Chapter 3: Hare Hunting
Little Wenchang was disoriented, but there happened to be a rock nearby. He picked it up, scrambled to his feet and threw it. Amazingly, it hit old man Zhao in the stomach with a thwack and the old man doubled over.
Little Wenchang didn’t stop there. He really did feel cold and needed to move about some, so he ran around old Zhao, kicked him in the backside, then turned tail and ran.
The old man fell over, but quickly got up and yelled, “You little rabbit egg, when I catch you I’ll flay you alive.”
Little Wenchang ran to the side door, around to the rear compound and on toward the southern storehouse. Between the compound and the storehouse was a stable and woodshed. He was too in a rush, running and looking back at the same time, so he didn’t see his Uncle Cai Suiming when he ran into him by the stable.
Cai Suiming cried out and fell backward, turning over the bucket of well water in his hand and drenching him like a chicken dropped in soup.
Wenchang also fell, and when he saw he had collided with his uncle he panicked and got up quickly and took off running.
That’s right, on that cold morning he ran himself into a fever, so that his forehead was sweating, warming his body like it was spring.
He didn’t dare go back home, he just ran on to the foot of Tiger Ridge. The vegetation there was withered, the ground covered in a thick layer of frost. He found a cave and ran inside and began to think. He knew that if he went back home it would be hard to avoid a severe beating. He untied his jacket, revealing a bunch of welts. Red, purple, dark green, new and old, he had them all. He heaved a deep sigh and said to himself, “If you can wait, just wait. When I get home tonight I’ll definitely meet with the rod, so why not play a bit outside for the day?”
Play? At dawn with a nip in the air, how could he play? Inside the cave he laid down and slept.
When he woke up it was already the double-hour of the snake1 and his stomach was rumbling. What to do? There’s not much to eat in the north during autumn, so the only option was to go steal something in the village.
He furtively made his way toward the village. It wasn’t far, but when he reached the village he saw some elders and turned around, not wanting to enter. But his hunger burned like fire, really hard to endure. Normally stealing a chicken was easiest, a simple chunk of cobblestone would solve the problem, and if he got one from a cage it wouldn’t make any noise. But it would be be easy to approach the village today, no chance to use his talent.
He said to himself, “Can I stand not eating for a whole day? No way!”
Suddenly he heard the sound of bleating sheep in the field to the right. He turned his head and saw it was his distant uncle’s flock. About eighty to a hundred head, plus some fat lambs.
This uncle was his mortal enemy, always gave him trouble. If the family lost a couple chickens, the blame would always be foisted on his head. Actually, he had only taken one; a weasel had probably run off with the other one, but he was held accountable for both of them. So irritating!
I’ve never stolen a sheep before, he thought. Let’s give it a try.
He concealed himself in the grass and creeped toward the flock, but they weren’t afraid of men, much less a kid. He grabbed hold of one’s tail but the sheep paid him no mind. It weighed about seventy catties2 or more, heavier than himself. He smiled wryly. “I’d really like a sheepskin jacket! Too bad I don’t have one, even though uncle raises two hundred or more head of sheep, and never runs out of lambskin gowns.”
He got close and stroked a ten-catty lamb. It was so cute! So kind and genial. Its white, soft wool was warm.
He pressed down on the lamb and snarled in a low voice, “I want to eat you. Why don’t you resist? Why don’t you resist?”
The lamb bleated gently. It kicked its feet lightly, but it didn’t have much strength.
He grabbed its leg and tossed it ten feet away and said dejectedly, “To hell with it! Damn sheep, so weak and pitiful.”
But after all, it was a sheep, what did he expect? Perhaps it was because of his nature to rebel, but it wasn’t in his nature to bully the weak. He couldn’t go after a little lamb that didn’t fight back at all. Dejected, he left the flock.
He said to himself, “Looks like I’ll be hungry today.” He turned and went down the mountain.
He hadn’t gone far when he heard a rustle and saw a ten-catty or so grey hare come out of the thick grass and with one jump leap eight or so feet away.
“Alright, where do you think you’re running off to?” he called joyously, and bounded after it.
A kid catching a rabbit, that’s just dreaming; even some hunting dogs couldn’t do it. Strange, a skinny, unhealthy looking kid, that could not only run faster than most adults, but he could also run down most dogs. Maybe all the beatings he had received had given him a lot of experience running away. Or perhaps all the times chasing rabbits with his hunting dog Big Yellow when he was younger had turned him into a fleet-footed runner. In a word, he was pretty confident in his ability to catch rabbits.
He gave chase, he and the rabbit locked in a life and death competition, ran it down to the foot of the mountain where the grass grew thicker. The rabbit was slowing down, but it headed toward a hole and burrowed inside.
Little Wenchang was dejected seeing the rabbit slip into the hole to save itself. Unwilling to give up, he looked around carefully, scanning the area around the hole. Then his face lit up. “Great! This hole is not very deep.”
He used a clump of dirt to block up the hole and found two sticks and took off his belt to tie one end to make wooden tongs, then used dry grass to stuff down the hole, leaving only a small opening. From his pocket he retrieved a flint and steel and made up some kindling, and while striking the flint said, “I don’t have patience to wait, so I’ll use this fire to smoke you out.”
Fortunately there was another hole on the slope which allowed for ventilation, so as the grass burned, the fire burned down into the hole. The rabbit in the hole had been curled up hiding, but when the smoke got thick, it thought to escape out of the other hole. But the hole was small, and it struggled to squeeze itself through.
The hole was only big enough for the rabbit to stick its head through, and just as it did, Little Wenchang was outside waiting for it. He spotted it and took the two sticks and clamped them around the rabbit’s neck.
“Haha! You didn’t prepare three holes, you deserve it!”
If a ten-catty rabbit flew into a rage even a hunting dog might be scared; they could bite its leg pretty fierce when cornered. But it was helpless clamped between the two sticks. Little Wenchang pulled it from the hole and grabbed it, and used all his strength to strangle it. Soon the rabbit stopped struggling. He dragged the rabbit to the riverbank, at the upper reaches of Black Dragon Pond, and cleaned and skinned and cooked it.
At home he never got to eat his fill. His appetite was great and there were no leftovers to fill him up. Stealing chickens and catching wild animals was his source of food. He carried a small knife on his person and a set of tools for survival. That set included flint and steel and a tinderbox. Heavens! At such a young age he already had the ability to survive on his own; it was frightful just to think of it.
In any case one must survive. When a belly is famished day in and day out, anything will do, anything to stave off the hunger and keep going. Nevermind whether in the days to come he would become a king or a bandit.
Now we come to the upper reaches of Red River. To the left are the grotesque rocks and thick vegetation of Tiger Ridge’s Tiger Head Peak, and below the peak a strong undercurrent of rushing water, the water a deep blue bordering black, the water of Black Dragon Pond. Winter would be here soon so the water flow was not great. The dangerous Black Dragon Pond did not look dangerous on the surface; the water level was so low you could just make out the odd-shaped rocks underneath. It looked like the water held untold strange monsters. The tall water grasses swayed underwater. If you were to put a boat in the water you would discover the strength of the undercurrent, the water so deep you couldn’t see the bottom, everywhere unpredictable. The dangerous and hidden atmosphere of the place made people tremble with fear.
At the junction between autumn and winter Black Dragon Pond looked tranquil, like a soft and gentle young girl, the light on the water and the mountain scenery breathtaking. But between spring and summer, good gracious! Mountain torrents pooled in from everywhere into Red River and Black Dragon Pond became a shrew, the river water surging like ten-thousand horses galloping, rushing and descending from the cliff, turbid waves rolling and tumbling. On the surface of the water you could see huge whirlpool after whirlpool. Any boats or wooden rafts that did not stick to the outer edges ran the risk of capsizing or getting pushed and slammed against the cliff face, smashing you into pieces, where the fragments of your bones would be inhaled and sucked down to the bottom by the raging eddies, coming back up at the lower reaches about three miles distant. During this time of year Black Dragon Pond was not at all cute, becoming a violent and fierce evil dragon that swallowed up everything.
Ancient forests covered the sky along both shores at Tiger Head Peak, with grotesque rocks scattered about, brambles and vines densely tangled. During spring you couldn’t see the sky from within the forest, the atmosphere gloomy and frightening. It was said that during daylight hours you could see demons and evil spirits roaming about, foxes and rats running rampant, and huge wolves came and went within. So, no matter day or night, spring, summer, autumn, or winter, no one ever went there. The cattle and sheep of Cai Family Village were put to pasture on the northwest face of the peak. They didn’t dare get close to the river area by the cliff.
But these past two years, the tracks of human presence had appeared. They belonged to none other than eight-year-old Little Wenchang.
By the riverbank he had set up rocks for making a fire and had taken sticks and made three forks where he roasted the animals he caught. It took less than two hours to roast a wild hare, so he left the fire to burn by itself and took off his clothes and strolled toward the riverbank.
It was cold in the morning, but the noon sun provided warmth, and though the water was cold enough to penetrate your bones, he didn’t care. That autumn, Black Dragon Pond was his newly discovered playground, the flow of water was not fast, and he boldly, gradually began swimming in the pond for two months, going deeper and deeper each day. He had already felt out the waterways and edges of the pond by the cliff. He was curious and believed that within two years he would be able to go down to the bottom. He hoped to see the black dragon that was said to reside at the bottom of the pond.
Splash! He jumped down into the ice-cold water of Red River and made sport in the water. At this moment he forgot everything, the bitter, difficult days and all the abuse he had endured, all the miseries of the past few years, all the unhappy past events and trauma. That was all far away from his heart brimming with hate and resentment. He felt the mountains were great, the water was great, all more lovely than any person. At least the mountains and the river didn’t hurt him.
Two hours passed, his body temperature gradually dropping. He felt a little cold, and he figured the hare was probably done, so he got out of the water and put on his clothes and rushed back to his fire. Suddenly, he stopped cold.
Next to the ashes of his bonfire his roasted hare had fallen into the hands of an old man. That succulent, fragrant roasted hare was already half-eaten.
The man had disheveled white hair, a white curly beard like a hedgehog, his face like a wild-haired orangutan squeezed up into a ball, a wrinkled, coarse dark-red face, his white eyebrows like a broom, a pug nose, lips like a catfish, a pair of big round eyes flashing enough to startle a man. Not only did his face resemble an orangutan, his body was also like an orangutan. He sat on a rock like a small mountain, his shoulders broad and his waist round, his big hands round and large, the grey cloth of his robe and pants had been mended in several places, yet his boots looked to be made from deerskin; this was the only thing of value.