The brocade carp did not know how to put on clothes, so he wrapped himself in Jing Lin’s clothes. A good part of the hem was dragged on the floor as he ran bare-footed along the veranda. A copper bell under the eaves swayed in the wind. Between each chime of the bell, the brocade carp – with a headful of messy hair – skipped and jumped around.
The little stone figure chased after him and picked up the hem of the clothes trailing behind on the floor. The brocade carp ran to the end of the veranda. There was a small pond with a hundred-year-old ginkgo tree planted beside it. He crouched down and cupped the water up with his hands. It was so freezing he shivered from the cold.
“Being a human, feels like this.” The brocade carp mumbled to himself. After a night, he could speak a lot more fluently.
The little stone figure kicked his buttocks. The brocade carp was caught unaware and fell over into a kneeling position on the wooden plank. Instead of being angry, he laughed and raised his palms to examine them over and over again.
“Falling down, hurts this much!” He exclaimed.
He had learned to run only a short while ago. Before that, he always wanted to lie on the ground and swish his tail around. He needed to get used to using his hands, not fins. He sat down with his legs crossed and gathered the wide robe tightly around him. His white, chubby feet were red from the cold. Lowering his head, he buried it under the shirt to observe his own body. Then he popped his head out and muttered softly to the little stone figure.
“Do humans have other parts besides arms and legs? This is so strange.”
The little stone figure could not speak, so it squeezed its head in beside the brocade carp’s and watched with him for a brief moment. Seeing the brocade carp’s confused face, it did not know how to explain to him either.
The brocade carp grabbed hold of the little stone figure, looked beneath it, and asked out of curiosity. “Why don’t you have it?”
The little stone figure was embarrassed. It covered its head and kicked the brocade carp. The brocade carp immediately bared his teeth and threatened, “If you kick me again, I’ll throw you away! You will never see Jing Lin again!”
The small stone figure took several steps back and turned to run indoors. The brocade carp was afraid it would tell on him, so he hurriedly got up to chase after it. His movement was light when he entered the door as Jing Lin was resting. When they returned last night, Jing Lin had coughed for half the night and only fell asleep when it was nearing dawn.
The brocade carp stepped onto a small table and climbed onto a chair before he jumped onto the bed and kneel beside Jing Lin’s pillow. Jing Lin’s face was paler than the night before. He looked like a person with a chronic illness, as if being bedridden was the norm for him. His ink-black hair was spread out over the pillow mat. The brocade carp carefully scooped up a handful of his hair, but they flowed through the gaps between his fingers. The brocade carp mustered up the courage to sprawl the upper half of his body over Jing Lin to listen to his breathing. His fingers touched Jing Lin’s cheeks and neck. Astonished, he withdrew them. Then he stretched his fingers out again to probe him.
He was warm.
Jing Lin was warm. And he felt smooth to the touch.
This differed entirely from what the brocade carp had known before. Did it mean that even his sense of touch would become different when he turned human?
The brocade carp lay down beside Jing Lin. In this way, he sized Jing Lin up and realized something different about him. He had never looked at Jing Lin from this direction before. He never knew that Jing Lin’s nose was this straight, Jing Lin’s lips were this thin, and Jing Lin’s… Jing Lin was this beautiful, as if he was some exquisite porcelain that would shatter with just a grasp.
The brocade carp pinched his own nose and touched his own cheeks. He thought, I won’t look better than Jing Lin in the future, because the world needs only one of him. It’d be better for me to be more powerful and stronger than him.
As he was thinking about it, he felt a pain in his back. He looked back and saw the little stone figure sitting at the edge looking at him unhappily. With a snort, the brocade carp drew closer to Jing Lin and pushed the little stone figure away with his foot. But the little stone figure held on to his calf, wanting to drag him off the bed. Anxious, the brocade carp turned around to grab onto the front of Jing Lin’s clothes and wrapped his arms around Jing Lin’s neck, refusing to let go.
The little stone figure stomped his foot in annoyance, but the brocade carp ignored it. The brocade carp was so near to Jing Lin that he subconsciously absorbed his spiritual energy. Jing Lin’s spiritual energy now was near-depleted and erratic. He gradually furrowed his brows, vaguely looking as if he could not withstand his spiritual energy being absorbed. For some reason, the little stone figure stopped moving and turned into two pieces of stones rolling around at one side.
Jing Lin did not wake up for a long time. The brocade carp gulped down a mouthful of saliva.
This was a good opportunity to devour Jing Lin.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin’s consciousness drifted atop an empty stone platform. He walked alone, lost. The restoration of his broken body was slow, and lustrous light was scattered all over, making it hard to form a human figure. His breathing grew labored as if he was being strangled in the throat. His chest felt heavy, and the feeling of being pinned down made him feel doubly exhausted.
Even so, when the wind rose on the veranda under the eaves, he opened his eyes instantly. The first thing he saw was a fluffy head with hairs sticking out pressed against his cheek. The brocade carp was sleeping soundly while hugging him tightly.
Jing Lin looked at the roof and closed his eyes as he let out a breath of air. When he reopened his eyes, he had regained his composure.
“What is it?” His voice has always been without emotion.
Someone knelt down on the veranda and said softly, “My younger brother is willful and has distracted my lord from your solitary cultivation1. He deserved to die for his sins. I’m here to apologize and beg for forgiveness. My lord, please punish him as you deem fit and do not hold back.”
Jing Lin was silent for a moment before he remembered who was kneeling outside the door.
“I’m not your lord.” Jing Lin said.
The prostrate body of the person outside the door remained still. After a moment, the person said, “I’m under the command of Lord Linsong of the Ninth Heaven. Everyone knows this. Even if Canli Tree is now under the control of the Demarcation Division, my heart remains like a rock—firm and unswerving.”
Saying so, she raised her head, straightened up to face the door, and made another bow.
“Don’t call me lord.” Jing Lin paused after each word, his hatred engulfing his frostiness.
The maiden outside was quiet for a long time before she said in a low voice: “…Jiu-ge.”
Jing Lin felt smothered, and his hands and feet grew cold. He raised a hand to cover his eyes as his Adam’s apple bobbed silently. His chest heaved up and down unsteadily as he forced down the urge to choke on his blood.
Don’t call me.
His eyes were submerged under the shadow of his hand as if he would never struggle out of the darkness. This “Jiu-ge” was like a bramble of thorns, pricking him until he was drenched all over in blood.
The maiden beyond the door took only a moment to calm herself. Even when her eyes were red, her voice remained stable. She raised a hand to haul her younger brother up. A-Yi was bound and had already changed back into his original form. He thrashed around on the ground.
“A-Yi has been pampered and spoiled by me at Canli Tree, that’s why he is now so arrogant and disobedient. Since he has done something wrong, he must bear the consequences on his own. I’m handing him over to Jiu-ge. Whether he lives or dies, I’ll let Jiu-ge decide.”
Having said so, she kowtowed again in obeisance and turned to go. On seeing this, A-Yi banged his head until it broke and stared at his Ah-jie, looking as if he would cry. When his Ah-jie – Fu Li – was about to descend the stairs, she stopped.
“I know Jiu-ge does not want to see me.” Fu Li’s eyelashes drooped as she gazed into the night. “But I’m contented to know that Jiu-ge is still alive. On the day when the True Buddha raised his finger and the Ninth Heaven shook, I was overwhelmed with grief on hearing of Jiuge’s death. No matter what the others said, Jiu-ge is still Jiu-ge. Although I don’t know the past feud between you and your father, I’m not willing to believe that you are such a bloodthirsty person. Jiu-ge…”
“You’re wrong.” Jing Lin said. “Killing him was a long-cherished wish of mine. It was not because of principles, or for righteousness. I wanted to kill him, so I killed him. It has nothing to do with you. I am not your Jiu-ge. Lord Linsong died at the Ninth Heaven Terrace, and the person you see now is also but a dead man. Take him away. Scram.”
A-Yi understood nothing about Lord Linsong, nor did he know anything about Jiu-ge. The only thing he heard was Jing Lin telling his Ah-jie to scram. This made him burned with anger. When he was born, there was no longer any five-colored bird left in Canli Tree. Fu Li was his elder sister, and could even be considered his mother. Although he was a jerk and a bully, he could not tolerate anyone dissing his sister.
He instantly opened his mouth to rail at him, “Jing Lin! How dare you tell my Ah-jie to ‘scram’?! Who do you think you are?! You’re just an invalid hiding in the mountains. Who’s afraid of you?! Just a mere sea serpent can make you bedridden, so what kind of hero are you pretending to be now?! You are only…”
Fu Li turned around at once and hollered, “Shut up!”
The copper bell under the eaves on the veranda rang abruptly as the sound of wind whistling among ten thousand pines in the mountains rose and fell. A strong wind rose from among the trees and sent A-Yi tumbling down the verdana toward the mountains.
A-Yi was still tied up and could not break free. He could only stubbornly shout into the air. “Just you wait!”
Fu Li still wanted to say something when the door of the inner chamber closed, shutting out her voice. Not getting to say what she wanted to say, she could only stand silently for half a night before she finally left.
◈ ◈ ◈
Jing Lin waited for her to leave before he gave a muffled cough and spat out blood. The little stone figure stuffed a handkerchief in his palm. Jing Lin covered his mouth and wiped away the bloodstains before he asked, “Still not waking up?”
The brocade carp tentatively opened an eye and rubbed it as he pretended to be roused from sleep. He sat up like a ball of soft dough, still clinging on to Jing Lin’s neck. Revealing his little white teeth, the brocade carp flashed Jing Lin an adorable smile.
Jing Lin raised his eyebrows slightly and stared at the brocade carp with an extremely oppressive aura. He said coldly, “To eat someone, you must be fast and ruthless. You keep dallying. What are you hesitating for?”
His lips were stained with blood earlier, giving them a reddish tinge.
The brocade carp innocently withdrew his hand, looking scared. Jing Lin looked up slightly, his chin almost touching the brocade carp’s forehead. His eyes were lifeless, as if he was just relating the life and death of someone else, not his own.
“If you miss the chance, you have to wait for a year, a hundred years, or even a thousand years.” What was cold was not his skin, but his soul. He drew closer to the brocade carp, like an awakened mammoth beast arising from its sleep. This was a deterrent far more overpowering and daunting than the baring of sharp fangs.
The brocade carp was keenly aware that Jing Lin was not his usual self. He wanted to shrink back. But Jing Lin grabbed him by the arm, planting him under the shadow of the beast. The brocade carp found it getting harder to bear. This was not pain, but the immense pressure of being towered over as he was being scrutinized. The mounting pressure pushed against the vulnerable boundary of his limits, and he trembled involuntarily.
“Jing… Jing Lin…” The brocade carp painfully called out Jing Lin’s name. His internal organs felt like they were being crushed by something heavy. Even his breathing grew ragged.
Jing Lin looked at him for a moment and released his grip on him. The brocade carp swung backward and rolled several times on the quilt, feeling as if he had been granted amnesty. Silence descended upon the inner chamber. Inwardly, the brocade carp was gnashing his teeth, but he still put on a pitiful expression on his face. Teardrops tumbled from his eyes as he pressed down on the back of his hand and sobbed softly.
Jing Lin turned his head and gazed at the snow against the backdrop of the night sky. He sat for a long time looking on with little interest before he looked back at the brocade carp.
The brocade carp was wary, but he still crawled back like a small animal. The more compliant he looked on the surface, the more composed he was. Hiding in the body of this child, he yearned to dissolve Jing Lin’s guardedness of him. But to his disappointment, Jing Lin seemed to see through him and paid it no mind.
The brocade carp crawled beside Jing Lin. Jing Lin raised his hand to stroke his head but stopped midway and reached over to take a clean handkerchief from the little stone figure instead. He wiped away the brocade carp’s snots and tears. Then he lay down again without saying a word more.
◈ ◈ ◈
The next day, the sky was clear after an entire night of snow, and the sound of clothes being laundered2 broke through the morning. Jing Lin had obtained an outfit for the brocade carp. The brocade carp pushed his head against the cuff of a sleeve, but he could not get his head through no matter how hard he pushed. The little stone figure grabbed the clothes, corrected it, and put it on for him. It even wrapped a small velvet cloak around him. A pair of carps were embroidered on his shoes, and the brocade carp could not help but keep touching them when he was putting them on.
Then Jing Lin stood up and went down the stairs. As usual, he was flimsily dressed. He stood at the foot of the steps and looked back. His eyes were cold and empty.
The little stone figure led the brocade carp by the hand down the steps and followed Jing Lin down the mountain. The mountain was enveloped by the morning fog, and the mountain steps were wet and slippery. The little stone figure fell several times. The brocade carp kept a straight face initially, but then he started to run and frolic in the snow with the little stone figure until he had a head full of snow from all the tumbling. Jing Lin never looked back once, his eyes remained half-closed as if he was dreaming.
At the foot of the mountain, the brocade carp ran a few steps ahead. But when he did not see the small stone figure, he turned his head back. He saw the little stone figure sitting on Jing Lin’s shoulder, waving its arm at him.
Before he could understand what it meant, he heard Jing Lin say:
- 清修 solitary cultivation, or more literally translated as quiet cultivation. Unlike sects cultivation, it refers to the practice of silence as one cultivates his own morals and innermost being, letting things take their own courses. In Buddhism, it also refers to cultivation at home or self-cultivation.
- 砧声 the sound of laundering clothes by pounding them with a stick or rod. People in those days wash clothes that way by the river or other water sources.