(Wang and Lung are identical twins. They are in and out of trouble. On New Years Eve they are in town to watch the festivities. They upset a jeweler and to escape trouble they run for cover. Wang thus finds himself in the Tryst, a place, which is out of bounds for decent folks. Wang is just in time to upset another who swears revenge. This episode is selected from The Fox-spirit of the Tiger Caves©)
A Predestined Enemy
As soon as Hsiangyuan came to his senses he realized to his horror that he was no more advanced in his career than the day he entered into the employment of K’an P’i. He remembered the usurper who came out of nowhere to snatch his life’s desire. He ran down the stairs like a cock that had just lost his head. He would have run in circles but the chill of the morning choked his breath and he realized that he was not dressed properly. Quickly he went inside and dressed himself in a straw filled jacket. He swore blood! The cold air once again hit him full in the face wiping a little of his befuddlement. He remembered those kinsmen of his master. One of them, by name A’ting, was in the neighborhood, waiting.
“It is time that I paid him a visit.” he mused.
His intentions were simple. He wanted him to avenge the violent death of his kinsman. Ashu could not help smiling and he increased his steps,” I shall just step in at that last moment to receive what he coughs up!” He burst out into a cackle.
Hsiangyuan went in the direction of the only inn in that town. The Inn of P’ing I (* a river spirit) was where every fugitive from law repaired to in case of difficulties. It was the refuge for the down and out and desperado alike. He was very early. The innkeeper had just positioned himself in the hall. Before him was a low plank set on two figures carved in stone: Yu Ch’iang with human faces whose outstretched wings supported the pinewood. The figures were crude as the scarred plank untidily kept with sheets of paper, ink stone with splotches of ink several days old. The innkeeper with no particular enthusiasm wanted to know why he stood there as if had been nicked with a moyeh (*a fabled sword known for its sharpness).
“I am in a state of mourning, if you must know.” The caller sniveled.
“State the nature of your business. Be quick!” the innkeeper was not convinced.
“I have come for A’ting, the water diviner” Hsiangyuan blabbered, almost ready to cry. A’ting was a sorcerer. He could not have openly said that. So he used a euphemism to show he was a man of the world.
“You are from The Tryst?”
“ Yes. My master has been dreadfully treated.” said Ashu the rat, “ My worthy master, is dead” He added making his face as sad as possible. The innkeeper made excuses A’ting was sleeping off. “A’ting will be very angry if I did wake him up.”
“But he will be all the more angry if I didn’t inform him the news.” Ashu was nervous at every minute wasted.
“He is in no condition to wake up for sometime. Opium sleep you know.”
“Should I wait or try to wake him up myself?”
“Wait,” said the innkeeper. Let me think it over.” The innkeeper had spotted, from experience, a fraud miles away. He knew that the caller was a bad egg all right. Hsiangyuan would have got up to leave since the thought that the usurper was out planning his next move made him restless. Twice the innkeeper restrained the caller from leaving while he shuffled papers and called a few of his underlings or sent them on errands. To a burly Mongol he asked to be around on call. Meanwhile Ashu was watching nervously and his expression took quite a few spins in frustration. He came at a wrong time.
It was at that point the 1000-day wine seller came up to the innkeeper who, on seeing him became instantly voluble. They went on chatting during which Ashu took his chance. He sneaked past them into the courtyard around which were cubicles. Before he had come across the door bearing the name of A’ting, two strong hands pinned him from behind and jerked him half a turn. He stood facing the innkeeper who was clearly hostile.
“I knew trouble if there was one.”
While Ashu was having difficulties the town was becoming noisier by every minute. Wang and Lung felt hungry whenever they had got into some scrape. There was an eating stall at the junction where Brick – layers lane met stonecutter’s yard. The vendor sold Cantonese and the Hei Miao style of rice dumplings. Wang liked slices of wawayu (baby salamander) dipped in ginger pickle to go with them. He was partial to it since Blia the cook, a Hei Miao often cooked her traditional dishes. It was at this time Cowrie Shell came in view. He had an hsüan (*an ocarina commonly known as goose egg), which they had never before seen with him.
“Hey, Wu Chang where did you get it?” Lung wanted to know.
“I filched it from a Sho.” The boy was open about it, “I would like to see the Sho winning the competition without one.” The boys were from Sheng so Wu Chang was being true to his own loyalty, which was thrown with his friends. He was an outsider, being a Hei Miao living in a settlement at the outskirts of their village. Among his own tribes-people, he was called Cowrie Shell, a fact that was attested by a cowry shell he wore always around his neck. He worked even as his older sister Blia did, in the House of K’wang. That made him a Sheng in a manner of speaking. Wang ordered one dish for the boy, which the boy finished with a hearty appetite.
Wu Chang was always sent on errands to the town and his working method was a study in itself. He took with enthusiasm what orders many uncles and aunts in the House of K’wang gave him for the day.
Only after he had dashed past the two inner courtyards out into the road he broke his speed. As a sailboat would drop hitting the doldrums his legs just came to snail’s pace. Something in that world outside cramped his haste. Always.
He was forever on the look out for fox-spirits. He might have been tardy in running errands but in pursuing whatever caught his fancy he showed a bulldog like tenacity and he never stopped with half measures.
He also pilfered outrageously which was a gift, which he found so early on. He had his own code of conduct: he never stole from the House, which employed him; neither did he nick any of his friends. He was a true friend who never let his friends down. If it needed he gave away what he stole to any of them just for asking. It was as if his fingers had a life of their own. He held out his newfound goose egg to Lung who asked if he could play it. “Oh no” replied he,” I want to see the Sho lose on account of this.” Next moment he added that he had a sheng with bamboo resonators already, “it depends on what is easier to learn. May be a sheng will do just as nicely.”
It was the turn of Wang and Lung to fill in with their doings. Wang told where he had been to. “K’an P’i is dead!”
The response was electrifying. The Hei Miao instinctively touched his cowrie shell and told Wang to do the same. It was at that moment Wang realized he had lost his shell. Wu Chang showed as if a bolt had hit him. ”What, you lost your cowry shell?” Wang narrated everything that happened earlier at The Tryst. The boy took it all in while his eyes went bigger and bigger.
He was sure that he would meet the fox-spirit after all.
As Wang went closer he backed off. “ I am sure the fox-spirit has marked you now!” the Hei Miao shrieked. He cautioned, “ Watch out! Spit only when you are sure of your ground!” Wang stuck his tongue out. He wanted to show he was still the same. But Wu Chang was all fired up. “ Wang, It could be that his chi has come onto you!” Having said this he took a cowry shell from the folds of his blouse. Kissing it reverentially he pressed it one after the other against his eyes and he began to run.
Wang asked Cowrie Shell where he was rushing off. In reply he held his forefinger against his pursed mouth and took off. Being used to such unpredictable behavior now and then, Wang walked on towards the temple around the corner. He moved along Bricklayer’s lane with Lung in tow. He had just missed Poyu who had come in to pray before a god installed in a perpetual cloud of smoke. He was the god of Prosperity.
Wang was onto something new. So much was obvious. Lung knew the signs. That precise moment while an idea took possession of Wang rang some sort of alarm bells and Lung waited for Wang to make the move. Wang spoke little on such occasions. His eyes had a special glow and he held forward his hands loosening his fingers. By that gesture it was as if he had shut off all avenues, which could deter him from his intent. Wang merely glanced to the left where heaps of bricks were all strewn. In a trice he had picked a floppy hat mud-stained, a discard of some seasons. He held it aloft for his brother to gloat. In the same hand there flashed also one brick. It was almost uncanny how he could come up with the least effort two articles so different as a brick and a straw hat. If he felt slight uneasiness Lung didn’t show it. He knew that he intended to use them before the day was done.
Wang remained uncommunicative even as they went out of the lane to a wider road, which led straight to the best part of the town. Fengxiang (* Maple fragrance) road presented a neat appearance where no one dared throw rubbish let alone loiter unless one wanted a knock on the head from the roughnecks of Tu clan, who served often as bodyguards for the affluent money traders.
At the intersection where Temple road cut Fengxiang road Wang casually threw his new find. Before Lung could catch on, the hat lay deceptively simple on one side of the road. What of the brick? It was well hidden under the hat, which looked more like a heap of straw.
Lung was soon distracted by the musicians who had filed into People’s Square in all jollity and in a few hours they would show all their skills. Lung noticed they were from Sho and they had great many cutouts all painted in gilt and streamers floating in a gentle breeze. There were banners all of them full of inflated greatness of their village and guardian spirits. All were looking on. That diversion gave Wang the much-needed privacy to pull off a last stunt for the retreating year.
Before the Sheng musicians came in view Wang had time to bring in some short eats from the clutch of vendors who were also as high-spirited as the musicians. While Lung concentrated on his peanuts Wang was eyeing his handiwork. He never let it go out of his sight.
The yokels were beginning to crawl all over the place feasting on the rival bands that moved in panoply of fanfare to entertain them. Wang looked at the sea of revelers flow along and fumed. No one took notice his work of art! In that confusion people seemed to have sensed the presence of strange articles, which ought not be there. They avoided it, as a pilot would steer past the buoys. Those country bumpkins though pouring in from distant parts and at a loss seemed to have developed circumspection; even their legs were holding them while their glazed eyes and vacant expression showed lizard wine was very much propelling them. Still no one stumbled over the brick. (Traders who traded in rice wine had called that year their best ever. It was very much in evidence.) A few must have thrown up here and there or bumped into one another; some resorted to fisticuffs on the strength of tippling a little too many. But as they came across Wang’s handiwork they just disentangled their feet like two sampans passing by, but dangerously close.
Meanwhile in I P’ing I events were becoming in favor of Ashu who was cooling his heels in one room where he was thrown unceremoniously with a bullnecked Mongol to watch over him. The innkeeper after settling accounts with the wine trader of 1000-day wine was relaxed. Only when A’ting woke from his sleep and called for fresh jug of rice wine the innkeeper remembered the matter of his caller. He called the Mongol to take Ashu to his room.
The sight of A’ting the nearest kinsman of his late master and a fellow practitioner in Black Art made him put on his best performance as yet. He keened like a banshee while he tore off ornaments that hung from his girdle and threw his cap onto the floor to show intensity of his bereavement.
A’ting looked on, his mouth open overcome by the strange behavior of his caller. “You are from The Tryst. Are you not?”
He nodded. After having his emotions played out he said lugubriously: “Master is dead. He has been vilely overthrown when he was down.”
“How can that be?” the older man queried, “You had said yourself he was O.K. Who would have dared?”
“A boy of fifteen. May be older,” Ashu said sullenly,” or younger.”
“What were you doing?” A’ting asked,” hiding in a closet?”
“No!” Ashu whimpered shedding a few drops of tears for a good measure, ”I defended the master as well as I could.”
“So he has now the Deed of Succession? What?”
At this point the older man a sorcerer and man with an iron grip was shaking the apprentice till his eyes felt popping out.
A’ting was so furious. He gritted his teeth and showed plainly his frustration. Ashu felt a shudder and he didn’t know what Deed he was talking about.
“My master has a broom which lies still as it is in his closet. All his papers are in the library, as he would have wished for. “
“Were not there a small book within a satchel of curious work?”
Ashu remembered it only too well. He had it in the inside lining of his nightgown. “He must be meaning Kuo, the Book of Changes.” He mused. He had no intention of parting with it. To his horror he realized he had left it at The Tryst. “Yes, I was in a tearing hurry.” he silently in his mind kicked himself.
Meanwhile A’ting went on, “You can find out if you are the left handed fox-spirit by looking in that book.”
“Boy, you don’t have any idea? “ He stood squarely in front of him and peered searchingly,” Or do you?” Ashu shook his head violently unable to look at his swarthy face with wisp of hair like a trickle of ash careening over corners of his dark lips and taut with doubts. His high cheekbones were in danger of puncturing his parched skin drawn tight, the apprentice thought so, seeing him go over and over chewing an imaginary cud. ‘A’ting is unpleasant and ugly to boot.’
The apprentice asked, “Shouldn’t we avenge the dishonor to one of your clans?”
“Perish the thought!” the sorcerer barked,” what dishonor is greater? Living as a sorcerer as I do who cannot hurt a fly or one who as Lord of every pestilence could command his price as he? My clansman had it all good while I had none! None but a mountain of debts and a daughter whom I must take care since her mother is no more. Tell me?”
Ashu squirmed unable to say either yes or no.
“K’an P’i was my nearest relation. That is correct,” he said now somewhat subdued. ”He was the left handed fox-spirit. He was a K’an P’i alright.”
“Were there other K’an P’i?” Ashu asked ingratiatingly, ”the left handed fox-spirit makes one the kuo. Is it not?” “You are a novice,” the sorcerer said with a sneer,” In him dwelt the spirit of Mi Fu; that made him a K’an P’i.”
Ashu kept his silence.
“Mi Fu picked only the weirdest and far out who would stop at nothing. His spirit was far out, a Kuo!” The vehemence with which he spat out the last word frightened Ashu. He cringed.
“Did it help me even as this much? He had his forefinger coming close to his thumb making a small gap in between. “No it didn’t!”
“Now he is dead uh?” A’ting murmured.” In whom Kuo could have gone?” The apprentice winced at the thought the one who had was walking free while he was subjected to the spleen of a bitter man. A’ting was oblivious to the presence of his caller.
“He could have.” He mused loud, ”But he didn’t!”
“So why should I now?” He violently let his hands draw apart and he began pacing around the room with hands clasped behind him. His hands were gripping each other hard.
Suddenly pausing in his mid stride he said, “Boy, you get me the Deed. Then I shall work with you. I shall be the K’an P’i. With me as your guide you can dream grand things!” he had an unnatural glow in his mean eyes,” Wish what you will. You can have it all.” Glancing him slyly he said,” Without the Succession it is impossible to help you.”
“How will I make sure that you will not cut me out once you had the book?”
“My solemn oath.” The older man said,” As the left handed fox-spirit I cannot break it without dismantling my own power.”
“Can I ask you a question? You are a sorcerer while I am not.”
“If someone has just become a Kuo” Ashu stopped short to rephrase what he wanted to say, ”If some one by an accident became a K’an P’I can you not correct the mistake?”
‘Oh that is a trick question!’ A’ting knew. But he didn’t show it. “Well what of it?” It was the turn of A’ting to play dumb.
Ashu did not want to show his hand. How he was gypped by some stranger still rankled him.
“The one who has chi of K’an P’I by some accident. Suppose that happens” Ashu explained,” he could even be in two places at one time?”
Ashu shuddered. That interloper did show the proof he had his master’s kuo.
“One can correct mistakes,” he asked,” I mean if one has by some mistake got kuo of K’an P’I he could be made to breathe into the rightful heir apparent. It would set right the error. Would it not?
“Why breath?” A’ting gave a hollow laugh,” You can make him spit and you could trap from that his spirit without any bother.” In a flash he turned to ask, “What is the idea? You want to be the next K’an P’i?”
“Oh no?” Ashu said that too quickly to be convincing. A little later he said, “I will have to first check where my late master has hidden his book.” Ashu added, “All our talks would be over nothing if we didn’t have that book. Isn’t it?”
“Suppose if I do find it, -hold it!” Ashu said seeing that blazing look in his eyes,” it is purely hypothetical. “
After a pause he added,” What if I don’t go along with you. What happens then?”
“Oh, “ A’ting said with a studied effect, “ You will find it out for yourself. May be one morning you may want to get up but you will find that you can’t.”
“ Suppose your throat is cut. Or it may be that your brain, or whatever is left of it is sliding off at that moment from the wall nearest to your bed?” Ashu felt a shiver coming.
“That would be messy, right?” His sudden twist of his head to make his eyeball almost cannon into his, made the apprentice gasp for breath. He stank.
“I have a matter to settle with a fellow. This evening I shall be busy.” Ashu said uneasily,” You don’t call me. For I am not sure when I will get back to The Tryst.” Trying to make it all sound normal he said, ”I will call on you as soon as I am ready.” A’ting was a little too violent for his liking.
As he threaded his way through throngs of yokels he had a terrible feeling of having wasted his whole day. It was late noon. From one of the open stalls he ate a bowl of congee, his first meal of the day. While he laid the empty bowl aside he realized his predestined enemy had an easily identifiable mark about him. His pet cricket. He had never seen anyone other than he, sporting one in the town. “May be I should begin with that clue.” He mused. Little he realized that A’ting had by this time stepped out and had his eye peeled to his every movement. “I will let him a long leash and see where it leads me.” He thought. Being in the same profession he knew that there was bound to be a war of succession. He was a sorcerer, which excluded Ashu. He couldn’t help smiling. “He will come to me, of course.”
A’ting moved on with a new lease of energy the idea of becoming the next left handed fox-spirit animated him. But he came across one of his nodding acquaintances that said he came into some luck and he was onto spending it all. He said he was exploring a new opium den, which he was told dealt in very special flavors. A’ting assured him to be his guide and they went off.
At that moment a little further Lung was lost in a world of blur of colors as many floats bedecked with garlands of flowers and people in their costumes floated by. The processions of various guilds of tradesmen peasants and musicians had by then swelled. It was a dream world punctuated by beating of drums and tinkling of bells.
The dusk fell which was signaled by so many lighted paper lanterns suddenly coming in view. Each participant had one. They were waving it sandwiched between dragons with so many pairs of feet stomping as if they could not help heaving and weaving under the many yards of silk skillfully concealing their body. The dragon’s head was soft felt and pasteboard held by split bamboo strips. It was sewn with sequins and lavishly painted as those swirling dancers who paraded in front and after the dragons. They traipsed with their painted fans and cheeks, which gleamed under the lighted lanterns. Some cut a pirouette and shimmied with a regularity to capture the attentions of bystanders.
Lung thought they were like handmaidens of gods come to take a tired year to their world. Lung was startled from his reverie by a loud thud followed with a scream. Instinctively he looked towards Wang who was tittering and almost controlling himself from laughing out loud. He had his hands pressed against his mouth. There was a sudden movement among those who came by. A man had fallen he supposed, and the scream evidently came from him.
The hat, Lung could see, was in pieces scattered revealing a brick as if it were the Rock of Ages. He saw a man down and he was writhing in agony. Feeling rather pity Lung sought out the fallen man, who had succumbed to the art of Wang.
Lung saw the hulk of a man still biting the dust. He tried to get up but he could not.
“Does it hurt so much?” Lung asked bending closer.
Next moment the man saw him. The boy froze as much as the man. Poyu! Lung recoiled from that malevolent gaze of the man. That mid-life crisis lately felt in him was as naked as a dagger drawn and athirst for blood!
Poyu the jeweler of course was in a daze. But the shock he had found his predestined enemy in that multitude for the second time was too much. He screamed and fainted.
Lung quickly drew backwards and would have escaped but for two pudgy hands of a giant who caught him. He was the bodyguard of Poyu. He saw the boy making a quick movement, which struck him highly suspicious. He slapped Lung a few times lightly. They were to be for starters. The Mongol having taken him a little away from the tumult turned towards his prey. The man brought again his hand to strike. It froze at the sound of a shout, ”Hold it there!” Lung could not believe his eyes.
There was an young man a gargoyle looking curiously at him. Quickly a piece of silver changed hands, which signaled the burly man to fall back. He pushed Lung meekly towards the man who bought a piece of action.
Ashu had Lung all to himself. There he stood savoring every minute of it. Standing there with one foot forward he postured as if he held all the aces.
“You do know me. Don’t you?”
“Oh, at The Tryst?” Lung said with his eyes growing wide. He could figure it out by hearsay.
“Where is your pet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Trying to be funny uh? I know that you had this morning a cricket. Remember?”
Ashu had everything under control. His demand was simple. He wanted the kuo of his master. He was even willing to part with a couple of pieces of silver if it came to that.
Lung quickly got on but he decided not to be of help. The only way to save Wang was to play along with the human gargoyle that looked greedily at him. His hollow cheeks were as prominent as his fish eyes, the incongruity of it was no whit improved by his rather nervous Adam’s apple. He was an ugly-pugly all right.
“You just breathe into my mouth. Yes, mouth to mouth! I will let you go.”
“Like kissing a woman? Ugh!” Lung was revolted at the very thought. To show his ire he spat on the ground. ‘An insult! Let him take it as he will’. Ashu suddenly moved as if it had electrified him.
Lung remembered Wu Chang’s words and quickly put his foot to cover the spit.
Ashu was no longer smiling. His eyed opened wide and he looked as a demon possessed when he spotted Wang coming towards Lung. Ashu realized his mistake. The one who interested him most had come in view. He had his pet cricket with him.
“Look Jen” Wang said pointing to the fellow scowling,” the naughty, naughty fellow who frightened you this morning!”
Ashu lunged forward. He was so enraged that his hands trembled, ”I will kill you for this!” At that point he got a blow squarely on his crown. He fell down. Behind him stood Wu Chang grinning. He had his ‘goose egg’ in his hand. It was broken by the force.
“Just in time, uh?” Cowrie Shell said with a laugh,” Come, people are looking at us. We will talk away from here.”
“He’s the one who worked for K’an P’i, Right?” he asked.
“Where had you been all the while?”
“Oh here and there,” Cowrie Shell replied mysteriously.
“What has got into you?” Wang asked.
“Shh later,” The Hei Miao boy said,” the musicians are now in place.”
“Did you have to hit him that hard?” Lung asked.
“Yes. No other way to deal with your predestined enemy.” Wu Chang said in all seriousness.
“How will you know you just met such a one in a crowd?” Lung was thoughtful.
“It just so happens.” The Miao boy explained.
“ Like the fellow down there?” Lung queried.
“That means we just met two predestined enemies in one day?” Wang joined in.
“Who is the other?” Chang viewed them with alarm.
Lung explained the matter of Poyu the jeweler of whom Wu Chang had heard. “He has connections with the underworld.” There fell an uneasy silence, which was not helped by Wu Chang who explained that a predestined enemy was for life.
“We shall meet them again.” He concluded, “ So there is nothing we can do about it but make the most of it.”
Pointing to the Sho where the ocarina player was in view Wang said,” You broke his goose egg for nothing. He has another.”
He looked at the damaged hsüan ruefully. He brightened to say,“ I found better use for it, Didn’t I?”
Throwing it aside he added in a whisper, ”I will take up now a sheng instead. I am not cut out for playing a goose egg.”
They tittered and suddenly were all ears as their team began.
During the concert Cowrie Shell silently held out to Wang something. It was his cowry shell. So he had been to The Tryst after all.