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 Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

Continuing the Second Part

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

Ujin & the Ghost of Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Ends Lon Po’s Tale

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

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

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

Followed on the Sixth Day by Tsi Tung’s Story

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

Continuing the First Part

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

Ujin & the Night Sky

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

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

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

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

Here Lon Po pauses after the second part.

To be followed by the Third Part

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Fifth Day

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

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

Lon Po’s Story

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

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

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

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

‘But white bears?’ I asked.

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

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

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

The Autumn Bear
Ujin & the Autumn Wind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Lon Po pauses after the first part.

To be followed by the Second Part.

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Second Day

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

Pu-liang Yi’s Story

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

The Leaves of Fallen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Ends Pu-liang Yi’s Tale

Followed by another tale on The Third Day

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The First Day

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

day-lilyThe Seven Tales of the India Traders

Meeting in Autumn

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

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

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

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

P’ang Yün’s Story

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

The Naked Crane

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

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

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

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

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

Then she wept.

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

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

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

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

Here Ends P’ang Yün’s Tale

Followed by another tale on the The Second Day

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