I shuffle around the kitchen in my dressing gown. The floor is cold. It's early. I am loosely aware that outside, the sun is just over a frosty horizon. There's a new covering of snow. It's Sunday.
Why on earth am I even awake, let alone up and about?
The stovetop coffee maker hisses quietly on the hob. How my slow, clumsy hands cleaned it, refilled it and set it to its task at this time of day is a mystery. There's a faint smell of burning bread as the toaster pops its load upwards. I fumble at the door of the fridge, seeking out the milk for my cereal.
There is a knock at the front door. Rap rap rap. Somewhere in my reptile brain, a neuron fires, fails to grab my attention, and fires again. Actually it's not a knock, which is just a functional rapping of bone on wood. This is more definite. It asserts itself and demands my attention, though it is not forceful. It heralds arrival.
Suddenly more awake, I turn towards the dim hallway. A short silhouette greets my eyes in the dawn light beyond the front door.
Postman? No, it’s early. And Sunday.
The door resists my efforts to unlock it. While I jiggle the key in the lock, trying to catch just the right spot to turn it, and cursing at every thwarted effort, the dark figure stands immobile outside, patiently waiting.
I finally wrestle the door open, and find an oriental man on the snowy doorstep.
He is a head shorter than I am, and has a pleasant, clean-shaven, inquisitive face. He looks younger than me. Better looking too. His simple black clothes and shoes are unusual, being neither eastern nor western in style. He holds a folded black leather cap in clasped hands just below his waist. It’s a chilly day; his short-cropped head must be cold without the hat. There is something wonderfully eclectic about him, but somehow the whole effect is balanced and without pretention.
I notice that he is regarding me curiously, as if he had opened the door to me, and is wondering why I was knocking. He smiles.
Excuse me. I seek Indigo Roth, he states simply. Something about his tone suggests that he expects me to know something about this Roth fellow. He's in luck.
Yes, hello, I smile in return. That's me.
He cocks his head slightly, and an array of emotions flicker past my eyes as he tries to find the most appropriate one. Disappointment is in there somewhere, but he rallies well and settles into something neutral. I respect this.
He bows slightly. Forgive me, Mr. Roth, you are not as I expected. I meant no offence.
I shrug, puzzled. None taken, I say as affably as I can muster at this hour of the day. I admire the white-draped beauty of the garden distractedly over his shoulder, and note the small, careful footprints in the snow of the path. My gaze returns to him. How may I help you?
He stands suddenly erect, as if I've hit a key point in the script, and he has lines to deliver. He finesses a battered-looking letter with a wax seal from within a hidden seam in his jacket. The paper looks old, yet supple, and the red wax is crazed but seemingly intact. He holds it close to his chest, between his hands. I have no idea where the cap went.
My name is Li H'sen Chang, he announces formally. I bring a letter for Indigo Roth from the Last Emperor of China.
OK, I didn't see that one coming. He slips the letter back inside his jacket and looks at me quietly, expectantly.
Well then, I find myself saying, you'd better come in.
We move through to the lounge, and I wave him to a comfy chair. I'm curiously unsettled by his bizarre announcement. It sounds outlandish, but there are forgotten memories suddenly jostling for my attention. Memories of stories told to me by my grandmother, in another life, when I was young.
It's a cold day, I'll set us a fire, I mutter, setting about my task at the hearth while I try to rally my thoughts. Chang is silent as I work, perhaps sensing my unease, but has an air of polite attention. He's waiting for me to speak.
But what can I say? What do I remember?
So, Mr. Chang, I finally offer up as I put a long match to some kindling, I'm delighted to meet you, but surprised at your news. I grasp at old memories, but find them surprisingly substantial. The Last Emperor of China, Pu-Yi, was deposed in 1911 during the Xinhai Revolution. The newspaper catches the flame and its light grows. He officially abdicated in 1912, but remained in Beijing’s Forbidden City until 1924. I move some logs expertly, and the fire takes hold. He then went into exile, and after a very colourful life, he died in 1967, the year before I was born.
I look towards the messenger, and ask simply, So how can he have sent me a message?
Chang nods, obviously impressed. Quite so, Mr. Roth. Your recall is precise, and your confusion is understandable. This message has puzzled me for many years. Years? He takes a few breaths, then gently deflects the question with one of his own. May I ask you how you came to know these facts? He bows his head slightly. Again, forgive me, but this is uncommon knowledge for a Westerner.
His deference is rather disarming, but I learned long ago not to confuse it with weakness. The ability to show respect commands respect in turn; few seem to grasp this, and look down on the little people. I decide that, rather than finding offence in the questions of this stranger, I will share with him what I know.
I learned it all from my Grandmother, Mr. Chang. She died when I was a boy, but I remember her telling me stories. I take a seat and talk quietly, suddenly sad, as I stare into the fire.
My favourite story she would tell was written by a man called Kafka, I recall, my tone dropping into the easy tone of a lecturer. In it, an insignificant man in a distant corner of an empire imagines that his Emperor has sent him a message, whispered with his dying breath to a messenger. The man imagines the messenger valiantly carrying the message from the room, fighting to get through the throng of those in attendance. He then pictures him struggling to traverse the teeming ante-rooms, and the busy corridors, down crowded steps, through bustling courtyards, after which he would only have escaped the innermost palace. And onwards the messenger struggles, fighting a relentless press of humanity only to reach another surrounding palace. And so on, through endless palaces for a thousand years, until he breaks free, only to reach the centre of the labyrinthine capital city. His journey has only just begun. The foolish man who imagines all this knows that the message from the Emperor could never be delivered...
... and yet, he sits at his window when evening comes, and dreams of the message, finishes Chang.
My eyes are welling a little. Yes. I sit silently. I've not thought of any of this in twenty five years. I remember my grandmother fondly, she fired my imagination with many such stories. I continue with my recollections, trying to answer Chang's question.
I asked her one day if the story was true. She said it was, and told me about Pu-Yi, who she said she always called Henry. I remember laughing at this silliness, not realising until years later that she was a diplomat of sorts, and may have known him. My voice tails off as I consider this possibility seriously for the first time. She told me that yes, he may have sent such a message. And as a shy, imaginative boy, I was enthralled by the idea. And, like the man in the story, I would sit by my window and dream a foolish dream of an important message sent to me by a dying Emperor.
Chang laughs quietly, but kindly, And yet today, it has arrived.
This is too much. Overwhelming.
In his final days, continues Chang, the Emperor was visited by an old friend; I remember her as a tall, elderly woman. She was strong and fierce, yet she laughed a great deal. He looks at me levelly. Her name was Roth. Juno Roth.
I nod. My grandmother. Wait a minute. What do you mean, you remember?
It was long ago, and it was far away, Mr. Roth. But yes, as a twelve year old boy, the son of a servant, my Emperor gave me a message, and sent me out into the world to deliver it. The message had your name on it.
There are so many questions to ask, but one shoves its way to the front and demands attention.
How has it taken more than forty years to deliver the message, Mr. Chang?
The messenger smiles. Perhaps he has anticipated this question, and considered many possible answers over the years. Again, there is a sense that he’s shuffling through responses, gauging them to find the correct one. In the end he says with quiet, direct honesty, I suppose you might say I took the longer road.
I bark a laugh at this, but my incredulity instantly sublimates to acceptance. It sounds like something I would say.
I regard him more closely; he looks no older than thirty, but in reality he is almost twice that. The road has been kind to you, Mr. Chang, I observe drily. This gets a laugh out of him, and the earnest façade inches aside for a moment as he spreads his arms airily.
I spend my time outdoors. Plenty of exercise, fresh air. He cracks a grin as he shrugs, You know how it is.
I’m too ashamed to tell him that actually, I don’t. But, as he has eyes, I probably don’t need to.
My instructions were to travel by foot, to experience the journey one step at a time. He seems embarrassed as he admits, I was told to deliver the letter when the right time arrived.
There is an awkward moment of silence. We are both aware that History is standing there, waiting for us to complete this scene, to end the play. There will be no applause or catcalls. There will only be the moment. So, onwards.
So. Please may I have the message, Mr. Chang?
Our eyes meet for a second, and he retrieves it from his jacket. He stands and moves closer, but does not hand it to me. The fire crackles behind him.
I have wondered for over forty years about this message. He frowns as he regards the faded letter with its chipped wax seal. He fingers the wax lovingly as he tries to find the right words. About what it contained. About why my Emperor's last message was to the unborn grandson of a friend. About why I, the son of a servant, was chosen to deliver it. He sighs. About these words that I have carried around the world for most of my life.
And did you reach any conclusions? This seems weak, inadequate.
He looks distractedly to the window, not meeting my gaze. Yes. My Emperor blessed me with a mission. To travel, to learn, and to be part of the world. I have met thousands of people. I have helped them when needed, and fought against them when needed. I learned from all of them, though, and perhaps left something of myself behind when I moved on. My life has been an extraordinary adventure. His eyes return to me. Over time, the message itself became less important than the journey to bring it to you.
That sounds like Wisdom to me.
The messenger does not respond.
History coughs, urging me on to the final exchange.
I am a less remarkable man, I say gently, but may I accept your Emperor’s message?
He stares at the letter, struggling to let it go.
Suddenly, there is a shuffling, growling and thumping from upstairs. I pay it no heed; I am well used to it. But it draws Chang's attention. He stands, his head cocked, listening. Heavy footsteps make their way down the stairs and pass the closed door.
Slowly, the messenger walks from the room, drawn by his curiosity. He returns a few seconds later, visibly shocked. There is a lion in your kitchen! he whispers, as an awed look spreads across his face. You live with a lion?
I nod, used to odd reactions to this. Yes. His name is King.
He looks at the letter in his hand one last time, and bows his head as he quickly hands it to me.
I have delivered my Emperor’s message to a noble man.
I take the envelope with quiet deliberation. I notice his gaze drift back to the door as I crack the seal and unfold the ageing, loose-woven paper.
Oh good grief, no. The message is simple.
Please make my son a cup of tea. He’s had a long journey.
My heart sinks. My mind races.
What can I do with this? What can I say?
I scan the paper far longer than the number of words merits, and notice that Chang’s attention has returned to me. He regards me calmly, but I sense it's taking every ounce of his effort to not ask about the letter's contents.
I feel inadequate in the face of this moment.
It is now my turn to decide, to gauge the correct response.
I fold the letter carefully, and hand it quietly back to him.
Your father says he loves you.
The messenger's eyes look startled, unsure. His eyes flick to the envelope and then, after a million thoughts have passed behind them, back to me. There is gratitude and relief in his quiet gaze. He nods, and without a word, he turns and drops the letter message into the fire. In a few seconds, forty years flare gloriously into legend. He then turns to me, his mood lighter, and shakes my hand gently.
Truly, Indigo, I have delivered the message to a noble man.
Twenty minutes pass; I make us some tea, and discover that Mr. Li H'sen Chang has a soft spot for toasted teacakes. We sit comfortably by the fire, swapping tales of our travels, grateful that History has moved along.
We're discussing Marrakech when King wanders in. He eyes Chang meaningfully and says something in what I instinctively know is Mandarin Chinese. The messenger stands to bow low, and offers a few sentences in reply. The lion glances at me briefly. His gaze returns to Chang, and he nods sagely.
Yes, he says in a low growl, I can do that.
Thank you, My Lord. He turns to me. Farewell, Indigo. I may have delivered the message from my Emperor, he beams, but there will always be cause to dream.
And, after helping himself cheekily to the final teacake, the messenger retreats to the hallway, passes through the door into the world, and is gone.
King sighs and regards me quizzically. His mane ripples gently, as though a breeze is moving through the house. He then turns and heads towards the kitchen.
I drank your coffee, he says flatly. And ate your toast. You seemed busy.
King? The lion looks back. What did Chang ask you to do?
The lion chuckles.
He asked me to make you a cup of tea.
He says you have a long journey ahead of you.
This blog entry is protected by copyright © Indigo Roth, 2010/2012