This was my first published piece of fiction. How it came about is somewhat interesting.
It was the middle of winter in Antarctica, and I was sitting at the round table in the kitchen of the Berg Field Center, sipping a cup of hot tea, listening to the Antarctic wind howl outside, and wondering what I should write about. My eyes fell on a postcard posted on the wall over the sink. It was a rendition of an oriental painting, with mist-enshrouded mountains in the background, a village nestled in a valley, and a young boy carrying a bucket on a stick over his shoulders.
That postcard sparked something, and I just started writing. I have no idea where the story came from or how it flowed out of me so seamlessly. I had been thinking about the Japanese poetry style called Haiku, where there are three lines only, each with a specific number of syllables, and where the third line ties together the other two in some clever way. I wondered if it would be possible to write a story as a three-part prose Haiku. This was my attempt at doing just that.
“Flowers in the Field” was published in the small, literary journal Cicada and was later nominated for the Pushcart Prize in short fiction.
FLOWERS IN THE FIELD
The old man was sitting beneath a willow tree, his legs crossed, his face calm, his eyes closed. Hsuin Ling approached along the path, his bucket dangling by a line over his shoulder. He wondered why the old man was alone and, without thinking, left the path and wandered over to the tree. With a plop, he set the bucket on the ground. A moment passed.
Without stirring, the old man said, “Why do you stare, little one?” He opened his eyes and looked at Hsuin. “Have you never seen a man sitting at peace?”
Hsuin shrugged, embarrassed.
“Sit,” said the old man. “Will you offer me a berry?”
Hsuin pushed his bucket toward the elder. A firm, bony hand reached out and plucked a single blackberry from inside. The old man chewed it, slowly and deliberately, as if extracting every bit of flavor and essence before committing it to his stomach. He looked again at Hsuin and smiled.
“The forest was good to you today, was it not?”
“What is your name, young one?”
“Ah! So you can speak! And, it would seem, you live in yon village.” He pointed to the rooftops visible at the bottom of the hill. “What do you do there?”
“I study, and help gather food.”
“And what do you study?”
“Mathematics, and writing, and carpentry.”
“Do you wish to be a carpenter?”
Hsuin shrugged again.
“Your shoulders do the work of many,” said the old man. “Now tell me who I am.”
“You are an old man.”
The old man broke into laughter. “Indeed! Very, very old am I! Your eye is discerning. Now tell me, what do I do?”
Hsuin started to shrug, then stopped. The question made him uncomfortable. “I don’t know,” he said finally.
“Ah. I will tell you, then.” He leaned forward and whispered, “I am the one who replaces the stars after they have fallen.”
Hsuin’s eyes widened. “How do you do that?” he asked.
The old man laughed again, “If I told you, then do you suppose it would still be a secret?” He stopped laughing and stared at Hsuin. “But you believe me, though?”
Hsuin nodded, still wide-eyed.
“Good. Watch closely tonight. Seven stars shall fall, and seven stars shall I put back in their rightful place.” He leaned back against the tree. “Go now, young one. Your berries have a destiny to fulfill.”
Hsuin rose and picked up his bucket. He hesitated for a moment, then asked, “Would you like another?”
The old man looked up at him, smiled again, and said nothing. He straightened his back and closed his eyes. Hsuin backed away, then turned and made his way to the path. When he looked back, the bucket once more slung over his shoulder, the old man was gone.
* * * * * *
The night air was damp and heavy. Hsuin lay on a woven mat, staring up into the sky. A sudden gentle breeze rustled the nearby trees and Hsuin pulled his blanket closer. The stars seemed to twinkle more than usual tonight, restlessly jostling around as if anxious to be going somewhere.
There! There was another! A star flew from its perch and streaked brightly across the sky, a swiftly fading arrow of light.
Hsuin’s eyes searched the clear heavens. There were so many of them, he thought, so many mysterious points of light in a black sky. Yet if they fell like this every night and were never replaced, then surely there would soon be none left.
At supper Hsuin’s father had said that the old man was telling a story to fool gullible children, that he had never seen that particular old man before, and that it didn’t matter, eat your rice. Hsuin was puzzled. Whom should he believe? Though he saw stars falling, none seemed to be missing.
He heard a noise from inside his house and started, holding his breath. No, it was nothing. Perhaps just his father talking in his sleep. Hsuin turned back to the stars and breathed again. If he were caught out here he would be in trouble. He had never stayed up all night before, and had never been out of the house after the tenth hour. But he had to know. If the stars were to be put back he wanted to see it.
A nightbird called in the distance. It was strange to be awake when all but a few birds and insects were asleep. The whole village was in a deep slumber, and he, Hsuin, was watching the stars. There! Another one, even brighter than the last, its trail dividing the sky nearly in half.
Certainly someone should guard the night. What if all the stars fell, or even the moon? No one would ever know because no one would be awake to see it. Unless… Could the old man replace them all?
He was tired, so very tired, and there were so many questions. Hsuin resolved to go back to the willow tree by the path. He would wait. Perhaps sooner or later the old man would return and explain some of these things.
The night grew colder and damper. A light dew settled on his blanket. He began to shiver but didn’t mind; it helped him to stay awake. Once he dozed then awoke with a start, afraid he might have missed something.
A long time later, it seemed, the eastern sky began to lighten. One by one the stars surrendered their light to the rising sun. Hsuin rose, folded his blanket, and gathered up his mat. He knew he must hurry in before his parents awakened. Perhaps sleep for an hour or two. He stole one last glance at the sky. He was disappointed. He had seen nothing that looked like the stars being replaced. And yet…
It was all very confusing. He was too weary to consider it deeply now, too sleepy to look for answers that weren’t there. He was certain of one thing, though.
He had counted the fall of exactly seven stars.
* * * * * *
Dr. Hsuin Ling stood on the hill overlooking the village. It was the same, and not the same. It was still small, still nestled snugly in the valley that nurtured it, still surrounded by green forests and fields. But it had grown older. The vibrancy of youth was past, or perhaps Hsuin was just thinking of himself. Still, like himself, most of the young people had chosen to move away, to seek the excitement of the city instead of remaining at the place of their birth and learning the trades of their fathers. Hsuin sighed. In many ways he longed for the life he had forsaken, for the peacefulness that seemed as much a part of his old home as were the hills and trees and clean, pine-scented air.
Yet he knew there could have been no other choice. His curious mind would never have been satisfied with a simple trade, and with nights of only looking up and wondering at the stars. He had to know, to seek, to actively search for answers. So, against the wishes of his father, he had left. He had gone to the university, worked and studied and struggled his way to the top. He had turned a lifelong dream into reality: Dr. Hsuin Ling, astronomer and physicist. Yet, though he had chosen a life so unlike that of his father, Hsuin had not entirely forsaken the trade. Carpentry, woodcarving, working the Tao of the grain; these were still a cherished part of his life. Even his busy schedule allowed him a few evenings and free moments for that. He looked again at the rooftops below him and felt that he had the best of both worlds.
He also knew that this might be the last time he would ever return to his home village. The father who had never forgiven him had died long ago, but afterwards Hsuin had come as often as possible to visit his aging mother. With her death yesterday, his last reason for coming back was gone. And, in a way, her death characterized the village. It too was dying; slowly, peacefully, with dignity, but dying nonetheless. Perhaps not the town itself as much as the way of life it represented. He hoped he was wrong. He looked around at the rustling trees, the quiet hills, and the hazy distant mountains and wished it could never change.
An old man was walking toward him on the well worn path. He would stop every few moments and carefully study one of the wildflowers that speckled the grassy knoll with tiny shocks of yellow, red, and violet. Spring was showing its strength and Hsuin knew that the blackberries, his blackberries, would be just now taking shape; little gnarled buds of green beneath delicate white blossoms.
The old man drew closer and Hsuin’s eyes were drawn to him. So old was he, so like–
Hsuin started and focused his gaze as a dim, faded memory stirred deep within. Something from long ago…
Slowly at first, then all with a rush of recognition and disbelief, Hsuin knew him! But it’s not possible! he thought, his head reeling. This couldn’t be the same old…Why, forty odd years had passed! Yet the quiet face approaching Hsuin was unmistakable, the image forever stamped into his mind from a single mysterious encounter, the character of a dream sprung suddenly to life. The man had seemed so old then! How…?
Without thinking, Hsuin moved toward him.
The old man rose from his careful scrutiny of a poppy and regarded Hsuin. No, thought Hsuin dazedly, not even the smile had changed.
“Ah, yes,” said the old man, slowly nodding his head. “Are you waiting for your blackberries to ripen?”
Hsuin was barely able to control himself. He felt dizzy. It was as though the intervening years had never passed. Memories of childhood flooded back; bittersweet images, sadness and joy, parents, brothers, forgotten friends, lost loves, lost dreams, long, lonely vigils on this very hill, waiting in vain for this benign face to return. There had been so many questions! Yet now they wouldn’t come. Hsuin could only shake his head and say, “It will be many weeks yet.” And then he felt foolish.
The old man nodded again, his eyes never leaving Hsuin’s face. “Yes, yes,” he said. “That is very true.” He moved to continue along the path, but Hsuin called out to him.
“Old man,” he said. “Do you still put the stars back after they’ve fallen?”
The old man turned and looked at him. His expression was one of mild surprise. “The stars?” He shook his head. “No. The stars are your responsibility now. I look to the flowers. Someone must put them back in the fields each spring.”
He resumed making his slow, careful way along the path. Hsuin watched him until he was a tiny figure, disappearing into the woods. And for reasons he would never be able to discern, Hsuin’s eyes filled with tears.