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 Seventh Day

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

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

Lao Chi’s Story

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

Lai-tse

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

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

The Silken Thread

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

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

The Painted Fan

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

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

The Jade Quill

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

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

The Ivory Jar

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

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

The Autumn Reed

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

Here Ends Lao Chi’s Tale

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

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The Seven Tales of the India Traders: The Sixth Day

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

Tsi Tung’s Story

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

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

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

The Crescent Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here Ends Tsi Tung’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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