Fiction / December 2013 (Issue 22)

As Told By A Fox

by Xie Shi Min

The 15th day of the 7th month, 10th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

I have had the same dream for nearly forty years. It involves a crowd of men, all dressed like me, heading towards the Ministry of Education. The results of the Imperial Exams would be pasted outside the Examination Halls, and we would each crane our necks, hoping that we had passed. In the dream, I would always be zhuangyuan, the Top Scholar, and I would stand next to the dragon and turtle statues, as grand as them. My dream then blurs, and, as I run back, my wrinkles and hobble disappear, and I am young once more. I enter the house of my youth and tell my mother that I have done it, and, soon, I am whisked away on a sedan chair to become the Minister of Education.

Then I wake. I see my small studio, with my stacks of books and desk. The room doesn't belong to me but to Marquis Bi, my employer.

I sigh and get up. It's another day.

Every day, there is a routine. I take a brief look at some of the crops I am planting in the back garden, having been told that a little farming is good for the soul. After I feel like I've had enough of nature, I make myself some porridge and wait till the Marquis' son deigns to disturb my peace. When he arrives, I put my bowl away and I teach him. To his father, I am cultured, learned. This is what they say of all scholars who are stuck in examination purgatory; we remain and reside here for an eternity, waiting for death to claim us amidst failure. It feels like Yan Luo Wang, the God of Death, created a nineteenth level of hell in which all learned men wait, led by the nose with the delusion of an illustrious life.

True torture is never physical. You can cut my tongue, drown me in boiling oil or make me walk on a sea of spikes. There is nothing more painful than the perpetual chase for a dream.

I should not be complaining. The Marquis' child is well-behaved and intelligent. He does his work well, he has a good memory and seems interested enough in the classics. There is no gift, no ambition, but he is serious enough about walking in his father's footsteps.

Sometimes, this is all it takes. This, and some gold ingots to seal the lips of all the officials involved. I see a future for this one, but it all depends on how well his father wants to line the pockets of some carelessly appointed arbiter of taste.

I must sound bitter, writing this down in the shadow of a small candle, but my work is all I have. I have spent my life learning the classics, and, now when I am old, I still have not made it to the Imperial Palace, while my peers have retired comfortably.

After lunch with the boy, we continue, and, in the evening, he thanks me and then goes to have dinner. I must confess that I am not a good teacher, and, as I grow older, my mind muddles up my dreams and reality. Often, when my student asks me a question, I take ages to come back with an answer. I am buried deep in my memories or in one of those stories I have heard as a child. It is always the things you cannot understand which occupy your mind.


The 16th day of the 12th month, 10th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

An old friend dropped by today. Advisor Wang, the former President of the Censorate and Director of the Board of Punishments. He is in many ways more accomplished than me, but I do not want to write of his achievements here, for fear that I will be depressed. We have not seen each other in a few decades, and now he's going into retirement.

"The Empire is corrupt and full of treachery," he burbles through his rice wine. "You are better off where you are."

"But you've had the chance to serve and have been lauded with honour and more gold than you can imagine."

"So? I've done things that I would rather forget. I am going to burn in hell when I die, and Yan Luo Wang will wring my neck. I was the Emperor's dog, but you…you are free!"

"Then would you give up a life of distinction for a life like mine?" I asked, but he had fallen asleep on the table, and I had to pay for the bill.

It was late at night when I entered my abode, and everything was in disarray. My cutlery was strewn about on the floor, my clothes were stuck to the ceiling and my furniture was broken. I didn't have to look far to see who had made the mess—a gorgeous lady held up a piece of paper in my hand, scowling.

"Are you Mr Pu?" she snarled. There was a feral look in her eyes.


"Then you wrote this?! This disgusting piece of trash?" She waved the piece of paper in front of my face. I noticed that she had a tail, and it was quite stiff.

"I'd like to know who told you this bit of nonsense, and why you had the audacity to write this."

"W-well, I always heard stories of your kind as a child and thought that it would be most intriguing to pen one of them down. I did not mean to insult you, lady."

"Of course you didn't mean to. You didn't mean to tell the tale of a vengeful fox spirit. You didn't mean to make her sound like a whore."

"That's right." I hoped she would see sense.

"Lies! You are as bad as the person who told the tale. You are telling untruths about our kind, and I demand that you stop this. Sit. Light a candle. A retelling is in order."

I obeyed. My eyes were closing, but, every time they did so, the lady would rap my fingers and growl at me. If I did not listen to her words, she would repeat them, exasperated. The night grew darker and darker, and I finished transcribing her story.

"There, it is done," she said and left. I woke to a clean studio with ink on my face. The Marquis' son could barely contain his laughter when he walked in for class.


The 28th day of the 4th month, 11th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

At times, I wonder what I'd done in my previous life to deserve this. My companion would appear when I least expected it, hold out a story that she didn't like and retell it to me. All I had to do was to pay attention. I began to snooze in class, with the Marquis' son asking, at intervals, if I was "all right." Night after night, the fox spirit would correct the details which I'd gotten wrong, omitting words, phrases and sentences while giving suggestions. When I was done, she would disappear into the night, and I was left, at my desk, waiting for the ink to dry.

How did she know of my stories? I had shown them to no one. They were a silly way of purging my daydreams, and, after I'd written them down, there was less clutter in my mind and I could tutor with no interruptions. They were slight, fantastical stories, told by cousins, by friends of friends, by drunk brothers-in-law and even by the women from whom I bought fish at the marketplace. I'd collected too many of them, and they swam in my head, like the paintings of phoenixes and dragons which hung in the Marquis' house. That is all they are. Stories do not tell you how to rule an empire—essays, proposals and the power of speech do. My stories were for idlers to read.

I suffered. She tormented me most nights, making me get up, changing everything I valued. They looked like frenzied scribbles on pieces of paper. They weren't my stories anymore.

That night, as she appeared before me, I finally asked her what I wanted to know.

"What business do you have with these…these stories?"

She laughed like it was the most ridiculous question in the world.

"You have the audacity to write about them, and yet you ask me this question. I should have known that a second-rate scholar"—she spat out the last word—"wouldn't know anything about stories and the world."

I was incensed. I knew I was second-rate, but for a spirit to say so was disheartening.

"You're a second-rate demon!" I spat.

She shrugged. "I guess you could say that. But I live forever. Many Emperors would kill for this gift, but only the true bearer of words knows this secret. As long as my story is written well, I will live though I am dead. There is power in the telling of stories, and, with each telling, I change. I become distorted and twisted if I am not retold well. I pay the price for your senseless scribblings, Mr Pu, and that is why I advise you to be wise with words."

How dare she lecture me!

"The stories you are collecting, Mr Pu, are sick stories. They are poisoned and diseased. They have no place in the world. By writing them down, you are giving them a form. Everyone else's versions will be dismissed as lies. This is why I want the truth to go out into the world. As fox spirits, we are not temptresses. We do not do much tempting. It's the sick minds of men who have created such poison in the art of storytelling."

"But are these true?" I was stupid enough to ask.

"They are as true as we are," she said. "That is good enough."


The 3rd day of the 7th month, 11th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

I have started spending more and more time thinking about the fox spirit, even though I am supposed to be tutoring the Marquis' son. He is becoming more and more frustrated with me, and I foresee this tutelage coming to an end. I was never one for teaching—the onerous days filled with much to memorise were torture, and, having to do it again and again, added to the tedium. Words that I've been made to remember have lost meaning, become uncultured sounds. I imagined hearing from my first ancestors, when they descended from the Heavens. They have become nothing but strokes.

If only he would go! I must admit, I will no longer have any more money to sustain myself. I had always dreamt of sending home trunks of ingots to my family, but that image dissipates as soon as I think of it. People have died of poverty, and I will add to that number. It is something I must accept.

The only event I look forward to now is staying up late and listening to the fox spirit's stories. Each one is more enchanting than the last, and I can only hope my brush will do justice to them.


The 20th day of the 9th month, 11th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

Advisor Wang paid me a visit today, and I wish he had not entered when I was sorting out all of the silly dreams that I have acquired from the fox spirit. He had come to return me the money from our last meeting, but I put on an act, even though I really did need it. Eventually, I accepted his money, and, while I was putting it away, he leant over to read my work.

"My friend, you did not tell me you had such literary inclinations."

"I do not. These were…tales from idle chatter, things I've heard throughout the course of my life. Nothing more."

"You are too modest! I see some artistry in them. For some, you just need to put the finishing touches on the dragon's eye, and it will soar through the skies, alive."

"Are you drunk, Advisor Wang? My work is nothing but mere trifle!"

"Trifle? You need to take more pride in your writings, Mr Pu! Sure, they are not epics, not like Outlaws of the Marsh or the rewritten History of the Three Kingdoms, but they will have their place in literature, I can tell."

"Please don't say that. I have spent an entire lifetime believing a lie; I do not need to indulge in another."

"Have faith, Mr Pu."

"In what?" I yelled in frustration.

"In your words, of course!"

How was he to know that they were not really mine? I was not their true author, but, then again, who really was?


The 8th day of the 11th month, 11th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

I have written too many stories, and I cannot stop. Each night, the fox spirit comes in and she helps me with them. She is kinder now, more patient, and, each time I stumble, there is a remedy close by. Perhaps she is guilty. I am tired, after all, and I only wish to put down my pen and sleep. I originally wrote to forget, but, now when I write, I unwittingly remember each tale. For every story I collect, transcribe and edit, there is another one waiting to be told. I feel like the giant Kuafu, in the world of yore, endlessly chasing the sun, wanting to see its beauty. I create, but I do not step back to see if what I have made is beautiful. Perhaps it is not.

The Marquis' son has gone to sit for the exams. I wish him success. Though my bitterness, like the word itself, is rooted in this old body, I still do not want him to suffer as I have, chained by the naïve belief in dreams.


The 23rd day of the 1st month, 12th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

My nocturnal habits have made everyone suspicious. Without a proper vocation, they say, I have become a madman, holing myself up and listening to the demons of the world whisper. I told this surprisingly accurate rumour to the fox spirit, but she shrugged and said, "So what? Minds with little to believe in spread hate about other people." And that was that.

"Are you ready for tonight's story?" she asked. There was something not quite right with her. She looked around for a while and turned to me. Then she started talking.

I find all stories familiar, as there are always elements in them which can also be found in mine. All stories are reflections of each other, and this one was no different. She was telling a story of a young girl from a poor family, elaborating in great detail. My brush did not stop, and, yet, my strokes were surely uneven, for I could not look away from her face as she spoke. At times, she choked, and her eyes became redder and redder. Why was she crying?

Then it struck me. This story weighed more in her heart than most because it was her own story, and she only wanted someone to listen to her. I paid even closer attention now and got to know her name—Yuanmei. Wholeness and beauty. A good name.

I now knew of the story's importance and gestured for her to rest if she tired. She never stopped. I heard about her childhood, murder, revenge, repentance and love.

Then I looked at her and saw that she was no spirit, no ghost, only human.

What I am about to write here may seem scandalous, but I gave her a hug. It was not of proper decorum for me to do so, but she had looked so helpless and desperate that I decided to give her some comfort in the vast and unnerving universe.


The 16th day of the 7th month, 12th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign

I used to long for the day that the fox spirit—or should I say, Yuanmei—would leave, but since she hasn't shown up for a month, I have begun to worry. I still think of passing the exams, and I will return to the capital to take them, even if my bones get cold and my sight is dimming. At least, I will have something to show for the wretched life I have lived, and they can be found in my stories. I say that they are mine, but they have only been shared by those who thought that they held a certain amount of truth and beauty.

I have given up trying to find out if I have gotten the facts right. Each retelling changes things, but, if both Yuanmei and I are satisfied, so be it.

She may have left, but her presence lingers. So will mine, even as I set off for the capital, assured that this time, I will make my mark.

I have been a prodigious failure, but there was a kind of sanctuary in these two years, when she was around to tell me stories of demons, ghosts, immortals and gods. After four hundred and thirty-one stories, there is little difference between them. There are many endless combinations which make up a story, different points of view that make up reality, but, in some way, I feel like I have touched a sliver of each heart in the empire—far more than what any official can do.

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