The child’s eyes were bright — precocious, many notions running through his noggin. He was awake before the sun arose, because this morning his father was taking him to the river’s edge. His mother rolled rice balls in cassia leaves for her hardy fishermen. The child watched his mother’s fingers knead the sticky paste, and then, with the flat of her palm, roll the mess into perfect globes. He wished he could have one now instead on the skiff, but he knew better than to beg.
“K’ai-men,” she said, her smile lit by the dim lantern. “When you return, I shall fill the kettle with your catch. Your first catch.” She beamed, her sticky hand lifting his chin. She kissed his forehead. “You bring me the best one that the bird snaps up.”
“And listen to your father. He knows the river well, and knows the bird.”
Suddenly, the lantern was on the move. His father had finished his preparations in the far corner of the hut. He was wrangling with a large cormorant that flapped its wings in anticipation of the moment. The child laughed. He was going on the river. He would fill the kettle.
“Do not drop them,” his mother said as she handed him the wrapped rice balls.
“Come, K’ai-men,” his father said. “Take care not to get yourself tangled. The bird is fussy today.”
Li K’ai-men could barely see the way from the hut to the river’s edge. A cool breeze horripilated his chilly arms, so much so that his teeth chattered. A mist kissed his forehead. He tripped over an old willow root, the tree having fallen into the drink many years before his birth.
“Careful, K’ai-men. You must take care not to scare the fish.”
Scare the fish? he thought. So far from the water?
Through the mist, Li K’ai-men spied other lanterns and, far above, over the distant silhouette of the plum-pudding hills, he saw the moon. He sighed. His father nudged him along. The skiff was grounded on the beach. K’ai-men helped push it into the river, and then hopped on board like a tadpole. The bird cawed anxious for a meal, as the skiff drifted toward the other lanterns. Li could see his neighbors, fishermen all, each with their lanterns held high and each with their own frisky bird collared about the neck.
“K’ai-men,” his father said. “You must always remember to keep the bird’s collar on tightly. These birds are greedy and will eat the fish before you have a chance to pull them back. Also, remember to feed the bird. At least one fish for every fifteen will do. Forget to feed the bird and it will cease to fish for you. It will be dead bird! Phwush! The flesh of a cormorant is unlike that of a chicken or a duck. It is not worth having dead. Only its bones are useful then. Phwush!”
Li heard the murmur of voices. The lanterns were raised to fool the fish to think that the moon was brightest and full. A prayer was murmured to enlist the goddess’ aid. It was softly sung over the waters.
“Lady in the Moon come shine your light
Over the pool where swims the carp.
Kiss the waters with your love
And ripple up the fish with your sighing harp.
“See them, K’ai-men?”
And he did see them — the ripple of the carp, their splashing and dancing beneath the flow. His father tapped him on the shoulder, and then smiled in the lantern light. He let loose the bird.
It flew into the river tethered by its foot to the fisherman’s lead. The bird’s long, black neck dove for the kill. Splash. Struggle. Twenty birds took the plunge. The river bubbled with carp. K’ai-men watched their bird as it gorged its mouth with the fish, a silvery flutter in the collective lantern light. However, because the collar was tight, the greedy bird could not swallow the catch.
“Pull it in, K’ai-men. It will be your first catch.”
Li K’ai-men grasped the line. The bird struggled. It wanted to fly away and eat its prize in peace. Li tugged, but needed a firmer grip, which came when he realized that he might lose both catch and bird. That would be a disaster. He yanked hard. Harder still. Then, an angry flutter of wings beat him as he wrestled with the bird on the skiff. It didn’t want to give up its quarry, but Li K’ai-men prevailed. His father refereed until the bird coughed up the carp into Li K’ai-men’s hands.
“I did it, father,” he shouted.
“Do not scare the fish. It is still many hours before the sun rises.” Li Xien beamed at his son. “You are my son. I am proud. To angle the waves with pole and tackle is a feeble way to fish. Ah, but now you know how to fish with the bird. You command it to do what it does best, and then you do what every fisherman knows best. To steal it away and feed his belly.” His father laughed.
Li rolled about the skiff nearly falling into the river. He lay on his belly and spied the fish beneath the surface. In the lantern’s light, he spied his face — a child’s face. Hello, it said. He giggled.
They fished for hours, Li handling the bird again — five more times. When the sun brightened the sky and peeked over the razor cliffs, they hauled ashore the skiff, the fish and the bird — feeding the creature, two fish for thirty caught. It bounced along the rocks still tethered, but now only by its foot. It danced around its meal and flapped its wings, splattering the river in the wake.
Li skipped to the door of the hut. His mother was there, catching him in her arms.
“I caught a fish, mother. I fished with the bird.”
“It is well that you have learned this from your father. You shall never want again under heaven, my son.”
Li was hungry, the congee rice ball hardly enough for a growing boy. He watched his mother build the fire and fill the kettle with water and spices. His father would go to Yang-shuo later — to the market to sell the fish for some copper cash. He would take his son to the tavern, The House of Green Waters, where he would imbibe a bowl of wine while his son watched the old crones play fan-tan in the back room for turnips and rutabagas. But now, Li wanted his fish. The bird had waited, but now ate fine. Li wanted his first catch. He watched over the kettle’s edge as the water boiled.
“Come clean your fish,” his mother said.
However, the boiling water mesmerized the child. It sang the song of the moon to him. The steam bit his nose and tickled his chin. Soon, the fish was plunged into the waters, swimming again, but now with carrots and sweet grass. Li K’ai-men grinned widely above the kettle. Never such a meal could be had again. He had conquered the river.
Li K’ai-men smiled.
Edward C. Patterson
12th Century China comes alive in Edward C. Patterson's The Academician http://www.amazon.com/dp/144149975X