In early autumn, when the trees had yet to lose their leaves, when skylarks and pipits were only beginning to migrate south, Chen Hsi-wei was making his way through Jizhou. The peasant/poet and itinerant maker of straw sandals was heading to Taiyuan, a large town where he hoped to buy an inkstone, a new brush, and two or three small scrolls. His supply of cash being, to put it mildly, negligible, he set up his sign in the villages he encountered along the way soliciting customers. The nights were still warm enough that he could economize by sleeping in the open.
He arrived in the village of Anshun shortly after noon and went straight to the communal well. It was by a wall which formed one side of the town square. There were some stalls offering local produce, household goods, bolts of cloth, and two old women with braziers selling dumplings. Everyone took note of the stranger. A few looked with interest, most with suspicion. One of the old women nodded at His-wei; it might have been a sign of welcome or perhaps in hope of a sale. He gave her a little bow and a shrug.
Hsi-wei leaned his sign against the wall.
The best season for selling straw sandals is, of course, spring when peasants need a fresh pair. But the end of summer is next best because some will want replacements on hand for the coming year, and parents will need new sandals for children who have outgrown their old ones.
Hsi-wei took a few orders, mostly for children. Small sandals require as much work as large ones but he always charged less. An old man, who smiled when told the price, ordered three pairs for his grandchildren. He took a length of string from his jacket and, with a small knife, cut three pieces. “That’s about how big their soles are,” he said. He handed Hsi-wei the strings then held out his hand to seal the bargain.
“A good price,” he said. “My name’s Chen. In my time, I’ve worn out I don’t know how many sandals. I’m seventy years old.”
Hsi-wei took the old man’s hand. “My name’s also Chen and I’m exactly half your age.”
Though the empire was as chockful of Chens as of Wangs, Fengs, and Zhous, the old peasant had to find out if they were related.
Hsi-wei told Mr. Chen that he had been born in a village near the capital, Daxing.
“Ah,” said Mr. Chen, “then probably not. But,” he added with a twinkle in his eyes, “you never know.”
“Has your family always lived here?”
“As far as I know we Chens have been here since the Qin Dynasty—maybe even before that.”
“Do you like it here in Anshun?”
The old man looked surprised by the question. “Like it? But it’s home.”
“Is life hard?”
“That depends on the weather—and the landlords.”
“Are there many landlords here?
“There are three, but two hardly count. Most of the land belongs to the Fei family, even after the Emperor’s reforms.”
“Are the Feis good landlords?”
“The old one, Fei Caishan, was good. If there was a flood, he forgave half the rent, and during the terrible drought ten years back, he canceled all of it.”
“Then there is a new landlord?”
The old man nodded and frowned. “Caishan’s younger brother, Fei Hao. No sooner did he take over than he raised everybody’s rent. We miss Caishan.”
“Did the old landlord die of sickness?”
“No. It’s four years since he was fished out of the river. They said he tripped, hit his head on a piling, fell in and drowned. That’s what we were told.”
“You don’t believe that’s what happened?”
Mr. Chen looked around, drew close and whispered. “The story could be true. The magistrate swallowed it. But who hits his head on a piling and drowns?”
Hsi-wei asked Mr. Chen where he could get some good straw and, with the thought of finding a cheap place to work and bed down, whether the local tavern had a stable.
Mr. Chen smiled. “You need straw and a place to sleep?”
Mr. Chen smiled cannily. “Well, sandal-maker, I can offer both, if you’re not fussy about sleeping next to a pig pen and you’ll make one of the pairs of sandals free.” Hsi-wei accepted the offer and spent the night at Chen’s cottage working on his sandals and sleeping for a few hours.
The next day Hsi-wei returned to the town square working at his orders and securing two more. He noticed a slim, well-dressed woman at the stall that sold cloth. She kept turning to stare at him. At last, she came over. Up close, the woman appeared careworn.
Hsi-wei got to his feet. “How can I help you, My Lady?”
The woman examined Hsi-wei uncertainly. “This may seem an odd question, but do you know a poem called ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’?”
“I do,” Hsi-wei replied, wondering, not for the first time, whether other sandal-makers had been asked a similar question.
“How about the one people call ‘Letter to Yang Jian’?”
“Yes, My Lady, I know that as well.”
“Oh. And might your name be Chen? Chen Hsi-wei?”
The woman’s face lit up. “Are you the author of those poems?”
Hsi-wei made a modest bow.
“Oh! I was told that the poet was a sandal-maker, a peasant who travels all over, but I didn’t believe it. Then it’s really true?”
“As you see, My Lady. Would you like a pair of sandals?”
The woman who was wearing a fine pair of leather slippers smiled. “No,” she said, “but I would be grateful if you would come to dinner tonight.”
“Dressed like this?”
“Dressed however you like. My husband has been unwell of late, depressed, anxious, and morose. I worry about him. Perhaps you could cheer him up. He has little interest in poetry, but I occasionally read to him. When I read him your famous letter, he said it was a fine thing. His very words. A fine thing. It’s been a long time since he said that about anything. Oh, I’m sorry. I ought to have introduced myself. I’m the wife of Fei Hao. My name is Yu-ming. Anshun is not large and our villa is nearby. It has two wings and a portico with four red pillars. The roof tiles are yellow. Just go down the road a quarter of a li and you’ll see it. Will you come? Perhaps at sundown?”
Three hours later, Hsi-wei cleaned himself up with well water, put his sign and tools in his pack, and walked to the Fei villa. It was a large building. Its two-story wings were obviously additions to the older and more elegant building. An enclosed garden in the back was big enough for a pasture.
Fei Yu-ming welcomed him warmly and conducted him inside. The villa’s furniture, like the building, was a mix of the antique and the new, old carved chairs, tables, and couches with many colorful new silk pillows.
Yu-ming summoned her husband. Fei Hao was less than enthusiastic about the arrival of his badly dressed guest but managed a stiff courtesy. He had the drawn and gloomy face of a man who did not relish his food, enjoy his garden, that of one who slept badly and who had shed weight.
“This is Chen Hsi-wei,” said Yu-ming, “the poet.”
“Yes. You told me he’d be coming to dinner.”
Fei Hao ate little of the fine meal, which included both fish and pork courses, though he consumed a good deal of wine. He spoke little. The conversation was led by his wife, who tried hard to engage her husband in it.
“Hao, Master Hsi-wei tells me he was educated in Daxing. Remember how much you enjoyed your trip to the capital with Caishan all those years ago?”
Hao grunted. “Yes. My brother liked it there.”
She reminded Fei of the poem he had said was fine then asked Hsi-wei to tell the story of the end of Yuchi. Hsi-wei explained that the ruthless bandit had been thrown down a well by peasants before the Emperor’s cavalry caught up with him.
“Just what he deserved, and all because of your poem.”
“I doubt that, My Lady.”
“So do I,” said Hao. “It seems unlikely that the poem led to the cavalry being sent to find him and the peasants dealing with him. I don’t know much about poems, but it seems to me that most of them are about things that already happened, not what ought to happen. I liked that poem because of its power to make people indignant.”
“And to bring about just punishment. I remember you saying that about it.”
To this Hao said nothing.
After dinner, Yu-ming begged Hsi-wei to stay the night. Fei looked surprised then indifferent. “Our daughter Hua married years ago,” explained his wife, “and our son Yuze is staying with his cousins in Shandang. We have many empty rooms. Why don’t you men talk over the rest of the wine?” She looked pleadingly at Hsi-wei who said he was grateful for the invitation and would be pleased to spend some time with his host, if Fei wished it.
“Excellent!” said Yu-ming. “I’ll show our guest to his room, Hoa, then send him back while I put it in order.”
Hsi-wei followed Yu-ming into one of the villa’s wings. As soon as they were out of earshot, she spoke hurriedly to Hsi-wei.
“You see what a state he’s in. I believe it’s the shock of his dear brother’s death. Usually that kind of grief is sharp at first then lessens with time. But with Hao it’s just the opposite. He was all right at first but now he’s worse every day. Depressed, distracted. He takes pleasure in nothing. He’s neglecting business, and I often find him just staring into space. I don’t know what to do. Do you think you could help to raise his spirits?”
Hsi-wei felt pity for Yu-ming. “I’ve seen his condition, but I don’t think I can alleviate it.”
“Oh, do try. You are so good with words.”
Hsi-wei returned to the dining room where Hao sat with his head in his hands before his cup and the wine jug. Without looking up, he said dully, resigned to his wife’s whim, “We can sit in my study.” He picked up the jug and motioned for Hsi-wei to bring their cups.
In the corridor, Hao came to a sudden halt, staggered, then looked furtively left and right.
“Are you all right, Mr. Fei?”
“Fine,” he said, though fine is just what he did not look.
Hao’s study was furnished more for comfort than work. There was a small desk beneath a shelf for scrolls, but the desk was empty and the shelf appeared too neat to have been in recent use. An upholstered couch and two old-fashioned armchairs, all piled high with pillows, provided seating. There was also a round table on which Hao deposited the wine jug before setting himself down on the couch with a loud groan and pointed to one of the chairs.
Plainly making a reluctant effort, Fei asked a question, though without sounding particularly eager to hear the answer. “So, Master Hsi-wei, cobbler and poet, peasant and scholar, how did you come to write that famous letter of yours?”
Hsi-wei examined Hao’s face closely to judge the effect of his reply. “It was because of a ghost.”
Fei looked almost alarmed.
“Yes. She visited me three times, always at night. Of course, I was probably just dreaming.”
“Then you never saw the ghost during the day?”
“No. She told me she was one of those raped and slaughtered by Yuchi when he and his men attacked her village. She begged for justice and when I asked what I was to do, she told me to write a poem about Yuchi and to whom I should address it.”
“Just a dream, then?”
“It’s what I choose to believe.”
“And yet you wrote the poem.”
“As you know.”
Fei was quiet for a moment. “It’s strange,” he said. “Strange that you would dream of this woman at all, let alone three times. Strange that she would come to you and strange that you would do what she asked.”
“Not so strange, sir. I take my themes when they are given, and this is often in dreams. I suppose my mind made up the ghost and her plea by itself. Like many others, I had recently heard of Yuchi ‘s outrages. And being a peasant, I shared the feelings of his helpless victims and the wish for justice.”
“And for vengeance too?”
“Yes, that as well. And then too as a student I had read a version of the ancient legend of King Xuan of Zhou and his advisor Du Bo, the Duke of Tangdu. It is a story about haunting. Perhaps you know it?”
“No,” said Fei, revealing his interest by leaning forward. “Look Master Chen, I haven’t been sleeping well. My mother used to tell me stories at bedtime. Why don’t you tell me this legend. Perhaps it will help me sleep.”
“Very well,” said Hsi-wei. “All this is said to have happened nearly a thousand years ago when Xuan became the eleventh king of the Zhou Dynasty after the Gong He regency. He restored central authority and dealt effectively with all his enemies both inside and outside his borders. Xuan appeared confident but he was superstitious and bridled at any challenge to the measures he took or the policies he announced. Like most superstitious people, he was quick to believe in prophecies and took seriously even improbable rumors.”
“Prophecies may come true,” said Fei sententiously, “but rumors—rumors are poison. I’ve had to deal with them myself.”
“According to the story, King Xuan was confronted by both. One of his governors sent word of a rumor that a soothsayer in the Blue Mountains predicted a young woman would bring about the ruin of Jianshou, one the most prosperous town in the kingdom. The king summoned his generals at once and ordered the execution of all the young women not only in Jianshou but also the surrounding villages as well, more than a thousand, according to the legend. Xuan’s oldest, most loyal and upright advisor was the Duke Tangdu, Do Bu. He had been Xuan’s best commander during his war. They were like brothers. Do Bu happened to be in the chamber when Xuan issued his cruel decree. He stepped forward, kowtowed to the king, then got to his feet and spoke forthrightly. ‘I beg you to rescind this order. It is illogical, unjust, and unnecessary—wrong in every way. The prophecy—if there really was one—didn’t even say this dangerous woman would be found in Jianshou. It is abominable to kill innocent women on the strength of a rumor. Your decision does you no honor and will make you many enemies. Such an order is unworthy of the King of Zhou.’”
“Enraged, Xuan, ordered his guards to seize Do and lock him up.
“Toward dawn, the king had a dream. A hideous woman appeared. Her skin was green, which proved she was a demon. ‘I’ve come to warn you, Xuan. If you kill Do Bu, he will return to haunt you. Take heed.’
“The king awoke furious with Do Bu. He blamed the Duke of Tangdu, once his brother-in arms, for the nightmare and ordered his beheading before breakfast. The murders of a thousand women took a whole week. When his general reported the job done, Xuan felt no remorse; on the contrary, he felt relief and, of course, nobody ventured any criticism of his actions, not in public. Xuan’s kingdom was at peace, the frontiers secure; Jianshou was underpopulated but not destroyed, and life flowed untroubled for twelve months.
“According to the legend, exactly a year after the execution of Do Bu, King Xuan began to dream of him and, according to one version, actually to see him. At first, the ghost simply stood by the king’s bed, staring at him balefully. This recurred night after night for another year. Like you, Mr. Fei, Xuan slept badly.”
Hoa Fei made a frown and a fist. “What do you mean like me?” he demanded.
“But don’t you remember telling me that you’ve not slept well of late?”
Fei relaxed his fist but not the frown. “Yes, that’s so. Go on.”
“So, King Xuan became irritable and melancholy. He spoke harshly to his ministers, guards, servants, wives, and concubines. He added new crimes and crueler punishments to his penal code. He raised taxes on both landlords and peasants. Then his visions became still worse. He saw—or imagined he saw—the ghost of Do Bu lurking in corners, behind pillars, in doorways. Do Bu spoke and always the same words: illogical, unnecessary, unjust, abominable, unworthy.’
“The king fell ill with a fever and his appetite deserted him. All the delicacies prepared to tempt him he found disgusting. The bad dreams and hallucinations persisted.
“On the last night of his life, King Xuan saw Do Bu at the foot of his bed. He held a bow and behind him stood a crowd of young women—red ones, orange ones, green, purple, and black. Do Bu spoke. ‘Confess your error, make amends to the families of these poor women, humble yourself, give up your throne.’
“‘Get away!’ yelled the king so loudly that the guards burst in and, close behind them, his first wife.
“‘What is it?’ she cried.
“‘Don’t you see them?’
“‘Get away!’ Xuan shouted again looking right through his wife and the guards. Then, focusing on his wife, he said more softly, ‘It’s nothing, only a dream. Go away.’
“As soon as the wife and guards had withdrawn, he again saw Do Bu and the thousand women. Do never took his eyes off the king. He reached behind him and took an arrow from the quiver on his back, placed it on the bow and shot it into Xuan’s chest.
“In the morning, before breakfast, the king was found dead in his bed.”
Fei looked pale. “It’s a dreadful story.”
“But only a story, just a legend.”
“Then you don’t believe in ghosts, that the dead can haunt the living? There are many stories about ghosts.”
“Yes, stories. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe that the guilty see them in dreams, even in hallways and behind curtains.”
Fei sank back on the couch. “It’s late and I’m tired,” he said peevishly.
Hsi-wei pointed to the jug. “But we haven’t finished the wine.”
“Never mind the wine, poet. Will you be leaving in the morning?”
“That’s my intention, with gratitude for your generous hospitality.”
Fei nodded and staggered to his feet.
By the time the household rose late in the morning, Hsi-wei had delivered his sandals and was already on the road to Taiyuan. Along with a note of gratitude, he left a poem for the Feis, the one people call ‘The Mogwai.’
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published ten collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; three books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.