May 9, 2017

Fiction by Robert Wexelblatt: "Hsi-wei Cured"

Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published the story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, and Heiberg’s Twitch; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal, and essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals. His novel Zublinka Among Women won the Indie Book Awards first-place prize for fiction.  A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming.


Hsi-wei Cured

In the month when autumn changes to winter, the weather in Yangzhou turns cold and damp.  Storms blow in from the sea; dark clouds overspread the plain and burst against the Southern Hills.  Chen Hsi-wei was making his way down the eastern side of these highlands when, five li from the village of Wuzheng, he was drenched by a downpour.  
He could not get dry.  A stiff eastern wind blew his soaked clothing against his body.  By the time he reached Wuzheng he was shaking with cold.  Even though it was already growing dark, Hsi-wei, with some effort, set up his sign advertising straw sandals in the village’s tiny marketplace.
A heavy-set fishwife left her stall and walked right up to Hsi-wei.  “Where are you from?”
Hsi-wei tried to reply but was convulsed by coughing.
“Just listen to you,” she said in the angry tone some women use to express sympathy.
Hsi-wei managed to apologize for the coughing.
“You’re shaking all over.  Come here, sandal-maker.  Let me feel your face.”
Hsi-wei did as she asked.  The woman laid the back of her left hand on his cheek, then his forehead.
“Hot!  Very hot,” said the fishmonger and motioned to another woman, a purveyor of stew, who was packing up her pot and grate.  This second woman could have been the first’s younger, thinner sister.
“The young man’s sick,” said the first.  “His face is burning.”
The second woman looked Hsi-wei up and down then told him to sit before he fell.  The fish-seller fetched the poet a cup of tea from a pot under her stall.  Meanwhile, the stew-seller called to a passing group, an elderly peasant, his wife, and a woman of about thirty who looked at bit like them both.  “Mr. Li, this stranger’s just come to town and he’s ill,” she said.  “He’ll need a place for the night.  You’ve got that empty shed, right?”
Hsi-wei put his head between his knees.  He felt weak and dizzy.  The shaking had become worse as well.
Li grunted and bent over to examine Hsi-wei.  “Yes,” he said with some reluctance, “we can put him in our shed.”  He turned to the young woman.  “Mi-tzu, go fix up a pallet and get out the spare blankets.”  
“Poor young man.  I’ll get some broth,” said his wife.  
“Good, then we’ll put him up in your shed,” said the fishmonger, who seemed to relish to ordering people around.  “Just as well.  He may be contagious.  Still, he’s young and looks sinewy enough.  Could be a good night’s sleep will set him up.”
“Thank you,” Hsi-wei managed to say between coughs and shivers.  “You’re very kind.”
He was helped to his feet and surrounded as they made a little procession.  Despite the fear of contagion, he was taken into the house and seated by the hearth while the young woman readied the shed.  Mrs. Li heated some broth.  Everyone kept at a discreet distance from the sick man but in a way that seemed more polite than fearful.
The young woman, Mi-tzu, came in and nodded.  With the two market women holding his elbows, Hsi-wei staggered out to a shed made of loosely fitted planks.  The place looked near to collapse.  But the vagabond had stayed in worse accommodations, and he had slept on humbler pallets.  
Mi-tzu had started a fire in a brazier and the shed already felt warm.  Coughing and trembling all the while, Hsi-wei collapsed on to the pallet.  The market women left with expressions of indignant, motherly concern.  After covering him with two heavy blankets, Mi-tzu ran to the house and returned with a cup of tea made sweet and thick with honey.  Hsi-wei took a sip gratefully and asked her about herself.
Mi-tzu spoke simply and without complaint. “My husband Huiliang is in General Hu’s corps.   He was promoted last year.  They made him an officer and right away sent him to the southern frontier.  We have no children and Huiliang’s mother and father are dead.  So I’ve returned here to look after my parents.”
“And to look after me as well, it seems,” said Hsi-wei with a wan smile.  His words came out ragged and frog-like.  His eyes were already closing.
Mi-tzu touched his forehead then quickly pulled her hand back.
“You should sleep,” she said unnecessarily and left.
In the morning, Hsi-wei was not better but worse.  His teeth chattered, and he was sweating.
“How do you feel?” asked Mrs. Li, frowning from the doorway. “Mi-tzu is busy.”
“As if the bandit Feng and his thousand horsemen had ridden all over me,” croaked Hsi-wei.  
Mrs. Li left at once, saying nothing further.  She’s probably never heard of the bandit Feng thought Hsi-wei as he fell back into unconsciousness.  
When he came to he found the fishmonger and a group of four men had crowded into the shed.
“We’re taking you to our healer,” the woman declared.
“Yes.  To Wu.  Up the mountain.  If you can be cured, she’ll do it.  The Hungs’ son had a fever like yours, and so did Mr. Chang’s wife Baiyu.  No, don’t try to get up. We’ve got a litter waiting.”
Hsi-wei would have liked to resist; he would have also liked to find a proper doctor—wu being the word for sorceress.  But he was too weak to protest.  Two of the men hoisted him by his arms and legs and carried him outside to the litter, a frame on which the fishmonger laid two of the blankets from his pallet.  She spread a third over Hsi-wei and tucked it around him closely.  At once the litter was raised by the four men, the market woman warning them to be gentle.
The path was steep but smooth. Hsi-wei dozed intermittently.  When he was conscious, he looked up at a gray sky pierced by the misty tops of pines.  The trees reminded of Ko Qing-zhao’s landscapes.  His friend Ko was fond of painting pine trees wreathed in fog.
The men were strong and the bossy fishmonger urged them keep up the pace, occasionally murmuring comforting things to Hsi-wei in her usual cross tone.
“Nasty fever you brought to our village, stranger.  New straw sandals would have been more welcome.  I could use a pair myself.  Don’t worry.  Wu will fix you up.  Wu settles fevers and arguments.  She settles disputes and sets broken arms.  Never fear. Our Wu’s a wonder.”
Hsi-wei realized they had arrived when he saw no more treetops.  The party stopped and the woman said, “Here we are.  Wu, shall we bring him in?”
“Yes, please.  At once,” said a new voice, lower and softer than the fishwife’s.  A face with fine wrinkles and kindly eyes hovered over him.  A palm was pressed against both his cheeks.
Wu’s cottage was surprisingly spacious and exceptionally clean.  Not so much as a single pine needle marred the floor.  Hsi-wei saw shelves crowded with jars that he supposed held all sort of leaves, roots, flowers, moss, lichens, and fungi.  There were also bottles with colored liquids.  He counted three cupboards and four brass lamps.  The stone hearth was well made and, with surprise, Hsi-wei saw an indoor pump.  A narrow bed was in one corner and a second sat under the windows on a low platform.  A wide table took up most of the middle of the room.  There were three stools and a padded chair.  The tall windows on two sides looked out at the forest.
Hsi-wei was laid on the bed in the corner.  It turned out to be soft and softer still was the blue goose-down coverlet laid over him.  He was weak and felt as if the pull of the earth on his body had grown stronger.  Hsi-wei noted that the four men and the fishwife showed no fear of the woman, the sorceress, the wu.  On the contrary, they cheerfully told her the news of the village and answered her questions about the health of some children.  Before they left, she predicted a mild, dry winter, once the storms at sea abated, and advised to put by some extra measures of water against a summer drought.
Once the villagers departed, the woman subjected Hsi-wei to a thorough going over.  She looked into his eyes and nostrils, felt all over his feet and hands, taking each toe and finger in turn.  Excusing herself, she drew the coverlet aside and poked at his abdomen and then his groin.  Hsi-wei said nothing.
The woman covering him up she pulled one of the stools next to the bed.  
“You have heat-flu.  Heat-flu can be caused by cold which disrupts chi.  It’s not good to attack a heat-flu fever.  The fever’s there for a reason.  It shows that your body is battling for you, struggling to restore the warm and cold balance.  It’s best to let it fight its war.  What you need is rest and warmth and also chrysanthemum and peppermint tea.  Twice a day.  The tea will lessen the symptoms without disrupting the fight.  I expect you haven’t much appetite?’
“None,” rasped the patient.
Wu nodded.  “All the same, I’ll feed you later.  A light soup with bok choy leaves and a little chicken.  It’ll fortify you. We can talk then.  Now sleep.”
When Hsi-wei woke, it was dark.  Only one of the lamps was lit yet the cottage felt cozy safe.  He was neither shivering nor sweating and had enough energy to sit up and drink his soup.
“Is your name really Wu?” he asked the old woman who sat beside him.
She smiled.  “It’s what I’m called.  I once had another name, but I can’t recall what it was.  I was too young when I lost it.”
Hsi-wei handed over the empty bowl and fell back into the soft bed.  “How’s that?  Tell me your story.”
“If you were strong enough, I’d make you go first.”
“If I were strong enough,” Hsi-wei retorted, “I wouldn’t be your guest.”
The woman laughed an almost girlish laugh.  “That remark shows you’re feeling better.  Very well, then.  Here’s my story, Wu’s story.”
“Nothing better than to lie in bed and hear a story.”
“I wasn’t born here, not in Wuzheng, but in some place nearer to the coast.  I never learned its name. I was a first child.  My birth didn’t go well.  My mother was terribly ill and it was thought she’d die.  My father must have been desperate.  I’m sure he tried all the local doctors and healers.  I can picture them shaking their heads, holding out their hands, and saying they were sorry.  At last he came here, to this very place.  He had heard of a healer who could work wonders with bark, with herbs, and the she lived on a mountain above Wuzheng.  The villagers were afraid of the old woman and probably tried to discourage him.  But he insisted so they showed him the way up the mountain.  They called the woman a wu and then simply Wu, and they feared her all the more because her cures worked.  But her manner was harsh.  She cured without caring.  Now, the woman had grown lonely and so she made a deal with my father.  She would do her best to cure his wife but, if she succeeded, he must turn his daughter over to her the same week she was weaned.  If he failed to do so, she promised his wife, my mother, would certainly die.  My father must have been superstitious as well as desperate—perhaps one because of the other.  And, after all, he loved my mother dearly but scarcely knew me at all.  He agreed.  I’ve been here ever since the week I was weaned.  Eventually I inherited the old woman’s cottage, her knowledge, and also her name.  Wu.”
As Hsi-wei listened to this strange story he took note of the calm with which it was related.  “The people don’t fear you,” he said.
“Why should they?”
“They feared your predecessor.”
“That was because she was so rough with them.  It was her nature.  Wu never told me her own story but I imagine it must have been a bitter one, another tale of suffering from the wars.  With me, she was strict, yes; but, sometimes, nearly loving.  She could even be indulgent.  When I was little, she’d take me down to the village so I could play with other children.  No one came near her.  She sat by herself and watched me at play and making friends.  But we always had to return before dark.  She taught me all she knew of the woods, the weather, the stars, of healing.  She never said it outright but I knew she wanted me to preserve her knowledge and carry on her work.  She wanted to leave something behind.  And that was to be me.”
“Then you aren’t. . . harsh?  Rough?”
“With the villagers?  Certainly not.”  She smiled.  “They’re my friends, and they adopted me too.”
“But what of your own family?”
“I didn’t learn of them until I was grown.  When the old woman knew she hadn’t long to live, she told me my story.  I made inquiries but couldn’t find my parents.  I didn’t know their names, let alone that of their village.  Anyway, perhaps they died in the wars.”
“How did you feel what the old woman did, and what your father did?”
“At first, I was angry.  Then resentful. I resigned myself.  But, when the old woman’s strength and eyesight began to fail, I realized that I loved her and that I was glad to have been given to her, glad that she taught me.  In the end, I decided it was for the best.”
Hsi-wei pressed her.  “But the love you’d have had for your family—that was denied you.”
“Yes.  I suppose that’s true, in a sense.”
“Why in a sense”
“My family was lost to me, but not the love.  The love that I might have given to my parents, to a husband, children and in-laws didn’t vanish. It just seemed to spread out, like they say the Yang-tse does when it floods.”
“It’s no wonder,” said Hsi-wei respectfully, “the people revere you.”
To this, the old woman only shrugged.
The following day, Hsi-wei told Wu his own story—about his native village and its famous ducks, who taught him to make straw sandals, his dangerous journey carrying a secret message to the south, his education, why he left the capital, many of the places he had visited since taking to the road.  He related some of his adventures as well.  The one thing he didn’t mention was that he had become a poet.
Hsi-wei stayed with the woman for two more nights before going back down to Wuzheng where he made straw sandals for everyone who had helped him and paid the Li family for the use of their shed.  Two days after that, his health restored, he prepared for the road.  But, before leaving, he made his way up the mountain.
Wu greeted him warmly and insisted he have one more cup of chrysanthemum tea with peppermint.  Hsi-wei thanked her over and over.  Before taking his leave, he removed from his pack a fine pair of sandals specially decorated with brass fittings and the poem that is popularly known as “So Much Goes on in the World”:

So much goes on in the world every day.
A mantis swallows an ant, thieves steal, rice steams.
Liu launches his new skiff as friends cheer while
spreading out their nets.  Not far from Lake Weishan,
Shin fights with Meiling over twelve yuan
while, close by, the just-wed Yangs make a son.
Wendi’s mint stamps out a hundred jin of copper coins;
Zhou, the liuqin player, dreams up a melancholy melody.
Each day so many things happen in the world
That even the gods cannot record them all.
Hens lay, oxen pull, sheep bleat, silkworms chew.
In the cavalry barracks of Qingzhou, the young
officers laugh when a new stallion throws their captain.
In Yanghai, the Huangs slaughter their sow
because Han-shi has come safely home at last.
Who can tally up the goings-on of just one day?
In Daxing, the Emperor decides who’s to
govern Ji and who Xu.  On a bridge in Liangtse
a child drops her doll into the brook and wails
until her father picks her up and strokes her hair.
So many notable happenings, yet almost nothing’s noted.
On the Grand Canal, three hundred laborers collapse an
hour before five hundred bewildered conscripts show up.
Who can say all that happens in even a single hour?
Though much will go unacknowledged, unremembered,
in Jing, in Sung and Shun unforgettable things occur.
In Wuzheng, for example, a traveling sandal-maker
falls ill.  Strangers give him broth and a pallet; they carry
him from their village up a steep mountain path to the
cottage of their wise Wu who believes herself an
orphan and imagines the peasants have adopted her,
though the truth is it’s she who has adopted them,
sorting out their wounds, their children and disputes.
She’s solitary among the pine trees yet seldom alone.
The woodland path is wide and beaten flat.
She welcomes all, not excluding the helpless vagabond
who, on any ordinary day, might turn out six decent
sandals and, on a good day, one modest poem, writ in air.
So much goes on in the world every day, good and bad.
Chen Hsi-wei is grateful and humbly offers these gifts.
Though his poem is weak, the sandals are sound; yet
his memory of Wu and Wuzheng will outlast both.

© Robert Wexelblatt

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