​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Temple of the Crowing Rooster
Li Shijiang

      I was really burned out and went to stay in the Temple of the Crowing Rooster, one of the famous Jiming Temples. I couldn’t handle it, but couldn't let it go. That’s the normal state of the human condition.
      I didn’t chant while I was at the temple or take part in the meditation. I just walked along the stone path in the evenings and stood on a crag to watch the sun set. The huge ball descended slowly before finally plunking down into the valley. That’s what’s called “rejuvenation”. The world becomes gloomy and it’s hard to keep from longing for what it once was.
      The abbot and I got along well. In fact, we were internet buddies. That may sound ridiculous, but the fate which draws people together is as firm as porcelain. On the net he worried about the people and the nation. He was enthusiastic about the Way of the Ancients and extremely able as a crusader and savior of the world. In person, though, he was a stable fellow with his feet firmly planted on the ground. Our meeting left me with a sense of contrast, but when I thought deeply about it, it was actually just two sides of a coin, with no difference in quality.
      Our first exchange of ideas concerned a post about child trafficking. The conversation was neither salty nor bland but gradually got deeper. To me he seemed a compassionate man of action who considered the world’s problems as his own, one who didn’t lose his enthusiasm even though he worked day and night to no avail. I told him, not without some regret and even a bit of contempt, "You’re like me when I was young." The tone was petty and arrogant, but he wasn’t offended and accepted it happily, seeming in all ways like a monk.
      I live in my own world and don't communicate much with people. I just silently reflect on things. One day I ended up criticizing my own insignificant birth. "Tis ever thus,” I said to him, “for real people, anyway." He laughed like he always did, without changing his mood. We’d reached a meeting of the minds on this, despite the lack of verbalization.
      I’d contracted my world again, watching my illusions collapse little by little. When I was a youth, my world had seemed as solid as a rock, but now it was like quicksand. When I showed myself on
Weibo again, after a long absence, it was only because I was bored with the mundane affairs of the world. He said, "Long time no see. What’ve you been up to?"
      "Being perplexed about what’s not perplexing," I replied.
      "If you have time, come stay a while at my temple."
      I cast my lot and went.

***

      It happened to be late autumn, and the world was so desolate as to be intolerable. I felt it would be quite appropriate if I withered away like the shrubs and grass. The spring breeze could blow the vegetation back to life, that’s true, but the remnants of my heart wouldn’t be reconciled by any springtime rebirth. I walked the three hundred and six stone steps every day, then sat down to wait quietly for the disturbances in the mountain mists and the flowing clouds, and the red glow of the setting sun.
      "... You fucking bitch, talking trash about me in front of my customer. What made you think I wouldn’t know about it? You’re crazy if you want to be a mistress. I’m telling you, don't think about staying at Rome...."
      Tourists in sparse groups of two or three were going up and down the stone steps, but I didn't care a bit. This woman wore high heels, silk stockings and a short skirt. She was finding it difficult to talk on a cell phone while negotiating the steps, so she walked over to the rocky crag where I sat watching the view and buzzed around in front of me like a bee. Her voice was harsh and her fragrance assaulted me. It was a strange thing to find at the foot of the temple.
      I couldn't help but raise my head to look. Surprise! It was her.
      She talked intermittently, swearing and then pausing, obviously in an all-out war with the person on the other side of the conversation. I listened quietly. Her every breath, every expression, provoked memories in me and stirred up ripples in my mind.
      I was not yet perplexed back then, but I had too little experience. The years had gone fluttering by and I hadn’t done anything significant, and I was even less inclined to do the sorts of things that ordinary people rely on. The thoughts palpitating in my heart, the remembered feelings, were all left over from the days of my youth. I thought of myself as a young man who’d just gone through an adolescent growth spurt into the
body of a middle-aged man. I appeared to have grown but in reality had made no progress at all. Integration into the world held no appeal for me, of course, but everything progresses, and it left me wondering where I’d gone wrong.
      I wanted to say something to her several times, but I never had a chance to interrupt her. I was quite nervous. Striking up a conversation with someone to whom I hadn’t spoken in years was a big hurdle for me. It was as if a vow of silence would be the best for me, communicating just with glances. I could only watch her.
      She was tall and still slim. The corners of her mouth were arched as before, and her nose was high and straight. Her deep-set eyes were so expressive that the aura of her being stemmed from them. The more I looked, the more I felt that the passing years have no power over some people. Meeting her suddenly made me feel how indescribably miraculous that thing called fate could be. She’d already headed down the steps, swishing off like the wind, before I had a chance to open my mouth. Ah, that’s right, she’d always walked fast, a gust of fragrant wind.
      "Brake your grandma!" That was the last curse I heard her say. It’s the equivalent in our hometown dialect of someone from Beijing saying "screw your uncle" or someone from Fujian saying "fuck your mother." In our dialect, which in the main has been passed down from the Central Plains unchanged for hundreds of years, the standard Mandarin words for “grandma” and “uncle” both mean “mother”.
      I'd come there to write and had a ton of material in my head, but I hadn’t been able to put pen to paper for several days. I felt like some little thing had mixed into my brains, something golden, around the size of a kernel of rice. It was probably a drop of shit.
      There was a study and a tea room on the second floor of the dining hall and I started to do calligraphy there. Calligraphy was just something to play around with. I'd done some in unorthodox styles since I was a kid, but without the guidance of a teacher. I never dared set my hand to it in front of anyone, mainly because I was so utterly lousy at it.
      The abbot said: "You can write freely when you do calligraphy. Just do as your heart says. If you have a heart, you'll have words to write. You don't need to compare yourself with anyone else." Suddenly it all became clear to me. I wrote a few awkward characters and found I was exuberantly interested. After that I spent my free time copying the "
Heart Sutra". I only copied the part I could still remember, about the boundless universe. I don't know the why of it.
      "There's still something on your mind." The abbot looked at what I'd written and smiled.
      "Meeting a person from ancient times," I said.
      There was something on the tip of my tongue, but I hesitated when I tried to use the brush.
      "If you want to say it, say it," The abbot said.
      "I was fairly young when I first fell in love, probably in elementary school. I had hidden feelings for a woman teacher. Those feelings, they were like a spring rain soaking into the soil and providing nourishing moisture to the roots of seedlings, letting them grow silently but aggressively. I was timid by nature, though, and only good at loving in secret...."
      "For Buddha's sake, get to the point."
      "I lived in a dorm on campus in senior high and began to like a young girl in a lower grade. She was tall and didn't talk much. She kept to herself. She liked to walk in the playground early while reading the morning's lesson. I'd walk along behind her, watching her silently and thinking about her. I kept at it for a year, thinking that she was the finest young woman in the world.
      "Students at that school had a custom of sending greeting cards to each other on New Year's Day, and I sent her one telling her how much I liked her. Except, I didn't sign it. A few days later she had a classmate ask me if I'd written it. I panicked and denied it flat out. We never met again...."
      We were sitting across from each other at a square wooden tea table. I could see the wood grain of the table clearly. The abbot steeped a cup of silver tip pekoe for me. That kind of tea is neither fried nor kneaded, nor is it fermented. A white fluff remains on the back of the leaves. It has a clear, crisp fragrance that gets into the spleen, and a strong vegetable aroma – it reminds one that it is just the tip of the bud. Naturally, memories of when you were young and curious about the world come surging forward.
      "Good tea," I said. "Makes me think of a time when I'm just a horse eating some green grass."
      "Why not a rabbit?"
      "I've just really wanted to be a horse, but I've never whinnied and trotted off like a horse." I shed tears of sadness.
      The abbot stared at my tears with the eyes of a doctor doing a bloodletting.
      "If they want to flow, let them flow," he said softly.
      "Yes, I want to hollow myself out, and be as at peace with myself as you are. Will you shave my head and give me a monk's tonsure?"
      "There's no harm in continuing." He wouldn't say yea or nay.
      "I saw her halfway up the mountain yesterday. She's still the same as before, tall and slender with long hair. She still uses the same perfume she did twenty years ago. I didn't say a word to her, so it wasn't like fate bringing us together. We just brushed past each other.
      "Even types of grass have names."
      "I don't know what her name is, just that she came there from Bird Island. We all called her ‘Bird Island.’"
      "Good name."
      The abbot poured me another cup from the fairness pot, the communal pot that ensures everyone gets tea of equal strength. It was just at the right time, since my throat was parched. I immersed myself in its aroma and said nothing for a long time.
      "Do you have more to say?"
      "I don't know what I want to say."
      I continued copying the sutra after the abbot left. An all-pervading feeling arose unbidden, like each word was a pearl.

***

      I don't know when it was, but the temple, I got an urge to go to it. Maybe it had something to do with this poem I'd written, "The Giant Baby's Story":

      At birth
      Mother didn't tell me
      What the world is like

      After many years
      I saw it clearly on my own
      I wanted to go back
      Back to the womb
      And keep sleeping

      Mother had gotten old
      And her womb
      Could no longer hold a
      Giant baby

      If any place in the world is comparable to a womb, it's probably a temple. The two are different places with the same enchantment. At that time, probably, I thought I'd end up back at the temple for a rest, maybe for ten days or half a month, or maybe for the rest of my days. But I dimly sensed a bit of fear, and I didn’t know what I was afraid of.
      Eating vegetarian, that's what I thought it was at first. There's no meat I don't enjoy, and eating vegetarian would be a real burden. After a little practice, though, I found that the thing about a vegetarian diet is that you basically don’t feel like you're eating vegetarian.
      The abbot invited me many times, but I really didn't feel like going. The Temple of the Crowing Rooster's fame was too much, and I thought about it being in a bustling area. Why should I go there just to create a hassle for myself? "You think too much," the abbot told me with a smile. "We're a small temple, even if pilgrims come in bunches. It's become the ultimate in tranquility."
      That's when I realized that, while I thought I'd seen and heard everything, I was in fact ignorant and inexperienced. "How many Temples of the Crowing Rooster are there in the country?"
      "I don't know, but I can count them out. There's the one in Nanjing at Chicken Cage Mountain, one in Guangdong in Creel Tail City, and the Han River Temple in Hubei. We're less famous than they are."
      I was quite happy. This one is located in the heartland of China, neither east nor west, north nor south. There's a small county town below it, Rooster Crowing City. Occasionally the townspeople come up the mountain for exercise. It takes about an hour and a half to walk up the mountain, so it's not far, but not close, either. They have a drink of the spring water when they get to the temple, and chat with the monks about minor household matters. It's away from home, but the emotions of the secular world pervade the place.
      "This Temple of the Crowing Rooster," I said to the abbot, "there's one bad thing about it."
      "Please tell me."
      "It's too much in touch with the secular world," I said. "Those people who climb the mountain, and even the pilgrims, don't really consider it a place of religious cultivation."
      The abbot smiled and invited me to go with him for a look at the garden. It was quite large, and planted with five or six kinds of vegetables. The bok choy, especially, had been hit by the autumn wind, but the leaves were stronger than the wind. Two young monks were tending the garden.
      "You can grow vegetables here if you get bored. Gardening has a lot of benefits." The abbot spread some wood ash around the plants as he spoke.
      "I'm sure it does. But with my spirit so out of kilter, I'm afraid that any vegetables I grew wouldn't taste right."
      "Well, then go down the mountain and walk around," he said. "I have friends you can stay with in Crowing Rooster City."
      I nodded.
      "Why haven't you asked me what's on my mind," I asked.
      "If you wanted to tell me it would come out naturally." His voice was faint.
      "I just want to tell her that I'm the one who wrote that card."
      Some wood ash accidentally spilled on a cabbage, and the abbot gently flicked it off, as if he were cleaning a newborn baby.
      The monks who grew these vegetables were obviously very accomplished people. The vegetables were planted in neat, tidy rows, facing downwind. The rows crisscrossed delicately from end to end and side to side, like they were meditating in formation, and neither wind nor rain would stir them. Their glossy leaves swayed and shimmered and didn't collect the dew. I've grown vegetables since I was a child, and if I were as good at it as this, how much composure I should have.
      "You've felt that way for many years," the abbot sighed softly. He seemed to feel sorry for me.
      "The first time one is moved by love, it lasts a lifetime," I said.
      The abbot was startled by that. He looked up at me and said, "Forge ahead boldly."
      "And what is, ‘forge ahead boldly?’"
      "Cultivate your inner being."

***

      I didn't contact the abbot's friends after I went down the mountain. I enjoyed just drifting. I felt like a kite whose string had just broken. I’d turned into a bird and wanted only to fly to my heart’s content, without any destination. Yes, birds are destined to fly, not just nest. Just as a human’s destiny is absolutely not a coffin, but enlightenment. Comprehending sexuality, comprehending emptiness, comprehending sexual emptiness as a singularity, is a long, far journey. Chanting the sutras is easy, but receiving the sutras is difficult.
      The town wasn’t big, but I still called a taxi.
      "Places called ‘Rome’ … there’s a foot-bath spa called ‘Roman Holiday.’" The cab driver told me that.
      So I stayed at the "Roman Holiday". The spa’s name was impressive and romantic, but it was actually a small place. A neon sign flashed “Roman Holiday”, but the letters “holi” were dark. The good thing was, the sign was high on the building where it could still attract attention. It was cold outside, but there were still a fair number of customers in the sauna.
      Red strips dangled in the bathhouse lobby. These glistening strips of meat sparked my appetite, so when I got out of the sauna I decided to do the buffet. It was rather disgusting, and suddenly I missed the light vegetarian diet more than anything. I went through the motions and ate a few greasy lentils, then laid down on a chaise lounge in the lobby to sleep. China Central's show "Getting Close to Science" was playing on the TV, something about the floor tiles of an old man's home oozing blood.
      The program was over by the time I woke up. I took off the towel I’d been using as a blanket and asked the attendant for a cup of chrysanthemum tea. Another attendant carrying an instrument case asked me if I wanted a pedicure. I agreed to this rare treat. She put my feet on a stool, concentrating as carefully as if they were treasures.
      "There’s a girl, very tall, who speaks crudely with a Fujian accent. Do you know her?" I asked.
      She got a blank expression on her face and shook her head.
      "Think about it."
      "If you can’t give me a name, who knows? We all use crude language."
      I thought it over, and she was right. We’d just called her “Bird Island”, which meant I never had known her real name. Or if I did, how could I dredge it up from the depths of my memory?
      "How many young ladies work here?"
      "Twenty or so doing ordinary massage. Ten or so doing big jobs. We don't do big jobs."
      "Are there disagreements among the ladies, serious ones?"
      "Not really. When you’re away from home, you’ve got to depend on friends. What would we argue about?"
      Clip, clip, the young lady was getting my nails in shape. I feel that perfection is having a spic and span body. That’s true for people, and for animals like ritual sacrifices as well.
      "How about a massage, too" the young lady suggested.
      "If you can tell me a story about a young lady, I’ll consider it."
      "I won't tell you a story," she said resentfully. "Anyway, it's not me who’d do the massage."
      "If the one who’ll do the massage can, call her over and I’ll give it a go."
      "She might. I’ll go ask."
      A young, round-faced lady came over shortly. Her short-sleeved blouse revealed two small arms as white as scallions. She was smiling brightly, apparently a cheerful girl. Her name was Miss Zhou.
      I followed Miss Zhou to a private room. She started out massaging my head, and her technique was rough but relaxing. Heads are hard but have blood vessels all over. Simply put, it’s where a person's soul resides. The soul is both the strongest and the weakest thing in the world.
      "We had a masseuse here who was pretty good looking but a little rustic," Miss Zhou said. "She gave a massage to a white-collar guy from a state-owned enterprise. I don't know which muscles she did, but the guy felt very relaxed, so then every time he came in he got on her clock. As time went by, he grew fond of her, and they got married the year he retired. It was an extravagant wedding and we were invited to the reception. She told us that, from then on, at last she would be massaging only one person. – Does that count as a story?"
      “Fantastic,” I said.
      The spa had two floors. The cafeteria was lit fairly well, but the private rooms and the lobby were dim. As people came and went, they couldn't see clearly but could get a sense of déjà vu. Basically they'd feel like they were in a church. It was a good kind of atmosphere because there was no clear line between day and night, and day after day could pass by in a blur. I stayed there for seven days all together and tried everything the place had to offer. I met one girl after another, chatted with them, questioned them and listened to them tell stories. The things they said were only half true, so to get to the truth, I needed to be discerning and mull over what they said – God and the Devil are always present in the same place at the same time.
      Mountains surrounded Crowing Rooster City on three sides, and the remaining side was open. The mountains were close by and the view from my window was all greenery. When it was dark outside, I could look out on a mountain from the south window as I ate in the restaurant. I could see flashes of fiery light on the dark mountain and imagined it was the Temple of the Crowing Rooster, but I couldn't be sure. As I watched the lights, I kept wondering if there were wolves and panthers or other dangerous animals on the mountain, and what would happen when they saw the light? They were used to the darkness, and would flashing lights arouse fear in them, or curiosity?
      Brightness Wu was one of my high school classmates, and we used to talk about everything. I remembered him in a flash of inspiration and wondered why I hadn't thought of him during those last few days of puzzlement: Why not ask him about the girl whose name I didn't know?
      "Remember the coed we used to call 'Bird Island?' What was her real name?" I'd called him on my cell phone to ask.
      "Bird Island?" The cat seemed to have got his tongue. Eventually he said, "I've got it. You're talking about Precious Charm Su."
      "What an awkward-sounding name. No wonder I couldn't remember it."
      "Why are you asking about her?"
      "Just wondering how she's doing. I thought I saw her in a small city in the interior."
      “Impossible. She went overseas, to Canada, and now she's a well-known yoga instructor.”
      "Are you sure?"
      "Of course. Her husband's in Canada, too, working at the embassy. We got together recently when they came home for the Spring Festival. Had a lot to drink and got blind drunk."
      "How is she?"
      "Really good, as beautiful as ever. We got high, and we all said how we'd loved her from afar. It made her so happy she had to pretend to be unhappy."
      "Did you or anyone talk about me?"
      "What about you?"
      "I liked her the most back then. You've forgotten."
      "Hey, who still remembers you? You have to speak for yourself when you have a chance."
      I only put stock in half of what Brightness Wu said, and believed myself for the other half. A kind of emptiness enveloped my mind like a cloud.

***

      I looked at my bill when I went to leave. I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe it had gotten up to 28,000 yuan.* I said to the attendant at the front desk, "Haven't you made a mistake? I've been here seven days. Two or three thousand is enough for the food and drinks, plus the toilet fees or whatever."
      The attendant printed out a long bill for me. Most of the things listed on it had unintelligible names, and figuring out how the charges were calculated was even harder. Suddenly I caught on. "Oh, you guys know I'm not from around here and you think you can scam me, don't you? I'm going to report this to the police!"
      Before I’d even finished speaking, a big guy wearing a gold chain appeared out of nowhere. He had a face as imposing as King Kong. He and the attendant looked at each other and I immediately started to tremble all over. I’ve always been afraid of those kinds of underworld characters. Their rules transcend ethics and law and they live outside the
Three Realms and Five Elements, the world that normal people occupy. I said, "Brother, I really don't have that much money."
      "How much do you have?"
      "A little over two thousand."
      The big guy sighed and shook his head. Then he smiled, flashing two diamonds in his teeth. He and the attendant raised the whips they already had available in their hands. My back felt numb. I was well within reach of their whips and had nowhere to hide.
      Their technique was well practiced, superior in every respect to the legendary martial arts masters. I wasn’t part of their underworld society but couldn’t do anything about it. I issued screams so blood-curdling that I even terrified myself –sounds that reminded me of the agonized cries of malicious devils being tortured in Hell.
      "We have people screaming like this every month. Every month they come here to freeload. The cheapskates must breed like flies – Seems like we’re going to have to design better whips." The guy lit a cigarette and sighed while he was saying that, as if I were merely a wisp of dust, as if my screams were just part of the background music in the restaurant.
      I curled up in pain. I’d originally intended to run out, but King Kong threw me back down before I’d gotten two steps, which was even more painful. People from outside heard my screams and flocked in to see what was happening. The big guy patiently explained to them that I’d come there for a free ride. They resented me for not living up to society’s expectations and, one after another, praised him for giving me a good beating. They surrounded me in a neat circle, as orderly as if they’d bought tickets to see a show. Seeing a bad person punished makes one feel that all’s right with the world. Maybe they would’ve eventually become impatient if the whipping technique had been deficient. They didn't want to see the star of the show die, of course, so they were shouting, "Whip him in a different spot! Whip him in a different spot!"
      I closed my eyes and stopped thinking to endure the pain and humiliation. It was like putting my body in a lump of primal chaos. I incubated silently in the womb of the universe, reciting a sutra: "Life is death. Death is life. There's nothing to fear, nothing to worry about...."
      The abbot hurried down the mountain to rescue me. While he lived in a mountain temple, he was well versed in the ways of the world. He had a friend who was mixed up in the underworld and called on him to mediate. They finally got me out of there for ten thousand yuan. My clothes were torn and the whip marks oozed blood. The wounds hurt from being soaked in sweat and felt like insects were eating away at me in each one. Even my flesh was bloody. The abbot pulled me out of the crowd and hurried us forward to get me away from the curious eyes of the onlookers as soon as possible. The closest place we could get inside was an alley.
      "Aren't we going to the hospital?" I asked. It was after dark, but I hoped to get to the hospital for treatment to reduce the pain as soon as I could. It felt like ten thousand needles were stabbing at me.
      The abbot opened my clothes under a street light to look at my skin. He sighed heavily. "You don't have to. You're as colorful as a peach blossom."
      "So where are we going?"
      He pointed south at the pitch-black mountain. A light was flashing half way up the side.
      "Such nice wounds, you let them ulcerate naturally, discharge pus, scab over and slough off the old skin. The process is quite delightful. Don't get to see it often." He seemed to be talking about the wondrous event of a plant setting blossoms and dropping flowers. From his tone of voice, one might think he wished he could transfer all those wounds to his own body.
      I cheered up instantly. My mind was as clear as the blue sky.
      "It's dark. How'll we get up the mountain?" I asked.
      “We won't be able to see what's in front of us clearly, but the steps come one by one, the same distance apart, and the footing is stable. It'll be no different than in daytime.”
      We went through the alley and crossed South Mountain Avenue to get to the foot of the mountain. I looked up, but the temple's lights couldn't be seen that close to the mountain. I knew the lights were getting nearer and nearer, though. We went silently through the darkness, ascending the stairs. It was strange – as cold as it was, bugs were still chirping.
      "Have you heard a rooster crowing in the temple?" I asked.
      He coughed and didn't answer, making the forest even lonelier. There was nothing to fear in the darkness and, to my surprise, walking along the road actually seemed like striding high in the clouds, with no restraints.
      By the way, the abbot’s religious name was “Wisp of Dust”.

2017年中国短篇小说精选 Best of Chinese Short Stories 2017, p. 176
长江文艺出版社,责任编辑:刘程程,周阳; Translated from 福建文学网 at
http://www.fjwyw.com/subpage/zixun/wenyyuedu/2017-09-28/6150.html
Also
here in 繁体字 under the name 這樣的愛情故事,只講給佛祖聽


*[Face is important in China. Many customers in "recreation centers" are reluctant to ask in advance about the cost of services because it makes them seem poor. Such businesses are also reluctant to advise customers of the cost in advance because (among other reasons) it would imply that they look like they can't afford it. -- Fannyi




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