In follow up to my last post about my collegiate juvenalia, here are:
B. The story the lady liked…
This story requires a bit of explanation. At the time I was on a bit of Taoism kick, and had the audacity to write my own “classic Chinese stories,” which were embedded in a frame story of a Chinese servant faithfully recording the wise tales of his master, who himself was a bit of a reprobate. These were a handful of stories I filed under The Wisdom of Chi Tzu, a volume I poked at for ten years but never completed.
Huang Li writes:
Master saw me writing, and laughed at me. “You are
like a madman, Huang Li!” he said. “Furious and dappled in
“I have been trying to write a story of my own,”
I admitted. “Though you have no fear of my rivalry. I’m afraid
I have no talent for telling tales.”
“I fear no rivalry in any case,” said Chi Tzu.
“My stories are merely meddling memories, nothing more. I am happy
to be rid of them by telling them to you.”
“I am envious of those meddling memories,”
“It is not so wonderful,” said Chi Tzu. “Here,
let me tell you a story….”
There used to be a carpenter named Kai Tung. He was a very
hard worker. He spent all day in his workshop cutting up pieces of wood
and nailing them together just right so they’d become functional
objects, and then he’s sand them down and polish them up so they’d
be smooth and nice to look at. And everything he made was exactly like
it was supposed to be. What I mean is, his tables were perfectly table.
His bookshelves were shelves and held books. And his chairs, well. I can’t
even describe them. They were the most popular thing he made, and, all
I can say, is… when you were using one, you were sitting down.
Kai Tung’s wife was very unhappy. She wanted children,
but they didn’t have any. So she tried to do other things to keep
he mind busy.
She took to gardening first, but Kai Tung would come out
and look at the garden and tell her it was a lot of dirt with things growing
in it. He wondered out loud when the stuff would be ready to eat, and
she had to explain to him it wasn’t things for eating, but just
flowers. He didn’t seem to understand. So Kai Tung’s wife
gave that up, and had a go at being very social and chatty with other
women, playing lots of cards and drinking lots of tea. But that didn’t
work either, because all the other women talked about were their children
and their gardens and Kai Tung’s wife didn’t have enough talk
about either subject to keep a conversation going. So finally she took
to writing poetry. Kai Tung took one look at it and commented that she’d
taken a piece of paper and written all over it, and that none of it made
sense because it was just a lot of rot about clouds and babies. She told
him she’d never show her poetry to him again. She left it lying
around the house so that he might sneak a peek at it once in a while,
but he never did. After a while, there didn’t seem to be much point
to it, and she started to feel like it was just a lot of rot about flowers
and babies. She burned it all up and took to taking long and pointless
walks around the village and sitting by herself at home looking out of
They didn’t have any friends, and they didn’t
do anything. Their lives were simple. The sun set every night, and they
went to bed. They went to temple once a week and said prayers. There was
winter once a year, and they wore warmer clothes. In this way, they grew
One night the sun went down, and Kai Tung and his wife
went to sleep. They slept in the same big bed in the same room. Sometimes
they held each other while they slept, and when they woke up they let
go and didn’t say anything about it. This night, they did not hold
each other, because Kai Tung couldn’t sleep. He closed his eyes,
just as he always did, but nothing happened. His wife was asleep, but
he woke her up.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“that noise. It sounds like a cricket chirping. It’s
the kind of noise a cricket makes.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Well, I don’t know how you can’t,”
said Kai Tung. “Because it sure is loud.” He picked up one
of his shoes and threw it at the wall. “It’s coming from that
wall,” he said, after the shoe bounced off the wall. “There!
It’s quiet now.”
Kai Tung’s wife went back to sleep, and Kai Tung
sighed deeply and closed his eyes again. Then he opened them and woke
up his wife.
“Listen! There it is again!”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“It sure is loud,” he said. He got out of bed
and walked over to the wall, rapping on it. “It sounds like a cricket.
It must be a cricket hiding in the wall. I wish it would shut its mouth.”
“They make the noise with their legs,” said
his wife. “Or maybe it’s their wings.”
“They run them together,” she explained, but
suddenly she wasn’t sure.
“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever
heard,” said Kai Tung. “Do cats meow by rubbing their legs
“And do cows moo by rubbing their udders together?”
“No.” Kai Tung’s wife hung her head in
“So why on earth do you think… hold on! I think
I’ve found it.” He pressed his ear to the wall, then banged
on it. “It’s right here. I can tell!”
Kai Tung banged on the wall some more. “I might have
smashed him,” he said.
“Is it still chirping?”
“No. No, wait. There it is. You must be deaf, if
you can’t hear it. It sure is loud.” He rapped the wall some
more. “Darn thing.”
Kai Tung’s wife pulled the blanket over her head
and tried to sleep. But her husband kept her awake by rapping on the walls.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said. He left
the room and came back a little while later with some of his carpentry
tools. He banged on the wall with the hammer and chisel and knocked a
little hole in the wall. “Darn it, I could have sworn…”
he said. He moved over a bit and took another piece of wall off. He still
didn’t find the cricket, so he just went on knocking on the wall
and taking away the plaster until it was just powder and pieces on the
“It’s gotten louder,” he told his wife.
The sun came up, so Kai Tung’s wife got up even though
she hadn’t had any sleep. Kai Tung started on the next wall.
His wife went into the kitchen to make breakfast. When
she came back, a good piece of the second wall was down.
“Breakfast is ready,” she said. Kai Tung dropped
his hammer and went to pick a bit at breakfast. “I think I’ll
put up a sign today and tell people I am sick,” he said. “As
you know, I did not get any sleep last night.”
But he forgot to put up the sign. After breakfast, he went
straight up to the bedroom and knocked down the rest of the second wall.
Then he had an idea that the cricket just might be hiding somewhere in
the furniture or in the closet, so he took everything out of the closet
and out of the drawers and took the linen off the bed and went through
it all very carefully, turning everything inside out and over and over,
making sure there were no bugs in it. He knocked out the walls in the
closet and took the furniture apart and ripped open the mattress on the
bed and then cut open the pillows and scattered the feathers. He took
up the rug and took the curtains off the window and undid the seams and
then it was time for supper. He ate supper with his wife, and had enough
time to knock out the two remaining walls before the sun went down and
it was time for bed.
Kai Tung’s wife couldn’t sleep in the bedroom
because the bed was taken apart and the mattress and pillows were torn
up and the linen was in a pile on the floor. So she took a sheet and went
downstairs to sleep on the sofa, while Kai Tung knocked down the ceiling
and took up the floor and went all over the clothes and everything again
to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.
The next morning at breakfast, he decided that the cricket
might be somewhere else in the house and that he should stay home from
work again so he could find it and kill it and get some sleep.
“Because, really, I can hear it everywhere in the
house,” he said. “It just seems louder in the bedroom. But
crickets throw their voices.”
So he took the door off its hinges, and took out the frames,
and took a last look over the skeletal wooden frame of the bedroom. Then
he went into the hallway with his hammer and chisel and went to work.
Kai Tung’s wife went for a walk around town. She
watched some children playing a game with a ball, and saw some birds flying
around. Later, she sat in the town square, watching the water of the fountain
sparkle in the sunlight. When it was nearly time to cook dinner, she hurried
home, but found her husband had taken apart the kitchen and scattered
the pots and pans around on the lawn, so she could not make supper. He
had taken apart about half of the kitchen hall, and went on through the
supper hour taking apart the rest of the hall and the pantry.
Kai Tung’s wife could not sleep that night because
she was too hungry to sleep and because Kai Tung was taking apart the
living room, sawing up the couch into pieces and breaking the chairs and
emptying the shelves and stripping the wallpaper and knocking the plaster
into dust and detritus. She sat and watched until she could not keep her
When he took up the beautiful rug, a wedding gift from
her parents, he shouted.
“There it is!” Kai Tung shouted. “I see
it!” he ran about the room. “Get it! Get it!”
Kai Tung’s wife was slow to react.
“It’s there, it’s there,” her husband
shouted, waving his hand, but she did not know which way to look, and
now he was going crazy, spinning in circles.
“I lost it! I lost it! You let it go! Oh, how I hate
you,” he said. He collapsed to the floor and cried and cried. “I
came so close. I can’t start all over. I can’t.”
Kai Tung’s wife took the rug. She rolled it and carried
it outside, and went to live again with her parents. Kai Tung did not
give up. He burned the house to the ground, and then went from house to
house, asking if anyone had seen or heard a cricket. He wanted permission
to come inside their homes to search for it. He held a hammer in his hand,
and he meant to use it. They sent him to the fields, and he was found
in the field, crawling on hands and knees. He found there many crickets,
but never the right one. In the end, he was taken to a madhouse. That
was where I saw him… he would call me to his window, and whisper
to me that he could not sleep because of the cricket on the moon.”
“Surely, sir,” I said. “This is not a
real story. Kai Tung and his wife are not real people.”
“Oh, they are quite real,” said Chi Tzu. “Why,
the chair you are sitting in right now was made by that very artisan,
before his madness.”
“This cricket… it is not a symbol? It is real?”
Chi Tzu laughed heartily. “I would not say the cricket
is real,” he said. With a crooked smile, he looked at me, and from
behind my shoulder I heard the chirrup of a cricket. I turned my head
and Chi Tzu was nearly rolling with laughter.
“It is just a trick,” I said.
“One we learned as boys,” said Chi Tzu. “But
do not let the cricket keep you from your sleep, Huang Li.”
Ah, but Chi Tzu does not know that all the sounds of nature
to me are lullabies.