Persistence of Chrysanthemums
Tao sits by the fence in front of his house.
It is early afternoon, sunny and warm. The distant mountains are all covered by Autumn trees of different colors: The red color must be maple trees; the yellow color should be poplars; and the dark green ones either pine trees or bamboo. Some wild geese fly across the sky from north to south, randomly making a few long, extensive cries.
“It is mid-Autumn now; Winter is on its way.” Tao looks up at the wild geese until they disappear at the end of the misty horizon. He wishes he could be one of the wild geese, flying somewhere unknown, distant, but surely warm, happy, and no worries.
Tao sighs. He tucks his legs, laces his knees with his hands. He thinks of his wife. She has left home for her parents since three days ago, with their two children. Since they left, the house suddenly became empty and too large. He didn’t ask her when they would come back; he knew she was angry with him. “Yes, everything is my fault,” Tao thinks. They have been married for more than fifteen years, but he has always failed to give her a more comfortable, stable life: First few years, he worked in a few places then he settled down in a government facility. With a lot of ambitions, he didn’t pay too much attention to the family; then their first son died and they spent a few years coming through that grave sorrow. Later, they had their second son, and a daughter. But, he started to hate his job.
Maybe it shouldn’t be called “hate”, he just couldn’t get along with it well. It was a small government office, which had too little work to do but fed too many people. And the worst thing was, everyone there was lazy, and they were jealous of the hard-working men. Tao had a few colleagues whom he liked and could see some hope from, but soon they all left—They told Tao that they couldn’t endure this office culture; the boss didn’t treat them seriously. They considered it was a waste of time for them to continue. Tao fully understood and agreed. Taking himself as an example: During the first couple of years, he had suggested a lot of plans to his boss about how to reduce expenses, how to gain more earnings, how to restructure the team and build a healthier and more positive environment. His boss just listened, nodded, then put his suggestions aside. Tao was frustrated. Gradually, he turned from a full-blooded ambitious young man, into a droopy easy-going middle-aged man—Even though he hadn’t aged that much.
In that situation, Tao still didn’t leave. He couldn’t afford to leave. He just had his first baby girl at that time, and his father was ill. Everything and everywhere needed money. If he quit, how would he feed his family and buy his father medicine? He struggled to continue. He persuaded himself that he just worked for his wage, as long as he could breathe. Soon, his boss was replaced by a new one, an even worse one. He required everyone to follow his instructions absolutely and unconditionally—Whether those instructions made sense or not. People who kissed his ass were promoted; people who kept neutral like Tao were punished; his wage was reduced, he had to struggle to cover his family’s daily expenses even after the death of his father. Feed the family’s bellies, or hold a man’s dignity? After another two years’ self-doubts and reassurance, finally, Tao quit.
He didn’t hunt for other jobs. He was disappointed about working, and himself. None of his previous working experiences could make him feel good—They were all very similar, led him nowhere. The only difference between them was which one was worse, or the worst. Perhaps he wasn’t a proper man to pursue that kind of lifestyle, he thought. Thus, after a lot of considerations, he collected all of his guts and made a chin-dropping decision: Move to the countryside, where he owned a small piece of real estate which was inherited from his grandfather. The living cost would be much cheaper there. Plus, he always had a dream of country life—If it was time to make it happen, then nothing was wrong with it.
Until now, three years since they moved here, Tao is still happy with his choice. But not his wife. Every day she complains: The rice in the urn runs out too fast; Tao drinks too much wine; there are five mouths to feed but only two male laborers—Tao and one hired hand; Winter is coming but the kids’ winter clothes aren’t prepared yet…There are too many things to worry about in a family, especially in a poor one. He notices that these years his wife looks more aged. She used to be proud of her black thick long hair, but now it gets thinner, and some gray hair secretly crawls on her temples; her face is wrinkled, no youthful glow shines on it anymore. He feels that he has failed her.
This year their harvest isn’t good. Too many rains in the Summer which affected their beans—A lot of the beans are shriveled. This Winter will be hard for them, they don’t only lack the clothes for their kids, but also their food will be a big concern. His wife thought he shouldn’t have quit that government facility. No matter how terrible it was, at least each month he could get paid on time, and they didn’t need to think about starvation. People like them shouldn’t make their own choices; their bellies will make for them. The last two years they barely could feed the family; and this year is even worse. She can’t think about the future, everything looks just so dull and hopeless. Then she cried. The kids saw her cry, then all followed her and cried too. He couldn’t stop them. He walked out with a bleeding heart. He has never thought that one day he becomes a man that can’t feed his family.
An ox-cart drives near on the path that crosses the front of Tao’s house. He hears a man cry at him excitedly from the cart: “Tao! See how beautiful your chrysanthemums are! I have something urgent to do now, I will come back soon. Wait for me at home!”
Tao sees a man in white sitting on the front rack of the cart and next to the driver. It is Lee, the assistant to a big neighboring farm owner. They met a few times before, but Tao has never seen his master. Tao waves at Lee as a noted signal. The ox-cart rumbles away.
He has almost forgotten his chrysanthemums. He stands up and starts to check them. Even though the crops this year aren’t good, his chrysanthemums are booming: They grow heavily around the fence and house; some large flowers’ diameter is about six inches. Thousands of flowers and buds are bathing in the sun, fermenting their luxurious yet pleasant fragrance. “Perhaps I can dig out some chrysanthemums and sell them in the market tomorrow,” Tao thinks, “And I can pick some flowers for Lee later when he comes.” But the flowers are so crowded that Tao barely can find a place to get his feet in.
Eventually, he picks a big bunch of fully blooming chrysanthemums in different colors: Red, yellow, pink, white, and even green. He puts the flower bunch on the stone step of his door and sits down.
He feels much more cheerful now. Yes, that’s part of the reason he doesn’t regret his choice. He loves chrysanthemums. He loves to see his chrysanthemums that can be as thriving as now, surrounding his house so even in his dream, he can smell them. Shouldn’t life just be that simple so people can do the things they dream about? He has planned too much for his life since he was young, but none of his plans worked as expected: He started to read when he was five; he wrote his first article when he was seven. His father and teachers all thought that he was very talented and one day he would be the pride of the family. It is true that people love to read his articles especially his poems; people respect him; people consider him as an intelligent and literary man. But these didn’t help him to locate a use for his talents. He is still an anonymous man, no money, no future, and miserable. If he were a fish, then he wouldn’t have fou nd his ocean yet.
Even now, if he re-chooses, his decision will be the same. For the first time in his life, he finds he is happy, and his life is worth living. If this Winter his family have to starve, the kids have no clothes to keep warm, he accepts; if next year his crops can’t grow well, he accepts; if forever he can’t afford to drink wine which is his life-long habit, he accepts; whatever happens to him, he accepts. At least he enjoys his day today; his flesh and his soul are together; he is the master of himself. And, are things really that bad? There are always ways to figure things out, unexpectedly and magically. Who knows? As long as you don’t give up your faith.
He buries his nose in the flower bunch and takes a deep breath. Now only these chrysanthemums are with him, who deliver their fragrance with an unchanging heart. The last drop of his wine in the bottle has been finished nine days ago, but his writing hasn’t been affected at all: This morning he just finished an article "The Peach Colony”. It represents his dream, his once faded but eventually revived emotion, his faith that supports him to stand in this world and to never, ever give up.
He hears the oxcart rumbling down the path again. Then it slowly climbs up to the hilltop and stops in front of his door. Lee jumps from the cart cheerfully. He pats Tao’s shoulder: “How are you doing these days? I haven’t seen you for quite a while.” Tao doesn’t answer, he smiles and offers Lee the big bunch of chrysanthemums: “They are for you”. Lee is overjoyed. He takes the flowers in his arm and speaks back to the oxcart driver loudly: “A Niu, bring that big urn of wine into the house, as well as that fat duck and three legs of lamb!”
Tao is confused: “Why bring me those things?” Lee smiles broadly and his white teeth shine in the sloping sun. “The wine and lamb are from my master. He asked me to bring them here. He is too busy to come visit you during the harvest season. But he wants me to ask you if you are interested in spending this Winter with your family at his farm? He admires you and he would like you to be the teacher of his three sons. You can start as soon as you want before Winter, and after Winter if you like it you can continue to teach. Here is the first month’s money for you. My master doesn’t want you to return it.” Lee takes out a big fat envelope and forces it into Tao’s hands.
Before Lee enters the house, he turns back and winks at Tao: “Will you invite me to have dinner with you today? I bring you a fat duck and let’s celebrate!”
Everything has worked out unexpectedly and magically. But what Tao doesn’t know is: The article he wrote that morning became one of the most famous articles in Chinese literary history. It has passed through thousands of years, and even now still encourages people to pursue the beauty in their lives, and to have faith in their undying souls.