Jin stared at the motorcycle blankly, trying to think about what he was going to do… he needed to change the snapped drive chain, but he also didn’t want to touch the stupid machine. As he pretended to look at the parts, his mind wandered. He had heard that his friends who went to the city to get construction jobs were paid in a month what he was able to make in a year in the country. His mother needed medicine, coming home from her job in a factory when she couldn’t work the long hours that were required of her, but they were desperately short of cash. He wanted to see the world, too, to get out of this little farming hole and see how people lived, like in the Korean series where everyone wore white pants and colorful sweaters, drove nice cars, and lived in sparkling apartments. Visions of a misty, big-city skyline haunted his dreams and made it hard to focus on work at home, scraping a living out of the yellow earth, feeding the pigs, or working for his uncle in the tiny machine shop. As he eased into work, he set his cell-phone on an old tire, and pop music blared from its tiny speakers, helping him to loose his thoughts in a pink-haze of love lyrics sung in a monotone Taiwanese accent.
He was glad he had his phone. Since he didn’t have a girlfriend and had been left behind by all the older kids, who worked in coastal towns, his cell-phone was his only joy, his only connection… it was his life.
“I told the old man that you would return his motorcycle when you finished fixing it”, blurted his uncle in a loud, gruff voice, pulling his wife-beater up over his large stomach and fanning himself with a beat-up fan. “Its up on the pass, down the valley trail, and over the concrete bridge, down the little path on the right when you pass over. You can walk back to the village in an hour. Don’t be late for dinner or there won’t be anything left!” Jin looked at his uncle sullenly with one eye, the other eye hidden behind a long shock of bangs. He knew that his uncle would drink again tonight, like he did every night, and that there wouldn’t be any food left if he didn’t come back early… uncle wouldn’t stop eating until it was all gone. At least uncle had taken him in; there were worse people he could have been sent to stay with, and he found out that the man really wasn’t as mean as his demanding voice first made him believe.
“Hao de”, Jin said, looking down at the greasy concrete floor, “I’ll take it up in just a few minutes. I’m almost finished changing the chain.” The mature sound of his voice made his uncle stop scowling for a moment, and eased the tension. “Just be sure you get back before dark”, the old man said as he patted his hairless, bulging, sweaty stomach with his fan, and then walked out the door to fan himself in an awning next to the dirt street.
The chain was easy to change. Jin was atop the bike and out on the street before his uncle had time to call out to him. He whirred up the mountain path, past little lumber yards and pig yards, part a little shop that sold bottled water and instant noodles, and past the little old ladies that always sat out on the street, waiting for family that was never going to come home. He breathed in the smell of dust, and dung, and garbage burning somewhere in the distance, but didn’t think anything of it, because they were smells that he was used to. He sped up the mountain, through the pass, and down the valley road on the other side. He enjoyed the feeling of wind, pushing his bangs out of his eyes so that he could see clearly in front of him, and he enjoyed the cool of the mountains embrace. Then the fresh smell of bamboo hit the boy with the salty tang of newly sprung shoots, and the dark shadows of the forest shielded him from the sun that seared his back with hot and sweaty rays. Jin drove a little slower through the grove, just to take in the green darkness of the bamboo and the sharp, pouring sound of water that cascaded down in little rivulets into a mountain stream. The path followed the stream down the gently sloping mountain, until it joined the river and the path crossed it on a little concrete bridge.
Jin remembered his uncle’s instruction, and looked for a path to veer off on the right, but no path was in sight. He kept driving, but saw no path, only the intense green of bamboo forest, stretching off around the bend and disappearing into a late afternoon haze. There was no other way to go but forward. “Uncle just didn’t want me to say I wasn’t going to take this bike back… so he didn’t tell me how far away this place was”, he thought, and kept driving. He drove another kilometer down the road before he came to a fork in the road. The bottom side went down to the river, winding out of sight, and the top fork went to the right, up into the mountain, disappearing quickly in the steep ascent. Jin cursed his uncle under his breath, but was already feeling light hearted from the moist, fresh air, and the singing birds. So he chose the path on the right, thinking, “Uncle said the old man lived in the mountain, not next to the river, so this must be the path he was talking about.” Jin drove up the mountain, feeling a race of adrenaline as he climbed the rapidly ascending trail, over stones and protruding roots, gunning his engines to keep from slipping back down with the loose gravel that rained down as he made the climb.
By the time the road evened out, Jin was far up the mountain, and the trail came to an open place where the path was less well-defined, large rocks cropping up all over, and the mountain gravel covering the flat areas that were surrounded by giant bamboo. It looked like a dead-end, and the slope gave way to more rocks higher up, and beyond these boulders the rock-wall of a mountain sprang up into the golden light of the late afternoon sky. “Uncle!” Jin said with disgust, trying to swing the bike around to head back down the trail, but just as he was turning, he noticed a large crack in the mountain wall, in which the rippling reflection of water could be seen. This looked interesting, and since he was already too late and too lost to return the bike, he went to see what it was before heading home.
As he neared the large opening, he noticed that he could see daylight on the other side, shining through the passage like a mirrored beacon. The shallow water that pooled inside the cave’s mouth glittered like a thousand gems on the cave walls, and the smell of a hearth fire wafted through the cave on a breeze. Jin smiled. “Uncle… you big tease!” His uncle had known that this place would be hard to find, but had saved the surprise for him to find out on his own. He got off the bike, pushing it over the slick, wet stones, and waded through the shallow water to come up on the sand of the other side. Then he pushed the bike through the soft sand, the wet tires picking up clods of sand and showering them down on his pant legs and tennis shoes as he struggled to push the bike through to the opposite side.
When Jin came through the hole in the mountain wall, he was not prepared for what he saw there… a huge valley spread before him, ringed in mountains, filled with a patchwork of fields in rich brown, the electric greens of newly sprouted rice and barley, and the yellowed fields of wheat and soy. Below the outcropping on which he stood, ancient tea trees crowded the mountainside and row after row of giant peach and apple trees spread out before him, descending towards a large body of water in the center of the valley. The golden evening light bathed the mountains surrounding the valley and added a tinge of the surreal to already spectacular scene, and Jin stood for a moment to take it all in. “I wonder why no one ever talks about this place… its strange that we live so close to such a beautiful place, but no one ever talks about it?” The pungent smell of smoke and the clucking of chickens below him interrupted his thoughts, and looked through the trees to see a little cottage, surrounded by vegetable gardens, nestled next to a large boulder. “That must be the bike’s owner,” he thought to himself, and looked around for a path from the cave to the farm… there was none. “That’s strange”, Jin blurted to himself and pushed the bike down a gravel incline and through the bushes that lined the fields… “they must not come out much!”
Jin pushed the bike between the farmer’s fields, careful not to trample the peas and lettuce that grew in neat rows on both sides, and finally reached an iris-lined footpath that led up to the cottage. As he neared the door, he heard the sound of people speaking inside, and thought to himself, “I may be too late for dinner at home, but these people may feed me once they see how much trouble I went to deliver their bike.” And with that encouragement, he parked the bike and stepped up to the door, knocking on it with a friendly sounding “Wei, I brought your bike back!” He was sure to get dinner with such a nice attitude.
Inside was quiet, and then the sound of shuffling footsteps could be heard, and the door slowly creaked open. An old man with a long, long beard and armed with a stick, curiously peeked at Jin from behind the safety of his door. “Who are you?” the old man said in old Chinese, looking at him with a kind but confused expression on his face.
Jin couldn’t help but laugh at the old man’s joke. “Grandpa, I brought your bike back!”
“Bike?” The old man appeared mystified and pushed the door to a sliver through which Jin saw the old man’s eyes narrow in question.
“You know, the bike you wanted my uncle to fix”, he said, pointing behind him at the bike that was parked on the dirt path below the house.
Just then Jin heard the woman’s voice that he heard coming up to the house say something unintelligible, but he could tell from the tone that the woman was afraid of something.
“Where did you come from? And why did you come at evening?”
Jin was utterly confused by the old man’s questions. It was like the old man had never seen anyone else in his life. “I came from the village to bring you back the bike that I fixed. I know it’s late, but can you please pay me for the bike and I’ll head home.” His heart sank with the thought of sleeping on an empty stomach, and determined to try to salvage the situation.
“Man Child, the ‘bike’ is not mine, and you should not be here. The night has not been kind to those of our village, and I fear that evil will befall you if you remain. Go back quickly the way that you came and never return!”
Jin did not like the sound of this. The old man was telling him to leave, in strange sounding Chinese, and acting as if he didn’t even know where he came from. “Look, Old Grandpa, I didn’t come to play jokes on you, and finding you was hard, so will you stop acting and just give me my money?”
The old man looked at the boy quietly, and said, “I have no gold, and you should not ask any of me, for I owe nothing to you. Go home before it is too late!” And with that, the old man shut the door firmly in Jin’s face, and he could hear the sliding of a door bar against the rough wood of the sturdy door.
Jin pounded on the thick, hewn timbers. “Come on, old man, I won’t leave until you give me my money. I don’t care if you say you don’t have any!!!
“Go away!” A smooth voice came from the cracks in the door and hit Jin with a flash of irresistible curiosity.
“That sounds like a girl my age”, he thought. “Strange that a girl would stay back here, instead of coming out to our village!” Girls were few and far between everywhere Jin had been, and just the sight of one was enough to make the teenage boys stare and blush at the same time. If a girl was pretty, all the boys would fight over her, and the one who “took her” was the legend of the whole school. Pretty girls didn’t stay single for long, and even the fat or cross-eyed ones found decent, hard-working boys, the competition was so strong. He’d heard of local girls going to city to work, being chased by factory bosses and office managers, marrying men who made twenty times a year what a village boy could hope to make in a lifetime. None of his numerous male cousins were married, and he had almost given up hope of marriage, even though the elders in the village thought he was old enough to find a girl. He lived that part of his life on the Internet.
Now there was nothing they could do to get rid of him. He had already missed dinner, and his uncle would beat him if he went back without the money he was owed. He also wanted to see the girl that hid behind that ancient door. He would wait.
“Hao de, Old Grandpa, I am waiting right here until you give me the money! You can’t stay in there forever!” With that Jin sat on a log next to the door, and rested his back on the warm wall, watching the sunset turn the clouds above the valley orange. The sky faded to purple, the stars came out, and the crickets and frogs sang in a deafening symphony.
He heard the old man whispering inside, and he smiled at himself for being such a good businessman. There was no way that he was getting cheated of the money that he was owed. He turned on his cell phone music, and let the sound of Taiwanese R&B mix with the sounds of nature that came from every direction.
He had drowsed off when he suddenly woke with a shiver. A cold wind blew in the trees, and a shrieking sound was faintly coming from further down the valley. Immediately the door opened and the old grandfather grabbed Jin by the shirt collar and yanked him off of his log. Jin was caught off balance and flopped onto the doorstep with a thud and a shout…
“What are you doing, old man!” But then he stopped short as a metallic screech echoed through the valley.
“Quiet! Don’t let it hear you!” The old man whispered hoarsely and pulled Jin inside, sliding the massive bar back in place to lock the door.
“What was that?” Jin asked with wide eyes. Trying to control a shiver of fear that was making his heart beat a thousand miles a minute, and that was clinching his vocal cords, so that he felt like he could barely squeak out his question.
“Taotie…” the old man said in mysterious simplicity.
“What’s ‘Taotie’”, Jin asked dumbly, unable to understand the answer to his question.
“It is a horrible monster that has been destroying our village over the last few weeks.” The old man spoke in a whisper, but the sadness and gravity of his words brought tears to his eyes, and Jin felt like an idiot for how he had acted earlier. “Our Great Ancestor, King Wen, buried him here three thousand years ago, binding him with a chain made of eight powerful symbols that the monster could not destroy.” He was silent for a moment, and then continued to speak. “We thought that he would always be held captive in the land, driving the seasons for us, fertilizing our crops, driving the cycles of heat and cold, and bringing us rain… but then he escaped. How, no one knows, but he was released and now he takes his revenge on the village, consuming our old people and feasting on our daughters.”
As he said these words, his eyes moved in the dark from Jin’s terrified face to someone sitting behind Jin. The boy turned around to see a girl’s form outlined by the light of a tiny paper lamp on the floor, wearing a flowing robe that draped around her and concealed her form.
She looked at Jin and spoke, softly, “Our village has lived in peace for thousands of years, hidden from the world, living off of the land, generation by generation. We have only heard stories about our ancestors hiding in this valley at the collapse of King Wen’s empire, and we never imagined that Taotie would come back to destroy us.” As she spoke, she moved quietly over to her grandfather’s side, and sat next to him with a kind of grace that Jin had never seen before.
Jin was waking up from his drowsiness and fright, thinking about the real world that he lived in, where monsters weren’t real and where policemen and soldiers intimidated any other threats out of existence. “So, you seriously think that a monster is down there, killing people”, Jin asked incredulously! “Have you seen it with your own eyes? How do you know its what you think? Maybe someone is trying to scare you off your land for a development project! I heard my cousin say that private developers try to scare superstitious farmers off their land, so that they don’t have to pay them a fair price…”
“Shh…. Listen!” The old man said in a hoarse whisper. “He comes!”
Jin could hear the wind whipping through the trees, and could hear a metallic moan that pitched and wheeled in the sky above the tiny cottage. It sounded like an airplane, but with a deep, throaty rasp that reminded Jin of a massive dog growling. Jin’s hair stood up on end again, instinctively, even though he was telling himself that this couldn’t be real.
The door shuddered in the strong wind. The shutters rattled and one came unlatched to clack against the old stone wall, widely, like an alarm to run away from whatever was coming. The fluttering candlelight disappeared in the wind, and the whole room was bathed by the moonlight that came from the clear sky through the one open shutter.
There was a thud on the door.
“Don’t open it…” the old man said, as he closed his eyes and held his cane close to his body. The girl huddled next to her grandfather, and the two of them closed their eyes, saying some kind of prayer that Jin could not understand.
The door thudded once more, but then there was a profound stillness. All of the crickets and frogs were silent.
Suddenly the small room began to shake, and things lifted from their place, as if a hundreds of unseen hands were picking up objects to use as weapons. The straw roof collapsed in a single moment of time, with the straw flying everywhere, like a silent explosion.
Jin shouted and wiped the straw from his eyes and face. They sat up to their chests in old, moldy straw, and they looked into the sky above them where a flat, dark form hovered like a sideways flying saucer.
It looked like a mask. It had no body, and no expression. It did not laugh, it did not speak, and it did not roar. It was a vibrating totem that was surrounded by a deafening sound like thousands of airplanes, trains, cars, and cranes. The monster smoked in the clear, black sky, reeking of coal and garbage, blocking out the moon, with his eyes glowing a dull, throbbing orange, like red-hot iron. It seemingly grew larger as Jin stared at it, and he was frozen with terror.
The old man stood and raised his cane to the sky. “You evil one!” He said, his voice failing him and cracking, but with courage seeping into his old frame as he spoke. “Our Ancestors told us how to stop you!” He started rummaging around the straw that covered the floor, frantically looking for something. The girl searched, too, but they were not fast enough. The huge jaws of the monster sprang open and it swooped out of the sky, smashing the wooden beams that had held up the roof, and filling the small room with smoke. The old man lunged at it with his cane, but the flying mask knocked him out of the way with a brutal twist of its head. The monster’s eyes were locked on its prey… the girl.
As the mask flew off, the girl’s cries could still be heard and the old man flailed after her, a large gash on his head from his collision with the monster. “Go after her! Go after her!” The old man shouted, beating his chest in desperation, panting, and reeling like a dunk. Jin saw the outline of the monster, still visible above the poplar trees, flying towards the mountains. Jin jumped on the motorbike and sped after the monster, speeding through the fields of wheat and tearing through patches of vegetables, jolting over the dikes that divided the fields, and nearly hit a well that was hidden in the shadows.
The smoke of the beast was blowing into Jin’s face, and he could see that the monster was flying lower, towards a thicket of bamboo that blanketed the mountainside. Jin could hear the snapping of bamboo before he arrived, and as he jumped off the bike, the girl’s muffled cries were drowned out by the mask’s shrieks. Pushing his way through the bamboo, Jin could see the dull red of the throbbing demon, and smell the smoke that continuously poured off it like a dragon’s tail.
As Jin neared the monster, fear suddenly gripped him unlike anything that he had felt before. More than the shock of seeing something impossible happen back at the house, now he realized that the monster would kill him too. His heart clenched and felt like it stopped beating. He knew that he had no way to resist. No weapon to defend himself. He felt nauseous, and he bent double as the deafening sound of the apparition engulfed him, his face to the ground.
He could barely see through the smoke, but the body of the girl seemed to lay, crumpled, just a few feet away. The monster was gone. The air was silent. He slowly got up, not knowing what he was doing. He made his way over to the beautiful girl that now lay, bleeding and badly mangled, in the clearing of broken bamboo that the monster had made in its frenzy. She was still breathing. Jin let out a gasp of relief and started to shake with emotion. Tears rolled down his face unconsciously, as he picked the girl up and tried to carry her back to her grandfather.
The sky was turning light as Jin slowly walked up to the roofless cottage. He cradled the girl as best he could, but he was not very strong, and so he struggled to lift her and keep her motionless. The old man ran to help him as he neared the cottage, and they carried her into the roofless room, wading through the knee-high straw. The old man wept silently as he caressed his beloved granddaughter’s hair as Jin swept off the kang platform that was next to the fireplace. Then they lifted her on to the bed and the old man started to wrap her wounds with cloth the he found in a cabinet.
“Lao Tan!” Voices called out over the early morning fields, and several old men, young men, and women ran towards the cottage through the mist. “We heard the screams last night! Are you still there?” The old man lifted his head and called out to the voices. “We are here! Come help!” Men materialized in the doorway, swatting at the mist, carrying axes and hoes, and looking cautiously overhead. A woman wept bitterly as she came up to the house, touching the house’s old walls and saying, “The monster killed Old Zhang last night! When will it eat its fill?”
Several old men stood around the girl. “It is bad,” said one elder. “Her soul is already gone,” said another.
“I need to go back to town and get help,” Jin said. “We can get her out and take her into the Xian hospital. It will only take a few hours, and they can help her there.”
“Who is this?” Another old man looked at Jin suspiciously, poking at him with a stick.
“He came last night, and he helped me find the girl and bring her back,” the girl’s grandfather said with a grateful tone of voice.
“It’s a sign”, gasped the crying woman. “He’s bent sent from the outside to help us.”
There were grunts of agreement, and an old man put his hand on Jin’s shoulder. “Nothing from the outside could help us now”, the old man said in a whisper. “This monster cannot eat its prey, but only rips the spirit out of the bodies of its victims. It consumes, but cannot absorb what it tastes.” The others nodded in agreement. “The only way to restore those who have been harmed by this beast is to defeat it, like the Great Ancestor.”
“How do you do that?” Jin asked with a real sense of urgency, completely forgetting all of his other theories from last evening. The one hope that burnt in his heart was that this girl could be brought back to life, brought back to her former grace and beauty.
“You must first find it”, said one old man. “That is the hardest task, because this monster can inhabit anyone. You can only kill it during the day, but you can’t find it without help. If you wait for night-time, the monster can take on a myriad of forms and is invincible.”
The old grandfather started searching in the straw, where he had fanatically been looking when the ghost snatched away his granddaughter. After a time, he pulled out a copper-colored disc that glowed in the sunrise.
“Here,” he said, “This should be what you need.” He handed Jin a metal disc, polished to a mirror-like finish on one side, and the reverse inscribed with eight familiar symbols.
“I’ve seen these before”, Jin said with a light of recognition in his eyes. “These are the symbols that people put above their doors to protect from the evil influences! …How will this do anything to that monster?”
The grandfather spoke slowly, so that Jin could understand every word. “These were the symbols that our first king, Zhou Wen, used to capture the monster the first time, where he bound it to the earth and made it serve his farmers. It is not clear who let this evil demon out, but this was the mirror that Wen used to bind him the first time, and it can be done once then it can be done again!”
The old man continued. “Because you are from the outside world, and only one other has ever made it to our valley before, seventeen hundred years ago, you may never be able to come back once you leave. But you can help us by finding out who released Taotie, why it was done, and who shelters him. When you find Taotie, you must bind him, and burry him again, then, my beautiful granddaughter will be restored to us!”
Jin looked at the old man with passion flashing in his eyes. “I will do what you ask. But please let me come back. I want to see her again!” He paused for a moment, “I want her to live, but I want to see her alive!”
“The decision is not mine to make,” the old man sighed. “A covenant was made with Heaven many thousands of years ago. We cannot leave and only those whose destinies bring them here may see this place. We have lived in peace, but we have met very few from the outside world. One like you only comes along once in a thousand years.”
Jin took the heavy mirror out of the grandfather’s hands, and pressed the cold metal to his thin T-shirt. “I will do what you ask.” He said, not truly understanding all that had just been told to him.
“Come with us”, another villager said, “The path that you used to come to our village is surely closed, and now there is only one way that you can leave.”
They moved down a sunken path through the trees, down passed the collapsed and smoking remnants of other destroyed cottages, and over stone bridges, as the sun bathed the dewy valley in a mystical glow. Jin saw the spotlessly clean courtyards and fishponds, neatly kept rows of fruit trees, and the seemingly endless terraced gardens stretch out on both sides of the path, up the mountainside, to disappear into forests of blue haze.
They came down to the sandy shore of a crystal-clear cove, the lightly foamed water sparkling in the morning sun. Here, one of the old men pulled a boat out from a lean-to made out of pine branches, propped against a massive boulder that jutted halfway onto the beach out of the water.
The old man moved in front of Jin, squinting in the morning sun, his eye’s tearing with the intensity that he felt within his heart. “You must ask the people you meet three questions to accomplish your mission.”
“Everyone I meet?” Jin looked up, disbelievingly.
“Everyone”, the old men all nodded.
“The people you meet will be marked by destiny to lead you to Taotie’s hiding place. You must ask them whose face they see, what they want in life, and who has the greatest face. Under the spell of the mirror, they will answer all three questions truthfully, and point you on your journey.”
Unaccustomed to having to memorize things, the boy pulled out his cell-phone to type in the three questions. The old grandfather plucked it out of the boy’s hand as he brought the little square phone to eye level, but the boy quickly snatched it back reflexively. “And you must leave behind your most valuable possession with us in exchange for the mirror, so that the power of the questions will not conflict with any other treasures or priorities, or be contradicted by what anyone else says.”
“But…” Jin’s eyes flashed with anger at the old man. “You can’t do that! It’s my phone!”
“Then you cannot take my mirror or ask my questions. Their power will be completely lost if you do not give up your distractions.”
Jin begrudgingly let go of his phone and the old man passed it to the now dry-eyed women who stood behind him. She smiled and pried it open to look at her reflection in the tiny screen.
“You must row out through that crack in the mountain wall, and keep rowing, north along the coast, until you come to a where you will start your quest to find the hiding place of Taotie.” The old man pointed towards a thin sliver of light shining through the continuous wall of rock that surrounded the large cove. “Yes, that pass will take you back into the outside world.”
The old man hugged the boy, and said, “May Heaven guide you.” One of the old men placed a clay water pot into the boat, and another tossed in a bag of flat bread. Then Jin got into the boat and the old men pushed him off. Jin picked up the oar and started to paddle, with the fading sounds of grandfather’s voice echoing of the mountain walls. “Remember the three questions…”
To Be Continued….
(c) 2010, Will Boyd
© 2013 Guanxi Master