an Oriental Fairy Tale
by Peter Farrugia
The Imperial Concubine of the Dewy Slipper sat in the mixing-cupboard, a room fitted with long glass shelves, on which her collection of opium pipes and scraping knives, slim vases filled with plump purple poppies, pricking boards and porcelain bowls made perfect blots of colour against the gold woodwork of the walls.
Her courtiers attended in silence, stripping and shaving globs of resin into shallow dishes, while she massaged her nose.
“Too tiresome,” she said, as the entire room rattled to the distant hoot of a runaway train. “That wretched, wicked, smelly, *foreign* machine.”
Her courtiers nodded their topknots deferentially, smoothing the resinous paste and applying flame on the end of a waxed taper. One boy, with slender fingers, lifted the pipe to his mistress’s lips where it dangled indolently.
“Loathsome,” she said, falling back into a gossamer cocoon before being wheeled into the morning chamber. A faint spray of sunlight filtered through gauzy drapes. “How deeply these foreigners have infiltrated our country. Who would have imagined that this reverent place, this sweet Rising Sun, should be beset by such….such…”
A coil of opium smothered the thoughts on her tongue.
The Concubine turned to an ancient and hideous handmaiden, folded neatly at her elbow. Mama Obu, so called because she had mothered several generations of Imperial Concubines, lifted gnarled fingers to strum a note on a small guitar.
“Hairy beasts,” croaked the old toad, plucking at the strings. “Foreigners are no better than monkeys or crocodiles, and that’s the menfolk. Their feet, my dear, are as large and unwieldy as a camel’s. And their women…”
Mama Obu leaned close to her mistress and brushed her lips against the Concubine’s perfectly coiffed neck, whispering some slanderous obscenity. The Imperial Concubine of the Dewy Slipper dissolved in peals of laughter.
“Indeed Obu, indeed! And none more so than that despicable woman….”
The Concubine’s face darkened.
“That vile woman who has stolen the Emperor’s affections from me. Me! The Flower of Asia, the Porcelain Tiger, that’s what the poets called me. Don’t you remember Mama?”
Mama Obu made soothing, cooing sounds and set her instrument aside. The presence of a foreign woman in the Imperial Court provoked much controversy amongst the conservative nobility. The Emperor’s obvious affection for her had soured the Imperial Concubine and was the source of this increasing anxiety.
“Worry not pet,” said the old woman, shooing the courtiers away and wrapping a silken shawl around the Concubine’s shoulders. “We shall have our vengeance. Is it not certain that you shall ascend the Chrysanthemum Throne? Are you not blessed and fruitful?”
The wizen creature knelt and kissed the Concubine’s gently bulging belly. What all the court once thought impossible had somehow come to pass; the death of the Empress three years ago was a sad affair, made more so by the lack of issue from the Imperial marriage. And all the land trembled at the thought it may not have been the Empress’ failure, entirely…. and whispering tongues filled the Palace, describing the Emperor’s “lack of vigour”.
Yet he had taken the Concubine, little more than a child, and raised her to a place in the Imperial bedchamber. Fortune smiled and soon her belly blossomed and all the land rejoiced. The priests in their cold little cells prayed unceasingly to Buddha for a son, and even the peasants, whose lives were bleared with toil, made time in their weary day to light a candle and hope for the best.
The Concubine rest her palm on her stomach and nodded. But soon her cruel mood returned.
“The Emperor hardly ever sees me! He is besotted with that woman. She dances for him every night, strange and dirty dances no decent woman could perform. I should never make such gyrations, prancing with reptiles, with swords, with not a stitch of clothing to hide her shame!”
Mama Obu sucked at the abandoned opium pipe, rekindling the dying embers and puffed a cloud of lilac smoke over the Concubine.
“Hush now sweet, all shall be well,” the old woman said. The Imperial Concubine sank down into her silks, trailing lace across long, pale arms. “I know what must be done. A dancer to replace the dancer; an obedient puppet to do our bidding. We will bring this problem to the Alchemist who works his art in the Palace cellar. His machines and living dolls are just what we require. You shall be restored to the Emperor’s favour, and that wicked foreigner need not concern us ever again.”
Descending the jagged paths through the palace underbelly, Mama Obu found that place called the Chamber of Hungry Ghosts. She left a small rice cake under the paw of one immense bronze dragon-fly, stroked its mottled plumage three times and entered. Immediately she was surrounded by the acrid smell of chemicals in crucibles, the sound of tinny hammering and a low, noxious fog.
“Alchemist! I come with an order from the Imperial Concubine!”
A sudden movement beneath her feet made the wizen old creature scream, as an entire section of the floor slid back. In a haze of smoke, the Alchemist appeared. Covered in lacquered armour shimmering slickly as he moved, the Alchemist approached Mama Obu. He lifted a scarlet glove to disperse the thick smoke and said, “What is her bidding?”
Mama Obu gathered what little dignity she had and rose herself up on the tips of her sandals. “She desires the creation of a living doll,” said the handmaiden, gesturing to several miniature figures half hidden in the gloom. These were the mechanical curiosities the Alchemist was renown for; a dove that flew on twelve iron wings, a fish with the face of a woman, two eggs which hatched into something different each time they were cracked open. The ingenuity of the Alchemist was the source of his reputation throughout their land.
There was silence between them for a moment. “A living doll is difficult. Life is never easy.”
Mama Obu rolled her eyes and placed a jade comb, studded with pearls the size of pebbles, on a relatively uncluttered tabletop. “It must bear the appearance of the Emperor’s foreign dancer, and be obedient to the Concubine’s will in all things. Assassins shall despatch the dancer soon enough. We must not be discovered in this deception.”
The Alchemist held the comb up to the light of a swinging censer. The pearls were lustrous beyond compare… indeed, they would make fine eyeballs.
“I accept this challenge to my art. It shall be done.”
Mama Obu bowed her head and stepped back over the threshold to the chamber. “Excellent. The Imperial Concubine plans to present the doll to the Emperor on his birthday, in three weeks.”
“It shall be done,” the Alchemist repeated, as the doors came thunderously closed and Obu was left in a damp corridor, the distant burr and whizz of machines still buzzing in both ears. As she was about to leave, she went to stroke the guardian statue’s massive paw and was not entirely surprised to see that the rice cake had disappeared.
The Emperor’s birthday arrived and the work was completed. It was brought to the Concubine’s chambers, shrouded in taffetas and wheeled along dark hallways under cover of darkness. Such was the skill with which the Alchemist had constructed the doll that the Concubine was heard to gasp from three pavilions away. The mannequin’s flesh seemed infused with warmth, the coils of dark hair that fell down her shoulders too soft to be anything but human. And the glimmer in its eyes, opalescent and innocent, overcame her with wonder. Only in stepping back, to appreciate the fine workmanship, did the automaton’s resemblance to her rival became too much to bear and the Concubine ordered it placed in a corner and draped with a scarf.
“It is the very image of that harpy,” she said, crossing her legs and picking slivers of flavoured ice out of a small bowl. “He has outdone himself.”
Mama Obu nodded slowly. “However it is only a shell…. he says the life mechanism is as yet unfinished.”
The Concubine smiled, sprawling across a dozen pillows. “It almost seems a pity she is dead. If only passing life from one shell to another were so simple as taking it.”
Her assassins had made fast work of the foreigner, whose body was already festering in a ditch. It was imperative that all trace of her link to that crime be cleared; the automaton’s dance must be utterly convincing. The machine would enter the Emperor’s chamber as usual, and strike. The Concubine knew there was no room so secure as the Emperor’s bedchamber; a thousand eyes peered through every lattice and screen. Once she was seen to attack their beloved Emperor and the machine was taken away, it was no great matter to bribe the palace guards and have it destroyed in private.
The moon had only just risen and the festivities would not begin for several hours. Her courtiers waited patiently in the dressing rooms, steaming and plucking her gowns, polishing her jewels, shaping her dainty shoes. Everything was going so very well. Once the automaton was alive, it would be no great matter to teach it all that was required. A machine couldn’t be difficult to control
Mama Obu was on edge. The slumped figure in the corner of the chamber, with its milky naked skin and long dark hair, was too lifelike by far. Indeed it would fulfill their plan perfectly, but the Alchemist’s words circled her head like gnats… “Life is never easy”.
A little girl walked into the room, her hair done up with cherry blossoms. “A visitor is here from the Chamber of Hungry Ghosts.”
The Concubine flicked her fingers twice, and a figure entered carrying a small box. The Alchemist bowed to the Concubine and Mama Obu before moving directly to the automaton, laying it on its back and with great delicacy removed the top of its head, hair and all. A great hollow space was revealed and in the lamplight, lining the emptiness, could be seen a complex pattern of hexagonal grooves.
The Concubine and Obu held their breath as the Alchemist opened his small box and withdrew a clear canister. The entire chamber filled with a muffled mumbling, a sound that reminded the Imperial Concubine of summers spent in the countryside. The mumble grew to a drone, and then to a throbbing buzz when the Alchemist opened it.
A dozen fat bees issued out of the canister and circled the hollow head before settling inside. They crawled up and down the hexagonal impressions behind the crisp layer of skin that made a face. The skullcap was sealed and dark hair fell back into place. The humming became distant and at last imperceptible: the automaton moved and took a deep, slow breath. Both Courtesan and Mama Obu, unable to think of anything to say, stared at one another for a long time in the darkness.
From behind a large painting of the Buddha at Rest, Mama Obu and the Imperial Concubine spied on the automaton as she danced before the Emperor. Her little white feet skipped across the marble floor, tripping back and forth like smooth stones skimming still water. Every movement was perfectly identical to those foreign gyrations they had seen the dancer make a hundred times, made more disgusting by the grace with which they were executed. The Imperial Concubine tapped her fingertips against the painting, her eyes peering through Buddha’s half-closed lids; Obu looked out through the black and white face of a badger nestled under Buddha’s belly.
“When will she strike?” the Concubine whispered impatiently.
“All in good time,” said Obu. The automaton’s hypnotic dance drew her closer to the Imperial dais, the wrinkled Emperor chuckling as her naked figure was illuminated by a shaft of lamplight. The Imperial Concubine snorted in derision.
At last the dance drew to a close, with several high arching pirouettes revolving back and forth between ornate, tall columns. The Emperor gurgled with pleasure, his thin fingers tugging at the silk lining of his robes. For a moment the Imperial Concubine looked away, and grimaced.
“To think we are reduced to this,” she said lamentably. At that moment Obu hushed her. “Attend; the machine is ready!”
Descending in a single fluid gesture, the automaton’s dance brought it squarely to the foot of the Imperial throne. Immediately its hands reached out, fingers contorted into clawing rakes.
Doubtlessly due to his semi-senility, the Emperor laughed distractedly. Yet when the automaton’s hands fasted around his neck, a sudden clatter of armour and silvery shimmer of swords filled the chamber, made instantly bright by a hundred lamps in the hands of guards and startled courtiers. Every screen slid aside, each lattice opened and roof-slat creaked. The room was filled with shouting as the dancer, pulled from the Emperor’s gasping body, was held down under the bared blades of the Imperial guard.
The Concubine and Mama Obu made themselves known. Immediately, she ran to the side of the Emperor and took his head in her hands, his old eyes still wide in confusion. All the while the automaton lay quite still, prostrate beneath the boots of guards awaiting orders.
“Assassin!” cried Mama Obu, in a well rehearsed tone, dripping authority. “She would have murdered the Light of the World!”
A murmur of consent raced through the newly assembled rows of courtiers. The guards moved uncomfortably, awaiting the Emperor’s word. Meanwhile, the Imperial Concubine cradled his head in her palms.
“Beloved, she must be despatched,” said the Concubine. “She has always been jealous of me! Of the true love we share, which her cold foreign heart could never comprehend. Obu will accompany her to the jail, to ensure she does not work her mischief on our guards.”
Still the Emperor said nothing. Shock had been replaced by disbelief, and now a sense of sadness. That his foreign dancer could have turned so treasonous was a heavy blow to bear. He shrugged the Concubine aside and descended the dais, supported on the arm of a guard. The dancer lay with her face to the ground, obscured under the weight of guards’ boots.
“Is this true?” he said. And pushed the guards aside. The dancer’s silence resonated, full of implications.
“What wicked jealousy is this, that we could share such moments, the like of which I have shared with no other -” and here the Concubine blushed in shame and indignation, “- and yet you harbour evil intentions? Would you have me die…”
He reached down to the limp figure and pulled her up by the shoulder. With trembling fingers, her brushed her hair aside.
“Imperial Lord, she must be dealt with severely!” cried the Concubine, still kneeling on the dais.
But the Emperor did not hear a word she said, his face transfixed in wonderment. The dancer’s eyes, wide with innocence, wept. And these tears were bright and steady streams, trickling down either cheek.
“By Buddha,” he said. And awestruck, the crowd of courtiers and guardians stepped closer, to better observe the dancer’s golden tears. Caressing her cheek with his fingertip and placing it to his lips, the Emperor’s aged body would have collapsed with the sheer marvel of it, had he not been supported by his entourage.
Needless to say, the Imperial Concubine’s rage was such that she could do nothing. Mama Obu, always one to know when the tide has turned, side-stepped into the awestruck courtiers and raised her voice with theirs. One does not survive as long as she had, nor so successfully, without switching sides from time to time.
“Such penitence, such devotion, a miracle!”
All the court was abuzz with the legend that their foreign dancer, overcome with madness, had attacked the beloved Emperor, and equally overcome by guilt and love, been blessed by Buddha and the courts of heaven with such a miraculous display of purity.
The honey tears were preserved in various temples throughout the land, the apparent source of much good fortune. It was thanks to them, or so the locals said, that the steam trains began to run on time, and the Emperor lived to a ripe old age full of happiness. The Concubine fared less well, pining away in her chambers and entirely abandoned by the Emperor and his court. Her pregnancy was discovered to be what is now called “phantom” and for a few short years she lived a veritable phantom life before a ball of opium, swallowed in a glass of goat’s milk, cut her existence mercifully short.
Mama Obu retained her position and cared for the automaton as attentively as she had every concubine and courtesan of the Imperial bedchamber. The mechanical deception was never discovered and the Alchemist, deep in his subterranean laboratories, never betrayed their secret. It was not until the Emperor had been dead several years that the dancer stopped moving entirely, when Mama Obu pulled back the automaton’s hair and slipped off the thin skullcap, that she saw the bees were long dead and had turned to hollow husks. The automaton must have survived on static vibrations and the Empire’s well wishes for over a decade.
When Mama Obu died and the Empire, with no valid issue to assume the throne, was sold to the railway company, this tale was entirely forgotten. And that’s probably just as well.
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