However, the upsurge of desire never found a release, because Cang Ji heard the copper bell swinging urgently, telling him to leave. It was as if the bell was absorbing his divine consciousness. The backtracking scene shattered, and in a blink of an eye, Cang Ji sank into his own spiritual sea. The brocade carp had swelled to double its size at a speed visible to the naked eye, and a deep dark color had crept upon its original color of golden red. The surface of its scales was slightly protruding and sharp. It no longer looked like a brocade carp at a glance.
Cang Ji transformed into human form. His arm extended out from the side of Jing Lin’s waist as his neck adhered to Jing Lin’s cheek. His shoulders seemed to have become broader. By the time his legs fully appeared, he could already hide Jing Lin in his arms. In the dark, the demon constructed a new human body. It was just as he had wished back then. He had become taller, far surpassing Jing Lin.
Cang Ji opened his eyes. He could hear the chirping of insects a few li1 away. Those tiny things that were once invisible were now magnified, clear, and visible. The heat current in Cang Ji’s body underwent a change as his spiritual energy converged in his limbs and body; he could now use them as he wished.
He moved a little and realized that he was wrapped in a cocoon of vines and mud. The Mountain Deity’s hum lingered. Cang Ji felt around his bosom. Jing Lin was icy cold all over; he was still asleep.
Cang Ji said, “Thanks.”
The ball of mud opened slightly and sunlight penetrated through it. Cang Ji squinted and rose to his feet, pulling off the roots of the vines. He looked out amidst the waves of dust. He thought he would come face to face with a monster Mountain Deity. He did not expect to see a human face on a body of vines.
Cang Ji broke free of the mud. The surrounding grasses reached his knees. Flowers bloomed on thousands of branches in the mountains, washing the mountains in a sea of purplish pink. Birds and beasts ran among them in a relaxed and free manner. Fanshu sat atop the vines, while the little wild ghosts frolicked on the ground in contentment. The low humming and whisperings of the Mountain Deity formed a peculiar tune. He let the children run around him as he dragged his massive body and sat among the grasses to weave garlands with his vines.
Fanshu swung his tail and hopped off the vines. He circled around Cang Ji and said, “Why are you still alive? You have slept for many days.”
Cang Ji asked, “How long?”
Cang Ji took the new clothes and draped them over himself to cover himself up. He was not concerned about the time; instead, he asked, “Where are those two immortals?”
“They left.” Fanshu said, “The one who’s pretty said Mother will live here from now on. Only that she cannot kill for no reason, and she must report to that whatever division and follow its rules.”
It’s that easy to get rid of Dong Jun?
Cang Ji asked again, “And where did Gu Shen go?”
Fanshu rolled on the ground, rubbing his fur against the grasses. He raised his claws and said, “Gone.” He tilted his head. “He said he has found his mother. But he left crying… Where are you going?”
Cang Ji picked Jing Lin up on his back and leaped through the mountains as he stepped on branches, making a dash for it.
He was wondering why he had dreamed of Jing Lin’s past. So that bell was simply trying to delay them. When he woke up, that chap had run off again!
Cang Ji could not take it lying down, but he found that his body seemed lighter when he soared through the air. Not only that, his senses had become more acute. When he swept through the vast sea of flowers, he even had an impulse to plunge into it and swim. Cang Ji landed abruptly on the ground. The wind rose in a swirl around him as countless fragments of flowers fell from the impact and drifted through the air.
Cang Ji walked down the descending mountain path through the forest, with layers of flowers cushioning his soles. He had not even taken two steps when he felt the arm around his neck tightened. That was how he knew the man on his back had woken up.
“I could tell from Gu Shen’s scent that he’s still here.” Cang Ji said. “Can you still sense the copper bell?”
Jing Lin’s nose twitched. Flower petals hit him in the face, and he could not help but sneeze. He buried his head into Cang Ji’s back and said in a hoarse voice, “I can’t.”
Even though Jing Lin buried his head, he still felt as if the petals were everywhere. He sneezed repeatedly. Then, there was a weight on his head as he was covered with a garment.
Jing Lin’s eyes were half-opened. Speckles of sunlight piercing through the swaying flower branches fell onto his garment, leaving residues of heat on his cheeks. He rested his head on Cang Ji’s back and said, “You’ve gotten bigger.”
“I’ve eaten my fill. Naturally, I’ll grow.” Cang Ji recalled the height of the youth, Jing Lin, and said, “I’m so much taller than you.”
“Although you have made some headway with your cultivation, your use of it is way too haphazard.” Jing Lin said.
“It’s all good if I can find a shifu.” Cang Ji jerked him up his back and said, “I’ve even encountered Dong Jun now, there’s no way an ordinary person can be my shifu.”
Jing Lin asked, “Since when have you ever met an ordinary person?”
“That’s true.” Cang Ji added, “The copper bell has fled again. Where should we go next to look for it?”
“I don’t know.” Jing Lin sighed. “Let’s go… and take a look at Gu Shen.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Although Gu Shen had descended the mountain, he had yet to leave. He built a simple courtyard at the foot of the mountain and moved in there. Every night, he could observe from the fence in the courtyard and watch as the Mountain Deity conducted his nightly patrols.
On seeing that bamboo fence and thatched cottage, Cang Ji had a sense of déjà vu. Jing Lin knocked on the door, and Gu Shen answered. He actually looked surprised to see both of them.
Jing Lin said, “A farewell is imminent. We would like to ask for a bowl of water.”
Gu Shen led them to the courtyard and sat around the table under the newly planted tree. Gu Shen poured plain tea and uttered a “please” to them.
“Where are you heading for?” Gu Shen said, “I saw that deity flying into a rage that day. He probably fears you.”
“We have nowhere in mind for the moment.” Jing Lin sipped the tea and asked, “Is Your Honor intending to reside here permanently?”
Gu Shen said, “I originally came to look for my home, but I can no longer carry on now.”
“I heard you mentioned having found your mother.” Jing Lin pointed leisurely to the mountains. “Is that the one?”
“Yes, and no.” Gu Shen rubbed his calloused palms against his cheeks and said, “I didn’t know who he is initially. But I figured it out when Fanshu asked me a question that night.”
Gu Shen said, “He asked me, ‘Who is Chuanzi; why did Mother keep reciting this name?’. My mother came all the way here from thousands of li away. She probably thought I was held captive inside and tried ways and means to enter and save me. But once someone enters that city, they could never exit again. She cried until she went blind. Furthermore, she was worried about my father who was holding up the fort alone at home. After a long time, she…” He said with difficulty. “… couldn’t remember much anymore. There were too many people who lost their lives in this city. Their grievances were buried in the mountains, while the plants and trees wept. That was how they congregated into what we now know as the Mountain Deity. The Mountain Deity wiped out the city and buried the people. Although he has no divine intelligence, thousands of motherly hearts exist in him. He wanders among the mountains at night, searching for his lost children. Though I have found my way here, my appearance has changed. What she’s4 looking for is her child Chuanzi, not the present Gu Shen.”
“So, you have made up your mind to keep watch here?” Cang Ji said. “You know that she has been fused into the Mountain Deity; she has a lifespan of thousands of years. She will remain and stand guard here forever, searching day and night for a child named ‘Chuanzi’. In just a few more decades, it’ll be your time to meet your maker. Once you’ve passed Li Jin, you will be reincarnated and forget all about this life. But, she will still be here. The moment both of you were separated from each other, you were doomed to never see each other again. It will change nothing even if you remain here.”
With a hand on the tree, Gu Shen gazed at it and said, “Even if she doesn’t recognize me, even if it’s just a few decades, I still want to stay together with her.”
Cang Ji finished his tea and said, “As expected, I don’t understand humans.”
Gu Shen said, “If you want to be human, you must understand the hardships of being one. Because there are eight hardships in life: birth, old age, illness, death, partings of loved ones, encounters with hated ones, unfulfillment, and the inability to let go. Just look at Dong Lin. His entire life has been all about death, and he was dogged by separations, yet he still fell in love. It can be seen that these eight hardships are distinguishable from one another, and yet they are not. If you ask me, I’d advise you not to become human but remain a demon forever.”
“I never wanted to be a human. Since there is no pleasure in being a human, it’s better to remain a fish forever. I find it terrifying when I see you people abandon yourselves to it without cognizance of those deep feelings.” Leaning his chair back, Cang Ji swept his eyes across Jing Lin and said, “Humans are selfish and greedy creatures, sinking to such depths for love. They are worse than beasts, yet they can die for justice. Although they are all humans, every one of them is different.”
“The hearts of men differ, so each of them is different.” At the end, Gu Shen poured tea for them and said, “Today, I’ll substitute the wine with tea. Here’s wishing you both a smooth voyage. May your wishes be fulfilled.”
With the tea drunk, it was time for the three of them to part.
Jing Lin and Cang Ji stepped out of the door, while Gu Shen stood before it. He waited until they were a distance away before he spoke. “I know that partings are a thing aplenty in the human world,5 but I still have a question for Heaven. My mother and I, my father and I, the thousands of people who lost their families and children and I… exactly what sin have we committed in this life that we have to suffer the pain of separation?”
White hair had already started showing at the man’s temples. He posed his question in a daze. The tears had started to flow.
“We are all common folks. We have neither committed atrocities nor have we belittled human lives. Why make us suffer such anguish? Although everyone is different, they are all born of flesh. Why go to such lengths to do such a heartless thing to us?” Gu Shen supported himself against the doorframe with a hand and tightened his grip on it. He continued, “I have searched for all my life, but all I have to show for it in the end is still the word ‘separation’. If I make my way to the underworld, I hope that I won’t be a human my next life. Even being a tree would be better than the parting of flesh and blood and the separation of closest kins.”
Jing Lin looked back and saw Gu Shen’s body gradually stooped over. He stayed his feet for a long time without saying a word. Cang Ji tilted his head to look at him and finally heard him say.
“… This is how life is.”
The flowers in the wind among the mountains filled Jing Lin’s robe. His hair fluttered for a split second, and his side profile looked stumped. In that instant, Cang Ji seemed to see him as a youth again—alone with his sword, reticent, and yet with still a trace of warmth. But when he looked again, he realized that Jing Lin was already moving on.
“Where are we going?” Cang Ji caught up with him and turned his head to blow away the petals on the tip of Jing Lin’s ear. Jing Lin cast a sidelong glance at him and covered his ears. Cang Ji had already noticed it. He laughed and asked, “It will go red after just a blow? Why didn’t it go red previously?”
Jing Lin said, “It’s not red.”
“Put your fingers down and let me see.” Cang Ji placed his hands behind his head and said, “This is really strange. Why have you become smaller again?”
Jing Lin was now shorter by Cang Ji by a head. He looked frail walking next to Cang Ji. He had hardly changed since his youth, except that his features were more developed and the childishness in his features had evened out.
Cang Ji held on to Jing Lin’s shoulder and said, “I don’t know why.” He lowered his eyes to look at Jing Lin’s hair. “But I actually think this height is the most appropriate. I used to think that there was something off when I looked at you in the past. But now, looking at you like this, I think it’s just right. It’s as if this is the way it should be.”
Jing Lin’s body was slightly askew as Cang Ji held on to him. He took a wrong step and stepped on Cang Ji. The little stone figure fell out of his sleeve and kicked Cang Ji’s ankle, then waved its arms to gesture to him to walk normally. Cang Ji bent his foot, ready to give it a light kick and send it tumbling. He did not expect Jing Lin to grab the front of his outfit and pulled it open. The little stone figure climbed up along his leg and pounded its fists hard on Cang Ji’s chest.
Cang Ji did not find it painful, only ticklish. He raised his hand to pick up the stone figure and said to Jing Lin, “This lad is not reliable at all. Every time there’s danger, he will shrink back and hide. He only knows how to bully me. What’s the point of keeping him? I’m discarding him.”
The stone figure swiftly latched on to Cang Ji’s arm with its limbs. Cang Ji flung his hand, intending to throw it when he suddenly heard it and Jing Lin say in unison. “No!”
Cang Ji clutched the back of the stone figure’s neck and swung it before his eyes. “So you can talk!”
The stone figure covered its mouth and shook its head, pedaling its legs.
Cang Ji gave a cold laugh. “You deceived me for so long.”
Before the stone figure could deny it, Cang Ji turned it upside down. It stretched its arms out in the air, giddy from being swung around. Cang Ji was about to speak when there was a “thud” behind him. Jing Lin had bumped into his back as if he was dizzy too.
The collision jolted Cang Ji’s mind. He blurted out, “Your voice.” He asked suspiciously. “Why does it sound like Jing Lin’s?”
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, approx. 500m.
- 谷雨 Guyu, or Grain Rain. The traditional Chinese lunar calendar divides the year into twenty-four solar terms (six per season). Grain Rain, as the last solar term in Spring, starts on April 20 and ends on May 5. You can read more here
- 立夏 Lixia, or the Beginning of Summer, is the seventh solar term in the twenty-four solar terms in the lunar calendar. It is also the first solar term in summer, signifying the beginning of the hot summer. You can read more here
- In case anyone’s still confused about the pronouns, the Mountain Deity, a creature born out of the multitude of mothers’ grievances, (and the essences of the mountains and plants, etc, etc) is referred to as a “he” by non-involved people like Dong Jun, Zui Shan Seng, etc. But to people like Fanshu, Gu Shen, and the others whose ‘mothers’ (or their grievances) are part of the creature, the Mountain Deity is also a “she”. In short, collectively as a deity, he’s a “he”. But individually to each of the lost child like Gu Shen and Fanshu, he’s also a “she”, their mothers who still lives on in/as the Deity.
- 人间离别易多时 a line from the poem 《江梅引·人间离别易多时》 by Jiang Kui (姜夔), a famous Chinese poet, composer, poetry theorist and calligrapher of the Song Dynasty, particularly famed for his ci (song lyric poetry).