by Ronnie Pontiac.
Shen’s father and mother no longer asked the oracle about their own fate. They knew it would arrive soon. They were surprised but grateful that they had so much more time together than they had expected. They missed Shen terribly but they believed that whatever he learned on the farm would be crucial to his survival. The stubborn oracle told them any attempts to communicate with the boy would only do him harm. Their wish to see him one last time it repeatedly denied.
Shen’s father pondered contradictory glimpses of how his son’s life would unfold. Shen would struggle like a man trapped in a land of jagged gorges where floodwaters could sweep away even the most sure-footed. Yet the outcome never changed. If he found the narrow and dangerous path that would allow him to survive, somehow Shen would emerge to shine like the sun at noon. His parents tried to imagine how such a fate might unfold but they could not. Perhaps Shen would become a royal scholar one day, when order would be restored, along with respect for tradition.
Then the soldiers arrived.
When Shen’s father opened the door the scowling officer, sword in hand, grabbed hold of the jade insignia of the royal scholar, and cut it loose from its cord. He handed it to a soldier who carefully wrapped it in red silk, then hurried away to the palace.
The soldiers forced Shen’s parents to watch the destruction of their home. Many irreplaceable manuscripts they had smuggled away to be hidden until safer times, but that provided little comfort to father as he watched rare treasures trampled under muddy boots. Intricately carved wooden furniture that had belonged to their families for generations the soldiers smashed into splinters.
As father watched he expected to feel the agony of loss. But he found that what mattered to him most was not the destruction of these objects, but the memories they inspired. He remembered the first time he brought his wife into his ancestral home. He had experienced the rediscovery of all the things he took for granted, as her excited smile renewed them in his own eyes.
He recalled the day she had first shown interest in fables. Myths and legends of supernatural beings, and the delicately colored paintings of them, were her favorites. He had indulged her, adding many scrolls on the subject to their collection. After the birth of their son, a difficult and dangerous birth, he would read to mother and child. By age six Shen had lost interest in the stories, wanting instead to study history. But the ritual continued, husband still read from the illustrated scrolls to wife late at night. He had made certain that the best of them, the most sentimental, had been smuggled out, packed safely among national treasures.
Those childish scrolls had taught him to respect the wisdom of his wife. Her deep insight into the myths convinced him to invite her into his own studies. Though she did not have his memory for the details and dates of history, she penetrated more deeply the mysteries hidden behind the words. He wished he had told her that her name should have appeared on every one of his works. He should have spoken to his peers about her, even to King Zian. But he had never mentioned any of this to anyone.
It seemed to him that everywhere he looked around the room a memory of her overcame him. He had not fully realized the wild intensity of his love for her. They had lived quietly for so many years. Years of subtle smiles and silent indulgence of each other’s habits. But the passion he felt for her now was neither quiet nor subtle.
He remembered when they were young, in the dawn of their intimacy, how she had wished to accomplish something worthwhile. He had patiently taught her that motherhood was her only choice. Now he felt the terrible loss not only of her genius, but also of how many others? How many great scholars had been excluded from giving their unique gifts to the world of knowledge merely because they were born the wrong gender?
He should have been kinder, he thought. He should not have been so grim when concentrated on his work. The precious, incidental minutes, the moments of her presence, the perfume of her hair, the glance of her laughing eyes, her lifted eyebrow when he acted foolishly, they were all transfigured into instants of holiness, like the emanation of a deity into his life, a ray of the sun, or a mild star come down into his home, shining a light, a warmth so soft, so constant he had relied on it, yet somehow he had never until now noticed.
Of course, he had been a tender husband, compared to his father and his peers. He was generous with gifts. Their conversations were really one conversation that never ended and they were always eager to talk with each other. But now he wanted more. She had always loved horses but he was too proper to indulge that delight in caring for them and riding them she had enjoyed as a girl. How he regretted that now. He felt ashamed that she had never seen the ocean, or heard its roar, or inhaled the salt of the waves. He wished he had taken her to the great harvest festival of Swan Valley, at least once.
All of this turmoil of emotion welled up only as tears in his eyes. This self-control was the reward of his long years of study, but also of his desire to deprive the soldiers of their sadistic pleasure.
Mother had already grieved for the loss of these family treasures. She had hoped Shen would pass them on to his own children one day. The lovely life they had shared in this place should have been preserved for future generations. But all things have endings. Everything here in this life is pushed along, nipped at, poked and prodded through and out of existence. She would not disappoint her husband in the midst of tragedy. She could see the emotion glowing in his eyes. But when he looked at her she allowed him to see only reassuring calm dignity.
Shen’s father smiled, and nodded once in respect to the person he only now recognized as his master.
She nodded back to him with equal respect.
That their victims watched the carnage with peaceful expressions irritated the soldiers. They had hoped to do whatever they wanted with this haughty and beautiful woman. Torture was a game they planned to enjoy. But now they knew they were in the presence of masters who understood the fleeting nature of all things. Feeling the flicker of fear at the realization that his own power would not last, the officer in charge disappointed his men. The officer’s sword entered mother’s heart, then father’s, mingling their blood. Bleeding on the ground they looked into each other’s eyes. So ended a rare and great romance between two of the finest scholars of that era. Shen had become an orphan.
An excerpt from the novel The School of Outlaws by Ronnie Pontiac.