Hakkai, now happily retired, gets talkative that particular episode in his life when he was still known as Cho Gonou.
There were mooncakes, lots and lots of them, with succulent, sweet lotus seed filling. And the paper lanterns! Well. How we children scattered about the fields, swinging those flimsy things, barely aware of the little flames inside their gaudy prisons. The adults usually let us run wild for a couple of hours or so. Then, before we set the village on fire, they would lure us back into the house with the promise of more mooncakes.
There was such a thing such as too many mooncakes, even for children with their sweet tooth. But the adults were cunning, for they had had more practice. So it was that in every mooncake-equipped house, a person with a certain talent would be present (in any of these capacities: visitor, maid, valet, parent, etc.). The exact sort of talent did not matter, as long as the children were amused, and kept amused, for a stretch of time.
The person in charge of us was already middle-aged even then, but still sprightly and nimble, always looking sharp with his odd half-glasses. He had come to our village a few years ago, a world-weary traveler, only too happy to rest his bones in his chosen home. He often said he could not find a better sweet-and-sour soup than the one they made at our village inn. "Not all the way from Chang-an to India," he would add, which was a particular turn of phrase that no one else used, not even those of my elder cousin's age who had gone to Chang-an to pursue their dreams of acquiring sophistication, money, and modish slang/clothes/piercings.
You only had to look at him to know that he was better with children than the average person. There was the gentle, patient way he talked, which just hid the unbending firmness of will inside. There was the smile, just bright enough and no more, so that only the sharpest eyes caught a glance at the brittleness of his soul. This was a person with the tightest grip on himself, you would say. He would be able to handle those little terrors all right.
Perhaps they had really fed us too many mooncakes, or the apprentice at the cake shop had mucked up the scales when it came to the sugar. At any rate, even he was having a difficult time that year. In the midst of the screams and hair-pulling, a frantic look flashed across the green eyes, one naked, the other behind the quaint monocle. It was but very brief, and I was busy keeping an eye on my brother Dong, who was trying to get our cousin Ping to give him a pony ride, so I might have mistaken its meaning: that his supply of amusing tales was running short. Although I did not know it at the time, it was a very frightening thing for any person above the age of twenty-eight indeed, running out of attention-getting devices while surrounded by seemingly inexhaustible youthful, sticky energy, fueled by festive pastry.
His tale crawled to a mostly unheeded end. It was about a monkey who wished to be a king of his kind but ended up being the lackey of a smuggler specializing in temple goods. He stood up suddenly, dislodging Little Snow-root from his shoulders in an absentminded manner.
"All right, children! Be good, or I won't show you my special mahjong tricks," he announced.
Thinking it an excellent opportunity to avoid returning Ping the favor he had just received, Dong gave a delighted shriek: "Oh, please, Uncle Cho, that'd be grand."
"Please, Uncle Cho," His attention was drawn to the tugging at the knee of his trousers. "Yes, Little Snow-root?"
"What is mahjong?"
An hour later, orphanage or not, four of the children were lifelong converts to the game. You see, Dong and I had been taken in by Ping's parents, so we lived in a regular home and had a working knowledge of mahjong by the time we were tall enough to look over the table. Little Snow-root and most of the children in the village had to content themselves with the orphanage, run by strangely clad women who frowned heavily upon things that make life delightful. The Mid-Autumn Festival was the only night in the year they were freed from the daily curfew. Straight-laced as they were, the nuns did make some concession to native customs and fun.
("I asked Sister Henrietta about mahjong. She was mad. She said the tile game is for cardsharps and ne'er-do-wells. Oh, oh, what should I do? Uncle Cho is a good man, and I think it is fun," Little Snow-root confided to me later.)
They say familiarity breeds contempt. While Uncle Cho's instruction did awaken our jaded interest in the game, Ping, Dong, and I soon tired of it, and we let the four orphanage inmates at the table. After all, it would be a year before they got their hands on the tiles again.
Uncle Cho eyed the three of us in his usual calculating manner. Four dealt with, one almost at the end of his childhood and quiet, so two left. He was clearly casting for Amusing Things to tell us or make us do before Dong and Ping organized pony expeditions across the furniture again.
A rain of tiles hit the floor. Little Tranquil-pond, dismayed at his failed attempt to toss the lined-up tiles into standing position, looked as if he was about to cry.
"There, there, don't worry, it's all right," Uncle Cho comforted the child as he deftly swept up the tiles into his hands. "You don't have to do that yet - just turn the tiles upright one by one for now, there's a good boy. Oh, here's another one right under your chair, Little Snow-root."
His gaze lingered on the tile, which happened to be lying face-up, as he picked it up. Having handed the tile to the players, he turned a thoughtful look on the three of us.
"You know, there's a very interesting story about a tile just like that one."
This is Uncle Cho's story. I do not claim to tell it as it really happened because that was certainly not the way he told it. I can only try my best to tell it the way, well, he told it. And of course, I have done away with the questions from us children, which serve no purpose but to interrupt the flow of the tale.
Once there was a man with a double life. Oh, it was not anything as scandalous as it sounds. That just means that he was a teacher of the young during school hours and an amateur gambler during the other hours. He had wanted to upgrade to being a full-time professional, but his sister, with whom he lived, objected, and he did love his day job. So he contented himself with one or two hours of daily mahjong with his fellow teachers, listening to complaints about marking and syllabus preparation, before going home to his own marking and syllabus preparation.
One day, he came home to a quiet, dark house. Not quite. Old Auntie Purple Blossom from next door peered in as soon as he stubbed a toe noisily against a table leg.
"Oh, a terrible thing has happened, Mr. Cho! They have taken Kanan away," she blubbered, twisting her hands.
"Who, they? The neighborhood association?" Uncle Cho asked, knowing that Kanan - sophisticated, delicate Kanan - did not get on well with the local fishwives.
"No, no, why, we wouldn't do that," Auntie Purple Blossom sniveled, slightly offended. But never one to hold grudges, she soon revealed to Uncle Cho the identity of the kidnappers.
Uncle Cho listened, keeping his face expressionless. Not a difficult job, considering the dim setting. Then he thanked the old woman in his usual courteous manner, turned on the lights, changed, and set out for the local tavern.
That was what he did for the rest of the month. He came home from the daily mahjong session, was reminded by the kindly old woman of his predicament, and left for an hour or so of drinking at the tavern after taking polite leave of her. Then he went back to his marking and syllabus preparation.
The days at school and the nights at the bar poured seamlessly into each other - up to about the third week of Kanan's disappearance. Uncle Cho particularly recalled that night because of two things.
The first thing was the bartender's repetition of a recent rumor concerning an herbalist's surprise at his wife's true form. At the end of the tale, Uncle Cho noted that quiet looks were exchanged among several of the men, followed by grumbles about taxes and onerous tributes and despondent mutterings about pesky insects. Well, he was just a teacher transferred from the city, so he kept his peace and drank on.
The second thing was the son of the personage responsible for Kanan's abduction, who appeared almost right after the bartender had finished the tale about the herbalist's inebriated wife. At least, that was how he introduced himself, before dragging Uncle Cho to one of the private rooms upstairs.
They argued, for the sake of propriety, about who should take the honored guest place. After a sufficient length of time had passed, Uncle Cho decided to be persuaded to take it. Then he asked, even though he already knew the gloomy answer: "Now, sir, what can I do for you?"
The youkai was still, very still, his manners correct and his bearing proud. Only the slight quivering of his thin lips and the look in the liquid cat-like eyes betrayed the depth of his feelings.
"Please," he said, letting only the smallest hint of wretchedness spill into his voice, "take her back."
"Surely," Uncle Cho answered coldly, "that is a private matter between your father and my sister."
The youkai blanched. Then his composure broke. He stood up, his pointed ears twitching and his silvery pigtail bouncing in agitation. He mimicked Uncle Cho's words in his sardonic, sad way: "A private matter between your father and my sister. You don't know how miserable she has made my existence. She has taken over the harem, the kitchen, even the stable. Please don't smoke, Prince, I don't like ashes on the cushions and the smell lingers so in the curtains. Could you please keep the racket down, your poor Father is trying to sleep. Why do you keep bringing those riff-raff home to drink and gamble our money away? Oh. Oh."
"Oh," he repeated, robbed of words by the sudden realization. The reason behind Uncle Cho's lack of action regarding Kanan's abduction finally dawned on him.
Uncle Cho sighed. He almost pitied the poor creature. But he thought: Better you than me, Chin Isou.
"But she is your sister," Uncle Cho could hear the outraged words fighting their way out of the other's mouth. But they never came.
"Every man has his price," Chin Isou said instead, calmly fishing out a pair of toothpicks from a voluminous sleeve. Uncle Cho was almost impressed. That astuteness was surprising after the outburst. Still, Uncle Cho could not blame him. It was Kanan, after all. No creature alive, noble or otherwise, possessed the fortitude of the local fishwives, and the local fishwives had endured much from her.
And Chin Isou was right. Uncle Cho made his decision after considering the matter for a full second. He described to Chin Isou how he should be rewarded in return for retrieving Kanan. Chin Isou, cheerfully chewing at the end of his toothpicks, was very agreeable on all points. Then they began to finalize the details of the plan.
"Only, it will have to be a week from now, which also happens to be the old man's birthday. I am going away for a mahjong tournament, you see."
Uncle Cho's eyes shone dreamily at the last sentence. He knew that Chin Isou, who must have noticed his reaction, was smiling inside at it. Chin Isou had got Uncle Cho's measure all right; he did not wonder anymore about the first point of Uncle Cho's conditions.
"So, see you then," Chin Isou said, removing the toothpicks from his lips and stowing them into his sleeve again. "We shall have so much fun next week."
Once they were back again on the ground floor, in full view of the clientele, Uncle Cho gave Chin Isou a good box on his ears, shouting: "Dirty swine! Immoral kidnapper!"
The appointed day arrived. Armed with a fruit knife, for he disliked unpeeled apples and liked to be prepared at all times, Uncle Cho made his way to the castle of the One Hundred-Eyed Demon King. It was less than three hours' journey from the hamlet, actually, and Uncle Cho was spared from the tedium by the company of the barkeeper's apprentices, who were delivering four casks of wine to the castle.
"Oh, it's the village's tribute to the demon king. Today's his birthday, you know, and our master made this special brew just for the celebration," one of the boys told Uncle Cho.
They reached the gate, where the guards let the apprentices in without any trouble; they were familiar figures at the castle at tribute-paying occasions.
"And what is your business here?" one of them challenged Uncle Cho, eyeing the visitor's empty hands insolently.
"My name is Cho Gonou, and I have come to take my sister home," Uncle Cho replied mildly.
Uncle Cho breezed into the courtyard, leaving one guard keeled over in agony, cupping his tender parts, and the other guard with a buzzing headache. His sojourn at one of the more disreputable schools in the inner ghettos of the city had come to some use, after all.
The servants, who had been making a fuss over the apprentices and their offering, slipped away even before the first blow had been landed. Uncle Cho grinned inwardly. Chin Isou had been as good as his word. First the altercation at the tavern, and now the high-handedness with the guards.
Cho Gonou has been going to the tavern every night since the day the king took away his sister. Just drinking quietly. Listening. Looking. And waiting.
And then you know, the other night he gave the prince a sound beating, right there in front of the villagers.
One Strike. That's how much it takes for him to down a delinquent. That was what they used to call him at the city before he came here. Usually he did it with a piece of chalk, which was much healthier (for the said delinquent) than if he just used his bare hands. Certainly not a man to be trifled him. Uh-oh, the king has picked the wrong girl this time.
He is biding his time. He is coming.
Rumors did wonders for a man's reputation, indeed.
And so it was that Uncle Cho made his way unchallenged right up to the table where the host of the feast was seated.
"Greetings, sir," he addressed the corpulent, middle-aged youkai. The old king bore little resemblance to his son. The toothpicks had dropped from Chin Isou's trembling lips as soon as he saw Uncle Cho. Not quite a first-rate act, Uncle Cho thought, but passable.
"Have a seat," the king said magnanimously. "Come to take the sister back, haven't you? Castle been buzzing with nothing but talk of the terrible Cho Gonou lately. Yes, I do see the family likeness there. She'll be here in a moment."
"After she finishes giving the kitchen staff their daily dose of terror, I bet," Chin Isou chipped in bravely, earning a sour glance from his sire.
At the sight of Kanan, Uncle Cho's resolve was shaken. After all, what did he care of other people's sufferings? But he steeled himself with the thought of Chin Isou's promise of financial backing for his lifelong dream. And Kanan well-provided for, with a nice little pension and tucked away where she could boss about her own troop of domestics.
"Oh Gonou! How nice of you to come to the party."
"He has come to take you back, my dear," the demon king informed her.
"Why? Has something happened back home?"
"Er, no, not really," Uncle Cho stammered, his vision of himself, ever so dapper and smart, flipping tiles upright at a professional mahjong tournament, beginning to waver.
"I need you to come home," he made another go at it, reinforced by the image of the Nine Gates of Heaven hand he was about to construct in the world final. "There's no one to take care of the house, and it is a hectic time for me, being exam season and all..."
"Well...," Kanan was obviously touched. "But I like my new life here. There is so much to keep in order. You should see this place when I first came. It was not fit for creepy-crawlies, even."
The old youkai took a long swig from his bowl of wine and heaved a profound sigh. "And I do so want to know the end of the story, too."
"What story?" Uncle Cho asked stupidly, not caring. It was not going to work. So long, dreams.
"You know, about the prince who wished he was a foundling washed down the river, and the foundling who wished he was a prince."
Oh. So Kanan had been telling the geezer bedtime stories, taking care not to end a story before he retired. How clever. He would have done the same, in her place. Stiff competition from the other girls, not to mention the comely boys, in the harem. There were foul rumors regarding what the king did with concubines who no longer amused him. Still, Uncle Cho did not think that Kanan would make an appetizing meal, even for a ravenous youkai. He was about to nastily offer to tell them the end of that particular tale, when a poke in his rib reminded him of the next step in the plan. He looked in the approximate direction where the poke came from. Chin Isou was steadfastly examining the contents of his bowl with his chopsticks.
"All right. Let's settle this on a round then," Uncle Cho said. "Winner takes the girl."
"What do you think I am? Chattel?"
"It is three of you against me, after all," Uncle Cho countered his sister's indignant protest. "I am sure you have honed your skills among your, er, colleagues here. Or are you all afraid of one man?"
That was the genius of the plan. It was not impossible for one talented player to win with the connivance of another talented player. And if he lost, well, Chin Isou, the crafty bastard, did have Plan C. Which consisted of: You'll know what to do when the time comes. And oh, remember to carry a good-sized knife. Well, maybe not too bulky, but something that looks nasty enough. Okay? Here's the deal.
So the dishes were cleared off the table. The clack-clack of tiles against tiles did not last long. Uncle Cho revealed his final meld triumphantly.
"No!" Kanan cried in anguish. "I can't leave now. I am with child."
Uncle Cho was not sure whether Chin Isou was more shaken by the news than he was. At any rate, with the wisdom of hindsight, he was sure that the shock did affect the youkai's judgment. The second before Uncle Cho whipped the fruit knife from his tunic pocket and seized Chin Isou, he saw the youkai slip a tile into his hand.
"Your son or my sister," Uncle Cho said, his voice deliberate and clear. He let the knife graze Chin Isou's throat ever so slightly.
The old youkai hesitated. Did he think a half-breed an adequate substitute for his firstborn? Uncle Cho felt the slight stiffening of his captive's body. And then something drained away - from its place - and focused somewhere much denser, but not too far away.
Chin Isou fell on Uncle Cho's fruit knife.
The old youkai lunged towards Uncle Cho as Kanan let out a horrified shriek. In reflex, Uncle Cho flung Chin Isou's lifeless body away, trying to sidestep the oncoming attack. And then, the demon king vanished. Uncle Cho looked down on the table.
A giant centipede was wriggling feebly among the upturned tiles.
Kanan's shriek ceased, but its echoes reverberated in Uncle Cho's skull, so getting his mind to work coherently remained a complicated task.
Uncle Cho took a survey of his surroundings. It just occurred to him that nobody had interfered in what was clearly a villainous attempt to rob their liege of his handmaiden. They must have all vanished in fear at the sight of Chin Isou's spurting blood. Even the king himself, after a token show of violence. Huh. What a cravenly lot. Well, maybe it was the lack of a crowd. But a certain aspect of the castle, or rather, its housekeeping, hitherto unnoticed, had just been made very obvious.
He and Kanan were not just alike in appearance; they also shared the same tidiness of mind and the love of order that sort of mind commanded. He said to himself: "What have they gone and let the castle run to seed for, with all these dirty crawly things /everywhere/. And at a feast, no less. How unhygienic."
He looked at Kanan, who had reached the same conclusion, and more. She approached him, murmuring, "We'll have to get to work, cleaning this place up."
"Yes, of course," he replied, glad that she was coming back to her senses. And glanced up with horror when she seized the knife from him.
"I am sullied. I didn't know. They are so... ugly. And there is one of them, just like that, in me. So... goodbye, brother."
Uncle Cho's eyes were blurry with tears as he tried to grapple with the sense of it all. Why? he asked as he stomped on a few more good-sized centipedes under the neighboring table. They are just centipedes, disgusting yes, but you know how some of these posh youkais can be lacking when it comes to cleanliness, /he thought as he squashed another couple of giant centipedes with the leg of a broken chair. /But why kill yourself over some servants' laziness?
By the time he had methodically gone over every table and chair in the banquet hall Uncle Cho was tired out of his mind. He was sick of centipedes and the color green. He thought of carrying Kanan's body away from the terrible castle and giving himself up to the authorities. He tried to hoist her up on his shoulders, but slumped back on a squishy chair.
He carried her over to one of the rooms and laid her gently on the bed.
Then he walked out, and away.
He had no idea where he was going. All he wanted was to get as far away as possible. Then he saw the villagers, the barkeeper at the head. They were marching towards the castle, brandishing an odd collection of brooms and insecticides. They stopped dead when they saw him.
He stopped too, and wondered why they were staring at him in horrified silence. Then he realized that the upper half of his body was splattered red with Chin Isou's blood, and the lower half, was just, well, covered with dried slime. And the thought hit him: Chin Isou had to keep sober for the game. So he was the only one who did not touch the wine. He laughed.
The villagers scattered.
"As I said, I walked and walked until I fell down right there in the forest," Uncle Cho said. "I don't know why even to this day, but at the moment just before I lost consciousness, I felt at one of my pockets, and do you know, there's a mahjong tile just like that other one in it. I took it out and had a good look at it. 'Well, my friend,' I said to it, 'It's done. You've got her out of your hair forever. Are you happy now?'
"You see," he went on, "I know a youkai spell when I see one. I really meant to return that tile to the body the next day, though I was not sure if that was how it was supposed to work, but I fainted then and when I woke up in my rescuer's hut the tile was nowhere to be found. I never did find it when I went back to the forest, too. And then there was the trial, for the villagers must have gone to the castle after all and reported the whole thing to the authorities. That was how I met the Monk, you know, when he came to arrest me for the wholesale massacre of the One Hundred-Eyed Demon King's clan. I pleaded guilty, of course. There were the bodies. The effect of that wine didn't last long, even with death.
"Oh yes, I did find the tile again, a long while after that," he conceded, after much pestering by the younger ones, who had been fascinated enough by his tale to abandon their game. "Or rather, it found me. But that is another story, and it is getting late now, is it not?"
After the nuns had collected the orphanage children, Uncle Cho took his leave and I escaped to my room. I cried. For myself, for the end of innocence. Everyone in the village knew that Uncle Cho was the legendary thousand-demon slayer who was also part of the famous sutra-retrieving quartet. If his story were true, he was no better than a pest exterminator, and not a good one at that. How could he? How could he tell us this outrageous tale? If that part of his life were untrue, what other things that we knew about him were made of lies? Did the journey to recover the sutras even happen? Was Uncle Cho real? Was the Monk real? Was the Buddha real?
When I grew a little older, I began to appreciate the power of propaganda. It always pays to inflate your reputation, especially in the face of great, constant danger, as the party accompanying the Monk must have been in. It's like the lizard that puffs himself up to make himself bigger than he really is, in the hope that the predator would just give up and go away. By then I had completely lost my faith in the old deities. It was not that I no longer believed in them (they were there all right, as debauched and as immoral as ever); I just did not believe them anymore.
After some time I decided to go away with the strangely clad foreigner who visited the orphanage yearly, always near the Mid-Winter festival. He does not mind that I am what I am; it only matters to him that I am old enough to enter the seminary, although he advised me to always wear my limiters in the presence of others. I want to find out if the stern, upright barbarian deity, who sacrificed his only son to redeem the sins of humanity, was real. The priest said that there was a shroud imprinted with the features of the sacrificed personage in the city where he came from. I am going there to see for myself.
A/N: Many, many thanks to qwerty the xsmoonshine for ideas, comments, and language-fixing. [In fact, she was responsible for the very existence of this fic! (Let's face it, someone has to get the blame.)] Any shortcomings that remain, though, belong to me and me only.
Life is a series of con jobs. The emo narrator is going to have to learn this sooner or later. The herbalist was conned into marrying a snake (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_White_Snake), and somebody aimed to profit from the combination of an ancient-looking death mask and religious hysteria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shroud_of_turin).