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Bai Town had a long history. It was established as a city in the 1990s and new districts were assigned to it in the past decade. Bound by the Grass River, the area to the west was the old town, where old stations, small hotels, pedicure shops, dodgy restaurants and other such establishments proliferated in the streets. The new town was to the east of the river, which was packed with new real estate, neatly arranged high streets, pretty landscape and rows upon rows of government buildings. [1]

The Land Rover drove across the river at a leisurely speed. A little bit further down the bridge, the street suddenly widened and the buildings ahead seemed to brighten up. Before long, the vehicle turned into an alley and gradually came to a stop.

Gu Yu got out of the car and glanced around. In front of him was not a villa, but a small courtyard built with black bricks. Upturned eaves protruded from the black-tiled roof and there were big trees in the yard. The house had a charming antique taste to it.



Prices of land in Bai Town were not that high, but a property like this still was not affordable to just anyone.

"Let’s go inside. I don’t want to keep granny waiting."

Zeng Shufei opened the electronic lock. As soon as he set foot in the courtyard, he called out, "Granny, I’ve brought that expert!"

Soon after his words echoed out, an old lady walked out of the house, wearing a Chinese-style blue shirt dotted with neutral-colored patterns and black cloth shoes. Her grizzled hair was decorated with a single hairpin, giving her a casual and calm look.

After a brief introduction, the old lady smiled warmly at Gu Yu. "If you don’t mind, Mr. Gu, I’ll call you Xiao Gu from now on. Here, come in, please!"

"Thank you, Granny Zeng. You can call me anything you like," Gu Yu gave her a slight bow and walked half a step after her.

They entered the main hall and took a seat each. After a female housekeeper served the tea, Granny Zeng spoke first, "Please forgive my selfishness, Xiao Gu, but when I smelled that incense yesterday, oh my! I wished I could meet with the expert who made it right there right then, hence their visit today."

"You flatter me. I’m nowhere near an expert."

"That was not flattery, you certainly are an excellent incense maker. That incense of yours was nothing like what I’ve smelled before. If you don’t mind me asking, from whom did you learn your skills?"

"It runs in the family. I took it after my grandfather."

"Your grandfather?" The old lady grew curious and asked, "Was he a local from here?"

"Well, not exactly. He came to live in Phoenix Fair 30 years ago…"

Gu Yu picked his words carefully, telling her about his grandfather. His story made the old lady sigh with pity. "I have just moved to the provincial city when your grandfather got here. Now that I’m back to where I belong, he has… well, I guess that’s just fate!"

Granny Zeng was a kind old lady and chatted about trivia just as an elder would with her junior family members. They both had a good sense of propriety and the conversation revealed some personal information on either side without being intrusive.

The siblings helped with entertaining the guest and would join the conversation from time to time. Their main task, though, was to observe Granny Zeng’s attitude.

After chatting for awhile, the old lady invited Gu Yu to see her collection.

They all walked out of the main hall and went into a side room in one of the building’s wings. The moment he set foot in that room, Gu Yu was astounded. The grandmother indeed loved her incense. The room was decorated with a dazzling array of beautiful things from various hand strings, figurines of Buddha and raw materials to censers, incense plates and incense spoons. Long story short, the room was packed.

Gu Yu was well-practiced in incense-making, but limited by his economic status, he did not have much experience in appreciating incense playthings. Now that he was given the opportunity, he couldn’t help but feel secretly amazed.

"This is a Lotus Bronze Plate. I was really fond of it in the beginning, but after bringing it home, it somehow felt flat."

"This incense spoon was made from mottled bamboo. The design was quite clever. It looks good even just for display."

"This jade incense holder is made of a gourd. I can’t remember where I found it. I thought the shape was quite special and bought it."

He followed her gesture and saw a little single-scoop gourd which was inlaid with white jade around its top and bottom. Small holes were opened at the top, where incense sticks could be inserted.

"This censer was made in the Longquan ceramic kiln of the Song dynasty. It has taken me a lot of effort to get a hold of…"

The old lady picked up a celadon censer with a clear glaze, mellow and round in its shape. Adding to it the bright and gleaming appearance, this piece was beyond doubt genuine. She was exceptionally fond of the censer and became more talkative now. She smiled and said, "The weather will be warmer in a few days and the Huian wood will match it perfectly. That wood is clear and refreshing by itself and burning it with this censer from the Longquan kiln… Oops, you are the expert. I shouldn’t have been showing off like this."

"Not at all, it’s my first time seeing it as well," Gu Yu hastened to explain.

The so-called Huian wood was a type of agarwood found in Huian. It had a bitter and cooling sensation, which was quite worthwhile for savoring. Matching its refreshing smell with the the cool ceramic of Longquan kiln would bring out the best in them both.

Since Gu Yu had never had such experience before, he watched everything with sparkling eyes as he stared motionlessly at them. For someone as tactful as Granny Zeng, who could tell what sort of person the young man was just by looking at him, she thought to herself that despite his exceptional skill in incense-making, the guy was not all that special in other aspects.

However, with her life experience, she did not feel any contempt towards him, but was giving out even more detailed explanation now, especially when she arrived at several treasured pieces. She did not take the group back to the main hall until quite some time later.

"What do you think of my collection, Xiao Gu?" The old lady asked.

"I was really impressed. That was such an eye-opening experience," Gu Yu said wholeheartedly.

"Well, I’ve put a lot of effort into gathering all those things."

Granny Zeng had problems with her back and would lean back whenever she sat down. She said in a half-smiling and half-sighing tone, "I’ve spent the first half of my life working myself to death and now have finally retired. You know what? Ever since I set foot in the incense circle, I find myself get calmer each day. Several of my old friends are also into incense-burning now and we would get together every now and then. How did that saying go? Oh, find a moment of leisure in a busy life. I have to burn some incense everyday now, or I couldn’t even sleep well… ah, I didn’t get much education in my youth. Now that I’m old now, I’m pretending to be an arty person. That’s just ridiculous."

"Granny, that's not pretending. You are an elegant and refined person! Who says old people cannot appreciate incense?" Zeng Yuewei was quite a smooth talker and was always ready to say some compliments.

"Exactly. You are not alone in this. Even I myself feel much calmer when I occasionally burn the incense," Zeng Shufei added.

The atmosphere seemed harmonious and happy for now, yet Gu Yu remained polite and reserved, as if refusing to fit in. Zeng Yuewei was eager to check the guy’s standard and asked at once, "Mr. Gu, since you are such an exceptional incense maker, could you share some thoughts on incense-burning?"

"I have no idea. I’m merely a craftsman," he smiled.

"You're being too modest. For someone who could make such excellent incense, how…"

"That's enough, Wei Wei. Let go of it."

The old lady gestured Zeng Yuewei to stop and told the housekeeper to start preparing for dinner. She then turned to Gu Yu, "Xiao Gu, fate has brought us all here today and I can't let you go without serving you some food."

"In that case, I’ll thank you in advance."

Since the dinner was already being prepared, he had no choice but to agree to stay.

The housekeeper was quite efficient and the table was set a little while later. They did not prepare new dishes specially for him, and only added his portion to their usual congee and pickled vegetables. Gu Yu was no longer holding himself back now and enjoyed the dinner a lot.

After dinner, Granny Zeng unexpectedly asked the other three to leave and let Gu Yu stay with her. The Zeng siblings were overwhelmed and had mixed feelings but dared not disobey their grandmother. They could only exchange contact information with Gu Yu and leave with worried minds.

Evening, in a quiet room.

This room was beside the main bedroom and had a classic and graceful feeling to it. In the middle of the room were some tables and chairs; a tea set and some fruit were on the table. Calligraphy and painting scrolls hung on the wall on one side of the table, while some incense was burning in a censer on a tea table on the other side.

Gu Yu sat at the table and realized that the old lady wanted to talk to him in private. He waited while sipping tea.

As expected, after the old lady took her time to digest her dinner, she said with a smile, "Xiao Gu, I’ve asked you to stay behind so we can have a chat. After all, it's not easy to find someone who really understands incense. The question that Wei Wei threw at you just then, I think you were holding back from saying something. Could you share it with me? I really want to hear your opinion."

"Um… in that case, I’ll speak my mind. Please don't laugh at me if I get something wrong."

Since he was asked again, he had no choice but give an answer. He straightened up and started speaking as he chose his words carefully, "There are numerous types of incense out there and they can be roughly divided into two categories. One is for savoring, and the other is for medicinal use. What you referred to just then should belong to the second category. Medicinal incense can indeed calm one’s mind and help one sleep. However, they should only play an assisting role and one should not depend on them completely."

"Oh? Why is that?" The old lady was curious.

"Nowadays, people usually burn incense to calm their mind and soothe their nerves. However, mind-calming is a long-term process and cannot be achieved overnight. We worry about so many things in daily life and so much is going on in our heads. In order to calm one’s mind, one needs to unblock oneself first.

To some extent, there are only two types of activities in our daily life. One is socializing and the other is handling affairs. When associated with others, we should be neither servile nor arrogant. We will broaden our horizons, obtain knowledge, and accumulate wisdom in the process. In handling our own affairs, we have to be conscientious and responsible while keeping ourselves focused, so as to take in the merit and pleasure of them. Bearing such attitude to life in mind, one could gradually calm themselves down, achieving a refreshed state of mind with thorough understanding of things around him.

As for medicinal incense, we can burn it to preserve our health and for enjoyment, but we should never trust it blindly and never think we are incomplete without it. Frankly speaking, about those who scheme against one another, those who struggle to make a living, those who are always experiencing melancholy and shifting moods as well as those who detest the world and its ways… do they expect their worries would simply go away by igniting an incense stick? That is just, well…"

He shook his head with a laughter.

"..."

Granny Zeng was surprised by his words at first, then pondered them and was now looking at the young man appreciatively. She overthrew her earlier opinions in that instant. This young man was not only exceptional in incense-making, but had remarkable disposition and character as well!

She knew her family affairs better than anyone else. Although she had retired, the business itself, the change of policies and the maintenance of her network, including her son and grandchildren, all required her constant attention!

She knew very well that burning incense was not a calming act, but was her attempt to search for a place to rest. She was taking shelter in the process.

For someone as experienced as her, Gu Yu’s words sounded much more meaningful. She responded immediately, "Xiao Gu, for a person of your age, you’ve thought everything through so thoroughly. What was that ancient saying? Oh, if a man comprehends in the morning, he would welcome his death in the evening without regret!"

Gu Yu felt very awkward and said hastily, "Granny Zeng, you’re too generous with your compliments. I’m sure you know all these already, but your hands are just tied by the reality."

"..."

Gu Yu’s sudden words left the old lady deflated. Her previous strength and pride seemed to disappear abruptly.

Being tied up by the reality—those words stabbed her like a sharp knife. For all these years, neither her son nor her grandchildren ever spoke of such things. Yet now, it was an outsider who pointed it out.

She was overwhelmed by emotions and went speechless for a while. Realizing he had crossed the line, Gu Yu picked up his cup in embarrassment and busied himself with his cup of tea.

Some time later, the old lady returned to herself and asked, "By the way, Xiao Gu, you were saying that there are two categories of incense. What do you think of the savoring type?"

[1] ED/N: Can be interpreted as either river of grass or a river named Grass, but since there’s some bridge, it should be the latter.

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