The Witch Nichang– Chapter 21
The Stone Chamber
I sometimes felt like I might never get used to it—to the child’s occasional, unexpected behaviors that would hit people right in their feels.
I never thought about her birthday, yet she remembered mine, even thought about sending me a gift when it snowed. It really left…me speechless. I dropped my head and looked up at her before I managed to lift my lips and put a smile on my face again.
After that, I looked quietly into her eyes and listened to her voice talking.
She didn’t notice anything standing in front of me and just carried on happily on her own, telling me how she had found these two stones and carved them into her desired shape bit by bit with the sword Master gave her. I listened in silence, but I saw her slowly knitting her brows as she spoke, as if she had thought of something troubling.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, reaching out my hand to rub her knitted brows.
She was a child who didn’t like to show her weakness, especially in front of me. Her eyes flickered for a second when she heard me asking. She looked over at me a few times before she finally made up her mind and spoke with some concern.
“But…” She said: “After all being said, these are still not good enough. Even I’m not satisfied with it myself. It’s bad to give it to Master and you.”
Stunned, I wondered: “What’s bad about them? Aren’t they nice? I quite like them.”
“But look.” She thrust those two little things up in front of my face, even closer than they had been earlier. “They were smooth before. After they’ve been carved, they aren’t even as smooth as the stones on the creek bank. They’re uncomfortable to touch.”
They were too close to my face. I had to lean back a little to be able to focus and take a closer look. I found that indeed, as Lian’er had said, streaks of scratches were left on the pure colored stones, faint but numerous, which would surely make it rough to touch.
I wanted to tell her that it is okay, that it is the thought that counts and the heart that matters, but I knew the child too well. She had the tendency to go to extremes about things she cared about. This time, I believed she was taking the gift very seriously, and she subconsciously had a sense of competition. She would never want to give anything less than what I gave to Master last time. I feared it would be counterproductive to give her this grand-sounding talk straight away.
It was best to think of a way to help her with this problem.
I was thinking and working my brain, and when I thought of what she had said about the stones on the creek bank, I incidentally glanced at the flowing water beside me. An idea suddenly came to mind, and I said with a smile: “Lian’er, I have an idea.”
“What?” She tilted her head and looked over this way, not very excited, but there was anticipation in her eyes.
“The reason why the surface of the stones on the riverbank was smooth was that the water was washing against the stones for a long period of time.” I explained it to her: “So, as long as you find a net to hold these two stones and leave it in the rapids. With the power of nature, they’ll surely be polished smooth and rid of any scratches, but…”
“But what?” She prompted.
“But I’m afraid it’s going to take quite a bit of time, that’s all. It isn’t going to happen overnight…”
Her eyes that had just brightened up dimmed down again: “The thing is, there’s no time. Master’s birthday is coming up in a few days…”
Now was the chance.
I chuckled and hugged her soothingly, affectionately, touching the skin on her waist by accident. It was warm and soft. A strange feeling welled up in my heart.
But I had no time to think about it now. I took this opportunity to say what I had been wanting to say: “Lian’er, it doesn’t matter how nice the gift is; it’s how deep your love that matters. The mug I gave last time wasn’t that nice either. Master likes it isn’t because it’s a nice mug , so I dare to say, as long as you give it to Master, she’ll be happy. It doesn’t matter much if it’s flawless or not. You don’t have to be bothered about it too much.”
Because of the roundabout earlier, she didn’t take offense of what I said and probably took it in. But after giving it some thought, she still shook her head and said: “I’d rather not. I don’t want to give it to her like this when I can do better.”
“Really?” A stubborn one indeed. I had more or less expected it. I wasn’t going to argue. I was just going to go along with her and smiled: “In that case, let’s find a net and place them in the water. There are still many days to go, won’t it be the same to give it to Master next year?”
“What about this year? Just forget about it?” She sulked, her face filled with reluctance.
I didn’t want to make the situation more complicated, so at first, I was going to convince her that it was okay to forget about it this time. Maybe I was used to seeing that radiant look on her. Seeing a look of dejection appeared on her face, I didn’t know why my heart felt a little heavy. With a change of thought, I started coming up with ideas again. I told her that a gift didn’t have to be hand-made. It could be something you bought specially for her. Of course, it was best to buy what she liked.
The idea itself was all right and perfectly fine.
But it was only after, long after that I would often wonder if I had talked her out of it if there hadn’t been that change of thought, that idea, would everything have been different?
Maybe it would. Without the trigger, something buried would just stay buried forever.
Maybe it wouldn’t. Even without the trigger, no one could be sure at what point, at what time in the future, and by what chance, another one would emerge quietly.
No matter what, maybe was always just a maybe.
The truth was Lian’er indeed brightened up after hearing what I said. Although she was still a little bothered about not being able to give Master a hand-made gift, she was relieved to be told that she could give a gift to Master on both of her birthdays. Then she began to think, seriously and single-mindedly, about buying a gift.
Buying a gift itself wasn’t a problem. Although Lian’er had a temper and didn’t like to talk to strangers at the foot of the mountain, she would be fine with me by her side, at least she wouldn’t cause any trouble. It was just that we were both stuck on finding out what Master liked.
She wasn’t picky about anything, be it clothing, or food, or the place she lived, or the things she used. She used whatever she had, rarely asking for anything. It was even harder to see her show any particular preferences. I was ashamed to say, the reason I gave her a ceramic mug that time was because I had learned something about pottery before for fun, and I remembered that there was a potter at the foot of the mountain, which was why I went to make one on a whim. I didn’t really consider what Master liked.
But since I had said that to Lian’er, and she had taken it seriously, I shouldn’t disappoint her. She and I had been thinking about it for a while, but to no avail. In the end, I didn’t know where Lian’er misunderstood, she discontentedly blamed it all on the fact that Master was always in retreat, and thus came to the conclusion that she had to get into the meditation chamber and check out what was inside.
When she said that, I was surprised.
No one had ever entered the stone chamber at the end of Yellow Dragon cave over the years, except Master. I knew the purpose of the chamber since it was first carved out, so I had been avoiding it knowingly or unknowingly. I had never been near it, except to serve Master food and water when she was in meditation retreat. Even when I brought food and water to her, I never looked around and always got out of there fast.
Maybe it was the subtle influence from me, she had never been in there, though she didn’t seem to be scared of it. Of course, it could be she had never been interested in it.
Anyway, after all these years, it was a de facto no-go area between Master and us disciples, although Master hadn’t said anything about it.
The moment I heard Lian’er wanted to check out such a place to find clues to what Master liked, I was reflexively against it and tried to talk her out, but I couldn’t convince her because I couldn’t explain why. Master hadn’t given any order not to enter, not even a casual remark, so Lian’er insisted that it was fine, and eventually, even I myself, was a little curious.
It is just the way people are. No matter how rational they are, deep down, there will always be a desire to explore mysterious, unknown places.
So in the end, I still agreed to Lian’er’s idea, even agreed to go with her, but only on the condition that she had to be patient and calm and wait for a time like when Master went down the mountain before we could bring our plan into action.
But in fact, it didn’t require much patience at all.
We were almost back in the cave when I remembered that Master had vaguely said something earlier like she was going down the mountain the next day for something when Master asked me to get Lian’er.
The next day, she really went down the mountain and didn’t sense anything unusual like always when she left.
Lian’er kept her promise. She did stay calm. Even when she heard that Master was leaving, she didn’t show the slightest difference in her behavior, which was surprising compared to her usual behaviors. But she jumped up as soon as Master left, eagerly wanting to proceed immediately, but was forced to sit down by me for a while with some coaxing. Only until I was sure Master had gone far and wouldn’t return because she had forgotten something did I let go of her hand.
Once I let go of her hand, she couldn’t hold back anymore—she didn’t have to as well. She came to the end of the cave in a few steps, channeled her qi, and moved the boulders that served as the doors with two palm strikes. Then she held them and pushed open a gap that allowed a person to get through. With all that done, she turned back, smiled at me smugly, and went ahead first.
Shaking my head with a smile tugged at my lips, I followed behind.
I knew the size of the chamber and the general look of it because I had watched Master carve it out at that time. But the chamber was unlit now, so it was dark.
This level of dimness was nothing to Lian’er, but it definitely had an effect on average people. I fished out a flint, not daring to light the candle on the table, for I feared that Master would find out what was going on later when she was back, so I went out to get an oil lamp and lit it up before taking a closer look at the layout of the stone chamber.
Speaking of layout, the interior was basic. There wasn’t even a table and a chair. The block of stone right in the middle of the chamber served as a table. On its side, there was a cushion for seating. A niche was carved out of the stone wall beside it, but it wasn’t used to honor the gods or the Buddha. After placing the quilt and cushions in the niche, it turned into a place to sleep at night.
Other than these large items, all that was left was some odds and ends. Holding an oil lamp to look around, I could see only more of the various sword techniques engraved on the stone walls, some new and some old, with different postures, some of which seemed familiar, some of which I had learnt long ago. I supposed they were the insights Master gained from meditation over the years.
How could we tell what Master liked from such a place that looked simpler than the outer cave? I was a little discouraged, but Lian’er wouldn’t give up. She searched under the mat and other stuff and rummaged through the quilt and cushions in the niche.
When I was just about to remind her not to make a mess, lest Master grew suspicious when she came back, I heard a cheer of delight coming from her.
Then when I was about to ask, I saw Lian’er turn around and stride over holding a roll of something in her hand. She didn’t say much when she came to me, just shoved the roll to me and asked urgently: “What’s this?”
I looked down at it and answered without thinking: “A parchment.”
This reply drew a look of disdain from her. Lian’er glared at me askance and said angrily: “Of course, I know this is a parchment. Inside, I mean inside!”
Placing the oil lamp on the block of stone, I carefully opened the thing with both hands, fearing that I might accidentally break it. The scroll was so long that it might as well have been a book. The beginning and the middle part of the scroll were filled with various sword styles, the same as those engraved on the stone walls, except for the addition of cultivation methods. I assumed it was the final draft Master put together. This might be something that many people in Jianghu dreamt of, but it had nothing to do with the purpose of this search with Lian’er.
I looked up and was about to say that to her, but then I felt something was off. Even if there were words that Lian’er didn’t know, she should be able to recognize the sword styles. It was impossible for her to be so excited just because she discovered this.
At the thought of that, I opened it up patiently, little by little. Towards the end of the scroll, I saw a dark red text, looking completely different from the text before.
I was startled. If I wasn’t mistaken, this dark red was clearly formed after the blood had dried. This…this was a letter written in blood? I didn’t dare to jump to a conclusion, so I asked Lian’er, and as I expected, it was what I thought it was. Naturally, she wouldn’t know the significance of a bloodletter. She only knew it was written in blood and intuited that it was different. That was why she was full of anticipation.
But looking at the thing on my hand, something didn’t feel right. Under normal circumstances, writing a bloodletter was always supposed to happen during a crisis or at a critical moment, but the words before me were neat, densely written, and clearly wasn’t written in panic.
I was puzzled, so I just held the scroll and perused its contents.
Upon perusal of it, I was surprised to discover that it was none other than Master’s own diary written over the years! Or rather, a diary-like existence that she had written now and then in longhand throughout the years!