As her daughter Song poured tea from an old bronze teakettle into two cups, Empress Guo sighed, a sigh of relief as if she were falling onto a bed of clouds after a day of toil on the ground. Of course, the Empress had not been engaging in manual labor, but appeasing lobbyists and putting down revolts seemed just as exhausting. An evening with Song would surely help cleanse Guo’s mind of all those hateful commoners with their grammatically incorrect demands for reform.
“The trees are beginning to blossom,” Song remarked as she sat down to gaze into her mother’s eyes. “An early spring means sweeter fruit this summer, no?”
The radiant child of sixteen had tucked a pastel-pink blossom behind her ear. Her cheeks were flush with the kiss of chill wind.
“Have you been writing outside again, my daughter?” Guo asked, unable to keep the smile off her face. She’d known even as she told the girl not to go out in her nice dresses that the servants would be washing many muddy hemlines.
“Just a little,” Song giggled. “This time I wrote a poem about – well, about love. Do you want to hear it?”
Guo’s eyes widened. “Love is not for us divine rulers, child,” she scolded gently. “But I love to hear your poems. Go ahead.”
Warm, spicy tea coursed down Guo’s throat as her daughter’s sweet voice massaged her ears:
“Chest of bronze and heart of gold
We kiss deep in the dead of night
Your love is the only living light
That shines upon this tale untold.
The stars spy down but they condemn us not,
If only that were the way the whole world thought.”
And that’s as far as I got today…” Song trailed off. “Mother? You look perturbed.”
“I hope,” Guo said slowly, “this is not a poem based on personal experience. You know you will be worthless to our family name if you ruin your chance at a respectable marriage.”
Song giggled, a little higher in pitch than usual. “I’ve told you, Mother, the speaker and the author of a poem are two entirely different people.” A trembling hand raised her teacup, then, perhaps thinking the better of it, set it down again. “I guess I can’t read you my poems anymore.” Now she was blinking hard, trying to make a curtain of sleek black hair fall between her face and her attentive mother.
The empress stood and hurried to her daughter’s side. Wrapping her arms around the petite girl’s shaking shoulders, Guo crooned, “I would never suspect you of fornication, my love. I was just teasing.”
Like a rainstorm the girl’s sobs only grew heavier, insistent on flooding her cupped hands.
“I know something that will cheer you up,” Guo suggested. The idea had been itching in her for weeks, and now she knew the time had come. “Tomorrow I will arrange for some suitors to call on you. Perhaps you will meet your future husband.”
“What if I don’t want to marry a nobleman?” Song mumbled from within the cocoon of her hands on her face.
Guo stroked the girl’s back. Rarely had she seen her brilliant daughter this distraught. “If not a nobleman, then whom?” the Empress asked sensibly.
Before Guo could launch into a halfhearted lecture into how transformative her marriage to her late husband had been, how much she had gained from becoming his possession, Song stood, knocking over her chair.
Guo stepped away from her daughter, fearing physical violence. But the girl simply ran out of the room and down the hallway, probably to lock herself in her chamber.
A servant quietly entered to clear Song’s place at the table. “Don’t worry, your Highness,” she said softly. “I’m sure she’ll get over it.”
“I’m not so sure,” Guo muttered aloud. “In fact, I’m not even sure I know what it is.”
“Just you wait,” the waif assured her. “In a few hours she’ll be laughing and dancing like the Song we all know and love.”
Sure enough, at the stroke of midnight, Guo was awakened by excited rustlings and murmurings in the hallway. Had the peasants penetrated the palace? Making as little noise as possible, the Empress tiptoed to her chamber door and opened it a crack.
The shadow of a slender sixteen-year-old girl fussed on the wall, perhaps donning a cloak and shoes. Guo wrinkled her eyebrows and opened the door wider.
Song didn’t notice. She was too busy twirling in her nightgown, holding the old bronze teakettle at arm’s length.
Is she sleepwalking? Guo wondered. They’d have to conceal this from the suitors until after the marriage.
Song brought the teakettle to her mouth for a kiss.
Guo couldn’t resist crying out in shock and disgust. When she did so, Song turned to face her. In an instant, the glowing smile on the girl’s face disappeared.
“What on earth are you doing?” Guo rubbed her eyes as if the vision might go away.
Song sighed, still holding the teakettle to her chest. “I tried to tell you before,” she said. “You didn’t want to hear it. But now you might as well know – I have fallen in love with Chen. There is no one else with whom I can imagine spending the rest of my days.” A nervous smile trembled on the young girl’s lips, though her eyes remained sad. “It’s true love, Mother,” she whispered. “I know it’s hard to understand, but Chen makes me happy. Doesn’t that make you happy?”
In her mind’s eye, Guo witnessed the palace collapsing, the people burning her ancient heirlooms, herself naked and coughing in a cloud of ashes. If anything was going to cause an outright revolution, it was this crazy girl and her self-indulgent fantasies.
“Get out of my palace this instant,” the Empress said to the wall above Song’s head. “Take your precious teakettle. You and I have spoken our last.”
Song took in a breath to argue, then let it out in a sigh. Without a word, she turned and trudged down the hallway, clutching that teakettle with both arms. As she shrank into the distance, then finally disappeared out the door, Guo felt like she had just had a wart squeezed off her back. Sure, it hurt, but now her appearance was flawless.
The wound hadn’t stopped bleeding by the next morning. If only she hadn’t gone crazy, Guo thought to herself, we could have grown old together, she could have prepared my funeral…
A startling boom brought the Empress back to reality. “What’s going on?” she asked the servant preparing her ointment. Rather than answering, the waif ripped off a sash from her uniform and tied Guo to her chair.
As Guo squirmed and hurled obscenities at the traitorous servant, another boom resounded. Could the peasants have broken into the palace?
Footsteps urgently approaching by way of the staircase. The bathroom door smashed in with stones that swirled at Guo’s feet. Harpoon points quivering inches from her eyes. Everything moving in slow motion…
“First you starve our people, then you send our men to die in war, and now you banish the princess?” demanded a sunburnt farmer’s daughter. “This is the last straw. You may try to kill all the sunlight in our lives, but we are not blind!”
So many eyes stared at Guo, brimming with so much hate, that all she wanted was to disappear. “Am I to be executed?” she inquired.
A few toothy grins spread around the circle of armed peasants, but Guo’s servant shook her head. “She’ll suffer more having to think on what she’s done,” she pointed out. “Let her live.”
And that was how the goddess of an empire became a homeless untouchable overnight. Guo crawled around the outskirts of villages to avoid being seen. She headed over the mountains to the forbidden forest, where perhaps she could spend her final days in peace. That is, if the memory of her daughter’s intelligent face would leave her be.
Upon reaching the edge of the forest, Guo was surprised to see a small, poorly-constructed cottage with blossoms lining the windows. She’d always believed this region was uninhabited.
Maybe the cottage is abandoned, the exhausted woman thought. Maybe I could take refuge inside…
She had almost reached the lopsided door when it swung open. Her daughter’s nightgown hemline fluttered at eye level.
“Song…” gasped Guo. “My beloved daughter… I’ve lost everything.”
“Yeah, that’s what happens when you let something get in the way of love,” Song remarked. “Romantic love, parental love, love of a good intellectual tea hour… it’s all the same. We miss it when it’s gone.”
“Please let me in,” Guo begged, still lying on the ground. “I forgive you, as long as you stop the silliness with the teakettle.”
“I don’t know what silliness you’re talking about,” Song countered, “but Chen wouldn’t like me to have another woman in the house, particularly a widow. People would talk.”
After the door slammed in her face, Guo sat on the doorstep for a few hours, listening to a muffled version of the clear voice she knew so well reading poetry, no doubt to her true love. Guo could have listened to that gentle waterfall of words for the rest of her life, could have stayed in her palace with her spinster daughter and drank tea together every day. Instead, she had chosen propriety and tradition.
Slowly, she heaved herself to her feet and began walking in an unknown direction, letting the evening air bite her cheeks as the sun began to diminish beneath the horizon.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By After Tang Yin (Chinese, 1470-1524) Anonymous (Chinese artist) (Walters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By English: thesandiegomuseumofartcollection (Flickr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By English: thesandiegomuseumofartcollection (Flickr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Broad Peak and Gasherbrums from K2” by K2_-_Camp_3_Sunrise.jpg: Adha65derivative work: Rupert Pupkin (talk) – K2_-_Camp_3_Sunrise.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Broad_Peak_and_Gasherbrums_from_K2.jpg#/media/File:Broad_Peak_and_Gasherbrums_from_K2.jpg
“学农” by No machine-readable author provided. IgniX assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%E5%AD%A6%E5%86%9C.JPG#/media/File:%E5%AD%A6%E5%86%9C.JPG