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Johann's Song

By Sue Cowing

 ©copyright 2005 by Sue Cowing


Illustration by Wendy Edelson

©2005 by Wendy Edelson

     Johann pulled on his boots and opened the door.

     “Where are you going, Johann?” called his mother, looking up from the piece she was playing on the harpsichord.

     “Oh, out walking,” he answered.

     His mother called back, as she always did, “Well don’t go too far,” and turned back to her music.

     All Johann’s family were musicians of some kind--violinists or singers or harpsichord players--and his uncle, Sabastian Wolfgang, was a famous composer. Johann had tried to learn the violin once, but everyone in his family, everyone in his neighborhood, everyone in the city of Weimar begged him to stop.

     When the family gathered for musical evenings, Johann couldn’t even turn pages for them, because he couldn’t be sure when the notes they played were going up or going down. He thought he must have been born into the great musical Wolfgang family by mistake.  His brother Fritz thought so, too. “Johann is our family’s little musical Dummkopf,” he liked to say.

     Each morning while the Wolfgangs ran through their scales and etudes or composed new melodies, Johann went for long walks. “Our wanderer,” his mother called him. In his pocket he carried a piece of paper on which he had drawn a map of Weimar. Johann loved making maps.  He was always on the lookout for something to add to his map of the city.

     He closed the door behind him and gazed down the alley.Should he go into the woods today and pretend to be lost in a great forest? Should he visit the blacksmith’s shop and hope to meet some travelers? He headed for the park instead. There was a small Chinese garden there where he could stand on the rounded stone bridge, imagining that he lived in a land far away and had a name no one in Weimar had ever heard.


     A fish, Johann thought. But when he looked up, what he saw was no fish. It was a girl about his age, trailing her finger in the pond. She wore a bright green embroidered jacket. An ornament sparkled in her straight, black hair.

     She must be Chinese, Johann said to himself, amazed.  His cousin had a doll with clothes like that. She called it her Chinese doll.

     Johann cleared his throat.

     “Aiya!” cried the girl, jumping back quickly from the water.  “Hao ma?”

     “Hao ma?” he repeated without thinking.

     The girl giggled, shaking her head. The ornament in her hair tinkled. “Hao ma?”she said more slowly.

     Johann tried again, “Hao ma?” and this time what  he said sounded closer to what she said, with the words dipping down, then coming back up.

     Her name was Shulan. She taught him to say it with the sound going up, so that it meant “Tender Orchid,” instead of going down, which meant “Rotten Vegetables.”

     Everything Shulan said went up or down. Johann didn’t know how to tell her he wasn’t very good at up and down.

     All morning the two of them floated leaf boats on the pond, laughing together, and then it was time for her to go.

     “Zai jian!” she called to him.

     “Farewell!” he called in return. At the last minute, he pointed to himself and said, “Johann!”

     “Yo Han!” she answered and smiled.

     Johann decided to keep his friend Shulan a secret. Every day except Sunday he went back to the garden hoping to find her, and every day she was there.

     One day he showed her his map of Weimar, and she pointed right away to the garden. She drew a shape with water on a stone. “China,” she said. Then she made a dot near the top of the drawing. “My home.”

     Johann asked her how long she had to travel to get to Weimar, and she said, “Many weeks. Many countries.”

     “That is far,” said Johann dreamily. “What wonderful adventures you must have had!”

     Together they decided to make a small map of the garden itself. They spent their days standing on the stone bridge, deciding where the pond, the walls, and the trees and plants should go. Each time Johann wrote in the name of something, Shulan wrote it, too, in Chinese.

     Johann was glad Shulan liked making the map, but it didn’t matter to him what they did together. The strange thing was that this girl from far way, this girl who could speak only a little of his language, seemed to understand him better than anyone he knew.

     One afternoon, Shulan was quieter than usual. She told him that she and her family would be leaving soon, going back to China.

     Sudden tears stung Johann’s eyes. But Shulan smiled and sang for him a strange, sweet song.  The melody rose and swooped and hovered like a bird riding currents of air.  I must remember this song, Johann said to himself. I must remember.

     That evening Johann stared at his supper.  What a Dummkopf! he thought.  I didn’t even ask her where i could send a letter. She said she’d be leaving soon.  How soon is “soon” he wondered. Would he ever see Shulan again?

     He decided to stay home sick from church the next morning, then run to the garden to see if Shulan was there. But when he woke up, rain was streaming down the gutters. No one would go to the garden in such weather.  Johann felt so miserable, he stayed home from church anyway.

     He was on his way back to bed when klang! he accidentally knocked a spoon from the table onto the floor. That sound!  It was just like the first note of Shulan’s song! Johann closed his eyes, and after a while he could remember the second note. And then the third!

     By midmorning he could hum the whole melody through in his head. At least now he would have something besides their map to remember her by.

     He was still humming to himself when the family came home.

     “Are you feeling better?” asked his mother.

     “Yes,” Johann said, and it was true.

     “Im glad,” his mother said.“The duke is holding a reception at the palace this evening for a visiting dignitary and his family who are leaving soon. We’re all invited, and of course the Wolfgangs will perform!”

     A visiting dignitary?  Leaving soon?  Could it be. . .?

     “What can Johann do? Fritz asked. “He might as well stay home.”

     “Never mind, Fritz, his mother said. “It will be something to see.  Imagine, visitors from far-off China!”

     From China!  “I want to go!” Johann cried.

     Johann barely heard his father and brother and Uncle Sebastian perform on the duke’s elegant harpsichord. He was too busy smiling across the room at Shulan.

     After the concert, Johann and his family stood in line to meet the Chinese guests. At last it was their turn, and the duke said, “Of course, these are the Wolfgangs--Sebastian, Christoph, Carlotta, Fritz. . .”

     “Yo Han!” said Shulan.  “Hao Ma?”

     “You two know each other?” Johann’s mother asked.  “How?”

     “We’ve been playing together,” answered Johann. “At the Chinese garden.  Shulan taught me some Chinese words. We’re peng yu, friends.”

     “Friends,” nodded Shulan.

     “Shulan taught me something else,” Johann said. “A song. Would you like to hear it?”

     “Johann, I really don’t think. . .” Johann’s father began.

     “You see,” Fritz explained,”Johann is our family’s little musical Dumm--”

     But Johann began singing Shulan’s tune, and she joined in, helping with the words. When they had sung all the verses, Shulan’s parents exclaimed,” Hen hao, Yo Han!  Very good!”

     “But Johann. . .” said his father, “how did you learn such an unusual melody?  For that you need a sense of pitch!”

     Johann looked at Shulan. “Well’, first I listened to the way Shulan speaks.  Her words go up and down. And when she sang the song, it went up and down, too.  I liked it so much that I just had to learn it.”

     “It is extraordinary!” Shulan’s father said to Johann’s father.”This is a very old and beloved song in China, yet never have I heard it sung more beautifully. Your son sings it like the Chinese, with his heart.”

     Johann, you must have lessons right away!” said his father, beaming.

     “All that fuss over one little song,” muttered Fritz.

     While the others chatted, Shulan and Johan strolled out to the terrace.

     “Your father is very happy,” said Shulan.

     “I know,” said Johann. “He hopes I will become a musician now.”

     Shulan nodded. “But you. . .you wish to travel, yes?”

     “Yes! Not just across the city or to Vienna or Italy as my family does sometimes, but to faraway places!”

     Shulan smiled and nodded. “Hen hao!” she said.

     She pulled the map from his pocket and wrote the name of her city on the back of it. Then it was time to leave.

     “Zai jian,” said Shulan, waving.

     “Zai jian,” Johann called after her. “I’ll see you again!”

     The next day Shulan and her family left Weimar to return to China.

     And Johann began drawing a new map.  A map of the world.        


from Cricket Magazine, September 2005

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