Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pool of Sorrow

In the kingdom of the Lady with the Horse's Head, a young woman had drowned with her hair unbound. Her body was found lifelessly floating in the Pool of Sorrow alongside a indescribably small reed boat. The woman's lips were curled in a poignant smile as if in risking her life she'd performed her motherly duty: protected the tiny, but stillborn child.
The tiny reed boat was perfectly formed as was the dead babe it contained inside; the reeds were tightly weaved and the child with its fine features and full head of dark hair had been swaddled. The drowned woman, presumed to be its mother, in contrast was fair. Her skin had a sheen and her unbound hair was burnt copper. She was obviously a foreigner, a Westerner, but everyone who saw the male infant agreed it was definitely Chinese.
How was it possible they were mother and son? He so classically Chinese and she so fair with white skin and fiery hair.
Not mother, not son.” People said mournfully shaking their heads when they viewed these two placed side by side in the Weeping Willow Pavilion.  
The kingdom's ministers were unsure what to do. If what was suspected was true and the woman was not the child's mother, then their souls were not meant to lie or progress to a new life together. What confusion this would cause the gods to find them tied to one another!
To delay vengeance of these gods and to prevent these lost souls from hungry wandering, every household was ordered to bring sweet and savoury offerings, and wailing women were hired to keep vigil. Candles were constantly lit and scrolls with calligraphic script were hung around the pavilion.
This was a huge undertaking since the kingdom was extremely poor and what's more was suffering from an epidemic of cholera. The people barely had enough to feed themselves, but riddled as they were with disease, they were even more superstitious, especially with the rapid heaps of decaying bodies. Those who were fortunate had bought their own coffins, which they kept in their cramped living quarters or propped them up against an outer wall. People were more self-assured if they knew they could be buried, but those who died too soon or had no living relatives could not have such rites performed. If the drowned woman and the stillborn infant hadn't been so peculiar they too would have been left to decompose in these same heaps.
In the days before cholera, their situation would not have been seen as strange. It wasn't uncommon for desperate women to commit suicide and for babies to be shamelessly abandoned, which had led to this once tranquil lake being renamed the Pool of Sorrow. Lonely people went there to mourn or to put an end to all their sorrows.
But now, the people thought: Why choose to purposely die if death was coming? If it was steadily advancing towards you? Staring death in the face made people want to live.
These latest Pool of Sorrow deaths were different. The western woman's, they said, had to be accidental; and why put a baby already dead in a reed boat on a lake? It must have been a mistake.
An amah keeping vigil told of an old island custom: When she once worked for a couple whose child died at birth, they put it in a little reed boat and floated it out to sea. For two days and nights they sat and prayed for the boat to carry the child to a kingdom on the other side of the sea, where it was hoped it would breathe as new life was bequeathed and return to them. Islanders held to this practice, but she often saw outsiders try to save these tiny, sinking reed boats struggling to stay afloat on the sea. Her recollection of this, she ended with, “This, same thing.”
It was clear they would never discover who the drowned woman was or who the infant belonged to, so they followed the supposed traditions of the two dead: floated the babe out to sea and buried the drowned woman with a western ceremony. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.