05/25/2010

The Boatman’s Flute: A Vietnamese Love Story

“Physical beauty is no guarantee of one’s love. But a love so enduring will surpass the limits of beauty itself.”

Long ago, during the time of Ancient Vietnam, lived a very wealthy mandarin who only had, but one daughter. With a face as beautiful as lotus blossoms, the mandarin treasured his daughter dearly more than all the riches he own. Because he loves his daughter so much and wished that no harm would ever befall her, he kept her in her room on top of his grand mansion sitting on a hilltop, and was never allowed to leave.

Day and night, the beautiful girl would stay in her room, clothed with the finest gowns of silk, adorned by the servants with all the delicious meals and entertained by the best musicians and poets in the kingdom with melodies and ballads that delights the heart. But all of her joys were confined inside her beautiful chamber. Her toes had never set foot on the dewy grass, her hands never had plucked fruits from trees, her fingers never had run the trickling river nor she ever played and told stories with other children apart from her loyal servants. The only sunlight that ever touched her cheeks was the few pale beams that peeked through her royal window.

One day, as the mandarin’s daughter sat by the window, looking at the rivers below and enjoying the sight of the charming boats gliding gracefully across the water, one small ghe caught her eye. From afar, she could see how the boatman stood and skillfully steered the ghe into the water’s most serene spot, sat, and placed a bamboo flute against his lips. Soon after, the most haunting, beautiful melody the girl had ever heard drifted up to her window. The music from the tiny flute was as soothing as the sound of the gentle breeze, the flowing river and the nightingale’s hymn beautifully blended into heart-warming tones that deeply touched the girl’s heart. As she watched and listened, the girl imagined how young, strong and handsome the boatman could be up close. And all that day, the mandarin’s daughter stayed by the window until the sun began to set over the tall mountains beside the river. She watched as the boatman steered his ghe (small boat) away until he was nowhere in sight.

That night, she dreamt of the same beautiful melody and pictured herself stepping into the boat with a young man. Both, they drifted along the calm and quiet river while the full moon lit above them. The boatman explained to her all the strange and wonderful sights that unfolded before them. For the first time, she had seen the things only made known to her from the poet’s tales. She touched the cool river water trailing beside the boat, she felt the gentle kiss of evening breeze against her cheeks and she smelled the sweet fragrance of wild orchids that hang from the trees as they sailed by.

A smile flickered across her lips as she dreamt on. Climbing out of the boat, the young man held her by his strong arms and at the sight of the meadow, she ran across to pluck wild berries while enjoying the gentle feel of fresh grass brushing against her feet. The pleasantly sour taste of newly-plucked berries was far more delightful than any other fruits adorned on her table. She felt the young man tightly holding her as the loud, trembling roar the green-eyed tiger echoed from the jungle - only to awaken to the sound of the brass gong.

Right after she got off her gentle bed, the mandarin’s daughter walked straight to the window and looked below, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tiny ghe once again. Her heart beat fast at the sight of the little boat and when the haunting music from the boatman’s bamboo flute began to float up to her window, her heart melted. Again, she remained by the window the whole day until she knew the tunes he played by heart. Whenever the boat comes close to the foot of the hill, she drops little flower petals, hoping the wind would carry them to the boatman.

From afar, the boatman had caught one of the petals blown along by the wind. He could see a tiny figure by the window of the huge mansion atop the hill. He could tell it is a girl, but could only guess what she might look like. For him, knowing she was listening to his music made him pour his heart and soul into every melody.

One day, a gentleman he was ferrying across the river noticed the fine quality of his music and asked the boatman to whom he plays his bamboo flute for. The boatman smiled timidly and looked towards the tiny window on the hill. “I do not know her name, but she comes by that window everyday and drops flower petals to show her approval.” The gentleman looked up the mansion, laughed, and said, “You are a fool, young boatman. That is the mandarin’s daughter, the most beautiful girl in this land, sought after by the wealthiest and most powerful men in the kingdom. How could you be so foolish to believe she would fancy a common, plain boatman like you?”

The boatman said nothing, but he sadly put his flute away and steered the boat down the river before darkness sets in. His hopes that the girl by the window would somehow love him have shattered, and thought he would not dare to see her face, hence, he would never have peace again. From then, the boatman decided to no longer be part of that river.

When morning came, the mandarin’s daughter once again waited by the window, but the small ghe was nowhere in sight. As the day wore on, she sat and waited, yet the boatman never came. Her heart grew heavy and tears rolled from her dark, sad eyes. More days passed by, still she did not see the boatman again. But she never stopped waiting. Day and night she would sit by the window and refuses to lie in her bed. And day after day, as she stares at the river below, endlessly waiting to catch a glimpse of the small ghe and longing for the sweet music of the bamboo flute, the mandarin’s daughter started to grow weak. Soon she fell ill. The servants laid her on bed and summoned her father.

When the mandarin learned of the boatman, he became furious. Instead, he decided to gather all the best physicians in the kingdom to make his daughter well. But none of them could make the girl feel better and as the days passed, she grew weaker and more fragile. The mandarin was in distraught as he wept over his daughter. Realizing nothing could seem to cure her, he finally ordered his servants to search the rivers for this man who used to play a bamboo flute in a small ghe.

The king’s men searched the villages and the rivers. Soon, they returned to the mansion along with a trembling and scared boatman. With the flute on his hand, he wondered what crime he had committed and why he was summoned for. “Are you the young man who had been playing music from your flute for my daughter?” the mandarin demanded. The boatman quietly nodded.

“It seems your simple music had charmed my daughter. Now, she is very ill. I have been searching the lands for the finest husband for my daughter, but if your tunes will restore her spirit, then I would welcome you to seek her hand, and if she so agrees, I would never stand apart. Play your flute again, young boatman, and if my daughter chooses you above the others, then so be it. “

The boatman stood amazed. His hopes of winning the heart of the girl by the window were again re-lived. With a surge of encouragement and joy from his heart, he raised his flute, pressed them against his lips and began to play the sweetest melody that ever drifted the palace. Soon, the tender, warm notes filled the empty halls of the grand house and reached the bed where the girl lays. With the familiar sound, it didn’t take long until she opened her eyes, and slowly, a smile touched her lips.

In a faint voice, she whispered, “He has returned.” She then begged her handmaiden to help her to her feet. With renewed strength, she walked through the halls and searched where the beautiful music was springing from. Her heart pounded as she saw a strong, young man at the end of the hall playing a bamboo flute. And with every step that takes her closer to the end of the hall, the pounding of her heart grows stronger. But as she came nearer and nearer, her eyes slowly started to grow cold.

Contrary to the handsome boatman in her dreams, up close before her, the man with the flute had an uncomely face and an appearance she could never love. Out of politeness, she gave a slight bow, thanked the young man and asked her father to repay him for his kindness. Returning to her room, she wondered how she became foolish to dream about a simple boatman. She then vowed never to sit by the window again and a fancy a boatman from afar.

The boatman’s heart was torn apart. Having gazed on a face men would only see in their dreams, he knew his heart would never be at peace. Refusing the bag of gold the mandarin offered, he left the palace with heavy footsteps. He lost all his desire to play his flute, as it would only remind him of the beautiful girl who used to drop flower petals by the mansion window. He avoided the rivers as he could see the reflection of her beautiful face on the trailing water. His longing for the girl he knew could never love him had caused his heart to ache greatly, and as time passed by, he laid and died of a broken heart.

But villagers who came to send the boatman down the river on a farewell voyage never found his body, nor could they see where the flute had gone. Instead, an exquisite piece of pure green jade lies on his bed. They took the jade to a carver, who shaped the gem into a beautiful drinking goblet.

Time passed by and everyone had forgotten the music of the boatman that used to charm the village. One day, the mandarin had ordered his servants to search the land for the most precious present he could give to his daughter. One of his servants made his way to the boatman’s old village, where one of the peasants sold the goblet for a bag of gold, and soon, the beautiful jaded goblet made its way to the mandarin’s palace.

Fascinated by the precious gift, the mandarin ordered the handmaiden to serve her daughter her water with nothing else but the jaded goblet. The daughter welcomed the valuable present, and when she lifted the goblet to her lips for the first time, she heard a melancholic tune she had never heard for a very long time. The melody was sad but beautiful. Then, as she sipped water from it, she saw at the bottom of the cup the image of a small ghe and the young boatman steering it down the peaceful river.

Suddenly the girl remembered the joy she used to feel when she hears the boatman’s music. Since he had left, not one handsome man from the land had ever made her feel such warmth and happiness. Her days and nights seemed longer and emptier than the times she used to sit by the window. With that, her heart ached with remorse, and tears filled her eyes.

“Dear boatman, your love was the truest I have ever known. A love I could never have again. I was wrong to turn you away. Wherever you are, I hope you could feel my longing for your beautiful music and true love.” With that, a single teardrop rolled down from the girl’s petal-smooth cheeks and slid into the goblet. As the tear touched the water, the goblet shattered into pieces. Then, a breeze rushed in the window, slowly lifting the tiny pieces of jade afloat and sailed them out through the night. Along the breeze, the sound of a flute blended with the night bird’s song. It was the same beautiful melody the boatman used to play, but this time the tunes were full of joy. The boatman finally won the heart of the girl by the window and finally, his soul was at peace.