me?  Why must I suffer this daily sorrow?  All I ask is to reap what I sow!’

With these words a dark being appeared before him.  It seemed neither there nor absent.  ‘Poor plowman,’ it whispered, ‘since you ask I am come to answer.  You toil all your life and never asked for more than life.  Among the loved you are beloved especially.  I may grant you whatever you wish.  You have lived poor in body yet rich in soul.  You may still live so if you desire.  Though it is winter spring must follow.  Yet I may grant you more if you ask.’

‘I am old,’ said the plowman.  ‘My bones are brittle.  My wife cannot undo the knots she ties.  The cold has carved a place out of our spirit.  Even my poor dog cannot sleep at night for the bruising of his ribs.  What will you grant me?  I will live better if I may.’

‘So be it,’ the shadow answered.  ‘Take your baskets tonight, with which you collect your harvest, and hang them, as many as you have, from the pomegranate tree.  And, come morning, they will be filled with golden pomegranates.  Yet, be warned, let none of the golden fruit touch the earth so long as you possess it.’

The plowman at once hung all his baskets from his only pomegranate tree.  It being the depth of winter, and he being old and easily chilled, the plowman quickly went back to the warmth of his hut.  When he woke the next morning he indeed found the baskets full of golden pomegranates.  The poor plowman nearly danced for joy.  He carefully pulled each precious basket from each branch.  They were just what he needed.  He went, that day, and bought enough food to last through the winter.  All with one  golden pomegranate.

A month passed.  The plowman once again hung his baskets from the pomegranate tree.  When he gathered them the next morning, he was drunk with delight.  They were filled with twice as many golden pomegranates!  And so, by the end of the day, he’d bought a house and farm with cattle, sheep, and horses.  The old plowman relished his happiness.  Yet each day seemed to breed more and more of the little desires in him.  Soon, though his wife was content, he wanted just a little more.

And so, one day, he returned with his baskets fuller than ever.  The old plowman’s wife looked at him unhappily.  ‘I have never seen you walk so slowly,’ she sighed.

‘My load is heavy and I must not drop it,’ answered the old plowman.  ‘My baskets are each full of a hundred pomegranates with which I shall buy so many workers.’

‘Your back is bent and your steps grow weary,’ answered his wife.  ‘You do not dance as you once did, when you carried hundred pears in your sack.’

‘I shall buy a hundred workers,’ answered the old plowman, ‘and we shall dine upon pears, and we shall dance to music, night after night after night.
‘So many golden pomegranates will break your back,’ she answered.  ‘Give some to your friends so they may love you and help you bear your burdens.’

The old plowman, however, wouldn’t listen to his wife.  He was the wealthiest in all the country.  He soon forget he had ever been old or poor.  And soon he treated his friends with forgetfulness.  Yet he was noticed by the emperor.  When he learned that a plowman was richer than he, he at once set out to tax him until he, again, was the richer.  The plowman, knowing nothing of the emperor’s plans, could do little when the tax man came.  He was forced to give over most of his wealth.  The old man was filled with rage and anger.

The very next day he hung basket after basket from the branches of the tree.  The old man at once commanded his workers to carefully collect each one.  And during the weeks that followed he gathered together a tremendous army.  He meant to conquer the emperor.  He couldn’t brook being taxed.  He exercised his army day after day.  He bought them uniforms, guns, and canons.  He taught them how to quickly slay the enemy.  He became a severe and cruel general.

No one loved him.  Even the old man’s dog feared to walk beside him anymore.  And when the dog finally perished, his master never noticed.  In less than a year the plowman defeated the emperor and became, himself, the emperor.  Yet the old man remembered only that he had struggled lifelong.  He couldn’t remember the times he’d laughed or paused to play.  He remembered only that discipline had brought him wealth.  And so he robbed his country of any happiness.

‘Yet why must the people suffer?’ asked his wife.  ‘For whatever reason fate has brought you here, if it has been cruel to you it has been good as well.  Do not remember only the cruelty.  Be good to the people.  Be better than fate has been to you.  If you cannot love your past, do not despise their future, sweet husband.  Give them some joy.’

The old man brooded.  Fate had indeed been cruel to him.  He could not understand his wife’s words.  His unhappy thoughts left him alone among his people.  And when, one day, his wife would not come to him, then he was truly alone.  When people came to him, his unhappiness left him easily angered.  ‘If you are starving,’ he said to them, ‘then go back and scold the hands which idled in your pockets when it was time to sow!’  And the old man sent them away.

Finally, his unhappiness all but consumed him.  He had everything he had ever dreamed of, yet no one to share it with.  He taught his people by hardship, as he had taught himself.  And he believed it was the best way to live happily.  Yet none of these things brought any happiness.  Each day left him lonelier than the day before.  Each night he slept less.  His mind grew thick with heaviness. His old heart grew small and weary with sorrow.  At last he could bear no more.  He returned to find the spirit which had granted him so many wishes.

‘Where are you spirit?’ he cried.  ‘I’m tired!  I’m old!  I have a winter inside me so cold!  And I… I can find no fire to warm it!  Help me!  Come out, spirit!’
‘I’ve come.’  The strange figure appeared before him again.  ‘What is it, poor plowman?’

‘You must help me!’  The old plowman fell, weeping, to his hands and knees.  ‘When I was poor, I had a wife!  She loved me!  If it were cold outside, then how gladly she loved me!  If it were her moments of grace, the soft look of her eyes, or the sorrows of her changing face, I loved her nonetheless.  She has fled!  Spirit! – I do not want to be hated by all!  I have been cruel!  She has fled!  Spirit! – I would give all to have her back!’

‘Kindness,’ answered the shadow, ‘cannot be given.  It can only be offered.’
‘Giving?  Offering?’ cried the old man.  ‘They are the same!’
‘How can you know what another loves?’ asked the shadow.  ‘Offer – and what is loved will be taken.  Give – and what is given may not be loved.’
‘I desire only the happiness of my people!’  cried the old plowman.

‘And your happiness?’ asked the shadow.  ‘Tell me where you have lost it, old plowman.  You did not teach each plant how to bear its seed.  You did not instruct each how to unfurl its leaves, nor how many leaves should be borne by each branch, nor how, in what way, nor in which direction each plant should spread itself over the earth.  You loved each as it was and each, as it was, gave to you the fruit which nourished you.  The good emperor is the good farmer.  Do this and find happiness.  If you do not, though you be surrounded by a summer of wealth, the winter which is in you shall freeze your heart till it stop with ice.’

‘I ask only to create happiness,’ wept the plowman.
‘Poor plowman,’ whispered the shadow, ‘would you control destiny?’

The old man clamored to his feet but the shadow melted away.  Still he was resolute.  If he could rule a land, he could command the world.  He made his wish and hung his baskets from  the tree.  Yet he forgot the warning he’d first been given.  No golden pomegranate could touch the earth.  Yet to wish the world, a thing infinite in price, is to wish what created it.  The golden pomegranates might have reaached into the sky but the little tree shuddered and, one by one, the baskets each slipped off their branches.  Nothing could bear so much weight.  The pomegranates turned to rock as they struck the earth, and the plowman’s wealth crumbled with it.  The next morning, his empire was no more.  The people turned against him.  And his name was forever forgotten.”

“I like it not,” said Haajj to the little girl.  “A plowman an emperor?  Never!  I like it not!  It is too fanciful – too long!  You spend too much time in the detail – too many words!”

“Alas,” said the girl, “which words would you have me take out?  You have not listened to my story.  And ’tis a thousand pities.”

Continued: The Fourth of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Second of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: Continuing the First of Several Parts

Haajj decided to spend the day alone in his garden.  He walked through the acacia groves, he smelled the orchids, smiled at the hyacinths, dallied with the butterflies when they let him.  He tried to imagine what summer might look like.  The idea tormented him.  He finally lay down to stare at the sky.  It wasn’t so bad, all in all.  Perhaps he could suffer never seeing summer.  He possessed a beautiful garden.  He had outfoxed winter.  He was the envy of the world.  He didn’t need to see summer.
King Winter “You are the Sultan?”
“What?”  Haajj quickly sat upright.  A boy in tattered clothes stood over him.  His hair was ragged.  He was healthy yet strangely gaunt.  “Who are you?”
“I know a story,” said the boy.  “Would you like to hear it?”
“How did you get in my garden?” asked Haajj.
“It’s a good story,” said the boy.  “I think you’ll like it.”
“Who let you in?”  Haajj persisted.  “Tell me which guard it was.”
“I shan’t keep you long,” said the boy.
“It wasn’t a guard.”  Haajj mused.  “Was it one of the maids?”
“Here’s my story…”
“Did you find another way in?” Haajj interrupted.  “Tell me.  How did you get in?”
“Try this.”  The boy held out an apple.  “Then I will tell you.”
“It is poisoned,” said Haajj.  “I won’t try it.”
“It is not!” the boy answered.  “I got in with these!”
“Well…maybe.”  The Sultan eyed the apple.  “Give it to me.”

The apple was the sweetest the Sultan had ever eaten.  He might have wanted to say something more but the sweetness of the apple all but silenced him.  The boy began again.  The Sultan quietly ate his apple.

“There was once a fox,” said the boy, “who, by his cleverness, had come to possess all the riches a fox may desire.  He lived in a foxhole lined with the trophies of his exploits.  Furs from all the animals he had eaten at one time or another covered the floors and hung from the ceilings.  Yet, of all these things and more, is most cherished possession was his feather mattress.  Every evening he lovingly circled it three times before he lay down.  There wasn’t another fox who slept as well he did.  Yet, day by day, he noticed this or that feather missing.  He was always careful to notice these things.  One evening, determined to find out why, he caught a mouse stealing one of the feathers.  The fox was furious.

‘I should swallow you whole!’ he snarled.

‘For a feather?’ asked the mouse.  ‘I only came for a feather.’

‘You cannot have mine!’ snapped the fox.  ‘If I catch you again then I will swallow you whole!”

‘But I need only one to sleep on,’ said the mouse.  ‘The cat  is always ready to eat me.  If I go to the bird for a feather, it will carry me far away and not bring me back.  The beaver has made a lake where I might have looked in a better place.  I shall drown if I go there now.  The bull will trample me if I wander through its field.  The woodsman’s wife always hopes to trap me if I am not careful.  Where else shall I go?  You have many feathers.  It shall not harm you if I take what few I need for myself and my children.’

‘What is a mouse to me?” asked the fox.  ‘You are nothing!’  If I were to eat you, I would swallow you whole!  Why should I care for you?  You are nothing! – nothing but a tiny mouse!  Run!  Run away!  If you ever return I shall eat you! – and I shall eat your children too!’

And so the selfish fox sent the mouse away with nothing.  For a short time the fox was happy.  No more feathers were stolen from his mattress.  Yet it wasn’t long, perhaps two or three days, before a knock came at the door.  The fox had just lain down!  He was ready to go to sleep!  Yet when the knocking continued he angrily rose from his mattress.  It was a cat!  A cat had come to his door!

‘Please pardon me,’ said the cat, ‘but have you seen any mice?’

‘I have chased them away!’ snapped the fox.  ‘Have you nothing better to ask me?’

‘I had hoped,’ said the cat, ‘that you could entice them back.’

‘I’ll do no such thing!’ snarled the selfish fox.  ‘If you mean to catch a mouse you’ll have to find it elsewhere!

What are your problems to me?  You are just another cat in a world with cats too many!  Now go away!  – or else I’ll bite your tail off!’

The fox slammed the door and returned to his feather mattress.  The cat did not return, which was just as well.

The fox would have surely bitten its tail off.  Yet it wasn’t more than another two days before someone knocked at his door.  The fox angrily climbed out of his feather mattress.  ‘Who is it?’ he demanded, fully expecting to see the cat.

‘Please pardon us,’ said two birds, ‘but we’ve come to ask a kindness.’

‘I was nearly asleep!’ snapped the fox.  ‘Come another time!’

‘We had hoped,’ said the birds, ‘that you could entice the mice to return.’

‘I won’t do it!’ snapped the selfish fox.  ‘What are mice to birds?’

‘The cat will not let us be,’ answered the birds, ‘because you have chased the mice away.’

‘And I,’ said the fox, ‘will swallow both of you whole.  Now go away!  What are your problems to me?  You are just two birds in world already too full with birds!  Now go away!  I’ll brook no more of you!’

The fox slammed the door.  The birds did not return, which was also just as well.  The fox surely would have eaten them whole.  Yet, once again, it wasn’t two days before another knock came at the door.  The fox angrily uncurled from his mattress.  It was always when he was about to go to sleep!  He opened the  door and there was a beaver!

‘Pardon me,’ said the beaver, ‘but I have a favor to ask of you.’

‘I’m tired,’ complained the fox, ‘come back some other time.’

‘It’s something small,’ said the beaver.  ‘Let the mice back in your house.’

‘It will never be!’ snarled the fox.  ‘Why should I let any more mice steal my feathers?’

‘The birds are in the tallest trees,’ said the beaver, ‘because the cat will eat them however it can.  Yet the tallest trees are the best for my dams.  I don’t want to harm the birds.  They sing to me as I work!  Let the mice come back, and the cat will go away, and the birds will find other trees, and the best and tallest will be free to cut.’

‘I’ll do no such thing!’ snarled the fox impatiently.  ‘Now go away and never come back! – or, one by one, I shall carry away the sticks of your dam until you and the dam are washed away!’

The fox slammed the door.  This time, he was sure, no one would knock at the door.  He prided himself on his fortitude.  No one was going to talk him into doing what he didn’t want to do.  Yet, sure enough, another two days passed and a knock came at the door.  The fox furiously jumped out of his mattress.  This time he was going eat, with one bite if he could, whatever or whoever it was at the door.  He slammed it open, and there was a bull!

‘Pardon me,’ said the bull, ‘but I have just a small thing to ask you.’

‘I’m tired!’ said the fox.  ‘I haven’t slept well!  Go away!’

‘But it’s such a small thing,’ said the bull.  ‘Couldn’t you let just one mouse back into your house?’

‘A mouse?’ snapped the fox.  ‘What is one tiny mouse to a bull?’

‘My fields are flooded,’ said the bull, ‘because the beaver has let his dam break.  The beaver has let his dam break because the birds are hiding in the tallest trees.  The birds are hiding in the tallest trees because the cat cannot find any mice to eat.  And the cat cannot find any mice to eat because you have chased them all away.’

‘Then find some other fields,’ the fox barked.  ‘If you bother me again I shall dig holes for you to stumble in.  I shall dig so many you will break every leg and the farmer will shoot you and have you for his evening meal!’

The fox slammed the door.  And he would not, he decided, answer the door again.  He was rid of the mice once and for all.  Nothing whatsoever was going to change his mind.  He happily curled atop his mattress and slept well for the next several days.  Yet, just when the fox was sure, another knock came at the door.  His fur bristled.  He furiously leapt up.  He slammed open the door.  He was ready to pounce on whoever it was – but it was the woodsman.  And his great bow and arrow were pointed straight at the fox’s snout.

‘Pardon me,’ said the fox, ‘what might I do for you.’

‘I’m tired!’ said the woodsman.  ‘I haven’t slept well!’

‘Why?’ asked the fox.  ‘What could I possibly do to help you?’

‘My fields are flooded,’ said the woodsman, ‘and my bull is too weak to pull the plow.  He has not eaten.  He has not eaten because the beaver will not cut the tallest trees to build his dam.  The beaver will not build his dam because the birds are hiding in the tallest trees.  The birds are hiding in the tallest trees because the cat cannot find any mice.  The cat cannot find any mice because you have chased all the mice away!’

‘Why shoot me?’  The fox saw what was coming.  ‘It could be any fox.’

‘The bull told me to ask the beaver,’ said the woodsman.  ‘The beaver told me the birds would know.  The birds told me I should ask the cat.  The cat told me to find a mouse.  I found a mouse and she told me you were the fox and this the foxhole!’

‘I could be of use to you,’ pleaded the fox.  ‘I really don’t think you should shoot me.’

‘What is a fox to me?’ bellowed the woodsman.  ‘You are nothing!  If I had known you were here, I would have been rid of you long ago.  Why should I care?  You are nothing! – nothing but a mangy fox!  I’ll brook no more of you! You are nothing but a fox in world with foxes too many!’

And with that the woodsman shot the fox straight between the eyes.  So, you see,” said the boy to Haajj, “a mouse, even the smallest thing, can mean a world of difference.   There is nothing which is unimportant.  What you sow, you will reap.  You should think on this very carefully.”

“I like it not.”  Haajj finished the apple.  “Animals do not speak.  And I do not like these stories that tell me how I must be good and how not to be bad.  I care not for these stories.  Yet it is, in its way, a nice little story.  You may go now.  You have entertained me.”

“Alas,” said the boy, “you have understood nothing.”

Continued: The Third of Several Parts

The Sultan & Winter: First of Several Parts

the-sultan-winter

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.

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.

stamp-copyright-2009

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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