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An avenger should not break his sword.
A jealous man should not complain of a tile falling off the roof.
—Zhuangzi (369–280 bc)
Translated from the Chinese by Xujun Eberlein
A white candle; a half jar of honey. The honey is not in his view right now. The honey is in the jar; he is sitting on the low bed. But his senses are filled with honey, dense, thick. The bile does not rise into his throat. He has a good appetite. He hasn’t vomited many times in his whole life. A whole life. How long is a whole life? Have I had a whole life now? Doesn’t matter. This is a very common pet phrase. Everybody says, “In my whole life . . .” Like this monk—monks must often eat this kind of wild honey. His eyes narrow a bit, because the candlelight jumps, and a heap of shadows jumps, too. He smiles once: in his mind he has come up with a name for the monk, “the honey monk.” This is no wonder, because the words “a whole life” hide behind honey and monk. Tomorrow when I say goodbye, what would he do if I really call him that? Well, now the monk has a name, what about me? What would he call me? It wouldn’t be “the sword guest” (he noticed that the monk saw his sword at once), would it? The honey—now it comes back to him that he heard bees buzzing all the way here. Yes, bees. Lots of bees (they made the whole mountain drift with their buzzing). Even now the residual sound remains in his ears. From here I began my tonight, and my tomorrow will continue from here. Life really is hard to say. He suddenly realizes, from the sound of the bees, that it is autumn. He feels unburdened and refreshed. That’s right, at the moment one word is written in the whole world: autumn. He imagines the monk looking for bees. A big field of wildflowers. The monk stands in front of the field of flowers; it really is beautiful. The monk is picking flowers. There are flowers in the copper bowl in the hall, they bloom very nicely, drifting, as if a cloud of fog is rising from the bowl. He likes this monk.
The monk is going out. He holds one hand up, walking backward a few steps, casually yet considerately. Monk, you must have saluted like this, completely at ease, numerous times by now. The monk puts down the candle and says a few words, something about the temple being too remote to offer guests better treats; the mountain is high, wind big, weather cold, and you should rest early. He hears it even if the monk does not speak. The monk has spoken, but he isn’t listening. He just looks at the monk. He rises to show politeness. The monk drifts away, his sleeves flowing, like a big butterfly.
He can’t draw the monk’s appearance in his mind. He thinks that, had the monk not shaved his head, he would have a head of nice white hair. A head of shining white hair flashes in his mind.
A white-haired monk.
He is thinking of his white-haired mother.
The night comes so fast on the mountain! Once the sun sets, every moving thing rests. It is so quiet. While he was on the way here, he already felt quietness. But inside the mountains is quite different from on the road. When he entered the little village, there were sounds of children reading books in school, horse bells, and flails knocking on beanstalks. On the little trail, fresh cow dung effused warm steam. White clouds slowly moved past haystacks. A little girl with braids was dressed in a silvery red jersey . . . but all the things that would have been used for describing stillness now indicate movement. He had even thought of becoming a peddler to add a bit of sound to the village, but at this moment, amongst a thousand mountains, he mustn’t wave a peddler’s rattle-drum.
A peddler’s rattle-drum sounding by a stone bridge. His home. He knows he is thinking of his mother. But cast in the colored threads of his mother suddenly is his sister. He really wishes he had such a sister, like the girl he saw in this little village. Dressed in silvery-red jersey, drawing water from a well in front of her door. The blue stone rails of the well. Beside the well a trellis of little red flowers. She wanted to pick one, but heard her mother’s spinning wheel and felt it was time to go home. It was getting late, and she said, “I will pick you up tomorrow. This is where you are, I remember!” She could point the way for a traveler: “There’s a temple up on the mountain, in the temple there is a nice monk, you can lodge there.” The girl and the traveler were both gone, leaving the lone well behind. For quite some time after they’d left, the residual water on the stone rails kept dropping back into the well, ding dong, ding dong. The tallow trees at the edge of the village darkened. The night began to close in. The thrumming sound of a stone grinder milling wheat stopped.
When he is thinking of such a sister, his mother has a head of shining black hair. He wishes he could pick a red flower for his mother to wear. But he had never seen his mother wearing a flower. It was the flower she did not get to wear that determined his fate.
My mother, I did not see you getting old.
Thus his mother has young eyes and brows but wears a head of white hair. All these years the head of white hair shines in his heart.
He really wishes he had such a sister.
But he does not have a sister. No, he doesn’t have one!
His present, his mother’s past. His mother stops in time. She is still young, just like the girl picking flowers, like his sister. But he is a lot older; many years are carved on his face.
He has become a different person in similar scenes. The scenes are not so different, but how much has he changed? Now he is in the mountains, in a small temple among many mountains, in a tiny monastery among many small temples.
For so many days, he climbed up, and up again; up high, then down a bit, and then higher still. He has climbed so many mountains. The mountains got higher and higher, their tops squeezed together tighter and tighter. The roads got smaller, and also murkier. He could see himself, a small figure, bent forward, one step after another, walking along a slightly white road amongst the dark green and reddish brown. He lowered his head, and then lifted it up. He looked at the sky, and then the road. The road was like a long thread, endlessly drawing ahead. The clouds came over, he was in shadow; the clouds went away, he shone. His clothes were stained with dandelion velvet, and he brought them to faraway places. Sometimes when he opened his eyes, a hawk swept past the view. The mountains left all changes on him, thus they appeared eternally immutable. He was thinking: hey mountains, you are going faster and faster, but I can only go with the same persistent pace. By the time he entered this small village, one look up convinced him to lodge on the mountaintop for one night before turning back. This is the end of a thread; no more road ahead.
He closes his eyes for a little while. He almost falls asleep, almost has a dream. The smell of moss, hay. Weathering rocks cracking under his body, making sounds, emitting a smell. Grass leaves rustling, a grasshopper jumping out. From a faraway place, a bird feather drifts closer, and closer still, finally stopped by a matrimony vine. He decides the vine is black. A pebble rolls downhill, rolling and rolling, and falls into a deep pond. From somewhere very low, comes the mooing of a cow. The sound of cud being chewed (the cow’s lower jaw grinding, its tongue light red) rises up, blown away by a gust of wind. Worms are eating the old bead tree; a leaf tastes bitterness and shivers. A pinecone bursts, cold air infiltrating its scales. Fish, living in high water, why are you still not asleep? Goodbye, shady moisture of moss; goodbye, spongy softness of hay; goodbye, sour stone pressing against your shoulder blade. The old monk is striking his chime stone. Now the traveler is going to sleep, relaxing his brows, smoothing the lines by his mouth, untying the knots on his face. Let the shoulder lie flat, legs stretching up.
The candlelight has gone. When? Did he blow it out?
He is wrapped in the center of the boundless night, like a fruit-tree seed wrapped in a pit.
The old monk is striking his chime stone.
A dream in the water drifts. A dream in the mountains struggles to fly out.
He dreams that he stands before a straight wall of darkness, while he, himself, becomes thin and tall. He wants to scale it, but the darkness is infinitely high, no end to be seen. He turns in another direction; it’s the same. Turning again, the same. Turning again, the same. The same, the same dark, the same straight and smooth wall. He is as tired as a long thread falling on the ground. “Please soften a bit, round a bit!” Then the darkness turns into a lotus flower. He is in the lotus flower, layer after layer of petals. He is so small; he can’t find himself. He circles around the lotus flower, sticking to the dark petals. Ding—, a star appears on the lotus flower, light green, phosphorescent, it soon appears, soon disappears. The residual light, wispy, fades to nothingness. Ding—, another sound.
It’s the monk doing his evening chanting, striking the chime stone one quick beat after another. He follows, and then waits, to see exactly how long is the interval between beats. Gradually, for each beat from the monk, there is also a simultaneous beat in his heart, a natural coordination. “If I have a chime stone at the moment, then I too am a monk.” In the Buddha hall, a lantern seems to be going out, yet never goes out. The flowers in the bowl, drifting. A stick of incense, its smoke curling upwards, slowly dissipating. But the fragrance permeates all, ubiquitous. He so wants to see the monk.
Monk, you don’t feel lonely, do you?
Guest, by “lonely” you mean “tired”? Perhaps you are not tired yet?
The guest touches his sword gently. This sword, he holds it every day, but always feels in it a slight strangeness; only when he seems to be forgetting it does he realize how intimate it is to him. Oh sword, it is not that you belong to me, it is that I belong to you. Monk, you strike the chime stone, but who can collect your chimes? How many guests have stayed in your monastery? I’ve been through all kinds of nights. Should I count my night here as one among many, or one outside of any? Well, when the sun rises, it will be another day. Tomorrow I am going to leave.
The sun shines on the port, spreading salty air onto the leaves of the aspen trees by the dock. The sea is green, smelly.
A big fruit, as big as a human head, name unknown, is rotting.
The shells in the sand grains are slowly turning into lime.
A bird, one only, flies above the white foam of the waves. The sun has set.
Twilight reflects on many people’s foreheads; the foreheads are half gilded with gold.
Many people close on the tip of the delta, then turn, then scatter.
One sees into the distance like smoke.
Oneself is in the smoke, watching sails going afar.
A boat comes full of melons, full of color and lust.
Another boat carries stones, a competition of edges and corners. Perhaps—
A boat of birds, a boat of lilies.
Almond blossoms sold in deep alleys. Camels.
Camel bells sway and ring in the willow mists. Ducks quack; a bright red dragonfly.
Pale green phosphorescent light before the rain.
A city of lights!
Guest, it’s only one night.
Your hunger, your thirst, a filling meal after hunger, a quenching drink after thirst, a day of tiredness and its respite, all kinds of beds, all kinds of dialects, all kinds of diseases, more than one can remember, you forget them one by one. You are not disappointed and have no hope, either. Where have you been, where are you going? You, a small figure, lean forward and walk along a chalky white road among the yellowish green and reddish brown. Are you moved by yourself?
“But I know I don’t want to become a monk here!”
The guest is startled by his own voice. Something about the temple is disturbing. He thinks of the Buddha hall as if to hide the thought from himself. This monk is so strange! There is one monk but there are two straw cushions. One cushion is the monk’s own, but the other one? There are also two copies of the Buddhist Scripture on the altar. And the monastery in which he’s staying now is clearly not where the monk lives.
He had a peculiar feeling the moment he walked into this room. The wall is exceedingly white, exceedingly smooth, everything is square and straight, stern and pressing. Between the edges and lines is something strikingly round. It cannot be moved, cannot be changed. It is black. A distinct boundary is drawn between white and black. This is a very large bamboo hat. It is not the original color of a bamboo hat. It has yellowed, turned brown, and finally become black. There is a pagoda-shaped copper tip on the top of the hat, also darkened, with one or two spots tarnished into green dots. The bamboo hat makes the traveler uncomfortable. What kind of person would wear such a bamboo hat? Pulling out his sword, he walks out of the room.
He dances his sword dance.
Ever since he received this sword, he has not wasted a single day. Whether in a barren village or a deserted lodge, at an inn or a post stand, on a rocky mountain top or in a thatched shack or even an abandoned brick kiln, every day at dawn and dusk he always performs a sword dance, each time a new stimulus, a new experience. He entwines himself, his love and hatred. The highest excitement, the greatest joy, the most raging passion. He indulges in his dancing.
Ending the sword dance, he is startled. Someone breathes.
“It’s me. What a great sword dance!”
It is the monk! The monk is so close, I almost killed him.
The traveler is full of strength, all the way through his fingertips. Partly proud, partly resisting, he shouts loudly:
“I’m going to walk all the roads!”
He looks at the monk; the monk’s eyes are so shiny! He searches for ridicule in those eyes. If the monk infuriates him, he will kill him. But the monk stands steadily, unshaken by his voice and expression. The monk says with utter calm and purity:
“Very good. But someone has to pass where there is no road.”
There is a voice among thousands of mountains and hundreds of quietnesses, a resolute, calm ding, bursting out from somewhere deep.
This traveler is a posthumous child. His father was killed by an enemy, with only one breath remaining as he was carried home. The father, dipping his fingers in his own blood, wrote down the enemy’s name, and died. The mother picked up the sword he left behind. The sword is now in the hand of the traveler. The enemy’s name is on his arm. By the time he grew tall enough to reach the red flowers by the well, his mother gave him his father’s sword, tattooed the enemy’s name on his arm, and painted the tattoo blue. He left home to search for the person named by the blue tattoo on his arm, to get vengeance for his father.
But he has never called out “father” in his life. He has never heard his own voice calling “father.”
His father and the enemy, he can’t imagine how either of them looks. If he were to meet the enemy, that man would recognize him. When he was a child, the villagers all said he looked just like his father. But now he doesn’t even know what he himself looks like.
Really, if one day he finds the enemy, the only thing he will do is to kill him with one stroke of the sword. He would have no words to say. What could he say to him? He cannot think of anything. So no words.
Sometimes he’d like it more if he were killed by the enemy.
Sometimes he has a sympathetic feeling toward the enemy.
Sometimes he feels he himself is the enemy. Since the enemy’s name has nearly replaced his own name, doesn’t he exist by borrowing that name? What happens after the enemy dies?
. . . .
But he still goes around and makes inquiries after the name.
“Do you know this person?”
“Have you heard of him?”
. . . .
“But I must get revenge!”
“I know, I’m getting closer day by day. Every step I take is toward you.”
“If I run into you, I will certainly recognize you. One look and I will know it’s you, I won’t be wrong!”
“Even if I can’t find you in my lifetime, my whole life will be spent looking for you!”
He sheds tears for these last words; he is sorrowful for his own sorrow.
At daybreak he runs, getting near the wall of a cliff. Turning his head, he only now sees the sky: dark green, jagged. An overwhelming force is pressing down on him, his breath quickening, face turning blue, thighs clenching, body sweating out a broth. He can feel his sword. The sword is on his back, very heavy. And from inside the cliff, from the heart of the earth, the sounds—Ding, Ding—come out, determined and calm.
He walks into the cliff. So dark. For a long while he cannot see a thing. Back out? No! It is like being immersed in ice water. Gradually his eyes adjust to see one or two feet ahead. He stands for a moment, calming his breath. Ding, a sound, a spark, red. Ding, another one. The wind blows in from the entrance, blowing on his back. Cold air drifts to his face, indescribably gloomy. He swallows his spit. He walks deeper inside. He hears his own steps; the sounds encourage him, teaching him to walk stably, without staggering. The more he walks, the narrower the space becomes. He has to crouch. He looks directly ahead, where sparks are bursting out one after another. Okay, now he is here.
A pile of long hair. The long hair covers a person. Stooped, a chisel in one hand, a hammer in another, his head low, he is cutting the square inch of the stone wall in front of his knees. He must have heard the approaching footsteps; he does not look back, and keeps cutting. The chisel moves upward. One spark after another. His hands rise, and rise. The traveler sees the two sleeves of a monk’s robe. His long hair drapes to his waist and sways. His hands rise, and rise; the traveler sees his hands. This pair of hands! Strangely thin, bony, tendons exposed. The traveler takes a step back. The monk turns. A pair of scorching eyes flash out from the long hair draping him. The traveler is entranced. Rising, rising; one spark, another. Come on again, spark! He almost faints: on the monk’s arm are three shocking words, tattooed, painted blue: it is his father’s name!
For a moment, he sees nothing but the three words. Stroke by stroke, he traces the three words in his heart. Ding, a spark. The words jump with each spark. Time flies by outside the cave. A roll of white clouds brushes past the entrance. He has quite forgotten the sword on his back, or perhaps he himself has disappeared, only the sword remains. He is shrinking, shrinking, until nothing is left. Then he is back, back. All right. His face turns from blue to red; his body is full of himself. The sword! He draws the sword.
Suddenly he believes his mother must have died.
Clunk! One sound.
His sword falls back into its sheath.
He looks down: under his feet are new cutting marks; before his feet are another hammer-and-chisel set.
He bends down and picks up the hammer and chisel. The monk moves aside a bit to make room for him.
Two drops of tears shine in the eyes of the white-haired monk.
One day, two chisels cut into the void at the same time. The first ray of light shoots in from the other side.
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