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Fiction: The Apparitions

The short story interweaves folklore with a modern setting to examine the relation between the spiritual and the secular

Author: Liao Jing 辽京

Liao Jing was born in the 1980s. Her work has been published in magazines such as Beijing Literature and Youth Literature, and on digital platforms such as Douban Reading. Her short story “The Model” won first prize in the “Dramatic Moments” Short Story Competition held by Douban. Another short story, “I Will Tell My Mother,” won the “Most Memorable Characters” award at the 6th Douban Reading Novella Competition.

He climbed the mountain with me to show me where the panda usually appeared. Here and there, he bent down, pointing at pieces of green excrement that contained fibers of various thicknesses, and said they were left by the panda during the day. Then he pointed at the flattened grass in front of us and told me this was where the panda had passed, and it might have already gone back to some cave to take a nap. It rained, and mist covered the dense forest. I followed his every step, for a single false move would send me rolling down the steep hill.

Why did you come here, he asked me. I said that I came to take photos of pandas for magazines. If the photos were good, they might be put on the cover, and the pandas would be seen by the whole world. He looked at the camera that hung around my neck incredulously. He didn’t believe that pandas posed for photos like humans did. What if they were pooping?

He asked me why I didn’t go to the zoo to take photos. Wasn’t it much easier? I told him that my article was about biodiversity, and although captive pandas passed on their genes, only wild pandas were significant to the biological inheritance in the species. Once a species loses its natural habitat, it will definitely go extinct, so the most important thing now was to preserve endangered habitats rather than putting more of the few remaining wild pandas into cages. Thus, I wanted to show the pandas in their natural state for my article. He nodded as I spoke, but it was hard to tell whether he understood.

He was the forest ranger on this mountain, and he’d been assigned here after graduating high school. He lived in a wooden cabin at the foot of the mountain, where it was so damp that water could be squeezed from his quilt, so it was necessary to light a stove even in summer. Last night I had stayed there, and there were a few animal pelts hanging on the walls. He told me that those were gifts from other people, but I didn’t believe that, for his father had been the most famous hunter in these mountains and he had spent his childhood going up into the mountains with him. If a gust of wind blew past, he could tell just by the smell whether it was a bear or a tiger that was upwind, and whether it was young and strong or old and weak. When his father passed away, he left behind his cabin, which was then expropriated by the forest bureau as a ranger station. The former ranger died of rheumatism, and no one was willing to come here after that, so he volunteered to guard his old house and the mountain. We chatted for half the night, while the wind whistled and the wooden boards squeaked. Wrapped in a cotton-padded jacket, he sat beside the oil lamp and mended a pair of socks on which there were already numerous patches. His attitude toward doing needlework and his way of threading the needle by the light showed that he was skilled in these chores. I asked him why he didn’t get married. Who’d be willing to come here, he sneered.

As we climbed up to a higher altitude, where a different kind of bamboo grew, he started to sing an old folk song. His voice was mellow and clear, like a mountain spring surging through clouds and falling into a bottomless pool in summer.

A partridge was startled and flew away. He asked me what a partridge was. Nonsense, there weren’t any partridges on such a high mountain.

Big white partridges stood in a line on the edge of the wooden boat as the fisherwoman rowed it from the shade of willows. Toting a heavy bag across his back, a monk stood on the muddy bank of the river, folded his hands before his chest, and asked the fisherwoman whether she could bring him across.

“This isn’t a ferry,” the fisherwoman giggled. A blue skirt with embroidered hems was bunched up around her waist, and the diagonal collar of her white jacket gaped slightly. She wore silver bracelets on both of her fair wrists, and they tinkled when she moved. Her husband lay under the awning and pretended to be ill, but in fact there was always a sharp knife hidden in his quilt. Once a passenger with bulging bags appeared, the fisherwoman would smile and coax him onboard. As the boat gradually reached the middle of the river, where the water was deep and no one else was around, the fisherman would shout and jump out of the cabin, and kill the passenger with his knife. All the passenger’s clothes would be stripped off, and the body would then be thrown into dense reeds, the head sinking beneath withered lotus leaves, and blood reddening the white lotus seeds in the water.

The monk stepped onto the fishing boat and sat upright on the bow. The wind fluffed the fisherwoman’s skirt; its hem swirled up in the air and gently brushed the monk’s face. He sat as still as a clay sculpture, without even moving his eyes. The scars on his head were still red and swollen, which showed that he was a novice who had just recently received the tonsure. His white collar peeked from his brownish-yellow robe, and his black pupils showed clearly against the whites of his eyes. His nose was high and straight, and his chin still smooth, without any beard. A teenage boy should have known something about love and sex, but it seemed that he didn’t quite understand the fisherwoman’s flirting. He looked at the rolling mountains on the other side of the river and discovered a resplendent glazed pagoda that was partly hidden in the clouds and rain, as the wind brought the ethereal sound of temple bells.

The fisherwoman could neither hear the sound nor see the pagoda. Her black shoes, which were embroidered with golden and silver flowers, trod on the gunwales, and she didn’t care that the soles were wet through, for she concentrated on looking at this boy. The longer she looked at him, the more she liked him, for he looked almost the same as Sanlang, her old neighbor’s boy. As children, they had also played the game of pretending to be a monk and a nun. They folded their hands before their chests and chanted “Amitābha,” and then they poured the sand into their clay “pātra” and gave it to each other, as if it was gold, not knowing the rule that monks and nuns should receive neither gold nor silver.

A gust of wind rose and the boat was pushed to the middle of the river. The fisherwoman realized that the time had come and she could wait no longer, so she trod heavily on one side of the gunwales and cried, “Oh! It’s gonna turn over!” The boat suddenly tipped, and all the partridges flew away. The little monk could not sit tight, so he fell into the water. The fisherwoman poled the boat a dozen meters away, and another dozen. She looked back at the little monk, but he had disappeared, and the water seemed calm. She told herself woefully that his fate was truly terrible, for even though he avoided death by the knife, he’d drowned in the water.

But then she suddenly saw a glossy black object floating on the water, so she fetched the net and brought it up. It was a wood-carved Buddha’s head! With its long eyebrows, narrow eyes, big ears, and thick lips, it looked just like the little monk. The fisherwoman was so frightened that she fell to her knees and called her husband, but got no reply. When she went into the cabin to check on him, she found that the knife stuck in her husband’s throat; he had accidentally killed himself during the violent shake to the boat. The fisherwoman cried, for her unborn child had lost his father. Since then, in this ten-mile reach of the river that was once the domain of a couple, the fisherwoman lived alone. Every day she fished, and ferried passengers across, no longer seducing and killing them.

So the moral of the story is, virtue will be rewarded, and viciousness punished? You made that up. He sat high upon a round boulder to rest, and looked down at me. I couldn’t climb up there, so I had no choice but to stand beneath him with my feet covered by the accumulated rotten leaves of thousands of years. As soon as I pulled my feet out of those leaves, they would sink down again, but fortunately I wore ankle boots whose insides were still dry. I looked at him, panting, my hands on my hips, while the soles of his black cloth shoes swayed above my head. He threw down a cigarette and I caught it, and then I put it into my pocket. He asked me why I didn’t smoke. Smoking in the mountain might cause forest fires, I said. He sneered and said, “You fools.”

He smoked alone, and I asked him to sing another song. He put out his cigarette on the rock and started to sing about a young couple loving and missing each other. The main plot was that a man couldn’t marry the woman he loved, and thus lived in pain day and night. He was unable to eat, drink, or sleep. He went to cut firewood without bringing an axe, and he went to get water without bringing buckets. “Scolded by mother; scolded by mother/ I beg her to ask my lover’s parents for their daughter’s hand. But she forces me to marry the daughter of the landlord, who owns 12 waterwheels/ Alas! Alas! My heart is hurting while I worry.”

Sometimes his voice was so high that it rose up into the clouds, while sometimes it was so low that it fell into the valley. It was like a phoenix flying freely in the sky—there was no place it couldn’t reach and nothing it couldn’t do. When he finished the song, the phoenix still left a slight trace. His voice echoed in the mountains, and the leaves sang in harmony with him, and their sound was like the whistles we made in childhood by pursing our lips and blowing into a leaf pulled from a tree.

I asked him whether he felt lonely. He sneered again. He always sneered before answering my questions. What is loneliness? Do you hear the movements in the mountain? They were listened to day and night by my father, my grandfather, my grandfather’s father, my grandfather’s grandfather, and even his father for their whole lives. They are all looking at me in the mountain, so how could I feel lonely? You fools!

A statue of goddess Guanyin was enshrined in his wooden cabin, only instead of “enshrined,” I thought “placed” might be a more appropriate word, because the dusty statue stood alone on the windowsill without any offerings, joss sticks, or candles before it. I asked him whether he was a Buddhist. He sneered and said he wasn’t anything, and then he started to tell another tale.

The mountain is shrouded by clouds and mists, and the weather there is always unpredictable. It’s so quiet that the wailing of the apes could be heard even ten miles away. Do you think there are any gods here? Yes, there are. And if there are gods, then there are ghosts too, and thus the existence of the “three worlds” of Buddhist doctrine becomes reasonable. Otherwise, where would human beings live? If you think ghosts are nonsense, you shouldn’t believe in the existence of gods either. If there is nothing in your heart, then no monster will ever be able to hurt you. You should never pray for the protection of gods if you pretend to be brave and say that stories about monsters and ghosts are make-believe. If you do, you can easily invite misfortune.

When you walk in a mountain and hear someone calling you, you had better not look back, even if the voice sounds familiar. Because if it was a ghost, once you looked back, you would answer its call and fall into its trap. You just need to carry on, for no matter how dark it is, this is your way home, and you shouldn’t be easily led off.

Once upon a time, a hunter got caught in heavy rain on a path in this mountain. When he took shelter in a cave, he heard sounds of clinking glasses and laughter behind him, but he remembered the elders’ warnings, and he didn’t look back. He just looked at the curtain of rain outside of the cave and thought that he would leave immediately once the rain stopped. Rain usually lasted for a quarter of an hour in this mountain, but that day it seemed like it would never stop. The sounds of merriment and men and women flirting came more and more frequently, and the scent of alcohol and food filled the whole cave. The hunter was so hungry that he even drooled as he smelled it. He couldn’t help but look back, and saw light coming from a chink in the rock. When he came nearer, he found that behind the rock was a big garden in which trees, flowers, pavilions, and other decorations were all carefully arranged. Several young men and women sat around in a glazed octagonal pavilion, eating, drinking, and chatting. A beautiful girl in a red dress happened to meet the hunter’s eyes, and smiled at him, with a faint blush rising in her dimples. The hunter immediately fell head over heels for her and forgot even where he was.

And then?

Then nothing. His wife and children were waiting for him at home, so he couldn’t stay long. When the rain stopped, after giving him a jade pendent as a token of love, that fox-spirit sent him home.

And that was the end of the story?

Of course not. The hunter lived to be over a hundred years old, and his relatives had died one by one. However, one day, he suddenly told his neighbors that the fox-spirit would come and take him away, and asked them to take care of his orphaned great-grandson. He died in his sleep that night. The little great-grandson was brought up by various foster families, and also became a hunter when he grew up. That child was my ancestor, my great-great-great-grandfather.

At that time this area was not designated as a nature reserve. Hunters were still hunters, and the mountain was still the mountain, without anyone poaching its trees or animals.

I said that this story was actually a comedy, as nobody got hurt, and even the fox-spirit’s long wait didn’t really matter, since a hundred years probably passed in a flash for her. Why did she fall in love with the hunter? And who planned that heavy rain? Everything was unconsciously settled unseen by fate, but to human eyes, this settled future would appear like a change. Only change itself was unchangeable. Who knew when one would meet an affectionate fox-spirit in the mountain? How could the fox-spirit, sitting in the cave, tell who would be the next person to come and take shelter from rain?

He said I asked too many questions. He took a final drag on his cigarette and looked at the degree of the sun’s shadow, and told me that we’d better go. Otherwise, we would have to spend the night on the mountain and might really be carried away by a fox-spirit.

The sun moved westward, and shadows swayed in the forest like furious monsters. There were no temples, no tourists, and no worshipers here; giant trees blocked out the sunlight, and the forest was filled with fog, like smoke in the cities. Startled by our heavy breaths, gray birds suddenly jumped onto the highest branch and looked down at the two mud-covered men tottering forward with their walking sticks.

They kowtowed for every step they took forward. Month by month, year by year, pilgrims walked around and around the holy mountain in the center of the snow lake. With an air of indifference, he stood up and knelt down, stood up and knelt down, again and again, leaving impressions of his palms and feet on the cold moss. He sang the old Buddhist chants that extolled the brilliance of the sun and the moon, and the tourists pointed their cameras at him from a distance—they were afraid to go near his long tangled hair and his stinky, shabby clothes.

One day, the snow lake was slated to be developed into a scenic spot and produce economic benefits. Local residents were asked to move away, tourist facilities had to be constructed, 5A Scenic Area status was applied for, fish were bred, blue-green algae dealt with, poachers fought against, and a temple built—it would even look the same as the Potala Palace. But despite a first-class budget, the temple turned out to be a third-class building. Jerry-built construction? Impossible! Cultural trash? Who dared to say so! It could stand for at least a hundred years—in other words, it would not stand forever.

The pilgrims were gathered and paid to perform Buddhist rituals. They were told they no longer needed to beg for alms, but would be provided for.

The pilgrims continued to take steps and kneel down from one point to the other, then back again to the beginning. In the thin air, they sang the most melancholy song at the place nearest to the sky. Oh holy mountain! Oh snow lake! Alas, the glory of our gods! A language unknown to the Han, Qiang, Xianbei, or people of any other ethnic group soared up into the sky. Their stories were seldom recorded in history books, and the miraculous achievements of their ancestors were handed down only in oral tales. The storyteller stepped through the thin ice of early spring, while the sun shone down on the straggly beard that covered his face.

– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)

Author’s Note: This story is a stand-alone chapter in a novel written in 2008. It attempts to discuss the conflict and connection between tradition and modernity, between religious belief and the secular world. The stories in the volume were influenced by folklore, which brought a feeling of isolation and alienation that made the work distinct from modern life. It is also an expression of my initial experience of urban life, which was a lonely and isolated time.

“The Apparitions” is a story from our issue, “Tuning Up”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.


Liao Jing is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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