A short story by Xiaolu Guo
At that time, the universe had two different worlds – the Earth, where the Mortals lived, and the Heaven where the Immortals reigned. At that time, the mountain was scarlet red and the sea flowed with the colour of blood. At that time, the animals crowded the land so much so that the humans had to fight for their space. At that time, the greatest quality a man could have was to be the best archer. And at that time in those long ago days, on the red earth, there was a great archer named Houyi.
With a large bow on his shoulder, Houyi walks rapidly on the wild grass like a leopard streaking through the forest. He heads towards the village of White Elephant to help the locals shoot the wolves – the carnivorous wolves who have recently stolen several babies and left a bloody trail on the path to the woods. No animal, wolf, bull or lion can outrun Houyi’s arrows. Houyi is indeed the master of all archers within the kingdom.
The sun burns above the pine trees, and beneath them Houyi sweats like a young bull. He washes his face in a stream at the foot of the hills, drinking in the clear and sweet water from the mountain. He bites into the sour fruit from a wild pear tree, spitting the hard skin onto his grass shoes. He is a man with wild temper; his young beard is thick and strong, always flying in the wind. And with his great silver bow against the arrows on his back, even tigers fear him and slink from his path.
One autumn afternoon, when the heat subsides, Houyi manages to shoot three wolves in the forest. The first two are killed instantly, the third one is wounded and saved for the autumn sacrifice. The villagers cerebrate their hero. Some thank Houyi with gifts of corn and fish, others offer smoked pork. Loaded with food, carrying his great bow, Houyi leaves the village.
Houyi’s young wife, Chang’e, is alone at home. Gathering silk from cocoons, she prepares to weave winter clothes for Houyi. She feels lonely and wilted after marrying her husband, yet she is only fifteen years old. Houyi is just three years older than her, but he is never at home, he is a wild man who loves to make war with nature. And now Chang’e has been chased and won by him, there is nothing left to be done. With love absent from his mind, he spends his days hunting the forest animals. His young wife has no one to accompany her through each passing day. In front of their house is an old magnolia tree. Chang’e often contemplates its thick leaves and huge white flowers. She feels like a silent and weak petal of a magnolia flower, waiting for the seasons to bring her back to the earth, yet she herself has no weight and no power.
Every night, Houyi the archer falls asleep straight after supper. His breath is solid and deep, yet as she lies beside her husband Chang’e feels her motionless life wending its way towards a slow death. She sees the shape of her own death as she takes her place beside Houyi’s earthy body. The shape of death, like an ink blot, expands and seeps into the clear area, and eventually swallows the whole visible space, leaving only blackness.
Before marrying Houyi, Chang’e was a flower picker in the king’s palace. The king was very old. His kingdom was in the southern part of Han China, a land whose tribes ceaselessly fought each other. When Chang’e turned twelve years old she became a servant for one of the king’s wives, and had to look after a garden where three jasmine trees grew. Her job was to pick the white flowers of the jasmine trees before they bloomed, then soak them with iced sugar in a jade jar. After a few days the king’s wife would drink the sugared jasmine tea to cure her weak lungs.
Each jasmine flower in that garden grew only one single petal, a white petal in the shape of a heart. They were very fragile. As soon as the slightest wind blew, the petals would fall from the trees like snow. Chang’e had to pick the flowers before the wind came. Day after day Chang’e’s young heart endured the monotony of her dull life.
One day, as Chang’e left the king’s palace to go to the market to buy sugar, she bumped into a strong handsome man with a great silver bow. Chang’e and Houyi fell in love at first sight. Before long she left the king’s jasmine garden, and became the wife of the great archer. Being a young wife, Chang’e raises silkworms under the mulberry trees, cooks rice and soup on top of a pile of chopped tree trunks, washes clothes in a nearby river. She knows the archer loves her, but her lonely heart drifts inside her empty chest. She feels love for him, but somehow it fades away, little by little, each night while Houyi sleeps. She doesn’t know what she lives for any more. She feels again that she is back in the old king’s jasmine garden, under the same burning sun, raising her tired arms, picking each delicate flower, for no purpose from one day to the next.
3. Wu Gang
At that time, above the great Chinese sky, there was a Heaven, where all the Immortals live. The Emperor of Heaven had the power to decide who could live there, and who could not.
Yet for Wu Gang, the impulsive Emperor of Heaven made a different decision. Wu Gang’s fate was to abide forever in the limbo between the Immortal and Mortal worlds. He became the gatekeeper of the South Heaven Gate – the only passage from Earth to Heaven.
Motionless and empty, Wu Gang leans against the South Heaven Gate, reminiscing over moments of his past life on Earth. He was once a woodcutter in a bamboo forest, happy with his life. Somehow the Emperor of Heaven judged Wu Gang to be no ordinary man, but rather the most trustful person on earth. So the Greatest Mind chose Wu Gang to guard the heavenly gate, and ever since then Wu Gang has been living in this void. He misses his homeland and using his solid axe on solid bamboo, better than this heavenly axe he is forced to wield. He misses the smell of the earth after thunderstorms and the sound of the river flowing behind his grass shed. Now he is in limbo, an interim space, and a lifeless zone where the earth ends and the unreachable Heaven begins. He is in a world where there is no sound, no colour and no weight. Only Wu Gang’s axe has a firm shape, and, perhaps, his own body as well. He can see but can’t feel his own weight. The people chosen by the Emperor of Heaven to become Immortals merely pass through Wu Gang’s gate. No one has ever stayed with him to talk or reminisce, and besides, there is no concrete space by that gate where one could rest. Wu Gang lives in a flow of air, from which he can only contemplate the Earth through the ethereal clouds. He is the loneliest being in the universe.
One day, through deep layers of clouds, Wu Gang’s eyes catch sight of the beautiful Chang’e while she is standing under a jasmine tree in the king’s garden, the jasmine blossoms raining down like snow in the wind. Chang’e leans by the tree, gazing at those petals falling all around her. Rays of light caress her hair and neck. The gatekeeper is stunned by her delicate beauty. He starts to mutter to himself, wishing he could become her companion, to comfort and embrace her through life. But how? He is no longer a man of flesh, he is only half- man half-spirit, without weight or gravity.
Every passing day Wu Gang watches the jasmine garden from the high and distant South Heaven Gate. The lonely man rests against the gate with his humble axe, his half-life seeming a little less empty, until one day Chang’e disappears from the jasmine garden. He looks for her with his half- human eyes, but his sight has lost its power in the overly crowded human world. He cannot see even a trace of her among the smog, rain and smoke, among the shoulders in the market, the feet on the bridges, the hats in the fields. Heavy- hearted, he thinks that in her earthly life, she must have become someone’s wife, now living under a roof, cooking for a family. Thinking of such a life, his heart grows even colder as his vision of the earth becomes blurred. From solitude his heart grows as hard as a granite stone, he can no longer feel the tender emotion that once possessed him. The day goes on, the night slips away. Wu Gang senses something sorrowful in the world beneath him, yet this sorrow is lost in the thin air and he no longer recognises human emotion.
4.The Hottest Day
Then one day the earth becomes unbearably hot. It’s so hot that the hills of the Gobi Desert burn like a volcano. The bamboo forests in the southern hemisphere are dry and dead from lack of rain, the pinewoods in the north are burnt into black ashes. Even the old king breathes his last on that day. When the people learn that the old king has died, the whole kingdom cries out in desperation.
But Houyi the archer raises his dark eyes towards the sky. His eyes are as sharp as the arrow on his bow. Through the floating clouds and formless wind, he sees seven suns hanging in the sky. In ancient time of legend, the Heaven Bird was transformed into a blazing sun, created to shine upon the earthly world. At that time, there were seven Heaven Birds living in the sky and they were the playthings of the greatest Heaven Emperor. At that time, each sun bird was only allowed to come out from the Heavenly Empire once every seven days. But on this hottest day, the suns disobey their master and appear in the sky together, unaware of the great damage they are doing to the earth. The great archer Houyi cannot restrain his anger any longer, furiously he draws six silver arrows out of his leopardskin sack and places one on his bow. Whizz, whizz, whizz…one after another, he shoots down six suns with his gleaming silver arrows, each in one strike!
The hills of the Gobi Desert suddenly stop burning, the bamboo forests in the south are immediately awash with rain and the pinewood fire gradually abates. Men and women in the fields recover from their terror; tigers and lions emerge from their deep caves and roam again on the plains.
The following day, the people unanimously agree to elect the great archer Houyi the new king of their country. With Chang’e he moves into the old king’s palace. And now Chang’e is back in her one-petal jasmine-tree garden where now all trees belong to her and all the servants have become her servants. She doesn’t make jasmine sugar tea for another woman any more, and instead King Houyi orders magicians and herbalists from throughout the land to hunt down rare herbs with which to make the elixir of longevity. For many centuries experts have tried to find the secret recipe for this potion, but with no success. Nevertheless each new king orders his people to continue to make this magic powder. The great archer wants to be immortal, as all previous kings of the land.
But the Heaven Emperor is in rage. Not only has this new king killed six of his pet birds but he also has the audacity to want to be immortal! How dare he! The Heaven Emperor considers how best to punish Houyi. In Heaven, there are four levels of punishment. The lightest one is Sorrow, then comes Fear. The third level is the absolute Loneliness. And the most cruel punishment of all is absolute Despair. With an impulsive temper and a thoughtless mind, the Heaven Emperor decides that the new King Houyi deserves the highest punishment. So Houyi becomes the most despairing man on Earth. He sees no future in life, he distrusts everyone in the kingdom, he has no belief in love, and he thinks of death in every quiet moment.
Every night, lying beside Houyi, Chang’e inhales the new king’s despairing breath and, as before, she perceives in each of her husband’s sighs their flesh rotten in an airless tomb, bones dissolving in the vegetable roots. The death ink is seeping into the night, darkening their life with total obscurity. She is fearful – fearful of a future doomed by fate. One night, Chang’e gets up, steals the key from Houyi’s robe and enters the castle where the specialists make the elixir of longevity. She finds a huge jade jar and, tentatively lifting the lid, she smells bitter roots. She takes the glowing liquid back to her quarters. Then the next night she leaves her bed and does the same again, collecting as much as she can. After three hundred and sixty-six days and nights, her task is complete. She holds in her hand the essence of immortality. She stands under the one- petal jasmine tree and drains all the precious medicine while Houyi lies in a depressed sleep. Before the rooster breaks the dawn, she finds herself starting to float – she is flying, flying, and flying. She passes the South Heaven Gate, where Wu Gang is still asleep, and enters into the realm of the shining moon.
The Emperor of Heaven is angry again. He wants to punish Wu Gang for not paying attention to his job, and letting a human being enter the world of the Immortals. So the Great Impulsive Mind decides to expel Wu Gang from his job and impose upon him the greatest Sorrow. He sends Wu Gang to the moon to chop a cinnamon tree. This is how the Sorrow is inflicted upon him: as soon as Wu Gang stops chopping the tree, it grows back again even stronger and thicker. His punishment never ends.
All Wu Gang wants is to be mortal again, to return to the Earth and be a real man. But when he raises his axe on the lonely cinnamon tree in the space of silver, he discovers another human being – Chang’e, the most beautiful girl, the one he saw in the jasmine-tree garden all those years ago. The sight of Chang’e reanimates his heart with a vague emotion, as her face is the loneliest he has ever encountered. The sight of her face clutches at his heart, but it is too withered from the long absence of love. He strains to remember how he felt towards people when he was on the Earth. He tries to recognise Chang’e, her human emotion – her fragile flesh which envelops her heart. During shadowless days and nights on the moon Wu Gang tries to recover the feeling of his heart, while ceaselessly chopping down the stubborn tree. Perhaps Wu Gang is no longer the most sorrowful man in the universe. He is with Chang’e, who reflects the only recognisable human emotion still inside him. But while the cinnamon leaves keep falling on Chang’e’s hair, she transforms into a being of absolute solitude. Her soul dwells nowhere. In her formlessness, she understands that a chasm of separation exists between her and the earth, and that she must accept this absolute solitude, for death is no longer her destiny.
As the image of the Earth subsides in Wu Gang’s mind, all he can do is to chop the cinnamon tree, day after day. He sweats, sweats, and sweats from exhaustion. And on Earth it rains, drenching the warm soil from time to time, rain that is the sweat of a man’s labour. King Houyi stands under his jasmine tree and looks up into the dark sky above; he sees two human shadows on the moon with his great archer’s eyes. He senses that these rains on the Earth are born from that place of silver.
Each moonlit night, in the absence of Chang’e, the despairing King Houyi steps silently on the withered, one-petalled flowers deeply buried in his soil. He contemplates the moon, yearning for his long-lost companion, in the abyss of absolute solitude.