Read an Excerpt
Jen Wu is a day Master Li sets aside for my literary endeavors, and I was pleased that it was cold and rainy and fit for little else than splashing ink around.
“Ox,” he said, “the writing of your memoirs is doing wonders for your calligraphy, but I must question the content. Why do you choose the rare cases in which matters run melodramatically amok?”
I heroically refrained from saying, “They always do.”
“When you allow sensationalism to do the work, you’re eliminating the need for thought. Besides,” he added somewhat petulantly, “you give the impression that I’m violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there’s a need for it. Why not explain a case that was calm and rather leisurely and lovely; in which the issues were philosophical rather than frenzied?”
I scratched my nose with my mouse-whiskered writing brush as I tried to think of such a thing. All I wound up with was ink in my nostrils.
“Shi tou chi,” he said.
I stared at him incredulously. “You want me to try to explain that awful mess?” I said in a high strangled voice. “Venerable Sir, you know very well it almost broke my heart, and I—”
“Shi tou chi,” he repeated.
“But how can I tell The Story of the Stone?” I wailed. “In the first place I don’t understand where it begins and in the second place I’m not sure it has an ending and in the third place even if I understood the ending it wouldn’t do me any good because I don’t understand the beginning in the first place.”
He gazed at me in silence. Then he said, “My boy, stay away from sentences like that. They tend to produce pimples and permanent facial tics.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Begin at the beginning as you understood it, proceed through the middle, continue to the end, and then stop,” said Master Li, and he sauntered out to get drunk, leaving me to my current misery.
What can I say about the affair of the stone? All I know for certain is the date when we first became involved: the twelfth day of the seventh moon in the Year of the Serpent 3,339 (A.D. 650). I remember it because I had a premonition that something dramatic was about to happen, and had been checking the calendar for auspicious days, even though I wasn’t so much foreseeing but wishing because I was worried about Master Li. He’d been in a foul mood for a month. For days he did nothing but lie on his pallet and drink himself into oblivion, and when he was sober he pinned up sketches of government officials and riddled the wall of the shack with throwing knives. He never spoke to me about it, but he was old, old almost beyond belief, and I think he was afraid he’d drop dead before something interesting turned up.
I didn’t like that at all, but I couldn’t afford a decent fortune-teller so I had to rely on Ta-shih to tell me whether my premonition was favorable or disastrous, and that meant I could only get six possible answers: “grand peace and luck,” “a little patience,” “prompt joy,” “disappointment and quarrels,” “scanty luck,” and “loss and death.” I didn’t dare tempt the anger of the gods by trying more than once a day. I took the first reading on the eighth day of the seventh moon, and my heart sunk when I saw “loss and death.” On the ninth I tried again, and again I got “loss and death.” My heart bounced up and down upon my sandals when “loss and death” appeared on the tenth day, and on the eleventh, before dawn, I slipped out to pray at the temple of Kuan-yin. Not even the goddess of mercy could help. “Loss and death” came up again, and I read it in the shadow of the goddess’s statue as the sun lifted above the city walls, and just then I heard wails of woe drifting from Master Li’s alley, and then the dread peal of the Cloud Gong.
I ran back, blinded by tears, and knocked Ming Number Six head over heels, nearly crushing the delicate tapers of sacrificial Buddha’s Fingers incense that he had just bought at great expense. He didn’t mind. I have never seen anyone happier, and it was only then that I realized that the wails and the Cloud Gong were coming from his house, not Master Li’s shack, because Great-grandfather Ming (a loathsome tyrant if ever there was one) had finally condescended to breathe his last. Master Li was still with me, and he even felt well enough to invite a few people over that night.
It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. The gentlemen were collected from a wineshop, and the ladies came from one of the bawdy Yuan Pen troupes that I far preferred to Tsa Chu opera, and things went very well except for the Mings’ cat. They had tied the beast to Great-grandfather’s coffin, hoping to chase away evil spirits that might come for the corpse’s po (sentient) soul while his hun (personality) was down in Hell being judged. I thought it was a terrible idea—a dog, yes, but everybody knows that if a cat jumps over a coffin the corpse will sit up and climb out and cause all sorts of trouble—and the cat also thought it was a terrible idea and began howling its head off. Then one of the guests, a pasty-faced fellow I didn’t know, started a dice game called Throwing Heaven and Nine, and the ladies got tipsy and decided to try to drown out the cat by bellowing bawdy songs from the classic lowbrow farce “The Merry Dance of Mistress Lu,” and at that point a storm began moving toward Peking. A wild wind howled in counterpoint with the cat, and a hole about a foot across suddenly appeared in the roof. I fished some fallen thatching from a pot of rice and turned the cooking over to the ladies, and then I went out to the alley and climbed up on the roof to make repairs.
I checked my thatching and twine and mallet and nails, and began sliding across the ridgepole toward the hole. The ladies were catching their breaths before launching into another chorus, but the wind and the cat and the gamblers’ doggerel were still going strong.
“Red Mallet Six; easy to fix!” yelled the pasty-faced gambler, meaning he had to beat a throw of one and five.
“Ooooooooooooooohhh,” moaned the wind.
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeow!” howled the cat.
“Halfway to Heaven with the One-leg Seven, money-money-money!” yelled the gambler, who had just tossed one and six.
I slid farther along the ridgepole and cautiously tried my weight on a bamboo rafter. It held, and I took out a length of twine and began measuring the hole. Directly below me the ladies got their second wind, and I vaguely recalled that more than one sheltered mandarin was reputed to have been sent to his grave by accidental contact with the Yuan Pen songs of the great unwashed.
“Make your pile while you’re young, dear, for beauty must flee,
And middens greet maidens whose image you’ll be; Wrinkled belly and breasts, features mottled and gray, Lurching lonely through nights while your nose lights the waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!”
Another two or three jars of wine, I thought, and they should really loosen up. I didn’t want to miss it.
“Ooooooooooooooohhh,” moaned the wind.
“Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeow!” howled the cat.
“Hear what I said?” the lucky gambler yelled. “It’s the Tiger Head! Money-money-money!”
Faintly through the din I could hear the watchman crying the double hour of the rat. A new day had begun, and for some reason I automatically grabbed some nails, totaled them, added the numbers of the moon, day, and hour, and started one last Ta-shih reading. I rapidly counted across the upper six joints of the three middle fingers of my left hand, and stared in disbelief as my counting finger came to a stop on the deadly sixth joint.
“Loss and death?” I whispered.
What could it mean? Surely the prophecy had been fulfilled by Great-grandfather Ming, unless he had arisen … I hastily slid down and peered through Ming’s window to see if that damned cat had jumped over the coffin. The lid was still securely in place, so why did I keep getting the death reading? Something was very, very wrong, and it took a moment to register what it was.
Only the cat and the wind were serenading the night. The shack was silent. Not a peep. I hastily slid back up and peered through the hole, and it was apparent that the phenomenal luck of the pasty-faced gambler who had just beaten double fives with a five and a six had run out. The lash of a donkey whip was wrapped around his right arm, jerking the sleeve up to reveal a leather tube strapped to his forearm. The dice he had palmed and switched for loaded ones fell from the tube and rolled over the floor, and I stupidly noted that he would have won anyway: “Heaven,” double sixes, gazed up at me.
The idiot decided to try something even more dangerous than loaded dice. The handle of the donkey whip was in Master Li’s left hand, and surely the cheater could see that Master Li’s eyes looked like narrow chips of ice, but he reached into his robe with his left hand and awkwardly pulled out a knife. He never had a chance, of course. I hit the roof between two rafters and crashed through like a water buffalo stepping upon a half inch of river ice, and my aim was good—I landed upon the idiot’s left shoulder—but I was way too late. When I climbed to my feet I was dripping with red ooze.
“Sorry, Ox. The son of a sow moved on me,” Master Li said, glaring disgustedly at the corpse.
He meant that the fellow should have allowed himself to be murdered cleanly, and shouldn’t have turned so Master Li’s throwing knife would sever his largest jugular vein. Murder was the only term for it. Master Li surely saw from the way the fellow held a knife that he was a raw amateur, and he surely knew that I was going to land on the dolt before he took two steps. The old man looked at me rather contritely, and spread his hands wide and shrugged, and then he accompanied me outside for more thatching. It’s amazing how much blood the human body contains, and we were going to need at least four armloads to mop up the lake on the floor.