An extract from ‘Taming Poison Dragons’

Taming Poison DragonsWestern China. Spring, 1196.

Daughter-in-law chides me mercilessly.

‘Honoured Father,’ she says. ‘Why do you not wear the flannel shirt I sewed for you? Did I blunt my best needle so you wouldn’t wear it, heh?’

She betrays her lack of breeding through this casual ‘heh’, and I wonder if I chose a proper wife for my son.

‘Your tender concern is a mark of true duty,’ I reply. ‘But Daughter-in-law’s best needle rests against her teeth.’

Such ripostes keep her quiet for a while. She’s working out my meaning.

‘Honoured Father, you do not eat enough millet for breakfast. You will catch cold. And your bowels will suffer. Do not blame me when you run like Babbling Brook?’

‘Give me the millet, woman. Don’t you know it is my nature to babble like a stream?’

Eldest Son coughs. He has inherited my straight back, and tallness, but little else. Where my face is restless, and given to many moods, his is round and bland as a full moon. He often furrows his brow slightly when perturbed. Today is no exception.

‘Be still, wife,’ he warns, and for once she subsides.

We listen to the gibbons crying in the woods above Wei Village.

‘Father, will you fish today?’ he asks.

I cannot help myself.

‘I’ve been a fisherman all my life, whether I go to Babbling Brook or not. Do you remember when I taught you The Fisherman’s Song? You were just a boy.’

He clears his throat. He remembers. In ways I might not like.

‘What news in the letter you received, Honoured Father?’ demands Daughter-in-law. ‘You promised to tell us.’

‘Ah,’ I say. ‘That letter is like blossom. Who knows when it will bear fruit?’

While I scoop millet with my chopsticks I sense frustrated glances. One can be too distant.

‘It is from my old friend, P’ei Ti. He promises to visit us soon.’

‘Quite so,’ says my son anxiously, weighing what is expected of him from such a guest.

Daughter-in-law flutters. She hates to be caught out, so I help her.

‘You must set aside wine. No more is needed for old men. We like to drink and feed on our memories.’

‘Just wine, heh? Is this P’ei Ti noble?’

‘Of course!’ rebukes my son. ‘Have you not heard Father speak of him? His Excellency P’ei Ti is the Second Chancellor to the Son of Heaven. He has the ear of His Imperial Majesty!’

‘Just wine,’ I say, gently. ‘The rest will take care of itself.’

In my heart I am less sure; and secretly ashamed of our simple life here, though I bear the title ‘Lord’. So does every cock on its fence. It is no small obligation to greet a man like P’ei Ti at your door.


Our home, known locally as Three-Step-House, perches on the contours of a hill above the village. It consists of three large buildings, all of one storey, connected by brick-lined stairs cut into the hillside. The lowest building is fronted by a walled courtyard and gatehouse. The rooms are constructed of maple and pine, with red tile roofs. Terracotta lions, dragons and phoenixes decorate the eaves like guardian spirits. As a small boy I believed they came to life when I was asleep, hopping from ridge to ridge, conversing in the language of the Eight Winds.

For the next week Three-Step-House is invaded by an army of scents, marshalled by Daughter-in-law. She is preparing lucky sauces for the visit. Aniseed bears the scent of dignity; limes are tart as watchful marriage brokers, and as powerful. Daughter-in-law’s angular face grows flushed as she works, determined not to be shamed. The maid and a girl from the village are her assistants.

Lame Fui, the wine-seller, delivers a dozen jars which I insist on testing for worthiness. That night I take down my lute and sing half the Book Of Songs before my son leads me to bed. He does not comprehend that I am singing to the sickle moon, and that she doesn’t care if I’m in tune. I might even labour my point in rhyme. Yet I sleep well, ghosts banished.

I almost prefer anticipating P’ei Ti to his arrival, and tell my son so. He nods gravely, then excuses himself to oversee the peasants. Later he takes out his small bow and shoots fowl in the reeds around the river. Daughter-in-law anxiously watches the road climbing through Wei Village. She dresses with special care, her hair piled a foot high, and held in place with combs shaped like dragons and phoenixes.

Even my grandsons are infected by the fever. I inflame them further by relating stories of P’ei Ti’s illustriousness, and my less glorious deeds when we were young. I teach them an old song:

Yoking my chariot I’m merciless to the horse.

Ride like a prince through the streets of Lo.

In Lo Town everything pleases me!

High and low mingle like thieves.

The widest streets need lanes to join them.

How noble the houses of the Royal Counts!

A long feast keeps us young and thoughtless,

Casting no shadows for sorrow to haunt.

The children sing it over and over in high, excited voices. Eldest Son only dares to rebuke them when he thinks I cannot hear.

Later, my eye strays to the three bronze-bound chests I brought here when I returned in disgrace. Decades have darkened the wood. The varnish has cracked like lines on a face. I unwrap a bundle from my long, maple-wood chest, and with unsteady hands, take out my old sword. Its vermilion tassels have faded. It is too heavy for me to twirl as I once did. Gripping the hilt fills me with repugnance and a strange excitement, so I put it away, afraid of what I have become. When I look up my quiet son is watching from the doorway. I brush away tears and pretend to have runny eyes.

‘Father,’ he says, softly. ‘Why not test another of Lame Fui’s jars before we eat?’

A good son. I reward his thoughtfulness by reciting some of my poems. He stifles yawns behind a dragging sleeve.

© Tim Murgatroyd 2010