A Father's Blessing
by Jim Lee
He leaned back against the post that supported one side of the porch roof and hugged himself. But another piercing cry came from within the house, and he simply had to move. Three fitful strides carried him a bit farther from his wife’s pain … pain that he, in his foolish need, had brought upon her. Le Thrang halted, squinting at the horizon. A new cry made him shudder, cast guilty eyes backward. The screams were coming much quicker now. Was this a good sign or a bad one?
He did not dare ask directly.
“How long?” he asked instead, rubbing sweaty palms together. “How long can this thing go on?”
Beside him, Phan Dong shrugged. The goldsmith was older, more experienced. “Each woman’s labor time is different. And with each child, as well. Some come quickly; others insist on being troublesome. Don’t worry, Le Thrang. The Wise Woman is with Vho, as is my wife. Be confident and happy!”
“But in your experience?” the young carpenter persisted.
Phan Dong rolled up his eyes, as he did whenever reminiscing. “With our first child, Minh’s efforts went on for about nine hours.”
“Nine hours …” Le Thrang eyed the lowering sun.
“But the next three were quicker,” Phan Dong added swiftly. “Much, much quicker!”
Le Thrang shook his head, shuddered at another cry. “Is this a bad time, Phan Dong? I’m much afraid that it might be!”
His plump friend chuckled. “This is no bad time to become a father, Le Thrang. Difficult times, yes. Times of challenge, even danger. Some times are luckier than others, certainly. But never a purely bad time, I’m sure.”
The expectant father sighed, turned from yet another shriek. “But what of the present way of the world? Khmer and Cham armies making threats at our frontiers. To the west, that unpredictable new kingdom, Lan Xang …”
“Just be glad the Chinese are still occupied with those northern savages,” Phan Dong suggested.
“Yes, the Mongols. But last season’s harvest …”
“The King’s problem,” the goldsmith pointed out. He waited till another of Le Vho’s cries had passed, then shrugged. “Only the Monarch treats with Heaven; you know that. And he has already taken the necessary steps, I understand. Publicly confessing his guilt, listing his unholy shortcomings and putting penance on himself. Surely this will appease Heaven’s wrath!”
“We have a brave and honorable King,” Le Thrang admitted. “Almost as fine as old King Hung himself, perhaps. Still, perhaps I …”
Another cry cut him short.
“You can do nothing,” Phan Dong said firmly. “None but the King can. Yet I think these are not your primary concerns?”
The knowing smile made Le Thrang wince, then nod. “We’ve seen wars and possible wars before. By the Grace of Heaven, our ancestors even drove out the damned Chinese after one-thousand years under their thumb! And the granaries are well stocked, will see us through.”
“But tonight …?” the goldsmith asked.
“Yes, tonight.” Le Thrang studied the lowering sun, gauging the time. “With midnight comes the New Year and the annual visit of our family ghosts. We are unprepared this time. With Vho in the midst of labor …”
Both men started, jumped at the worst-sounding scream so far.
Le Thrang took a blind, mindless step toward his home.
Phan Dong clasped his younger friend’s elbow, shook his head. “It goes well, I’m certain. Let the women do this thing! It is their province!”
“All right.” Le Thrang took a slow breath, nodded. “It’s just … the family ghosts will come, see the house in disorder.”
“They’ll understand. And they shall be happy to see a new addition to their line!”
“Some, perhaps. But not all my family ghosts are so reasonable, Phan Dong.”
Le Thrang frowned. “He never thought highly of me. Never really gave me his blessing or approval. And now …”
And now, abruptly, there was silence from within.
Where were the terrible but now-familiar cries of pain and struggle?
Speechless, Le Thrang watched his friend’s wife appear in the doorway and smile.
“The child is a girl,” Phan Minh said. “Of good health and excellent color.”
Le Thrang took an anxious step forward. “My wife?”
“Vho is exhausted, but only as is natural. Go in if you would, Le Thrang. Visit with the two women of your household. But you must excuse me and my husband. The New Year draws near and we have ancestors to prepare for.”
“Yes. Oh, yes …forgive me! I’ve been thoughtless …my thanks to you both!”
“You might thank the Wise Woman, too,” Phan Minh advised. “And mind her instructions, for she too will have to leave soon. Such a hectic time, the pre-New Year. But yours, I merit, shall be more so than most.”
Le Thrang sighed. Then he hurried past her, his heart pounding to a strange new rhythm. Inside, he went straight to Vho. The stoop-shouldered midwife gave him a moist cloth and he wiped sweat from his weak, smiling wife’s brow. Then he looked down at the tiny bundle by her side, the little face wrinkled and reddish.
“Your daughter,” Vho said.
“I shall contact the Monks,” the Wise Woman muttered from behind them. She was already packing her supplies to go. “In a few days, she shall be properly blessed and formally named. Meanwhile …”
“Yes.” Le Thrang nodded. “We have discussed the matter. Her name from now until the Rite shall be Iron Dragon.”
“Iron Dragon,” the old midwife repeated, tasting the name. Abruptly, she nodded. “Good! A strong name, fit to keep demons away and bad spirits at a safe distance! Here is an herb, in case your wife has pain. You do know how to brew tea, don’t you?”
“Yes. Of course, Wise Woman.”
“Too many men are helpless. I’m glad some woman has trained you properly! I must be off, though. Six full generations of my family’s ghosts will be visiting me this night!”
“It must be a very old house,” Le Thrang said dryly.
The midwife sniffed. “Not so old as the Palace. But my line, in its way, is almost as noble as the King’s own!”
Le Thrang stood there gaping, unable to respond.
The old midwife made her bustling exit and he turned to his wife, gesturing.
Vho laughed. “Yes, isn’t she extraordinary? But we must prepare …” She held her complaining infant to her side with one hand and peeled back the covers with the other. But when she tried to sit upright, Vho winced.
“No! Stay! Rest!” Le Thrang replaced the lightweight blankets, urged his wife back down. “I will prepare this year.”
Vho’s smile was grateful, and he felt the need to kiss her lightly. Then Le Thrang thought to do the same with his newborn child.
Iron Dragon cried out when his large form bent over her and blotted out the red sunset. Perhaps she mistook her father for a demon?
Le Thrang kissed her small, red forehead anyway. Then he went into the other room and began the unfamiliar task of housecleaning.
For hours he worked.
He swept and folded and rearranged. He put out candles and incense sticks. Trays of smoked fish and sweetmeats followed. And as the night deepened, he made sure that each door and window in his small but comfortable home was opened wide. That done, he took a tray of light food to his wife. She ate a rice cake even as their daughter suckled.
Le Thrang could not resist a proud smile. Now, if only he could somehow earn his stern, long-dead father’s approval!
He went into the corner where he kept the family’s Sacred Relics. Slowly, reverently, he brought forth a fine linen handkerchief. It was folded with artful precision.
“Your father’s?” his wife asked, though she knew the answer well.
Le Thrang held it against his breast, took his time replying. “I caught his last breath with it. I hope the Soul Remnant has not fled!”
“Of course it hasn’t. And he will be proud of you, for keeping it so carefully.”
Le Thrang blinked, smiled at her.
This time she rose without excessive pain. Infant in her arms, Vho crossed the room to his side. “You are a good man, my husband. Your first child and I shall be pleased to sit with you and await the visit of your family ghosts.”
“Including my father?”
“Especially him! Come, husband. Midnight and with it the New Year approaches!”
Later they sat together with Iron Dragon nearby in a cradle her father had personally fashioned from prized Cham eaglewood. The adults faced the main door, knowing most of their ancestors would choose it as their place of entrance.
Le Thrang frowned as they waited. He bit his lip and stroked his wife’s hand, the sacred handkerchief heavy against his chest. “He can be a capricious spirit,” Le Thrang remarked. “Far more so than he was in life.”
“That is the way of ghosts,” Vho responded.
“I am so grateful to you,” he added. “I am most fortunate!”
The baby chose that instant to begin her first loud, truly sustained crying fit. Ten minutes later, after both parents had tried and failed to calm the infant, they settled once more.
“You still feel fortunate?” Vho said wryly.
Le Thrang pursed his lips. “Yes. Indeed, I still do!”
“You wouldn’t rather she was a boy? To look after us, in our old age?”
“There will be time for many sons. And perhaps more daughters, as well. But for now, I am content.”
“They get cranky like this often, I suppose?”
“Often enough.” His wife reached out, gently shook one corner of the cradle. It only made Iron Dragon scream louder. “Perhaps I ought to hold her?”
Le Thrang sighed. His father liked order in his home and quiet. He would not appreciate a squalling newborn on the one night of the year in which he and the other spirits came to visit! But then, what did it matter? None of what Le Thrang had done before had ever been good enough. Why should this time, this year be any different?
Vho saw her husband’s shoulder sink and decided Iron Dragon could wait.
Midnight was fast approaching.
“He shall be proud,” she soothed. “This will be his first look at the porch you added. It is a good place to rest, out of the day’s heat.”
“My father was a man of action, not of rest—a soldier, Vho. His only son, the carpenter, was a grave disappointment.”
“Then he was a fool in life. And if he still cannot see that, he is a fool in death as well!”
Le Thrang stared at her open-mouthed. He’d never heard such defiant, outlandish talk from her.
“You are as good,” she continued. “As worthy a man as he was, Le Thrang. And if he shows his ghostly face to me this year, I shall surely tell him so!”
Pride surged over the humble young carpenter. He looked from his wife to his crying baby’s cradle and back again. "Let him come, then.” He took Vho’s hand and held it, facing the door with a smile.
But then, as out of nowhere, a strange wind arrived.
It was unnatural, that wind.
They both sensed this, even before it lifted the handkerchief from Le Thrang’s breast and tossed it, twisting in its weird currents, beyond his lunging grasp. That wind moved only the Sacred Relic, affecting nothing else. The two could not even feel the breeze’s touch upon their skin, nor see the slightest movement in the loose strands of their hair.
“No,” Le Thrang gasped as the handkerchief, the symbol of his remembrance and loyalty to his father, danced and dipped and swung toward the complaining infant’s cradle. “Oh, no!”
His new daughter was still yelling at the top of her tiny lungs, and Le Thrang knew it was a sign. In horror and fear, he saw the bit of folded linen pause directly above the cradle. Then, at once, the weird breeze quit and the handkerchief tumbled, drifting and unfolding as it went down into Iron Dragon’s open-topped resting place.
“It came open,” Le Thrang murmured, utterly lost. "It came right open and my father…his Soul Remnant…”
His wife stroked his wrist, brought her face to his knuckles and kissed them.
Then, exchanging wide-eyed stares, they realized the sudden silence…followed by a soft gurgle of…contentment?
Le Thrang helped his wife to her feet and together, hearts pounding, they peered into the cradle.
Iron Dragon sat upright, though she was far too young to do so … not on her own, at the very least. She was also too young to truly smile, or to recognize them on sight alone, or to grip anything in her unsteady, newborn hands.
Yet the infant had a bright loving grin and she aimed it up at them in apparent purpose. And in two pudgy little hands, their daughter held two corners of a rumpled linen handkerchief.
When Le Thrang and Vho turned to each other and embraced, no words were possible … or necessary.
Rising the next morning, they discovered many of the treats Le Thrang had put out were gone. Others had been nibbled, leaving odd-shaped, delicate, almost spectral tooth marks behind.
Seeing these, the young couple laughed. They continued laughing as they closed and locked each door and window at first light. And in her cradle, their first child also laughed.
For the first hours of her life, Iron Dragon had seemed a somewhat cranky child, but no more.
For as it is often said, a father’s blessing can mean so very much!
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Previously published in PANDORA, issue #29, 1993.
Image: Old man and a child by Mai Trung Thu (1906-1980). Source.
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What advice do you have for other fantasy writers? Write from the heart, what moves and interests you--not what you think is the 'hot' topic or theme of the moment.