Perhaps it would have been better if you had died on the battlefield, you think, as you trudge the path. For you had a strength there, a strength of yourself beyond your arms, a strength to wield a sword but also to face your fears. Perhaps the sound of the arrows flying overhead drowned out that strength, or perhaps it just obliterated something in you that other men would have called weakness. For what is fidelity to your comrades in arms, but weakness? Is courage a strength, or a weakness? Is it courage to fight on while the battle is lost and your commander fallen, or a weakness?
You learned only one thing on the battlefield of Jingzhou, but you learned it well, you had a great teacher: your life is small. There are big things, dark things, things that matter, but life, your life, isn’t one of them. Your life, like every other man’s, is tiny, and of no consequence. Your actions–the men and women you killed at Jingzhou, the Chongzhen Emperor whose banner you marched under, the men and women of that banner that you marched beside–of no consequence.
These are your thoughts as you stumble along the path to your house, the only sounds the slap of your sandals and the hiss of the summer wind. Up the long path through the mountains, past the dying trees wilting in the relentless sun, along side what’s left of the river trickling in its cracked and dusty banks. Up the endless path, the other survivors of the Chongzhen banners long since fallen away, until it is only you, tottering with fatigue, the string of ghosts of your dead trailing far behind you.
Past the houses of your village, standing darkened but for one lamp, the families inside waiting with numbness or with hope, with resignation and fatality or anger and defiance, waiting for their men to stumble up the mountain slope. It’s only you, though, dragging your sword behind you in the dust, your heavy coat rent, torn, and so covered in blood and dirt that its red and white fabric is now the brown of the baking ground. The other men and women of your village trampled into the mud at Jingzhou like so many sesame seeds in a pestle, torn and rent by Manchu swords or spears or arrows until the battle field was one endless carpet of corpses of men and women. No feats of ch’i, no Wind Walk or Roof Against Rain or Ghost Palm were enough to turn the battle or even survive it, not against the endless numbers of Manchu and their infernal summoned creatures, and now you alone are left of the village. The other houses wait for their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters to arrive, but only your face will darken the doorstep of your house. The others will be blackened only by the night.
Your father and mother greet you at the doorstep: wizened with age, tanned from days without number in the sun, their clothing of poor quality but cleaned and mended many times over. The relief on their faces overrides their despair at your appearance, the knowledge that only losers walk in ragged solitude back from battle. The reign of the Chongzhen Emperor is over, even if He still lives and fights on from the capital in Beijing. The death of the Emperor, and it is coming as sure as night, creeping relentlessly over Zhongguo, means the end of the Mings, and replacing them the alien Manchu from the north. The end of the traditional ways, and here in Xiangjiawan those ways are the only ways worth following, will mean the fall of traditional morality and the end of civilization.
It is the most basic of human relationships, that between parents and child–the most palpable, the longest lasting. Its love can be curdled by quarrels or violence or atrophied by apathy or a lack of effort, but from the parent it is always present, in some form or another, and it represents home for children, that place you go because you think you deserve it or simply because you need a place to hide. You go there because no matter what you have done or who you have been, your parents will be happy to see you.
Inside all is preserved against decay, rooms kept in an eternal state of readiness. Younger brothers and sisters leaping to their feet and rushing about you, their meaningless words buzzing in your ears, but you only have eyes for your bed, and maybe the bath house after that, but for now your bed calls to you like your mother’s arms, and the sword falls from your lifeless hands as you collapse into the bed and are insensate within moments.
You do not notice your mother slowly pulling your sandals and your coat from your body, nor do you hear the many questions your family is asking each other, about the Emperor and the battle at Jingzhou, and what the future will bring. But when you slowly emerge from sleep, like a diver reluctantly yielding to the pull of the surface, they are waiting for you, silently, patiently, ringing the bed. Your words, when you finally get them out, bring them the sorrow you have felt since the battle; misery shared is not a weight lightened but a weight multiplied, and now their fears are justified and confirmed.
Later, under the relentless sun, at the family cemetery, your father burns the paper money and pours the chicken blood on the graves of your grandfather and grandmother, and you watch the burning paper and the faint glimmering outlines of your grandparents’ ghosts, emerging to greedily drink the blood, and you think, is this all there is? Blood and dust and sweat and burning paper, and then the eternal hunger for blood? Your struggle, every struggle, all to become a hungry ghost after death? It’s enough to make you wish for the Buddha to be true, and for release from the wheel of existence, but you have never met the Buddha on any battlefield, and you know that only the gods are real, and they don’t care about the fate of one human.
At dinner, the house still stiflingly hot from the sun’s heat, you watch your parents and siblings talk. You don’t hear their words, you just see their mouths shape sounds that are meaningless to you. What do they know–what could they know–about life, real life? For them there is meaning in the day’s events, harmony with nature and the gods, ch’i and the paths of righteousness. There is meaning in the harvest, and weddings in the village–yes, and funerals–and in births and deaths. But you were at Jingzhou and saw the arrows fall. What meaning could there be in an arrow falling six inches one way or another, and killing your friend next to you, rather than you? What meaning is there in a Manchu tripping while trying to deliver a killing stroke, and you cutting him down rather than he doing the same to you?
Isn’t it vanity, to think that the gods assign meaning to tiny actions and moments? Little people, shuffling back and forth through the dust, thinking they are noticed by the August Emperor of Jade? Does the Son of Heaven consider the common man and women at all, you think? Of course not. The gods’ eyes are wide and bright and could take in every detail, if they chose, but they do not, and we suffer as a result. Did not the sages write, “We are born into a troubled world; the world ages us in no time”? Our efforts are wasted. We live, age, and die in the cruel sun and uncaring dark.
In the stifling night, the air unmoving and thick, you hear the first scream. Sweating, you jump from your bed, reaching desperately for the sword that isn’t there and ducking under the spear thrust that doesn’t exist, and then you wake fully and realize it is your younger sister screaming. You follow the sound of the screams, rushing down the hall to the room where your brothers sleep, and you see a sight that would have been horrible to you, once, but is now just terrible and familiar: the body of your brother Little Yì split in two as if from a Manchu cleaver, or from one of the demons from Hell the Manchu war-sorcerers summoned up on the battlefield. The body is freshly killed, the unmoving air speckled with a very fine spray of blood and flesh, and the rank scent of parts of the body never meant to be smelled lies heavy on the air. His face is contorted, frozen into the scream that was on his lips as he died.
There’s more screaming as your parents arrive. Your mother sinks to her knees and wails to the Queen Mother of the West, asking why such a thing would happen. Your father’s shock has left him immobile, but his face has aged years since you saw him earlier in the evening. Your brothers are kneeling by Little Yì’s body; they are not crying or screaming, but are like your father, left motionless with horror. You are numb–even here, in your parents’ house, you cannot escape the battlefield. In a vague, abstract way you are irritated with your mother for her cries; the August Emperor of Jade and the Queen Mother of the West and even Kuan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy, do not pay attention to the wishes of humans. They know we are there, but they don’t care. The death of children, the violation of women, the vicious diseases that leave entire villages empty…these things wash over the gods who stare, uncaring, at the bodies down below on Earth, and then continue on to their godly games.
Your other brothers can not describe what came for Little Yì–“only a moving shadow,” they say, “something with claws and teeth.” They only saw what happened when it reached him, and now on their faces is something you recognize from Jingzhou, that despair that comes from the realization that you are helpless before the world, like some insect pinned to a table with a knife that struggles and struggles to get free but cannot, short of tearing itself apart to do so.
The next day, wordlessly, you help your father dig a new grave. The earth is crumbling, dry dust, sapped of water by the long, arid summer, and the brutal heat of the sun drains you both long before you finish, but you somehow manage. Your father can find no words to speak to you once you are finished. Little Yì, your namesake, was his favorite, the last child and the most precious one, the smallest, the cleverest, the most adorable, and his sudden absence, and the way in which he was lost, have frozen him, even in this endless sun–left him with an immobile face and a pulverized heart. To you Yì was still a young child barely out of toddling–you had left to join the Emperor’s army years ago, and you missed Yì’s growth. But to your father and your mother, who remains in her bedroom, keening and rocking back and forth in her grief, Yì had grown into something special, a living promise that the family would not only endure into the next generation but would prosper and make its ancestors proud.
The burial is no different from other family burials you have stood through. Like every family in Xiangjiawan, yours has seen children lost to disease on their way to childhood, and your family cemetery is a mix of very old stones, worn by time and weather to illegibility, and more recent markers. Ordinarily an almanac would have been consulted, to find the best date to hold the funeral, announcements would have been sent to the neighbors, and a wake would have been held, but the village is suddenly full of funerals, now that everyone has seen that there were no other survivors besides yourself from the battle at Jingzhou, and without any discussion the families of the village have decided to abandon the traditional funeral rites and hold private ceremonies, perhaps intending to hold more public funerals later. Sweating in your funeral blacks, you dully wonder at the speed with which the village is abandoning the traditional ways–but then, the defeat of the Emperor and the downfall of the Mings mean the end of civilization, the end of meaning, so why not abandon the traditional ways and simply put the bodies in the earth and cover them up? You are not fool enough to believe that death is the end–you have seen and fed too many ghosts to believe that–but all that a person was, their hopes and dreams and loves and hates, is reduced to an shade insatiable for blood and money after death. What meaning could there be in that transformation, except a lack of meaning?
The day passes insensibly slowly, long seconds becoming painful minutes becoming eternal hours, the family mutely eating their meals and going about their chores, your father and mother futilely nursing the dwindling, stagnant water in the rice terraces, and when night at last mercifully comes you are first into your bed. Sleep is long in coming, though you keep your eyes shut and determinedly think of nothing and try to ignore the heat sticking your body to your sheets–but you are somehow asleep when you hear the screaming, this time from your sister’s room.
You realized that you couldn’t escape the battlefield, even in your parents’ house, and that you would always be at Jingzhou, in your mind, so you fell asleep with your sword in your hand–it seemed to comfort you, somehow–and you have it drawn before you leap from your bed. Without thinking, moving from reflexes learned in months of battle, you rush into your sister’s room, sword moving in a Thousand Strikes pattern, but your arm stops its movement when you see Lijuan’s body, violated and separated like Little Yì’s. Her blood covers the room, its spatters reaching to the ceiling, and in the night’s heat it smells like she has already begun to decompose.
This time your mother has no words and it is your father who cries out. Like Yì, Lijuan was the youngest of the girls, and she was the most precocious, the most beautiful, the most marriageable, and her death is a death to the family hopes of marrying into another, more successful family.
Again, the long night passes slowly, and again you dig another grave with your father, and again you wear your funeral blacks with the rest of your family, and say the words of farewell beneath the glare of the pitiless sun. But now, even through the dull ache in your heart, for Lijuan was your favorite of your siblings, you feel your parents’ hostile gazes upon you, and almost as if you are actually listening to their thoughts you can hear them think that until you came home the family was left alone, that it was you who brought this curse upon the family.
And you know they are right. Despite the heat you feel only cold, a chill that reaches into your heart, turning the pain of Lijuan’s death into a more wounding guilt and the knowledge that somehow you brought this upon your family.
Which is why, after another sluggish, sweltering day, you are waiting on your parents’ doorstep, sword unsheathed. You lean against the door frame and look at the sky, suddenly greyed over with clouds, and you finger your sword and you wait. You shut off the side of you grieving your sister and you think about Jingzhou and the battles that led up to it and you no longer think about the space in front of your parents’ house as the space where you played growing up, as the space where you parents cried as you rode off to join the Emperor–only as a battlefield.
And then your skin prickles over and the heat of the night is worse, much worse, you can feel it in waves, your robes sticking to your skin, and the shadows in front of the house are moving, churning, converging into the shape of a large monster, horned, half-man, half-bull. A monster you have seen before, on the field at Jingzhou, summoned by the hundreds by the Manchu to trample and gore the Emperor’s armies. It has followed you home and continued its work by night, of killing the Emperor’s allies.
You dance forward, sword raised high, and at the last moment you duck under its claws, somersaulting behind it, and with a backhand slash you sever its hamstring. Its agonized roar would deafen you, had you ears to hear it, but now the only thing you can hear is the silent recriminations of your parents, the words they are thinking but would never say to you. It whirls around and slashes at you, right and left and right again, and you barely manage to get your sword up to deflect the blows, but its strength dwarfs yours, and each blow sends a shiver through your blade into your aching arms. You try for a Steel Web, but it lunges forward and head-butts you, and you stagger backwards, the world reeling around you. The monster seizes you by the throat and lifts you into the air, one hand raised to disembowel you, like Yì and like Lijuan, but you have managed to hold on to your sword, and despite the blinding pain in your head from the monster’s blow you chop the sword in a blur, hard enough to take its hand off, and with a reverse swing you lodge the point of the sword in the creature’s throat.
It falls, and you fall with it. Somehow you rise again, without volition, rubbing the already-livid bruises on your throat, and you turn to see your parents staring at you through the windows of the house. There is no pleasure in their eyes, no triumph in your victory, only the same resignation that you feel, the knowledge that where one Manchu hell-creature has come, others will follow. You nod slowly at your parents and then you walk into the night, letting your sword drag in the dirt so that it draws a path for those others to follow.
There are no foot paths this high in the mountains, only the tracks of goats, so you make your own path in the grey stillness, limping in the absolute quiet, the Manchu hell-beast having silenced even the most talkative of birds, until finally near the top of the mountain you find a boulder to collapse beside. You sit, and place your unsheathed sword across your lap, and wait, feeling the blood and sweat dry on your aching body. The rare breeze only reminds you of how hot the night is.
A gap appears in the clouds, and in the suddenly shockingly clear moonlight you see something dark and boiling slithering up the path you left behind in the dust. You wonder if you should smile. Was there a reason for Jingzhou? You have a reason for being here–a good one. Do reasons even matter? Will you remember them, when you’re a hungry ghost?
Soon you’ll find out.