How Master Madman Came to Ch’ing Feng Temple (Continued) 2

translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl

3.

The house was not yet a ruin, but it had been abandoned for a long time. The gate still hung on iron hinges black with rust. The wood, once colorful with paint, was now a dull gray and what remained of the nameplate was only the single character of the surname: Li. The courtyard was overgrown in mugwort and tall grasses; once–tended trees had grown wild in the garden orchard now thick with weeds. The place made Yang imagine what his father’s house might look like in a hundred years if his family fell out of favor with the Emperor. He felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Yang went to the gate and called out, several times, but got no answer. He waited until he knew no one would answer, and then he opened the bare wooden gate on its shrieking hinges and entered the courtyard. It was a wealthy house, paved in stone, but now tufts of dry grass and dead weeds poked through the cracks. Everything was bleak and colorless, the paper panels in tatters, the lattices skeletal, metal fixtures tarnished or rusted black. Once again, he called out and heard not even an echo in reply.

In most of the rooms the ceiling had collapsed altogether or there were gaping holes through which Yang could make out the stars and the moon. He went from room to room until he found one past the inner courtyard — a receiving room set up like the one in which his father conducted his official business. Here the beams were sound and the ceiling undamaged. It was warmer, too, though Yang could still feel the breeze blowing in through the broken shutters. This is where he would spend the night. He looked for the warmest corner, where he might move a piece of furniture and sleep on it to avoid the cold stone floor. And he wept out of frustration and from the sheer hardship of it all. Only that morning he had been surrounded by his father’s servants. He had woken in a warm and comfortable bed, enjoyed hot tea and a dainty breakfast while he still lounged in his sleep robe. These memories brought backimages so vivid that he could smell them — the subtle fried odors, the light touch of spices, the warm steam of the tea upon his face — and he cried some more. His stomach rumbled with hunger, his limbs ached with exhaustion. He huddled as best he could and sobbed himself to sleep.

He awoke late that night. The moon he had seen through the broken ceilings now shone low through the western windows. It was clear, nearly white in the cloudless night. But it was not the light, with its bluish caste, that had woken him. It was a noise — someone grunting, footsteps, the sound of something heavy being dragged. And then he saw it — a demon, a tall and lanky black demon dragging the body of a dead man.

Though Yang, like all well–bred young men, had been taught the martial arts and the ways of swordsmanship, he was a coward and now feared for his own life. He clasped a hand over his mouth lest he make a sound. He stood motionless until he was sure the demon had not seen him, and then he quietly crept backwards to hide behind a pile of broken furniture.

The demon, grunting and grumbling, pulled the body into the room. Drool leaked from his lower lip where his yellow fangs protruded like boars’ tusks. Yang could smell him — or was it the odor of decay from the corpse? And now as the demon passed across a patch of moonlight, Yang recognized the body. It was the fat bearded man, the leader of the bandits still wearing his fur hat. The demon dragged him so close Yang could see the scar on the bandit’s face, the gash on his neck, the black, clotted blood, the wide–open eyes, the bloated, protruding tongue.

The demon cursed and spat. He squatted on his haunches, facing the far door, and leaned over the bandit’s body, prodding at the belly. He was unhappy about something. He grunted again and squatted back down by the bandit’s head. He was naked — what Yang had taken to be the dangling end of a belt was actually the demon’s penis. It was so long it flopped on the floor, oozing piss from its puckered foreskin. In a moment Yang could smell the acrid stench.

Now the demon sighed, turning his head to glance out of the window at the moon. He had three red eyes, and Yang, though he trembled with fear, could not help but be fascinated by how they blinked alternately so that two were always open. Without looking down, the demon casually jabbed one of its long thumbnails into the corpse’s left eye socket and gouged out an eyeball. It was surprisingly large — twice the size Yang imagined an eye must be. Perhaps it had swollen in death. The demon popped the eye into his mouth and bit down. Liquid squirted as the eyeball burst like a fat grape. There was a bright shimmer on the floor where the fluid reflected the moonlight.

Yang could not help himself — his gorge rose in his throat, and it was only by sheer force of will that he kept from vomiting. He felt a dry heave, like a hiccup, then another, and he was calm again. He closed his eyes and did not see the demon’s ears twitch and its nostrils flare.

After a little while the demon got up and stalked out of the room. Yang knew he had to escape, but he dared not move until he knew it was safe. What if the demon was still near enough to hear him? He must wait, but then what if he waited too long and the demon returned? If he could wait until daylight he was sure to be safe, but he had no sense of the time and did not know how long it would be until sunrise. His heart was pounding. He was covered in sweat. He grew more anxious with each passing minute until it was fear and not bravery that made him resolve to get up.

But it was too late. The demon had returned. No — it was another demon, a red–skinned monster with a narrow chest and distended belly, with one crooked tusk and the other broken. It crept in looking left and right, approaching cautiously until it stood over the bandit’s corpse. This one also poked the corpse’s belly so hard that Yang could hear a sound, like someone breaking wind, and then he saw a black fluid leaking from the leg of the bandit’s fur pants. And now he smelled the stench of rot and excrement. Yang wrinkled his nose and covered his face with his sleeve.

The red demon lifted the corpse and slung it over his shoulder, letting out a loud grunt of exertion. But before it could move, a gravelly voice barked, "Stop!" The red demon looked toward the far door. It was the black demon.

"He’s mine! Put him down or I’ll gut you where you stand!"

"I found him first," said the red demon. "He’s mine."

The black demon pointed at the corpse. "I brought him here. If you doubt me, look at his face and you’ll see I’ve already plucked out an eye."

Turning his head so he could make out the corpse’s face, the red demon asked, "Which eye?"

The black demon hesitated. "The right eye. No! The left! No! To the Nine Hells with you — how should I remember which eye?"

"Then he is mine," the red demon sneered.

"Wait! I ate it. Come kiss me and you will still taste its flavor on my lips!"

"I’d rather lick a pig’s ass," said the red demon. "He’s a big one. Let’s share him, then."

"I’ll have what’s mine!" said the black demon. "Put him down before I lose my patience." He rose to his full height and spread his arms wide. The muscles of his chest rippled under his mangy fur.

The red demon dropped the corpse but he did not retreat. Instead, he reached into the shadows and produced a large club studded with metal spikes, and this he lifted high and slammed down onto the floor, showering the room with sparks and chips of stone. A stone splinter hit Yang on the cheek, drawing blood.

"Not so fast," said the black demon. "Since we can’t agree, let us have an impartial observer judge our case."

"What impartial observer?" said the red demon, eyeing the corpse. "This one’s got only one eye, and he’s dead."

"Not him," said the black demon. "Him!" And he pointed directly at Yang where he was cowering behind a bed.

"Who?" The red demon turned, and now both were looking at Yang with their round fiery eyes.

There was no point in trying to hide any longer. Yang stood on trembling legs feeling queasy and light–headed. He had heard of fear turning a man’s bowels to water and he had not understood. Now he felt as if his insides would come splashing down at his feet.

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3.

The house was not yet a ruin, but it had been abandoned for a long time. The gate still hung on iron hinges black with rust. The wood, once colorful with paint, was now a dull gray and what remained of the nameplate was only the single character of the surname: Li. The courtyard was overgrown in mugwort and tall grasses; once–tended trees had grown wild in the garden orchard now thick with weeds. The place made Yang imagine what his father’s house might look like in a hundred years if his family fell out of favor with the Emperor. He felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Yang went to the gate and called out, several times, but got no answer. He waited until he knew no one would answer, and then he opened the bare wooden gate on its shrieking hinges and entered the courtyard. It was a wealthy house, paved in stone, but now tufts of dry grass and dead weeds poked through the cracks. Everything was bleak and colorless, the paper panels in tatters, the lattices skeletal, metal fixtures tarnished or rusted black. Once again, he called out and heard not even an echo in reply.

In most of the rooms the ceiling had collapsed altogether or there were gaping holes through which Yang could make out the stars and the moon. He went from room to room until he found one past the inner courtyard — a receiving room set up like the one in which his father conducted his official business. Here the beams were sound and the ceiling undamaged. It was warmer, too, though Yang could still feel the breeze blowing in through the broken shutters. This is where he would spend the night. He looked for the warmest corner, where he might move a piece of furniture and sleep on it to avoid the cold stone floor. And he wept out of frustration and from the sheer hardship of it all. Only that morning he had been surrounded by his father’s servants. He had woken in a warm and comfortable bed, enjoyed hot tea and a dainty breakfast while he still lounged in his sleep robe. These memories brought backimages so vivid that he could smell them — the subtle fried odors, the light touch of spices, the warm steam of the tea upon his face — and he cried some more. His stomach rumbled with hunger, his limbs ached with exhaustion. He huddled as best he could and sobbed himself to sleep.

He awoke late that night. The moon he had seen through the broken ceilings now shone low through the western windows. It was clear, nearly white in the cloudless night. But it was not the light, with its bluish caste, that had woken him. It was a noise — someone grunting, footsteps, the sound of something heavy being dragged. And then he saw it — a demon, a tall and lanky black demon dragging the body of a dead man.

Though Yang, like all well–bred young men, had been taught the martial arts and the ways of swordsmanship, he was a coward and now feared for his own life. He clasped a hand over his mouth lest he make a sound. He stood motionless until he was sure the demon had not seen him, and then he quietly crept backwards to hide behind a pile of broken furniture.

The demon, grunting and grumbling, pulled the body into the room. Drool leaked from his lower lip where his yellow fangs protruded like boars’ tusks. Yang could smell him — or was it the odor of decay from the corpse? And now as the demon passed across a patch of moonlight, Yang recognized the body. It was the fat bearded man, the leader of the bandits still wearing his fur hat. The demon dragged him so close Yang could see the scar on the bandit’s face, the gash on his neck, the black, clotted blood, the wide–open eyes, the bloated, protruding tongue.

The demon cursed and spat. He squatted on his haunches, facing the far door, and leaned over the bandit’s body, prodding at the belly. He was unhappy about something. He grunted again and squatted back down by the bandit’s head. He was naked — what Yang had taken to be the dangling end of a belt was actually the demon’s penis. It was so long it flopped on the floor, oozing piss from its puckered foreskin. In a moment Yang could smell the acrid stench.

Now the demon sighed, turning his head to glance out of the window at the moon. He had three red eyes, and Yang, though he trembled with fear, could not help but be fascinated by how they blinked alternately so that two were always open. Without looking down, the demon casually jabbed one of its long thumbnails into the corpse’s left eye socket and gouged out an eyeball. It was surprisingly large — twice the size Yang imagined an eye must be. Perhaps it had swollen in death. The demon popped the eye into his mouth and bit down. Liquid squirted as the eyeball burst like a fat grape. There was a bright shimmer on the floor where the fluid reflected the moonlight.

Yang could not help himself — his gorge rose in his throat, and it was only by sheer force of will that he kept from vomiting. He felt a dry heave, like a hiccup, then another, and he was calm again. He closed his eyes and did not see the demon’s ears twitch and its nostrils flare.

After a little while the demon got up and stalked out of the room. Yang knew he had to escape, but he dared not move until he knew it was safe. What if the demon was still near enough to hear him? He must wait, but then what if he waited too long and the demon returned? If he could wait until daylight he was sure to be safe, but he had no sense of the time and did not know how long it would be until sunrise. His heart was pounding. He was covered in sweat. He grew more anxious with each passing minute until it was fear and not bravery that made him resolve to get up.

But it was too late. The demon had returned. No — it was another demon, a red–skinned monster with a narrow chest and distended belly, with one crooked tusk and the other broken. It crept in looking left and right, approaching cautiously until it stood over the bandit’s corpse. This one also poked the corpse’s belly so hard that Yang could hear a sound, like someone breaking wind, and then he saw a black fluid leaking from the leg of the bandit’s fur pants. And now he smelled the stench of rot and excrement. Yang wrinkled his nose and covered his face with his sleeve.

The red demon lifted the corpse and slung it over his shoulder, letting out a loud grunt of exertion. But before it could move, a gravelly voice barked, "Stop!" The red demon looked toward the far door. It was the black demon.

"He’s mine! Put him down or I’ll gut you where you stand!"

"I found him first," said the red demon. "He’s mine."

The black demon pointed at the corpse. "I brought him here. If you doubt me, look at his face and you’ll see I’ve already plucked out an eye."

Turning his head so he could make out the corpse’s face, the red demon asked, "Which eye?"

The black demon hesitated. "The right eye. No! The left! No! To the Nine Hells with you — how should I remember which eye?"

"Then he is mine," the red demon sneered.

"Wait! I ate it. Come kiss me and you will still taste its flavor on my lips!"

"I’d rather lick a pig’s ass," said the red demon. "He’s a big one. Let’s share him, then."

"I’ll have what’s mine!" said the black demon. "Put him down before I lose my patience." He rose to his full height and spread his arms wide. The muscles of his chest rippled under his mangy fur.

The red demon dropped the corpse but he did not retreat. Instead, he reached into the shadows and produced a large club studded with metal spikes, and this he lifted high and slammed down onto the floor, showering the room with sparks and chips of stone. A stone splinter hit Yang on the cheek, drawing blood.

"Not so fast," said the black demon. "Since we can’t agree, let us have an impartial observer judge our case."

"What impartial observer?" said the red demon, eyeing the corpse. "This one’s got only one eye, and he’s dead."

"Not him," said the black demon. "Him!" And he pointed directly at Yang where he was cowering behind a bed.

"Who?" The red demon turned, and now both were looking at Yang with their round fiery eyes.

There was no point in trying to hide any longer. Yang stood on trembling legs feeling queasy and light–headed. He had heard of fear turning a man’s bowels to water and he had not understood. Now he felt as if his insides would come splashing down at his feet.