A Chinese Tale

Michael Hulse

I dreamt I was the simple trusting boy
who took his wicked teacher’s jealous hand
and climbed the mountain. And the teacher said
he had to go away, but he’d be back,
and if I happened to be hungry, why,
all I need do was eat the stones. His eyes
were fine strokes of a calligrapher’s brush
conveying messages I could not read
(though how I longed to learn and understand).
I thanked the honest man for his advice
and said that I would wait till he returned.
He told me patience was a discipline
invaluable to a man. And left.

The day was bright, and I was young in hope,
and I questioned the sun, and the sun replied:
Study. Be humble. Be truthful. Aspire.
And I questioned the sky, and the sky replied:
Study. Be humble. Be truthful. Aspire.
And night came, and the ironic moon
replied with a smile: Be truthful. Aspire.
And keep up the studies. Because you know
that all will come to him who learns and waits.
But don’t overdo the humility, boy.

And in the morning I was cold and hungry.

And I recalled the honest man’s advice
and went about collecting stones, although
I must confess I’d never heard that stones
were good to eat. An inspiration came
and in their place I saw a bowl of rice
and ate of it till I could eat no more.
And I questioned the sun, and the sun replied:
Study. Be humble. Be truthful. Aspire.
And I questioned the sky, and the sky replied:
Study. Be humble. Be truthful. Aspire.
And night came, and the ironic moon
replied with a smile: You’re on the right track,
but remember that study’s a means, not an end,
and aspiration’s the vehicle, not the goal,
and humility may be counter-productive,
and even the truth isn’t always the answer.

And in the morning I breakfasted on stones.

And the days went by, the days became weeks,
and, knowing that patience was a virtue
invaluable to a man, I waited,
hourly expecting my honest teacher’s return.
And after forty days he did return,
important in his venerable robes,
and seemed surprised to find me still alive.
He listened with a serious expression
as I explained about the stones and rice.
The fine strokes narrowed into finer strokes.
I told him the sun’s reply and he smiled.
I told him the sky’s reply and he smiled.
I told him the moon’s reply and he frowned.

And then it seemed I fell from off the mountain,
uncertain whether I was pushed, and woke
at daybreak on a square, where people cried
and ran and fell and lay where they had fallen.
And I questioned the rising sun and the sky
but they made no reply.
And I questioned the setting moon and the moon replied:

Today you died.

June 1989