Barefoot Poetry

SS Matthews

The Sages of Xi Tian

plum tree

From childhood, every member of the community spent time with the monks to learn the age old techniques of martial combat. In practice, their training intensity varied little from actual engagements, refraining only in the use of maiming force. Hands, feet, staves and slings, all available objects were put to use as combination of shield and weaponry. Applying necessary pressure with expert focus, the foundation of this highly successful training regime had, historically, earned the men of Fujian the reputation of being the most fearsome and elusive warriors in the empire.

Respecting their origins, the monks of Xi Tian carried on with the warrior practices of their ancestors, improving where possible upon the disciplines handed down to them by their fathers through the generations. Although this was but one of their pursuits, the practice was more than a method of maintaining a healthy body, there was a second and earnestly practical application for this knowledge of self-defense. No doubt Xi Tian was among the most idyllic locations in the East, but the valley itself was not exempt from occasional forays by roving marauders. The only immunity the inhabitants possessed against bandit gangs and predatory mountain clans was their ability to effectively drive them off.

These skirmishes were few and decreased over the years, but the past troubles were adequate reason to maintain a watch. Having this particular duty upon the day the outlander arrived, it was Wan Lo who first caught sight of him. Descending from the pass, the man paused to drink from the sacred pool and appeared to be traveling alone. The brown stallion on whose back the stranger rode was much too large to be easily over-looked. Still, Wan Lo wanted to be certain the rider was not a scout for a larger party before alerting his companions that an intruder was headed their way.

So it was that many interested eyes were watching the rider as he made for one of the farms. Following a brief interval, he left We Po’s farm to approach the hilltop alone, unaccompanied his monstrous mount. As he neared the temple area, his inexplicable behavior continued when he stopped at the edge of the grove and sat upon the ground with his back against a dragon’s eye tree.

Long before the westerner came to Xi Tian, Tzu Tam had retired from active participation in nearly all events in Xi Tian. Though he continued to hold the title of Master and would do so until his death, he left all training and instruction in hands of his companions. Devoting his hours to contemplation, meditation and meticulously recording his thoughts, it was a mystery to his fellow monks why this particular man should be of interest to the reclusive sage. Then, to the dismay of all, rather than have the outland youth expelled from the valley, the elder began making sojourns to check upon the unwashed stranger.

Even more astounding, was the fact that at the end of a five day period, probably for the purpose of a cleansing fast, Tam embraced the barbarian and invited him to remain with them. When the Master announced that he was taking the youth on as his pupil, it was accepted that something of great importance was taking place. This reversal of roles was utterly mystifying, but being familiar with Tam’s ineffable ways, no one questioned his judgment, or took any umbrage at the presence of the outsider.

Instead, following a brief discussion and unanimous agreement, the spiritual guides of Xi Tian adopted the lanky barbarian and with aplomb took to schooling the newcomer in those areas of study that the Master tended to neglect.
Being accomplished in martial practices, they found the rangy newcomer’s efforts in learning their ways a source of on-going amusement. His limbs were overlong and his torso as well. His tepid balance and cumbersome movements presented an all too often irresistible opportunity to exemplify how not to proceed in unarmed combat. He was however, a willing pupil and as months passed, he learned to apply the benefits of poise and timing to the delivery of his excessive size and strength.

On most nights he went to his mat bruised and bloodied, but slept a less haunted sleep than he could ever remember. For his part, Rowan reveled in the competition. Amiably enduring their cajoling humor, he could only applaud the persistence of his instructors. The techniques shared by the enigmatic monks eclipsed entirely the combat tactics instilled by his father. They also superseded the majority of his self-acquired skills.
In some ways the movements resembled an intricate puzzle, or a fluid method of dance, but no action made was without purpose. Mimicking them accurately required absolute concentration and with endless repetition, his mind, as well as his body, adapted to the style and a metamorphosis began.

Physical prowess was something he always accepted as his own. Made aware of how force could be generated through direct and concise movements, he marveled at the augmentation. In time he came to experience what his instructors referred to as the discipline of no mind and achieving this proved to be the turning point in his advancement.
Equilibrium became a natural state. Reactions, mandated on need rather than emotion, became efficient and nearly effortless. Though far more abundant than before, energy was not something to be wasted and even everyday actions came to resemble a fundamental form of kinesis.

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 sea-going Irish merchant before settling in Indus, had passed along many traits of character, but not the love of water. 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 certainly more salient reason, was 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.

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 human 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.

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.

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.

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