The T’ang Minister Fang took a particular interest in the verses of Chen Hsi-wei, the peasant who became a poet. Like all those who had come through the examination system, Fang knew the ancient masters thoroughly; however, unlike most of his peers, for whom poetry was chiefly a means to an end, Fang actually liked it and liked conversing about it. If he happened to praise Chen Hsi-wei’s verses, most of his colleagues would pretend never to have heard of him while others expressed contempt. It was hard to tell if the contempt was owing to Hsi-wei’s lowly background or because he hadn’t been dead for three hundred years.
Hsi-wei flourished during the brief Sui Dynasty, with its impressive accomplishments and spectacular failures. It was under Emperors Wendi and Yangdi that Hsi-wei wandered through the Empire leaving behind him straw sandals and poems. The sandals stayed with the peasants who bought them, but his verses spread over the country, giving him a measure of fame among the common people but also some of the elite, like Lord Fang Xuan-ling.
Toward the end of his life, Hsi-wei retired to a small cottage granted him by the Governor of Chiangling. Fang was informed that the place was mean; it had only two rooms, a tiny patio, and a vegetable garden, and that it lay in the middle of farmland three li from the city. Nevertheless, Hsi-wei was deeply grateful for it, his first and last home.
As soon as Fang learned that Hsi-wei was still alive and where he could be found, he wrote to the Governor in Chiangling to announce that he would be visiting the city. The Governor wrote back at once inviting this important man in the new government to be his most honored guest for as long he chose. When Fang arrived with his entourage, the Governor and his entire family greeted him with deep bows. Having moved his two daughters to smaller quarters, he gave Fang their splendid suite of rooms and offered to provide for his escort’s food and accommodation, but the Minister insisted on paying. This was an insult and intended as such, meant to show the Governor that the Minister disapproved of the shabby place he had allotted to Chen Hsi-wei. To make the point clearer, he then disappointed the Governor by declaring that the sole purpose of his visit was to see the poet, whom he referred to as Master Hsi-wei. The Governor took the point. What could he say?
Fang spent a week in Chiangling, riding to Hsi-wei’s cottage each morning and staying until the moon rose. The Minister was a methodical man. He had prepared many questions about Hsi-wei’s poems, especially their origins, took notes on their conversations and recorded them each night in his extensive and invaluable Diary.
Late one morning as they sat in the patio Hsi-wei was pleased to call his courtyard, Fang asked about the poem the literati of the capital called “Clear Air on the Kunlon Mountains” but which the peasants had given another title, “The Madness of Nüwa.” Fang said he found the poem obscure.
Hsi-wei looked pained.
“The memory upsets you?”
“A little, my Lord. That poem is the bitter fruit of a terrible event.”
Fang was intrigued. “This was something you personally witnessed?”
“It was something in which I became personally involved,” Hsi-wei said sadly.
“In what way, Master?
Hsi-wei took a moment to collect himself and his memories.
“This must have been at least fifteen years ago. I was traveling through Yuzhou at the time and stopped at Husian where I discovered the younger brother of one of my old schoolmates had recently been appointed magistrate. Yang Bogin had only just passed his examination; he was still quite young and without a wife or children. Though a fine student and a good man, determined to do his new job well, he was, of course, inexperienced and, as a child of the capital, knew little of the peasants.
“Yang received me courteously. He said that his brother had often spoken about the peasant who was so relentlessly abused by Master Shen Kuo. ‘He spoke of you as a kind of curiosity—a peasant out of place. He also told me the story of how, during the wars, you carried a vital message to the south then turned down the usual rewards for your service in favor of an education—that is, being tormented by Master Shen Kuo.’ It appeared that my old schoolmate occasionally got hold of a poem of mine and shared it with his brother. ‘Like me, he’s no literary expert, but I believe he’s rather proud of you,’ said the young man. For his own sake, he said, as much as for my old schoolmate’s, he invited me to stay with him.
“Yang’s villa was pleasant but not large. He apologized for being able to offer me only a small room behind the kitchen but I, accustomed to sleeping in sheds and stables, assured him that for me it would be luxurious. After that, he went to his office and I headed for the marketplace to set up business and look for customers. I found a place beside two elderly sisters, with whom I made friends. One sold vegetables, the other fruit. They took great pleasure in teasing one another, each accusing the other of having romantic designs on me.
“Yang Bogin had been assigned the customary three assistants. Ruan and Pan were as inexperienced as himself, but the stout Xun was older and had seen some service with a magistrate in Jingzhou.
“The town of Husian was peaceful and its citizens mostly content thanks to Emperor Wen’s land reforms and reorganization of the government. Yang’s unpopular predecessor had been officially retired, to the people’s delight, and moved to the provincial capital in Dongdu. He had been appointed under the old system when magistrates were all local men given their sinecures by prefects because of nepotism or bribes. Yang came to Husian under Wendi’s new system, one which I hope our new Emperor will continue: central appointment from a list of those passing examinations and no magistrate allowed to serve in his native province. Because of these developments, Yang was well received in Husian. He and his assistants had little to do beyond resolving petty disputes about boundaries or wandering livestock, and sorting out the occasional drunken brawl.
“Yang’s jurisdiction included the outlying villages. While we were finishing our meal that first evening, a peasant, a man on the far side of middle age, pounded at the door, begging to see the magistrate. He was breathless and in distress. ‘There’s been murder, Your Honor! Two murders!’
“Yang remained calm. He ushered the man into his parlor, made him sit, and ordered green tea for him. He then summoned his assistants and, turning to me, asked if I would be pleased to attend the interview. Of course, I agreed. And this is how a visit I thought would last two days at most turned into a week’s stay.
“Once he had regained his composure, the peasant gave his name and said he was from Licheng. Licheng is quite near the town, only a few li outside the South gate. The peasant said a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Li, had been killed, their throats slit. Their daughter, Baozhai, reported that robbers had broken in during the night and that she hid behind her bed. Her brother, Deming, apparently slept through whatever happened. The village was in terror with no one in charge. Though he knew the magistrate had to be fetched, he was afraid to leave his family. In the end, he had put them in the care of his neighbor Peng and rushed to Husian. He was keen to get home but frightened of being on the road alone after dark.
“Yang ordered his assistants to arm themselves, conduct the peasant back to Licheng, and begin a search for the murdering bandits. Ruan and Pan were keen but Xun pointed out that a night search was unlikely to be of any use. ‘And besides, Your Honor, we have too little information. No description. The daughter and son and their neighbors will need to be questioned.’
“Yang considered this. He looked uncertain and asked my opinion. I said that Xun’s reservations seemed reasonable; and, if robbers were indeed responsible for the crime, they would have had half the night and all of the day to get away.
“It was decided the assistants would take the peasant back to Licheng and the magistrate would join them early the next day. Yang asked if I would care to accompany him. ‘It will be an honor,’ I said and added that I might find some customers in the village for my straw sandals. Yang looked at me quizzically ‘Some murders and all sandals come in pairs,’ I said. ‘Customers sometimes like to gossip.’
“We mounted our horses at sunrise. Lacking his escort, Yang had me put on a helmet and carry a lance. ‘For appearances,’ he said. I felt ridiculous. The burly Xun was waiting for us at the village gate. I noted that he barely suppressed a laugh on seeing me. I dismounted quickly and handed him my helmet, lance, and reins.
“Xun gave a brusque report. ‘Ruan and Pan are at the Li cottage with the son and daughter. I hope you’ll pardon my presumption, but I thought you’d want to see the place and talk to them first. The victims are being seen to by the neighbors.’
“‘Yes. Very good,’ said Yang.
“I excused myself and headed for the village well.
“‘Good luck to you, Sandal-Maker,’ said Yang. ‘And to you, Magistrate,’ said I.
“Except for those of infants and the senile, fear was on every face in Licheng. Because I was a stranger, I knew people would gather around, not to buy sandals, but to tell me about the terrible thing that had happened, terrified by the murders but exhilarated too. Tragedies and jokes—have you noticed that people love to share both, My Lord?”
I said that it was true, that the child in us loves the chaos of a storm while the adult fears the flood.
Hsi-wei nodded and went on with his story. “I pretended to know nothing but let the peasants see my interest and learned all I could about the Li family. I discovered that Mr. Li was upright, hard-working, humorless, hard on his children, and respected, that Mrs. Li disliked gossip, didn’t make good dumplings, and that both were strict Confucians of the old kind. People spoke more warmly of the orphans. They told me Baozhai was sixteen, two years younger than her brother. The men spoke of how the brother, Deming, would now have to ‘straighten his back’ and work the land allocated to the family on his own. ‘He’s a good boy, always did just what Li told him to. Strong for his age, too. Poor fellow, we’ll give him a hand.’ What interested the women was that Deming was in immediate need of a wife and would soon have to find a husband for his sister. Already matchmaking, they exchanged suggestions—‘Not him, surely!’ ‘Yes, him. And what about her; she’d be perfect’. To the women, marriage was the solution to everything. A good wife would help Deming and a husband would settle Baozhai down. One woman explained: ‘The girl can be a little flighty, emotional. When she was little, the Li shed burned down. They said it was an overturned lantern, but some of us were sure the girl set the fire. I always thought it was because her parents were so strict. Well, it’s all in the past now.’"
“Yang met with the children and looked over the scene of the crime. We then departed for Husian, leaving the three assistants behind. Yang gave them money for meals and lodging and ordered them to make inquiries in all the nearby villages about any robberies and whether any strangers had been seen in the vicinity. On the ride back to Husian, the magistrate gave me a brief report on what he had learned. He described the Li cottage as ‘a typical peasant dwelling’ and what the brother and sister had said. Their testimony matched what we had been told by the peasant the night before: the sister saying their parents had been murdered by robbers, the brother claiming to know nothing.
“I asked Yang whether anything been taken and how the siblings had behaved. He said it appeared nothing had been stolen from the cottage. As for the siblings, the brother was solemn, slumped with grief. He had little to say. The daughter, however, was beside herself, crying continually for her mother and striking her chest with her fist. Yang said that questioning her felt almost brutal. I asked if she was able to describe the robbers. No, it was too dark and she was hiding. Why did the robbers flee? She believes they must have heard something and were scared off.
“I asked if he had seen anything of value in the cottage.
“Yang thought this over. ‘There was a small statue on a crude altar. The thing was of the poorest quality jade and not at all well carved. I didn’t see anything else apart from pots, buckets, two brooms, and farming tools. The family kept a pair of pigs, but neither had been taken or killed. It’s possible the robbers alarmed the pigs, that they squealed and frightened the murderers, but the nearest neighbors said they heard and saw nothing.’ Yang shook his head and sighed. ‘It’s puzzling.’
“We arrived back late at Yang’s villa and ate a quick supper. The magistrate was tired out, yawning. He excused himself and retired. I went to my room and thought about what I had learned.
“In the morning, Yang had to preside over a hearing on a dispute over irrigation rights. I hastened to the marketplace, eager to speak with the vegetable and fruit sisters. Yang and I agreed to meet at his villa at midday by which time he hoped his assistants would be back with their report. ‘I have a theory,’ he confided, ‘but everything depends on what they have to say.’
“The sisters made a fuss over me and began at once to accuse one another of flirting. The vegetable sister ordered a pair of sandals and, not to be outdone, so did the one who sold fruit. I turned the conversation to the murders in Licheng. I asked if the Li children often came to town on market days.
“‘They came to a few when they were little, but it was usually just Mr. Li. But recently, Deming—such a fine-looking boy—would come along, you know, to learn how things are done,’ said one sister. The other spoke of the daughter, Baozhai. 'A few months ago, the girl started coming too; but that hadn’t much to do with radishes and cabbages.’ The sisters grinned at each other as old women do over the romances of the young. I asked why they were smiling.
“‘It was to see that handsome boy from Shaohu,’ said Fruit.
“‘Shaohu’s the village next to Licheng,’ Vegetables explained. ‘I saw them together right over there.’ She pointed to a shaded lane across the way and giggled in a way that was almost unseemly. ‘They were standing very close to each other,’ she added with a knowing nod.
“I asked if they happened to know the name of the handsome boy from Shaohu.
“‘Of course. It was Li Honghui, wasn’t it?’ said Fruit. ‘That’s right,’ said Vegetables. ‘But it couldn’t have been really serious. Just flirting. Honghui’s to marry He Nuying.’
“‘Her father’s the richest man in Shaohu,’ said Fruit. ‘I’ve never seen the bride myself.’ ‘Nor have I,’ said her sister, ‘but people from Shaohu say she’s very beautiful and spoiled.’
“On my way back to Yang’s villa, I purchased straw for the sisters’ sandals. When I arrived with my bundle, Yang was just taking off his official robe. His hat, the black futou with its two wings, lay on a pillow at his feet. The assistants, he said with some irritation, had not yet returned. He ordered his cook to prepare tea and bing cakes for us but, before this arrived, the assistants marched through the door.
“‘Well?’ asked Yang impatiently.
Xun gave a formal bow. ‘Your Honor, there is nothing to report. We split up and went to the three villages nearest Licheng. No robberies and no strangers.’
“Yang nodded and smiled. ‘But that’s a most useful report, Xun.’
“The tea and cakes were brought in.
“‘Here,’ said Yang. ‘You three take some refreshment then go back to Licheng, arrest Li Deming, bring him back, and put him straight into the jail.’
“The assistants bowed. I overheard Xun whisper to his colleagues. ‘See? What did I tell you?’
“I asked if I might accompany the assistants to Licheng. Yang asked why. I pointed to my bundle of straw and said it was to find more customers. He was not pleased.
“‘Very well,’ he said curtly. ‘You can take one of the horses.’
“I was not yet sufficiently sure of my own ideas to share them with the magistrate. Yang could justly dismiss them; moreover, the theory I was forming was so monstrous that even to broach it might damage two reputations—one of them my own. My real reason for wanting to return to Licheng was to find a girl of sixteen or seventeen whose name I didn’t know and who might not even exist.”
At this point, Hsi-wei paused. He asked if I were bored and if I was hungry. “I confess,” he said, “I’m famished and dried out as a mayfly in August.”
Hsi-wei had been indeed speaking for a long time. Far from being bored, I was caught up in his story and took no note of the time, took no notes at all. Back at the Governor’s villa in Chiangling, I would be up far into the night trying to recall the story and write it all down. But just then I wanted to know what happened when Hsi-wei returned to Licheng and the identity of the unknown girl he hoped to find there and, of course, who was guilty. It was frustrating that Hsi-wei chose this suspenseful juncture to suggest that we eat. I could hardly refuse, especially since I had brought delicacies for him from the Governor’s kitchen— wood-ear soup, a baked fish and two pork dishes plus scallion dumplings and a quantity of the tea called black dragon pearls. And I was hungry as well.
Hsi-wei went into his cottage to start the fire while I remained on the little patio, watching the sun going down and wondering what Hsi-wei’s story had to do with his poem about the Kunlon Mountains.
The meal was good, and we agreed that the Governor of Chiangling was fortunate to have such a cook. The evening air was still and pleasant and we dined by the light of an old bronze lantern. I begged Hsi-wei to resume the story as we ate.
“Very well. When I left off I was on the way to Licheng with the three assistants. During the ride, Xun delivered a lecture. ‘I’ll tell you what I learned when I was working with Magistrate Wu, a very shrewd man. He explained it all to me. “Xun,” he said, “whenever there’s doubt as to who committed a crime, you’ve only got to ask who gets the most out of it and that’s how you’ll find your culprit.” Well, this wicked brother’s going to take over the farm, isn’t he? The cottage will be his and he’ll be free of his strict parents into the bargain. As for his sister’s story about the robbers, it’s obvious her brother persuaded her to tell it to protect him. Magistrate Yang, I’m sure, has followed the same principle as my old boss. And that’s why we’ll be arresting Li Deming.’
“When we arrived in Licheng, I made sure that people saw me in the company of the magistrate’s men by accompanying them to the Li cottage. I watched as they arrested Deming, binding him hand and foot. Xun tossed him brutally across the saddle of my horse. Baozhai protested the whole time then ran after them crying loudly and cursing Xun. I watched closely as a young girl of about Baozhai’s age rushed from a nearby field and hugged Baozhai, trying to calm and console her, finally leading her back to the cottage. Then I returned to the village well. As I expected, people again gathered around to ask me for information. Why was Deming being arrested? Where was the magistrate? What about those murdering robbers? I said that no robbers had been found, that I didn’t know why the magistrate suspected Deming but that he was a just man. Then I inquired about the girl who had run to help Baozhai.
“‘Oh, that’s Daiyue,’ a woman said, ‘the Changs’ second daughter. The first was married two years ago to some skinny fellow with money from Husian. I felt bad for her.’
“I took two orders for sandals and, before the crowd dispersed, made my way back to the Li cottage. Daiyue was just leaving. I introduced myself and asked how her friend was. ‘Poor Baozhai!’ the girl exclaimed. ‘She was beside herself. It was all I could do to keep her from running after those brutes all the way to Husian. She exhausted herself and now she’s fallen asleep.’
“‘It was good of you to look after her like that,’ I said. ‘You’re close friends?’
“‘Best friends,’ said Daiyue shyly.
“It wasn’t difficult to get the girl to answer my questions. She was eager to talk about her friend for whom, as she put, ‘disasters have fallen on top of one another like loose tiles from the magistrate’s roof.’
“‘The murder of her parents and the arrest of her brother.’
“‘Yes, but even before all that there was the business with Honghui.’
“And then she told me that Baozhai was in love with Honghui, the handsome boy from Shaohu, but couldn’t marry him. ‘That Honghui didn’t even wait. He did just what his parents wanted, the coward. He’s going to marry that stuck-up Nuying.’ Daiyue sprang from indignation to tears. ‘Oh, my poor Baozhai!’
“I expressed my sympathy, thanked her, and promised her a pair of good straw sandals. When she asked why I would do that, I replied it was for being such a good friend to her friend. Then I made my way back to Husian on foot, arriving late at Yang’s villa. He greeted me, ordered food for me and brought out a jug of yellow wine, ‘to celebrate the resolution of this case.’ Then he retired to prepare for his interrogation of Deming in the morning. I wished him a good night.
“In the morning, the courtroom quickly filled up with people from both Husian and Licheng, including Baozhai and her friend Daiyue. When everyone was seated, Xun struck the floor three times with the butt of his spear and Magistrate Yang entered from behind a screen at the back of the dais. In his formal robe and winged hat, he appeared older than his age, an impressive sight. He looked over the crowd gravely, took a scroll from his sleeve, and sat on a three-legged stool behind a tall teak desk on which he laid out the scroll. Ink and brushes were ready on the desk. After delivering a stern warning to keep silent and not interrupt the proceedings, he nodded to Xun, who pulled back a curtain at the side of the room. Pan and Ruan led in Deming who looked pale, distraught, and frightened. The two assistants forced him to kneel at the foot of the dais and stood on either side of him with their arms crossed. Xun took up a position to the right of the dais and frowned at the crowd, as if daring them to do anything of which he personally disapproved.
“The questioning started with the prisoner’s name (he gave it), then the facts of his parents’ death (their throats had been cut in the night).
“Yang then turned to the tale of the robbers. Had anything been taken from the cottage? (Not so far as he knew.) Did the prisoner see or hear these robbers or bandits? (No, he had worked hard in the field that day and had been fast asleep.) Was he aware of any recent robberies in Licheng or the adjacent villages? (He had heard of none.) Would he now inherit the cottage and household goods formerly belonging to his parents? (He supposed so.)
“Then Yang ordered Xun to report on the investigations made by Pan, Ruan, and himself. This he did succinctly. ‘Your Honor! We found nothing was taken from the cottage, no other break-ins in Licheng or any of three nearby villages, no reports of any robbers, bandits, or strangers in the vicinity.’
“‘Then,’ declared Yang harshly, ‘the case against the prisoner is clear. Mr. and Mrs. Li were murdered in the night by the only person present with a motive for the terrible act. To make matters worse, the prisoner compelled his young sister to lie in order to cover up his crime.’
“At this Baozhai jumped up and began to scream. Daiyue tried but could not restrain her. The girl yelled and spoke at once so that it was impossible to make out anything she said except the words ‘No! No!’
“Xun pounded the dais with his spear; Yang pounded the desk with his fist and in a loud voice ordered Xun to remove the girl from the courtroom at once. This he accomplished with some difficulty.
“When things quieted down, Yang told everybody what they already knew, that the prescribed procedure called for torture until the accused confessed. There were murmurs in the crowd, but no objections.
“It was at this point that I stood up and stepped to the dais. Yang looked at me angrily, but I begged for a word in private. ‘It’s important,’ I whispered. Yang, still cross, considered, searching my face. He must have seen some of what I was feeling as he called a brief recess. We went behind the screen and into his office, a spare room with bare walls, three shelves for scrolls, a low writing desk, and a bench without pillows.
“‘Well?’ he said curtly. ‘What’s the important matter, Master Chen?’
“‘There’s a question I want to ask Your Honor and another I would like you to ask somebody else.’
“‘Is that why you interrupted the proceedings? Well, what is it you want to ask me?’
“‘Why didn’t Li Demin support his sister’s story about the robbers?’
“Yang’s expression shifted from displeasure to perplexity. ‘Hmm. I don’t yet have an answer. What’s the other question?’
“‘I beg you to bring the sister, Baozhai, back into the court. I want you to ask her one question and carefully observe her reaction.’
“‘You want me to ask her again about those imaginary robbers?’
“‘No. The question is this: Who is Li Honghui?’
“‘A boy from another village.’
“He looked nonplussed but he agreed to do as I asked.
“Baozhai, barely in control of herself, was conducted back into the court and led to the front of the room. She wrenched herself free from Xun’s grasp, and stood up straight next to her kneeling brother, glaring up at the Magistrate.
“‘Baozhai, who is Li Honghui?’
“At this, the girl exclaimed ‘Oh!’ and collapsed. Yang looked at me with raised brows. Daiyue and an older woman rushed to Baozhai and got the girl on her feet. ‘Your Honor,’ the older woman said, ‘you can see these terrible blows have been too much for the girl. You can’t put her through more. We’ll take care of her. We’ll see that she gets home.’
“‘Do so,’ said Yang. ‘Xun, take the prisoner back to the jail. If he doesn’t confess tonight, the next phase of the proceedings will begin in the morning.’
“‘No!’ bawled Baozhai once more as she was led from the courtroom.
“Yang didn’t wait until evening to ask me about Li Honghui. After the adjournment he directed me back to his office. Baozhai’s reaction to his question gave me the confidence to lay before him my theory of the appalling crime and the motive behind it. I told him that the violence of Baozhai’s grief initially roused my suspicions. I related all that I had picked up from the peasants in Licheng, the market women in Husian, and from Baozhai’s best friend. I said I believed that Deming was innocent, that there were no robbers in the night, and that—hard though it was to conceive—the terrible act was carried out by Baozhai, a teenager frustrated in love. Yang looked at me as if he were as shocked that I could conceive of such a thing as that it might be true.
“‘You believe that young girl cut her own parents’ throats? But why?’
“I went on. I told him that Baozhai and Honghui had been seen concealing themselves in a lane off Husian’s market square and that her friend had confirmed Baozhai’s infatuation with the young man. ‘But the crucial thing I learned was that their neighbors called Mr. and Mrs. Li strict Confucians, suggesting that most of the peasants of Licheng are not. In fact, most of them are Buddhists.
“Yang looked puzzled. ‘Confucians? What would that have to do with it?’
“I replied that it had to do with the traditional Confucian understanding of incest. ‘The belief,’ I explained to this sophisticated aristocrat raised in Daxing, ‘has died out in the cities and large towns but still persists in some peasant villages, including the one in which I was raised. For orthodox Confucians, incest is determined not by blood but surnames. It is forbidden to marry anyone sharing your family name, even if there is no other relation. Honghui and Baozhai are not blood relations, but they share the surname Li, one of the most common in the Empire. I believe that for this reason Baozhai’s strict parents vetoed her passionate wish to marry Honghui and that his impending marriage drove her to a tragic, mad, and bloody act.’
“Yang stared at me, amazed and dumbfounded. But he did not dismiss what I had told him.
“‘And that’s why you asked me to put the question to her, about Honghui?’
“He grunted. ‘And that’s why the brother didn’t confirm her story of the non-existent robbers? Because it was meant to cover up her act, not his?’
“I could see that Yang wanted to attack my theory, to pick out its flaws. What I had suggested was monstrous. At last he said, ‘I need to think more about what you’ve told me, Hsi-wei. Things can stand as they are until morning.’
“Though I felt vaguely that this might be a mistake, I said nothing. I had sandals to make; Deming was safe for the night, and Baozhai was being looked after in Licheng. I will never forgive myself.
I said, “Never forgive yourself? What for, Master?”
Hsi-wei sighed and his shoulders slumped.
“‘The women of Licheng did take Baozhai home and watched over her,’ he said. ‘They put her in her own bed and sat by her. But, when she was asleep, they left for their own beds. In the morning they found that the girl had hanged herself.’
After Hsi-wei said that, we were quiet for a long while. The moon was up by then, a waxing moon. With some compunction, I returned to my original question. I asked what this terrible tragedy had to do with his poem.
“My Lord, I wonder if you know the ancient myth about the origin of marriage—the origin of all of us, actually. I mean the story of Nüwa and Fuxi.”
I said I might have heard the story when I was a child, that I had a nurse who told me the old myths which I took for fairy tales, but that I couldn’t recall this one well. All I could remember was that it had something to do with the Great Flood.
“Yes, that’s right. Nüwa and Fuxi were brother and sister, sole survivors of the Great Flood. According to the simpler version of the myth, the one told to children, the gods charged the siblings with repopulating the earth. They did this by molding thousands of clay figures and, with divine assistance, bringing them to life. But there’s another version. According to this, after the Flood, the siblings Nüwa and Fuxi found themselves alone. They fell in love and wanted to marry but felt ashamed of their wish. So, they went up into the Kunlon Mountains to be close to the gods and beg for their permission. ‘If you allow us to wed, Great Ones, please surround us with a mist,’ they prayed. At once, the peak was covered in a dense fog and the gods dictated the rituals of the wedding ceremony. Fuxi rejoiced but, in order to hide her shyness, Nüwa covered her blushes with a fan. That’s why, to this day, peasant brides follow the custom of hiding their faces behind ornate fans. When I left Husian two days later, I gave the poem you asked about to Magistrate Yang. He must have sent it to his brother.”
The Madness of Nüwa
Not the best time of the year for the toilsome
climb, but the thin cold air smelled sweet to her.
Down below, the waters were receding.
Bloated corpses were spread about like so
many verdigris boulders. The stink. The flies.
But he took her hand, helped her up the narrow
path, around the crashing falls, higher and higher.
He was so strong, so handsome. He was like her
only so much better. How she wanted him!
At the summit, in air so clear you could
look out on a score of Kunlon peaks and down on
hundreds of drowned villages, they prayed
fervently for the sign, the mist of permission.
But there was nothing, just air. She didn’t weep.
She shrieked and tore her robe and loosed her hair.
She beat her breast and cursed the unfeeling gods
and their pitiless rules. He sank down beside her,
silent, resigned. Or maybe he had already spotted,
far below, that graceful figure in a rose-colored robe.
Author Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published seven fiction collections, two books of essays, two short novels, two books of poems, stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.