The roosters' crow broke the silence in a small village.
Days were long in September. The sun had yet to rise, but the sky was already lit up. This small village just waking up sat right to the south of Bai Town and was named Taiping 1 Village. For generations, villagers here farmed for a living, and like in most villages in the north, they were neither impoverished nor well-off. They got by, and that was all.
Gao Mingde was born and raised in this village and was now in his fifties. He used to venture into the outside world in his youth, but eventually came back home. He had a son, who had settled down in Shengtian and treated his old man well enough.
Elderly people woke easily. Gao Mingde got up very early, prepared the pig feed with nimble hands, fed the pigs and chickens, then moved on to clean the yard.
It was not until seven o'clock or so that he went back inside and made a pot of noodles, which was his breakfast.
The old man had a great appetite. With some home-grown cucumbers and homemade soybean paste, the entire pot of noodles was finished in no time. Wiping his mouth clean with the back of his hand, he quickly got dressed and left his home riding his shabby bike.
He rode along a bumpy dirt road, turning this way and that way until he was out of the village. He then turned north onto an asphalt road. The old man looked straight ahead as he pedalled on. He might've seemed focused, but his mind had long wandered off.
In his fifty or so years, he had not achieved much. If he had to name one thing he was good at, it was his twenty years worth of brewing skill.
He worked in a brewery in another province when he was young. Starting from an apprentice, he slowly made his way up into a full-time worker, then after some more years, became an experienced worker.
He had left all that skill behind after coming back home and thought he had seen the last of it. However, two days ago, a young man with a surname Zeng visited him at home, talking about a small brewery he had set up, and invited Gao over to give them some guidance.
Just listen to that wording—guidance! Such a smooth-talker.
Of course, that was not enough to persuade him. It was not until a wad of cash was on the table that Gao Mingde was finally interested.
The old man was no fool—no brewery in the whole country would ever offer that price. He had nothing to be afraid of, though. What could they possibly want from an old bloke like him? What was more, his son was getting married and hadn't figured out where to get the money yet.
"Yo, Old Man Gao!"
He was still pedalling when someone called from behind. Turning around, he saw an equally old fellow villager with a surname Li. The art of carpentry had ran in his family for generations and the man was the top gun carpenter in all the surrounding villages. Right now, he was carrying his toolbox, glowing with health.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"North over the mountain. Got a major job. Guess how much they're offering?" Old Man Li boasted.
"What do I care!"
"Hoho, this much!" Old Man Li gestured, but felt he was asking for a rebuff when he loooked at the Gao's undisturbed face. He asked in return, "Why, where are you going?"
"The same direction as you." Gao Mingde didn't want to talk about it and diverted the topic. "Look, are they building a development zone over there? It's been busy all time lately."
"Whatever. All I care about is that there's money in it for us."
The two paired up and soon passed Phoenix Fair. From there, 15 km to the north and a delicate construction site appeared in the middle of nowhere. There was neither blowing dust nor rumbling machines, it was exceptionally quiet.
There were plenty workers on site and one could tell they were all seasoned workers with a glance. They would all be master workmen elsewhere, but were all common labourers here.
Old Man Li said his goodbye and went to find his own team. Gao Mingde, on the other hand, was bewildered. He was only told about the general direction. Where exactly should he go now?"
Just then, a young man ran up to him and asked, "Hello, Master Zhang, is it?"
"Uh, yes, that's right."
"We've been expecting you for quite a while. This is not your workplace. Please follow me."
Gao Mingde was baffled by the warm welcome and had no choice but to follow him. A few minutes later, he thought something was not right, for they were going up a mountain!
"Well, I'm here to see a brewery," he reminded cautiously.
"That's right. It's just up there. Not too high up—about twenty minutes' walk." The young man chuckled.
The old man could but carry on forward.
Sure enough, before long, a small road branched off to the left, into which they turned. Walking around a small patch of woods, the destination was ahead.
It was a small courtyard surrounded by woods on three sides. Mountain springs had joined into a stream, which flowed past the courtyard outside its front gate. The gurgling water was very clear. The ground was not too high, just about seventy or eighty meters above sea level.
"This is a brewery?" The old man was not prepared for this.
"We're pretty small scale. I guess it's more like a workshop."
The two entered the courtyard and saw large rooms on all sides and a spacious interior. A man in his thirties heard their steps and ran out to greet them.
"This is Guo Fei. He's going to be your pupil from now on."
"Good morning, Master. I have worked a few years in a brewery before and know a little about just everything, but I'm far from mastering anything. I'll be looking forward to your valuable instruction."
Gao Mingde was pleased with the attitude and nodded. "No problem. Let's have a look at the equipment first."
"Sure. This way, please."
With that, the three walked into the brewery room.
The old man looked up and was instantly stunned. In it was the most traditional brewing equipment, which had a low yield and was very time-consuming. He asked, "That costs a lot. Will you be able to make a profit at all?"
"Haha…" The young man did not reply to that but chuckled instead. "I have been told that Master Gao is an expert in solid-state brewing?"
"Yeah, I had a few years of experience on that."
"That's great. We mainly work on brewing liquor made from chaff here. I'm afraid we'll have to trouble you a lot with that."
"Using chaff only? That won't taste so good." The old man frowned.
"It's only for the time being. We'll have new ingredients in the future."
"You're the boss, your call."
Immediately after that, the three men walked around each room. The house had everything—warehouse, cellar, bedrooms, kitchen, toilet, you name it. When they checked the chaff and rice in the warehouse, the old man picked up some and felt it between his fingers; he was all the more astonished.
The rice felt so strange. Exactly what kind of workshop was this? Why was it built at such a location?
Regardless of what was going on in his head, the three men finished the tour and the young man still had that smile on his face. "Master Gao, if you're pleased with what you have seen, we'll sign the contract right away. If not, you can keep the money from earlier as a commission and I'll drive you back."
Gao Mingde pursed his lips. In the end, the pressure of the reality gained the upper hand and grinding his teeth, he said, "Ok, I'll sign it!"
"So will I!" said Guo Fei.
"Great. Our terms are quite simple." The young man took out a few pieces of paper and explained, "The employment will be three-year long and you'll have a two-day break each month. Insurance and welfare are all covered… we only ask for two things: making some good liquor and your absolute confidentiality. Under no circumstances should you reveal what happens here to any outsiders."
While mentioning the last point, the expression on his face suddenly turned rather strange. It almost looked neurotic.
The old man never had much school, so Guo Fei alone read through the contract for a couple of times. He then asked curiously, "What about the liability for breaching the contract? Why wasn't that included?"
"Breaching the contract? Hoho, I would certainly advise against it…" The young man grinned at the question. He then had them sign the contract and stamped it. Before he left, he reminded them again, "Remember, no spilling of anything."
After the man was gone, Gao Mingde struck up a conversation with Guo Fei.
Guo Fei used to be a resident of Grass River Mouth and had been relocated to Bai Town. He had once had a brewery, but lost all his savings and the resettlement fee to gambling. Now that both his wife and child had left him, he had awakened to his errors and decided to make a fresh start.
He was no more aware of the situation here then Gao Mingde. All he knew was that the benefits were good and the job paid well, so he decided to give it a shot.
Gao Mingde became all the more worried at his words. He puffed at his small-bowled pipe and finished a pouch of crude tobacco. In the end, he came by. Worrying would get him nowhere. Anyway, he had signed the contract and he might as well do it.
Old Gao was a man of action and started right away.
The common procedure was that distiller's yeast had to be prepared before the actual brewing, which was categorized into the large starter and the small starter. The former was made from wheat and the later from rice. Since chaff was going to be their raw material, it went without saying that they would make the small starter.
It was a rather hideous process. The rice would be ground, sifted, mixed evenly with water, and solidified into a yeast brick inside a yeast mold by stepping on it repeatedly. Then the yeast room would be paved with rice husk before the yeast bases were moved in and arranged into order.
Reeds were then spread out on top of the bases, then another layer of yeast bases were laid on top of that, followed by another layer of reeds. There would be three layers of bases in total.
The first day's work would finish there. The yeast room was then sealed off and the temperature would gradually rise inside. After 36 to 37 hours, mold would grow on the bases.
Then came the basking of the mold, reaching the maximum temperature of fermentation, and the fostering of the yeast, which would need about a week. Only then would the yeast bases be officially out of the room.
Gao Mingde was not in very good health and was mainly instructing on the side. Guo Fei had enough experience on the job and was carrying out the task with nimble movements. Before they realized, it was dusk already. The setting sun had painted the trees yellow with the last of its light.
The old man set a rattan chair by the stream and sat down. Taking in the view all around him, he suddenly felt life was rather pleasant here.
Sigh! Brewing was the best! He had never liked feeding pigs or chickens. Things had been going smoothly today and he was confident he would get some good starter out of it, which would then make some nice liquor.
Gao Mingde sat there for a little while. He then checked the time and was about to ask Guo Fei to go back together.
He had just stood up when a soft voice rang out next to him, as if it had emerged out of the thin air.
"Why, you're the brewing master, aren't you?"
The old man jolted. Looking around him, he saw no one. "Who are you?"
"Haha, I'm here to deliver the herbs." The voice suddenly changed, as if there were two people speaking.
Gao Mingde raised his head abruptly and saw two girls sitting on the tree outside the courtyard, which was over ten meters tall. They were both young and had an otherworldly beauty, reminding him of two spiritual beings from the mountain who fed on the essence of nature.
The old man felt even his gum was shivering; all sounds had failed him.
"Here, this is for you!"
The older of the two took out a clay pot and tossed it down casually, which landed steadily and lightly on the ground. Not a single speck of dirt was disturbed.
"There are some herbs inside for you to add into the starter. Brew them separately."
Her kind tone emboldened the old man. "Are, are you humans or fairies?"
"Seriously? Of course we're humans… gosh, stop being such a pussy. We've got work to do back at home!"
The younger girl shook her companion's arm repeatedly, apparently rather impatient. The latter couldn't talk her around and in the end, sighed and flipped her finger.
Gao Mingde's eyes opened widely as two mosquito-like strange insects came out of nowhere. One squeezed into his flesh in a whoosh while the other one caught Guo Fei, who was drawn out by the noise, and slithered into his flesh as well.
The old man twitched. An indescribable sensation rose in him, as if he was now under someone else's control.
"Ah! Ghost, ghost…"
Guo Fei was so frightened that he tumbled down and started scratching frantically at his face, as if trying to dig the insect out.
"Shut the hell up!"
The younger girl was annoyed by his howling. She snapped down a branch and tossed it down. The sharp-ish twig jabbed Guo Fei, who shuddered at the pain and miraculous stopped crying.
"Remember, nothing's going to happen as long as you behave!"
She gave them a warning and tugged at the older girl, telling the latter off. "Let's go already. Stop being so sentimental…"
With that, the pair slipped away. In a few hops, they disappeared into the woods.
Gao Mingde watched with a gaping mouth. There was a moment of weird silence when a sobbing sound rang out again. Guo Fei was in tears. "Sob… what have I done to deserve this? My wife and child are gone, so are my savings. I finally get a job and ghosts are after me… sob…"
Despite his tough appearance, the man was rather soft and sensitive inside. After much howling, the old man was irritated as well. He yelled, "Shut up. They were no ghosts, ok? Have you ever seen a ghost with a shadow?"
Guo Fei slowly came to his senses at this. Wiping away his tears, he asked, "Master, who, who on earth were they? Are we going to die with the insects in us?"
"How the hell am I supposed to know!?"
Gao Mingde was equally vexed. A moment of hesitation and the expression on his face was vague again. Elderly people were especially susceptible to certain concepts and expectation was growing inside him alongside his fear.
'Is it possible... is it possible that there really are Immortals?'
"I'm telling you, you've got to use some tricks on those people! That's a liquor workshop and they are meant to taste the product once it's completed. One sip and even an imbecile will know something's off.
Our liquor is the spiritual liquor. One sip promises extra duration and two sips dispel all maladies. They will all try to steal a drink. How are you going to prevent that? And it won't stop there. How can you tell which ones are the spies and which ones will forget their honor for profit? They can get the wind this minute and sell us out the next!
That's why we must have control over them. We're not doing them any harm. As long as they stay in line, we're offering them a comfortable life, aren't we?"
On their way back to the valley, Xiaojin had been babbling on, brainwashing Long Qiu with her theories. Scratching her head, Long Qiu said, "I understand what you're saying, but…"
"Not goddamn 'but'! Gosh, why do I feel like a babysitter?"
Xiaojin's patience was running out. She could not be bothered to talk anymore. Dragging her little older sister behind her, she hurried her way back.
Before long, they had passed the Mountain-half Pavilion. The area further up had changed beyond recognition. All useless trees had been cut down, making large clearings. The inner mountain alone was now divided into three regions: the front, the valley, and the back.
The front was to grow fruit trees and the back for tea trees and the spiritual rice.
The boundary of the valley was set around a twenty-km radius and enough ground had been broken already, or the atmosphere would be ruined. From now on, they would focus mainly on constructing more buildings.
Gu Yu was discussing with Xiaozhai over a blueprint. Seeing the two, he asked, "How was it?"
"We've given them the herbs. Everything looked fine," replied Long Qiu.
"I see. That's good."
Xiaojin moved closed and snatched the blueprint away. One look at it and she was stunned. "Wow, that's some major project you've got there. Are we starting up a new sect or what?"
Long Qiu was intrigued as well. She followed suit and looked at it. The paper was densely covered with construction plans for buildings. She asked curiously, "Brother, won't the government disapprove of our plan?"
"Of course they will, but they won't say anything. We're only following their rhythm."
Taking back the blueprint, Gu Yu chuckled. "We didn't do anything on Phoenix Mountain when we first got it because they didn't want it done. Now that they want it, we'll copy them and do it."
"I don't understand." Long Qiu puckered up her face.
"Haha, you will once you read more news." Xiaozhai rubbed her hair.TL/N: meaning "peace and tranquility"