Friday, November 29, 2013

Part 16 (Conclusion) - Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China

Dear readers,

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving and are not too weary from your Black Friday adventures. This post brings to a conclusion the story of Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China in this form. I am confident this wrap-up will satisfy my most romantic readers, so proceed in all earnestness to the happy ending.

This section, Part 16, like all of them, speaks for itself, so I'll not say much more than to enjoy it. Next week I'll post my comments on this story as a whole if you're interested in what the author thinks about it. I invite you to make your own comments. 

This story will nest inside of a larger novel. In two weeks I will begin posting the rewrite of that work as I go back and work on that from the beginning. I hope you will continue on with me as I finalize that story.

Love to you all,

All Endings Are Beginnings

            Seven was surprised when Captain Red Beard appeared as the leader of the security detachment she had requested for the Eleventh Princess’s Moon-Watching Banquet. He had volunteered to take the job and brought his core group with him. She expected this development to be troublesome, as she rightly determined her activities had attracted too much of his attention.   But her fears were unfounded. Judge Kuang’s neighbors had all been sufficiently cowed by his guards’ preemptive visits that afternoon requesting forbearance and cooperation, traffic moved in smoothly, and the small army of porters stayed quiet during the entire affair. After he saw the last sleeping guests laid comfortably in the palanquin to be returned to their home and put to bed, he reported to the Princess Seven.
            “Eleven and I will be staying here at the judge’s estate tonight,” said Seven.
            “You will have full complement of guards then. Tomorrow will be a full day for you.”
            “Indeed,” said Seven. “I have to say, I did not expect to have such a high-ranking officer for this little staff-appreciation party of mine. I’m flattered you brought the best the guard has to offer.”
            “Permission to speak freely, Your Highness?”
            “Goodness. When have I ever required such deference? Go ahead.”
            “This is probably the last time I shall be in your particular service. I wish you the best in your marriage and long life to you both and may you have many sons. And if I may say so now, you have been a worthy adversary during our shared time here. I have not discovered all of your escape methods, but that was never my specific assignment. You will not be missed in that sense.”
            “Why Captain! That’s quite the compliment.”
            “I would like to offer you my own wedding present, if you can call it that.”
            “A present?” She was taken by surprise and became very curious. The towering man brought forth a gold pendant. On it were four golden dogs placed at the points of the compass around a central red gem. Her eyes grew wide. “Is this …?”
            “It is quite common,” said Red Beard, “for fine and noble ladies to have decoy copies of their jewelry made to wear in public, so that if they are ever stolen when they are worn, the real one remains safe.”
            “A decoy?”
            “Mister Wang disclaimed the judgment that the anonymous Princess Judge properly awarded him at his trial. He designated the fund to charity, but in my discretion, I decided to augment it with funds of my own and had a decoy made. But it’s not a true decoy of inferior materials. It’s actually a true copy.”
            “And why would you present this to me?”
            “I don’t have direct evidence. But I’m pretty sure you were the one who gave it to Wang.”
            “It’s amazing,” said Seven denying or admitting nothing. “It looks just like it.”
            “Actually, it’s the original, with a couple of modifications. I had the Treasury marking obscured on the back and an additional figure was added onto one of the dogs.”
            “A figure? I see it, but it’s too dark to make out. What is it?”
            “As it turned out, the goldsmith I took it to was the very same one who made it. He was quite unhappy with it. He said it had four figures on it, a highly unlucky number to goldsmiths I suppose. ‘It’s nothing but an amulet of death and misfortune to the poor soul who wears it,’ he said. Considering Wang’s experiences, I could not deny that. But he said your grandmother had been adamant about the number four, raving about some legend of a four-times dog, and so he made it against his ethics. Since the old queen mother was now deceased, he said he would make the decoy only if he could modify the original, and so he added a fifth figure. It is small, but present, and sits on the back of the Dog of the Hours in the compass position of the South.”
            “I see it. What is it?”
            “It’s hardly noticeable. It’s a toad.”
            “Is there something wrong with a toad?”
            “Oh Captain, you have no idea. And it had to be on the Dog of the South too. Well, my sister tells me too much happiness is a bad thing. So where is the decoy then?”
            “The decoy is in the harem treasury collection. It looks like the unaltered original with no toad, but the smith changed the loop so that is annoyingly painful for anyone to wear and therefore prevents activating its curse. So, you are free to dispense that as you wish, Your Highness.”
            “That all must have cost considerably more than 50 gold Captain. I hope you have not impoverished yourself.”
            “Eunuch guards have very few living expenses, so we stockpile our earnings and amass quite a bit. That is why men choose to become Eunuchs. But to tell you a bit more, I hardly had to come out of pocket for this trinket.”
            “I hope you didn’t threaten the goldsmith with violence.”
            “Not necessary. He was so pleased I had brought it to him that he did the work complimentarily because he felt had to correct what he thought was professional malpractice. Like fulfilling a warranty. The additional gold stock and gem for the decoy were paid by a wager I made.”
            “A wager?”
            “With my fellow guards and General Zuo’s lieutenants. I bet that Wang would win the arm wrestle with the general. The odds were highly uneven so the payoff was substantial. Speaking of Wang, his sedan is already on route back to the Academy. Would you like me to have that pendant delivered to him?”
            “No thank you, I will do it myself.”
            “And just how will you accomplish that?”
            “You … will never find out.”

* * *

            For all the feasting and preparations surrounding them, royal weddings are but short affairs with brief ceremonies—it’s the parties that take time. Some noticed that General Zuo moved with some discomfort and stiffness on his wedding day, but for a military fighting man that was not unusual. Everyone thought that Zuo and the Princess Seven made the exceptionally handsome couple.
The general noticed something special about his bride himself when he took her arm and she glanced at him as his wife for the first time. There was something in her look that promised optimism and expectation that made him feel he was important, significant, and special.
Princesses are different, he thought—offering something much different than the casual fancies of the females with whom he passed time, and of whom he was starting to weary. So many, and yet so much the same. There was definitely more to this girl than a political pairing. Theirs was an ideal pairing—he was born in the Year of the Dragon, and she was born in the Year of the Rat after all.
            For his part, Three attended only as many functions that day as protocol required him to and he prepared himself and his men to return home. He did not need to attend any more events. He had made several important political connections with whom he would now correspond. He had also cut several deals to make sure he was not taking an empty boat back home. And finally, he promised he would send the Jewel River Valley’s best prospects to Dr. Wu’s academy. Of course, parting was difficult for Toad, but she surprised herself most of all by exercising restraint and acting like the perfect court lady—she was allowed to keep the lavender robe that Three had so admired her in.
            Three skipped the last wedding banquet. He could not stomach any more. He was content to live in the last words that the mysterious kitchen assistant Qi had shared:
            “I cannot give you the Manager’s Gift that I want,” she said, “and I cannot give you the wedding you want, so you will have to be happy with just getting the wedding banquet as my Manager’s Gift back to you. It is now up to you to someday find me, and give something of even greater worth.”
            “I’ll have to work on that,” he said to himself as he waited on the dock. The last, expected delivery from the Evergreen Inn had arrived on time. A man with a two-horse dray accompanied by a young porter set several crated and heavily padded jars of wine on the dock. They deftly assisted the ship’s crew in wheeling them aboard and securing it all in the cargo hold.
            “All jars are accounted for. Thank you, sir,” said Three after he had performed an inspection and returned to the dock.
            “Very good. I’ll be leavin’ then,” said the dray driver. The boy tightened the turban he had on his head and stayed on the dock as the driver threw a duffel bag out of the cart onto the deck.
            “What’s this?” asked Three.
            “Boy wants to join yer crew. Says he wants to see the Southern provinces.”
            “Boy, travel on your silver. I’m not hiring.”
            “Oh I think you’ll want him. ’sa pleasure.” And the man drove off.
            Three turned to the boy. “He’s convinced. Convince me.”
            “I cook,” said the boy.
            “Already got a mess man. The best. I’m very particular about food.”
            “I’M better. Plus I can climb the masts and perform lookout scans.”
            “A climber eh? Prove it. The main connecting pulley line between the main mast and the foremast snapped and needs to be rehung. Hu! This kid’s going to rehang the forward mast line. Give it to him.”
The boy took the rope, secured it to his belt, removed his shoes and shinnied up the main mast as quickly as a squirrel climbs a tree. Securing the line, rather than coming back down and climbing the foremast, he carefully surveyed the distance and then launched himself into the air, flying determinedly between the two posts, and then caught the foremast between his legs, then pulling the rest of him along and clutching the mast. He completed hanging the line and hurried back down to Wang.
            Three gave a whistle of admiration and all of the crew who saw the feat burst into applause. “Damn, kid. You move through the air with the confidence of a fuckin’ monkey! But unless we’re being boarded by pirates, I NEVER want to see you do that again on my boat.”
            “So I get the job?”
            “You’ve shown you can move and pack fragile freight if we need to rebalance. Yeah, you got the job. But there are no additional bunks. It’s a medium-size crew on a small ship. You have to find your own place to sleep.”
            “I’m small. I’m sure I can find someplace to fit in. In fact, I know exactly where I’m going to sleep tonight.”
            “Cheeky fellow. I like that. What’s your name?”
            “Qi. It’s pronounced like the word for ‘seven.’”
            “Qi?” said Three. The boy removed his turban and shook out his long hair. Three finally recognized her. “Qi! How?”
            “In my experience, I find that people only see what they expect to see. And so what does that say about you, my dearest Hsia Dynasty husband? You were going to leave without me. You disappoint me. And here I thought you were the most faithful man in the world.”
            Three sighed. “Tis a shame that the dray is gone. I wonder if it’s too late to book a room at the Evergreen.”
            “I’m a step ahead of you. I told him to wait around the corner,” said Seven grabbing his arm and pulling him along.

The End (for now)

                                  © 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Part 15 - Cinderella and the Great Prince of Southern China

Hello dear readers,

At the posting of this blog, we head into Thanksgiving 2013 and it is happenstance, but a happy happenstance, that this segment should be about significant meals.

One of the best things that ever popped into my mind, ever, sits inside the following section. If one of Nora's or Julius' (my grandchildren) offspring were to read the "Story of Venison Stew" and find its meaning,  I would feel like I had actually participated in the chain of knowledge beyond being simply a link in the chain of DNA. I'll let the few of you who follow this blog in on a secret. When the greater novel in which this all sits becomes available, remember Venison Stew--it's pretty much the essential seed of this entire work.

The final wrap up to this story will probably appear the day after Thanksgiving. I could have broken this up over two weeks, but I wanted to deliver the whole banquet.


The Banquet of Silence

An entry into the pillow book of the Eleventh Princess

            I was seated in a parlor that opened into the garden and it was there that I would greet and receive “my” guests as they were brought through and then escorted to their places at the banqueting tables set up outside. It was great fun. I had not seen the faces of palace kitchen and wait staff for oh so long. And it was the first time I had seen their spouses! Such an assortment of middle-aged working men forced into dress garments that they were obviously dreadfully uncomfortable in—it was all too sweet.
And the staff ladies in their personal finery. Just one of my old palace ceremonial garments would have paid for everything all those ladies had on, but they were such genuine and earnest expressions of who they were—more than my clothes ever said about me. I wanted to say something to each of them, but I had been instructed to stay silent and that the only voice that would be heard that night was to be my sister’s. A few of the landscapers were there as well.
            I do not know how she maintains her composure in these antics of hers and manages not to break irony, but I did manage to do my part. It was nerve-wracking but now that I look back on it, it was a great lark. It was as if I were 9 years old again being swept up in one of her play adventures in the yard.
            Once the palace staff guests were all seated, Seven went out and shared a few words with them. During that time, Silver Bird then brought forth Three and presented him to me, the source of all this trouble. He was certainly nothing to look at, except for his clothes—everything he had on was brash, and bright, and garishly loud. I thought he was some kind of Arab horse trader at first. What was Seven thinking? Was this really the crafty little man behind all the stories that the two of them related this afternoon? She then led us out and seated all of us at the head table. She made some brief remarks. I asked her afterward to write them out for me, but she just handed me her working dinner plans which contained her remarks.
            “You want to hold on to this as a keepsake?”
            “Don’t want. No need. Everything is written here,” she said holding her mid-section.
            And so I took all of those sheets—words smearing and margins stained with tears, sweat, oil, viscera, broth, vinegar, blood, wine, and juice—and I bound them into my own personal book, interspersed with my own remembrances of what happened that night. If anything indeed happened. Do dreams “happen?” Those of us who were there never spoke of it again.

* * *

            Thank you for coming to Backward Cinderella’s Banquet of Silence. Even though she cannot say so, the guest of honor, my sister Yi, is so very pleased to see you all once again. I have assembled you here together because you are the dearest of people to me, some even more than my own family. You have made me a better cook and a better person. And as I move away to a new life so far away from you all, I want to give you this meal as an expression of my gratitude, my love, and most of all, my loyalty. The hour is late, and so we need not do much more than taste the things of life and therefore the courses are small, but partake of everything that is set before you and you will enjoy what I call My Journey to the South. And so my beautiful young scholar-waiters, let the first course come out.

Journey Begins

To All Staff: There are nine courses in the manner of a wedding banquet. Each course is only a taste of a type of food, designed to move the diner into a experience they may or may not have yet had. Each course will start with a "key," a sensory stimulant, a smell, a sound, a taste, that will remove them from the waking world into another place, where the other components of the course will take over and create dreams. You will be activating these keys throughout the banquet, so I rely on you to take the utmost care in this duty.

Course 1 - Soup: To the Moon

Key:  Flake of ash

Staging staff: Lanterns off, sound gong once

Stewards and waiters: Count to eight silently then lift lids off soup bowls, they must all come off simultaneously. Guests mouths will open in surprise, immediately set the first key, ash, on each guest’s tongue.

A covered soup bowl is set before. The midnight gong bell rings in my ear and the lid comes off. Up comes a puff of saffron steam. The eyes close for a second and then the full moon overhead, appears in my bowl, numinous as a large silver coin. The bitter, oily taste of ash hits. Though it is a warm out, I am immediately taken to a cold winter night where I have been so cold that my bones went numb. The hot soup invites the spoon and I eat the moon, taking in its fragrance. I take in a small breaded morsel set to the side. The taste of rabbit spiced with cassia carries me to the moon where I sit, dining in splendor with the Great Lady herself. We nibble on small cakes and speak in courtly niceties when she finally she flings her arm wide. The sleeve of her gown becomes a doorway into a moonlit forest. She arches her arm behind her head and thus disappears.

Course 2 - Fungus: To the Woods

Key: Wild Pasture Mushroom

Staging staff: Begin chopping kindling at far end of garden, pieces of wood are to fall and ring against one another. Start small fires in the stone rings. Light torches. Fan smoke lightly toward the diners. Two persons: put on boots and walk on gravel so as to make dragging and crunching sounds.

Wait staff: Present raw bits of mushroom on small picks to guests.
This is the second key.

            I take the mushroom into my mouth. It is bitter at first, then earthy, and finally sweet. The pungency makes me cough at first. Then I feel nauseated. Then a highly conscious receptive spirit takes me over and I seem ready to hear everything and anything as my eyes blur from tears welling up. I have entered a deep forest at night through the portal of the Moon Lady’s sleeve. I feel the roughness of the path under my feet as I move toward faint sounds of woodcutter’s axes. The moon moves in and out of view overhead, shining through the canopy of trees. My attention is drawn to hints of fire light that flash beyond the tree trunks. The smell of the woods suggests dampness and mold. The raw mushroom resists against the edges of my teeth, pushing back with sponginess. Eventually it breaks up and small pieces hide in the spaces between my teeth. The smell of the forest floor rise up into my nose; the floor is covered in a thick black carpet of rotting leaves.

Course 3 – Game: To the Hunting Lodge

Key: The Sound of Knife Being Sharpened

Staging staff: Sing the hunting song, quietly and gradually raise the volume and intensity. Booted staff then clamber about on the wood porch and hit the boards hard with the heels. Handler noisly drops small logs into crates, including metal rods that hit against one another. Then all fall silent. Sound the Third Key—draw a sharping rod slowly against the longest blade in the house.

Wait staff: Sing along with the staging staff the hunting song. At sounding of the Third Key, then bring out the Game Course.

I move from the chill air into the radiant heat of a hunting lodge. A huge fire blazes, resin crackles as it is spent. A hunting party has come in and bids me sit with them. A metal cup, filled with a grain liquor is put down with a thud, along with a plate of sliced pears. They snap as my teeth cut into their fibrous flesh. The skins have been left on—the skin is as tough as leather, but in taking the time to grind it into a pulp in my mouth, I taste the juice that carries the memory path that the water took, trickling through the soil, pulled up through a root, carried just under the bark, sent out through the net of branches, resting in the flower, and then in the pear.
A small cup of steamy venison stew is set before, throwing off its perfume of rough tastes. As I take it in, I hear youths rejoicing in their school songs. Weapons are set at the door. Men clump up and down stairs. Young women hurry about with trays to serve eager diners. The smells of sweat, body odor born of stress, fear, and exertion, as well as the mud tracked in on shoes, is strong against the nose. Then begins what is:

The First Dream Within a Dream.

            And so the Third Son of the Duke of the Jewel River Valley took his cup of venison stew, looked at it, and along with the other guests, noticed that it contained a morsel of meat, red leaf choy, a clove of garlic, and a chunk of plum. “And why,” he asked, “are these ingredients just so?”
            To which the Princess answered, “This is how my mother taught me ever to serve the meat of the deer, as her mother taught her.”
            And a vision came, one of each mother thus advising her young daughter, generation behind generation back through the ninth mother who said, “My mother came not from the Manchurian Plains, but from the Steppes, and she told me, ‘We cannot use the Steppes onion as my mother told me to, but we will use the garlic in its place.’”
            And thus changed what every mother had advised her daughter in making venison stew, generation behind generation, back through the ninth mother who said, “My mother came not from the Steppes, but from the land beside the Dark Sea, and she told me, ‘We cannot use the Feather Leaf Herb as mother told me to, but we will use the Red Leaf Green in its place.’”
            And thus changed what every mother had advised her daughter in making venison stew, generation behind generation, back through the ninth mother who said “My mother came not from beside the Dark Sea, but from the Southern Hill Country, and she told me ‘We cannot use the grape as my mother told me to, but we will use the plum in its place.’”
            And thus changed what every mother had advised her daughter in making venison stew, generation behind generation, back through the ninth mother who said, “My mother came not from the Southern Hill Country, but from the Wide River Basin, and she told me, “We cannot use the Yam as my told me to, but we will use the Onion in its place.’”
            And thus changed what every mother had advised her daughter in making venison stew, generation behind generation, back through the ninth mother who said, “My mother came not from the Wide River Basin, but from the Great Valley Where-the-Gods-Rift-the-Mountains-into-Two, and she told me, “We cannot use the Leaf of the Acacia as my mother told me to, but we will use the Leaf of the Green Herb in its place. She did not tell her daughter that she was also leaving out the handful of ash her mother had taught her to put in—that particular woman never liked the taste of ash in her stew. Nor did she say to her daughters that she had substituted grapes for peppers—again because that is what she liked.
            And thus changed what every mother had advised her daughter in making venison stew, generation behind generation, back through the ninth mother who, as a newlywed bride, did not know how prepare the meat of the deer.
            Her name was Born-at-Night and one day shortly after she had become a wife, her husband came home after the hunt and presented to her their share. He said, “We were given the left rear leg joint and a small viand from the same haunch. Please prepare a stew.” He went to rest for he was exhausted.
            So she cut the viand into chunks and set that to stew with the joint in a pot of water over slow coals. When her husband rose she placed the meal before him, but he was surprised that she was not eating herself. He asked why.
            Born-at-Night told her husband she could not bear to eat such beautiful creatures, as she loved to watch them jump and graze in the fields. Her husband became very angry.
            He said, “It takes my hunting party all day and every bit of strength that we have to chase and tire a single deer so that we may capture it. You dishonor my party, my clan, and me by not eating. If I am your husband, how can we be man and woman together if we do not eat the same thing?” He raised his hand to strike her for he was young and this was the only way he knew to show his frustration.
            Born-at-Night readied herself to rightly receive his strike, but she spoke and he stayed his hand. “You are right Husband,” for she saw a wisdom in what he said. “I will eat, but I must ask two things first.” He entreated her to ask. She inquired, “Who received the entrails? And who received the head?”
            He answered, “The Rainmaker received the entrails, the Artisan the head.” So Born-at-Night went to the Rainmaker and asked him to open the deer’s stomach. She saw that the deer had itself eaten acacia leaves, a yam, fruit of the pepper plant, and bark of the nut tree. She then went to the Artisan and asked to see the head. The Artisan set the head before her. She got down on her knees and prayed to the animal spirit.
            “As I take your life into mine, and whenever I shall do so, I shall eat the food that you eat, so that we are both fed.” She returned to her husband carrying leaves, roots, and fruit. She also carried some bark that had been burned to a handful of ash. She said she would augment the stew if that were agreeable, and it was. And so it was that as long as her children ate the flesh of the deer, her covenant and promise to the Spirit of the Deer remained captured in the secret of her recipe.

Course 4 – Fish and Fresh Greens: To the Meadow

Key: Sound of Crickets

Staging staff: Place cricket cages in four points around the dining area. Coax them into song if they do not start immediately. Restore water flow to the fountain. Use paddles to create the sounds of random splashes, don’t overdo it.

Wait staff: Tear herbs and drop them onto plates, then serve being sure to pass plates under guests’ noses as you set them down. Once down, tear the paper. Remove all chopsticks and utensils. Tell them to use fingers, and set down moist towels for clean up. Assist guests in rolling sleeves up. Feed them if necessary.

            I depart the lodge. It is daylight out. There is a sacred mountain in front of me—I must ascend. Insects chirp all about. I rest at a pavilion constructed for travelers and pilgrims overlooking the silvery lake. Fish jump out of the water to capture low flying insects, falling down into the water with pleasant splashes. I reach into my traveling pack and find the lunch that has been packed. River fish lightly smoked, than cooked in leaf parchment, then chilled. Bundled beside is bunch of sprouts, scallions, pod peas, lightly glazed in vinegar, tied together with chives. These pleasantly crunch with each bite. Juices reminiscent of spring afternoons flood the tongue. It was food made of sunshine, wind, gentle rains, and fast and light movements.

Course 5 – Grains: To the Place of the Gods

Key: The Sound of Ringing Bowls

Staging staff: Prepare South Phoenix for performance. Porters in robes at the ready. Bowl handlers begin rubbing bowls to produce pleasing, ambient hum. Give random strikes. Diminish when Qin player begins, but never totally silent.

Wait staff: No utensils on the table. Light the sandalwood and citrus incense censers. After removing last course, set down second set of moist towels.

            At the top of mountain I find a temple. It a place of devotion not to any one god, but to every deity imaginable. There are banners, statues, plaques, icons, wheels, paintings, and items of worship of every kind. The gods depicted are happy, angry, stern, fierce, compassionate, sorrowful, handsome, ugly, robed as kings and queens, naked as beggars, animal and human formed, sexy and seductive, and tall and foreboding. Temple attendants bring forth great steaming pots of the five essential grains—rice, wheat, barley, sorghum, and millet—which are all set on the central shrine. They scoop the grains into small cups to be distributed.
            Curtains are drawn, torches lit. Four attendants carry out a large, milk-white ball, painted with the surface patterns of the moon in light-blue-grey which they set on a rosewood pedestal stand. As one attendant withdraws the large metal disk that he has been holding behind the ball, all gasp as it unfolds into the form naked girl who stretches and then stands with her back to them. She pull an ivory comb out of her hair She turns her head and fixes eyes one person, and then she twirls around as two attendants slip on and fasten a lavender silk robe that echoes the color of her eyes.
            I am taken out of the dream for a bit when I overhear my sister saying from the side somewhere:

“What is that girl doing? I didn’t give her any such instructions! I don’t care how unabashedly she moves unclad or how perfect her skin is. Get her off. She’s turning my beautiful, elegant dinner into a bawdy house revue. . .”

But the three Sisters Kuang calm her down and that passes. The moon goddess gives a sly smile, because she knows that goddesses outrank princesses.  A qin is set before her and slender, pale fingers dance over the strings, pushing, pulling, sliding left and right. In so playing, she brings about:

The Second Dream Within a Dream.

            The full moon descends from the sky and sits on the horizon, lighting the track of a meandering silver river that leads like a path toward the great circle mountain that is herself. The moon sings songs of love, remembrance, loss, and regret as a train of ferries make their way toward the light. The ferries carry the banquet guests, each of whom find themselves crying inconsolably into their hands, which they scoop into the bowls of grain before them. Each guest’s meal is thus salted to the extent of their sorrow.
I take a handful of sorghum in my mouth and I am overcome with grief. Every grain that I ingest becomes a tear that falls from my eyes and drops back into the bowl.
I take up a handful of rice in my mouth and my back and shoulders become heavy with soreness of hard labor. Every grain becomes a drop of sweat that falls off my forehead and lands back into the bowl.
And so ever was it likewise with all of the grains, the making and eating of of which is like the Great Wheel that turns us over and over. Ever building us up, ever tearing us down, ever empowering us, ever draining us.
The goddess of sorrowful songs eventually stops as the blue-white moon drops below the horizon. Shots of warmed wine are passed and the guests, while spent emotionally, now standing outside their troubles, set them aside and rest, if only for a short while.

Course 6 – Meat and Bread: To the Herdsman

Key: The smell of cut grass

Staging staff: stand by with snippers. Clip bundles of mown grasses to release oils and smells. Piper boy stand by. Knock the blades of shovels against rocks so that they ring.

Wait staff: Set out clean neck scarves as place mats. Still no utensils. Grilled chunks of goat and mutton are to brought out on clean, heated shovels and emptied on scarves. Follow up with pocket flat wheatbreads stuffed with boiled greens. Third  component services pass by dropping edible blossoms onto each scarf setting. Lay out another set of moist towels for cleanup.

            Bits of meat are dumped from a shovel onto the rough napkin in front of me. I take it in my mouth. The gamy taste of char-grilled goat moves me to our next locale.
Day has broken. I am a herder working in a high mountain pasture just down from the sacred temple. I care for a mixed flock of sheep and goats. The day is hot. Flowers have opened wide and attract insects, as have I. I wave away the gnats and flies that hover about. My partner gets out his flute and plays a quiet tune to gentle the flocks. The tough herbs that we have pulled out of the ground and stewed all night can be rolled up into our flatbreads as we pause to eat our afternoon meal. A third herdsman pulls a leather bag with a fitted spigot from around shoulder and passes it around, and we enjoy a round of squirt-sips of diluted fruit wine.

Course 7 – Traveling Fare: To the Sea

Key: The rhythmic creaking of wooden planks.

Staging staff: Begin the creaking sounds as soon as Course 6 is struck from the table. Water handlers start pouring water back and for between to large tubs to simulate the breaking of water against the side of a vessel.

Wait staff: The simplest course to serve. Each guest gets two small smoked fish and an assortment of fruits and vegetables dried and preserved in crusts of salt or sugar, or both. No utensils. Set out large carafes of fresh water.

            I am immediately transferred onto a boat on a long ocean voyage. My overarching feelings are nausea and boredom. I stand on a deck staring as I have for weeks, out into a two-tone eternity of light blue on top and dark blue on the bottom.
My stomach rumbles in synchrony and sympathy with the creaking of the ship’s hull timbers. I use my front teeth to scrape off meager amounts of smoked fish flesh from a delicate bone structure. Salted plums held in the mouth are unbearably intense. If you hold them long enough, they will try to reconstitute, but know that they are eating you, rather than the other way around, taking precious moisture away from your mouth, but in the end the plum loses.
The same fare day in and day out is the fate of the traveler or sailor, and yet it is so delicious, as it is often the only defense against boredom and death.

Course 8 – Breakfast Dumplings: To the City

Key: Clattering of many dishes.

Drummers: Throughout this course, create an ambient base pulse at three times the speed of the resting heartbeat. VERY FAST. The primary cadence should mimic at horse at gallop—bada-bump, bada-bump, buda-bump. On top of that base use drums, utensils, pots and pans, shoes, anything to maintain the beat. You must drive everyone to move swiftly.

Staging staff: Create a dull roar of shouted orders, arguments, rebuffs, rebukes, cursing, apologies, jokes, and laughing. Augment the wait staff. They will bring in the dishes, you will pick up the dirties—tossing them to one another is encouraged if it can be done with harm or breakage. False toy dumplings can be thrown to each other as well.

Wait staff: You are the keepers of the key. Clatter dishes constantly. Feel the beat that the drumming stagers create and do everything in multiples or fractions of that basic pulse. Run do not walk. Make three trips back and forth instead of one. Keep everything in forward motion, progressing in a relentless drumbeat. There will be nine different servings to get to each diner, and keep the tea pouring.

Security staff: This will be noisy. If any neighbor comes over to complain, hand them a generous cup of wine from Course 9. Warning: Have them sit. They will not stay conscious for long.

            I take a bite of stinkfruit. It is a taste that no one really likes, but they love that its pungent taste of rottenness brings forth the essence of the closeness, the decay, the carelessness, and the squalor of the extreme heat and humidity of the southern cities so precisely. I have finally arrived in the southern port where I have come to visit an old friend. The heat seems to accelerate all these processes of degradation, and yet it is invigorating. I have met a friend and we have stepped out gone out for a late breakfast, making our way through crowded hot streets. The little shop where we have come to eat presents an abundant, unending array of small tea cakes, one after the other. Waiters run in and out and avoid one another, moving in perfect harmony. It is as if we are participating in some great acrobatic dance pageant.

Course 9 – Wine, Nuts, and Fruit: To the End

Key: Celebratory Plum Wine for a Wedding

Staging staff: No active duties for this course. Prepare to load guests into the litters.

Wait staff: Serve full cups of heated wine at the end. There will be six or seven unescorted, unmarried females at the event. Members of Cohort 4 will sit with each of these single females—those assigned members may choose not to partake of the Ninth Key themselves. If you do not, please be present and available to do whatever these women ask of you during the course while they are under the influence of the Ninth Key.

            My sister emerges from the side and comes and sits by me. “This last course is best enjoyed by a couple, but you are exempted and may partake alone.” She pushed a full measure of heated wine toward me. “Drink it and see something.” I raise the cup and drink full. A vision starts to form in my head. It is:

The Third Dream Within a Dream

            A young man and a young woman dance with each other along what appears to be a large sandy beach in a very hot climate. They are very lightly dressed. She points over to a grove of trees and they set out for it. It is early morning, just after daybreak. With every few steps they take, hold one another’s hands, they become just a bit older, just a bit less vigorous, but they remain just as pleased with each other’s presence. As they walk children join them, first a boy, then a girl. These children likewise grow older and eventually split away and run off in their different directions, as the couple wave them away. They continue their walk to the grove. They stop at some rocks. The man finds and digs up some shellfish. He purges them, opens up their shells with his knife, separate the meat from the shell, and they eat them together.

            I hear a laugh and I am for the moment pushed out of the vision.
            I look to my right and I see that it is Three’s laugh that I heard. It becomes clear now that Three is the man in the vision and the woman is my sister Seven. But here they are having delightful time together, half dwelling in the vision themselves, but observing the guests and commenting on them to each other. She has brought out a tray containing everything we have consumed—and they go on and on about each ingredient.
I look about the room and am amazed. All these old, tired husbands have come to life are openly caressing and kissing their wives. The unmarried maidens have all become flirtatious coquettes with the waiter boys who have taken places by their sides. Yes, Three and Seven are enjoying the guests’ participation in this culinary illusion that my sister has found some way to create. They seemed so perfectly happy and contented with each other that it was unbearable for me to be present.
            Seven looks over to me and sees that I slipped out of being a participant and had become an observer. She gave me a look of deep gratitude and then lays her head on Three’s shoulder. Three calls for his retainer who brings him something—it is a dagger that he then unsheathes. He whispers something to Seven and then threatens his own neck with the dagger. Seven calls to her attendant who brings her razor sharp carving knife. She leans in and kisses him and then interlocks her arm with his, and then threatens her own neck in turn. They count to three and then thrust, but their unison thrusts restrain each other from doing harm. They repeat the motion again, again, and yet again. I want to scream at them, but the wine seems to be restraining me. Is this just all another dream?
            They bring up their left hands and restrain each other’s right arms, bringing them down to the table. They each pierce their right index finger on the other’s blade tip and then hold their bleeding wounds together, mixing their blood. They lean into one another and kiss again. I can now hear them as they speak to one another.

            “That’s as romantic a move as you’ll ever get out of this old, practical fellow,” said Three.
            “Overplayed and overly dramatic,” said Seven. “I’ll give you six out of a possible ten.”
            “Don’t talk to me about harsh. I’ve seen what kind of punishment you can take. I can be as mean as I want to you and you will endure.”
            Seven looks at me and then whispers to Three. He looks at me too and then speaks to me. “I should be content. For with this feast, I feel that I have already lived a full life this woman, your sister. And yet, I really don’t want to be in this world if I cannot be with her. But if I leave it now to try again, she says she’s leaving too. I say it is better world if she is in it, and so, I must be content to leave things as they are. We are living such a cliché opera plot, wouldn’t you agree?”
            “Two people should not ever be so happy together,” I retort. “It can only result in great tragedy at some point. That is certainly what all the poets and philosophers tell us.”
            “We are already a tragedy, dear Sister,” said Seven. “So we must enjoy what little we have. Do not worry. We will not hurt each other or ourselves. The world has done that already to us. We are simply drunk on each other, and it will only last a few minutes longer. Thank you for giving us this much. Put your left hand in your lap and raise your cup and drink once more if you wish to return to the dream.”

            And so I lift my cup.

            The couple continues down the beach, but their steps falter. They have become elderly. She can no longer walk. His back and legs remain sturdy and he lifts her up and carries her. He steps too far to the right. She whispers to him and he corrects himself. He can no longer see.
            At last they arrive at their favorite resting spot under the grove. She opens a bag and unties a pot of cool porridge. She hands him a bag of nuts which he cracks with this teeth. He chews the nuts into a coarse mash which he then spits into the porridge and she mixes it with a spoon. She has no more teeth herself. She feeds him a spoonful and then herself. They then argue over who has the better quality of spit between the two of them. And then they laugh together thinking how similar this crude meal of theirs together is to the finest bowl of bird’s-nest soup. The sun sets and they fall asleep together.

            And then the next day dawns. The red light of the sun pushing through my eyelids rouses me to wakefulness. Its growing warmth brings me to life.

* * *

            Madame Cui sat straight up in her bed. She was still fully dressed in her finest formal wear. Her husband was nestled right next to her, also in his dress clothes. “Chun! Wake up!” The man stirred and was quite surprised himself. Madame Cui didn’t think he knew, but she asked anyway. “How did we get here? Home. Did we dream all of that?”
             “Odd,” said Chun, “we were on a bright, sunny beach. You and I. Weren’t we?”
            “Never mind that!” said Cui, “That was utterly transformational! That girl! I’m changing the menu for the final wedding banquet.”
            “But that’s tonight.”
            “There’s time.”
            Chun was a master carver of stone and wood. And so he was man who lived in the world of tangible materials and precise measurement and had little patience for things that could not be grasped in hand—ironically his specialty were depictions of gods, demons, and dragons. Nobody made a scarier door guardian than he, but did his own home have one? “Rubbish,” he’d say, privately of course. “He’ll protect you from having the lintel from falling on you, but that’s about it,” is how he joked to his fellow artisans.
That day before, his wife dragged him home from the workshop and forced him to wash up for that silly midnight party. But right now, he did not see her as the gray-haired, wrinkled crone that was his partner for many decades who knew what he was ever going to say and when he was going to say it. He saw her as the fully extended being that she was, stretching from the young, pushy girl he first married all the way to the expert matron of the present. And right now, he was also in touch with the young boy he had been himself. He sat up and began to remove her garments.
            “I can do that myself,” said Cui.
            “Of course you can. But why don’t you work on undressing me instead?”
            “Are you serious?” she asked.
            “There’s time,” he said.
            The entire married kitchen staff were late to work that morning, but they all made up for it for the good moods they were all in.

                                  © 2012 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.