Tale: Leaving Lao Tzu

Crossing the open ground between the last of the buildings and the palisade the low broad form of the water-ox seemed hardly to disturb the fog of the air, other than with soft dust-eddies about her solemn hooves. It was the hour before dawn, judged the man riding her back, and as cold as it was likely to get. The tea of his gourd wrapped close under his robe had long since lost heat. What a place, at the very end of night.

Even so, from the lodge of the West Gate this pair, rider and beast, were anticipated. The gates’ Keeper rose from his stoop beside the burner and emerged onto the path bearing a lantern, tickling up its neb of flame and hitching it to a tripod. Plum-blossom light bloomed pink in the mist.


They told me that you would be coming, Father, he said bobbing a bow, as if to shake the dreams from his head, And that I should stop you here until it was day and they could come themselves. Offer the Old Boy fresh tea, and honey in it too, they tell me; saying you’d like that best they reckon’d. Only I was to stop you, emphatically so, from going into the Utmost West.

The ox, halting, stooping further, blew out a breath of silver drops and steam.

Told you to stop me, man? said the rider, un-muffling his face. Who’s they? Who are these honey pots?
I don’t know. Some fellow named Kung Qiu – a scholar; him and another, and his brother… Came into the town yesterday. Says I should stop you – the Old Boy – if I see you, and when I ask why, they says because you know a lot, you see. Kung, the talkative one, reckons as how you can ride a dragon – ‘though what good that is I don’t know – and that you know all the histories of the world’s past, and what’s to come also, but as how you won’t write it down to make a book, like a proper recorder should. They say it’s not right to go off to the Utmost West, whatever folly that may be, with all that stuff in your head and not on a nice roll of paper. See…

The Keeper here dodged back into his lodge.

See Father, they left this for me to give you. See, a clean scroll, brushes too and ink and stone, along with the tea and honey… sweet rice cakes…
And three nice coins for your pains, no doubt. Eh?

The old man turned, bending over the Keeper, his eyes catching grey in the lantern light. The Keeper, Yin Hsi by name, shuffled where he stood.

Nah! No need for that. I do this job from curiousness, mainly. And the way they talked about you Father, I thought you would be some kind of grander man. Thought at least you’d ride a horse. Huh!

At just that moment a feathery moth alighted on the ox’s black lip causing her to lick and raise her head, the muzzle of her coming up with a push into the Keeper’s midriff, as if a mild rebuff.

I am too old now to sit astride, remarked the rider. Besides, my ox’s back is wide as my mat. And I can roll out paper…
So you do write then, interrupted the Keeper. I mean, you can?
I read, replied the older man. Sometimes too, it’s true, I play my thoughts through my brush.
And what of the world? What of all our futures? Will my boy grow up strong and savvy? What’s the way with all the folk of the world rushing and rolling on… as if there is a tomorrow it’ll only ever be hard and scratching? And who’s got the tally of it all, anyhow? Scholar Kung don’t, you can tell that just by looking…
You’re right there.
So you do know him?
We met, once. 

Now a silence fell between the two men. The pink of the lantern dimmed at its edge as the top of the palisade took fire: moments’ start of dawn. What a place! Suddenly, with shadows lessening, it a felt more wholesome ground: sleepily still, real and unreal, even a little less chill.

The old man drew himself up, gathered in his robe. His voice sighed.

Just two things, Keeper, he said. Not answers for you but questions… which by the by is the best way in learning, that and looking around you. Firstly, what is the season just now?

Yin Hsi, Keeper of the West Gate, looked nonplussed, as if guessing for a hidden meaning or riddle.

Why, Father, he said slowly measuring his reply, The bud of the plum blossom is sticky wet, the gates are locked twelve hours straight, and my son has a coughing cold, so it is now full mid winter. And so?
Observe the season, man. It’s all the future you’ll ever need. The old man’s moustache twitched up as he spoke. Now let’s have some of that honey tea. No point in keeping it hot for Master Kung and company.
What about the second question?
Tea first.

Ducking in and out of his lodge the Keeper returned with a deep-stoppered clay jug, first refilling the old man’s gourd, then sharing a cup, steaming hand to hand. Light came into the open ground as morning took hold in the sky; nearby in the town, wood shutters were noisily let out.

Time to leave, I think, said the old man. The second question is answered already.
No! Is it? said the Keeper. What was it?
I was going to ask… First, open the gate.

The steadiness of the old man’s voice in these words seemed to enter the Keeper’s head behind the eyes. He moved at once. The latch was well joined and fell away at the drawing off of the locking bolt. With a gentle shudder the gate swung wide open and the water-ox crossed out to the Wilderness Path… And for a mile or so the Keeper kept pace, his hand to the leather halter, conversing quietly with the old man. The world beyond the towns’ frontier, a narrow plain before steeply rising grassland, was warming under a swift sunrise.

 … So what were you going to ask me second time? he wondered, looking up?
Oh! Just whether you thought you were a good keeper or not.
I am, I think.
Yes, man, you are. No doubt in my mind. I thought therefore that I could vouchsafe you this… to keep while I make my journey. Just a favour… 

The old man felt inside his robe bringing out a hollow of bamboo, a scroll just twisting from its end.

I’d consider it an honour, Father… that you’d trust the work of your brush to me. What about Scholar Kung?
You needn’t let on.
I won’t, you can be sure… But, but I can’t read!
Ha! Of course. Better and better. Keep it close. In a couple of years, you’ll see, interest will fade… Then wait…

And so they parted, and the seasons turned, and the years, and interest faded in the Old Boy and his unusual habit of wandering the land riding his patient water-ox, their names never recorded… Until one day, a long summer’s day, the growing son of the Master Keeper (as he is now called), discovers the scroll peeping from the end of the bamboo, and with his father’s inquisitiveness, and a twelve year olds’ tug, pulls the paper out on to the floor where it unrolls, pages of brush-writing running to the walls. The script is thin, fluid, fine, made without correction. He’s only had two years’ study at the local school, so the characters are hard to grasp. It takes him all day, even into the late dusk… There are many versed entries, and it’s difficult… Then his father’s voice calls into the house recruiting him to come and help lock-in the town. They busy themselves around the palisade. At the West Gate, as usual, they pause to take tea. The boy lifts his head, as if for a moment to judge the season in the stars.

So quiet, Son? says Master Keeper. Tell me all you’ve learned today.

The boy hesitates…

Well, my Father, today I learned… it’s very, very curious… I learned that the life of the world that can be told is not the real life of the world; that the name of the world is not its name; and that before the giving of names, nothing beginning to end, nor ending its beginning was ever divided…

His words are interrupted. An almost soundless shuffle-stop shuffle-stop patters the dust around them. Master Keeper murmurs,

Is that so, you say? Everything flows, nothing moves
My Father?
… Words that come stubborn in my head, that I don’t know, or how they got there.

Shuffle-stop shuffle-stop, again. A scout rabbit tips by, ears fore then flat, then under a post and gone, lost to the darkening dark blue: moments’ start of night. And beyond the gates, almost as a voice, a sighing wind raises the grassland.

Now then, Son… Tea up? Let’s at it while it’s hot.
Yes, my Father. Tea up.

© December 2004