Chapter 26: Farewell
That night the two of them settled down in the guardtower overlooking the city gates. The little beggar had pressed the sentries' sleep acupoint, so they were all sleeping soundly like the dead.
The little beggar had some food and liquor stashed in the guardtower, fare he had filched from Shangluo Inn. They ate before turning in for the night. Wenchang had been cut in the chest, but it was no big deal. He applied some styptic powder and it was fine.
"Brother Wenchang, what do you plan to do now?" the little beggar asked.
Wenchang shook his head and ate a chunk of mutton. "No plans. Roam the jianghu wherever my legs take me. The world is vast; where can I not find shelter?"
"You have a lot of ambition and you're strong. You ought to get out and see the world and not waste your life away in vain."
Wenchang took a drink of liquor, a bit excited. "Yeah. Not waste my life in vain. Youth is the time to experience everything life has to offer, sow my wild oats, let the resplendent flower of youth blossom, so that I have a lot of fond memories when I get older. If you don't chase your dreams while you're young you will have no nothing to look back on later in life." He raised the wine gourd. "I know the jianghu is a treacherous place, danger at every turn. I might end up dead, out in the sun on some desolate mountain, or clogging up some ditch, but I'm not afraid. I will stride ahead courageously. Life is expendable. Death is a certainty. If you love life you will lose it; if you accept death as inevitable you will be free. There's no need to rejoice about living; no need to be sad about dying. Life is boundless and unpredictable. Death is also boundless and unpredictable. Anyway, I'm a fugitive, no home to go back to, no land to love. What am I waiting for? What am I attached to? I must travel! To the back of beyond, to the ends of the earth."
He finished the last of the liquor and laughed wildly and threw the gourd down where it smashed to pieces on the floor. Then he lay down.
The little beggar wiped his hands and feet clean with his clothes and mumbled, "A pitiful person, a… a… lament… lamentable person. I can tell… tell… this… this is the first… first time he's killed… a man… His mind is… in disarray. Oh! I'm… drunk. Drunk cause of him… or cause of myself? Oh! Away from home for over a year, dad, mom… grandfather… Are they… well? I should go back home and see the… them… I can't become a person with no… no place… to call home… no land to… love! Should… should… go… go back home…" He hiccuped.
He had two more drinks and lay down as well.
Sleeping it off in the corner, they both gradually descended to dreamland. Everyone has their own hopes and desires. A jianghu exile's hopes and desires are all the more intense and salient. A precious sword, a beautiful girl, fine wine, these all weigh heavy in their lives. Life and death, on the other hand, is not worth mentioning.
The next day the clouds hung heavy in the sky, the wind blew fierce. Snow fell thick and fast. The world was a boundless blanket of white, pure white as far as the eye could see.
Men of the jianghu were highly vigilant and alert. They possessed bodies that could withstand suffering and punishment, had hearts hard as stone, and sharp, sensitive minds. This mind was use to reflect, evaluate, choose, and discern; it was all-encompassing, able to take miraculous command of the moment. It was still dark at the break of dawn, but they were already awake, sitting, still, each doing his own thing, not disturbing the other. One could not rashly inquire about whatever it was they were practicing. That was a taboo within the martial fraternity. Not even someone as close to you as your father could ask carelessly.
Two hours later, hands opened slightly, legs began to move. The little beggar asked, "Brother Wenchang, will you begin roaming the jianghu starting today?"
"That's just what I planned," Wenchang blurted.
"Where will you go first? Where will the starting point of your life in the jianghu be?"
"I haven't decided where I'll go, but Fine Horse Village is the starting point."
"Why not go to Xi'an prefecture. It's a complicated place, a haven for the nobility and rich merchants, a playground for men of the jianghu. But I have to warn you, it's not a suitable city for a third-rate man of the jianghu to live."
"The Prince of Qin's residence is there, and government lackeys are particularly numerous. If you're not quick on your feet and fast with your fists then prepare to eat it; only first- and second-rate masters can hack it there."
"Little brother, what level do you think I am?"
"Somewhere between second- and third-rate."
"Me, I'm first-rate, and that's not bragging," the little beggar said proudly.
"You don't seem that great. You're still far from the realm of perfection."
"Heehee! Don't be so incredulous. As far as determining rank goes, there's two criteria. You were talking about cultivation, that's one. The other is jianghu experience. That includes what you see and hear, your skill with money, resourcefulness, backing, experience, etc. It's subtle and hard to explain; you can sense it but you can't put it into words. Wielding political finesse, having a ruthless heart, thinking and acting differently, whether you are idealistic or not, etc. That's the knowledge you need to have, it's a lot! Those who possess both criteria are the best of the best, and there are few people like that in the world. You'll understand later. Let's go."
"Eh? You want to wait for the authorities to send their goons to come arrest you and take you before a judge, or for Sickly Wuchang to get his henchmen to flay you alive?"
"I have to go back home and pay my respects at my ancestral grave. Once I leave I may not ever have the chance to burn paper money and incense before my parents' graves."
The little beggar's face stiffened, his smile disappeared. "You should, Wenchang. I'll go with you."
At the top of the double-hour of the dragon, two steeds, braving the snowstorm, arrived at the west gate of Cai Family Village. They stopped outside the gates, rider and horse breaths smoking in the bitter cold.
Wenchang led his horse and reached out and pushed the gate, but it was bolted. In this heavy snow there was no one outside the village.
Wenchang kicked the gates and the heavy, strong doors crashed open, splitting the thick gatebolt in two. His foot strength was really astonishing.
They led their horses through the gates and headed straight for the heart of the village.
The main door to one of the house creaked open. The inhabitants had been alerted by their barking dog. A middle-aged man opened the door and looked out. The first thing he saw was the dark, gloomy face of Cai Wenchang, and he pulled his earflaps up.
"Heavens!" the man cried out. "He… He…"
Wenchang nodded to the man. "Little Bear, Little Tiger has returned."
They continued on, leading their horses toward Village Head Cai's house.
The village was soon full of commotion as the men and women, young and old, braved the snow one by one to gather before the village head's house.
They hitched up their horses at the post as the huge vermilion doors opened. The village head and his son, along with the servants, stood just inside the doorway, shocked.
Wenchang climbed the steps and came right to the door. He cupped a hand over his fist. "Uncle, Little Tiger has returned."
"You… You…" Village Head Cai couldn't get the words out.
Wenchang stood face to face with him and said coldly, "I won't burn my house down. From this day forward, no one is allowed to touch a single blade of grass. Little Tiger is here to warn you: if you dare touch my field or my house, though I, Little Tiger, acknowledge you as my senior uncle, my blade won't recognize you. Move!"
He pushed past him into the house, turning left through the main hall and into the west hall. The house to the west was his father's property.
He stayed in that house filled with cobwebs for a long time. When he came out his eyes were glistening with tears. Village Head Cai and the others watched terror-stricken as he marched out the main gates and stood on the steps and turned to them. "Let the fields lie fallow. No one's allowed to work them. Otherwise, don't blame Little Tiger for being ruthless." He stood on the steps, sweeping his gaze coldly across all the elders and brothers and everyone else from the village gathered there. He suddenly roared, "Where's your ancestral punishment, huh? Come on, administer it, let me see what it's like! You cruel, heartless people. Come on elders, why don't you flaunt your superiority before me now? Little Tiger is just a good-for-nothing, in your hearts always a nail in your eye. Well, why don't you come out and pull the nail out now?
"Three years ago, Big brother Wenhua said something from the heart, something that made me decide not to burn this house down today and not have it out with you. Brother Wenhua said, 'You can only blame Little Tiger for not having any parents.' Ever since we were kids Brother Wenhua and I have been mortal enemies. Yet in my bleakest moment he spoke up for me out of a sense of justice. What he said ought to fill you all with shame. You all have no face to look at me while alive; dead, you have no face to see my parents in the netherworld." As he spoke, large tears dropped and broke on his lapel. He walked down the steps and undid the reins and headed east.
The crowd quickly made way as the two steeds galloped out of the east gate. The Cai family ancestral graveyard was at the foot of the hill, snow nearly swallowing the lines of gravestones.
There were two small pavilions at the front of the graveyard. They hitched up their horses inside. Wenchang took down his saddlebag; inside was paper money, incense, candles, etc., and sacrificial food offerings wrapped in lotus leaves.
The little beggar helped him lay it all out, then carried it over to two graves a short distance away.
The fierce wind blew out the guttering candles and sent paper ash fluttering through the air. Snow covered the sacrificial offerings.
Wenchang stood before the graves and looked on through the snowfall toward the hazy image of Cai Family Village in the distance. He stared for a long time as emotions surged through him.
He didn't blame Heaven. He didn't blame men. He didn't curse his fate. He just bore it quietly.
His home was lovely, worth longing for, growing up in, and dying in. If he didn't end up dead in a ditch somewhere, then when he was old and grey at the temples he'd be drawn back to this land he loved, would return to his ancestral home and settle down and die in the place he was born. But he knew he'd likely never come back here. He'd had no golden childhood here, nothing here for him to miss. All he had was grief and hate. No seeds of love had been planted here. Only hatred had taken root.
His vision blurred as icy tears crawled down his cheeks.
He turned his attention back to the snow-covered graves. Everything grew hazy before him. Inside these snow-blanketed graves lay his mom and dad, but they were already strangers to him. Apart for so long, he could no longer recall their faces. His childhood memories had already vanished without a trace. In his mind, parents were the kindest people in the world. But it was like a snowy landscape in the distance or an image in the fog, so remote you could see it but not reach it, so vague you couldn't grasp it, couldn't touch it.
He became lost in thought, vague images flitting before him.
On the small path to the west, leading from Shadow Rock Village, more than twenty horses barreled through the snowstorm toward the west gate, the riders wearing black official robes with old sheepskin coats overtop. They had come from Fine Horse Village to Cai Family Village to arrest the murder suspect and bring him to justice.
The little beggar had been silent until now, his smile replaced with a solemn expression. He tugged on Wenchang's sleeve and said softly, "You should go. The government's thugs are almost here."
Wenchang turned, but he wasn't looking at the group of horses galloping below them in the distance. He took a deep breath, the frigid air clearing his mind. He raised a hand. "Farewell, hometown," he said in a downcast voice.
"You'll be back," the little beggar said pointedly.
"It's your hometown. Love it, hate it, in truth, this is still a place you will never forget, a place you will never be able to erase from your heart. At times it will appear in your mind, in your imagination. Whether you're at the top of the world or at the end of your rope, your hometown will never vanish from your heart."
"Between the far corners of the world, where can one not call home? I won't come back."
"You will. One of these days you will get the strong urge to revisit your hometown, even if it's just to take a quick look at it. It's not easy to forget the place where you grew up."
Wenchang was silent. He felt the little beggar was no longer a thirteen-year-old child, but a wise man experienced in the ways of the world. An inexpressible feeling welled up inside him and he suddenly embraced the little beggar, muttering emotionally, "Maybe you're right, little brother. If I could really forget this place I would not have come back this time. Among the intense hate I
have for this place I was born and grew up in there still resides some sentimental feeling. Let's go! Who knows what will happen in the days to come!"
They led their horses away, then vaulted into the saddles and galloped off into the snowstorm.