Strings of Life
Two blindmen walked single-file across the vast expanse of the mountain range, one old, the other young, their two blackened straw hats bobbing, the two of them darting forward as if they were drifting with the current of a restless river. It mattered little from where they came or where they were headed. Each of them carried a three-stringed banjo, and told stories to earn their livelihood.
The mountain stretched over several hundred kilometres in circumference, each peak stretching higher than the last; it was criss- crossed by gullies and ravines, and sparsely populated, so that one could walk a whole day and see only a single patch of open terrain dotted by villages. Passing by thickets of brush, at any time one might see pheasants spring up, or a rabbit or fox jump out, or other game. Hawks often circled above the valley floor. The sun beat down fiercely on the bleak, shadeless mountains.
"Keep hold of the banjo," the blind old man called out, and the sounds of his echo rang back from the facing mountain.
"Got it," the blind lad answered.
"Mind you don't let your sweat get on the banjo. If it gets wet we'll have to strum your ribs to make tonight's music? "
"It's right here in my hand."
Senior and junior, both half-naked, each carried a stick to feel his way. Their coarse cloth coats tied up around their waists were soaked through with sweat and their steps stirred up a choking dust. It was peak season for storytelling —days were long, and after dinner the villagers all lounged outdoors; some of them even carried their bowls out to eat by the roadside or on the village common. The elder blindman was eager to get in as much story-telling as possible; during the heat of summer he had dragged the blind lad from village to village performing night after night. The old man grew more nervous and excited by the day. By his reckoning, the day he would play through his thousandth string might yet be this summer, and maybe it would happen right up ahead in Goat Valley.
The shadows lengthened as the day's blistering sun retreated from its attack on the earth. Cicadas everywhere relaxed and quieted their voluminous drone.
"Boy! Can't you walk any faster?" the old man called from ahead without slowing his pace. As the lad ran a few steps forward his satchel banged against his rump with a clatter and he failed to close the gap between him and the old man.
"The wild pigeons are all headed for their nests."
"What?" the lad again quickened his step.
"I said the pigeons have already returned to their nests, and you're still dragging."
"Are you playing with that electric box of mine again?"
"Oh no! The damn thing moved."
"Those headphones are going to break if you tinker with them like that."
"The damn thing moved."
The old man laughed darkly: how many days had this boy been born now? "I can even hear ants fighting," he boasted.
The lad was not going to argue; he quietly slipped the headphones inside his satchel and trailed the old man along the dull, endless road.
After a while the lad heard the sound of a badger gnawing away at some field grain. He growled out his best imitation of a dog's bark; the badger rolled, crawled, and ran to make its escape. Feeling cheered, the lad softly sang a few bars from a love song. Master wouldn't let him keep a dog because he feared it might fight with villagers' dogs and thus affect their business. A little later, the lad heard the slithering of a snake not far off. After leaning over and groping for stones on the ground, he chucked one toward the snake, sending a loud rustle through the sorghum leaves. The old man took pity and stopped to let him catch up.
"If it's not badgers, it's snakes," the lad hastened to explain, fearing his master would curse him.
"There's a field coming up, not too far." The old man passed a water jug to his apprentice.
"In our trade, a fellow walks his whole lifetime." Then he added, "Tired?" The lad didn't answer; he knew Master hated it when he said he was tired.
"My master never got his due. He played his whole life without going through a thousand strings."
Observing the old man was in a better mood, the lad asked, "What's a green lounge chair?"
"What? Oh, it's most likely a kind of chair, I suppose."
"What's a twisting corridor?"
"A corridor? What kind of corridor?"
"A twisting corridor."
"I don't know."
"They said it on the radio."
"All you like is listening to that toy. What good does it do you? The world is full of nice things, but what do they have to do with us?"
"I've never heard you say just what does have something to do with us?" The lad drew out the word "does".
"The banjo! Your dad sent you with me so you could learn to play the banjo and tell stories."
The lad gurgled loudly as he drank from the bottle, and when they started off again he walked in front.
Shadows from the mountains spread across the valley. Gradually the terrain levelled off and opened up.
Drawing near the village the old man called the lad to stop by a spring in the shadows of the mountain. A trickle of water spurted from a crack in the rock face and dribbled down into a depression the size of a wash basin. On all sides the weeds flourished, but several metres away the thirsty, barren soil soaked up what little remained of the water flow.
"Come on over and wash the sweat off your back and face."
The lad brushed aside the weeds and squatted down by the pool of water —he was still trying to guess what "corridoor" might mean.
"Give your whole body a scrubbing. You must look like a little beggar."
"Are you anything more than an old beggar?" The lad giggled as he dipped his hands in the water. The old man, pulling his hands from the pool to splash water on his face, laughed, too. "But we're not beggars; we're artisans."
"It seems like we've been to this place before." The lad cupped his ear to listen to the sounds around him.
"But your mind's not on learning your craft. Your young heart is too full of wild ambitions. You never listen to what your elders tell you."
"I'm sure we've been here before."
"Don't interrupt! You still can't play the banjo worth a hoot. Our life is in these strings. That's what my master once told me."
Feeling the refreshing coolness of the spring, the lad began singing his tune about young lovers again. The old man barked at him, "Did you hear what I said?"
"Our lives are these strings; your master said so. I've heard it eight hundred times. And your master left you a medical prescription which you can't get until you've played through a thousand strings. And once you take the medicine you'll be able to see again. I've heard you say it a thousand times."
"You don't believe it?"
"Why should you have to go through a thousand strings before you can get the medicine?"
"That's what makes the medicine go down. You clever devil, you can't take medicine without it."
"What's so tough about getting a thousand broken strings?" The lad couldn't help but sneer.
"What are you laughing at? What is it that you think you know? It won't work unless you earnestly play through them, one at a time." The lad did not dare make a sound; he could sense his master's indignation. It always happened this way; the master could not tolerate any questioning of his beliefs.
The old man said nothing more, but he seemed distracted. With his hands resting on his kneecaps and his bonelike eyes facing the sky, he appeared to be ruminating on all those broken strings. Oh, longing for so many years, thought the man. Longing for fifty years! In fifty years how many mountains and miles had he tracked? How much exposure to the sun and cold had he suffered? How many indignities? Night after night he had played, ever mindful that it would not do unless he went through new strings one by one, playing with his whole heart. Now the goal of his hopes would soon come to pass, for he was certain to finish his thousand strings by summer's end. "How much more fortunate I am than my master," he declared. "Right until the very end he didn't have a chance to open his eyes and see even once."
"Hey! I know where we are," burst out the lad.
That prompted the old man to pick up his banjo and give it a shake. A piece of paper scraped against the snakeskin soundboard; that paper in the belly of his banjo was the prescription.
"Master, isn't this Goat Hill?" asked the lad.
The old man made no reply; he could tell the lad was getting excited.
"Master, Goat Valley's just up ahead, isn't it?"
The old man bent his already hunched back still further and called, "Boy, come over here and swab my back."
"Master, is this Goat Valley or not?"
"Yes! What of it? Stop whining like a kitten."
The lad's heart thumped and he obediently scrubbed his master's back. The old man felt vigor in the boy's movements.
"What if it is Goat Valley? Don't you go sniffing around like a donkey again."
The lad timidly kept silent to conceal his elation.
"Now what are you thinking about? Don't think I don't know what's on your mind."
"What did I do?"
"What did you do? Didn't you go crazy enough last time we were here? That girl isn't worth a damn!" Maybe I shouldn't have brought him to Goat Valley again, the old man thought to himself. But this is a big village; year after year the business is good enough to tell stories for half a month. How he wished he could play through the last few strings all at once. Meanwhile, the lad's heart was palpitating with thoughts of the girl with the piercing voice.
"Listen to me a second; it won't hurt you," the old man said.
"That one's not dependable."
"Don't get smart with me. You know what I'm talking about."
"It's just that I've never heard you say what is dependable." The lad held back a laugh.
The old man paid him no mind and he again turned his bonelike eyes toward the sky. The sun appeared to him like a circle of blood. One of them was young, the other bony and thin, like the craggy, exposed rocks at the base of a mountain. The old blind man was aged seventy, the blind lad, seventeen. At the age of fourteen the lad's father had entrusted him to the care of the old man, with whom he was to learn the art of storytelling and thus have a means to support himself.
The old man had been storytelling for over fifty years, and everyone in this remote, desolate, mountain region knew him. Each day his hair grew greyer and his back more hunched. Month after month and year after year he carried his three-stringed banjo everywhere, stopping wherever lonely villagers were willing to pay for the entertainment of his banjo and stories.
His opening lines were often just so:
Ever since Pan Gu's division of heaven and earth,
The emperors have ruled through the ages.
When the Way prevailed, they ruled peacefully;
But when the Way was absent, they oppressed the peasants.
Lightly I pluck my three-stringed banjo, slowly I pause to tell a story;
I have three thousand seven hundred stories,
I wonder which one will stir your hearts tonight?
Thereupon the audience would call out their choices: "Dong Yong sells himself to bury his father" for the old; "Wu Erlang's Midnight Raid of Centipede Mountain" for the young; and tales of the industrious and courageous maiden Qin Xianglian for the girls. That was the moment which gave the old blind man greatest pleasure; when he would forget about the fatigue of his body and the loneliness in his heart, and, cool and composed, take a few sips of water while waiting for the noise of the crowd to build, then suddenly slam his fingers into the strings and bellow: "Today I'll sing no other ballad but 'The Prince Luo Cheng', Early Tang-period young general.or I'll drink my tea and smoke my tobacco, then I'll sing the ballad of the woman whose tears felled the Great Wall. " A romantic folk tale about star-crossed lovers set during the Qin Dynasty (221—206 BC).The whole square would fall silent, and the old man would immerse himself in the spirit of the story. He knew a countless number of old tales. He even had an electric box, too; rumour had it that he had spent a great sum to buy it — from an outsider who lived well beyond the mountains — in order to learn new stories.
Actually, the mountain villagers cared little what stories he sang and told. They all praised his playing of the three-stringed banjo as being skillful, graceful, yet with a wonderful touch of uninhibited madness as if his music carried the spirit of the sun, the moon and the people of the earth. Blind since birth and thus aurally attuned, the old man could simulate the sound of nearly anything, including men and women, wind and rain, beast and fowl.
The blind lad had once seen the world, but only for his first three years, and so he hardly could have interpreted what he saw. He was little interested in playing the banjo and telling stories. The day his father brought him to live with the old blind man, despite his attempts to explain and plead with him, even deceive him, the lad had refused. But in the end his enchantment with that electric box enticed him to stay. He had clung to that box and let its sounds flow into his spirit, so much so that he failed to notice when his father departed.
This mysterious box fascinated him; its endless talk of unfamiliar places and alien affairs fired his imagination, and aroused his fuzzy memories of colours and shapes. For instance, the box had said the sea was a body of water, boundless as the blue sky. Having once seen both water in a pot and the blue sky, he could imagine the sea as a huge pot of water which stretched as wide as the sky. Or beautiful girls; the box had described them as flowers in bloom but he refused to believe it — flowers were what he had seen when his mother's coffin was carried far into the mountains. But he wanted to think about girls; more and more he wanted to think about girls, especially that girl with piercing voice at Goat Valley — thinking about her always set his heart aflame. But once the box had sung, "A girl's eyes are like the sun," then he had a suitable image in mind, an image of his mother approaching him, silhouetted against the brilliant red sunset. Like everyone else, the lad used his limited knowledge to make inferences about the limitless world. But there was always something the blind lad could not imagine, such as a "twisting corridor."
That evening the lad had accompanied the old man in telling stories at Goat Valley. Again he had heard that young girl standing not far from him as she laughed in her distinctive voice when their story reached its climax:
Luo Cheng rode his horse back to engage them in battle,
Courageous Su Lie answered with his army.
Su Lie's broadsword darted and flashed like a glittering stream,
Luo Cheng's lance soared through the air like a thunderbolt.
They appeared as two dragons at sea competing for a treasure,
Or two tigers deep in the mountains battling for the pride.
They fought for seven days and seven nights,
And not a drop of tea touched Luo Cheng's lips.
On his banjo the old man played the sounds of the driving rain and howling wind as he sang each word and phrase in a sonorous, forceful voice. But the lad was so distracted that he played out of tune.
At the crest of Goat Hill, one kilometre from Goat Valley, was a small temple in which the master and his apprentice stayed. Some of the stone wall circling the temple had fallen in, leaving breaches; several rooms in the temple had severe warps in floors and walls and were pockmarked with holes both large and small. Only the large room at the centre could still keep out the wind and rain, presumably because in this room offerings were still made to the spirits. Three clay statues had long ago lost the decorous colourings of the mortal world and were thus left naked in their natural yellow earth tones, having returned to the simple and true, neither one distinguishable as clearly Buddhist or Taoist statues. In the courtyard and on the roofs and walls various weeds sprouted, so lush and flourishing that they supplied a strange vitality to the place. Each time the old man returned to Goat Valley he stayed here at no charge and without hassle. It was the lad's second time at the temple.
Having finished storytelling quite late, the two of them set to work soon after arriving at the temple; the old man found a place for their baggage in the main hall while the lad busied himself building a fire to boil water beneath the caves of an adjacent hall. The stove they had made last time they had stayed here only needed some minor repairs. Bent at the waist, buttocks high in the air, the lad blew on the tiny fire. The smoke sent up by moist grass and kindling choked him and he reeled around the courtyard coughing violently. The old man chided, "Don't you know how to do anything right?"
"But the wood's wet!"
"I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about your banjo; what do you think of the way you played tonight?"
The lad refused to take the bait. Having caught his breath, he returned to kneel by the fire, and, puffing out his cheeks, blew a monstrous breath on the embers.
"If you don't want to ply this trade, then we can send for your father to take you home now. This cat-and-dog attitude won't do!"
Coughing as he jumped back from the fire, the lad ended up after a few confused hops at the other side of the courtyard, again gasping for breath and cursing.
"What's that you're saying?"
"I'm cursing this fire."
"Is that the way to blow on it?"
"How else should I blow?"
"How should you blow? Hmph!" The old man paused a moment, then said, "Blow as if this fire were the face of that girl of yours."
The lad again did not venture a reply, and instead knelt by the fire to blow, silently wondering about Lanxiu's appearance.
"If the fire were that girl's face, I think you'd know how to blow without being shown." The lad began to laugh, and the more he laughed, the more he coughed.
"What's so funny?"
"Have you ever blown on a woman's face?"
The old man was struck dumb for an instant. The lad fell to the ground roaring with laughter. "Ah, to hell with it!" The old man cursed and laughed, then his expression changed and he said no more.
The flames inside the stove leapt up with a crackle. The lad went over to add wood but his mind was on Lanxiu. Just after they'd finished the storytelling, Lanxiu had squeezed over in front of him and softly said, "Hey! What was it you promised me last time?" With his master so near he dared not speak, but a moment later the force of the thronging crowd pushed Lanxiu up against him. "Eh? When I gave you that boiled egg for nothing?" She spoke louder this time. Meanwhile his master was busy chatting to some men, so he quickly said, "Shhh — I still remember." Lanxiu lowered her voice again, "You promised to let me hear the electric box, but you haven't yet."
"Shhh, I still remember."
No sound issued from the temple's main hall for a long while. Later the banjo sounded; the old man had just put on a new string. He should have been happy — after a single night at Goat Valley he had already gone through a string — but in fact the voice of his banjo sang out sad and strident.
The lad, having detected the mournful tone, called from the courtyard, "Master, the water's boiled."
No answer. The playing of the banjo sounded ever more strained.
The lad carried a basin of hot water into the room, placed it before the master, and forced a laugh, saying, "How come you're trying to play through a second string tonight?"
Preoccupied by thoughts of his past, the old man failed to hear him. The banjo sang out its troubled, restless tune as if it were telling of the wind and rain of each year in the wilderness, or of the countless brooks and rivulets winding throughout the mountains and valleys, or the hurried pit-a-pat of steps made by feet which knew no home. The lad grew slightly alarmed; it had been a long, long time since the master had been like this. Each time he would be racked with chest pains, general body aches, and it would be several months before he could get out of bed.
"Master, perhaps you should wash your feet first."
He continued playing.
"Master, you should wash your feet." The lad's voice trembled.
He continued playing.
Abruptly he stopped playing and heaved a sigh; the lad breathed a sigh of relief. As the old man washed his feet, he sat respectfully by his side.
"You go to bed," said the old man. "It's been a long day. "
"You go ahead; I want to let my feet soak — when a fellow gets old his ailments multiply." The old man spoke softly.
"I'll wait for you."
A breeze whisked leaves along the brick wall. In the distance two cats exchanged mournful cries in the night. From Goat Valley came the occasional sound of a dog's bark and subsequent crying of a child. The moon rose high and its white light shone through the lattices, beaming down on two blindmen and three clay deities.
"Why wait for me? It's late. Don't you worry; there's nothing wrong with me," said the old man.
"Did you hear me, lad?"
The lad had already fallen asleep. As the old man gently pushed him into a better sleeping position, he mumbled a few words before nodding off again. As he pulled the lad's quilt over him, it was clear to the old man the lad's muscles were filling out more each day; the child had arrived at that age when he would think about those things: it was certain to be an awkward and frustrating period for him. And no one could suffer it for him.
The old man held the banjo to his chest again and, gently caressing the taut strings, forced himself to silently repeat: another string is broken, another string is broken. Shaking the belly of the banjo, he could hear the scraping sound of the paper brushing across the snakeskin soundboard; this alone could purge his mind of sorrows and frustrations: it was his lifelong hope.
The lad had a good dream and upon waking was startled to hear the rooster crowing. He dragged himself to his feet to listen. Master was sleeping peacefully. He felt for the large satchel, quietly drew out the electric box, and tiptoed from the room.
He walked for a while in the direction of Goat Valley before noticing something was not right: the crowing of the chickens had subsided, and Goat Valley was again quiet and devoid of the villagers' stirrings. Confused, he stopped a moment. Could it be only the cock's first crowing? He thought to switch on the electric box. It was quiet, too. He knew from experience that meant it must be the middle of the night. This electric box was like a clock; one could judge the time based on which program was playing.
Just as the lad returned to the temple, the old man awaked.
"What are you doing?"
"I went to take a piss."
All morning the master forced him to practice banjo. Not until after lunch did the lad have a chance to sneak out of the temple and head down to Goat Valley. The chickens had dozed off in the shade of trees, the pigs lay at the foot of the wall grunting in their sleep, and the sun beat down fiercely again: the village rested, peaceful and quiet.
Stepping up on the millstone, the lad clutched the top of the wall in front of Lanxiu's home, and called, "Lanxiu — Lanxiu!"
From inside rolled the sound of a thunderous snore.
He hesitated a moment, then raised his voice slightly, "Lanxiu! Lanxiu!"
The dog began barking, the snoring stopped, and a sleepy, grouchy voice called out, "Who is it?"
The lad could not muster a reply and instead pulled his head back from above the wall. He heard the smack of lips inside the room and then a return of the snore.
He sighed, stepped down from the millstone, and sullenly headed back toward the temple. Suddenly he heard a gate creak open behind him, then the sound of dainty footsteps fast approaching.
"Guess who!" It was that piercing voice. She covered his eyes with the soft flesh of her hands — but that was hardly necessary. Not yet fifteen, Lanxiu was still naive.
"Did you bring the electric box?"
Pulling open the front of his jacket, the lad revealed the electric box hanging at his waist. "Shhh! Not here; let's find some place where there's no one around."
"Otherwise we'll draw a crowd."
"Having too many listeners wastes the batteries."
The two of them threaded their way through the village and came to a spring at the rear of a small hill. The lad abruptly asked, "Have you ever seen a twisting corridor?"
"A twisting corridor."
"A twisting corridor?"
"Do you know?"
"Sure. And a green lounge chair. It's a chair."
"Who doesn't know what a chair is ."
"Then how about a twisting corridor?"
Lanxiu shook her head, bemused. Only then did he carefully switch on the electric box, from which floated a sprightly melody about the gully. Here it was cool and free of disruptions.
"This one's called Higher, Step by Step," the lad announced, and he sang along. A little later came a tune called Song of the Drought, and he could sing along with that song, too. Bashful Lanxiu felt embarrassed.
"This song is called A Monk Longing for Women."
"You're kidding," Lanxiu laughingly pronounced.
"You don't believe me?"
"No, I don't."
"As you wish. Stranger things than that come out of this box." The lad dipped his foot in the cold spring water; after a moment's reflection, he asked, "Do you know what kiss means?"
"What does it mean?"
This time it was the lad's turn to laugh, which he gave in lieu of a reply. Lanxiu, sensing it was a bad word, blushed, and asked no further.
The music broadcast finished, and a female voice announced, "Next is a program discussing hygiene."
"Huh?" Lanxiu had not heard it clearly.
"A program about hygiene."
"Hmm — do you have lice in your hair?"
"Hey! Don't touch me!"
The lad quickly drew back his hand, and hurriedly explained, "If you have lice, that means you don't pay attention to hygiene."
"No! Absolutely not!" Lanxiu scratched her head and felt something itchy. "Hey! Look what I found on you! "she said, holding his head. "Look at these big ones I caught."
At that moment they heard the old man calling from halfway up the hill: "Boy, why haven't you come back yet? It's time to make dinner, then after we finish eating, we have to go tell stories." He had been standing there listening for some time.
It was already dusk in Goat Valley. From the midst of the jumble of sounds — sheep, donkeys, dogs and children — one could see the smoke rising from the kitchen chimneys. Up on Goat Hill the small temple silently rested in the middle of the day's last faint glow of sunlight.
The lad was again bent over building a fire, rump protruding. The old man sat to the side washing the rice; he used his sense of hearing to pick out bits of sand and grit.
"The wood is dry today," said the lad.
"Boiled millet again?"
The lad was full of pep and eager to talk, but the master was still out of sorts — better to keep quiet and avoid trouble. Each of them silently went about the business of preparing their meal.
It was past nightfall when the lad put millet into a bowl and passed it to his master. "Go ahead," he spoke nervously, uncharacteristically diffident.
The old man finally spoke. "You listen to me for a minute, O.K.?"
"Uh-huh," came his garbled reply as he stuffed the food into his mouth.
"If you're not going to listen, I won't bother."
"Who said I wouldn't listen? I said 'Uh-huh'!”
"I have experience; I understand many things you don't."
The lad silently stuffed the food into his mouth.
"I've been through that before."
"Been through what?"
"You're getting smart with me again!" The old man flung his chopsticks onto the stovetop.
"Lanxiu just wanted to hear the electric box. We were just listening to the electric box together."
"And what else?"
"And I asked her if she'd ever seen a twisting corridor."
"That's not what I'm talking about!”小瞎子闷头扒拉饭。
"And then — and then —” the lad fell short on pluck. "I don't know how but we were soon talking about lice..."
"And what else?"
"That's all. Really, that's all!"
The two of them continued their meal in silence. The old man had looked after his apprentice for several years and he knew the child would not lie: more than anything else, his honesty was beyond reproof.
"Listen to me for a minute; I guarantee it won't hurt you; keep your distance from that girl."
"Lanxiu is a good person."
"I know she is, but it's better if you keep a distance from her. Many years ago my master told me the same thing — and I didn't believe it either."
"Your master? Speaking about Lanxiu?"
"Not about Lanxiu. She wasn't even born then; neither of you had been born yet." The old man, long-faced, turned toward the dense sunset colour on the horizon, his bonelike eyes flitting uncontrollably. After a long while, the lad spoke: "Tonight you can probably play through another string." He wanted the master to feel happy.
On this night the master and the apprentice again told stories in Goat Valley.
Last time we sang of Luo Cheng's death,
and his soul's journey to the netherworld.
Don't make a sound, don't make a fuss, gentle folk.
Remain orderly and listen while I sing the sequel.
Luo Cheng's spirit left its place in Hades,
and a whirlwind raised his body.
In a gusty rush comes the wind,
Chang'an lies not far before us.
The old man's banjo sounded sloppy, as did the lad's. The lad was enjoying the memory of feeling that pair of soft, gentle hands on his face, and of having his head brushed by Lanxiu. The old man was thinking of much more than that.
That night the old man tossed and turned; so many things from the past cluttered his mind he had a steady din in his ears and unrest in his heart, and deep inside he felt as if something were about to burst. The old illness was attacking again, he thought. He at once felt dizziness, a strange pressure in his abdomen, and general discomfort throughout his body. He sat upright and mumbled to himself, "I can't fall sick again; if I fall sick then the chance to play through those strings this year will be lost." He touched his banjo again; if he could only strum a few bars, flowing with the whims and fancies of his heart, then the thoughts and anguish on his mind might subside. But the lad was sleeping peacefully.
His only recourse was to think about that medicine and the banjo strings: he still had a few strings to go, just the last few strings. Then he could go get that medicine, then he could see the world: the mountains he had climbed, the paths he had trodden, the sun whose warmth and blazing heat he had felt all those countless times, and the moon and stars — and what else? Suddenly he felt a great emptiness inside; had it all been just for this? What else was there? In his sleepy daze, the things he hoped for seemed much more than just these things.
The night breeze ambled about the mountain.
An owl hooted her sorrowful call.
But now he was old, and in any case he had just a few more years; what was lost was lost forever: that is what he seemed to have just realized. Seventy years of suffering and hardship, all for the purpose of getting one look at the world — was it worth it?
The lad laughed in his sleep, and dreamt aloud, saying, "It's a chair, Lanxiu."
The old man sat quietly. Sitting equally quietly were those three clay deities which were neither clearly Buddhist nor Taoist statues.
At the sound of the first cock crow the old man decided that at dawn he would leave Goat Valley with the boy. Lanxiu was a good person, but the prospects for these two was something the old blindman could "see" most clearly. At the second cock crow he began to gather their things.
But upon waking, the lad was found to be ill, having both a bad stomach and a fever. The old man had to set back the date of departure. For several days straight the old man busied himself building fires, washing rice, collecting firewood, or uprooting and boiling medicinal herbs, all the while consoling himself. "It's worth it; of course it's worth it." It seemed that repeating those words was his only hope of countering the enervation of despair. "I must have one look. What else was there? To quit now and die? And besides, I only have a few strings left to go." The old man regained his composure and went down each evening to tell stories in Goat Valley.
This unexpectedly brought good fortune to the lad. Each evening after the master had descended the hill, Lanxiu would steal into the temple to hear the electric box. She would also bring hard-boiled eggs, on the condition that he let her manipulate the controls of the electric box. "Which way should I twist?"
"To the right."
"It won't twist."
"To the right, dummy — don't you know which way is right?"
The box crackled with static — it seemed to make all kinds of sounds — but regardless, the two of them loved to listen.
After a few days the old man had played through three more strings.
One night, he was down in Goat Valley alone, playing and singing:
Today we'll not sing of Luo Cheng's reincarnation,
But instead the Qin Prince Li Shimin.
Upon hearing of the death of his most loyal minister,
The Prince shed tears.
"Your death," he said, "is, for some, of no consequence, But for me it means I have no one worthy to be my general."
Meanwhile a lively scene was taking place inside the temple on Goat Mountain: the electric box was blaring the sounds of an embattled city — a youth crying, an adult shouting, rumbling of explosions, the call of trumpets. The moonlight beamed into the main hall, where the lad was reclined nibbling a hard-boiled egg, and Lanxiu was seated by his side. Both of them listened eagerly and occasionally laughed, sometimes not even knowing why.
"Where did your master get this electric box?"
"From someone outside the mountains."
"Have you ever been outside the mountains?"
"No. But I'll go someday; I'll take a ride on a train."
"You don't know what a train is either? Dummy!"
"Oh, I know, I know. It spouts puffs of smoke, right?"
After a while, Lanxiu said, "Maybe sometime I'll go outside the mountains." She spoke a little uneasily.
"Is that so?" The lad sat up erect. "Then you can find out what a twisting corridor is."
"Do you think all the people outside the mountains have electric boxes?"
"Who knows. Did you hear me clearly? This twisting corridor is outside the mountains."
"Then I must get an electric box from them," Lanxiu mused to herself.
"You want one?" The lad chuckled, then laughed without restraint. "Why not get two, seeing as how you're so clever. Ha, do you know how many thousands of yuan this box cost? Even if you sold yourself, I doubt if you could buy one."
Lanxiu felt at once hurt and indignant. She grabbed the lad's ear, and twisting with force, cursed, "Go to hell blind boy."
The two of them began wrestling inside the temple. The three clay statues watched impassively. The two youths collided, their pubescent bodies became entangled, one pressed down on top of the other, then the reverse, and their curses changed to laughter.
Exhausted, they ceased struggling and lay sprawled together on the ground facing each other, hearts pounding, gasping for breath, neither of them willing to pull away from the other. Lanxiu's breath blew on the lad's face; he felt her allure, and recalling his master's words that day while he was building the fire, he blew on Lanxiu's face. Lanxiu did not shy away.
"Hey," the lad whispered, "you know what a kiss is?"
"What is it?" Lanxiu whispered back.
The lad whispered the answer in her ear. Lanxiu said nothing. Before the old man came back, they gave it a try — what delight!
On this very evening, the old man had unexpectedly played through the last two strings. He half-ran, half-crawled his way up the hill back to the temple. The lad, frightened, asked, "Master, what's wrong?"
The old man sat gasping for breath, unable to speak. The lad's heavy conscience struck terror in his heart: could it be that the master had found out about him and Lanxiu?
The old man finally believed it was true: it had all been worth it. A lifetime of suffering had been worth it. To see just once, to have only one glimpse: it was all worth it.
"Boy, tomorrow I'm going to get the medicine. "
"You broke another string?"
"Two. I broke two."
The old man removed the strings from his banjo, rubbed them with his fingers, then bundled them together with the other nine hundred ninety eight strings.
"You're going tomorrow?"
"I'll get started at daybreak."
The lad's heart sank as the old man peeled the snakeskin away from the belly of his banjo.
"But I'm not healthy yet," the lad muttered in protest.
"Oh, I've thought about that. You stay here; I'll be back within ten days."
The lad was excited beyond all hope.
"Can you manage by yourself?"
The old man had already forgotten about Lanxiu. "Food, drink, and firewood are all here. When you're well and back on your feet again you should practice storytelling on your own. All right?"
"All right," he affirmed, but somehow the lad felt as though he was forsaking his master.
Having peeled back the snakeskin soundboard, the old man reached inside the belly of the banjo and pulled out a neatly folded slip of paper. Thinking back on when he had put this prescription inside the banjo — he was only twenty then — gave him the shivers.
The lad too, solemnly rubbed the prescription between his fingers.
"My master went his whole life without getting the justice due to him."
"How many strings did he play through?"
"He might have played through one thousand, but he only recorded eight hundred, or I'm sure he would have made it."
The old blindman set out before dawn. He said he would be gone at most ten days, but in fact it was winter when the old man returned to Goat Valley. On the horizon, the gloomy grey of the sky met the snow-covered whiteness of the mountain range. Without sound or spirit, the vast expanse rested silently before him. Against this scene, the bobbing of the old man's blackened straw hat appeared all the more pronounced as he hobbled up Goat Hill. As he walked through the courtyard the rustling of leaves startled a fox and sent it scampering away.
A villager told him the lad had left a few days earlier.
"I told him to wait for me."
"I don't know why, but he's already left."
"Did he say where? Did he leave a message?"
"He said you don't need to worry about him."
"When did he leave?"
People said he left quite some time ago, the day Lanxiu was married to someone from outside the mountains. The old blindman understood.
The villagers begged the old man to stay in Goat Valley telling stories for the winter, for where could he go in the midst of this snow and ice? The old man pointed to his banjo, the neck of which, the people now saw, had no strings. The old man appeared thin and pallid; his breathing was short, his voice hoarse: he looked almost unfamiliar to the villagers. He said he had to find his apprentice.
Were it not for his concern, the old man would not have returned to Goat Valley. The prescription he had safeguarded for fifty years turned out to be a blank slip of paper. At first disbelieving, he had asked countless numbers of literate and honest people to read it for him, and all had attested it was blank. The old man had sat for a short spell on the steps of the apothecary's shop, or at least it seemed only a short time. In fact, he had sat there several days and nights, his bone-like eyes turned to the sky, his face even taking on the same pallor. Some passers-by, presuming him insane, comforted and consoled him. The old man had laughed bitterly: why would he wait until the age of seventy to go crazy? He simply had no interest in playing the banjo again: the object which had breathed in him the will to live, to walk, and to sing, had suddenly vanished. The old man's heartstrings had snapped, and like an untightened string, could no longer produce a pleasant melody. He had sequestered himself in a small inn where each day he lay on his bed, neither strumming nor singing, feeling the flame of his body dying out. But when he had spent all his money, he suddenly remembered his apprentice, whom he knew was awaiting his return.
As he bobbed his way along, a tiny black spot in the universe, the old man reminisced on days gone by: he realized all the bustle, the zestful trekking across mountains, the banjo playing, even the anxieties and frustration were in fact a joy! Then he had had something to hold his heart strings taut, even if it was an illusion. The old man thought of his own master's final days. His master had sealed that prescription, which he himself had never used, inside the old man's banjo. "Don't give in; play a few more years and you'll open your eyes and see." He was only a child when he'd heard those words. His master had fallen silent a long while before saying, "Remember, a person's life is just like these banjo strings: when pulled taut, they can be played; if they can be played, that's enough." So it was. The point was to draw some enjoyment from the strings while they were stretched tight. But could he tell the lad that? The old man had been prepared to gird the lad with knowledge of the truth, but thoughts of the blank piece of paper emasculated his will.
He found the lad much as he had expected: exhausted and despondent, and in the lad's words, awaiting his death. The old man knew it wasn't faking sorrow. He pulled the defenseless lad back into a cave.
The old man picked up a pile of firewood and made a fire.
The lad gradually began to cry, at which point the old man relaxed. Let him cry for all he is worth; if he can still cry, then he will at some time have cried enough.
Shadows grew long and the sky darkened while the lad cried; the old man waited silently. The firelight and the sobs startled and flushed a rabbit, a pheasant, a mountain goat, a fox and a sparrowhawk.
Finally the lad spoke, "Why are we blind?"
"Just because we're blind."
At length the lad spoke again. "I want to open my eyes and see; Master, even if only once, I want to open my eyes and see!"
The old man poked the fire.
This snow stopped. Against the ashen-coloured sky, the sun appeared, flashing like a small mirror. A hawk glided by in stable flight.
"Then play your banjo," said the old man, "play through the strings for all you're worth."
"Master, did you get the medicine?" The lad sounded as if he had just awakened from a dream.
"Remember, the strings don't count unless you've played your best until they break."
"Can you see? Master, can you see now?"
The lad struggled to get up, and reached over to feel his master's eyes. The old man checked his hands.
"Remember, you must play through one thousand two hundred strings."
"One thousand two hundred?"
The old man thought: no matter how much he played, the lad could not play through twelve hundred strings. Let him forever feel the joyful release of playing taut banjo strings; he need never know that piece of paper was blank.
"It's one thousand two hundred. Give me your banjo. I'll seal the prescription inside."
Let us return to the beginning: amid the misty haze of the mountain range walked two blindmen, one old the other young, one in front the other behind, their blackened straw hats bobbing, darting forward as if swept along by the current of a restless stream. It mattered little from where they came nor where they were headed, nor did it matter who they were…
Translated by Mark Wallace