She wasn’t even pretty. Lotus Cloud was pure peasant, with big feet, short thick legs, large square hands, and a plain flat face. She stopped short and examined me with her head cocked at an angle, and she looked for all the world like a country girl who was trying to decide whether or not to buy a pet at a fair. I could almost hear her think, Yes, I’ll take this cute thing home with me. And then she grinned.
I cannot describe that grin. It was as though all the hope and joy and love and laughter that there was in the whole world had gathered into a fist that reached out and belted me in the heart, and the next thing I knew I was on my knees with my arms wrapped around her legs and my head pressed against her thighs.
“My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea, and everyone calls me Number Ten Ox,” I moaned.
She laughed softly, and her fingers played with my hair.
“I shall call you Boopsie,” she said.
This uncommon love is at the centre of The Bridge of Birds, a book that also combines mystery, fantasy, history, comedy, tragedy and mythology into a rich feast delivered with a light touch that won the author Barry Hughart the World Fantasy Award in 1985.
Like The Nightingale, this book took life from the author’s love of the history and mythology of a country not his own. It is loosely based on the Chinese myth that is the foundation of their equivalent of Valentine’s Day, a day on which birds build a bridge across the heavens to bring together two lovers, one mortal, one divine. The main thread of the plot, however, concerns the quest of Number Ten Ox to find a cure for the children of his village who are slowly dying from an accidental poisoning. The manner of the storytelling, however, is pure ‘once upon a time’, with both holy fool and trickster present in the forms of the young, pure-hearted simpleton, Number Ten Ox, and the ancient sage with ‘a slight flaw in his character’, Master Li.
The classic combination of brawn and brains also gives the story a cinematic quality. It is a ‘buddy movie’ written down, with fights, harrowing crises, narrow escapes and lots of running away at high-speed. The action is so vividly described that a reader could almost be fooled, years later, into remembering it as seen it outright rather than imagined.
Above all, the story is about love in its many forms, and it is able to express something of that universal quality precisely because it takes the reader away from what is superficially familiar in order to emphasise what is fundamentally known. It is a very clever book, but never pretentiously so. I laughed. I cried. I think I may even have cheered at the ending.
Best sampled with a bowl of popcorn and a box of tissues.