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And yet, why were things so sorrowful?Because love was demanding.
After that day, I fell ill for a month. Luckily, Nongyu’s medical skills were brilliant enough to snatch back my life. Under his care, my broken body became as doughty as a dragon and lively as a tiger. Because of urgent matters, Little Li had to return to the palace, but it was for the best. If he could convince the expectant Han Zichuan to give up on me, it’d be even better. The sentiment-injured Fang Hua wood was now red and would take human form soon, so Han Zichuan would never get his poison resistant wood again.
As we entered winter, the first snow fell. When my sickness was just about gone, Nongyu became absent-minded. He never fully recovered from the shock of seeing the spirit of Fang Hua that day. When I urged him to leave the mountain, he obediently agreed. The day he left, he left me many, many different medicines. That mess of bottles and containers of pills were both strange and familiar…many of the most precious pills I recognized as works by Second and Third. Who knew how they were doing now…but those things had nothing to do with me. Without a good-for-nothing master like me, who didn’t know how to do anything, their lives would probably be much better.
After Nongyu left the mountain, I sealed up all paths leading in. There were too many people in the world who’d want to peek at the Fang Hua wood. I just wanted to use my remaining time to stay by his side and live together.
Today was very warm. I bent over the bed to slip on my shoes, open the doors, and bathed my body under the winter sunshine, feeling strange. Much of the snow outside seemed to have thawed. I gave a lazy stretch and warmed myself up before setting to work.
Beneath the Wutong tree in the courtyard was buried the wine Fang Hua and I made together last time. He loved to drink when he was alive. With winter so cold, it must be unbearable for him, so I should bring some to satisfy his craving. Otherwise he’d get mad at me again. My lips curled into a smile. “Shào’er, do you know where we put the shovel?”
As soon as I spoke, I fell in a daze.
Around me, all was still beyond the glittering snow. It was awhile before I recovered my senses. The parrot had disappeared after telling me Fang Hua was buried at the yellow earth hill. I squatted on the ground, burying my head in my knees, and gave a quiet, helpless smile. So living by yourself really could get lonely. It was already hard for me to get used to one day, so how did Fang Hua survive for five years? The cold wind made me sneeze, so I rose to my feet to rub my face with my sleeves. I puffed a breath into my hands before rubbing them together.
“That’s enough of that. Time to find the shovel before Fang Hua gets anxious from waiting.”
I stopped outside one of the rooms on the west side, spotting a lock on the door. I scratched my head before circulating qi in my abdominal region and striking out with my hand. Dust splattered all over my face, but the force from my palm smashed the lock into countless tiny pieces until it ceased to exist. A breeze slipped out between the door cracks before it creaked open. I walked ignorantly, trying to feel my way about. Before my eyes, there was a scroll after scroll of high quality xuan paper hanging from the rafters. A few rays of sunlight shone down…illuminating floating dust motes in the air…
I raised my head.
All of the hanging papers followed the same pattern, with the same person painted on each one. As the wind swayed the paintings, the person on the paper seemed to waver between crying and smiling. Unabashedly clever and good-looking, a little shameless…she was a woman dressed in men’s robes. The smile on her face flickered as I turned my body to look around in a circle, eyes filled with the images of this person called Shao Ye. At that moment, my heart clenched into a small, hard rock, leaping wildly as it was suddenly attacked by a fit of melancholy. I raised my hand to wipe my face but couldn’t stop my tears, which kept falling until they soaked my fingers.
Fang Hua, you always manage to touch my feelings when I’m loneliest. But that only made me more morose. I spent a long time in that room before I collected my emotions, found the shovel, and went off to see Fang Hua with wine jug in tow.
The grave mound was nearly buried beneath the snow. On the other side of the grave, the snow was scattered with signs of melting. Somewhere within that snowdrift was a small Fang Hua wood. Whenever the wind blew, its distinctive fragrance filled my whole body, as if that person was still by my side. He’d say, Shao’er…the wine you brew was the best I ever drank. I don’t know if this time next year, I can taste it again.
My eyes were growing a little hot…
Master, Shao’er’s already remembered all the secrets to brewing wine, but there’s no one left to drink it with me anymore.
I lifted the wine jug and took a long drink, its pungent flavor making me choke and cough…I clumsily wiped my face with my hands and started to cry soundlessly. During the month I was sick, I never forgot to bother Nongyu to take my blood to Fang Hua. Even when I was only half-conscious, I’d clamor and make a racket until I felt the familiar pain in my wrists. Every time, Nongyu would feel both angry and distressed.
It didn’t matter what he felt. As long as Fang Hua had enough blood to feed him so he could grow up strong and sturdy…
I poured the jug of wine onto the greedy yellow earth, who drank in the rich and mellow liquid. It washed away the melting snow but didn’t reveal the familiar red Fang Hua wood. Squatting on the ground, I stared at the snow before pawing through with my hands…and was greeted with a surprise. A single dead branch stood in the snowfield, but the red Fang Hua wood had faded in color to sprout four limbs. They had the quality of jade but were even whiter than snow.
Fang Hua, you’re finally coming back…
For a moment, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was too busy to worry about the cold and sat straight in the snow, covering my eyes with my sleeves. Despite this, the tears still soaked through my clothes. Everything felt like a dream. When I recovered enough to look again, the warm sunlight almost made me dizzy. I leaned against the grave mound to sit by his side and couldn’t help but touch him with my fingers. The tiny hand on the hand slowly moved in response, and my gaze softened. Only then did I stop worrying and slowly grasp the hand.
Fang Hua, your hands are very cold. I’ll keep you warm.
Fang Hua, when are you going to grow bigger?
Don’t be afraid, I’m your Shao Hua.
Three months later.
Ever since Fang Hua first showed signs of life, I wanted to wrap myself in bedcovers and camp out by the grave on my bamboo mat so we could spend more time together. Though the weather was gradually getting warmer, my body wasn’t as good as it used to be. My hands would always shake. Fortunately, my vast reserves of internal energy and Nongyu’s stores of pills meant I was still holding it together. Maybe it was due to my lack of vitality, but I’d stopped getting my period ages ago. That was fine, though.
The Fang Hua wood in the earth had already grown a face along with its hands and feet. Its entire body was white and soft to the touch. Of course, I didn’t take too many liberties, afraid that it’d scare him. The grass by the yellow earth hill had started to sprout, spreading the its soft fragrance with every burst of wind. I leaned against the tomb to watch him, loving him more and more with each glance. I didn’t bother with anything else. Sitting by him eventually changed to lying by him, where I’d scoot close to watch. These days, the contours of the little fellow’s face was slowly growing clearer. He had a beautiful, exquisite face, almost exactly the same as Fang Hua’s…
No…to be more accurate, he was much younger than Fang Hua, but his forehead resembled him so much. With his eyes closed, he really looked like he was fast asleep. I lightly touched his cheek, and his tiny eyebrows scrunched up as if I was disturbing him. My hand lifted anxiously, but it was just a false alarm. His eyebrows slowly smoothed out again. What I’d felt beneath my fingers was unexpectedly soft, giving me a mixture of sweetness and sadness. For a moment, it was almost too much to bear. He really was alive and would grow into human form soon. I took a deep breath and knelt on a ground in a trance, before raising my eyebrows into a smile.
“You must be hungry. Just wait…Shao’er will give you something tasty to eat.”
I bit around a mouthful of my sleeve as I took a small dagger from my waist, slicing a cut on my wrist. Blood gurgled out to splash by the dirt at his feet, filling the air with a raw smell. I gritted my teeth as I squeezed out more blood, body leaning against the tomb as I tipped my hand to better allow the bleeding. My other sleeve rose up to cover my face as I turned away, too scared to look.
It’d been this long…but I was still a little afraid to see such fresh red stuff.
My head was so dizzy.
Everyone else slit their wrists to commit suicide, yet I was basically killing myself once a day.
The wind was very gentle. My hand drooped listlessly by Fang Hua’s side, the fingertips a little chilly. The temperature in my body flowed away with the blood… I heard a small breathing noise that turned my mind blank. Astonished, I raised my head and saw that little fellow still sniffing about with eyes closed before he found my wrist and started to suck. At the same time I felt something warm, he began to greedily drink, his head swaying back and forth in a daze. I could only stare in a trance.
The warm feeding noises brought a numb limpness to my wound that spread outwards. Some sort of qi flowed between the place where we touched, filling my heart with a strange sensation. My vision turned blurry as more images appeared before my mind’s eye in a chaotic mess…
Were these Fang Hua’s memories from a past life?
My mind blank, I fell into a faint and had a dream.
Springtime in March, the willow catkins floated through the air as the water rippled.
There was a youth of about seventeen to eighteen years old sitting on a stone seat, a sleeve drenched in the water as he released a white lotus lantern into the pond. This youth had his eyebrows knitted over a young and tender face and was unmistakably a young Fang Hua. Behind him stood a man dressed in white robes, the face obscured by willow branches as he spoke in a soft, pleading voice.
“Lord Hua, please help me treat my husband.”
Though the figure was dressed as a man, the voice made me realize it was a woman–one with exceptional heroic bearing. Fang Hua ignored her to stare off into the distance. The spring waters seem to ripple with anxiety. That woman stood for a long time before a little child’s cry rose from her chest. She helplessly tried to comfort the child, before speaking in a low voice.
“Even if I’ve wronged you, don’t drag others into it.”
Fang Hua suddenly turned around, raising his voice. “Even if your husband only has one breath left, so what? Even if I can cure hundreds of different illnesses, I won’t cure his.” So speaking, he turned away again. For such a mild-mannered person, his face could still turn red when he was exasperated.
She heaved a sigh by his side. Perhaps the noise was too harsh, because her frightened child immediately stopped crying. The little face turned sullen as the child grabbed at the woman’s jacket, but there was no energy to form it into a fist. Slowly, the sounds of the child grew weaker…
“What’s wrong with her?” Fang Hua’s vision gradually landed on the small baby.
“The little one’s been constantly crying, but I don’t know why,” said the woman, busying comforting her child. Fang Hua took the child from her arms and spoke lightly.
“This fellow’s to be pitied as well. I suspect your husband passed on the poison in his body to her as well. I’ll save the child but nothing else. You can find another person for that.” Turning around, Fang Hua stiffly carried the tired girl away, not even a bit reluctant. The woman stared blankly after his retreating form.
In the pond…the lotus flower lantern had already floated far away.
Beneath the shade of a tree, Fang Hua sat with his eyebrows still knitted. He looked reluctantly at the child in his arms before he slowly smiled–an unsightly expression that looked worse than someone crying. I could understand that kind of inner sorrow.
He said, I’m only saving this child…because she’s yours.
Inside the house.
“You’re not a bit like your father or mother…” Fang Hua lay on the bed, poking the little fellow’s cheek with his finger. The child spread her limbs, wide eyes staring at him as she babbled nonsense, before finding his finger and sucking on it.
“Drink it slowly. Are you taking this for milk? My blood is very precious.”
The little child seemed to have understood as she closed her eyes. Under the hazy lamplight, Fang Hua rested his head in his hands, a warm expression on his face. He stared at the little fellow as if recalling something before his expression fell into shadow. The dark red mole at the corner of his eye was startling in its hue.
Thick fog rolled across the scene, boundless and white. When it dissipated, everything cleared up a bit better. Another scene of the house appeared. The inside was the same as before, but the little child had grown up. She wore a cap on her head and a long jacket that dragged almost to the ground. Her feet were bare as she staggered around the house.
The door opened.
Fang Hua came in with a jug of wine, looking sick as heart as he raised his head to down the alcohol. A sleeve rose to wipe his face before he looked at the toddler flitting about. He smiled as if laughing at himself, seemingly desolate. After walking a few steps, he bent down and grabbed the girl by her clothes. The child stared fixedly at him, cramping her brows as if angry. He wrapped around her in an embrace and patted her softly.
“Your father finally died…do you know?”
The little child seemed uninterested in his words. She used a chubby finger to wind his black hair around and around her hand before shutting it in her fist with a closed-eye smile.
“Should I return you to her…?” Fang Hua bent over, poking her cheek softly as he spoke to himself. “I won’t live for much longer, so if I keep you…”
The child stared at Fang Hua’s sleeve before grabbing it to nibble.
“Eh?” Fang Hua crouched down, prying her off. “You’re teething.” Seeing that she couldn’t gnaw on the sleeve, the child crinkled her brows before setting to work on his finger. When Fang Hua withdrew it with a yelp, it was already covered in saliva.
“Speaking of that,” Fang Hua looked around, wiping his hand on his robes. “If I keep you, she’ll find me sooner or later. Every time, it’s alway me waiting for her. I want her to wait for me once. Don’t you think that’s right…?” He laughed, and the child laughed with him. Who knew what amused them both, but it probably wasn’t the same thing.
“What’s it like, being loved…?” Fang Hua’s smile faded. His eyes grew dark as he took out the waist sash from her gnawing mouth and gave a sigh. He slowly straightened and poured himself a cup of tea, taking a book along the way to read. Though his eyes were on the words, his heart wasn’t in it.
Some time later, Fang Hua’s eyes drooped as he dropped into a doze. Just then, a bright sound rang out. When he turned to look, he couldn’t help but laugh. The little child had been drenched through with something, her hand holding on with a death grip to a piece of tablecloth as she stood bow-legged on the ground. A giant wooden basin was overturned on the ground, soaking a large portion of the floor. She stared dumbly at Fang Hua with a terrified expression, as if trying not to cry. The skin that was once as clear as white tofu wavered between turning red and turning black, looking extremely livid.
Only then did Fang Hua calm down and walk over. He glanced at the overturned tub, gave her a sniff, and hurriedly put her under his arm before running outside to toss her into the pond. He had no time to undress but strode in right afterwards, rolling up his sleeves to wash her off.
“Look at you. Of all the things to play with, you chose my half-finished pill formula. Now see, you’re all dirty…how am I supposed to get all this black stuff off your body?”
Neither scrubbing nor washing worked. Her whole body was completely dark, dying the pretty girl into a shade of charcoal. Fang Hua gave a long exhale and said, “I doubt that even your own mother could recognize you now.” Then he fell into thought. Perhaps it’d be better if she didn’t.
It seemed like the Heavens were helping him. This little fellow had recognized him as family in the end. If someone really took her away, it’d be more painful than cutting off his own flesh. Within the pond, one big person and one little person stared at each other. Suddenly the smaller figure trembled and turned around to dog paddle away.
“What’s that, what’re you doing?” Fang Hua stared after her trailing shirt collar. She was still treading water, swimming earnestly. When he finally picked up her dripping form from the pond, there was an extra red lotus in her hand.
“Is this for me?” Fang Hua said happily, drawing her over and grasping her hand. As soon as he went to grab the flower, the little child withdrew her hand. When he tried again, she felt even more wronged and withdrew it again.
“So…it’s not for me after all,” Fang Hua had a rare moment of disappointment on his face. Suddenly, the little child felt herself being lowered back down again. Inches away from the water, a chubby hand stuck out the red lotus in offering again.
“I was just saying,” Fang Hua smiled. “You must have gotten this red lotus for me.” He let go as she fell in with a splash, stirring up all the other flowers in the pool.
The streets were noisy and bustling, filled with people. Fang Hua led the little child along as he wandered aimlessly through the town. She gave intense stares to the hawkers peddling their various colorful wares. Fang Hua looked at her quietly before digging into his robes with his hands. He only found a few copper coins and ended up leading her away.
Inside the house, Fang Hua sat in the courtyard, paring away at some wood as he sat deep in thought. Eventually, he began to carve…
The little child squatted on the ground, holding a newly-made diabolo and rattle drum as she played with them in delight. Fang Hua lifted his head and watched her have fun, unaware of the growing smile on his face. Time slowly passed for them both.
One snowy day, a coughing Fang Hua took unsteady steps as he led along a small, well-dressed girl. The wind was fierce as it blew across their footsteps, one big, one small. He was wearing a white fox-fur overcoat that hid most of his face except the pitch-black mole by his eye. His eyes were laden with grief as he reluctantly touched the little child chewing on her candy.
With a soft smile, he handed over the child to an old beggar in a dilapidated temple. Then he reached into his sleeves and took out all the silver he had, placing them in the old beggar’s hands. When all was done, he remembered one more thing and draped the fox fur overcoat over the little child’s head, cocooning her in warmth. He knelt down and held her in his embrace, wanting to say something amidst his uncontrollable coughs.
Wait for me, I’ll come back for you.
Then he slowly turned around and disappeared into the snow.
Dark clouds covered the skies as a thinly-dressed Fang Hua staggered before the yellow earth grave mound. He collapsed onto the ground, swallowed up in a sea of flames until he transformed into a branch of dead wood. The moment that raging fire consumed his being, I finally understood his sorrow. He wasn’t resigned to such an end…for the sake of a person he couldn’t love, he filled up that lonely house with many beautiful scenes. He was always waiting and hoping while giving up pieces of his own life.
Finally, he gave that person’s child away to another person, hiding her in a place only he would know. On the day before he died, he put stakes in a gamble he was guaranteed to win, a stake that would prove that he had once lived this life. If that person loved him, she’d come back to to grieve for him, perhaps giving him a chance to reclaim his soul.
If that person didn’t love him, then…for the sake of her only child, she’d use her own blood to revive him. Only then could the reborn Fang Hua remember the memories of his past life and recall where he’d left her daughter. It was a gamble where he could already see the ending, where he didn’t have to wait silently or bide his time…
And yet, why was he so sorrowful?
Perhaps because this love was forced.
 doughty as a dragon and lively as a tiger (生龙活虎) – shenglong huohu, to be brimming/bursting with energy, to be full of vigour. Healthy. 🙂
 xuan (宣) – a type of high quality paper traditionally made in Xuancheng (Xuan City) of Anhui Provine, especially good for traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy.
 Shao Ye (勺烨) – the character for Shao is the same as Shao’er’s. Ye means “firelight”, “sunlight”, or “bright”. Most interestingly, Ye also contains the radical for Hua (华), which sounds like the hua in Shao Hua (韶华), “springtime” or Shao Hua (勺嬅), our protagonist.
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