Once upon a time, the warrior begins. The night mist tastes like blood in his mouth, and his throat constricts, as if he is about to throw up. With a grunt and an ahem, he begins anew: Once upon a time, in a faraway province…
No one is present to hear his words – lately he has been given to talking to himself. He is constructing a makeshift fire, gathering bits of soggy cardboard boxes, slices of wood that splinter betwixt fingers and thumb, ripped-up signage that spells promises and guarantees. For a brighter future… one begins with dashing, dark strokes. … ends soon, finishes another with robotic red letters. The warrior stares intently at these two phrases, each written in a different language, and his mind constructs scenarios, linkages, progressions, how this one slogan led to the other.
But later. Once upon a time. So easy to be distracted. A consequence of age. Despite the touch of gray to his temples and beard, the chalklike lines that score his face, the warrior is a robust man. It would be assumed that someone with his calling has seen many things, most of them unpleasant, and thus the story about to be told is one of charred battlefields, lands so distant that their very names seem to have the clenched intensity of a dream, the screams of the dead and dying like the howls of animals at night. But he thinks of none of this as he tears off a slice of beef jerky with his teeth, and the stiff veins on his neck stand up. This is not about what he has seen, or where he has been, but what he has missed.
His mind has drifted back to the broken signs. Uncle, you would be proud of me, he laughs. I didn’t forget my language studies after all. But now is the time for discipline. Just a bit longer, at least. Storytelling is a tradition, rattling between generations, and with each telling the tale is twisted and hammered and massaged, until nothing remains but the emotional kernel that prompted the telling in the first place, and yet this urge is manifested over and over, delayed sometimes, forestalled by death and loss of memory and doubt, and still it persists. And now the warrior continues his story: Once upon a time, in a faraway province …
Not so faraway, he corrects himself. He is here, in that province. Home. Burdened by his knapsack and the empty sheath lashed to his side, he has trekked across lands and climates, until the seams in his boots split and his feet grew muddy and gray like the earth, and he has finally returned to the lake. Once lanterns lined the shores and plaintive string instruments celebrated the onset of autumn and festivals, now there is barren darkness. The bodies are gone. The survivors must have gathered them, spirited them away, incinerated them, buried them. The warrior is not a religious or superstitious man, but as he strikes the flint on his lighter and flame snakes to life, he considers the idea that the bodies moved themselves. They knew that tonight would be like this, every remaining night on this earth, in all the lakes around the world, and they knew that it would be lonely, and not so worthwhile to stay.
He has an obligation to speak for these people. They are owed their immortality. But that too is sophistry. He can tell of events, of the very emotions that tear at his soul, and in the end, they are merely his. The peculiar smell of a person’s breath, the imperfections in complexion or posture, the odd synthesis of a person’s appearance, speech, and deeds that compels one to love or hate – these are all destined to die with him, and someday a reader will hear of this hero, or that villain, and imagine a truth that in no way resembles the original. Indeed, hate may replace love, vice versa. Today’s hero, tomorrow’s villain. Every generation believes in absolutes, the warrior muses. Our common fallacy is that we believe that no other set of absolutes can exist. It would be impossible, reprehensible, wrong.
The lake stretches before him like a broken claw. In the distance, a single bird cries out, but the only answer it receives is the crackling of the warrior’s fire as he touches lighter to twig. The mutilated signs are burning, the sight somehow more devastating than that of a thousand corpses in flames. The words For a brighter future ignite, spark, and he thinks of the firecrackers that once soared above the lake, their explosions mirrored by the placid surface. And he hears the voices of those around him, friends and acquaintances and strangers, all of them pulsing and powerful. These is no help for it, once again the urge has won. So with a deep breath and a stroke of his beard, hairs turning to gristle between his restless fingers, he begins: Once upon a time, in a faraway province…
* * *
Every morning she stands at the window. Below, in the courtyard, the old man who is her father stands alone, his deer horn knives at his side. He moves to his own learned rhythms: a thrust here, a parry of his imagined opponent there. As the knives swoop and skim like cranes, they catch the first rays of sunlight, and every so often they shine straight at her, blinding her. But her father does not see her. His attention is occupied with the intensity of his extended arms, the bow steps of his feet, the uneven circumferences he slices in the space around him. In the old days, he was known as Iron Hawk, and now he is Old Hawk, a moniker that does not displease him. Such indifference distinguishes age from youth.
She watches, and even as she does so, her empty arms are describing the same circles, freeing themselves from the floppy sleeves of her gown. Tiny but unmistakable quavers (at least, unmistakable to a martial artist) color his motions, while hers are broad and invincible. And while his face furrows in concentration as he performs his routine, there is unfettered joy in her rendition, as if she is growing taller for every complete set of movements, unable to be contained by the ceiling, the roof, the heavens. Smiles jump to life when the sunlight from her father’s knives streaks across her face. And as she giggles, consuming and exuding energy, the street peddler cries out, just beyond the front gates, Steamed buns! Steamed buns here! She streaks down the stairs, her toes barely brushing the ground, her mother hissing Be careful! but not too loudly, for she knows her daughter’s secret and would just as soon not attract any attention to it, but the words are enough to bring her to a skidding halt just short of the courtyard, and with the utmost effort of will, her limbs slacken into courtesy. She wipes sweaty brow with perfumed sleeve, and bustles into the courtyard, past her father, who notes her ladylike, petite steps, the childlike excitement on her face as she calls out to the peddler, Here! Over here! We would like some buns, please! Flush with parental pride, he executes a final stroke, a certain death blow to all but the most experienced of warriors, and with a speed that belies his age, the knives are back at his side, their steel fogged with the warmth of his body.
* * *
The would-be warrior is young and ruled by absolutes: one’s destiny measured by mileposts, days spent under-neath a heavy sun or adrift on a starry ocean. What use are these ideas? Uncle sighs, and with aggrieved fingers he stabs at the parchment – another civil servant examination failed. But in his nephew’s world, it is the exams themselves that are the failure. The rote memorization of political successions, actuarial tables, spellings, quadratic laws – of what worth is it? A world roams wild beyond the drooping willow trees that mark the perimeter of the village, where countless mountains, rivers, and lakes lie in wait, where towns have names waiting to be pronounced.
His uncle calls out, Are you studying? The would-be warrior answers, Yes, a very coiled yes, because he is absorbed in his dragon stance, both hands curled white around the very wooden sword he has stolen from the local blacksmith, but this is of no consequence because the blacksmith is not an idiot, and has allowed the theft on one condition: Promise me you will do your best with it. Whatever you do, you must commit yourself to it. If you are a nose-picker, then be the best nose-picker far and wide.
Downstairs, Uncle pours hot but not quite boiling water into a porcelain pot, filling it, all the way up to the tiny strainer where the crushed leaves fan out like scorched flowers. A few minutes like this, then the accumulated tea will be discarded, for the full flavor of the leaves only emerges once they have had a chance to mature in that snug little crucible, luxuriate in that initial flow of water. This ritual is meant to open one’s mind to restful meditation, but all Uncle can think of is this rambunctious, orphaned child in his care, those high hopes for academic and economic advancement. It would all have been perfect. He had already composed boastful letters to friends in his mind: He gained the second rank in the state exams … he has been bestowed with his very own land … his name is known throughout the province …Accolades would have been his. You must be proud that you brought up your nephew so well. Weary of the sound of his own voice, Uncle calls out again: Are you studying? Every utterance is colored with unconditional disappointment, and he hates himself, be-cause he knows that rather than inspiring, these words are chastising, dissecting, murdering.
Flustered, Uncle realizes he has left the water in the tea kettle too long, and he dumps it with an uncouth splash. I’m coming up! he calls as he mounts the stairs to his nephew’s room, and with the swiftness of anger, he throws the door to the study chamber open. The young man is perched atop the black marble desk, a fine figurehead pose, resplendent in his white battle tunic, sword thrust outward to parry an invisible opponent. And, ha! he yells, unaware of his uncle’s entrance until far too late. And then with a sheepish, almost girlish grin, he sees him. Ah – Uncle …
Get down from there! Uncle shouts. Get down! You ungrateful, lazy –
Too late. With a deft twist and leap, the would-be warrior covers the distance between desk and window, and lands on the ledge with something less than balletic grace. Enough studying for one day, he sings. If I study one more minute, I will be as dusty and old as these books!
Grabbing at air with his arms, Uncle stumbles towards the window. You come back here –
The would-be warrior covers the ten feet from window to ground with ease. Perfect timing, as Uncle’s servant is just passing by with a freshly groomed horse, the one with eyes that shine like pearls at dusk. The boy takes hold of the reins and leaps upon the horse’s bare back. Hyah! he urges. Hyah! And the horse, not much liking this young ruffian, rears up, but the would-be warrior holds firm, earning trust not through force but by simply being.
You! Uncle is at the front door, gesticulating wildly at his servant. Stop him! Stop him! But the servant is used to the soft life, and does not have the agility of mind to do much beyond waving his arms in a desultory manner, mimicking his master. The would-be warrior snaps the reins and the horse thunders out of the courtyard, faster and faster, and he can hear his uncle shouting, Nephew! Nephew … Come back right now! He has covered enough ground that those last words are only as loud as a whisper, and when he hears them he pulls up. He is in the golden fields, mere yards away from the outskirts of town, and a slight wind rustles. The meadow flutters like thousands of delicate hairs, and the smell of spring smothers him. Someday, he will be fast enough, quick enough, and he will not hear his uncle calling come back, and that will be the time he will whip the reins once more, his horse will not stop, and he will continue onward until he and the horizon are one.
It is the final days of the mid-autumn festival, when the ripeness of harvest-time meets the steel of incoming winter. Struck with inspiration, Uncle has cultivated rumors, from his lips to his servants’ mouths: There is a young lady, cultured and refined, her face the shape of a watermelon seed, as fresh and lovely as a peach blossom. If social achievement will not bully his young ne’er-do-well into respectability, then a woman and the charms of the gentry life will do just as well.
The nephew is unmoved by all this. Watermelon seeds and peach blossoms are for poets. Just the smell of the blossom conjures visions of brothels, decadent cigarettes that protrude from holders like careful insults, fleshy skin poised to droop and wither. None of that for him.
But Uncle will not be deterred, and another rumor insinuates itself, permanent as a stain on a gown. This fair lady has talents. In this region, no one is her match in martial arts. In fact, she has boasted that one must challenge her, and win, to be worthy of her hand. Uncle fabricates all this, of course – it would be well nigh impossible for a man in this remote village to possess such gifts, let alone a woman. But lie suffices where truth did not; his virility questioned, his mind set to challenge and chase, the would-be warrior must meet this young woman. Who cares about marriage unions and relations, he thinks. What really matters is strength to strength, victor and fame.
And so the concluding night of the festival arrives. Uncle’s carefully considered bribes – a feast of drunken chicken here, the judicious clearing of a few local accounts there – have achieved the desired purpose, and secured a pavilion alongside Old Hawk’s at the edge of the lake. In the water, rowboats lie idle as old musicians and minstrels sing their songs of love and loss. They are too far from shore to be seen clearly, which suits the wealthy families just fine, for if they were close enough, there would be an ongoing round of tsk-tsks at the sight of their sack-brown clothes, the gaps between their nub-like teeth.
Nephew, you look handsome tonight, Uncle effuses. In his high-collared tunic, robes, and silk trousers, the would-be warrior chafes, but he has been especially filial these past few weeks, his reward for Uncle’s assistance.
Look! There she is! Uncle points off to the forest, among the trees, where the young lady ventures, bold and alone, a single lantern marking her progress. The would-be warrior slaps his hands together, and with a deep breath, he strides into the forest, intent on his prey. Uncle twitters like an old hen at the sight of him passing, and the thought of what is to come.
The would-be warrior trips over rocks and stones made unfamiliar by the night. Everywhere he looks, their pock-marked surfaces gape at him. Those philosophers rattle on, he muses, but different lands and worlds are with us every second. All it takes is the bending of light to dark, or some other small change, and we are lost. Fireflies weave into view, bringing the scent of honey, and without thinking he follows them, head bobbing with them, his body brittle in the cold night air, encumbered by his formal robes. Impatiently he throws off the outer layers, the top button of his tunic popping loose, and although only the thinnest bit of silk shirt shields his body from the cold, he does not mind, for he can see the young lady through the trees. She is standing alone, the lantern at her feet, and casting creature shadows behind her, her arms rising and falling, twisting into the approximation of a crane, but no crane ever had her unhurried fleetness as she spins, leaps, lands, flows, stops, begins again. The lake yawns wide behind her, and she is sheltered from the breeze by a vertical slab of stone against the crags which dates to generations before, the characters for longevity carved into its surface.
Her back is to him. This will not do. Opponents must be faced head-on, without subterfuge. Back at the lake, a flute plays, and the song seems to whip through the trees, reeking of lovely melancholy. She turns, now she is looking straight at him, two pinpoints of light in her eyes. Perhaps she cannot see him in the darkness, but he cannot take a chance. With an outlaw cry – Prepare yourself! –he attacks.
They will argue about what happens next for some time afterward. Her interpretation: She was ready to counter the attack, primed to fell him with a single strike, but the young man slipped on a particularly treacherous out-cropping of rock, the accident proving to be a better opening gambit than his own sloppy attempt, as it launched him at her, sent the two of them crashing to the ground. His conclusion: The two of them struck out at each other at exactly the same moment, their unison almost unnatural in its perfection, both of them subdued by the other’s blow. Regardless, the outcome of both versions is the same: both sprawled on deadened ground.
He stares at her, she stares back. Excellent form, he groans – the tunic has been ripped away from his side where he has fallen, and a new-born welt grows.
What – who are you? she gasps, and the cold clouds of their breaths are joined. Explanations are fractured, but rush forth: I thought – it was said – you are – oh, then you must be – no, that’s untrue – my Uncle, damn him!
And then they both laugh. She tears a ragged strip from her gown and wraps it around his wound; he produces a handkerchief to wipe the dirt off her face. He wishes to ask her about her skills, the family style, Old Hawk’s exploits, Are you truly the best?, all the questions a student would ask of a teacher, but to ramble on about these matters would be an affront given the misunderstandings that have occurred. They sit alongside the slab of rock, and he traces the outline of longevity with his index finger. The carved strokes and dashes are as flawless as jade. From the other end of longevity, she begins tracing herself, their fingers drawing closer to the center, where they will even-tually meet. Their faces blaze with reds and yellows as fireworks detonate over the lake.
Finally she says: You won’t tell anyone – about my martial arts practice, I mean.
Yes – if you tell no one about my defeat here, he says. He does not in fact believe that he has been defeated, but it would be a shame to suggest otherwise, especially with an admittedly beautiful young woman who has shared a slice of her gown with you.
We’ll have another bout, she says. No surprise attacks next time.
Agreed. They have reached the center of longevity, and their fingers are about to touch, but she hauls hers away, daring him with a raised eyebrow. He has expected this, however, and is reaching into the folds of his tunic, producing a crushed, lopsided object – a moon cake he has stolen from a neighboring table earlier. He extends the bounty to her, and she tears off a pristine corner. He looks down at his hands, at the remains of sweet bean paste, egg flour, the pecan nuts smudged with the dust in his unclean fingers. As if hypnotized, they are both looking at this object. And then it all seems so ridiculous, and they laugh again, their loud voices bounding off the rocks, concealing a sudden desire. Back at the lake, the flute’s earlier melody has blossomed into something agitated yet elegant. The festival participants are singing, and from this distance their voices are demure, almost childlike:
The daughter peeped through the screen,
but he was young
The goddess of the river left her pillow,
but the prince was gifted.
If you allow your heart to bloom with the spring flowers,
an inch of love’s flame is an inch of ashes.
The would-be warrior wants to be led. He wants to be taught. The course of things dictates that he seek a monastery perched atop a mountain, where the eagles circle in perpetual want of flesh, where the monks are bronzed and their gazes burn, as they have been forged by thin air and sun. Here one will undergo trials, apply bone and muscle, sharpen the mind until its very composition is steel and justice, and by the end of it all one will be a wanderer everywhere one goes, and yet indescribably rooted to the earth, the rivers, the skies.
Yet he has been directed to this local temple in the woods, depressingly close to his home village (within a day by horse), where the walls are caked with soot, where roots and scrubs sprout unchecked from between the flagstones, where Master Lau lounges on a mat, resting his bad back and blackened toenails. You must repeat everything you say to him, for his hearing has worsened with age, and the salty bristle on his cheeks and chin fall far short of a beard, and even further short of dignity. And so the would-be warrior is almost relieved when the old master rolls his eyes, lips thrust forward, and says No. The old master wants for nothing but a cup of tea in the afternoon, and a jug of wine at night. The other monks are only concerned with the tapestries that festoon the temple chamber walls. All day long they sit cross-legged in the main hall, hunched over their fabrics (for little daylight enters the place), the skin around their eyes prematurely wrinkled, and pull threads, match colors, weave shapes that pour out like flame, and there is no sound save the boom of the gongs every hour.
I understand, the would-be warrior says, and turns stiffly on his heel to leave, but Master Lau interrupts, No, you don’t. Every path is one to destruction. He gulps down his wine – it is that time of day – and natters on, more to himself: If I train the boy, the boy will kill. If I do not train, the boy may be killed someday. What is it worth, these fugitive moments of joy and accomplishment, or the knowledge that innocent lives will be saved, only to be taken by someone else at a later time? Skirmish after skirmish in this life …
With that, the would-be warrior falls to his knees. This is what I want, he says. Regardless of what happens to me, what happens to others and when, what can we do if not what we feel we must?
Crazy boy, Master Lau snorts affectionately. Insanity is a common symptom of defeated swordsmen. Are you willing to accept that? On your feet. Let’s get some food.
And so they visit the local marketplace. A cool night has fallen, and in the blemished light of lanterns and candles, faces seem young, and the fruit on the carts seem as heavy as stones, as if a single peach could feed you for months. Master Lau ushers grapes into his mouth and flicks his cane as he walks, spitted seeds marking his progress, and the mud from the ground adheres to the would-be warrior’s robes. Cheap material, the master laughs. If you were rich, your robes would be unblemished all day. And with that, his cane flicks mud at him, again and again, and it occurs to the would-be warrior that he is walking side-by-side with a particularly naughty child.
Watch it, move it! The carriage driver’s whip knows no discrimination, and it leaps out left and right at bystanders as the carriage bangs through the crowded walkways. Within the carriage, the local magistrate, the local wine merchant, the local pimp – he is all of these things – glares out. His wide-brimmed hat seethes with disdain. He does not even need to say a word, for his eyes look at you as if you are as inconsequential as the ground you walk upon, and those eyes fix on the would-be warrior, who instinctively avoids the carriage as it bounds past, but the carriage driver’s whip strikes Master Lau full in the face, and he crumples to the ground. Damn you! the would-be warrior hisses, his hand already tight around his sword, but with surprising alacrity Master Lau is back on his feet, his hand locked on the young man’s forearm, freezing him in place. No need, he says.
Such a lack of courtesy and decency demands –
I said forget it, the master chuckles. A rivulet of blood courses down from his left temple, and he wipes it distractedly with his sleeve. People who are in such a hurry are merely hurrying to death faster than the rest of us.
The would-be warrior is struck by the remark, and he remembers it years later when he is on a city street, and a monk chattering on a cell phone passes, his elbow and hip knocking into him, all but throwing him to the ground. The monk is tanned and in the prime of health, his head as well-shorn as that of a military conscript, and his freshly laundered robes smell of mountain flowers and cologne. For a moment the would-be warrior goes rigid even as he swells with anger, wishing to harm and punish arrogance, and then he laughs loudly, for even now, following his master’s advice seems like defeat. It is clear to him that he is still a student, and will always be.
Every day, the visitors call. Peddlers hunched over canes built from the wobbly remains of branches, women with steel hair and lips pursed in deference, young men of noble birth with heads and mustaches tilted high. Old Hawk sees all of them, always out in the courtyard, never a step inside the house, as if the house itself is a reticent soul that must be protected. All courtesies are offered without fail, and tea is presented to the guests, but always Old Hawk stands with his back to the threshold of his home, hands behind him, amiable and impenetrable.
In younger days, she had no use for her father’s visitors and their prattle, and did not even feign interest, but now she watches each of them as they arrive. They all have some sort of ailment or litany. Some are merely figures and shadows from Old Hawk’s past, paying respects as you must pay respects to your aging face every morning. That is the tragedy of it – some friendships and meetings are destined to last a short time, and when effort is made to stretch them out, it is like watching a waterfall dry out to a pitiful trickle. Others have business proposals: That new road will be cleared soon, this presents a business opportunity. … It’s really quite unreasonable. The provincial government must be made aware. … Or news from other regions: The freedom fighters in the east have gained support … if they ever come to this backwater town … And throughout, Old Hawk nods, makes noises of agreement, tireless in his accommodation, until they leave, and he turns to the house, a bit more shrunken than he had been before the visit.
Why? she is bursting to ask him. Who cares about these silly people? Every moment spent with them is another moment lost from your own life. She knows her appearance and behavior must be improper, even when she sits completely still at the dinner table. It has been her strength and her weakness, her inability to hide her feelings. Mother, on the other hand, can prattle on about the local gossip at the marketplace, so-and-so has taken on a new mistress, and I heard this young master has inherited a small fortune from … Nothing will ever agitate her mother. This power is something to be respected and feared.
You’re not eating, Old Hawk says to his daughter. His eyes meet hers, and dissimulation falls away. She can see the apprehension.
I am fine, she announces.
Her father’s apprehension is now outright anxiety. You are sure? he says.
Some more soup, her mother beams.
Are you fine? she says to him.
To many, I am an enemy, he murmurs. His face red from too much rice wine, he stands stiffly. I have many debts. Too many to pay in a single life. Every day I believe this is the day …
With a firm push, her mother shoos him away from the table, and hisses at her, not unkindly, Please finish your dinner!
Later that night she watches him from her window, as he stands alone in the courtyard, his hands crossed behind him. Why prepare for something you repeat every day? she wonders. Overcome with curiosity, she wanders downstairs in her bare feet – the ruckus her mother would cause if she came upon her now! – and up to the entrance to the courtyard. Her father remains still, his clothes charcoal in the moonlight. She is mere feet away from him now. For the first time, she sees the knife in his hand, as thin and elegant as a paint brush, the blade snuggling against the small of his back, ready to repel any attack. Clarity breaks into her mind: he is waiting. All this time, even while entertaining this never-ending circus of visitors, he has been waiting. But for what?
Hey! It’s her mother, she has been discovered. Her mother’s voice is barely above a whisper, but a chance breeze carries it out into the courtyard, and Old Hawk whirls on her, his hand leaping forward, the knife pointed at her neck, a wild strand of hair breaking away from the top of his head and tumbling over his eyes. He looks as if he is twenty years younger, a wild animal, and she cannot turn away from his gaze, even as his face puffs with confusion and he gasps, the sound an almost womanly shout of terror. The knife has halted inches away from her, but she wants to throw her arms around him, even if it means she will be impaled, and spin him around, face him back towards the other end of the courtyard, those front gates from where the danger will arrive, and she will stand by him there, or even throw him aside with the gentlest of shoves, and face the oncoming threat herself, her eyes blood-red and her body inured against threat, harm, love.
The would-be warrior is drowning, smothered in black. It is her hair, which she has allowed to fall over his face, and he huffs comically to no avail as the strands stick in his teeth, tickle the roof of his mouth, choke him. With a laugh, she clears her hair away with a bare arm, and as she does so he grabs hold of her wrist. So surprising that this thin, pale instrument is capable of such force. But he must believe it, for she is slapping his impudent hand away, and laughing the hard laugh of a bar patron. Shaded in the crags, they lie together, their robes and skin intermingled, as the sun disappears in shards among the trees. The cicadas are active this evening, and they seem to be everywhere. The would-be warrior reaches out, eyes half-closed, intent on capturing just one of them, for they must be so close to whisper so loudly to them, but his hand only encounters air and the presentiment of a hot summer.
She asks him: What is your saddest memory?
He stares at the sun in all its blinding force, and he tells a tale of a swordsman, unassailable in strength, dignity, and generosity, but forever begging for scraps, his sword perversely unstained even as his clothes and body withered. No family, no fame, no honor, only the shaking of heads, a warning to all those who would be so bold as to be different. Of what use are skills if they do not apply to the world? And so the swordsman wasted away, living with the dogs and pigs, until finally he simply expired, his body collapsed in the courtyard of a merchant’s mansion. Even to the end, he was a beggar, they said. But no one touched the body, no one even took the sword, for they knew his was a cursed lot, and the merchant’s family moved away, because this corpse was like a contagion. Eventually the body began to rot, and the dogs, recognizing their brethren, took mercy and tore the swordsman apart, skin and muscle and bone, until the only thing that remained were the rags of clothes, the steel sword, and woe to the one who comes by the sword by accident or inheritance, for it is cursed with noble life without reward.
Your father? she asks.
Of course not, he laughs. A tale the gentry tell their children at night, for who wants their children to live the dangerous life of a swordsman?
This is a sad memory?
I heard this story when I was young, when I was with other children my age. The story would be re-told again and again, and the other children would invent hardship after hardship for our hero. How he lost an arm defending the virtue of a young lady –
I do not require defending.
A grin spreads on his face. The implication was far from intended, but he cannot resist a reply: Only a vulnerable young lady would say such a thing. She gives him the last word in the form of a well-placed knee to his stomach that feels more like a tickle than an actual blow.
Continue. Lost an arm…
Lost an arm defending a young lady, who ignored him thereafter because of his low birth. Or how a monk provided him with a full supper, but he surrendered it to another beggar who stole his clothes later that night … many stories like these, until finally I invented a story in which the swordsman saved the lives of a family, and the family welcomed him as one of their own. And the other children laughed at that. They beat me. They told me that the story cannot be changed. The end must always be the same. The swordsman will die penniless, broken. And I felt so powerless when they said that…
He rests his head in the hollow between her neck and shoulders. Such a silly memory. But when you have no parents, you are drawn to other people, even if they do not exist. The swordsman always dies. It would be one thing if he died once, and life goes on, but every time the story is told, he dies again. Perpetual agony. I couldn’t bear it when I was young.
Now I am writing the story again. With a flourish, he presses the tips of his fingers to his chest.
You’re still a child, she laughs.
He says nothing to that – his mind is mulling over small but crucial details, such as where the sheath that houses his sword should be worn – at his side? across his chest? – or whether it is better to travel by river or mountain, for it is said that those who travel the mountains gain wisdom, but the river encourages cunning. She wraps her arm around his head and draws him closer. Her excuse is that the sun has finally dropped below the trees and it is growing colder, but their bodies are still sticky with sweat, and each breath she takes is weighted with the damp of a tropical night. He looks up at her, seeking her out in the growing dark, but all he can see is the distant blot of a bird against sky as it heads towards the lake, ready to swoop and submerge.
It happens suddenly, in a way he could not foresee.
The location of the thieves’ den is known to him. He prepared with deliberation, as if in a trance. Before departing the temple, he stared at his hands, his fingers, noted the hairs growing on the fourth knuckle of his right hand, the mole just inside his left wrist. If he was to be scarred or maimed, he would at least have these memories. Master Lau, enjoying his daily smoke from a pipe with a length of half his body, only coughed disagreeably. Just come out alive, that’s what matters, he sighed.
The young man frowned on hearing this. No other final advice? he pouted. No special instructions? No weaknesses in myself I should avoid?
Master Lau guffawed, and in the process something yellowish-brown ejected itself from his mouth and hit the stone floor. You think that learning a certain set of movements will prepare you for anything? he said. Every condition is different. How can I tell you about what we don’t know? Don’t forget to bow. He indicated the rows of generals and gods, all aligned in seated sandstone, waiting. Many times before the would-be warrior had heard the stories: this general’s mistress committed suicide so she would never desert him, this goddess was murdered by her father, but was reincarnated by the Buddha to bestow compassion on those in need.
The would-be warrior bowed to each in turn, but paused before the fresh tapestry the monks had hung on the walls that morning – scenes of abundant marshes, birds in easy flight, a lone sail of a fisherman’s boat in the distance, almost insubstantial like smoke. What legend does this tell? he asked Master Lau.
Nothing, the old man scowled. The monks just like this scene.
Now he stands before the tavern. He knows the hideaway is in the basement, accessible only by a trap door in a certain corner. He has seen ten men enter, and none leave. All the establishments on this street have closed for the night, but no one has bothered to collect the spilled bits of wine and cracked plates on the ground. Stray dogs pad around and whimper like half-humans. At the intersection ahead, a street lamp pulses with unreal fluorescent light. The sight of it unsettles him, the thought that light will never cease, that every street will someday be illuminated with this device, that the romance of darkness will be lost –
Ridiculous, he chides himself. Only the gentry, those with full stomachs and fat heads, indulge in these blatherings. Sword and sheath firm in a silent grip, he enters the tavern. Beneath him, the wooden floor planks creaking as gently as if they were buffeted by the wind. This is the moment; he will subdue this rabble, he will inform the local constabulary, and then he will be gone, no reward expected, no identity given. The virtuous swordsman functions best when he is a mystery, a man without a past or known allegiance.
He is panting. Has a fever come over him? No, he has forgotten to breathe. His mouth is swathed in black silk, all the better to conceal his identity. Now the silk is in his mouth, he is sucking on it. This is insanity, one against ten. Surprise must win out. Nothing to prepare for, who knows where each one of them will be standing or sitting when he attacks. Master Lau says nothing, he means nothing. Think nothing. Be nothing but the specter of that hand that tugs on the rusted latch that locks the trap door, and when the door fans open and the opium smoke floods out like boils from a cauldron, that is the time to move as if invisible, limbs as light as air because they cannot be seen, they are too fast to be seen, everything about him will be too fast for this world.
And with that he tumbles down the steps that lead into the hideout, rolls as he hits hard ground. There is comfort in its solidity, seduction in its hardness. His sword out, he spins, wanting to take in the entire room, but moving too fast for more than a splatter of sight – a man on the floor there, another one in the chair –
Dust falls from the ceiling into his eyes, catches in his throat, and he coughs anticlimactically. No movement or emanation of threat. They are all there. They are not dead. They are asleep. Drool dribbling from mouths to floor, rough hands scratching at noses and groins, snores that sound like tattered roofs about to give way.
The would-be warrior says, very softly: I am here to arrest you.
None of them hear. One rolls over in his sleep, onto the wet patch of ground he pissed on earlier, and groans happily.
The would-be warrior moves with utmost efficiency. He finds a coil of rope, and ties the bandits’ hands together, binds their legs, linking each of them from ankle to ankle, like a game he and the other children of the village might have played when they were younger – Now, follow the one at the end! And through it all the thieves snore, rub at their eyes with their bound hands, politely refrain from response.
The young man retreats back up the steps, through the tavern, and into the silent street. The authorities must be informed immediately, before the thieves awaken. At the intersection, under the street lamp, a lone patrol guard walks. You! the would-be warrior shouts. I’ve captured them! The bandits! You must bring help! I’ve arrested them for you!
The guard turns towards him, only now there are two of him, three, all of them congregated under the street lamp. They stare at him, their hands hanging at their sides, these creatures born from fluorescent light. But there is still more – from just around the corner comes the screech of carriage wheels and the braying of horses, and then the monstrosity swerves into view, a phalanx of guards running alongside it, guards on horses bringing up the rear, a riot of braided curtains and blank uniforms, mud churning underneath them, the carriage driver laying into his whip as if he is a machine and the only movements he is capable of are whip forward and rear back. The guards under the lamp have joined this procession, and now the menagerie is soaring down the street at him.
Once again, he clears his throat, spitting out the black silk that is lodged there, and shouts: I have arrested ten bandits! They are downstairs –
He is interrupted by a voice that seems to rumble from the wooden chassis of the carriage itself: You fool! You have defied us!
The carriage comes to a halt, and the man within peers out. It is the local magistrate, the local wine merchant, the pimp, all of the above, his eyes hidden under his wide-brimmed hat, a scar plainly visible on his upper lip as it snarls: Who do you think owns this tavern! Who do you think owns those bandits? What did you think you were accomplishing?
He points an accusatory finger at the young man as his guards form a circle around him. They are marching in, closer and closer, their spears at the ready, gold rings encircling the shafts, and the magistrate is still shouting, his finger rooting the would-be warrior to the spot, the world going dark with figures, and from what seems like miles away, he can hear Master Lau’s voice, as pliant as a whisper, and he is saying: Wait! Wait! Stop!
The rain tumbles down in a sheer curtain, sweeping through the courtyard. She desperately clears her wet hair from her eyes and flattens it against the back of her head. Flowers are falling from above, from the railings and windows, streaming down, caught by the force of the gale, landing on what once was cobblestone and walkways, but is now the brownish haze of floodwater, carried away. A few feet away from her, the water has gone dirty red where the body of her attacker lies. She can see the clean, almost babyish face of the man she has just killed, as it is buffeted by tiny lappings of water; the flowers are gathering around him, wreathing him.
Get inside! Old Hawk shouts. The second attacker is advancing, his sword slashing ribbon-like through the rain. She tastes the grit of earth in her mouth as she dodges the blow, her knife arcing high and low, fending him off, her sleeves falling away from her naked arms with every movement. The assassin kicks water into her face, and in response she throws herself to the side, away from his reach. Her clothes cling and swing from her body like wet ropes.
Get inside! Old Hawk screams again. Shut up! the attacker hisses, and thrusts at the old man’s left. Old Hawk reads the movement for what it is, an all-too-obvious feint, but the heavy rain in his boots and the pounding of drops against his aged eyes slows him for an instant. The attacker follows through, and the sword pierces his chest, once, twice. Now the attacker is holding him, embracing him, and still his sword hand pulls back, stabs, pulls back, stabs, unending.
She is on her feet again and screaming soundlessly, her body moving of its own accord, her father’s forms easily recalled, the logical progression of arm in relation to body, momentum, and anchoring legs, but she is in the air, whipping her arm out, the knife slashing upwards, finding the fleshy skin under the attacker’s armpit, snipping it like pig’s entrails, blood appearing in a shocked splotch on the man’s tunic, and even as he struggles to maintain the grip of his sword she is completing the movement, creating symmetry with the downward stroke, across the man’s face, she can feel the nose giving way under her blade, and he is staggering backwards now, his free hand instinctively reaching up towards his ruined countenance, and she is upon him, her knee digging into his chest as she forsakes technique completely and drives the knife into his heart, draws it out, plunges it back in, the two of them now falling to the ground, and she is still stabbing him as they land, this time across the neck, and the head is divorced from the trunk with a minimum of fuss, and she is on her knees, looking down upon the body, expressionless. Then she hears her mother scream from inside the house, and she turns to look, but the sound has been cut off, like a door slamming shut. She sees only the threshold, and far down the hall, a single fallen candle marking the place where her mother was.
Something must be done, the warrior whispers. His knuckles and arms bruised, his empty boots standing at ill attention, the rest of his body wrapped in blankets meant for finer rituals, he sits cross-legged on the floor.
Uncle says nothing. He can only offer a cup of tea to his nephew as his servant rubs the young man’s back, chops his shoulders into smoothness. Accepting the drink without a word, the warrior inhales it with a contemptuous gulp.
You should have been there, he says. You wouldn’t believe it otherwise. Master Lau was only trying to help me. He didn’t raise a hand …
They said he attacked the magistrate, Uncle says in a dead voice.
Liars! He is up and pacing, the blankets twisted in cruel spirals on the floor. They didn’t listen. He was talking and they didn’t listen. They just killed him, right there. Ran him through with their spears –
How many did you kill?
How many? Did I kill? That’s all you can ask me?
How many? Uncle groans.
The warrior throws up his hands. I can’t be sure. Maybe three? I was trying to escape.
So it ends, Uncle mutters to no one in particular. He holds out the teapot, waiting for his nephew to oblige him with his empty cup. The warrior, defeated by this quiet gesture, sits down again and places his cup on the floor. Uncle fills it, all the way to the rim. The warrior lifts the cup with care, as if a spilled drop would mean the end of his very life. He sips slowly.
You must leave, Uncle says. I have some relatives at the capital.
No. To the eastern coast.
The coast? There is nothing there but war –
I hear the freedom fighters are there. The monks were talking about it. Even Master Lau had heard –
The warrior halts. He sees the spears, hears them as they jingle like bells. Master Lau’s robes split. No sign of blood anywhere, only a deflation, as if the old man had nothing but air inside. A furrowing of his brow as he faced the young man, no words exchanged, just his mouth forming the word Go. And then the swords were out and hacking at the old man’s limbs, and even then there was no blood, he could have been a scarecrow jangling and falling to the ground, and then a smell of rotten eggs came at the warrior from behind, it was one of the guards coming to strike him down, such a cowardly maneuver, but he wasn’t thinking of cowardice or honor or justice or revenge, he was focused on survival, and he spun and slashed with his sword, missed completely, but his hand made contact with his attacker’s jaw, stunned him, enough time for another stroke and this one made its home in the man’s chest. And then two or three more spears were upon him, he could see the arms that held the spears as the sleeves fell away from them, they were homely arms, mottled with the bruises of training, and they reminded him of the other children he battled when he was young, kicking and biting and screaming, scars like tiny necklaces, and he lashed out at all of them, the tips of the spears splintered and crushed by his force, his blade slamming further, flesh like silk, then the hard clang of bone, like butcher’s meat, and he was moving, legs moving, seeking open ground, and through the faces and cries he could see the magistrate’s wide-brimmed hat in the carriage window, untouchable, sending all these men to their deaths.
Tyranny must be stopped, he says. Men like the magistrate must be stopped.
But what can you do by yourself? Uncle leans back in anguish, neck craned toward the ceiling, as if pleading for an answer, and his servant, fearing a faint is coming on, waddles behind him, arms extended, ready to catch his fall.
You’re right, the warrior says in a low voice. That was a dream. This is reality. We cannot do it alone. That’s why I must go east. To join with others who want the same thing. To create change together.
That’s not reality, that’s just another dream! What do dreams bring but more death? History is nothing but bad dreams!
It’s only a dream when a single person has it.
What do those freedom fighters have? Power? Control? Money?
They have each other. They have the people.
Then, Uncle concludes sadly, they have nothing.
The warrior turns his back on him. I will contact you when I can.
Without a further word, he departs his uncle’s home. It has stopped raining, but the deepest night swarms the fields, so he sees no gold around him, cannot smell the fine sweetness of spring. Nothing lies ahead but the fragile breaths that escape his mouth in vapor. His feet are wet and numb, and his hands are wrinkled with cold, like an elder’s hands, but he strides with purpose, determined to be stone, consistent as all else around him decays and dies. His pace will carry him over the hill, toward the residence of Old Hawk, and there he will happen upon the remains of a burned home, pillars listing toward the sky like ribs of a skeleton, the haggard clumps of what could have been human bodies, the charcoal scent of oxidized wood. He will note all of this with hardened jaw, close his eyes for a few moments in something that masquerades as prayer, and proceed on his way, not looking back even once. If he did, if he remained for just a few moments longer, he would have seen a young woman emerge, moving wraithlike, her robes soiled with soot and mud and blood, her wide unharmed eyes blank as if in a trance, staggering down the same road in the opposite direction.