Fiction / November 2012 (Issue 19)

The Poet and the Moon

by Xie Shi Min

What I have are words. Words and only words. They seem to be pitiful, hapless black blots on scrolls, but they were all I had as a child, and all I would ever have. There were words even before there was food, water or shelter, and they would remain even if I had no place to stay. Before I could read, I stared at the characters till I could see pictures in them, and I read them, like dreams streaming out from the paper, into places and other worlds that were close enough to touch. I was able to lose myself and melt into fountains of words, stroke after stroke, in a ceaseless stream.

It was words that made me, and they were to be my undoing.

I also remember moving. My family packed me and the books in their rickety cart, and we travelled, while I read at the back, peeping out from the tent flap from time to time, so that my words became the lands, the water and the wind, and there was no separation of either of them, till the world was a book and all that was left was for me to walk its path through the pages.

The caravan stopped, and I saw what my father had done. We were to live in utmost beauty, and it is here my brush weeps in disappointment. How am I ever to express the lake that was outside our house, one so clear with the tadpoles that looked like inkblots waiting to come to life? How should I tell of the jade tiled roofs that gleamed under the sun that day, and how, when I came of age, I would fall into that very same lake while practising swordplay? These things seem pointless, and in the book of my mind, this image recedes into the previous page, and I see myself leaving home, waving like a leaf falling from the tree, away from the twilight of my parents.

It was during this time, I realised that I could write both with my brush and my sword, and that the two were not dissimilar; the ink I drew from my enemies wrote their decrees of death, and the words that I wrote struck the hearts of men, putting out the fire from which they drew malice. I was taught by my father, and on some days, his words would echo through the study hall, and it held a kind of hope that would rewrite the family history, and that my name would be written on the palace doors instead of its prison walls. I was given another style name, an alias, and my mother would tell me of the dream that she had while I was in her womb, in which a falling star fell from the sky. I knew there were journeys to be had, and soon enough, my family would emerge from hiding.

That night came. It was the night when I took it upon myself to go to the capital. My father told me should I excel in the Imperial Examination, I would carve out a respectable name for the family. I wanted to go, not because of the droll exam, but rather, the kind of fortune that I could make out there. And yet, I did not care for the court or politics, and these were silly pretensions which man possessed, cloaked in treachery. These were words that people wore to decorate themselves with the kind of self-importance they thought they deserved. These people were corrupt and unscrupulous, and even if I passed the examinations, became an official and tried to pass new laws and changes—surely these would be circumvented by that toady, Li Linbo. That man turned up his nose at learning and bringing educated people into court, and surely our empire would fall if that fatuous beast, the Emperor, listened to him. No, there was nothing in the court for me, but I had to exonerate my family, and serve.

I am more for logic when it comes for understanding the world, and so it was inconceivable to me that there was a god who had already placed me as a pawn in his chess game. In this grand scheme, I was battle ready, and I remember the first duel I had, while wandering the paths.

It has always been, and will be, a cliché. Through the forest I wandered, there was a robbery, and the poor fool—a court official, of all people, held his hands up as the thief thumbed through the ingots of gold. I would be thumbing through his books instead, for I think real wealth lies between pages. I am dawdling instead of presenting a sword-fighting scene, and you know what happened next. I fought the thief. My opponent was worthy, executing techniques that I was familiar with, and I used my sword like a pen, to write and dodge, as I formed the character of wisdom on his chest. I pointed my sword at him and he fled, while that old bastard turned to me, and I heard the senseless praises of being forever in debt. It seemed like we were heading to the Imperial Palace, because I now had a recommendation.

And so, without marvelling at the streets of Chang An, I was overwhelmed by the gold of the palace. The phoenixes were frozen on the roofs, poised as though to shoot flames at those who invaded from above, and as I walked in, I saw that the underside of the roofs were fanned out like a peacock's tail. The Emperor was already there, not with his Empress, but a woman who made the words adorning the chamber fall, like their strokes could not hold them together. She was the Emperor's favourite concubine, I was told in a whisper, and I could not admire her enough with a bow.

"Your Majesty," we both greeted, but the man I saved, Wu Yun, took over and told the Emperor of what I had done, and, surely, my talents would be better suited for the Imperial Court's uses. The Emperor did not believe him.

"You have read the classics, then, I presume?"

"But of course, Your Majesty. My original plan was to take the Imperial Examinations—"

"The Classics of Confucius? The Classic of Poetry? The Classic of History?"

"All of them, Your Majesty."

"Liar. You are not a day above twenty-three, and you have claimed to have read all of it?"

"Yes, yes, I have. And my only complaint is that these thinkers focus too much on their moralising intents and fail to appreciate the beauty in front of us." I had made it a point to lift my gaze towards the concubine, but she hardly noticed. Her head was in a languid lilt, and she lazed around, a lone lily in a lake.

"I suppose, from your grovelling, that these morals still have a purpose." She spoke! It soothed, like warm chamomile tea, and I only wished that she wasn't mocking me. I stared at them instead, observing the kind of plumage that was their robes, and I spouted, "His Majesty would not know the mark of a true scholar if he stays in the constant company of women." I saw his face morph into an eagle's, almost ready to strike, but instead he ordered the guards.

"Search his bag." They turned my bag inside out, and my books flopped down like fishes. The words that I had, that had come out of my wrist in tidal waves, were all across the floor. The Emperor ordered another guard to pick up one of books.

"Poetry!" he yelled after staring at it. "Your calligraphy isn't too bad, either," he shrugged. Then, they ushered me into the palace, where I did nothing for two whole weeks.

"You would be wise to keep that mouth of yours shut," someone told me, and I later recognised that castrated tone, the one who scoffed in disdain every time I wrote a poem for the ladies of the court to read. I was supposed to be acquainted with them, and the palace, too, but what male would not spend his time looking at their gauzy shawls, the crease of their brows while they were perfecting that song, and how they moved like they were gliding across the clouds? Each of these women was perfect, and yet, Gui Fei, as I heard her name resonate through the walls of thick lacquer, was the most beautiful one, and the one I wanted.

There is always a woman in these stories, in the poor forms of prose. It is strange, but as much as I try to describe her, to make her alive on this page in sentences, she flies from it, a swallow, and I can only enclose her in a sparse cage of words. Soon, I hid her in the forms of my verse, and she only appeared when people read it, as though conjuring a still portrait of her. I am no court painter, but I kept these poems in the drawer, thoroughly convinced that no one would ever read them, till Li Linbo stole them from my study and presented them to His Majesty.

"So it appears you write in more than one language. Very well, you shall interpret those stupid emissaries that the nomadic tribes send to me," His Highness said. Gui Fei only watched on, amused as I relayed the messages back and forth, while she yawned, and she was the only one allowed to do so in court. It was difficult, trying to get her by herself, for she was always at the Emperor's side, unwilling to leave. I tried to focus on court matters instead, but she was my distraction. I had to do something else.

I wrote home. I wrote that the Emperor treated me well, omitting details they should not know, the scandals of love between the concubines and the eunuchs, the servants who were paddled after being framed, and those who had drowned themselves in the well of the South Pavilion because of unhappiness. I wrote, instead, of the simple joys of my employment, found in the ingots I sent back. I was writing about half of my experience, but my parents did not notice the large discrepancies. They were too fixated on the royal seal and the flourishes I had learnt. This is our son, and he has made his mark in the world, they said.

At times, I would chide myself. I thought I was going to be someone else, perhaps, be a great wandering poet, a writer, like the seven sages, exiles from society because they were the ones observing its goings on, and I was within its inner workings, becoming more and more entwined with the net that this Emperor had woven for me. I had wanted to distance myself from him as much as possible, retreating to my work and drinking, and yet I had no choice but to go near him, becoming a morsel for this ruler, a casualty as he built his empire, all because I could not resist Gui Fei. I haunted the pavilion at the back of my study, drinking, borrowing the power of the moon till she faded, and it was there that Gui Fei, this cunning fox spirit, had walked past.

"So this is how the great poet gets inspiration. He drinks himself to death," her eyes stared down at me.

"All of your finest eloquence is displayed in the morning," I slurred, "because you merely echo the Emperor's sentiments for the rest of the day."

"Such insolence!" her powdered eyes glowed. "You shall not talk to the Emperor's favourite as such!"

"You should not talk to his scribe like so, either," I was reported to have said, but I did not know or remember the rest of the account, for it had taken the place of my imagination, which had overlapped my reality with more positive strokes. Gui Fei, or Lady Yang, was everything present in the character of the word "woman," and as I wrote, I wanted to make her form move. That word was always in mid-turn, as though she were wrapping a robe around her chest, but I wished my words could do more. I regret it now. My words have done too much, and they have led me further from her than I have imagined.

I recall being summoned to the court, and it was strange. I was not entirely sober, but I heard that I was, from now on, supposed to write odes to his favourite concubine. The Emperor declared that he, himself, was not as eloquent as I, and of late, Gui Fei had been profoundly unhappy with him. I agreed. I, the foolish poet, wanted her to read my poems and to recognise my passions, and we could leave the palace to build a life of our own. Stupid. They were dreams. Dreams that were made of words, and at their edges, I saw the odd strokes and mistakes that I had made while writing them down. No one else could see this but me, and after each stroke I wrote about her, I tried to bury her with my love on paper, but she would reawaken and deluge me with it as it was being read.

I could not tolerate this. I could not appear in court sober. And so, once, after a poem was read to her, Gui Fei shrugged her marble shoulders and told the Emperor, "That wasn't edifying." He commanded me to express his passion that would please Concubine Yang, but I could not take up the brush. I was too drunk, and my feet hurt.

"Please, someone, take off my boots," I wailed like a baby. Everyone was laughing, and as their laughter swirled, I implored, "Eunuch Gao, help me! Take off my boots!"

"No, I won't," he said. "You're to write for the Emperor, make no excuses about it!!"

"But please, Eunuch Gao! Please!"

"Do it already. If his work will please Gui Fei, why not? You are her official attendant, you should do everything you can to facilitate her comfort, even if it means taking off the boots of the court poet," the Emperor had said. Eunuch Gao gaped and lunged toward me, tearing off my boots.

"Try to write something eloquent with that smell," he said, but I flicked my wrist, took up the brush, and I wrote. The strokes drained themselves out of me, good rice wine becoming solid words onto the paper, and there it was, in my script, a poem. It had barely dried, and Eunuch Gao snatched it, passed it to the Emperor, who read it to her.

"It's … beautiful," GuiFei said, and for once, she was looking at me, the disgraced, barefoot writer who should have been made of wine, and yet flesh was on him, and he was human, ready to be used.

Nothing happened after that. In some dark part of my mind, I wished that she would take more notice of me, believing that my words had enough power to wrest her away from the Emperor himself, but they did not. What I found instead was solitude, and even the ladies who I had admired previously in the court had started to shun me. I continued working for the Emperor and drinking at night, till it became the other way round; the succession of light and dark didn't mean a thing anymore. I staggered through the court, and if it weren't for my opulent dragon robes, I would have been thrown out by the odd servant. Alas, I wasn't, but not for long.

I had refused to be involved with the comings and goings of the servants, and I did not want to indulge in the salacious simpering—there's that ugly word—and all the perfidy that the palace had plunged into. This place had beauty, but it had a kind of emptiness, and not even Lady Yang was exempt from such corruption. Late at night, when only the moon worshipped the empire, I walked towards the lamplight in a drunken dance. I very nearly hit the door of that greedy General An Lushan. Swaying back, I caught a glimpse of the embroidered robe that was Gui Fei's, and that pot-bellied demon committing such atrocities to her. She only sighed, but that ruined all that I had conjured of her.

I did not want to believe that she was as wretched as the rest of them, but I knew I was done for as soon as she began to widen the distance between us. I had loved her, yes, and if I could put all my heart and amity into that word which was too strong, too tainted to even leave my brush, what did I know of that, then?

There were ways to find out why I was being shunned, and the numerous boughs that circled round the palace bore the news right down to its ugly roots. I watched, hovering around in less ostentatious garb, and through the whispering walls, I got my answer.

"I can see through that lousy rat. He thinks he's the only one in the palace who can use words, but he's got another thing coming. A pity Lady Yang can't read, but then again, she's always inclined to believe her faithful servant, her eunuch. He tells the truth and always tells the truth. No one knows if the poet means to debase her in such a lewd way, but who can tell?"

I supposed if I wanted, I could say that the truth would be uncovered in time, but people who believe in words are not inclined to uncover the truth, but to move on from the very place that had brought them some wretchedness. I was not too generous with my money and had a few trunks of ingots to tide me over. That would be enough for me till I found another vocation, but I wasn't inclined to go anywhere else. I could teach, but I knew so little about the world, and every time I tried to, my lips would transmute what I knew into poetry, my mind more focused on the craft than what I was supposed to teach. My words had to be right, had to convey what I had to say, and whenever I tried to repeat after the greats I still sounded like myself, decorating their ideas with my embellishments. This was futile. I was merely good with the arrangement of words, and the comfort in the palace had spoiled me.

There was nothing to do but write. I would write about her, this unattainable gem who wandered around, finding it more difficult to look at her, for she would show a different side to me each time. When she was by the Emperor's side, they became a pair of mandarin ducks who presented the dynasty as it should be, and when she was with An Lushan, it was as though the entire foundations of the empire quaked. All this went on while I soaked my hands with the dark ink, using words as bricks to build and buffer their kingdom. I had unwittingly become a pawn. I spent my remaining days in the pavilion, till Eunuch Gao approached me.

"The Emperor requests an audience with you, sir," he said, and I saw all that is and would be, and knew that he had won.

I trudged into the court, swirling about like the wine in my cup. I steadied myself to pay obeisance, but I knew the sharp look of disdain that rested on her face.

"I pay respects to His Majesty and Lady Yang," I burbled.

"I do not see why we should do this properly," she scoffed. "He is barely in the condition to speak."

"Hush now," the Emperor said. "We still have to uphold the decorum of the court in front of this louse. Or else, people would gossip, yes?"

"I suppose," she sighed. He turned to me.

"You, the poet of the court, were supposed to write verses in praise for our country, our glorious dynasty, but instead, you're mired in the filth of insults. I wish I were privy to what you were doing before, and even I did not know that you used your intellect to disgrace the court."

"But Your Majesty," I gurgled, but there was nothing I could do.

"Lest it looks bad in front of the people, I shall send my servants to escort you, with three months' worth of treasures. You shall leave as the wealthiest poet, lauded, with your reputation intact," he said. Did he not know, not understand, that poets did not aspire to be wealthy? Of course he knew. It was a mere ploy to get me to put down my brush.

"I appreciate the generosity of Your Majesty," I bowed, "but I shall see myself out of the palace."

The Emperor raised his eyebrow.

"If you'll please, use the back gate. And change your robes. I do not want gossip to float around. Court dismissed." He stood up, held Lady Yang as she floated down the chair, and they went behind the curtains. The soldiers lifted their blades and let me leave, silent as terracotta.

All that was left for me was to walk out of the palace. I did this slowly, as a child might do in a toy shop, admiring each and everything that I could have, had I been born with a dragon nestled on my sleeve. There was the bronzeware, the weapons and the loud drums that were oddly still, and the military strategists playing chess in the next room yet again. There were the silk weavers, and the mulberry trees that dreamt of patterns that the weavers could listen to, and of course, her chamber. It would be empty, and it was like her, ornate, seemingly untouched, beauteous enough to freeze time, and my gaze fell on that pavilion that would face her window each time I composed something. That would not happen again, and I would not be able to take each waft of perfume and weave it into my next piece, ready for the court.

My bags were ready. All I needed to do was to make my exit. I did not. I sat at the pavilion for the longest time, and when the moon rose, full and round and assured, I started to make my way out of the palace. I remember relying on her light to read, and perhaps she was my once and true love, since I used to be a star in her orbit. Her light became the kind of path that I'd always dreamt in books, and as I walked, I pretended that I was walking into the celestial plains, seeing my name carved up on the pillars of immortality. There had to be some other way to make a name for oneself, one which people could look at my work and know that I had once touched the magic of this world, and that this magic would always be there as long as they followed the strokes of my words.

The moon loomed. Maybe she might devour me, for as I borrowed the light from her to create illusions, she would drown me in hers. And this illusion would be created by my hand, by my words.

It was words that made me, and it was words that would destroy me, yet again.

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