Barefoot Poetry

SS Matthews

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Leaving Shangri-La (Part 1)

Continuing the story of A Lady of Winter Moon and Gate of Demons
“You are leaving.” There was no surprise in Tam’s voice, only an echoing quality as the words seemed to resonate in the air. Not often did the senior monk abandon his meditation to any interruption, but this was going to be an extraordinary day. Seeing each day as a blessing and none of them ordinary, even to the venerable Tam this day would be more so than most.

“Yes, Master Tam.” Rowan replied as he took a last look around the site of his awakening. Though most of the space within the temple held no furnishings; being occupied solely by the monk and a single table covered with candles, the place was anything but vacant. The air was thick with the remembered vibrations of countless chants. Hanging in layers of generations, they collapsed elapsed time into a single flowing moment of experience. When the master again spoke, his eyes were glistening with humor.

“Do you remember when you came to us? Your head was crammed so full of bees that the other monks complained they could not sleep for the constant buzzing! You permitted these bees to be placed there by those you came into contact with and they put them there to weaken your will. But discovering strength in inner silence, you have learned to ‘shoo’ them away.” Upon completion of his metaphor, a broad smile swept across Tam’s face.

The aged monk was no stranger to seeing men effect change in their lives, but he’d been particularly impressed by the tenaciousness of his pupil. It was this determination that allowed not only for the dramatic transformation in his long-legged student, but also served to affirm that great distances between men could be overcome in small steps.

“You have learned to unite the perception of your heart with perspicacity of mind. I believe this balance is what you sought when you came to us. K’ung-Fu-Tzu believed a man should give up his life to perfect moral integrity. I also believe that Master Confucius understood that not all men may walk the same path. Some men will follow the way of the Martyr; others will walk the path of the avenger. This second is the shadow I foresee seducing my western son. Remember this! Your life is not a debt to be paid, nor collected. Live it as you will! You are no longer anyone’s bee-keeper.”

SS Matthews


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Gate of Demons (conclusion)

Part 5

“Why do you want Huang Kun sent through the Gate of Demons?” The query was an obvious response, but feeling unbalanced by the extraordinary encounter, Rowan needed a moment to collect himself. Stepping closer, the scent of her body came to surrounded him like a promise of Elysium.

“He took something from me, something precious. I will pay you” she repeated “with gold and other favors.”

True as it might be that a pouch of coins would make his transition into the outer world easier, it wasn’t Rowan’s primary concern. One way or another he’d find his way. Mei-Yue’s innuendo however, he took as an invitation to seduction and certainly worthy of a tease. Openly appreciative of her physical attraction, in a voice rather huskier than intended he replied, “How much gold?”

Thinking her readily aware of the effect she would normally have on men, he would’ve preferred to appear neutral until knowing more. After all, Kuie-men-kaun, was a name he recognized. The Gate of Demons was part of eastern mythology and equivalent to crossing the River Styx. Being the fabled entrance to the underworld, this pretty witch was asking him to kill!

“Enough to fulfill your desires.” Pausing again, she smiled, allowing the allusion to secret pleasures to simmer in his thoughts. “It is the twenty second day of the ninth month. My hut lies beyond the second bamboo grove, in the meadow by the forest. Come to me by night-fall and I will serve you a meal befitting a warrior’s apatite.”

As she spoke, her eyes deepened in color and more than a hint of mystery wandered there. Raising her hand and pointing southeast, in the morning light multiple silver rings adorning her fingers sparkled with gemstones and the bracelets dangling from her wrist tinkled against one another like chimes.

As she turned to leave, Rowan began to fully appreciate the intensity of her presence. She possessed a compelling but subtle sensuality, much of which went unrealized until it was removed. What remained was a soft buzzing in his ears. Some of which he was partly able to clear by shaking his head.

The effect overall was not unlike that of a pleasant daydream and thinking it possible he’d just been hypnotized, Rowan watched the witch who called herself Mei-Yue depart. Swaying slightly as she walked, she appeared to exaggerate the movement of her hips as if tossing them in secret satisfaction.

Whatever her actual intent might be, like it or not, Rowan had the strongest premonition that the quiet life he’d become accustomed too was at an end. Resist as he might, already he knew that he would follow.

SS Matthews

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Gate of Demons (part 4)

Part 4

Stopping directly in front of where Rowan stood watching, the strangely enchanting woman launched directly into the purpose of her visit. Her announcement, made in a swift string of sing-song syllables, was in a tone reminiscent of a nightingale, one being threatened by a snake.

“I am Mei-Yue.” She began, without waiting for Rowan to identify himself. “Wei Po of the village told me of a barbarian hiding among the monks. He said you were a solider once, a killer. I have gold and I will pay you to send Huang Kun to Kuie-men-kaun. You will do this for me?”

Upon revealing the purpose of her intrusion, Rowan realized she was not concerned with the gravity of her trespass. Looking finally to her eyes, he watched as she failed in suppressing a wry smirk of satisfaction when it flashed across her face. Followed by a mottling flush of color rushing to her cheeks, in that instant her features appeared to change, taking on a rather feline and predatory appearance.

“Why do you want Huang Kun sent through The Gate of Demons?” Rowan’s response to her question was an obvious attempt to stall, but he felt the measure more than justified by the circumstances. After all, it wasn’t every day that a sorceress with emerald green eyes came strolling unannounced through the gates of Xi Tian in search of an assassin.

Regardless, she was lovely and standing anywhere else in the world, he might have chosen to conduct himself differently. Before coming to the sanctuary, he would have found it utterly flattering for such an elusive and attractive creature to come seeking his aid. But having heard the tales of her exploits, for her charms and abilities were legend among the simple folk of Yamane, he struggled to maintain a reserve. As an alien in this enigmatic land, he’d learned some harsh lessons and thanks to his mentor, he now knew better than to accept what the mirror might reflect. So it was with a degree of circumspection that he attended to her words.

SS Matthews

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Gate of Demons (part. 3)


Part 3
Soldiers love to tell stories and always they embellish. While serving in the infantry of the North District, Wu Yang told Rowan a provocative tale of the women native to a group of mystical islands to the east. According to Yang, they were a sect of finely featured and slender bodied women who dove naked into the sea. Leaping fearlessly from small skiffs, woven nets filled with rocks carried them into the depths. Combing the ocean floor, they sought to retrieve pearl-bearing clams and other shelled ambrosia.

Such fanciful tales were common among soldiers in the field, but perhaps this once it’d been something more than a fantasy. For in his imagination, Rowan could see the girl standing before him in just such a place, diving from a bamboo raft into aquatic blue waters in just such a way.

Pushing the daydream aside for the moment, obviously she was not from the village. But neither did her apparel resemble that of the courtesans he recalled from the cities. The women of his home in the Indus Valley were likewise flamboyant in adorning themselves, but their strong, dark structures were but shadowy reflections of the witch-girl’s delicately featured face.

Although girlishly slender, her body was none the less eminently feminine. Contrary to convention, her breasts were not bound and trembled freely against the flowing fabric of her lilac flowered blouse. Hung in loose pleats, the fine spun silk of her skirt moved whimsically about and between her athletic legs, ruffling under the caress of the morning breeze.

Interwoven with bits of colored yarn, dyed bird feathers and the violet petals, braids of long dark hair trailed down her back. One intricately twisted braid rising from the center of her crown ran to the rear of her head. Wagging free of the others, it writhed independently of them, like a serpent on a quest to mesmerize a sparrow. In the bright light of morning, her eyes were not pure China, but rather an exotic shade of some far away land. Steeped in veiled emotions, they sparkled like green gemstones adrift in pools of cream.

SS Matthews

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Gate of Demons (part 2)

Part 2

With a sudden and audible sigh, the leaves circling Rowan’s head continued their journey, sailing onward to the ground. Mystified as to what craft it was by which they behaved this way, he focused his attention on the impending confrontation. With a scowl practiced to perfection distorting her face, there was also something unusual regarding her approach as she made her way through the garden. Her physical progress appeared incongruent to the effort made. Each step that she took covered yards of distance, almost as if she were collapsing the space between.

Even Wan Lo, the most accomplished of their gardeners, was forced to slip through, sidestep, or dip a shoulder to avoid stripping the late blooming flowers of their petals, but not her. Advancing directly through hedges she disturbed nothing in her path, presenting the illusion of passing through the bushes like an insubstantial ghost. As the air around him began to hum with excitement, it occurred to Rowan who this strange woman might be.

To reprieve Rake from tedium, at regular intervals Rowan would walk down the hill. Arriving at the farm of Wei Po, the farmer who tended to the stallion while its master was away, he would outfit his companion so that they might ride out together through the open fields. Not one to miss an opportunity to gossip, several times the farmer had mentioned a mysterious woman who frequented the surrounding mountains; a woman he called the witch of the grove.

According to Wei Po, the art of this supposed sorceress was covertly benign. By his accounting, she was responsible for healing his cousin Mie Li of a persistent and virulent rash. Although he couldn’t give an exact location of the bamboo hut in which she was rumored to dwell, nor say with any certainty how long she’d lived in the valley, he did claim that she’d been among them performing similar services since he was a child.

It was an intriguing account, but even a witch must age and the vision approaching him was no hag. If anything, she was the epitome of youthfulness. This was the first time he’d actually seen her and her exotic appearance was certainly deserving of more than a cursory inspection. A simple glance was sufficient to decide that the rumors of her beauty were not so greatly exaggerated.

SS Matthews

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Gate of Demons

Part 1

Her feet were bare and soiled from walking, but the prideful aloofness in her posture projected the self-possessed demeanor of an empress. Oblivious to decorum and wearing a scowl of utter distaste: on a face that might be otherwise pretty if not so openly distraught Rowan thought, a girl of extraordinary appearance strode boldly past the protesting Wan Lo. Continuing past the visibly irritated monk, she did not so much as acknowledge him.

In Rowan’s experience the situation was absolutely unique. Lo’s imperturbable aplomb was nothing short of legendary, but inexplicably he followed along behind this baffling woman, mimicking her petulant stride. It was a sight so utterly bazaar that it compelled the outlander to clamp a hand over his mouth to arrest an outburst of laughter.

Whatever the reason for the intrusion, clearly the woman’s act was calculated to incite, but that didn’t alter the fact that Rowan found it impossible to turn away. Whoever she was, she seemed determined to flaunt not just her contempt, but her sexuality as well, wielding them both as weapons to be brandished before battle. The scene resembled the challenge of the mongoose, just before engaging the cobra. Then, as if suddenly sighting a target against which she might direct her scorn, with a sudden swish and swirl, Rowan watched bewildered as she turned in his direction.

“Thinking herself above such things, she would mock us for our ways.”

Though the words were unspoken, Rowan heard them as clearly as if uttered in his ear. Having acquired the habit of heeding Tam’s advice, even without the master being present, the caution was something he considered with earnest deliberation. The girl was obviously going to be trouble, but from the look of her, handling that trouble might well amount to something pleasurable.

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A Lady of Winter Moon (conclusion)

plum tree
Part 10

Why the wolf should manifest now, taunting him with visions of the wild was a mystery of synchronicity and his reaction to its call was nothing short of instinctual. Whether real or imagined, the hail to wander stirred his blood with a restlessness that refused to be quelled. Neither could he dispel the strong sense of impending change that it brought. Considering what the event might foreshadow, it wasn’t until the moon slipped behind the western peaks that he managed a short, but troubled sleep.

Awakening with a protuberant root digging irritably into his back, he abandoned dreams of distant adventure to the startling sound of an angry shout. Thinking the voice raised in distress belonged to Wan Lo, for a moment Rowan wondered if he truly was awake. Only once in three years had he heard the old man say anything, exchanging at the time, a quip shared with Tzu Tam and followed with laughter. Astonishingly though, it was Wan Lo, verbally challenging someone approaching the gardens.

Vaulting to his feet, Rowan nearly toppled over from a sudden rush of lightheadedness. Struggling to retain his balance, he cursed the miserable timing of the malady. Surely the monastery must be under attack, but spreading his feet into a defensive stance was more to combat his incessant swaying than anything else. Forced to stare through a veil of falling, swirling leaves, he was able to make out the elder Lo. Apparently alone, inexplicably the man was frantically waving his arms about as if attempting to ward off an angry wasp or invisible spirit.

There was no one else within sight. No marauders, bandits or imperial guards were threatening an attack and Rowan’s puzzlement only deepened as the breeze rising from the valley floor signaled another fleet of red and brown leaves to set sail in the air. The briskly wafting zephyr responsible for their animation did not bear any taint or trace of the foul odors expected to accompany a fighting force. Everyone knew that soldiers groomed themselves so poorly and lent even less attention to their mounts, that a group of any size would likely be detected by their stench before they were seen.

Never the less, there was something familiar carried on that fateful breeze; Golden Rain and Bell flowers mingled with something else. This was a far more intriguing scent than those belonging to the herbs, for they were used by the monks in their tonics and teas. The underlying scent was more distantly memorable, feminine and intoxicating.

Certainly this aroma did not belong to any woman of the valley, for rarely did they bathe. Lacking any trace of their pungent earthy-ness, this scent reminded him of the painted ladies of the city, their subtle perfumes, adornments and lace. As a second wave of dizziness washed over Rowan, he wondered if that sweet smell might have something to do with his vertigo and possibly coincide with the odd behavior of the leaves.

Once free of their moorings, leaves were generally inclined to flutter to the ground, not spiral in a maelstrom with him standing at its core. Whirling in hyperbolic arcs through the air, their rushing almost seemed a whisper of warning. This particular dawn was, after all, herald to the autumnal equinox, a day which the farmland folk believed to be the most magical time of the year.

For those living in close communion with the earth, understandably this was a season of celebration and of special spiritual significance. The gathering of the harvest directly related the gain of one’s labors. Although Rowan didn’t pretend to uphold any belief in the supernatural, if he had, he might not have been quite so wonder struck at the events that followed next.

This concludes A Lady of Winter Moon, but the story continues with The Gate of Demons! Stay tuned for lots of occult mystery and mythology. There’s more to come!

SS Matthews

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A Lady of Winter Moon (cont.)

plum tree
Part 9

Like a phoenix of discontent, invariably the urge to wander would arise from the ashes of summer. With every return, the season would work to pry him from complacency until he was wracked with wanderlust. Once awakened, autumn’s imperative took a supreme and sustained effort to subdue. Only through discipline was he able to deny its allure, but with the autumnal equinox on the morrow, the desire to roam was proving difficult to oppose. This year it was going to be harder. Not because of any momentous event, or sudden discovery, but due to an errant sound in the night.

Distracted by unruly visions, he’d found sleep a distant hope and listless steps carried him absently to a spot beneath the plum’s thinning canopy. The bare patch of soil, nestled between her third and fourth largest roots was just large enough for a comfortable cross-legged posture and this is where he sat. This was the spot that seemed to attract him whenever his mind became conflicted. Sitting quietly beneath her boughs, if sleep should find him unwary and seduce his mind into dream, he could lean his back against her bark and feel her comforting presence.

For Rowan, this particular spot possessed an additional uniqueness. When at rest, he could feel the movement of the earth below him, the life it contained and a flow of energy welling from deep underneath. He’d reported the sensation once to Tzu Tam and being forever enigmatic, the master had smiled knowingly before replying that this was where the earth spoke to Rowan and he should listen to what was said.

Tonight however, even his technique of stillness was failing him. With the moon just short of full and newly risen over the crest of the mountain tops, she captured his full attention and held it fast. Like a flood of parasitic mites, he could feel her rays fall upon his skin and creep beneath, seeping into his blood. The feeling was so disturbing that he felt sure his restless soul was attempting to migrate from his body, to rise on moonbeams and wander among the stars.

Holding tightly to his bond with the tree and the soil in which she rooted, so that he might not inadvertently become lost in the night sky, it was then that without warning the forlorn howl of a solitary wolf echoed into the valley. Descending from the surrounding heights, the sound sent an involuntary shudder along his spine. It was a voice so thoroughly mournful and alien to the vale, that even though it arose from miles away he stood to stare among the moonlit peaks.

Originating from well beyond sight, he waited to see if the sound would come again. As though being hailed by the elusive lupine, its voice plucked unexpectedly at a responding chord. Bidden to arise from some secret or forgotten corner of his psyche, an image began to form in his thoughts. In his imagination he could see the wolf standing on the pinnacle of a barren peak, its back arched in silhouette against the otherwise black backdrop of night. Its muzzle lifted in answer to Luna’s call, implored her also to descend and grace the mountain slopes with her dangerous light.

The vividness of this fanciful image defied it being entirely conjured out of whim. There was mystery here urging him to dream-walk, to investigate and become part of its unfolding. Surrendering the pretense of composure, Rowan stood and started to pace. Not once since his arrival in Xi Tian had he heard the voice of a wolf ring from the surrounding mountains and awaiting further conversation, he felt inexplicably sad when the call did not repeat.

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A Lady of Winter Moon (cont.)

plum tree
Part 8

Three blissful summers had come and gone since he’d traversed that fateful pass to emerge into a vale of dreams. Slowly at first came the healing of his troubled spirit, but the effects of his growth were lasting and over time he acquired understanding into his existence. Coupled with the rigorous physical training he received, this combination facilitated a profound overhaul of his relationship with the external world. Regret and remorse were made ghosts of a dysfunctional past, allowing room for a tacit self-forgiveness.

The only specter he was unable to thoroughly eradicate was the lingering longing for adventure. Over the months into years that he shared with Master Tam, Rowan learned to manage these feelings, agreeing that this was the dis-ease that truly denied him rest. As a result, he found it easy to understand why this unique and gentle man was so beloved by all, including the enigmatic plum.

Upon shedding her summertime bounty of blushing fruit and prior to being stripped of her gown altogether, the unveiling demeanor of autumn would transform her sheath of green into a mottled mantle of reddish gold. When finally bereft of foliage, she would bare leafless limbs of torturous beauty against the august sky. Silently, she would await the gibbous moon most near the mid-winter solstice and only then, when misted with frost, would she reawaken. In defiance to the bleakness of season, she would array once again her branches in a nightdress of poetic elegance; inscrutably donning in the chill of winter, an ethereal filigree of pink and white blossoms.

Wanting to emulate his master in every possible way, Rowan also took to meditating beneath the branches of the ancient plum. Stilling his mind, he listened in silence and soon realized that the Lady of Winter Moon possessed a will and voice of her own. Discovering what he understood to be a mystical revelation, he embarked upon the task of learning the language in which she spoke.

His success however, was fitful, with youthful impatience often at fault in creating a barrier between them. As for the Lady, she found the sapling intuitive and rational of mind, but the boy’s wild blood made him far too willful to entirely charm. Secure on her hilltop, she enjoyed the benefit of perspective associated with her longevity and venerable as Rowan might consider this trait, it was not a virtue he could fully embrace.

Eternally constrained by her deep-seeking roots, the Plum was forever forbidden to freely wander field and stream, and in this he came to think of her as a metaphor for life as a monk. Though envious of her steadfast determination, he knew the day would eventually come when his own restless spirit would demand he travel on.

Even so, no matter where he might roam, if his thoughts should turn homeward, the garden at the base of the plum would be the place that he recalled. This serene and tranquil valley was like no other place on Earth. Xi Tian, and the people who made it their home, had salvaged much more than just his life. They’d rescued the world beyond from his ignorance and taught him what it meant to be a living part of the Tao.

Still, for all his love of the people and place, he understood it was not his future to forever remain among them. For existing as in a dream, somewhere beyond the mountains and the western seas lay the island home of his father. Erin, the birthplace of his history hung in the distance like a solution to the riddle of his life.

Part 9

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A Lady of Winter Moon (cont.) part 7

plum tree
Part 7

Between sessions of stillness with Tzu Tam and the physical demands of his daily training, Rowan rarely found time to dwell on much else. Becoming immersed in this new life drove the sins of his old life further from mind, in time eliminating all but one thorn from his efforts in purification; the same lust for wandering that had led him here.

At the death of his parents, the arising of this condition was as timely as it was educational, allowing him an avenue of escape from the race riots in Indus. At a mere seventeen years, his skill with a sword won him a much coveted post as guardsman for a merchant caravan into Cathay and upon successfully surviving the vastness of China, he’d suddenly found himself without work. Merchants returning westward chose the more modern method of travel by barge to move their goods and a swordsman’s skills were less in demand.

His father, a Scot, had been a seagoing merchant before settling in Indus, but Rowan had no desire to remove his feet from solid ground. A ship, no matter its size, was but a toy for the gods to toss about on the seas. Believing all gods were no more than anthropomorphic extensions of fickle and vengeful elements, as a stranger in this foreign land, his prospects for employment were limited. The only two options readily presenting themselves were thievery and soldiering.

Already familiar with the murderous guilds native to his mother’s homeland, he presumed those operating at the mouth of the Yangtze to be of similar ilk. As slitting throats for coins held no appeal for him, he elected to take a mercenary post with the army of the Northern District. Upon the eve of his first battle, a companion soldier who’s nervousness forbid him to silence, acquainted Rowan with the story of the warrior monks. He spoke of their history, their phenomenal prowess, spiritual achievements and mysterious disappearance. According to the soldier, their legend was responsible for the birth of an entire mythology.

Rowan took the accounting to be more fantasy than fact, but the idea that men of such character might exist somewhere in the world held his fascination and was in part responsible for his subsequent desertion. The other, and more salient reason, being the debilitating emotional wages of slaughter.

Taking part in a one-sided skirmish against untrained peasants, who sought nothing more than to toil in the sun, rebelled against his naive preconceptions of what warfare should be. This disturbed him to the point, that in an effort to mitigate the remorse he felt for his own complicity, and also to escape the persecution of being labeled insubordinate, Rowan fled. Finding life among the Huns and their Scythian neighbors filthy, no less brutal and thoroughly steeped in ignorance, he elected to dismiss altogether the company of men.

On the back of a large and surly brown stallion liberated from a rival clan’s expectant stewpot and despairing of finding grace among his own kind, Rowan rode west. In time it was guilt that dictated life would be better spent in defending innocents, rather than taking part in their oppression. This activity would earn him the brand of outlaw, but it possessed a youthful charm and seemed a better alternative than squandering what was left of his heart.

Refraining from entertaining illusions as to what difference one sword could ever make, he romanticized the idea that redemption could be won. Considering how he might best go about being of some use to those in need, he awakened from a day of absent wandering to find himself trespassing an unfamiliar route through a rugged range of mountains.

Disappointed at first to find it occupied, upon realizing who these people might be, he was wonderstruck at having walked into a fable. That the monastery’s master eventually allowed him to enter was a boon beyond warrant and that he also took the explorer under his tutelage seemed a miraculous change in fortune. Of all the places into which he might wonder, Xi Tian exceeded his most fervent day dreams.

Part 8