Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘novel’

 

(The Tower of Mists is the sequel to The Fox Spirit of the Tiger Caves where Wang and Lung are the central characters. They are identical twins and each complementing the other like a pair of chopsticks. One sets up the pranks and the other sets every thing in order once the prank is pulled off. There is a pirate who also figures in the Sword of Osman Bey.b) 

 

Book -1

A Deadman’s Chest

 

Prologue-The dead man

Wang and Lung in the port town of Hungzhou. In the midst of intrigue between two dukes. An empty chest and the unclaimed body of a foreigner.

Prologue

 

The Dead man

 

 


Four weeks before the New Lunar year,one busy morning Wang and Lung arrived in the port city of Hangzhou. They had just come from Shibung and had said farewell to one who shared a part of their youth. They still had another minor detail to attend to. Their uncle ‘Curious’ Lee of the Fudan clan was convalescing in his crumbling family home. It was unhappy times and their respects to the worthy sea captain must be paid. But it cast a certain pall on their already strained cheerfulness.

Even as they stepped out of the junk and walked down the pier they knew there was something wrong. The air they breathed crackled and the throng of peasants was as noisy so many pigs in a poke demanding a hearing. Oh their squeals went overdrive as two mandarins hovered in their line of vision. One cried, “We will rough them up!” and if they did breathe annoyance a little ago there was crackling of fire; Ducking a hail of brickbats about Wang whispered, “ Let us not get involved.” They quickly beat a retreat. They knew in the ensuing riot nothing they stood to gain.
Lung grimaced, “A regular war zone, it looks. Scoot!” They clambered across flailing hands and missiles in all shapes. The knots of men still holding merely swung them about. The sharper the cry went they pushed harder. Only at the point the road cut into the main thoroughfare they found an opening: They ran the gauntlet of flying projectiles and swinging poles to take it. On putting a safe distance they asked a coolie who had sat down to get his breath, “What was all that for?” “The people want their bird’s nest soup.”
Lung looked around and there were several eateries. Each displayed a board, ‘No bird’s nest soup’
The wizened coolie said as if to no one, “ No Emperor Soup ! No wonder it is topsy- turvy at all levels.”
Wang asked, “Emperor Soup? Is it for real?”
Wang didn’t think much of it anyway. The coolie looked at them as though they were some aliens and muttered, “ You don’t know what you have missed.”
Lung sighed and said, “I know what I miss.” “Our youth?” Wang asked as they walked farther. They still missed their past. It was then they realized there was a little matter about their uncle. He was suffering some sort of malady that incapacitated him. It sounded mighty curious. He was out of action and yet one imposter Captain Lee was happily sailing the seven seas and his ship Phoenix was in the news. It didn’t strike them then that he was by an imperial decree the real while their uncle, on whose bumbling ways their mischief always took a shine was languishing. He was indeed a large part of their youth.

Everyone in that section of the city knew Captain ‘Curious’ Lee. A few even escorted the youth to the crumbling mansion where the sea-captain was istalled to fend for himself from further insult to his dignity. The identical twins announced their names to the factotum who still put up a brave face and went in. Quickly he came back with a little more obsequious air to deliver the guests as though ‘on a silver platter ‘to his lord and master.
On a signal he disappeared from the hall.
‘Curious’ Lee brightened up and his wisps of scanty grey stubble of a beard fluttered. The sight of one whose jowls and belly still rippled in unison with the swell of the sea now made the twins look away. Yet he pressed manly his hospitality on the travel weary nephews. For a good measure he groaned even as he forced himself to play straight as before to the irrepressible youth of his nephews. It was dismal. As much as they tried to cheer up their uncle whose Panda-like size had stonewalled their snide remarks in the earlier times brought Wang to ask instead if he intended to write his memoirs. He shook his head and said, he was a man of action and not a scribbler.”
He moped and slowly opened his tale of woe. He began ‘In terms of career he had beached with a leak in the hull.’ From their reckoning the Admiral did not carry anymore weight with the emperor and it’s consequences had settled on his head. The admiral let him languish while one who was the favorite of Duke Wushamao was given his command. He even had his girth and took on his name and the unkindest cut of it all, the command of the Phoenix. It made the uncle tremble with rage and at his impotence.
To the twins his presence brought the image of his mother and his feeble attempts to cheer them was pathetic. It was no go. They raised as if to go. The sea captain stood up and led them to the hall. At the end their uncle said morosely, ‘If you ever board the Phoenix and sail think I am still in control.’ They nodded mechanically and exited.
‘We have a life ahead, for sweet Mercies of Buddha!’ they muttered as they reached the street level. Poor ‘Curious’ Lee was a shadow while the liquid sunshine that hit them stirred up the ever present.
The full weight of their sixteen years had hit them only when they came across the knot of rabble here and there and they could hear it had to do something with the bird’s nest soup. Lung muttered, “I never knew it was worth getting your skull broken up for?” “May be we are not really grown up?” They mentally brushed aside the incident.
‘What path should we take now?’ This was becoming a constant refrain.
Standing in middle of ebb and flow of life around them Wang said rather loud, ‘Carefree youth? Our life was one scrape after another.’ Gritting his teeth he pulled his brother aside and said, “We shall settle down just as Cowrie Shell.”
Lung shook his hold and hissed, “You are prying into my thoughts.”
Wang excused himself. “I didn’t mean getting married. We both shall get around to that when we are ready.”
They shook hands on it and they smiled at each other.
Wang and Lung were like two chopsticks, and inseparable. They looked alike and also thought the same thoughts, well most of the time. While they suffered the pangs of days that were, each was beginning to show a certain individual streak. Recalling the incident at the Two Gorges where they had broken journey to look at a temple perched on the top. Enveloped by mists and the quaintness of the panoramic view that lay at their feet, they had a tiff and it was over soon. Yet Wang knew they were growing apart in some of the things. It was marked when it came to the topic of love. Recalling the love struck bridal pair Wang was sure he was ready for love but Lung was all for waiting till the right one.
“How will you know it?”
“That is my secret.” Lung retorted as they descended. Recalling it Wang felt uneasy. And very ominous. After that occasion they traveled onwards as though nothing had happened. Yet there it was. But it wasn’t a comforting thought.
Sidestepping flocks of geese and pigs, which were being herded by peasants to the market the town breathed life. Lung mused, ‘Life could be so exciting.”
Wang suddenly said out of the blue. “We ought to be excited also, right?” Lung stared at him but said nothing. “Seventeen we shall be soon. What have we got to show for our pains?” he asked Silence . Wang insisted, “Pity we cannot show it when someone wants to know what we have done with our life.” Lung said testily. “ Why should we want to show?” Wang was practical, “May be when we think of finding a bride.” Wang was ready to impart his considered opinion. For didn’t he think it over for a month? A sharp jab at his ribs by the end of a stick sent him reeling. Lung saw the sedan chair and the outrider who had rudely shoved Wang aside. He wheeled around and shot his foot out. It connected the jaw of the fellow and sent him reeling to the ground. Wang saw from his head knot the man was the factotum of a duke. Instinctively his eyes darted to the chair. A duke was seated in his sedan chair glaring at him. Wang tugged at his brother and whispered,”Four to one. Beat it. ”
They quickly took to heels. They plunged into the crowd and sought the safety of an eating-house. They were in the Avenue of the Dancing spirits. While they sat down and ordered for some soup they collected their thoughts. Wang could recall the duke who had a good look of him. He said, “Duke Wushamao has found us. Or me in particular.” Before Lung could fully understand the seriousness of their fix he added, “But why he is here?” He recollected it was his favorite that had usurped the command of the flag ship. Weaving their path through knots of vendors and artisans their concerns were somewhat lessened by what they saw around them. Wang thought he was being watched. He held on to his purse that he carried in the inner tunic.
Suddenly Wang froze. He saw the silent warrior who had played a crucial part in their growing up, and it was an omen. He tugged at the sleeve of his brother and said, “I saw Chuan!”
Lung grimaced and said, “In your dreams!” Lung was sure that Chuan was an excuse for him to escape the future that lay before them. Wang said, “Didn’t we leave Chuan and Blia at the wedding feast as we left Shibung?” Wang asked breathlessly, “What did he tell you then?”
Lung agreed that Chuan was going directly to Hunan. ‘How come then you fancy he would be elsewhere?”
Wang thought Lung was testing his patience. “If he had to be here alone he has a crisis on hand!” As he said that Wang sought out the bobbing figure in his line of vision. The easy stride of Chuan was not to be missed, nor were some men who followed him discreetly at a distance.
He was distracted by Lung who said he had things to do. He said cryptically that he would wait for him at The Four Winds. Lung added,”You cannot miss it. It is where you can order for the Emperor soup.”
Wang didn’t want to miss Chuan so he ran into the throng as though his shirt- tail was on fire.
Lung wanted to taste the bird’s nest soup, the Emperor Soup in particular. He walked in that direction.
3.

Wang was rather morose when he joined Lung who said he was let down. Wang knew it already. He confided in Lung that Duke Wushamao had a bitter rival in Duke Mulberry. Lung said his visit o the Four Winds didn’t give him a taste of heaven but he felt in his bones there was something in their quarrel that made the ‘Emperor soup disappear from the menu?”

You mean he created the artificial scarcity?”

Lung wasn’t sure. Wang suspected the soup was very much part of their rivalry.

The quarrel between two dukes was indeed played for high stakes. The twins had no part in the quarrel between two. Nor did they want to take sides. Yet they had become drawn into it.

Pity that Destiny has other plans,” Lung observed. To this Wang added, “We need to fight as one.”

They agreed, ‘Yes if it came to that.’ Like chopsticks they needed one another.

As they sauntered they saw another eatingplace. Lung looked at his brother who turned to follow him. They went in.

Our life is exciting I ought to say,” Wang saw the waiter hovering about him. He asked for bird’s nest soup. Waiter asked with sarcasm if they were from the backyard of the empire. Wang asked what made him say that. He replied, “We haven’t had bird’s nest soup for almost a year.” He explained the foreign devils were out to give trouble. “They would put a knife in our throats.” In order to silence him they quickly ordered a bowl of lentil soup and some dumplings. As left Wang exclaimed, “ So we have arrived here in the middle of troubles!” The city is breaking apart because they have no bird’s nest soup! The idea seemed preposterous. But they had seen it spilling over onto the streets.

By the time they finished their hefty meal and tossed two copper coins to the bearer and Wang announced they would stay with Chuan.

We shall seek out Mandarin’s Cupcake.” As they proceeded along the dusty lane they sensed were followed. Lung hissed, ‘A spy for the duke, to be sure’

Wang and Luke had not quite lost the penchant for trouble. Trouble was ever at their heels whether they wanted it not.

The Mandarin’s Cupcake was a rundown eatery and anonymity that Chuan desperately required at that moment. It was an inn of lost and desperate souls. Soon they were knocking at the door. A stranger with a simple head knot appeared and waited. Wang held out half of a red lacquer disk to which he produced the other half. The disc had an ideogram that said: Hope.

Quickly a warrior came out from the inner hall where three others still sat on the mat. The twins brightened to see the man who sat facing the three. Chuan was in town and he received them and whispered, “ You haven’t seen those three and do not ask them any thing.” The twins understood. They quickly glanced at them and turned their eyes away.

One thing struck them as odd. All the three had a red sash around their waists and they sat before a wushamao that was torn. It was on a cushion as though a ceremonial object.

Who is dead?” the twins were still wondering as the warriors silently took leave of Chuan who seemed to be like a master of ceremonies. They waited till they were alone with Chuan who explained the situation in few words. They understood from the look in his eyes not to ask any further.

Later after the ceremony Chuan came to them. They were alone in a room.

Late in the night Chuan returned quietly and whispered to them, “ Are you game? We shall see a bit of action very soon.”

The twins quickly got up from their beds and dressed themselves to follow Chuan.

It was a desolate stretch at that time of the night. The twins could see they were climbing on the slope of a hillock that almost jutted into the highway. One end they could see the harbor dotted with lights and there were silhouetted of junks and tall masts. Their gaze was broken by rustle of the bushes and they quickly moved to the spot where Chuan crouched. He whispered, “Keep your eyes peeled to that point.” Wang was curious to know where had the three warriors had hid themselves. In the thick blanket of darkness nothing was visible.

To-who’, ‘to-who’ they heard the signal. Chuan drew his breath. Slowly they could hear tramping of hooves and a sudden movement of feet. Horses whinnied and they heard a pistol shot and suddenly there was a scuffle and a body falling with a thud breaking the silence. One moaned and two were cursing as they scuffled with their assailants. One warrior came up in a couple of bounds while Chuan went out to meet him. The warrior said, “ There is no duke.”

Who shot?”

The warrior looked over the shoulder and motioned Chuan to follow. Chuan could see the carriage and two men who were trussed up. One held the lantern to show the captives and one gave silently the pistol to him. He passed to one of the warriors.

Chuan exclaimed, “ Where is Duke Wushmao?” The prisoner sniggered, “ How do we know?” One of the warriors held up a pistol and said, “ This belongs to a foreign devil. I might as well try on him”. He held it against the temple of the man while the other shuddered, “ The thing will go off.”

That is the idea.” The other warrior said with a short laugh. The first prisoner said with a hiss, “ We are Duke Mulberry’s men.” He warned Chuan of dire consequences since the duke’s men were crawling all over the city. Yes indeed Hangzou belonged to Duke Mulberry.

Chuan meanwhile took a peak at the inside of the carriage and let out a squeal. Standing guard over the prisoners Chuan asked the warriors to comb through the carriage and bring whatever was found there.

Wang and Lung could see from their hiding place the outline of a chest. By the light of the lantern they broke the locks and opened.

Nothing of value except a book and a sheaf of papers.”

Chuan ordered the warrior to take the chest while the other motioned after completing his search of the carriage that there was nothing else.

Chuan collected the pistol and a canister containing shots. We will meet at our place, fellows. The prisoners will find help.” Hardly looking at the captives he ordered, “Now every man to his safety.” The warriors quickly disappeared and Chuan beckoned the twins to follow at a safe distance.

By early morning Chuan woke up the twins to show the contents of the chest. There was a diary that bore the superscription of a name. Pedro Cavallo. Rifling through the book Chuan muttered an oath to say,” The chest should have carried silver worth 3 million. But where has it gone?”

Wang and Lung thought ‘Who got the loot?” Three millions was an astronomical sum and it impressed them. They discussed between themselves possibilities. In the end they picked one as the winner. “So one point for Duke Wushamao. Whose turn next?” Wang asked.

But what interested Lung was, “ How did the chest land here in the first place? Or who brought it here?”

Chuan asked, “ What makes you think it was brought here?”

Look at the design? ” Chuan was impressed to look at the embossings on the chest. The cross was unmistakable.

Chuan had to agree Lung was right. “ Wang asked, “But what brought the foreign devil bring here?”

Chuan nipped their curiosity in the bud. “ This isn’t any game, kids.” He explained that they were dealing with treason. “And it will save you much bother, and even your necks, if you just keep out of this.”

Before Chuan took leave he left a piece of paper in which was written, ‘Inn of the Seventh Serenity.’ Without saying farewell he just disappeared among the crowd of people. Wang scanned the name and tore the paper into bits. Caution was becoming second nature to Wang.

Lung observed, “If we had some three millions in silver we have something to show. ‘They are only seventeen and they are rich, so they will say.”

Wang merely replied, “If.”

Chuan having checked the chest inside out beckoned Zheng Dong the innkeeper and told him to keep it. On second thoughts he added, ‘Leave it in your office and it is a piece of evidence. The League may need to produce it if things go right.’

But there is nothing of value here?’The innkeeper was puzzled. Chuan said ‘I also wonder. But if an empty chest takes a ride from one end of the realm to another we need to ask why.’ It was pure Tao and the box had acquired become a person represented, an evidence! It only remained to find if it spelled evil, or anything else.

4.

Wang and Lung asked the innkeeper where Duke Wushamao was in residence whenever he was in town. The innkeeper scratched his head and said the name was unfamiliar. He suddenly brightened up and asked one who was quietly drinking his tea in corner.

He beckoned the twins to come closer and introduced them to the old fellow. With a smile he said, “ My son works in the palace kitchen of the King Foo Yong. He is a busboy. He is right outside waiting for me to finish my breakfast.”

In a trice he brought his son who bowed to the twins and waited. They repeated the question. “ The duke stays at the palace, naturally”.

When did he come here last?”

Three days ago.”

He had brought a foreign devil from far off lands. He presented him before his majesty the king. It seems there was a letter from the Queen of that land. I know nothing beyond that.” That made sense to the twins. The envoy must have wanted to present the King with the chest full of silver, which was to be the gift from the Queen. But Duke Mulberry must have waylaid the chest and relieved the silver in order to discredit the duke from the realm of Three Pavilions. Or other way round. The matter was getting murkier.

 

Lung had enough. He got up early at dawn. He told his brother that he was ready to seek his chances.

What sort of?” Wang asked incredulously.

Anything that would fit my mood of the moment.” Lung seemed to be his own man. Wang hugged him and they parted. Wang went back to catch up with his broken sleep.

Meanwhile Duke Wushamao got up from his sleep in high spirits. He had played a trick on the duke as well as on the King of Canton. The foreign devil indeed passed for an envoy from the Queen of England.

He called two of his bodyguards and gave the order.

That night a body was thrown into the river Fuchun, which was fished out next morning by some boat people who plied along the river selling their wares.

Li Zhi was the Prefect of Hangzhou. He checked the body and rifled through his pockets and wrote his verdict: death by violence. Probably a Folangji (Spanish or Frank?) Name: unknown.

Of course the Prefect consulted with the Magistrate and they agreed that it was one of those cases that had all the hallmark of being relegated to the list of unsolved crimes.

Still they were puzzled: What was the dead man doing in the Middle Kingdom? Who was behind his death?

Chun Yen who looked after the Secret Service later reported before the Prefect. He bowed and placed papers that described the presence of an envoy from England who had an audience with the Royal Highness King Foo Yong at the Jade pavilion.”

After quickly going over the minutes Li Zhi trembled.

An alliance proposed by the Queen of England.”

What has this got to do with the case?” The Prefect looked uncomfortable.

Chun Yun bowed deeply knowing the gravity of the situation. “ May it please the Reflected Glory of the Emperor.”

Speak up, man!”

Chun Yun said, “ But there was no one from England allowed into our province according to the Foreigner’s registration Act.”

Who was the last foreign devil let into this kingdom then?”

One Pedro Cavallo.” Li Zhi wiped the sweat from his face and waited,

He was in the Fort, a prisoner.”

On whose order?”

Duke Wushamao.” Chun also added, “Under Undesirable Aliens Act article 3.clause 14.”

The Prefect said, “ The case is closed.” And he hastily dismissed the mandarin who ran the Secret Service too diligently for his liking.

After his subordinate was gone he sent his attendant for the sub-prefect who came in a hurry. The Prefect said, “ This is regarding the unclaimed body. Here are the papers.” Handing them over he ordered, “Put the lid on this case. Fix the seal ‘Not to be reopened’. Understand?”

The sub-prefect kowtowed and said, “understood, master.”

He understood to the extent the Prefecture functioned but not to the why a dead man made his superior all in a fluster. Following that time honored tradition of concluding work at the end of a day he said, ‘Banzai,’ and left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

The Garden of Neden

 

The Garden of Neden is a part of Cyprus but you shall not find it in any of the maps. It is something like what happened to Atlantis that overnight disappeared from view. The sea covers now where the mighty Atlantis once stood. The Garden of Neden suffered a similar fate.  So I will not go into that part and instead narrate a story that is very entertaining. The Island of Cyprus still rings from the events to which the Garden  had a part.

No mark for guessing the inhabitants of Island of Cyprus are called Cypriots. But those who lived in the Garden,-take my word for it, Sleepy Heads they were called. 

The garden of Neden in terms of geography lay facing Morphou Bay on the west; the thin strip of beach on the north ringed a promontory running to a foul smelling beach on the east. It was flat and mottled with patches of color resembling some leftover of a pancake. It was an eyesore. Once a well meaning Cypriot told a Sleepy Head, “Your beach smells dirty.” The Sleepy Head’s response was, “Don’t tell me you intend to do something about it?” Oh no the Cypriot didn’t want to do anything about it except make an observation. So the beach remained as it was.

 

The very nature of the people of the Garden was such they let Nature take care of herself. What we may call as laziness they termed as being natural. As a proof to this the word laziness never did figure in their dictionaries.

Yet they lived on the bounties of Nature as though their naturalness allowed her to keep on providing for their bellies. For a Sleepy Head eating his meal was the number one in his daily life. He would have eaten at all hours if he could but the question what not to eat made him miss his meals. Everyday was a feast day only that he never got to know where it was celebrated. He made to the nearest table to dine but found to his cost that one man’s meat was another man’s poison. He made no bones about his place at the dining table but just the same he always had a crow to pick with the cook.

The Sleepy Heads left things as they were. Hungry or not.

Their days were spent taking life as it came. Next to a good meal the Sleepy Heads loved to play. They made rules as they went on so the loser had something of an advantage. At least he thought he had. Anytime he had a lead he let it find it own level. Every Sleepy Head took his play seriously so much so to call it politics.

Advantages such as they got with the governments they chose, became a political system that the body of Sleepy Heads let it find its own level. Thus once they had kings to rule the Garden but they went on changing rules, it was more like musical chairs: kings ended up looking for a chair to hang their authority in while Sleepy Heads changed the tune.

Perhaps politics for them was more like a game and their naturalness was so pure they gave the loser a standing ovation while the winner was sent to walk hot coals. Sleepy Heads tried many models and found the games as with politics none ever lost. Their naturalness never suffered since spirit of the play was the thing.

A Sleepy Head played to lose. Since he made work his play he worked for no purpose. He gave tit for tat and pat came his retorts but none saw any difference in such give and take. He told tall stories but finished them short so whoever heard him thought he was only wasting his time.

A Sleepy Head took the easy way out even where it led nowhere. No wonder Cypriots took them to task but found it easier to make remarks that didn’t cut even an onion.

 

2.

An average Sleepy Head grew to a middling height and did not bow and scrape before titled heads.( His stature did not prevent him from calling a spade a spade as long as he was not asked to use one.) Judging by their mode of dress of course it was very plain and coarse; only a Robinson Crusoe could have chosen it as a last resort. In terms of technology of course they would have looked to the Flintstones with a touch of envy. The Sleepy Heads were by and large ingenious and they lived as best as any people could, mind you without a sweat, a proof of which may be gathered from the fact that no one ever died among them either of hunger or disease.

Since their recorded history is wiped clean we may assume they had to come to terms with events that overshadowed the fortunes of the Island of Cyprus. Since they were born to be happy no matter how the rest of the world convulsed over matters great and small they didn’t express any awe while mentioning the name of Suleiman the Great. He was to them the father of Selim the Sot. The King of Cypress who was noted for his gargantuan belly they described as the king behind His belly. The Sleepy Heads sure knew fellow with such a belly was no more to be revered than one however ‘great’ to raise a son who was a lush. By the same token whatever they did was only a hiccup in the even tenor of their lives.

If the conflict between the Turks and the Venetians kept an ordinary Cypriot awake the Sleepy Heads simply laughed it out.

3.

The Sleepy Heads with such ominous clouds in the offing could afford to be lackadaisical since they played politics. In that game of politics they let their Mayor do all their work. They made merry from sunrise till sundown and declared all was well. Besides there was a Scholar who did all the soul searching for them in matters of their faith and belief. Without them the story, which I narrate would be a non-starter.

It so happened that some three decades before our story begins one of the inhabitants was washed away by a swell; he was a young man who was a typical Sleepy Head in temperament and abilities. A Venetian who adopted him as his own son also taught him the way of the world. When he chose to return after many years he had acquired all the trappings of a scholar. Gervais the idler had become enlightened after breezing through so many universities and lecture halls in Europe to drop his rather boring name to Jerry. At Sorbonne he acquired a nickname in commensurate with his level of scholarship. Whatever manner in which his detractors may have pronounced it to annoy him Jerry Can believed he was a Full Can, which was not what any fool can. Dr. Jerry ‘Full’ Can set up his school in his native land and he avowed, ‘to drive some sense into his compatriots.’

While he was at Sorbonne he found out that the medieval unicorn was none other than a rhinoceros. It was a great letdown for many of his fellow scholars. He vowed that such an error should never occur to him. As an idler he was all for sweeping the old ideas of being natural and he knew he shall find one for his fellow men. After a dream he has had he found one more in the shape of the king, a man of gargantuan girth who gave gifts. He knew God had expressly shown it so he may make the Gift-giving day a day to remember him. The learned doctor knew God had a mission and he was his instrument. But after his stint in Sorbonne he knew he had to be a saint. By and by when he returned to the Garden he held a serious palaver with the new mayor and their talks got around to more serious things. The scholar wanted to know if the mayor believed in a higher Being who gave gifts. The wily Mayor Calisthenics put back the question to him. He said,’ Yes. Santa Claus is His name’. The mayor thought a saint who gave presents would bring the Sleepy Heads together as one. Next day he called for his Council and said, “ There is a Higher Being who gives according to what we put in. So we need to teach our people to work together for a better society.”

Why work against our naturalness?” one councilor asked and it caused such a controversy among the Sleepy Heads. In their eyes a Higher Being was OK even if he came by a strange name as Santa Claus. Dr Jerry also fuelled their expectations by saying that there was a Great One who bestowed riches and every good thing for the asking. The Sleepy Heads had considered themselves sufficient unto themselves till that time. How they took to Dr. Jerry ‘Full’ Can, showed the Sleepy Heads were like everybody else in some things.

They loved the learned doctor to lecture to them, especially the part where they were entitled to free gifts.

At a time Venice controlled the destiny of the island Mayor Calisthenics was sent to the Garden to give the king of the Sleepy Heads a lesson in good governance. In such a move Venice miscalculated since the Sleepy Heads never let either the king or any other run their lives for them. For all that Mayor Calisthenics made them change their ways. For better or worse I cannot tell but you may judge yourself from the story.

In 1570 the Ottomans took over the island state of Cyprus. Well almost. Except for a Garden, which had been elevated into a town. The Sleepy Heads remained free. How did it happen? 

Read Full Post »

I am giving an extract from my current novel.

Outline: Death of old King Tristan in a hunting accident. Ghost runners make their appearance.

It was the beginning of spring. The old king Tristan of Gothenburg along with his knights moved towards the Gilbarden fen that marked the western boundary of his kingdom.On the Western side of the Wolverine castle he had marked vast expanse of grasslands as his royal preserve. There his livestock grazed fattened on juicy grass and it also attracted herds of caribou. This was what got him out that day. He had promised his son a caribou head and it was all that mattered. Even as the sun declined and the landscape was beginning to take a spectral aspect all he could think of was his trophy. He was yet to spot one.
At last one stumbled in his sight. It was a monster of a caribou. ‘He belongs to me,- alone!’ shouted the king waving away those who had come closer. He had it right before him that moment, its eyes locked with his. It snorted as though it made his kingly ambition as trivial pursuit. It cared not a whit for the weapons nor for the stalwarts intent on their game. It was the master and it asserted its superiority in a terrain, ringed by sedge and peat bogs. It made a stir and shot past wild rushes. Never had such a worthy opponent set the king keen on bringing it down. He felt mocked by its brute vitality. It had him on the run and he lost it among the swirling mists.
He knew the sun was on decline. By night the terrain was treacherous. But he hadn’t given up. Dismounting from his horse he and his party moved forward. He heard clicking sound, and it was a tell-tale sign. The monster walked behind the mist and vapors that oozed from the bogs. The curtain would lift soon he knew. He had his long spear in his grip. It lay easy and snug. He motioned his warriors to back off. It had taunted him. It was an insult. He wanted all the more to fell the monster himself. The melting ice by spring had shown patches of lichen turquoise and yellow .The wet balls of velvet of many summers he kicked aside. A slight breeze, and the vaporous mist lifted. There he stood a caribou bull some 7′ feet high to shoulder. In quick glance he knew it should weigh at least 400 kilo. Unconcerned at being seen it stooped to munch lichens that gleamed wet and succulent. The king made a cautious step and tensed. The caribou paused, staring at him and carelessly shook its antlers. It was as though it dared him. He made a step forward at which the beast tensed. The king was determined. He let go his spear and he lunged forward to catch the handle in recoil. It had found its mark! He felt splash of blood and it was warm. Before the beast heaved in pain charging blindly he had to finish the job. He made a move to get his hand-axe from his leather thong that held his tunic. Before he could extricate it the beast turned and charged towards him. He sidestepped to plunge the short thick blade into the head. He could only lodge it on the cheek but it had cut into a vein and blood spurted in thick jets. A soft moan and the caribou wheeled to side. A sudden stab of pain cut through his own cheek. A point of its antlers had gored through his matted white locks into his cheek. It hurt. He was brought down under the weight of the beast. In throbbing pain he struggled unable to throw off the cascading shoulder,body rump and all. Then went everything dark. But for the ten warriors the king would have choked to death in the bogs plowed around in slush and blood.
Soon the king gained consciousness. One dressed his wounds with tincture of pine oil and covered with birch barks. His eyes gained its lustre. When offered wine he made a libation to the fallen beast and drank the remains in one gulp. He handed over the wine horn to his valet and ordered to have the skins carefully saved. He insisted the head should be carefully cut. It was his present for his son Mark who had turned eighteen. He felt elated. He ordered his party to strike eastward for his castle. One wagon was reserved for his trophy and it followed in the rear. It was night and under the massing stars the party cantered to an easy gallop.
Some twenty leagues on the king felt strangely light headed and he saw glow worms flitting about marking strange patterns on the enveloping gloom. The king riding on his piebald horse casually wiped his nose with back of his hand and he saw blood. He thought it nothing serious. His thoughts were making a weave of his son and his daughter. The glowworms had become a swarms and their luminescent calligraphy were profuse with whorls and curlicues that struck him as bizarre. His right cheek throbbed with pain. Knight Jonas Rood who rode to his side to inquire saw the gash too. It was dressed. Yet there spilled out strange luminescent blue and white lights. The knight gasped to see flecks of red dots of light furiously charging about as though it claimed dominance. The blues and whites had petered out and the cheek was swathed under one cloud of red light. Jonas Rood gasped,’Ghost runners!’ and fainted. Even when the party reached the place gate the king’s hands held the reins and the horse knew his master. He trotted surefooted through the gate into the palace and into the hall that was built in stone chiseled and molded after the Romanesque style.. The horse and his master trotted through passage ways paved in flagstones, followed by a gasping rally of menials. The horse stood only when the prince Mark and his sister followed by a ghastly pale Queen came towards it. The king was dead and only a nasty slash on his cheek and stains of blood on his gloved hand struck menacing. One would have thought he was asleep on the horse.
A silent scream struck terror on the royal household to see three or four light points blue and white cartwheel about the dead king’s head and glide into the cold night.
Ghost runners had come visiting.
Benny Thomas

Read Full Post »

1.

When the king from Camelot announced a New Age, in Gothburg the folks were busy planning a war. King Erik the Battle- Axe found a war always sharpened his axe and his faculties. His wrist was indefatigable in mowing down armies by dozen and his trusty shield kept him from all harm. You see his aunt lovely Gisella was a witch who  had made him mighty. His magic shield and axe of course enhanced his daring. Lady Gisella spent her days weaving spells as ladies in Camelot went on their embroidery that decked the kings halls and palace chambers with beauty and grace.

One morning King Erik felt miserable. His hands as strong as oak didn’t have anything to do. So he sent word to Lady Gisella. She remembered the dream she had just before the dawn broke. Now her nephew was asking for war.”It  is war then!’ She knew her dream never lied. She dressed herself in haste and went to the map room. At random she unrolled the map of the kingdom lying beneath the kingdom Gothburg. She jabbed her finger as if moved by her own vision and it  was on the marsh people of  Krepits. Instantly King Erik got up and sent his wolfhounds to their handler and made preparations for the war.  Thus on a fine morning he set out from his palace set high on a crag.

The army set off in highly elated state. Every varlet got a weeks ration and enough to drink and gamble in the inns they passed  through. After that it was up to them to fend for themselves looting peaceful burghers or begging. The lowborn of course made fine cut-purses and tricksters even when they were demobbed. King Erik and nobles went on a single file through a village where the Squire Cut n’ Thrust was up and about. He had stepped from his cottage before his wife Greta was up. His babe lay in her arms.

The squire wanted to bring water  from across a stream and fill the huge casks he had for the family and cattle. The king and his retinue didn’t like him to hold up their onward progress. The squire tried to break a few skulls of the nobles who were furious with him. They had provoked him by kicking his wooden pail around beating with the flat side of their broadswords. He defended hmiself as best as he could. In the end he was handcuffed and taken along. The young king was hardy in his physical endurance. He called the squire who impressed him with his pluck. He asked him to lift his battle axe in one sweep.

“Squire Cut’n Thrust didn’t think it was much of a challenge. So he laid his hand on the axe and swung it as though it were a feather and brought it on the noble Baron Mastiff Ears. He  had lately insulted his low birth and spat on him. Now he was in his sight. The axe seemed to have  a life of its own. It was almost grazed the chainmail of another before the king caught hold of his wrist. “Stop!”said the king,”You have proved you are my knight at arms.”The squire wasn’t interested. He only wanted to please his king and go home to his  Greta.

“Who is Greta?”asked the king in amazement. He could not think  any one could be more interested in anything other than the honor and wealth he could grant. Squire Cut ‘n Thrust explained and the king could understand it was love that he honored most. “Well you never had the chance to enjoy being my comrade in arms.” In the end he asked why he was called Cut’n Thrust.

The squire gave a weak smile and said,”The way I feed my cattle. I cut the straw and thrust it for them. I get my exercise and the cattle get a stomachful to eat. Of course for the king such Arcadian pleasures sounded so boring. King Erik for the first time made a right choice. He discovered one  whose skill in a fight and personal courage was unmatched.

At last the army came to a  forest overlooking  the  marshes. Krepits were unaware of  battle coming so soon .

As he stood besides King Erik the Battle Axe he murmured, ‘O  Greta, I do this for you.”He sighed and felt  the sword presented to him by his king.

Meanwhile the k ing was outlining the strategy. He heard and said it was doomed  to fail.  The general who drew  up the plan was aghast.  Only the king pacified the old soldier from exploding. He asked the squire to explain and he said the terrain did not help the horses. “Marshes are treacherous sire!”He suggested him to draw the enemy into the mound on the south. “Only we keep our reserves hiding behind” . He was sure the enemy  will  be too surprised to resist. King Erik  got the idea.  The War Council came up with a new plan.

Then the Krepits were quickly routed. At the end of the slaughter the  king knighted the squire and asked, “Are you a wizard?”

No, sire “said Knight Gareth of Goslings who was a squire an hour ago. He said he thought as a Krepit and the rest was easy.

King Erik stood there stunned. All he could murmur was ” Not a wizard . Wait till Lady Gisella hears this.”

(To Be Cont’d)

Read Full Post »

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

Chapter-4
The Night Runners

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

Read Full Post »

(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

Read Full Post »

(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

Read Full Post »