by Beth McCabe
As I complete the final brush stroke on the letter to my son I am certain that I hear hoof beats. I could be mistaken, for my hearing has become a family joke. “Someone tell Grandfather that Grandmother is safely with our ancestors,” my daughter-in-law often says. “He no longer has to pretend that he can’t hear her scolding him.”
I wash my brush and the shallow ebony bowl that Mei gave me when we married, taking care not to splash ink on my good robe. I lay my implements neatly in their drawer; I doubt that I shall use them again. Just as I close the drawer Little Pea Blossom scampers up the path to my cottage.
“Grandfather, play with me,” she orders, waving her wooden sword.
“Not now, my dumpling.” Her eyebrows pull down and she glowers at me like a tiny stern official. “You are going on an exciting journey today,” I remind her, and the storm that darkened her features clears.
“Will I see Father?” She jumps around, slashing the air with mighty blows.
“Oh no,” I answer, as gaily as I can. “Don’t you remember? Your father is fighting demons and earning praise in Heaven. But when he and the other brave men return there will be the biggest, most wonderful feast you have ever seen.”
Little Pea Blossom stops hopping. “Why aren’t you ready, Grandfather? I won’t go if you aren’t coming.” She takes a warrior’s stance, her skinny arms crossed over her chest.
“Of course I am coming, dumpling, but can you imagine what Grandmother would say if I left her house this messy? I will join you as soon as I’ve straightened up.”
Little Pea Blossom is appeased. Off she goes, working her way back down the path in the movements of her practice form. She has my wife’s grace, my wiry strength, and the concentration of a goshawk on its prey. Soon she will be beating the trousers off her lazy elder brothers.
Slowly I walk down the path in my favorite’s footsteps, my joints creaking like the boughs of an old pine tree. We gather in the square, men and women in the twilight of our lives, to say goodbye to our families. Little Pea Blossom runs about with the other children, still clutching her mighty sword. My grandsons stand silent and sullen with the older boys; they wish to stay and fight, but of course, we forbade it.
I pretend I have a cinder in my eye as I give my daughter-in-law the letter for my son. I pray that he will read it one day.
Once the noisy assemblage has taken its departure the hoof beats are all we hear. My old friends and I look at each other. Without a word we take our tai chi formation, facing north, as naturally as a crane takes the skies. The pounding that rattles our fragile bones provides a helpful cadence. In slow motion we dispatch each phantom foe with ease. As we flow through the ancient form, time slows; every minute becomes a precious hour. In our hearts we are young, and we remember. I see Mei as a lovely flower. I feel the dew of her skin against mine.
Do you think we are stupid? We don’t imagine that a gaggle of foolish old men and women without weapons or horses can defend our home. If we buy our loved ones another moment to fly to safety we’ll happily join our ancestors this day.
And yet…as we move through the familiar form, hope pumps fresh blood through my weary heart. I see the timeworn faces around me shining with life. Resolve sweeps our minds clear as the wind pushes clouds from the sky.
The sages spoke of ancient masters whose empty-handed strikes, perfect and pure, vanquished the sword and the spear. As the trembling of the earth grows stronger, so do we.
Beth McCabe recently moved from New England to the Washington’s South Puget Sound. McCabe is a graduate of the Barnard College Creative Writing Program, where she placed second in the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Monday Review, Halfway Down the Stairs, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Highlights for Children, Liquid Imagination, Luna Station Quarterly, and other publications.