Friday, March 20, 2020

Barbarian Reed by David W. Landrum

A lonely flautist is cast back in time as a test of his strength and compassion; by David W. Landrum.

The night Carson went back in time, he had pretty much given up on Ling. She did not seem interested in dating him and the one night they went out had been - well, not exactly a disaster, but discouraging as only a date gone wrong can be. He sat next to her when the symphony performed, saw her at rehearsals, and encountered her at social events connected with the symphony. Like most musicians, he and Ling supplemented their incomes by giving lessons; both taught flute at a local music store, often in rooms right next to each other. Still, she made it clear, non-verbally, that she had no interest in a relationship.

It chagrined him. He had other women with whom he regularly went places. He wanted to be married and was "looking" (as some people termed it). He knew Ling dated. Once or twice he had seen her in public places with men she obviously did have an interest in. He was not among them.

One weekend she invited the winds section of the symphony to a party at her house. His attempts to talk with her largely fell flat, except the time he saw her standing beside a bright brass statue of a woman, dressed in traditional Asian garments, standing on the back of a dragon. The sculpture caught his sense of beauty. She noticed his attention to it.

"That is Kwan Yuan, the Chinese Goddess of a compassion."

He thought this might be the beginning of a conversation, but she went off to join a knot of her guests. He turned to the statue, smiled ironically, and touched it with his fingers.

How about some help? he thought, addressing the mute statue and smiling at his mock prayer. There must be a way for me to get to Ling. Have a little compassion and make it happen.

He did not get to talk to Ling the whole night except when he left and said good-bye to her.

Carson's hobby/sport was archery, and when he felt annoyance at his inability to get anywhere with Ling he would practice and take his frustration out on the target. He had pursued the sport from high school, began to compete at it in his teen years, continued into adulthood, and was ranked nationally. He was not an archery superstar because he did not work at the sport full time, but he was good at it and had won a few competitions. The day after the party he went to the range and imagined every arrow he let fly struck not one of Ling's boyfriends but the abstract phantasmal entity that blocked her affection for him. He always hit the center of the target when he did so.

That night he laid down in his apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and awoke in China - in ancient China.

The first thing he noticed were the smells. They were not unpleasant yet they were completely different to those to which his senses were accustomed. He smelled wood smoke and manure, dust, and the scent of meadow grass.

He looked down and saw he wore a pair of what looked like buckskin trousers, heavy boots, a blouse-like shirt made of linen, and a heavy jacket, maybe made of sheepskin. He had on a Russian ushanka hat. The day was clear, the grass showing just a trace of green, but it was cold. He did not have on gloves and wore the coat open. Soon two men rode up to him. They were dressed similarly to how he dressed, but the hats were different.

"You," one of them demanded. "Who are you? What's your name?"

He noted, to his amazement, that he could understand the words the man spoke as if they were speaking English, though he did not hear their utterance as English.

"My name is Carson," he said.

"Well, if you're here trying to get into our army, you're in the wrong place," he barked. "That's a good way to get yourself killed." He pointed. "Line up over there. You'll get your chance to prove yourself in a little while."

Carson bowed. The men rode off. He wondered why they had not challenged him more intensely and had not questioned him more. Then he realized it might be because of his build. If they were soldiers they would recognize he was an archer. The configuration of his shoulders and arms would tell them he had handled a bow a lot.

He started out toward where a number of men stood. A uniformed figure with a ledger took down his name.

"You're Rus?" he asked.

He realized the clerk was asking him if he were Russian. He puzzled a moment but remembered that China and Mongolia both shared a long border with Russia. If a mercenary who was down on his luck in Russia wanted a job this would be the place to find one.

"I am," he said. It would be pointless (and dangerous), he reasoned, to give a history and geography lesson. Here, too, "Russian" would generally mean "European."

"Are you an archer?" the man asked.

"Yes, sir."

The clerk made another entry.

"Wait here. Someone will call you when the time comes."

While Carson waited, the number of people underneath the tree increased. It seemed as if many were trying to get into this military force, whatever it was. About fifty yards away he saw men paired off and sparring with wooden swords. As he observed, one man got whacked on the head and knocked to the ground. The crowd watching them roared with laughter.

The clerk reappeared and called out several names, Carson's among them. Along with a group of what he assumed were archers he followed the clerk to an area that looked like a modern archery range.

As he approached the place he kept hearing shrill, high-pitched whistling. He saw a long line of men, each one awaiting his chance to let an arrow fly and prove his skill as an archer. He hoped the warlord or commander who had called for soldiers would provide him with a bow but then noticed no one in the line carried one. It made sense. Sixty recruits, all armed with bows and provided with arrows, might be trouble. He got in line. After a few minutes, someone whom he assumed was a monitor approached him.

"Are you here to compete?"

"I am, yes."

The man eyed him. "You're the Rus who signed up?"

"I am."

"Can we count on your loyalty?"

"If my countrymen had been loyal to me, I would be not here. My loyalty is to the one who pays me well - and leads me well."

The man let out a snorting laugh. "If your skill as an archer comes anywhere near your level of cheekiness, you'll come in first."

He walked off.

The line moved forward. None of the contestants talked. They watched the trials. The bowmen were allowed one shot. They were aiming to send a shaft between two bamboo stakes about a hundred yards away. If they missed, they walked off, dejected, to the right. If they hit the mark, he assumed, they would be directed left. He saw only four men standing on the left side.

Carson stilled his nervousness by sensing the wind (hardly any) and calculating his shot. This would be difficult because he did not know the bow and because at tournaments in his own time he had the opportunity to plan and execute his shots. This one, however, would have to be quickly done and completely accurate.

He observed. The whistling, he now saw, came from the arrows, which had tiny holes and a small wedge cut in the shaft that made a shrill noise when an archer released one.

He watched the men in front of him take their shot and then walk off, downcast or angry and cursing, to the right. He noticed four judges observing the archers. To his surprise, one was a woman, fairly young, tall, slender, and solemn. She dressed like the other soldiers in boots, pants, a smock, and, over it, a furry jacket. Her hair, braided tightly, glistened in the sunlight.

When he stepped up everyone seemed surprised to see a European but said nothing to him. The man in front of him failed. Carson's turn had come. The woman nodded. One of the men nearby handed him the bow.

He marveled at the touch of it. It was horn, just the right weight, balanced, with the perfect resistance and pressure. Another attendant gave him an arrow. He noticed the woman watching him, evaluating with her eyes. He thought of Ling. As he nocked the arrow by instinct, imagination, and a silly desire to impress the woman (and by this to symbolically honor Ling) the skill he had accumulated through years of practice all kicked up at once. He drew back and let fly. The arrow rose in just the arc he had intended and whistled toward the target, a dull thud ending the shrill noise it made. It lodged in a post behind the bamboo poles, spaced perfectly between them.

Silence. The woman and men acting as judges stared at him. After a moment, one of the men seemed to remember himself.

"Very good shot. Your name?"

"Carson, sir."

"Very well, Carson. I think we can use you." He pointed to the group of men who had won approval. All Asians, they eyed him warily.

The judges allowed no further candidates. The five who had qualified stood quietly. Carson kept stealing glances at the woman.

"Better stop it, Russian," the man next to him whispered.

Carson glanced over at him. "Stop what?"

"Gawking at Ts'ai Yen - the woman over there. Do you know who she is?"

"I don't."

"She is the wife of Uldin, the leader of this motley crew of barbarians. He loves her. She's bore him two children and still looks slender as a virgin. If he sees you eyeing her, he'll cut your balls off."

Carson gave the woman one last glance and turned his gaze elsewhere.

As the sun sank, the five of them joined the other recruits who had made the cut (fifteen infantry and three mounted troops). A gruff, barky sergeant briefed them.

"You are soldiers in the army of Uldin. You are required to do what every other soldier does: obey orders, show courage, and fight. For success in battle, there are rewards. That's all I have to say. Now, the quartermaster will show you to your lodgings. You'll be fed, outfitted, and given a woman."

He walked off. A small, rotund man who introduced himself as Wu Po and who looked comical in military dress, told them to follow him.

Incongruous as he was, Wu Po quickly assigned them to private huts, supplied them with linen, warm clothing (since they were auxiliaries they did not wear uniforms), and set out a generous meal for them. His amiable behavior put them at ease. They opened up and began to talk. He learned his new comrades' names. They were curious about him. Why did he leave Russia? Where did he learn to speak their language? Was he a Christian? Where had he learned to shoot so well? He answered plausibly and asked about them. Two were down on their luck and had decided to try to get in Uldin's army. The other two, to his surprise, were married and would soon bring their wives and children to the camp. After an hour of conversation, Wu Po said lights out would be soon. They needed to go to their quarters.

He went into the small but neat hut to which he had been assigned. He had not been there five minutes before he heard a tap on the door and saw a young woman wrapped in a blanket standing the threshold.

She bowed, came inside, sat on his bed, and let the blanket fall open.

She waited. After a moment, the girl looked up, alarm in her eyes.

"Is something wrong, my Master? Do I displease you?"

He snapped out of the trance her nakedness had put him into.

"No. not at all. But I don't want to use you like this."

The alarm in her eyes increased.

"Sir, you must. I'll suffer for it if you don't. I must return to the woman who oversees all of us. She will examine me to see that I did what I was sent here to do and did not hide or refuse the man to whom I was dispatched. She'll beat me - beat me cruelly - if she sees that I have not done what she ordered. Please, my Lord."

He could read the fear on her face. He tried to think of a way to not exploit this girl who had no doubt been taken as a slave. But he knew he had to do what she expected him to do.

"Lay back," he said.

She put the blanket aside and stretched out on his bed.

As he held her he tried to be gentle. He could tell she was much practiced at her trade - a sad thing to recognize. After he finished she lay quietly in his arms for a few moments and then said, "I must go now, Master."

"Go," he said.

She wrapped the blanket around her and scurried off.

Covering himself with his cast-off shirt he watched her hasten away. She would be examined by her slave mistress, he thought, cleaned up, and sent off to her next assignment. Turning back inside the hut, he found a bucket of water, washed, dried with a towel hung by the bucket, and, not feeling sleepy, dressed. He stepped outside.

The wind cooled him. The sun setting over the hills turned the sky orange, the clouds purple.

He surveyed the camp. It extended in all directions. The smoke of hundreds of fires rose into the air. Soldiers, woman, a few children crisscrossed the expanse of land on which it sat. He smelled manure and heard the whinnying of horses and the braying of mules. He had not had a moment to reflect on what had happened. Going back in time was impossible; but what had occurred in the hours he had been here seemed too real to be a hallucination. He decided to retire for the night and had turned to go back inside his quarters when he heard a woman's voice.

"Sir, I would speak with you."

He turned. Only two feet away stood the woman he had seen at the archery test - the woman Cho Lai had told him to avoid. Unlike when he had first seen her, she wore a gold and red embroidered dress. Two younger women, richly (though not opulently) dressed were with her.

Carson gaped and, remembering his fellow soldier's warning, sank down on one knee and cast his eyes to the ground.

"Stand up," she said, laughing. "The other soldiers probably told you my husband is a lout and will castrate you if you even glance at me."

He looked up at her face. She was as beautiful as Ling. Perhaps they even looked alike. He felt he should speak.

"I was told you are Queen of this people and that I should not gaze at you."

"You think I'm pretty, and I consider that a compliment. Your name is Carson and you are Russian. You handle a bow very well. Do you have a vocation other than soldiering?"

One part of him said it would be better if she thought he was not worth her time; but because she was beautiful and reminded him of Ling he wanted her to think well of him, whatever the danger. "I only work as a soldier when I am forced to. Otherwise, I am a musician. I play music - the flute - for a living - or did until I fell on hard times."

"I see. This intrigues me." She looked over at one of her serving women, communicating something with her gaze. The woman understood and bowed her head. Ts'ai turned back to Carson.

"Chen Shu will come to fetch you in a short while. She will escort you to my husband's quarters. He and I will hear you play. Don't be afraid of what you've heard about him. You will find he is a surprisingly affable man."

Having said this she turned and walked off into the gathering dark.



After what must have been an hour, Chen Shu and two girls - they could not have been older than fourteen or fifteen - came to the door of his hut.

He followed them to an elaborate pavilion tent. Guards stood three deep about it. Banners fluttered above it. Chen ushered him inside. Ts'ai and a large, powerfully built man sat on throne-like chairs. Fire pots burned on either side of them.

Knowing he was facing a barbarian, Carson knelt on one knee and bowed his head.

"Arise." Ts'ai Yen had spoken. He stood. "This is my husband, Uldin - the ruler of this people."

"I am humbled in your presence, my Lord."

"As you should be. Please sit."

A servant brought in a chair. Soon Carson was handed a cup of wine.

"So you are a Russian. And my wife tells me you are also a musician."

"I am both, sir. Being a soldier feeds me when music does not."

"I was told of your skill with a bow. How did you find time to become such a precise archer during your career playing music?"

"I learned through diligence of practice, just as I learned music through practice. And traveling on the roads as much as I did, a man must defend himself."

"That is true," Uldin said, a smile lighting his face. "My wife is quite the musician. She has learned to play the traditional instruments of our tribe and modified our songs to suit her tastes - and to put our children to sleep. You shall play for us." He turned to the slave who apparently served in the role of valet. "Liang, bring some flutes here," he ordered. The man nodded and scurried off.

Ts'ai Yen, who had been silent, spoke.

"Carson, did you marry a wife you have left behind?"

Uldin guffawed. "My wife was captured and brought to live among my people. She has an affinity for those who are forlorn from being in exile and deprived of home and kin. But answer the question."

"I have not married," Carson said. "The reason is that the woman I love will not return the love I bear to her."

Uldin grinned but did not comment.

"So you are in exile for her?" Ts'ai asked.

"I suppose so, Lady Ts'ai."

"No spell of love or potions to use on her?" her husband joked.

"None I can find."

"Does she like music?" Ts'ai asked.

"She too plays the flute."

"Music can open the heart. I have two children. Neither of them speak my language. I learned the music of the tribe, changed the intonation of it a little bit, and sang to my children in the music I learned here, modified, and with Chinese words - the words of the Han. My children, who had not learned my language and did not desire to learn it, responded. Eventually, they sang along with me."

Right after Ts'ai finished her story, Liang brought in a cloth bag and took out five flutes.

As Carson suspected, none of the flutes were traverse flutes that you blew across like the modern flute. You had to blow air into them as with a clarinet or oboe. But besides the flute, he played the recorder, had played it since he was a child, and knew it well enough to periodically perform with a Renaissance ensemble. He took up one of the instruments that had sufficient sound holes to provide the range of notes he needed and began to play. He performed two Chinese folk songs he had transcribed from an album of guitar music by Xuefie Yang - Heavenly Bird and Lantern Song, both of which worked well on the recorder. As the sonorous melodies rose, he noticed Ts'ai. Her eyes glistened; soon, tears were falling down her cheeks. Her husband noticed but did not comment.

Carson finished and bowed.

Chen Shu seemed to materialize out of nowhere, came to her mistress's side, and dabbed her eyes with a cloth.

"Beautiful," Ts'ai murmured after Chen stepped back. "I am weeping because you played songs popular among my people. When I was a child, I often heard them sung. I am from the Han."

He remembered Ling had used that term one time when she was talking about China and her family. When she said her family was Han, someone asked what that was.

"A people group among the Chinese," she answered. "It's sort of like a tribe. But in this case" - she had smiled - "a very large tribe."

Into the statement that followed her silence, Ts'ai added, "I am moved. Thank you, Carson."

Anxiety crept down Carson's spine. He had read about the ways of ancient rulers. Would Uldin have him killed because he had made his wife weep? A thought entered his head. He spoke before he contemplated whether or not it was a wise thing to ask.

"Thank you, Lady Ts'ai. If it is proper - I do not know the custom here - I wonder if you might sing one of the songs you mentioned - the songs you sing for your children. I would consider it an honor hear to this."

He held his breath. Uldin seemed pleased.

"My dear?" he asked.

"Of course," Ts'ai said.

She stood. Her husband remained seated.

She began a song. It's range was high (she hit the notes perfectly), its form simple. Her voice rose to fill the space they were in with the sad beauty of the tune. It expressed loss, heartbreak, even anger - but its tone was gentle and sweet, also proclaiming beauty, hope, and longing.

When she finished, the interior of the tent was completely silent. It seemed inappropriate to applaud or speak, so Carson bowed low and spread his hands. Uldin rose, walked over to Ts'ai, and put an arm around her.

"Beautiful, my wife. And you, sir" - he looked at Carson - "have done well. Ts'ai has never sung this song for me, though I have often asked her to do so. You will be rewarded for bringing this beautiful thing about. I will have my servants bring you gold. And I grant you a boon: ask whatever you wish for and I will give what your request."

After a moment of thought, Carson made his request.

"I ask, my Lord, that the slave girl Ming be freed; that she be returned to her family; and that she be generously compensated for the services she has rendered in her captivity."

"It shall be done. I will free the girl; I will see to it that she is safely delivered to her village and her people; and I will give her gold."

"Thank you, my Lord."

Uldin held up his hands to signal that he and his wife would depart. Carson decided it would be a good time to kneel. Uldin and Ts'ai left the tent. A serving man escorted Carson back to his hut. Once more, he wondered if he had violated some custom or protocol and would be cut down for it, but no one harmed him. Just after his escort left, another servant brought a bag of gold coins and, wrapped in a cloth, the flute he had played for Ts'ai. Exhausted from tension, wondering what might be next, he lay down.



He woke up in his bedroom in Grand Rapids. Stretching and rolling, he remembered the dream. In it, he had gone back in time. Having been brought up in the rationality that so pervades modern society, he dismissed what he remembered as coming from the phantasmal nature of dreaming. Yet - he had to admit this to himself - what he had experienced seemed too vivid to have occurred only in his mind; and he felt, too, the satisfaction he had gotten from Ming, the young woman in the dream. Still, he told himself, going back in time was fictitious. It belonged in fantasy novels by H. G. Wells and in the speech of the deluded. He dismissed the idea that it was anything more than a fiction concocted by his mind to keep him asleep.

He yawned and went into the kitchen/dining room of his apartment.

On the table he found, wrapped in a cloth, a bamboo flute - undoubtedly the one he had played in the dream - and a leather bag.

He opened the bag and poured out its contents.

Coins. They were minted from heavy, soft ore. Gold, he thought. It had to be gold - enough gold at today's prices to make him, if not wealthy, at least quite comfortable for the remainder of his days. The coins were stamped with Chinese characters. They were the coins the serving man had brought to him; the flute was a gift Ts'ai Yen had sent with him - the one he had played for her.

Carson stared down at the objects on the table, trying to understand what they meant. The supernatural, the fantastic - a fantasy by H. G. Wells - had intruded into his life. He did not know how to process it. He did not know why he had somehow been taken to the past.

Not even pausing to eat, he went to the Church he attended semi-regularly and prayed in front of the iconostasis. He prayed for mental health. He prayed for understanding. If, as a Charlie Daniels song he liked said, "There's some things in this world you just can't explain" - and if, as Shakespeare had noted, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy - then it seemed at least faintly plausible that such a thing as he had experienced might have happened. And he had tangible evidence to prove it.

Beside the flute and the coins, he had the tune Ts'ai Yun had sung.

He could not get the tune out of his head.



The next day he practiced flute - including the barbarian reed pipe song - went to the archery range with archery buddies, attended a potluck at a symphony member's home (Ling was not there), and, afterwards, went out drinking with friends. The social engagements convinced him of his sanity. The next day, he could still not get the tune Ts'ai had sung out of his head.

He got out some music paper and wrote it down. The symphony had a performance that night. He dressed in his tuxedo, packed his instrument, and took the bus to the concert hall.

He liked to get there early and was usually the first player to arrive. He took his seat, put the tune he had written on his music stand, and, for a warm-up, played it on the empty stage. The simple notes rose up in the space only he occupied. Carson had lived music all his life and knew history's most beautiful melodies, but the beauty of the one Ts'ai had sung exceeded that of any other tune he knew. Its sad tonality gave the arrangement of notes power as well as beauty. He played it twice. After he finished he heard a voice behind him.

"What music is that?"

He turned to see Ling. She wore a little black dress (she dressed much more stylishly than the other women in the orchestra) and had tied up her hair. She carried her flute case in one hand.

"That? It's a Chinese folk tune I know."

"It's beautiful - and remarkable. My aunts sang it. My grandmother too. It's called 'Song of the Barbarian Reed Pipe.' I always thought it the sweetest tune I'd ever heard - but I haven't heard it for years. It's a Han folk melody. Can you play it again?"

Carson played through the piece once more. When he turned back to Ling, tears were streaming down her face. Standing there, crying, she looked like Ts'ai.

He made a motion to get up. She raised a hand.

"No, don't. I'm sorry I'm acting silly."

"Crying because something moves you is not acting silly."

She reached over and clasped his wrist.

"Yes. You're right. It just brought back memories. Carson, I've got to warm up and get ready to play. I want to talk more about this. Let's go someplace for a drink when the performance is over and I can tell you more. Things have been bad the last couple of months - really bad. I know I haven't been very nice to you, and I apologize. If you're not busy tonight, I can explain. But I have to get ready to play."

He nodded. She opened her case, assembled her instrument, and - looking marvelous in her short black dress - began to warm up.

That night they did two Brandenburg Concerti, Shubert's Symphony No. 2 in B♭ Major (which had a lot of flute in it), and a shorter piece by Shostakovich. She smiled at him once or twice and seemed to enjoying playing music with him. When the concert was over, she said she wanted to go home and change.

"Can we meet at Bar Louie, at the Woodland Mall, at 10:00? They're open till two. We'll have time to talk."

He agreed. She left. He drove home to change out of his tux and met her at the appointed time.

Over drinks, she talked about the difficulties she had experienced of late. They were mostly related to family, but she also felt her playing was not up to par and her career was going nowhere. She apologized again for giving him "the cold shoulder" (the term she used) but had not wanted to date him because she knew it would "go somewhere" if she did.

"That was selfish and immature, I know."

He held up a hand. "Hey, slow down. Take it easy. Let's drink."

They drank and talked. She opened up to him. When they parted at 2am they kissed outside of the bar. They kissed quite a bit.

After she left, he contemplated what had happened - a miracle; maybe sent by the Goddess of Compassion in response to his prayer. She had shown compassion for him; and, he realized, for the slave girl Ming as well. The coins told him he had indeed gone back in time. If this was so, Ming had truly been freed and liberated from slavery.

At practice the next day, she once more asked him about the song.

"It's a very ancient tune," Ling said. "Where did you hear it?"

"I heard a woman sing it once," he answered. "It was a long time ago."

"She must have heard it the way I did - from a relative to whom it was passed down."

Carson could have told her, but didn't, that in fact he had heard it performed by Ts'ai Yen, the woman who had written it.

3 comments:

  1. Entertaining story, well paced...the protagonist's good character and practiced skills got him a just reward. A bit like a modern folk tale.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very skillfully written. The reader can easily walk along with Carson...something I look for in a piece I like.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Always enjoy these "it was a dream...or was it?" sort of tales. Carson is a very likable protagonist. Enjoyed this uplifting tale.

    ReplyDelete