The Moonlight Martial Artist

‘Look mummy! A Taoist!’

Shuosheng turned his head and caught the girl’s eyes. Jutting out her chin, she gaped at him from a wide-brimmed straw hat. Her mother, who wore an off-the-shoulder turquoise dress, smiled nervously at him. She gripped her daughter’s waist, urging her to move. The girl looked back as Shuosheng stood up from his seat.

In the kiosk he bought something to drink and packs of chicken paws for Jade. The assistant was watching a Korean TV drama on her smart phone and didn’t cast a glance at him over the trade.

He put his suitcase against the wall and sat slouched on its edge. He still felt the stares of the waiting passengers. He tried to ignore them, as he always did. He didn’t wear a Taoist T-shirt or cloud shoes[1]. The only thing that distinguished him might be his topknot and the hair pin holding it in place. He unscrewed the plastic bottle whose surface was oozing drops and guzzled chilly water.

A guard shouted his train’s departure through a megaphone. He lifted the neckline of his black tank top and rubbed oily sweat from the tip of his nose. This trip was a mistake. Had his great-grandmother not died, he would not have appeared in this train station full of tourists in summer peak period and been gazed at like an actor in freak shows.

While boarding his train, the hubbub from passengers made him feel agitated and the whiff of sweat in the couch overpowered him. He lifted his luggage onto the rack and helped an old lady store her holdall there. His seat was beside the window. Next to him was a young man wearing glasses, whose fingers were dancing ballet on the screen of his smart phone dexterously.

The old lady whom he had helped said: ‘Which station are you getting off at?’

‘Suizhou.’ He said.

‘Are you from there?’

‘Yes. I’m on my way home.’

She untied a black plastic bag which contained gorgon euryale seeds and suggested him take some. He picked up several grains. It was chewy and juicy. He wiped the goo from his fingertips on his trousers and thanked her again.

‘Do you live in Wudang? You seem to study martial arts.’ She asked, with a well-covered contemplation.

‘Yes.’

She sensed the slight rudeness in his plain response and shifted the topic. ‘It’s such a nice place, isn’t it?’ She watched outside. ‘I made a wish in the Purple Heaven Palace and lit some incense. My daughter-in-law is pregnant, so I pleaded with the goddess to give me a grandson.’

Her lips fluttered, like a fish’s mouth bubbling in water. Shuosheng tilted his head to the window. A succession of utility poles flashed backward. Water buffalo yoked by plows waded through the paddy fields, which were like buzz-cut heads with thinning hair. Peasants with rolled up cuffs bent down to plug rice into the water. As far as his eyes could see, flat-top cottages were sparsely sprinkled over the field at the foot of sky. Clouds crouched on the belly of the hills, watching the train being engulfed in the waves of farmland.

The rhythmic sound of the train’s wheels rolling over the rails hypnotised him. He reclined on the seat and closed his eyes. Someone around him talked in the dialect accent of his hometown that he hadn’t heard for six years except when he reunited with his family for the Spring Festival. He should have returned home when everything was bathed in ecstasy, in the sound of firecrackers and children’s laughter.

 

The sky was staining with murk as he went back home.

He saw the familiar memorial archway stand against the nightfall. One of its columns was tied up with a slim banner. The banner struggled to flap in the breeze of mid-summer night. The yellowish spiritual money[2] sprayed over the laneway led his way home like bread crumbs. He threaded his way through them.

The sun had sunk into the hill ridge, but its radiance lingered on wrinkled clouds, brushing a yolk-like ribbon across the horizon.

On the doorstep sat one of his uncles. Instinctively, Shuosheng greeted him in the native dialect. When he spoke out the first syllable, his tongue seemed to be liberated from some restraints.

‘Well, look at you, you’ve become much taller now.’ His uncle peered at him through the semidarkness.

‘Am I late?’

‘No, you’ve just arrived on time.’ The uncle flicked the ash of his cigarette. ‘The funeral is scheduled for tomorrow. Your mom has made your mourning dress.’ He pushed the gate open.

A bulb hung down from the eaves enveloped yard in faint light. The hall’s beams were entwined with white banners whose tails were ornamented with silver paper flowers. In the open-air reception room lay a refrigerated coffin surrounded by a sea of wreathes. He couldn’t see the thing inside. Dressing in off-white robes, two men knelt on a bamboo mat beside the coffin. The pointed hoods of the robes shaded the upper part of their faces. He discerned his mother among the women siting in a circle. They were folding paper flowers. She sensed his stare and raised her head. Flowers fell down from her apron as she stood up. She scurried towards him.

‘Why you come home late?’ She put her palms on his shoulders, appreciating her son’s changes.

‘The train. You know. It never arrives on time.’ Shuosheng said.

She petted his back. ‘Go to the kitchen and grab yourself some food. Take a bath and have a rest tonight. Tomorrow will be a busy day.’

‘Shall I join the wake?’

‘No, you don’t need to.’

 

He left the snacks he had bought at the train station in Jade’s room and went to the bathroom. The hair pin was the last thing removed from his body. His topknot was unfastened. A cascade of frizzy black hair fell down his back. His scalp was less tight, and his eyebrows no longer frowned.

He stroked over his hair pin as if it were the first time he had touched it.

Made from a red-willow branch, it bent at its waist slightly. He thought his predecessors in Wudang might have similar pins hewn out of similar trees to fasten a topknot. It was one of many things that didn’t change there. All martial artists had a unique sword which only belonged to themselves, like their pins. Each pin would soak up the smell of its owner. After eight years of caressing, Shuosheng’s fingertips had memorised the precise location of every node on it, as a mom knew every mole on her baby’s body.

 

He was woken by Jade.

The first thing he noticed on her was the paper flower pinned to the zip of her school uniform. She wore a new pair of glasses too. In the polite way she greeted him he sensed some tentative efforts to restore the intimacy they used to have in childhood. But the gap between them had already grown and he knew it couldn’t be filled but would widen in future.

They had a quick meal. Mom helped them dress in robes and tied their belts. The coarse surface of the cloak rubbed against Shuosheng’s bare arms and made him itch. Their great-grandmother observed them from the sepia-washed portrait. In front of the picture frame were a small incense burner.

They kneeled down beside the coffin. With back erect, Shuosheng stared at the side of the coffin. From this angle he could only see the overflow of white satin draped outside.

‘When did you come back?’ He asked, with eyes fixing on the coffin.

‘Two hours ago,’ Jade said. ‘I took the earliest bus.’

‘Still feel sleepy?’

‘It’s fine, I’ve got used to it. I bet you don’t know we get up at four every morning.’

‘Four? For what?’

‘Mock tests, math quizzes, English dictations, you name it.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘I thought you were facing a tougher life.’

‘None of us decided the life ourselves,’ he said. ‘That’s why sometimes it can be so intolerable.’

‘Is there any other choice?’ She clicked her tongue and made a clear sound for negative. ‘Anyway, thanks for the snacks.’

 

He didn’t know most of the mourners. The words they said to that picture, like scripts from a play, constructed a scene in which actors pretended to believe that the old lady born in the last century was listening to their monologues from the coffin. They called her to take the spiritual money as they burned them in the pottery bowl. Ash mounted the warm air and then dropped like stained snowflakes. The smoke stung his eyes. He had to close them from time to time. When the heavy beats of the funeral song rang in his ears as he and others processed around the coffin to look upon her for the last time, sorrow surged up, and tears streamed down his face before he could control them. He used to kowtow to her every Spring Festival and she would give him a red envelope[3]. But this ritual had discontinued since Alzheimer’s eroded her mind.

A howl erupted among the crowd and suddenly a wail of anguish plagued all. The cry-out accompanied the mourn song dissonantly. He wiped the tears with the back of his hands, hoping no one see his crying.

As the eldest of the great grandsons, he was the person who should break the bowl. Following years of training in Wudang, his limbs were strong enough to hold the pottery bowl high above his head and to smash it resolutely.

Ash blew up and dashed against his face. He had to take a step back otherwise the dust would suffocate him. Those flakes flew upwards and he believed his great-grandmother in heaven had received the living’s blessing.

 

‘So, how long have you been studying in Wudang?’ The man asked, who might be his second or third cousin.

‘Eight years.’

‘Martial arts?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why not show us? Come on, give it a go.’

Shuosheng put down his chopsticks. ‘I’m done,’ he said to his mom. All guests in the feast watched him as he left.

Ash blanketed the ground of the yard, and incense’s smell lingered in the air. An impulse of resentment towards those guests choked him, making his throat feel tight. His hands in trouser pockets curl into fists but loosened up when Shuosheng saw an unexpected boy in the back yard.

The boy squatted on a stock of woods, stretching his right arm into a gap on them. The moment he saw Shuosheng, he pulled his arm back and jumped down from the logs. His forehead was sweaty, and his face flashed a vigorous red. He watched Shuosheng approaching him, with eyes gleamed with bemusement.

‘Hi-ya, you alright?’ Shuosheng said. The grudge against the relative remained in his mind, dying his tone a little impatient.

The boy jerked his head at the logs behind him. ‘I was trying to catch that kitty inside the woods, but it’s hiding too far.’

‘The orange one?’

‘Yeah, is that your cat?’

‘Uh-hum, need a hand?’ Shuosheng pulled his hands out of the pockets.

‘Sure, if you’d like.’ The boy said, stepping back.

Shuosheng heaved aside a log and extended his arm inside the widened gap to fumble for the cat. It tried to escape but failed. Shuosheng lifted it up by the scruff of its neck and gave it to the boy.

They exchanged their names. The boy was called Tigger. They sat on the wood pile side by side. Tigger clamped his arm over the cat, trying to ease it like an inexperienced massage therapist, but the wildness in this animal stimulated its hostility.

‘I heard your name from others. You’re auntie Zhao’s son, right?’ Tigger said.

‘Yes, and you are the son of …’

‘Don’t care too much about those family relations, just call me Tigger,’ he said. ‘How old are you?’

‘Seventeen.’

‘Though you’re older than me, I won’t call you brother.’ Tigger said pleasantly and gave Shuosheng an elbow. He paused for a few seconds and asked tentatively. ‘Hey, is it true that you come from Wudang?’

‘That’s true.’ Shuosheng curled up and put his jaw on his knees. The feast might end now, but he didn’t want to go back.

‘What do you study there?’

‘Boxing, stick fighting, Tai Chi[4], and something else.’

‘You know how to fight?’ Tigger’s voice became higher with discernible worship. ‘Could you teach me how to fight?’

The innocent purity in Tigger’s voice soothed Shuosheng. He was different. His tone was not as playful as those adults.

Shuosheng jumped off from the woods and asked: ‘Do you know the dam near our village?’

‘Yes, but why…’ Tigger tended to stand up, therefore he loosened the constraint he put on the cat. It screeched with the joy of escape and bounced to one side.

‘See you there tonight.’ Shuosheng said, leaving Tigger there alone.

 

When he was a child, he liked to run about on the dam’s bank. He had no companion at that time. Only the moon and the lake listened to his laughter and cry. He spoke little, unlike Jade. And his words became lesser after he went to Wudang. He kept reticent about his life chosen by his father, but the grudge against his father would be stronger every time he went back home.

Around the reservoir grew reed flowers nodding their heads in wind. The moon illuminated the tranquil surface of the lake. It glimmered, as if some stars were enslaved in the underwater cell and sent out Morse code to ask for help. Dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash.

Breeze soaked up sweat droplets from his forehead and tickled his wet armpits. Moonglow poured over his sinewy body, and fell into his obsidian eyes.

He stood firmly in the horse stance[5], rising up his arms to the front of his chest. A long deep breath. He retrieved arms to his waist side and clenched hands into fists. Strength circulated through his limbs, like currents of electricity evoking a machine. The land supported him and gave him the counterforce to throw a clear jab. From this first movement, he commenced his dance.

The dance vacillated between firmness and softness. His movement was slow but once all powers were accumulated he would punch out the most forceful fist. His eyes focused on the invisible enemy circling around him in wind. He chased after it. He knew he must bring it to its knees, for he heard its whispering. You were nothing but a dead martial artist and didn’t you know a wraith shouldn’t exist in this world.

A thin mist of dust hovered in the air, cloaking him as a phantom. Moonlight baptised him. He thought nothing but concentrated on his each movement. His every attack would end at the peak of power, clean and straightforward. He wished his life could be as simple as martial arts.

‘That’s so cool! You have to teach me that!’

Tigger’s shouting disrupted Shuosheng’s focus and his breath.

Tigger ran towards him and grabbed his shoulders with nails digging into his skin. ‘Master Shuosheng, teach me that, please!’

Shuosheng exhaled deeply. ‘You can’t grasp it overnight.’

‘Then just show it to my friends! They would like to see that!’

Shuosheng wiped Tigger’s hands off from his shoulders. ‘I won’t do that,’ he said as wearily as an elderly man.

‘But why?’ A smile froze on Tigger’s face.

‘There is nothing for your showing off.’

‘Why are you so mean? What’s wrong with it? Just let them see your kung-fu and take their breath away. It must be fun.’

‘I said no way! Don’t you understand? I’m not a clown!’

Shuosheng shouted out. Tigger stopped his next sentence. The light-heartedness on his face peeled off, exposing the hostility hiding beneath. Shuosheng turned his back and headed towards the way back home. He knew that this would be the end for his summer. And he didn’t know if he would come back next Spring Festival.

All of a sudden, his hair pin was yanked out. He swung around and saw Tigger brandishing the pin, in childish cruelty.

‘You stupid Taoist! I’ve had enough with all your bluster!’ Tigger shouted, hurling the pin at the lake.

A rage erupted from Shuosheng’s body. He shoved Tigger out of his way and dashed to the lake. Tigger fell down with a cry, but Shuosheng didn’t look back. The fear of losing the most precious thing made it hard for him to breathe.

Ripples spread across the lake, leaving no trace for the pin. Without a second thought, Shuosheng took off his clothes and threw himself into the dark world.

 

The water was as cold as his morning trips in wintry Wudang, when he would trek through the forest. On the stone staircase meandering around the mountain he was walking alone. The dawn would split open the horizon. Patiently the light would emerge and illuminate the mountain. Soon the forest would be bathed in the morning fog as the sky became brighter. He would rest in a pavilion and look down from above.

Snow would huddle around the mountain. The emerald roof tiles of the Purple Heaven Palace would be enfolded by snow, but its scarlet walls would be differentiated from the whiteness, like a swaddled infant in one-thousand-year slumber.

He would sit cross-legged and start his meditation, listening to the incessant song sung by pines.

[1] Made from white and black cloth, cloud shoes are typical footwear for Taoist.

[2] To spray spiritual money over the way where the coffin passes is a ritual in Chinese funeral, as Chinese wish people could spend this money after they die and lead a wealthy life in another world. This money is usually cut into the shape of large copper coins.

[3] The elderly would send red envelope as a monetary gift to children under eighteen in Spring Festival.

[4] Tai Chi is a type of martial arts and also means Yin and Yang in Taoism.

[5] In the form of riding a horse, horse stance is a basic position in martial arts as it helps practitioners use their strength effectively and intensively.

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