Many centuries ago, in the village of Stinks of Fish, lived a boy who neither mended net nor toiled on his father’s boat.
“You’re becoming worthless!” his mother scolded. “You will grow up to be just like Does Nothing, the village fool!”
Hearing this, the boy frowned, for everyone laughed at Does Nothing, who slept beneath an old ship’s hull and ate fish heads discarded by the women. Still the child refused to work, which left him quite bored, there being nothing else to do in the tiny. isolated . village. Indeed there was probably no more dreary place on the South China Sea than Stinks of Fish.
The boy’s name translated as Gull, and true to his name he flew from his hometown in his seventeenth year, stealing a horse and several coins from a neighbor as he departed. Things went awry very quickly, and he was captured by relatives of the neighbor within hours.
“We should whip you,” he was told, “but we are honorable men and abide by the law. Instead we’ll take you back to the court of Lo Wang. He will know how to teach proper manners to a boy like you.”
These words troubled Gull, for High Minister Lo Wang was known for his harshness. So as darkness fell on the road back to Stinks of Fish, he seized a moment to escape, slipping his bonds and striking one of the men hard across the throat. In the confusion that followed, he was able to dive into the bushes and evade capture.
For three days and nights the boy hid himself, mosquito-bitten, starving, and certain of capture, for in truth he had nowhere to go. In his worst moment, Gull found himself wandering the beach, hopeful of finding a boat he could steal. “My greatest wish,” he thought bitterly, “was to leave the smell of fish forever. Now all I can think of is a plate of carp. And I would give a forefinger for a boat and an outbound breeze.”
Instead he was captured by the police-quite fortunate, actually, for the man he had struck had died, and his relatives would surely have killed the boy had they found him.
“We are taking you back for execution!” the policemen shouted, as they fastened him in chains. “High Minister Lo Wang will have no mercy on you now!”
It is true that Lo Wang was not known for mercy, but neither did he delight in cruelty. Four decades of dispensing judgments in matters ranging from rightful ownership of a chicken to murder had robbed him of the pleasure of either tendency.
Lo Wang’s official stamp bore the image of a viper, and in his judgments the high minister sought that same cold objectivity-the same terrible swiftness. What others perceived as cleverness unto perversity in matching punishment to crime, High Minister Lo Wang saw as the natural unfolding of justice.
Still it did not bode well for the boy murderer Gull that, on the day of his trial, the high minister was in a foul humor. He loathed to visit Stinks of Fish in the summer, especially as his courtroom lay downwind from where the daily catch was cleaned. Nor had he ever pretended to admire the people of the village-envious gossip mongers all, as he saw it.
Lo Wang scowled at the assortment of criminals, drunkards, and troublemakers he would have to deal with on this day: two neighbors quarreling over an ox, a father whose daughter had been wronged by a suitor, three debtors, the boy murderer whose signed confession lay before him, and the old man Does Nothing, a tax violator.
This last item caused Lo Wang’s lip to curl in disgust. The local citizens clamored for the punishment of Does Nothing, for he did not pay tax. “Why should anyone else pay.” they demanded, “if this old fool can refuse?” Lo Wang knew the villagers resented Does Nothing, for scholars and wise men often journeyed great distances to visit him.
“Visit him!” they would hiss through their teeth, “That worthless old idiot who neither speaks nor bathes!”
Lo Wang gazed at the man’s expressionless, weathered face, almost toothless, surrounded by a mane of wild, gray hair. How could the fish mongers of this village ever understand that in their midst lived a Taoist saint?
Next his eyes fell on Gull, the murderer. This should be a simple matter, he thought gratefully. The boy’s older brother would have to care for the widow as long as she lived. The father would have to pay for the horse, which had been abused. And the boy would lie in nearby Wei How until his eighteenth birthday-and then he would be executed.
And yet ….
As he studied the boy’s face, Lo Wang’s gratitude slowly faded to irritation, for he saw a quality he had not expected to see. Was it simply defiance? Or was it something else? Perhaps a deeper discontent? Maybe even a new breeze blowing into this fetid village?
Lo Wang’s gaze drifted across the gallery of locals gathered to hear his judgments, to savor his vengeance, and he thought, “I am old. Soon I will retire from this noxious office. Let me leave a small legacy for this place to remember me by.”
Everyone was outraged at the judgment of High Minister Lo Wang, except old Does Nothing, who appeared too mindless to comprehend. Still the old man did as he had been ordered, so as to pay his debt to the government.
On the exact day of the new moon, Does Nothing journeyed by foot to the gate of Wei How prison, where a guard showed him to the quarters of the boy murderer-really not a cell at all. for it had neither roof nor floor.
It was a dreary square of dust, nothing more. surrounded by towering walls of stone, which framed a small, expressionless patch of sky. To be exact, it was the prison exercise yard. Only now by order of the high minister it was Gull’s quarters until-how had Lo Wang put it? “Until death or until your distinguished teacher has declared you a perfect master of the ageless art of China.”
Distinguished teacher! Perfect master! It was a ruling only Lo Wang could have conceived of, said the people. An idiot will teach a murderer to dance. Incredible!
Indeed, the first day of instruction was less than impressive. Does Nothing did nothing. He reposed in the shade, not far from the spot where the boy glowered in silence. They shared not so much as a glance until late in the day, when the old man rose and stretched. Then seemingly for no reason, he began to gesture to the walls and to the sky. After a few minutes of this, he pounded on the gate and left.
On the second new moon, the same thing happened, or more precisely did not happen.
On the third such occasion, Gull greeted the old man with an angry snarl: “Why do you come here? You teach me nothing! You know nothing! You are a crazy old man sent here to make me look ridiculous! You are a fool and will die a fool, and I will die of sickness the first winter!”
To the boy’s surprise, Does Nothing replied, “Yes, you will die this winter, unless you fortify yourself. Watch what I do.” Then the old man repeated the dance-like movements the boy had seen before.
“What are you showing me?” demanded Gull.
“T’ai Chi,” was the answer.
“I must learn T’ai Chi? That is for old people.”
“And for those who wish to become old,” replied Does Nothing.
“Is this what the high minister has ordered me to learn? How long will it take for me to become a master?”
Does Nothing scowled and said, “Shut up and follow my movements.” After a day of wordless instruction, Does Nothing pounded on the gate and departed.
It was the moon of falling leaves when Gull heard that High Minister Lo Wang had died. “Probably reclining on a bed of silk,” the boy though bitterly. “And I shall die like a dog out in the rain.”
At least there would be no snow, as the breeze from the South China Sea drove off storms from the north. And, by sitting against the seaward wall and covering himself with his blanket, Gull learned that he could avoid the worst of the rainstorms. He also learned where to position himself for the morning sun, whose first rays, when he was damp and chilled, put him in a heavenly trance.
Despite his wretched situation, Gull was surprised to discover a new pleasure in the stars by night and the swirling of dried leaves by day. Even the bare walls told an unending story of light and shadow each day, and never the same story twice.
Still, very likely he would have died that winter had Does Nothing not visited weekly with herbal and seaweed concoctions that he forced the boy to drink. “They make me too hot,” Gull complained. “My feet feel like they are burning!”
Does Nothing also made him breathe in a certain way and led him again and again through the seemingly random motions of T’ai Chi. Gull found the postures difficult, as most involved balancing on one bent leg. But he quickly memorized the movements and, having nothing else to do, practiced them often. By spring he felt that he had become as proficient as his teacher.
“How long before I am a master?” he demanded.
Does Nothing never gave an answer to this question, but only spat on the ground or in some other way showed his displeasure. Gull tried to hold his tongue. What could he do but humor the old man? Everyone knew he was crazy. Perhaps someday he would be crazy enough to declare Gull a perfect master.
“Tell me, who taught you this art?” Gull asked one day, seeking to flatter. “The seaweed and the grasses,” Does Nothing responded.
“How can seaweed and grasses teach?” the boy asked.
“And how can rock learn?” came the reply. “You are as stubborn as a stone and think you can fool me. But do as you wish. You only waste your own time.”
Indeed time seemed to be Gull’s greatest problem. No matter how often he practiced, the day refused to end. Yet, in another sense, his life seemed to be racing past. How could he speed the days while slowing the years? Ultimately he was capable of neither.
Especially endless were the afternoons, when the other prisoners stood about or gambled in the yard. During those hours Gull withdrew to a corner, speaking to no one.
Even among criminals he had no face, for his sentence was a mockery. When he heard them laughing, he knew they laughed at him. When they remained distant, he felt excluded. And when someone approached, he pretended to neither see nor hear, certain of treachery.
“You will never master this art,” his teacher told him one day. “until you become tree of time.”
“How can anyone be free of time?” the boy replied. puzzled. “It is the same for everyone.”
“It is not the same. but I cannot teach you this. You must learn it yourself.”
“How do I learn it”
“By following the movements.” “But I do follow the movements. I practice incessantly.
“You hurry through them. You must ask the movements about time and patiently listen. They will tell you.”
Because he saw that the boy did not understand. Does Nothing spoke further. “Do you recall what I said about the circle?”
“You have said that my motions should describe a circle.”
“And what else?”
“That my arms should form a circle.-“And what is the importance of the circle?”
” I don’t know.”
“Its importance cannot be overstated, because it summons the infinite.” Does Nothing was silent for a long moment, letting his meaning penetrate. He looked coldly at the boy. “Straight lines imply hurry. They have no beauty or grace, nor do they have the power of heaven, for they are constrained by fear. If you would be free of time, open as the circle opens.”
Their years together were nearly seven when Gull first called his teacher by name. In fact, neither had called the other in any manner, it being needless. So both were surprised when the younger man said one morning, “You have come again, Teacher.”
“It is evident that I have,” replied the elder coolly, but he added, “Student.”
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, had a wry and wary friendship developed between them. Student, despite his grueling sentence, had never felt more robust. And the old man, who had watched the strange, troubled youth with interest since his birth, found that his own thoughts were with Student a preponderance of the time. A storm could not gather, nor could a new breeze move the treetops, without the old man feeling its every nuance through the person of the young person in the dirt of Wei How prison yard. “How strange is life and how unexpected its turnings,” thought Teacher.
“So stubborn is my student that a court order was required to bring him to me, and walls of stone are needed to hold him fast.” Yet it did not surprise the old man that exactly what was required had come to pass. As he had often said to Student, “the way of the Tao is effortless.”
“Teacher, you have said that you learned your art from the seaweed and the grasses. Were you teasing me?”
This question interrupted a long period of silence. Student and Teacher rested in the shade. enjoying the end of the long summer day, listening to the cicada’s song. Teacher’s fingers touched the leaves of a small plant issuing from a crack in the prison wall. “I have learned from these things to be supple,” he said. “You have seen how grass gives before the wind, and seaweed before the current. Tell me. what would happen if they stiffened and resisted?”
“They would be ripped up and carried away.”
“So it is with you and me. The only proper way to respond to circumstance is to express its requirements exactly.”
“Do you mean give in? I have been taught since I was a child to oppose adversity.”
The old man smiled. “It is only adversity when you oppose it.” Student shifted uncomfortably. “How does this relate to T’ai Chi?” “The lesson concerns relaxation. The more supple your body, the more effortlessly it will express the currents of chi.”
“I have heard of chi before, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Neither do I,” replied Teacher flatly. “It is enough to know that it flows through you. As the seaweed depends on the currents to hold it aloft, so do you depend on chi. But if you stiffen, the same current will destroy you.”
Student frowned at the dust, dissatisfied with this answer.
“You must move as though you stand on the bottom of the sea,” Teacher whispered. “When you raise your arm, it floats effortlessly toward the surface. When you move your leg, the water slows and comforts you.”
In the moon that followed, Student tried to imagine that he stood lightly on the floor of the ocean, moving not in response to his own wishes but to subtle currents. All at once he was aware of how heavy and clumsy his steps had been before, how contrived the movements of his arms and hands. He experienced a marvelous elation-until he recalled something his teacher had said years ago:
“During the first phase of practice, it is as though the student walks on the bottom of the sea. In the second phase. he is suspended in the water. In the final phase, he walks upon the water.”
Twelve years of study, he thought in dismay. and only now I reach the first phase of learning!
“It is true that you have reached only the first phase of achievement.” said Teacher. “but consider also that, of a thousand students, fewer than fifty ever reach this level. The ageless art does not reveal its secrets easily. nor to just anyone. You must now begin to apply yourself seriously.”
“Seriously!” cried Student, his face suddenly flushed. “After twelve years of ceaseless study, you tell me ‘seriously!”‘
His teacher was nonplused. “You have only begun.”
“Tell me now!” thundered the younger man. “How long must I continue to practice this stupidity?”
“Until you die,” growled the teacher.
“Viper! You never intended to release me! You play with me as you would a captured animal!”
The old man’s lip curled in disgust. “For years I have watched you go through the motions like a pouting child, and I only want to vomit. You withhold your mind. You withhold your heart. You measure out your moments like a trader measures silk. I wonder not that you have required twelve years to reach this point. It is a miracle that you have learned anything at all.”
“Get out of my sight!” shouted Student. “Never come here again or I will kill you with my bare hands!”
“I am not here at your pleasure,” retorted Teacher, “but at the order of the court.”
“Do not trifle with me, old man! I have killed before!”
Unhurriedly Teacher rose and stretched. Then he turned to face his student. “Get up,” he said.
Student did not move.
“Must I bait you to do everything? Very well. If you can push me to the ground, I will grant you immediate release.”
Student’s head jerked up. “You are teasing me.”
“I will do as I say,” replied the old man.
Student rose slowly to his feet. “Prepare yourself,” he said grimly. “I am ready.” said his teacher.
There was a loud noise and a great deal of dust. Afterward. Teacher still stood in the same place. The younger man lay gasping on the ground.
..You may try as many times as you wish,” offered Teacher.
The student made three more attempts, each with the same result. “Why have you never told me you could fight?” he asked, amazed. “Such talk is useless,” replied his teacher. “Will you try again?” “What is the point’?” muttered Student. “You can not be touched.” The old man tried not to laugh, but he could not help replaying in his mind what had occurred. Finally he had to avert his eyes. for they were brimming with tears.
After composing himself, Teacher turned and pounded on the gate. “You have learned enough today,” he said.
Over and over, Student pondered the ease with which the old man had thrown him to the ground-not even thrown him but simply turned aside and with a gentle tug or gesture sent him sprawling. Even more eerie was the familiarity of Teacher’s motions, as though ….
And then he realized: they were the very movements he had been practicing each day for years. Again in his mind Student saw the frail old man accept his every attack without resistance, and he thought: seaweed. He saw the form of his teacher pivot and combine with the attack, enclose it and control it, and he thought: circle. He saw his teacher standing above him. luminous in the haze of dust, so light. he thought now, so effortless he seemed to barely touch the earth at all. And he thought: walking upon the water.
How astonishing is this practice, Student whispered to himself.
The following month, he asked why Teacher had not told him of the applications of T’ai Chi.
“Because telling is wasted,” came the reply. “If a man is starving, do you tell him of food? If he is drowning, do you speak to him of rope’? No! You throw it to him, and he will discover its use.”
“Is there still more that I’ve not yet learned?”
Teacher laughed brightly. “There is always more! But you will not learn of it from me. Listen to the movements. They whisper ever. and will continue to whisper long after I am gone.”
There came a new moon in the winter of the year when the old man did not appear at the prison gate. A harsh wind blew incessantly from the north, and Student, wrapped in his blanket, felt a deep foreboding. Finally word came that his teacher had fallen gravely ill. An old widow was caring for him as he lay dying.
Distraught, Student sent this message to the widow’s house: “Honored Teacher, for twenty-one years I have followed your instructions faithfully. What more can I do? Send word to the gate keeper, and I will come to you. Student.”
For three bitter days, there was no reply. Nor did sleep come to the prisoner, shivering in his woolen blanket. Then this message: “I do not need to send word. When you have succeeded, the prison walls will fall.”
Reading this, Student flew into a rage. The old man was an idiot after all, and he a worse one! Twenty-one years of struggle for this! “The prison walls will fall,” he read again. Then he laughed aloud. The sound of it shocked him, for he realized he had not laughed in years.
At the same moment, every prisoner and guard fell silent, suddenly aware that they had never before heard laughter in that place. Certainly not that kind of laughter, which seemed utterly free. Student could not stop, for it seemed truly funny. He would die in the cold mud of the exercise yard.
For most of a moon, Student did not stir from his blanket. Nor did he accept food. Everyone thought it was because his teacher had died, which indeed he had at the age of ninetythree.
But Student did not mourn the old man. He did not even mourn himself, though his pointless life was over. He felt no emotion at all, just a peculiar clarity by which he saw his own past, present, and future, and realized that only he was to blame for its shameful emptiness.
He looked around himself. It was dawn. Student was seated against the north wall. A peaceful stillness lay upon the place that, alone in the world, was his home. He watched the first timid fingers of sunlight touch the top of the west wall and move slowly down, adding brilliant gold to a spider’s web.
Without thinking, he rose and stretched. A warm energy seemed to rise from his belly and flood his limbs. In response, hips, legs, and arms moved.
On subsequent mornings, he greeted the rising sun in the same manner. Not because it would gain him release from prison. Not because he sought to please his teacher or even himself. He did it because it seemed as natural as moving his bowels, and he gave it no more importance.
Only gradually did it come to his attention that old difficulties with balance and tension had faded away. So had his problem with time. How long since his teacher had died? Five years? Twenty-five years? What did it matter?
Eventually he noticed that the other prisoners treated him differently. He felt them gather around him as though around a source of warmth. And though he was silent, sometimes they inclined their gazes toward him as though hearing music from afar. Then he noticed that they called him Old Man. That is how he knew that many years had passed.
From time to time new prisoners arrived, and he saw in their eyes the wild look of hunted animals. Their extreme pain was a surprise to him, as was his own surprise, for he had once felt the same way. That was how he knew that his teacher had been right. He had perfected his art, and the prison walls had fallen without a sound.
“You have to go,” the gate keeper was telling him. “Do you understand? There is no room. There are too many new prisoners.” The gate keeper sighed in exasperation. “You tell him.” Several prisoners crowded around Old Man. They all whispered at once. “You are being released.” “You can go free now.” “Hurry before they change their minds.”
Then he was standing outside the gate. An unbridled wind pulled at his hair and beard. For a long time he did not move. There was no reason to. Finally what seemed to be the scent of the sea began to pull at him. He was walking.
Was it the sea or a dim memory? He did not know what had summoned him, but at last Old Man stood in the street of his childhood village. As he was hungry, he went to the pile of fish heads. After gathering the freshest into his blouse, he turned, and the women watched as he walked away down the beach.
The old ship’s hull had rotted away. But there was a place where his teacher had cooked his meals. He swept the sand aside and began to build a fire.
When Old Man bent to wash in a still pool, what he saw shocked him. It was the reflection of an expressionless, weathered face, almost toothless, surrounded by a mane of wild, gray hair.
After a moment the face spread into a grotesque grin, and then there was an explosion of laughter, coarse and rasping, for in his mind Old Man heard a scolding from very long ago: “You will grow up to be just like Does Nothing, the village fool!”
William Henderson teaches Yang style in Starkville, MS. He won a prize in the 1995 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest with Wang Lo’s Gift.