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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Half Blanket


Many years ago in China, a boy named Liao lived with his mother and father. They raised pigs and chickens, and vegetables, and grew enough to feed themselves and to trade in the market in town for rice every month or two. They didn't have much, but they were happy.

One day Liao's mother died. This of course made Liao and his father sad, but they continued to work the farm. Now as it happens Liao's mother died not long before Liao was of an age to marry, so on one of his trips to the market soon after his mother's death Liao returned with a wife. She was a beautiful wife, and dutiful, and settled right in to the family.

You might think that bringing a wife into a household like that would cause trouble, but that was not the case. In fact, Liao's new wife grew to love Liao's father as she had her own and as she did Liao. And sure enough, within a year Liao's wife presented him with a fine baby boy.

Now it was after Liao's son was born that, slowly, things began to change. Part of the reason might have been that Liao was feeling the pressure of caring for a family of four, but part of it was also surely his father's declining health.

At first it was hardly noticeable. Liao's father would tire when he went to chop wood for the fire. Or his hands would shake, just a little, as he hoed the weeds out of the vegetable garden. Then one day, Liao's father overslept and the pigs did not get fed when they thought they should have been. They broke out of their enclosure and Liao found them, snorting and rooting around in the turnips in the vegetable garden and causing a great deal of damage.

Needless to say, Liao was not happy. He said nothing, but he fumed as he rebuilt the enclosure and wondered how they would get by without the vegetables the pigs had taken out.

Other things began to happen as well. When it was Liao's father's turn to poke up the fire, sometimes he would forget and the fire would go out, which meant they had to take the time and trouble to start it again. His hands shook more and more as time went on. He got to where he would be unable to weed the garden because the hoe would shake so badly, or to gather eggs from the chickens because of the number he would break. His lip started shaking as well, and Liao's father, always a man of few words from the days of his youth, eventually got to the point where he would not speak at all.

As his father's health deteriorated, Liao's mood grew darker and darker. Liao would sometimes wonder how they were going to feed all four of them when only two could work. Liao's wife did her best to soothe her husband, but that too became more difficult as time went on.

Things came to a head one day about five years after Liao had married. The four of them were getting ready for dinner. Liao's wife dished up a bowl of rice and handed it to her father-in-law . . . and everyone watched in horror as the bowl slipped out of his hands and feel with a crash on a glass bowl Liao's wife kept blossoms in to make the house a little nicer. Water spilled all over the table, and some of the hot rice made its way into Liao's father's lap.

Nobody said anything for a moment. Then, lip quivering, flushed with embarrassment and pain, Liao's father pushed away from the table and went to a corner of the house they had set aside for him.

He sat there for several hours and listened to Liao and his wife argue.

"He's a meance to himself!" Liao said. "He could hurt our son."

"He would not do that," his wife countered. "He loves his grandson very much."

"He can't help to provide food. He can do little but sit and shake and mumble and break things. Let's face it, he has become a drag on this family."

"How can you say that about your own father? Do you not love him?"

"I love my family, and I cannot leave them to slowly starve for the benefit of one man."

They continued in this vein for quite some time. Finally, long after the sun had gone down, Liao turned to his father. "Old man!" he barked. He did not use the honorific term to which his father was entitled, but spoke as a king might to a subject. "I have come to a decision. I must send you away into the forest. Tonight."

"You cannot do that!" his wife pleaded. "How will he eat? How will he stay warm?"

"I shall give him some rice. And as for warmth, we shall give him our blanket so he will be warm out in the woods. I shall buy another the next time I go to the market. Until then we shall sleep by the fire."

"How can you do this to your own father?" she cried. They went back and forth, back and forth, well into the night, each trying to outshout the other, until they heard a voice cry "STOP! STOP! STOOOOOOOOOOOOPPPPPPPPPPPPP!"

They turned to look. The voice had come from their son. "Stop," he said in a softer tone of voice. "I know what must be done." They were surprised. Liao's son, like Liao and his father, was a young man of few words. In fact this was the most he had ever said at one time.

"What must be done?" his mother asked.

"Mother, do as Father says. Prepare some rice, and get the blanket. But Mother, the blanket is big enough for two beds, so do not send the whole blanket with Grandfather. You must cut it in half first and give Grandfather half of it."

"That is a wise idea," Liao said. "That way we can sleep in our bed instead of in front of the fire."

"Not so, Father," the boy answered. "You must take the other half of the blanket and put it away in a safe place."

"What?" Liao asked. "Why?"

"So that when I am grown and it is my time to send you out into the forest, I can give the other half of the blanket to you so you will be warm when you die."

Nobody spoke for a minute or so. Then Liao took a chair, sat it down in front of the fire, and placed his father in the chair. "Honored father," Liao said, restoring his honorific to him, "Sit here by the fire and be warm." Then he turned to his wife and son. "This matter is closed. We shall never discuss it again."

And had you been there, and had you been looking at Liao's father, you might have noticed a tear of happiness escape out of the corner of his eye.


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