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Chapter 2 3 страница

"Not long here," Crane-man said every year. "The worst of winter, snowmelt, spring flood. Two moons, perhaps, and the bridge will welcome us back!" Tree-ear waited in the yard; Min had not yet emerged from the house. When the door opened, it was his wife who appeared instead. She was holding something folded in her arms.


"Tree-ear!" she said sharply. He looked up in surprise, wondering what he had done wrong. Then he saw that though her mouth was stern, her eyes were twinkling.


"How can you work properly for the honorable potter if you are shivering with cold?" she scolded. She held out something dark and soft, and Tree-ear rose from his bow to take it from her. His eyes widened in wonder.


It was a jacket and pantaloons made of heavy cotton, quilted and padded—the warmest of garments. Min's wife took the jacket back and held it up before him.


"This should be just the right size," she said, raising her eyebrows. Realizing what was expected of him, Tree-ear reached for and donned the jacket. A delicious coziness enveloped him; Min's wife must have had the jacket warming by the fire inside.


"Good." She nodded, seemed to hesitate for a moment, then spoke softly. "Our son, Hyung-gu, died of fever when he was about your age," she said. "These clothes I made for him, but they were never worn."


Tree-ear tried to swallow his surprise, but he was sure that it must have shown on his face. Min, a father? It hardly seemed possible. Tree-ear could not envision Min at anything but his work. The idea that he might once have had a son—


"Wear them in good health." Her soft voice interrupted his thoughts, and he was suddenly aware of his discourteous behavior. He bowed again.


"Deepest gratitude to the honorable potter's wife," he said. She nodded again and disappeared into the house.


Min came out the next moment. He looked over Tree-ear in his new jacket. Tree-ear held his breath, wondering how Min would feel ... his son's clothes on a lowly orphan. "Her idea, not mine," the potter muttered, and waved at Tree-ear to get started on his work.


Throughout the day Tree-ear kept rolling up the sleeves of the jacket, which were a little too long for him. And it made him almost too warm, accustomed as he was to hard work in his sparse burlap tunic.


So the idea was born. The jacket should fit Crane-man fairly well.


And fit it did, to Crane-man's delight. At first he refused it, saying that it was meant for Tree-ear. But Tree-ear insisted, having thought about it all the way home. Was it wrong to give away a gift that had only just been given him? It was a gift, he argued with himself, which meant that it was now his to do with as he pleased—to wear, or to give away. He thought of Min's wife, and decided it would not displease her if he chose to give the jacket to his friend.


Persuading Crane-man was another matter. "If you will not wear the jacket, I will not wear the new sandals," Tree-ear said firmly, nodding at the unfinished shoe in Crane-man's hands.


"Ha!" Crane-man shook his head. "Stubborn monkey, I have been making you sandals every winter since you came here—and now you would refuse them?" But even as he spoke, he put on the jacket, and Tree-ear could see the pleased look beneath his scowl.


The trousers were too short for Crane-man, so Tree-ear wore those himself. They examined each other, their new garb in sharp contrast to the other rags they wore. Crane-man began to laugh. "Apart, we look strange enough, but together we are as properly dressed as any man!"


And he was still laughing as Tree-ear served supper from the gourd bowl.


Flickering lamplight caught Tree-ear's eye as he walked back to the pit from Min's one evening, snug in his new trousers. The days were so short now that he always came home in darkness. The light came from the shed behind Kang's house. Tree-ear paused in midstride. A light, visible from a shed with no windows—there must be a hole or a crack somewhere . . .


The temptation was too great. Tree-ear stole silently over the frozen ground, edged along the wall of the shed, and after a quick glance around, hunched over to put his eye to a shoulder-level knothole.


With the two bowls of red and white slip before him and an oil lamp just beyond, Kang sat in profile to Tree-ear's view, using his wheel as a worktable. He was working on a small wine cup. With an incising awl, he inscribed the leather-hard clay—a simple chrysanthemum design, far cruder than much of the elaborate incision work for which the potters of Ch'ulp'o were known. But rather than outlining the petals in the usual way, Kang was clearing away the clay to leave teardrop-shaped depressions.


As Tree-ear continued to watch, Kang took up a dab of the semiliquid white clay on the tip of the awl and deposited it into one of the petal-spaces. He repeated this action for each empty space until the white-petaled flower was clearly visible against the dull clay. For the stem and leaves he used the red clay. Then with a planing tool, he carefully smoothed away the surface of the design so that the colored clay was completely level with the body of the vase itself.


Kang eyed his work critically, then stood and replaced the tools on a shelf. Tree-ear realized with a start that the potter must be finished for the night and would emerge from the shed momentarily. He looked around warily and darted back to the road.


Tree-ear's neck and shoulders were cramped from hunching in one position for so long. As he hurried on his way, he shrugged to loosen the stiff muscles. But he might as well have been shrugging over what he had seen.


* * *


Chapter 6


In the days that followed, Tree-ear visited the kiln every evening in an attempt to glimpse Kang's mystery wine cup after it was fired. Once he even came upon Kang's son at the kiln, removing fired vessels and loading them onto a cart. Tree-ear pretended admiration to inspect the vessels closely. They were of ordinary celadon—no sign anywhere of the strange little chrysanthemum. By snowmelt, Tret-car had still not seen it.


As he returned one evening from the kiln, he noticed several men and boys congregated about the wine shop. Every night there were a few who stopped by for a drink or two, but tonight there were so many that not all could fit inside. The group seemed excited about something, and one of the boys hailed him.


Tret-ear was surprised by the greeting. The other children of Ch'ulp'o had long spurned him, for orphans were considered very bad luck. Children would step aside when he drew near, and the smaller ones often ducked behind their mothers' skirts. Since he had begun working for Min, the other potters' assistants tolerated his presence, but a friendly greeting was still a rarity. It must be important news indeed.


"Tree-ear! Have you heard? A royal emissary comes to Ch'ulp'o!"


Tree-ear moved among the clusters of people, learning bits and pieces as he listened. With winter storms over, the sea-trade routes were open again. A boat had arrived in Ch'ulp'o that afternoon; those aboard carried the news that a royal emissary would be a passenger on another boat sailing in the next moon. The emissary would be bound for Ch'ulp'o and then the district of Kangjin, a pottery region farther to the south.


Ch'ulp'o and Kangjin! The two destinations could mean only one thing: The royal emissary was on a tour to assign pottery commissions for the palace!


The men drank and the boys milled about, all speculating as to how many commissions would be assigned. Nervous, fearful, impassive, serene—whatever the individual's nature, hope shouted from the face of every man, though not one spoke of his desire.


Tree-ear saw Kang in a corner of the wine shop, sitting with his legs outstretched and his hands behind his head. Listening, saying little, his eyes half-closed and a half-smile on his face, Kang looked like nothing so much as a man with a secret. That night Tree-ear tossed about, restlessly awake. He and Crane-man were living under the bridge again. He stared at the underside of the bridge, rolled onto his stomach, then onto his side.


Finally, Crane-man poked him. "What demon scratches under your skin tonight?" he asked crossly. "It seems intent on keeping us both from slumber."


Tree-ear sat up, pulled his knees close, and wrapped his arms around them for warmth. "A question-demon," he said.


Crane-man sat up, too. "Well, let us hear it, then. Perhaps if the question is asked and answered, the demon will leave you in peace—and I will be able to sleep."


Tree-ear spoke slowly. "It is a question about stealing." He paused, started to speak, stopped again. Finally, "Is it stealing to take from another something that cannot be held in your hands?"


"Ah! Not a mere question but a riddle-question, at that. What is this thing that cannot be held?"


"A—an idea. A way of doing something."


"A better way than others now use."


"Yes. A new way, one that could lead to great honor."


Crane-man lay back down again. He was silent for so long that Tree-ear thought he had fallen asleep. Tree-ear sighed and lay down himself, thinking, thinking.


Min's work was far superior to Kang's. Everyone in Ch'ulp'o knew this, and Tree-ear had seen it for himself. Kang's work was skillful enough, his vessels well-shaped and his glaze a fine color. But he lacked patience.


Firing—the final step in the process that determined


the color of the celadon-was handled well by no man.


Try as the potters might, the wood in the kiln never


burned the same way twice. The length of time a vessel


was fired, its position in the kiln, the number of other


pieces fired with it, even the way the wind blew that


day—a thousand factors could affect the final color of the




So when Min made a special piece, he prepared not one but several, sometimes as many as ten. Identical when they entered the kiln, they would emerge in slightly different colors. If all went well, one or two might glow with the desired translucent green; others would be duller or less clear. Worst of all, some of the pieces often had brown spots here and there, or even an overall tinge of brown, spoiling the purity of the glaze. No one knew why this happened, so making several identical pieces was the best safeguard to ensure that at least one would fire to an un-flawed celadon green.


Not only was his work slow to begin with, but Min made more replicas than any other potter. Kang's pieces lacked Min's attention to detail in the making as well as his caution in the firing. The untrained eye might see little difference between the work of the two men—but in Ch'ulp'o, every eye was trained.


And, Tree-ear was sure, the emissary's eye would be equally sharp. The palace would send only an expert—a true connoisseur—to handle the task of commissioning work. This idea of Kang's, the use of the red and white slip . . . could it be of such newness and beauty that it would mean a commission? If that were indeed the case, Tree-ear had no doubt that Min could use the process to far better effect.


But Min did not know about it. And therein lived the question-demon: If Tree-ear were to tell Min what he had seen, would that be stealing Kang's idea?


Crane-man's voice startled Tree-ear.


"If a man is keeping an idea to himself, and that idea is taken by stealth or trickery—I say it is stealing. But once a man has revealed his idea to others, it is no longer his alone. It belongs to the world."


Tree-ear did not reply. He lay curled on one side, listening as Crane-man's breathing slowed and evened in the rhythm of sleep.


An image floated out of the darkness into Tree-ear's mind—that of himself with his eye pressed to the knothole of Kang's shed.




He could not yet tell Min of Kang's idea.


Tree-ear's activities in the days that followed were no different than they had been for months. Min and the other potters continued throwing pots, incising them with designs, glazing, firing, rejecting some vessels and keeping others. But things felt different to Tree-ear—the smallest of changes here and there.


Min no longer sang at the wheel. His wife, normally almost invisible as she went about her household tasks, emerged from the house more often, sometimes to watch her husband at work for a moment, at other times to give him a cup of tea or a rice cake, as he now worked right through the midday mealtime. At the kiln the potters no longer joked among themselves or smoked idly. Instead, they paced about in restless silence.


All went about their work with their faces tighter, as if the news of the emissary's impending visit had pulled the string of village life taut.


By unspoken agreement, Tree-ear joined the other potters' assistants one morning in the area between the beach and the village that served as a marketplace. They picked up debris, swept the space clear, and set up planks to display their masters' wares. Tree-ear glanced surreptitiously at his colleagues; many were setting up half a dozen planks or more. For Min, only two such planks would be needed. As usual, he would have by far the fewest pieces to display.


Min's instructions had been explicit. Tree-ear was to set up the stall so that Min would stand with his back to the sea and his wares before him. The emissary would thus be facing the sea when he inspected Min's work. Though Min did not explain, Tree-ear knew why. It was so the emissary would see how Min's vessels captured the elusive green and blue and gray hues of the waves.


The boat docked one evening at sunset. The emissary and his entourage spent the night at the home of the local government official. Tree-ear guessed that if those in the royal party slept that night, they were the only ones in Ch'ulp'o who did so. Long before dawn the market space was lit by dozens of oil lamps as potters and their assistants rushed about in an anxious, eerie silence, preparing their stalls.


Tree-ear wheeled the cart down the road from Min's house—a step at a time, or so it seemed. The potter walked by his side, keeping up a constant stream of warnings and invective.


"Watch that stone there, to the left! Keep the cart even, stupid boy. This way—the path is smoother here. Ai-go! What's the matter with you? Can't you keep it from bumping for even one second? You will ruin my work, pig-head!"


Min's vessels were muffled in layers and layers of tightly packed rice straw; Tree-ear thought grimly that even if he ran at full speed, no harm would come to the work. At least his master's limited output meant that only one such trip would be necessary.


At last, they arrived at the makeshift stall. Min would not allow Tree-ear to unload the cart or unpack the vessels. Instead, he was ordered to pick up every scrap of straw on the ground.


Min arranged his work with great care. On the higher of the two shelves, he placed the smaller pieces. There was the little duck-shaped water dropper, and another one in the form of a lotus bud. They were flanked by three incense burners whose basins were surmounted by animals nearly alive in their detail—roaring lion, fierce dragon, wise tortoise. And in the center was a new set of nested boxes, inscribed with a splendid floral design. Tree-ear had learned the answer to their mystery: Min used thin slabs of clay to build the small interior boxes first, then the larger one to fit around them.


On the lower shelves, Min placed two prunus vases, a tall jug ribbed like a melon, and a water pot in its matching bowl. This last piece was a special favorite of Tree-ear's. The bowl was covered with molded petals that overlapped one another—and held a secret.


Tree-ear had watched his master make dozens of those petals and had finally taken a small lump of clay home in his waist pouch to practice himself. After many evenings of work he had produced a single petal that he thought as fine as one of Min's.


Now, as he looked at the pot, shame clashed with pride inside him. For he had taken his petal the next day and secretly substituted it for another among those drying on Min's shelf. His act had gone undetected. The stealth of it shamed him—but not enough to overcome the pride he felt at the knowledge that one of the many petals on the bowl was his. And best of all, though he had examined the piece closely a dozen times, he could not tell which it was.


Min stood before the display of his wares, shaking his head and clucking with discontent. He muttered under his breath—the glaze of one piece was not as fine as it could have been, he should have made one more duck. Oh, everything was well enough, but if he had had more time . . .


As Tree-ear looked over the shelves, an idea came to him. He bowed to Min and begged his leave for a short moment; Min waved him off, hardly seeming to hear him. Tree-ear raced through the village all the way to the scrub behind Min's house. He found what he needed and hurried back, but not so quickly this time, so as to protect what he carried.


Out of breath, he arrived back at the market space.


"Master," he panted, and held out his offering—two branches of flowering plum. Tree-ear thought that Min looked pleased for the briefest instant; then his usual cross expression returned as he took the branches.


"Hmph. Yes, it would do well to show the vases as they should be used." Min examined the branches, then handed one back to Tree-ear.


"That branch does not have enough blossoms. Why did you not bring more?" And he turned his back on Tree-ear to arrange the other branch in the vase on the left.


Tree-ear grinned. He knew his master well enough now, and Min's response was as close as he would ever come to expressing pleasure at Tree-ear's work.


There was yet one task remaining for Tree-ear before the emissary arrived, and it was not a task assigned by Min. Now that the display was complete, Tree-ear sought out Kang's stall.


Every potter was busy, but a small group had still taken the time to visit Kang's display Even from a distance, Tree-ear could sense their suppressed interest, though none there spoke beyond a word or two. Tree-ear approached as if merely passing by, but his very skin prickled with curiosity.


Then a space before the stall cleared as a man stepped away and Tree-ear saw them. Chrysanthemums. Dozens of them. On every vessel—blooming from wine cups and jugs and vases and bowls—the simple eight-petaled flowers caught one's attention and seized it as if they would never let go. The slight imperfections of Kang's vessels disappeared in the light that seemed to blaze from the pure-white blossoms.


Tree-ear stepped closer. He saw that a few of the pieces had stem and leaf as well. But they were no longer brick-red. In the firing, the red slip had turned black, and the contrast of black and white against jade green was unmistakably new, different, remarkable.


And beautiful. Even as Tree-ear turned away, feigning disinterest, as were the other potters, his heart was sinking into a bottomless well. The technique was so striking that the emissary could not help but choose Kang for a commission—Tree-ear was sure of it.


Emissary Kim was a tall, thoughtful man who showed no emotion as he walked from stall to stall inspecting the work of every potter. At some displays he took more time; the potters' hopes rose a little higher with every second he examined their wares.


He spent the longest time at Kang's stall, and the other potters gave up all pretense of indifference. They gathered around at a respectful distance as the emissary spoke with Kang.


Inlay work, Kang explained. The same as was done to apply brass to wood or mother-of-pearl to lacquerware. Kim nodded along with those in the little audience; inlay work was common enough in other arts, but no one there had ever seen it used in ceramics before.


Kang gave no other details of the technique; nor did the emissary request any. He merely took a great deal of time to inspect Kang's pieces thoroughly. Tree-ear felt a flicker of hope when he saw that Kim looked not only at the chrysanthemums but at every aspect of the work. At last, he replaced the vase he was holding and, still expressionless, moved on to the next stall.


It seemed to Tree-ear that he would never reach Min's stall—yet when he did, it was all too soon.


Kim immediately picked up the melon-shaped jug and looked it over with keen interest. For the first time the planes of his face shifted—with pleasure? Tree-ear could not tell.


"Would this be the potter who made the wine pot used at last night's dinner?" The emissary addressed the question to Yee, the local government official at whose home he had spent the night. Yee was one of several men accompanying Kim on his inspection of the potters' work. He nodded in reply.


"The melon shape is common enough now—I see it often," Kim said. Tree-ear could hardly breathe. Did this mean that the man did not care for the piece?


"And yet this work is unmistakable," he continued. "I knew this jug could be by no other than the same man who made that pot." And suddenly the expression on his face seemed pleased.


Min bowed in appreciation of the compliment, and Tree-ear wondered at his master's calm; he himself had to still the glee that surged through him, lest it make him skip about, shouting. Kim took his time looking over Min's work and finally walked on to the next display.


Despite the emissary's apparent pleasure, Tree-ear knew there would be no decision that day. Kim would spend a few more days in Ch'ulp'o, visiting the potters whose work most interested him, perhaps stopping by the kiln site occasionally. Then he would sail on to Kangjin. Only after he had visited both villages would he decide which potters were to receive commissions. His selections were to be announced the following month on his return visit.


After the emissary's departure, Ch'ulp'o was like two villages instead of one. The potters whose work had garnered special attention, including both Min and Kang, burst into feverish activity in an effort to make one last piece that might sway a decision in their favor when Kim returned. The other potters seemed to slump as one into dejection, all but abandoning their work in favor of long, lugubrious visits to the wine shop, where they commiserated with one another.


For they knew well that royal commissions were assigned at seemingly random intervals. Potters so chosen worked for as long as their art continued to please the court; for most, a commission would last the rest of their lives. Only when a potter died or his work fell out of favor was a new commission assigned. And often the court waited until the demise of two or three potters before searching out their replacements. It could be many years before such a chance came again.


* * *


Chapter 7


Min was far more irritable than usual after the emissary's visit. Instead of giving gruff, terse commands, he harangued Tree-ear at every opportunity. Then he would lapse into a sullen silence that lasted until his next bout of shouting.


Tree-ear worked harder than ever, tense with anticipation. Min was making vases in the melon shape that had so pleased the emissary. It seemed to Tree-ear that the potter had never before rejected so many pieces that came off the wheel; all day long, to the tune of Min's curses he heard the sound of clay being slapped down in disgust.


At last, after two days of abuse, Min asked the question Tree-ear had been waiting for.


"So," Min said grumpily, "would you be telling me about it, or must I guess?"


Min was the only potter who had not visited Kang's display that day. Whether genuine or feigned, his concentration on his own work had never wavered, but Tree-ear knew he could not have failed to notice the gathering of people, the air that had ruffled with interest around Kang's stall.


"Inlay work," Tree-ear responded at once. Crane-man's words echoed in his mind. The idea belongs to the world now. He continued, "White and red slip that fires to white and black in the finish. Chrysanthemums."


Min did not reply, so Tree-ear added, "Ugly ones."


For what Tree-ear guessed was the first time in Min's whole life, the potter threw back his head in a loud guffaw of laughter.


"Ha!" he spat out, choked, cleared his throat. He looked at Tree-ear with what might have almost been affection. "Ugly ones, you say? Of course! What else could Kang do, that bumble-fingered excuse for a potter?" Suddenly, he clapped his hands once and snapped, "Go, then. White and red clay, drained, as for glaze."


Tree-ear jumped to his feet. Almost before Min had finished speaking, he was flying down the road with the cart careering crazily before him.


Days before, Tree-ear had mapped out the best places along the river for colored clay, and now he went directly to the first spot. He dug and loaded, his excitement kept in check by the rhythm of the work. The spade had never felt so light as it did that day.


Over the next several days, Min sketched what seemed like hundreds of designs. His wife helped by drawing the basic melon shape over and over in charcoal on pieces of wood. Min would add his ideas for the inlay design, reject them angrily, and hand the wood back to her to be wiped and reused.


Meanwhile, Tree-ear was busy draining the clay. Twice, three times, four—and the fifth time with the white clay, something happened.


Tree-ear was rubbing the sediment between his fingers, as he always did. Suddenly, his fingertips tingled with a strange feeling. For some odd reason, he thought of a time when he had been on the mountainside, taking a break as he chopped wood. He had been staring into the forest greenery when a deer appeared in abrupt focus. It had been there all along, and he had been looking straight at it. But only at the last moment had he actually seen it.


It was the same now, only instead of seeing with his eyes, he was feeling with his hands. The clay felt good— fine, pliant, smooth—but not ready yet.


Tree-ear froze, completely still except for the tips of his fingers in the clay. What was it that made him think so? His mind could not find the right words. The clay had long since lost any feeling of roughness, but somehow he knew. One more draining—perhaps two ... It was like suddenly seeing the deer—a clear vision emerging from a cloudy dream.


And it was as if he woke from that dream as he drained the clay yet again—a dream in which the words to describe exactly how he knew about the clay would be held secret forever.


Having finally selected a design, Min began incising it. This was the most detailed part of the work, and he disliked anyone watching. As Tree-ear swept the yard or brought clay to and from the draining site, he tried to catch what glimpses he could. It was always so when Min was incising; now that Tree-ear knew well every aspect of Min's work, he loved seeing the incision work emerge even more than he had once loved watching the vessels grow on the wheel.

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