Barefoot Poetry

SS Matthews

A Lady of Winter Moon

plum tree

Glacial remnants of the previous age gave way to warmer days. The liquescent sculpting of stone carved, with patience over time, a chasm of least resistance. Ceaselessly draining from the heights, water followed its tumultuous course through an array of ice-scoured peaks and eventually made its way into a mountain valley. Cascading curtains from the north rained as shattered drops into a pristine basin and collected before continuing their quest toward the distant sea. Pooling in preparation for the journey, water re-crystallized into a mirror of mountain sky.

Later, in the time of men, the only way into the vale was on foot, or by horseback along a discouraging trail worn by goats native to the craggy slopes. Winding through the heights, the trail often flirted with the ravine’s fractured and precipitous ledge and the high elevation rendered the pass snow-bound well into summer. However, for those determined to enter the high alpine vale, a window did exist in which they might do so before the on-set of monsoon rains.

Those times when the two events did not overlap, frequent shrouding by lingering mists left the bare sloping stones perpetually slick. Thus, the daunting passage imposed the constraint that a host of any size seeking access would do well to await the drier days of autumn’s end.

It was in just such a season as this when a band of refugees fleeing crimson violence in the east, happened upon this forbidding path. In many ways the landscape resembled the rugged, seaside range of their own forsaken homeland. Being accustomed to the hardships levied against those who would settle in so challenging a place, in pressing onward they knowingly put at risk all that they possessed.

Relying on the temper of gods, who too-often proved fickle, in the company of their families this band of wandering warrior monks were overwhelmed by the chance discovery of the here-to-fore unsettled valley. Appearing untouched, fertile and graced with running water, the basin was an obvious choice to serve as the founding place for a new and tyranny free life.

Upon leaving the province of Fujian, they were led by a man of saintly resolve. In his most fervent dreams, Min Wu envisioned a remote and defensible monastery where his followers could find peace and pursue the attainment of spiritual excellence. The solitary hilltop rising before him from the valley floor, like an island amidst a sea of mountain shadows, seemed the answer to his prayers. As a reminder of the blessing in discovering this unexpected paradise, Min Wu named the valley Shang Xi Tian, or Stairway to the Western Heaven. Furthermore, he declared that the hill’s singular, pre-existing occupant should not in its lifetime be displaced or abused.

Although the gesture was intended as a show of respect for the ancient Plum, to her this became a sentence of imprisonment. With her roots deep in the heart of the hill, she’d grown to maturity in the mountain lea and well understood her part in the ongoing cycle of changes. For a thousand years prior to the arrival of Wu and his followers she’d made the hilltop her lookout abode. Quintessentially a seamstress of time, she gathered threads of the eternal present and stitched them into a tapestry of the past. Watching and recording as the generations of her fellow creatures dwelling in the valley came and went; layers of information compiled and compounded in her memory. Her knowledge, like the rings of her heartwood, expanded with each successive season.

By the Grand Mother’s imperative, with every return of summer the Plum would release her surplus of fruit from over-burdened branches. Enriching the surrounding soil, this bounty also provided a feast for much of the wildlife native to the heights and from the beginning she’d developed a fondness for her smaller kin. For all their color, vibrancy and prolificacy in number they were tragically ephemeral; leaving in their abbreviated stay only tell-tale hints of their impermanence. Using her extended span as a gage by which to measure, it was only through the continuation of species that free-ranging life-forms achieved any tenure at all.

It wasn’t until much later in her life that she became familiar with the ways of men. In her experience, their prior acts exposed them as cunning and opportunistic nomads descending periodically from the mountains upon the backs of beasts. Seeking the flesh of any animal less fierce than themselves, they came smelling of smoke, blood and death.

The arrival of this new clan however afforded her the opportunity to observe these humans more intimately and they seemed much changed from those who came before. Mere saplings, they appeared to honor the gift of soil and recognize their dependence upon it. This did not halt them from altering the land, but they did appear to exhibit some reverence for the connection, even to the point of involving themselves in its nurturing. Even so, the construction of their temple and the raising of a constricting wall to surround it effectively separated her from the flowing fields and creatures within her domain.

For seemingly sentient beings, and all their thoughtful cleverness, they were still sadly afflicted with a misconception common to nearly all of their kind. They believed themselves dispossessed of the essence, the source from which compassion, understanding and wisdom sprang. Ironically, they devoted much of their abbreviated lives to the pursuit of reuniting with that from which they were never truly apart. Strangely blind to candid verity they could see little beyond themselves, but this was a paradox that could be easily dispelled.

Being of a generous of nature, this was an insight the plum tree would willingly share with any who put might forth the effort. After all, the Grand Mother’s language was not so difficult that men could not learn it. The fact that they chose not to do so was contrary to their longing and perplexed her. The common speech of the wild could be mastered in less than a lifetime and to infinite reward. Once acquired, it would open the way to the archives of not only her recollections, but make available the combined memory of all life.

Perhaps due to their unfathomable sense of separation, combined with the brevity of their stay they simply remained unaware, but whatever the reason, having recorded each successive master of the temple over the years, she had experienced the joy of conversing with those gifted with greater perception. Of those who came before however, none shone so brightly as the current master of the hilltop. He was a man of rare prudence and a thoroughly awakened extension of Tao. Not only had he persevered in learning the language of nature, but possessed the intuition to interpret its significance. Thus he was fully knowledgeable of the ways of the Mother and understood his place in her plan.

Though a mere sprig in comparison to her own plethora of seasons, this Tzu Tam, was well ringed in the reckoning of his kind. Acknowledging his wisdom, his companions appointed him their spiritual leader antecedent to his first leaves of gray and upon assuming this appointment, his initial act was to attend to the scaling down of the perimeter walls.

Unveiling a vista she’d garnered only in glimpses over the past two hundred years, he further insisted that all seedlings for the orchards should be placed down slope as not to impede the view. In all her vast experience, he was first in foresight among humans and understanding his stay to be also evanescent, she was covetous of his companionship. It pleased her to be regarded by this unusual man and the Plum even came to appreciate the imagistic name he bestowed upon her.

He called her the Lady of Winter Moon and throughout his stewardship, Tzu Tam maintained a daily practice of sitting in quiet contemplation beneath her branches. It had been this way since their first meeting. He was no more than a child then. Of late however, he came less often to sit with her. The honorable Tam seemed presently weighted with concerns. The reason for his absence, as speculated by his companions, was that the bonds between the two had become so strong, that he no longer found if necessary to leave the confines of the Temple to commune with the tree.

Although there was much truth in this, it was not the reason for his absence. The real cause being, and the one which his fellow monks thought responsible for the bulk of his worries, was the amount of time he applied to training the unlikely student he’d taken in.

Serving as a mercenary soldier in the Northern District, Rowan first heard rumor of the monastery from Yen Wan, a fellow soldier, who possessed an unshakable aloofness to the prevalent carnage of his chosen profession and an enduring knack for storytelling. On this occasion, he’d told of a legend concerning a group of robed monks living an austere and solitary life. Somewhere in the southern mountains, they sustained themselves by growing vegetables, fruits and grains in a lush and fertile valley. They did not involve themselves in affairs of the world beyond their borders and spent their days as good monks should, Wan quipped, in celibate contemplation.

Though he’d heard other tales of a fabled Shangri-La, Rowan found this version particularly intriguing. Rather than being inhabited by a race of magical beings, the mountain valley was home to a clan that sought the serenity of inner peace while being at the same time the fiercest warriors ever idealized.

An abiding image of the place remained with the youthful Rowan as he wandered. Soldiering had turned out to be nothing like what he expected. The food was horrid, his fellow soldiers never bathed and the only battles they’d been involved in were with farmers armed with pitchforks and sticks. The army of the South District was presently in retreat and he could find no honor in fighting poorly armed and untrained men.

It wasn’t long before his disenchantment fully blossomed into loathing and self-reproach. When the day came that his battalion was ordered to burn out a sleepy village, he rebelled. No longer able to stomach the slaughter of innocents, he refused to take part. Screaming obscenities, his commander derided him as a weakling and incensed by the disobedience, the man had attempted to use Rowan to illustrate the color of a coward’s entrails. In defense Rowan drew his own sword and cut the man down. While the others stared on in disbelief, he’d run for his horse and fleeing a volley of arrows he outdistanced their bows to make good his escape.

His unexpected retirement from the Emperor’s service labeled him an outlaw and as a deserter with a price on his head he rode west. No one seemed to find the price of pursuing him worth a trespass into the Steppes where they would risk running afoul of the Huns.

Banding together in mobile groups, the Huns claimed the grasslands as their own and though it was a freer way of life, it was certainly no less violent. Traveling in wagons and on horseback, they survived by scavenging the land and raiding competing tribes. For a time, Rowan allied himself with one of these tribes, but a recurring restlessness soon forced him to move on. From there he’d wandered further north, but no matter where he roamed, bloodshed and ignorance always prevailed. Toward the end of his second summer in China, disillusioned and despairing, he wandered aimlessly south.

As Tzu Tam, the Master of Yamane, stepped from the grove and looked upon the youthful adventurer seated against the base of a Guì Yuán tree, never before had he seen such an alien looking man. Wondering what his purpose might be, he took his time about assessing him. He was lean of frame and his sharp pale features were framed by a mass of black hair. The long strands were tangled into oily curls and longed for a good washing. He was seated, but even so his legs resembled fence posts and Tam could tell that the stranger would stand well above his own height. He was a well-muscled and apparently very determined, for he’d sat in an awkward pose beneath this same tree for three nights now and was obviously suffering from cramping. Certainly he possessed vitality, but more impressive was that he exercised the discipline to control it.

Hailing from the outlands he was dressed in leather pants and blouse, like the men of the distant Steppes, but it was plain that his heritage lay much farther to the west. Coupled with boots of black ox hide his appearance was in all rather outlandish, but the most striking feature about him was his eyes. They were the color of water falling through blue skies. Limpid with intelligence, there were shadows haunting their transparent depths.
Looking up, Rowan studied the monk in return, but declined the opportunity to be the first to speak.

“I am Tzu Tam.” The monk’s tone was questioning, but friendly and his voice vibrated with an engaging resonance. Offering a brief bow, he continued. “Shan Lo has told me of a man sitting in the orchard. What is it you seek from us?”

Though his knees were stiff from sitting, Rowan forced himself to rise as gracefully as he might. He’d witnessed the odd, deferential custom many times, but had never before considered bowing to another man. Yet there was something about this monk however that made it seem a natural act of respect and found himself returning the gesture. The senior monk’s manner was similar to those of the monks he’d seen in Rasa, but there was something about his presence that wasn’t the same at all. This Tzu Tam seemed earnestly diffident and his voice lacked any trace of condescension, but there was a note of quiet self-assurance also present that would cause an aggressor to have second thoughts before acting. Though advanced in years he radiated health with no trace of feebleness in his stance or stride.

“I’m here because there is no other place for me.” Feeling as though he did not belong to the world through which he walked, Rowan expressed his situation with disarming honesty.
A slight smile broke across the old monk’s face as Tzu Tam continued to assess this novel situation. When he did speak, the smile scurried away.

“There is a tortoise that used to walk past the base of this tree of the dragon’s eye every morning. For many years he has followed the same path to reach our cabbage patch on the other side of the hill. He is fond of our cabbage and I was wondering if you might have seen him?”

“I have.”

“Did he go around you?”

“No, I rose to let him pass.”

“Why would a man give consideration to such a lowly creature?”

“It was his path.”

“Ah, that is so. But you are much larger and surely more powerful than a tortoise.”

“If I am, it doesn’t give me the right to force changes on him. Besides, he was here long before myself.”

“I will consider your request.” When he finished speaking, Tzu Tam watched closely for any reaction.

Rowan thought that he kept his relief from showing, but Tzu Tam’s smile reappeared and before parting bowed once more. After returning the bow, Rowan reseated himself against the trunk of the Guì Yuan tree.

On the fifth morning of his vigil, hungry but well rested, Rowan was invited by Shan Lo to visit the temple and instructed to enter. Finding Tzu Tam inside, he was given a second, more in depth interview in which he revealed all of his mixed history to the monk.

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