Some believe, following the Buddhist tradition, that yuanfen is similar to karma; its driving force is the consequence of actions performed by us in previous lives. There is some truth in this. Like karma, yuanfen connects past, present and future. But, while karma is a result of a singular person’s actions, yuanfen is an affinity between two people. And, when we consider yuan and fen separately, the Buddhist definition again falls short. Yuan is fatalistic; fen is voluntary. Therefore, we must conclude, the origins of yuanfen lie neither in the actions of the self nor those of another, but elsewhere.
Another tradition proposes an alternative understanding of yuanfen. An early Daoist scripture envisaged the cosmos as a piece of fabric revolving around the Supreme Ridgepole. Ancient Daoists used the word yuan, meaning hem, to refer to the edge of this celestial cloth. This cosmic edge is, of course, unknowable to us – the boundary recedes before us into mist and vapor – but we are drawn towards it by an encounter with another. In this tradition, believers hold that Yuanfen is the binding thread that mediates between our earthly realm and the realm of the gods.
The Gardener paused on the front step and took a deep breath. He knocked and a servant escorted him through the Scholar’s house. As expected, ink scrolls and fine porcelain, he thought, but electric lights, lounge chairs, an American wireless? I suppose modern literati may as well be comfortable. And comfortable means money to spend. I can’t go back to the village empty-handed again. Not with three mouths to feed now. But a garden to rival Wang Wei’s?
The servant ushered him from the back door onto a gravel path at the end of which, under a marble arch, stood a tall, angular man in a grey suit: the Scholar. The two men exchanged greetings, then the Scholar led the Gardener along a winding path, his steps graceful, even, sure, as they crunched on the gravel. The path narrowed to a tight passageway between a whitewashed wall and a tall hedge that turned and turned again, halting at the foot of a dozen steps enclosed by foliage. The wrinkled stone steps, noted the Gardener, felt firm underfoot.
After a brief, steep ascent, they emerged into a radiant courtyard.
“The Courtyard of Lingering Shade,” said the Scholar, allowing the Gardener time to absorb the scene.
The courtyard’s centrepiece was a lean stone, riddled with mossy cavities, standing roughly the same height as the Scholar. Beside it stood a dwarfed pine, its thick trunk and bowed branches frozen into the painterly essence of pine-ness. A spray of thin bamboo framed the stone and tree ensemble, splashing feathery shadows across the rear wall. Through a latticed screen, the Gardener glimpsed the garden beyond: an expanse of autumnal colors, broken only by a pavilion’s roof swooping upwards like the underside of a swallow.
The Scholar scrutinized his reaction – not over-awed yet – then guided the Gardener through the moon gate and into a bamboo grove. The Gardener’s ears tuned to the swish of bamboo leaves and the dull pad of their feet on the damp leaves covering the path. The bamboo stopped abruptly at a clearing. Here, a half-moon bridge arched over a stream.
“The Waters of Linguistic Refinement flow below the Bridge of Tranquility,” said the Scholar, as he ducked under the branch of a gingko tree, its crooked elbows dotted with yellow buds.
“The Bridge gathers banks to itself,” he explained. “It gathers the sky too, and draws it down below its crescent for a moment before releasing it again on the other side. As for us mortals, The Bridge of Tranquility lifts us into the sky where, like Immortals, we can contemplate the wandering waters below.”
Beyond the bridge, the two men followed a zig-zag path into a plum tree grove, halting at a five-cornered pavilion beside a pool.
“The Moon Enveloping Pavilion. When the moon is full, its light falls onto the pond and illuminates these walls,” said the Scholar as his hand traced the moon’s path across the Pavilion’s walls and back to the pond. He gazed down at the silvery surface: a distant mountain framed by pines.
Anxious not to appear overly impressed, the Gardener narrowed his eyes and, in a measured tone, said, “A secluded spot in which intoxication floods your heart.”
The Scholar looked up.
“Wang Wei! At least some still know the classics. Young people these days rush to the docks and the factories for quick cash. Even the intelligent ones study abroad and return as bankers, doctors or lawyers who spend their nights in modern bars boasting about their apartments and motorcars. A cultivated sense of beauty? A reverence for wisdom? Ha!”
The Scholar led the Gardener through the pavilion and into a roofed corridor that wrapped around the pond before it turned tightly, depositing them onto a paved path that wound down a steep incline into another secluded grove. Rank upon rank of crimson maples flushed with wine enveloped the path ahead, and, once inside, the forest hummed with insects. The rough path twisted back on itself and turned sharply as its rising steps became cracked and uneven.
“Venerable Wang named this Rounding Ten Thousand Turns,” said the Scholar. “We ascend its turns to the Cloud-Capped Pavilion.”
Styled as a thatched cottage, the top-most pavilion stood beside a waterfall. The Scholar took a knotted bamboo cane from the pavilion, leaned across the waterfall and struck a stone, the sound echoing down the waterfall, swirling and dissipating into the pool below. On the other side of the pavilion, a single chrysanthemum bush flowered with pale orange bulbs.
Venerable Wang’s artistry is unsurpassed, thought the Gardener.
A servant appeared carrying a tray of tea.
“Come, we’ll sit in here and take our tea,” said the Scholar.
A black glazed cup in his palm, his long fingers wrapping it, the Scholar seemed momentarily lost before he spoke again.
“Years ago, I had a revelation when I came across a copy of Ji Cheng’s classic, The Craft of Gardens, in a Shanghai bookstore. I searched the countryside and found this villa and its ruined garden. It’s even sited next to a Buddhist monastery, just as Ji Cheng advised. Then my search for a Master Craftsman led me to Venerable Wang. Together we traced and retraced each path, shaped and reshaped the stream and waterfalls, built pavilions and composed plantings, all designed, as Ji Cheng instructed, ‘to still the mind, awaken one’s powers of imagination and transcend the trammels of everyday life.’”
He gestured towards the distant mountains.
“When the moon rises behind those mountains, Heaven and Earth are equally low. In spring, when the blossoms bud in showers of color and the air is fragrant, the Way lies in the forest below. In autumn, when the mountains gather the remaining light to their fading colors and a pair of birds returns to perch in the plum grove, their song fills your heart with joy. Yet before he could complete this Pure Land, Venerable Wang suddenly passed away.”
They finished their tea in silence and the Scholar led the Gardener along a roofed corridor which turned down a series of steps and into a vast, open space. At its center lay a pit, its edges crusted with half-finished timber framework, its muddy bottom scattered with stones and discarded tools. A line of willows, punctuated by a row of pavilion posts, fringed its far side. Further in the distance, in what was once an orchard, stood mounds of building debris overgrown with weeds.
“This,” the Scholar circled with his hand, “is where the final moon gate will stand, revealing the Mountain of Fortitude and the Pavilion of the Lotus Breeze.”
Sensing this was his chance, the Gardener spoke.
“I see a craggy clifftop as lofty as Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain, its majestic outline creased in shadow, its tip catching the first light of dawn. Unshaken by thousands of years of wind and rain, the Mountain of Fortitude is at one with all mountains of the ancient past and the distant future. Twisted pines top its peaks, purple wisteria hangs over its cliffs, and mist fills its valleys. Here, at the foot of the mountain, lotuses spread across the jade green pool. A Pavilion, its walls lined with silver and lapis lazuli, sparkles in the sunlight.”
The Scholar’s eyes widened as he smiled.
“Come,” he said, “I’ll show you to your lodgings. You must rest and start fresh in the morning.”
The two men retraced their route through the garden to the Courtyard of Lingering Shade. Here, they followed a leafy track that branched off the main path into the bamboo. As they started down the track, the Gardener heard a noise. He turned, and through the courtyard’s cracked ice window, saw a figure flicker through the courtyard – a swish of silk, a porcelain face, cherry red cheeks and lips – then a pair of dark eyes met his in a glance like that of a bird balanced on a blade of rice.
He blinked twice, unsure if that would erase or save the instant, and fixed his eyes on the cracked frame. The Scholar called him on. After two turns, they arrived at a clearing in which stood a thatched-roof hut beside a blooming pomegranate tree.
“There is, I fear, no electricity here,” said the Scholar.
“But this also means no artificial light to drown out the moon. I will have a servant bring you a meal every morning and every evening, oil for the lamps, and any materials you need. The workmen will start tomorrow, just after dawn. Please, rest. We have great work to do.”
Mei paused on top of the Bridge of Tranquility, her eyes level with the yellow buds unfolding along the gingko’s crooked branches. That must be his new gardener, she thought. I hope the poor fellow has thick skin. The Scholar won’t stand for any deviation from the book of Jin Weng or whatever his name is. Still, he looked steady, strong, and younger than Old Wang. He may be amenable to my ideas for the pavilion. A Phonograph Pavilion, I’ll tell him, will bring more life to the garden. I can dance a foxtrot by the lotus pond!
Mei stepped off the bridge, balanced on one leg, twisted her head towards an invisible camera and winked at an imagined audience as she twirled onto the path. She walked straight through the Moon Enveloping Pavilion, trod carefully up the path of Rounding Ten Thousand Turns to avoid scuffing the bottom of her qipao and sat down in the Cloud-Capped Pavilion.
And, yes, why not, I could also ask him to build a cabinet up here for my new wireless. I could tune in to the American radio station in Shanghai!
She smiled at the thought of jazz wafting from the Pavilion as she bathed in the pond below the waterfall, then straightened herself as a servant approached with tea.
It’s peaceful up here, as if I’m floating in a lofty realm from long ago. The sweet scent of jasmine tea, the bubbling waterfall, the chrysanthemums in flower. But it’s so far from the dances, the theatre, the million lights in the windows of towering skyscrapers that glitter all night…
Her eyes followed the whisper of steam from her teacup as it twisted towards the waterfall. The water gurgled over rocky bumps and settled in crevices, pausing in a cup-shaped hole before sliding down another route, dancing fitfully towards the final drop into a bubbling foam on the surface of the pond.
In their courtship, she was impressed with the Scholar’s mind, brimming with rebellious, even dangerous ideas. His bucolic, almost sad eyes shone with assured intelligence as he explained Nietzsche and Freud and the workings of the modern mind. His hand waved contemptuously at those with little learning, a character trait that became more pronounced as he was drawn deeper into his father’s business, working the booming Huangpo River trade. Given he worked with foreigners and spoke fluent English, Mei found his retreat into ever more archaic traditional learning increasingly detached from the Shanghai of automobiles, advertising and electricity.
In retrospect, they were never close. Despite his references to the Dionysian spirit and Freudian drives, the Scholar approached relationships in the abstract. Securing a son was sufficient and now she had fulfilled that duty, Mei was unsure of her role. As she sipped her tea, Mei remembered the cafes and bars of her youth. She was drawn to the bookish types. Like the Scholar. Absorbed by his nervous energy as he tapped on a typewriter, she was inspired by his articles on modern literature and psychology, each line he shared a tiny tangle of consciousness in her mind. Only now, as she began to unravel this intricate, accumulated mass to find her own thoughts again, she wondered how deeply embedded their roots were.
Five years ago, he agreed to my condition. A motorcar of my own in exchange for this rural life. I should have made more conditions! But I was sure he would be bored of all this by now, tired of commuting to Shanghai. But no. He still dresses in suits made by the best city tailors to go to work in Shanghai but wears an old-fashioned gown here. Now his literati life is becoming reality, there’s no chance he’ll move again. Now I’m shaped by a path he’s designed for me.
Mei put down her tea and approached the chrysanthemum bush, fixated on a single flower. As she cupped its orange bulb in both hands, it trembled then relaxed, petals peeling from its crowded center, exposing its deep red insides. Bred by generations of men over centuries of grafting and experimentation to achieve this color and form, bred to be admired from afar, bred to paint and compose poems to. Now men propagate new varieties with striped or spotted petals, thought Mei, molding flowers as if they were patterns on a cotton fabric, rolling out new designs each spring in the Shanghai markets. Perhaps its ancestors were pure colors. Pure yellow, pure white and pure red and perfectly circular. She crouched to examine the flower and noticed a tiny caterpillar inching its way up the stalk toward the fleshy underside of its ripe petals.
Mei continued to stroll along the garden paths, zig-zagging down the final roofed corridor to the desolate space at the end of the garden.
An unfinished pavilion. An empty pond. No doubt he could recite a suitable poem by an ancient sage about empty ponds. All this seemed a harmless fantasy at first, but now, with his insistence on particular teas in each pavilion, the staring out into the middle distance as if he was trying to find enlightenment within each perfectly composed scene, even his stooped walk as if he might soon be hobbling around the garden on a bamboo cane discussing Buddhism with the birds…
Approaching footsteps, soft and quick, interrupted Mei’s reverie. They halted when the Boy saw his mother, unsure of her reaction. She waved him over and his face beamed as he ran to embrace her. She knew how much he loved to run up and down the Rounding Ten Thousand Turns, hide in the bamboo grove, and throw pebbles into the pools. Ayi must be resting and he’s escaped. Well good for him! Her old bones hobbling around the house, shuffling from room to room in constant busyness. She’s never liked me. Driving, dancing, foreign music – Unseemly!
The Boy was Ayi’s pride and joy. She had served the Scholar’s father and now her life’s mission was to ensure both his son and his grandson stayed on the right path. From his birth, she attended to the Boy’s washing and dressing, his language and etiquette, from how to hold his chopsticks to how to hold a bamboo brush. Mei felt relegated to the role of an elder sister. As such, she took particular delight in hiding with him in the bamboo or running with him alongside his boat as it sailed downstream and under the Bridge of Tranquility.
Mei guided the Boy back along the path towards the house, warning him that Ayi would be awake soon so they’d better hurry. He skipped along in front, taking a detour to clamber over some rocks, then running in front again with his hands outstretched through the bamboo, shaking its stalks to make the tops wave.
As they passed through the Courtyard of Lingering Shade, Mei paused as the Boy ran ahead. She surveyed the scene: the tall, grey stone, lean and stern, overlooking a stunted pine, its gnarled branches clenched into spiny, deep-green needle balls. Through the moon window’s cracked ice pattern, Mei was mesmerized briefly by the triangular fragments of bamboo, mottled in sunlight, layers and layers of leaves and shadows flickering in the breeze.
The Gardener woke to a warm smell. Someone had left a bowl of steaming soup on the table. He watched the first rays of light slant through the bamboo as he drank it down, dressed and then walked quickly around the garden paths to the unfinished pond. There, five men in ragged clothes crouched below a willow, their sun-browned faces prematurely worn by toil. They stood up as he approached and offered him tea.
“Huangshan,” said the Gardener as he squatted down with them, “how was it created?”
The workers sipped their tea; their brows wary. The oldest man offered an answer.
“Long ago, when the world was flat, the gods below the earth began to fight, hurling rocks at each other. The ground shook and giant stone daggers cut through the surface, one upon the other. After many, many years of fighting, their pile of stones grew into the sacred mountain.”
“This is how we must create the mountain, friends,” replied the Gardener. “We must place each stone as if it was one of those giant daggers, then fill the cracks with clumps of flowers that survived the gods’ battle. Yet because this happened so long ago, our peaks must be blunted by wind and rain and topped by crooked pines that have clung on for centuries.”
The Gardener took off his jacket and took up a spade.
After a week of piling dirt and rubble into foothills, the Gardener and his workers travelled by train to Huangshan to collect stones for their mountain. Once back in the garden, the Gardener taught his workers how sunlight moves across each stone and how its shadow falls upon its neighbors. Though carefully selected for color and texture, every stone required shaping, so the Gardener spent each afternoon deepening their hollows, smoothing their faces, and chipping their edges.
This is how Mei found him late one afternoon when the workers had gone home, crouched over a large, grey stone with a fine chisel. Her gaze followed his hands up his forearms to his rough cotton shirt then to his face, where she could see the intensity of his concentration. Perhaps I shouldn’t disturb him, she thought. Then he looked up, startled, and she felt obliged to say something.
“So, this is the lofty mountain I’ve heard about. The Scholar speaks of nothing else.”
Framed by a sharp bob of jet-black hair, her face was like porcelain blushed with a hint of rouge. And those eyes that overpowered him in an instant through the cracked ice window.
“Just the foothills for now. Stones are difficult.”
“Oh?” she asked, “How so?”
A soft smile appeared on his lips, his eyes searching as he replied.
“We want them to rise to heaven but they want to return to the center of the earth.”
Though he dresses like a worker, he speaks without even a hint of a rural accent, thought Mei. He seems a little detached. He doesn’t respect me. I’m just an employer’s wife distracting him.
“I look forward to seeing the progress,” said Mei, trying to sound casual.
She returned his smile and left him to his stones.
Soon pile of stones become the Mountain of Fortitude, a miniature peak that towered over the garden wall. The Gardener had pruned the young pines into crooked, ancient-looking trees, filled the valleys with clumps of miniature camellia bushes, and draped purple wisteria over the cliffs. He had chipped each pock-marked stone and blunted every peak to painterly perfection. And, when the time came, he prudently offered the Scholar the honor of placing the top-most stone, after which the Scholar sat on a bench at the foot of the mountain, floating in the serene backwater of awe.
“Incredible,” he murmured. “Even Wang Wei would be humbled!”
From that time on, the Scholar began each morning by strolling through his garden and meditating at the foot of the mountain. Although the pond and pavilion remained unfinished, the Scholar seemed content and even gave the workers time off on the weekends. But the Gardener was troubled. He had no vision for the pond. It should have the stillness of the West Lake at dusk. And lotuses and cranes. But what could complement the Mountain of Fortitude?
One morning, the Gardener was leaning against the pomegranate tree by his hut, re-reading Ji Cheng’s garden manual for inspiration, when he heard a rustling in the bamboo. He looked up and saw a section of stalks waving, then a small boy struggled through the last layer and into the clearing. Rather than looking ahead, the boy looked over his shoulder and was surprised when he turned and saw the Gardener. The boy’s rosy cheeks and wobbling walk suggested he may have been three or four years old, and the Gardener instantly recognized his dark eyes.
The Gardener put his finger to his lips and pointed to the side of the hut. Taking the hint, the boy smiled mischievously and crouched behind the hut as the approaching footsteps got louder. The Gardener kept his head down in the book as Mei appeared in the clearing, then looked up.
“Hello. Are you lost?” he said.
“No. I’m play… that is, I’m looking … I mean, have you seen a boy?” she stammered, blushing.
“A boy? No.”
“Oh,” she said doubtfully. “Then please forgive me for disturbing you.”
As she took a step away, the Gardener said, “Wait. I did hear something.”
She turned back.
“There was a rustling in the bamboo. I thought it was a panda cub.”
“A panda cub?”
She heard a muffled giggle from behind the hut.
“Yes, a panda cub. I heard a noise and saw something that looked small and round and black and white. It was in the bamboo over there. Then I heard a sound like something chewing on bamboo stalks. Then it crawled away, up that path behind you.”
The giggling got louder.
“Hmm. I suppose I’d better go back and look for it. I hear that pandas can be quite ferocious. I must go and find my son before that panda eats him!” said Mei and she turned back up the path.
A round face with a beaming smile popped out from behind the hut and the Gardener signaled that it was safe. Chubby finger to his lips, the boy crept up the path a little way before he disappeared into the bamboo. Then the Gardener heard a shriek of laughter, closely followed by another. Smiling, he remembered his own children for a moment, then returned to Ji Cheng.
Why is there so much emphasis on mountains? Stones have been studied so carefully over centuries, yet their accompanying waters are but an afterthought. The Scholar wants a lotus pond – golden scales shimmering at the surface, fragrant lotus perfume in the air, a pair of cranes wading in the shallows. Yet somehow this simple pond has expanded into a vast emptiness in my mind, impossible to grasp.
Later that day, when the workers had gone home, the Gardener was pruning in the peach orchard when he heard singing. Phrases curling around a syncopated beat floated across the pit as he crept closer to see who it was. He stopped by the side of the empty pond where he could clearly see Mei in a floral print qipao, eyes closed, an orange chrysanthemum tucked above one ear. The Gardener stood mesmerized, each lyrical line rolling one after another, her hands unfurling, arms perfectly balanced, stirring her hips into rhythm.
With a half-whirl, arms outstretched, Mei finished the song, opened her eyes and saw the Gardener across the pond. Her eyes returned a defiant stare, as if daring him to step closer. In that moment, the Gardener felt an intoxicating vastness opening up that threatened to swallow them both. Mei grabbed the chrysanthemum from her hair and closed it tightly in her hands. The Gardener nodded apologetically as he backed away. Mei watched him leave, then opened her hands. Her fingers balanced a collection of loose, bruised petals. She released them one by one onto the wooden floor.
Each dawn, the Scholar sat on his bench to witness the Mountain of Fortitude emerge from the mist, the mass of stone floating in the vaporous distance like a painting by the Master of the Cloud Forest. Drunk on the Mountain’s thin air, the Scholar sat in the Contemplation of the Total Aspect or the Contemplation of the Other Realm, alternating his Contemplations in accordance with a newly-discovered ancient doctrine. Spirited away on silken clouds that took him further and further from mundane reality, the Scholar had almost achieved that rapture that promises to overcome life itself.
Mei regularly passed behind the Scholar on his bench. In the excitement of their youth, she would have wondered at his commentaries on the mountain and its Contemplations. But, where he found stillness, she found an increasing restlessness. Increasingly, her thoughts turned to the Gardener, enveloped in his own mist of isolation, distant yet compelling. And she thought of the pond. Beyond the spread of lotuses blossoming pink and filling the air with their perfume, the image that haunted Mei was a formless sea with a mysterious source that disappeared into the Peach Blossom grove. She had no idea where this vision came from, a dream perhaps, but it filled her thoughts. She determined to say something to the Gardener, whose progress she perceived to have stalled. And so, late one afternoon, Mei walked to the end of the garden.
The Gardener was pruning a peach tree, measuring in his mind the consequences of a single cut – all of the possible routes upwards and sideways the branch could take, its relationship to its neighbors should it take each of these routes, and the balance and weight of its future form in relation to the tree. This mental puzzling could take several minutes before he took up the slim scissors and sliced off a short section or nipped a single bud. Like a trespasser on this private relationship, Mei watched him for some time, then approached him quietly and spoke.
“I had a dream. A vision of the pond. Uncontained, its waters extended to the horizon.”
He put down his shears and gazed at her intently.
She was afraid she sounded foolish. But, as she had begun, she had to continue.
“It was like a limitless ocean. At a distance, the ocean’s shimmering scales catch sparkles of light, inviting us in to float on its surface. But its waves and tides ebb and flow, covering and exposing itself, defying our efforts to hold onto it. And when the wind whips up, her waves roll one after another to relentlessly unfold greater depths.”
The Gardener looked puzzled, then his face relaxed and smiled as he replied.
“As an apprentice, I spent days in the mountains searching for the perfect stone, and days more turning over crags and cliffs in my mind’s eye, assembling a standing army of stones into the most perfect, painterly mountain. Only now I see this sea of yours – The Sea of Forgetting – as a force more powerful than a mountain.”
The Gardener felt her eyes that at that moment appeared to be transparent, without any trace of hue.
“Yes, the Sea of Forgetting,” said Mei.
Their nerves began vibrating at the same frequency as the wavering pine needles, rippling through the bamboo and shivering in clouds of peach blossoms as they slipped backwards in time through the Ming Dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty, Tang, Song and Han, then swelled to envelope whatever Dynasties might arise in the neon-lit cities of the future, and both knew that this moment – vertiginous, furiously unstable – was a glimpse of the whole.
Mei turned to see the Boy a few feet behind her. She looked back at the Gardener. He had already returned to his pruning. The Boy pointed to the sky. It was raining, slowly but steadily. The Gardener dashed to the Pavilion, returning with an umbrella that he handed to Mei. She nodded in thanks, took the boy by the hand under the umbrella and hurried away. As they passed along the covered corridors, down the Ten Thousand Turns, and past the various Pavilions, Mei pulled the boy along impatiently, afraid to look back.
The Gardener packed his tools and walked slowly back to his hut in the rain, wondering at the streams flowing down each bamboo leaf, the glistening surface on everything, the soft squelch underfoot. He stopped at the Courtyard of Lingering Shade. The standing stone and the pruned pine framed by bamboo were so familiar now that he hardly noticed them. This time, his eyes rested on a modest marble bowl in the corner of the courtyard in which a blush of red blooms – rain-washed and full – glistened like wet silk pulled fast over flesh.
Over the weeks that followed, the Gardener worked tirelessly extending the pond, planting trees, gathering lotus bulbs and inquiring in local villages where he might find a pair of cranes. At last the workers filled the pond with water, and given the hard labor was complete, they were dismissed, leaving the Gardener alone to complete the final planting and pruning. Although she had not been to the pond since that rainy afternoon, Mei’s vision haunted his thoughts, and when she finally came down to see the progress, he felt again the thin thread connecting them.
“The Peach trees seem so distant now,” she said.
As she spoke, he felt the vibration through his muscles and veins as before, trembling into radiating filaments across the surface of his skin.
“Should I build a boat so we can visit sometimes?”
She smiled and held his gaze.
“Yes,” she said, then turned and walked away.
It is the first week of Spring. The Scholar sits before his mountain in Contemplation, mind washed of earthly thoughts, emotions regulated by breath. He has just heard that the Buddhist monastery next door has closed, its monks moved out to the mountains, and its buildings are to be used to warehouse goods. Soon, trucks will begin their mechanical rumbling just before dawn; the creaking of brakes and dull thud of boxes stacked one on top of another will continue all day.
The Scholar’s new Contemplation is the Crying Crane. Crying crane scholars croon the soul’s music in obscure, lonely places, hoping that their cries might find a meaningful echo in the modern world. Like cranes, their flight appears ungainly but their great bodies and dangling legs are lifted by powerful wings. The Scholar struggles to glide, but soon, he believes, he will gracefully swoop over the garden and away, leaving behind only the dry scratch of a brushstroke.
The Boy, a mischievous smile on his chubby face, is hiding nearby behind a rock, waiting for his mother to find him. Every Saturday, Ayi dresses him in a robe like his father’s and takes him around to the foot of the mountain where the Scholar teaches him the latest Contemplation. The Boy stoically endures the long silences and stillness.
Even Wang Wei’s famous garden is not yet finished, thinks the Gardener. It’s been revived in the minds of scholars through his poems and paintings for generations. His poems, they say, create a moment, a shared space between the poet and the reader. Perhaps this means we can talk to the dead after all!
He takes up a small knife and begins carving tiny characters into the trunk of a peach tree. Here, he thinks, the words of Wang Wei will grow with this peach tree as its bark expands. Layers of bark will flow over them, enveloping them, burying them deep within.
The characters read “sunset mist has no fixed place.”
Standing on the pavilion, Mei pauses in her search for the Boy and gazes across the Sea of Forgetting. Filled with opening lotus buds, the Sea expands across the middle distance, blurring at its edges. Mei focuses on the distant clouds of peach blossoms. The scent of lotus perfume fills the air. A lotus petal, she remembers from one of the Scholar’s monologues, has eighty-four thousand veins, each one inhaling water and exhaling scent. She knows the Gardener is there somewhere, his fingers caressing a branch, forearm tense as he prepares to clip a stem of blossoms. Beyond the orchard, golden dusk extends the pond into the limitless distance.
D.J. Huppatz lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of two poetry books, Happy Avatar (Puncher and Wattmann, 2015) and Astroturfing for Spring (Puncher and Wattmann, 2021).