© Lee Williams
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Apologies to those who have already reviewed a previous version of one or other of these stories. They are slightly revised, and I have grouped them together under a weak pun in order to see how well they work in unison, possibly as the basis for a collection of similar tales. There will be no karmic repercussions for removing them from your list, but if you said nice things last time, you are more than welcome to repeat them...
RESTLESS APPLE JACKSON
I had not been parson for very long when the business with Apple Jackson began. Apple was a well liked old fellow and he used to live out near Dalton Farm with his wife, their son having left for London some time before. He was the sort of chap of whom we would say that he would always go to the window to fart, that is to say he was a proper gentleman. Anyway, I’d known him all my life and it was sad for me that one of the first things I did as parson was to see him buried. I was as surprised as anyone when he came back the next Sunday.
I was in the parsonage about to take a bit of bread and cheese for my lunch, and thinking of sending for a drop of something to go with it, when Mrs Jessop showed in one of the Chessel twins (the tall one, not the one with the ears).
‘Apple Jackson is back,’ says he, plain as that.
‘Apple Jackson is dead,’ I told him.
‘He is very lively for a dead man,’ said the boy. ‘He’s at the ford. He says he can’t cross the stream unless someone carries him, but no-one wants to. He smells a bit’.
That was the first part of the conversation. I remember it very clearly. I didn’t believe him, of course, but I could see he wasn’t larking about, so I just sent him off. Then I got my hat and my coat and I went down to the ford, with Mrs Jessop following on behind me.
Sure enough, there was old Apple on the other side, with one or two of the villagers on this side gawking at him. He still had dirt on his suit where he’d come straight from the churchyard. I should say now that there was no doubt in my mind that he was dead. I’d seen the old fellow die, and I’d seen him planted too.
‘What’s on then, Apple?’ I asked him. I tried to sound as hearty as I could, to put him at his ease.
‘I wants to get across the stream, parson,’ he said, ‘I wants to get home’.
‘Why can’t you walk across?’ I asked.
He never answered but he did that thing with his head that he was always wont to do when somebody asked him a daft question.
‘Where have you come from, Apple?’
‘Up the road. I wants to get home, parson.’
‘Come along then,’ I said, and I crossed the stream to get him. One or two of the others got a bit fidgety at this, and I wasn’t too sure about it myself, but I thought that if I got him indoors away from folk I could deal with him a bit more handily. I suppose I felt some way responsible. After all, it was me that had buried him.
I crouched down and up he got on my back, and I must say that the Chessel boy was right, he did smell a touch ripe.
‘You smell a touch ripe, Apple,’ I told him.
He didn’t answer me but he gripped me round the neck, pretty tight for a dead man, and I trotted off across the stream. When we got across I set him down.
‘Thank’ee parson’, he said, and he reached up to tug his forelock. Blow me if it didn’t come right off in his hand. Mrs Jessop give a little shriek, right in my earhole, and Apple just stood there looking at it.
‘Never mind,’ says I, and I took it off him, very gentle. ‘It’s only a bit of hair, see.'
Well then, I helped him up the road towards his old cottage, and I was keeping a careful eye on him. He didn’t seem to be quite right in his own self, and he kept singing bits of that song ‘Seventeen next Sunday’, which he would never have done when he was alive, not in front of ladies, so I had to keep hushing him.
When we came into the cottage old Mrs Jackson was at the kettle boiling up a drop of water for tea. I tried to slide in first through the door, so as to prepare her for seeing Apple, but the old rogue pushed past me and goes directly to his chair and sits down.
‘Put me up a bit of something for supper, will ye Molly,’ he says.
Poor old Mrs Apple (for that’s what the most of us called her) scarce knew what to say. She looked at him, in his dirty old suit, then she looked at me, then she looked back at him again.
‘Is he right, parson?’ she asked.
‘Well, I shouldn’t get your hopes up, Mrs Jackson,’ says I, ’He’s still dead, after all’.
‘I should certainly like a slice of that old three-day pudding,’ says Apple.
So Mrs Jackson put a plate up for him and he started to push his bit of pudding about, staring ahead of himself all the time like an old gallybagger. We had a bit of a natter outside, Mrs Jackson and I and one or two from the village who were still hanging about, and we settled on leaving him as he was for now, to see how he got on.
So it went for the next week. I’d have a stroll round past the cottage each day to see how they were faring. Mrs Apple had her doubts, to be frank, about whether she preferred him here or in the churchyard. He hadn’t changed his clothes since coming back, although she kept on at him to do it (‘He don’t seem to hear me, parson’, she said), and he never slept at night, just sat at the table looking at the wall.
Well, come next Sunday he turned up in chapel and all the village got a good look at him (and a fair whiff of him too, for he was riper than ever now). On top of that, he sang a good sight too loud during the hymns, and often the wrong words, and he was holding his book upside down. Poor old Mrs Jackson had the devil of a time getting him to stand and kneel at the right times. Anyway, I gave the sermon on ‘Lazarus Risen’, hoping to reassure the congregation as much as I could.
Afterwards, once she’d taken him off home, we all had a bit of a meeting. Most villagers were none too happy about having him in the church, and it was generally agreed that he shouldn’t really be up and about at all. I think Mrs Jessop put things quite neatly when she said that it didn’t seem right, his poor old wife looking after him when he wasn’t working. ‘He may as well go back and lie down properly,’ she said.
Of course he had tried to work a little, or at least he had taken to turning up in the fields each morning, with his sickle but still in his old suit. He was no use to anyone, though, and to be honest he put the other chaps off their nammit, what with the way he was starting to look.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the upshot of all our talk was that I agreed to try and get him back to the churchyard on the hill, where we all thought he’d be much better off.
Well the next day I stopped by the cottage again, and I had with me old man Squibb and both of the Chessel boys. Apple was sat at the table with a bowl of soup in front of him.
‘He asked for it and then he just sits there with it, Parson,’ said Mrs Apple. ‘I tell him it’ll go cold but he won’t listen. I’m at my wits’ end, I truly am.’
‘Well now Apple,’ I said. ‘There’s a good chap, you mustn’t let your soup go cold.’
He didn’t seem to hear me but I pressed on anyway.
‘I don’t suppose you could give a fellow a hand for an hour or so? There’s a terrible lot of work to be done in the churchyard. I must get things in order before harvest time.’
I looked across at him out of the side of my eye but he was hardly stirring.
‘Oh, just take him with you, Parson,’ says his missus, ‘he’ll only be under my feet here’. And up she gets and helps him on with his coat, and she turns him towards the door.
Just as we were leaving she comes up and looks straight at me. In all my born days I shall never forget that look.
‘Will he be back again?’ she says in a low voice.
I shook my head.
Then she went up to Apple, straightened his collar and gave him a little peck on the cheek, and she whispered in his ear. Then she turned away and we left.
Well, it was easy going most of the way, but when we got to the stream Apple kept traipsing off to the left or right, and I had to lead him back and steady him a bit. Then the Chessel boys got him up between them and carted him across the stream, and we went on up the hill to the churchyard.
When we got to his place it was still open and we stood there a bit looking down at it. There was not one among us who really knew what to say, but old Apple, God bless him, just clambered straight in.
‘So long, Parson,’ he said.
‘Sleep well, Apple,’ I said.
‘So long, mate,’ says old Squibb, and when he closed his eyes we nailed him up. Proper iron nails this time.
Well, that was what happened with old Apple Jackson, which some folks here besides me still remember. I used to go back to the churchyard each year to check on him, and sometimes he’d wake up for a bit and have a natter, but he rarely made much sense and by the third year you could see how his body wasn’t up to it any longer and he never stirred again after that. I used to go there the day after we celebrated harvest homecoming, and sometimes I’d slip a little drop of the good stuff in with him, but I never told Mrs Apple that, for I knew she wouldn’t approve.
THE UNUSUAL DEATH OF GOVERNOR LI
On Mid-Autumn Day of that year the scholar Wen Yuan was dining with his friend Li Zhang, who held the position of governor in the prefecture of Yuan’an. After the dinner they sat together in the garden, drinking wine and enjoying both the splendour of the full moon and the comfort of unspoken words between old friends.
‘Governor Li’, said Wen Yuan. ‘Such a beautiful night should not go unremembered. Perhaps you would honour me by composing a few words?’
His friend smiled gently and replaced his wine cup on the table. Then he looked up through the trees at the bright disc of the moon and began, slowly, to speak these words:
‘On a night in Yuan’an
The yellow owl calls softly
The moon and I are blessed
By a friend from afar.’
After these words were spoken there was a long pause. Then Scholar Wen spoke in an earnest tone to his friend.
‘Old friend, do you not know that the yellow owl is sacred to Yan Wang, the god of death? Can it be wise to mention him in a poem, even one so beautiful as yours?’
‘Valued friend’, said the governor, ‘I do know this, but I see no dishonour or danger in speaking of Yan Wang. After all, life and death have their own rules, and he who is great enough to preside over them must be a very just man indeed.’
Scholar Wen nodded slowly and poured the wine. They then passed a happy evening together, drinking and playing chess beneath a bright round moon.
The next day some of the local villagers arrived at the doors to Governor Li’s home asking to speak with him. Their faces showed both fear and confusion. A baby had been born to a girl who nobody had thought to be pregnant and, more shockingly, it had no facial features or sexual organs. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all was that the child came into this world clutching in its hand a scroll addressed to Governor Li.
The governor took the baby into his house and gave it into the care of his wife’s mother, then he entered into his study and opened the scroll. On the parchment, which gave off a faint odour of peony flowers, the following words were written:
Honourable Governor Li,
This child is your death, a gift to you in gratitude for your kind words. He will live under your roof and be as cordial to you as you are to him. When it is your appointed time to die, your death will be at his hands, and he will help to send you comfortably on your journey to my domain.
I look forward to that time, many years from now, when we will drink a cup of wine together.
The letter was stamped with the red seal of Yan Wang, the god of death.
Over the next month, the child grew very quickly. On the fifth day, eyes and a mouth appeared below the skin, swimming slowly towards the surface like fish in a river. On the seventh day, the child’s sex was pronounced to be male, and he had almost doubled in height. By the thirteenth day, people realised that he looked very much like a young Governor Li, who said that this was natural, ‘as he is to be my death’. The boy had also begun to speak and he proved himself to be very courteous and well-mannered, and a diligent student.
By the time the moon was once again full, the boy had become a man, in appearance exactly the same as Governor Li, and also sharing his voice, mannerisms, and even his memories. Governor Li gave him one of his own gowns to wear, the very finest, and after dinner that evening he took him to one side.
‘I can no longer call you my younger brother’, he said. ‘Instead we must treat one another as equals and close friends. Do you like the name Li Xian?’
‘You must already know that I like that name very much’, said the other.
‘When we look upon the full moon this evening, I sense that your childhood will be complete, and we will be of one mind in all things. Even our memories will be identical. When that happens, I would like us to be sharing some wine together in the garden’.
‘I also would like that greatly. These are difficult times for the two of us, and I share your opinion that wine would do us much good.’
That evening the Governor and his death shared a large jug of wine together in the garden, and none were permitted to approach them until the morning, although many heard their voices raised in merry song at different hours of the night.
When the rooster crowed at dawn, the two men came back into the house. It was obvious to all people that they had been drinking heavily the night before, and they had also exchanged certain of their garments. In fact, they had become drunk on purpose, so that in the morning they would not remember which of them had been the Governor when they had sat down at the table, and which of them had been his double. Their idea had worked, so now they drew a slip of paper each to see who should keep the name Li Zhang and govern the prefecture, and who should take the name Li Xian.
Many years passed and the two men, as they grew further apart in character and appearance, grew closer in friendship. Governor Li was widely considered to be a just and capable ruler, and Li Xian, with the assistance of Wen Yuan, became a scholar and calligrapher of wide renown. The three men spent many enjoyable hours together, playing chess and discussing poetry, until the hairs of their heads and beards were as white as apple blossom.
Then war came to the region and Governor Li, who was a peaceful man by nature, was forced to take sides. He chose wrongly and, although his life was spared by the victorious army, whose general had once been treated very kindly by the governor, the people of Yuan’an suffered greatly. The soldiers took women and children as they pleased, and anyone who stood against them was killed without mercy. The fields were stripped bare, the streams clogged with bright, butchered bodies, and the walls of the houses stained with blood. In the market place, they cut off the heads of thirty men, including the gentle scholar Wen Yuan, and kicked them through the dust.
Governor Li and Li Xian were distraught. When they tried to stop the killing they were jeered at by the soldiers, who were afraid to kill them but thought nothing of mocking them openly. Eventually, their beloved town in ruins, they left together to climb Ming Feng Mountain, two old men supporting each other as they walked.
At the top of the mountain they said their goodbyes and then, on the highest peak, they fulfilled the duty laid on one of them many years before by a god, and assisted each other to a single death on the rocks below.
The town recovered to become a site famous through all China for the delicacy of its tea and the rich flavour of the mushrooms which bubble from its fertile soil. On Mid-Autumn Day, local people say that sounds of merriment can sometimes be heard from Ming Feng Mountain, as Governor Li raises a cup of wine with Yan Wang, the god of death.