The Hall of Eternal Summer
An overgrown courtyard, a vermilion robe, an unusual bird, and the mysterious lady behind them all.
Everything that was peculiar about his childhood could be traced back to Lady Ara.
There was the time he’d found himself perched atop a tree. The ground had seemed so far, so solid and certain, but there was no fear when he had leapt with wild glee from the stately cypress. Just the image of her laughing face and the feeling of falling into her open arms. Solid and certain.
But that was when he was very, very small, and memories were just one long reverie.
Then there was the time they had climbed a mountain at daybreak and sat at the edge of a precipice, shouting at the rising sun. They’d waited, and he could have sworn there were voices calling back, resounding across the golden cliff walls.
But that also belonged to the timeless days, days he wasn't so sure even existed anymore. After all, there were no mountains inside the palace. It must have been a rooftop then, or perhaps nothing at all.
The Hall of Eternal Summer was an oddity in the Imperial Palace.
Situated in the easternmost part of the palace, it had always been the least coveted quarters for any consort hoping to gain the Emperor’s affections. With Lady Ara as its sole occupant, the Hall of Eternal Summer had grown only stranger. Not only was it separated from the rest of the palace buildings by a thick wall of towering trees, but it was also consistently warmer, the air stickier and damper, as though the lids of a thousand bamboo steamers had just been lifted in the palace kitchen. The courtyard itself overflowed with wide-leaved foliage, the likes of which the Northern people had never seen – at least not before Lady Ara had moved in, such were the whispered rumors.
To those on the outside, the Hall of Eternal Summer was untamed and chaotic, an eyesore to all and an embarrassment to dead palace architects rolling in their graves. To those on the inside, it was a quiet oasis away from the bustle of frenzied servants and their royal masters. While other consorts and ladies traded the latest in palace gossip, beauty serums, and fertility potions that were more often than not poisons in disguise, Lady Ara spent her time turning over soil and planting any seeds she could get her hands on.
A strange sight she would have been to anyone who passed by the Hall of Eternal Summer, dressed in an elaborate vermilion robe befitting her conferred title of Lady, yet bowed on her knees with dirt-stained hands like a lowly servant. But as it was, the boy was her only visitor.
He trailed behind her as she meandered around the courtyard with a small earthen bowl, occasionally stooping to scrape off bits of tree bark or swooping through thick foliage in search of the ripest berries. With no attending servants around, the train of her robe dragged along the ground, collecting leaves, soil, and the husks of fallen fruits and nuts. He noted that the embroidery on her train was different from what he was familiar with, but still familiar somehow.
Against the vermilion backdrop, he discerned a sharp, curved beak, like the canine tooth of a ferocious animal, and outstretched wings with brilliant red, yellow, and blue feathers. He tugged lightly on her sleeve.
“That’s not good embroidery. It’s a phoenix right? Mother’s robes always have phoenixes on them, so I know what they’re supposed to look like.” He was proud of himself for having the knowledge to correct someone of their ignorance. His mother frequently reminded him that a strong candidate for Crown Prince needed to be confident and assertive.
Lady Ara paused with her back to him. The disgraced phoenix on her train fluttered and sighed as she slowly turned around to face the boy, who barely reached her waist.
“No,” she said softly, in a voice colored with sadness and desire. “It’s a scarlet macaw.”
Taken aback, the boy struggled with being the one corrected. He looked for a retort, but curiosity won over pride, and he finally responded with, “What’s that?”
She reached down and gently straightened his tunic with a wistful smile but gave no other answer as she returned to the main room.
He hesitated before following, uncertain and more than a little confused by her change in demeanor. The Empress told him that, as her son, he could give orders to anyone below his rank, even the Emperor’s personal eunuchs, but he hadn’t quite figured out where Lady Ara sat in the palace’s pecking order. Though she had her own quarters and the garb of an imperial consort, she had no servants and no seeming interactions with anyone else.
By that point, the boy’s earliest memories of her were vague feelings and impressions, a mere sense that she was someone who had used to care for him, perhaps as a wet nurse. For as long as he could remember, he had been coming to the Hall of Eternal Summer once a week to spend an afternoon with the lady whose skin resembled the color of terracotta. He did not know why, and he had not thought to ask about something so routine and normal.
Inside the main room, the boy took his usual spot by the tea table, upon which Lady Ara had laid out a number of pastries and fruits.
He watched as she sat down across from him with the earthen bowl and proceeded to crush, with a pestle, the bark and berries that she had collected earlier. Her hand moved swiftly, with the deftness and surety of someone who had practiced this many times before, only stopping briefly to add water and clay to the mixture.
Eventually, the heavy warmth and humidity native to the Hall of Eternal Summer descended upon the boy like a thick blanket, and the hypnotizing circling of Lady Ara’s hands as she stirred the bowl lulled him gently to sleep.
While he slept, she heated a small pot of water and brought out several clay bars of varying hues. These, also, she proceeded to grind into fine powder. Every now and then, she would pause from her work to check on the boy and adjust his sleeping position to something more comfortable.
The sudden clatter of hooves on the cobbles outside the courtyard startled the boy awake. His afternoon visit was over, and his carriage was there to retrieve him. Opening his eyes, he was met with a fearsome sight. Lady Ara had transformed into something unrecognizable, something non-human. Feathers, the same vermilion red as her robe, had sprouted from her like hair and covered her from the top of her head to her shoulders. Her face was obscured by streaks of red and green, strokes of blue and yellow.
The illusion lasted only a moment, as he realized the feathers were part of a tall plumed headdress that covered her hair and shoulders, and the streaks on her face were just layers of paint – but it was an image that would return over and over in his dreams in the years to come.
As his bleary eyes adjusted to wakefulness, the boy bid her a hasty farewell and ran out towards his waiting carriage. Before he could exit the courtyard, he was beset by a sudden compulsion to look behind him. Lady Ara still sat by the tea table, and he watched as she raised the earthen bowl and drank deeply from it. Her lips came away dark and stained.
His last day as a prince of the Imperial Palace was a sunless one.
The boy, now a handsome child with wide eyes and strong brows – albeit a bit darker-skinned than the average Northerner – sat in the Empress’ greeting room along with two other princes. The sky outside was an austere grey, and the light that shone through the shuttered windows was cold and unwelcoming.
The Empress, seated on her opulent throne at the front of the room, inquired about the studies of his younger brother, the son of the favored Consort Wan. As the child dutifully began to recite poems that he knew not the meaning of, the others fidgeted, impatient to return to their swordplay outside.
The boy studied his brother who spoke from across the room. He was pale, like the Empress, like everyone else in the palace. Frail even, with a perpetual cough that he frequently used as an excuse to end sparring sessions. The Emperor had five sons who had survived past infancy and the treacherous early years of childhood illness, both natural and unnatural. Of the five, only three were true contenders for the throne – the other two coming from concubines with no rank or status. As the Empress’ only child, he had the greatest claim to the title of Crown Prince, but for whatever reason, the Emperor had yet to name an heir.
As the years had passed, the boy had grown in both stature and talent, surpassing his brothers in physical feats such as archery and sword fighting, and intellectual studies such as history and literature. He could sense that he was not well-liked by others, particularly those like Consort Wan who had their own sons. That had never bothered him, as the Empress had taught him to seek competence over acceptance, and respect over likability. But recently, it seemed that his own mother had begun to favor the Wan prince more.
It could have been his imagination, but he noticed that the Empress’ smile exuded more warmth towards his younger brother, that her pale features were more open and unreserved. That same face became cautious and cordial when turned upon him. With him, her praise and her expressions felt as devoid of sunlight as the overcast sky. But again, perhaps it was his own imagination that was clouded.
On their way out from the Empress’ quarters, the sickly Wan prince handed him a small box of pastries shaped like delicate pink blossoms. “From Consort Wan,” he said with a tight-lipped smile.
Unintentionally, the boy’s mind wandered to the Hall of Eternal Summer. His afternoons with Lady Ara had not changed very much over the years. Every week, the carriage waited for him outside his quarters without fail. Most weeks were spent tending to her courtyard and harvesting bark, leaves, and berries from her trees. On certain special weeks that did not coincide with any palace festivities, she would grind her berries, paint her face, and drink the leftover clay mixture. As the boy’s mastery of language grew, it seemed that his ability to communicate with Lady Ara diminished instead. She would gesture and smile when he spoke, but she would not answer his increasingly curious questions.
Even so, the boy found comfort and respite in the green courtyard. There was no competition there, no strange looks from servants or envious glares from his brothers. The way that Lady Ara’s face lit up at his arrival made him feel warm and welcome at the Hall of Eternal Summer.
And he knew of no one else who would enjoy the floral pastries as much as she.
Later that night, in the middle of a fitful sleep, the boy heard someone screaming. There was a fire in the palace. The fire was spreading, engulfing building after building. It reached the Hall of Eternal Summer, and the trees of the courtyard were ablaze.
The screaming continued until he realized that he was the one screaming, but then he couldn’t stop screaming because now he was the one on fire. Pain consumed his body so utterly that he was certain he would die.
The boy thrashed in his bed, caught in a fiery nightmare and unaware of the frenzied activity around him. Sweat poured from his body as imperial physicians swarmed the Empress' quarters, sharing one unhelpful opinion after the other. Poison… No, a curse… Fever, chills. It must be poison. See how he fights it.
Through the haze, the boy gained enough consciousness for a moment to see someone in a long robe enter the room. Mother.
But it was Lady Ara who hovered above him in her vermilion robe, the macaw on her train lifting its wings in flight as she held an earthen bowl to his lips. Drink.
Witchcraft, sorcery. What is she doing? They said she was ill with the same symptoms. How did she get here?
He drank obediently, and immediately, the pain began to dissipate. The boy fell back into unconsciousness, slipping in and out of dreams that felt like reality, and a reality that felt more like a dream.
At one point, he thought he saw the Empress and Lady Ara conversing in the room alone, but their speech was too garbled for him to understand.
Please, don't let the people know he was poisoned. They will talk.
They are already talking. My physicians speak of sorcery!
But those are your people. You can stop the rumors.
And why should I care for his life? He's not my son.
But to him, you're his mother... and to you, well, is he not your best chance of staying in the throne room?
How dare you! Need I remind you that you broke our agreement by stepping out of the Hall of Eternal Summer?
But yes, he is my best chance, the best out of the princes. And even better with you out of the way.
The silence in the room was deafening.
Guards, take her away.
The room emptied, and the boy continued to sleep fitfully.
In another dream, he saw Lady Ara hovering over him again, tears falling like rain from her tormented eyes. She pressed something into his hands, and a sudden ripple of pain down his back caused him to clench his fist tightly around the object.
Then he was at the Hall of Eternal Summer again, standing in the green courtyard under the shade of the cypress that he had leapt from many years ago. Except this wasn’t a cypress, and that wasn’t the Hall of Eternal Summer. He stood in a place he’d never seen before, a huge grove of towering trees, taller than any in the palace. Above him, a flock of colorful birds caw-cawed at one another. In the distance, a bird with a scarlet crown, and a dazzling array of red, yellow, and blue feathers, called back towards its kinsmen. He recognized it to be the scarlet macaw from Lady Ara’s robe.
As dawn approached, the boy’s fever broke, and his body began to cool. Before he finally fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, he had one final lapse of semi-consciousness. The Empress stood by his bedside with an unfamiliar figure cloaked from head to toe in black.
He’s going to survive.
And is that a good thing, Your Highness?
It will be. Spread the word – the boy is divinely blessed, and no attempt on his life can thwart Heaven’s plans.
What of the physicians who know?
I trust you’ll take good care of them.
When the boy awoke the next day, he was presented with new ceremonial robes, the color of golden apricots, and an Imperial seal with the inscription, “Crown Prince.”
They never told him what happened to Lady Ara.
In the days following the poisoning attempt, the boy was too busy recovering and learning what it meant to be next in line to the throne that he hardly thought of her. When he finally had a moment to breathe, he realized that several months had gone by without a visit to the Hall of Eternal Summer, and he recalled briefly that someone had mentioned Lady Ara was ill.
When asked, the Empress simply smiled and said that there would be no need for him to visit the distant courtyard anymore. A long afternoon was better spent furthering his studies in advanced governance and military strategy. He didn’t want to upset his mother, who had been treating him more warmly since the incident, so he bit his tongue, shut down his doubts, and threw himself instead into becoming a worthy Crown Prince.
But deep in the recesses of his mind, a faint memory lingered, dreamlike. In that dream memory, or memory of a dream, he saw Lady Ara in her courtyard, her arms outstretched, the sleeves of her robe agitated by a phantom wind. She was speaking to him, her mouth moving, but he did not have time to decipher her words before her robe suddenly enveloped her in a swirl of red, as though lit on fire. From the flames, the folds of her beautiful robe, she emerged as a vermilion bird, soaring into the sky. The blue and yellow wings, the curved beak, and the sweeping arc of the tail feathers were now as familiar to him as the Empress’ phoenix. And in his dream, he dared to wonder who the true phoenix was.
It would be many more years before the boy really questioned who Lady Ara was, and as a result, who he was.
On an unusually warm day in the Imperial Palace, the boy, now the Emperor, discovered something in the crevice between his bed and the wall it was pushed against.
The discovery brought back a stream of memories that he had long shelved away – an overgrown courtyard, a vermilion robe, an unusual bird, and the mysterious lady behind them all.
It wouldn’t be until then that the Emperor would make the trek to the easternmost part of the palace and enter the courtyard where his mother, the Lady Ara, a princess from across the seas, had been held captive. An exotic trophy from a foreign land, she had been plucked from her home of emerald leaves and fruits brighter than gems, and brought here to be adorned with pearls and jewels in a gilded cage.
The Emperor stood under the canopy of trees in the Hall of Eternal Summer and opened his hands to reveal three feathers: red, yellow, and blue.
Fun Facts About the Scarlet Macaw
- Scientific name: Ara Macao
- Lifespan: Up to 80 years in captivity, 40–50 years in the wild
- Habitat: Tropical rainforest
- Random fact: Often found in large flocks eating clay (scientists hypothesize the clay neutralizes poisons after they consume toxic plants)
- Conservation status: Endangered in certain South/Central American countries, in particular Belize, due to poaching for the illegal pet trade. Visit Belize Wildlife Clinic to learn more!