The woman looked poor, dressed as she was in layers of rags to keep out the cold winds of winter. She was of indeterminate age, her hair bound up in another of her rags. But she looked the noodle vendor in the eye while she told him that she had no money to pay for his noodles yet she was very hungry.
“Be off with you,” cried the noodle man. He had seen enough beggars in his day and was in no mood for charity. He turned away from her and went back to waiting on his paying customers, ladling the thick noodle soup, filled with succulent pieces of fungus, vegetables and tasty chicken. But when he turned again the woman was still there.
“I thought I told you to be off,” he said, raising his soup ladle menacingly.
“Wait,” said the woman. “I will trade you for the soup.”
The soup vendor eyed her suspiciously. “And what, pray tell, have you to trade?”
“My songs,” she said and again looked him in the eye with that almost insolent look of hers.
A few of the other customers had been listening to this conversation and they now joined in. “Yes,” they cried, “let’s hear her songs. We have heard no good music since the harvest festival last fall.”
The noodle vendor looked around at his smiling customers and decided, just this once, to give in. “All right,” he said to the woman, “but first the songs, then the food.”
“How can I sing when I am starving?” asked the woman. “First feed me then I will sing for you.”
The noodle vendor began to disagree but the other customers shouted “Yes, feed her, feed her, and then she will sing for us.”
So he begrudgingly ladled out a small bowl of his soup for the starving woman and then stood behind his counter to watch her wolf it down as if she had not eaten for many days.
“More,” she said, handing back the bowl. The noodle vendor, of course, wanted to deny her but the other customers all shouted out, “Give her more, then she will sing for us.” So he handed her another bowl.
It took a while, but finally after six servings of noodles, the woman set her bowl down on the counter and wiped her mouth with one of her rags and smiled at the noodle man and the other customers. She then sat down on a bench, alongside the others, and began to sing.
Her song was like no song anyone had ever heard. It seemed, at times, to be in another language entirely from the one spoken in that district, yet everyone could understand her. She didn’t exactly sing words but rather some kind of phrases or sounds that spoke directly to the hearts of the listeners. Each one of them heard a slightly different song, as each one of them listened with their own ears and hearts. Even the scowling noodle vendor began to smile, and years of tension began to slide away from his face. More people began to fill the tiny room and soon they were standing around outside the building listening with rapt attention.
A man who had been about to commit suicide that night because of his loneliness was suddenly heartened and looked around at all the other villagers listening and said, “Really, I am not as alone as I thought.” An old couple that had lost their children many years ago, suddenly saw them right in front of them and they laughed out loud. Another man who had been about to commit a murder that night found himself shaking with fear and asked himself, “What was I thinking?” A woman who had been sick for many years and who had given up hope of ever recovering, suddenly felt new strength in her limbs and began to dance.
All who heard the magical voice of that poor, ragged woman, felt lighter, happier and calmer than they had felt for a long time. Soon everyone had closed their eyes, the better just to listen. The songs went on and on, winding their way down into the people’s minds and hearts down into the very root of their beings, down to where they were all small and often afraid. It lifted them then and brought them out to the glorious sunlight where they felt happy and safe.
Slowly the woman began to sing more and more softly. Then her voice became a sort of low hum. Several listeners opened their eyes then and saw, to their astonishment, that the woman was gone. But where was the sound coming from? They looked around themselves but could not see any sign of the woman. Still, the songs went on, soft and low and so beautiful it seemed as if it were the very gods themselves that must be singing.
After a while the noodle vendor himself looked up to the beams of the ceiling and it seemed as if he could make out the shadows of the traces of the songs up there, curling about the roof beams and raining down softly upon the people.
The songs continued for three days after that. Visitors came from far and wide to hear them. The noodle vendor sold many bowls of noodles and everyone who came for those three days left with a lighter and happier heart.
Much later, that same poor and ragged woman was still traveling. She was still very thin and she tried to bargain for a room in a small inn. It was very cold and she was afraid she would not last the night out in the open. But this time the innkeeper, a short and dried-up old man, would not listen to her pleas. When she tried to sing him a song to show him what she could do, he grabbed a stick of firewood and began to beat her with it, shouting for her to get out of his inn.
She retreated then to the courtyard and, looking at him with a wild and awful stare, began to sing a song so sad and mournful that everyone in range of her voice felt tears running down their cheeks. They felt themselves suddenly become so weak that they had to sit down, for fear they might fall right there in the street. The innkeeper fell back into his inn, and wrapped an old quilt around his head to shut out the awful sounds.
The longer she sang the louder it seemed her song became and soon everyone in the quarter could hear her and was affected. She sang a song so sad and low that there was not a person there who did not suddenly feel hopeless and beaten down. Couples fell into each other’s arms, weeping. Old people just crawled to their beds and prepared themselves for death. Even the children stopped their running and playing and began to cry, as if they had just lost their mother.
Long after the woman had left, trudging out into the cold, her song kept on going, swirling about the village like a malignant vapor cloud. Finally, after three days of this the village headman sent out a search party to find the woman and beg her to stop her song, lest everyone in the village commit suicide.
They found her out in the forest, half-frozen and near death. They carried her back to the very inn that she had been driven from and piled blankets upon her, heating bricks to warm her, and fed her strong nourishing soups until she had regained enough strength to take back her song.
She sat out in front of the inn then and began to sing. At first it was very difficult to hear her, she was so weak. But gradually, bit by bit, her voice became stronger and her song began to travel out into the village and everyone who heard it was suddenly cheered. Now her song seemed to revitalise everyone. It seemed to lift them out of their gloom and carry them out into the street.
From all parts of the village, people came dancing and waving their arms in the air. They gathered around the singing woman and began to sing along with her. She held her head up and, with tears running down her cheeks, she sang on and on into the night. A huge bonfire was built and people danced around it all night, listening to her song that filled them like good food; that reminded them of all the good things in life; that flowed through their veins like strong chi; that helped them to drop away their cares and woes like old clothing; that made them all feel years younger and somehow wiser.
When the mysterious singer had healed and was strong enough to resume her traveling she was sent off with great celebrationand was never heard of in those parts again. But forever after, people from that village were famed for their ability to sing at weddings or funerals in such a way as to move their listeners to tears of joy or grief.
–from the Tao