The Second Tale of Yun Tianming “The Glutton’s Sea”
Once they were outside the palace, the captain drove the horses as fast as they would go. All three were anxious. In the brightening darkness, they felt danger looming in every shadowy copse and field they passed. After the sky brightened even more, the carriage came to the top of a hill, where the captain stopped so they could look back along the road. The kingdom spread out below the hill, and the road was like a straight line that divided the world in half. At the end of the line was the palace, looking like a pile of toy blocks forgotten on the horizon. No one was chasing after them; apparently Prince Ice Sand thought the princess no longer existed because she had been captured by Needle-Eye’s brush.
They continued in a more relaxed manner. As the sky continued to brighten and illuminate everything around them, the world resembled a picture being painted. At first, there were only vague outlines and hazy colors; later, the outlines became more defined, the colors richer and more vivid. The moment just before the sun rose was when the painting became complete.
The princess, who had always lived in the palace, had never seen such large patches of vibrant colors: the green of forests, grassland, and fields, the bright red and brilliant yellow of wildflowers, the silver of the sky reflected in lakes and ponds, the snowy white of flocks of sheep … As the sun rose, it was as if the painter of this world-picture scattered a handful of gold dust boldly over the surface of the painting.
“It’s so lovely outside,” said the princess. “It’s as if we’re already in the picture.”
“That’s true,” said Auntie Wide, spinning the umbrella. “But you’re alive in this picture. In the other picture, you’re already dead.”
The princess was reminded of her departed parents. She forced herself to not cry. She understood that she was no longer a young girl, but a queen with duties she had to bear.
They talked about Prince Deep Water.
“Why was he exiled to Tomb Island?” asked the princess. “They say he’s a monster,” said the captain.
“Prince Deep Water is no monster!” said Auntie Wide. “They say he’s a giant.”
“He’s no giant. I held him when he was a baby. I know.”
“When we get to the sea, you’ll see. Many others have seen him. He really is a giant.”
“Even if he’s a giant, he’s still the prince,” said the princess. “Why was he exiled to the island?”
“He wasn’t exiled. When he was little, he took a boat to Tomb Island to fish. But that was when the
glutton fish appeared in the sea. He couldn’t come back, so he had to grow up on the island.”
* * *
Now that it was light out, the road gradually filled with more pedestrians and carriages. Since the princess had rarely set foot outside the palace in the past, people did not recognize her. She was also wearing a veil so that only her eyes showed, but anyone who saw her still exclaimed at her beauty. The people also admired the handsome young carriage driver and chuckled at the sight of the silly old mother holding up the umbrella for her pretty daughter—and what a strange way to keep the umbrella up! It was a bright, sunny day, and everyone thought it was a parasol.
It was noon, and the captain shot two hares with his bow. The three ate by the side of the road in an open space between some trees. Princess Dewdrop caressed the soft grass next to her, inhaled the fragrance of herbs and wildflowers, watched the sunlight dappling the ground, and listened to the birds singing in the woods and some distant shepherd playing his flute—she was curious and delighted by this new world.
But Auntie Wide sighed. “Oh, Princess, I’m so sorry you have to be away from the palace, suffering.” “I think being outside is better than being in the palace.”
“Silly girl, how can out here be better than the palace? You don’t know what it’s like out here. Right now, it’s spring. But in winter, it’s cold, and in summer, it’s hot. There are gales, and rainstorms, and all kinds of different people out here—”
“I never knew anything about the outside before. In the palace, I studied music, painting, poetry, mathematics, and two languages that no one speaks anymore. But no one told me what was outside. How am I supposed to govern this kingdom?”
“Princess, your ministers will help you.”
“The ministers who would have helped me have all been painted into pictures.… I still think the outside is better.”
* * *
A day’s journey lay between the palace and the sea. But the princess’s party avoided the major roads and towns, so they didn’t reach the sea until midnight.
Dewdrop had never seen such a wide, open sky full of stars, and for the first time she felt how dark and silent the night could be. The torch on the carriage could only illuminate a small patch around her, and the world beyond was black velvet. The horses’ hoofbeats seemed loud enough to shake the stars from the sky. The princess pulled on the captain’s arm and asked him to stop.
“Listen! What is that? It sounds like a giant breathing.” “It’s the sound of the sea, Princess.”
They went on a bit farther, and the princess could see vague shapes on both sides—giant bananas? “What are these?”
The captain stopped, hopped down, and took the torch close to one of the objects. “Princess, you should recognize these.”
“Why are the boats … on land?” “Because the sea has glutton fish.”
The light from the captain’s torch revealed a long-abandoned boat. The sand buried half of it, and the exposed part seemed like the skeleton of some beast.
“Look over there!” The princess pointed ahead. “A big white snake!”
“Don’t be scared, Princess. That’s not a snake, but the surf. We’ve reached the sea.”
The princess and Auntie Wide, who kept the umbrella over her, climbed down from the carriage. She had only seen the sea in pictures before, and those painted seas were blue waves under a blue sky. But the sea she saw now was a black ocean at night, filled with the grandness and mystery of starlight, like another sky in liquid form. The princess advanced toward the sea, as if compelled by some force. The captain and Auntie Wide stopped her.
“It’s dangerous to get too close,” said the captain.
“I don’t think the water is very deep. Will I drown?”
“The glutton fish will tear you apart and eat you!” said Auntie Wide.
The captain picked up a loose plank lying nearby and walked ahead, tossing it into the sea. The plank bobbed over the water a few times before a black shadow surfaced and headed for it. Since most of the shadowy creature was underwater, it was hard to tell how large it was. The scales on its body flickered in the torchlight. Then, three or four more shadows surfaced and also swam for the plank. The shadows fought over the plank, and as the water splashed, the sound of sharp teeth sawing through and crunching the wood could be heard. In a few moments, the shadows and the plank all disappeared.
“They could make short work of even a large ship,” said the captain. “Where’s Tomb Island?” asked Auntie Wide.
“In that direction.” The captain pointed at the horizon. “But we can’t see it now. We’ll have to wait until daylight.”
They camped on the beach. Auntie Wide handed the spinning umbrella to the captain and retrieved a small wooden basin from the carriage.
“Princess, I’m afraid you won’t be able to bathe tonight. But at least you can wash your face.”
The captain handed the umbrella back to Auntie Wide and took the basin to go find water. His figure disappeared in the night.
“What a good young man.” Auntie Wide yawned.
The captain returned with a basin full of fresh water. Auntie Wide took out the princess’s bath soap and touched it to the water. With a pop, the surface of the water became full of foam, and some of the foam spilled out the sides.
The captain stared at the soap foam. He turned to Auntie Wide. “May I see the soap?”
Auntie Wide carefully handed over the pure white bath soap. “Hold on tight! It’s lighter than a feather. If you let go, it will float away.”
The captain hefted the soap; it seemed to have no weight at all, like holding a white shadow. “This really is from He’ershingenmosiken! I’m amazed we still have any.”
“I think only two bars are left in the entire palace—no, the entire kingdom. I saved one from years back for the princess. Anything from He’ershingenmosiken is superior, but fewer and fewer of these objects are left.” Auntie Wide took back the bath soap and carefully packed it away.
As she watched the white foam, the princess recalled her life in the palace for the first time since the start of the journey. Every night, in her elegant, ornate bathing suite, the bathing pool was covered by foam just like this. In the light of the various lamps, the bubbles sometimes looked pure white like a cloud pulled from the sky, sometimes iridescent, like a pile of jewels. As she soaked among the bubbles, she felt her body turn soft as noodles, felt herself melt into the bubbles. It felt so comfortable that she didn’t want to move anymore, so that the servant girls had to lift her out, dry her, and then carry her to the bed to sleep. The wonderful feeling lasted until the next morning.
After the princess washed her face with the He’ershingenmosiken bath soap, her face felt relaxed and soft, but her body remained tired and stiff. After a quick supper, she lay down on the beach—she tried lying on a blanket first, then realized that it was more comfortable to sleep on the sand directly. The sand retained some of the heat of the day, and made her feel as though she were being held in a warm, giant palm. The rhythmic surf was like a lullaby, and she soon fell asleep.
After an unknown amount of time, Princess Dewdrop was awakened by a ringing bell. The sound came from the black umbrella spinning overhead. Auntie Wide was asleep next to her, and the umbrella-spinner was the captain of the guards. The torches had already been extinguished, and night covered all like black velvet. The captain appeared as a cutout against the starry sky, and only his armor reflected the starlight, while his hair swayed with the wind. The umbrella spun steadily in his hand, a tiny dome that blocked out half the sky. She couldn’t see his eyes, but could feel them and innumerable twinkling stars gazing at her.
“Sorry, Princess. I spun a bit too fast,” whispered the captain. “What time is it?”
“We seem to be farther away from the sea.”
“It’s low tide. Tomorrow morning, the water will come back.” “Have you been taking turns with the umbrella?”
“Yes. Auntie Wide did it for the whole day. I’ll relieve her by doing it a bit longer tonight.” “But you drove all day. Let me do it. You get some rest.”
Princess Dewdrop was a bit surprised by her own words. As far as she could remember, this was the first time she had ever thought about the needs of others.
“No, Princess. Your hands are smooth and delicate; spinning the umbrella will give you blisters. Let me keep on doing this.”
“What is your name?”
Though they’d traveled together for a whole day, she hadn’t thought to ask for his name until now. Before, she would have thought this perfectly normal. But now she felt a bit guilty.
“I’m called Long-Sail.”
“Sail?” The princess looked around. They were camped by the side of a large boat on the beach, which shielded them from the wind. Unlike the other boats stranded on the beach, this one still had its mast, like a
sword pointing at the stars. “Isn’t a sail the cloth hung on the long stick?”
“Yes. That’s called a mast. The sail hangs from it so that the wind can push the boat.” “Sails are so white on the sea. Very pretty.”
“Only in pictures. Real sails are not so white.” “I believe you are from He’ershingenmosiken?”
“That’s right. My father was an architect in He’ershingenmosiken. He brought our whole family here when I was little.”
“Do you ever think about going home—I mean, to He’ershingenmosiken?”
“Not really. I was so young when I left that I don’t remember much of it. And even if I do remember, it’s useless. I can never leave the Storyless Kingdom.”
The waves crashed against the beach some distance away, as though repeating Long-Sail’s words again and again: can never leave; can never leave …
“Tell me some stories about the outside world. I don’t know anything,” said the princess.
“You don’t need to know. You are the princess of the Storyless Kingdom, and it’s natural that the kingdom has no stories for you. As a matter of fact, no one outside the palace tells their children any stories either. But my parents were different. They were from He’ershingenmosiken, and so they did tell me some stories.”
“My father told me that long ago, the Storyless Kingdom had stories, too.”
“That’s true.… Princess, do you know that the kingdom is surrounded by the sea? The palace is at the center of the kingdom. No matter which direction you pick, you’ll end up eventually at the shore. The Storyless Kingdom is a big island.”
“Of course. I knew that.”
“In the past, the sea around the kingdom wasn’t called the Glutton’s Sea. Back then, there were no glutton fish, and ships plied the waters freely. Every day, countless ships passed between the Storyless Kingdom and He’ershingenmosiken—well, back then, this was called the Storyful Kingdom, and life was very different.”
“Life was full of stories, and filled with changes and surprises. There were several big bustling cities in the kingdom, and the palace wasn’t surrounded by forests and fields, but by a flourishing capital. Everywhere in the cities you could find the valuable goods and the singular tools and utensils of He’ershingenmosiken. And the goods of the Storyless Kingdom—oh, I mean the Storyful Kingdom—flowed to He’ershingenmosiken over the sea without cease. People’s lives were unpredictable, like riding a fast horse through the mountains: One moment you’d be atop a peak, and the next moment you’d have fallen into a ravine. There was opportunity and danger: A poor person could become rich overnight, and a wealthy person could also lose everything in a moment. Upon awakening, no one knew what was going to happen that day, or who they were going to meet. Life was stimulating and astonishing.
“But one day, a merchant ship from He’ershingenmosiken brought a stock of rare small fish in cast-iron barrels. The fish was only about as long as a finger, black in color, and looked perfectly ordinary. The merchant performed for the public in the markets: He stuck a sword into the iron barrel, and after an ear- piercing series of grinding noises, pulled the sword out to show that it had been bitten into a saw. The fish were called glutton fish, a freshwater species found in dark pools deep in the caves of He’ershingenmosiken.
“The glutton fish sold very well in the kingdom. Although the fish’s teeth were tiny, they were as hard as diamonds and could be used as drill heads. Their fins were also very sharp, and could be made into arrowheads or small knives. Thus, more and more glutton fish were shipped from He’ershingenmosiken to this kingdom. Once, a typhoon caused one of these transport ships to capsize near the coast, and more than twenty barrels of glutton fish were lost at sea.
“It turned out that the glutton fish thrived in the ocean, and grew to be as long as a man, far larger than their freshwater form. Also, they bred quickly, and their population exploded. They began to eat everything that floated on the surface. Ships and boats that weren’t dragged onto the shore in time were chewed into pieces. When glutton fish surrounded a ship, they chewed huge holes through the bottom. But the ship didn’t even have time to sink before it was chewed into nothing, as though it had melted. The schools of glutton fish swam around the kingdom and quickly formed a barrier in the sea.
“And so the glutton fish laid siege to the Storyful Kingdom, and the shore became a land of death. There were no more ships and sails, and the kingdom was sealed off, with all connections to He’ershingenmosiken and the larger world cut off. It reverted to a self-sufficient agrarian land. The bustling cities disappeared and turned into small towns and ranches. Life became calm and dull, with no more changes, no more stimulation and surprises. Yesterday was like today, and today is like tomorrow. The people gradually grew used to this and stopped yearning for a different life. Their memories of the past, like the exotic goods from He’ershingenmosiken, grew fewer with each passing day. People even deliberately tried to forget the past, and also the present. All in all, they no longer wanted stories, so they patterned their life into a storyless one. And so the Storyful Kingdom became the Storyless Kingdom.”
Princess Dewdrop was mesmerized by the story. Only long after Long-Sail had stopped did she ask, “Are there still glutton fish everywhere in the sea?”
“No. They live only around the coast of the Storyless Kingdom. Those with good eyes can sometimes see distant seabirds floating on the surface of the ocean hunting for food. There are no glutton fish there. The ocean is immense and boundless.”
“So, there are other places in the world in addition to the Storyless Kingdom and He’ershingenmosiken?” “Princess, do you really think the world consists of only these two places?”
“That’s what the royal tutor taught me when I was little.”
“He doesn’t even believe that lie himself. The world is very, very large. The ocean has no edge, and holds innumerable islands. Some are smaller than the kingdom, others larger. There are even continents.”
“What are continents?”
“Land that is as vast as the sea. Even on a fast horse, you wouldn’t be able to go from one end to the other after many months.”
“As large as all that?” The princess sighed. Then, abruptly, she asked, “Can you see me?” “I can only see your eyes. There are stars in them.”
“Then you must be able to see my yearning. I want to ride a sailboat across the sea, and go to faraway places.”
“Impossible. We can never leave the Storyless Kingdom, Princess, never ever.… If you’re afraid of the dark, let’s light the torches.”
The torches were lit. Princess Dewdrop looked at Captain Long-Sail, but noticed that he was looking elsewhere.
“What are you looking at?” the princess asked softly. “There, Princess—look over there.”
Long-Sail was pointing at a small clump of grass in the sand. A few small droplets glistened in the torchlight on the grass blades.
“Those are called dewdrops,” said Long-Sail. “Ah, like me. Do they look like me?”
“They do. You’re all beautiful, like crystals.”
“When it’s daytime, they’ll be even prettier in the sun.”
The captain sighed deeply. He did it without making any noise, but the princess felt it. “What’s wrong?”
“Dewdrops will evaporate and disappear in the sun.”
The princess nodded. Her eyes dimmed. “Then they’re even more like me. If this umbrella closes, I will disappear. I will be the dewdrop in the sun.”
“I will not let you disappear.”
“You and I both know that we cannot get to Tomb Island, and we can’t bring Prince Deep Water back.” “If so, I’ll just hold the umbrella up for you forever.”
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