"Now what about this one?" asks the grey-haired antiques dealer with the pencil thin moustache. He takes out a long object from its case and reverentially unpacks it from its dark green, oiled silk covering.
"Aah," cooes the potential purchaser, her finger-tips itching to touch the precious article, lips twitching with anticipation.
The grey-haired man opens the fan, displaying the overlapping sectors, covered with embroidered silks which glisten with a jewel-like intensity. Colours shimmer from the surface, pearly opalescence, rich ruby reds, the gleam of emerald and sapphire, reflecting and refracting the sunlight through the window.
"The fan is made of the finest materials," says the grey-haired man. "The struts of ivory. And the workmanship . . . ." He allows silence to convey the magnificence. Then he realises that perhaps silence is not sufficient. " . . . superb," he finishes. "Notice the tiny figures which stroll amidst a delicate tracery of bamboo and willow trees. They are clothed in brilliant garments and surrounded with chrysanthemum and jasmine flowers."
He allows a minute to elapse for the customer to take them in, then continues.
"The embroidered pictures represent a story from the life of Wen Long," he explains. "Wen Long, the poet," he adds almost as an afterthought as if it does not need to be mentioned, as if the client will surely know. "It was made during the reign of the Empress Wu Tse Tien -- 618 AD. Here at the beginning - " he indicates a group at the extreme left of the fan" -- you can see Wen Long with his parents."
"Aieee," shrieked Wen Long's mother, a whirlwind in yellow silk. "The marriage broker is early."
"The Mei Poh is always early," said Wen Long's father. "It is part of her job."
"But she is earlier than the early I expected. Where are the rice cakes? Where is the bottle of date wine? Where is the Hong Pau?"
"The cakes are where you set them out," said Kwan Xhu, Wen Long's father. "The wine is ready to be poured. I have the money here."
Another sharp rap on the bamboo door.
"Let her in, Wen Long."
The young man who would be a poet but was bewildered at the moment by the general confusion, obeyed his mother.
A small woman with a wrinkled face, an incipient moustache, her head covered with a green shawl stood outside. Woman and boy stared at each other for a moment. The woman twitched her thin lips and gave Wen Long an appraising look -- as if she was summing him up for something -- perhaps a coffin.
"Invite the lady in, Wen Long," came his mother's voice.
The woman fussed herself in, her movements prissy and deliberate. She sat down, arranging her clothing around her precisely. Wen Long's mother pressed cakes and wine on her. The woman sipped and nibbled with no evident signs of enjoyment. Wen Long's mother looked anxious.
"Is this the boy?" asked the woman after the formalities were over.
"This is Wen Long," said his father proudly. "My eldest son. My only son."
"How would you describe him? What are his good points?" asked the woman. She stared at Wen Long and appeared to find the prospect slightly unsatisfactory. Her mouth drooped at the corners and the moustache followed.
"He is a good son," said Wen Long's mother.
"He is obedient and willing," said his father.
The woman sighed as if trying to make the best of a bad job, then produced paper, ink and bamboo brush from the canvas bag tied around her waist. She screwed up her face as if what she did was slightly distasteful to her; on the parchment, she wrote 'Wen Long: willow of form, fleet of foot, strong of body, imperious of face, agile of mind'.
"Have you a suitable girl in mind, Mei Poh?" asked Wen Long's mother, seemingly unembarrassed by her own bluntness.
The broker appeared to consider. Eventually she said, "There is Chung Hwa from the neighbouring town of Ping An."
"I know her father," said Kwan Xhu. "He is a man of substance."
"I know the girl. She is pretty enough, but can she cook?"
"She has skin of porcelain, hair of ebony and very small feet," said the Mei Poh defensively. "You can teach her to cook -- if you think that is necessary."
Wen Long considered the probability of his union with Chung Hwa, but he found little attraction in the girl, her porcelain skin, her black ebony hair and her small feet -- though others might consider her captivating. He sighed, his long sensitive face expressing his inner conflict, respect for his parents, his own secret desires.
"My son is a poet," said Kwan Xhu.
"It will not be held against him," conceded the broker. "Shall I make a formal offer to the girl's parents?"
Kwan Xhu nodded and his wife seemed pleased.
They handed over the Hong Pau, the traditional red packet of money, payment for her efforts. Mei Poh tucked it away inside her dress.
"What are they doing?" asks the potential customer.
"It is a family group," says the grey-haired man. "It expresses their harmony."
"And who is the old woman with the wrinkled face and the long moustaches?"
"Probably the grandmother," says the expert hurriedly. "Now here the poet lies asleep -- " and he points without touching the surface to the next illustration in the centre of the fan where through a window, a young man can be seen, his body partly covered by an embroidered mantle, lying on a bed.
"He is very handsome," says the customer, a high-bosomed, bouffant hair-styled, fur-shrouded, red finger-nailed matron, itching to handle the exquisite object. "Beautiful," she mouths through blood-red, lipstick-caked lips. She studies the miniature figure through a magnifying glass.
"In the literature he is described as 'willow of form, fleet of foot, strong of body, imperious of face, agile of mind'," says the grey-haired man.
"Almond eyes, olive skin," salivates the customer. "Couldn't you just eat him?"
The grey-haired man looks slightly alarmed at this unabashed urge towards cannibalism. "He is a poet," he says reprovingly.
A misty cloud almost obscured the blue hills in the background. The opal light of the full moon shone through the rice paper curtain and onto the sleeping features of Wen Long. Troubled dreams plagued his sleep and the scent of the lime tree flowers filled the warm night air.
In his dream Wen Long saw an old man walking along the beach under the opal light of the full moon. On his back he carried a large green bag and in his hand a scroll. Every so often the old man peered short-sightedly at the scroll and then shook his head so that his wispy beard fluttered like an agitated fly-whisk. The green oiled-silk bag on his back bounced and spilled its contents onto the sand, strange red strings which writhed with a life of their own.
In his dream Wen Long knew the strings were important but worried because he did not know why or what they were.
"Who is the old man with the beard and the green bag on his back?" asks the customer.
"It is probably a fisherman with a net full of fish. See there is a red tentacle coming out from the bag. He has caught an octopus," says the grey-haired man.
In the morning even before the sun had evaporated the mists of the night Wen Long left his house. A pair of monkeys chattered at him from the branches of a sycamore tree as he walked down the road to where he knew the sage, Huek Sian Ren, would be sitting at his accustomed place by the door jamb of the pagoda.
"Huek Sian Ren," he said, bowing deferentially as a sign of respect. "I had a dream last night." And he told him of the Old Man with the bag of red strings on his back and the scroll in his hand.
Huek Sian Ren gestured to him to sit close that he might share some of the young man's warmth for it was a chilly morning and the old man's bones had taken cold. As he spoke his breath billowed small clouds of condensation into the air.
"Have you not heard of the Old Man under the Moon?" Wen Long's eyebrows expressed his ignorance. "Not the Man IN the Moon, Wen Long, the Old Man UNDER the Moon, who walks with his bag of red strings on his back under the light of the full moon. The red strings tie together the ankles of the beloved, no matter how far apart they may be, and the old man reads the appointed names from his scroll and fastens them together. So if you are intended to fall in love with, for instance, Chung Hwa, you will be fastened to her with a red cord."
"I can see no red cord fastened to my ankle," said Wen Long despairingly, staring at his feet.
Huek Sian Ren laughed. "Only a true poet, who sees with the eye of a poet, can see his red cord," he said. "To other men they are invisible."
Three cranes flew over their heads, making strange croaking sounds. It was almost as if they shared the laughter of Huek Sian Ren.
Wen Long blushed with humiliation. "But," he protested, "that is my intention -- to be a poet." And he put his hand in front of his mouth in case he be thought guilty of disrespect. "How can I become a true poet?" he wailed.
The grey-haired man indicates another place on the fan. "Here he is shown listening to the Master Huek Sian Ren who is teaching him his apprenticeship as a young poet."
"They are sitting very close together," comments the customer.
"It is thought that Wen Long was a trifle deaf. He would have to sit close to hear the words of the master."
"You must learn the 370 ways of describing the chrysanthemum flower," said Huek Sian Ren, "and the 141 colours of the sycamore bark. You will have to study for several years with a master who will teach you the 74 ways of pronouncing the three chief vowels and then you will need an expert calligraphist who -- "
"I have already written poems," Wen Long interrupted with great presumption and gasped at his own audacity. But he continued in spite of this and quoted a verse for Huek Sian Ren's benefit:
Wen Long takes a boat and is about to depart
"It is an interesting poem if rather unskilled," commented Huek Sian Ren grudgingly, "but who is this Ta Zhen?"
Wen Long hung his head in shame, but whether at the rebuke or the question was not clear. "Alas I have never met him," he said. "But I am sure I will."
And in his mind's eye he could see the manly figure of Ta Zhen, his broad shoulders, slim waist and -- for this he knew he must have -- his massive accomplishment. His hair would be as purple-black as the breast feathers of a raven, his complexion olive, his eyes dark as jet stone. His skin would be smooth as polished teak wood over hard sinuous muscles. Legs, sun-stained, rock hard where they disappeared disappointingly under his worker's breeches. His feet would be bare, the toes long and flexible. And his smile would be as the summer sunshine which lights up the countryside and disperses the cold morning mists. At these thoughts and the picture he conjured up in his mind, Wen Long felt his own bamboo shoot stiffen. Hastily he glanced down to see if it showed through the cotton of his trousers.
"The old man won't tie you to another boy," said Huek Sian Ren reprovingly. "It's strictly male to female. You would best concentrate on Chung Hwa."
They sat in silence for a moment. "Or perhaps . . . ," said Huek Sian Ren and put his hand on Wen Long's thigh. The hand on his thigh seemed unnecessarily intimate. It was only inches away from his erection, now rapidly diminishing.
"Dear boy. Sweet boy," said Huek Sian Ren amorously.
Wen Long felt uncomfortable. This old man surely could not be the Ta Zhen of his dreams. Added to that the hand looked like a chicken's claw. He stood up. "I must get back for breakfast," he said. "I will bring you a bowl of rice."
"Dear boy. Sweet boy," repeated Huek Sian Ren, but this time he sounded disappointed.
Another pair of cranes flew overhead and disappeared over the trees to the west as Wen Long walked home. It seemed to him that the birds were free and able to fly wherever they wished whereas he was imprisoned here while Fate -- and his parents -- decided his future.
The sun's rays lit up the countryside and dispersed the early morning mists -- but not those that confounded Wen Long's mind.
"I have been told," says the client studying the embroidered surface of the fan with an intense gaze, "that Chinese names actually mean something. What does Wen Long mean?"
"It means 'Cultured Dragon'," says the grey-haired man.
"And Chung Hwa?"
"Essence of Spring."
"And what is this word, written down there?" She points with her blood-red finger nail at a piece of exquisite calligraphy and the grey-haired man pulls back the fan slightly from her predatory reach.
"Ta Zhen," he says. "It means 'massive accomplishment', presumably referring to the poetic output of Wen Long. It is probably not a name at all."
"Do you see here," says the grey-haired man -- he points to where yet another image of the young man appeared at rest amongst the gardenia blossoms.
"He seems to spend a lot of his time asleep," ponders the customer.
"It is where he receives his inspiration."
That night Wen Long dreamed again. But this time the Old Man with his green sack approached Wen Long and seemed to study him through misty blue eyes. Then the Old Man peered short-sightedly at his scroll. Even the light of the full moon was apparently insufficient to enable him to make out the characters, perfectly calligraphed as they were. "I cannot quite make out the other's name," he said uncertainly. "Is it Chung Hwa?"
"No," said Wen Long in his dream, "It must be Ta Zhen."
"Ah," said the Old Man and repeated, "Ta Zhen." He nodded and bent down to tie a red chord around Wen Long's naked ankle. The silk felt cold and yet at the same time it seemed to burn his skin. Then the sensation ceased and he felt nothing. The Old Man wandered off into the distance and the string unwound after him, the moonlight creating a silver path.
Wen Long awoke with the words of a poem fully formed in his mind:
goals are flying clouds,
He knew then that he must leave his family, his friends, his home town and search wherever Fate led him. But where should he go? He glanced down at his leg where the Old Man in his dream had tied the red string. Something shimmered in the early morning light, something attached to his ankle which led off towards the East, towards the rising sun.
Now he knew which way to go.
"There is a boat here," says the customer. "Is Wen Long off on a journey?"
"He has been summoned to the Court of the Empress Wu," says the grey-haired man, "As official poet. It was a great honour."
The rectangular bamboo sails of the junk rattled in the wind as if they were anxious to be off. Strong men with supple bodies, the sweat outlining their muscles, pulled on the ropes. Wen Long stood on the quayside, his parents beside him, his mother in tears, his father angry.
"But why are you leaving your home, my son? Your parents who love you? Your betrothed?" asked Kwan Xhu.
"I must find my destiny," said Wen Long, his eyes on the straining backs of the sailors as they toiled in the sunshine.
"And what shall we tell Chun Hwa?" asked his mother.
"Tell her a true poet must sacrifice the ultimate happiness for his art," said Wen Long somewhat hypocritically, considering the reason why he was making the journey, and climbed aboard the junk.
He found himself a space to sit where a coil of rope provided some sort of comfort on the deck. The waters of the Huang He river slipped softly past. Wen Long sorted the words in his mind and then wrote them down.
Blue mountains climb beyond the fertile fields.
"Honoured poet," said a soft though uncultured voice beside him.
Wen Long looked up to see one of the sailors standing with his back to the rail which ran round the deck. He wore no shirt. The sun shone on his broad shoulders, shiny with sweat, the horizontal pectoral muscles, the concave depression under his ribs and the flat stomach. His skin was bronzed from exposure to the elements. A pair of rough trousers, fastened with a piece of hempen rope, ended mid shin. Bare feet, the toes long and flexible.
"Brawny sailor," said Wen Long, the smile on his face revealing the playfulness of his remark. "What can I do for you?" He thought of various things but was not sure whether any of them would be appreciated.
"Can I speak with you, honoured sir?" asked the sailor.
Wen Long patted the coil of rope beside him. There was just room for another. After a slight hesitation, the sailor squatted down, his legs crossed. He was close enough for Wen Long to feel the warmth of his body though they were not touching. He could smell the man's sweat, the sweat of a clean healthy body which had been toiling in the heat of the sun. The smell excited Wen Long. Could this be his Ta Zhen, found almost before they were out of sight of his home village? His bamboo shoot sprouted.
"My name is Wen Long. What is yours?"
"Shui Seng," said the sailor. "I know you. You are the poet." He stretched himself as if the relaxation after a day's work was a luxury and a bare leg lightly brushed the clothed one of Wen Long. "I have a favour to ask, honoured poet."
Wen Long's mind whirled. The man's wide hand with its broad, stubby fingers, was but inches away from his own. He could feel the breath from the man's mouth as he turned his face towards him. It was as soft as a kiss. He thought he could detect the scent of sandalwood. Perhaps he had been chewing on a piece of the fragrant wood. He kept his own gaze resolutely forward. If he turned he might not be able to resist kissing the young face. His tone when he spoke was artificially light.
"What can I do for you, Shui Seng?" he asked. "Ask anything," he said wildly.
"Would you write me a poem?" said Shui Seng, "A poem for my betrothed who lives in Ping An?"
Wen Long's heart sank. This could not be his Ta Zhen, who was tied to him with the Old Man's red string. Nevertheless he nodded, he would write a poem. Shui Seng was overjoyed, seemingly at a loss for words. He grabbed hold of Wen Long's hands within his own warm ones. He raised then to his lips and kissed them in gratitude.
"Honoured, sir . . ." He seemed about to be even more fulsome, looked as if he might embrace Wen Long's whole body, press him with his but a shout from the bosun on the poop deck had him hurriedly getting up and running back to his duties.
A solitary crane stood in the shallows of the river.
Wen Long sighed. He started to arrange words in his mind.
"Where did he travel to?" asks the customer.
"To the capital city which in the Tang Dynasty was Chang 'An. See there is a representation of it here. Look at the magnificent detail! The skill! The artistry! The buildings seem to have an almost three-dimensional solidity."
"I wonder who made the fan," ponders the customer.
"It is signed."
Chang 'An. Bustling town of stone-built dwellings. Pagodas, palaces. Narrow streets where the palanquins of the mighty jostled with the bare feet of the humble. Soldiers strutted. Knights sneered down at the peasantry from horseback. Bureaucrats bustled self-importantly, their fans agitating. The high-pitched sounds of street traders offering their bargains filled the air. Bamboo cages held tiny songbirds which trilled songs out of all proportion to their size. Smells of spices vied with that of rotting cabbage. Everywhere the rich fabrics of silks and brocades contrasted with the dull hempen of the peasants.
It was music to the ears of Wen Long. He walked between the handsome buildings as if in a dream, hearing the sounds, smelling the alien, but exciting scents, gazing rapturously at the sights.
So enthralled was he and so rapt in his search for the right word for his poem that he failed to notice the crowd had quietened, that they were drawing back from the centre of the street, prostrating themselves on the ground. "Kow tow," there was an urgent whisper and a plucking at the hem of his shirt but Wen Long did not notice. Nor did he see the covered palanquin which turned the corner, the covers of gold brocade and decorated with green dragons encrusted with precious jewels and carried by eight strong supporters. Not until a soldier in leather armour with the Royal Chrysanthemum emblem emblazoned on his cuirass, grabbed him around the waist and hurled him to the ground did he realise that something was amiss.
"Do you not know it is treason to stand in the presence of the Empress?" growled the soldier.
Wen Long, his mouth full of mud, lay quietly. He could see nothing except the bare -- and indeed shapely -- calves of the man standing over him. There was a gasp from the crowd around him and Wen Long dared raise his head slightly. The palanquin had stopped, the curtains parted and a long slender arm, draped with a rose coloured sleeve, emerged and was beckoning.
The soldier grabbed Wen Long by his shirt and the scruff of his neck and dragged him forward before releasing. Wen Long fell on his face again.
The curtains parted slightly and a voice, cultured but with a rough authority that brooked no possibility of disobedience, said, "Lift him so that I can see his face!"
The soldier pulled Wen Long's face from the mud by the hair at the back of his head. There was a pause while the unseen occupant studied him. Eventually a query. . .
"Who is he?"
Wen Long couldn't remember!
The soldier prodded him in the ribs with his stick. "Tell the Empress your name, fool," he snarled into his ear.
"Wen Long . . ."
"Highness," prompted the soldier in a sibilant whisper.
"Highness," said Wen Long. "I am a poet."
"Bring him," said the voice. The curtains closed and the bearers started again. As they passed, they heard, "Wash him, and get him some clothes."
The soldier pulled Wen Long to his feet and, holding him around his waist, half dragged, half lifted the dazed poet along in the wake of the procession.
"Where are we going?" asked Wen Long.
"To the Imperial Palace," said the soldier. Wen Long could feel his strong body pressed against his own side. It felt virile and somehow comforting. The soldier's arm was around his waist. "The Empress has taken a liking to you."
Wen Long's apprehensions diminished. But the soldier continued.
"The Empress' desires are strong. She has been known to exhaust the capabilities of the strongest of young men." He paused. "Leaving them no more than dried out husks, like dead locusts in the desert. It is nevertheless a great honour to be 'chosen' by the Empress."
Wen Long misgivings returned.
"But I am not like that," he managed. "I am a poet."
"And if she is not fully satisfied, you will be beheaded."
"Aieee," wailed Wen Long. He twisted in the soldier's grip, trying to escape. His arm which before had seemed a support, now appeared full of menace.
"Do not try to run away," said the soldier. "It is more than my life is worth to allow it."
Cranes circled overhead.
The procession with Wen Long and the soldier bringing up the rear reached an imposing building which Wen Long, if he had been less apprehensive, would probably have appreciated as a fit subject for a poem. Its gable ends, exquisitely carved into the shapes of writhing dragons were lacquered in red and gold. Its imposing gates were painted with delicately calligraphed messages of good luck. Nevertheless they still clanged shut behind him with what he thought was a menacing foreboding.
The processional way led between formal gardens where willows wept over rectangular fish ponds. Golden carp nosed their way curiously to the surface to watch their Empress and gasp at the honour.
They entered a magnificent hall with statues of Royal animals down each side. Huge pillars held up a roof decorated with swirling images and much gold. The palanquin containing the Empress and her attendants disappeared into the distance while Wen Long and the soldier turned off into a small room on the right. It was comfortably furnished with a bed, a table and some low stools. Various scroll paintings, mostly of misty landscapes, hung on the walls. The window was protected by a carved wooden lattice.
In the corner stood a bowl and a ewer made from the finest porcelain.
"I am Koo Wei Siong," said the soldier, who, now on his own seemed less forbidding especially after he took off his helmet to reveal a young man's face, with arched eyebrows and a sensitive, almost poetic mouth, thought Wen Long.
"We have not much time," said Koo Wei Siong. "Strip and wash," and he gesticulated towards the washing facilities in the corner. Wen Long waited for a moment for him to withdraw but the soldier seemed to have no intention of leaving him alone to complete his ablutions. Instead he began to remove his own heavy leather armour, the breast and back plates, the leg greaves and finally the piece that protected his genitals. Wen Long tried not to stare too obviously as more and more parts of the soldier's body were revealed. He saw a lean, muscled body, the legs long and shapely, the arms strong. Only the area at the fork of his legs was hidden by a white loin cloth. Wen Long looked at it hungrily.
"Come on," said Koo Wei Siong. "Surely you have seen a man's body before. Get those filthy rags off you and wash carefully. Then we will rub some spices and scents on -- the Empress' favourites -- and finally for you a silk robe."
Wen Long removed his best shirt, admittedly a trifle grubbied now from his close contact with the street, and his trousers. He poured water into the bowl and with a sponge, washed off the day's grime.
As he did so and realised what he was preparing himself for, he grew more and more frightened. At last he turned to Koo Wei Siong. "I will not be able to perform for the Empress," he admitted. "I like only men."
Koo Wei Siong gave him a frank, appraising look. "I suspected as much," he said. He approached the quaking body of Wen Long and gently laid his a hand on his back. It was a tender gesture. With his other hand he touched the flat surface of Wen Long's stomach so that the poet was held in an embrace. Wen Long's bamboo stiffened and Koo Wei Siong wrapped his hand around the stem so that a spasm of delight shot through the poet's loins. Had he at last found the Ta Zhen of his dreams? He looked swiftly at the soldier's ankle but could see no shimmering red cord attached to his own.
"I am of a similar disposition," said Koo Wei Siong, "though I like women also." He appeared to think for a moment, a frown creating a slight fault on his almost smooth brow. At last it cleared. "It is a problem -- though I think I can find a solution. If the Empress approves of you, she will summon you to her boudoir after dark. There will be no lights as no one may look upon the sacred unclothed body of the Empress. She will know you only by your scent and your feel. Luckily we are of a similar build and I can also rub on the unguents and wear your robe."
"You mean, you will substitute yourself for me. You would do that for me?" He clasped Koo Wei Siong's body in gratitude and felt, within that concealing scrap of cloth, an answering erection to his own.
But Koo Wei Siong drew back, albeit reluctantly. "We have no time for play at the moment. If you are truly clean, I will put on the perfumes and dress you in the manner of the court."
"There are no more pictures," says the client regretfully. "Does the story end here?"
But the grey-haired man swiftly turned over the fan to show more illustrations on the back. "But how is that possible?" asks the client. "How is it that the embroidery does not go right through the silk?"
"It is part of the ancient craft," says the grey-haired man. "A lost secret. See here Wen Long appears dressed in silk and brocade in front of the Empress Wu Tse Tien." He gives his client a sharp look. "AD 618," he adds, perhaps forgetting that he has already told her this, perhaps wishing to emphasise the great age of the artefact. "So many years ago and yet the colours are as bright as if they were dyed only yesterday."
The client nods appreciatively.
Wen Long, robed magnificently in a blue silk gown fastened around his waist by a jade belt, his hair black and glossy with pomade -- Koo Wei Siong should have been a barber -- wearing wooden sandals that clacked satisfactorily on the marble floor, entered the sumptuous Jade Hall of the Imperial Palace.
He was terrified.
A double row of wooden columns, lacquered in red and gold, held up the roof beams and trusses each one ending with a carving of a phoenix taking flight. The smell of rare incenses wafted through the air amidst the tinkling sounds of flutes and reed organs.
The Empress Wu Tse Tien sat on her golden throne, a figure dressed in rose silk, diminutive but with a huge personality. Her black eyes flashed. She commanded instant obedience. Drawn up in lines in front of her stood her officials, each one dressed in the robes of his office, generals and warriors to her left, viziers and secretaries of state to her right. Two enormous eunuchs kept her cool with peacock feather fans.
Empress Wu made a sign and Koo Wei Siong prodded Wen Long in the ribs. "Approach and bow until your head touches the ground," he whispered.
"I cannot move," said Wen Long, his body shaking. "My legs have turned to cabbage stalks."
Koo Wei Siong muttered. "Don't be a fool. You'll get us both beheaded!" He placed his hand in the small of Wen Long's back and gave him a shove. Wen Long started forward in a sort of hobbling stumble. Koo Wei Siong went with him in case he fell, his hand sinking lower so that it cupped one of his buttocks. Wen Long found the touch strangely comforting. At the step below the throne, Koo Wei Siong gave him a push and it was enough to make the poet fall to his knees.
"Head to floor," said Koo Wei Siong, imitating the instruction.
"So this is the poet," said the Empress.
Wen Long said nothing.
"Well, poet, we would hear a little of your work."
Wen Long's mind was a blank.
"Speak, fool," said Koo Wei Siong, out of the side of his mouth.
Wen Long dredged through what remained of his mind. Somewhat muffled -- for he dared not raise his head, the words emerged. It was the poem he had written for the sailor, Shui Seng's betrothed, but it did not matter:
"After the long burning day,
"Stand," commanded the Empress, "so that I can see you more clearly."
Wen Long felt some strength return to his limbs. He stood and with renewed confidence, continued with his poem, Koo Wei Siong standing by his side. The Empress's keen eyes observed the slim young man in front of her and seemed delighted with what she saw. Her small pink tongue appeared and licked the corners of her mouth.
drinking wine at twilight
"Yes yes," she said interrupting him. "enough poetry. Have him brought to my room after dark," she said -- and dismissed them.
" Here Wen Long is presented at the court and finds favour with the Empress, obviously a great appreciator of poetry," says the grey-haired man.
"Who is that figure that stands so closely behind Wen Long?" asks the client.
The grey-haired man dismisses the question with an airy wave of a well-manicured hand. "It is just an attendant, probably a soldier," he says. "No one of any importance."
Wen Long lay in the narrow bed alone. Koo Wei Siong had left hours before, dressed in the blue robe Wen Long had himself worn earlier and scented with the same perfumes. The time passed and Wen Long grew more and more apprehensive. Could anything have happened? Had the substitution been discovered? Were armed guards about to enter and drag him off to execution?
Naked under the coverlet Wen Long shivered with anxiety. Even if all went well, Koo Wei Siong was not his Ta Zhen. There was no red cord fastened to his ankle and when he returned, would Wen Long be able to resist the physical attraction to which he had already nearly succumbed?
The sound of a water clock measured his apprehension in drips.
At last the grey silk of dawn began to light the windows and still Koo Wei Siong had not returned. Light would surely mean that he had been recognised. Then without warning the door was flung open. A figure, dark silhouette against the light outside, stood there for a second before crumpling to the floor. Wen Long jumped out of bed and ran to the prostrate form.
"Koo Wei Siong," he said. "Koo Wei Siong, are you all right?"
Koo Wei Siong groaned. "What a woman," he mumbled. "What stamina! What perseverance! What insistence!"
With an effort Wen Long dragged him onto the bed where he sprawled there on his back. His eyes closed, his mouth opened, a slight snore emerged. Well, thought Wen Long, there would be no danger from this man tonight.
Disillusioned and -- it must be admitted -- slightly disappointed, Wen Long pulled on his old clothes, muddied as they were, and with one last look back at the recumbent form on the bed, crept silently out through the door -- and away into the dawn.
As he passed the pool with the carp, a crane took off, its wings rattling together. The raddled reflection of the moon smiled brokenly back at Wen Long from the surface of the water. A shimmering ribbon led the way.
"Why is he walking so dejectedly along the road?" asks the client. "He has lost all his fine clothes!"
"Wen Long went through a period of abstinence," says the grey-haired man. "Self-denial to advance his poetic talent."
"How fine!" says the customer approvingly. "What sort of things did he give up?"
"Oh you know. Meat, rich foods, opulent clothes, money, sex. He lived as an itinerant beggar -- on the generosity of others."
Wen Long was down almost to his last copper coin. All the money he had brought with him had been exhausted. He was hungry, thirsty, tired and the soles of his shoes had worn so thin that he could feel the sharp stones of the road cutting into his feet. The last village he had passed through had even refused him a bowl of rice when he had asked. He thought longingly of his mother's rice cakes, his father's date wine.
The road -- if you could dignify this less than cart track with the name -- snaked up the mountain, its sides bordered by thorny bushes which bore no fruit. On his right side the grey stone of the mountainside towered precipitously while on the left it fell into a bottomless gorge.
As Wen Long was hobbling along a figure suddenly emerged from behind one of the bushes and stood in his way in the centre of the track. A tall figure, broad-shouldered, slim waisted and carrying in his right hand, a cudgel of massive proportions. His hair was as purple-black as the breast feathers of a raven, his complexion olive, his eyes dark as jet stone. His skin was smooth as polished teak wood over hard sinuous muscles. Legs, sun-stained, rock hard where they disappeared disappointingly under his rough breeches. His feet were be bare, the toes long and flexible. And his smile was as grim and menacing as that on the face of a tiger.
"Ho," shouted the man, even though they were close enough for a whisper to carry. "I am Lew Kang, bandit and master of the road. Travellers pay their dues to me or they disappear into the canyon." And he gestured with his free hand over the precipice at the side of the road.
Wen Long stared at the man. Surely this was his Ta Zhen. It was the figure of the man he had always seen in his imagination, the features handsome though a little disfigured by the broad scar down the side of his face which he had not envisaged. It did give the man nevertheless a rough excitement, an aspect of brutality which added to the titillation.
"Are you deaf?" shouted Lew Kang waving his cudgel in the air alarmingly. "Give me your money."
"Unfortunately I have none," said Wen Long. "I am a poor poet and you are my Ta Zhen." Yet as he looked he saw that he was mistaken for although the shimmering cord ran towards the man, it did not fasten around his ankle, rather it disappeared between his legs and went on and on up the dusty road. Still could he have been mistaken. In the full glare of sunlight the shimmer was indistinct.
"I am Lew Kang," contradicted the bandit. "If you have no money then you must give me your clothes." He peered at Wen Longs shirt which, though muddied and sweat stained, still bore the needlework decorations his mother had lovingly embroidered. Again he waved the cudgel menacingly.
Wen Long's conviction that this was his Ta Zhen wavered. Lew Kang brought down the cudgel on his shoulder with considerable force and it evaporated entirely.
"Aieee," he shouted , sounding exactly like his mother. With the only hand that had any feeling left in it, he tore off his shirt exposing the golden jade of his skin.
"And your trousers," demanded Lew Kang, his smile twisting the scar to even more alarming proportions.
One handed Wen Long fumbled with the cord tied at his waist. Lew Kang helped him by ripping it open and the garment dropped to the ground leaving Wen Long shamefully exposed. His bamboo shoot cowered. He tried to cover himself with his hand.
"Payment in full," growled Lew Kang and he grasped the naked form of Wen Long around the waist turning him so that his backside was towards him. Behind him he felt Lew Kang opening his own garments and Wen Long knew that he was, at long last, about to lose his virginity. It had been protected for so long -- against the feminine charms of Chun Hwa, the importunate hand of Huek Sian Ren by the door jamb of the pagoda, the maritime allure of Shui Seng, and the military one of Koo Wei Siong. And now it would fall before the lusty organ of Lew Kang, the bandit.
A hand came round and grasped his bamboo shoot and despite himself, Wen Long found himself stiffening. He could feel something hard and long probing at the crack between his melons. The massive crown found his beginning and his end. It pressed. Wen Long prepared for pain or ecstasy he was not sure which when --
-- there was a clashing of wings as a crane flew overhead, and a muffled crump. The arms around his waist relaxed and fell away and the warmth of the body at his back disappeared.
For a moment Wen Long stood transfixed, naked and waiting, but then, as nothing further happened, he turned round.
The body of Lew Kang lay sprawled on his back in the centre of the road. From his trousers protruded his massive accomplishment, still distended but slowly deflating. A rock, the size of a duck's egg lay beside the bandit's head and on his forehead already bloomed a livid bruise. The crane twice flew round, clacking its beak together -- it sounded as if it was laughing -- before flying off.
Wen Long quickly put on his own clothes, gave the recumbent bandit a kick -- possibly from disappointment -- and sped off up the road.
"There is one man lying on the ground and a bird flying overhead," says the client.
"It is one of the corporal acts of mercy that Wen Long is reputed to have done," says the grey-haired man. "He found an injured man in the road and succoured him. The bird is a symbol of charity."
"Like the Good Samaritan," asks the client.
"Something like that."
"But why is Wen Long naked," asks the client, again giving the surface of the fan the closest of inspections through her magnifying glass.
"He gave his own clothes to warm the poor unfortunate."
"What a saint!"
It was evening when, dusty, travel-stained, tired, aching in every limb, Wen Long entered the gates of his own town entirely unrecognised. People he had known all his life passed him unnoticed. Mister Su, his old school teacher, gave him not a second glance, Madam Pan from the corner shop, noticed him but looked at him as if he was a beggar and, had she not been such a lady, nearly spat. Had he changed so much?
As he walked, he observed two girls coming along the street arm in arm, chattering together in the customary feminine manner. One was Chun Hwa.
"Oh Tao Pi," she was saying to her companion as she passed Wen Long, "how happy I am since we met." Wen Long saw that a tiny shimmering cord stretched between their two ankles, joining them together. So the Old Man under the Moon had been at work here. He sighed but whether from sadness or relief even he could not tell.
Limping, Wen Long followed his own red cord up the street, past his parents' house, towards the pagoda where Huek Sian Ren sat.
In the mists which were rising from the river it was difficult to make out the Sage's figure but there was certainly a dark shape there, by the door jamb of the Pagoda. A crouched figure was there and the red cord glowing in intensity led directly towards it.
Wen Long approached.
As he got close he could see that the figure was in fact a crane.
It turned and was transformed.
A man, glowing with youth, arms outstretched, with a smile as warm as the summer sunshine which lights up the countryside and disperses the cold morning mists. His body hard and virile pressed against his. Smells of sandalwood and jasmine. He was drawn into the sheltering portals of the pagoda's doorway, while the yellow waters of the river surged on unregarded.
Wen Long's bamboo shoot stiffened, sprouted, blossomed, seeded!
"Why is he embracing that other young man?" asks the client, almost jealously.
"It is his brother," says the grey-haired man. "They have been parted from each other for a long while and he is greeting him on his return."
"I would like to buy the fan," says the customer.
"It is very expensive," says the grey-haired man and names a sum that causes the client to gasp.
"But I must have it," she says and without any more ado, writes out a cheque.
As she leaves the shop, the grey-haired man makes a phone call.
send me round another three of your special, super-quality Wen Long fans,"
he says. "They're selling like hot cakes."
Chinese Names and their meanings:
Long (the Poet) -- 'Cultured Dragon'
Wen Long's poems are based on original Chinese poetry by Li Bai and Li Qing Chow.
My thanks to my friend, Liong, for his help with the Chinese details. Any mistakes are my own.