The Man Who Sold Words
IN times gone by there lived in ancient China a man named Lo Shi, who was neither dull nor bright. From early morning till late at night he toiled for others, scraped together a little money and, when the time was ripe, took himself a wife. Then, after he had earned a little more money, he went off with a party of merchants to trade in a distant town by the Great Well.
Lo Shi and the merchants journeyed many days, finally arrived, unloaded their wares and began to trade. It was not long before Lo Shi had sold all he had- for he had not much at all. With the proceeds he purchased a little of this, even less of that, counted out his change and found he still had twenty coins remaining.
'Perhaps I could buy my wife a present with the money,' he pondered. 'That would please her.'
So off he went to the bazaar where he came upon an old white-bearded man crying, 'Words for sale! Words for sale!'
Lo Shi was curious and asked, 'What sort of words are you selling?'
'Words that are spoken,' the man replied.
''Then let's hear your words,' said Lo Shi.
'For the price of twenty coins I'll gladly tell you,' said the man.
'Perhaps they truly are fine words,' thought Lo Shi. He was sorry to give up all his coins and not buy his wife a present, but he badly wished to hear what the old sage had to say.
So he looked at the old man and said, 'Here you are then, old man, twenty coins - now speak.'
The white=bearded man took the coins, stared hard at Lo Shi and said these words:
'Beware of an inn in a valley.
Take no shelter from the rain.
Harken well to a wayfarer's tale.
Wash not your head that's damp with oil.
Learn these words and tell them to Chou Win:
Ee du gootsai, san shin me
(One du of grain, three shins of rice).'
Lo Shi returned to the part of merchants, his head still ringing with the strange words. Next day, the party set off on their return journey. By evening they had come to an inn that stood in a valley at the foot of a tall hill.
The merchants all took rooms for the night in this inn, but Lo Shi, when he saw the inn stood in a valley remembered the first warning of the old sage. Unnoticed by the others he therefore left the inn, climbed to the top of the hill overlooking the valley and prepared to spend the night there.
At midnight Lo Shi was awoken by a loud rumbling. He looked across the valley and saw that a great torrent of water was rushing towards the inn. Hardly had he time to realize what was happening than the torrent had filled
the valley completely.
In the morning, when he awoke and stared down into the valley not a trace of the inn remained. Nothing could be seen but a vast lake on the surface of which floated the bodies of all the drowned merchants with their wares. Lo Shi quickly loaded up his mule and left that ill-fated valley far behind.
Later that day he encountered a man who was going his way. They fell in together and continued the journey in each other's company. But they had not gone far when the sky suddenly clouded over and rain began to fall heavily. The stranger at once proposed that they take shelter from the deluge, but Lo Shi recalled the second warning of the sage and carried on alone.
Meanwhile, the stranger sheltered under an overhanging rock to avoid the rain. Lo Shi had not taken a hundred paces farther when a great crashing sound caused him to glance back. To his horror he saw that the over hanging rock had fallen and crushed the poor stranger. Lo Shi hastily moved on.
It was not long before he came to a town. In this town his cousin lived and worked at the potter's trade. Lo Shi sought out his cousin's house and that distant relative made as if to welcome the unexpected guest. However, when Lo Shi was sound asleep, the cousin fell to thinking cruel thoughts. Of late his business had not been doing well and he saw Lo Shi's visit as an opportunity to change this.
'In ancient times,' the cousin said to his wife, 'it was said that a human sacrifice had to be made in the potter's oven before it did good work. Maybe that is why our oven works so poorly. Let us send Lo Shi to the porter's workshop with food for the workers on the morrow; I'll instruct them to seize and cast into the oven the man who brings them food. That should help our business prosper.'
Next day, as the wife was cooking the dinner, she said to Lo Shi, 'Be so kind, dear cousin, as to take dinners to our workmen at the pottery.'
Being eager to please, Lo Shi readily agreed and hung the yoke over his shoulders with two baskets of food at each side. He had not covered half the distance to the pottery when he came upon a crowd at the roadside, listening to the stories of an old wayfarer. At once Lo Shi remembered the third instruction of the sage and sat down to listen to the story. While he sat there his cousin's eldest son chanced to pass and, seeing his uncle engrossed in the tale, offered to take the men their dinners himself. Lo Shi was pleased to agree.
Of course, as soon as the young man entered the pottery the workmen went to seize him, as their master had commanded. Seeing their master's son, they hesitated. However, fear got the better of them: they were much frightened of their master's wrath should they disobey him. So they took the lad and threw him into the oven.
Lo Shi meantime heard out the story and returned home, blissfully unaware of anything untoward. When his cousin and his cousin's wife caught sight of him, they were greatly amazed, though they tried not to show it.
'Did you take the men their dinners?' asked the cousin.
Lo Shi started to explain, saying, 'When I had gone half way I saw an old storyteller. He was telling such an interesting story that I stopped to listen. As I was sitting there, my nephew, your son, came along...'
At that, the cousin and his wife let out loud groans, causing urged Lo Shi to halt his story.
'Whatever is the matter?' he asked in surprise.
For several moments the two were silent, then the cousin urged Lo Shi to continue.
'Your eldest son saw how keen I was to hear out the tale, so he kindly offered to take the dinners to your workmen himself. I handed him the yoke and off he went. Is he not back yet?' asked Lo Shi.
No one aswered. Lo Shi sat for a while before thanking his cousin for his hospitality and continuing his journey.
(To be continued)