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Authors: Tim Murgatroyd

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Taming Poison Dragons

BOOK: Taming Poison Dragons
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TAMING POISON DRAGONS

Tim Murgatroyd

 

About the Author

Tim Murgatroyd is an English teacher who lives with his family in York. He has remained fascinated by ancient China since his teens, when he discovered a slim volume of Chinese poetry in a second hand bookshop.

Taming Poison Dragons
was first released in hardback in 2009. Its sequel,
Breaking Bamboo
, follows in 2010.

The author is currently writing the third volume in the trilogy which chronicles the turbulent years of the Mongol occupation.

Copyright

Myrmidon Books

Rotterdam House

116 Quayside

Newcastle upon Tyne

NE1 3DY

www.myrmidonbooks.com

Published by Myrmidon 2010

Copyright © Tim Murgatroyd 2010

Tim Murgatroyd has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

The poetry of Wang Wei is taken from
The Columbia Book of
Chinese Poetry (from Early Times to the Thirteenth Century)
Translated and edited by Burton Watson © 1984 Columbia University Press Reproduced with permission from the publishers This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-1-905802-46-3

Set in 11/14pt Sabon by Falcon Oast Graphic Arts Limited, East Hoathly, East Sussex

Printed and bound in the UK by JF Print Ltd., Sparkford, Somerset.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

First ebook edition 2010

For my dearest Ruth, Tom and Oliver
Contents

Visiting the Temple of Accumulated Fragrance

Chapter One

Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Epilogue: How Clouds Float
Visiting the Temple of Accumulated Fragrance
I didn’t know where the temple was,
pushing mile on mile among cloudy peaks; 
old trees, peopleless paths,
deep mountains, somewhere a bell.
Brook voices choke over craggy boulders, 
sun rays turn cold in the green pines.
At dusk by the bend of a deserted pond, 
a monk in meditation, taming poison dragons.*
Wang Wei
* The poison dragons are passions and illusions that impede enlightenment. They also recall the tale of a poison dragon that lived in a lake and killed passing merchants until it was subdued by a certain Prince P’an-t’o through the use of spells. The dragon changed into a man and apologised for its evil ways.
one
‘. . . No wise hermit, that recluse with shaking hands, 
somehow sounding a ghost-white lute.
When he blinks, peers round, no one notices:
 just the wind rustling twigs and memories . . .’

 

Western China. Spring, 1196.

Daughter-in-law chides me mercilessly.

‘Honoured Father,’ she says. ‘Why do you not wear the flannel shirt I sewed for you? Did I blunt my best needle so you wouldn’t wear it, heh?’

She betrays her lack of breeding through this casual

‘heh’, and I wonder if I chose a proper wife for my son.

‘Your tender concern is a mark of true duty,’ I reply.

‘But Daughter-in-law’s best needle rests against her teeth.’

Such ripostes keep her quiet for a while. She’s working out my meaning.

‘Honoured Father, you do not eat enough millet for breakfast. You will catch cold. And your bowels will suffer.

Do not blame me when you run like Babbling Brook!’

‘Give me the millet, woman. Don’t you know it is my nature to babble like a stream?’

Eldest Son coughs. He has inherited my straight back and tallness but little else. Where my face is restless and given to many moods, his is round and bland as a full moon. He sometimes furrows his brow slightly when perturbed. Today is no exception.

‘Be still, wife,’ he warns, and for once she subsides.

We listen to the gibbons crying in the woods above Wei Village.

‘Father, will you fish today?’ he asks.

I cannot help myself.

‘I’ve been a fisherman all my life, whether I go to Babbling Brook or not. Do you remember when I taught you
The Fisherman’s Song
? You were just a boy.’

He clears his throat. He remembers. In ways I might not like.

‘What news in the letter you received, Honoured Father?’

demands Daughter-in-law. ‘You promised to tell us.’

‘Ah,’ I say. ‘That letter is like blossom. Who knows when it will bear fruit?’

While I scoop millet with my chopsticks I sense frustrated glances. One can be too distant.

‘It is from my old friend, P’ei Ti. He promises to visit us soon.’

‘Quite so,’ says my son anxiously, weighing what is expected of him from such a guest.

Daughter-in-law flutters. She hates to be caught out, so I help her.

‘You must set aside wine. No more is needed for old men. We like to drink and feed on our memories.’

‘Just wine, heh? Is this P’ei Ti noble?’

‘Of course!’ rebukes my son. ‘Have you not heard Father speak of him? His Excellency P’ei Ti is the Second Chancellor to the Son of Heaven. He has the ear of His Imperial Majesty!’

‘Just wine,’ I say, gently. ‘The rest will take care of itself.’

In my heart I am less sure; and secretly ashamed of our simple life here, though I bear the title ‘Lord’. So does every cock on its fence. It is no small obligation to greet a man like P’ei Ti at your door.

Our home, known locally as Three-Step-House, perches on the contours of a hill above the village. It consists of three large buildings, all of one storey, connected by brick-lined stairs cut into the hillside. The lowest building is fronted by a walled courtyard and gatehouse. The rooms are constructed of maple and pine, with red tile roofs.

Terracotta lions, dragons and phoenixes decorate the eaves like guardian spirits. As a small boy I believed they came to life when I was asleep, hopping from ridge to ridge, conversing in the language of the Eight Winds.

For the next week Three-Step-House is invaded by an army of scents, marshalled by Daughter-in-law. She is preparing lucky sauces for the visit. Aniseed bears the scent of dignity; limes are tart as watchful marriage brokers, and as powerful. Daughter-in-law’s angular face grows flushed as she works, determined not to be shamed.

The maid and a girl from the village are her assistants.

Lame Fui, the wine-seller, delivers a dozen jars which I insist on testing for worthiness. That night I take down my lute and sing half the
Book Of Songs
before my son leads me to bed. He does not comprehend I am singing to the sickle moon, and that she doesn’t care if I’m in tune. I might even labour my point in rhyme. Yet I sleep well for once, ghosts banished, and dream of nothing at all.

Waking brings a conviction that P’ei Ti will arrive today, and I tell Eldest Son. He nods gravely, then excuses himself to instruct the servants. Later he takes out his small bow and shoots fowl in the reeds around the river.

Daughter-in-law anxiously watches the road climbing through Wei Village. She dresses with special care, her hair piled a foot high, held in place with combs shaped like peonies and swallows.

Even my grandsons are infected by the fever. I inflame them further by relating stories of P’ei Ti’s illustriousness, and my less glorious deeds when we were young. I teach them an old song:

Yoking my chariot I’m merciless to the horse.

Ride like a prince through the streets of Lo.

In Lo Town everything pleases me!

High and low mingle like thieves.

The widest streets need lanes to join them.

How noble the houses of the royal counts!

A long feast keeps us young and thoughtless,
Casting no shadows for sorrow to haunt.

The children sing it over and over in high, excited voices. Eldest Son only dares to rebuke them when he thinks I cannot hear.

*

Later, my eye strays to the three bronze-bound chests I brought here when I returned in disgrace. Decades have darkened the wood. The varnish has cracked like lines on a face. I unwrap a bundle from my long, maple-wood chest and, with unsteady hands, take out my old sword.

Its vermilion tassels have faded. It is too heavy for me to twirl as I once did. Gripping the hilt fills me with repug-nance and a strange excitement, so I put it away, afraid of what I have become. When I look up my quiet son is watching from the doorway. I brush away tears and pretend to have rheumy eyes.

‘Father,’ he says, softly. ‘Why not test another of Lame Fui’s jars before we eat?’

A good son. I reward his thoughtfulness by reciting some of my poems. He stifles yawns behind a dragging sleeve.

A delegation approaches the gatehouse, holding their caps and muttering. I have watched them climb from the village through the morning mist, arguing all the way.

Disagreeable visitors, I’m certain.

I descend reluctantly to the Middle House, sending a servant to fetch my second-best gown. I even run a comb through my thin grey hair and wispy beard. Once robed, I await the delegation, as Father received plaintiffs in his ebony chair. A tedious time. First they must get past Eldest Son, who I hear questioning them in the courtyard below.

At last they are led before me.

All bow, as is fitting. I nod agreeably and clap for tea.

The maids bustle away. This mark of condescension sets my visitors at ease. There is Guan the innkeeper, Li Sha who has done well for himself and leases three farms from me, Chiao Sung the blacksmith. All good men in their way. They stand uncertainly until Old Wudi, my bailiff and village headman, clears his throat. Wudi is short and round; people often remark on his resemblance to the Fat-belly Buddha.

‘Lord Yun Cai,’ he begins. ‘We hesitate to interrupt your meditations. We would seek your advice, sir.’

I nod sagely.

‘Lord Yun Cai,’ continues Wudi. ‘May we know if you have heard the rumours from the east?’

Li Sha interjects excitedly.

‘Rebellion and civil war! It is said General An-Shu has raised an army of fifty thousand!’

Wudi calms him with a gesture. They wait impatiently for my reply.

‘I have heard no talk of revolt,’ I say. ‘On what authority do you spread these rumours?’

‘Li Sha was at Crossroad Market yesterday,’ says Wudi, in his cautious way. ‘He counted over a hundred people who had fled Chunming, camping by the roadside. They told him General An-Shu had fought a battle at Yunchow Ford and filled the dyke with His Imperial Highness’s men. They said Chunming has fallen to the rebels. Those who refuse to kowtow to An-Shu are hung by their ankles from the city gates.’

This is grave news indeed. Chunming is only a hundred
li
from Wei. It also lies on P’ei Ti’s route from the capital.

I dare not imagine the consequences if he has been captured.

‘An-Shu?’ I say, flustered. ‘Can we be sure?’

Wudi and Li Sha exchange a look. I sense irritation.

‘Others have confirmed it,’ says Wudi.

BOOK: Taming Poison Dragons
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