By the time Chen Hsi-wei retired from his life of wandering through the Empire leaving straw sandals and verses in his wake, the Sui Dynasty had come to an end. To the relief of everyone, Emperor Yangdi had been assassinated and a promising new dynasty had just begun, its glories still in the future. The new Governor of Chiangling had given the poet a modest cottage three li from the city with a small plot for growing vegetables. Here Hsi-wei settled down and occasionally received visitors such as Fang Xuan-ling, the Tang minister whose record of their conversations is still read with interest.
Sending and receiving letters had been haphazard while he was on the road; but now that he had a fixed abode, Hsi-wei was able to carry on a proper correspondence with old friends. One of his first letters was to the landscape painter Ko Qing-zhao, a friend from their student days under the stern Master Shen Kuo. Years earlier, Ko, who held a government post in Hsuan, hosted Hsi-wei for a lengthy and memorable visit. That was in the days when Ko was mastering the art of Shan Shui painting. Ko’s reply to Hsi-wei’s letter included the news that Ko had been promoted to first deputy magistrate and had gotten married. “Yes, I’ve given up my bachelor’s room and my studio in the old shed and moved into a proper villa with my wife. The room I don’t miss but I do regret the shed; however, it collapsed long ago. There’s more money now but also much more work and hardly any time for pictures. Apart from that sadness, I can report that I am a happy man. Mai-ling is gentle, capable, and wise. I love her even more now than I did on our wedding day. It seems a paradoxical request, but now that you’ve finally settled, could you consider visiting us? I would come to you in Chiangling but I cannot get leave from my work at the magistracy. No need to tell you what a joy it would be to see you, old friend, how welcome we would make you. Mai-ling has heard a lot about you, and she loves your poems.”
Hsi-wei replied that he would be pleased to visit, though the journey to Hsuan would be long. Now that he was a proper peasant with crops to tend, he would need to see to his planting but, once the vegetables were established and the weeds torn up, he would undertake the trip. So, if it was acceptable to Ko and Mai-ling, he would try to come in early summer.
After more than a year off the road, Hsi-wei found the going physically taxing at first but emotionally a pleasure. He took his old sign and his tools with him and, as he had done for so long, made straw sandals along the way. He stayed in taverns and stables, barns and on riverbanks, taking note of the crops along the way and meeting all kinds of people. He was sometimes recognized in the larger towns and offered hospitality in the villas of officials. He was twice asked to dine by rich widows who claimed enthusiasm for his poems but may have only wanted to show off a celebrity to their friends. Hsi-wei’s legs strengthened and he enjoyed himself. The weather was fine that year; even the rain was gentle. In the towns the granaries were full. In the countryside he saw prosperity, not famine; peace, not war. The poet was pleased that the Mandate of Heaven was sitting well on Emperor Gaozu.
Hsi-wei arrived in Hsuan in the middle of the afternoon and stopped by the public well for a drink of water and to ask directions. Women selling vegetables and fruit, men selling fish and meat were spread around the square. He went up to an old woman offering dumplings, ordered two, and asked if she knew the way to the villa of Deputy Magistrate Ko.
She smiled. “He is a good man, that Ko. He married Mai-ling,” she said, and told him the way. Hsi-wei pondered her remark about the marriage.
He considered going first to the magistracy then thought he might find his friend at home.
Ko’s villa was modest but neat and trim and very well kept. There was a small portico with red-painted pillars and flowering plants in front as well as two plum trees.
Hsi-wei knocked. The woman who appeared was too well dressed and too self-possessed to be a servant. Mai-ling was younger than Hsi-wei expected, perhaps thirty, one of those women whose good looks fade slowly because their beauty comes from the inside. Her face was smooth and pleasing. She struck Hsi-wei as humble and modest but also contented; yet her face expressed kindness rather than complacency. She regarded the dusty traveler with an uncertain smile.
Hsi-wei bowed. “Mrs. Ko?” he said.
The woman clapped her hands and gave a little cry. “Oh, you’ve come! We weren’t sure you would. My husband is going to be so happy.”
“I’m glad to be here, Mrs. Ko.”
“You must call me, Mai-ling, Master Chen.”
“And you must call me Hsi-wei.”
Mai-ling beamed. “Ah, I’m forgetting myself!” She pulled the door open wide. “Please, please come in. Set down your bag. Would you like some tea, something to eat?”
The door opened into a small vestibule and a broad parlor with corridors off it to the right and left. Everything was clean, tidy. Through a wide window at the back Hsi-wei saw peonies, geraniums, and irises, a magnolia tree and a substantial vegetable plot. He knew this was Mai-ling’s work. While Ko loved looking at landscapes but he didn’t care for putting his hands in the dirt.
Mai-ling fussed over him. “Would you like to wash, to change clothes while I make tea?” asked Mai-ling. “I can give you one of Ko’s spare robes.”
“Thank you. If it’s convenient, it would be good to get the dust off me, and the sweat.”
“We have our own well. I’ll fill a bucket for you.”
“Let me do that.”
“No, I’ll see to it.”
She looked at Hsi-wei and smiled.
“I suppose you’re wondering if Qing-zhao has left me without any help, aren’t you? Not so. I do have a helper, but Ming-mei’s mother fell ill last week and I sent her home to care for her.”
Hsi-wei took note that Mai-ling said helper rather than servant.
She pointed to the corridor on the left. “Your room has been waiting for you as eagerly as we have. It’s just down there. Would you like to see it while I fetch the water?”
The room was cozy, spotless, and decorated with some of Ko’s drawings, studies, Hsi-wei guessed, for his landscapes. There was a fine brush drawing of a waterfall crashing down on huge boulders, another of a stand of bamboo trees, each leaf painted lovingly, a third showed a wide view of a river winding through a forest. There were three small boats on the river, each heading in a different direction. Hsi-wei smiled. So typical of Ko, to conceal a bit of political commentary in one of his landscapes.
“The bucket is ready. I’ll warm the water first then you can wash in the garden. I’ve laid a robe out for you on the bench. Just leave your shirt by the bucket and I’ll launder it for you.” Then she gave a slight bow, said she would begin preparing the vegetables for the evening meal, and discreetly withdrew.
Hsi-wei washed his torso in the garden. The warm water felt wonderful. When he was clean, he poured the water out where he thought it would do the most good.
He was still in the garden when Ko arrived and heard Mai-ling. “He’s here!”
Ko rushed to the garden, threw his arms around Hsi-wei, and began chattering.
“Wonderful! Retirement obviously agrees with you. You look so healthy. Can you forgive me for not being here when you arrived? Are you all worn out? Are you famished? Oh, it’s so good to see you. Really, you haven’t changed a bit.”
Hsi-wei smiled at this lie, knowing he had changed considerably. So had Ko. He had put on weight and lost a lot of his hair. In his formal robe, he looked like a proper deputy magistrate, not at all like a painter. But he was still the same man, a fountain of questions.
“How long did the journey take?”
Hsi-wei told him.
“Did you have adventures on the way?”
“Nothing worth a mention. My thoughts were on my destination.”
“Ah. And how do you like being a man of property, all settled down? Have you given up weaving straw sandals?”
“I made many on the way here. At home, I sometimes make presents of them to my neighbors, especially the children.”
“Well, I hope you’re still making poems, too.”
Hsi-wei fingered the folds in his robe. “I hope you don’t mind that Mai-ling loaned me this robe. I noticed there are no paint spots on it. Are you still making paintings?”
Ko made a sour face. “You know how to strike the sore spot.”
“Pardon me. I know your duties have increased but hoped that you still had time for work.”
“Work? I have plenty of work, for my duties. Painting is play and for play there’s been no time. But never mind that. Tell me what you think of Mai-ling. Did she receive you properly?”
“Properly? She took my shirt to wash; she gave me your robe. She made tea for me. She prepared a comfortable room for me, too. What could be a more gracious reception for a dirty, sweaty stranger who shows up unannounced? Your wife is a gem, Ko. You chose well.”
Ko raised an eyebrow. “But?”
“I saw something in your look. Is it a reservation?”
“Just that I was surprised to learn that you’d married. I’d thought you were as unlikely to do that as myself.”
“Well, it surprised me, too. There’s a story in it. I’ll tell you later.”
Mai-ling joined them in the garden.
“The meal’s nearly ready. Shall I put out a jug of wine?”
“Two!” cried Ko and gave her a hug. “It’s a grand occasion. We’re entertaining the author of your favorite poem, ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’. The author of ‘My Skull’! Together, this man and I outwitted those two wicked landlords over the forged wills. You’ve heard the story.”
Mai-ling brushed Ko’s elbow and smiled at him as if to say, “Oh, yes. I’ve heard it dozens of times!”
Dinner was simple but abundant and delicious, with both pork pancakes and chicken with fresh snap beans in sauce. Mai-ling sat only briefly and said little while they ate. When Ko and Hsi-wei began to reminisce about their time in Daxing, she fetched the second jug of yellow wine and excused herself.
After she left, Hsi-wei congratulated Ko on his wife once again and asked for the story of how they married.
Ko put his finger to his lips, got up, disappeared for a few seconds, then returned.
“I wanted to make sure she’d closed the door and couldn’t hear us. Now tell me honestly, do you think I’m too old for her?”
“Not if you married for love.”
“And if it were for something else?”
Hsi-wei looked at his friend quizzically.
“I didn’t say it was,” Ko muttered. “Maybe you don’t approve of old men marrying young women? It’s common enough.”
“No, I don’t like the custom,” said Hsi-wei slowly. “As you say, the marrying off of young girls to old men as second or third wives isn’t uncommon. In my opinion, it isn’t uncommon enough.”
Ko pretended to be offended. “Then you do think I’m too old to have married Mai-ling?”
“Not at all! Anyway, you’re not too old and she’s not too young. What’s the age difference, ten years? Twelve at most?”
Ko persisted with the argument, though he was only teasing Hsi-wei, igniting his friend’s peasant resentment. “For a girl to become a wife is to have a home, a family, some security for the future. There are many more poor girls than rich men. People say it’s a sensible arrangement.”
Hsi-wei replied tartly. “There should be even fewer rich men and more well-off young ones.”
Ko patted the table and laughed. “Always for the underdogs, aren’t you? Well, in this case I agree with you; and, speaking as a deputy magistrate, more equality would mean more justice. But then poets are dreamers.”
“Perhaps so. But sometimes I think every reality was once a poet’s dream.”
“Or a painter’s. Only the dreams get distorted, don’t they?”
“Nightmares are also dreams,” said Hsi-wei bitterly. Then, in a brighter tone, he reassured Ko. “In any case, you certainly aren’t too old for Mai-ling. Besides, you didn’t buy her.”
“No, I don’t believe I did.”
“You aren’t sure?”
Ko sighed. “Here’s the story I promised to tell you earlier, the story of how solitude turned to loneliness and pity to love.”
“A story with a happy ending, I think,” said Hsi-wei with a grin.
“For me, very happy,” said Ko. “Three years ago, the magistrate and I were investigating the murder of a lumber-merchant. The man had been attacked by robbers on the road, his money taken, his wagonload or rosewood stolen. Two years before that, this merchant had taken a second wife.”
“How old was the murdered man?”
“About sixty. The girl not yet twenty. She was the youngest child of a peasant, a widower who had owed money to the merchant. You understand?”
“All too clearly.”
“Well, it was the usual thing. The first wife was jealous, furious over the marriage. She hated the girl, lorded it over her, treated her harshly and complained to her husband. The merchant neglected to change his will when he married for the second time; and, as he was childless and had no living brothers, the whole estate went to the first wife. She didn’t even wait for the funeral before throwing the girl out. People weren’t pleased, but, when she was criticized, the woman justified herself on the ground that the second wife hadn’t borne a son.”
“The girl was now a widow, destitute and with nowhere to turn.”
“What of her father?”
“Another too-familiar story, I’m afraid. The summer before we had two floods. The first was bad, the second worse. Her father’s land was near the river and his crops were drowned. The poor man hanged himself.”
“That’s terrible but yes, it happens all too often.”
“As it happened, I knew a local landlord, a good man with a kind wife, both up in years. The couple had just sent away their servant for stealing from them. They thought that punishment enough and declined to file a charge. I persuaded this couple to take on the young widow to cook and clean for them. I visited from time to time just to see how the arrangement was working out. I took note of how humble she was, how modest and grateful, how honorably she served the old couple. They quickly grew fond of her. Their villa had a large garden that had been badly neglected. On her own initiative, the girl made beautifying it her special project. During my visits, I’d sit on a bench while she worked in the garden. I found myself looking out for plants to offer her–ferns, rose bushes, myrtle. I visited more and more, even after my promotion. She was always glad to see me, and so grateful it made me blush. . . . I don’t know. Hsi-wei, do you think seeing her was taking the place of all the painting I wasn’t doing? Does that seem possible to you?”
Hsi-wei smiled. “Not impossible. One kind of love can be replaced by another.”
Ko grunted then poured out more yellow wine. “Well, maybe that was it, then. A new love.”
“And the young widow—the humble servant, the grateful gardener—of course that was Mai-ling.”
Ko grinned. “So, you really don’t think it’s just another case of an old man with a little money offering a refuge to an attractive young woman with none?”
Hsi-wei shook his head. “I’ve seen how you are with her and, still more to the point, how she is with you. Mai-ling was no longer a child and she had a choice.”
“That’s true. She was content with the old couple and might have refused me. But, as you say, she’s not a child. She’s suffered much. That’s what makes me wonder.”
The following morning, Ko left for the Magistracy and Hsi-wei for the marketplace to find customers. Mai-ling gave him the name of a peasant from he could get fresh straw and said she was going to make bing cakes to take along with a basket of fresh vegetable to Ming-mei and her mother.
Ko and Hsi-wei walked toward the center of Hsuan. “It’s a good woman who helps the help,” the poet said to the painter as they separated.
In the marketplace, Hsi-wei took several orders then found his way to the peasant who sold him good straw and also four of his wife’s dumplings, plus a cup of tea for free.
When he returned to the villa, Mai-ling was in the garden pulling weeds. Hsi-wei watched her for a while, thinking how his friend had visited her in another garden and fallen in love. He pondered whether life really had replaced art for Ko and if his own case had been the opposite. As he so often did, Hsi-wei recalled how it was leaving Tian Miao in Daxing all those years ago that had sent him on his wandering life and made a consolation of composing his verses.
Mai-ling looked up and saw Hsi-wei holding his bundle of straw. She got to her feet at once.
“Welcome back. I see you’ve had some orders. Good. I hope there are hundreds!”
Hsi-wei laughed. “Hundreds?”
“That way we can keep you here until you’ve fulfilled them.”
Hsi-wei laughed. “More likely you’ll ask me to go. You know the proverb about fish heads and houseguests, that both stink after two days. But I’m in no hurry to leave, Mai-ling. Your food’s delicious, my bed’s soft, and the company’s excellent. Besides, it’s a long walk back to Chiangling.”
Mai-ling sat down on the bench and motioned for Hsi-wei to sit beside her.”
“How are Ming-mei and her mother?”
“Ming-mei’s worried and so am I. Her mother is very ill. Fever.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.”
They sat silently for a moment.
“Your poems,” Mai-ling began hesitantly.
She faltered then said, “It’s an honor to meet you.”
Hsi-wei inclined his head. “Do my poems measure up to your husband’s paintings?”
Mai-ling looked shocked but then put her hand to her mouth and laughed.
“You’re teasing me. Well, I love those paintings as much as I do the painter, or almost as much. Tell me, is it really true, that story of how the two of you outsmarted the greedy landlords with their forged wills and forced the court to turn that land over to the peasants and the villa to the faithful old servant and his family?”
“Yes, it’s all true. We had a fine time doing it, too.”
“Then you really dressed up and impersonated a high official?”
“Not a very high one.”
Ko returned home early and looking glum. He hugged his wife, and embraced his friend.
“You look as wrung out as my shirt did yesterday,” said Hsi-wei.
“Was it so bad a day?” asked Mai-ling.
Ko sighed. “Two days ago, Mrs. Shin came with her husband to file an accusation against a young man—a boy, really, the Chows’ youngest son Gulan—for assaulting her. The magistrate ordered us to bring him in. The boy denied everything but the magistrate put him in the cell for the night. This morning his feet were beaten with the bamboo until he confessed. The Shins were there, of course. So was the boy’s mother.”
“It’s a bad practice,” said Hsi-wei.
“Allowing the mother to watch?” asked Mai-ling.
“Coerced confessions. Emperor Wen’s Kaihuang Code was a vast improvement but it didn’t go far enough.”
“The Kaihuang Code?” asked Mai-ling.
“The penal code,” said Ko. “The law for dealing with crimes.”
Hsi-wei explained. “Wendi was revolted by the harsh punishments he saw growing up in Zhou. Beheading, tearing limbs apart with chariots, even the execution of the children of criminals.”
“But that’s barbaric!” cried Mai-ling.
“It was. Wendi eliminated those excesses, but he kept the death penalty and also permitted beating,” said Hsi-wei. “And both have been abused.”
Ko felt he had to defend the law. “What we did today was only what was required,” he said gravely. “The minimum.”
Hsi-wei was silent.
Ko gave a deep sigh. “Unofficially, I agree with you. What does beating to obtain confessions do but show the stupidity of some magistrates and the laziness of others? What’s worse, the evidence is unreliable. If Shin weren’t so rich. . .”
Ko had grown heated but stopped himself and, without a pause, said, “Excuse me, please. I need to bathe and lie down before dinner.”
After the distressed and exhausted Ko retreated to the bedroom, Hsi-wei went to the garden to work on his sandals. Mai-ling looked after the baked carp, brought in more wood for the hearth, chopped scallions and bok choy, mixed up a sesame sauce, measured out rice and set the water to boil. She put their next-to-last jug of yellow wine on the table.
Ko woke from his nap at sunset. His spirits had improved and he had a keen appetite. “Everything smells wonderful,” he yawned.
The carp turned out perfectly. As they ate, the mood grew convivial. Mai-ling, relieved by her husband’s recovery, surprised both men by saying that she might take just a taste of the wine. When she got up to get a cup, Ko whispered merrily to Hsi-wei, “This is an event. She never drinks.”
Perhaps what happened next was because the wine went to Mai-ling’s head.
“Hsi-wei, if you’ve written any love poems, I haven’t seen them,” she said in a challenging tone.
“That’s true!” seconded Ko. He turned to his friend. “Why is that, Hsi-wei? Are you shy or prudish or do you keep such things to yourself?”
Hsi-wei remained silent but this discouraged neither man nor wife.
“Women, especially young ones, are often attracted to poets,” mused Mai-ling.
“And not painters?” teased Ko.
Mai-ling giggled. “Of course, painters. Landscape painters in particular. But poets too. Hsi-wei, surely you’ve had some experiences of that sort, especially once your name became known. A famous poet who isn’t bald or fat. A celebrated, not bad-looking poet!”
Hsi-wei corrected her. “A vagabond peasant who makes sandals.”
“Yes, but also the author of ‘Yellow Moon at Lake Weishan’ and ‘We Love the Good’ and. . . and your famous letter to Yang Jian. Unmarried and solitary, too? I don’t believe you never had a young woman pursuing you.”
This unwonted forwardness of his wife and his friend’s embarrassment amused Ko. He chuckled and poured more wine into Mai-ling’s cup. “Out with it,” he said to Hsi-wei. “Let’s have a story.”
Hsi-wei shook his head, but when Ko laughed and said, “A poet has to sing for his baked carp,” Hsi-wei gave in.
“Very well. A few years ago, I was making my way through Yuzhou and, in Dongdu, was invited to stay at the home of the magistrate, Rong Guangli. Rong, an excellent scholar, had three daughters. The two older ones were married but the youngest, Lihua, was still at home. She was seventeen at the time, perhaps eighteen. I was twice her age. Lihua was excited by my arrival and bubbled over with questions about my poems, which she collected. Over dinner, she threw me glances that made me uncomfortable and the next day took every opportunity to be alone with me and asked more questions, an interrogation about me more than my verses. Lihua was emotional, effusive, and perhaps she felt some of what you described, Mai-ling. And she was, let’s say, very direct in her indirection.”
“Direct in her indirection? You’ll have to explain that,” said Ko.
“Like you, Mai-ling, Lihua offered to wash the dirt of the road off my shirt. Her father offered me an old one of his to wear during the following day. When I went to my room just before dinner on the second night, I found my old shirt cleaned and folded neatly on my bed. When I picked it up, a small piece of paper fluttered to the floor. There were four verses verse on it written out in delicate calligraphy.
When the hills are all flat,
When the rivers are all dry,
When it thunders in winter
When it snows in summer. . .”
“Were they yours?” asked Mai-ling?
Hsi-wei smiled. “No. The lines are from one of the Yuefu folk poems. They’re very old, from the Han Dynasty. Lihua assumed I’d recognize them and that I’d know the first line.”
“What was the first line?” asked Ko.
Hsi-wei blushed. “I want to be your love for ever and ever.”
“Ahh,” said Mai-ling.
“So, Hsi-wei. The girl was infatuated. Were you tempted?” asked Ko.
Hsi-wei didn’t reply at once. He took a sip of wine, as if turning the question over.
“Lihua was lovely, educated, and passionate. But I was twice her age and a guest in her father’s house. Good manners, self-knowledge, and age were all against it. I left early the next morning.”
Mai-ling seemed shocked. “And you never said anything to her?”
“I made her a pair of sandals with bronze fittings—small, like her feet—and also a poem.”
“What did the poem say?”
“It was years ago.”
“Try to remember. Give us a recitation.”
“I might have a copy rolled up with the others in my bag.”
“Oh,” said Mai-ling. “Please go look!”
Hsi-wei came back after a few minutes with a small scroll which, with a deep courtly bow, he handed to Mai-ling who read it to herself then passed it to her husband. The next morning, Mai-ling asked to see it again. She made three copies and shared two. That is how the poem came to be circulated.
Hsi-wei gave it no title. It has become known as “The Worn-Out Brush”.
The dirt on the floor laughs at a ten-year-old broom.
A young stallion is of more use than a knackered gelding.
A cracked wedding wok may be cherished but
it’s no longer good for making pork with spring onions.
It’s more fitting for the young to revere than love the old.
And the old should beware temptations to forget their age.
Cao Cao wrote Walking from Xiamen with his favorite brush,
But for The Tortoise Lives Long he had to buy a new one.
Before long, the brush I’m holding now will also be discarded.
The closer to the drain the faster the water spins.
Robert Wexelblatt is a professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published eight collections of short stories; two books of essays; two short novels; two books of poems; stories, essays, and poems in a variety of journals, and a novel awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.