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In fact, there wasn’t much to say about Gu Yu’s life. If anything, it was probably a sad story about how an orphaned left-behind child was brought up by his grandfather.

Gu Yu’s grandfather was not native of this area and only settled down here in the 1980s. He knew next to nothing about farm work, but was an expert incense maker. Apart from selling incense on his own, he was also an incense supplier for the Ziyang Temple up on Phoenix Mountain.

However, as business of that Taoist temple grew, handmade incense could no longer meet their needs. They turned to an incense manufacturer instead. They’d charge 900 yuan per stick for those long, tall and thickly built incense rods.



Gu Yu had been learning the craft since he was little and was genuinely fond of it. He had grown to be exceptionally good at it as well. He worked hard at school and had always been a mature and assiduous child. Later, he was admitted into a university in the provincial city, but after two years of study, his grandfather suddenly fell into a grave illness.

He dropped out of school and returned home without any hesitation to take care of his grandfather. Sadly, after spending all their savings and getting into debt, his grandfather still passed away, leaving behind only this little courtyard and a roomful of incense recipes.

The only luck he had was that he encountered no dispute over his inheritance, which he received in a smooth manner.

Gu Yu was left in an awkward situation. A college dropout was probably no more useful than a junior college or vocational school graduate. Bai Town was a small place with limited job opportunities. The more decent employers would never hire him.

After some consideration, he made up his mind and became a peddler on the mountain. With the local protectionism, his business costed next to nothing. The only thing he had to bear were the hardships.

And hardships he could bear indeed. He would go up the mountain in daytime and do odd jobs at night. It had been over a year now; he had not only paid off all his debts, but also managed to save some money.

"Ticktock, ticktock!"

The clock on the wall sounded like a machine that needed oiling, its hands moving reluctantly. Gu Yu turned off the laptop, filled a basin with water in the kitchen and started to wash his hands.

He had long and slim fingers with neatly clipped nails. He did not use any soap, but only rubbing his hands slowly in the water, as if trying to clean every inch of his skin.

He then pushed open the door of that room. [1]

The light was turned on and a different world was lit up. It was tidy, compactly laid out, and had a unique mysterious feeling to it. Three sides of the room were lined with huge wooden shelves filled with rows upon rows of labeled bottles and cans. There had to be a few hundreds of them. Two large boxes were sitting in the corners and a square table, on which all kinds of odd-looking tools lay, was set in the middle of the room.

This was Gu Yu’s workroom and no other person had ever set foot in here.

He needed to produce the Wake-up Incense Xiaozhai ordered as soon as he could. The so-called "Wake-up Incense" could clear and refresh one’s mind, as well as help one concentrate. It was categorized as a medicinal incense.

The best time to make incense was at night, when other people would not be disturbed by the process and the maker himself would not be disturbed as well. It was said that the incense possessed ten virtues, which included affecting spirits and gods, cleansing of body and soul, making friends in silence, snatching moments of leisure from this mortal life, getting rid of filth, etc.

Tranquility was the basis of them all.

Gu Yu walked around the shelves and took several bottles and cans before he sat down at the table. Once he settled down, his temperament changed completely. He looked serene and focused, with a hint of unrestrained aura about him.

Well, unrestrained as in "a canoe drifting unrestrained with the breeze in the smooth water".

According to the internet, making incense was equivalent to burning money, for almost all recipes would involve agarwood and sandalwood, both extremely expensive; it was also hard to find the genuine ones.

However, the incense recipes he inherited from his grandfather seemed to belong to a unique faction and had been improved by his grandfather over the years. These recipes seldom contained materials such as agarwood and sandalwood, but would use common ones instead. For instance, the Wake-up Incense was formulated from Acorus gramineus, Chinese Atractylodes, mint, Tuber Fleece Flower Stem, Amomum cardamomum, borneol, and a type of round-leaf plant that grew on Phoenix Mountain.

Apart from the extremely tedious first-stage preparation work, which was the processing of incense powder, incense-making could be divided roughly into five steps: mud-blending, molding, shape-adjusting, drying in the shade, and cellaring. The cans were already filled with ready-made incense powder and sticky powder, so he started from mud-blending right away.

To put it in a simple way, mud-blending was to mix sticky powder with incense powder, kneading them evenly into a ball the same way as one would when making dough. The sticky powder was usually made from elm bark, which had little scent and was highly adhesive, but only a little was needed each time.

The ash of most incense sticks in temples would not break off after the sticks were burnt, which was the result of putting too much sticky powder. Those were incense sticks of very poor quality.

Gu Yu took out a porcelain bowl and put in the mixed powder. He then added water drop by drop and stirred the mixture while adding more water. When the water was used up, the mixture became a dough-like substance. After that, he used a spoon to press the dough from the rim to the center, to mix it more evenly and increase its density.

So far so easy. The next step was the key one—molding.

When making incense sticks, many incense makers these days would stuff the incense mud into a syringe and push the stick out one by one, just for the sake of convenience. However, sticks made this way were of poor quality because the squeezed-out sticks were not dense enough and would produce much more smoke when ignited.

The best way was to knead it into shape with one’s bare hands. Incense formulating and the kneading of incense sticks were the most important skills in incense-making.

"Wheeze…"

Gu Yu sat down by the lamp and took a deep breath, which made him even more placid. He tore down a small piece of dough, put it onto the wooden board and started kneading it vertically with a finger.

A horizontal motion should never be used, for only vertical kneading could adjust the direction and diameter of the stick.

He was absorbed in his work, putting all his attention into that finger. He was not watching it, but feeling it. He could feel that little piece of incense dough extending, becoming thin and elongating under his finger; it was as if he was controlling it with his mind.

It was a subtle procedure. Those who had practiced Tai Chi would know about "listening to the energy". Kneading incense had a similar feeling. One had to let the skin of the finger "listen" to the strength and reaction passing through the incense dough.

There was a saying: to knead the incense was to nurse one’s mind.

Long story short, stay calm. [2]

Time ticked by and the night grew deeper. Gu Yu finally stood up and exhaled slowly. It took him such a long while to knead fifteen sticks. They were about ten centimeters long and were as thin as toothpicks.

He cut the sticks into the same length and put them onto a flat piece of paper. He then covered them with several other pieces of paper, which would help quicken the drying procedure.

He would wait until tomorrow for the sticks to become completely dry and stored them in the small cellar in the yard. It would then take around half a month for the scent of all spices to fuse together, reducing any pungent odor coming off the incense.

This was only the first batch and he was going to make sixty sticks in total.

That was why not many incense makers were left nowadays. The process costed too much energy and many found it not worthwhile.

***

Gu Yu made thirty sticks that night and did not go to bed until very late into the night.

However, he still got up on time the next morning, skipped breakfast, put his stuff together and took off on his tricycle. He was barely out of the door when he ran back into his room and grabbed three incense pellets that could expel vermin.

The pellet was harmless to humans, but snakes, bugs, rats and ants abhorred it. They would avoid the smell in every way they could. He would not go into the mountain without them. The ones he had yesterday, well, he had given them to those two girls—that’s why he had to get back once he remembered he had none left on him.

"You look tired, Xiao Yu."

"Yeah, I did not sleep very well. Have you eaten?"

"Not yet. I’ll grab a bite after going up."

"En? You’re selling souvenirs today, Old Wang? What happened to your meat skewers?"

"I couldn't get hold of a duck. I’ll take a rain check."

As the blabbing went on, half a dozen tricycles emerged from the alleys, which then formed a natural line and moved towards Phoenix Mountain.

They were all peddlers without formal employment. Had they managed to find some odd job today, they would not go up the mountain. When no other job was available, they would return to their stalls. They would sell anything from fake lamb skewers to wholesale souvenirs, including even cucumbers and tomatoes they grew themselves. You name it, they had it.

This line of business was almost exclusive to people from Phoenix Fair. Even those from the east, south and west parts of the town would be kicked out by the crowd and have their stalls smashed when they tried to sell on the mountain, let alone the outsiders.

Gu Yu followed the team in silence and listened to the middle-aged uncles bragging about all kinds of things along the way. They soon reached the yard of the old widower. Everyone found a spot for their tricycle and started to climb the mountain.

They still formed a line and walked one after another. They each had their one selling spot and would not take another’s place. Gu Yu was still the last in the line. A man in his forties was in front of him—his surname was Fang and Fang Qing was his daughter.

"Xiao Yu, I’m so worried about my girl’s studies these days. Do you think she can get into No. One High School?"

"I’ve looked at her exam papers. To be honest, the hope to get in No. One is a bit slim. I think getting into No. Two should be no problem at all, though." No. One, or Number One High School, was the most prestigious high school in the province; No. Two was nowhere near it.

"My, if only she was half as smart as you are! Remember how good you were back then? You were the first person to go to a university in our village."

"Don't worry too much, uncle. The high school entrance examination is a month away and she still has time for some last-minute study. Plus, it’ll all depend on her performance in the actual exams…" With the load on his shoulder, Gu Yu was comforting the poor father all the way up the mountain.

The Fang family had always cared for him, even when grandfather was still alive, and Fang Qing had always been like a little sister to him. However, she really wasn't interested in studying at all. Even if it was No. Two, there was still only a fifty-fifty chance of her being admitted.

The two chatted all their way up and it took them quite a while to reach the hillside. Those people previously walking in the front were nowhere to be seen now.

"Squeak!"

"Coo, coo!"

As they walked, a squeak came from somewhere, sounding anxious and worried. The two stopped to look around. Uncle Fang pointed to one side. "Over there!"

Gu Yu followed his finger and looked towards the dense woods on the right. A big grey squirrel was entangled in a cluster of grass. Not far from it, a green snake was slithering towards it.

[1] ED/N: Yep, "that" room. No further description given in this sentence. The following paragraphs make it obvious that it’s about that closed room from a while before, though.

[2] ED/N: ...and knead the incense, lol.

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