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PostPosted: Sat Aug 7, '10, 8:30 pm
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This story, which is admittedly a bit more episodic than the others, takes its inspiration from two short stories. The first one is "The Trader's Son" and the second is "The Flower Nymphs". Both stories are found in Pu Song-Ling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. This particular storyline will continue in my next story.
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Lung Han’s mother’s intense screaming unnerved him as he quietly stole out of his house into the blackness of the night. Luckily for him, the servants were all attending to her, as her hysteria was getting worse with each passing evening. Ah Han knew what the source of it was, and was determined to put an end to it once and for all that very evening. He crept stealthily through the courtyard, ducking below all windows and keeping his body distant from any of the paper lanterns which might give away his night prowling.

At length he reached the wall that separated his house from that of his neighbor, a hermit-type known as Ching Ying. Ah Han walked slowly along the wall until he found a spot where the wall seemed to lower to a height that made scaling it feasible. Even as far away from his house as he was, he could still hear the uncontrollable wailing of his mother, who had inexplicably ran screaming from her bedroom to another room on the other side of the house shortly before. Trying his best to ignore it, Ah Han climbed the wall and jumped down on the other side, landing with a soft thud on the grassy earth beneath him.

Maintaining the same degree of care and secrecy, he made his way up to Ching Ying’s little house. A candle light shone in one of the rooms, threatening to make Ah Han’s presence known if he wasn’t careful. Almost on his knees, Ah Han walked surreptitiously up to the ramshackle abode that was Ching Ying’s home. Approaching a window, he noticed a small garden below it, with a number of beautiful flowers planted in it. Ah Han smiled softly and crept quietly up to the flowers. Among them was a beautiful large bellflower plant, with one large, blue flower in bloom.

Ah Han stared at the bellflower in awe for a few moments, gently caressing its petals and occasionally rubbing his cheek against them. Quietly, he whispered, “Don’t worry, my dear. Soon, the two of us be together. I promise you.”

Ah Han turned his attention back to his mission, and continued moving along the wall of the house until he reached the door. He peered in and saw a number of candles lit in all of the rooms, whose flickering light against the innumerous figurines of gods and devils cast foreboding shadows against the wall. He could hear the distinct, eerie muttering of the Ching Ying, a corrupt Taoist priest, whose incantations invoked the power of the legendary maoshan techniques, which was driving his mother to insanity.

Ah Han pushed the door open ever so slowly and snuck into the house. He could quickly see that Ching Ying was in his bedroom performing his magic. Ah Han stood up and reached into his trousers, producing a large dagger with a wide, flat blade, which his own father had made at his smithy. Ah Han walked one step at a time, making sure not to disturb his mother’s tormentor, who was busy chanting numerous incantations. Ah Han could still hear the insane rants of his mother next door, but tuned it out of his head. Soon, they would cease for good.

Stepping into Ching Ying’s room, Ah Han saw a small doll made of straw and clay in the priest’s hands. The figure must represent his mother, he thought, which Ching Ying used to perform is bewitching. Finally reaching his enemy, Ah Han reached out and lightly tapped the Taoist priest’s shoulder. The priest, startled, leapt to his feet and turned to face his visitor.

Without thinking twice, Ah Han plunged the dagger deep into Ching Ying’s belly. Ching Ying made a frown and scowled at him. His angry eyes staring into the mellow brown eyes of Ah Han, the priest started moving his lips and muttering another incantation. Ah Han quickly grabbed his jaw with his other hand and squeezed, preventing the man’s mouth from moving. At the same time, he pushed the dagger further into his belly, until part of the haft had been inserted. Ah Han could feel his hand being bathed in warm blood. In a few seconds, Ching Ying’s angry glare gave way to a wide-eyed look of horror, and then his eyes simply glazed over. Releasing his grip of the haft of the dagger, Ah Han watched as Ching Ying sunk to the floor like a heavy rock in a pool of clear water.

“Congratulations, Ah Han,” said a sweet feminine voice behind him.

Ah Han turned around to see Saya, his sweetheart, standing at the doorway. The beautiful turquoise-haired damsel, dressed in a dark blue dress, the color of the bellflower outside, ran over to him and embraced him. It was Saya who had told Ah Han that the priest had been the cause of his mother’s attacks. Saya had, for the past several months, visited Ah Han in his bedroom every evening to read and study literature with him. When his mother began having her fits, Saya had stopped coming, until one evening she showed up and told him the whole truth.

Saya was not a regular girl. She was a flower nymph. Her spirit was linked to the large bellflower that grew outside of Ching Ying’s house. He had placed an enchantment on her that prevented her from going a certain distance away from the house, and was forced to be Ching Ying’s servant. Luckily, every time that Ching Ying went to sleep, she was able to go as far as Ah Han’s house, and thus the two struck up a deep friendship, as Ah Han had been just as lonely as she was, being all but shunned by his parents for choosing to read and study rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as a blacksmith. The two would spend a couple of hours each night reading the classics together, writing and listening to poetry, and even acting out scenes from their favorite swordsman stories.

They often spoke to each other of marriage, but Saya always seemed uncomfortable with the idea. Ah Han never understood why until he found out about the Taoist’s curse on his mother, he resolved to kill the corrupt priest, not only to save his mother, but to free Saya from his spell. Now she was indeed free and nothing could stop them from getting married.

Saya kissed him on the cheek, causing Ah Han to blush. She walked to the other side of the room and went through a small stack of papers. When she found what she wanted, she handed it to Ah Han.

“This is the deed to Ching Ying’s property. Hold on to it. I shall stay here, tending to the house. When we get married, this will allow us to live here together. Otherwise, some other person might think it’s abandoned and try to move in.”

Ah Han nodded. “Very well, Saya, my love. I must be getting home now to see how my mother is.”

Saya agreed with a brief nod and ran her silky fingers across Ah Han’s face, making him blush even more. “Do not listen to your parents. You are indeed a filial son, even if you desire to do something else with your life than what they want.”

Ah Han nodded and departed, returning to his home. The screaming and crying had ceased.

***

“Unfilial boy!” Ah Han’s father, a tall ruddy man, exclaimed. “Why must you bury your nose in those books? Every time I come into your room, the only thing I see is you reading!”

Ah Han sighed and shook his head. “Father, I do not wish to continue your work as a blacksmith. It is not something that I can imagine myself doing for the rest of my life. I’d prefer to be a scholar and a public official.”

Ah Han’s father groaned. “Do you really think you can pass the public exams? Do you think you can pass the examinations needed to get your bachelor’s and master’s degrees? You only studied at school for a few years. You don’t even have the classics to study. You only read those useless swordsman novels.” Ah Han’s father spoke in a more caring tone. “Please, my son, forget this nonsense and just follow in my footsteps. Who’s going to run the smithy when I die?”

Ah Han set his book down and looked his father in the eyes. “There are plenty of good workers under you who could assume responsibility.”

“But I want my son to run it, not someone outside the father.”

Ah Han tried not to purse his lips and make a face in front of his father. He ran his fingers through his short brown hair and sighed once more. “I don’t want to, father. I’ll take my chances as a scholar. I do not wish to carry on this conversation any longer.” Ah Han went back to reading, and his father, groaning, turned and left the room.

Several minutes later, Ah Han felt that he wasn’t alone in the room. Looking up, he saw the serene beauty of his love, Saya. The door was closed and it was already past the hour that everybody in the house went to sleep. Saya daintily walked, almost as if she was floating, over to Ah Han and sat near at the edge of his bed. Ah Han looked at her, and then looked down and shook his head.

“Argue with your father again?” Saya asked in her usual soft voice.

Ah Han said nothing, but nodded.

“It’s okay,” she said, taking one of his hands and placing it in hers. “The examination will be in a few weeks and you’re doing a great job in your studies. I’m sure you’ll pass.”

Ah Han forced a smile. “Thanks, Saya. I don’t think I could make it without you. I promise you that as soon as I pass the exam, I’ll talk to my parents our wedding.”

Saya nodded in agreement. She then reached into the folds of her blue gown and produced two moderately thick books, which she placed on the bed next to Han. “You have these two more to study before the exam. If we do about twenty pages a day until the day you have to leave, I think you’ll do fine.”

“And my writing? How do you think it is?” Ah Han asked curiously.

Saya got up and walked over to the pile of papers near Ah Han’s bed stand where he kept his essays and poetry. She read them carefully, her lips moving gracefully as she did so, sending waves of heat into Han’s body as it made him think of how much he desired to kiss her on the mouth. He watched her intently as she went through three poems of his before setting the papers down.

“In general, you’re doing a good job. A few of your descriptions could use a bit more variety in language, and the calligraphy itself could also use a bit of improvement.”

“Oh? How so?” inquired Ah Han.

Saya picked up a blank sheet of paper and a brush. Dipping the brush into an inkwell on Ah Han’s bed stand, she began to lightly run the brush against the paper, making short, but graceful movements with both her hands and wrist. Ah Han stared intently at her hands, trying to focus on the movements themselves and not the beauty of her features. In a few moments, she wrote the characters “Nan Er Dan Zi Jiang.”

“You see,” Saya said quietly, “the presentation is just as important as the content. Now let’s see you try.”

Ah Han dipped the brush into the ink and began to write the characters. He tried to copy the graceful movements. Saya watched him and nodded contently. “Very good,” she said. “You’re starting to get the idea. Here, let’s see what we can do to make it even better.”

Saya reached over and held his hand. “Now relax. Just let me guide your hand as it moves the brush across the paper. Just feel the flow of the movements and let it be imprinted in your mind.”

Ah Han relaxed, feeling a strong warmth transfer from her little hand into his hand. He watched as she moved his hand, and thus his brush, across the paper. He began to understand the grace that comes with calligraphy.

“Good,” she said approvingly. “If we practice like this a little each evening, you’ll be more than ready for the exam.”

Ah Han liked the idea of that sort of hands-on practice occurring once a day.

***

Ah Han stepped inside his house and was soon greeted by his mother. Her health had improved quite a bit in the several months that had passed since Ah Han slew Ching Ying. He showed her the proper reverence, and addressed her.

“Mother, I passed the exam,” he tried to hide his excitement. “I’m now going to work as a public official.”

His mother smiled. “That is great news, my son. What shall be your post?”

“I shall work at the royal library as a librarian. If I get my master’s degree, I can be promoted to chief librarian and scribe for the emperor.”

His mother bowed her head. “We will have to make some offerings to our ancestors for this great blessing. I’m sure your father, despite his protests, will be pleased.” She paused for a moment and then looked at him a little more seriously. “Ah Han, you are eighteen years old now. You need to think about getting married and blessing your parents with grandchildren.”

Ah Han looked his mother square in the eyes and took a deep breath. “Yes, mother. I have also been thinking about that.” The resolution in his voice caused his mother to start fidgeting. “I have decided upon whom I want to marry.”

“And who is that?” his mother asked, now quite curious.

“I wish to marry Saya,” he paused for a moment. “She is the daughter of our late neighbor Ching Ying—“ Ah Han had never told his parents the truth about what had caused his mother’s tantrums before.
His mother stared at him for a few moments. “I suppose that you are just as adamant about this as you were about becoming a scholar?”

Ah Han nodded.

His mother shook her head. “You are just as stubborn as your father, my son. Nonetheless, if you want to marry her, I shall talk to your and then start making the arrangements.”

“One more thing—“ Ah Han said, waiting for his mother give him her attention. “With your blessing, I’d like to move into her old house, instead of her moving into our house. We’d still be neighbors, after all.”

His mother nodded and then turned around and left the room, shaking her head and muttering about Ah Han’s refusal to do anything the traditional way. Ah Han smiled to himself and went to his room.

***

The day of the wedding came with all of its festivities. Despite the fact that they were neighbors, Ah Han and Saya did their best to follow the usual traditional of marriages in that country. Ah Han arrived at Saya’s house on horseback and then returned to his house, followed by Saya. Saya was carried to Ah Han’s house in a sedan chair, dressed in a red silk dress covered with peonies embroidered in gold and silver thread. A red veil, covered with pearls, covered her face as she was led to his house; it was custom that only her husband remove the veil when the two were alone. Saya was waited up by a number of her fellow flower nymphs and the sedan chair was carrie by several burly fox spirits she knew—their identity was of course kept secret from the groom’s family.

Arriving at the house, both Ah Han and Saya met in front of the local priest. Instead of his usual white coat and pants, Ah Han was dressed in a navy blue coat and trousers, with a white shirt beneath. He wore a small cap and a large red silk ribbon tied into bow on his chest. Ah Han and Saya were commanded by the priest to kneel.

“Bow to each other!” the priest said calmly.

Ah Han and Saya bowed to each other.

“Bow to the heavens!”

Ah Han and Saya turned back to the priest and bowed once again.

“Bow to the earth!”

The bride and groom bowed one more time.

The party soon began and Saya soon retired to Ah Han’s room, which his mother had requested be converted into a bedchamber for the both of them for at least the first few nights of their marriage, before they moved back into the neighboring house. Ah Han and Saya both thought it was a good idea.

Ah Han ate and drank with some of his new colleagues from the library, his relatives, and the workers from the smithy. Everybody made merry, but Ah Han, deep in his soul, couldn’t care less about the eating and drinking. He was more interesting in joining Saya in the bedchamber. Nonetheless, he had to keep up appearances and couldn’t let his parents lose face, so he did his best to mingle with the guests, who rapidly became drunk.

The hour eventually grew late and Ah Han excused himself from the others to retire to his bedroom. Entering the room, he breathed a loud sigh of relief that made Saya, who was sitting at the edge of the bed with her head bowed, giggle from beneath her veil. Ah Han walked over the bed and sat down beside her. He lifted up the veil and gazed into his new bride’s face.

Saya was just as lovely to him now as she ever was. Her turquoise hair was full of gold pins with floral designs carved into them. Her large blue eyes shined radiantly in the candlelight. Her soft smile filled Ah Han with a warmth that even the largest bonfire couldn’t do. He caressed her cheeks for a few moments, and then cupped her head in his hands and pulled it toward his. The two kissed passionately for several minutes, as they unleashed the intense feelings they felt for each other but had controlled for the sake of tradition.

They pulled away from each other and Saya spoke softly, “My love, now we are truly united in both heaven and Earth. If you stay true to me, I will always be yours, be it here or in the heavens. I promise that I will never leave your side.”

“My beloved Saya, I too will always fight to give you the best. It is because of you that my mother is still alive, and that I am on a road to a successful life. Thank you for supporting me throughout these times.”

“You need not thank me, Ah Han. If we always strive to make each other happy, then that will be thanks enough.”

Ah Han nodded and reached his head over to kiss Saya again. She returned the gesture and then gently prodded Ah Han to lie down on the bed. Saya stood up and blew out the candles, and then walked back to the bed. Getting in, she pulled the curtains over the bed and bent over to whisper into Ah Han’s ear, “There are some things in which I follow traditional and some things in which I do not.”

***

Several months later.

Ah Han arrived at the library early in the morning. As a librarian, it was his duty to make sure that all of the thousands of manuscripts and books contained therein were in order, and to retrieve any manuscript that any member of the court needed for any reason. The job wasn’t always a demanding one, so Ah Han often had a bit of free time to read and study the classics for his Master’s Degree exam. It was around his lunch time that, as he was heading for an open spot in the courtyard to eat some fruits he had bought, that he came across several of the other librarians engaged in a conversation.

“So my friends, anything interesting happen around here?” Ah Han asked genially.

One of the other librarians, a thin, old man with a long gray beard reaching the man’s belly, nodded. “Yes, Ah Han. Actually there is something strange happening in court.”

Ah Han lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? And what might that be?”

Another colleague, about thirty years old with long pencil-thin mustache, looked around him and then answered, “Do you remember the emperor’s decree regarding the Hunter’s Guild a few years back?”

Ah Han’s eyes looked up, trying to remember that, and then nodded.
“Well,” the older man said, “It’s happening again. I think our dear emperor may be going mad.”

“Why? Who has he chosen to persecute this time?”

“The spirits.”

Ah Han looked at the others with a confused look on his face. “You can’t be serious. How is he going to persecute the spirits? Why would he want to do something daft like that?”

The other librarians shook their heads. The third one, a man not much older than, Ah Han, spoke up. “The rumors are that the Emperor saw a young maiden and desired her to be his concubine. When he tried to have her brought to court, she simply rejected the order and promptly disappeared.”

“Well that doesn’t prove anything,” Ah Han argued. “She may have just gone off to a nunnery to avoid forced marriage.”

“No, you don’t understand. She literally disappeared in front of the court officers. When she did so, the officers all swore that they saw her nine fox tails spinning and twisting about as she vanished. There’s no doubt, at least from the story we heard, that she was a fox spirit. Now the emperor wants them all to be exterminated.”

Ah Han began to look uneasy. “But how does he hope to do that?”

The older library answered, saying, “They say he’s hired several teams of Taoist priests to track them down and destroy them.”

Ah Han’s brow started to glisten with sweat. “And when do they expect all this to happen?”

The middle-aged librarian replied, “Supposedly, the decree was made a few weeks ago. We were told that there was already a team of Taoist ghost busters in the capitol.”

Ah Han’s heart leapt within him. He began to sweat even more and started to faint.

“Are you okay, Ah Han?” his colleagues asked him.

Momentarily regaining his composure, he said, “I’m feeling a bit sick. I’ll be back in a little while.”

Ah Han walked away from his colleagues and made his way out of the courtyard, heading for the gate that would lead back to the city. Passing through the gate, Ah Han soon took off in a sprint through the city streets on the way back to his home. His hurried pace drew the attention of thousands of onlookers as he passed by the numerous homes, stalls, and restaurants, going from one street to another, trying to avoid the more crowded avenues. The only thing he could think about was his wife, Saya. She was a flower nymph, and, although was different from a fox spirit, he knew that she was just as vulnerable to magical methods used by the Taoists in both spirit detection and elimination as the fox spirits were. He had to get her out of the city and to safety as quickly as possible.

His flight through the city seemed to last an eternity, each street seeming like a big labyrinth that hindered his desire to protect his beloved Saya. He reached the final stretch of road that separated from his home and within a few minutes, arrived at the gate. He pushed the gate open and ran up to the door. Gasping for breath, he walked around the building to where the garden stood. His face paled with horror at what he saw.

Strewn about the dark brown earth were the trampled petals of the blue bellflower. They had all been trampled on. The green stalk had been forcibly torn from the ground and cut to pieces, which were scattered about the garden. His knees began to buckle and soon Ah Han had fallen to the ground. He crawled slowly, his eyes brimming with tears, to the scattered petals. He picked several of them up and rubbed them slowly across his cheek, his hands trembling as he did so. He pushed against the wall with his other hand and forced himself to stand up. The realization came to his as clear as a summer day: He was too late.

He struggled to keep his balance as he hobbled back to the door which led into the house. The sight that met him left him aghast in horror. The entire house was left in shambles. He felt sick to his stomach as he looked upon the broken chairs, plates, and other furniture that was strewn about the little house. There were blood stains all over the floor and walls, several of which were obviously made by bloodied hands. The entire sight sickened Ah Han as visions of a brutal struggle between Saya and the Taoist priests flashed in his mind. He finally lost control and started throwing up on the porch.

Entering the house, he walked from room to room and saw how badly the place had been destroyed. He stared at the walls awash in scarlet. He looked at the broken chairs, whose splinters covered the otherwise bare stone floor. Finally, Ah Han dropped to the ground, landing hard on his knes. He placed his head between his knees and began sobbing. For several minutes he soaked his white trousers with his tears, stopping only to pound his fist on the wall. It was only about twenty minutes later that he regained composure. He looked at his hands, now purple and bloody and exerted all of his forces to get back up.

It was as he got up that he noticed something he hadn't seen earlier. On the table, which was miraculously intact, was a small note. He glanced at it, immediately noting that the writing was quite different from Saya’s. It read:

Good Scholar Lung Han,

I’m sorry about what happened to your wife today. Yes, I was present when it happened and regret not acting before to prevent what happened. Those who were immediately responsible have been dealt with. I know that Saya meant a lot to you; she told me about you before it all happened. In any case, while those who committed the act have been dealt with, it still remains t hat those who ordered it need to be brought to justice. If you are interested in helping me in this endeavor, I invite you to meet me at Fandian hotel tomorrow morning before sunrise. With regards to your beloved, do not give up hope. There can still be a happy ending in all of this, but the road there will surely be long, hard, and dangerous. Please trust me in this.

A friend.


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Author's Notes


1. The name "Ching Ying" is an homage of sorts to Chinese actor Lam Ching-Ying, who spent a good part of his career playing Taoist priests (albeit righteous ones).

2. In Chinese culture, the bride and groom worshipping Heaven and Earth was more important in officializing a wedding than the subsequent consummation was.

3. The flower nymph is very similar to the hamadryad, or tree nymph, of Greek mythology. The latter was actually a physical part of the tree, and thus died whenever the tree itself was cut down.

4. Everything the author has read or seen in movies dealing with Chinese movies indicates that there was a point where the bride, still veiled, would go to the bedroom to wait for her new husband, who was usually still partying with family and friends. Saya's actions in "taking charge" of the consummation of the marriage would be considered quite irregular and was a conscious decision on the part of the author to reverse roles a little.

5. It would be considered improper for Saya to visit Ah Han in his bedroom when neither of them were married. In many arranged marriages, the future groom would not even see his wife looked like until after the ceremony, when the two were together (although marriage planners often were able to plan "accidents" beforehand).

6. Taoist priests were very well known for dealing with magic and trying to find ways to ward off evil spirits. It is generally believed that fireworks were invented by Taoists as a way to fight off such evil spirits.

7. The author is not quite sure whether the exam for one to get his bachelor's degree would automatically guarantee him a public post, or if there was a separate examination for work as a public servant. In any case, the author chose to consider them as one and the same to avoid repetition in the story.

Last edited by H-Man on Sat Aug 7, '10, 8:30 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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