The inhabitants of Soochow in Kiangsu Province were people known throughout China for their stubbornness and their learning. They knew their own worth, and they knew exactly where they stood in the order of human virtues, which was quite high though they were careful not to set themselves high enough to excite the vengeance of the gods. They did preen themselves a bit too much for the famous beauty of their women, though Soochow men never did so in the presence of their women. That would have been intolerable, for men may boast, but women were best kept in ignorance of everything that was useful to men.
The men of Soochow could not control one thing, the arrival every Spring of Chang-lao, a man they feared, hated, and—worst of all—needed. As if that were not bad enough, the man was more handsome than any man anyone had ever seen. The women always seemed to know exactly when Chang-lao would make his appearance. Some made themselves especially beautiful and found excuses to linger at their garden gates as he passed by; others groomed themselves just as meticulously but then hid in their chambers and trembled.
The reason was Chang-lao's profession. He was a corpse-mover. That is to say, he made the body move, without first having to load it upon a donkey cart or push it in a wheelbarrow. Chang-lao simply commanded, and the corpse raised itself up in its stiff bindings and hopped along in Chang-lao's footsteps. In this way, Chang-lao transported bodies to the villages of their birth to be buried, a tradition so important to all Chinese that the families of the defunct were almost willing to overlook his attraction for their women.
His services were cheap, as well. He asked only for enough money to pay for his own food, with a little extra for lodging in case he came across a householder whose sense of hospitality was stronger than his aversion to Chang-lao. This seldom happened. Chang-lao was used to sleeping in the fields or woods.
All the women in Soochow hoped (though fascination was mixed with fear) for his favor. Despite knowing he was already in love with Chu-tian and she with him, each of those other women had as much chance as Chu-tian of stealing a word with him. Like Chu-tian, they had fallen in love with him from various sighting places at their windows or verandahs. But it was Chu-tian he looked back at, only she. Her rivals sighed for this man who walked like a god, though each knew her destiny. Females were betrothed at birth; the men in their families remained vigilant of that trust.
On the first day of Spring, Chang-lao was sighted approaching the city. His pace was leisurely because the softly green hills were beguiling in their beauty. He loved the wild azaleas that blushed forth amid the green at this time of year; he loved the rivers and lakes of Soochow; he loved the blue sky, and thinking of the blue sky he dreamed of Chu-tian, whose name meant "beautiful sky." He longed for the touch of her fingers upon his cheek. He thought he might be content with just one caress from a woman before he grew old and died.
Farmers hiding in the underbrush saw only the awful train of hopping corpses behind Chang-lao. The bindings of three had come loose and flapped like demented limbs attempting to take flight. The face of one was visible. The jaws gaped, while the eyes remained shut. Shuddering, the secret witnesses held their breaths as the procession neared their hiding place.
As Chang-lao passed by, he was heard to say mockingly (to himself, the spies hoped), "City of Soochow, here comes Prince Li Yu!" He appeared to think this over. "Well, why not the chief chamberlain of Huang-ti, as long as we are playing with names. Why not the Huang-ti, as well!"
To horrified ears, he was committing the ultimate sin. To call oneself Prince Li Yu, even for fun, invited slow death by torture. The chief chamberlain would have outdone himself to punish the crime of a commoner bandying about his title. But Huang-ti! Calling oneself Emperor was beyond imagining.
As a matter of fact, Chang-lao frequently played these games with himself. He was so lonely that he assumed the names of many of the exalted persons in China and had them all talk to each other. He could say anything he wished, since everyone feared him. That made him sadder and lonelier. Not since his mother died had he felt the sweet touch of a female. He had never experienced the casual warmth of a man's friendship. All he wanted was one woman for himself; was that so much to ask of life? He had been a good son, accepting his lifelong profession without complaint upon his father's death, not that rejecting it would have done any good. The power that he held over corpses was an ancient and sacred one bestowed upon few men by the gods. It was an honor that most of the time he wished had been given to someone else.
When he entered the city he paused outside Chu-tian's gate. Obediently, his ghoulish followers halted behind him.
"Chu-tian!" he called toward her window.
At once the window opened and she appeared. When Chang-lao saw her beauty his tongue at once faltered. Never had he seen such shining, gloriously thick hair, worn free to the waist in the manner of maidens; her eyes glowed and told him things of which perhaps she herself was unaware. The lily-petal cheeks blushed suddenly; she opened her lips to speak. At that instant, a hand snatched her from the window. The sound of a slap reached Chang-lao, but no sound of weeping followed. She was brave as well as loving, he mused. But what had she been about to say?
Sadly, he brought his charges to the local funeral official, who rebuked him for the poor condition of the corpses.
"Why have you allowed three bodies to arrive nearly naked? Do you not care about the sensibilities of the populace?" The official spoke mildly, because he was afraid of Chang-lao.
"The populace always goes into hiding wherever I pass," Chang-lao pointed out. Besides, he had brought them a long, weary distance from Hopeh Province in the north, and the families of the three had given him no money for their upkeep.
"Well, never mind," the official said. "I am sure you will receive sufficient money for your next assignment. The family of the lady Chu-tian will see to it. Her father has died, and his ancestral village is in Hangchow." He watched slyly for the effect of this news upon Chang-lao.
Chang-lao found himself breathless. Chu-tian's father dead! That must be what she had been trying to tell him.
He left the official and retired to the countryside to think. There lay his heart, he thought, as he looked down at the city. And there it would remain as long as life abided in his strong limbs and body until they grew withered and feeble and he died. Of course Chu-tian was betrothed; soon her duty would belong to another man. The official had merely told him out of spite, first to make him hope and next to kill that hope. The man doubtless planned an evening's entertainment telling his friends how he had teased the loathsome Chang-lao.
"It is not fair," he whispered to the blank heavens. "I have done my duty, and I will continue to do it. Why must we keep apart?" In despair, he decided to drown himself in one of the canals surrounding Soochow, but when he threw himself into the water he could not sink. He weighted his clothes with rocks and tried once more; still he could not sink. His hair, which he allowed to grow as it pleased, dripped mournfully over his wet clothes and he shivered. The moon seemed to watch him coldly.
By dawn, he understood the heavy meaning of duty. The terrible honor was his until it pleased the gods to let him die. Listlessly, he returned to the funeral official to receive his new charges. Among them was Chu-tian's father. Chu-tian herself stood nearby, with her family and her father's friends and servants (for he had been an important man, the mayor of Soochow). Their weeping, and especially the cries of the official mourners, filled Chang-lao's ears. He was used to this, of course, but never before had he felt so miserable when setting out on a journey.
He knew that the next time he returned to Soochow, Chu-tian would be married. It was not seemly, yet he stared at Chu-tian, who stared back at him. They were without words; they did not need words.
Chang-lao lined up all the corpses, Chu-tian's father last. He forced his gaze away from the face of his love and gave the order to follow.
To this day, the citizens of Soochow have argued over what happened next.
The men insist that Chu-tian acted out of devotion to her father. The women prefer the version told by their female ancestors. They know that Chu-tian left her garden to walk behind the shrouded body of her father, which hopped like the others. Neither men nor women dispute that Chang-lao, looking back for one last sight of Chu-tian and finding her at the end of the line of corpses, stopped the procession and, with joy lighting his face, went to bring his love to the front, beside him.
Books by Lucille Bellucci:
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