Chuanzi ran until he was gasping for breath, but still, he did not dare to stop. He made his way through the shrubs, twigs in hair. His arms were raised to shield his face, and now they were burning with pain from the scrapes. He heard nothing except his own urgent breathing.
Chuanzi ran, disoriented, until he tripped and rolled down the slope into the stream. His arms were shaking as he propped himself up. He wanted to continue running, but his legs refused to obey. Chuanzi supported himself with his elbows and lifted the upper half of his body out of the stream. He sprawled on the muddy grass and took big gasps of breath. His head was spinning. Finally, he buried his head among the grass to retch.
It was not until the sun sank in the western hills that Chuanzi was able to recover. His hand trembled as he groped around his chest and took out the flattened steamed bun. He took big bites out of it. As soon as he filled his stomach, he braced himself against the trees and walked on gingerly.
The pitch-black night was like a dream. Chuanzi could not tell reality from hallucinations. His body alternated between feeling cold and hot. He felt as if he could make his way home if he continued on like this. When he touched himself later in the night, his body was scalding hot, while his soaked clothes were cold from the blowing wind. He was so feverish he felt dizzy; even the sound of his breathing sounded far away.
Chuanzi collapsed onto the ground. He could no longer get up. He seemed to hear the dogs barking. A pair of boots stepped across the thorny undergrowth and stopped before him.
◈ ◈ ◈
Chuanzi was burning up. Someone wiped him down and changed the cold handkerchief on his forehead all night. The woman leaned against the bed and wiped his tears away. Through the night, her jade-like hand never stopped brushing his damp hair and stroking his forehead.
In his dreams, Chuanzi was dreadfully pale, like an exposed corpse under the hot sun. He longed for those fingers. It reminded him of a woman, but he had forgotten her appearance. The ensuing pain overwhelmed him. He had left home, and it seemed as if he could no longer return home.
Chuanzi was at a loss. He could only wail under this fiery torment. He feared it all, because he could no longer remember how his mother looked like. The illness stripped him of his remaining courage, turning him back into a defenseless child. Crying was the only way he could vent it all out.
The woman embraced Chuanzi, and her gentle and warm shoulders and arms became Chuanzi’s refuge. He leaned against it and plunged into the bottomless darkness.
◈ ◈ ◈
It was the daytime when Chuanzi woke up. He inclined his head in a blank stare. He did not remember fleeing, nor did he remember cowering. He gazed at the scene outside the window as if he had not seen the flowers and plants for a very long time.
The door opened and a man of a stocky build entered. He sat down at the edge of Chuanzi’s bed and reached out a hand to feel the latter’s forehead.
“Wait a moment.” The man’s voice was booming. “The porridge is coming. It’s not too late for you to talk after eating.”
Chuanzi’s gaze shifted towards him. The man could not help but inwardly sing his praise. Chuanzi’s eyes were sharp and bright; there were no traces of fear in those eyes.
Yet, the sharpness in this pair of eyes was not innate.
“My surname is Gu.” The man said in a prim and proper manner. “My name is Zhi. This place is an armed escort bureau along the river. Don’t be afraid. My wife was by your side last night. Although we are childless, we have seven or eight disciples. We aren’t baddies. When you can speak, tell us your hometown and I’ll send someone to take you back.”
Gu Zhi was an upright and aboveboard person, but Chuanzi never got to return home. That was because his mind was all a blank by the time he could speak. He could not even remember what his mother looked like, let alone remember his hometown. Many times, Gu Zhi and his wife took him up and down the river to ask around, but they never found out where Chuanzi’s family was. Gu Zhi could not bear to place him under the care of another person, so he took him in as his little disciple.
“Since you can’t remember your name, then you can take after my surname. Let’s call you Gu Shen.”
◈ ◈ ◈
From then on, Gu Shen was on the go for half of his life, all for the word “return”. At first, he worked as an armed escort, then as a constable. He lived in poverty, but he never stopped moving. Whether it was the cities along the river or the various lands in the south, he made trips there to make inquiries. But no matter where he went, the places were all unfamiliar to him. His memory of “mother” was gradually replaced with his shiniang’s1 gentleness, while “father” almost seemed to be a man of indomitable spirit like Gu Zhi.
However, he had never understood why he never stopped looking. Something seemed to push him on as he stumbled through this aimless journey. He carried the burden of his own debt on his shoulders, one that had no end in this lifetime.
◈ ◈ ◈
The copper bell tinkled. Gu Shen made his way behind the Mountain Deity. He slowed down and walked beside the Mountain Deity. Weighed down by the vines, the Mountain Deity was now a sluggish, hideous monster.
Gu Shen took a step closer and felt his heart softening. He asked the Mountain Deity “… Do you recognize me?”
The Mountain Deity gently embraced the little wild ghosts and turned a blind eye to Gu Shen. Gu Shen followed him, even though he did not understand why. It was as if Gu Shen was possessed and was not moving of his own accord.
Cang Ji carried Jing Lin on his back and stepped into the air across the swaying branches to chase after them. They looked down. More and more little wild ghosts came running out of the underbrush. They chased after the Mountain Deity, who welcomed them with open arms and placed them securely among the vines.
“So many little wild ghosts.” Cang Ji said, “How many children have died here?”
“Hundreds of thousands.” It was windy among the branches. Jing Lin and the little stone figure held on tightly to Cang Ji’s clothes. Jing Lin’s hair fluttered in the wind. He said, “They kidnapped those people, held them captive here, and forced the girls to receive patrons. Then they sell away the children those girls give birth to. Look at how those houses in the city were constructed in such a stringently segregated way. How would they be able to take good care of those children when they were born? If they can’t sell them off in time, then the children will die in the city.”
“They were all buried in the mountains?” Even with a heart of stone, Cang Ji was aghast by the sight of all these little wild ghosts overrunning the mountains.
“Maybe they were fed to the devil.” Jing Lin tightened his grip, his mind going into a rare state of blankness. Cang Ji could not see, but it was not easy for Jing Lin to voice this out.
“The children are of mortal flesh.” Cang Ji said. “The humans who treat other humans like this and humiliate them to such a point are even worse than beasts. The devil has occupied this place for a long time and has even been fed by humans. I’m afraid he won’t be easy to deal with. “
“Supposedly, he’s hard to deal with.” Jing Lin brushed aside Cang Ji’s hair and directed him to look at the Mountain Deity. “He’s neither god nor demon. He’s not an evil spirit either. He’s born here and raised by the heavenly spirits in the mountains. That’s why he can evolve earlier to his current form. It’s also how he can move around freely. Do you know who he is?”
Cang Ji saw the Mountain Deity creeping forward as countless vines inched and crawled like snakes. But the little wild ghosts were not afraid. They laid peacefully in the arms of the Mountain Deity and listened as he hummed a tune under the moon and rocked them under the starry night.
They all called him “Mother”.
With some difficulty, Cang Ji probed. “Could it be Gu Shen’s mother?”
“It’s Gu Shen’s mother.” Jing Lin confirmed. “And also the mother of all the children in this world who has suffered because of this sin.”
As they said, all living creatures have spirits, and even plants have hearts. The mountains could hear the cries of the children over the years, and it had also seen the countless mothers who had searched for their child until they reached this spot. The city in the mountains was impregnable. The mountains listened day and night as the echoes of those incessant cries irrigated the spiritual energy of Heaven and Earth. Yet the most devoted, sincere love still abounded amidst such resentment and hatred. The matter that had angered both humans and deities had yet to attract the Ninth Heaven’s attention, but the mountain rocks had been moved by it.
Gu Shen’s mother had probably tracked him down to this place. Many years ago, the sturdy woman had leaned against the wall and listened, grieved by the incessant crying throughout the night within the city. She had looked for him for half a lifetime, chasing until her hair grew white, pursuing until her eyes went blind.
My son, my son.
The calls beyond the mountain never ceased. The rocks wept with them, and the plants grew hearts because of those cries. They became the women, a creature that was neither human nor demon.
“If Gu Shen’s mother is within it.” Cang Ji asked, “Why did she ignore him?”
“Gu Shen was only six or seven years old when he left home.” Jing Lin said, “It has been over thirty years. Even if his mother is still alive, she may not recognize him.”
Cang Ji stopped in his tracks. He remained atop the trees and watched the wind howling in the mountains. It was as if he could also hear those calls and cries.
“I don’t understand.” Cang Ji said.
Surely Gu Shen’s years of hardships and half-a-lifetime of toiling could not be all for a mere encounter between strangers. Even if Cang Ji knew nothing of suffering, he could still taste the bitterness as he chewed it over. The first taste of human emotions he had as a brocade carp, from Dong Lin to Gu Shen, had all been nothing but “suffering”.
Was there no other word for the love in this world besides suffering? If so, what was there to be happy about being a human being? He might as well be born a fish, sleeping soundly in the clear pond, ignorant of the world, living his entire life without a care in the world.
Both of them observed from a height and saw Gu Shen following blindly. It was a tragic sight to behold. But while they were waiting in silence, they heard Zui Shan Seng’s voice among the wind.
“This creature is still like a blank piece of paper. It’s hard to tell if he’s good or evil. Although he has done a meritorious deed by annihilating devils, he also bears the sin of killing humans. Furthermore, the heart of a plant is not like bedrocks. It’s common for it to change at a moment’s notice. If, in the future, he develops the lust to kill, then wouldn’t he become the scourge of humanity in this place?!”
Xiang Mo Staff glowed with golden light and cut off the Mountain Deity’s path. But the Mountain Deity had no concept of awareness and merely embraced the children as he advanced in a trance.
“You have performed a meritorious service by eliminating evil. Follow me to Zhuihun Prison. Once I report to the Lord, you will be able to atone for your sins. Wise sages are aplenty in Ninth Heaven. I’ll find a shifu for you to teach you to distinguish good from evil. It won’t be too late to repent then.” Zui Shan Seng flipped his staff into a horizontal position with one hand and held it out before him. “I’m here. I won’t let anyone dispose of you as they deem fit.”
“This sounds so familiar.” Cang Ji scoffed and shouted into the distance. “What has he done wrong? This place worships evil. Handling this matter should have been the responsibility of you deities. He personally took over your tasks, and now he still has to receive punishment for it?”
“This is the rule.” Zui Shan Seng swung his sleeve at Cang Ji. “This is the law of Heaven and Earth!”
“I can neither ascend to Heaven nor descend into the Earth.” Cang Ji sneered. “What the fart does the laws of Heaven and Earth have to do with me? I want him to remain here tonight. What can you do?”
“What nonsense!” Zui Shan Seng was exasperated. “Your cultivation is still shallow, but you’re so arrogant you have the audacity to censure the laws of Heaven and Earth! Do you know? Thousands of years ago, the Three Realms were just a mass of primal chaos where evil ran rampant, and all living creatures cried out with endless grievances. If it was not for the Supreme Father’s efforts to save the situation and enact the law, you and I would not be here discussing this matter here today!”
“I don’t know who he is, neither do I know of this law.” Cang Ji pointed a finger towards the sky. “I was born in white porcelain, not of Heaven. Your Supreme Father probably doesn’t even recognize me. So why do I still need to listen to him? You guys are already good sons of his, and now you still want others to follow in your footsteps and be his grandsons. You’re really benefiting at the expense of others. Stinky monk.”
Zui Shan Seng’s staff jolted with golden light, and the little wild ghosts in the crooks of the Mountain Deity’s arms simultaneously cried out in pain. The Mountain Deity’s vines sheltered them, and the muddy roots turned into a partition in an attempt to block off Zui Shan Seng’s light.
Zui Shan Seng shouted out a severe warning. “We don’t need your nod of approval to abide by the law. If I want to capture him, then I will! How’s that for you? What can you do?”
The staff struck a critical blow to the Mountain Deity, and the mountains howled as the foliage cried out in pain. For some obscure reason, rage swelled up within Cang Ji. He leaped down through the air, and Jing Lin separated from him. Cang Ji somersaulted and stepped on Zui Shan Seng’s staff. He put all his weight on it and pressed down on Xiang Mo Staff.
“You don’t know what’s good for you!” Zui Shan Seng bellowed and flipped the staff with sudden force.
Cang Ji raised his body back and heard the sound of the staff right beside his ear. He dodged the staff. Just as he wanted to grab it, he saw Zui Shan Seng, who had always charged forward boldly, sidestepping him. Cang Ji’s palm turned up empty. Before he could turn back, Zui Shan Seng landed a blow on his left side. Cang Ji instantly went sliding on the ground.
Cang Ji extended the five fingers that had been struck numb and swept himself off the ground. Zui Shan Seng saw a blur before him before he was pummeled in the chest. He choked and backed away, twisting Xiang Mo Staff to briefly delay Cang Ji from retracting his fist. Zui Shan Seng immediately turned to kick out at him. Cang Ji crashed into the ground with a “thud”, and Xiang Mo Staff came smashing down on his face. There was an earth-shattering sound of a collision. Zui Shan Seng felt as if he had struck metal. His eyes focused, and he saw that Cang Ji had, in a moment of desperation, blocked the attack with a raised arm. Those scales were slippery. Xiang Mo staff could not advance further! Cang Ji shoved his arms up, and Xiang Mo Staff could no longer hold him down.
Zui Shan Seng opened his mouth and said, “You’re courting death!”
Cang Ji lifted his feet to kick out at him, and Zui Shan Seng staggered back in a retreat. The impact was so strong that the purlicue2 on the hand that was gripping the staff hurt. It was apparent that Cang Ji’s cultivation was increasing at an astonishing rate. It actually seemed as if he was progressing every single day! This was truly shocking. He had originally expected him to turn out to be a calamity in the future, but now, this “future” did not seem to be too far away!
“Heretic.” Zui Shan Seng spat. “The development of your cultivation is abnormal. What did he feed you? What goes around comes around. You’ll have to pay with your life if you kill humans!”
“I told you not to be jealous.” Cang Ji’s arms still felt numb from the blows. A sudden wave of unhappiness washed over him. He felt as if something was wrong. It was only when he looked back that he realized that Jing Lin was gone!
“You can stop looking for him. I’ve asked someone to unmask him tonight.” Zui Shan Seng said in a cold voice. “We’ll find out who exactly the hell he is!”