As San Ling gathered his belongings into the small cloth, he spoke to himself in a reasoning way, saying, “I am taller than Father now. It is time to go. I will come back when success comes with me.”
He placed a few of his mother’s baked sweets in a napkin. Carefully he adjusted the bag to his back. Then he bowed low to his father. He kissed his mother and patted his brothers and sisters, saying, “You will be taller when I return.”
A full day’s walk from San Ling’s small village, a great sea touched the land. Walking toward it, he thought he would like to live near the sea and work with it and become its friend. He did not look back at his village. “My childhood is finished; I will always look ahead.”
A fisherman was willing to have San Ling work with no pay until he could prove his worth.
“I will catch many fish for you yet this day, and tomorrow, even more,” San Ling said, feeling sure the sea would reward him for his enthusiasm.
“Good,” said the fisherman, “for I must go far out to sea a night and a day, leaving you to fish close to shore. You will find a net in the boat.”
San Ling smiled and bowed low to the departing fisherman. That night as he slept, after netting a few fish, a fast wind loosened the moorings of the boat he had carelessly tied.
The next day he spent throwing pebbles into the sea. “It is not my fault,” he snarled to the sea, “that a wind came.”
To the fisherman’s scowl, San Ling sighed, “I have not fish to prove I am a friend of the sea. But I will tomorrow.”
“The sea does not feel the need of anyone’s friendship,” scoffed the fisherman, “but I feel the need of my small boat.”
San Ling listened distantly and bowed low.
“I will find another way to prove my worth.” And so saying, he took his cloth bag and set off along new paths that looked ahead. Soon he was walking by furrowed rows that reminded him of his father’s small farm.
“Ahhh,” smiled San Ling, “this friendship I will not have to prove.” To the farmer he said, “During the years I was growing taller than my father, I worked much beside him.”
“Work with me, and we will see how well you do,” said the farmer.
San Ling laid his cloth bag under a tree, and the farmer handed him a hoe. As he worked, San Ling spoke in a knowing way, saying, “While there is yet light, I will have all the weeds out.”
The farmer and San Ling worked well together for a small time, and then the farmer went to get his young son to join their labors. When he returned, he found San Ling resting under a tree.
“Why have you stopped?” he scolded. “There is yet light and many weeds.”
“I am resting,” said San Ling.
Picking up the hoe and attacking the weeds, the farmer muttered, “You were lazy with your father. I can know that while it is yet light.”
Smiling, San Ling explained, “My father never said I was lazy. He said I was learning.”
The farmer looked toward the lowering sun. “I do not pay to learn. Perhaps you need to return to your father and finish your learning.” And so saying, the farmer turned his attention to the teaching of the young son beside him.
Walking still farther from the village of childhood, San Ling looked ahead until there was no light to the path. As he placed his cloth bag to pillow the ground, he spoke to himself with his jaw high. “I will look ahead to my successes and learning will come easily.” So saying, he slept.
It happened that by the dawn light there came walking up the path a glassblower, on the way to his small shop. Seeing that San Ling was quite young, he stopped to wonder about his sleeping there. As the glassblower stood over him, San Ling awakened. “I know I can work well with my hands,” he said eagerly.
At his shop the glassblower carefully turned a delicate goblet to show San Ling how happily the sun danced in the glass.
“It is more than working with your hands, my son. Watch me, and if you want to learn the secrets of glass, we can make an agreement, for I am a fair and just man.”
Again and again San Ling worked the hot glass and then looked for even one small glint of sunlight. Eyes downcast, he spoke softly in his despair. “It is not good enough. Three months, and there has been nothing good enough.”
Cheerfully the glassblower answered, “We will try again tomorrow.”
San Ling sighed. “I want your skills to be in my hands also.”
“I took a long time learning. Be patient with yourself, my son. I have much time to help you, for I am a fair man.”
One day there came a small vase from San Ling’s hands that reflected much beauty. The glassblower turned it slowly in the light.
“It may sell,” he said.
For a week San Ling watched the customers come and go in the shop. He heard the coins falling into the glassblower’s apron pocket, but no one noticed his vase. Sadly he reasoned, “It does not have enough beauty to be desired.” He went to see the glassblower.
“I have eaten your food long enough. I have taken your teaching efforts with no rewards for either of us.”
Kindly the old man laid his hand upon the young arm and said, “Work is sometimes the only reward of itself. But I am not sad for us. There is much to do, and we must not work in grief.”
But San Ling could not work. He kept watching the customers buy the beautiful glass of his master’s hands, and his own hands lay idle.
One day the glassblower said thoughtfully, “Did your father rise at dawn?”
“I do not know,” San Ling said impatiently, tilting his head to the distance.
The glassblower was silent a moment, and then said in a reasoning way, “If you do not know your father’s ways, you must return to your father long enough to watch him closely and—”
Never before had San Ling interrupted his master. With protest in his voice he cried out, “But I do not wish for my father’s skills. My father is only a farmer.” He paced back and forth, arms flailing aimlessly.
“I ask only that you feel into the reasons for your father’s successes,” said the glassblower.
San Ling lowered his eyes and bowed in respect and wondering. By the following noon he was well on his way toward the village of his childhood. “My father is my father. I do not know his successes. I never concerned myself with his habits. He was in the fields when I awoke and still there when childhood called me to sleep.”
These and other serious thoughts hurried his steps and kept open his eyelids. And he muttered to himself many times as he walked.
By the second dusk, he found himself approaching familiar fields. “I have walked these rows before,” he said. Looking ahead, he could see the bending figure of his father and could outline the hands gently handling the young plants.
It was the season of the three butterflies, and the markers of this third planting fluttered at the end of each completed row. San Ling watched his father until the horizon slowly drew up the blue blanket of night, and his father walked in weariness toward home for the evening meal.
San Ling sighed. “I will not show him I am here until we are both rested.” So saying, he put his cloth bag under a tree of his childhood and slept.
Before dawn stopped the cock’s crying, San Ling was awakened by a soft singing and the rhythmic “thoo-thoo” of the hoe. He sat up straight and saw his father halfway down the first row, a small pile of weeds beside him. Dew was still clinging to the growing cabbages and peas, sparkling their beauty into San Ling’s heart.
His father’s soft song sang of contentment, even joy. San Ling’s memory told him the words, and watching from a safe place by the tree, he whispered the words along with his father.
The early morning sunlight matched his father’s slow widening smile as he stood for a moment counting the clean rows. San Ling continued in his hiding, saying to himself several times, “I will not show him I am here, until later.”
Soon the sun was high, and his father walked to a tree-sheltered place to sip water from a dipper and eat a cabbage piece that had been cooked in sweet herbs. After taking a short rest, his father began again with his hoe, carefully marking the completion of each row with the mark of the butterfly on colored paper crudely attached to a stick. All was done in quiet steadiness that gave his body a slow-moving rhythm.
San Ling watched it all from the tree, where in childhood he had hidden to escape work. Now he could not escape the shame that crept persistently into his thoughts. “I have slept into manhood,” he moaned. In his mind he saw the fisherman watching over his small boat, the farmer teaching his young son. His thoughts went to the patient glassblower molding the hot glass. He could not bear to look at these fields and the years that went into their beauty. He covered his face with his hands.
Soon he knew his father would reach the place where he would be turning back toward home. San Ling left the tree and, making sure he was not seen by anyone, headed toward the path.
With long strides he looked ahead, knowing he would reach the glassblower’s shop while there was yet light in the second evening.