The Phoenix Scarf
Part Three


 
Three days later, an elderly woman came to the Kang's Moon Gate and asked for Fragrance.
"Welcome, venerable," Fragrance greeted her. They sat together on a bench beneath a tree in the outer courtyard where the scent of lilacs in a bed along the wall was especially strong. "Have we met before?"
"No, young lady, we have not," the woman replied, brushing a fly away from her simple blue cotton jacket. "I am a servant in the house of Jung."
"In the home of Jung Pao?" Fragrance's heart leapt in her breast.
"That very one, miss. I bring such sad tidings this day!" The woman hid her wrinkled face in her hands to stifle a sob, then lifted a sleeve to wipe her eyes dry.
"Goddess of Mercy!" cried Fragrance. "Has something happened to one of Pao's parents?"
"Oh, that, too!" The woman burst into fresh tears, wailing and pulling her hair.
Fragrance threw her arms around the old lady and soothed her as if she were a child until the woman at last looked at her with red-rimmed eyes. "There they are...all of them...there they are at the house...all of them! Oh, what shall I do? I went into that house a child, a slave sold from my mother's dried teats, and have served that family nearly seventy years! Young Pao's father played on my knee, and Pao in his turn, too! Now I am alone there. I cannot bear it! All the other servants have run away, but where am I to go? Where am I to go?"
"Speak, venerable, please tell me," entreated Fragrance, "what is this dreadful calamity?"
"Three nights past, we found the young master at the household gate, prostrate on the ground like a sack of rice. Someone had brought him there and left him, like a dog, to die."
"Do you speak of Jung Pao?"
"Yes, missy, it was Pao whom I myself nursed to robust health with these very paps after losing my own child to the plague." She stroked her sagging breasts. "I was a fertile woman and bore children till I was forty-six, but alas, not a one survived to help me through this terrible old age!"
"But what of Pao?"
"Oh, curse of Heaven, he lay mumbling for two days, and then...he died!"
Fragrance sat as one turned to stone.
Weeping, the old woman continued: "His parents sat by his kang day and night, as did I. I tried to stop the blood flowing, but it was no use. I packed the wound again and again, but each time I touched him he screamed that I was to let him die. He refused to have a doctor come. Finally, yesterday in the late afternoon, he died. His mother gave me your name last night. She told me that I was to come to you today in the great house of Kang and tell you this tale.
"When I woke up this morning, his mother and father, they too were dead - of bamboo slivers taken in the evening gruel I prepared for them before they slept last night. Into my own gruel they stirred the means of their deaths! Into the gruel I prepared with these very hands!" She burst into tears and began wringing her hands together as if to tear them from her wrists.
Otherwise benumbed, Fragrance was oddly aware of the pungency of the lilacs.
"Venerable," she finally asked the old woman, "there is something I must know. What kind of wound killed Jung Pao?"
The woman sucked in her breath, stopped crying, and looked downward. "Bitterness unspeakable! It was his loss of manhood. They cut his precious sack of male jewels away!"
Clutching her belly and uttering an animal-like cry, Fragrance seemed catapulted from the bench and staggered toward the wall where the lilacs bloomed. In a paroxysm of dry retching, for she had taken only tea so far that day, she doubled over the flowers, bracing herself with a hand placed on the brick wall. They had always been her favorite, but were now tainted forever in her mind. She would never smell them again without remembering this dreadful moment.
Leaning thus against the wall, Fragrance prayed that a bolt from Heaven might strike her dead on the spot so she might never see, feel, hear, taste or smell anything again - above all, no lilacs. Never again lilacs.
Thus did another cycle of duality contribute to a change of course for Fragrance. The yang of a hopeful new life for her with Jung Pao broke against the yin of his emasculation and death. In essence, Fragrance had been set free to marry a man now dead.
This was not the end of it.
"Who is the she-bear?" asked the old woman suddenly.
"The she-bear?" echoed Fragrance, bewildered.
"Jung Pao spoke of her many times while his mind wandered. Perhaps he thought he was pursued by a beast although certainly his wound was made by a knife and not by claws."
The answer came to Fragrance like a flash of light: the she-bear, Shabara! And with it a question: Why had that name come so often to the lips of the dying Pao? Had he meant it as a message? Had he tried to fix the blame?
In that instant, Fragrance resolved to overturn every piece of evidence she could find which might reveal a way in which Shabara had contributed to Pao's final ordeal. If the Mongolian woman had indeed been in some way responsible, Fragrance would dispatch Shabara into Hell.
A cycle of duality had occurred again for Fragrance. Her mental anguish over the mutilation and murder of Pao was passive, an aspect of yin, but it was activated as yang in her will to survive the blow.
So, she thought, this is my bolt from Heaven. I have died with Pao, but I am reborn to avenge him. There will be no union of our bodies, but our hearts will live forever as one.
Fragrance found a place for the old woman in the back compound where she would be cared for by the other servants and might even find a useful way to pass her old age. This was in exchange for absolute silence on the subject of Jung Pao. Princess Jasmine would be told nothing of this turn of events, only that Pao had been found out by the Empress Dowager and was forbidden to come to the Kang mansion again.
Two weeks before her seventy-fourth birthday in the autumn of 1908, the Empress Dowager made a royal progress by canal from her beloved Summer Palace to take up winter lodgings in the Forbidden City. This was never a happy time for the Empress Dowager. Her dislike of the Winter Palace was legend among the members of her court who had to suffer the lightning changes in her disposition which this dissatisfaction brought about.
Of all the imperial entourage, only Shabara seemed neither to incur the royal displeasure nor to fall victim to Old Buddha's towering rages that marked the slightest misdemeanor committed by anyone else. The Mongolian princess was accorded the tenderest concern at every opportunity, dining on eggs poached in chicken gravy at breakfast daily upon the Empress Dowager's insistence, a succulent dish Old Buddha believed would endow longevity and good health and which she herself had enjoyed all her life.
"The crab apples will be ready in time for my birthday," cried the Empress Dowager with the ingenuous excitement of a child. Sitting in a cane chair elevated on a dais above the flat deck of the barge, she caressed with long strokes of her bejeweled fingernails the belly of an enraptured male Shih Tzu puppy lolling on its back in her lap. "Then I shall feed you my favorite dish: crab apples in clotted cream. Delicious! A joy!" Her voice sank to an intimate whisper as she leaned sideways to direct her next comment to Shabara's ears alone: "Crab apples will insure rich and pendant fruit between the thighs of the oncoming son, and clotted cream in abundance!" She cackled uproariously and prodded the testicles of the excited Shih Tzu.
Her raucous laughter launched a ripple of hesitant smiles across the faces of the other ladies-in-waiting, most of whom sat about the deck playing cards, or other gambling games, with young eunuchs. None could know whether the Empress Dowager's next cry might be one of lethal rage. They prepared themselves for anything. Only the Chief Eunuch dared maintain his usual humorless expression.
Except for Shabara. She kept her eyes downcast and did not smile. "What if I give birth to a girl?" she whispered to the Empress Dowager.
"You wouldn't dare!" boomed Old Buddha in a voice that echoed across the silvery waters of the canal and effectively wiped the smiles from all other faces on deck.
Shabara continued to look studiously downward, her hands clasped demurely behind her back. "You will yet reveal my condition to the world, Majesty, with this loud voice of yours," she said softly so the others could not hear. "I have, as you ordered, told no one, not even in a letter to my husband."
The Empress Dowager snorted. "I know. I had Li Lien Ying read the letter to me before I allowed it to be sent." A furious frown wrinkled Shabara's brow. "Did you also allow the Grand Capon to read your letters to Jung Lu?"
Were it not Shabara who made this reference to the recently deceased man - said to have been the one great love of the Empress Dowager's life, whom insiders speculated had carried on a physical relationship with the sovereign well into advanced age - were it not Shabara who made it, Old Buddha might herself have plucked the eyes from the offender with her six-inch nails. As it was, she contented herself with a squeal of rage, a deep gasp, and a dramatic falling back into the depths of her chair while her hands fluttered like birds to her heart. The entire company on deck moved toward her as one body, but she roused herself and waved them back.
"Nay, nay," she cried, "neither dead nor dying yet, although soon enough I shall die and become mere flotsam in the sea of time. What did a royal lady of France say when she and her princely husband lay dying of a fever? Ah, yes: Aujourd'hui dauphin mais demain rien! Translate that for us, Shabara, my dear."
Shabara, chastened by the implication of the quotation for herself, translated loosely in a quavering voice: "Today, a prince, but tomorrow, nothing!"
"Altogether a true statement, loved ones," appended the Empress Dowager, "and a reminder that death is the great leveler, even among the most exalted, a point which some of us here today may need to remember. Whereas today one may be of high rank, enjoying all the favors of Heaven, tomorrow one may be manure in the grass."
She lifted the Shih Tzu from her lap. "Here, Shabara, give this child to the eunuchs that they may attend to its needs." A boy of fourteen, emasculated at twelve, but mentally pubescent and secretly madly in love with Shabara, scuttled to his beloved's side and, as if it were the greatest pleasure in life, contrived to touch Shabara's fingers as he took the dog away.
In a very low voice that made Shabara lean forward to hear, the Empress Dowager said: "Mark these words in your heart, princess, for I shall not speak them again. Jung Lu was a great and favored friend of my youth whose true relationship with me has been a matter for infinite public speculation. Whatever took place between us, however, is for me alone to know. A great public figure such as I has so little which can be hidden from the world. This one thing is mine. He is dead now, so we are together as we never were in life. He lives only in my heart. But I shall tell you that of all his many attributes, I loved him most for his strength, as he loved me for mine. Perhaps one day there will come into your life such a man, who will teach you the meaning of love."
"I adore my father," whispered Shabara in return. "Ha!" chuckled the Empress Dowager softly. "You love in your father an image of yourself! He is strong and willful, as you are. He is handsome, as you are beautiful. He is passionate, as I think it your nature to be. But the love of a daughter for her father, no matter how deep or how lacking in perversity, does not even approximate the proper love of woman for man."
Shabara hesitated, but finally said, "I love my husband. I love Prince Ta."
"Ha! Ha!" the Empress Dowager's response constituted a loud laugh which attracted the attention of all on deck, but she gave a curt, imperious wave which turned them back to their various games and conversations. "You tolerate your husband. You do not love him. He is too weak for you. He has awakened nothing of the woman in you. That is why you are still a petulant, selfish child. If ever the man comes who can caress not only your body but also your soul, who can penetrate the innermost recesses of your being as he penetrates the nether lips of your person, then will the child fall away and the woman stand revealed. You may never find him, princess. I have searched among the minds and hearts and bodies of many men, and found only that one.
"You are like me, Shabara. You are a man born to high rank, but as a woman. Your potential as a mover of the world is obscured by the accident of your sex. I overcame it by becoming the most powerful woman in the world, but you must have a care, or you will burn yourself to cinders in the fire of your own frustrations. There are few positions like mine to fill."
Shabara suddenly felt better understood by this old hawk of a woman than by anyone except her father. She leaned awkwardly to kiss the Empress Dowager's hand. "Majesty, I pray you live forever. I have great need of you."
"As have four hundred million Chinese," laughed the wizened sovereign cynically, then changing her tone to one of tenderness to say: "What of the child you carry, princess? Oh, that we were alone together now! I should like to feel him kick. Yet I dare not touch you so intimately here for fear others will guess. Yes, this is the blessing of our loose Manchu gowns. We have kept a good secret between us, haven't we, dear?"
"Yes, Majesty, but ought we not to send for the physician to examine me and see if all is truly well? The one who pronounced me pregnant?"
The Empress Dowager looked thoughtful. "Yes, yes, perhaps we ought, but that physician is...well, he is not coming to the Forbidden City this winter season. He is...he had to go away. I really don't know where. Li Lien Ying keeps track of these people, not I. Is there a problem with the child? Aren't you feeling as splendid as you look, my darling?" Shabara made haste to correct that impression. "No, Your Imperial Majesty! My child is well, I swear it!"
The Empress Dowager smiled benevolently. "Not 'my' child, Shabara. Of a truth, he is 'our' child. Our child. You don't know it, but that might have been true if destiny had not pointed in another direction. You see, many years ago, Princess Jasmine, your mother-in-law, almost became a concubine of my son, the then-emperor. Thus, Ta could easily have been my natural grandson, and the Emperor of China as well! He could be reigning now in place of this ninny whose stupidity makes me do all his work for him! So you see, our oncoming little peach could be my own true great-grandson. As a matter of fact, I have the highest hopes that he will be born on my own birthday two weeks hence."
"Majesty, what a privilege that would be!"
"I'll talk to Heaven about it today at the Temple of Imperial Longevity," promised the Empress Dowager. "Look, there it is now." She pointed to a brilliantly gilded temple on the shore.
Eunuchs poled the barge, its light sails now furled, gently to dock beside a landing jetty where imperial banners, like those fluttering above the carved phoenixes and dragons of the craft itself, announced the impending arrival of the royal party. Eunuchs lifted the Empress Dowager from her elaborate cane chair into a sedan chair and carried her ashore.
The wily old Empress Dowager had seen to it that sedan chairs were provided as well for all the ladies-in-waiting. This was an unusual practice, but necessary in this instance as she wished insofar as possible to conceal Shabara's pregnancy from prying eyes. Although the Mongolian princess had carried her unborn child well concealed in the voluminous folds of the traditional Manchu gowns worn at court, the baby was, after all, still heavy within her delicate frame. This burden had affected Shabara's manner of walking. It would not do to allow the others too many opportunities to judge the cause. It was better that all the ladies delight in themselves as favored darlings for the moment rather than focusing any more attention than usual on the so-called "Mongol bitch."
The temple priests welcomed the Empress Dowager enthusiastically as their chief benefactor. Upon her arrival at the shrine, they immediately began incantations designed to assure her another year of life as she personally ignited a row of incense sticks in ritual cadence. Seemingly satisfied, she turned away then from the altar, but her face suddenly took on a look of horror, and she twisted so quickly in an effort to look back at the altar that she nearly fell. Li Lien Ying and the abbot of the shrine caught her in time.
Old Buddha burst into tears. "Look! The last incense stick failed to ignite! This is to be the year of my death! Pray for me, holy men! I have seen a fearful omen."
A resourceful young priest ran at once to the kitchen compound of the temple and snatched up a puppy from among the numerous dogs always at the ready, waiting for scraps of food. Twisting its neck, he killed it, and raced back to the shrine to throw himself at the feet of Old Buddha with the little body in his hands.
Surprised, she gave him permission to speak. "Well, what is the meaning of this?"
"Oh, Queen of the World, I found this miserable puppy wedged behind the altar a moment ago. You have indeed seen an omen today. Your all-seeing, most enlightened and sensitive spiritual eyes have witnessed this tiny creature's passing to another life, blowing out the incense stick as it went, hoping thus to beg your attention with a blessing to help it find its way to Heaven. What an omen of good luck, Your Majesty! It means that although you are already a goddess, still you will live ten thousand years."
Enthralled, the Empress Dowager ordered him to rise. "I command you, young priest, to take charge of the daily chanting for my health and long life. I further command the abbot to exalt you to a senior position." She turned to the abbot. "How is it that you have not rewarded this young man's brilliance until I perceived it? I can see from the state of his robe that he occupies an inferior position. Shame! This is the Temple of Imperial Longevity. How dare you neglect your duty and allow me to think even for an instant that this omen was evil? I could have died of fright! Such wickedness in high places, and after all I have done - the money, the gifts - for this temple, for the preservation of my most important shrine! I shall send splendid raiment to the young priest, and you had best be careful, abbot, or I shall see him standing in your very shoes!"
In this mood of injured majesty, the Empress Dowager continued with her entourage to her despised Winter Palace in the Forbidden City. She was satisfied that the young priest had correctly interpreted the omen of the incense stick. She felt, however, that ten thousand years were too many more to live. She was soon to be seventy-four, but felt forty. She would have been happy to see merely a hundred.
 

Table of Contents · Part 4

1998 Brockman Morris