Marko Modiano, a world traveler with a keen interest in culture, literature, and language, is a native son of California. He currently resides in Stockholm and Amsterdam, where he spends his time writing and lecturing on the magic of the spoken and written word.
The Condemned Man
It was late autumn, quite cold this particular year, with little light in what was day, and with nights growing longer. Among the monks there was a feeling that they were becoming creatures of darkness, never seeing the light, and however hard they tried, they could not deny the impact it had upon them, even though they went about their business as they always have, starting each day before dawn, meditating well into the afternoon, and the same in the evenings, then slumber. They would repeat this pattern on the following day as well, with the same succession of events, in what seemed like an endless movement. They were driven by the understanding that no matter how enlightened one might become, there was always another step one could take. And even if that was not possible, they would nevertheless persevere, and carry on, diligently, with this work, despite the fact that the season had become disagreeable. In the darkness of autumn, they would fall into this cycle, and live, and relive, one day after another, in the same manner, as if each movement was a replica of the one before, and the one that was to follow. It was in these cycles that the men and women that lived in the sanctuary found their place in the world.
Feng had been at the monastery since he was nine years old. His memories of his life before becoming a monk were now fading away with the passing of each new season. His mother and his father never came to see him, which was expected, and when he reached the age of 20, and could leave and return home to his parents, he asked of the elders that he might stay on and continue with his studies. And so he stayed, and many years passed, and he became, in time, esteemed among his peers. This was all that he had in this world, his place there among the monks, and the respect they had for him. His past life as a child in the home of his mother and father was now noting more than the ghost of a forgotten memory, and although he may reflect on it from time to time, he no longer longed to be with them, but instead put that part of his life behind him and looked forward to what was to come. Anything that could possibly take place in his life which was significant would come in the future. He would find peace in the world, and tranquility, and become one with all things.
On this particular day, he was with a group of children who had just come to the sanctuary and were learning about humility by going into the village to beg for their sustenance. The children were nine years old, for the most part, with one or two of them the age of ten or eleven. He had them lined up in the marketplace, each with their beggar’s bowl extended. The village people would come and put rice in the bowls. This is where he was when the messenger came to fetch him. He had his bowl in his hand, and was begging with the children, to show them that no one is too proud to be so humbled. He was watching them, looking into their eyes as they stood there begging, trying to see in them their strength, that they could stand there, proud and unbowed, and feel no shame. He wanted them to be honored, that they could come before these people with nothing, and beg, and in doing so, show the world that they were now denouncing all that is material, and were preparing to dedicate their lives to the attainment of spiritual enlightenment. The messenger stepped forward as he was standing there begging and told Feng that he was called for by the High Priest, and that he must come right away, for it was important. And so Feng asked the boy who had come with the message to stay there, and help the children find their way back to the monastery when they have received their portion, and were satisfied, and had been sufficiently humbled. He then left the marketplace, and the boy who had come to fetch him, and made his way back to the compound. It was unusual that the High Priest would ask to speak with one of the younger monks. It was a great honor to stand before him, something which would make him more respected among the others, that the High Priest had asked to see him, and that he had gone to him, and had spoken with him.
When Feng arrived, he was treated with great respect, and all present bowed before him, and he was given tea, and then they invited him to go in to the High Priest. When he entered the room, he was struck with an odd sense of fate. Something was about to happen. He could feel it. The High Priest was standing before the statue of the Buddha, with his back to him, and he said nothing, but simply stood there. Feng did the same, and stood there in the middle of the room, before the High Priest and the statue of the Buddha. He was silent for a few minutes, then the High Priest turned, and offering Feng a seat, took the seat next to him. He then placed his hand on Feng’s arm and began to explain to him why he had been called to come speak with the leader of the monastery.
He told Feng, “You have been asked to come because there is something which needs to be done, and it is something which requires a person of exceptional integrity, which is why it was decided that we would call on you, to see if you would be willing to accept the challenge.”
Then he stopped and waited to hear what Feng had to say, and Feng told him that he was honored. He would always be eager to serve and would carry out with enthusiasm any task which the High Priest secured for him. The High Priest was pleased, and more tea was brought in, and the two of them sat in silence and drank the tea. Feng did not speak. It would be unwise to speak in the presence of the High Priest. He knew that the High Priest had something to tell him, and that it would be forthcoming, and so he sat there and sipped the tea and waited for the all-knowing one to express himself. It did not take long before the High Priest began.
The High Priest told Feng, “I have spoken with the Commissioner. They have a man who has committed a crime, and they are going to throw him over a cliff, at the sea, so that he falls down upon the rocks, and breaks his bones, and then, there, on the rocks, he is to perish, with the crashing of the waves, and the birds picking at him as he leaves this world.”
After the High Priest had said these things, he fell silent. It was apparent that the execution, and the manner in which it was to be carried out, displeased him. And so he sat there for some time, expressing with his silence his displeasure. Then, looking into Feng’s eyes, he told him, “It has been decided that one of the monks from our monastery can be with the man when he is down upon the rocks, and give him some comfort, in his last hours. In this way the man will not die alone. But there is a condition, one which may not under any circumstances be broken, and that is that the monk who is with the man does not touch him, or make him comfortable in any way, and does not offer him food nor drink. All that the monk may do is speak with the man. I am asking you to go and witness this, see them throw the man upon the rocks, and then go to him, and spend your time there beside him, and comfort him if you will with your conversation, but do not in any other way alter his departure from this world. Will you accept this task, and in so doing give me your word that you will respect the agreement that has been made with the Commissioner?”
Feng did not hesitate. He looked to the High Priest and told him that he would adhere to the conditions of the agreement, and that he would go to his quarters at once and prepare for the journey to the sea. He would need to bring food and drink that would keep him for three or four days, and something to shelter him from the elements, and from the ocean in case the man was cast upon the rocks where the waves crash down, sending up a mighty spray of sea water that would surely be disagreeable not only to him but also for the condemned man. The High Priest was pleased that Feng had agreed to help him. At the same time, he was unhappy that the condemned man, whom he did not know, was to be killed in this fashion. He had spoken to the Commissioner many times about these things, and made it known that he felt that it was wrong, and not a good omen, that people in the settlement, and in the villages surrounding the settlement, could be condemned to death in such a manner. But the Commissioner would not listen, and now he was prepared to kill a man in a cruel manner, to make an example of him, so that others would know that the crime that the condemned man had committed was not to be tolerated. All the High Priest could do was to ask that someone from the monastery was there with the condemned man, so that he would not die alone. He could do no more. And Feng was a good man, a man with integrity, who was fast and true. He would comfort the man, and make his transition easier, and would not break the conditions which had been agreed upon. One could trust him.
Feng was told that he would be informed in good time when to prepare to leave, but it did not take long before a messenger visited him, to tell him that the Commissioner would be passing by the monastery on the way to the sea on the following day, and that Feng was to be ready, and have his belongings with him, after his noon-day meal. Feng prepared his things, so that he had food, and drink, and something to shelter him from the spray of the waves as they crashed upon the rocks, and a hat to cover his head, and the next day, in the early afternoon, the Commissioner came with soldiers on horseback, and footmen as well, making a procession that went on for the length of the road, and at the end of the procession there were eight men carrying a cage, and in the cage he could see the condemned man, chained, staring curiously at the monastery and at the people there who were looking at him in awe. Feng was given a place in an empty carriage, and falling into his seat there, he tried as best he could to make himself comfortable. The seats were hard and unagreeable, and it was all but impossible to find a spot where one could sit contentedly and at the same time see the world passing through the tiny window that adorned the door of the carriage. The procession proceeded while he was struggling to find his equilibrium, which he eventually did find, and then, for the better part of that day, and the following day, he sat there, feeling the carriage rolling forward, watching the shifting scenery pass the tiny window of the carriage in which he was travelling. Finally, when he could smell the salt in the air, and hear the waves as they came crashing down upon the shore, the procession stopped and he was asked to come out, and so he did, and stood there before the vast ocean, the soldiers and horses, and the cage in which the condemned man stood looking off into the horizon, over the rocks and the ocean which spread out before him like the giant mouth of some undetermined species of fish.
The Commissioner was there with his Representative. They had been travelling in a much more elegant carriage than the one reserved for Feng, one adorned with cushioned seats, images of carved dragons spitting out fire into the dark of night, and a majestic coat of arms upon the door. A small tent was assembled, one equally as stylish as the carriage, where the proceedings where to take place, and soon they had the condemned man there in front of the Commissioner so that he could hear the accusations and have the sentence read out to him, before the executioner took the prisoner, and bringing him to the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea, threw the man down upon the rocks so that his body would be battered and broken, and he would be left there to die, with nothing to sustain him, as the ocean delivered its havoc upon him, bringing wave after wave to crash down on him, and cause him much discomfort, as he slowly passed into nothingness. The monk did not have any opportunity to intervein, to talk to the condemned man, or to offer him comforting words before he was thrown to his death. He could only watch from a distance. A guard was called to stand with him, and so he was there, some distance from the proceedings, where he could not hear what was said, and if he stepped forward, so as to hear better, the guard stirred, and stood between him and the ceremony going on in the tent, barring him from coming any closer. It was all over almost as quickly as it began. He saw the executioner bring the man to the edge, overlooking the sea, and cast him down. Feng then went along the path leading to the beach below, and there, passed on along the rocks which jetted out to sea, and upon which the condemned man was resting, broken and twisted and breathing irregularly. Feng made a place for himself on the rocks beside the condemned man. He did not speak to the man and inquire of him if he was in want of someone to talk to in these his last hours upon this earth. Instead he was quiet. He would wait.
The man was there upon the rocks, broken, severely injured, but not to the extent that his life would end within hours, or indeed, this day. He could not move any of his limbs, or his head, and when he opened his eyes, he could not see out to sea, but was instead positioned so that he looked straight at Feng, and beyond Feng, he could see in the background the beach stretching out before the bluffs that were covered in grass. It was overcast, grey, and wet with the mist coming off the sea, but it was not raining, and it was not exceedingly cold either, and Feng worried that this man here before him could potentially live for several days, and die not of exposure, or of his injuries, but of hunger and thirst. If that were to happen, he could easily live a week, or even more, before succumbing. Feng was sorry for the man, that in not being so severely injured this would mean that he was unlucky, that his death would be a slow drawn-out affair, and in such circumstances, with his bones broken, and his exposure to the spray of the ocean, he would suffer from much discomfort, and leave this earth not in tranquility but in pain and despair.
After some time, the man opened his eyes and looked at Feng. They had never met, so the man would not recognize him, and it was probable as well that he would not know why Feng was there. It could be that the man would wrongly assume that Feng had simply been passing by, and finding the man there, came to help him, to take him from the rocks, and provide him with shelter and with food and water. He would be shocked to find out that such was not the case. He could not possibly know that Feng was there because the High Priest at the monastery felt that it was wrong to leave a man to die alone. One should never leave this earth alone, but always have someone there to give one comfort in those last moments of life. Feng would have to tell the man this, because otherwise he may misunderstand, and in doing so, have hope, and Feng did not want the man to go through that, to first be excited because there was someone there to help him in this most difficult of trials, only to find out that the presence of the stranger had no bearing whatsoever on the predicament in which he now found himself, and in this discovery, go from joy to anguish. Feng did not want the man to suffer in this way, for his situation was indeed tragic, and to make it worse would be a serious trespass.
The man was there on the rocks looking up into Feng’s eyes. He was too weak to speak. Feng sat there beside him and waited until he was sure that the man could hear what he had to say, and was strong enough to take it in, and understand what it was that Feng said to him. He did not find a chance to speak until several hours had passed. It was when the man tried to lift up his head, so he could better see what was to be seen in his immediate surroundings, and in looking into Feng’s eyes indicated that he was now aware of where he was, and of the seriousness of the situation. Before the man could speak Feng looked into his eyes and told him “I am only here to give you company. I cannot help you, as I am sworn to neither touch you, or give you anything, or in any way help you so that you may somehow survive. You have been punished for something which you have done, I know not what, and the penalty for your misconduct was that you were to be thrown down upon the rocks, and severely injured, remain there until you passed from this earth. This has taken place, and now, you are awakening, on the rocks, with no chance of survival, and it is my charge to be here, to keep you company, until you have taken your last breath.”
Feng could see that he had understood what was said, and so the man closed his eyes, and tried to push his head back a bit, indicating that what he had heard was not received as anything good. The possibility that he was perhaps going to survive this event was, with this knowledge, much less likely, and so what he now had was the simple realization that he was to perish, and seeing as he did not seem to be so severely injured from the fall, but too broken to be able to walk or crawl off the rocks, he knew that he would die upon these rocks, and that it would take a good measure of time, and that apparently made him despondent. He closed his eyes in despair, and tried again to push his head back, as a way of indicating his disappointment over this realization. Feng did not say anything more. He was not there to speak, but to listen.
But the man did not speak to him, at least not for some hours, as the day drifted into early evening, when the sun, setting to the west over the horizon, cast a magnificent yellow glow over the water. When he did speak, it was to ask for water. He told Feng that he was thirsty, and that he desperately needed something to drink, and when Feng did not respond, but simply looked at him, the man told him, “then you are one of my executioners, for your refusal to give a dying man something to drink kills me no more or less than the act of throwing me down upon the rocks. You should leave, for your presence here only adds to my despair.” And with that, the man closed his eyes, and appeared to have fallen asleep. Feng was now deeply perplexed. He knew that there was wisdom in what the man had said. It was true, it was not possible to be there, and at the same time not participate in the killing. Beyond that, he did not know how to express compassion without some form of physical contact, and because he was barred from expressing compassion in that fashion, everything that Feng held to be sanctified was now compromised. He believed that one should never take the life of another, never deny another assistance when someone is in dire straits, never treat someone differently than how one would have wanted to have been treated if the tables were turned and it was Feng who was battered and broken and wanting something to drink. He knew that what the man had to say was true, it was wrong for him to be there, and he should leave. Yet, he had given his word that he would stay with the man until he passed, and not assist the man in any manner, and so he was stuck there, stuck between his commitment to his word, and to the alarming realization that his presence implicated him in the killing, something which, to him, was abhorrent and contrary to everything which he held to be right and just.
When Feng was sure that the man was sleeping he turned the other way, so that, in the event that the man awoke, he would not see what he was doing, and took out some rice cakes, and tea which was sweetened with the leaves of mint, and ate his evening meal there in the half-light of early evening, sensing behind him the descent of the sun which was slipping away just under the rim of the horizon. It was quiet there on the rocks beside the man, and he was greatly fatigued by all that had transpired these last hours, and downhearted as well, and so he tried to sleep. But he was deeply disturbed and found it difficult to seek refuge in sleep. Instead, he rested there upon his back, looking up at the heavens, and contemplated his predicament. For some strange reason he wondered what the man had done to deserve such a fate. Would killing him in this fashion be somehow justified if he was the perpetrator of some terrible transgression? He knew that it did not matter what crime the man had committed. Nothing a man or a woman can do could ever justify the taking of a life. But he could not help wondering what this man could have possibly done to inspire others to plot against him, and in so doing, conjure up the harshest of punishment. Why did he turn his thoughts to this man’s misconduct? Perhaps, if he was aware of the nature of the crime, and knew that it was most insensitive, where, for example, he had inflicted great pain and suffering on the innocent, it would be easier to play this role. Would knowing that the man had done something terrible beyond words make it easier to deny him the water he requested? But Feng knew the answer. It was wrong to be there, if being there meant he could not give the man water, and in other ways as well, show compassion for someone in need. He had made a mistake in coming here.
These thoughts plagued him as he lay there in the half-light of dusk. Then, as it grew darker, so that the sky seemed to be filled with an endless number of tiny dots of light, he fell asleep. All through the night he tossed and turned, for he was restless, and uneasy, and racked with a compelling sense of wrong doing. Everything that he stood for in life, the sum total of his humanity, was compromised, and all because he had given the High Priest his word that he would stay, and offer no comfort, or sustenance, or water to quell the man’s thirst. And because of these thoughts, his rest gave him no comfort. Then, at dawn, he did as he had done the night before, and turned away from the man when he awoke in the early morning, and had something to eat and something to drink, before turning to the man, and there, watch him, perceive his face, his closed eyelids and his twisted body. When the man stirred, he imagined, they would talk.
But the man did not awake until well past the morning hours, when noon was not far off. He began by making terrible sounds, sounds which seemed to indicate a bad dream, but then, as it was apparent that he was awake, Feng realized that the man was crying out, like someone in severe trauma would do, sobbing because, as he awoke, he was realizing that his bones were broken, and he could not move, and there, on the rocks, with the waves crashing down all about him, he would wither away, cold and hungry, and with great thirst. He would die this way, battered against the rocks, the life slowly running out of him. That realization, that he was there to leave this world, caused him such distress that he cried out, like a condemned man struggling against the men who were forcing his head down upon the block, so that the executioner could bring the blade down, and snuff out the divine life within. The man did so for a good while, his eyes closed, mumbling, crying out, sobbing, while Feng sat there beside him and listened and watched in horror. But then finally, as he grew weary, he stopped sobbing, and a sense of the sublime came over him, and so he calmed down, and opening his eyes, he looked at Feng, and gave Feng a sad understanding smile, as if to say that he pitied him, and forgave him, and recognized what a difficult trial it must have been for Feng, to be compelled to remain, and watch, and participate, in this manner, as another human being is forced to endure this slow ritualistic death. He just laid there, his face turned on its side in a most unnatural twist, and looked into Feng’s eyes, and did not speak, or make a sound, but only looked in awe at the stranger who for some odd reason had been chosen to be there, and witness, and experience, the last hours of his life.
The tides were up at this hour, and so the crashing of the waves upon the rocks was more of an imposition now than the previous evening, and the two men were made uncomfortable by the violence of the waves crashing on the rocks, and of the water which was trashing about and turning to a fine spray, above their heads. Finally, the man spoke. He told Feng, “I see that you are still here.” Then he closed his eyes again, indicating that he was in extreme discomfort. Overheard, there was the cry of the sea gulls that were on the beach in the distance, looking for what they could find in the wash where the waves crashed upon the beach. Then opening his eyes once more, he asked of Feng, “Now you must tell me, why are you here?”
Feng was looking down at the man, struggling with an intense desire to put his hand on the man’s shoulder, to comfort him, but he was sworn not to touch him, so he refrained from doing so. He found it difficult to find the words. He was distracted, as well, by the birds down the beach. They were alive, thriving, at one with the elements, and here was this man, ending his life, beaten and battered upon the rocks. How could he explain that he was here because he had promised someone he respected to come and witness what was transpiring, and to stay, and see that the condemned man did not die alone? Would he have come if he had not been asked? He did not know the answer to that question, but he feared that, had he simply heard that a man was to be executed in this manner, he would not have felt compelled to participate in this way. Perhaps he would have even wanted to block it from his mind, to ignore it, as something that took place in the outside world, where there was no respect for humanity, and consequently, no reason to demonstrate with one’s actions that it was always wrong to end a life. Now, he could not ignore what was taking place. He told the condemned man, “I was called upon to see what was happening to you, and then to stay with you, so that you would not die alone. That is all.”
And so the man blinked, looking up, into Feng’s eyes. “Then you are one of them,” he said, over and over, “You are one of them.”
He was silent after that, as the sun made its movement upward, reaching the highest point in the sky. It cast a dim yellow light down upon them, through the haze at the seaside, with the spray and mist of the crashing waves upon the rocks, so that they were both wet, but while Feng was covered with an oilcloth, and wore a tightly woven hat that kept his head dry, the condemned man, having nothing to protect him, was exposed to this constant assault, with the salt water dripping from his face, his clothes soaked through. And despite the fact that the sun was there to warm them, the constant barrage of the waves, and the spray, as well as the breeze coming off the sea, put a slight chill in the air, just enough to make the condemned man uncomfortable, and so he shivered, making a haunting sound and causing Feng to feel ill at ease.
When the sun began making its march across what turned out to be, at least for Feng, a seemingly endless afternoon, the man spoke again. He said to Feng, “Surely no one told you of my transgressions for the simple reason that I have done no wrong. It was all a trick. Those men who brought me here, they are evil creatures. They plot to kill me, not as punishment for something I have done which is wrong, but because they want me out of the way, so that they can take my wife, and my daughters, so that they can abuse them.” He had made much effort to get these words out, and so now, after just a few sentences, he grew tired and closed his eyes, and appeared to be sleeping, as the waves crashed down upon the rocks all about them. Feng listened to what the man had said, but he took no stock in it. He had been warned that the man would attempt to convince Feng that he was innocent, and entice Feng into comforting him, and perhaps even give him something to drink and eat, and in so doing, save him, or at the very least prolong his life in some way, and so Feng listened to the man, knowing that what was being said could very well be a fabrication, and contain no element of truth. They sat there upon the rocks as the endless afternoon got lost in itself, saying nothing. They were just there, looking about aimlessly, in silence. More hours passed, as the winds blowing off the sea increased in intensity, before the condemned man began once again to speak. He wanted to tell his story because he was now fully aware of the fact that he would not survive, and by telling his story to this stranger, his life would somehow make more sense than if he was simply silent, and in that silence, slowly faded into nothingness there upon the rocks.
Looking past Feng as he spoke, he said, “I was born nearly forty years ago in the village of Mặt Trăng. My father was a simple farmer who attended a small patch of land on the slopes of one of the many mountains surrounding our village. He did not speak much, but instead preferred to be quiet most of the time, and my mother, who looked after the children, was a woman of few words as well, and so, growing up in their home was very much a challenge for the children, who became, in time, equally prone to sit in silence and not speak. I was not sent to the monastery like the eldest sons of other families in our village, but was instead taken in by my father’s brother, who was a fisherman on the lake to the north of where we lived, and it was my father’s brother who taught me the ways of the world. He would instruct me daily seeing as we had much time there in his boat upon the lake. He taught me of the respect a man must have for a woman. This, he told me, is one of the greatest virtues, along with honesty, compassion, and reverence for all living things. I went fishing with him each day, and each day we would bring the fish we had caught to the town where people gathered who were selling or purchasing things, and people would pay a good price for the fish which we caught, and consequently we were prosperous. My aunt, who was, like her husband, an outgoing social person, took to me and treated me like a son, and had much to teach me about the ways of men and woman, and so, after some years, I stopped longing to return home, and instead looked upon my uncle and aunt as a child looks upon their father and mother, and many years passed which are now remembered as wonderful and fulfilling.
One day, when I was just 21 years of age, my uncle brought me to an adjacent village, and when we arrived, we were granted audience in the home of one of the more prosperous families. The husband of the household received us, and took us in, and offered us tea and things to eat, but said nothing, as was our custom, to not speak over a meal, but to sit and eat in silence in each other’s presence. After the meal, we again fell into silence. I was certainly perplexed. My uncle had not told me why we had made this sojourn, and I had not overhead anything of the trip before we left. It was when the man’s daughter was brought into the room by her mother that I began to understand my role in this ceremony. She was introduced as Jasmine. Her mother, walking behind her, ushered her in, and Jasmine, her head down, focusing her eyes on the floor before her, seemed to be exceedingly shy. She would not have eye contact with me. When I gazed upon her, I was struck not only by her beauty and her composure, but more importantly by her grace, which was considerable. My heart began beating wildly for it suddenly dawned upon me that this woman was now brought before me and my uncle for the sole purpose of offering her hand in marriage, with me as the recipient, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of having as my companion in life such a beautiful creature.
As Jasmine was invited in, her father told her to sit, and she took her place beside him on a cushion, her head bowed, and said nothing. Her mother, taking her place on the other side of her husband, was also without words. They were offered tea, and then, as they drank their tea, the others, the men there assembled, were silent as well, and so for what seemed to me to be an eternity, the five of us were there, in the dim light of the burning candles, with the tea before us. Finally, the girl’s father spoke, addressing his daughter, but not looking at her, but rather at my uncle.
He said, ‘You will now go with this man, to be his wife.’
She would not be given any opportunity to have any say in the matter, and seeing as her mother did not protest, it was now the case that my uncle, and this man, Jasmine’s father, had made an agreement that the two of us were to wed, and how Jasmine felt about it, and any opinion I might have had on the matter, was irrelevant. It was decided that we were to be joined together, and what was left now was a short ceremony, and then the long trek home. I was taken by relatives who came to the house, to another dwelling, and there I was washed and dressed in fine garments, and then, standing on a bed of rose pedals, we endured the wedding ceremony. Jasmine with a vail before her eyes, looking down all the time, became my wife, but I had never looked into her eyes, and was not given any indication of her sentiments, so that I married her not knowing if she was pleased that I had been selected for her. When the ceremony was over, and we sat and had a meal with her people before leaving to return home, Jasmine retained her vail, and did not look upon me. She did the same all the way home, so that, upon arrival, where she was greeted by my aunt, I had no opportunity to look into her eyes.
It was first when we were to retire for the evening that I had an opportunity to speak alone with her. We lay in our room upon the straw mat, with just a thin blanket to cover us seeing as the evenings in this season were quite warm. I reached out and put my hand upon her shoulder, looking to her, to see if she would look up and in doing so see my eyes, but she did not raise her gaze, and instead continued to look down. I asked her if she was happy that I had been chosen by her family to be her husband, and if she was pleased that she came with me, and was to live with me, here in my village, among my people.
She did not answer right away. Instead she continued to look down, laying there on her side facing me, her head slightly tilted downward as if she was ashamed in some way, or afraid. I could see her struggle to find the words. Raising her hand up to her lips she then told me, ‘I am exceptionally happy.’
Then I could see tears swelling up in her eyes, and she took a deep breath, and with her hand she took my arm, and rested her hand upon me, and said no more. It was then that I understood that she was as pleased as was I, and that we would be good for each other, and love each other. For many years to follow we flourished, and I was quite skilled at catching fish upon the lake, and at the end of each day, in the market, I often sold my catch for a good price, and so I was able to provide well for Jasmine. She gave birth, in the years following our wedding, to three girls, each more beautiful and magnificent than the other, and the girls were all tall and straight, and lovely in every way, and their mother and father were proud to have them. This magic which was our family continued for many years. The girls grew to become fine young women, each more beautiful and lovelier with the passing of time.
It was then that the Commissioner began coming more often to our village, apparently displeased with the taxes which were imposed among our people. He always had with him his Representative, who was a vile man, one quick to enforce the questionable demands which were issued when the Commissioner required some compensation for what he insisted were the inadequate levies imposed upon the people. He wanted more money, and when he could not get more money, he would send his Representative to collect other things of value which the families had in their possession. The village people were no longer living in harmony with each other and with the elements, but now were instead a flock in despair. Each time the Representative came to one of the houses to confiscate something which was deemed of value, all of the other villagers would protest, and gather together, as if they were to rise up against this injustice and through violence, overcome their oppressor. But there was never any violence. If such were to take place, the Commissioner would simply send sentinels, and the villagers had no possibility of dealing successfully with armed men.
One day the Representative came to my house and demanded something of value. He claimed that the prosperity which my family enjoyed from our profits selling fish in the village was not properly appraised, and consequently, we had not paid our share of the village tax. He claimed that we had a debt to pay and must give him something of value as a way to compensate for having contributed too little in the past. But he had misjudged our contribution. It was true that the sales of the fish made it possible for me to provide for my family, but there was little left over after we paid for the things we needed, and I was not in possession of expensive jewelry or other items of value which, if offered to the Representative, would appease his need to take from me that which was mine. Like all the others in the village, we had not been living in any kind of luxury. We were simple people who lived an unassuming life. When we told him that we had nothing of value which we could give him, he then told us that the Commissioner had instructed us to be prepared to give to him one of our daughters, and that he would return in a fortnight to make good on this claim.
Naturally, we were heart-stricken at the thought of losing one of our daughters in such an abhorrible manner. Our first thought was to flee, but unfortunately, we did not know where we could seek shelter. Each day, during the two weeks in which we were in waiting for the return of the Representative, I would sit with my wife and our daughters and think through what we could possibly do to avoid this disaster, but our wits failed us, and we could not imagine any possible solution to our calamity. When the Representative came to our door and demanded that we hand over to him one of our daughters, I was not properly prepared to deal with this challenge despite the fact that I had had ample time to think on it. As I stood there, looking into the man’s eyes, I suddenly understood that there was no possibility whatsoever for me to order one of my daughters to go with him, knowing that they would mistreat her, and force her to become a concubine in the Commissioner’s household. I was not able to allow this to happen.
I looked out at the Representative. He was alone. He was so arrogant that he believed he could come to my home, and take my daughter away, to become another man’s whore, and I would allow it, because I was in fear of his guards, who were surely to come and take me if I indicated in any manner that I was not willing to comply with his whims. He was a foul man, an ugly creature, with his goatee and his tiny black piercing eyes. He leaned backward as he spoke, his head bowed, as if he imagined that he was on some dignified business, and as such deserved respect. He looked at me and simply said, ‘Have you decided which of your daughters you will send with me to compensate for the taxes which have been as to now withheld?’ I head these words much like a death sentence, for even as he was articulating his demand, I knew that such would never transpire, that I would never allow him to take with him one of my beloved daughters.
I turned and looked into the eyes of Jasmine. She too was terrified. It would be, for her, as great a tragedy, to have one of our daughters taken from her. I could see her pleading with me, in her eyes, to find some solution. She was destitute, so that one could claim that in taking one of my daughters from me, the Representative was destroying the lives of everyone in my family; myself, my wife, and all of our children. I did not know what to do. It was then that I stepped outside, to be with him in the open air. I asked him if it was possible that I gave him money, pieces of silver, which I could get from the sales of fish, and over time, pay the tax which was demanded of me. But the Representative was unwilling to negotiate with me. He told me that the Commissioner was aware of the fact that my wife and daughters were the most beautiful creatures to be found in any of the villages in the district. He would have one of them. There was no opportunity for barter. The Representative demanded that I handed over to him one of my daughters, without delay.
As I stood there in the clearing in front of my home, it suddenly occurred to me that my life had come to an end. It would not matter what I did. Any choice I made would lead to my downfall. But as I stood there, looking at this despicable creature, I became sure of one thing, and that was that I would never hand over one of my daughters to this man. He could see in my eyes that I was deciding to turn him down, to not comply, and was about to speak, to inform me of the futility of my actions, when I drew a dagger, and bringing it to him, thrust it deep into his breast. He was looking at me as I pushed the blade into his flesh. He was looking straight into my eyes. The look upon his face was one of unmitigated astonishment. He could not believe that I, a simple fisherman, a peasant, a man of no consequence, would carry out such a bold act. We looked at each other, as I pressed the blade so far into his flesh that my hand, which was holding the handle of the knife, was pressing against him. His look turned from astonishment to horror. As he stood there, the life now rapidly running out of him, like water gushing from the mouth of a grotesque gargoyle, I looked at him, and he looked at me. In his eyes I could see that he was horrified beyond imagination. He was going to die. He was going to die in this moment, standing before the door to my abode. He was going to die because he had come to take another man’s daughter from him, to force the girl to be a slave. He was dying in the act of doing something inherently dishonorable, sinful, and disgusting. He was realizing the consequences of his actions. The knife pressing into his breast was the consequence of his actions. He had lived a repulsive life in the service of a despot, and now, on this day, in the daylight of this afternoon, he was cut down, killed, butchered, for attempting to do something infinitely wrong. He struggled to say something, but no words came forth. He leaned into me, as if, in this human contact, he would experience one last time some sense of brotherhood. He was dying, and desperate, and his eyes were locked onto mine. Looking into his eyes, I turned the blade, to give him further discomfort, to deny him any sense of intimacy, human warmth, understanding, humanity. He leaned into me, and I turned the blade, and he tried to speak but could not, and I stood firm against him, as he died.
It was then that I left the village with my wife and daughters. We took to the road, and made an attempt to escape, but did not succeed. The guards that were sent to capture me were relentless in their pursuit. They had orders to capture me alive, so that an example could be made of me. The killing of the Representative was a serious offense, and something which would demand the most severe sentence. I succeeded in killing three of them. But they overcame me. They took my wife and my daughters, to be concubines in the Commissioner’s household, and condemned me to death, so that I am now here, on these rocks, before you, and I tell you, I am a good man, I have done nothing wrong. If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same, I would kill the man who came to take my child from my home. I would not allow such injustice to take place without standing up for myself, for my family, and for the others in the village who were the victims of such tyranny. Now the Representative can no longer do any dirty work in my village. I killed him, and it was right to do so, for if a man come unto you, to do harm to your children, you have the right to defend the child, as this is god’s will, and no man can say that you have done something wrong, for it can never be wrong to stand up in this manner, and strike down those who do such dirty work upon others.”
With these words he turned his eyes away from Feng and seemed weary and without energy to carry on, and so he slowly fell asleep there upon the rocks, and Feng was given an opportunity to contemplate upon what he had said. He was deeply disturbed by the things he was told. Could the condemned man have made up such a story? There was no doubt, certainly, that such a fantasy would take some time to be thought through, and to imagine a dying man coming up with such drama, spontaneously, in these, his last hours upon this earth, was unlikely. How does one then come to terms with this injustice? Would it now be right, knowing what had actually transpired, to offer the man comfort, and give him food and drink, and carry him away from this place, so that he might mend, and become once again able bodied? Through what was left of the evening, and all through the night, Feng was uneasy with this haunting awareness of the injustice of humankind. He knew that it would be right to offer the man help. After all, he had not in any way instigated the conflict, but was drawn into it, with falsified accusations, and to make things worse, to see the high order make claims on his very children, is something which would inspire any man to carry out acts of violence the likes of which he was now told had taken place. How was it possible to not feel compassion for this man, to not want to alleviate his suffering, to not feel compelled to help the man to survive this ordeal? But each time Feng felt convinced that he must now do the right thing and offer the condemned man assistance, he remembered that he had given his word to not do so, and his word was all that he had in this world. He was penniless, without family, property, or possessions. The only thing he had in this world was the respect of his peers, and of the leaders of the monastery. If he were to disobey the High Priest he would forever be known as someone unreliable, without trust, and prone to mislead. As such, it would not be possible to continue with his work in the monastery. He would be banished, forced to go, and wander the earth, as an outcast. This was something Feng could never endure, so great was his need to be at peace with his life in the monastery with his fellow monks.
In the morning it was apparent that the condemned man was approaching the end. He did not stir until noon, and even then, he appeared only half conscious, and in his eyes, one could see that he was not fully aware of what was transpiring. The waves which came crashing down upon them were of much greater magnitude this day as well, perhaps because of some alignment of the earth and the moon, and as a result, the tides were even more unrelentless in their pursuit. The two of them were there, on the rocks, with the waves crashing down, and the salt spray in the air, so that the condemned man was drenched, his face and his garments. He lay there, one eye open and one eye closed. Then, closing both of them, he would lay still, as if he was sleeping, and this continued into the afternoon, until the sun finally broke through the clouds, and the sea resided, the crashing of the waves upon them now subdued, a compromise secured, between the sun and the deafening waves, so that the condemned man could find, in that relative calm, an opportunity to continue with his story.
Looking up, he said to Feng, “Each time one of the children came into the world, I was overcome with the most profound sense of welfare. It was surely a miracle, to bring this about, that a life began, and would go forth, and experience for decades the wonders of this world. And I was blessed with this most wonderful of emotions not once, or twice, but three times. Each time, I would be called upon to come back, and come to my wife, and see her there with the baby in her arms, and each time, I would ask of it, and be told that it was a girl, and the greatest happiness would consume me, so that, as I came to my wife, I would embrace her, and embrace the child, and there, the three of us would be as one, and know that it was our fate, that we could be in this world together, and live alongside each other. Never have I done anything which in any way can compare with that, that rush of pure profound gratification which comes to a man when he comes to his wife, and sees her, there, in full bloom, with a newborn in her arms. That I was so blessed to have been given the opportunity to have this bestowed upon me perplexed me, but in time I accepted my fate, that I had been singled out, for reasons unknown to me, to have such pleasure in life. And each of the girls, in turn, became increasingly lovely as the years passed, and they all had sweet dispositions, and wanted only good in this world, and were loving devoted children, so that the five of us, the mother and the father, and the three children, lived in perfect harmony with each other, and with the others in the village, and with the enchanting surroundings in which we lived. I had a perfect life, fishing each day, and selling my catch at the end of each day, and then, in the evenings, spending the last hours of each day with my wife and children. I could not have asked for anything more.
But then the Representative came into our lives and from that moment onward there would no longer be a sense of tranquility in our union. Instead there would only be despair, tragedy, and ruin. And now I am to die, my dreams shattered.” With this he stopped talking and closed his eyes. All across his face there were little beads of water, and from his hair, as well, there were drops of saltwater falling onto the rocks upon which he lay. He was desolate, the life running from him, nearing the end. Feng wanted to put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and say something kind, but he could not bring himself to do this, for it would be an act of betrayal, a blatant trespass, and he did not have the courage to cross that line. He sat there beside the man, struggling with his urge to comfort his new friend, when suddenly the condemned man said to him, “I will die soon.” Then he opened his eyes and looked to Feng, telling him, “When I die I want you to go to the fortification, where the Commissioner lives, and ask to see Jasmine, so that you will know that what I have told you is true, and tell her that my last request before I passed from this earth was that you told her that I wanted her to know that I have always loved her with all my heart, from the first time she looked into my eyes, and that I have, with all of my heart, loved each of my children.” With this said, he moaned, his eyes now seemingly no longer assisting him, so that as he looked up, and into Feng’s eyes, it was as if he was a blind man, and looking at you, did not see you. Feng was exceedingly despondent now, realizing that these would be the last moments of this man’s life, and these, his last words.
After some time, the man began again, telling Feng, “Sewn into my garment, at my neck close to my right arm, there is a thin package, one which can easily go undetected, which is why it was never found upon me. When I am dead, I want you to take it from me, and keep it among your own possessions. It is a very powerful poison. What is amazing about this elixir is that, while very strong, and sure to kill a man, it takes nearly a week to do its dirty work. It has no taste, and leaves nothing which could aid in its detection. When you go to see my wife, to tell her of my sentiments, I want you to ask to see the Commissioner. You can do this if you claim that you have news of things which I have said to you before I passed from this earth. He will want to know if I confessed and demonstrated remorse. The man has a tremendous ego and will delight in anticipation of hearing that I gave a confession before I died. While you are with him, you can easily slip the elixir into his tea. When he dies days later no one will associate your visit with his calamity. He will appear to have died of natural causes and not of any poison which someone may have administered to him through trickery. Give me your word that you will do this for me. Make me this promise, as the last thing that you can do for a dying man.” For some unexplainable reason Feng nodded when he was asked to promise to do this for him. He did know why he made this gesture. He nodded, thinking as he did so that the notion that he would do something which would result in ending the life of another human being was such a foreign notion to him, and something which he had never, not once, contemplated. Then the condemned man closed his eyes, and began breathing irregularly, more irregularly than before, and there was great emotion coming from him, as if he was profoundly saddened that he was to be no longer able to appreciate the wonder that was his wife, and his daughters. He lay there, deeply moved, saddened, breathing hard, as the waves crashed down. But he was not as yet ready to leave this earth. He stirred once more, opening his eyes, looking up at Feng, the way a blind man looks at something, and he said, “I forgive you, I forgive you for coming here, for participating in my execution, for refusing to give me something to eat, or to drink, for refusing to move me off these rocks, for not putting your hand on me, and in so doing give me comfort. I forgive you for you know not what you do.”
And then, as he said these last words, he began to choke, and struggle to find his breath. He made the most terrifying sounds, sounds which would, in the years to come, visit Feng in his sleep. The memory of such despair, of the man’s last act before departure, would haunt Feng for all the remaining days of his life. And the waves, which were now violent, thrashing about, sending cascades of water high into the air above their heads, and then crashing down around them, as the man made the most unnatural sounds, and was dying, that too he would remember, for all of his days. Feng wanted to reach out and touch him, but he was too late. When he had finally gathered up enough courage to make that last bold move, Feng could see that he was gone, his spirit had left him, so that only a complacent carcass was now there before him, and on his face there was a faint smile of sorts, the kind one sees on the face of dead men. He was gone.
Feng had never in his life endured such a challenge. He wanted very much to get up and walk away, to forget any promise he may have made to the man, to ignore the condemned man’s request to retrieve what he had sewn into the fabric of his clothes, but Feng found it impossible to do so. Instead, Feng sat there, dumfounded, and did nothing. Above him, there was the mist and spray of the waves, and beyond that, a pale blue sky, with white billowing clouds drifting westward, and down the beach, among the bluffs, where the water pushed up and down on the shore, there were seagulls scurrying about, looking for something, some small sand crab perhaps, that they could take, and eat. And at odd moments, they would cry out, and send their shrill yowl out into the waning afternoon sky. Feng sat there for some time, not knowing what to do. All of his life, when he was unsure of what to do, he would go to his uncle, and later, to one of the elders and ask for their advice, but now, here, in this place, there was no opportunity to ask for guidance. Feng had many choices. He could take the man to the shore, so that he could die there, upon land. He could leave him upon the rocks as well, which is what he was instructed to do. But there was a more important decision to make, and that was to take the elixir or not. Feng sat there for hours, deeply depressed because of the passing of his friend, profoundly unsure of what he would do next, and afraid of making the wrong decision.
Finally, as the afternoon was making progress, and one could sense the oncoming of dusk, Feng reached out and took the condemned man’s garment in his hands. The hidden object he had spoken of was there, and was easily pushed out into the open, and Feng took it, and concealed it among his things, and rising, he walked off, leaving the condemned man there to become one with the elements. Feng then began the long journey home, keeping to the road which led down to the sea, and finally, after three days of wandering, he found his way back to his sanctuary. There he was welcome. The High Priest, as well as the other monks, knew that what he had endured was most difficult, and so they took great care to make sure that he was given the opportunity to regain his equilibrium. Feng never said anything whatsoever of what he had experienced, but instead, returned to his studies and his daily routines, praying with the other monks each day, and meditating at length, to become, as the seasons passed, more and more at one with the god-head. But he could not shake off the feeling of incompleteness, the unfulfilled requests, which were such important components of the encounter he had had with the condemned man.
Finally, a year after the execution, Feng felt that he could no longer put off what had to be done. He must go to the Commissioner and ask of Jasmine and her daughters, not to see if the story which the condemned man had told him was true, but to convey to the man’s wife and daughters their husband and father’s last words. He prepared for his journey with care, packing his things in a sack which he would have about this shoulder. For some reason, he took the elixir with him. As he placed it in the sleeve within his garment, he wondered why he was bringing this with him, but then, as he gave it greater thought, he came to the conclusion that it was appropriate seeing as it was the only thing which he had which had belonged to the condemned man. He would go to the compound where the Commissioner lived and ask for Jasmine and her daughters, and when secure in his knowledge that they were safe, ask to see the Commissioner to give him word of what the condemned man had to say. With this done, he could then return home, and leave this business behind him, so that in time, its importance in his life would diminish, and become increasingly unimportant. He packed things to eat, and drink, and brought along the oil cloth which had he used for shelter as well, the one which he had with him when he was with the condemned man upon the rocks. Then he went out onto the road leading north, so that he could make his way to where the Commissioner had his dwelling. It would take him three days to reach the settlement.
The weather was fine in this season, and consequently, Feng thoroughly enjoyed his walk through the lush fields that followed the river leading north. In the evenings he would eat rice cakes, and drink the mint-scented tea, and then, under a sky bright with tiny dots of light, sleep lost in dream and fantasy. In his dreams he could see himself upon the rocks, with the waves crashing down all around him, shooting jet streams of water high into the air. He could see the face of the condemned man, looking into his eyes, the echo of his requests sounding all around. Then, as the morning light grew in intensity, he could see the face of the condemned man, the eyes animated, looking at him, looking at him as if to say, “now you will do as you have promised me.” And so Feng walked all the way to the place where the Commissioner dwelled, and reaching the gates, asked the guards if they would allow him passage, as he was there to speak with the woman who goes by the name of Jasmine, because an important message from her husband was to be delivered into her hands. The guards at the gates were not willing to comply, but instead told Feng that it was not possible to come to the gates without invitation, and so Feng told them that the Commissioner would want to speak with him, seeing as he had a message from an execution, one which the Commissioner would certainly want to hear. But the guards were not willing to assist in any respect, and so Feng simply stood his ground, and waited, standing, outside of the gates. They would not come and remove him, and force him to continue on his way, because he was a monk, and it was important that the monks were given the greatest respect. Feng stood there for several hours, well into the evening, when darkness prevails, and yet, there was no indication that the guards were going to comply with Feng’s request.
Then, just as Feng was considering leaving the gates for the evening, to find shelter for the night in the monastery which was not far from the settlement, he heard someone cry out, and looking into the guard’s quarters, he could see someone there with a woman, and they were beaconing him to come forth, to talk to her. Feng went forward, and entered the guard’s quarters, and came before the woman. He asked her, “Are you Jasmine, wife of the man who was thrown over the Tarpeian Rock?” And she shook her head, and said yes, and so Feng stood before her, unable to speak, and the two of them shared a moment, standing there, with the guard as escort. They looked at each other, somehow knowing, without speaking, without words, that this encounter was about her husband, and about that which transpired when he died. Jasmine was very beautiful. She was dressed in the finest silks and wore the most expensive jade. Her hair was gathered high up over her head, in what surely must have taken hours to prepare, and she wore slippers adorned with jewels and precious metals.
Feng told her, “I was with your husband after the Commissioner had him thrown over the cliff. I was with him on the rocks when he died. He wanted me to tell you that he loved you more than anything else in this world, as he loved his daughters.” Then he was silent. He watched Jasmine cry. She was very quiet in her distress. Her manner of weeping was certainly, if nothing else, extraordinarily discrete. In the background, in the hall leading to the guard’s quarters, he could see some women looking on in curiosity, and he signaled, with his hand, for them to step forward, and they did so, and Feng asked if they were the daughters, and nodding, they indicated that they indeed were the daughters of the condemned man. And so Feng told them of what their father had said, as he lay dying upon the rocks, and the girls, who were the most beautiful women in all the land, and who, like their mother, were dressed in exquisite gowns of silk, and were adorned with the finest jewels, began to cry, and so they stood there, in the middle of the room, the monk and the four beautiful creatures, sobbing, tears running down their faces in a steady stream.
Then they sat down, and Feng told them everything, everything except the story of the concealment which was in the garment which the condemned man had upon him when he died. He told them of the crashing waves, and of the birds which were about. He told them word for word what the husband had to say to his wife, and what the father had to say to his daughters, and the women, who were there listening, were deeply moved. Feng told them everything which could be told, and answered all of their questions, until finally, the women grew weary and told Feng that they were grateful that he had taken the time to come to them and share with them of his experience. Bowing respectfully, they then took their leave, and went back into the compound. It was apparent that they were well looked after and were without doubt the most respected of any concubine in the land. And so Feng knew that although it was true that they were forced into slavery, and made to do things which were not in harmony with what they would want to do with their time upon this earth, they were not in want of food, or of clothing, or of shelter. He was pleased, knowing that the condemned man would want this, as opposed to the notion that his wife and daughters were physically abused and forced to live in conditions which for all intent and purpose were no better than a prison.
Feng turned and was going to leave the guard’s quarters when one of the guards stepped forward and told Feng that the Commissioner had been informed of the arrival of the monk who had witnessed the execution of the criminal that had slain the Representative, and requested that he returned the following day seeing as the Commissioner wanted to hear of the experiences of the monk when he was with the condemned man upon the rocks. Feng agreed, then went out into the darkness of the night, and with just the light of the stars, made his way to the monastery, and finding a mat in the open court among the other monks, went to sleep. They would recognize, by the garments he was wearing, that he was a member of the monastery across the valley, and as such was welcome to join their ranks while with them, and nothing needed to be said of the matter. He could sleep there among them, and eat his meals with them, and pray and meditate there, without any need to discuss why he had come or how long he would stay. Feng joined them, and in the morning, after he had washed at their well, and had his portion of rice, returned to the compound and waited for one of the guards to inform him that the Commissioner was now ready to receive him. When he arrived, they did not keep him long. He was taken through the compound to the hall where the Commissioner received guests of higher rank, and there, was given a comfortable cushion to sit upon. He was not left there very long. The Commissioner, who appeared alone, entered, and taking his seat which was higher than the place where Feng sat, welcomed him, and pouring out tea for them, asked Feng to share with him his experiences when he went to witness the execution of the condemned man, the one who had killed the Representative.
Feng told the Commissioner everything that had taken place. He saw no reason to censor the things which he had experienced, or what he was told by the condemned man. The Commissioner listened in silence. He was a disgusting man, one obviously used to getting his own way. His mannerisms were indicative of self-centered individuals, people prone to demand greater attention and a larger portion of anything which was on offer. But he was respectful and showed Feng the admiration which a monk of his standing deserved. In his descriptions of what he had endured with the condemned man upon the rocks, it was obvious, in the manner in which Feng expressed himself, that the notion that the Commissioner would demand of someone their daughter, as a penalty for proposed unpaid taxes, was repugnant to say the least. The Commissioner listened to what Feng had to say and did not in any manner indicate that he recognized the criticism inherent in the manner in which Feng explained what he had experienced. He simply listened, with no show of emotion. Feng was displeased. He would have preferred some sort of regret, or remorse, expressed. After all, the Commissioner had kidnapped a man’s wife and daughters, and held them prisoner, and to make matters worse, in killing the husband and father of the women he had abducted, secured their fate forever. There would never be a respectable place for them now, after they had led this life. Women who were forced to be the concubine of some powerful man could never return to their village and there hope to marry, and in that way, have children of their own, or secure for themselves a respectable home. In bringing these women here, the Commissioner had secured their fate as condemned women. They belonged to him now and existed only to bring him pleasure when he so demanded.
Feng looked at the Commissioner. He looked into his eyes. It was then that he realized that the condemned man was wise in his desire to have this man executed. He had no rightful place among civilized people. He was a parasite, a bully, someone prone to cause others distress. If Feng were to slip the elixir into this man’s tea, he would be granting the condemned man some form of restitution. He would not have died in vain. It is true that he had accomplished as much by killing the Representative, but the Representative was merely carrying out the orders which were issued by the man before him, the true culprit in the misconduct. It would make sense, surely, to carry out the task which the condemned man believed Feng had promised to complete and deliver the condemned man’s poison to the chalice from which the Commissioner was drinking, and in so doing, end his life. The condemned man’s wife and daughters would in that case most likely be set free, so that they could return to their village, and there, although without husbands to support them, they could at least be freed from the degradation which they were forced to endure when the Commissioner demanded that they pleasure him. It all made perfect sense. The Commissioner must die.
Seeing as Feng had finished his description of his experiences, the Commissioner took that as a signal to embark upon a grand diatribe, the purpose of which was to explain the morality and wisdom in all that took place in respect to the condemned man. It was an attempt not only to give false witness, but moreover, to bring disgrace upon the memory of the condemned man, who, in the Commissioner’s rendition of the chain of events which led up to his death, was a criminal of the highest order, one not only prone to withhold taxes, but also to murder those called to demand payment from him. When the Commissioner got up from his seat, and began walking about the room as he spoke, Feng saw his chance, and leaning forward, allowed the powder which was enclosed in the concealment he had found in the condemned man’s collar to mix with the tea in the chalice from which the Commissioner had been drinking. In doing so, he had broken the most fundamental belief of his creed. It was monumental, his profound sense of betrayal, of wrong doing, of unmitigated sin, but it was now no longer wrong. Feng was joining the condemned man. He was there with him, in front of his door, when he pushed the dagger into the breast of the Representative. He was righting a wrong. It was all good now, it was poetic. He was simply extending the will of the condemned man in delivering that which the condemned man had reserved for the Commissioner. Both of them must die, not only in exchange for the killing of the man on the rocks, but also for the violation of the dignity of the man’s wife and daughters. Surely, there can only be death for such transgressions.
The Commissioner had told his story, and seemed pleased with himself, that the noble monk had listed to what he had to say. One could almost get the impression that the Commissioner saw this as a type of purgation. He was setting the story straight. Now he could go forward and enjoy the spoils which the destruction of this fisherman allowed him. He had the four most beautiful women in the land at his disposal, they belonged to him. He was free now, because he had delivered the distorted truth to the monk and the monk did not challenge the validity of his tale. With the look of one highly pleased with themselves, the Commissioner took the chalice in his hand and drank down all of the tea therein, and in so doing, sentenced himself to death. The circle was complete, the condemned man had received restitution. He had gotten his revenge.
Feng sat there, now filled with two conflicting emotions. One was his disappointment in himself, that he had made this transgression, that he was now someone who had committed murder. He promised himself, as he sat there, that he would never under any circumstances ever tell another soul what he had done. He would live his life as he had always done, and be the man he knew himself to be, but with one reservation, that he had this one wickedness which he and only he knew of, and which he would take to his grave. At the same time, he was greatly pleased. He felt much closer to the condemned man now. They were brothers in arms. Both of them had done something right, had acted, so that others would not be subjected to the evil which exists in this world. Both of them, in their own way, had made this world a better place. The Commissioner, and the Representative, would no longer have an opportunity to wreak havoc upon the lives of others. Feng was pleased. He told the Commissioner that he was now forced to take his leave as the hour was late, and the Commissioner, smiling embarrassingly, like a child who had just eaten all of the sweets which were reserved for his younger brothers and sisters, bid Feng adieu.
That night Feng was content. He now had his secret, which in some odd way gave him satisfaction in that it made him more complex, mysterious, even a bit sinister, but in a good way. By doing wrong, he had made the world a better place. That night, in the neighboring monastery, he slept well, and in the morning, after washing and praying, he walked out of the monastery and headed south, back to his rightful place in the world, back to the place where he belonged. He would return and be there among the monks as one of them and conceal his secret so that no one would ever know of what he had done. He would hear, in the weeks ahead, that the Commissioner had unfortunately passed away as a result of natural forces, and that a new Commissioner was to be appointed shortly, and it was said that his replacement was a kind and gentle man, one known far and wide for his efforts to help the children in the settlements along the river who had only one parent, and were in want of food, and clothing, and shelter. It was reported that the concubines who were held up in the Commissioner’s household were set free, and given compensation for their suffering, and were returned to the villages from which they were taken.
Many years passed
One day, when Feng was more than 60 years of age, and now slowed in his movement and in his ability to carry out his duties, he was sitting in the rose garden adjacent to the Temple. It was a quiet day, one filled with sunshine, and the song of birds, and the sweet smell of the flowers as they blossomed in the bright midday sun. A woman came into the rose garden. She was much younger than Feng, and exceedingly beautiful. She approached Feng, as he sat there listening to the bird song, and took his hand into hers, and looking into his eyes, she said to him, “My mother, and my sisters, wish to thank you.”
Feng, who was surprised by this unexpected visit, asked of the woman, “You thank me, but I do not know why. Is it for keeping your father company, in the last days of his life, so that he would not die alone, or is it for coming to visit your family, to convey his last sentiments, so that you would know that when he died, he wanted nothing more than that each of you received word that you were deeply loved?”
The woman standing before Feng did not let go of his hand, but instead stood before him, her eyes upon him. As Feng looked up, he could see the rays of the sun upon her, framing her in a bright yellow hue, and in her face, he could detect a most profound sense of tranquility. She was lovely, as lovely as the beams of sunlight that filter down through the leaves of the trees in the forest. As lovely as the song of the birds that there linger. As wonderful as the sound of the waterfall on the mountainside, and of the swirl of the water in the pools below. And grand, certainly grand, which Feng could see in her eyes and in her manner, and in her way of expressing herself. She was all that she could be, all kindness and sweetness, being all that her father ever wanted her to be, to honor him. And so standing there before Feng, and holding his hands in her hands, she said to him, “We are grateful for all that you have done for us, but I was referring to something else.”
And so Feng said to her, as he looked into her eyes, “I am grateful to your father. He taught me what is perhaps the most essential of all values.”
“And what value is that,” she asked.
And Feng told her, “The love of a father for his children.”
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