To the prospect of
a world at peace,
for our children
and for all children
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
imageREAM GARDEN IS A WORK OF FICTION. But set in a world and time that did exist, it admits elements of fact. Real, for example, was the Yuan Ming Yuan, a vast and beautiful garden constructed over the course of a century that at its zenith occupied an expanse eight times that of Vatican City. Paintings of forty views of this garden are in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Matteo Ricci and Giuseppe Castiglione, the latter an exceptional artist and architect, were Jesuit missionaries who lived out their lives in China. Lord George Macartney was a British ambassador. Sengge Linqin (pronounced seng-linkin), Lord Elgin, and Compte Cousin-Montauban were generals, Chinese, British, and French, respectively. History records the names and what is known of the actions of these individuals. Dream Garden weaves a story in which they play parts imagined by the authors.
I didn’t know I’d lose my soul
and chase after you in dream.
Except the moon on the sky’s brink,
no one else knows this.
imageT COULD HAVE BEEN THE SAME SMILE. But the lips that formed it were of different ages — and worlds. Those of the student whose sixteen years had been lived entirely within the borders of the vast garden from which father and emperor Kang oversaw the one-third of the world that, by virtue of obeisance to the “Son of Heaven,” was “civilized,” whose mis-stroke was meant to provoke her teacher, expressed infatuation and coquetry. Those of the Italian Jesuit nearly twice her age who corrected the errant stroke, whose sufferance within those same borders owed as much to his precursors’ and contemporaries’ profound knowledge of mathematics and science as to his own facility with a brush, expressed bemusement born of a remarkable wisdom and singular devotion cultivated in the relatively brief span of three decades. And yet not a little affection, for Giuseppe Castiglione was man as well as monk, and the emperor’s daughter had captured as much of his heart as was not owned by his god.
The favorite of her father’s twenty daughters, Girl-Girl had been but an infant when Giuseppe, at nineteen already a masterful painter, was taking the vows of Holy Orders in Genoa. When, after a two-year sojourn at the Jesuit monastery in Coïmbra, necessitated by the requirement that all missions be carried on Portuguese ships, he happily found himself among those Jesuits preeminent in their fields of endeavor being dispatched to China, he left behind, in the chapel of the novices in Genoa, two illustrations of the life of Saint Ignatius, and in the chapel of the College of Coïmbra, murals and portraits of young princes.
As further strokes began to hint at a sense of perspective, the princess’s slender fingers disappeared under a hand twice the size of hers. She lifted her head and her eyes met his.
“Shih-ning,” in a level voice with the petulance permitted a princess, she addressed him in the name bestowed by her father — who had, upon his initial introduction to the young monk, declaring Giuseppe Castiglione to be unpronounceable, directed that he henceforward be called Lang Shih-ning, or Person Calm Life — “You paint this way. Why can’t I?”
“You know why, Princess. Because your father forbids it.” Shih-ning lifted his hand from Girl-Girl’s, stepped quickly back when she swiped at him with her brush.
Girl-Girl’s smile now was playful, that of a young girl indulging her whimsy. “But I want to paint like you do,” she insisted in a monosyllabic singsong. “Your paintings look like the real world,” her voice softened, “like you could step into them.”
The reference to a mural he had painted in a room of one of her father’s palaces, which had elicited on her part no small amount of surprise and discomfort when she had tried to do precisely that, elicited a tender smile that transformed first into an apologetic laugh, then a look of bemusement. “Strike me with your brush” — Giuseppe dropped onto one knee and bowed his head — “fairest of all the princesses, for deceiving you with mine, for painting a world that your beautiful essence could not enter.”
“My father’s laugh when I walked into the painted wall was not as soft as yours just now.” Girl-Girl paused, reflected on the last words of Shih-ning’s apology. “Paint me,” she commanded, “my ‘beautiful essence’.”
Had he not closed them after lifting his head and gazing briefly at her, Giuseppe’s eyes would have betrayed him. “And how am I to paint the princess I am commanded to instruct in painting?”
“I will accompany you to your apartments when the lessons are finished. I will sit for a portrait.”
“Impossible.” The word was a barely audible statement of fact: that portrait painting was permitted the Jesuits only on “rest days,” and then only at the emperor’s discretion, and that the house Giuseppe and the other Jesuits shared, being outside the garden walls, was no less inaccessible to Girl-Girl than would have been the moon. And then there were the eunuchs, he thought, glancing from one to another of those ever present minions driven by jealousy to exploit any and every opportunity to diminish the emperor’s high esteem for the missionaries.
Although she understood as fully as Giuseppe the truth of his pronouncement, Girl-Girl persisted: “Paint my portrait. The princess…your princess…commands it.” Then she laid her brush gently on the unfinished painting, turned on her heel, and left the studio.
Giuseppe did not gaze long at the back of the silk garment that rustled with each of Girl-Girl’s close, purposeful steps. Before she had exited the room he had turned, lifted the brush off the canvas, and set both aside for tomorrow’s lesson. Much remained to be done in the hours left in this day, but already Giuseppe, her visage clearly fixed in his mind, had resolved to comply with Girl-Girl’s wish, and when he departed the studio at five o’clock with the others who labored for the glory of the “Son of Heaven,” not only painters, but other skilled artisans including clockmakers, enamellers, and carvers of ivory and precious stones, secreted in his flowing gown were a rolled canvas, brushes, and paints.
Giuseppe commenced that evening, from memory, the portrait of Kang’s favored daughter. If she noticed, during lessons on subsequent days, her instructor observing her more closely than her work, Girl-Girl gave no sign. Indulged by her father since childhood — after her first exposure to the room in which the painters worked, it was rare for Kang to visit the studio without one or both of his daughter’s small hands gripping his, her eyes wide with amazement — Girl-Girl’s fascination with painting had evolved into devotion. As had her captivation by Western-style painting. Although not unimpressed with the effects that could be achieved by the incorporation of perspective and shadow — trompe-l’œil paintings executed by the French Jesuit Gherardini adorned the inside of the dome of the church of Pei-t‘ang in Peking — the emperor insisted for the most part that the Europeans accommodate themselves to, and demanded that his daughter be taught, the Chinese style. Giuseppe could not deny the princess, nor could the princess displease her father. So Girl-Girl diligently practiced the Chinese style, Giuseppe indulged, with discretion, her insistence on learning Western techniques, and her father was shown only what he expected to see.
It was only a matter of days before Girl-Girl was shown what she expected to see.
“Shih-ning!” Girl-Girl gasped, when Giuseppe lifted the piece of silk covering the canvas. “Shih-ning,” she repeated, softly, “it’s like looking into a mirror!”
“It is but a humble attempt to hint at the beauty of the emperor’s daughter,” Giuseppe replied, “but I am glad that it pleases the princess.”
Girl-Girl lifted the canvas with both hands, studied it, then clasped it to her breast. “We are beautiful!” she exclaimed. Then, softly, “Thank you, Shih-ning.”
Again, the Jesuit’s smile mirrored the princess’s, but this time Giuseppe did not lower his head and Girl-Girl saw in his eyes what was in her own. The word he had breathed when she had demanded the portrait, “impossible,” intruded on her thoughts, but she quickly suppressed it.
“Thank you, Shih-ning,” Girl-Girl repeated tenderly, “I must show it to father.”
“Girl-Gir…” Giuseppe caught himself. “Princess. No.” But she had already turned away, and the rustle of silk dissipated quickly this time with her rapid steps. Girl-Girl was gone.
TURNING FROM THE YOUNG MAN seated beside him at his daughter’s sudden appearance in the entry to his chamber, Kang smiled. Here together were the princess who owned his heart and the prince he’d chosen to be his successor, his second surviving son by his first spouse.
“Father!” Girl-Girl was breathless, the portrait still clasped to her breast.
Their curiosity picqued, Kang and Qian looked expectantly at Girl-Girl.
“Well,” intoned the emperor, “you have a painting to show us? We are most eager to see it, my talented princess.”
Girl-Girl took several steps into the chamber, to within a few feet of her father and brother, before turning the canvas around and extending it towards them.
Qian was smiling broadly when he turned to discover his father’s countenance darkening.
“Whose work is this?” Kang demanded, his tone level, but edged with anger.
Girl-Girl blanched and her brother looked puzzled.
Girl-Girl’s reply was inaudible.
“Lang Shih-ning.” The emperor pronounced the name more as a statement of fact than a question.
“Is it not beautiful, Father?” Girl-Girl protested. “Is it not a good likeness?”
“Father,” Qian began, but a look from the emperor silenced him.
Kang set the canvas purposefully, but not irreverently, on a table, holding his daughter’s attention the while. “You will not visit the studio again,” he commanded.
“But Father,” Girl-Girl pleaded.
“You will not visit the studio,” Kang reiterated, his face, and voice, softening almost imperceptibly as he gave all the reason that, more, in fact, than, was required. “You will cause trouble.”
“But Father,” Girl-Girl protested weakly, then turned and ran weeping from the room.
“It is not,” Kang explained, turning to Qian, “that he painted her in the Western style. Honestly, I find aspects of the foreigners’ style quite remarkable. Have I not let them paint in their style in various of the palaces in the garden?”
Qian nodded acknowledgement.
“It has to do with man and woman, princess and European priest. The latter pairing, by Lang Shih-ning’s own explanation, is impossible. Yet, you see how he paints Girl-Girl. She will fall in love with him, if she has not already, and it will be trouble. Her heart will be broken; his work will suffer. It cannot be permitted.” Kang looked thoughtful for a long moment. “We will take archery tomorrow afternoon, after your classes, Qian. On horseback. Your skills please me, son, and I would be pleased.” Whereas the education of his brothers had largely been entrusted to others close to Kang, the emperor had taken personal charge of grooming the heir apparent for succession.
GIRL-GIRL HAD RUN BLINDLY, tears streaming, to a nearby Buddhist temple. Her father had become devoutly Buddhist when she was still a child, and Girl-Girl had embraced the religion with all the fervor with which she now embraced the Western style of painting. She paused at the entrance to dab at her eyes with her sleeves.
Inside, and seated cross-legged on the floor, Girl-Girl dissolved once more into tears. The exhausted princess’s incoherent prayers soon gave way to sleep, and she slumped forward and drifted into a dream.
Girl-Girl and Giuseppe were running, hand in hand, along China’s Great Wall.
“What an immense and beautiful wall,” Giuseppe said, surveying the massive fortification’s breadth and length.
“Yes, it is,” Girl-Girl replied.
“What a beautiful tower!” Giuseppe exclaimed, as they approached one of the Wall’s many watchtowers.
“It is a fire tower,” Girl-Girl explained. “When an enemy approaches, the guard lights a fire in the tower to alert the soldiers to gather and be prepared to fight.”
“We have a tower in Italy,” Giuseppe said, “in a place called Pisa.”
“I would like to see it,” Girl-Girl said. “Bring the tower here, to the wall, instead of the fire tower.”
“I can’t,” Giuseppe explained. “If the Tower of Pisa were to replace the fire tower, the Great Wall might collapse. The Tower of Pisa leans.”
“It’s okay, Girl-Girl reassured Giuseppe. “I fear that the Wall will separate us.”
“No,” said Giuseppe, “the Great Wall will connect the West to the East, just as we are connected, Girl-Girl. I will stay with you.”
The Great Wall shuddered as he said this, and the two became separated.
“Shih-ning!” the princess screamed.
“Girl-Girl,” Giuseppe called after her.
Girl-Girl watched horrified as a tower she only imagined leaned and fell and the Great Wall crumbled between them.
“Shih-ning! I love you! Help me.” Girl-Girl woke screaming.
Realizing she had been dreaming, Girl-Girl calmed herself, then resumed her prayers to the Buddha, this time with clear intention. “I love Shih-ning,” she prayed. “I know that it is impossible for me to love him, and for him to love me, but I will never marry anyone else. Please help me. Please let me be born in Shih-ning’s country, Italy, with Shih-ning, in my next life so that we can finally be married.”
the change of a thousand years is rapid
as a galloping horse.
In the distance China is nine wisps of smoke
and in a single cup of water the ocean churns.
imageT HAD BEEN A DREAM that had brought the then young missionary to China. Fatherless from a young age, Giuseppe had found male companionship at the local abbey. He also discovered in the Jesuit brothers, who, finding him a willing and enthusiastic student, lavished time and attention on him, a store of vast knowledge and skill. He surely would not have acquired from formal education in the schools in Milan the broad knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, hydraulics, sculpture, and painting imparted to him by the monks, who were especially keen, perceiving the sensitivity of his hand and eye, to encourage and guide his obvious talent for the latter. Grateful for the additional income from the commissions for portraits the brothers found for her teenage son, and being a devout Catholic, Giuseppe’s mother did not discourage him when he announced that he felt a calling to the priesthood. Genoa, where he would undertake his novitiate, was in the same region of Italy after all, and she was assured that visits would not be infrequent.
Giuseppe devoted himself to the lessons of faith as ardently as to the lessons of art and science. The grasp of many of the finer points of theology that impressed, even amazed, some of his teachers was a product of tireless reading, not limited to every religious text on which Giuseppe could put his hands, but including as well what the correspondence of the Jesuit missionaries in China related of the country and their experiences in it.
At the conclusion of his novitiate, Giuseppe was permitted to return for a time to Milan. His mother, who had taken solace from the proximity of the seminary, was grateful for this opportunity for near daily visits with her son, whom she knew could soon be sent somewhere more distant from her.
Giuseppe read and prayed in his small room in the rectory and, on agreeable days, painted in the meadow that surrounded the church at which he daily attended Mass. One day, as he sat before an easel under a cloudless sky committing to canvas the pastoral landscape before him, in which gray squirrels darted between the trunks and pigeons between the branches of trees, the voices of the church choir drifted to him on the stillness.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Giuseppe reflected on the words he heard. “All who do not know Christ are in that sense,” he thought, “blind. It is the work of the missionary to give sight, to open eyes that are closed to Christ.”
Giuseppe returned to his painting and, after a time, apprehended the words of a different hymn.
When thro’ the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur,
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
As the refrain repeated amid the singing of the birds and skittering of the squirrels before him, Giuseppe felt the words. His devotion deepened as he attributed to his God all that he daily saw and heard and loved. And though he neither could see nor hear Him, he loved, above all, that God.
His brush, poised over the canvas, hung suspended for a long moment before descending once more to render what Giuseppe now viewed with renewed fervor as God’s meadow. It was for that God that he labored, and by the grace of that God that his labor bore the exquisite fruits that it did.
As he sat intent on his work, a rush of words in Giuseppe’s ear triggered a reflexive withdrawal of brush from canvas. Finding, as he turned, the fresh face of his three years younger cousin at his shoulder, he delivered a mock scolding.
“Bolonia! How many times must I tell you not to do that? One day I will ruin one of my paintings because of you.”
“But it’s so beautiful!” Bolonia gushed. “All of your paintings are so beautiful, Giuseppe!”
Giuseppe set down his brush, leaned back on his stool, and took his cousin’s hands in his.
“And the beautiful voices the warm breeze brought to me earlier, my beautiful cousin, was yours among them?
“Yes. Of course it was. You know that we have choir practice every week before Sunday Mass.”
“And isn’t God good, Bolonia, to spread about so much talent to make beautiful things? Beautiful paintings. Beautiful singing. Beautiful girls.”
Bolonia withdrew her hands from Giuseppe’s and tapped him lightly on the cheek.
“Fresh! And me your cousin, and you a priest! What does God think of you right now, I wonder?”
“So, sweet Bolonia, my little town crier, what secrets apprehended by her inquisitive ear is my little mockingbird dying to reveal?”
“Are you,” Bolonia began, planting her hands on her hips and working at looking affronted, “calling me a gossip or a blabbermouth?”
“Both,” Giuseppe replied matter-of-factly.
“Ohhh…” Bolonia raised both hands, but her attempted cat-like pounce was thwarted by Giuseppe whose considerably larger hands closed over his cousin’s curled fingers. Bringing her small hands to his lips, he kissed and released each.
“But my sweet cousin, you are so reliable a source of such a wealth of information, how could I not inquire?”
Bolonia laughed. “Silly. Well, I do know something you don’t know.”
“Pray tell,” invited Giuseppe.
“Bet you didn’t know the cardinal is going to be saying the Mass on Sunday.”
Giuseppe looked flummoxed. “How could you possibly know that and I not?”
“And I bet you didn’t know that he’s coming to bestow a great honor on our church.”
“And that is?”
“Our church is to be invited to name one of the missionaries who is going to be sent to CHINA!” Bolonia practically shouted the last word.
That word transformed Giuseppe’s expression from abashed to intrigued.
“Our church? One of the missionaries to China?”
Bolonia studied her cousin’s demeanor. “You’re not thinking…” she began.
THE DRAGON FIGURED PROMINENTLY in Chinese culture, and though humility would not permit him to imagine himself St. George, the association between subduing such a creature and the conversion of an entire kingdom animated Giuseppe’s imagination and inspired a passion that played out that night in a dream in which he stood, emboldened, he knew, by God’s grace, before a monstrous dragon. The beast, though it towered above him, inclined its head and peered at Giuseppe with a single eye, not malevolent but inquisitive, as the missionary spoke of the Trinity and of God become, for love of him, man. And as Giuseppe continued through the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, scales, become men and women and children, began to fall from the great dragon and float to the earth until the entire creature had dissolved into a veritable sea of humanity. Every head turned up as began to fall the gentlest of rains, the drops of which Giuseppe consecrated so that all were baptized.
After the dream had repeated for the third consecutive night, Giuseppe visited the abbot, who corroborated his cousin’s gossip, confirming the cardinal’s visit, but equivocal about its intent with respect to the interest expressed by this youngest of his friars. As widely admired for his amiability and humility as respected for his considerable and varied talents, Giuseppe found favor not only in the monastery, as a brother in the filial as well as religious sense, caring and wise beyond his years, but also in the broader community that knew well his fealty and devotion to his widowed mother, Anna, and spirited and beautiful cousin, Bolonia. Upon being acquainted with Giuseppe’s dream, and reflecting on the devout monk’s many exemplary qualities, the abbot, after studying his young charge for a long moment, announced that he would arrange during the cardinal’s visit an audience for Giuseppe. Giuseppe, smiling inwardly as well as outwardly, leaned forward and kissed the abbot’s ring, thanked him, and when the abbot inclined his head, departed.
The cardinal arrived in Milan several days before he was to say Mass in order to talk with the monks who wished to be considered for the Chinese mission. Surprised when Giuseppe entered his chamber, the cardinal smiled warmly — mentally resolving to humor this clearly devout “boy” and admonish the abbot for scheduling time for an interview that was clearly a waste of time — and extended his hand. Giuseppe knelt, kissed the cardinal’s ring, and sat when directed to. The cardinal never got beyond his initial question. Giuseppe’s soft-spoken reply continued for an hour and a half, interrupted only by the cardinal’s dismissal of a knock at the door informing him of the time of his subsequent interview. Acquainted in that time with Giuseppe’s dream, his life to the present time, and his family circumstances, the cardinal directed the young interviewee to visit his mother that evening, apprise her of his intentions, attend to her counsel, and return the following morning for a second interview, which he didn’t say, but knew, would be brief.
“China is in Asia, very far away. You don’t know the people there. You don’t know the culture there,” Anna protested weakly, her heart having sunk at the firmness of conviction with which her son had related his intention to follow those of his brothers who had made the long, arduous, and dangerous journey to China before him. “I’ll miss you,” she began, trying another avenue. “I’m not a young woman anymore, Giuseppe. You may be gone a long time. Who will care for me as I grow old?”
Giuseppe knew even as he made them, and he could not help but make them, that his assurances to his mother that he would one day return were false. The assurance of the bishop, on the other hand, that those in residence at the abbey in Milan would make their brother’s mother an object of their affection and attention Giuseppe knew to be true, though it was but little comfort to him and even less to his stricken mother. Still, God’s will be done and both, mother and son, accepted it, he as his life’s mission, she as a cross to be borne.
When the announcement was made at Mass the following Sunday, Anna and Bolonia wept softly, sought comfort and strength in their interlocked fingers. Outside, after Mass, as they stood in the meadow in front of the church, many of the same squirrels and pigeons he had painted only a week before cavorting and gamboling about, Giuseppe strove, between greetings from fellow friars and parishioners congratulating and commending him for choosing, and being chosen, to bestow on their church the great honor of one of their own being sent forth with God’s word to China, to console his mother and cousin.
Anna smiled when Bolonia implored her cousin with, “China is so very far away. You don’t know the people there. You don’t know the culture” — Anna’s very words only days before.
Reflecting on his exchange with Bolonia the week before, Giuseppe asked his cousin if she recalled how he had said that the voices of the choir, as he had sat in the meadow painting, had been carried by the warm breeze from the church to his ears. She nodded. “God’s word is like that sweet, soft singing. I must be like that singing that carried across the meadow; I must be the soft music of God’s word that carries to China. Just as the music lies in your voices, so God has made of me a vessel to contain his word and bear it to the people of China.”
Anna and Bolonia hugged Giuseppe and each other. His words moved them, but the prospect of his absence moved them more and their eyes surrendered their tears. Giuseppe’s eyes, too, as they surveyed his beloved mother and cousin, were moist. Then Bolonia, voice quavering, sang,
I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow’ til we see this journey through.
NONE OF THE ELEVEN YOUNG MISSIONARIES who arrived together at the Port of Milan had ever been aboard a ship. Those whose lives thus far had included a visit to any of Italy’s ports had seen them, of course, sails and rigging slack as they coasted into the harbor or billowing and taut as they sailed from it, and berthed, as today, putting off or taking on cargo. But up close they seemed formidable things, creaking and groaning as they lay at rest, having been unburdened only to be burdened again, their crews mending and repairing as hoists lifted from the docks, swung over the decks, and lowered into the holds — from which they had earlier lifted, swung over the decks, and lowered onto the docks — bales and barrels and crates.
Those who manned the hoists were unlike the men these men new to the service of God had seen in the churches and towns, and the ones who labored on the decks seemed a rougher sort still. But before they stepped onto the gangplank and their sandaled feet carried them from the familiar to the foreign, there were farewells to be said, to family members and friends by some and, by those who had neither, or for whom neither were present, to accompanying clergy who would shortly — those who had sailed upon such vessels having earlier regaled them with fascinating and frightening tales of the duration, exigencies, and perils of lengthy sea voyages — offer blessings and well wishes to their departing brothers.
His artist’s mind striving to commit to memory, that he might later commit it to canvas, all that transpired on the dock, Giuseppe, as he embraced, and was embraced by, mother and cousin, tears streaming from eyes shut tight against his impending departure, kept his eyes open, watched, as his cheek shared the wetness of the faces pressed against it, the last of the cargo disappear into the hold and hoists come to rest, shifted his attention, as the swarthy men in loose fitting white trousers and blouses who had manned them drifted away, to their counterparts on the deck securing hatches and clambering about the vessel’s intricate spider web of rigging, observed with particular interest the stern countenance of a man apart from the others, hands clasped behind his back, blue waistcoat bearing patches that signified, Giuseppe surmised, rank, who seemed to be observing, without so much as turning his head, each man and every action.
Bishop, Giuseppe thought. Cardinal, as another man, in a uniform somewhat more ornamented, emerged from a door at the rear of the ship and strode, without a sideways glance, towards the gangplank. Giuseppe wondered if it was that his human cargo was this trip a contingent of missionaries that prompted the ship’s captain to cross the narrow span of water that separated his ship from the hard-packed earth he had, by virtue of his chosen profession, largely foresworn.
Giuseppe’s own bishop — his cardinal was not in attendance at this embarkation — greeted the captain, then began to circulate among the brothers who, one after the other, extracted themselves from embraces with loved ones, bowed their heads to receive the bishop’s blessing, and moved, with broken strides, towards the gangplank. One hand gripped tightly by his mother, the other by his cousin, Giuseppe inclined his head and bestowed on each a kiss pregnant with love and respect. Adjusting his hands so that he held his mother’s right in his left and cousin’s left in his right, Giuseppe squeezed and released them simultaneously, bent to lift the bag that held all that would accompany him to that strange, new land, and joined, towards its end, the procession of robed brothers filing past him. Whereupon Anna and Bolonia fell into each other’s arms weeping.
So much seemed to transpire in but a few moments — the bishop pressing into Giuseppe’s free hand a small bottle of water and tucking under his arm a wrapped loaf of bread with the charge that these representations of the food and water God bestows on everyone in the world be presented as gifts to the Chinese, the captain re-crossing, after a brief exchange with the bishop, the gangplank that was pulled aboard behind him, sails blossoming in the rigging, those of the monks for whom someone remained ashore to see it holding up a hand in feeble farewell, the few others having made their way, unsteadily as the ship eased silently away from her berth, forward or to the other side to gaze out at the vast expanse of ocean that lay beyond the jetties that afforded the harbor some measure of protection. The small bottle of water having found a home in the bag resting on the deck beside him, Giuseppe, right hand wobbling weakly in place for Anna and Bolonia, noting how still it seemed and recalling a passing remark by a brother who had sailed on such a ship, slipped the index finger of his other hand into his mouth, wet and held it aloft. So it’s true, he thought; moving air sufficient to dry the moisture on a wetted finger is enough to move this great mass of ship.
As the sailors had theirs, so the brothers, within a few days, established routines of their own. Those whose former lives had been lived in monasteries led morning matins and chants on deck, in which they were soon joined by the brothers whose prior service in parishes had, save for the saying of Mass and hearing of confessions, involved less rigid schedules. Over time, a growing number of those among the sailors who were not on watch in the early morning hours joined, some out of reverence, some perhaps because they welcomed as a respite and redirection from the bawdy ballads to which they more often lent their voices, the solemn chanting. Welcoming nods and gestures gradually drew these men, who at first stood apart from the brothers, into their midst. Those of religious minds, familiar with at least some of them, soon joined in the prayers that prefaced the singing, to which others whose lips had never formed around a prayer began to contribute, heads duly bowed and eyes downcast, low-voiced not incongruent mutterings.
After a few days at sea, which the wind that bore them along left relatively calm, the brothers, to the surprise and bemusement of their hosts, shed their robes in order to sunbathe on the deck. Increasingly, the sailors found these Jesuits, with whom they dined on fresh fish at the end of day and conversed into the evening, cooled by the sea breeze blowing over the deck, different from other clergy they had encountered. One called Francis, who was frequently in the company of the ship’s master, and occasionally seen to leave the captain’s quarters, exhibited a comprehensive knowledge of medicine and the principles of navigation, other of the brothers knowledge of structural engineering, as related to the construction of a ship such as the one they were on, and of mathematics, science, and geography. These were educated men, not averse to sharing their knowledge in ways that could be comprehended by those who would be their apprentices. Nor was there lack of facility in the arts.
The sailors not on watch, one or two at first, then entire coteries, would congregate around the brothers when they came on deck, questioning those who attempted to read or simply lounge, observing those like Giuseppe who executed some craft or skill in their presence. Those who passed Giuseppe invariably stopped to marvel at his penciled sketches of recollected images of the port of Milan, of parts of the great ship that bore him to his destiny, and of clouds and ocean and the great, strange birds that occasionally intersected the ship’s path. Their questions led the young monk to produce some of the smaller canvases, then brushes and paints, he had brought. The explanations he offered as these objects circulated among his audience of sturdy, capable, but for the most part ill-educated men were necessarily composed more of gestures than words, the apprehension of which was manifested, in one instance, in a glance and nod exchanged between two individuals who, after a brief departure, returned with materials Giuseppe was made to understand might be converted into an easel. Giuseppe’s expression of gratitude in the form of portraits of these two sailors found him employed for days on end afterwards satisfying requests for same from the rest of the ship’s crew.
When not sketching or painting, Giuseppe was usually lost in a book, not always his Bible. Asked one morning by Brother Francis what he was reading, Giuseppe replied, “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
“Ah,” said Francis, “and it appears you have almost finished it.”
“Have you read it, Francis?”
“Many years ago, Giuseppe,” replied Francis, Giuseppe’s elder by more than a decade. “A good thing to be reading. Why don’t you let Brother Simeon read it when you’ve finished,” he added, nodding towards another young monk who was eavesdropping on their conversation. “I have to visit the captain. I’ll see you at dinner this afternoon.”
With a glance at the departing Francis as he turned and walked towards the aftcastle, Simeon asked dubiously, “What’s it about?” unsure whether he wanted to immerse himself in such a tome.
“Do you know who Marco Polo is?” asked Giuseppe.
“He was an Italian who traveled to China,” replied Simeon.
“What else do you know about him?”
“He returned from China and wrote a book.”
“About his travels,” Giuseppe clarified. “He was barely out of his childhood when he left Venice with his father and uncle. A bit younger even than you,” Giuseppe added, smiling.
“I’m as old as you are, Giuseppe,” Simeon retorted. “What do you mea…”
“Calm yourself, Simeon. I was not being serious.”
“Then why…?
Giuseppe stopped his young companion with a raised hand. “Do you want to know about Marco Polo, and why you might want to read this book when I have finished with it?”
Simeon nodded.
“Sit.” Giuseppe gestured at the planked deck. When the other brother had settled himself and adjusted his robe, Giuseppe began. “Marco Polo traveled much less distance by ship, only to Arabia. From there, through Persia and India, he traveled by horse and camel with a large band of traders.”
“What are camels?” interjected Simeon.
Giuseppe marked with a slip of ribbon the page he had been reading and leafed through the large volume. “Like a horse,” he said, indicating an illustration of a gangly beast with a humped back. “They can travel long distances without water. And it is a very long way across Asia to China, thousands of miles. And a great many different kinds of people to meet along the way including nomads who live in tents and travel from place to place with herds of goats and sheep.”
“What are the Chinese people like?” asked Simeon.
“The people have black eyes, black hair, and yellow skin. The land is yellow. The river is yellow, is called the Yellow River, and the first emperor of China was called the Yellow Emperor.”
“Everything yellow?” Simeon intoned, incredulously. “Does the Yellow River,” he asked, recalling lessons in geography, “support the yellow people?”