Since she insisted on not lying in bed like a sick person, she sat in her chair before her second-storey bedchamber window looking out on the walled garden with its fragrant cinnamon trees and the branches of white blossoming plums reaching for the heavens above. A cloth girdle attached to the chair and wrapped around her tiny body kept her from falling forward and through the low-silled window. it was the only little pleasure left to her, and whoever loved her could not deny her this.
“It is good to honor parents, Honorable Hoo,” they said to him, “but you are carrying this most esteemed virtue of yours to excess. Why increase our suffering for no reason? It is Most Esteemed Mother Wan’s time to depart and abide with her husband and our blessed ancestors, so take away the expensive food and herbs and powdered staghorn costly as gold in weight and allow her to expire quietly without any more fuss from you.” One even ventured to add, “Most Esteemed Family Benefactor,I humbly suggest you, O Divine Breath of Most Esteemed Heaven, might remove the girdle that holds her so cruelly to her chair in defiance of what is best for her and the family. She’s bound to lean forward a bit, and--”
“Most esteemed,” indeed! It was all Hoo could do to withstrain himself from picking up the honorable grand-aunt or grand-uncle and throwing the offending bag of putridity bodily out of his house! Most often, they felt the intense chill and alternate scorching heat of his fixed “most esteemed” eye, and departed without suffering indecorous violence to their persons. It is true he had thrown out several shirttail cousins who had come begging for the usual dole and then made the grave mistake of commenting on what was not their business--his mother’s illness and final disposition.
To be smitten with grief, anxiety, and heart-breaking love for his mother--who was dearer to him than his pumpkin-plump, luxury-loving, self-conceited, lazy wife, Plum Blossom, the second and lesser Madame Wan in the household--then to have his relatives’ well-meaning but callous remarks poured like lamp oil on the burning wick of his troubled soul--it was beyond endurance. He knew very well that if his wife--who took the relatives’ side against him--should ever tumble out her window and break a neck, her two sons, who acted most fond of her because they copied her ways, would only shrug and go back to the water pipe and endless games of chance at the gambling den and tea house they frequented in town. The only thing that relieved his mind and gave him some satisfaction was the project he had undertaken.
He was eminently a son of celestial kingdom, though now split shamefully into three parts, in that he was religiously practical.
If there was something needed, he worked until he got it. He did not expect fate to hand it to him on a jade platter.
If that had been his attitude, the Hoo family would have remained poor, half-starved fish-mongers dealing from baskets in the marketplaces. Sinking his father’s lifetime savings and his own inheritance into silken goods and brocades and sending them off to barbarian Rome, that was a cold, calculated venture, not a visionary’s gamble.
Of course, four years was a long time to wonder if they had thrown away the money, for it took that amount of time to find out if there had been wonderful success or utter failure. Many caravans were set upon on return and never reached home port with the earnings on investments. Whatever bandit lord happened to control the passes to the east could swoop down and take the whole caravan if he wasn’t pleased with the bribes he had received.
How Father Wan and First-Born Son Hoo suffered when the caravan did not appear at the city gate after sufficient time had passed!
Fearing the worst, bandit raids in the mountain passes, Wan went every day to the gate at dawn, hoping to be there before his father, so that he, not his father, might first suffer the bad news when it finally came. Then a few camels appeared, and Hoo’s knees went to water and he nearly sank to the ground as he waited for the dread report. Soo Boon the cameleer in charge saw Wan and came forward, bowing repeatedly in his dirty, travel-worn clothes, his face solemn and telling nothing.
“Have mercy on your poor servant, sire, for these few are yours, which I saved out of the forty belonging to the great merchants, Wang Chow Pan and Lu Ping Hung.
I knew the lord of the pass was a wicked deceiver and a devil.
I perceived it in my heart that he was playing false with us and would not honor our rich gifts, so where the pass goes this way and there is another, less-known way along the river that is harder to follow, taking it, since the others would not listen to me, I left the caravan with your camels and treasure.
As the gods ordained, the caravan was attacked and all decapitated, no doubt, as I could hear cries and shouts as I hurried away and--”
By this time Hoo could hear no more. He had sunk to his knees on the dirty street, weeping for relief and joy. When he recovered and tore open the ordinary-looking treasure sacks, he saw at once that he and his father and mother were very, very rich!
Their investment had returned on the waters, increased a thousand fold over what they had ventured. Now they could buy a grand shop, a wondrous town house or mansion, and eat all the noodles and fish they wanted!
They might even buy persimmons and lemons and drink jasmine tea from little gold-trimmed porcelain cups, each the size of a child’s palm!
Never could he forget those times, even years afterwards! His mother and father, giving up active trade and business, left all to him and comforted over-worked bodies with fine things they could now afford. It was just in time, for his father felt a weakness in his heart, and could not go about outdoors or take the steps from his chamber without a servant.
His mother, too, shunning public life, enjoyed her gardened courtyard and high bedchamber and was content with watching him run the business. It was a good life, even for them in old age. And he had won it for them, though not entirely by his own effort and shrewdness, he had to acknowledge. That is why he was taking along on the Wild Goose the book of luck he had read, for want of distraction, during the terrible, long wait--the one that told of this “Son of God,” Yeshua.
Actually, he had not read it but another man in the silk trade knew the language from dealings with the gold-rich barbarians--those called Greeks and Romans, some of whom followed after the great god portrayed in the book, the One who had suffered death on a tree for the sake of removing all sin from men’s wicked hearts. All Kuo, Hoo knew, could not boast such a loving god which would die for the sake of mortal man.
How could a god, eternal in being, die anyway?
Yet this One did, having been born into a mortal body by the agency of the Spirit of God within a virgin maiden who agreed to the most astounding thing in the experience of the word, the incarnation of a divine being within her mortal womb!
Tao and Confucius combined could not boast so wondrous a thing. But there was much more. Grown to a man, the incarnated God preached to men his divine wisdom, performing great miracles of healing and deliverance from evil spirits, until one day he allowed his enemies to take and put him on trial, so that he might suffer his destined death at their hands.
His few disciples, lacking faith, fled him, but when he appeared alive out of his tomb three days later, all faith was restored, and they went forth proclaiming his glory to the entire world.
They were ordinary men, and no ordinary man, Hoo knew, could perpetrate a fraud at the expense of his own life--for all the disciples were put to death by the authorities in various horrible ways--and not have been totally convinced that a formerly dead leader was, indeed, resurrected from the grave and alive.
Of course, priests told pious tales of this god-man and that being raised from the dead, but never had a group of real men, who had been disciples of a living man everyone had witnessed going about in the streets and in the temples preaching and proclaiming his divine wisdom of salvation, suddenly turned about from abject fear and despair to being courageous champions of a new religion--no, this was not another reincarnated, divine embodiment into some young boy of the spirit of the First Corporeal Manifestation in but an endless series of such embodiments!
These common men, some of them fishermen, had all observed their leader’s death with a multitude in a public place of execution outside their chief city, and then three days later observed him gloriously risen from the grave!
Seeing how remarkable and sweeping the marvel was, testifying to power beyond anything claimed by all other gods, Hoo had even been so desperate he had prayed to this unknown foreign divinity, Yeshua, and immediately afterwards the wonderful event had happened at the city gate. Wasn’t that proof the book was full of joy and luck?
But now, forgetting the Source of joy and luck, this thing he needed--healing and immortality--was perhaps hard to obtain by a mere mortal, he conceded. It went completely contrary to the grain of his race and training, but he was forced to acknowledge that no amount of money or cunning trade could win eternal life. The mourners and their lavish displays in the cemeteries were fooling themselves--nothing was accomplished there, he had realized after years of viewing the falseness of the hearts involved.
Wretched, corrupt spirits in the ground were not blessed with goodness and light and treasure.
What could they possibly do with offerings of food and drink and pretty streamers and fireworks and vases full of chrysanthemums if mouths and ears had rotted away? Fleshless finger bones could not grasp the beakers of wine nor take a crumb of the fancy rice cakes to mouths. What eyes had they to see and enjoy the flowers?
Yet the foolish people continued, at the urging of the priests, to flock to the graves of departed relatives, carrying on supposedly in reverence of the dead. But it was all hopeless vanity and ignorance.
Well, then, what was his alternative? His nature demanded that he give the problem all his mental powers and all his wealth if necessary so that his mother might leave her chair, hale and hearty and able to live another good, long stretch of years.
He considered that he was not much for the religious side, but he questioned why should the gods not honor his endeavor, since he was honoring his respectable and beloved parents?
If he let his mother die like a dog in the street, then go to the temple and present a costly gift, was that not sheer hypocrisy and not filial reverence? Yet he saw everyone doing it, withholding care from disabled children, or throwing them out into the river, or letting an aged person die without food or drink just to get rid of them--then, afterwards, carrying on as if they had lost the most beloved person to them in the entire world!
At the cemeteries they built elaborate bamboo booths for themselves and sat there for days, extolling the virtues and good deeds of the departed ones, while feasting and drinking shamelessly like soldiers off duty.
Even dancing girls with musical instruments were not uncommon in such “ancestor rites.” And the priests!
The temples were full of the kind who catered to such people. They blessed such proceedings, and joined in the feasting and drinking and carousing amidst the headstones of the ancestors--he had vowed never to go to such places as long as he lived!
Rather, he would honor his remaining parent while she lived instead of waiting until she was dead and gone to cover her with flowers she would never see to delight her eye or enjoy the fragrance thereof! “Lo, only rats invade nunneries,” was the true saying about such ingrates.
That was his purpose in all he did as he labored on the rocket-propelled “Wild Goose” that would someday take him to the moon for her sake.
Fortunately, he possessed manifold resources at his command, being so rich and heaven-blessed a merchant. And the south of Kuo, of which Kweilin enjoyed a favored position as an entrepot, was never more advanced than during this time. His city flourished as a crossroads of the trade flowing to the wealthy water-moated, lotus-flowered kingdoms on the world’s southernmost rivers and thence, westward by sea, to the greater elephant-guarded kingdoms and empires heaped with diamonds and sapphires and many spices and fine weavings, or by land, westward again, through the fathomless, uncultivated kingdoms where monks ruled in mud-bricked palaces daubed like wasps’ nests to the sides of mountains whose tops reached heaven, through alternately searing hot or numbing cold wildernesses littered with bones of countless men and pack mules and onward to the gates of wealthy kings of the barbarian west who could afford to buy Kuo’s fine porcelains and silks and brocades at outrageous prices.
In return for Kuo’s splendidly crafted luxuries, traders flowed in from the four quarters of the world with all manner of strange, foreign things, and he had first pick of most of them, since his silk warehouses and godowns and porcelain emporiums were the center of trade for the kingdom and all the outlying regions to the West and North and South.
Even the Three Kings of Kuo thought it great honor for him to send nice things he acquired and thanked him with royal letters, as well as returning the favor by forwarding gifts in turn.
Hoo had all he needed to make the Wild Goose fly to the moon and back, if only he could get up sufficient speed and force.
Naturally, he had to inform his mother of the project, for he would never have begun anything so daring except for her.
He entered her chamber and bowed deeply to the level of her sleeve. His eye looked
hopeful, hoping against hope, but what he saw made his face fall and his eyes glance toward the floor.
The old woman nodded slowly and sighed. “Yes, no better today--as you see. But--”
She tapped a finger on the worn lacquer of her chair’s hand-rest. A measure of her former lionine spirit seemed to flicker in her resigned features and light her eyes. “But tomorrow, I will be better.”
“Yes, honored parent,” he replied without conviction. His voice quavered beyond his control, and his eye, hidden, held the beauty of an unshed tear. “Yes, tomorrow.”
But there was more business at hand than her hopeless, fading health.
“O jade of my father’s joy and fount of her eldest son’s happiness,” he addressed her from the heart, and then he stopped, unsure as to how to proceed.
She was taking her sip of tea at the moment, and a servant was holding the tiny bowl for her, since her fingers no longer managed the handles of cups. When she finished he had thought of something, but still he was reluctant.
The old woman in the jade-green brocade gown seemed to grow tense. “What is it? You are going somewhere, leaving me alone in my old age and infirmity?”
Her eyes seemed to pierce his downcast ones, for he looked up, startled.
“Yes, how did you know? I am going on a long journey.”
“To the king’s court again?”
“To the cities where the House of Wan has property and business dealings?”
“No, much farther—straight up in a divine vessel to the Lamp of Heaven! To the Celestial Abode of the Great Hare, he who--”
Neither knew what was said after that, or if anything was said no one could tell later what it was. Each were hearing only a loud noise of confused thoughts that suddenly assailed them both with unchecked violence.
Her son shooting through the heavens like a flying star to slip a ribbon through the stamped open center and snatch the Pill of Immortality away from the Sacred Hare? Why risk his precious life for hers? It was madness, yet she knew his heart and soul, and he was wise in all his works, so this could not be ill-conceived. No, on the contrary, however it appeared, her son would surely triumph.
Some days later he happened to be paying a visit when she said only one thing about his venture that made his heart nearly burst with excitement. “You’ll succeed in it, my son. Don’t worry. I will still be here in my chair—waiting for the son of my heart.”
On a launching paddy covered with brick, just a short walk from Folded Brocade Hill and the Ling Canal, he had his workmen build two towering staircases of wood, then between them the hot air bladder of sewn double-layered cow intestines was suspended. Around the hot air bladder an iron girdle to which forty-seven previously tested rockets were affixed was put in place. Then the connecting ropes, chains, and fuses, and finally the chair where he would sit as mission commander. A door of finely carved and lacquered wood holding thick, many-paned enamel windows protected him from the blasting, furnacelike exhalation from above when the rockets were lit. Various other protective shields of tile, fired dozens of times with special glazes invented specifically for the venture, were added as well to the chair-fuselage.
The chair itself was compartmented and strengthened with bundled iron rods, ingeniously fitted like a traveler’s wardrobe trunk with drawers containing all his travel needs--food, drink, medicines, clothing, blankets, extra rockets, and personal edification.
Needles for repairing his silk robe, brass buttons--nothing was lacking. For philosophical balance and balloon ballast, if he found time for introducing the arts and culture of his native land to any lunar barbarians he might find inhabiting the Moon: a rather thin book of Tao using witty sayings to preach Anarchy, or defiance, rebellion against authority, and spitting on officialdom, followed by two big books of Confucius’s Golden Ethics for Living a Good and Moral Life, With Edifying Rules of Daily Etiquette (“Spitting or throwing mule droppings are only permissible and correct for refined and enlightened citizens when directed at barbarian foreign devils, never at college-educated state officials who have scored well on the Examinations,” and other such strictures), and finally the foreign book of a new religion and new god unknown to Kuo, composed in the far barbarian west by a man called St. John the Divine.
It would serve more as a charm than a source of enlightenment, since he not not yet mastered the language of “Greek.”
Naturally, a chair with so much inside had to be larger than ordinary, and he had made this one the size of his first two-storey house and shop in town (the one where he and the Wans made their second fortune in the silk trade, before moving to the mansion beneath Folded Brocade Hill). Though fashioned of bamboo for lightness and strength, it was covered, on the upper parts with fire-shedding tile undercoated with hammered tin. Even the hemp ropes were given tile and tin shielding.
As the size of the Wild Goose was increased again and again and the project began to assume its final, towering appearance, busy, workaday Kweilin grew more interested and common townspeople and a fair amount of town elders and hsuin dignitaries could be seen even during work hours gathered on the edge of the paddy observing and commenting on Honorable Merchant Wan Hoo’s undertaking that would lift him above the highest of Kweilin’s natural limestone towers, Folded Brocade Hill, to the very doorstep of the celestial orb so that he might pay a personal call on the Divine Hare. Most visible at night, the Divine Hare had beckoned to every star-gazer, but seemingly he could never be reached, either with an arrow or bribe--so that the Hare's life and the Pill of Immortality were safely his forever.
If Wan Hoo desired to pay a visit to the celestial Hare on the back of his enormous goose, why not? they reasoned. He had paid a personal visit to the kings of the Three Kingdoms (two of whom had been born under the auspicious Sign of the Hare), had he not?
They (particularly the two Hare-Signed kings) had received him with joy, and so why not visit the lamp of night if he wished? Besides, the servants of his house gave out the real reason: their master was doing this to go and secure a piece of the Pill of Immortality for his beloved, ailing parent, now that the Hare was about finishing pounding it out.
So the people’s approval was assured, seeing that he was not only doing as he had a right to do but was doing it for a practical reason.
Everyone desired immortality. Who wouldn’t go to the Hare in the moon to secure a piece of the divine Pill if he could manage it?
Unfortunately, the fare was too costly for anyone who was not as rich as Wan Hoo.
Only his relatives gainsayed the audacious project, letting out that it was a waste of “most esteemed” Wan money and substance. Why shouldn’t the hopelessly infirm, old thing in the high bedchamber die according to nature, rather than extend her pain and uselessness further?
It was a shameful waste, throwing away their inheritance on a ridiculous contrivance that would probably burn up in the furious heat of the rockets or shoot off and crash on some mountainside. Wan Hoo was risking his life and their fortunes for nothing, since no one could possibly get to the moon and the Hare’s Lozenge, it being so far off.
The very name he had given the contraption was presumptuous, combining the letters signifying Mei-Qwo, or Beautiful Land, with Wild Goose.
What if it were the nengo of the Wild Goose? They knew of no one, climbing the highest hill or mountain in the area, who had been able to touch the Hare’s Abode with a tall bamboo cane or even a flying arrow. So flying personally to it would gain no better result.
Even the mighty-winged wild geese, which flew freely to and fro in the heavens, were not seen on its face--just the Divine Hare, ceaselessly pounding out the Pill that no mortal on earth could possibly reach! And since everybody knew that ordinary hares could spring high in the air when frightened but did not fly, he had to have been placed there by the gods themselves!
Characteristically, Wan Hoo had tested and retested the rockets many times, comparing liquid and solid combustibles, until settling on the superior and more convenient solid fuels.
He was forced to develop the most powerful rockets ever seen in Kuo, especially since his imported astronomers had found out the true distance between Kuo and the Hare--a figure that was absolutely astounding, more than there were people in the chief cities of Wu, Shu, and Wei.
Not satisfied with sketchy information, he prodded them in to making many more observations in a most elegant and fragrant, carved sandlewood observatory he built specially on top Folded Brocade Hill for their studies. During this time he found out that current university mathematics were insufficient to deal with the manifold and intricate problems they discovered--problems of thrust and trajectory and attraction of one celestial body upon another.
How much fuel would he need to break free of the attractive power of the earth? What speed of escape would be required to break free? How much powdered fuel would he require to return from the moon? What kind of rocket powder would serve best?
How would he determine which path to take in the sky so as to arrive on the Moon and not miss it as it moved round the sky?
How much time would his journey take, both going and returning? How much provision should he take along? What air could he breathe once he was above the earth, since everyone who had business with caravans or owned them knew that there was precious little air to breathe and gasping shortness of breath experienced in the highest passes of the western mountains?
To even begin to wrestle with the magnitude of such difficult questions, Wan Hoo forced his team of scholars and astronomers to the edge of human comprehension, and then beyond.
He filled an entire godown with bookkeepers adept at the abacus, yet they could not keep up with the needs of the scholars and astronomers in his employ until one bright fellow developed a new way of measuring mathematical quantities that eliminated all the old computations.
It was called the “Slide-Dancing Method,” for at first he had silk-slippered, professional dancers adept in disciplined exercises called tai ji quan perform for Wan Hoo what he was to do with a special machine he was making to do away with having to use people.
All this cost a great deal of cash, of course, and even the very wealthy Hoo was courting the wolf of bankruptcy. To hold off that calamity, which would pick every bone of his clean, he called on creditors who were only too happy to advance money for the project with the extensive Wan holdings as collateral.
The work went forward without delay. Maps were constructed that placed the moon exactly where it would be at certain set times, so that the path of his M-Q Wild Goose from the launching paddy could be charted perfectly from start to destination, then back again to Kweilin and Folded Brocade Hill.
With all the knowledge and experience gained from repeated firings, rockets for the final version were constructed and attached to the chair. They too, of course, were coated with many-times fired tile and hammered tin undercoating.
One problem remained stubbornly fixed before his gaze without a satisfactory answer.
How would he breathe on so long a journey? And, something he also needed to consider, would he find air on the barren moon? The Hare, though he seemed to be doing quite well, might be holding his breath.
Certain animals—like toads in the bottom mud of dried up monastery temple pools--could do that for long periods of time and not die like ordinary men. He could take a sealed jar with air in it, but would that be enough? He doubted that very much. Could he take along giant bladders filled with air? But there was no room for them. Small ones might be fitted in, but they would soon be used up.
He had spent so much money by now that he could not suspend the project without great loss of face. His mother’s confidence in him had never wavered since she first knew of it.
He knew that he could not let her down, and for him it would be preferable to die trying than to stay and witness her slow decay without doing anything.
Nevertheless, when the day came for the launching-forth, the problem of what he was going to breathe had not been resolved, something that made even this brave-spirited eagle of a man hesitate to take the fatal leap skywards.
Somehow word had spread that the twentieth day of the fortieth month of the Wild Goose Nengo was the auspicious day of launching-forth.
He had thought it rather strange how quiet the town was until he reached the edge of the launching paddy and found hundreds, even thousands, of fellow citizens gathered in anticipation of witnessing his wonderful departure.
Stands with benches constructed for the occasion were filled with his relatives and their servants, most of them grumbling about the huge waste of the family fortune the affair represented. Even as he came forward, passing through the common people, Hoo could see that the word of his imminent departure had reached the ear of city and hsuin elders and dignitaries, for he saw many present sitting in their traveling chairs and surrounded by litter-bearers.
Offended by his use of trained university men to do practical work and paying them twice what they paid, the colleges were poorly represented--which only helped make room for more common people.
Stepping into the shadow of the Wild Goose, Hoo felt the best thing to do in the circumstances would be to throw all dignity and face aside and run for his wretched life.
“It won’t fly!” he thought. “All my hard work is for naught, and I’ll fall back to the ground and perish like a fool.
Or I will perish with my face colored like a plum, my hands clutching at my throat because there is no air to breathe!
Who and what am I, a mere ant on the earth, to defy the sacred laws of heaven? Such a thing has never been accomplished by a man before, so how can it be now? I have been most grossly presumptuous and proud, even as my most esteemed relatives have said!”
Somehow he knew, with the unresolved breathing problem nagging him, that the Wild Goose and his quest for immortality were sheer, unadulterated folly. Realizing this, it was all he could do to keep on his feet and not stagger about drunkenly before the gaze of the huge crowds.
Meanwhile, his well-trained workmen scurried about performing appointed duties. The hot air bladder for giving initial lift was heated with braziers, brought up to the opening, then replaced by others when they had cooled. The bladder, as everyone could see, was straining at its anchoring ropes and iron girdle, holding up the rockets so they could be easily fired.
It was a perfect, rainless day, in the late afternoon, with scarcely a breeze. Before long the moon would appear over the summits of the mountains and begin its climb into the heavens. Unable to wait to celebrate the event, wishing him good luck, boys and men ran about lighting firecrackers and colored rockets for the crowd’s amusement.
Watching this, Wan Hoo’s terror made his legs wobbly. He took a bamboo staff and held himself up. Running away now before the gaze of all Kweilin and the surrounding country, was out of the question. He would have to go through with it, and cast his life away to whatever fate awaited him.
Without knowing why he was doing it, he found himself praying silently with great urgency to the unknown foreign god, Yeshua, and just as he called upon him words flashed into his mind:
It was even better than hearing a proud mother’s kindly words assuring him of good success in his endeavors. He could even see her in his mind’s eyes, saying, “Son, because you have honored your father and me, surely God in Heaven will honor you with long life and success!
He has told me so in a wonderful dream, saying it is His eternal law! Now rise, enter the realm of stars that ascend reborn!” Could his honored parent speak falsely to the son of her heart? Never! He believed her words, and he also believed the words, “I will set him on high.”
On the strength gained from such words alone, walking in something like a trance, he went up to the staircase that led to his chair. Set on rails, the supporting towers of bamboo that held the giant rockets in place until they could safely be let go were ascended by two ladders of their own. Alone, with every eye on him, he bowed to the elders and dignitaries and his own staff of university doctors and astronomers, who in turn bowed to him, and then began to climb to his chair.
Once in his chair, he felt even better. He made his pre-launch checks. Just in case, his practicality insisted he pulled the leather belt tight so that he would not be thrown out. Then he shut the door and locked it. Everyone on his workforce knew what to do next once his checks were completed.
A borrowed temple gong was struck three times. At the third stroke, a mathematician and a learned doctor of astronomy in a high-crowned hat and magnificent brocade gown with his university and college insigne stood forward to count the passage of time with a water clock. Finally, he starting counting down the last seconds of the launch.
With a snap of the wrist he opened the Ten Astronomical Ages of Kuo spanning the river of time between the White Morning Star and the Red Star, starting with Ten Fan. Each was colored and illustrated differently according to the star named. Nine Fan, Eight Fan, Seven Fan, Six...
A trumpet was blown, and a voice blasted out over a warning conch shell: “Wait, Honorable Wan!”
The doctor of astronomy paused with the fifth fan, and everyone craned their necks to see who dared interrupt the grand blast-off.
A chief of engineers for the project came running, his litter and carrying boys outsped by the engineer’s own legs in his haste to get to the chair in time.
He hurried up to the Wild Goose, pointing and gesturing as a silvered vase with breathing tubes was brought on its own litter by panting runners.
His brave experiment had succeeded. Using great pumps and compression vessels of his creation, he had captured and compressed air, sealing it inside a most esteemed container of tremendous strength, and now his master would not gasp for breath and die agonizingly. Demonstrated for Wan Hoo who looked down upon the scene, it was then handed up to him after he nodded his approval.
Other containers, for additional supplies, were handed up, so that Hoo might have air for both going and returning flights. As for the air on the Moon, surely, it was thought, the Hare would supply it by breathing out all that Hoo required.
At a wave from the taikonaut, the doctor of astronomer resumed the count-down with the remaining five fans.
At One Fan rocket-lighters placed burning coals held with tongs to the rope-sized fuses of the huge rockets that would carry Hoo to the moon, while some remained for the return journey. Flames ran up the fuses in an instant as all eyes followed the flames, fascinated.
What happened when the rockets were lit was beyond the expected. Hoo’s relatives were badly frightened and fled screaming from the stands as the fire and smoke spread outwards in a great wave.
Even then the Wild Goose was not released, according to prior instruction. Hundreds of people were running in every direction, holding their hands clapped to their ears against the deafening thunder of the rockets. It was seemingly anarchy of the kind the masters of Tao favored for mankind, but yet all was going according to Hoo’s wonderful plan.
Suddenly, the right moment had come, and giant, mechanical iron swords fell, slicing through the thick anchor ropes at the same time, and the supporting towers pulled back away and the Wild Goose slowly began rising, rising by handbreadths, then by many feet, then before anyone could tell the Wild Goose was soaring upwards at an enormous speed, tearing the now superfluous air bladder to shreds in its rapid ascent.
Pressed back hard into the cushions of his chair, Hoo gasped in the air that was blowing in to his face mask to refresh him, but felt, nevertheless, that he was somehow in the hand of a Destiny that had everything under control in every single detail.
Hearing the departure of her son, the Elder Madame Wan looked up as a flaming arrow cut across her line of vision, hurtling heavenwards with the sure aim of a master bowsman. She watched until her brave and clever son, Earth’s first space explorer, vanished, and only then did her smile begin to fade.
She had dreamed strange and wonderful things the previous day, and she summoned her last strength to do what she had been bidden to preserve.
“Li Mai,” she called. The maid--a tribal Li girl, not a true Han--came quickly, the ribboned petty cash on her brow jangling and making a terrific racket, thinking her mistress was feeling particularly ill and needed an herb to quell a pain or put her to sleep.
Madame Wan gazed at the bowed head. “I am fine. But I have something for you to do the first thing in the morning. Go to the master artisan who works in lacquer, whom you will find in at the back of our jade and lacquerware shop in the Old City. He will know that he is to come now, for I sent word to him several months ago that I would be needing him. Only now he will do a wardrobe for me, not the tea chest I was going to give the son of my heart for his birthday. Bring him to me. Now I must rest.”
The maid did as she was directed, and Goon Gan the master of lacquerware bowed before the Madame Dowager Wan, whose eyes were lit with a strange fire that burned into his soul.
“You may build me a wardrobe, and spare no cost in the materials or workmanship--it must last the ages! Use imported cedar from the north or whatever wood will not decay or tempt worms. I will pay you now for it, and you will deliver it to this house for my son to have, even if I may have expired and gone to my ancestors. Do you understand me, son of the honored Goon Piang?”
The artisan nodded many times, since she spoke the rough, common language of trade and business, not the courtly language of the very rich and learned, but he was astonished. She was paying him in advance? And she was ordering it even though she believed she might be dead when it was finished? He had never heard of business being done in this manner. But she was the Elder Madame Wan, she who had known of his father’s illness of the lungs and provided his care in his last years, and in deference he showed nothing on his face that he wondered if she had gone mad in her old age and illness.
“I want you to show me your work as you proceed, as long as I am living!” she said with some sharpness, as if she divined his misgivings and doubt. “I want to know if you are holding true to the substance of my dreams as the things were pictured to me by the One Who--”
Now Gan was really concerned. The old one was going to direct his art, so that he could not feel free to decorate the wardrobe with dragons, chrysanthemums, temple shrines and mountains and clouds and the like? What then would she command he paint on the wardrobe? He was afraid to ask so improperly of an esteemed aged woman.
“These things are really the Annals of Destiny,” she explained to the man, who listened with burning ears, unable to understand a word she said for utter amazement.
“Yes, that’s what I said--’Annals of Destiny’! Now take careful note of what I tell you of them, for I will not have the strength to repeat. The first door on the left hand will picture my son, a white mulberry tree pattern on his robe for Divine Wisdom, flying the Wild Goose to the distant home of the Heavenly Hare. The second thing beneath will be a blazing red star of the coming End-Time, its tail like a peacock’s, only flaming in color as red jade, along with a sinking junk filled with people at the raised stern.
The next picture will show many tall pagodas, then shooting stars looking like great brooms about to sweep the world away with fire, and a butterfly--blue as this sapphire on my hand.
On the second door on the right, you will show the world carried in an open sampan. Then you will paint beneath it deep caves like Kweilin’s, with people hiding in them.
Then new pagodas. Then lightning striking the pagodas.
Then brave, young warriors with stars shining above their heads like jewels, followed by a butterfly and a beautiful ship, and ending with a caravan carrying a multitude of richly dressed people out from the heart of a great mountain and then back into it.
Devoted Son of Goon Piang, do it exactly as I have described so I and the Most High God of Heaven and Earth will be well pleased with you.”
“Yes, Most Esteemed Mother of the Illustrious House of Wan!” the artisan cried, his head reeling with what she had told him. “I will do exactly as you wish, and leave out nothing!”
“Good! Come here tomorrow and show me your work! Better, bring you tools to this house and work down in the garden, with the big white mulberry to give you shade. I have only to look out my window to see your progress!”
The old woman’s gaze, starting to fade, blazed like the fire of shooting white Crysanthemum Stars once again. “I nearly forgot. Above the doors, on the head of the wardrobe, there is another picture you will paint.
You will show the beauties of Kuo as our country once was before the wickedness of the foreign barbarians penetrated.
Then between two fruit-bearing trees, the white and the black mulberry, paint figures of our first parents as gorgeous birds of the southern isles with long tail feathers and beautiful crests, who both sinned by plucking the black to their left.”
The business with the artisan concluded, the mother of Wan Hoo did something even more startling to the servants.
She had Li Mai remove the household gods and throw them out on a rubbish heap at the back of the garden. Then she had put in their places a piece of paper with writing characters signifying First and Last, Beginning and End, inscribed in gold above a cross-beamed sign--just as she had seen the most esteemed Name of the God Most High in a dream.
To the One Who had spoken to her as His daughter, she gave fervent thanks and praise and prayers for her son’s safety--praying each day faithfully with the beauty of tears until one afternoon when she did not awaken from a nap.
Out of mind and sight of Kweilin, Mother Wan, and even the pilot Hoo himself, the tin-sheathed ropes became tangled in each other like a net and with the iron girdle dragged behind his moonship.
Wan glanced at the dials before him. One, set with precious stones, showed that he had reached a critical point in his ascent. The astronomers had calculated his necessary speed correctly, for at the height of two and a half times around Kweilin’s walls, it was time for the main turbo-thrust chrysanthemum- rockets to be fired, which would lift him to the Height of Airs Light as Dove Breast Feathers.
“Everything is green as jade,” he thought, satisfied that until now there had been no sign of the chair taking fire from the rockets.
He lighted a long-handled match and lit the appropriate fuses, then quickly slipped his arms back into the arm restraints on the chair. A few moments later booms from the firing rockets shook him like a leaf, and he was thrust back hard into his chair cushions. He grew twice and thrice in body weight as the Wild Goose flamed upwards.
Pressed to his chair by a giant, invisible hand, Hoo looked out, amazed to see waving lines encircle his chair, along with wisps of fire, then sheets of fire, as his speeding rocket-chair rubbed against the skin of the outer air.
Fortunately, the heat fell away soon as the air thinned, or he would have cooked like a pan-fried pullet inside the chair. With one arm freed, he fanned himself vigorously with a red silk fan (the red an auspicious color to stimulate protection., stability, and safety) to refresh himself, watching how his speed carried him beyond the point where the Earth was flat.
His weight continued to increase as the moon-rocket climbed upwards. According to his speed dial, he was going one half the Great Outer Wall of Barbarians’ Discomfiture per hour. The sky darkened to the skin of a polished eggplant as he streaked to a height of seven times around Kweilin.
The crushing weight of many suits of armor became worse, and only his stamina and courage sustained him as he kept his thoughts centered on his objective and not on his discomfort. The pearled goose on the speed dial spinning helplessly, he could no longer tell how fast he is going, for it was unable to keep up with his increasing rate of speed.
Now at an altitude of thirteen or so circumnavigations of Kweilin, the rocket chair began to be buffeted badly. He has reached, he recalled, the “Sky Typhoon Barrier.” For this his engineers had installed a Typhoon Rudder Stick, and he seized this with his left hand, and with thrusts one way and another he steadied his craft in the worst of the barrier.
Suddenly, the air thinned out completely, the barrier was passed, and he was free. The horrible weights were lifted from him, he has shot into the outer atmosphere at a distance of sixteen and a half rounds of Kweilin’s city walls. All this in a less than two minutes! Wonder in his eyes, he gazed down on the curving Three Celestial Kingdoms, and the unmannerly, uncivilized Barbarian Lands beyond.
As the rockets began to wane in power, his tremendous, built-up speed continued however. Here a most strange sensation engulfed Hoo. Stray items, like a White Jade pen and inkwell set donated by the Lord Chrysanthemum-Mayor of his city and several lucky Green Jade rings--gifts for the Sacred Hare-- floated in the chair’s cabin.
And then, unexpectedly, there was the flashings of blinding lights all around him and he collided with an incoming shower of Chrysanthemum Stars. One was deflected by the atmosphere at such an angle that it could never be captured by the Earth’s attraction and descend to ground as a meteorite.
Instead, small as it was, the White Chrysanthemum-Star flew into the dragnet of the tile-and-tin-sheathed ropes and girdle and, like hand in glove, pulled the divine vessel away even as the rockets shot out fizzling clinkers and died.
Even as it did so, much of the star’s ice and very sticky, glue-like metallic elements sloughed off and glazed Hoo’s divine vessel like the chrysalis round a butterfly pupa. Quite like Paduan hailstones that fell in ANNO 1834, the celestial metallic ices formed plates, transparent and opaque, each a finger’s length. They were interlaced at their bases and topped by a four-sized pyramid. Other plates were circular, formed by concentric layers like an onion of alternating transparent and opaque.
Some plates were thicker at the edge than the middle, while others were convex on both sides and bearing four-sized crystals.
Never had the angle been calculated more finely, as this seemingly chance encounter injected enough force into the rocket ship so that it now could break completely free of Earth’s holding attractive-power but continue on to its destination. Without the power of the reborn star and its added benefit of a stronger than iron protective glaze, Wild Goose might well have dropped backwards, dragging Hoo to a fiery death in the sky above Kuo.
Yet when the Sacred Moon approached, it acted as a kind of celestial slingshot, and the unwitting scion of Kuo’s first space program was again taken and propelled outwards even farther than he had planned to go. Again, Hoo knew nothing about this. Mercifully, overcome by all excitement of the launch and rapid ascent, he had fallen into a kind of deep sleep, or he might have been very concerned seeing he had missed the Moon and the hard-working Hare.
With air still pressuring his lacquered cabin from the providential vase which never ran out, just like the oil cruse and meal jars of a widow never ran out for herself, her son, and the Elijah the Sage of a far-off barbarian land, Hoo slept comfortably enough, so comfortably he was quite a few thousand years older when he finally reawakened--the Hare’s jade pen and inkwell pressed by air pressure against his chest.
When that occurred, he was already in rapid reentry, his ship firing its last rockets--ignited by friction with the rushing air--to slow his descent while the last of the stellar metallic, plated ice and the thick, porcelain tiles shielding his craft burned off so brightly he could not see exactly where he was headed, whether it was Kweilin or some other part of the world beyond his native Kuo...