M. Ching dreams

Tian Shih sighed and leaned back against the chair and let her head drop backwards.  The mass of her hair lay over the back of the chair and pooled on the floor of the cabin as if a hole had suddenly appeared there and a person could just step through into a different place, a different world.  She had been writing, simple words, for the beauty of the strokes as she used her brush and ink.  She used “Grass Script,” (草書) her preferred method of writing while meditating.  Each piece of rice paper, after use had drifted to the floor so that around her the cabin was carpeted by words, ‘sun,’ ‘light,’ ‘memory,’ ‘dream,’ ‘wolf.’

She turned her head slightly and smiled to see that the rabbit with the silver fur was still sleeping on her bed.  He had appeared in the morning through one of the hinged painted panels in the wall.  She had had Ting Ting inspect the hinged panels when they had arrived, then had inspected them later herself, and so knew them to be safe, in a way; however, the silver rabbit was still a surprise.

He was not a speaking rabbit, like some with which she had contact, but was still an intelligent creature like all on the ship.  It had known, as the other rabbits had known, that she was not threatening, in whatever guise she chose, and merely looked at her with large silver eyes, hopped onto her bed and went to sleep.  She wondered as she left her bed that morning if the fairy knew of this rabbit or if was of the fairy, but didn’t dwell long on the thought because the rabbit was clearly neither bad nor good, in the ways of men, and she did not worry about its intent.

During the inauspicious walk to her cabin with Pon leading the way, the porter had opened the door of the wrong cabin, to his great embarrassment.  That cabin was beautifully decorated, with flowers and candles, but it was obviously occupied, and Tian Shih had stepped back immediately feeling a strong presence filling the space.  Pon spoke angrily to the porter, whose face turned an interesting shade of purple, as he struggled to contain anger at being spoken to so harshly by the imposing Chinese man.

They eventually reached the right cabin, the porter fumbling with the key, Pon looming over him, Tian Shih noticing the carvings on the door.   How odd.  Dragons following wolves, foxes grinning at her behind trees.  For a moment her heart nearly stopped as she thought she saw her father’s face but it was only another tree, with particularly gnarled bark. 

“This is very realistic carving,” she said to the porter, who was still trying keys.  He looked at her startled, as people often did when she spoke.  “The door,” she prompted.  He turned and looked at the door in surprise.  “This weren’t here yesterdee, m’am, I’d swear it.  This ship, she’s strange one and thangs they be changin’ on their own, ye know.”  He turned back to his keys.  “Ah, there’s th’ one,” and the door swung open on its own accord, soundlessly.

Pon stepped aside and pushed the porter back to allow Tian Shih to enter her cabin first.  He knew she wanted to feel the space without other people to cloud it.  Her eyes traveled over the small table already set for a supper with lilies in water.

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The fireplace exuded a warmth, so she knew that someone had already stoked the fire.

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Her bed and small dresser met her approval, the bed having curtains to draw at night for privacy.  

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She walked forwards and peered through the door into Ting Ting’s room.  It was quite large for servant’s quarters and she knew that Ting Ting would be very pleased, although some space would be needed for the trunks.

 

 

 

 

She looked closer at some of the panels, noting that they were painted but decided to investigate those later.  “Bring in the trunks, please,” she said to Pon and the men bustled in with Ting Ting speaking sharply in Chinese to them, directing the activity.

Tian Shih stepped into the corridor and accepted the key from the porter, and with the slightest motion with her fingers, Pon gave the man a large tip and said, “Go away.”  The man took one more look at the foreigners and ran back down the corridor and disappeared.

“Pon, here is the remaining money for the men.  Please ensure that they understand that it is very important that they do go to the farm and do not return to the house.  Impress upon them that Father will be very angry with anyone who returns,” Tian Shih said, shifting coins from her purse hidden within her gown to Pon’s hand.

Pon nodded, his face expressionless.  Tian Shih tried to meet his eyes.  “You think I am taking the wrong path,” she said.  He did not respond.  She sighed.  “I could not stay.  I must find this man, find this girl, and bring honor to myself if not my family.  I know you think this path is too dangerous for me for a girl…”  Pon interrupted her, which was surprising.  “Mistress, I would never tell you that a task was too dangerous for you.”

“Then what?”  she responded, still too startled by his interruption to admonish him.

“I…” and he fell silent.  “Finish,” she said.  He looked at her directly then and she was amazed to see that his eyes were tear-filled.  “I believe that this is not your honor to chase.  You have always behaved honorably and wisely.  You cannot undo this wrong.”

She turned away.  “I cannot believe that.  I cannot leave these people to the fate that my husband and my father left them.  I will not.  I have no children.  I have no husband.  I can only fix what is wrong.” And she did not wait for a response but went through the door into her cabin, leaving Pon in the hallway, dissatisfied with her answer, but with a plan forming in his own mind.

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Tian Shih’s cabin had a small balcony, a luxury on such a ship, but she had paid handsomely for this journey with her husband’s money and her own.  She moved to it now, enjoying the salt breeze lifting her hair. She noticed that her hand ached from the constant brush strokes and she massaged it gently as she stood in the doorway. 

Her cabin was very much hers now.  Bells and chimes hung in corners and on the balcony.  Scrolls covered the walls.   Incense burned on her bureau, amid small figures of brass and stone, in addition to the walnut.  A large flat bowl sat on the floor near the door, with stones in the bottom, just covered with water.  The curtains on the bed had been replaced with her own curtains of red silk threaded with gold.  The mirror on the bureau was covered with a silk cloth beautifully embroidered with the image of a woman and a fox.  A brazier in Ting Ting’s room provided her with tea.  She had brought several types with her so she had what she needed as the mood struck her.

A sweet bird song came from Ting Ting’s room and Tian Shih whistled the note in return.  Two cockatiels streaked in and landed on her outstretched hand.  She reached in her pocket and pulled out some dried carrot, giving them each a treat.  They looked at her sideways, and then noticed the rabbit.  Immediately they flew to the top of the bed frame looking down at the silver animal, chirping little hopeful sounds but as the rabbit did not awaken, they flew back into the servant’s room.

The ship had been in the island’s harbor for quite a while, giving her a chance to investigate the culture of these Island People and participate in certain rites that she felt were necessary for her quest.  For it was a quest, as she had read in books from foreign lands.  A quest for honor, she thought and laughed softly to herself.  A knight in shining armor and she looked at her arms swathed in her favorite red silk robe and swirled in the sunlight wrapping herself in her hair and the robe.

“What, what?” said a crinkly voice. “Your hair tangled before I brush it.”

Tian Shih smiled at Ting Ting as she shuffled in.  “Perhaps then I should cut it.”

The servant gasped in horror.  “Cut it?  Never!  I brush your hair since you born.  Your hair part of your power.  Don’t mention it again.”

“I won’t, Mistress Ting,” said Tian Shih, playfully, bowing to her servant.

“Stop, you miserable child.  Your manners worse than ever.  I so ashamed to say I raised you. Oh by the gods and your ancestors…” but then Tian Shih shushed her.  “Don’t invoke them.  I am wary of my father’s powers and his connections beyond our world.”

Ting Ting looked remorseful.  “Mistress, I so forgetful.  I so old now, I should be left by oak tree in forest with my last meal and take leave from life.”  But Tian Shih just laughed and stood obediently so that Ting Ting could brush her hair.

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“I must attend to the Dream Masters today,” Tian Shih said to her servant.  “The green robe and pants please. The umbrella too.  And don’t disturb the rabbit.”

Ting Ting tensed as Tian Shih laid a hand gently on her arm.  “I must ask again about my mother before approaching the Dream Masters.”

“Ah,” said Ting Ting, “your mother so beautiful so wise.  A scholar and you will be too as she want you to be.  Pon and I take care of.”

“No,” said Tian Shih.  “I want to know how she died.”

Ting Ting grew very still under Tian Shih’s hand.  “I cannot tell you.  Your father cry and scream as if world is ending and say that your mother is dead.  And she was.”

“But how?”

”Who can say?  Perhaps an assassin.  Your father very successful but some do not like him.”

Tian Shih did not like the explanation but there was no more information to be had from Ting Ting.

——————————————————————————————————————————-

Tian Shih insisted on proceeding unaccompanied to the village. Ting Ting could not have been more disapproving, but in the end, she was the servant and Tian Shih was the mistress.  As she descended the gangway and glanced around her, she saw a face through a port hole in the side of the Vulcania.  She froze, but the face had vanished.

Surely not.  Pon was far away, at the farm.  She was, dare she say, missing him?  And she would know, would she not, if he were on the ship?  Her senses were not dulled from the ship’s intensity, in fact, they were heightened and new powers were asserting themselves.

The village was quaint, shops and taverns on all sides.  She caught a glimpse of the gypsy in a tavern and bowed slightly towards her.  The gypsy’s reading had been fortuitous and prescient and Tian Shih appreciated the woman’s power.  The gypsy smiled back and raised her glass in response.

Tian Shih quickened her pace.  She had one goal that day—her dreams—and she knew that completing the journey and returning before dark were of paramount importance.  She had in her hand the small note from E on which was written in an elegant Chinese script the directions to the entrance of the caves.  E had assured her that the train commonly ridden to approach the Nightmares was not necessary and that her directions would lead her directly to the cave stables.

A tiny smile crossed her lips.  The woman was a prodigious ally, but would be an equally strong opponent.  Tian Shih hoped that her quest was not at odds with this all-seeing Commander.

She turned down a small alley between a tavern with the quizzical name of ‘Dog’s Down’ and a shop with the equally puzzling ‘Dirty Dam’ and Tian Shih stopped in alarm.  The alley had an end.  There was no door, no arch, no opening of any kind.  She glanced at her note.  She had made no wrong turns—this was the correct place.

Tian Shih looked up at the old wooden and brick walls beside her and at the cobblestones at her feet.  Nothing, except dirt and moss as if no one had passed down this by-way in many years.  She approached the end of the alley.  A mossy brick wall.  What now?  She was losing time, perhaps another day.  No, she could figure out any puzzle.  What was she missing?  What?

Suddenly, impulsively, Tian Shih pulled out a small gold chain with a dragon pendant from one of her hidden pockets.  She laid it carefully on the ground by the back wall.  Loudly, she pronounced ‘I give this offering to the Dreamer Masters of my own will, freely.  I come to the Dreamer Masters of my own will, freely.  I seek answers from my dreams be they good or bad.’  And as she spoke the words, the wall began to change.  It began to run, like a painting in water, then a waterfall, and behind the waterfall, she could see an arch and a grove of dark trees and large boulders.

She looked down but the chain and pendant were gone.  Taking a deep breath, she held up her umbrella and stepped through the waterfall, and was immediately engulfed in twilight and pale stars in the sky and dark trees so large that they seemed as ancient as the enormous house-sized rocks that rested amongst them.  Everything was covered in a moss so deep that it reminded her of the endless rabbit fur as she stooped to feel the ground. 

‘Beautiful,’ she breathed and it was, in an eerie way as if ghosts had found a home here and flitted amongst the trees.  As she walked, small bells rung.  She strained her eyes to see where they might be but could see no movement when suddenly, as if summoned by her thoughts, the silver rabbit, or she assumed it was her silver rabbit, hopped onto the path.  It looked at her, hopped again and stopped.

Ah. Her guide.  Her guide had appeared that morning and she hadn’t known.  Well, at least she knew the creature to be neutral, as it should be as part of the dream world.  The rabbit continued down the path with Tian Shih following, then stopped in a clearing, where a small chair was placed next to an opium pipe.  Tian Shih frowned.  This could not be right.  She half turned, hesitating, having come this far, not wanting to miss her chance.

The rabbit grew more urgent, hopping from her to the chair and back.  The opium was a bad memory for her, surely the Dream Masters knew that.  Tian Shih closed her eyes, composed herself, spoke aloud, ‘I know,’ and sat in the chair.  Then she raised the pipe end and drew in the smoke.

In an instant she could smell the familiar odor of horse manure and her eyes flew open.  She was sitting on a bench in a stable, she knew, because she could smell the horses and hear the horses but everything was dark and ill-lit and she could not see horses or stable boys.  She stood and stepped forward decisively, only to find that her head began to swirl and ache.  The opium.  She swore under her breath in words that Ting Ting never taught her.

Unwilling to go any further without protection, Tian Shih bent and clicked a small switch on her umbrella.  Smoothly, a sheathed sword slid from the handle.  She kicked the umbrella aside and deftly attached the sword to her belt as was appropriate for a warrior.  Now she felt more at home, even with the headache.  She pulled a torch from a wall mount and set off in the direction of the horses.

The stable had been built by the deranged, she had decided by the third or fourth turn.  It was a maze.  She could still hear horses and smell them but she didn’t seem to be advancing at all.  More tricks.  Exasperated she threw down her torch and it rolled away from her toward the inside wall…and through the wall.  Instantly there were shouts of alarm and whinnies from horses.  Tian Shih was spellbound.  She stepped forward and put her hand out and through the wall and then stepped through completely.

She was in the stable.  She had been all along.  Stable boys ran here and there, one had put out the rolling torch and now looked at her reproachfully, but she paid no attention.  Tian Shih was watching the horses.  They were like none she had ever seen before in her life, and at the moment, she was right next to one.  She was of the deepest black, black that sucked in light and did not reflect it.  These creatures did not have shiny coats, not that they were dirty or misused—their color was just a black hole.  The one next to Tian Shih had red eyes and she noticed when she opened her mouth to snatch a mouth of hay, this horse had pointed teeth.

The stable boy came back with a saddle.  ‘She’s for you, miss, since you’re ‘ere.  See, usly we let the Stable Master choose ‘em but since you appeared right next to ‘er, he said let ‘er have that un.’  He started saddling the mare.  Tian Shih, still unsure about her newly-named mount, asked, ‘Do all the mares have filed teeth?’

‘Filed teef?’ laughed the boy. ‘We don’ file them teef, miss.  They’s like that when they’s born.  Wouldn’t want to get real close to that mouf.  But they’re easy, the Nightmares, even with them red eyes and teef, they don’t bite, least not people.’

Tian Shih was about to ask what did the Nightmares bite when another stable boy arrived with the bridle and almost instantly her mare was ready and she was mounting.  ‘Her name?’  she asked of the stable boy.  He laughed again.  ‘We don’t name ‘em.  If you name a Nightmare, it becomes real, and we can’t have that in the stable.’  And with that, he slapped the Nightmare on her rump and she took off at a run, Tian Shih intinctively leaned low over the flying black mane.

Tian Shih had ridden often at home and at the farm on horses trained and untrained, but she had never ridden a horse such as this.  The Nightmare was so powerful that Tian Shih could feel the horse’s muscles moving under her legs.  She knew that the horse was running easily and could have doubled her speed, but they were riding through caverns & passages, which, although the horse knew the way well, a faster speed would have spelled disaster.

The way was lit, but Tian Shih could see but a fraction of her surroundings, half-blinded by the Nightmare’s mane and the speed.  Some of the caverns they passed through were glaringly bright with crystals of varying colors on the ceiling, walls and floors, one cavern was a lake, clear and deep and the Nightmare slowed slightly to gallop along one edge. 

Suddenly they entered a cavern where Tian Shih learned what the Nightmare bit with those glittering dagger-like teeth.  When they burst through the entrance of the nearly blackened space, Tian Shih heard the sound of enormous wings and saw through her wind-teared eyes what she thought was a black angel flying straight at them.  The Nightmare raised her head and tore a chunk from the flying creature’s breast.  As it plunged beside her, grazing her and the Nightmare with talons, she realized it was some type of enormous bat with a skull-like head.  She pulled out her sword and prepared for battle.

Another bat creature came from the left into her peripheral vision and she swung the sword at the same time the Nightmare grabbed the thing’s leg.  It screamed as the leg was bitten and Tian Shih’s sword sliced through a wing, and it fell, but Tian Shih paid no attention as she swung to the right holding tight to the Nightmare with her thighs and stabbed another bat before the mare even had to open her mouth again.  And with that, they were out of the cavern and into a long passage.

Tian Shih re-sheathed her sword—she would clean it later—and resumed her low position on the mare.  Dimly she wondered how others made their way through these caverns or if they made the journeys at all.  Ahead she could see a door and as she was wondering if they would just fly through it as she had the walls at the stable, the door opened for them, the Nightmare slowed her gallop to a trot and she entered the lair of the Night Masters.

A silent servant grasped the reins of her Nightmare and she dismounted.  She patted the Nightmare’s neck affectionately and fancied that the red eye looked at her with pleasure before the creature was led away for care.  Another servant, also silent, appeared and beckoned her to follow.  She was led to a small room with flowing water from the rock into a basin of a pleasant temperature.  She washed her face and hands and cleaned her sword.  The servant gave her a cloth to dry herself and then led her out of the small room and into another room lined with books, a lovely rug on the floor, a desk with a lamp, and two leather chairs.  A fire burned in the rock fireplace, keeping the cave at a temperature a little too warm for Tian Shih’s comfort.   No one else was in the room, the servant had left, so she sat in one of the leather chairs and waited.

In the stifling warmth and silence, Tian Shih finally succumbed to sleep, curled up in the leather chair in the office of a Dream Master and this was what she dreamed:

Her beautiful mother lay asleep in her bed.  She looked so real that Tian Shih tried to touch, but her hand went through her mother.  The roar behind her was startling and terrifying.  Although she knew he father in his dragon guise, this dragon was not he.  This dragon was larger, far more fierce.  Tian Shih gasped and cried out to her mother, however her mother gave no sign of hearing the dragon or Tian Shih.

Tian Shih ran at the dragon, drawing her sword, but passed through it in a hot musky sulfurous cloud that made her cough and her eyes water.  She staggered but was able to turn around to see the dragon almost tenderly bend to the sleeping woman and gently place its lips to her, drawing in its breath.

Tian Shih’s mother gasped as her breath was drained from her lungs but the dragon’s lungs were so much larger and the woman had no chance and her gasps grew weaker until there was no more breath to take.  Tian Shih ran to her mother and fell to her knees.  “No!”  she cried and again tried to touch her mother in vain.  The dragon lifted its enormous head and looked straight at Tian Shih and although her eyes were filled with tears, she stared back fearlessly and the dragon read in her eyes all it needed to know:  his life would forever be at risk as long as this woman was alive.  The dragon gave one last roar and swirled around swiftly as Tian Shih ducked instinctively, and then it was gone.

Tian Shih sat next to her dead mother, unable to touch her.  She did not look up when a servant entered the room calling her mother’s name then crying out for her father.  She did not look up when her father ran into the room, collapsing next to her mother, sobbing her name and kissing her face.  She only raised her eyes with a young Ting Ting came to the door with a baby in her arms, bewildered and horrified by the events.  And as she watched Ting Ting, a voice entered her head, “You must really leave now.  This is not appropriate at all to sleep in my study.  You really must leave.”  And Tian Shih began to awaken.

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5 Responses to “M. Ching dreams”

  1. kvwordsmith Says:

    Wow, wow, and wow again…this story is told so masterfully…I feel I know the characters, the setting, am interested in the implied intrigue – and how you can weave this story in with the Vulvanian voyage so seamlessly is beyond me…wow…

  2. Sally Says:

    How do you do that? It would have taken me at least a week, if ever, to tell that story. I loved the photographs, especially the one of the woman with the long hair. You are a master storyteller! I see that the voyage to the Carribean was good for you. You have left me wanting more!

  3. traveller Says:

    your prose seems to flow effortlessly along producing such vividly evocative images. I too love the photo of the woman with the long hair. In Victorian England opium smoking was known as “chasing the dragon” – how appropriate.

  4. Heather Blakey Says:

    You are a true cantadora, a keeper of stories. This is magnificent. It is incredibly affirming to see how you have taken the threads from the Vulcania and spun them in to this most golden, timeless ‘yarn’.

  5. david Says:

    this is remarkable. the stories you birth are so vibrant and real. i can see and smell the bats flying by. i can shudder at the heavy darkness of the stables.

    your gifts are rare and precious.

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