An atrocious storm bludgeoned the Zhin as hard as Jen would if he could. Shadows slammed against bamboo walls and Jen, seated atop a stool nailed to the floor, gripped the small round table, his new white robe’s wide, campaniform sleeves draping its edge. Keeping his on the rice bowl before him, it slid to the right; for the fourth time, he grabbed it before it fell. Aside from him, only two others sat in the ship’s mess hall with their viscous, undercooked, colloidal rice.
The cargo ship carried grains, salt, herbs, hemp, timber, and hides upriver. Constructed of various softwoods, the two hundred and twenty foot junk ship, comprised of a high, hippocrepiform stern and two rectangular sails, was, he’d concluded after a thorough walkthrough, satisfactory, particularly when he considered the bright red flags appeased, the crew said, dragons.
They also said the happy dragons would bring women to the ship and Jen, each and every time they docked to unload their goods, would look for Li amongst the singing girls on the shore, their fans rippling in the water’s reflection. Their dresses brushed the banks when they danced; the wind lifted their white sleeves. The crew hooted and hollered as those girls with painted eyes competed for companionship. But dock after dock, no Li.
Those bean-kids had parents and friends; those parents and friends had parents and friends. News about a magician spread through Dongxing Zhou and in the evenings, always in Li’s shining presence, Jen entertained growing crowds with simple magic tricks to the point that he garnered almost as much attention as the bullfight. Of the event, Li and Jen went together and though Jen yawned throughout most of the spectacle, he never complained. And when it was over, a pudgy sweat gland of a man approached him, asking him if he was the magician about whom the town buzzed. From a nearby village, Fu Mao asked Jen if he would perform in the surrounding villages. Jen said he wasn’t a performer and when about to decline the invitation, Fu Mao said the villagers would pay him.
Almost two weeks later, Jen reentered his room in the inn and found Sherme on his back, staring at the ceiling.
“Tonight!” Jen had announced, loosening the tie on his modest leather pouch, “we dine!” He emptied the pouch of its contents. “We will dine like the emperor.” Sherme’s jaw dropped as hundreds of coins bounced and rolled across the hard wooden floor. “I know, right? Can you believe it? They loved me. Some from the first village followed me all the way to the last. A few are outside right now. And look at this…” He unhitched a fist-sized pouch form his waist and struggled to remove…
Sherme shot forward, his eyes almost popping out of their sockets. “Flying money?”
“A wad of it.” He flung five paper bills across the room. “Look at them flutter. More beautiful than butterflies.”
“What exactly did you do?”
Jen explained how, in addition to stones and flowers, he lifted and moved a variety of objects, both large and small, levitated both himself and others. Somehow he made a man speak in his wife’s voice, the wife in her husband’s, and made people guā like ducks, moū like cows, and yā like crows. Some of what he did he learned from books, but the real crowd-pleasers, he said, standing tall and firm, came from within him.
“C’mon. I’m hungry. Let’s go eat. Hurry up and get dressed.” He hastened to gather the scattered coin and cash. “I want to find Li.”
There atop his stool, Jen knew he had been a fool. He’d miscalculated. He presumed their budding love was, as they say, as rare as two lotuses on one stalk. They also said one learns life’s most valuable lessons through defeat. Jen learned his: relationships were a cruel waste of valuable time.