The Waning Moon

 

For joasakura who made Pipang's satchel, writing kit and notebook

 

           Pipang opened the door of his little cottage and walked in. A small oil lamp burned on the table where Laofang had left the evening's cold collation. Pipang put his satchel down, lit a spill and kindled the moon lamp by the window. Mellow white light filled the room. He went out to the waterfall to wash his hands and rinse his mouth. Returning, he took his notebook and pencase from the bag and laid them by; sat down and picked up his chopsticks and began to eat.

           He had the beginnings of a good poem there. His thoughts returned to the view that had inspired it: a white three-quarter moon shining in a cloudless sky, the leaves of the cryptomeria silver on the still night air, the mountainside turned into a pewter landscape.

 

Unmoving rock rises up tier on tier

The changing moon low in the summer sky.

Shadows pool darkly in the silent valley

Not even a leaf stirs on this windless night.  

 

And for the next verse... He put his bowl aside and reached for the notebook. The inkstone in his case was still damp. He added a few drops of water, dipped his brush, and looked at the opening quatrain. Time went by, unnoticed. Then he wrote-

 

This day as well I hoped for news of you

But no visitor was waiting at my gate

Flowers fall noiseless in the evening garden

I go into my empty house and close the door.

 

His shoulders slumped. He looked away, eyes on nothing as he listened to the distant thunder of his waterfall. After a while he dipped his brush again.

          

All night the leaves went shuu-shuu in the wind

The waterfall was heavy with storm rain.

We two lay talking through the midnight hours

Sharing one bed, beneath a single cover.  

 

The rushing of water from the cliff behind the house; the rustling of the acacia close to the bedroom window; the voice beside him, not loud at all, but clearer than any sound else.

Other men had come to his house to spend the day with him in pleasant walks and conversation and verse. He loved his friends and cherished their frequent letters and less frequent visits. They filled his life with ideas and verse; they gave him a view of a larger world than his own, the ordinary world of men that he might never enter. But because of that he'd never shared a bed with any of them, even for sleep. This was his first experience of night time conversation between friends, somehow more intimate because the other was only a dark shadow to the eyes, a voice to the ears, a hotness of body and hands and tongue...

           Pipang drew a deep breath. The heat of Goushou pressing against him, the dry warmth of his palms on Pipang's legs or back. Fire burned throughout Goushou's body, warm and comforting as the kitchen oven on a winter evening--

 

A man from the southern seas comes knocking at my gate

How will my little fire keep him from the cold?

Sunlight comes bursting through the trees about my garden

Oh sun, be gentle to these pale western flowers.

 

--and brightness shone about Goushou, brilliant as the sun above his southern ocean. Hard to look at for long but filling the world with unexpected colour. Like the colours of Goushou's moods as well, candle flames flickering in a draft, never settled for long- merry or angry, tender or dejected- red and blue, yellow and apple-green and black. All new to his experience, all precious because they were Goushou:

 

           Jewels of the king shine in the sunlight

           Jade beads strung together sound as he moves

           War trumpets bray as the king takes to the heavens

           His armies fly behind him, glistening in gold.

 

           Pipang looked up from the grand old-style lines to the white-washed walls of his little cottage. Incredible to think that the King of the Southern Ocean had sat here on many an afternoon, drinking tea, making linked verses, and gossiping about the personages of the continents and oceans. Like any ordinary man; but he wasn't an ordinary man. Not in his rank, not in himself. Pipang had seen with his own eyes the world that the king thought of as everyday, which to him came straight out of legend. So many people in such fine clothes; so much luxury in meals and furnishings; so much ceremony even in the small routines of the day; and so many high affairs that the king had neglected to spend time with himself.

           The strangeness and splendour delighted and overwhelmed him in equal measure. The palace had seemed the physical embodiment of the newness and terror of the love he was experiencing within it-- the happiness of those exercises he'd thought himself forever barred from and the annihilation of self that came in their wake. Dizzy, dazzled, scarcely knowing who he was any more, he hadn't been able to think at all during those five days at the Southern Ocean. Only when he came home to the life of before had he begun to see clearly again:

 

Jewels of a king belong not in a cottage

Jade beads have no place in woodlands and waste

Why should the trumpet sound near my waterfall-

A mountain hermit cannot wear armour made of gold.

 

He read the lines again. Then he poured water into the little bowl and began to wash his brush. He would write no more that night.

He'd been happily resigned to doing without that part of life that occupied so much of other men's thought. His life held its own completeness and content- his home, his poetry, his friends both near and far. He was uniquely qualified to be the confidante of others. Men, often high-placed men, discussed with him matters they would tell no one else, because he had no ties, no prejudices, and no desires of his own. No desires.

I was entire once. Like an inkstone: polished, complete, an aid to composition. I assisted other men in making the chronicle of their lives, for I had no life of my own to chronicle. It was easy to do without when I didn't know the thing I was foregoing. But now I am broken with my longing, and useless as a broken inkstone is.

He looked miserably about him at the familiarity of his house. Well-kept and homely, but for the first time in his life it felt empty. No one was here to smile at him and take his hand, no one to draw him close and call him 'dear friend.' He gave an unthinking moan, startling himself with the noise. The not-here-ness of Goushou was a wound that bled the strength from him. It hurt; it hurt and he had no idea how to make the hurting stop. He wanted only to take to the skies- to wing over the wooded western continent and the sandy southern until he came to the palace in the southern ocean where his happiness lived. Like a child running to its nursemaid for comfort. I am a man, and Goushou-sama has other charges than myself. He gave a shivering sigh and stood up. Change, wash, go to bed- find at least the oblivion of sleep if there was nothing else to be had.

There was a step in the room. "Young sir?"

"Laofang. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you--"

"You are in pain. Where does it hurt?" The old man came up and felt his forehead. Pipang turned wet eyes to him.

"My heart," he said, trying to smile.

"Ah, poor child. Such is the way of love. Come, let me put you to bed. You will do better there than here."

He let Laofang lead him to the bedroom, undress and wash him in tepid water, and wrap him in his sleeping robe. Laofang opened the bedclothes for him and said, "Wait but a moment. I will go fetch a fire for the chafing dish."

Pipang blinked. "Why?"

Laofang blinked back at him. "Why, because--" He waved a vague hand at Pipang.

Pipang said, "Goushou-sama is not here." His voice wavered whether he would or no. "What need have I for- for--" and found it better not to continue.

"Yet surely Goushou-sama has taught you the hand forms?"

"Yes, but he's not here." The tears overflowed his eyes, completing his misery. "Do not torment me with reminders of him. I will sleep and hope for peace in the morning."

"But my dear- you know the hand forms are also for when a man is alone?"

"What?"

"You didn't know? Did you never do it yourself-- before--?"

"No," Pipang said, surprised. "I was never in love before."

Laofang frowned in puzzlement.

"Pleasure is for two to share," Pipang explained.

"But when there's no one to share it with, the body still has its desires."

Pipang thought about that for a minute. "Then I must bear those desires. The forms are a part of love, and not the same thing as making water."

Laofang sighed unhappily. "There are others who love you too, though differently from Goushou-sama, and we do not like to see you unhappy."

"Oh," Pipang said with a pang. "I am sorry, little father. I do not slight your love; it has supported me throughout my life. Be easy- I cannot be unhappy when I think of your care for me." Laofang continued to look sad. He'd never understood the way Pipang saw the world but that hadn't hindered his devotion. He'd insisted on companying Pipang when he left his parents' house, though it meant leaving his own friends behind. That was love indeed, and to be prized. "Come, stay the night with me. I will be the easier for your company."

Laofang looked shocked. Pipang smiled as he got into bed.

"Why do you hesitate? Were we in my mother's house this would be a matter of course."

"How--?"

"Come, you are still my chamber servant as well as everything else. Your place is here if you wish."

 The old man nodded then, evidently finding sense in that. He put the lights out and came in on the other side. Pipang settled himself down and cuddled up against Laofang.

"Oh," he said. It was like being with Goushou-sama: the warmth of another, the feeling of safety. The need to have arms about him and hands on him-- He gave a little grunt of pain.

"There there," Laofang said, patting him awkwardly. "It's not so bad."

"No." He took breath. "It's good to have you near." After a moment he added, "Little father, I never knew what I was taking you from when I brought you to this hermitage, away from the others of our kind. I am sorry. Perhaps you had a friend it was hard to part from..."

Laofang smiled. "No, nothing like that."

"Yet you know the ways of love..."

Laofang was silent a moment. "I was never one to catch a woman's eye, and I never danced the Great Dance. There were one or two I companioned with in my youth, and it was well enough, but... All things have their season. These things pass and other pleasures take their place."

"Like what?"

"Ahh... making music while I watch the sky change, that is nice; and listening to the mountain at night, and growing things in the earth. That I always loved."

"Ahh," Pipang said miserably, "Poetry, and walking about my hill, and making tea. They were enough once, but now..."

"You know, young sir, I always thought you one born old. You seemed never to have a young man's temperament. But maybe you were just a hundred year cicada, that waits underground an age before it springs forth into the light."

"Maybe. But now I am in the sun and I burn."

Laofang made vague rumbling noises in his mouth. "Young sir," he said at last, "I am no chamber servant as you know. I have tended you from time to time because there is only myself to do it, and I'm sure you find me rough enough."

"Not at all!" Pipang protested. "You are kind and gentle, and that is all I wish for in those near me."

"Ahh, thank you, my dear. But, well, if I was a chamber servant indeed--" he hemmed a bit more, "and if things at home had been as they ought- well, I would have helped in your earliest training. Perhaps- maybe it is not your wish- but if you didn't mind..."

"Oh." Pipang felt himself blushing. "It's true, Goushou-sama has begun the habituation exercises with me." And true also that except for Goushou, Laofang was the only one he could even think of doing those things with. "We might- we might try the Ring or the Moon's Aureole perhaps." He gave an unthinking glance at Laofang's hands, and the other chuckled.

"No garden dragon lets his talons grow until he gets too old for work." 

"Ahh," Pipang said, smiling self-consciously. "Well, that is good." He got the oil flask that Goushou had given him out of the bedside commode while Laofang fetched a towel from the linen chest. Pipang took a deep breath and turned to his belly. There was a blunt nudging at his entrance-- a little intrusive hardness inside him. So small but so unignorable-- Pipang's eyesight swam as it always did and his breath grew short. All of him became focussed on that one- that hard- the thing-- Tremors pulsed through him, belly and groin, and his insides exploded. But the litle hardness was still there, moving in miniscule circles, and everything began all over again. His body took on a will of its own and Pipang no longer existed. At some point in the cycle of arousal and release he lost hold of consciousness entirely and slid bonelessly into a contented darkness.

 

           He woke after dawn next day to the sounds and smells of Laofang cooking breakfast in the back court, and sunlight dappling the wall of his room. There was sunlight in his heart as well for no reason he could name. He went outside for the usual morning rituals.

           "Good morning, young sir."

           "Good morning, Laofang. You should have slept in- I kept you up late last night."

"Ahh, it's no matter. I wake at dawn these days, whether or no. I'll nap in the afternoon."

Pipang relieved himself in the rockside midden, washed afterwards from the bowls by the waterfall, and returned to the house. The teapot and cup sat on the table by his still open notebook, and the jasmine scent of tea filled the air. Pipang sat down, poured, and took a sip while he read over last night's poems. Then he reached for his inkstone and waterflask, ground the ink and mixed it, and picked up his brush. There was a small space under the first poem.

 

Unmoving rock rises up tier on tier

The changing moon low in the summer sky.

Shadows pool darkly in the silent valley

Not even a leaf stirs on this windless night.

 

And there in tiny script he wrote the answering quatrain:

 

I walk the path that leads me to my gate

My steps are sure upon the unseen way.

Absent the sun that makes the whole world splendid,

The waning moon's pale rays are light enough.

 

 

mjj

April-June 06