Omir the Storyteller

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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.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Everything old is new again


This story has apparently been making the rounds in email. I remember hearing a story like this back in the Vietnam era, and there was a similar story from World War Two. For all I know it was told about a Hittite and a Samarian.

A convoy on patrol north of Basra stopped at an all too familiar but unwelcome sight. At the side of the road lay an Iraqi insurgent and an American Marine, both injured. The corpsmen came out of one of the trucks, loaded the men up and took off, watching all the while for enemy fire.

As they were heading back to Basra the Marine came to. One of the corpsmen quickly started asking the standard questions: what's your name, what's your unit, where are you from, what happened. The Marine told his story as best he could through his injuries:

"I was out on patrol when I hear a noise on the other side of the road. I look, and out of the corner of my eye I see a local with a Kalashnikov. We both fire, we both miss and we both dive for cover. I'm down there and I hear this voice say 'Hey, GI?'

"'You speak English?' I say. 'Hey, it's sure a shame about Saddam Hussein, ain't it, that dirty cowardly son-of-a-bitch.'

"Well, the guy on the other side of the road starts calling George Bush a lyin' fake cowboy, and next thing I know we're standing there in the middle of the road shaking hands when we get hit by this truck . . . "

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Tree Planter


Once upon a time, but maybe not so long ago as you might think, the king was riding down the road with his entourage when he came upon an old man by the side of the road. The old man had a burlap pouch at his side, and as he walked through the field, he would take his walking-stick, burrow a hole into the ground, reach into his pouch, drop a seed into the hole, and then cover up the hole. He then moved on, planting another seed a couple of feet down the road.

The old man, hearing the clatter of hooves on the road, turned, and seeing that he was in the presence of the king, bowed low. "Your majesty," he said simply.

The horses clattered to a stop. "Rise," the king commanded, and the old man straightened up as best he could. "What are you doing, old man?"

"I'm planting trees, your majesty," the old man said.

"I see," said the king. "Tell me, old man, how old are you?"

"Seventy years, your majesty."

"And how long will it be before your trees bear fruit?"

The old man scratched his grizzled face. "I'm not sure, your majesty. Perhaps ten years."

"Ten years," the king said. "Do you think it a profitable use of your time to plant trees when you will never see them bear fruit?"

"Oh absolutely, sire," the old man said. "You see, I'm not doing this for myself, but for my children and grandchildren. When I came into this world, it was full of trees that were planted by those who came before me. Someday, God willing, my grandchildren shall eat fruit from these trees, and their children and grandchildren. Perhaps they will remember who planted these trees for them, perhaps not; but I want to provide for them all the same."

The king thought this over for a moment, smiled and nodded, then spurred his horse on. The old man continued to plant as the king and his men rode off into the distance.

Word of the old man's encounter with the king reached one of his sons, who was deeply affected by the old man's wisdom. "Hey!" he told his own son, "get out there and help your grandpa. He's doing this for you."

The son refused. "I didn't ask him to do this for me," he said, "and if Gramps wants to plant seeds, that's his business."

Nevertheless the man managed to persuade his son to go help his grandfather plant. I don't know what was involved in the persuasion, but disinheritance and a good hiding probably had something to do with it. So the grandson went out, but he was at best a reluctant assistant, planting perhaps one seed to his grandfather's four, planting them too close together, not planting them deeply enough and in general just not doing a very good job.

About a week later the old man once again heard the clop-clop-clop of horses on the road, but this time the hoofbeats were accompanied by the rumble of the wheels of a carriage. The carriage stopped near the old man, and who should emerge from the carriage but the king's chamberlain. "The king bids you come," the chamberlain said. So the old man got into the carriage and the grandson, eager for any excuse to get out of the hot sun, went along.

After about an hour they came to the capital, and then continued on to the palace. At the palace the carriage stopped, the three men emerged and the chamberlain led the man and his grandson into the king's audience chamber, giving them a brief course in palace etiquette along the way.

The three man waited at the back of the chamber while the king finished some other business. Eventually the chamberlain motioned for them to approach the Royal Presence. At the foot of the throne the old man bowed, then nudged his grandson, who clumsily followed suit.

"Ah, the old man who plants trees," the king said. He clapped his hands twice and a pair of servant rushed off to a side room. "We have something for you in honor of your wisdom." The servants returned carrying a long stick and a bushel box. "Approach," he told the old man, and he presented him with a specially-made digging stick with an iron point. "We had this made for you," the king said. "It should make it easier for you to plant your seeds." Then the king motioned for the servant to show the man the box. Inside the box was an assortment of fruits the man had never seen before. "These were sent to us by our cousin in a land to the south," the king explained. "We don't know what kind of seeds they contain, but they are said to keep well and we can tell you they are quite delicious. Perhaps they will grow well here, and perhaps not; but at least if you cannot enjoy the fruit of your labor, you will enjoy some fruit while you labor." It was a royal joke, and everyone knew to laugh appropriately.

"Thank you," said the old man.

"You may go," said the king.

"Hey!" they all heard a voice say. "What about me?" The old man shushed his grandson, but the damage had already been done.

The king looked down at the young man with all the royal ice he could muster. "Yes, what about you?" he said. "Who are you?"

"I'm his grandson," the young man said. "I help him plant his trees. Don't I get anything?"

The king regarded the upstart for a moment, then said, "Come here. Let me take a look at your hands."

The young man approached the king, who took the young man's hands, looked at the backs of them, then looked at the palms, which were almost as smooth and uncalloused as any of his advisors'. "Hmmm," the king said. He motioned to another man who had been standing almost unnoticed in the background. The king whispered something in the man's ear. The man nodded, then motioned to two guards who stood at the king's side. The guards dropped their halberds and grabbed the young man by the arms. The guards led the grandson, struggling and squawking, out the palace gate and into the city square, where they clapped him into a stock. The chamberlain came along soon after and placed a bushel box of fruit at the edge of the platform the stock sat on. The fruit in this box was quite a bit riper than what the old man had gotten, and the people in the square, having seen this little drama enacted many times before, knew exactly what to do.

That evening the carriage returned the old man to his home while his grandson, his face and clothes still dripping with fruit juice, had to walk behind so as not to stain the inside of the carriage. The chamberlain himself carried the old man's box of fruit into his home, and then the carriage rumbled off into the distance.

Finally the young man, back in familiar surroundings, exploded. For about ten minutes he ranted about how unfair it was that he had had to help his grandfather and all he got for his trouble was a trip to the stocks and a face full of overripe fruit. The old man just looked down and admired the digging-stick the king had given him while his grandson ranted.

Finally the grandson stopped to catch his breath and looked at his grandfather, who hadn't said a word during the whole thing.

"Well?" the young man said.

The grandfather looked down at the iron tip of the digging stick, then back up at his grandson. "Well," he said at last, "I think it's a very good thing your father didn't send you out to help me shovel out a stable."