Choral Tales Project
Lord of the Cranes
(Asia - China)
As Re-told by Shirin Sabri
There is a place in China where mountains rise up into the clouds, a place far above the world. There you will find crystal streams sparkling through meadows filled with wildflowers. Those streams flow into jade green lakes in the mountain valleys where wild cranes fly free. This is where Xian, the Lord of Heaven, makes his home. Sometimes people call Xian the Lord of the Cranes, because the cranes are his friends and will do anything he asks.
Even though Xian’s home was so far above the cities and homes of men, he could hear what went on down in the world. He could hear the shouts of vendors selling their wares and the quiet weeping of hungry children in the night. Sometimes the cranes told him about things they saw when they flew to the world below. Xian resolved to go and see how people were living their lives. So one day he sat upon a crane’s back and flew down with the flock of birds to walk among men.
The first person Xian met in the city was a pauper, shivering in the cold. Xian gave the poor man his own warm silken robes, taking the other’s ragged clothes in exchange. Day after night and night after day Xian walked the streets of the city clad in rags, but no-one would look at him, no-one offered him help. He sat on a number of corners in the hurrying marketplace, but people avoided his eyes, never pausing even for a moment.
Grieving and weary, Xian wandered the alleyways of the city, surrounded by people who frowned and fretted as they bustled past, preoccupied with their own problems. The people of the city seemed unable to imagine the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. Just as he was giving up hope of finding a kindly heart, Xian saw the door of an inn opening wide, spilling light out into the street. The innkeeper stood in the opening, and looked straight at Xian, smiling warmly.
‘Come in, come in!’ he called, and when Xian approached, that kindly man put an arm around the penniless one's bowed shoulders and ushered him to a seat. Rice and savoury meats were brought and placed on the table in front of Xian.
‘I cannot pay for this,’ Xian warned the inn’s owner, but his host only laughed and told him to enjoy his food.
Each night, Xian returned to the inn with the kindly innkeeper, each night he was given a seat in the warmth of the inn, each night he was given soup and rice and sizzling meat to eat, and each night his host waved away any suggestion that Xian should pay. At last Xian insisted that he must, he truly must repay the kindness that had been shown him.
The Lord of the Cranes took up a water gourd and flung arcing splatters of water onto the wall of the inn. As the water landed it flowed and swirled into delicate paintings of dancing cranes, cranes stepping high with outspread wings. The innkeeper watched with open mouth, and Xian grinned at him mischievously.
‘Do you want to see more?’ he asked. ‘Tell your guests to sing!’
As soon as the inn’s guests starting singing and clapping their hands the painted cranes leapt down from the wall and danced gracefully around the room. The innkeeper gazed at them in amazement till the song ended, and the cranes sprang back onto the wall, no more than painted figures again. He turned to ask Xian what had happened, but the Lord of Heaven had gone.
Years passed, and the inn grew busier and busier. Everyone wanted to see the magical dancing cranes. Every night the inn was filled with singing, joyful customers. And every night, the innkeeper found room for paupers, every night he fed people who could not afford to pay for what they ate, and every night he remembered Xian, Lord of the Cranes.
Many years later, when the innkeeper’s wispy beard was turning silver, Xian returned. He stood watching the happy room for some time before the innkeeper saw him and hurried over.
‘Come and sit, come and eat,’ he urged the noble guest, and when Xian had been given food, his host sat at the table, leaning forward.
‘Please,’ he asked, ‘may I know who you are?’
Tian drew a flute from his robes, and played a melody that floated in the air, trills and rills that remembered the breezes of heaven. Tears flowed down the innkeeper’s cheeks.
‘Is this not a melody of Heaven?’ he murmured, and bowed down in thanks. ‘You have made me rich and brought me joy – what can I do to repay you?’
‘Teach others in this city to be as kind and generous to those in need as you are yourself. That is all I ask.’ Xian replied. He lifted the flute to his lips to play the divine music one last time, calling the cranes from the wall. As they knelt before him, Xian stroked their heads, saying:
‘Thank you for your help, my friends.’
The cranes spread their wings, Xian tucked himself onto a crane’s back and they flew, spiraling high into the sky where they were joined by a great flock of cranes. The landlord watched them go, Xian’s melody sounding in his ears and his heart filled with high resolve.
Shirin Sabri © 2014
Drawing, Eva Tuman © 2014
© Ludwig Tuman 2017