The Peony Soul
The following is a retelling of a story of Chinese origin from, “The Romance of the Milky Way, and Other Studies & Stories,” by Lafcadio Hearn. The story tells of a Chinese scholar known as Tō no Busanshi who was a great scholar and a keen gardener. To him the acquisition and appliance of knowledge was the planting and cultivation of a garden that was his soul.
Indeed, he was renowned for his love of flowers of all kinds. He was especially fond of peonies which he cultivated himself spending many hours attending to their smallest needs with great love, skill and patience. Under his loving care and attention the peonies blossomed brightly and beautifully and their leaves dripped green. He would speak to them softly and affectionately whenever he was tending to them. In response they all appeared to gaze towards him, nodding and smiling and displaying their beauty, while appearing to lean towards his love. He thought he could hear them whispering but he could not quite understand what was being said.
One day there came to his house a very pretty girl who begged him to take her into his service in his household. She explained she had received a good literary education and loved learning but had become the victim of unfortunate circumstances that forced her to seek employment. Knowing he was a great and famous scholar she thought she would like to work in his household which was a shrine of knowledge and great learning. She told him she was a hard and diligent worker and asked if could employ her.
Surprised, Busanshi looked at her and thought there was something charming and familiar about her as if he had known her from somewhere else. It was something about the way she gazed and gently leaned towards him. He was more than a little flattered and also greatly impressed by her loveliness. Thinking that for her looks alone she would be an elegant and pleasing asset for his household he took her on as a maid servant. Indeed, she proved to be a great asset her beauty enlivened and brought delight to any room she entered. Her work and industry rate was exceptional and she was very obedient and attentive.
The Maid Servant
As well as her work she was adept and perfectly at home with the etiquette and cultivated demeanor one would expect from a lady of the highest circles. Her literary skills were excellent and she composed wonderful poetry which she expressed with great skill using the arts of calligraphy and painting. She impressed him so much he thought she must have been brought up in the court of some high ranking noble family or great lord. There was something that with all his great learning he could not describe which was so appealing about her. Something about her shining eyes, her smile and the way she leaned towards him. It was not long before Busanshi fell hopelessly in love with her and sought ways to please her.
On occasions he was visited by friends who were also also great scholars. He would send for her that she might entertain and impress them with her loveliness, intelligence and grace. All who beheld her were greatly impressed and further charmed by her gentle and amiable nature.
One day one of his friends, a great academic and teacher of morals and high principles, named Teki-Shin-Ketsu arrived at his door unexpectedly. Busanshi was thrilled to receive such a famous celebrity and called his maid servant to meet him expecting her charm and intelligence to impress the great man. However, unusually there was no reply and she did not appear smiling and radiant as she always had before. In fact, although he called again she did not appear at all.
Busanshi really wanted to impress his great friend with his charming and educated maid servant and was mildly irritated that she did not appear obediently and instantly as she usually did. Perturbed by her non-appearance he went seeking her out. With growing irritation he searched the entire house calling and looking in every room but could find her nowhere.
Greatly disappointed and very puzzled he was returning back to his esteemed guest when he caught a glimpse of her gliding quietly and effortlessly before him down the corridor. Calling to her he hurried after her. On hearing him she half turned to see him but flattened herself fearfully against the wall just like a spider in fear might.
The Peony Soul
As he caught up with her he was astounded to see her appearance change. As she flattened her back hard against the wall her entire body became flatter and flatter until there was nothing left that remained of her but a two dimensional image as if painted on the surface of the wall. This flat image slowly began to fade before his eyes until there was nothing else to be seen but a flat barely visible colored shadow. As he watched in fear and amazement he could still see the faded image of her pretty eyes and her beautiful lips which spoke to him in a whisper,
“Please, forgive your humble maid servant for not answering your call. As you now see I am not human but the soul of the peonies that you love so much and take so much good care of. Because of the greatness of your love and care I was able to manifest into human form so that I might repay your love and devotion.
I have treasured my time with you but now an enemy has come into your home. You and other humans consider him a great scholar and wise teacher of morality. I warn you he is a sly one – a being of no morals and evil to the core. He is my enemy searching for me and I dare not keep this form any longer. I must change back to my true shape and return to the peonies. That is where you shall find me and when the time is right join me. Tend well your peony soul with love and dedicated devotion!”
With that she simply faded into the wall leaving no trace of her form to his bewilderment and great sorrow. He still carried on tending his peonies lavishing great care and love upon them. Softly and lovingly he talked to them and more than ever they appeared to lean towards him. At times when he believed he had no more love to offer they attuned to his feeling and he knew they had always been his lover and would always remain that way and with dedication and devotion he continued with the cultivation of his peony soul.
© 14/07/2021 zteve t evans
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Copyright July 14th 2021 zteve t evans