The Witch Nichang– Chapter 56
From then on, we settled down in Mount Hua, living a life that was similar but ever so slightly different from back then.
With Master gone, it was just the two of us. Life went on as usual. Back then, Lian’er and I took care of most of the housework. Now, in addition to that, we had to make one or two more errand trips down the mountain every month. Master only ran our errands because we were too young at the time, and now that wasn’t an issue anymore.
Other than the minutiae of everyday life, there was one extremely important thing to do every day that took up most of our free time, and that was, searching for Master– dead or alive.
It was easier said than done. When you actually got down to business, it was as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. Imagine how big Mount Hua was? With three peaks standing in tripod and two side by side, there were countless caves, valleys, and cliffs among the mountains. At first, we had a rough idea where to start, searching the places nearby where she was likely to go, but even after a month had passed there were no signs of her.
When we had eliminated all the possible places we had in our mind, we fell into an aimless state. The area we were searching was getting bigger, and slowly, we started to lean on our intuition. As you might guess, the more you do that, the less likely you are going to get anything out of it. Later on, I could feel that Lian’er had begun to slack and give up. She began to treat the daily outing as a game. Every time we went to a place, she would split up with me and look around herself, picking the most dangerous areas to go and play.
I knew her qinggong was exceptional, so I had no reason to stop her. Lian’er had always been an impatient person. It was surprising enough that she hadn’t quit on me by now, so I had to let her be. I would just watch out for her at a distance. Fortunately, nothing went wrong.
A few months elapsed in a blink of an eye. Other than becoming better at rock climbing and more familiar with the terrain around Mount Hua, what did we find? Nothing.
After the first year ended with just the two of us, it was moving into early spring. The plants and trees came to life, the wild geese returned, and the peach trees started to flower.
On this day, Lian’er, who had been putting up with my willfulness for months, finally spoke to me, saying that the three-year period was due, that she was going to fulfill Master’s last wish to look for Taoist Zhenqian in Luoyan peak and ask him to inform Master’s husband, Huo Tiandu, about her death, and she asked me what I thought.
I looked at her. After a long moment, I clenched my teeth, and at last, said, “Alright.”
It was a damp and cold day in the mountains, with mist hanging in the air, giving the day a somber feel. Lian’er didn’t say anything more when she saw that I agreed. As she was about to turn and go after nodding with a smile, I grabbed her and said that I would go with her, but she didn’t agree. Instead, she pushed me towards the cave. Lian’er said, smiling, as she was pushing me, “What are you going to do by coming with me? I’m just sending a message. Look at your face, it looks almost as bad as the sky. You better get some rest. I’ll be faster on my own. Isn’t it better that I’ll be back before it rains?”
I didn’t know how my face looked like, and I didn’t feel like I needed rest either, but it was undeniable that she would be faster if she went alone. The weather was ever-changing in the mountains, but once you had stayed in the mountains for long enough, you would have a good idea when it would rain. I could only let her go and kept telling her to come back early and not take more than four hours.
I paced back into the cave after I saw her off into the distance, but I didn’t feel like resting, so I went to the small stone chamber at the farthest end again and stood before it.
Master, I accepted your death, but am I supposed to…I asked myself. Even though I knew there would be no answer, even though all these days had yielded nothing, the glimmer of hope was still sparking in me. However, there was a limit to willfulness.
From October to now, I have dragged Lian’er with me to stay here for several months. She hadn’t complained, but sometimes, she would go down the mountain alone. I knew what she was doing down there. She went down to see her people from the stronghold who came all the way to town. This kind of meeting happened once or twice a month and let her tend to some affairs and keep in touch with the outside world.
She was already a member of the jianghu, but I dragged her with me to stay in the mountain, causing her some tedious troubles. I felt sorry for her every time I thought of that. Besides, the possibility of finding Master was slim, so I had to…give up, no matter how much I hated to.
I told myself this giving up was just temporary. It didn’t mean it was over, but I couldn’t convince myself no matter what. Frustrated, I wandered in the stone chamber. Looking at this little world where time had frozen, a sense of familiarity welled up and ebbed away.
The stone chamber was still the same as it was a few months ago, still dark, still covered in dust. That time when we were cleaning up, I had decided to clean up this place, but after being interrupted by Lian’er, the resolution that I worked up was almost gone. Then I couldn’t bring myself to do it again, and in the end, I kept it as it was, like how Master had left it.
I rubbed my neck. Maybe I should be glad that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to regain my peace so easily.
But after regaining peace, I began to feel sorry because Master had always liked to stay tidy. If she was still around, she would never allow her room to become like this. Now that she was no longer around, her disciples left her room to collect dust. I supposed it wasn’t something she would like to see whether she was around or not.
I couldn’t just stand there anymore at the thought of it. I let out a long breath, eventually decided to roll up my sleeve, and continued what I had left unfinished a few months ago.
At this moment, I would feel better if I was doing something.
The interior of the stone chamber was simple. After I wiped the dust off the large stone block that was used as a table and mopped the floor and a few small items, all that was left was the alcove in the wall where things like quilts and cushions were put, and a robe was draped on top like how I had first seen it a few months ago.
I reached out my hand and hesitated for a moment but still took that robe down, planning to wash it later. I also moved the quilts and the other stuff over to the stone block one by one, separating them into those that needed drying and those that needed washing. When I cleared away everything and only the alcove was left, I took the cloth and was about to clean it. Who knew I accidentally knocked the bottom of the alcove and found that there was a lid there. Flipping it open, there laid a scroll of parchment and a wooden box.
That scroll of parchment was something I was familiar with—it was the notebook that Lian’er had found. It was just that it was much thicker than it was back then. I folded my hands at it and saluted it three times in silence before opening it. A lot of new martial arts techniques were added in it, and her thoughts about the sword techniques, but content about her feelings was getting lesser with time. Only the last part wrote, her handwriting messy, “I was meditating last night, cultivating my neigong. Unexpectedly, a nightmare struck, as if there were numerous demons coming at me. I fought and slayed them. When I woke up, my lower body was paralyzed, unable to move, and my upper body felt numb. What I practiced was tainted and brought the scourge of Qi Deviation on myself. Alas! I would never see the sky again.”
I read it twice before closing the scroll silently and spacing out. Before this, I only listened to what Lian’er said. This was the first time I had seen Master tell the story herself. It turned out it was just a nightmare that had ruined such a vibrant person. A few simple sentences on paper and a sigh. A quiet despair, and that’s it.
In the face of what I had seen, the hope I had had for several months now had cracked for the first time. Maybe Lian’er was right. Maybe Master was really…
It took me a while to pull myself together. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, stopping myself from thinking about it, and carefully put the parchment scroll back in place, and turned my attention to the wooden box beside. The box wasn’t big and was nondescript, but since it was put together with the parchment scroll, it showed how much Master valued it.
After a moment of hesitation, I took it out carefully. I opened the lid, and there was a small jar. Its color was old and plain, but it looked somehow familiar. I shook it, and it rattled. There were some small items inside. I poured them out to find three little wine cups, simple and modest, but the edges were smooth and neat.
When I saw these, it dawned on me, wasn’t this the jar of fine wine that the old man from the ceramic store gave us? I never thought that Master would keep it together with Lian’er’s gift after all these years. I could see that she treasured them. If Lian’er knew about it after she was back, I reckoned she would be exhilarated.
My mood seemed to lighten up at this discovery. I was about to put the stuff back in place and show it to Lian’er when she was back, but when I picked up the small wine jar and was about to put it back, I noticed there was one more thing on the bottom of the box. Something thin and light stuck to the bottom, like some sort of paper.
I took it out. It didn’t just look like it; it was a piece of paper, a letter. On the side facing up, it wrote, “To my dear disciple, Zhu Xian.”
I was shocked, almost letting go of the small wine jar I was holding. Fortunately, I came around in time and laid it down eagerly. I hurried to the entrance where there was light with that letter and took a closer look. It was Master’s handwriting, no doubt. The handwriting was as messy as the one on the parchment scroll. Obviously, it was written after she had fallen ill.
Ever since I had seen the letter written for Lian’er, there had been a doubt in my mind. That was, there was not a single word about me in that letter. I thought Master still resented me, so I couldn’t say anything. Now that I found out about this letter, it stirred me. My fingers started to tremble, at the same time, I couldn’t wait to open it, wondering what Master wanted to say.
When I finally opened it, I saw it was just a few sentences on a white piece of paper, a poem. It wrote:
The young green bamboos are half sheathed.
New tips are peeking out the wall.
Their shadows creep across the books, casting an illusion of night.
The wine bottles seem to cool as their shadows pass by.
Dainty and pure with the wash of rain.
The wind carries their faint fragrance.
If only they are left untouched, someday you will see them reach the clouds.
—Ode to the Bamboo, Dufu
I had read it twice, from top to bottom. Other than that, there was nothing.
Holding this piece of paper, the ripple it caused in me earlier faded, leaving only doubts. Although I wasn’t that familiar with it, I remembered it was a poem written by a famous poet, but I didn’t understand why Master didn’t mention a word about what she was thinking in this letter that was almost like a last will. Instead, she only left me a poem.
It must mean something, but what? I read through the poem once again. There were no acrostics nor metaphors. It was just an ode to the bamboo. That was related to my name, but so what? Surely, Master wouldn’t just want to compliment someone in a deliberately written letter like this, right? Not to mention, there was nothing worth complimenting about me.
I was racking my brain but still had no idea at all. I read it over and over again, and in the end—you could say it was an intuition—the word “wine” in the poem caught my eyes.
It was nothing uncommon when the word “wine” was in a poem. It was just that…
I turned around. The wine jar was still in the alcove, and the wine cups that Lian’er made back then were in it. The letter and the two items were put together. So could there be some connection between them?
Then I thought about it again. If the bamboo in the poem was me and the wine in the poem was these wine ware, then there was only once where I was connected with these ware. That was…
Suddenly, a memory flashed across my mind. A chill struck me.
Could it be that on that evening a few years ago, Master…