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16. crying calf

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( Wang and Lung, the identical twins have made two predestined enemies on the New Year’s eve and their mother is aghast. She is too wrapped up in her mourning so she persuades her only surviving brother to take them off her hands. He agrees. He is a sea-captain who is aggressively trying to get into the good books of his Admiral. In order to please him he has even taken charge of his pet, a dog  that is very very temperamental. He takes his nephews along and is also smug in having quietly passed off the biggest headache in to their care.)

Chapter-4
The Night Runners

That evening Wang and Lung had to agree: their uncle was not to be sneezed at. There were three carriages awaiting his pleasure and they were part of the glory, which Captain Lee of the Imperial Navy commanded. They saw a clutch of neighbors walking tiptoe around the horses as though they were connoisseurs of horseflesh. A few were admiring the panopoly of outriders and the glory the sea captain could command. As soon the captain came out of the gate the crowd in a trice melted into ring. The neighbors who always kept an eye on the house stood there in awe at the commotion the Admiral’s glory had caused.
As soon as the sea captain and the party had settled in their carriage the chief of the guards signaled and the carriages rumbled into the twilight that softened the landscape.
One carriage was for the exclusive use of the sea- captain; the other for his nephews and in the last traveled their baggage and attendants. The packhorses, which were maintained by the Navy, were sleek and very hardy with their broad hooves. They were comparatively smaller in build than those the Admiralty maintained for ceremonial purposes. They rode as a team and at brisk pace.
Late in the first night the horses stopped and the drowsy children peered into the darkness outside. It was a barren landscape.  With a few torchlights here and there the rump of their horses glistened with sweat. Their coal black hide and mane only added to give them a spectral aspect as if were steeds hauled from infernal regions to accomplish a very dangerous mission. ‘Curious’ Lee brought in a man of uncertain age. He did not condescend to acknowledge their presence; neither did he explain what he was there for. He let that to their uncle.
“Here boys I brought your personal attendant. He is a jewel.”
“How do you know that uncle?” Wang whispered into his ear, ”See that scar on his face? He looks more a cut throat.”
“Shh!” ‘Curious’ Lee said,” He is a jewel,”
“Once I gave him Mimi to look after”, the captain continued,” the dog just took to him, like duck to water.”
“So he will let us off in peace?” Wang asked.
“Not exactly,” the captain winked and said,” You will take over Mimi. She will make men out of you. Of course if any trouble comes up, your attendant will give you a hand.”
While their uncle appraised them of slight change in the seating arrangements the man with the scar brought a Pekinese on a cushion with some ceremony and deposited himself into their carriage. For hours they suffered the dog and the presence of the handler who kept a morose face. He sat immobile and did not show any response to the twins who wanted the dog from ‘yelping their dreams away’. Wang always had some nice dreams as much as Lung had. Now the Admiral’s pet was shredding them for very whimsical reasons they complained.
Next day at one point when the convoy stopped, they wanted to know why. “There is a meeting with the Admiral’s man,” the attendant said.
Wang decided to talk it out with his uncle.
‘Curious’ Lee said that he had no time at that precise moment for him. “It is about Mimi,” he complained. “She doesn’t let us sleep let alone dream,” he added, ”If she makes a swipe at Jen once more I shall not spare her. She may be the apple of your Admiral’s eye. In my eyes my cricket comes first.” Wang was adamant. Silently his uncle passed two pieces of silver and said,” Put it down for extra allowance, boy.” “I can’t be disturbed. State secret and all that“. Wang persisted that he had a headache with all that barking going on in his carriage.  Another piece of silver passed hands. Before the visitor could find what was going on the captain said in a low voice, ”That is for a night’s silence. Understood?”
Wang nodded and ran back to the carriage while the attendant was pacing in that strange landscape with a Pekinese who was having a fit of sorts.
“Why don’t you try harder to stop it from barking?” Wang asked irritated. “If I tried any harder I am likely to get a fit! My nerves are all frayed at the ends.” The man had a point. Wang could understand that.
“The Admiral must be a clever fellow,” mused Wang,” and my uncle is also clever to pass his headache to us!”
The man with the morose face grimaced as the dog began squirming. His order was never to let the dog from that silk cushion which bore the Admirals insignia.
After a lengthy silence Wang asked the attendant if he had some opium pills.
“Master, have you toothache?”
“No!”
“Perhaps difficulty in falling to sleep?”
“Yes and No!” Wang said controlling himself, ”Can you get me some?”
“Of course I always carry some with me.”
He took over from the man the cushion and the whelping dog while he fished out pills from his cloak.  “What are you the captain’s right hand man or a dealer in opium?” Lung asked on seeing a generous supply at a short notice.
“I am trained as an apothecary but at the moment a seaman.”  “Why then a Pekinese?”  “My future! My promotion, so the captain assures me, is tied to the happiness of this little..”
He looked around to see no one else was around,   ” …rascal!” he said with a grim face.
Wang promptly passed a piece of silver and got enough opium pills. Wang felt for the first time a compassionate feeling for the man who he could see worked hard to keep his job. Wang wholeheartedly believed in ‘live and let live’ policy. He exacted from his uncle for his peace as much as he in turn paid for some peace and quietness around him. Mimi didn’t come cheap. In her welfare hung the captain’s whole career. Not to mention the poor fellow dancing in attendance to a highly temperamental pet. So Wang and Lung were particular that they went on with their treatment.
“It is my duty to advise extreme caution before you begin a habit.” The scar face admonished.
“Tell that to Mimi. She is about to get used to a habit like a monkey on a hawker’s back.”  “Like a parrot on a pirate’s shoulder.” Lung took up.
“And it will leave us all in peace.”  The twins concluded. The older man looked on wide-eyed as the twins administered a pill to Mimi. She tried to throw a tantrum but the combined strength of the three made her realize she had better obey them. She swallowed it and was soon as if she had, she left her earthly cares for a world so wonderfully quiet. Wang thought it made even his cricket do a few turns in appreciation. With Mimi being knocked out and Jen pleased with himself the rest of the journey was easy for all.
All through the night and a convoy of attendants who rode along saw to every convenience of the captain and his charges. Wang and Lung woke up only when they halted in front of an inn at Sungkiang.    They saw the captain pacing in his room very distracted. He was anxiously waiting for his contact.
Wang and Lung as with their solemn promise kept out of their uncle’s way. They saw the mysterious emissary who brought a number of crates and saw that they were properly counted in the presence of the captain. After exchanging some papers they went in. While they were palavering the children were discovering a new side to their attendant. He was no longer morose. He looked human almost. Wang wanted to know whether he had been a sea pirate. The man shook his head. “Were you ever in a ship wreck?” “No, never” he asserted, ”Master, your uncle is a good captain.”
The boys lost interest in one who had nothing by way of adventure to amuse them. That scar which gave his cheeks the look of someone worth talking to, was on account of a very commonplace accident. He said he got it while he once tried to take his unruly steer to its stall.
“I thought you were an apothecary?” “ I was a dirt farmer but couldn’t scratch a living. So I ended up with Mimi for company.” The boys knew their trip wasn’t going to be anymore exciting than the seaman’s scar. They only brightened when he answered to their question that he was a magician as well.
“What is your trick? Does it sell?” “Yes if it comes in forms like this?” Next moment he had a bottle in his hands. It was filled with some liquid, tawny in color.  “What’s it?” “Love potion naturally? I could sell you some of this if you think it would help your case?”
“Why didn’t then use it to further your career?”
“ If it falls in wrong hands I may end up at the bottom of the sea! Very potent stuff this!”
He was not much to look at but when he moved about and in his self confidence there was much more than met the eye and he moved with a certain suppleness that resembled a panther in its natural habitat.   The man in a matter of few days had begun to interest them immensely. In return he viewed them as special. It was as if they touched some tender chord in his heart.  His name he said was Ta Yi. “ I have been called a rat catcher, a weasel. It was by those who do not know me well enough.” “I have been a village school master, apothecary, a magician, a farmer and many things of which I shall not bore you.” Ta Yi said one afternoon seriously…

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(This excerpt is taken from The Fox-Spirit of the Tiger Caves. Wang and Lung are identical twins and they are on a search for their father who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Having fallen foul with two bad eggs on New Years eve their uncle takes charge and they accompany him, a sea captain. Little do they know they have already got entangled in a web, a war of succession. The wizards are vying with each other to occupy the throne left vacant by their father’s untimely death. There are those who would stop at nothing to be the fox-spirit of the Tiger Caves. benny)

Chapter-11
Ta Yi Takes Charge

Captain ‘Curious’ Lee landed again on the mainland with mixed feelings. He was in the bad books of his chief. He has reason to be angry, the sea captain had to agree. The Admiral put him to a test and he failed it: ‘The failure in a little thing like Mimi can absorb some hundred great successes and still my career could end in ruin!’
He could have gone on thinking such desperate thoughts. Luckily the festival of the Tomb Sweeping came to his rescue. The Protocol of the Seas allowed every officer to take time out to pay his respects to his ancients. ‘I shall visit the tomb of my father’. He knew that there would be every worthy belonging to the Fudan clan doing his obsequies to the departed spirits. It was a solemn occasion where such gathering made all the more ancients-pleasing: the departed spirits saw the honor of the clan come in such shape of an admiral or a mandarin. ‘Curious’ Lee felt less nervous. He thought Admiral’s annoyance weaken under piety that swept like a typhoon on mandarins and sea captains alike. The captain would have continued such thoughts but came down to earth rudely. “Where shall Wang and Lung go in the meantime?”
‘Curious’ Lee worried the disaster that his nephews could bring on such a solemn occasion by their presence. They brought trouble in their wake, he knew. ‘Taking them along was no option’. Of course he felt sorry for them.
The same thoughts had seized the twins who thought they could return home to be with their mother from whom they heard only a brief communication once a week. In the last letter she had mentioned some interesting news concerning the Hei Miao boy. They wanted to see Cowrie Shell and hear from him the news.
‘Curious’ Lee instructed Ta Yi to accompany the twins to Sheng village.
“But don’t be in a hurry to be there unless it is absolutely essential.” Ta Yi nodded though he did not understand the reason. “I hope to be back in 15 days.” The captain said,” You can take him to Soochow where Wang and Lung are to be lodged with The Old man of the Sea who is quite well known in those parts.”
“Old Man Of the Sea, captain?”
“Yes,” he said with an inward chuckle, “a man of unusual merits!” Suddenly straightening himself he said,” He has his cottage within a stone’s throw from Baodai Qiao. At least he had one when I looked him up last.”
“When was that sir?”
“Ten years ago when I had become an officer in the Imperial Navy.”
“May I ask how you came to know him in the first place, Captain?”
“Modesty forbids,” the captain preened himself.” If time permits I shall look him up on my return.”
“How is that Old man of the Sea come to roost over Pan Men?” Ta Yi asked.
“How am I to know that?” the captain immediately stopped and asked quizzically, ”Hey why are you asking too many questions?”
“I come from these parts and the Old man of the Sea happen to be my old man.”  Ta Yi said without any change of expression.
Before leaving the captain instructed him to report at the prefecture of Soochow every week and receive whatever instructions he might have. He called Wang and Lung and discussed about his plans for them. “Modesty forbids uncle,” Wang complained at the end of that avuncular pow-wow. ”Why, nephews, what is the matter?”
“Nephews don’t live on air alone.” they said in unison. “It hurts me!” the uncle gave a pained expression and said,” Hardly a question about where I go or about those ancients whose tombs I intend to honor.” “Whether we ask or not, you intend to do what you have set your mind on.” Wang explained, ”But without allowance we can’t do a thing but stare at the scary face of Ta Yi.”
“That would be terrible!” Lung was certain.
“Ta Yi has taken charge.” The older man said,” He has his father; as I just told you he is a jewel!”
“Three week’s allowance ahead, uncle!”
“Why for two weeks I should give three week’s allowance?”
“Modesty forbids” they quipped recalling an expression of the captain,” Ta Yi’s father may need to be bought off for peace and quietness.”
Lung explained,” So for unforeseen items we could do with the extra.” “Mercenaries!” the captain exploded after paying in full.
“The money adds up right!” Wang said after counting. While speaking he gave Lung’s share and waved brightly,” Whoa uncle!”
“Calling names do not hurt as doing with less pocket money.” He concluded.  Time being very critical ‘Curious’ Lee set out immediately without bothering to reply.
The Captain was somewhat at ease to know that Soochow would be a pleasant break for them. “Ta Yi!” he murmured, ” He is a jewel!”
The captain was concerned for the nephews. He shuddered to imagine the festival would reopen the old wounds and the fact, which was pathetic enough. While every other visited the tomb of his parents and did reverence to their memory they could not. Without recovering the dead body of their father they could not send the spirit to the underworld. ‘Curious’ Lee was certain a change of scene would make them forget their predicament.
He was right. Wang and Lung all too keenly felt their loss. Where could the body of their father be? For six years they were denied from searching for his body. Nothing seemed to appear in the horizon as remotely as resembling Chuan of whom their uncle had no inkling. Still from poring over some old books of their father they knew the magic number seven could signify something. Besides that apparition who said, ’Chuan sent me!’ could not have come without a reason.
2.
Preceding the Tomb Cleaning Day there were mass exodus from the villages and towns every family trying to reach the sacred groves where their ancients took their eternal rest. Of course there were exceptions as in the case of Wang and Lung. Then there the two fugitives from Law.
At the Tiger Caves Poyu and Hsiangyuan were both jockeying for power that K’uei seemed to represent. Poyu wanted to be his right hand man while Ashu also wanted the same. As the day of Tomb Cleaning Festival was but two days removed K’uei was feeling jittery.
“I hate the Night of The Dead!” he said balefully. “Ditto!” Hsiangyuan.
“Ditto!” Poyu joined in, which brought the rat to say, “Should you repeat everything I say?”
Poyu just glared at him. He hated the sight of him who was till ten days ago stood in awe of him. It looked as though he had become nobody in his eyes. It galled him.
K’uei let them go around the different parts of cave complex except his sleeping quarters and one room which K’uei had walked past in a hurry without letting them even peek made each curious.
Poyu said,” We just overlooked one room!”
“Poyu it is not decent to show curiosity where the host for a reason wants to avoid,” said Ashu with an ingratiating smile towards the Occupant.
“Master what is there?” K’uei retorted with a sneer,” What you want to go in there for?” He retraced his steps and stepping into the room and said:” It is just a dead man’s tomb. Nothing more to it.”
Unknown to those fugitives K’uei was feeling the heat of a coming showdown. He knew that Chuan would be seeking him as he was trying to get rid of him at any cost. His guests whom he had salvaged from a certain death owed him to do his dirty business. They must succeed to trap Chuan and only from his death he could sit on that throne. K’uei was playing a deep game. He would have killed with one stone two birds if he could. Chuan led him to the children of Hsia and through them he knew he could disembowel the spiritual prowess of the Fox-Spirit of the Tiger Caves once and for all.
‘But what kept Hsia still proof to his malevolence?’ K’uei knew his enemy, though dead was resisting as if he had some one among the living, checkmated every underhand swipe he dealt to him.
He reasoned,” No father can be impervious to a son in a crisis. Hsia shall certainly give in with his last surviving sons in extremities!”
The identity or essence of Hsia, which was neither his body or his abstract aspects but the golden mean of the two had its own distinction spiritual fingerprints that only a black magician of exceptional powers could trace. K’uei was not ignorant as to these facts. He knew his arch enemy’s other self though properly belonging to the spirit realm was around; still connected as some tendrils or roots to the material world. To what he could not say. Nor could he say who nourished the feeble contact of Hsia’s spirit to the physical realm. Lacking a ceremonial funeral to abet in its journey into the spirit realm it was still present surviving only because some one cared too well for his liking. Who kept him unassailable to his power made his every move checked. Who made his enemy still stand his ground while he suffered humiliation?
He could not come up with an answer. K’uei had mainlined on power which Mi Fu gave to its votaries. Or was Mi Fu the crazy One being true to his form? Was he laughing in the dark all along?
K’uei was all in earnest to sit on the throne vacated by Hsia. The Law, which came in the form of a book with the seal of the Fox-Spirit of the Tiger Caves dating back to the Five Dynasties, gave him the authority. But where was it? He believed it was Chuan who stood in his way. So he had to get at his children through Chuan. Only a matter of time. And the Book of Changes shall yield itself. He knew it.
At the end of the guided tour around the house he led them to the hall where the Eye stood.
At a signal from him the boy as before appeared before them.
“What do you see there boy?”
“Two boys master?”
“Describe them”
“Mirror image. Twins. Identical twins, master.” the boy spoke in a trance forcing his mind to concentrate.”  “Isn’t there something to distinguish between them?”
“Yes, one has a cricket in a wicker basket. Tiny it is.” Hsiangyuan’s eyes widened.
“What be their names?”
“Wang and Lung.”
A gasp escaped Hsiangyuan. “The boy who stole my master’s Chi!”  “Yes, go on!” the voice of K’uei acquired some urgency,” Whom are they with?’
At that point the smoke billowed out of control and with it a whirlwind seemed to emerge with an aggressive force. Next instant the Eye was overthrown. They could see after the smoke had spent itself that the vessel was blank!
It was inauspicious! Somewhere jackals howled low and sustained.
For a couple of minutes none spoke. The boy, a somnambulist left the hall as he came.
K’uei looked at the blanched faces of his guests and commanded: “Go on now! You both should follow the twins and bring them in a sack or in crate I don’t care. I want them alive and here!”
He added with an emphasis,” Under my power! Do you hear?”
“But we are fugitives from Law!” Poyu said,” We may be caught even before we hit the road!”
“Get some disguise,” he barked,” In my wardrobe you will find some disguise and you shall be back with the children. Go now towards Li Yuan. You shall be safe in the gardens over there. Many arrive there to enjoy its sights and some do get lost. You know what would that mean. Don’t you?”
“Yes I do,” replied Ashu readily. He turned towards Poyu and said,” I shall explain as we go out.” he looked sideways to see how K’uei was taking it. Encouraged by his host’s smile he stopped to explain, “He is a jeweler and used to soft living. Not like me. So master excuse him if he showed his ignorance. He does not fully understand facts of life! Not like me!”
Poyu swallowed hard and glared at his companion. It was no time to settle scores. They had a job to do.
K’uei had to agree that his guests in the disguise of monks could not have done better. They took directly to the open road. Time was of the essence.
3.
The night before the Night of the Dead the inhabitants of Soochow (or Suzhou as it is now known,) had no inkling of a great event which was to take place in their midst. The fame of the gardens of Soochow had never dimmed with time from the day it was thrown open to public. But that evening piety of the citizens had consigned the serpentine walks with bridges to silence; runnels of clear water festooned with lights from so many lanterns ran still to appointed places but more in shame.  Solemnity of the coming festival was palpable and drove with force on the hearts of strollers so hard, that they retreated early: the day was unlike any other festival in their calendar. Piety for the memory of their ancients had killed the customary indulgence and in its place descended a thirst for seeking answers to serious side of life.
“We ought to think of eternal things,” said Ta Yi whom Wang and Lung had never seen change from that set expression he always carried about him. More closer he had come home he was divesting every vestige of that austere image of a killjoy he had cultivated. But on the way to Soochow he was talking even matters which they thought was strictly was for the priests.
“Eternal things?” Wang wanted to know,” priest talk eh?”
“Like reality, ultimate knowledge which my aged parent is forever searching.” explained Ta Yi.
“So we are going to meet a dreadful bore?” Wang was a bit apprehensive.” Hope your father will not insist on explaining everything away. Leave us some ultimate reality to find, for ourselves.”
“Oh no” said Ta Yi, with a laugh, “he is still for enjoying till late into the night. He stuffs himself like a pig and calls it his other self. Of course you and I know ultimate reality is like the biggest boobs as those two monks whom you see now, you don’t now see. ” The boys caught glance of two shadowy figures and they walked on.
Ta Yi began to quickly narrate the boisterous life style of his father. “He is a metaphysician he says.”  The boys took their time to digest what seemed a bolus for a very sick dragon.
”Ultimate reality of fun and games I can look into but.”
Ta Yi continued and Lung tugged at Wang to listen. “He is in his early hundreds but still he goes for midnight fishing with cormorants. Why with cormorants and not with friends? I cannot tell.”
‘Once I ask him why and he replies, ‘by the light I fish.’ So I asked the old man, what do you mean?
You know what he replied? (To tell the truth I still can’t make what he really meant.) ‘It is the verity of ultimate knowledge he says. Metaphysics I reckon he meant.’ I could not let my pap get away with it. So I ask, ‘you don’t eat cormorant and you don’t let it fish for itself. Must you make it fish for you?’
So he hollers as if he just has had a fit and slaps on my back.” He paused to catch his breath and said,” My boy! You are a metaphysician yourself! Every time a cormorant gorges on fishes it proves ‘Truth must be out there’!”
Wang and Lung looked at each other wondering if Ta Yi had finally cracked. ‘What cormorants spit out may seem like carp. No it is not. It is truth. So boy learn to enjoy truth while you may.’
Ta Yi said, “We fill our bellies and speak of eternal things, as my father would say.”
“Right boys?” he asked them as he produced food.
They fell to eating steamed pork wrapped in a lotus leaf and washed it down with water. Ta Yi was sure that they all three were metaphysicians, at least by his old man’s definition.
They had sugared watermelons to chomp as they walked along.
“Our bellies are now filled and as for eternal things…” Lung quickly distracted Ta Yi to say that there were two monks looking at them with great concern. Those shadows they had earlier caught on now came with some substance.
“As Shan Buddhists would say they may be concerned with our Samadhi (enlightenment)?”
The monks had spotted them after they searched some 20 gardens in a row and they were not going to be thrown off their scent. As they walked closer Poyu paused, apprehension clearly written on his face,” They still have some rind of watermelons.”
“They are eating. So what are you grumbling about?” Hsiangyuan said looking at his companion distastefully.
“You don’t know what they can do with a rind as I do,” Poyu hadn’t got over his first experience.
“Mind you we are monks. Play the part!” Ashu hissed in his ears.
Ta Yi observing them said, “They are discussing eternal things alright. Only that they are onto secret knowledge.”
“Mysteries, you mean?” Lung asked. Ta Yi nodded.
Ta Yi stepped forward and bowed respectfully.
The fat monk said, “ Salutations of Buddha! We pass through toting begging bowls.” “For mercy sake refuse us not what nothingness there be.” The lean shank was not to be outdone. His Adam’s apple bobbed, a clear indication of having noted that ’nothingness’ taking the shape of a watermelon boat.
“See Wang they are metaphysicians are alright.” Ta Yi explained,” Nothingness is what they talk of.”
Wang nudged Lung not to eat too close to the rind. “Leave it, brother. Mind the monks!” Lung looked at Wang who said as a matter of fact, “See I have left a little. Just watch how they change the nothingness.” Instantly their rinds fell into the proffered bowls with a wet thump that sent the last drops of melon juice expiring in an air of sanctity.
The monks had a part to play so they looked up from the bowls to the trio with a sweet smile, which could be only described as a choke. A growl choked somewhere in the depths of their windpipe.
Ta Yi and his wards walked on as if they had engaged their thoughts adequately on eternal things. Thereafter they attended to the pleasant prospect of discovering on foot a new town filled with so many bridges and gardens. The night was descending and lights that came up as fireflies took their mind off eternal things. They walked quite a while trudging over some 30 bridges with some fanciful names that ever assailed their young ears.
“There are some four kinds of knowledge.” Ta Yi said.
“Is that what your father told you about?”
“No, I had some carp wrapped in a torn paper over which were written these things. My father wanted me to present them to the prefect and I got on pronto. It was boring to walk long with nothing to occupy my mind. So I began reading the writing from end to end. By the time I read the whole thing through the carps were past their prime. Much worse was to find there were only two kinds of knowledge in full.”

Instinctively they looked backwards and to their surprise they saw the two monks were still at their heels. “May be they are happy that we fed them well?” Lung asked.
“Our nothingness they improve. It is a gift. Just as Buddha had.”  Ta Yi replied, “My good monks, can you say some gatha (*prayer formula) to send us on way?”   They didn’t take the hint. They just followed them.
The twins who followed Ta Yi thought the monks were somewhat too fresh for their liking.
“Are you new?” Lung asked them.
“New?” the lean shank tittered. “If we really were to count the cycle of births we have had gone through you might say we have no beginning or end.“
“You look as if you shaved your head in a hurry?
“Like a field of millet with a few stalks left here and there?” Ta Yi wanted to know.
“What are you talking of millet for?” Lung asked.
”From experience,” Ta Yi whispered, ”I was a dirt-farmer remember?”
“Are they ‘dirt’ monks?” Lung asked puzzled. Ta Yi merely winked. Wang who kept silence throughout this conversation said that their dress was too clean for his liking.
“Our head monk was rather in a hurry. So we merely cut corners.” The fat one quickly put in realizing they were beginning to arouse suspicion.
“ We go from place to place carrying the message of Buddha!” Hsiangyuan explained grandly, ”Astronomy is our specialty!”
“So what?” Ta Yi countered,” Our specialty is gastronomy!”
At that moment they heard a boisterous shout from nearby.
“Banzai! you son of a broom, what brings you here?”
Without turning Ta Yi said,” My father found us. He said in a whisper, “My father thinks I will out live his hundred years. So he calls me Banzai meaning ten thousand years. The name is between you and me strictly confidential, right?”
Wang and Lung nodded and looked towards the caller.
The monks overheard this and quickly walked towards the old man and said with palms against each other in greeting, “You are young. We shall say a special prayer so you may outlive your son. Eons of life ahead of you. Just put yourself in Buddha’s hands.”
In answer to this the old man with his gargantuan belly roared with laughter. ”From which crevice have you both crawled out?” You look like vermin.“
“Never mind!” said the old man jocularly, “ When you said Buddha I take it that you are holy vermin.” After a while he said, ”Here I have some Buddha’s fingers. Perhaps you may find use?”
He had a couple of shiangyuans (*the variety of lemons with its end shaped like fingers), which he threw grandly towards the monks.
They caught them nimbly.
The fat one looked at the carps on skewer being slowly turned over the charcoal fire and said,” Buddha’s blessings!”  Not to be outdone Hsiangyuan said with piety,” A touch of Buddha’s fingers make even carps venerable.”
“O.K”, said the old man, “Sit around. Share a meal with us. May Buddha be praised.” Oblivious to the gesticulations of his son he waxed eloquent.” It is truly a miracle that you brought this no good son of mine alive. He turned his back on me some ten years ago!”
The monks just drooled smelling the fish done to a turn.
“Ah carps!” the monks said,” It is a divine mystery!”
They began mumbling as if they were praying during which Ta Yi sat next to his father and said, ”They are what the cat brought along from the sewer.”
Old Man of the Sea looked at his son as if he had gone complete daffy. Ta Yi in the end said, ”They are fakes!”
“It cannot be!” his father stood his ground, ”how can any one fake that drooling? It is genuine as my carp!”
Looking at the unorthodox behavior of his guests he observed,” They are, I am sure, famished.”
“No, that cannot be!” Wang protested, ”They feed on nothingness, they themselves so said. They had watermelons some half an hour ago.”
To the quizzical look of his father Ta Yi explained who the young guests were.
“Never mind,” the old man said, ”You are all hungry. So you shall eat with me.”
How the monks fell to the grilled carps the word gusto would be an understatement. He had a servant boy who had brought ten big mullets cooked over tsao (or white fermented rice in a heater). The steamed boneless fish with head and tail intact disappeared at a furious pace that the boy looked on with wonder as if they were two lohans or Buddhist saints brought in specially to dispatch mullets to the table of ancients in the spirit world.
While they ate the host between mouthfuls said that he owed his life to the Captain Lee.
“Did he save you from drowning?” asked Wang.
“Yes” replied the old man, “How on earth do you know?”
Lung said,” Before Captain Lee, he is our uncle by the way, sent us off he did speak of your acquaintance. But his modesty forbade him to admit in what way. You are the Old Man of the Sea. So we put two and two together. He saved you from the sea did he not?’
Ta Yi’s father nodded.
After the meal the boy was sent with a portion of his catch and said, “Let us all go to my hut. We can see stars from where we lie and hear the willows serenade!” While frogs croaked from somewhere Wang said, ”they are out of tune!”
They walked into tsaotang or the grass hut where Ta Yi had already made the beds for the twins. He said that he would sleep in the open since the monks would not be able to go out without waking him up. “You catch some sleep” he assured,” In the room where the old man slept the monks would be well taken care of.”
“How?”
“My fathers extreme age has released him from the cares of sleep and he prefer to talk metaphysics,” Ta Yi said.  “He thinks it was god-sent that two monks have come share his hospitality. He loves to discuss some finer points from Surangama Sutra”
“Your father suffers from some condition,” Lung was hesitant,” he has such a belly, as I have never seen. Has it always been thus?”
In response Ta Yi laughed raucously and said, “You just watch him as he gets ready to lie down. Look!”
The Old Man somewhat insisted that the monks slept in that large room on the rush mat as he was to sleep in the adjoining. He lifted his tunic and with some effort pulled out scrolls, and scores of them the scholarly texts that he carried about him night and day.
With a wink to his son he told the monks that he considered himself holy that he had sacred texts ever ready.
As he emptied entire contents he had in girth become like any other; as a prelude to the struggle ahead he limbered his body to be able to withstand every thrust of his opponent’s arguments. It was clear that he laid great store in the disputations that were to follow. After placing three bowls and an earthen pot of rice wine he began the expositions in such lines Buddha himself would have said as unorthodox if not unusual.
The look on the faces of the monks were a picture of woe, a sight deliciously savored by Ta Yi who took it all in through the window. At last he came inside towards where Wang and Lung lay.
“Eternal talks are begun.” Ta Yi admonished, “Children if you want to save yourselves shut out every sound and sleep as never before you have slept!” The last part seemed to have been addressed to dead silence only broken by gentle sleep of the twins.
4.
Next day after a leisurely breakfast The Old man of the sea stood up solemnly facing his son and the twins. “This Night is very special to me. The Night of the Dead. If you shall accompany me to the place where I have since last six years faithfully watched over you shall realize how we live cheek by jowl with the spirits.”
The monks were still asleep.
The Old man nudged Wang and Lung who looked at them with curiosity while Ta Yi quit the scene silently.
The old man said with a smile: “ They lost!”    Pointing to the snoring monks he exulted, “ Oh they tried everything; but they could not keep up with my arguments!”  He sketched with relish how they tried to avoid a head on collision saying that their vows did not permit to discuss scriptural texts with one whose meal they had shared.
‘Oho?’ I countered,” if that is the case two can play the game. You bless every one you meet by chance don’t you, I say, and talk till they take the same Way as you? ‘We do that on behalf of Buddha’ says them,’ he needs followers!’
‘Why carry your begging bowl, I ask, Buddha doesn’t need to eat, does he? See what I was driving at. They knew it. They had to agree that I had a point.  It looks after a couple of hours I had all the points.”
He chuckled for a couple of minutes relishing the way he routed them.
‘In the end I asked what distinguishes chenju or suchness from such and such? You know what the lean shank said? He said, ‘Poyu!’
‘Why call out for carps I cannot unnerstan!”(* poyu means carp. The old man was indulging in a pun.) They let the monks to sleep till the boy whom they saw in the evening before appeared at the door. He had a hamper full of victuals for the day. Ta Yi also came close in his heels carrying a similar hamper.
“Is it some feast?” the twins wanted to know.
“We are on a pilgrimage, so to speak.” Their host said  with a grin. Wang and Lung could see that the Old Man of the Sea looked his normal self.
“We need to respect the Dead. Right?”
Wang was staring at the arm of the old man. He had a scar right across his arm.
“Were you ever in a scrape, grand father?”
“Ta Yi’s father looked at it and said,” Oh I tried to put some sense into a young hotheaded blade and he just didn’t like my advice. So we fought a duel. The fellow didn’t run me through but left me to live for another day. He chuckled at the thought the day was indeed a long one.
“Did you ever come across him later?”
“No he was hauled up before the District Magistrate,” the old Man said pensively,” before your father. You know what your father did, bless his memory; He put a fine a stiff one, for disturbing the peace of Soochow. He paid the fine himself since the young blade could not pay.”
Wang and Lung had treasured every scrap of information they came by chance and they realized that none topped what they just heard.
“Was our father so generous?”
“He was,” the old man said,” let me put it this way. He was a man as he should be in every sense.”
While the twins were savoring that remark the old man continued,” The magistrate must have realized that the young farmer who cut me up could be straightened by an example. It was his way of dispensing justice, I reckon.”
Nobody spoke. The monks stirred and yawned. Looking at the old man they just shuddered as a whipped dog.
“No metaphysics today!” the old man bellowed reminiscing his sweet victory.
“The day is far too gone. Let us foot it!”
They quickly followed the old man whose sprightly step was amazing for one who had put behind more than hundred summers. Ta Yi followed on the rear carrying the provisions. They walked toward Tai Hu area. There was a boat which they took after paying the keeper hire charges for the day.
Ta Yi and his father rowed while the monks carefully avoided looking them. Wang and Lung were excited as if they were about to have a special appointment with their destiny. The entire atmosphere, which surrounded them, was calculated to give free reign to their fancies. The mists were slowly rising from the placid lake furrowed delicately by the rhythmic dip of the oars. Here and there storks who perched on the top of the chestnut or oak trees dipped as if by a divine thought to skim the waters. The kingfishers flitted by with their catch oblivious of everything else.
The monks looked at one another and murmured death and damnation. They had no chance as yet to isolate the twins away from the watchful eye of Ta Yi. K’uei had stressed they were to abduct the twins alive. Hatred was so complete in their hearts that they looked about them and saw nothing. There those people who from their boat alighted with solemnity were like blurred images that did not make any sense to them. They looked at those who wended to the sacred groves to clean the tombs of their ancients and saw nothing! There were people of all descriptions, artisans, traders, scholars and magistrates or officials. All of them on the bank went about with a single purpose. Some were cleaning the tombs or burning paper money to the accompaniment of special prayers so the ancients may be able to make use of them. Others set flowers on the tombs or made special wishes so the blessings of the dead would keep them till they also joined them; the two monks ran their eyes across the long line of penitents overcome by the thankless business of living and who wished to earn their rest as if they were a blot on the landscape. While the air was thick with piety for the dead, Ashu and Poyu were blind with anger. They saw nothing.
Old Man of the Sea grew pensive. Perhaps he was thinking of his own ancient. His long age had mercifully glossed over death of his own father. Lung broke silence and and asked the old man,” Where is your father’s tomb?”
“ Now that you ask I wonder where?” Silence fell.
Neither Wang nor Lung needed to speak but were thinking the same thought. Where on earth was their father?
benny

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My second tale in the above series is now available. The story is titled Tale of The Trader and The Jinn.  In case you want to have a preview you can go to http://www.lulu.com/content/3536092. I have illustrated the text with artwork both watercolor and in pen and ink.

Description: A trader goes on a journey and at a strange place he, by a  freak accident, kills a child and his father instantly arrives at the scene. He is a Jinn and he demands, ‘A life for a life,That is only fair.’ The merchant pleads for time to put his affairs in order. One year later he arrives at the same spot and awaits Jinn as promised. It so happens he is in for something extraordinary. As typical of tales from One Thousand and One Night it is to be read and looked at. Let me not spoil your enjoyment by telling any further.

Happy reading, folks!

benny

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