Thursday, 30 January 2014

One Lute, One Crane

A Chinese girl, newly left on the streets, was rescued by a Red-crowned Crane. He scooped the mewing bundle up in his olive green bill and took her to his foster home for abandoned girls.
Baiyun Shan, the White Cloud Mountain, was home to lots of unwanted girls. All of whom had been disowned and saved. Saved from being thrown away, drowned, or peddled as virtual slaves; saved from being subjected to beatings or sold into brothels. The girl babies arrived wrapped in old newspaper like cold-blooded, lifeless fish, while the older ones came in with uncoiled raven hair, pale skin, and unbound feet. The babies relentlessly cried and the bigger girls ate and sighed. What was their fate?
Freed, they didn't know how to behave or what was expected. The babies were soon contented, but the girls didn't know how to let go of their earlier lives or soothe their longings.
And so they were encouraged to use poetry, music, and painting. Those who did not have these artistic skills found release in filial piety: pouring tea, preparing  rice congee, and showing the younger girls how to spit out shells of melon seeds. They preferred domesticity to the arts.
But there was one girl that excelled in everything and that was Lingling. A delicate girl who had no idea where she was from or where she was going, yet she sang, she danced, she laundered clothes whilst cracking sunflower seeds with her teeth. She didn't remember her life before Baiyun Shan.
By seventeen, the mountain was the only home she'd ever known and she would often wander its peaks, or she'd sit on its star-scraping ridge and play the lute. Her exquisite music carried to Guangzhou, where its slow tempo pulled people into the streets. City life stopped while these pieces spoke of her love and sorrow. Love for the Red-crowned Crane and her mountain home and sorrow that she may have to leave it. The music described her indecision. How could she decide when the cranes were so far away?
Lingling was unaware of the effect these lyrical tunes had on the people below for her view of Guangzhou was obscured by white clouds. Indeed, she could not imagine life beyond the Baiyun Shan, although she knew it was there and this grieved her. At seventeen, all the girls were given their freedom; allowed to decide whether to stay or go. They no longer had to claim the mountain as their home or the cranes as their protectors. They could return to their birth home, make a new life in the capital, or stay under the Southern Sky. This is what she thought of when she plucked the four silk strings of the pear-shaped pipa, as her fingers picked the notes and strummed the chords her left hand made on its neck.
Lingling wanted both: the comfort of the known and the thrill of the unknown. She wanted to leave the nest, be an explorer, but she also wanted the safety that the mountain gave her. But when she played, her spirit became like a Red-crowned Crane: it circled the air like a bird and tugged at the thin thread that attached it to her, but like silk, the link was so strong it never snapped. While Lingling's spirit wanted to soar, her body refused to let her. Each time she played, her spirit yanked hard to fly higher and her music increased its poignancy, while her mind remained torn between sky and mountain.
However, the call of her one lute had been heard by one crane who was flying over open seas and across vast skies to reach her. A Red-crowned Crane who too had once struggled to decide – to follow his kin and nature or to reside by a peaceful lake – before he learnt from those older and wiser that he could have both: a simple life and adventure.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Flesh and Blood

The Woman with the Raven at the Abyss
I must have my own flesh and blood. Those were the first words you spoke to me as the ravens outside croaked why, why, why?
Why? I repeated.
Because isn't it what most people want? To see themselves reflected? To create and give birth to another member of the human race?
What if, like you, it's the one thing they can't do, shouldn't they accept it? 
No, it's not my fault I've been born without a womb - it's my right to have a child!
Is it? Even if it means exploiting somebody else and giving them your pain?
These women want to help women like me who are unable to conceive or carry a child naturally.
Do they really? Do women who live in deep poverty really want to give up their wombs for you?
I don't know! But they do. You wring your hands and your eyes start to well. I offer you a tissue.
I will do anything to have a child!
In which case, have you explored all other options? Fostering? Or adoption?
It's not the same. The child won't be a part of me. Mothering somebody else's is never the same.
If you have love to give, why not?
You sit in silence.
Mmm. I think we should leave it there. Same time next week.
You get up and walk forlornly to the door, your eyes seeking mine for approval. I purposely avert my gaze and busy myself with your file.
Was I too tough? Should I have pushed you more? Lenore, Lenore, Lenore. You, who keeps turning up at my office door. A woman standing at the edge of an abyss, unsure of her childless future. Wanting a child and not being able to have one. Denying love to any child except your own and prepared to go to any lengths to have one.
Buy, buy, buy, the ravens croak outside.
Buy an ovary. Rent a womb. Transplant them. 
How can I see your side when I've accepted? Accepted that biologically it's not meant to be, but if I could naturally I'd dread it.
Why don't I feel the same raw urge? The itch to mother?
Each month, you're distraught by a ghost, a whisper of what could be. Where you experience loss, I feel free.
I want to be sympathetic to your cause, but I can't. Emotionally, I can't understand it. Surely mothering is more than just a collection of genes?
Yet the ravens speak of how you will fall into madness if I don't try to listen. And of how you will lose your life to it.
Nevermore will Lenore turn up at my door, but she will send her ravens.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Common Toad

Once upon a time there was a common toad who was obsessed with finding himself a thumb-sized wife. He was convinced he would become a prince if he married a girl who was petite and slender. But discovering one was proving difficult for they were as rare as precious metals and didn't like ponds, marshes or rice paddies. As a tadpole, his mother had told him stories of how small daughters were found in cabbages, red peppers, garlic bulbs and bamboo stalks; she told him of their wit and beauty and how they made obedient wives and blessed their husbands with long life and good fortune. Now grown, Bufo was desperate for such riches and longevity, and so he left his mother at home and made for the bamboo forest.
With other sons of commoners, he set out on this pilgrimage, but it was many weary months before they reached the edge of the bamboo forest. They mostly slept during the day and travelled slowly and ungainly at night, and in bad weather supped delicacies together: beetles, slugs and flies washed down with warm sake, or competed against one another in short jump. The night the Bamboo Cutter's barn-like building finally came into view, they kowtowed to the ground: they had made it! By morning they would no longer be brothers.
Every single son wanted to be the first one to meet the old man who harvested the bamboo. Bufo, the commonest of common toads, didn't push himself forward, he hung back and watched the others as they clamoured and shoved. The Bamboo Cutter before them was of coarse, peasant stock, and so they were rather taken aback by his noble voice: Welcome common sons! The folk tales are true - my small daughters are born from stalks of bamboo, and two having reached their full height are ripe to be sold off. My wife will show you to your living quarters where you must gather your strength for there will be impossible tasks! And with that, he beckoned to his wife and dismissed them.
Moriko and Yoshie watched their adopted mother proceed to lead this troop of common sons to their death. Only a few would survive to claim their prize, that of a thumb-sized bride, and neither Moriko or Yoshie wanted to be a little wife or mother. Why couldn't they remain just a small daughter instead? Their older sisters had been married off to rats and roaches and with many unripe sisters to clothe and feed, they were the next in line. In a short time, they would no longer be called daughters of this residence.
Unbeknownst to these two as they contemplated their wart-covered suitors, Bufo had stayed behind to study them. Moriko in the maple leaf furisode was slim and striking, while Yoshie, stood next to her, sparkled in thin grey silk. Both were equal in thumb-size height and natural beauty. Bufo was captivated by their neatly coiled black shiny hair and delicate features, so much so that he stay hidden and followed their movements.
He traced their steps as they walked through the bamboo forest and paused beside a rich gold stream. Moriko and Yoshie both cupped their hands and drank from it, but Bufo when he copied them found he could not stop. With each cupful, his thirst became more unquenchable, and as he continued to drink his body swelled. He puffed up... and up... and burst, shedding his skin in tattered pieces, and emerged as a fire-breathing dragon.
Moriko and Yoshie instantly seized this unexpected opportunity and begged Bufo to fly them to The Capital of the Moon, where he was rewarded for his greed with further riches and immortality.

*Inspired by a Japanese folktale: The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Daughter of Jade Climbing the Ladder

The Daughter of Jade fell from the fatherly sky to the motherly earth with a bump. Her lavender-mauve brocade robe with its wide sleeves flapping in her swift descent as her stubborn, riderless horse rode the clouds above. With the wind in his mane, he was as wild and unruly as she was, but being an Enlightened City horse he could not venture from the skies to rescue her. In falling, the Daughter of Jade had crossed the divide between Heaven and Earth.
The gateway to the Forbidden City let her slip through as if she belonged there. At sixteen, she was ripe for plucking and back home was betrothed to her princely cousin as they were both descendants of the Celestial Emperor. The gateway, however, took away her noble status, as well as her flat shoes and peony scented topknot. She landed, rather heavily, outside the rear gates, as a nobody. An unaccompanied teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood ready to be brought before an earth-born emperor. She did not know the deceased emperor's son had secretly bequeathed his ancestral duties to his mother, or that her arrival had not gone unnoticed.
From one of the palace's windows, the Empress herself had seen this young girl loitering. She studied the girl as she walked to and fro in bare feet, muttering, and felt intrigued by this stranger. What could she want? There had been no new come-of-age daughters inspected and chosen as concubines, and besides it was not Spring time, it was Autumn. She ordered her eunuchs to bring this girl immediately to her.
Unusually, the Daughter of Jade did as she was bidden and entered the Forbidden City. She obediently followed the eunuchs through the outer and inner courts and into the vast palace, until she was stood before the Empress. She prostrated and returned to her majestic stature, despite her dusty brocade robe and missing headdress. After all, as the Daughter of Jade, she was distinguished, and the Enlightened City, invisibly towering above with its Celestial Emperor, was obviously greater. Surely this Empress would know that, but then why wasn't she prostrating too?
The Empress approached the trespassing girl with steely eyes. She noted the girl's direct, unabashed gaze, her beautiful face with its creamy skin, her upright posture, and her crushed lavender-mauve robe with its butterflies. Could she be a usurper? No, the Empress dismissed the thought, the girl was too graceful and fearless. She's just like me when I was sixteen, not yet tamed. The girl tried to speak, but the Empress waved her hand and refused to listen. She must have got lost and wandered here – I'll keep her as my maid!
The eunuchs took the Daughter of Jade away to be washed and clothed in new robes, and heavily scented with jasmine. The courts hummed with her coming: The Empress has a new pet! The Daughter of Jade didn't understand as the dialect they spoke was slightly different – she thought she was being revered, not trapped into providing entertaining company and eventual death. And when she did, she did not struggle or sob. She plotted... One day the Daughter of Jade informed the Empress she had entered an awakened state where she had seen 'jade palaces in the skies, misty plains and fields of light.' Could she borrow a rope ladder to show her this magnificent celestial sight?
On the next full moon, a hemp ladder was flung up to the skies, where on the third attempt it caught on a tree that only the Daughter of Jade could see. She hastily climbed and when concealed by the mountainous fog at the top, she wobbled the rungs so that the Empress, who was then suspended between heaven and earth, plunged feet-first into the land of the Hungry Ghosts.
*Inspired by Shan Sa's Empress

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Blind Hope

Hope, G. F. Watts 1886 (2nd version)
Hope was adrift on a buoy. Her inflatable dingy had suffered a puncture and collapsed, even though she had strenuously bailed out the invading water, and so she had flung herself on to a passing red buoy. She now sat hunched atop this bobbing globe and clung onto her one-stringed violin. Why she had saved this she didn't know! But she rested her chin and her head against it and plucked that one string. The sweet resonant sound eased her physical discomfort and suffering.
As she plucked the one intact string on her violin, the movement and the light breeze caused her white bandanna to slip down and cover her eyes. Better to be blind she thought. Hope had no desires to revisit the past, live in the present, or look ahead to the future; blindfolded she was truly impartial. Who knew if there would be a positive outcome to her foolish jaunt? It was easier to forget the events that led up to this and just float, and being unable to see actually made her feel more hopeful.
Life would be less hard if you could let yourself drift like this. Go with the current and not against it, but sightedness only seemed to make hope's cousin despair more probable. Hope, blinded, felt comforted; lulled by this strange situation. She calmly hung onto to the red buoy with no wild thrashes or plans of rescue. After all, she was safe having escaped her water-logged dingy and struggling now would not be helpful. She simply decided to accept whatever fate brought her.
Hope was not expectant of anything; those thoughts had left her, and since they had she had never felt more alive. Hunched on the buoy, blindfolded and plucking the sole string of her violin her senses had remarkably heightened. She heard every sound of the sea, the air smelt of brine, and her lips tasted salty. She felt the air lightly caress her bare skin and the waves wash over her feet. She was aware of the sun drying her thin, wet chemise, but shivered violently when it disappeared behind a cloud and when it finally set. The violin's faint and exquisite melancholic note was the perfect accompaniment to her new-found sensitivity. This was so much more than she had imagined the gap between hope and despair would be.
Behind the white blind, she pictured her scene in tones of green, brown and grey. She saw grey rolling mist and a placid sea and herself as a desolate girl clinging to a buoy. She was a mermaid-turned-human girl serenading the ocean and hoping to capture a passing fisherman.
Hope despaired of being found, but her despair brought hope. She envisioned how if found she would live her 'House of Life' differently. How she would weather the storms and ride her emotions; how she would breath life into her aspirations, and as she did, she felt the curtains of night draw close around her and an overhead star gaze down.
Disconcerted by the still surround, the murky starlight was comforting. Hope's world became a muddy brown. Was she bobbing or drifting like flotsam? There was no definite rise or fall, just every now and then a gentle sway or a forwards-backwards motion. The sea felt just like a pair of maternal hands rocking her to sleep. Go to sleep, go to sleep....
She fought to keep her darkened eyes open. No, she would not! Hopes don't sleep, they worry away constantly. Nag underneath, rise to the top of surface or produce stormy seas if ignored, but mostly they watch for breaks in the cloud. They are the streaks of sunlight that pierce grey skies; the brief, shy, distant smiles that are usually frowns; the fleeting recognition of beauty; and the sudden realisation that all is well. That this too will pass. Hopes seize potential.
Hope knew what she had to do. She would emulate the abstract Hopes' gone before, the ones portrayed in symbolist paintings: she would continue to pluck the one string of her violin and have the audacity to hope.