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Drama East Asian

The two poets watched as the morning sunrise struggled into dawn. One was young, the other near the end of his life. The soft rose-pink light colored both their faces, the one like a smooth, blank palette, the other interrupted with aged canyons of shadow.

"What, is it sunset already?" the older one wondered out loud.

"No, Master," replied his young friend. "It is dawn."

They sat gently rocking in a simple boat on the lake. If you listened carefully, you could hear the miniature waves lap against the cobbled shore. Shore birds, having anticipated the light, wheeled overhead in the cold air that cut through their cotton robes. The wooden slats of the boat groaned their complaints.

"I'm cold," stated the ancient poet. "Let's go inside and have something to warm our blood."

The young man studied his superior, wondering at the man's seemingly infinite capacity for drink. The old man was a famous poet, but you would never know it by looking at him. He sat there like a barren hill, his bald crown flowing down into broad shoulders and a chest that had fallen into his lap. The youngster felt that there was deep philosophy in the man's stoic patience.

On the one hand, he knew that if he rowed back to shore, the old man would embarrass him. On the other, he didn't want to be responsible for the great man's death from cold. His sigh was lost among the tolling of the birds as he turned the craft and headed back towards the rickety pier.

The ladder up the side of the pier appeared to be in even worse shape than when they had set out late last night. There was cause for concern that the dilapidated structure might not hold his friend's weight. The young man could only hope that the water here was shallow, as he could not swim.

Once on dry land the elderly poet seemed to be reborn. He took off with unanticipated speed towards the inn's front gate. The young scribe had to scuttle to catch up with him.

At the gate, the young poet rapped delicately on the rough wood.

"That's no way to wake the dead!" roared his companion. He pounded on the double gate with a huge fist that looked the size and coloring of a young piglet. Almost immediately wooden shutters directly above them slammed open.

With an agility that belied his size and age, the older poet leaped back just as the contents of a chamber pot splashed against the hard earth. His young companion reflected that this was obviously a happenstance the great poet had come across before. While the old man's robes of brown over an inner layer of yellowed-white silk remained relatively unsoiled, the youngster's four layers of red embroidered in gold thread, green, cream and black silk did not fare as well.

"What do you want?" called down the enraged inn keeper. "Can't you see that it is the middle of the night?"

"Can't you see," retorted the famous poet, "the dawn's early light?"

"I am not opening my business this early!" shouted the inn keeper.

"Send a servant out with a jug of your finest wine," suggested Li Po, "and we will not bother you until lunch."

Yes, this was the famous Li Po, whose poems were well-known throughout the land. However, even the best of writers must moisten their lips. Once in possession of the large ceramic jug, he expertly turned it over the crook of his elbow and took a hearty swallow. Lips now lubricated, he released the jug to the care of his young friend.

They had been wandering the southern lands of the empire for weeks now, and the lesser poet knew that he could not match the great man swallow-for-swallow. He drank enough to take the edge off the morning's frost, no more. Then he suggested the two of them wander around the neighborhood until time for their mid-day meal. He hoped, that way, to keep his friend out of further trouble and himself out of further embarrassment.

They were in an agricultural part of the empire and so it was not surprising that they soon came across a farm. The farmer, still a young man, was hoeing weeds. Sweat poured from his face like rain.

"My friend, my comrade, my fellow farmer!" Li Po called out in his effervescent, dramatic fashion. He had once tried his hand at farming, when his son and daughter were young. He had made an absolute disaster of it, just as he had when he'd tried being a politician. But he still thought of himself as a farmer, and a member of the emperor's court. In fact, he also considered himself a soldier, although it was one occupation that he'd meant to try but never gotten around to.

The farmer was a naturally friendly fellow and smiled his toothless smile at them. "Come join us in a drink!" Li Po invited him. His young friend marveled at this display. You'd have thought he had been next-door neighbors with the farmer for years, so familiar was his manner towards him.

Leaning on his crude hoe, the agriculturalist thought this over. "It is not good to drink on an empty stomach," he finally pronounced. "Come up to the house with me, and my wife will provide us breakfast."

As they trudged up the slight slope to the man's abode, Li Po turned to his fellow poet and exclaimed, "See? Didn't I tell you that farmer up ahead looked like he had a fine head on his shoulders?" He had said no such thing. "Although he has spent his entire life on this farm and never ventured farther than the nearest market town, he is wise in the ways of men!"

The farmer's wife, looking out at the rise of strange voices and seeing her husband followed by two distinguished-looking gentlemen, rushed out to greet them. Li Po thereupon lavished praise upon her until her already-ruddy cheeks blushed red. The younger poet was just pleased to find that their place didn't smell too bad.

Breakfast was the usual of the poor peasant: cold, thin rice gruel. The bowls were small and Li Po had downed two before realizing what he was doing. This young man and wife would now have to do without gruel tomorrow morning.

The jug had been passed around to all and was now empty. The temporary sobriety gave the hero a sudden clarity. "Bring me paper!" he demanded of the farmer.

The couple had to pause, not quite sure if they owned such an item. "There is that letter that your uncle, the southern border official sent you," the wife reminded her husband.

"Is it blank on the other side?" Li Po asked. They thought that it probably was. "Then bring it!" their guest commanded.

The younger poet, and there is much disagreement as to his name, knew exactly what his master had in mind. He got out his ink stone and one of his lesser quality brushes. There was no need to waste the hairs of a finer brush on these two. The finer points of calligraphy would be totally lost on these yokels.

Although the old man was well past his prime, and losing his eyesight, his touch with a calligraphy brush was still as amazing as ever. The tip of the sable hairs seemed to just barely touch the rough paper. His wrist was as supple as a child's, his fingers sensitive to the multiple meanings of each written character.

When he was done, he sat back and gave a simple grunt of satisfaction. The younger poet looked over his shoulder and marveled at the sight. "One of your very best, Master!" he exhorted. There was no hint of flattery in his voice.

The poem started out with mere whips of lines, almost as thin and airy as a spider's thread. Then, as it progressed, the lines became thicker, more energetic. Subtle flourishes were hidden everywhere. By the last character, Li Po had applied the brush almost flat, emphasizing the poem's noble meaning.

"Should I read it to you?" the young poet politely asked.

"Please do," replied the farmer. He bowed low. Already he knew that he had been highly honored.

"My young friend," explained Li Po, "has excellent diction and enunciation. He comes from a very rich family and they afforded him the very best of tutors. There is no one better to speak my poem."

Both husband and wife bowed low. They held that position as their gift was read to them.

Stared into my wine cup

unaware of the growing dark

until falling blossoms

filled the folds of my robe's bark

Drunk, I stumbled to the moon

floating in the clear stream

where the birds had long flown away

A few men shared my dream.

The wife let out a surprised gasp before the recitation was even finished. "I remember my mother singing this song to me!" she exclaimed. "Until now, I did not fully appreciate the honor of your presence in our humble home!"

Li Po looked very pleased with himself. There was nothing he loved better in life than to be told how far and wide his fame had spread. It was the most intoxicating of wines.

"You can sell this poem anytime for good coin," said Li, "but if you can afford to hold on to it until I die, it will fetch a small fortune!"

Soon after, the old poet asked the farmer to show him his sturdiest tree. He settled in its shade and quickly fell asleep. His companion explain to the couple that they had not slept at all the night before.

"From sundown to sunrise, we drank, made up poems and watched the Empress Moon promenade across the sky." The farming couple went away impressed with how hard it must be to be a poet. So much work, to take all night!

By late afternoon the poets were back at the inn. Li Po had awoken with a terrible thirst. At first the innkeeper didn't want to serve them.

"No, I do not want any more of your poems as payment!" he growled in anger. "I already have enough of the worthless scribble to paper all my walls!"

"But you saw the letter I wrote to my father asking for more money," the protege protested. "You yourself posted it to the mail!" The innkeeper could not argue with this and in the end he relented. Besides, the jovial old man brought in much business. Amateur poets and lovers of verse came from miles around to see and hear the famous fossil.

That day, in fact, the crowd was greater than usual. So busy with the business of merriment were the two that it was well past sunset before they noticed the sun had left the sky. Li Po's most fervent fans insisted on joining them out on the lake and a small armada of dinghies had to be found to accommodate them all.

Finally, though, it was just the two of them out on the water, just as they had been the night before. The loons had long settled in to sleep and the only remaining sounds were of crickets, frogs and the soft lapping of water. Overhead, the gods had ground so much ink that the entire sky was black. If one looked in the opposite direction of the inn, it was not possible to tell the heavens from the horizon.

Occasionally, the calm was broken by the sound of a jug being raised to lips. Both poets contemplated the inky blackness of the still lake. "It is like the world has been blotted out by one large, bold character," the younger muttered, half to himself.

His elder had no time or interest in such a simile. The moon's reflection in the water was so clear, so faithful a reproduction, that he had a hard time telling which was which. If anything, the mirrored version seemed superior, as it appeared larger than its original.

"I hear the gods beckoning me, Du!" Li Po cried out. It was not his old friend Du Fu beside him, but the younger poet did not correct him. It was a distinct honor to be so confused with the other great poet of their age.

Li's long sleeve could just be made out as he waved out towards the moon's reflection. "See how Goddess Moon calls me! Is she not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen? How wide and round her face, how pale her countenance!"

"Yes, yes," grumbled the ersatz Du Fu. He was nursing a grudge. This would be the second night in a row that he would spend out in the freezing night air. How much warmer and more comfortable would a bed in the inn be!

Besides, Li Po had spoken of this fantasy for years. When well in his cups, he liked to boast that the gods had sent him down from heaven. Sooner or later, he promised everyone within earshot, the gods would call him back home.

Now he, too, looked out from their little swaying boat at the crisp, sharp image of the moon upon the lake. "You are too beautiful for me to resist!" he heard the old man cry out in passion.

The bright orb, silvery white, hypnotized the young man. Only after the fact was he able to remember that the boat had suddenly begun rocking back and forth more than before. Only the sound of splashing water and the icy spray upon his skin brought him back to reality.

"Li Po?" he called out to the empty seat next to him. "Li Po?" Being a bright young man, he immediately hit upon what had happened. He sighed. Whether it was a sigh of sorrow, regret or resignation, he could not say.

"I am sorry that I cannot swim, Master," he called out into the ink. Then it came to him that it might be for the best. Li Po had gone home to his ancestors. He looked up in the sky, at the still, bright, eternal moon.

the end

November 18, 2020 22:29

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1 comment

Yuk Yuk
23:21 Nov 26, 2020

Beautiful descriptions, I liked it. Refreshing. Keep writing.

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