Gu Yu woke up from his meditation in the room where the spices were stored and smiled with resignation. "Well, it still isn’t working."
For the past week or so, he had spent all his spare time trying to sense the spiritual essence. He even found some so-called "methods for training internal strength" on the internet, in hope that at least a small part of it would be of use to him. However, all his efforts had been futile. The spiritual essence remained floating in the air and would not get any nearer.
It was safe to say that apart from becoming agile and strong with an exceptionally clear head, there was not much difference between Gu Yu and other common folks. He knew well enough that he would never cross the threshold to the cultivation world without the right method.
In fact, it baffled Gu Yu greatly that the background setting of his world had changed so drastically. He had been living a normal life in a modern society, so where did Brother Fatty get that red fruit? Were there any other precious heavenly treasures growing somewhere?
He wanted to figure it out more than anything else. Unfortunately, the squirrel neither understood his words nor showed any intention to lead him to where it found the strange fruit.
Luckily, he was familiar with incense-making. Ever since that night, he had come to realize that his state of mind while making incense faintly corresponded to some spiritual experience. Each time he completed a piece of work, he would find his consciousness a little more condensed, although only by the slightest amount.
His old self would never be able tell the difference, but with the help of the spiritual essence, he could sense even the faintest change now.
The shabby clock still ticked reluctantly, as if with much effort. Gu Yu stood up and stretched himself in the courtyard for a while first, then moved on to prepare for today’s sale.
He had given up on the instant noodles and ham sausages, which took forever to sell. There were a few bags of pickles left. The bottled water was a necessity and tea eggs were his core merchandise. The corn cob sales were relatively stable at around 20 pieces a day.
Apart from those, he was holding another box in his hands, which contained three perfumed sachets.
Now that he could make incense much faster and he was using the process as a kind of cultivation, he had made more products than before. Inside the sachets were ready-made mixed spices. The sachets could either be placed at bedside or carried around. There was a slight floral scent to them.
Gu Yu left home later than usual on purpose and cycled to the foot of the mountain, then climbed up on his own at an unhurried pace. Halfway up the mountain, he put a finger into his mouth and whistled.
Almost as soon as the sharp whistling sound fell, the woods rustled with a scuffling noise and a big grey squirrel rushed near him.
"Morning, Brother Fatty!"
He greeted the squirrel, who squeaked back and jumped onto his shoulder pole with agility that did not match its size. The load dropped suddenly to the right. Gu Yu grinned and started making fun of the squirrel again.
"My, you should watch your weight. You’re at least one to two kilos heavier. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Look at the other squirrels. How are you supposed to find a wife looking like this? Or are you actually female?"
He would not shut up, annoying the squirrel. It jumped hard several times, almost overthrowing the load he carried on the shoulder pole.
The two climbed up the mountain together in this way and reached the clearing where he always sold his wares. Once they arrived there, "Brother Fatty" bolted up a tree with a swooshing sound and crouched down as usual.
Gu Yu unloaded his stuff, set up the boiler and quickly prepared his stall. Fire was lit and corn cobs gurgled in the boiling water. Inside the pot on the ground were cooked tea eggs, surrounded by charcoals to keep them warm.
He then casually took out some peanuts and threw them up the tree, one kernel at a time. His aim was pretty accurate, but Brother Fatty was even better. It stuffed the peanuts incessantly into its mouth. Its cheek pouches were like pockets of Doraemon, one couldn’t tell where the food went.
After feeding the squirrel, he sat back on the folding stool and picked up a plastic bag in which were some pancakes he made last night and which would be his breakfast today.
Had someone passed by at this moment, they would witness a scene where a guy was nibbling on pancakes, accompanied by a peanut-gnawing squirrel. The two would even communicate with some indiscernible syllables from time to time, looking incredibly hilarious.
"Wait for me, Xiao Fei."
"Hurry up. Here, take my hand."
Before noontime, a young man stopped at the end of the stone staircase, turned around and grabbed a girl by her hand. He deliberately pulled too hard and dragged her into his arms all of a sudden.
The girl was a little shy and struggled squeamishly, "Knock it off! Let go of me!"
"Why? I’ll carry you up."
The young man would not let her down and half carried her to the clearing. He looked around and said, "There are some chairs. Let’s sit there for a while."
The girl also glanced around and saw the little stall. She immediately shook the guy off. "Stop messing around. We are not alone here!"
"So what? It’s not like we’re breaking the law."
She rolled her eyes at him and did not follow him left, but walked to the right instead. The guy trailed closely behind her. The two walked to the stall and skimmed through the petty-looking merchandise, then said with a slightly offish tone, "Two bottles of water and a corn cob, please."
"The corn cobs are two for five yuan, do you…"
"No, thanks. Just one, please."
"That’s eight yuan in total."
The guy did not have any change and handed over a one-hundred-yuan note.
Gu Yu winced. Such banknotes annoyed him the most. He zipped open his little waist pocket at once and started to dig out five-yuan and ten-yuan notes for change. He usually did not take much cash with him, so after scraping for a while, he was still two yuan short. He was a little embarrassed, "Well, that’s all the change I’ve got on me. Why don’t you buy something else?"
"Forget it, like there’s anything to buy here!"
The guy took over the ninety-yuan worth of change and put it back into his pocket impatiently. Gu Yu would not take advantage of him, so he picked up a bag of pickles and a tea egg. "These are worth two yuan. Please have it."
"I told you to forget it. You are such…"
Before he could finish his sentence, his girlfriend screamed. He asked immediately, "What’s wrong?"
"That little squirrel is so cute!"
The girl was pointing at a grey squirrel on the tree and her eyes were almost sparkling. The guy rolled his eyes in annoyance. "Please… Haven’t you seen a squirrel before?"
"It’s not the same. Look how pretty this one is! Oh, I want to feed it… Hey, fella, do you have any peanuts?"
Gu Yu hesitated and looked down at the peanuts in his boiler. "Yeah, but…"
"Come on, give her some! Here’s the money!"
The guy doted on his girlfriend, but was not as patient with anyone else. He took out a twenty-yuan bill and smacked it on the table.
Seeing this, Gu Yu had no choice but to hand over a handful of peanuts. The girl took a few kernels with excitement and ran to the tree. She held up her hand and said, "Come, little squirrel. Have some peanuts."
Brother Fatty tilted its head and hesitated. It gave Gu Yu a sneaky look and seeing that he nodded back, it ran down the tree right away.
The squirrel was still trying to restrain itself and acted as if it did not want to have close contact with human beings, but only did so for the delicious peanuts. It was playing the role of a timid and shy squirrel, squirming around and refusing to eat.
To the girl, such behaviour was adorable beyond imagination. She laughed and said, "Haha, don’t be afraid. It’s not poisonous. Come here! Theses are just for you!"
After much temptation, Brother Fatty minced forward and picked up a peanut, gnawing on it skillfully.
"Look, Xiao Fei! It’s eating! It’s so cute. I want to take one home."
Seeing that she would not shut up about it, Gu Yu was silently embarrassed: my dear squirrel friend, does this thing we pulled off count as a scam?
While Gu Yu was being sarcastic, the guy was even more desperate. He could not imagine a man like himself crouching beside his girlfriend and playing up noisily to a squirrel. He had no choice but to pretend to be sightseeing nearby, ignoring the commotion.
After glancing around, his eyes returned to that shabby stall with its cheap bottled water, glossy red tea eggs, corn cobs too well-cooked to bite in and miserable-looking perfumed sachets… Wait a minute?
The last item did not fit in with everything else.
The guy paused and looked closely again. Three perfumed sachets were indeed displayed in a box under separate transparent covers.
"Hey, fella, what are these?"
"Theses are Fresh Petal Incense. You can carry them in your pockets, or put them on a night stand. Do you want to have a look?"
Gu Yu grabbed a towel and carefully wiped his hands clean. He then opened a transparent cover and picked up a sachet.
The guy took the sachet using both hands and gave it a little sniff. His countenance changed immediately. Next moment, he was picking up the sachet by its opening with his right hand and holding its bottom with the left, as if he was carrying a treasure. His arrogance was completely gone and he seemed incredibly solemn now.
He then lowered his head to smell long inside the sachet. A cool and refreshing scent slipped in through his nostrils, diffusing slowly into his mind.
The smell was sweet but not cloying, delicate but not weak. Just like a wild flower growing on an unknown cliff, swaying with willowy movements in its own rhythm despite being battered by wind and rain.
Gu Yu stared at the guy with unblinking eyes, feeling a bit nervous.
Incense-making was so time- and energy-consuming that he had only used the product himself or made some on special order. This was the first time he took them up here for sale. The sachets were here all day yesterday without being noticed, but the customer this time seemed promising.
After some time, the guy looked up and there was a natural, comfortable and pleasant feeling about him all of a sudden. His eyes were sparkling, even more so than when his girlfriend discovered the squirrel. He asked, "How much is this?"
"Sixty yuan." Gu Yu felt that should cover for his effort.
"Great. I’ll take them all!"