(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.)
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.
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.
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.