How Master Madman Came to Ch’ing Feng Temple (Continued) 4

translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl

"Who are you?" said the red demon.

Yang’s mouth felt as if were stuffed with raw cotton. Only a croaking sound came from his throat when he tried to answer.

"What does it matter who he is?" said the black demon. "Let us each present our case and let him decide who gets the meat. I could rip you limb from limb, but I’d rather not spill the blood of my own kind in a quarrel over food."

"Limb from limb, you say? I could bat your head from here to Loyang, but I shall spare you because our little judge will see things my way."

"Very well," said the black demon. He grabbed Yang and placed him on a stool on top of the broken furniture. Then he presented his case, describing how he and his brothers had been disturbed that day by a group of bandits dividing their loot in front of their home among the dolmens. They had killed most of the bandits and then they had fought over the meat. He had lost the horses and the mule but had managed to get two men. "They had a hostage — an old monk. But he was too skinny — a vegetarian, no doubt,"the demon said."But this one was meaty and plump, so I dragged him up here to eat in peace where my brothers would not disturb me. I left him to ripen a bit and went back for the monk — they say a monk’s brain is especially sweet from having pure thoughts. But the monk was gone! Stolen! Then I come back to find him making off with my meat!" The black demon gestured contemptuously at the red demon, who merely snorted.

"Quite a tale," said the red demon. "And perhaps it is even true. But it is irrelevant."

"What?" said the black demon. "How can the truth be irrelevant? You! Are you mute? Ask him!"

Yang cleared his throat. From where he sat above them he could see the black demon’s fur standing on end. He was furious. Indeed, Yang realized that however he judged the case, one of the demons was bound to be angry and would probably eat him. Or perhaps this was all a cruel charade they were performed for their own perverse demonic amusement, knowing all along that they would end up sharing the meat of the two humans. I am dead, thought Yang. Of that I am certain, and only the particular time and circumstances are not yet known to me.They will kill me and devour my flesh. My eyeballs will burst like ripe grapes between their teeth. They will rip me to pieces, break open my bones, suck out my marrow.

The black demon’s slap brought Yang out of his reverie. "I said ask him! How can the truth be irrelevant? You are the judge, so judge!"

Yang coughed, and he spoke without thinking. "I will judge fairly," he said. "But first I must have your assurance that you will let me go free."

Both demons laughed until their fangs were flecked with spittle. "My assurance!" said the black demon. "You want my assurance? You have it! I’ll rip your head from your neck and use your skull as a chamber pot if you don’t pass your judgment now!"

Yang realized that the black demon expected the judgment to be in his favor. The demon had probably noticed him when he had first come with the bandit’s corpse. Or had he? If he had known all along, why hadn’t the demon simply eaten him then instead of leaving the corpse behind and allowing him a chance to escape? Yang could not make sense of it. But now his understanding of his own death had become a cold certainty, and he began to wonder how he would meet that death. The demons would not let him live.He was a dead man. He thought of his father the Minister, his family name, the honor of his ancestors. At least he could die with honor.

And so Yang decided that if he were to die, it would be with dignity. He would tell the truth. He looked at the red demon. "Honorable demon," he said, "it may seem to you that you discovered an abandoned corpse, but I witnessed your colleague enter this room earlier in the evening. He did, in fact, eat an eye from the corpse. And when he left, it was not with the attitude of one abandoning one’s property. I have been here since nightfall and I speak the truth."

"See," said the black demon. "Spoken like a magistrate!"

At first the red demon was quiet. He seemed resigned to the judgment. But he was oddly calm. "You speak the truth," he said. "But your truth is irrelevant. Why? Why is the truth irrelevant?" He turned to the black demon. "Because, my friend, you are in my house and what is left in my house is mine by law. What is more, you are both here without invitation. You are intruders. And I may exact a penalty for your rude trespassing if I so desire."

"What?" said the black demon. "What proof do you have that this house belongs to you?"

"And what proof do you have that the gravesite where you live is the property of you and your brothers."

"We’ve lived there for centuries among the dolmens," said the black demon.

"I have lived here for six turns of the zodiac," said the red demon, reaching for the bandit’s corpse.

"Wait," said Yang.

The red demon paused.

"What is your surname?"

"What? I am a demon. I have no surname, only the names by which I am feared and loathed. Would you like to hear some of them?"

"No," said Yang. "But this house is owned by the family of Li according to the nameplate. And unless you have purchased this property from them through a proxy and such purchase is recorded in the archives of the Assessor, this house cannot be yours. By law, no demon or ghost may own property."

"You’re just a damned squatter!" said the black demon. "Now get your hands off my meat!"

The red demon was quiet again. But in his silence, Yang saw that his fur bristled and ropy veins pulsed at his temples. "A corrupt judgment!" he cried. "Fraud!"

"Shut up and be on your way," said the black demon.

"Am I a dimwit? You believe I will lose one meal and simply leave you with yet another? Ha!"

The black demon strode forward and stood over the bandit’s corpse.

"Go ahead and eat your pig," said the red demon. "I shall have the lamb over there."

The red demon moved so quickly that Yang saw not even a blur. But he felt a horrific blow, as if he had been hit by the side of a mountain, and then his entire body burned with a pain so fierce he could not even hear his own scream. His vision went white, then dimmed, then filled with sparks of light. But the most awful thing was the sound of it — like the gristly sound a drumstick makes when one rips it from a pheasant’s hip, but louder, and with a force that shuddered through his entire body.Yang screamed, he doubled over, and when his vision cleared he saw his right arm — the glowing white bone of the shoulder joint — in the moonlight, the black, gushing of blood. He stood stupefied, as if he would at any moment wake from this unpleasant dream. But he did not wake. He felt, instead, for the ragged mess of his shoulder socket. He felt his hot blood spurt against his good hand. And then, in another instant, something hit him against the torn shoulder —so hard he fell to the floor with the wind knocked from his lungs.While Yang lay groaning and waiting to die, he heard the black demon cursing. The red demon dropped Yang’s arm and cursed back. There was a strange tingling in Yang’s right shoulder — like a thousand bristles poking him, and when he looked, he saw an arm attached there — the bandit’s arm — bathed in a pale blue–white light. And now he though this was certainly a nightmare. He would endure it, surely, and he would awaken in his comfortable bed. Why else would his concern be so oddly out of place? Instead of fearing for his life,Yang was annoyed and angered at the thought of having to live with mismatched arms. The bandit’s hands were coarse — his flesh was unpleasantly hairy and sunburnt. What an embarrassment to have to reveal such a limb in front of his servants. Yang closed his eyes and waited for the nightmare to be over. But the red demon was still angry. He ripped Yang’s other arm from its socket. And while Yang screamed again — shrill as a pig at slaughter — the black demon ripped the other arm from the bandit’s corpse and attached it to Yang, affixingit there with the glowing life energy of ch’i. And then it happened with a leg, and the other leg. The pain was so great that Yang could no longer feel it, and now he was even more certain it was all a nightmare. He was outside his body, looking down at himself as people are wont to do in times of great trauma. He saw the red demon jab his claw through his belly and rip out his intestines. He wondered how they could be so incredibly long. The red demon twirled his arm as length after slimy length slid out of Yang’s belly and his innards all layin one big steaming pile on the stone floor. The black demon looked indignant — he said something to the red demon, who laughed. But Yang could hear no sound. He watched, numb and helpless, as the black demon ripped open the bandit’s belly and lifted out an armload of intestine, which he dropped onto the floor. And this continued, this perverse game, until his living body and the bandit’s corpse were both as hollow as gutted birds ready for stuffing. The demons exchanged the empty torsos and the black demon refilled Yang’s body with the pile of organs from the floor.

Yang was confused. Now all that remained of himself on his body was his head. Everything else was pieces taken from the bandit’s corpse. Yang’s original arms and legs, his organs, his empty torso — now all lay scattered on the floor. But surely, I am still me, he thought. While my head is intact, I am still myself. How, then, was he able to look at his body from outside, unless this was a dream? Or was it true what they said about how one’s spirit could live independent from the body, how it could travel the world at night while the body lay in bed. And which was his real self then,the body or the spirit?

Now the red demon grabbed Yang with one hand on each side of the face, a thumb jammed so far into each ear that Yang felt his eardrums burst. The demon pulled him close and opened his fanged jaw, and at that moment Yang was back inside his body, seeing out of his own eyes the hideous round eyes of the red demon; he smelled the demon’s fetid breath; he could hear the rasp of hot wind blowing from the demon’s bull–like nostrils.

"Let him go," said the black demon.

"Who?" said the red demon, and he pressed his fat lips against Yang’s nose and sucked, clasping his palm over Yang’s mouth so he could not breathe.

Yang could make no sound against this strange kiss. He flailed at the demon with his arms, now muscular, which had once belonged to the bandit. He struggled, kicked his legs, but the demon did not let go, and in another moment Yang felt a horrific pressure as the red demon sucked his brain out through his nose and spat mouthfuls of it onto the floor, where it quivered like piles of thick mucus. At that, the black demon split open the dead bandit’s skull and removed the coagulated brain, wrinkled like two huge, veined walnut halves. Yang closed his eyes as his head was ripped off by the red demon. When he opened them again a moment later, Yang was looking at his own head on the floor. He was looking out of the dead bandit’s eyes, which were somehow his.But Yang’s own body — all of it — now lay strewn across the floor in bloody pieces. Arms, legs, torso, entrails, brains, head. He had looked behind his father’s kitchens once when he was a boy. It was the fall moon festival and the cooks had butchered dozens of pigs and cows. This is how the kitchen floor had looked — like a charnel house.

I am dead, thought Yang. There lies my body. But then how could he be seeing himself? My spirit is still alive, he thought. And he could feel his body — his new body, the corpse of the bandit. But how could he be alive if he were the dead body of another man? Was Yang dead, and he was the dead bandit come to life again? How could he not know whether he was alive or dead?

Now the demons were laughing. The red demon pointed at the gruesome mess on the floor and the black demon was nodding in agreement. They each picked up a severed leg — Yang’s legs — and began to eat, their eyes rolling with pleasure. They were so preoccupied, eating so greedily, that they paid no heed when Yang — or the reanimated corpse of the bandit — finally made his escape.

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"Who are you?" said the red demon.

Yang’s mouth felt as if were stuffed with raw cotton. Only a croaking sound came from his throat when he tried to answer.

"What does it matter who he is?" said the black demon. "Let us each present our case and let him decide who gets the meat. I could rip you limb from limb, but I’d rather not spill the blood of my own kind in a quarrel over food."

"Limb from limb, you say? I could bat your head from here to Loyang, but I shall spare you because our little judge will see things my way."

"Very well," said the black demon. He grabbed Yang and placed him on a stool on top of the broken furniture. Then he presented his case, describing how he and his brothers had been disturbed that day by a group of bandits dividing their loot in front of their home among the dolmens. They had killed most of the bandits and then they had fought over the meat. He had lost the horses and the mule but had managed to get two men. "They had a hostage — an old monk. But he was too skinny — a vegetarian, no doubt,"the demon said."But this one was meaty and plump, so I dragged him up here to eat in peace where my brothers would not disturb me. I left him to ripen a bit and went back for the monk — they say a monk’s brain is especially sweet from having pure thoughts. But the monk was gone! Stolen! Then I come back to find him making off with my meat!" The black demon gestured contemptuously at the red demon, who merely snorted.

"Quite a tale," said the red demon. "And perhaps it is even true. But it is irrelevant."

"What?" said the black demon. "How can the truth be irrelevant? You! Are you mute? Ask him!"

Yang cleared his throat. From where he sat above them he could see the black demon’s fur standing on end. He was furious. Indeed, Yang realized that however he judged the case, one of the demons was bound to be angry and would probably eat him. Or perhaps this was all a cruel charade they were performed for their own perverse demonic amusement, knowing all along that they would end up sharing the meat of the two humans. I am dead, thought Yang. Of that I am certain, and only the particular time and circumstances are not yet known to me.They will kill me and devour my flesh. My eyeballs will burst like ripe grapes between their teeth. They will rip me to pieces, break open my bones, suck out my marrow.

The black demon’s slap brought Yang out of his reverie. "I said ask him! How can the truth be irrelevant? You are the judge, so judge!"

Yang coughed, and he spoke without thinking. "I will judge fairly," he said. "But first I must have your assurance that you will let me go free."

Both demons laughed until their fangs were flecked with spittle. "My assurance!" said the black demon. "You want my assurance? You have it! I’ll rip your head from your neck and use your skull as a chamber pot if you don’t pass your judgment now!"

Yang realized that the black demon expected the judgment to be in his favor. The demon had probably noticed him when he had first come with the bandit’s corpse. Or had he? If he had known all along, why hadn’t the demon simply eaten him then instead of leaving the corpse behind and allowing him a chance to escape? Yang could not make sense of it. But now his understanding of his own death had become a cold certainty, and he began to wonder how he would meet that death. The demons would not let him live.He was a dead man. He thought of his father the Minister, his family name, the honor of his ancestors. At least he could die with honor.

And so Yang decided that if he were to die, it would be with dignity. He would tell the truth. He looked at the red demon. "Honorable demon," he said, "it may seem to you that you discovered an abandoned corpse, but I witnessed your colleague enter this room earlier in the evening. He did, in fact, eat an eye from the corpse. And when he left, it was not with the attitude of one abandoning one’s property. I have been here since nightfall and I speak the truth."

"See," said the black demon. "Spoken like a magistrate!"

At first the red demon was quiet. He seemed resigned to the judgment. But he was oddly calm. "You speak the truth," he said. "But your truth is irrelevant. Why? Why is the truth irrelevant?" He turned to the black demon. "Because, my friend, you are in my house and what is left in my house is mine by law. What is more, you are both here without invitation. You are intruders. And I may exact a penalty for your rude trespassing if I so desire."

"What?" said the black demon. "What proof do you have that this house belongs to you?"

"And what proof do you have that the gravesite where you live is the property of you and your brothers."

"We’ve lived there for centuries among the dolmens," said the black demon.

"I have lived here for six turns of the zodiac," said the red demon, reaching for the bandit’s corpse.

"Wait," said Yang.

The red demon paused.

"What is your surname?"

"What? I am a demon. I have no surname, only the names by which I am feared and loathed. Would you like to hear some of them?"

"No," said Yang. "But this house is owned by the family of Li according to the nameplate. And unless you have purchased this property from them through a proxy and such purchase is recorded in the archives of the Assessor, this house cannot be yours. By law, no demon or ghost may own property."

"You’re just a damned squatter!" said the black demon. "Now get your hands off my meat!"

The red demon was quiet again. But in his silence, Yang saw that his fur bristled and ropy veins pulsed at his temples. "A corrupt judgment!" he cried. "Fraud!"

"Shut up and be on your way," said the black demon.

"Am I a dimwit? You believe I will lose one meal and simply leave you with yet another? Ha!"

The black demon strode forward and stood over the bandit’s corpse.

"Go ahead and eat your pig," said the red demon. "I shall have the lamb over there."

The red demon moved so quickly that Yang saw not even a blur. But he felt a horrific blow, as if he had been hit by the side of a mountain, and then his entire body burned with a pain so fierce he could not even hear his own scream. His vision went white, then dimmed, then filled with sparks of light. But the most awful thing was the sound of it — like the gristly sound a drumstick makes when one rips it from a pheasant’s hip, but louder, and with a force that shuddered through his entire body.Yang screamed, he doubled over, and when his vision cleared he saw his right arm — the glowing white bone of the shoulder joint — in the moonlight, the black, gushing of blood. He stood stupefied, as if he would at any moment wake from this unpleasant dream. But he did not wake. He felt, instead, for the ragged mess of his shoulder socket. He felt his hot blood spurt against his good hand. And then, in another instant, something hit him against the torn shoulder —so hard he fell to the floor with the wind knocked from his lungs.While Yang lay groaning and waiting to die, he heard the black demon cursing. The red demon dropped Yang’s arm and cursed back. There was a strange tingling in Yang’s right shoulder — like a thousand bristles poking him, and when he looked, he saw an arm attached there — the bandit’s arm — bathed in a pale blue–white light. And now he though this was certainly a nightmare. He would endure it, surely, and he would awaken in his comfortable bed. Why else would his concern be so oddly out of place? Instead of fearing for his life,Yang was annoyed and angered at the thought of having to live with mismatched arms. The bandit’s hands were coarse — his flesh was unpleasantly hairy and sunburnt. What an embarrassment to have to reveal such a limb in front of his servants. Yang closed his eyes and waited for the nightmare to be over. But the red demon was still angry. He ripped Yang’s other arm from its socket. And while Yang screamed again — shrill as a pig at slaughter — the black demon ripped the other arm from the bandit’s corpse and attached it to Yang, affixingit there with the glowing life energy of ch’i. And then it happened with a leg, and the other leg. The pain was so great that Yang could no longer feel it, and now he was even more certain it was all a nightmare. He was outside his body, looking down at himself as people are wont to do in times of great trauma. He saw the red demon jab his claw through his belly and rip out his intestines. He wondered how they could be so incredibly long. The red demon twirled his arm as length after slimy length slid out of Yang’s belly and his innards all layin one big steaming pile on the stone floor. The black demon looked indignant — he said something to the red demon, who laughed. But Yang could hear no sound. He watched, numb and helpless, as the black demon ripped open the bandit’s belly and lifted out an armload of intestine, which he dropped onto the floor. And this continued, this perverse game, until his living body and the bandit’s corpse were both as hollow as gutted birds ready for stuffing. The demons exchanged the empty torsos and the black demon refilled Yang’s body with the pile of organs from the floor.

Yang was confused. Now all that remained of himself on his body was his head. Everything else was pieces taken from the bandit’s corpse. Yang’s original arms and legs, his organs, his empty torso — now all lay scattered on the floor. But surely, I am still me, he thought. While my head is intact, I am still myself. How, then, was he able to look at his body from outside, unless this was a dream? Or was it true what they said about how one’s spirit could live independent from the body, how it could travel the world at night while the body lay in bed. And which was his real self then,the body or the spirit?

Now the red demon grabbed Yang with one hand on each side of the face, a thumb jammed so far into each ear that Yang felt his eardrums burst. The demon pulled him close and opened his fanged jaw, and at that moment Yang was back inside his body, seeing out of his own eyes the hideous round eyes of the red demon; he smelled the demon’s fetid breath; he could hear the rasp of hot wind blowing from the demon’s bull–like nostrils.

"Let him go," said the black demon.

"Who?" said the red demon, and he pressed his fat lips against Yang’s nose and sucked, clasping his palm over Yang’s mouth so he could not breathe.

Yang could make no sound against this strange kiss. He flailed at the demon with his arms, now muscular, which had once belonged to the bandit. He struggled, kicked his legs, but the demon did not let go, and in another moment Yang felt a horrific pressure as the red demon sucked his brain out through his nose and spat mouthfuls of it onto the floor, where it quivered like piles of thick mucus. At that, the black demon split open the dead bandit’s skull and removed the coagulated brain, wrinkled like two huge, veined walnut halves. Yang closed his eyes as his head was ripped off by the red demon. When he opened them again a moment later, Yang was looking at his own head on the floor. He was looking out of the dead bandit’s eyes, which were somehow his.But Yang’s own body — all of it — now lay strewn across the floor in bloody pieces. Arms, legs, torso, entrails, brains, head. He had looked behind his father’s kitchens once when he was a boy. It was the fall moon festival and the cooks had butchered dozens of pigs and cows. This is how the kitchen floor had looked — like a charnel house.

I am dead, thought Yang. There lies my body. But then how could he be seeing himself? My spirit is still alive, he thought. And he could feel his body — his new body, the corpse of the bandit. But how could he be alive if he were the dead body of another man? Was Yang dead, and he was the dead bandit come to life again? How could he not know whether he was alive or dead?

Now the demons were laughing. The red demon pointed at the gruesome mess on the floor and the black demon was nodding in agreement. They each picked up a severed leg — Yang’s legs — and began to eat, their eyes rolling with pleasure. They were so preoccupied, eating so greedily, that they paid no heed when Yang — or the reanimated corpse of the bandit — finally made his escape.