(A full, chapter of WIP, Death of an Emperor)
If he had known on the most cursed morning, that most eventful morning, it would be the last morning he would see his daughter, he would have held her until the day was over. So those interesting times would never happen. But it did happen.
Qiáng sits on the bed, the room of their only daughter unchanged, frozen in time for a decade. “She would have children of her own now”. Pointless thoughts to fill the void. In his hand a small book, a diary. He read it many times, but now on this day, this morning, this cursed morning he always reads it. Qiáng’s anger ties him to living. The Who. The Why. The Want. The want for revenge. His wife was broken on impact. She slowly faded out of the light into the foreboding shadows of death. Visiting the gravesites more and more frequent until he found her one cold morning on an unmarked grave. It was fitting. She died close to where she choose to rest, not to burden anyone. It fanned his inner embers of rage once more.
Qiáng sighs with a frown while opening the first page. Each character, each word, the meaning between them, he knows them. Yet little comfort comes from them, questions on the other hand remain. He reads an hour while silent tears run down his face. Then he finds those passages, her deeper thoughts on her glorious task, and the puzzle that lies within.
Sorry I did not write in days. It was so exciting to get chosen to be part of the Legacy. Father did not say much, but he showed it by spending too much on the white ceremonial garments. Mother gasped when she heard and I saw parts of her dreams re-live in her eyes when I tried the clothes on. They are stunning! I love to enter the annals of the Legacy and give my thoughts to those who will come after me. The days of practice after school have been exciting, but they are demanding! Every movement, every blink, every pose is rehearsed and then rehearsed again until it is perfect. The teacher she is fair, but strict. She is part of the Legacy herself. She does not share many stories of her days at the pools. She says we all have our own paths to discover, our own words to write on the water. I am tired; tomorrow is only half a day at school, so more practice than normal. I will write you soon I promise.
All I can say is that I am amazed. I have been at the pools! They showed me the place where I will add to the Legacy and I must say the place is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I will look out over the glen that leads to the forest, in the background I can even see the Tianshou Mountain, while most traffic is drowned out in the immense park. It is so glorious I almost wasted precious tears right there. It would have been so embarrassing in front of the other girls. Teacher says I am most talented and if I keep this up I may be filling the pool of the Emperor’s father. Such an honor that would be!”
Qiáng stares out the window. He remembers that day well. Her first visit to the tombs, a first visit to add to the story of their ancestors, to the story of their glorious leaders, and the father’s of the new Empire. He saw the change it had over her. How it changed her on the inside. The weight of tradition, deeply rooted in his family, squeezed out the nerves, while the enticing promise of immortality already at her age keeping death at bay. Like glimmering diamonds washed from the mud, catching first light in the morning sun. She left so early for that visit that Yue and he talked excitingly for a while before going back to bed for a few hours. Yue had not been so happy in years.
How strange the universe works, and how grateful I am! Teacher has spoken to the Imperial counsel and pleaded for me to add to the Pool of our most glorious Emperor’s father. Not many have written in the water for him. Her school is a most honorable one, so all the other girls say I have a real good chance! I cannot wait until next week. I think my head will explode before then, and I will most surely die of embarrassment if I will be assigned to a lesser pool. I am sure of it.
Yours Lili ~ “
With effort he gets up and opens the shades a bit to reveal the busy city streets of Beijing. Such marvels of technology he had never dreamed of in his younger years are displayed before him with such dazzling complexity and sparkling newness he closes the curtains to shun out time and flips ahead a few pages. The more time passes between that grim morning and the day that today is, the more Qiáng hates new things. A subdued ding from the the small clock on the dresser reminds him of the time. It is a clock she had cherished. A clock Yue’s mother gave her a long time ago. It is time to go to work. It is time to suffer today. It is time to honor her by carrying on. Mechanically he buttons his shirt, slips on his shoes, and slowly taps his way down the many steps of his apartment building. This day is the hardest day to go to work for Qiáng, but he cannot remember if the first year was worse than today. He turns the corner out of his quiet alleyway to be hit by the dissonant wall of sounds the city has to offer. It is only three blocks to his favorite food-stand.
He is hoping to say goodbye to Feiyan, a friendly face every morning, but she had come of age. Where has the time gone? Like water down the drain: recycled, discarded, a commodity for others to use. Today is just another working day, the day of the parade the only difference. In his hand her diary, his crutch and burden of the day.
Bound to traditions and made up rituals to fill the day he crosses the Shili Changjie by foot. Hundreds of people agree and join in. It will take minutes before they may cross. He starts reading again. It had been a few weeks since she was adding to the Legacy. It had changed her in a way that he did not expect or could have predicted. Like the city outside the window, like the progression of his life.
Today I moved into a space of my mind that I had not yet explored. How meditative it is to sit, listen and see the tourists move by and touch his tomb. All the sadness that pours from the living makes it easier to shed my tears to the pool of tears for our Emperor’s father. He visited today the grave of his father. Not like the tourist do, but he visited the underground city. He bowed for me. For ME! The Emperor bowed for me. My heart just exploded. My tears streamed for his grief. He seems still so young. I know I am young, but he seems so young to me. It is hard to explain. I do not understand why he is grateful to me. I feel like I am only doing my part to the Legacy. “
A sound to move the herd. Qiáng follows while rows of vehicles silently await the sluggish stream of pedestrians, mopeds and bicycles to pass. It reminds him of this old nature films where a leash of reindeer cross the windy, wintery tundra. Qiáng scoffs. The contrast of early heat bouncing of the asphalt and the far chants of protests in a farmer’s dispute cannot be more shrill. Slowly they all make it, vehicles speed up and the late have to jump. Under the trees food vendors set up everyday before dawn to move out just after lunch. Like the ocean’s tide it hits the Xicheng district every day. Without fail he finds Feiyan handing out yóutiáo and dòujiāng to those who do not cook at home, like him. Those who have no leftovers for breakfast. He bows to her and takes a steaming bowl of the soy milk to dip the fried bread sticks in. The last ten years of a few words here and there during the hasty encounters under the Ailanthus trees accumulates to a heap of meaning.
“Good morning Lao Feiyan, it is good to see it is still busy, to see you still busy. Today is your last day is it not?”
Feiyan hands another bowl to a new customer before answering. “Xiao Qiáng, still not cooking in the evenings I see. Yes, today is my last day. My daughter will pack up today before I move out. How long have we met in the morning shade?”
“It has been ten year.” He holds up the diary. “and 3 days.”
A sad look dances over Feiyan’s face. He notices the sadness there. It is sad when things end.
“I remember her you know. I never told you, but she often walked by here. Always so full of life, so proud to go into the gates. I... cannot imagine.” She pauses. Qiáng finishes his last bread stick. Time to move on.
“I thank you for being a constant in my life of turmoil. Your friendly face every morning at the end of the crossing to work has helped me more than I thought. For that I will miss you.” A bow to the speechless elderly lady in front of him closes this book. The diary in his hand however he will open many times more this day. This most dreadful day.
He still has time to pay his respects to the Emperor’s father. Silently he enters the area via one of the two side gates. The central gate is of course closed. The morning’s serenity at the park is a shrill contrast to the busy city streets he just left behind. This inner city has its own rules. Birds sing in the park around the round central Lake of the Sun. He crosses the single bridge to the elevated octagonal pavilion. One by one he elevates himself the 38 steps to come face to face with the stone mausoleum at its center. In one corner a girl is dressed in white, pale white make-up and and old fashioned dot eyebrows. Her slight elevation symbolises her importance here. Her lips are powdered dark, with the slightest hint of a dark red. Her face paint is streaked. She was crying just moments ago.
When he bows to her first and then to the tomb a fleeting wisp of surprise flutters on her brow. Tears started flowing over her face. She is adding to the Legacy, adding with each pling to the pool of tears. Qiáng cannot hold his while he reads the next passages of the diary out loud as if he was alone....
I am so grateful to my teacher and for my training. To sit in one position for hours and to shed tears is painful at times, but the proper techniques help me. The calm that comes from it is overwhelming, like staring in a candle for hours. The pain comes when you look up, when you get up. Stretching helps. Tired, school tomorrow and the pools.
Yours Lili ~”
By now the poor girl is sobbing. The story of Lili is part of the legend, part of the tragedy laid down with the tombs of the founders of the Empire and its legacy. Even the careless birds morn for Lili.
Guess what?? A party! The Emperor himself wants to honor those who write on water and add to the Legacy. All new girls, and some important people who added to the Legacy, like our teacher, will attend. A formal dinner in our ceremonial clothing. I have to get dressed. Talk to you later.... L
You would not believe it, I was sitting at the table with the Emperor!!! The other girls were so jealous, I could feel their eyes burning in my back. Imagine a room as big as you can. Then twice that big. Red and gold curtains behind the main table, which was on an freestanding oval stage of almost black Zitan wood. A minister next to me told me. It sounded most impressive. Other tables lower than us firmly on the stone ground. As if we were floating. Servants everywhere. And the girls an island of white, a private funeral party it seemed. And me, next to some of the Imperial family in such deep, rich colors, and members of parliament in red. Me: the white dot, representing loss, close to the Emperor. The teacher said he requested me to be there. A rare and great honor. I could feel his sadness, I almost cried at the table for him. I am happy there is no school tomorrow, I need a day at the pools.”
Qiáng closes the small book. He wipes his tears of his face and leaves the way he came. He can't bare to look back. In her ceremonial robes the girl reminds him to much of his daughter. Trapped in his mind versions of Lili pass by, they hide in or behind bushes, they show up in the faces of others. She is clouding his day so he walks in the fog of memories. He learns nothing at work today. Today is a most horrible day. He is sent home early.
“Qiáng go home, it is ok. We understand. Rest. Be with your family, come tomorrow if you can.” Thankful he accepts this gift like he has the last nine years.
On his way back he passes Feiyan’s stand. To his surprise she is still there, now with her daughter packing up the final pots. Does she treasure this moment, even if it is this common?
He catches her eye and nods. He expects to go straight home. Feiyan mistakes his nod for a bow and returns his beckoning gesture by another. With her palm down and four finger making a scratching motion, he feels like a kid for a moment. Drawn in he moves to her.
“Lao Feiyan I see you are busy on you last day. I am sorry I cannot stay long I have a doctor’s appointment soon”. It is not polite to brush her off, but it is an acceptable excuse.
“Xiao Qiáng I do not intend to keep you long. Just our small conversation earlier triggered something in this old brain of mine. I thought nothing of it then. I think it might be nothing, or maybe... Well I do not want to intrude in your life and your hardships. Maybe it is better to let it be in the past.”
Qiáng’s heart makes a little jump, a glimmer of hope. Like the early glimmer of morning light before the sun catches a melting icicle with the promise of a sunny day.
“Please, your are not imposing. Anything, everything may help.”
“Your daughter that morning. She always enters the main gate, the same way you come. That day I was late... I do not know why anymore. Maybe... No I do not remember. Well, I saw her go into the Glorious gate, eh... the western one, I do not know why I never recalled it earlier. It is probably nothing, but this is my last day I do not want to sit on it.” Her weak smile reminds him of his mother. He bows with respect.
“I thank you for your words and your concern. I wish you can visit your daughter when you can. I am sorry though I do need to go”.
With that he turns around in a half state of panic. What happened that morning ten years ago? Moving on impulse he walks slowly along Shili Changjie as if he would go home, then a turn and he finds himself at the West Glorious Gate. Guards on each side. Weapons hidden, but he knows they are there. There he stands. A standoff of sorts. Nobody moves, nobody comes to him to explain where his daughter is. The guards look young. They were boys playing in the street or hiding in the staircase of his building the morning his daughter said: “Don’t wait for dinner, after the pools I will be a the library. bài bài. Go slowly!” Birds sing overhead, hideously impartial. Qiáng shakes his head. The answers lie inside. Even answers of the gate are only known inside. It has to wait until tomorrow. His shoulders sag, his head drops. While the guards takes notice he turns around and finds his way home, silence greets him fondly. The blanket of loneliness is extra heavy today.
He walks up to the room and walks around, like a security guard on his rounds. It brings him close to the small items in the room on shelves and the dresser. They could be covered in dirt and garbage somewhere decomposing or sinking into the slime of the earth. These things, these useless things he cherishes. All of them in this room, the pattern they make, and each item infused with her. He visits every day to dust them off, to bond with them, to make sure they are ok. In the beginning he shunned the room, let it sit in dust, only to clean it once a year close to that damned morning, but more and more he found himself a caretaker of useless things. He remembers that day well when she came home from the banquette. She had been given a red silk scarf, with gold thread in it. An expensive gift that he could never repay, but she had laughed it off.
“The Emperor said that the gift we are giving is so great that he could never repay us in his lifetime, so a small token to thank us for being at the banquette is what he gave us”. Her laugh, he can see it so clearly before him. The dullness in his heart and the sour tension in his stomach, the low deep pit of sorrow and pain pulling him away from life, he feels it. When he thinks of her, sees her before him, he feels it. Tears follow. Qiáng’s sits rapidly on the floor, the energy to do anything has escaped him. The city outside does not care. Through this pain he must go. There is no one else to remember her. She cannot be forgotten.
Our most honorable Emperor walked with me in the Imperial gardens. He knows so much about the plants that grow there. He talked about his wife, how she was chosen for him. How easy life must be for the plants in the garden, to just stand there and convert sunlight. I guess he was almost speaking as if he was alone. I almost took his hand. But I can’t, he is the Emperor. I know about his concubines, but I cannot possibly give myself to him without him asking. He smiled at me once while I was writing on the waters in the pool. A sadness, and a happiness. A conflict in him. I wish he confided in me in moments like this, but his attention was directed to those idiotic plants.
To take a walk with an Emperor, who would have thought I ever tell this tale to you, my dear diary. My inner heart is bleeding for him, but I also feel something more practical. A need for a kiss, a stolen moment. Maybe even desire. I hate his plants that he loves so much, but would care for them if he would ask. All I can do is cry for is his dead father. School is getting boring at times. Teacher and father do insist I work hard, I wish I could hide in the clouds to dream my life I want to live. If only the sky was big and the emperor far away...”
Years flow like water. Qiáng feels this when he reads passages like this. His little girl on the swing set with flowing hair: “look papa how high I can go”, on her bicycle faster and faster, already talking to bigger boys at the park around the corner. Shopping with Yue and questions about the lingerie on mannequins. Her rush to grow up had always frightened him. On these pages her thoughts, her words. An intimate conversation she had with herself. Qiáng is only a witness of the development of an individual. He wishes nothing more for her to grow up, to find love and happiness. Still now after her disappearance it is his biggest wish. The conflict of those feelings mixed with the deepest sadness escape from Qiáng’s throat. A hopeless cry for survival. A pain he must go through, to feed his anger, to keep going. To find the answers to put this all to rest.
Several passages reflect her feelings for the Emperor, something he can understand at an intellectual level, yet he is fully disconnected from emotionally. He never pictured how infatuated his daughter could have been with the promise of stardom or even the promise of being a hidden woman from society. Not when she was still alive. Qiáng’s core is ingrained with details of honor from earlier times. Carved from an older type of tree than most who live with the promise of technology and conquering infinity; to honor his father and mother, his elders, his emperor. More every year the anger and pain grinds away the lacquer that protects the wood. Layer after layer falls on the floor like dust, blowing away on the hopeless winds. Away from him.
Did she go too far? Did the glorious leader make a move on her he regretted? Were there jealous others, the ones she was hinting at? Or are the answers in that final entry of her diary? Now a mysterious visit to the Western Gate. So many times he had walked this treadmill. Always he got lost in the rhythm of it; never he found a way out.
Life in the palace is so different from life in the city. I could tell you story after story about how the ladies of the court wind you around your finger to show another lady of the court how important she is. How much more important she is. Parliament is so complicated and the rumors, truths, lies and hopes of all that that is the empire are so difficult for anybody to understand I am sure. Yet advisors ask me rumors of the ladies that talk to me. They must understand I am just a young woman, just here to add to the Legacy and if I ever get lucky to teach like my teacher does. She asked me to meet her tonight, some private coaching….”
It is the moment to close the small book. Its dull thump indicates that it is time for dinner. This day has become a ritual. Slowly living from this day to this day. Cleansing him, feeding his inner rage to keep going. Now it is time to make her favorite food and set two extra plates. She always loved mù xī ròu, the shaved pork with eggs and black fungus. He lost the appetite for it, except today. He can't bare to cook for himself, except today. Today it is for her. The blanket of silence hangs heavy on his shoulders now, while in his mind he recalls countless family meals. Even her teacher joined the table once in a while. He still speaks with her once on occasion on his way to the kitchens. Small sounds in the kettle predict future tea in the making. Qiáng opens the diary and read the next passage before he will scold the leaves. To shrivel them, to take all essence and flavor from them.
It has been ages since I wrote you. So full the schedules are, and exams are here. I have studied hard, but the nerves after an exam are horrible. To get a good grade or not, it is most nerve wrecking. I shared with you my teacher wanted a meeting. I am so sorry to keep you waiting. It was an insightful meeting. Teacher is warning me for the talks to politicians and the ladies in court. She told me a most horrible story on how she got used by a politician. She was forced to give her body to him! I would die if that ever would happen to me, but she said she did not know the price then. That it is so easy to get lost in words and promises. That some people are true and on my side and that some are using me every day to get closer to the Emperor. When I asked her, how would I know if she was not using me, she laughed and told me I am, as always, a fast learner. She also warned me for the Emperor. She said that men are like boys and that some see young girls like toys and that boys get tired of their toys sometimes. It is shocking to see the world with adult eyes, writing on water and drinking from the sadness of others to add to the Legacy is so pure. To just sit and convert sadness to the Legacy. Now that I am learning truth from wrong I may feel the intentions of visitors differently. My teacher said that when that comes, the days grow shorter, the tears are different. The stories we write will be more complex. I cannot wait to learn those lessons and to get closer to being perfect. You will be the first to know!
Yours Lili ~
Then Qiáng turns the page to the last entry. The kettle’s crescendo of bubbles is his only time measure. The page next to it empty, so full of promise. Anything could be written there. A new found happiness, his daughter finding out that she is pregnant from the love of her life, a few words on him and his wife. Some deeper understanding so he would know she is ok, that she is not lost, that she will make it out there. So that finally, in the normal progression of things he can finally let go. Like Yue did. How could Yue do that to him? To just leave him with all this? Anger flames up, there is fight left in him still. There at the kitchen table Qiáng is wondering whom to fight. His wooden core turning to stone, dead and cold. Impossible to move, just waiting to strike. If he would only know who.
The day at the pools was great today. As you noticed the weather was most pleasant. It was not busy at all, other happy occasions must prevent people from visiting the tombs. Totally not expected to see the Emperor today, but he was there. His glorious self. He was deeply saddened today. I felt the sadness before he entered the area, the water resonated with vibrations I did not know existed. If it was not he emanating that deep sadness to stir my tears so violently, I would have been scared for the first time. Yet it happened. He was not alone. His most trusted advisors were next to him. I recognized one, I remember him telling me the name of the wood our feet rested on that banquette evening.
Then the day passed and I was absent minded. It had drained most of me. Then when I returned later it was almost dark. I forgotten my scarf, I bring it sometimes when it is a long day to rest my knees hidden under my dress. I saw a weird thing: a few men in dark clothes carried a small bundle to my tomb, the tomb of the father of the Emperor and entered the underground city. Only the Emperor and his family can go there. No sadness was there, so I grabbed my scarf and left. I am sure they did not see me. I will ask teacher tomorrow what it may mean.
Promise to write you soon. Lili ~
With that Qiáng closes the diary he found a few days later. A present and a curse. Words written on the most horrid day, that cursed day, a most eventful day. The rumble of boiling water does not impose on his apathy. A sigh, pouring of water, dishes, some daily chores, the end of a horrid day.
A final act of normality. Time to catch up with the ten o’clock news. Carefully placed on the small table in front of the couch the small book seems so innocent, yet it is so deeply carved into his core that on the day that today is, it is reality more than anything else. The wall lights up with confusing images. Characters scrolling over the screen, sadness seeps from the voice-over voices. Qiáng’s warped perspective confuses him. Is this for his daughter? Is this for Lilly? Then its trickles in, slowly realization sets in. The fog of the day lifts due to the bright Empirical Sun burning through his ViVid(tm) screen. Images of a young Cuban man shackled in a hypersonic helicopter, the bloody curtains of the Imperial float. Images of the Emperor while speaking to children at a hospital, shaking hands, mourning his father at the Pool of Tears reflect on Qiáng’s retina. While the tea cools he finds himself standing in his living room in disbelief. Lilly’s object of affection is dead. Brutally shot. His legs shake as the final shot through the head is replayed in slow motion. Today is the most cursed day, a most eventful day.
(c) Casteleijn MG 2015-2017