It was like walking into the unreal calm of a landscape painting. Mountains and forests were half-hidden by mist in the distance. The far off crags seemed to float in the indistinct atmosphere, as if the world had not yet fully committed to its own existence.
Closer up, a farmhouse nestled in a hillside, with long slanted roof and overhanging eaves. Tortured pines huddled among rocky outcroppings, their downward twisted branches bristling up black needles. Far down the meandering road that had brought Lee Mo Shee to this vista— worthy of a scroll painting and a calligraphed quatrain—a herd boy approached, seated on the barrel-wide back of an ox, playing a rustic melody on a bamboo flute.
Mo Shee sat his horse and savored the view and the music. He blended well into the scene in his simple traveling jacket — a welcome change from his judicial robes with the high collar and elaborate cuffs. He watched the farm boy on the ox with his bamboo flute and sighed for the placid pace of country life. To be untroubled, unimportant!
The boy brought his ambling animal to a halt and studied the man whose elegant whiskers were a little out of keeping with his work-a-day clothes.
“Greetings, Magistrate.,” said the boy,
“What gave me away?” asked Mo Shee, “Have I come to physically embody the law?”
“Oh, no,” said the boy, quite amused by Mo Shee’s mock-gravity, “My master told me we might expect a visit from the famous Lee Mo Shee, and he described you right down to the way you raise your eyebrows and smile when you nod in greeting.”
“Then your master is Ai Mee Na Shen?” enquired Mo Shee,
“Not any more. Now he goes by his Taoist name Autumn Frost Recluse.”
“Mo Shee sighed. “And he resides . . .”
“That’s his farm over there,” said the boy, indicating the structure Mo Shee had found so poetic in prospect. “You are eagerly expected. Please follow me.”
The boy beckoned Mo Shee to follow. They proceeded down the winding road to the farmhouse. At the gate of the rough stone outer wall they dismounted and walked their animals along a path of flat stones set in thick moss. A family of lizards was sunning itself on the wall, and it seemed as though the boy nodded a greeting to them as they passed. They heard from inside the notes of a guchin, a long unfretted zither, exquisitely played. High echoing notes replied to deep plangent twangs—then stronger, longer notes rang out, like the echoes of a herald’s ceremonial horn.
Mo Shee motioned to the boy to wait, not to interrupt the music by announcing him. Abruptly the playing stopped and a strange old man in a coarse robe and sandals came out. Nearly bald, save for a fringe of long white hairs that fell to his shoulders, his skin was unwrinkled and faintly luminous. He seemed like an ancient child. He looked at Mo Shee and laughed with pleasure.
“I was just idly improvising on the strings when my fingers plucked out of nowhere a more majestic melody, so I knew my friend the district magistrate must be waiting out here listening secretly to my humble performance.”
Mo Shee studied his friend Ai Mee Na Shen, who now looked every inch the Taoist sage. His body was bent with age, but without a tremor; strong, despite its deformation, as one of the pine trees around his house. He was thin without being bony, fit rather than delicate. With his long bones and hunched over postures, his hands clasped and his elbows tucked in, he resembled a resting crane.
“I am so glad you could escaped the capitol for a while,” said Ai Mee Na Shen, beckoning Mo Shee into his home. The sat on woven mats while the boy made tea in the next room. The room was roughly furnished, no curios or rarities, no scholar’s rocks or paintings, but it held a simple bookcase heaped with scrolls, and the chin was cradled in a stone frame. The interior of the house was as simple and soothing as the landscape Mo Shee had enjoyed from the road. It put one at ease immediately. There were no acquisitions that required admiration, no social distinctions that had to be carefully recognized, no hidden motives to be on guard for. The host was as benign as he was cheerful. Mo Shee relaxed for the first time, it seemed, in months.
“So here we sit again, after how many years?” asked Ai Mee Na Shen.
“Autumn Frost Recluse?” asked Mo Shee with smile in his voice.
“Out here in the west it’s not the same as in the city of Kai Fung. We’re not far from the Tibetan savages, geographically or culturally. As far as the locals are concerned, Jews and Moslems are quite the same: mad foreigners. One God! No pork! I found it makes for better relations with the local quality to present myself as a Taoist. Keeping kosher is easy as a vegetarian. Declining the pig at a banquet is then viewed as meritorious and not at all misguided. My observance of the laws of Moses registers as cultivating immortality.”
Lee Mo Shee, named in proper Hebrew, was Moses Levy. Ai Mee Na Shen was the Chinese transliteration of Menahem Adam. Their ancestors had taken the silk route to China from Persia at the beginning of the present dynasty. The middle eastern Jews had had an initial advantage in trade along the silk route in the years leading up to the Crusades, for the Christians and Moslems were too busy feuding with each other to be on bad terms with the despised Israelites, who did a brisk business on both sides of the religious rift. Arriving in China they found the most sophisticated society of the age. A secular culture that had no deep interest in favoring this religion or proscribing that. And Judaism proved to be surprisingly compatible with a Confucian society,
The Hebrew word “Torah,” like the Chinese “Dao,” meant “way” or “direction.” This fortuitous parallel was made seemingly significant by many more. The Chinese shared the Jews’ veneration for learning and ancient texts, so Jews studying the “Five Classics of the Law” (the five books of Moses) in the “Hall of Scriptures” (the synagogue’s library) struck their new host nation as a very correct “following in the traditions of the ancient kings.”
To be sure, Chinese culture modified the Jews, and not just by adding noodles to the menu. Veneration of ancestors amplified the traditional Jewish funerary customs to something far grander than a memorial candle and a recitation of the kaddish on the anniversary of a parent’s death. The great synagogue of Kai Fung included a hall of ancestors, where incense was offered in the Chinese fashion, before memorial tablets for the departed relatives of the congregants. There were grander tablets for the tribal ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“So now you’re a Taoist?” asked Mo Shee. “And to think you were the one who taught me my first Hebrew letters and how to chant from the Torah for my bar mitzvah!”
“I’ve known you for a long time,” said Ai Mee Na Shen, “and you’re old enough now to be a colleague, not a pupil. When I was a young man teaching you the rudiments of Judaism I still had the energy for monotheism. But the years go by and take our certainties with them. I still believe in one God, but I’m far less able to think of him in personal terms, as a being who can be bullied or cajoled by observance or piety.”
Mo Shee raised an eyebrow at this candor.
Ai Mee Na Shen laughed. Mo Shee was reacting with the stiff courtesy of a Confucian chun tsu, a gentleman. Whatever his disappointment, he would not express disapproval of an elder and former teacher.
“I will take full and unfair advantage of your good breeding, said Ai Mee Na Shen. I know you can’t approve my more relaxed attitude towards the faith.”
“My disappointment is not in your lapsed observance,” said Mo Shee, “but in your lack of trust. You were a devotee of the secret tradition,. the kabbalah, when I knew you then. And what I know of the hidden meaning of Torah I owe to you. I cannot believe your Taoism is no more than camouflage. Whatever the merits of your personal path, I am sure it cannot be criticized for being uninteresting.”
“Foolish of me to attempt to misdirect a judge. You’ve sifted truth from many a tale since I saw you last.”
“And,” said Mo Shee, “I’ve questioned enough mediums, seers, and shamans to know power when I see it — or hear it. The notes of your chin concert had a high, spiritual cry which was unmistakable.”
Obviously pleased to have his attainments recognized, though a little embarrassed by his weakness in enjoying the praise, Ai Mee Na Shen conceded,
“I confess. To me, Taoism and the Kabbalah are like two rooms in a single house. So it’s not surprising they can share the same kitchen. The Kabbalah’s ayn soph, the ‘unlimited,’ is same as the wu ming, the ‘undefined’ of Taoism. I have started at the metaphysical beginnings, the first principles of both doctrines. You will forgive me if I haven’t the energy to follow these parallel lines to the far horizon where they seemingly meet.
“Let’s talk about the real magic, the best of the secret arts I taught you! Has the county magistrate in you overwhelmed the poet or are you still guilty of the occasional verse?”
Mo Shee looked down modestly.
“So you have kept up the writing! Don’t be selfish under cover of humility, share with me something recent from your pen. It’s been a decade since we last met: surely twice five years of experience has deepened your poetic sense.
Shyly, after the appropriate disavowals of any merit in his paltry efforts, acknowledgment of his personal unworthiness, and the rest of the coy formalities, Mo Shee recited one of his compositions. A poem on the subject of country life, drawn with a poignance that would occur only to a city-dweller.
Ah, to be the overseer of just one garden,
to be deft and expert with shovel and spade,
to cultivate a vegetable patch,
like a Taoist monk who’s won unending life
by blameless bowls
that never hold the five grains,
whose dinners are innocent of animal blood!
Although one lives far out of the way,
it’s something still, being able to say
you’re lord of your own land,
however small it be,
master of all the inhabitants,
though these amount to no more
than a single lizard.
Ai Mee Na Shen, laughed with delight at his friend’s verses and said, “Even though your view of country life is somewhat fanciful, you have gone to the very heart of the matter. Hearing your poem is like seeing a painted landscape that features a portrait of myself I don’t recall having sat for!”
Poetry had been the original and enduring basis of their friendship. Ai Mee Na Shen had been the first to recognize and encourage the young man’s literary gift. Chinese poetry is a very subtle business. The language is rich in allusion, every word resonant with its previous appearances in the classics all educated men memorized from earliest school years. And then there is the extraordinary concision of Chinese itself: a language without inflection or declension, where nouns and verbs fit together entirely by juxtaposition, like images and actions in a dream. Not to mention the characters themselves, which give visual etymologies for the words. “Love” is a hand touching a chest with a heart in it, and a hand with a stick to represent the beating. “Poverty” is an axe with a split line to show division, over a string of cash to show how every penny must be stretched. A well written poem will rhyme the images as much as the sounds and ideas.
Thus the two friends had no difficulty passing the hours. discussing literature and aesthetic questions, reciting poems, and occasionally tracing a character in the air to clarify the language—for despite its many strengths, Chinese has many words that are indistinguishable by sound alone. The boy brought in more tea and a meal of brown rice and tofu, which occasioned no interruption to their talk.
At last Ai Mee Na Shen said “Look how late it’s gotten. My boy unsaddled and stabled your horse long ago. It’s time I showed you the same consideration.”
In a small side room Mo Shee stretched himself out on his pallet and slept till nearly dawn. An early riser by the long habit of scholarship — for serious studies, one hour before noon is worth three after, and the lamplit just-awake time before day starts is beyond price. The countryside was soundless save for the shrill faint background buzz of insects. Mo Shee quietly opened the shutters on the window to see how close it was to first light.
As he leaned out to breathe in the cool damp air he saw the serving boy, in a green robe and hat, licking the predawn dewdrops from the leaves of the plants beside the window sill. Looking up, the lad saw Mo Shee staring at him, and vanished at once.
Presently Mo Shee heard a bustling by the hearth. Dressing and buttoning his jacket close against the morning chill, he found Ai Mee Na Shen preparing tea. Soon they were sipping the delicate infusion, a fine jasmine, subtle and vegetal in flavor, made with water just drawn from a spring. The stimulating beverage had its customary effect on the two poets, and the previous night’s conversation soon resumed as though there had been no interval.
It was late morning, after they’d breakfasted on congee with mushrooms, when Mo Shee remarked, “I think I saw your boy this morning just about dawn. He seemed to be drinking dew from the leaves. Is this some part of Taoist practice? A special diet to increase one’s spiritual powers?”
“No, no,” said Ai Mee Na Shen. “It’s a custom he picked up from his mother.”
“From his mother?”
“She used to come visiting me. The first time she heard the sound of my chin from the road, she drew close to listen. She was a very beautiful woman, and rather richly dressed, in shimmering green silk. I couldn’t imagine how a lady like that, with such elegant manners, came to be walking down the remote country road to my farmhouse. And for that matter, how she heard my gentle plucking of the strings from the road was something of a puzzle. She implored me to play on and I obliged her. She listened enraptured. I was charmed to have so elegant and attentive a visitor, and even more pleased when she appeared on succeeding evenings.
“Music became the medium of a deep and intimate understanding between us. I played an austere and soaring melody, trying to evoke the craggy heights that seem, for all their immobility, to rush heavenwards, like matter raised in song. She clapped her hands and said, “I can see the mountains!” I played a serene and subtle piece, with vague melodies moving across the bright repeating chords like clouds reflected in a lake. I could tell by her expression she saw it all. I added a few plinking notes and, following my fantasy, she exclaimed, “First raindrops!” She particularly liked my garden pieces, the ones which were evocative of the hovering flight of dragonflies or the warm sun on a stone wall.
“She knew the tones of my soul. We were soon closest friends. Few can understand the rapport between lovers of the chin. It is a mountain too high for the vulgar understanding to climb, a flowing water too deep for the common traveler to cross. It was a spiritual relationship, and more. A true love. Not knowing her family name, I thought of her as ‘The Lady of the Green Silk,’ for this was her unvarying dress.
“She was curiously reticent about her family. I was far too enraptured to trouble her by persistent inquiries. And finally, what did it matter who her people were? She herself was enough for me. Eventually she gave me a child. Yes, the boy really is my boy.”
“Ah,” said Mo Shee, “And his music loving mother was accustomed to sipping dewdrops from the leaves?”
“Yes, that was one of her quirks. At first I thought she must be a very advanced Taoist. I never saw her eat food, so I assumed she was refining her chi, her vital essence, seeking immortality. I believed she’d weaned herself even from nuts and berries, and now nourished herself exclusively on air and dew.”
“Did she share these spiritual secrets with you ?” asked Mo Shee,
“In a manner of speaking. One evening when I was tuning the chin, a fly landed on the bookshelf where she stood looking at my poetry scrolls. Thinking herself unobserved, she shot out a long sticky tongue and gulped it down with a look of satisfaction that was—disquieting.”
“Goodness,” said Mo Shee, “she was a lizard demon!”
“You may have noticed a family of lizards sunning itself on the garden wall? I suddenly realized they were my in-laws. She could tell from my expression that I had seen all and she left in tears.
“I know you must be thinking that all this trouble could have been avoided if I’d found myself a nice Jewish girl to settle down with.”
“Far be it from me,” said Mo Shee, “to criticize your romantic involvements. There’s nothing in Jewish law, halacha, to prohibit it. A relation of this kind is not even contemplated in the Book of Leviticus, much less proscribed. In fact the closest we have to an applicable statute has to do with permissible foods. To be sure, your attachment would raise a few eyebrows, but in amazement more than reproach. You know we Jews take a law-based view of things. Criticism must fall silent here. In the precise legal sense, your case is without precedent.
“I suppose this comes about because the landscape of China, physical and metaphysical, is quite unlike anything we Jews have known. While we still lived in Israel, ours was a desert landscape, which produced nothing more remarkable than the occasional wasteland demon who made his nest in a ruined house. Since the exile began, we’ve lived in cities, which are far too noisy to attract spiritual beings.
“Even esoteric Jewish learning provides me with no insight into your situation. I know only so much of such things as one may gather from folktales. Perhaps you can enlighten me further?”
“Well,” said Ai, “it seems some animals develop spiritually with length of years. If they survive for a century they acquire the ability to take on human form. After a thousand years they become immortal spirits. In its earlier phases, the process is hastened by contact with humans. You’ve no doubt observed that long-time pets sometimes take on human traits, as if they were developing souls? That seems to be indeed the case.”
“I wonder though,” asked Mo Shee, “whether a relationship such as yours mightn’t come at a price? In the folktales a female fox-demon usually drains her mortal lover of life.”
“That can happen,” replied Ai Mee Na Shen, “but the cause is not the disparity of species but the unwholesomeness of the relationship. We’ve both seen marriages between two humans that came to a similar bad end.”
“I am reassured as to your safety,” said Mo Shee. “And I will of course be completely discreet regarding my unintended glimpse into your private life. But tell me, what happened after you found out?”
“Our relations became awkward and strained,” said Ai Mee Na Shen. “And though I was too tactful to mention the matter, when I looked at the shimmering and invariable green of her robe, she could see the knowledge in my eyes. She disappeared for some time and I thought I had spoiled everything.
“But as it turned out, the complexity arose not from her being a — how shall I put it? Reptile is such a cold word. Let me try again. Communication faltered not so much because ours was a ‘mixed marriage,’ but because she was a woman, and I lacked the insight to smooth things over. Then one day she reappeared, and matters resumed as before. The only explanation she gave for our long separation was a few words about having needed to get new clothes. And this was the simple truth. She had acquired an extensive wardrobe in the interval, in a range of hues that would have put a chameleon to the blush.”