Return of the Princess
Lyonn Ann Parx
Carefully I lifted the sack of rice and sweetmeat buns and slung it over my back.
"Na-mo Ami-tabha, " Sister Fang muttered as she settled her pole on her shoulder, balancing the loads of firewood that swung wildly at each end. "Thanks be to Kuan Yin."
"And thanks to you for helping me, Sister Fang. Without your help, I would have needed four trips up and down the thousand steps."
Sister Fang laughed. "Actually I was thanking for His Highness finally giving up on you."
After the Emperor learned of my refuge at the Diamond Silence Cloister, he dispatched a different son each year to seek my hand in marriage. Three Manchurian princes and their cavalry had come and gone, arriving on the tenth month but departing before the first flurries of snow settled on our cloisterīs rooftop.
"Over a year now," I said, "since this poor one-armed novice received her last suitor. Yes, I think He has given up."
"Maybe they have given up on a civil visit... but what if they try to kidnap you? If that should happen, to hell with my vows of non-violence. Iīd bring out the large kitchen knife and chop! chop! chop!" she said, her small eyes rounded in anger. Then she saw my smile and we both burst into laughter.
Sister Fang tested her footing on a smear of ice. "Step carefully," she said. As we continued up the steep steps of the mountain, our conversation ceased. I finally reached the top, with Sister Fang closely behind.
As we stood, catching our breath, I saw a dark trail of horses snaking along the road that led to the base of the mountain. The charcoal horses gathered, holding their heads proudly as if oblivious to the cold. Snowflakes speckled their manes and the dark cloaks of the Manchurian cavalry.
"Bloody hell!" Sister Fang spat and continued a string of expletives I blushed to hear.
"May I trouble you, Sister," I said, "to inform the Abbess? I will make sure our friends in the sick hall have something to eat."
"But donīt forget to slip me a kitchen knife. Make sure its sharp."
As I entered the kitchen, the chopping knife gleamed from the rack, but I was used to Sister Fangīs exaggerations and knew she wasnīt in earnest. I tipped the rice into the bin carefully, then arranged half of the sweetmeat buns on a plate for the sisters. I took the rest to the inmates in our sick house. Their usual daily meal was porridge; they were thrilled to see the treat I brought.
"Please, no need to thank me," I said. "They are from the kind villagers."
"These must be from Ah Meng, the baker," said Old Man Ouyang. He pulled a bun apart and relished the sweetmeat. "I used to beg near his stall, when I could still walk."
I distributed all the buns except for one which I carried to Little Kite, my young friend who lived in the hut at the back of the cloister. Little Kite and his mother were lepers. They were expelled from village to village before they finally sought help from our cloister. We were all terrified of the disease, but in the end we trusted the decision of the Abbess, who was a skilled healer. "Keep them in their own quarters," she said. "Donīt share the air they breathe, donīt touch any waters from their bodies." Little Kite and his mother passed the days well enough, until last year when her conditioned worsened. Now the child was left on his own.
There was a small room adjoining Little Kiteīs where a fireplace was specially built to warm the entire hut. I fed the fire with a generous serving of the wood that Sister Fang had carried. The flame roared.
I smiled at Little Kite through the grilled window on the door. He waved back with a hand wrapped in soiled linen.
"Time to change your bandages," I said. "Then I have a surprise for you."
With a vigour I hadnīt seen since his motherīs passing, he sprang out of bed and limped to the basket which I stocked with new bandages. When he peeled off his old ones, my heart broke to see weeping lesions where his fingers used to be. Even so, he pulled out a fresh strip of linen and wound it nimbly around each fist, like a child would his favourite top.
I pushed the bun through the food slot in the door.
"Sweetmeat bun! I havenīt had one for so long, I forget what they taste like!"
I laughed. "Enjoy it slowly, then. Iīm sure itīs better than the porridge I make. But sometimes...well, porridge is all we have."
We chatted as he ate, for he had a curious mind. He asked me all about what I had done that day, and how was this or that Sister. "One day, when I grow up, I want to join the cloister too!" he said. I did not have the heart to tell him the Abbess did not expect him to live through the winter.
"Sister Mei! Sister Mei!" Sister Fang appeared in the doorway, panting as if she had run all the way from the cloister. "Abbess orders you come to the courtyard right away. The messenger wonīt start reading the edict without you."
Reluctantly I said goodbye to Little Kite. If only I could stay there with him through the whole visit of the Manchurian cavalry.
When we arrived at the courtyard, I saw the soldiers kneeling, the tips of their helmets pointing forward. Only the messenger stood, his round chest puffed like peacockīs, the Emperorīs scroll unrolled in his hands. The Abbess lifted her small wrinkled face and directed us with a fierce glance to get in line with the rest of the sisters.
"Ten thousand years, and ten thousand, ten thousand more to the Emperor," we recited.
Now that I was in attendance, the messenger read out: "His Royal Highness thanks the Abbess of the Diamond Silence Cloister for her continued protection of our Kingdomīs most precious daughter, the Princess Chang Ping; and in our gifts of provisions, we demonstrate our gratitude. Now our Kingdom is at peace again, united under our rulership blessed by Heaven. It is time for Her Royal Highness to return to the safety and comfort of the Imperial Palace, escorted by Zhou Shi Xian, who travels with this edict."
"Ten thousand years, and ten thousand more to the emperor."
I did not join the refrain. Zhou Shi Xian! I had not heard that name since I fled the palace. My legs quivered as I stood, eyes scanning for him. Where had he hidden for so long, and why was he sent this time?
The Captain of the cavalry stepped forward and saluted. "Venerable Abbess, with your permission, we will set camp at the foot of the mountain. Our men will carry our offerings up the steps for you. In seven days, we will leave with Her Royal Highness."
"Captain," she bowed. "We are pleased to offer you hospitality once more. His Royal Highness is most generous. However, anyone who seeks refuge in the Diamond Silence Cloister leaves or stays of their volition."
One of the cavalry stood, and I was taken aback to recognise Zhou. He always said he would rather be dead than to wear a soldierīs uniform. The years had seen him billow out, coarsening his once-slender neck and frame. But his eyes ate me up with the same fire as they had two years ago at the Imperial Palace.
I wanted to run back to hide among my wretched friends in the sick hall. I exchanged a glance with Sister Fang. I do not think you can protect me, I thought.
"Abbess," I said. "I return to my duties in the kitchen."
Zhou attempted to follow me, but Sister Fang stepped in front of him.
"Good sir," she said loudly, "No male visitors in our inside chambers."
Before our evening prayers, Sister Fang came to my quarters to share a pot of tea. She was curious about my strong reaction that afternoon, after the Emperorīs edict was read. I protested that I was tired, loathed to reveal Zhouīs identity.
"Hmm," she said. "I hope at least you were not too tired to enjoy your sweetmeat bun."
"I gave it away."
"Oh..." her voice faded slowly. "What a shame. Who did you give it to?"
"That little dear!" Her voice was brighter.
"Some tea, Sister Fang?" I offered.
"Thank you kindly." She sipped. "You know, Zhouīs name doesnīt sound Manchurian."
"No, he is Han," I said cautiously.
"You know him?"
I searched in vain for the best answer before blurting out, "He was a poet at court." Then I lowered my head to drink more tea, praying the topic would change.
"So the Emperor has run out of sons? Now heīs gone down a notch and sent a poet to win your hand? What a joke."
I was tongue-tied again. "He was engaged to me," I finally said. My tea cup was now empty and I poured more tea for each of us. Instead of thanking me, she studied me intensely.
"You were sweethearts?"
I didnīt answer. We sipped our tea. I could almost hear the snow falling outside.
"So we will lose you then," she said.
"No. It makes no difference. He shall return empty-handed like the other Princes."
"But I am afraid, Sister Mei. Afraid."
We finished our tea. Normally I might have brewed another pot. But Sister Fang put down her empty cup and left my room.
I tried to meditate, but my concentration was scattered.
When someone knocked on my door, I thought Sister Fang had returned. It was Zhou. He bowed and greeted me by my royal title.
My first impulse was to shut the door on him, but instead I said, "You dont have to stand on ceremony. I am Sister Mei now. Iīm sorry, but it is late and time for me to retire." When I tried to close the door I found his foot jammed at the doorway. I retreated from the door, shocked at his impudence.
"Mei, from your birth name. I remember. But you shall always be Princess Chang Ping to me. May I come in?"
He moved closer, as if daring me to retreat further. I froze where I stood. "Oh my Princess, the hardships you have endured." He picked up my hand, giving not a glance to the dead arm in the sling. His touch was so gentle and his face so kind, his voice so soothing, that for a moment it felt like I was still in the palace, a young girl impressed by the attentions of the court poet whose work she admired and emulated.
"This hand was made for embroidering silk butterflies, or writing poetry on sandalwood fans," he said.
I pulled my hand away. "Now it finds wisdom in my prayer beads."
"It melts my heart to hear your sweet voice. A voice for singing odes in a moonlit pavilion, wasted here in this lonely cloister."
"Now it chants the wise and serene words of Lord Buddha."
"Your hair was so thick and lustrous. All the ladies in the Forbidden City envied it." He reached for my cap as if to remove it and reveal the short stubble beneath, but I raised my palm. His hand withdrew. "It will grow back," he said, "when you come home with me."
"That life is gone, Mr. Zhou. My father is dead and his bones confiscated by the Manchurian pretender on the throne. My mother and my sisters are poisoned and stabbed. My brothers are in hiding. You are not asking me to return to my home. This cloister is my home now, and the sisters are my family."
"You deserve much more."
"I hope to deserve the enlightenment taught by Lord Buddha." I bowed. "Na-mo ami-tabha. Goodnight, Mr. Zhou."
He said, "We belong together, my Princess. I shall not quit on the promise you made me not so long ago."
"I was young and foolish."
"It gives me hope that on that final day, you refused your fatherīs order to end your life for my sake."
"My father was caught up in madness," I said calmly. "And jumped to the wrong conclusion. It was not for your sake I chose to live."
I shut the door firmly on him.
"Zhou Shi Xian!" my father, the Emperor Cong Zheng, screamed at me. "You disobey me for the sake of Zhou Shi Xian!"
He ordered his bodyguards to grab each of my arms and drag me along as he stormed to the chambers where his concubines and consorts waited fearfully. "The rebels are at the gate!" he shouted at his women. "Do you want to be the whores of the peasants or follow your Emperor to the heavenly realm? Drink the poison!" He pointed to the trays of goblets carried by one of the eunuchs. "Or die by the sword of your Highness!"
Crying, whimpering, they obeyed as they had been trained, and compelled, since they entered the palace. They offered their breasts to his blade as if they were offering him pleasure in the bed chamber. Their bodies fell and their blood pooled and mingled. Those who took poison foamed at the mouth and writhed on the ground before the Emperor ordered his bodyguards to hasten their end.
When there were finally no more women to kill, my father turned to me.
"Will you end your life, my daughter Chang Ping, or will you be a whore to the peasant rebels?"
"I have sworn to follow Lord Buddhaīs way," I said. "I cannot choose to self-harm." Then I shouted with a passion he had never seen, "Kill me if you must!"
I shut my eyes and waited for the pain to pierce my heart. Instead the blade of his sword bit deep into my right shoulder.
"Wretched, unloving daughter!" he cried. "Die the slow death of a maimed whore!"
When I woke from my faint, I found the few faithful servants left to me, eunuchs who had looked after me since I was a girl. "The emperor has hanged himself," one said. "None of the ministers would follow him. Do not regret choosing to stay alive, your Highness."
We fled the next day, eventually reaching the Diamond Silence Cloister, where the Abbess accepted me as a novice.
Sister Fang and I didnīt exchange a word all of the following day. That evening, I visited her quarters. She broke into a large smile when she saw me.
"Sorry for leaving so abruptly last night, Sister Mei," she said and bowed. Her large fingers pushed the beads of her rosary furiously. "My old joint aches have been flaming up again."
"You have been too kind in helping me in my chores. I am to blame, dear Sister."
"No, no, you are not to blame. I help everyone the way I can. I am the Ox. I dont have your good heart or your smart learning, or the Abbessīs wisdom, or the good points of many sisters. But I have my strength."
I nodded, and she invited me to sit.
"The Abbess is trying a new treatment on me: medical incense from the royal doctors.
"Iīm glad she is looking after you," I said. Then she showed me a half-burnt incense stick. I bent closer to smell it. It was sweet like burnt oranges.
Immediately I thought of my young friend.
After evening prayers, I braved a heavy snow storm to visit Little Kite.
"Sister Mei?" he called out and then smiled to see me peering through the grill on the door. "Iīm glad you can come this evening."
"Itīs freezing here," I said.
"Itīs very cold," he said, and showed me his chattering teeth.
"Na-mo ami-tabha!" I said. "Let me make it warmer." I said and fed the fire.
"Sister Fang is trying some new medicine from the Abbess. If it goes well, maybe you can try it too."
He grinned with hope. "Thank you, Sister Mei!"
I took a long time to get to sleep that night. When I did, the ghost of my father, the last Emperor, harassed me in my dreams.
"Ungrateful daughter!" he howled from a corner of my room, his eyes wild with whites showing, his hair loose and thrown about with his rage.
"What do you ask of me, your Highness?" I pleaded.
"Give me a proper burial. Your duty!" he said.
"Father..." I said in desperation, as he continued, "But donīt you dare return as the false Emperorīs puppet. Do not disgrace me and our ancestors!" Then he melted away into the darkness. The Manchurian Emperor had rejected all my requests to collect my fatherīs bones. I was at a loss how I could fulfill my filial obligations.
I wept and cursed that I was born a princess. At the command of this man or another, I was to take my life, or wed against my will, or forsake my sisters and my lifeīs calling.
For the next few days, I enlisted Sister Fang to work on chores together, giving Zhou no opportunity to find me alone. Sister Fangīs aches were responding well to the medicated incense. But I could not avoid Zhou forever. On the sixth day, he waited for me in the courtyard while we were at evening prayers.
"Princess!" he called loudly.
I refused to acknowledge his presence. "Excuse me Abbess," I said as I stood beside her. "I will return to my duties in the kitchen."
"Pray remain with us, Sister Mei," the Abbess and turned to Zhou. "Sir, please wait at the Southern lookout." When we were alone, the Abbess chastised me. "Mr. Zhouīs behaviour is disrupting the peace of our cloister. Why do you refuse to grant him an audience?"
"He keeps asking the same, for me to return to the palace. I canīt bear to hear him on that matter again."
"Itīs not a solution to avoid him."
"What should I do then, Abbess? Pray advise me," I pleaded.
"You are resolved not to leave?"
"Yes," I said.
"Then meet him and affirm your decision. Let his words be like the winds buffeting this very mountain."
With the Abbessīs counsel in my heart, as well as a lingering dread, I went to meet Zhou. He stood close to the precipice, beside the top of the thousand steps. His cloak flapped wildly in the wind.
"Mr. Zhou, you have your audience as requested. Please be brief."
"We leave tomorrow, Princess," he said.
"Best wishes for your journey."
He struggled to find the right words. "We wonīt leave without you this time."
"You will be camped down there through the bitter winter, then."
"No, Princess. We will take you back by force. But if you come with us freely, the Emperor has promised to grant your longstanding request."
I gasped. "Even a burial at Mount Huangtu?"
"He will allow your fatherīs remains to be buried with honor at Mount Huangtu. He will adopt you as his daughter, when you marry me as your Prince Consort."
"And so set the foundations for the new dynasty? Why would I champion him so? I have brothers in exile and in hiding. They may yet return."
"He rescued me, oh Princess," he said and took off his helmet, revealing hair of several monthsī growth. "I was imprisoned for a year by the rebels until His Royal Highness freed me."
"You owe him eternal gratitude then. And has His Highness taken a fancy to other courtiers like you? Perhaps adopted my fatherīs eunuchs into his service?" I said with scorn.
"He freed me to bring you back. The truth is I will suffer if I do not. And the kingdom will continue to suffer in this time of unrest: many rebels caught and tortured, many imperial soldiers killed in keeping the order." He took hold of me roughly by the shoulders. "Where is your duty?"
I pushed him away. But I could not bring myself to answer.
"I will work hard to prove myself deserving of your respect and affection."
"You misunderstand. In truth, I am happy here. I had affection for you once, but this is my contentment and joy now: this cloister. My sisters."
He stared at me intensely. "The General brought medicine: Golden Incense. Your friend Sister Fang is using it."
"Yes," I said, and I was suddenly afraid.
"It is the very elixir of Hell, Princess. You have noticed a change in her constitution?"
"Yes," I said, trembling.
"She cannot last a few days without the incense. She will suffer the most tremendous ills and fevers if it is denied her... "
"Oh merciful Kuan Yin! Na-mo ami-tabha!".
"... the suffering of drunkards when deprived of their drink," he continued.
We had many such in the sick hall.
"The incense multiplies this suffering a hundredfold," he said. "This is the desperation your Sister Fang will suffer. Most will dash their heads against the wall rather than endure it. If you will not return with us, we will take the incense from her. And we will force it upon you."
I turned my face away, hiding my tears in my sleeve.
"The Emperorīs alchemists have made a Silver Incense. If you comply with his edict, your sister will be saved."
His voice revealed only a steely reserve, as if reciting an Ode to Autumn.
After that eveningīs prayer session, I visited Sister Fang in her quarters. I knocked but she did not answer.
"Sister Fang?" I called out but even though I sensed someone in the room, I heard no reply.
I pushed the door open, and smelt burnt oranges the noxious incense. Sister Fang lay on her side on the bed, smiling peacefully like the Buddha statue. I covered my nose and mouth with my sleeve and tapped on her shoulder.
She startled, eyes flashing open. "Canīt you leave me alone? Iīm having such beautiful dreams." Then she shut her eyes and rolled over, turning her back to me.
I wept as I realised that I had to save Sister Fang.
"Farewell, Sister Fang," I whispered. "Better you think I fled and returned to the luxuries of the palace."
I had a dream that night.
I wandered lost in the Forbidden City, as if the corridors and chambers which I had known so well had been totally rearranged. Sister Fang accompanied me, dressed in male courtly attire. She would smile and nod seriously to passers-by in the corridors.
Then we found ourselves at the foot of the Pagoda Tree where my father stood upon a chair. The blood of his consorts seeped through his undergarments like the sores on Little Kite.
"Die for me," my father commanded, as he put his head into the silk noose.
I looked at Sister Fang and then replied, "I cannot end my life, now I am devoted to the Lord Buddhaīs way."
"Liar!" he cried. "You save your life for the sake of Zhou Shi Xian!"
A green snake slithered down the tree. "Die for me, ungrateful daughter." He pointed at the snake. I knelt down and wept. The snake curled around my good hand. I lifted it and hid it inside the sleeve of my dead arm.
My father kicked the footstool away.
Then the scene changed. Sister Fang stood in bridegroomīs robes with me in the Peony Pavilion. I held the red wedding bouquet. The moon shone through the surrounding weeping willows as we lit incense for my father, now at rest in the Imperial tomb. Sister Fang ordered the wedding attendants away and I brought out the green snake hidden in my sleeve.
"I had not thought you would die with me," I said.
"Anywhere you go," she said, "I will go too."
And then I awoke in pitch darkness, weeping.
Early next morning before the sun rose, while the other sisters were still in their quarters, I quietly made my way to my young friend in the hut.
"Are you asleep, Little Kite?"
"I have something to tell you. I am going away."
"Are you? Where?"
"To offer incense and prayer to my parents."
"Are they dead like mine? Youīre an orphan too?"
"Yes, Little Kite."
"We should be brother and sister," he said seriously. "Will you be my big sister?"
"I would be very proud to be your big sister," I said, my heart aching. "I might be gone a while, so I wanted to say goodbye."
"I hope you come back soon!"
When I regained composure, I asked if he was warm enough.
"My ears are very cold. Even though theyīre covered up."
I fed the fire and fanned the flames with my sleeves until perspiration beaded on his forehead and mine.
"Is it too hot?" I asked.
"I like it. It feels like summer."
"Little Kite, I want to give you something." I took out my last souvenir of the Imperial Palace, a handkerchief embroidered with flowers. "It can be your keepsake of me, and of summer."
His eyes grew huge at the vivid, shimmering colours of the embroidery.
"Or maybe we will exchange handkerchiefs," I said."If you like."
I unbolted the door and entered. "Oh Sister Mei," he said, hiding his bandaged hands with shame.
"Youīre not scared?"
"No, Little Kite. I want to give you this gift in person."
He reached inside his sleeve and pulled out a handkerchief I had hemmed for him from the grey cloth we used for our own gowns.
"Iīm sorry I dont know how to put in butterflies and flowers for you too," he said mournfully.
"Donīt worry," I said. The room was sweltering. While he admired my embroidery, I mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. Then I sat beside him and sang an ode about spring and grasshoppers. In the warmth of the room, he dozed off quickly. When the fire smouldered down to a red glow, I held his soaked handkerchief in my trembling hand and slipped it into my sleeve, where I had hidden the green snake in my dream.
The mountain air numbed my cheeks as I left the hut, but an inner fire braced me. I felt reborn, already transformed by this precious gift bestowed by my young friend.
As I started down the thousand steps to join the Manchurian cavalry, the brass gong struck three times to announce First Prayer. My heart stirred to hear the golden ringing. I knew that I would hear this again and again from deep within, in the darkest days to follow.