Isolation Tales 8: Chang-Siu and the Blade of Grass
I wrote this short fable because I was crushing on Marguerite Yourcenar’s style of writing, and wanted to catch a similar tone. I’ve written several fables and folk tales but wanted to tell a story simply and cleanly, as she does. There’s something enjoyable about writing a tale far divorced from the lives we lead.
Long, long ago in China, at the time of the Sung dynasty, a poor farmer named Chang-Siu lived with his daughter in the bleak hinterland of the Hopeh Plain near the city of Ch’in-huang-tao.
Their home was as barren and austere as the dark mountains at their backs, but Chang-Siu was content in the knowledge that he would one day be buried beside his ancestors, most of whom had expired after lifetimes spent breaking the hard dry soil by day, and shielding themselves from the bitter winds which crossed the plain at night.
Chang-Siu’s frail wife had died giving birth to their only child, and the farmer had been left to raise his daughter, whose name was Ti-Pu, alone. Ti-Pu’s beauty was as flawless as polished chalk, and Chang-Siu’s love for her had the strength of the sky. Nothing grew on the desolate land which surrounded their house, not even a blade of grass, so each morning, while the misty sun was still low beyond the plain, Chang-Siu would take his daughter to the sluggish yellow river at the base of the mountains where they would gather rushes. After this they would return home to place them in racks for drying, and Chang-Siu would empty the old racks so that his daughter could begin to weave the hardening stalks into matting. From this simple trade they were able to buy the few necessities they required to silence their bellies and keep them warm.
Half a day’s walk from Chang-Siu’s modest house, a village sat sheltered in shadow at the base of the mountains. Although small, it was situated at the edge of a much-used trading route, and it was here that the couple were able to sell their wares. On the few warm days of late summer, when the sun cut free from the towering horizon and shadows withdrew from the village like a retreating grey tide, Chang-Siu would sit in the square and play checkers with the merchants, while his daughter remained seated obediently beside him, and the old hound that lived in the square slept with its tail gently twitching. On these days their life together gained a pleasurable respite from eternal toil, and Chang-Siu felt the fleeting luxury of leisure.
As the years passed, Ti-Pu’s beauty grew until it exceeded her mother’s, and as Chang-Siu escorted her through the town he saw heads turn and men whisper as she passed. The old rush-farmer knew that their hard life on the plain would soon rob his daughter of this delicate beauty, and because they spent almost every waking moment of their day together, he turned his admiration of her golden days into a fear, and then an obsession. He knew that unless a good marriage could be made for her they would die without advancement, as poor as they had been upon their arrival in the world, with nothing to show for their lives of labour.
There lived in the next village a handsome young merchant named Wang-Lin. At an early age he had inherited a fortune from his father, who had once been a painter to the Emperor Chao Hsu himself at the Imperial Palace. Wang-Lin’s father had fallen from grace after painting a picture that was wrongly interpreted, and had expired in comfort and regret at the house of his son. The young merchant was barely older than Ti-Pu, and although he had no need to work, did so in order to contribute to the fortunes of his village.
To strengthen his family following its depletion by the sudden inertia of his father, Wang-Lin was rumoured to be searching for a wife. It became Chang-Siu’s deepest wish to see his daughter married to the merchant. All who had met him spoke of the boy as kind and noble, the perfect partner for a girl as beautiful as Ti-Pu. Soon, the residents of both villages had linked the couple’s names in anticipated harmony. The arrangement of their meeting and subsequent marriage were regarded by all as an occurrence as inevitable as the rising sun.
For his part, Chang-Siu let it to be known that he would allow his daughter to meet with Wang-Lin, to discuss the details of the impending nuptials. Ti-Pu’s dowry would be her beauty, a gift more precious and fleeting than summer rain. Accordingly, Wang-Lin replied that he would consider it a great honour to receive a visit from Chang-Siu and his daughter.
Just before dawn on the day they were to travel to Wang-Lin’s village, Chang-Siu was seized with a terrible foreboding, and leapt from his rush bed with a fearful cry. As soon as he saw that his fears were founded, fingers of ice began to close over him, and in an instant he sensed that his dreams for the future would never be fulfilled. Ti-Pu, who always faced the day with clear eyes and a hopeful heart, was crying. Between her sobs she explained that despite his desirability as a husband she had no wish to marry Wang-Lin, for she loved another, a scholar who lived in their own village, and that worse still he was penniless.
‘How could this be?’ demanded Chang-Siu, for in all their years together his daughter had never been left alone in public. Ti-Pu explained that she had fallen in love with the scholar, whose name was Liu-Yen, in the square while her father played checkers.
‘But surely this means you have never even spoken,’ Chang-Siu gasped, unable to believe his ears. Ti-Pu explained that they had no need for words, and that all was understood between them. Chang-Siu considered his afternoons in the village square and recalled and recalled the scholar, who was as thin and pale as he was poor.
‘It is out of the question for you to marry this man,’ he cried, quite enraged. ‘Does it mean nothing to you that we have slaved and sweated to survive on this land, where not even a single blade of grass will grow? Why should you seek to destroy our family’s only chance to change our lives for the better? I am your father, and it is right that I decide whom you should marry. I will not countenance the idea of your betrothal to a pauper. I forbid you to ever look upon this man again. Furthermore, today we will journey to the house of Wang-Lin to formalise the forthcoming nuptial ceremony.’
At this, Ti-Pu cried anew, and her misery was deepened by a dark cloud passing above the house, which Ti-Pu took to be an omen of death.
Chang-Siu sought to console his daughter, and tried to explain that his actions were compelled by his concern for her happiness, but Ti-Pu was deaf to his entreaties, and ran from the room in tears.
As the day passed, she refused to go with her father to see Wang-Lin, insisting instead that her suitor be informed of the situation. When he saw the pain in his daughter’s amber eyes, Chang-Siu set off alone, and with every step he took towards Wang-Lin’s house, he watched his dreams slip away. Wang-Lin was disheartened when he heard that Ti-Pu loved another, but Chang-Siu was sure that there was still time for his daughter to admit her folly and return to the marriage he so desired for her. Love was more powerful than Chang-Siu’s anger, and although he forbade the girl from ever seeing her lover again he took her back into his heart, hoping that she would quickly see the error of her ways.
Several nights later, there arose a terrible thunderstorm. Lightning cracked the sky in two and filled the great plain with fire, and the rushes beside the river clattered like the bones of the returning dead. Hail hammered over the little house so that it sounded as if a flight of stallions was riding across the roof. Inside, Ti-Pu’s misery broke like a dam, flooding into anger. Bitterly she begged her father to allow her a single visit to the man with whom she had fallen in love, but Chang-Siu furiously refused. His rage against his daughter followed the course of the storm, finally blowing itself out when Ti-Pu threw open the door of the little house and fled into the rain.
Chang-Siu’s weeks of loneliness were preceded by the knowledge that he had lost his only child. The storm abated and the bare plain dried, but Ti-Pu did not reappear. The rain channels which had been carved into the hard earth slowly dried and filled, and the pale sun climbed to the sky once more, and Chang-Siu no longer dared to leave the house for fear of missing his daughter’s return.
Finally, when he was forced to venture into the village for supplies, he heard the women gossiping outside the teahouse. In truth he wished to overhear, for he had no other way of discovering the whereabouts of his child. In this way he ascertained that Ti-Pu had become the wife of the scholar Liu-Yen, and that they lived in a tiny hut beside a rocky outcrop at the foot of the mountains, in the place where her new husband had been born. The one thing that marred Ti-Pu’s happiness was the loss of her father’s devotion. It was only her fear of his wrath, said one of the women, that kept her from calling on him. Sadder by far, said another, was the news that the heartbroken young merchant, Wang-Lin, had arranged to marry another for the favour of financial convenience, and not the grace of love.
That night the old farmer raged around his threadbare home, greatly vexed. Eventually exhausted by his rage, he tried to sleep, but the cold air which invaded his bones seemed the coldest air that had ever been, and the darkness which filled the room was darker than the blackest night that had ever fallen on the plain.
The next day, Chang-Siu arose with a stubborn ache in his heart, and bitterly returned to the routine of his daily business, resolved that he would never set eyes on his daughter again.
For six days and nights Chang-Siu saw no one. He made war upon his work, using it to combat the enemy of his memory. His gnarled hands had not the dexterity of his daughter’s, so that the mats he wove were imperfect and unfinished. On the seventh day he returned to the village, but managed to sell little more than a third of his wares, and those out of pity for his loss. The merchant, a man whom Chang-Siu had known for most of his life, seemed uncomfortable talking to him, and was relieved to conclude business so that the old farmer would finally leave his store.
Chang-Siu returned home, to his work, to his empty house, and to his rancour, which ate into his chest like a deep-rooted poison, and clouded his every waking thought. At the end of the week he returned to the village, but now the merchant said he could not take even a few mats, for he had found a more reliable supplier.
Disconsolate, Chang-Siu sat in the square and searched for challenges. He tried playing checkers, but his friends all drifted away from him shaking their heads, refusing to be drawn into a game. Everywhere he went it was the same. Those who would once have cheerfully passed the day with him now lowered their eyes and searched the ground, anxious to be gone. Even the ancient hound in the square slunk guiltily from his presence, preferring the company of flies.
Chang-Siu knew he had done nothing wrong, and could not understand the behaviour of the villagers. Was it not the lot of man to better his station, and marry his daughter to the best advantage of his family? One old friend, an elderly merchant full of travelling tales, now pointedly refused to sit with him. Another refused to eat with him. Chang-Siu sensed that something terrible had occurred, but could find no one to tell him what had passed. And so, as his melancholy deepened, his life took on a pattern quite empty and devoid of meaning. His house, uncared-for by any human hand, accepted the embrace of nature. What little savings he had accrued in a lifetime of toil were soon exhausted in the purchase of provisions. Each trip to the village was filled with dread as children darted from his sight, and even the birds refused to alight on the ground where he walked.
One morning, Chang-Siu arose with the familiar ache filling his chest and stinging his joints, and resolved to visit a physician, a kindly old man who lived on a windswept hilltop. The physician held his hands across the farmer’s heart, then stared long and hard into the pupils of his eyes. Finally, he told him that he had discovered the root of the problem. He asked the farmer how long he had been suffering from aches and pains. Chang-Siu explained that his health had begun to fail after the terrible fight with his daughter which had resulted in her departure from the family home, and that the moon had passed three times since.
‘Well, that’s it,’ said the physician, nodding sagely. ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. You are dead. Your demise most likely occurred on the night that your daughter became lost to you. Your ill-humour overpowered your heart. You have been dead since that time, but neither you nor your friends can see your death, only sense it. The light of life has been extinguished from your eyes, but your angry spirit is unwilling to leave your body.”
‘What will become of me?’ asked Chang-Siu, appalled.
‘Unless you find a way to make your spirit leave soon, your body will start to corrupt even though it continues to perform its normal duties,’ said the physician, ‘and although the chill winds still sweep our village, summer is coming.’
Devastated by this news, the old farmer returned home and sat alone in his hovel. He looked out on the bare plain where nothing grew, remembering the death of his lovely wife, and the departure of his beautiful daughter. It was as if the land itself had taken a hand in robbing his family of life and happiness. Chang-Siu grieved for the end of his line. Dead! How vastly the grim truth of his mortality differed from his imagined demise! Instead of exhaling on silken cushions, to perish in such dismal penitude! Finally, his self-pity was usurped by the search for a solution to his problem. At first light the following morning, he began the journey to his daughter’s house.
As Chang-Siu reached the end of the rocky promontory above his daughter’s home, he looked down and saw that the tiny shack had been painted vermilion, and was surrounded by small plants that bristled with blossoming pink buds. As he watched, Ti-Pu appeared at the door, and he saw that her waist was thickening with child. When she saw him she ran to his arms, and it was as if they had never been apart.
They walked together beside the house and spoke softly of the past. Chang-Siu decided not to mention that he had died, for he did not wish to alarm her. Ti-Pu told him how Liu-Yen had gained a position teaching, and although their income was modest it would be enough to support their child. Chang-Siu fought his natural indignation, but still he found his daughter’s choice hard to understand. For it seemed to him that even if he worked-as hard as the old rush-farmer had done all his life, Liu-Yen would still have nothing to leave his wife and child.
‘It wasn’t as if I attempted to wed you to an ogre,’ he said. ‘Wang-Lin was a fine catch, but you refused to even meet him. Our family owns nothing, not even a single blade of grass. How could you think of marrying this man?”
Instead of being hurt by his words Ti-Pu smiled, and took her father by the hand. At the back of the house she knelt in the small green garden, then arose with her fist closed. ‘This is where my child will play,’ she said, slowly unfolding her fingers. ‘It is more than we have ever had. Look at our riches now.’
In her palm lay a single blade of grass.
At the end of two days, Chang-Siu took his leave of Ti-Pu and her husband. As he walked back along the rocky path of the promontory, he felt the warmth of the setting sun slowly fill his limbs, soothing away the soreness in his joints and the ache from his heart. His body fell softly, fading away in the gentle spring breeze. Last of all to disappear into the earth was his closed right hand, and the slender emerald treasure it concealed.