MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It was a cold morning in early spring when Li Du came to the top of a small hill and saw below him the city of Dayan. The sun had not yet touched the valley, and the only perceptible movement was in the pale smoke that blurred the rigid curves of the tile and wood rooftops.
Beyond the city to the north, a mountain emerged slowly into the dawn. Its base was blue and featureless, a shape without dimension against the brightening sky. But on the distant summit, the snow and ice glowed golden pink in anticipation of sunrise.
Li Du could see the pass that would take him over the mountain and down to the river valley on the other side. But between him and that ridge lay Dayan, unavoidable. With a small sigh that puffed into the cold air, he rose, rinsed his bowl in a stream that ran by the hilltop temple where he had stopped to drink tea, put out the little fire he had made, and began the descent into the valley.
It took him a little over an hour to arrive at the houses on the edge of town. By that time the sun had risen and the road was crowded with travelers, farmers, and horse caravans. The farther into the city he went, the more packed the narrow streets became. Soon he was moving at a shuffle, surrounded by people and cows and horses, all bumping and jostling and making noise. The ground was littered with dung, peels, chewed and trampled sticks of sugarcane, gristly chicken bones, and discarded rice disintegrating in puddles of water. He tried at once not to step on porcelain cups, not to hit his head on copper kettles strung on ropes, and not to trip over the dogs that scampered or slept or wandered in search of bones.
Li Du was a man of middle age. He wore old clothes that were neatly patched, and a velvet hat that had lost its shape and faded from black to graying blue. A rough woven bag was slung across his back, and he carried a book, his pointer finger inserted between two pages to mark his place.
Vendors misread his small, polite smile, and called to him to look at what they were selling. He stopped each time he was addressed, and with raised eyebrows and creased brow, gave dutiful attention to the items for sale. But when the merchants saw that he did not intend to buy anything, they turned their attention to other customers, and Li Du continued on his way.
He did not hear any Chinese amid the clamor, only a confusion of different languages and dialects, most of them unfamiliar. An empire so large, he thought, that the people at its borders speak a different language from those in the capital is like a person who cannot feel his own fingers. Li Du took off his hat and scratched his head, wishing for a moment that he had remembered to neaten his hair. It was bristly as a brush on top where it should have been shaved, and he imagined that the soldiers in pale gray standing at a corner gave him reproving looks. Lose your forelock or lose your head, the saying went. He replaced his cap and decided to wait a little longer before asking for directions.
He came to the street of tea and regarded the dusty, humble leaves with some solidarity. A month earlier he had traveled through the hot jungles where they had been picked. He remembered, as perhaps they did, the lush mountains on which they had grown, where heavy flowers stirred like slow fish in the mist. These leaves had been dried, knotted in cloth, and enclosed in bamboo sheathes, ready to be strapped to saddles and taken north by trade caravans.
As they traveled, they would retain the taste of their home, of the flowers, of the smoke and metal heat of the fires that had shriveled them. But they would also absorb the scents of the caravan: horse sweat, the musk of meadow herbs, and the frosty loam of the northern forests. The great connoisseurs of tea could take a sip and follow in their mind the entire journey of the leaves, a mapped trajectory of taste and fragrance.
On another street, bridles with polished bells dangled from hooks, and smooth wooden saddles were stacked in rickety piles. Sandalwood, jasmine, and a drift of rose belied the frost that still chilled the ground and the air. The road became hazy with the smoke of lit incense. Beyond that, the decadent perfumes were overcome by a salty, metallic odor, and when he turned the corner, Li Du found himself among the fish sellers.
Here, everyone was stepping carefully to avoid the inflated guts that spilled like bubbles over the edges of buckets, surrounded by slippery puddles of water and blood. As he passed a shallow trough teeming with carp, one of the fish threw itself from the water and landed on the ground. It began to beat its body wildly in the dust. Li Du tucked his book securely under one arm, bent down, scooped up the fish, and dropped it back in the water.
"What are you, some kind of monk?" the seller asked. "Why did you do that?"
Facing the gruff merchant, Li Du's confidence in his private reasoning wavered. Before he could say anything, the man shrugged. "Well," he said, "at first I thought you were stealing my fish. That is all."
Never adjust your hat in a plum orchard, thought Li Du, and then said, "I was wondering, could you tell me where to find the magistrate's residence?"
"Just up that way." The man gestured. His hand was reddened and chapped with cold, and crusted with torn and gleaming fish scales. "Big place with a wall around it. Easy to find once you're out of the market."
"I had not expected such a crowd," said Li Du. "Is it market day?"
The merchant grunted. "Never crowds like this on a regular market day. Been this way for a week now, and thousands more on the way. Don't you know? It's the-"
The man's words were lost in the clamor of haggling voices around them, and Li Du shook his head, confused. The merchant opened his mouth to repeat what he had said, but at that moment he was distracted by a customer. He waved again vaguely in the direction he had indicated before, his attention now on making a sale. Li Du nodded his thanks and left.
Away from the market, the streets became quieter. He passed several teahouses, several brothels disguised as teahouses, and a wine shop crowded with large stoneware vessels. It occurred to him that a hot cup of wine would go some way toward making his errand worthwhile.
A colorful sign pasted to the wall of a house brought him to an abrupt stop. The words that had caught his attention were painted in blazing red: The Emperor to Arrive. After he was sure he had not misread, he looked at the top of the paper. It said: Spring Festival Events and Performances.
Li Du's eyes moved restlessly from one bright announcement to another: At noon on the field of the dragon, the great singer Madame Wu. Below that: Performances of the Popular Plays: The Departure of the Soul, A Visit to the Garden, and The Dream. And written in gold paint: The Emperor Commands an Eclipse of the Sun.
This explained the crowds, the chaos of the market, and the fishmonger's words. The Emperor of China was coming. Li Du again removed his hat, rubbed his head thoughtfully, and put his hat back on. It seemed that he had chosen an unlucky time to come to Dayan.
Copyright © 2015 by Elsa Hart