Chapter 5: Second Encounter
Wenhua knew Little Wenchang’s fists were devastating, so his face went green and he stepped back. He didn’t wait for Wenchang to finish speaking, but said, “I won’t fight you; gentlemen can argue without coming to blows, there’s no need to tussle like barbarians…”
With a pop, Little Wenchang’s fist answered for him, pounding his chest and knocking him down.
“Waa!… Daddy!…” He burst into loud sobbing, calling for his dad.
Wenkui was shocked. He never suspected Little Wenchang’s fist to fly so fast. He wanted to stop it but was too late, but he put himself between the two and shouted, “Brother Chang, don’t carry on like that, how can you just hit him like that without a word?”
Another close friend of Wenhua shouted, “You brute! You knocked him down.”
This kid was a head taller than Wenchang, quite sturdy and overbearingly he pounced, both hands spread, and wrapped them around Wenchang’s waist and ran him over.
But Little Wenchang didn’t go down with him. His hands came out with “Double Winds Pierce the Ear”. They weren’t palms, they were fists, and they came at him surprisingly fast.
“Ah!…” he cried, and they toppled over together.
Little Wenchang threw off the hands around his waist and rolled over, scrabbling up and with a hmph, rushed out of the crowd to the horse he had been leading and muttered, “What are you all compared to me?”
The ancestral temple was in the middle of the village, and the village was quite broad. A village of a hundred households in a mountain area was already considered a big village. Around the village had been erected rammed earth walls to protect against the intrusion of wild animals and robbers. Not far to the west of the ancestral temple was the village head’s house, a three-entrance courtyard, not magnificent, but spare, and behind that was a storehouse and an animal pen.
Little Wenchang led the two horses into the courtyard, Big Yellow barking and then running past the wheat-threshing ground and running up the steps to the main hall. A tall and thin middle-aged man came out.
He had a round, amiable face, big eyes, long eyebrows, and a black beard parted to form the shape of the number eight 八. His hands were clasped behind his back, silent, not smiling, watching Little Wenchang lead the horses in. “Hitch them up, I have to leave soon.”
Little Wenchang hitched them up to the post on the left, his mind unsettled and flustered, because the Cai Family Village head had that most hated look on his face, called a “smile that conceals a knife”, a portent of an impending beating.
He hitched up the horses and turned his head and asked fearfully, “Does uncle have any further instructions?”
Little Wenchang knew he couldn’t avoid it so he hung his head and went up the steps. He looked up and saw five or six hired hands standing beside the village head. He didn’t know when they had shown up, along with his hated enemy Wenhua with dried tears on his face, hiding beside the village head’s leg, glaring fiercely at Wenchang.
“Chang’er, did you hit your big brother out of the blue?” Village Head Cai said.
Little Wenchang knew it was useless to try to explain himself, so he nodded and said, “Chang’er hit him.”
The whip was dropped with a plop at his feet, and Village Head Cai said with a dark voice, “Get ready for your punishment.”
The whip was the punishment. Little Wenchang gritted his teeth, picked up the whip and kneeled down. He raised the whip high in both hands and crawled on his knees up the steps and stopped stiff and straight in front of Village Head Cai.
“You know your mistake?” Village Head Cai asked, and he took the whip from the boy’s hands.
“I know I was wrong,” he said woodenly.
“You low wretch. If there goes a day without beating you, you just cause trouble…”
Crack! Little Wenchang felt the sting on his back like a red-hot poker, the pain so bad he cried out and arched his back. Kneeling unsteadily, he faltered and rolled down the steps.
“Get up here!” the village head roared.
He clenched his teeth and didn’t cry out in pain anymore, but climbed back up the steps and knelt down. Crack crack crack! The sharp sound pierced his ears and he was aware of nothing else in the world but the whip.
Ten strokes and he was curled up on the ground. Strange! The last nine strokes he did not utter a sound except some inward groaning.
Village Head Cai’s voice he heard as if it were coming from far away. “The whip makes a filial son, and a filial son makes a loyal official. Your temperament is fierce and brutal, you show no respect to your elders. From a young age you already use fists to deal with your big brother; in the days to come how much more terrible will you get? If I don’t teach you a lesson, in the future you will certainly become an evil-doer defying the laws of man and heaven. Your dad and mom are dead so it’s my responsibility to teach you. If I don’t teach you well, in the future people will reproach me, saying I’m just putting on airs but have no ability to teach well. Remember this well, if you bully your brother again you will regret it forever. To help you plant this firmly in your mind, you will not eat tonight.”
When he was finished speaking, Village Head Cai handed the whip to one of his hired hands, and went down the steps with the manager, got on his horse, and left.
The hired hands held blank faces. Ten strokes was nothing much, but for a small child it was really too excessive.
Little Wenchang struggled to his feet, raised his head. Wenhua was a short distance away with his lips curled and his nose scrunched up, looking at him scornfully and with an air of satisfaction.
Little Wenchang’s back looked like a hot iron had been taken to it, and it felt numb. Seeing Wenhua’s evil face stirred his courage, and he suddenly wiped the tears from his face and raised his fists at Wenhua and took two strides forward, gnashing his teeth.
“Mom…” Wenhua turned and fled inside, hollering.
Little Wenchang turned and went down the steps and headed out as one of the hired hands stifled a laugh. “That baby is nothing compared to Little Tiger. If he had been the one to take those ten licks he might actually be something later on. Heh heh!”
Little Wenchang was pleased. He straightened his back in heroic form and marched through the courtyard gates. But the pain in his back was getting worse and worse, hard for him to take. He couldn’t keep up his brave posturing and collapsed under a sophora tree to the left of the courtyard gates, groaning nonstop.
A hand came down to help him up. It was Wenkui’s soft voice in his ear. “Brother Chang, come rest at my place for a bit. Did those lashes break the skin? You…”
Little Wenchang struggled to stand steadily and forced down his resentment. “It’s nothing, brother Kui. I’m alright. Thanks.”
Out of all the boys in the village, he got along with Wenkui the best. Wenkui’s family wasn’t that well-off, but they were kindhearted and couldn’t bear the sight of the village head’s treatment of Wenchang. But his parents didn’t want him to get too involved with Little Wenchang, who was known as a white tiger star, a jinx. All he could do was sympathize and be friendly toward Little Wenchang. He was unable to help him.
Little Wenchang knew Wenkui’s parents did not welcome him, and even his other paternal uncles despised him. He couldn’t stay in the village. He’d rather go to Tiger Ridge, out in the wilderness where no one dared to venture, and idle away the days by himself.
He left Wenkui and headed toward Tiger Ridge.
This time he didn’t have the strength to look for supper. The late autumn sun was warm up in the mountains, yet there was a slight chill in the air. In another two hours it would be cold enough to make him gasp. His back burned, but his heart was frigid. To him the world was an awful place. No! The people and everything going on in the village was awful. He hadn’t really apprehended the world yet. He couldn’t speak about good and evil yet, as he had never interacted with anyone outside his village.
Wait, that wasn’t right. A couple weeks ago that old freak by the riverbank had stolen his roasted hare. He wasn’t from the village. His fiendish behavior had been no better than the villagers.
Thinking about that old freak, he strolled aimlessly toward the riverbank, to the place where he had roasted the hare.
This trip would lead to strange changes in his life, as if directed by an imperceptible hand. No one could predict a person’s fate. A single moment could be thought to be a contest with the powers of fate, or you could say it was surrendering oneself to the powers of fate, completely unaware of one’s indefinite future.
Perhaps it was a miracle, or perhaps he was just brave. In short, he wasn’t afraid of that old freak at all as he walked to the riverbank all by his lonesome.
Wind gusted over the river, shaking the withered tips of the branches in the woods. It sounded like the ocean and chilled one’s heart.
He passed through the withered woods and in the distance saw the large form of the old freak leaning against a huge stone overlooking the river. The old freak was lost in thought, watching the murmuring stream. He heard Little Wenchang’s footsteps and turned and glanced at him, then went back to watching the river, not moving.
Little Wenchang was shocked. In only a couple weeks the old freak’s complexion had become ghastly pale, a huge change from the last time he saw him. The glint in his eyes was gone, replaced by a hazy, listless murkiness.
He inched closer and stood beside the old freak.
After a while the old freak croaked to him in his old voice, “Kid, you’ve come.”
“Yep, I’ve come,” Little Wenchang said absently.
“To avenge your roasted hare?”
“Haven’t seen you in a couple weeks. You don’t look so good. You sick?”
“You look even worse.”
The old freak turned to look at him. “You’re a strange, stubborn child.”
“And you’re a strange old freak.”
“You from that village up ahead?”
“You’re injured. You look awful.”
“Last time I went home and was whipped, bedridden for a couple weeks. Yesterday I got up and went to work, and today I was whipped again, ten lashes. How could I look well?”
“Eh! Your dad beat you? But you’re still just a child…”
“Don’t mention my dad. If I had a mom and dad, who would dare beat me?” Little Wenchang stamped his foot when he said that. The mention of his mom and dad was like a stab in his heart.
“Oh! Your mom and dad…”
“Dead! I said don’t mention them.”
The old freak looked sorry and lowered his head. Little Wenchang took a deep breath. “What are you doing here? No one lingers on Tiger Ridge. You…”
“Don’t ask me either. Hey, how deep can you swim?”
The old freak shook his head. “Among you village kids, what’s the deepest the best swimmer can go?”
“About ten feet or so.”
“Eh! So you’re saying you’re the best swimmer?”
“That’s right,” Little Wenchang said proudly.
“So you will swim in the pond, but do you dare dive deeper?”
“Are any of the adults in your village brave enough to?”
“No one dares play around in Black Dragon Pond. But during summer the ducks will dive down to the bottom.”
The old freak sighed. “Looks like I’m done for,” he said to himself.
Little Wenchang was surprised. “Nonsense. I’ve suffered since I was little, scolded and beaten, hungry and cold every day. But I never wanted to die. Isn’t death too extreme? Why do you want to die?”
“Child, I might not die if you can help me.”
Little Wenchang shook his head. “I’m too young to be of any help.”
“You can help me, if you have a gift.”
“What’s having a gift? Tell me. I have nothing but this tattered clothing.”
“You wouldn’t understand anyway. What I mean is, if you can learn in ten days some underwater breathing and water pressure endurance skills I teach you, then you can dive to the bottom of the pond and save me.”
“Bah! You can’t even see the bottom of Black Dragon Pond during winter. Only a ghost would dare go down there. People can’t.”
“See, I knew you weren’t capable; no gift for learning.”
“Do you have the guts to learn my deep water diving skill? If you’re scared then just forget it.”
Little Wenchang hmphed and squared his shoulders. “I, Little Tiger, am scared of nothing! Teach me.”
The old freak smiled faintly and beckoned him over. “Alright. Sit down here. I’ll teach you a mystical breath rejuvenation technique.”
“What breath rejuvenation technique?”
“Don’t ask, you wouldn’t understand. All you have to do is do what I tell you and practice it diligently. You wouldn’t get it if I explained it.”