Chapter 22: A Show of Stilts
The fifteenth day of the first lunar month arrived, the day of the lantern festival, and Fine Horse Village was getting ready for a lively evening full of festive lanterns.
There were magnificent lanterns at every location; the lantern festival was a sign of the people's standard of living. The peaceful years with good harvests were in stark contrast to turmoil of war and pestilences and natural disasters. Last year's timely snow was a harbinger for a good harvest; it was good weather for crops. This year's festival was even more lively than years previous.
Seventy percent of Fine Horse Village's inhabitants had moved there from Henan, and of course they brought their traditional customs and talents with them. The local scoundrels were more eager than anyone, bringing out all kinds of shows and street performances, looking for opportunities to line their pockets.
Wenchang found thirty or so athletic and nimble men and formed a stilts troupe. Stilts were complicated, requiring skill, artistry, showmanship, and experience. To make a name for themselves in Henan would take a decade of arduous training, and they would have to have begun training since childhood. Three to five years of training was only good for putting on a show out in the streets, not comparable to real, skilled practitioners. Wenchang was the leader of the troupe, and he was more skilled at it than the others.
Heading north up the intersection there was a large public square at the lower part of the northern end of the village. On the right was the not-so-small Merciful Grace Temple. A platform had been erected on the left on which an "Ao-turtle Mountain" had been built out of festive lanterns of various colors, each one more spectacular and skillfully crafted than the last. A stage had been set up near the southern end by the local wealthy families, who had went to great expense to invite a group of men from Xi'an prefecture to come perform the Yuan operas that were all the rage at that time.
The open area to the right of Merciful Favor Temple had been roped off so that the youngsters and monks couldn't get through. It was a sheep pen, which ran counter to the Buddhist principles of mercy and compassion. Outside the northern gates at the foot of the hillside was a field where they raced horses; it was a friendly competition, no blood spilled, though mistakes could happen when racing in the snow. It was common for people to be thrown from their horses.
The public square during Lantern Festival was ten times more lively than during temple fairs, around three or four thousand people. Young, unmarried women, who normally would not be seen in public, came out on this day, giving the young men a something to gawk at and size up.
During the daytime was "competition" time, and night was for "enjoyment". At any rate, after three lively days of celebration everyone could go home and rest up and get ready to head back out into the fields.
Five troupes participated in the stilts competition; the other four troupes were from neighboring villages. The Shadow Rock troupe had been the champions two years running. They had a strong lineup this year, raring to go. But the people of Fine Horse Village knew Shadow Rock was about to get routed because Wenchang and his boys had been practicing, and the moves they had shown off were extraordinarily spectacular. And this year they were doing it even bigger: there would perform on ice.
The stilt troupe procession began in the urban district, marching from southeast to northwest before turning back to the intersection to strike a pose before heading to the square and beginning the competition in front of Merciful Favor Temple. During the procession, Shadow Rock, last year's winning team, was in the lead, with Fine Horse Village, the home team, in the second position behind them. When they set up, Shadow Rock was in the middle and Fine Horse Village was on the east side.
The intersection was just where Daddy Ma the Fifth had planned to launch his attack.
The night before, Sickly Wuchang had hosted a secret meeting in his mansion on the southeast road where they planned out the order of operations.
The meeting took place in an underground heated room; there were few people there. There was a single lamp lit, yet everyone's face was clearly visible.
In the seat of honor on the left was a large man with a pockmarked face, his hawk eyes flashing, looking mean and intimidating. He was none other than the Hegemon of Shangzhou, Daddy Ma the Fifth, the Pockmarked Tiger.
On either side of him were two fierce-looking middle-aged men with insidious looks in their eyes, like two big leopards waiting to pounce.
On the right sat three others, Sickly Wuchang in the middle. To his left sat Spirit Fox, and Walking Retribution sat on his right. It was freezing cold outside but warm in their heated meeting room.
"Daddy Fifth, is everything ready?" Sickly Wuchang asked evenly.
"You can rest assured, everything is ready. Not only are my men set up, Judge Zhou's capable man, Inspector Huang from the Shangzhou yamen has also sent people to help. It's all set up. It'll be difficult for him to escape even if he has three heads and six arms."
"We'll have a banquet at my place tomorrow to celebrate Daddy Fifth's success."
"Enough pleasantries, though. Let's get to the nitty gritty: that bastard. You need to use your men well. There mustn't be any slip-ups, otherwise Inspector Huang won't be able to show up and take him down."
"I've already prepared everything. It's someone that Cai fella gets along well with. I've ordered one of my trusted men to get close to him to watch the festivities. Once in the midst of the chaotic crowd we'll strike. The knife is shaped like a shuttle, just like Cai's." Spirit Fox smiled.
"Daddy Fifth, how will you strike?" Sickly Wuchang asked.
Pockmarked Tiger smiled sinisterly. "It's simple. First use a concealed weapon to strike his lower body. Once he's down we send people to help him up, taking that opportunity to nab him. If he still has some fight in him, or if we miss, then it's our bad luck and we'll have to pile on him. It's all planned. I hope we can get him with one strike, and that your man will not have died in vain."
"That guy is really incredible. Even if we all pile on him, maybe… perhaps…"
"Get outta here! Are you looking down on our Shangzhou masters? Besides, our five brothers from Mt. Hua have agreed to stand aside ready to help. Those five are famous within the martial fraternity. That Cai bastard won't be any trouble for any one of those five."
The excess snow had been swept away from the intersection, and luckily Heaven had helped them out by making it stop snowing the day before. Once the excess snow was gone the packed snow underneath was tamped down and water was added, and in less than two hours they had a large ice rink.
If you didn't have over a decade of experience with stilts, best not embarrass yourself by trying to perform on ice. Falling and breaking a bone was one thing, but winning the crowd's ire was the most heinous offense. Someone who had practiced for only a few days could stand in stilts in the mud, and even put on a simple show. But someone who had trained for a few years could not even move without falling once helped to a standing position on the ice. Even the slightest movement and you'd be a dead dog.
There was a sea of people at the intersection. The pounding of gongs was deafening and loud music filled the air. The procession arrived. The upper balconies of the surrounding buildings were packed with grannies and aunts and young girls, and below kids scurried in and out through the crowd.
Amid the clamor of the crowd the first group, the lantern teams, passed by. The second group was the floats, but they were nothing special. The third group were the stilts troupes.
The Shadow Rock troupe led the way, accompanied on either side by twenty or more helpers. In the middle were a dozen men donning black cloth turbans, red silk draped over their shoulders. Strapped to their feet were wooden stilts eight feet tall, fixed with specially made anti-skid covers on the bottom. The twelve men were imposing and in high spirits… They were all men in their prime, around twenty-five to twenty-six years old.
The leader was Village Head Zhang's younger cousin, dressed in a teal jacket that was not buttoned up, a red sash tied around in his waist in the back, his strong chest bared. He wasn't afraid of the cold on such a frigid day. He held a carousel lantern in his right hand, and in his left a red-cloth flower ribbon as big as a huge bowl.
"Woo…" The cheers from the crowd were deafening. He stepped onto the ice amidst the applause, took five steps, then bent forward and spun in a circle three times, then stood crosslegged, holding the lantern and flower ball out as he bowed to the crowd on all sides, all the time standing very stable.
He struck a pose among the cheers, pretending that he was losing his balance and about to fall as he went to the center of the arena, putting on a good show.
The second man stepped out, then the third. The fourth man took four steps, but slipped on the fifth, crashing to the ice with an explosive bang, his arms and legs sticking out as two men came out to help him up amidst the crowd's uproarious laughter.
"Shit, I sprained my ankle!" the man on the ground cried.
The two men carried him out and helped him take the stilts off.
Only nine of the twelve men were able to make it to the center of the rink.
The second troupe was the Fine Horse Village troupe, greeted with thunderous applause.
The first one out was Cai Wenchang. He wore a black turban and an open sleeveless jacket, revealing his strong, jade-white chest. His arms were exposed and he wore a red sash around his waist and black lantern pants. There was a slight smile on his handsome face, and a thick, bushy 八-shaped mustache. There was a red silk flower at the front of his red sash and he held a large colored lantern in his right hand; the bamboo pole it was attached to was ten feet long, like a fishing pole. Actually, it was a fishing pole. He held a horse whip in his left hand, a small red flower tied around each section of the whip.
His right foot stepped onto the ice with a clang. Heavens! His stilts didn't have any anti-skid covering. There wasn't anything covering the feet of the smooth, light boxwood stilts; how could he walk on solid ice with those?
"Bring the horse!" he yelled, and cracked the whip, his lantern swaying. He leapt ten times or more on the ice. Before he found his footing he swung his right leg up to the sky and leaned backward, standing only on his left leg, extending all the way back until his head was level with his heel. He held the lantern up over the tip of his right foot, which was pointing at the sky. The lantern swayed gently as he held his pose.
"Wow!" the crowd cheered, their applause was loud enough to shake mountains.
Suddenly, the whip lashed out and he spun around three times before his right foot came back down as he did the splits on the ice, his legs straight, the lantern swaying in the front gently, the whip extended behind him; he was very steady.
If this had been in the mud it would not have been a problem standing back up; even someone who had trained a few years could do it. But even the most accomplished expert couldn't do it on solid ice. Impossible.
The applause ceased, thinking he had slipped.
The whip cracked three times and the lantern lifted as his legs sprang up, amazingly hoisting himself up. He not only stood back up, he even stood like a rooster on one leg as he received the crowd's overwhelming applause.
Next, the second man came out, a big man dressed up like a deity, holding high a nine-section rod made from ebony and lacquered in black. He chased Wenchang out like a gust of wind, brandishing his nine-section rod.
Wenchang gave a long cry and broke off with the move "Willow Catkin in the Wind", fleeing as his whip whizzed and his lantern danced, his legs losing their footing as he tottered. He bent forward and staggered to the left and teetered to the right, in great danger of falling over, shavings of ice kicking up as his feet slammed down.
There was no cheering, only shocked gasps rising and falling. The girls' shrieks were particularly grating. There were not many watching calmly.
His buddies on either side had broken out in a cold sweat.
He roared suddenly, as if he had been hit by the deity's wooden rod, and he fell over to the side.
"Aiya!" everyone shouted.
He cartwheeled forward quickly like a windmill as the deity behind him laughed boisterously, waving his rod and charging.
He cartwheeled fifty feet or so, then he suddenly straightened up, still spinning like a top, his whip and lantern spinning with him until he finally came to a stop.
"Ah!" everyone gasped, wiping the sweat from the palms of their hands, relieved. Finally, they erupted into raging applause.