By Richard W. Wise
Chu Shen Hi squatted stiffly in the bare red dirt in the back yard of his thatched hut. Chu was a short old man, thin and wiry. His only garment a pair of ragged shorts. He had the look of an overbaked chicken, the skin stretched over his bony frame like wrinkled parchment. Chu was completely bald, his face shrunken against sharp cheekbones. His deep-set eyes, dark and lively, stood in stark contrast to a complexion the color of bisqued clay.
Overhead the dense jungle growth all but blotted out the sun. Only a few errant rays of diffused light managed to slip through the tangled green canopy. It was hot as only the jungle can be, the air steamy, the smell dank. It was near the end of the monsoon and despite the heat, Chu felt each one of his seventy plus years.
Slowly and methodically, Chu dropped the boulder into the battered iron wash tub. Brows knit is concentration; he watched the rock's descent through the water and listened to the dull klank as it hit bottom. "My knees hurt and this proves nothing", he thought. Frowning he lifted the boulder from the tub and hefting it up on his shoulder like a shot-putter he rested it against his right cheek. Pausing a moment to savor the rock's cool surface, Chu shifted position a quarter turn right, reached down and plucked a rusted steel bolt from the packed earth.
Working methodically and breathing through his nose deep into his abdomen to maintain his mental equilibrium, Chu struck the bolt against the surface of the rock. Rotating and striking he listened for any discrepancy or changes in tone which would suggest a crack or an impurity within the boulder. He could hear his father's words; "listen with the ear of the heart". Chu rotated the boulder, tapped and listened until his shoulder began to numb and he could feel a dull ache radiating down his upper arm. To his practiced ear the tone was as clean and resonant as a temple bell. Finally he finished the examination and placing the boulder on the ground he absently rubbed his aching shoulder. Chu's reputation was something of a legend along the border for he was believed to have a golden hand, in short to be able to discern by intuition the quality of the interior of a jade boulder. Chu himself was amused by this for he knew that his so called intuition was more a matter of technique.
At one end of the egg shaped boulder a small section about two inched square, of the outer skin that covered the rock like the rind of an orange, had been ground away and polished. This section called a "maw" or eye had created a window revealing a small portion of the interior of the rock, showing the color of the jade. Chu spat and rubbed the saliva into the maw. The color was a uniform vivid emerald green. A thick layer of yellow rind, oxidation, that the Chinese call "mist" surrounded the green identifying the boulder as mountain jade. Lifting the boulder to take advantage of the light, Chu studied the color.
It is well known among gem dealers that the mind has a poor memory for color. Many years ago Chu's father taught him this fact and taught him also that color memory could be reinforced by reference to the sense of taste. Each time Chu examined a piece of jade he tried to relate the color to a certain taste or food. Thus, he both saw and tasted each color. In this case his eye and tongue agreed, this jade was what the old men called kim-kim, a Thai word literally translated as "salty", the finest imperial green.
Unfortunately Jade is a dense mineral and in its finest qualities only semi-translucent. The color revealed by the maw might be only surface deep or the color of a section or it might run through the entire boulder. The skin of the boulder made it impossible to see anything other than two square inches of polished stone. Chu had examined the boulder with minute attention, looking for show points, places where the interior of the rock showed though the skin. There were none. Purchasing such a boulder was a game of chance, one played for very high stakes in which all the cards but one were dealt face down. Custom forbade Chu from cutting another maw or altering the rock in any way. To do so would oblige him to pay the full asking price. So far only one cut had been made and the boulder might change hands several times before another cut was made.
Why didn't the owner simply cut up the stone? That would ruin the game. There was only one card sitting face up on the table but that card was the ace of spades. The asking price was, of course, astronomical but if the color ran true, it was nothing in comparison to the value of the jade.
Dawn comes abruptly in the jungle on a breath of wind. Chu lay sleepless listening. Barely had the village cock made his usual announcement when the first rays of the morning sun crept through the slated wooden side of the hut. Just as abruptly the foreign sounds of the jungle night were replaced by the familiar sounds of the village awakening. Chu listened to the faint rustle of clothing, the metallic sound of cooking pots, the night smells replaced by the acrid odor of wood smoke. Soon he would hear the rhythmic slap of sandals as the younger women, twin buckets balanced on a stick across their shoulders, as they made their way down the path that ran next to his house, to the river to draw water. Soon the trader would come for his answer.
Rising from his pallet, Chu walked over to one corner of the two-room hut; squatted down and slid his fingers into a crack between floorboards. Carefully prying up a loose board he lifted the boulder from its hiding place beneath the floor. Holding the boulder nestled in his hands he walked to a window on the east side of dwelling and positioned the boulder in the early morning sunlight that streamed through the window. Chu took two steps back and squatted. Viewed from this position in the early dawn light, of so legend had it, the jade would reveal its soul. The old dealer rested his chin on his hands, watched and waited for a sign.
END FIRST INSTALLMENT