DRAGON'S DIGEST

三味书屋

The World of Chinese - - Contents - - TRANS­LATED BY MOY HAU (梅皓)

The song ended, the mu­sic stopped.

Only then did the din­ers re­al­ize that there had been any mu­sic at all, that ever since they’d walked into this restau­rant at the top of the ho­tel, pi­ano mu­sic had con­tin­u­ally poured from some in­con­spic­u­ous cor­ner as they ate. It was now more than a minute since it had stopped.

The mu­sic had been play­ing as they ig­nored its ex­is­tence, no­body watch­ing the pi­anist at his work, ex­cept for a young boy be­hind a tall pot­ted plant in the en­try­way, stand­ing with his back pressed against the wall. He peered through the leaves at the pi­anist, who was also in an al­cove of plants, with a large dragon tree block­ing the light from his shiny black pi­ano. No light shone on him at all; it was night­time. Un­der the glass ceil­ing of the restau­rant, all the lights were blaz­ing ex­cept this cor­ner where the pi­anist sat in the sump­tu­ous fo­liage and played with his face in shadow. All that fell upon the pi­anist was the gaze of his son, far off. But he didn’t know his son was watch­ing.

He fin­ished play­ing and looked about. The pi­anist who was sup­posed to re­lieve him had yet to ap­pear. Af­ter a minute passed, one cus­tomer com­plained to the waiter that the mu­sic had stopped. The waiter walked over to the pi­anist and told him to keep play­ing. “My shift is over.” The pi­anist told the waiter it was his son’s birth­day, he’d al­ready made reser­va­tions at an­other restau­rant. He asked why his col­league was late.

“I’ve al­ready played 20 min­utes of his shift.”

The waiter said: “Well, just play a bit longer. You can leave when he gets here, al­right?”

The pi­anist re­fused.

The restau­rant man­ager walked over. It was the first time any cus­tomers had ever de­manded mu­sic while they dined. He asked what was go­ing on. The pi­anist ex­plained. “I switched this shift with him a week ago, we both agreed, my ap­pli­ca­tion was ap­proved. I have to go now.”

The man­ager told him to keep play­ing; he would call the other pi­anist, tell him to hurry up.

The pi­anist still in­sisted he had to leave.

The man­ager called the other pi­anist, then and there. He looked at the din­ers, and a few ta­bles looked back, wait­ing for the pi­ano to start. He bowed apolo­get­i­cally at them as he talked on the phone.

The man­ager was un­happy. He warned that they would re­place the pi­ano later with a speaker sys­tem; then they’d never have to deal with this bull­shit again.

The pi­anist ig­nored his threats. Even if he lost his job, he wasn’t go­ing to play. But he didn’t leave the pi­ano ei­ther. At this time, the boy’s mother ap­peared at the restau­rant en­trance. She put her hands on his shoul­ders and they both waited be­hind the green plants. She also worked at the ho­tel, as a maid. To make it to tonight’s din­ner, she’d also switched shifts. She’d al­ready changed out of her uni­form and put on a de­cent out­fit. Even at a high-end venue like this, they wouldn’t look askance at her sim­ple dress.

She knew what was go­ing on, but didn’t walk into the restau­rant to pull her hus­band away. She looked at him and as he saw her, he stood up to leave.

The man­ager came up with a so­lu­tion.

The pi­anist hes­i­tated a bit, and walked through the leaves of the dragon tree to­ward his wife and child.

She knew that they weren’t about to leave.

They en­tered the restau­rant to­gether. The cus­tomers saw the three of them walk­ing to­wards the pi­ano. They thought that the woman in the frumpy dress was there to re­place the pi­anist, but the man­ager blocked their way. These on­look­ers weren’t aware of the man­ager’s idea: get the pi­anist to play an­other half-hour, while they wait for his re­place­ment, and then they could

all dine at this restau­rant, where he worked. It was much more up­scale than the one they’d re­served, which would make a bet­ter mem­ory for his son, and as for the cost? The man­ager would cover the cost. That is, half the cost.

Even at half-price, it wasn’t cheap, more than what they were orig­i­nally go­ing to spend. But the pi­anist and his wife had worked at the ho­tel for so long and never eaten there, just watched as cus­tomers dined be­neath the stars un­der the glass ceil­ing. They talked it over; he thought it was a de­cent idea.

She wasn’t happy, but she went along with the plan. She saw her hus­band wanted to do it, so she went into the restau­rant with him. The man­ager blocked their way again, and walked them be­hind the dragon tree. The boy trailed them like an appendage. Ev­ery­one seemed to have for­got­ten who the day was about. As they spoke, he timidly scratched at the trunk of the dragon tree, break­ing its skin. It bled red sap, stain­ing his nails.

The man­ager told them he was go­ing to al­low them to come back in half an hour—if they came in now, where would they sit? Al­though their cloth­ing was al­right, it wasn’t on the level of the other cus­tomers, and, well, let’s not talk about the cloth­ing, it was more the state they were in, they looked tense, like they were about to ar­gue a case in front of a court…

The woman cut him off, and told him to bring them two chairs. They would sit un­der the dragon tree and wait.

One of the branches of the tree had been twisted by the ag­i­tated child and was leak­ing red sap. They sat next to the pi­ano, close by the dragon tree. Cov­ered by the branches, it was hard to see that a mother and child were sit­ting there.

The pi­anist sighed as he be­gan to play an­other song.

He knew that his son and wife were sit­ting by his side. The at­mos­phere felt dif­fer­ent. He wasn’t afraid of dis­trac­tion. He looked at them oc­ca­sion­ally and smiled, wish­ing their ex­pres­sions weren’t so heavy. What had hap­pened was no big deal.

When he sat at the pi­ano and placed his hands upon the keys, he could eas­ily find the cor­rect po­si­tions from mus­cle mem­ory. He had no need to look at the sheet mu­sic, so he looked at his wife and child, and played the song for the two of them. His wife smiled back; his son wasn’t used to the set­ting, hav­ing only stood in the cor­ri­dor with his back pressed against the wall. He per­ceived that this place was quite un­like any other he had been in his life. The sump­tu­ous lights sud­denly felt like an enor­mous bur­den as he looked at the other chil­dren his age, din­ing; how dif­fer­ent he was from them, how they sat far, far away. He was frozen, hol­low.

His par­ents were quite at ease, as they’d worked here for years, met and mar­ried here. To­day was the first day that they’d brought their son into this place that he found so un­fa­mil­iar and did not un­der­stand. The father had an­other job, work­ing at a pi­ano store giv­ing lessons. They didn’t have a pi­ano at home, so on the week­ends when he taught, he’d bring along his son and teach him. He was bet­ter than all the other stu­dents. The father had an idea—let the child play a song. The song ended. He stopped play­ing. From the cor­ner of his eye the man­ager spied the pi­anist bend­ing over his son, speak­ing. The child looked up at his father, and at his di­rec­tion, he sat on the pi­ano bench. The man­ager walked over to in­ter­vene, but af­ter only a few steps, he slowed down; the play­ing had started. He smiled his ap­proval of his tech­nique at the child. He didn’t un­der­stand what was go­ing on, but he was sud­denly moved by the feel­ings in the lit­tle cor­ner. Here was a fam­ily, a father and child play­ing for each other, for the mother. Noth­ing was amiss; as long as noth­ing went wrong, there needn’t be any­thing amiss.

The cus­tomers didn’t no­tice that the pi­ano was be­ing played by a 12-yearold child. As long as there was mu­sic, they for­got there was mu­sic. He played well and with con­cen­tra­tion. He wasn’t frozen any­more. He was gripped by a new kind of ten­sion, an emo­tion which he felt he had to let flow in the flaw­less mu­sic from his small hands. He al­most for­got that his mother and father were there. His mother also re­laxed, drink­ing in the sight of her son.

Af­ter he fin­ished one song, his father in­di­cated he could play an­other, any of the songs he’d learned, if he wanted to. He did, and he kept on work­ing the keys.

The re­place­ment pi­anist fi­nally ar­rived, and when he saw the child play, he smiled. “He plays quite well.” He didn’t know this child, didn’t know that he was the son of the col­league that he was to re­place, but he guessed it. Now that he was here, the pi­anist’s fam­ily didn’t com­plain to him, or ap­pear dis­sat­is­fied. They’d al­most for­got­ten he was com­ing. Now that he’d ar­rived, the place was given to him, and the other three stood to the side, look­ing for the man­ager.

The pi­anist made a beck­on­ing mo­tion, and the man­ager walked over.

THE BOY TRAILED THEM LIKE AN APPENDAGE. EV­ERY­ONE FOR­GOT WHO THE DAY WAS ABOUT

He asked the man­ager where they should sit, and the man­ager con­sid­ered this ques­tion for the first time. He looked around, and pointed to a ta­ble in the cor­ner, quite out of the way.

There was noth­ing wrong with the ta­ble. It was in a cor­ner of the restau­rant’s ter­race, 50 storeys high. It could be said it was the best ta­ble in the house, as one could look at the lights be­low and the stars above. As there wasn’t any glare from the restau­rant lights, it ac­tu­ally had the clear­est view of the sky.

The child was dis­tracted. He was lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic em­a­nat­ing from be­hind the dragon tree. “He hit a wrong note,” said the child. The father wasn’t lis­ten­ing closely, didn’t hear which note was amiss. Ev­ery­thing sounded fine. They kept eat­ing.

A while later, the child said again: “He hit a wrong note.”

The father lis­tened care­fully with his son, and af­ter a minute, they heard a mis­take at the same time. “He’s re­ally not that great.” They kept eat­ing. The food was good and well made. It was a birth­day din­ner, but they didn’t spend too much time cel­e­brat­ing. It was like a reg­u­lar meal, nor­mal chitchat fol­lowed by si­lence as they strug­gled to find top­ics. But now and then, an ex­pres­sion of pride crossed both the father and mother’s faces. “An­other sour note.” At this point the child be­gan to fid­get, and the father was sur­prised. Even while eat­ing at such a nice restau­rant, the son was fo­cus­ing on the mu­sic. He also knew from play­ing at the restau­rant ev­ery day that no­body re­ally paid at­ten­tion to the mu­sic. As long as there was the sug­ges­tion of mu­sic, they wouldn’t have to lis­ten to it, like his son was do­ing.

His mother said to him: “Just con­cen­trate on the meal, don’t worry about the pi­ano.”

He lifted his head to look at his mother: “It’s such a nice pi­ano, and he’s play­ing it wrong.” “But no­body no­tices.” He asked his father: “Can’t you tell him that he’s mak­ing all kinds of mis­takes?”

His father was in a quandary. To show he cared about his son, and as it as his son’s birth­day, he was will­ing to try. He wiped his mouth with his nap­kin and stood up, but he didn’t know where the pi­anist had made mis­takes, as he hadn’t been lis­ten­ing.

“Where did he mess up?” He stood by the ta­ble, lis­ten­ing care­fully for an er­ror. “Did you hear it?”

The son was ex­cited; he hummed the seg­ment that was just played and pointed out the er­ror to his father. His father couldn’t hear it, and hes­i­tated.

“How about I go with you?” his son asked. The father looked at his wife. She said: “I don’t un­der­stand any of this. You go with him.”

The mother stayed put, as the father and son went to talk to the pi­anist. They stood next to the pi­ano and waited for him to fin­ish the song. The pi­anist looked at them, not know­ing why they had come. No mat­ter what they had to say, he couldn’t stop play­ing. It wasn’t a class­room or pri­vate les­son where peo­ple would switch off and com­pare. Thus, as soon as he stopped play­ing, the father ex­plained why they were there, that his son wanted to play some­thing. He asked if his son could give it a try. The pi­anist agreed. They quickly swapped places, and the child started to play.

The father told his col­league that he’d made a few mis­takes and his son took pi­ano quite se­ri­ously, that to hu­mor him, they had to let him play the piece again. The other pi­anist smiled, think­ing noth­ing of it. They lis­tened to the child play. He fin­ished play­ing. He stopped, and looked up at the pi­anist. “Did you hear it?” The pi­anist said: “You play nicely, but lack en­ergy.”

The mu­sic couldn’t stop for too long. He had the child give his seat back to him, as he had to con­tinue play­ing.

He played an­other song, show­ing the child how to play with en­ergy. He swayed his body back and forth, and smiled at the child. He poured him­self into the mu­sic, but the child fur­rowed his brow.

He said to his father: “He’s not play­ing it right.”

But as to what wasn’t right, he couldn’t say. The boy wanted to play an­other song af­ter this one was fin­ished, but his father en­cour­aged him to re­turn to his seat. He was a good child, and joined his mother and father at the ta­ble.

They re­al­ized that their son was no longer eat­ing. He couldn’t eat, as he was con­cen­trated wholly on the mu­sic, as if he was fo­cus­ing all his ef­fort on find­ing in­cor­rect notes. He said he was full. He took the nap­kin out from his col­lar, laid it on the ta­ble, and con­tin­ued to lis­ten to the mu­sic.

The par­ents con­tin­ued to eat; they were al­most at the end of the meal.

“An­other mis­take!”

THE SUMP­TU­OUS LIGHTS SUD­DENLY FELT LIKE AN ENOR­MOUS BUR­DEN AS HE LOOKED AT THE OTHER CHIL­DREN HIS AGE, DIN­ING

The father asked the waiter to bring the check, re­mind­ing him that the man­ager of­fered them a 50-per­cent dis­count. As they waited for the check, the child in­sisted that an­other note had been played in­cor­rectly.

“We can’t bother him again,” said the father. The child was dis­tressed. The mother said that oth­ers couldn’t hear the mis­takes, and that it was no big deal if one or two notes were off. It was a pi­ano in a restau­rant, not a con­cert hall; it wasn’t that im­por­tant.

The child said it was about the mu­sic, not the venue.

They didn’t want this rare chance of a meal to end on an un­happy note, and told the child they’d take him over one more time.

The father handed his wal­let to his wife, and took his son over to the pi­ano. “Did I make an­other mis­take?” The other pi­anist smiled as he asked the child the ques­tion. The father smiled apolo­get­i­cally at his col­league. The pi­anist found the child in­ter­est­ing, and let him play an­other tune. The child started play­ing, but in his ag­i­ta­tion and over­con­cen­tra­tion, played some notes wrong him­self. The mu­sic stopped abruptly. “It’s no big deal, keep play­ing,” said the pi­anist. He started from the top. An­other mis­take. The man­ager had heard the mu­sic stop twice, and came over to see what was go­ing on.

As he walked over, the child be­gan to play flu­idly. Al­though he wasn’t sat­is­fied with his own play­ing, he didn’t make any more mis­takes.

The man­ager, pi­anist, and father all stood by the pi­ano un­til he fin­ished the song.

The father sighed a sigh of re­lief, made a dis­play of con­tri­tion, and walked over to his wife who had paid the bill. The mu­sic started again. An­other mis­take. The boy be­gan lis­ten­ing again, as if pos­sessed. By this time they’d al­ready walked out into the cor­ri­dor. The child stopped, turned around and walked back. He ran along to the side of the dragon tree, as his father fol­lowed him. While he was still play­ing the song, the child told the pi­anist he’d made an­other mis­take.

The child was be­com­ing up­set; he was dis­gusted with the pi­anist. It was all over his face. How­ever, the pi­anist was no longer pay­ing at­ten­tion to him, think­ing he was just there to cause mis­chief.

The father caught up to him, and the man­ager came over also. The song fin­ished. The pi­anist started the next one, not giv­ing the child an op­por­tu­nity to butt in. The child heard an­other in­cor­rect note, and be­gan to scream.

The father cov­ered his mouth. The cus­tomers were al­ready look­ing over. The man­ager was very up­set, and asked them to leave im­me­di­ately. The father pulled his son away.

They got into the el­e­va­tor and reached the ground floor. In the el­e­va­tor, the child leaned upon his mother. She placed her hand on his shoul­der and felt his body trem­bling. She waited with him as her hus­band went to change out of his suit, rub­bing his back to com­fort him.

The mu­sic rang out in his heart, the song loop­ing over and over in his mind, the wrong note sound­ing at the same place with each rep­e­ti­tion. He tried to cor­rect the mis­take in his mind, but the note sounded stronger each time. It seemed to af­fect the rest of the com­po­si­tion; it was a pol­luted song.

His father came out, say­ing noth­ing, and pat­ted his son’s shoul­der. The par­ents walked on ei­ther side of the child to­ward the en­trance of the ho­tel.

He knew he couldn’t leave his lobby. Once he walked through that door, his chance was gone.

He wouldn’t leave. He begged his father to let him go up and play the piece again, just once, just one last time. He needed to hear it played cor­rectly or else he’d go crazy, such a good song be­ing de­stroyed like that.

His mother con­tin­ued to gen­tly rub his back, telling him to calm down.

He begged his father once more, say­ing he was the only one who could un­der­stand his wishes.

The father looked at his wife, but he hadn’t heard where the song was played wrong, or how it was wrong. Per­haps it was an­other note, or maybe there was a shift in the em­pha­sis, or else he wouldn’t have heard. Maybe it was just his son cre­at­ing a ruckus. He’d only heard once, just once, an er­ror in the play­ing that he was sure was real, where the wrong key had been struck. He hadn’t heard any of the other “er­rors.”

He wanted to be done with this; there was no need to fur­ther dis­turb

HE TRIED TO COR­RECT THE MIS­TAKE IN HIS MIND, BUT THE NOTE SOUNDED STRONGER EACH TIME; IT WAS A POL­LUTED SONG

HE COULDN'T LET THIS MELODY KEEP SINK­ING INTO HIS HEART LIKE A GREAT FANG

the other pi­anist or the restau­rant pa­trons. But the child stub­bornly re­fused to leave. He had dis­cov­ered his father was no longer sym­pa­thetic.

His dis­ap­point­ment was trans­ferred to his father, to­ward the man who had brought him into the world of mu­sic, who no longer un­der­stood his feel­ings.

He only wished for one thing, to be able to cor­rect the er­ror with his own hands. He couldn’t al­low the er­ror to per­sist, he had to cor­rect it, he couldn’t let this melody keep sink­ing into his heart like a great fang.

He tugged at his father’s hand, plead­ing with him. For the first time, he felt his par­ents were a ter­ri­ble bur­den. He felt he’d rather be with­out them. To be faced with such bit­ter­ness, he felt he’d rather not have been born.

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