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Chapter-1

Love comes In All sizes

Duke Wushamao’s plans thwarted.

Wang is attracted to Lin Lang. Lin Lang disappears leaving Wang distraught.

 

 

How dreary! So boring I could smash everything in sight!” Well, Duke Wushamao could well afford it. During the reign of Wan Li, the Ming emperor the duke was lording over every privilege he could lay hold of and it was becoming an addiction. On this side of Chechiang known as Three Pavilions he gorged on whatever he collected. He was becoming voracious and it made him a terrible foe if thwarted.

Since the emperor had ceased to interest himself in upholding the Will of Heaven the duke’s power grew: he could make entire towns disappear at least in terms of tax, these towns annually paid to the provincial governments. It went straight into his coffers. The eunuch Youtiao who attended to the revenue for the province of Chechiang on behalf of the emperor was his brother and he was ever behind him to pick up the pieces. Except some areas that not even Duchess Peony Su could have helped.

The duke loved to spend time away from her company. He came only to sleep or receive men of importance. Otherwise his palace was at his duchess’ hands to throw her fits anywhere or anytime. So often she had a permanent scowl settled on her ivory skin. Neither the duke nor the duchess was willing to palaver. When she fumed he cruised outside and took low life in his stride. It was thus he found himself in his ducal carriage that morning.

Lately his lackeys had hinted some suspicious things going on in one of the most backward spots in the province. “Who shall set up an inn in a swamp?” What made him all the more curious was the news of a girl whose bearing was more of nobility than of peasant stock. He ordered his coachman to drive in the direction of the village with a curious name Blown Away.

Sitting in that four horse carriage bobbing along the rutted roads of the village Blown Away the duke could only see houses and these were barred. With his bile rising he peered along the blurring landscape and not a soul was in sight.

Not for long.

A solitary dot was looming in sight growing ever larger. As he took it in, he smiled. A girl was coming carrying a bundle of firewood. He briskly asked his coachman to stop.

Duke Wushamao was dying for company.

Luckily there she was. She was simply dressed in working clothes but she pleased him. He snapped his fingers and two of his lackeys who rode behind the coach jumped off their perch and ran towards her. She was hauling the load on a pushcart with wooden wheels. The cart was more a toy than for load. One zeroed in on the hapless girl and wrenched her off the ground. The bundle of firewood tumbled down scattering pieces pell-mell. Before she could scream the two brutes reached out and held her by the hand. As if by reflex she bit one in desperation and broke loose. It was followed by a swing of her foot that connected the groin of the other. The wretch howled in pain and fell.

She bolted!

Duke Wushamao grimaced and barked his men to chase her. The girl ran through a narrow alleyway with three brutes in pursuit.

2.

There was a public house that was hidden from view. Inn of the Seventh Serenity was a question mark as was the inn keeper. Obviously he was holding it on to cover some one’s folly. No one could have for a moment thought the inn was meant to cater to the needs of travelers. No travelers would have thought of being bogged down in a swamp.

Yet the inn was full.

On that morning Ta Yi, the fox-spirit of the Tiger Caves was in residence. He served as a counselor for the Wushamao League. Hardly had he stepped out before there was commotion.

To his amazement one peasant was coming towards him all in a lather herding a girl of thirteen towards him and crying, “Save my child, sir!”

Ta Yi asked him to step inside and make himself no worry.

The peasant was blubbering, “The duke is out to do her harm!” He heard enough.Ta Yi firmly said, “ That’ll do.”

There were a few customers sitting around playing backgammon and they were engrossed in the game. At least they pretended that they had no time for anything other than their game. Their patois was that of Beijing than of Checkiang. What were they for? None knew. They looked askance at Ta Yi and they knew everything was in order. The electrifying aura of the fox spirit seemed to make them feel relieved.

They were indeed the spies sent from The Pavilion of Heavenly Bliss in Beijing. They sent as part of the weekly report: ‘the sky is still blue and not a cloud is in sight.’ Reading it the favorite concubine to the Emperor could relax.

The guests paid no heed to the threesome who cast shadow as they clicked their tiles and arranged the combination.

Ta Yi drew them into a hall where the peasant, teary eyed looked at Ta Yi and said, “Duke Wushamao has come for my child!” Ta Yi caught the eye of the innkeeper who had sized up the situation and said, “ Back room. They are there.” Ta Yi nodded and guided the peasant and his daughter across the central courtyard. The innkeeper signaled the waiters and they quickly fell to their tasks.

Ta Yi herded the peasant and the girl into the room where Chuan and Wang were whiling away their time. They put away their straws and looked up.

They had visitors.

Even as they rose to greet Ta Yi and his company, Zheng Dong their host silently drew the curtain behind. The innkeeper went to his writing desk. He wrote a few lines, ‘ The hat is still too narrow for the head. The fox will take the bait.’ It was addressed to the King of Canton.

Zheng Dong called one of his servants who left immediately.

Next morning the king called Duke Mulberry who was his intimate friend and said, “Our man has found the means to cut Duke Wushamao to size. ” They had a good laugh. One whom they only knew as the Fox would do the job for them.

While the innkeeper was busy the inner room was all set to receive the assailants of the girl. First Ta Yi asked the peasant to speak. He explained how he was reduced to straitened circumstances due to the new economic policies of the province and he owed arrears in tax like so many others in his position. “ So Duke Wushamao sends his men to round up all that he could gather. This village is ruined. You may ask the worthy Zheng Dong who had lost his daughter only eight months ago.” Ta Yi asked him to stick to his story. “My child went out to collect firewood this morning and came screaming as though her hair was afire. I didn’t know what to do. Till I saw you. Please protect us.”

Zheng Dong coughed and put head past the curtains to say there were duke’s men, charging in.

How many?”

Two, and one is guarding the entry.”

Well let them in.” Wang conversationally asked the girl who sat demurely opposite to him, “ Have you broken an egg? ”

She had somehow taken possession of herself. She smiled coyly. Wang made room for her to sit by him while she hesitated.

You are sitting where Ta Yi is about to break some, ahem, heads.” There were footsteps outside and the girl quickly went over to the wall where Wang sat.

Ta Yi meanwhile got up and he had his staff in his hands. The two ruffians barged in and spotted the girl who had almost fallen into the lap of Wang in fright. Wang put his arm around her to steady her and the peasant moved aside to cover her.

One of the ruffians let out an oath and said, “ You! ”He was about to reach out but Ta Yi flicked his wrist to bring the tip of his staff on his knuckles. He let go her hand as though hit by an electric eel. The other assailant turned to him and barked, “Don’t you dare? This is Duke’s order. You interfere at your peril.”

We must show respect to the Duke. Mustn’t we?” Ta Yi laid aside his staff that Wang quickly got hold of. He showed his hand and told the fellow, “This is a working hand. Using this I show respect.” Calmly he folded his hand towards his chest and flicked his forearm straight to connect to his jaw and he fell backward. Wang had meanwhile blocked the other with the staff. The girl looked on as if transfixed by Wang who showed no fear.

As quickly as they came they disengaged. Both thugs were downcast and retreated. “I dread to think what shit you will be in after the duke gets hold of you all.”

Chuan was watching Wang and the girl who was in no hurry to disengage her from his company. He just smiled when Wang said, “There shall be no breaking of heads. Isn’t that a shame?” She smiled. “I thought we had an omelet here.” She shyly retorted, “ The Duke certainly knows how to pick out bad eggs.”

Before the peasant led the girl out Wang asked for her name, “Lin Lang.”

The innkeeper came in hurry to say, “The duke shall surely seek you out.” Ta Yi was unperturbed. “ Don’t worry. I shall pay him a visit instead. ”

Later in the evening Ta Yi asked about his missing daughter. Poor Zheng Dong quaked and he burst into tears. “ The duke thought she would go places if she were taken at hand and guided properly. He sent his wife to show he meant well. Two years ago it was. I thought his proposal was honorable.”

After a pause he sullenly mumbled. He offered me silver and to free me from tax burden. “

So you agreed?”

I asked for time.” He sniffled and added, “Soon after she was waylaid while she was visiting her maternal aunt.” He moped his forehead and said lugubriously, “From enquiries I come to understand her trail stopped at Fragrant Pavilion by the Pebble Lane.

That is where the Duke stays whenever he visits the Province. Is it not?”

The innkeeper nodded.

Zheng Dhong stood there as lost in thought. Ta Yi called out of his reverie. “Is any thing the matter?”

He hesitated and walked up to Ta Yi and whispered, “My daughter is almost identical. Lin Lang may have a smoother complexion and a more mysterious air.”

Ta Yi thought a while and said, “ I get the idea. But don’t worry over such matters.”

Of course I ought not make comparisons,,” the innkeeper said without much conviction, “but,-oh, where my girl has gone to.” He left.

Ta Yi thought Zheng Dong wasn’t entirely level with him.

 

Lung barged in all excited. He was amazed to see Ta Yi, which was least expected. The fox-spirit knew that he had left on a hunch and hoped to see what he could do in life. Ta Yi asked, “ Did you meet your contact?” Lung said, “ Of course, he taught me to gamble. I got into a scrape because I won too easily for his liking.”

Lung took a week to be himself with his thoughts as he put it. Now he was back. ‘It was pretty risky.’ Wang felt he was irresponsible to not to protect him.

Lung was in a cheerful mood, “Here is what I won!” Instantly Wang cheered up. Lung knew how to protect himself, He had to agree.

Lung carefully took out a flask and held out. Ta Yi was an apothecary among other things. He took it examined it and carefully opened the stopper. Taking a whiff of it he closed his eyes as if in intense concentration. He said quietly, “ No mistake of it!” Wang and Lung who were watching this dumb show asked, “What is it?”

Love potion!” was the reply.

Chuan sidled up to the twins and said, “ I guess you are ready for it.”

I met a really a sweet girl, dear brother. You missed the fun”. Wang filled him with news. Lung looked at his brother quizzically and said,

Care to try this?”

Wang firmly said, “No, Lin Lang is sweet but is she the girl? Only time will tell.”

Wang knew fate was in his favor and the love potion was merely skirting his tryst with destiny. Later in the night Lung poured love potion in a smaller flask and presented to his brother. “ One never knows how fate comes knocking. Be prepared, as our tutor would say.”

Wang put it away among his personal belongings. He was certain Lin Lang would not taste it for better or worse.” 

  (2 be cont’d)

benny

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(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©)

Chapter-2
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.”
2.
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.
3.
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?”
“Certainly!”
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.”
“How?”
“ 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.
4.
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.

benny

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(Wang and Lung are identical twins and they live in a village by name Sheng. On New Years eve they set out to Po-Yen, meaning thousand patience. Po-yen is situated in the Fuchin Jiang valley in the province of Chechiang.  This extract describes what happened to them in course of a day.)

Chapter-1

A Left Handed Fox- Spirit

On the last day of 1587 Wang and Lung left the house early since they wanted to see the town preparing itself for the coming festivities. The night before Blia the cook had made moon cakes from rice flour, pork fat and sugar. While the woman kneaded the flour and white fat into cakes and garnished with haws and dried green plums the servants had hung up paper lanterns and tallow candles here and there to give the house a new look. The cakes were really delicious but the twins were preoccupied.

Before the house was astir they had got out. Wang was certain that day was unlike any other and had made sure Lung fell in with his grand design. “What that be,” Lung asked as they catfooted to the gate.” The end of the year is when we begin our plan.” Wang whispered rather mysteriously. That only made Lung more nervous since Wang was the one who made all the plans and he was the one who without any exception ended as the fall guy. It was not that he was dull or slow on the uptake. They were identical as two peas in a pod; their harmony, as their tutor was not tired in telling, was that of two chopsticks. Wang could not have pulled off his pranks without Lung who was all for order. He always returned what props his brother filched from here and there. Wang always thrived in confusion. If Wang did a vanishing trick it fell to Lung be present when the victim came to his senses. Lung of course got hit each time. He had been told by many that he served as a sitting duck while his brother got off lightly. “May be,” Lung could shrug off, “One has to give and another take it. Life is a matter of give and take as my tutor would say.” Lung believed it wholeheartedly.

Still that morning he had to brace himself. Wang felt some uneasiness as his brother but for different reasons. The cold wind and dead silence of the village where houses in silhouette partly obscured by thick mists was eery enough but to him the occasion seemed not right. What if? He had to think of the honor of the House of Chu K’wang. The filial piety by which every House was judged needed to be upheld. Their mother had taken to bed and it looked all the more likely that her end was near. It was touch and go, like so many other times. ‘But what if our dear mother died and we were not around?’ It was a dishonor that was bound to dog them rest of their life. Instantly Lung put out his hand as though he had same thoughts and said, “ Pray that mother will pull through.” Instead of Wang he bumped against a muffled figure and was thrown backwards. There was a strange apparition that was recklessly venturing out from opposite direction. He was tall and Lung could only catch a glimpse of his face that to his horror was a death mask. “He is a ghost!” Lung exclaimed. It amazed him that he could be knocked down by so light as a feather. The stranger having knocked him down glided right through the hedge as if he did not intend any harm to him or to that hedge. “He is indeed a ghost!” his hairs stood on end. Next moment he heard a voice from far off but distinctly saying,“ Chuan sent me!” “What on earth..” Lung exclaimed as he picked himself up.

The sound of falling brought Wang quickly to his side. Lung said, “Funny the voice said, Chuan sent me!” “Chuan!” Wang whistled. The name seemed to ring a bell. And nothing more. Wang said,” All I can think of is our poor father.” Lung looked at him with concern, “It is our mother whom we need to take care of.” Lung felt all the more nervous to move on. He excused his lack of enthusiasm. ”Brother, we just had a strange encounter. It is a sign. A word of caution. We ought to listen to it.” “What did it tell you?” “Go home.” Wang persuaded him not to give in to his nerves. Lung thought Wang perhaps was right. They walked on.

Wang said in sotto voce, “Chuan, where have I heard the name?” He was uneasy but quickly got it out his mind. Before Wang and Lung could see the town from far Lung was amazed to see his brother stopping dead on his tracks. He also stopped. He was staring at him just as he, hit by the same thought. “Chuan,” they blurted out in unison. “Chuan!” Wang said a trifle too loud, ”You know him don’t you?” “Yes, I know” Lung replied. Wang let out a shout. ”That fellow who knocked you down,” he said with a laugh, “That was a phantom, and a good sort too.”

“How can you be sure brother?” “I know now. ”Wang said assuredly,” We know Chuan cannot mean bad to us?” Lung nodded.

”Six years ago remember the time our father died?” Slowly Lung’s face became pale and color of his eyes darkened, to recollect their loss. “Oh yes!” They could place the name and that sad occasion which had first dealt its nasty cut to their happiness. The same Chuan who appeared mysteriously from his village around the time their father died six years ago. They remembered that day with clarity. The twins believed since then that Chuan will reappear if anything were to happen to their mother.

Lung felt a tug at his heartstrings for he knew his mother survived his father but lived in a coma as it were. “It is a call from the grave,” as Aunt Thousand Fragrances one evening cautioned their grand uncle lugubriously. They had overheard it and had since then deeply impressed into their sensitive hearts. ‘What if she died?’ If she were to die it was their duty to be present. Wang as if he read his inner thoughts said, “Mother will pull through for a time being.” Lung knew. Wang also was certain. She would only die after Chuan had come second time. Just as he had mysteriously come some six years ago to announce that he had lost a brother. No one saw him after he silently glided past the house all of a sudden.

Chuan. He was the one who could put to rest every strange sensation that made them restless and get into scrapes one after another. “So we have been forewarned, brother,” they said upbeat. “Mother is in no danger.” It was if the encounter gave them license to enjoy their jaunt. They were also sure Chuan would come second time. Surely he must hold some powers if he could come as if by premonition six years ago. Chuan would come. That was like a pick-me-up and they briskly moved on.

The brothers were already on the highway that led them to the archway indicating the town limit. The stone pillars with bas-relief of demons alternating with strange symbols and characters weather worn, were frightful. Wang and Lung quickly ran past. They lost themselves in the thick of clamor that was steadily on the rise.

2.

If the identical twins were waiting for the appearance of Chuan who they believed held the key to such mystery as death, no less anxious was Ashu. In another part of the town he was biding his time for a bitter man to die. It looked as if it would happen any moment. Ashu as the name implied was a rat, an ill omen. From childhood his basic traits had made him stand out. Scrawny and ungainly he did not present a pleasant form; inquisitive and secretive at the same time he put off his playmates. Whenever he joined them something untoward was sure to happen. A few who had a winning hand lost for no explicable reason. If they wrestled, his sudden appearance was a signal: one may accidentally get a poke in the eye if not pull a tendon that hurt the victim badly for a week or two. He fouled up the normal life that his playfellows in the village thought he was ‘A blasted boil walking on two legs.’

At home he was no different. His foster-father, an old sandal maker had enough of him and one day washed his hands off him. At the age of 15 the boy took to the street. Before long Ashu went to the Tryst. There lived at that time K’an P’i, the sorcerer whom the townspeople dreaded most. They thought he was the resident evil, the left handed fox-spirit whom Mi Fu the Crazy One had set up for evil purposes. Ashu had nothing by way of experience to offer; but he had guts to call on one from whom every other shrank from. The sorcerer must have felt in his scarecrow looks, a congenial spirit. He took him in his service: it was three years ago and he was still an apprentice.

On the last day of the year. Ashu waited greedily to be on hand for the master to breathe his last. He was alone.

Whenever other magicians sent their messengers weeks earlier to enquire of his master’s health the apprentice had put them off. To a few who were persistent he pointed the nearest inn where they could lodge till his master was ready to look them up. “Oh he shall get around to that,” he had assured them. It was a lie of course. From the day Ashu was taken into the service of K’an P’I inexplicably an overweening ambition seized him. Perhaps the spirit of the left handed fox-spirit stirred him up. Nothing else could explain at the way he changed. Three years it took him to cancel out whatever he had by way of native intelligence or to learn useful trade in order to eke out a living. Oh no, K’an P’I’s unassailable power had turned his head. He lied through his teeth to have the dying sorcerer to himself. Three years only he needed for his ambition to bear fruit, almost. The master wasn’t in a hurry to die.

Since Ashu plays a great role in this story let me sketch out his life under the roof of The Tryst. On the second day since Ashu entered the service his master handed him a pail of water and a mop to clean up the place. He had settled on a name that he came across by chance. His name shall be Hsiangyuan, (“Too good to be true!” he said to himself.) He set great significance to coincidences that were pointers to guide him along. His master was too good a chance to let go. The first year he did menial tasks at which his master observed that dust never left the ground while his broom made magical signs over and over again. He took it as a compliment. Next year he was given the task of carrying equipments and books, which the master needed for his practice. His master held every night of the new moon a coven to which each member came in masks and went through secret rites. While they made themselves merry the apprentice broke the cardinal rule of the house: he spied on them. He could not let go of his role model. As far as he could go he dogged his every move.

He put up with every insult and punishment in order to be close to his master. In the process he found how to beat him. (It did not come to him from books on magic that was strictly forbidden for him to look into.) It was dust that made his master most angry. He had a pathological hatred to dust, Ashu discovered. If salt in his rice made the master screw up his face the apprentice freely used salt in his main course and dessert as well. Of course he used the matter of dust to harass him. Every day. The master would sometimes in the middle of séance lose the thread of concentration when his eye caught dirt at some obscure corner or a cobweb making inroads along his parchments. He began to feel a certain thrill to see his master on such occasions and knew that he was gaining power on him. While the rest had their eyes closed, repeating usual spells to aid him in his foray into the spirit world he gloated that he rattled his master. By the third year the master began showing an erratic streak. He wanted to get rid of his apprentice but could not think of a way to break his oath. On one occasion the apprentice with tears in his eyes, over the mess he had made of his master’s library, said, ”I deserve nothing. Send me away,” After blubbering like a neurotic fish while he let froth from corner of his mouth, he would add,” I can only think of that oath by which you took me under your roof. The more I think of it, master it can only mean one thing. I deserve your utmost contempt.” The master tried to hit him till his hands hurt and soon he would get tired of it. The moment his master retreated he became normal. That froth was nothing; his tears were as sham as his sense of unworthiness. Since then so often the same drama was played in more or less over the same reason. By the third year Ashu knew that he was winning the war of nerves. When K’an P’i was at last hit by stroke Ashu put the next part of his plan. He wanted the spirit of the master for himself. He considered it a stroke of good fortune the day he came across his black book. The Book of Changes was the manual in Black Art: its pages were written in a script that only sorcerers could make sense. He could not have read it but he knew possessing the book made the succession of rights legitimate. He avidly held the book in his hands and savored the contents. On the flyleaf he could see a blob of man’s blood, ominous and also revolting, with five circles showing his level of proficiency: he was a left-handed fox-spirit! It was written in one character Kuo! Hsiangyuan stared at it till he thought he was staring at his own name. Kuo! Kuo meant far out. He was about to be like his master! ‘K’an P’I is dead! Long live K’an P’I,’ he mused, ‘a matter of days?’ A new zeal over came over him. Ashu spirited away the book with its case to another place where he knew he could get any time he needed it. The book was kept in a satchel fashioned out of skin that was shriveled and it didn’t arouse any curiosity. From the fact it was so cunningly hidden away in the most unlikely place gave him a clue. Among items that established a left handed fox-spirit it came only number two in importance. All he needed was to collect the last breath, Chi of his master. It is thus we leave for a moment Ashu the rat leaning over a dying man, to see what at that precise moment went on outside.

3.

Wang and Lung had come into the town and they flitted from one place to another watching how the townspeople got on with the New Year festivities. Wang had his constant companion, Jen (meaning benevolence) whom he let dangle from his waistband by means of a string. The insect was secure in a bamboo cage no bigger than the fist of a man. It was the handiwork of a Hei Miao boy who did the errands for the Noble House of Chu K‘wang. Cowry Shell was his name. As befitting his name he wore one cowry shell around his neck, which he said kept fox-spirits away. It was natural that he should ask Wang and Lung who were of his age, protect themselves as he did. The cowrie shells were special since each had a distinct star burst on the carapace. “Like glass splinters,” the boy said. He was sure a fox spirit could not look at it without hurting his eyes. The day he gave each one to prove his token of friendship he said as if to an imaginary fox-spirit , ”Here is splinter in your eye, Mr.fox!” They did not believe in fox-spirits keenly as much as Cowrie Shell did but friendship was different. So each had one too, to shoo fox-spirits away, in case.

In one corner of Street of Barbers they sought out their regular barber who trimmed their queue to a point as the current fashion dictated. He also massaged their necks, saying he would get rid of their negative energy. Just as well. They felt raring to go. After tossing two copper bits extra for his trouble Wang and Lung were all for checking out that quarter which was out of bounds for boys of their age. Street of Forbidden Joys written with two characters spoke volumes to whoever was into the secret world of black art. One represented Kuo to show the out of bounds or what was forbidden and the second character to represent Lu, which meant riches. Unknown was to all except to those initiated; it was where the left handed fox-spirit lived. The Tryst was definitely out of bounds for them.

On the last day of the year, That morning there were ricocheting projectiles of coolies who crisscrossed the lanes unloading their wares in front of various shops where customers milled around bleary eyed shop assistants. The shops had opened before dawn. The shops that sold firecrackers and paper-lanterns were busy already and the sweet shops had their orders full. The messengers took delivery of their consignments for their noble houses, feeling rather smug and proud of themselves. On the New Year the servants were all let off. Noble houses would have to do their own cooking and cleaning up. If they asked their cooks to chop a fowl and cook it for the table they did so at their own peril. It was as if they chopped the good fortune instead; that left the cooks and errand boys free to do what they will.

Wang and Lung had each from an open stall sugared watermelon slices to chomp and the rinds they threw with gusto past their shoulders. If some porter caught it in the eye the twins could shrug it off saying, ’worse luck for you.’ Similarly they jerked watermelon seeds at random and if it stuck onto any moving target they would immediately go to the victim to check how many did stick, ‘Three seeds neat in a row. Impossible.’ Before he could sweep it off his blouse Lung conferred a blessing unasked, “Fox- spirits will go past by you.”

Second time they played this prank was on the part of the town forbidden to them. The man by name Poyu, he was a jeweler,- and a man not to be trifled with, was being borne on an open chair by his servants in livery. He had many matters troubling his mind lately. Poyu winced while he searched for the term to express that terrible sensation which had lately gripped him and made him feel quite rotten. Had he a little quietness around him he would have found the term ‘mid-life crisis’ perfectly explained his state of mind. ‘Oh no!’ At that moment something wet and squishy wheezed from nowhere to land on his belly. Cold and clammy it felt. He knew it was a bad omen, whichever way he looked at it. His pink silk blouse was no longer clean! Three seeds leaving a trail of sugary syrup must have come from somewhere. He looked around in disgust. It was at that awful moment he saw two smirking faces. And their hands were wet which they with a devil-may-care attitude swiped against a passer-by. He did not know their names but their manners were familiar. He instantly recalled them. He was an unwilling recipient of a watermelon rind only last year from the same pair. There! They were out there large as life eager to renew their acquaintance. Once again!

Wang and Lung knew from that deep gasp where their seeds had fallen. They looked at the man in a sedan chair, intently staring at them. Next moment they heard him shout to his chair bearers, “Seize them!” Wang and Lung may have been careless in scattering their good cheer in all directions. But Wang could spot trouble miles away. He whisked Lung to follow suit as he did. They took to their heels. It did not help them but gave them a head start over the carriers who needed to set the chair down first, without upsetting their master. This grace period was hardly the concern of the twins at that moment when the rascally fellows gained momentum. The boys wove a carefully executed, intricate path through that sunless, seamy side of the town; the carriers ran well but seemed to lose steam considerably after leaving the master far behind. They slowed down to catch their breath. It was a mistake. Wang had in the meantime split with Lung. He vanished!

Where did Wang go?

He rushed headlong hardly caring where he went. Senseless of everything but his survival Wang charged up short flight of stairs in a couple of bounds and went straight in. It was to The Tryst Wang went. The House of Death. K’an P’i lay dying. Death rattle had just begun. Oblivious to those hiccups of a man’s life, which burst out as it were a footnote, Wang came charging in, his eyes noting a bony frame standing. Or was he crouching? Wang could not decide which. In that split second he charged into the room there were noises coming from two different sources: a howl growing from deep down the throat was plaintive. The other was an angry roar, he quickly decided in his mind without breaking his run. Next moment he hit.

Wang with his head bent forward connected with the left jaw of the one who crouched greedily over the supine figure. The impact threw the thin fellow backwards. And Wang fell along. It gave the dying a new lease of life: the body also slid along, while nearby a glass shattered. From a tangle of bodies Wang began extricating himself only to confront the dying. He was still whimpering. Wang positioned himself close to hear him. It was at that point the figure thrown backward from farther side found his feet. In one jump he was over Wang. “How dare you? Get away from there!” Wang did not hear him first since the dying man in his death throes was trying to speak. He instinctively got closer. Wang almost had his ear to his lips. The other fellow hollered, “Move, move! It is my place!” Wang ignored him second time. Wang felt pity for the dying man. His face was hovering over the tremulous face of death; the old man had a glazed look in his eyes as Wang would often recall, and at that moment he had to deal with one who was trying to wrench him forcibly by his neck. With a superhuman effort he threw away the fellow who fell a second time. His fall exposed a hot charcoal brazier. With a clang it spun along floor spewing hot coals. The fellow howled over the hot coals. Much more for that plaintive wail from the dead. It was so blood curdling!

Then a gasp: gasp of the dead: Ashu heard his master.

Wang still bent over the dead saw death in the face. He also saw the other fellow get up with a scream. (Why a scream, he could not tell.) Wang looked up to see the rage that darkened the other figure that was anything but a mourner. In fact he was threatening. More so as he saw a cricket materializing out of nowhere.

“Kuo!” Ashu shrieked. Instantly his mood swung to other extreme. He said it with glee. “It is the man’s chi.” “He is mine!” The man lunged forward to grab the cricket. Jen hopped willfully leading him a few turns.

“Says who?” For one who had been trained basic rules in martial arts at young age Wang could quickly find his feet. And he did. This time blocking the tormentor from his cricket. The young fellow of eighteen an ill-omened figure pallor of his skin heightened by prolonged life closeted in unhealthy surroundings and away from the sun, was in a temper; add to it a splotchy yellow face with purple welts around neck and forehead he looked repulsive. It was not disappointment but sheer hatred that made Ashu stand his ground. He stood there glaring at him. And the cricket. “He has the spirit of my master!” “No, he has not,” Wang snapped,” He is mine!” “Who are you? This is trespass.” Ashu said angrily. Wang did not reply. Instead he gingerly handled Jen who was flitting about its master, landing on his forefinger as if it was its customary perch, a fact that was not lost on his adversary. While Wang deposited him carefully in his cage and shut the lid, he heard footfalls along the staircase. “He didn’t then materialize out of nowhere?” Ashu croaked. In that case the interloper got his master’s chi direct! “I will not let you get away with this!” he threatened, “Kuo belongs to me. None else!” he spluttered, “That dead belongs to me!” “No,” replied Wang irritated, ”He now belongs to himself!” “His spirit I meant. It is mine!” Wang didn’t bother to answer what seemed so preposterous. “I said sorry. Didn’t I?” he asked. “You think saying sorry is enough? No, you cannot fool me,” he hollered. “Give me what belongs to me!” He added bristling with anger and Wang could see that his forefinger as it stabbed in air had an ugly wart. He was pointing to where the dead still lay. He was laid out unceremoniously in a tangle. “He belongs to me, do you hear?” “No!” Wang said angry now,” Do we have to go through with it all over again?” “His chi, it is mine!” the fellow was hopping mad. “That Kuo!” Ashu screamed, “ It is in you! It was meant for me!” It didn’t make sense.

” You cannot be me!” Wang said as the sound of steps came closer. “Why not?” “Because I can be two!” said Wang with a laugh which made his adversary shudder. At that point Lung came looking for Wang. “Oh you are there?” Lung said with his face brightening. “Oh you are there?” Wang replied and gave a quick wink. Lung caught on and he glanced at the stranger who seemed as if hit by an asteroid. “I have the chi!” “I have the chi!” repeated Lung catching on. (The identical twins were good at improvisation and to any line, which Wang threw in a charade Lung could come up pronto with a match.) The short dialogue was not lost on Ashu the rat. He looked at Wang and then at Lung to give a double take. The shock was so charged ten times his head must have swiveled back and forth involuntarily. At last Ashu gasped. It was obvious. He was witnessing the power of a left-handed fox-spirit!

‘It is the chi of K’an P’I!” Ashu moaned. It was uncanny. “You are indeed the left handed fox- spirit!” croaked he as he hit the floor directly.

“You came in time.” Wang said. “Those fellows just quit.” Lung whispered. Hand in hand they walked down the short flight of stairs on to the street.

“There is one dead in there.” Wang said pointing to the room they had just left. They paused briefly in front of the ornate doorway and peeped out from shadows. They also glanced behind. The gargoyle with spread wings plastered over the doorway was terrible. Wang could think of it somewhat calmly since he was out. All in one piece. He was certain that the house named The Tryst was the last place he would ever visit willingly.

The street was clear.

The morning sun was struggling to get a grip of the day while layers of mist still hung over the town. It was going to be a long, long day they decided. There were still a few who had not heard of Wang and Lung in Po-yen.

benny

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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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