The Witch Nichang– Chapter 31
The wind carried a biting chill and stopped right before my left shoulder.
The turbulence around me swerved from a rapid surge to a slow flow. The storm of attacks stopped without a warning as if someone had cast a fixation spell.
It was all black in front of me. Only my sense of touch and hearing were sharp. Lian’er’s breathing was right above my head, a reminder that time was still ticking.
Her breathing was slightly messed up, unlike her who could keep her composure even after two to four hours of practice. Her slightly disrupted breathing went on for a while. Then I heard a voice deeper than usual saying: “You, open your eyes.” After a pause, she got more impatient when she received no response and blared: “Open your eyes and lift your head!”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t do as she wished because it would surely be the start of our confrontation once I did that. I feared I couldn’t control the emotions in my eyes and also my mouth. The sudden spurt of emotions was like the fermentation gas choking in my chest, which would blow up upon the slightest contact. I just had to not see, not speak, and not move, pretending to be a cold corpse to keep it in check.
But in the next moment, my collar tightened, and I was dragged to my knees, the pissed-off voice shouting beside my ears: “What’re you doing? Can’t you look at me and talk properly? Acting all weird, you weren’t like this before!”
She was right. It was all because of me. This must be too much for her. But the reproachful voice at this moment was like adding fuel to the fire, cracking my last line of restraint. I appeared the same on the surface, but my breathing became heavier, hands clenched into fists, and I was about to lose control.
In the nick of time, it was the sudden words of Master that saved the day.
“Lian’er, that’s enough.” I heard her voice coming from the other side. It was far off at first, but by the next sentence, it was next to me. “Stand down. Let me talk to your sister.”
This unexpected intervention loosened the tense string in my mind that was about to snap.
Regarding Master’s order, Lian’er, who was in a rage, was reluctant to obey. She had been making a fuss for a while now. I kept quiet and listened to her the whole time. But eventually, she still gave in, let go of my collar with reluctance, and with a stomp, walked away in anger.
“Xian’er…” Master spoke again after the sound of footsteps faded. “Alright, can you open your eyes now?”
This was a phrase for discussion but not a tone for one. I could be stubborn with Lian’er but not with Master, no matter how angry I was. Besides, during that time just now, I had regained control of those unexplainable emotions. Now that Master said so, I slowly opened my eyes.
Still, I was feeling a little guilty, so I daren’t look Master in the eye, just looking at the ground, stooping down to hide my face: “Your disciple…is ashamed…”
“Alright, stop hiding. You have emotions. Lian’er doesn’t understand. Do you think I don’t?” I was flicked twice on the forehead, and I heard Master laugh: “It’s just that I didn’t expect there’s time Xian’er was so stubborn. I thought you’d be willing to talk to Lian’er once given a chance. I didn’t expect you to suffer for nothing.”
My lips fluttered. I had no idea what to say, and by the next line, Master’s smile dissolved. “Tell me, what’s on your mind? Lian’er didn’t know any better. You can always talk to your teacher, right?”
Once, I hoped there was such a person in this world to whom I could open my heart. Once, I thought Master and Lian’er were such a person. But now I knew I couldn’t talk about these feelings to anyone, no way. Other than heaven and the earth, gods and spirits, it could only forever rot in my belly.
But on the other hand, I genuinely didn’t want to lie to Master and knew lying to her wasn’t easy. When both were in conflict, I hesitated for some time. I had nothing to say, other than murmuring: “Master…”
“Fine.” When Master saw I wasn’t talking after a long wait, she didn’t get angry but just heaved a long sigh and patted my head, saying: “Actually, even if you don’t spill out your thoughts, I could somewhat tell. Something was off about you since that day. Why do you have to keep it to yourself?”
My heart was thumping when I heard that.
I lifted my head. Apart from incredulity, there was unconcealable panic on my face. But in front of me, Master’s expressions that came into view were amiable and serene, even wearing a sweet, loving smile on her face.
Seeing such expressions on her, the unbidden panic in me subsided.
I knew Master was sharp, but I didn’t think she was that sharp since these feelings of mine were too mind-boggling in this era. How could someone, however wise they are, guess it so easily? I’m afraid Master misunderstood me and got the wrong idea. If that is the case, it actually isn’t a bad thing. As I was pondering, I stopped talking and lowered my head again.
Master saw I was surprised just now. Thinking she might be right, she couldn’t help but feel a little upset. “You’ve followed me for almost 10 years, right?” She asked.
Not knowing why she asked this, I answered honestly: “Yes, I’ve been following Master since I was six. It’s been more than 10 years now.” After a while, she sighed: “…Yeah, you’ll miss your family all the more on festive days. No matter how at odds you are with them, the bond can’t be severed.”
Her sigh came out of nowhere. It was more of talking to herself rather than me. I confusedly stole a peek at Master. Seeing Master rapt in her thoughts like the dusk of that day when she was drinking, I started to wonder, could there be another occasion a few days ago other than Master’s birthday? If so, then Master just pretended there was none, whereas Lian’er and I really had no idea but somehow reminded Master of something, thus those words?
But what did that have to do with me?
Before I could make sense of it, Master slowly turned around, facing me, and said earnestly: “Do you remember I once said, from now on, whether or not you return, accept your parents, or get married, it’s up to you to decide, and no one in this world can put you at their mercy?”
Though confused, I still nodded hard. For me, this sentence rewrote my life. The memory of it was definitely still fresh in my mind like it was yesterday.
Master smiled as she saw me nod and continued: “Since you remember, then you should know I always kept my words, and since I’d said no one in this world can put you at their mercy, naturally, that includes me.” She paused, looked at me in the eyes, and said solemnly: “So, you don’t have to hesitate. Do whatever you want. You don’t have to worry about me, much less Lian’er.”
If I hadn’t guessed her thoughts before, I would have thought she was hinting at something at this moment.
But because of the guessing, my rationality told me there must be another reason—A few days ago, we celebrated Master’s birthday. Whether or not we forgot any special occasion, we had evoked something in Master’s mind that made her miss her family faraway. She was so and seeing me looking troubled since that day, it was easy for her to misunderstand that I was in the same situation as her. And associating what I had said before, she clearly thought I…
I heaved a sigh of relief once I figured it out. Just as I was about to explain to Master to ease her mind, a thought came to me on second thought.
This thought was so huge that I myself was staggered.
That night, the day was calm. Lian’er was tinkering with something outside. Master was busy with her big thing in the stone chamber as usual. And I was holding a book and looking at it absent-mindedly by the oil lamp on the table.
Shortly after, someone came in from outside.
Without having to look, I knew who came in just by the footsteps. It was boring to stay in the cave. Plus, she didn’t like to read, so she always preferred to play outside when she had nothing to do. When she had enough and came back, it was time to rest.
So I stood up out of habit and set down the book in my hand. When I was about to blow out the lamp, a hand stopped me.
“Who asked you to blow out the lamp? I still have things to do, with you.” Her temper came and went quickly for most of the time. Though I didn’t think her gloom had dissipated, I couldn’t hear much negativity in her voice just from this sentence alone. At least she was way calmer than she was in the daytime.
After a moment of hesitation, I looked up, this time looking right into her eyes, and asked softly: “What’s it?”
I knew, from having that thought onward, there was a subtle change in my attitude that made me not want to avoid her anymore, to disappoint her, or to upset her.
Lian’er was stunned, probably didn’t expect to get such a direct response. A look of surprise flashed across her face first, and then I could see her cheering up, her face breaking into a smile of pure happiness. She shook the little bottle in her hand at me, and said: “Just listen to me, go go, go to the bed and lie down. Oh, right! Take off your clothes too.”
I was being shoved towards the bed, and when I heard that, I was shocked and said nervously: “You, wait, what do you want to do, Lian’er?”
“Put on some tincture.” She didn’t stop and continued to push me as she answered, driving me to the bed like driving something off, and in the meantime, flashing me the little bottle again. “I’m very strong, so don’t tell me your body doesn’t hurt.”
I only recognized the use of that little bottle when she said so. It was a kind of tincture for bruises we brought from a doctor down the mountain. Since we lived in the mountains and practiced martial arts a lot, bumps and falls were inevitable. We usually had this kind of stuff ready. I just didn’t expect Lian’er to dig it out from the storage outside the cave so late at night.
My heart softened when I knew what she wanted to do, but the feeling of being in a quandary ensued. By now, I had to sit down as I had been pushed to the edge of the bed. I couldn’t care about anything else but implored her softly: “Wait, wait a second, Lian’er. I can take care of those bruises myself. You…let me do it myself, okay?” With that, I reached out my hand, wanting to grab the bottle she was holding.
Who knew she realized my intention when my hand was stretched halfway. With a swift turn, she dodged my hand and said with a straight face: “Let you do it yourself? Can you? I remember where I hit. Those on the back, try doing it yourself?” Then she rolled her eyes and said: “Could it be…you couldn’t be afraid of pain that you don’t dare to let me help you?”
This girl, when did she learn how to goad someone? And did it in such an obvious way? I burst into laughter. It was fine if she didn’t mention it. Now that she mentioned it, my body was indeed stinging for the whole day now. Besides, if I kept refusing, she might be upset, and it would seem like…I’m a bit guilty…
At the thought of this, I stopped refusing. I gritted my teeth and took off my robe gently, pretending to be frank. I hesitated for a while, but still, I couldn’t do it in the end and just untie the inner garment a little, lifted it, and revealed my back. Then I sat at the bed and turned around, stammering a little: “That’s, um, that’s all right, right?”
It was quiet behind me, no sound. After a while, a hand gently landed on my skin. The body temperature that was slightly higher than average formed a stark contrast to the cold tincture, triggering a shiver.
The sensation of heat and cold blended together was sliding on my back and slowly, getting heavier. When her hand rubbed on the bruise, it was so painful my body tensed up, and when it left, my body relaxed. I was caught in the cycle of tension and relaxation. The coldness was no more, and the tincture turned scalding. The hand was even warmer. Everywhere it went was painful and burning. Gradually, the burning sensation overtook the pain. The pain was no longer intense, but a tickling sensation set in with the burning heat, sore and prickly. It was faint at first, but then it built up. Mixed with the heat, it crushed into my body. I felt sore and weary, like my bones and tenders being ground, yet it was strangely pleasant.
In this strange comfort, it was as if I had entered a dream. Something was stirred in my brain and started floating. The beach was bustling with people. The white sand carried the warmth of the sun, and it felt as pleasant as earlier. The shade of the parasol was just right, the waves were swashing not far away with a rhythm, and a hand was stroking on my back along with the rhythm. The coldness of the sunscreen was blended with a strange warmth, and I heard beside my ears: “How’s it? Wanna put some more on? Xiao Ying?”
And I roused with a shudder!
“Are you dreaming again? What’re you afraid of?” The voice behind me wasn’t someone’s; it was Lian’er’s.
Realizing this, it didn’t lighten up my mood. I forgot I was half-dressed and turned around to look at her face to face, listening to her continue: “You’re not happy. There’s something you fear inside you. I know. It’s fine if you don’t tell me. I’ll find it out myself.”
She said she would find it out herself. My Lian’er, always growing without me realizing it. Now, she began to understand how to figure out people’s minds. At least, she tried to figure me out.
This didn’t make me happy. Instead, a wave of panic surged up in me.
Deep into the night, everything returned to silence.
Lian’er was sleeping well—probably the best one she had in the past few days—because she had made up her mind to figure out others’ minds and what they were thinking on her own to solve her doubts.
I got up silently, walked around her holding my breath, and tiptoed to the end of the cave, in front of Master’s room.
Through the gap between the rocks that acted as screens, I could see the light inside was still on. I stood there for a long time, oblivious of how much time had passed, and at last, I flipped the hem of my robe, kneeled down, and kowtowed.
At the end of that conversion, Master said: “No rush. Come again and tell me when you’ve thought this through.”
“Zhu Xian pleads Master to grant me return.”
xiao is a term of endearment commonly used in Chinese, which means “small” or “young” or “little.” Zhu Xian’s name in her past life was Wu Ying, thus Xiao Ying, which literally translates to little Ying.