The sage pulled his worn cloak tighter round his neck. The wind from the gorge was spinning the leaves into golden wreaths, sending gusts of cool air into the dimness of the room. The clack of footsteps sounded in the corridor and a house servant, head bowed, entered the room.
“What is it? My master is not to be disturbed,” Lai Tan said, looking over to the old man for guidance. The sage raised his eyebrows and held a finger to his lips, then looked towards the servant with a kindly smile.
“Well, tell the master what you want,” Lai Tan snapped.
“Sir, the Keeper of The Pass respectfully requests an audience, he is waiting outside.”
The old man rose unsteadily to his feet, nodded his assent and signalled with his hand to Lai Tan.
“Shall I leave you to talk with our jailor alone, Master?”
The old man nodded again and remained standing, in readiness to meet the gentleman outside.
“Tell your master he is welcome to come in but that we are unable to entertain him in the accustomed style,” Lai Tan said to the servant.
The servant left, followed by Lai Tan; His Master, Kuan Yin, swept into the room.
The keeper, a tall, spare man, was dressed in his red robe of office. Middle-aged with a neatly trimmed beard and bobbed hair, he bowed respectfully to the grey haired figure standing before the window.
“Master, forgive the intrusion. The King has asked me to enquire about your health and the progress of your book.”
The old man bowed slightly in return and motioned towards the unoccupied chair. The keeper sat down, after a slight hesitation, and looked enquiringly at the old man. The sage sat down again on the window bench and said, “A cold wind is blowing from the North West.”
The Keeper waited, expecting more but was disappointed.
“We are all waiting anxiously for your wisdom to be recorded – especially my lord the King.”
“Has he not wisdom enough from the mouth of Kung Fu Tzu?” the elder replied, smiling softly as he looked out of the window at the clouds, now piled up as if before a storm.
“He teaches the court of familial piety, of bending men to the rule of law, but what do you say?”
“The family is older than Dukes and Kings but the Way of Heaven is older than time.”
“But the Empire is in disorder. Isn’t that why you left the capital? The States war with each other and take no heed of the suffering of the people.”
“The wind is blowing the leaves about, a storm is coming,” the Old Man replied, looking out over the courtyard to the looming mountains beyond.
“I hope you will forgive me, I dared not let you leave Chou, at least not without some token of your wisdom to appease the King.”
Smiling meekly, the old man turned his head to look at the official.
“Does the King of Chou prefer wisdom to its source?”
The Keeper thought carefully, knowing that the question was a test of his sincerity.
“The water is sweeter at the source – to benefit the people it must flow down to the sea. Becoming muddied on the way it attains to saltiness.”
The sage sat quietly, looking down at the pattern on the tiles between his feet. The Keeper felt pleased with his reply: it spoke of the Yellow River flowing from the mountains to the sea, rushing through muddy canyons before nourishing the plain in the East. Listening carefully, one could hear its roar over the rising wind.
“Autumn has arrived, it will soon be spring,” the old man said, by way of acknowledgement.
The Keeper glanced at the table strewn with bamboo cuttings and a couple of completed rolls.
“How long will it be?” he said, worried by the directness of his question.
“About five thousand characters,” the sage replied.
No stranger to the art of writing, the Keeper calculated from the rolls on the table and the shelves that the work was about half complete. He rose and bowed to the old man.
“I must not disturb your thoughts any longer. I will tell your scribe he can return.”The old man rose and bowed his head as the official crossed the room and went out through the doorway.
As autumn turned to winter the old man and his scribe worked on to complete the great book. When the first plum blossom opened in the capital and the snows had melted, turning the great river into a raging flood, Lai Tan had drawn the last character of the five thousand and twenty five and bound up the final roll.
“Master, what will happen now that you have completed Kuan Yin’s demands?”
The old man looked at the brightening and fading sunlight in the courtyard.
“The moon will be waxing soon,” he replied.
“Shall I tell the Keeper that we have finished?”
The sage turned to look at the young man and nodded.
Lai Tan went to the Keeper of the Pass and knelt before the official.
“Please rise and sit here,” Kuan Yin said, pointing to a low stool set before his chair.
“Have you come to tell me that it’s finished?”
“Yes Master Yin, the great work is now complete. I have come to ask you whether we are free to leave. I was wondering what would happen to the book now. It would be unwise for us to risk it on a journey. Will you keep it safe here for wandering scholars to read?”
“Wandering scholars would soon bring great repute to your master but I must deliver it to the King in Luoyang. When your master has rested from his great task, my servants will make provisions so that you can continue on your way. Return to your master now and give him the good news.”
Lai Tan rose, bowed low and returned to the room where he had worked for almost two years.
“Master Lao, I fear the keeper wishes to steal your book. He intends to present it to the King. What if he claims to have written it himself?”
“Why would a wise man claim to have written so much foolishness?” the sage replied.
Having drawn every character of the book, Lai Tan had often asked himself the same question.
“The Keeper expects us to leave soon. He says he will provide for our journey. When do you intend to leave?”
“When the moon is half full.”
“But where will we go?”
The old man sat with his hands in his sleeves and thought for a while.
“I shall return to the place where I was born.”
“To Hu Hsien?” the disciple asked.
Lao Tzu nodded.
“There too,” he said before nodding off to sleep.
Three days later the Keeper presented Master Lao with gifts from the King that he had withheld until the book was finished. There was a fine yellow robe and a silk hat for the Master, a blue silk robe and a sash for his scribe and a goodly weight in silver. A mule was loaded with provisions for the journey and with the King’s gifts.
The old man was helped onto the back of the ox, the same one that had delivered him to the Keepers lodge, now grown fat with good feed and little work. Kuan Yin bade them farewell and watched the little party until it disappeared behind the rocks on the road to the western pass. At the bottom of the winding road, the Master pointed south and Lai Tan led the mule away from the river, into the hills where the village of Hu Sien lay hidden in the mists.
The next day Kuan Yin rode out with a retinue of guards and servants towards Luoyang, taking the precious rolls with him. The journey was long and dangerous with the constant threat of bandits on the road to the capital. The journey proved uneventful until they came within a few leagues of the city. The captain wheeled his horse round and came up to the Keeper.
“My Lord, we must find shelter, a storm is brewing in the west.”
“Very well, we will improvise a camp behind those trees by the river,” Kuan Yin shouted back over the rising wind.
They left the road and pitched the official’s tent, complete with banner, tethering the horses and mules beneath the trees.
The storm broke just after dark, tearing rotten branches from the trees and flattening the tent.
“Typhoon!” the captain screamed, over the roaring wind, “lie down and cling to the ropes.”
Concerned about the book, the keeper fought his way to the tethered mule and tried to carry the bundle of rolls into the shelter of the trees. The wind was so strong that the big bundle, tied up with hides, was torn from his grasp and rolled down the bank into the foaming waters of the river. Heedless of the danger, Kuan Yin plunged down the muddy bank and tried to drag the bundle back to shore. The raging torrent carried him away with the bundle, towards the distant capital.
One-foot dragged himself back through the mud towards the river. A storm always meant good pickings. He had already come across the body of a rich man, clothed in red silk all smeared with mud. He had stripped away the finery and pocketed the ornaments and rings. He had pitched the naked body back into the water for the fishes to pick clean before hiding the booty in his hut. There had been a big bundle too, probably full of valuables, but it had been too heavy for him to shift alone. He cursed the gods. There was nothing to be done, he would have to get help from his partner in crime before dawn or someone else would take the prize.
He stumbled down the riverbank towards the lights of the tavern. Poking his head through the door he spied One-tooth slumped over a table strewn with food scraps and empty wine bowls. He lay between a fishwife and some other clod; drool hanging from his gaping mouth, snoring in his stupor.
One-foot shook him roughly.
“Get up, quick,” he shouted into a battered ear.
One-tooth woke with a snort and recognised his partner.
“What now” another of your wonder finds I suppose; pots of gold, strings of pearls, precious silks fit for a king.”
One-foot decided to say nothing of the body.
“Get up, it’s a big bundle stuck in the mud bound up with hides; it could contain all kinds of valuables. I can’t move it by myself, it’s too heavy.”
“Curse you! How far is it?”
“It’s close by. I’ll find someone else if you won’t come.”
One-tooth stumbled to his feet, pushed the woman aside and spat on the dirt floor.
“Lead on then.”
With much cursing and muffled shouts the pair dragged the bundle to the hut and cut the hides open.
“It’s nothing but a bundle of firewood tied up with red string, curse it,” One-tooth shouted angrily.
”No, there must be something inside; unroll it.”
Holding the lantern over the rolls of bamboo, the scavengers beheld the rows of characters painfully drawn by Lai Tan.
“It’s just some stupid official’s tax rolls. It’s worth nothing,” spat One-tooth. I’m taking the hides, they’re good quality at least, you can keep the firewood.”
With a final curse, he rolled up the hides and went on his way.
The Chief Minister of Chou finished making his report to the King about the storm damage to the city.
“There was one other matter, my Lord.”
“A beggar was captured in possession of a mysterious book.”
“A scholarly beggar?”
“No my Lord, a river scavenger and a criminal called One-foot.”
“He still lives?”
“I don’t know my lord. The local magistrate ordered the lopping of his other foot.
“Oh dear, soon there will be nobody left standing.”
“A jade disc and a muddied red robe were found in the scavenger’s hut.”
“Ah, I see. We are in need of a new Keeper it seems. But what of the book?”
“It consists of a great many rolls, Lord. I’ve read some of it. It appears to be some kind of philosophy, so I wondered if it would interest your majesty. Its rather obscure stuff, I’m afraid.”
“How fortunate that Kung Fu Tzu is still within the palace walls. Be so good as to request his presence so that he can explain this mystery to us.”
“Yes my Lord, I will summon him at once.”
A low table and a stool were arranged before the King and a couple of the damp rolls placed on the table. A short while later the stately figure of the sage appeared. Bowing at the waist only, he sat at the table and opened one of the rolls.
“What does it say?” the king asked, a little impatiently.
“It’s full of aphorisms and rhymes about the old ways,” Kung Tzu replied without looking up from his reading.
“Read some out loud,” the King commanded.
“There is a thing confusedly formed,
Born before Heaven and Earth.
It stands alone and does not change,
Goes round and does not weary.
It is capable of being the Mother of the World.
I know not its name
So I style it ‘The Way’.”
“Mysticism,” the King said. “You’ve studied the Book of Changes for years, haven’t you?”
“That is true,” the sage replied, “but this book speaks of that which lies behind the changes.”
“Is it worth anything?” the King asked.
“The Dragon’s ascent into Heaven on the wind and the clouds is something which is beyond my knowledge,” Kung Tzu replied, quoting his own words after his meeting with the old man.
“Make copies for the library right away,” the King commanded, remembering the famous words quoted by the sage.
On the fourth night of their journey, the Sage and the scribe camped under an old chestnut tree overhanging a lake. The evening was calm and the bright moon reflected in the limpid waters.
“How far is it now Master? Lai Tan enquired.
“In another day the moon will be full,” the old man replied.
The next day was a fine spring morning. The old man had already bathed by the time Lai Tan woke up and was sitting under the tree watching the sunrise over the water.
“Master, why are you all dressed up in your new robe and hat? Surely this is not fitting wear for a humble village.”
“See how the blossoms have opened on this tree”, the sage replied.
Lai Tan washed quickly, ate a millet cake and put on the blue gown and sash.
It was noon when they rode down into the clearing where the houses lay nestled among the trees. The sound of the lyre and flute rose up to meet them, where young boys and girls in bright costumes were dancing on the green. As they entered the village, the dancers ran to meet them, followed by the headman and the rest of the villagers.
“My Lord, it is years since a magistrate passed through our village; you are most welcome. Let me help you down.”
The sage dismounted and stood unsteadily among the giggling village girls.
“Master, is it seemly to be among these women? We must go to the headman’s house at once.”
The girls liked the look of the young scribe and rushed over to where he stood with the mule. They touched his blue robe and tried to drag him away to the green. The music began again as the young people continued with the spring festival of the new moon.
“Master, what of your teaching about curbing desire?” Lai Tan shouted over the heads of the dancers.
“Time enough for that later,” the sage shouted back gaily as he entered the headman’s house.
“Will you take a cup of herb tea with me, brother?”
“Is the moon not full?” the sage replied. “Let’s talk over old times.”