The Witch Nichang– Chapter 19
A Few Years
“There is no calendar in the mountains, and when winter is over, you don’t know the time of year.”
When I was young, I had read “Journey to the West” in my spare time. I had forgotten everything, except the classic plots, and that was the only line that stuck in my mind. I envied the monkey’s free and unrestrained spirit when he was just born and yearned to be like him, so when I became an adult, I developed a hobby of carrying a backpack and traveling across the country on foot in quest of scenic places.
But still, it wasn’t until now that I truly understood the meaning of the line.
In this life, I had lived in the mountains for years. I was born and raised in the mountains, even most of the wandering and setting after following Master was in the mountains. Occasionally, we would make a trip downhill to purchase household goods, so it wasn’t so bad as not knowing the time of year, but the concept of time did become much more blurry. More often than not, I only paid attention to the change of the seasons and climate and watched out for what we were wearing.
Therefore, three years after three years, time passed in a blink of an eye, and life went on as usual.
Those who were accustomed to the world’s glitz and glamour might not stand such an unchanging life, but for myself, I had never gotten tired of it. Instead, I found the slow daily routine to be pleasant, with little worry and little thought. Nothing mattered much.
I wouldn’t feel lonely, for my heart was settled, and there dwelled in it people, like family, like friends, staying close by.
Aside from being arrogant and disagreeable, Lian’er was a cheerful and fun-loving person, but the fun was limited to what she liked. Unlike most people, she would rather spend her days roaming and playing with the pack in the woods, or drag me to the mountaintop to play than jostling with the crowds in the market at the foothills.
Besides, as we grew up, Master wasn’t willing to take us down the mountain anymore. Her exact words were we were too conspicuous.
I had no doubt about that. In fact, Master was still the center of attention even when she was out by herself. In the past few years, Lian’er and I had been growing taller and taller, yet Master hadn’t aged in the slightest. Her features still looked the same. On the contrary, her demeanor with the way she carried herself was getting more remarkable, adding some splendor to her. I thought she had a secret recipe for retaining her youthful look, but came to think of it, I didn’t see her making any special effort on it, so I could only chalk it up to the cultivation method, taking a wild guess.
Master’s mind was, after all, on her martial arts. For the past few years, apart from closed-door meditation, she had devoted most of her energy to urging us on, especially on Lian’er’s martial arts attainments.
I would sometimes feel the way she urged us on was as if she was afraid that time would fly like a white pony’s shadow across a crevice, like she wouldn’t have enough if she wasn’t careful.
I hadn’t told anyone about this random thought.
When I said anyone, aside from Master and I, there was only one other person—Lian’er. She had always lived up to Master’s expectations. One explanation was all she needed to understand anything related to martial arts. Even Master had more than once praised her endowment as being rare in the world, not to say I felt insignificant in the face of her talent. One might well say it was something you couldn’t ask for.
On the other hand, she was somewhat spontaneous when it came to practice. When she was in the mood, she wouldn’t take a break from practice. When she wasn’t in the mood, she would skip a few days of practice. All in all, she always caused Master a headache.
Just like today.
Today, as usual, I was planning our meals for the day early in the morning. Frankly, I wasn’t much of a cook. Especially without all the spices and seasonings, what I could make was limited, but Master and Lian’er had been eating it for years and had never complained. This pleased me and made me even determined to put in the work to make it better.
As I was preparing the meal, Master came up behind me and asked with a stern face: “Xian’er, have you seen your martial sister?”
I turned my head slightly and saw from the corner of my eyes that Master was holding a fuchsia wooden sword. Even though it was a wooden sword, it was made of top-quality Hsienmu wood, sounding like metal, as hard as steel, and extremely heavy. It was a fine item Master found by chance during the year when we were traveling together. It was meant to be used for training my wrist strength, but it was only in Lian’er’s hands that it was put to good use.
The moment when I saw Master holding it, and her face was grave, I had a good idea of what happened, so I replied with reverence: “She went out early this morning, and I haven’t seen her.”
The answer didn’t please Master. She glared at me and scolded me: “Okay, cut it out, don’t play dumb for her. You think I don’t know you yet? You’re always so protective of her and even closer to her than you’re to me as your master. She went out early this morning, but she will come back to you when she’s hungry, won’t she?”
My lie was exposed on the spot. I rubbed my nose in embarrassment and said with a flattering smile: “It’s not that I want to cover her. Lian’er had put a lot of effort into practicing martial arts the other day. As the saying goes, work hard, play hard, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to let her go for a walk today. If it’s something important, I’ll just go get her back.”
If it was nothing important, Master wouldn’t usually ask me to do it when I said so. But it did seem like she wanted Lian’er for something today, so she cut the nonsense and said with a wave: “Well then, get going and be back soon. I have to go down the mountain to handle some business tomorrow after having a word with her.”
Having seen that, I said nothing more, just nodded at Master, turned, and scooted off the cave.
When I got outside, I headed west without hesitation and found the wolf pack at the mountain pass with familiarity. Over the past few years, if Lian’er had gone out, nine times out of ten, she had been with them.
When we became closer, I had once tried to talk her out of it. I said to her: “You’re a human now, no longer a member of the wolf pack. If you always bring your harvest to them like this, it’ll diminish their wild nature and hunting ability over time. As kind as you are, what’s the difference between that and a mountain man taming a dog?”
When I said that, I expected her to lose her temper, and she did. But two days later, she came back to me and admitted that I had a point. Since then, she never brought any large prey to them, and when she did, she only brought a little, giving priority to taking care of the sick mother wolves and their pups.
As such, I had no reason to stop her, and sometimes, I would tag along and take care of the sick and the old with her.
As time went by, I became acquainted with the wolves, and they treated me as one of their own, which kind of fulfilled Lian’er’s initial intention of getting me into her gang.
Today, as usual, the wolves resting in the grass paid no attention to my arrival and didn’t cause an uproar at all, still going about their business and waving their tails leisurely. There were a few juveniles at the age where they liked to snuggle. When they saw me, they scrambled forward eagerly and kept on nuzzling my hand with their wet noses.
Stooping down, I looked around as I busied myself with them and called for Lian’er a few times, but I didn’t see that familiar figure. I couldn’t help feeling a little puzzled.
Then a female wolf came up to me.
I couldn’t see the difference between each wolf as well as Lian’er, but only with this wolf, I could recognize her at first glance because I once killed one of her pups.
She was a young female wolf then, but now, she was in her prime. I couldn’t tell why, but I could see she had a fairly high status in the pack. At this moment, she strolled over, brushed my calf with her tail, then turned around, took a few steps, stopped again, and looked back over.
Surprised, I knew the wolf was a highly intelligent animal, but this was the first time I had encountered such an obvious hint from an animal. I hesitated a little and felt that it should be fine, so I gently pushed the pups aside, stood up, and ran after her.
She casually led the way, at least she looked like she was leading the way, guiding me into the woods, and I followed behind her at an even pace. The wolves had been roaming around here for months, and I was familiar with these woods, so I wasn’t afraid of getting lost or anything.
But when I saw her slowly leading me deeper into the woods, towards a mountain creek where they usually drank water, I got a little confused. It would be a big joke if she just wanted to get a drink of water, and I got the wrong idea.
I was hesitant on my way there, but I still ended up following her to the destination.
I wasn’t wrong. The end destination was indeed the clear creek where the wolves usually drank water. The female wolf stopped when she reached there, just lay down on a boulder and looked at me.
I looked at her too, then at the sputtering mountain creek. The water here wasn’t too deep. The water at the shallow end was so clear that you could see down to the bottom of the creek, but it was wide, and the current was rapid. A few streams intertwined, forming a water net, traveling, and gushing downstream. Standing nearby, I could feel a hint of coolness in the fresh air. It was exhilarating.
But at the moment, I didn’t understand why she brought me here. Could it be that Lian’er came here to drink water like them? Or had I gotten the wrong idea? Or…
Before I could think anything out, there came the sound of feet splashing through the water.
Out of instinct, I turned to the direction of the sound and saw a figure wading through the water, emerging from behind a creek boulder. She was walking in the shallow end of the water, but the current was rapid, and the water was waist high, slapping against her body with considerable speed. The water bouncing off her was splashing all around; each bead of water was glittering under the sun.
The person was a familiar one, except…
“Lian’er! What’re you doing? Quick, get out of the water! Be careful not to slip!” I yelled, knowing that I was worrying for nothing but I was still worried. But for that moment, I could only stand there; I could neither go over or look at her.
When she heard my voice, she wheeled around with a look of joy, sprang out of the water with a deep breath, landed steadily on the rocks by the bank, and came scampering over barefoot.
I was getting flustered and could only cover my face and yell at her: “Stay back! You…you put on your clothes first!”
After that, my ears were burning, and I had no idea what the child was doing in the water. Maybe she wanted to play with the water or simply to take a bath. Either way, her lack of vigilance was…how could she…just not care at all even after getting out of the water…
With my face covered, I didn’t know how she reacted to my yelling. I could only hear the pattering footsteps go a little further away. She probably went to where she put her clothes. I didn’t have the nerve to look anyway, so I pinched my ears and looked away, then I realized the wolf was still lying on the boulder behind me, wagging her tail as if she was enjoying the show.
I shot a glare at her and bawled softly: “You’re not allowed to look either.”