Good Hunting (part 1 of 2)
By Ken Liu
09 October 2012
Part 1 of 2
Night. Half moon. An occasional hoot from an owl.
The merchant and his wife and all the servants had been sent away. The large house was eerily quiet.
Father and I crouched behind the scholar's rock in the courtyard. Through the rock's many holes I could see the bedroom window of the merchant's son.
"Oh, Tsiao-jung, my sweet Tsiao-jung . . ."
The young man's feverish groans were pitiful. Half-delirious, he was tied to his bed for his own good, but Father had left a window open so that his plaintive cries could be carried by the breeze far over the rice paddies.
"Do you think she really will come?" I whispered. Today was my thirteenth birthday, and this was my first hunt.
"She will," Father said. "A hulijing cannot resist the cries of the man she has bewitched."
"Like how the Butterfly Lovers cannot resist each other?" I thought back to the folk opera troupe that had come through our village last fall.
"Not quite," Father said. But he seemed to have trouble explaining why. "Just know that it's not the same."
I nodded, not sure I understood. But I remembered how the merchant and his wife had come to Father to ask for his help.
"How shameful!" the merchant had muttered. "He's not even nineteen. How could he have read so many sages' books and still fall under the spell of such a creature?"
"There's no shame in being entranced by the beauty and wiles of a hulijing," Father had said. "Even the great scholar Wong Lai once spent three nights in the company of one, and he took first place at the Imperial Examinations. Your son just needs a little help."
"You must save him," the merchant's wife had said, bowing like a chicken pecking at rice. "If this gets out, the matchmakers won't touch him at all."
A hulijing was a demon who stole hearts. I shuddered, worried if I would have the courage to face one.
Father put a warm hand on my shoulder, and I felt calmer. In his hand was Swallow Tail, a sword that had first been forged by our ancestor, General Lau Yip, thirteen generations ago. The sword was charged with hundreds of Daoist blessings and had drunk the blood of countless demons.
A passing cloud obscured the moon for a moment, throwing everything into darkness.
When the moon emerged again, I almost cried out.
There, in the courtyard, was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen.
She had on a flowing white silk dress with billowing sleeves and a wide, silvery belt. Her face was pale as snow, and her hair dark as coal, draping past her waist. I thought she looked like the paintings of great beauties from the Tang Dynasty the opera troupe had hung around their stage.
She turned slowly to survey everything around her, her eyes glistening in the moonlight like two shimmering pools.
I was surprised to see how sad she looked. Suddenly, I felt sorry for her and wanted more than anything else to make her smile.
The light touch of my father's hand against the back of my neck jolted me out of my mesmerized state. He had warned me about the power of the hulijing. My face hot and my heart hammering, I averted my eyes from the demon's face and focused on her stance.
The merchant's servants had been patrolling the courtyard every night this week with dogs to keep her away from her victim. But now the courtyard was empty. She stood still, hesitating, suspecting a trap.
"Tsiao-jung! Have you come for me?" The son's feverish voice grew louder.
The lady turned and walked—no, glided, so smooth were her movements—towards the bedroom door.
Father jumped out from behind the rock and rushed at her with Swallow Tail.
She dodged out of the way as though she had eyes on the back of her head. Unable to stop, my father thrust the sword into the thick wooden door with a dull thunk. He pulled but could not free the weapon immediately.
The lady glanced at him, turned, and headed for the courtyard gate.
"Don't just stand there, Liang!" Father called. "She's getting away!"
I ran at her, dragging my clay pot filled with dog piss. It was my job to splash her with it so that she could not transform into her fox form and escape.
She turned to me and smiled. "You're a very brave boy." A scent, like jasmine blooming in spring rain, surrounded me. Her voice was like sweet, cold lotus paste, and I wanted to hear her talk forever. The clay pot dangled from my hand, forgotten.
"Now!" Father shouted. He had pulled the sword free.
I bit my lip in frustration. How could I become a demon hunter if I was so easily enticed? I lifted off the cover and emptied the clay pot at her retreating figure, but the insane thought that I shouldn't dirty her white dress caused my hands to shake, and my aim was wide. Only a small amount of dog piss got onto her.
But it was enough. She howled, and the sound, like a dog's but so much wilder, caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. She turned and snarled, showing two rows of sharp, white teeth, and I stumbled back.
I had doused her while she was in the midst of her transformation. Her face was thus frozen halfway between a woman's and a fox's, with a hairless snout and raised, triangular ears that twitched angrily. Her hands had turned into paws, tipped with sharp claws that she swiped at me.
She could no longer speak, but her eyes conveyed her venomous thoughts without trouble.
Father rushed by me, his sword raised for a killing blow. The hulijing turned around and slammed into the courtyard gate, smashing it open, and disappeared through the broken door.
Father chased after her without even a glance back at me. Ashamed, I followed.
The hulijing was swift of foot, and her silvery tail seemed to leave a glittering trail across the fields. But her incompletely transformed body maintained a human's posture, incapable of running as fast as she could have on four legs.
Father and I saw her dodging into the abandoned temple about a li outside the village.
"Go around the temple," Father said, trying to catch his breath. "I will go through the front door. If she tries to flee through the back door, you know what to do."
The back of the temple was overgrown with weeds and the wall half-collapsed. As I came around, I saw a white flash darting through the rubble.
Determined to redeem myself in my father's eyes, I swallowed my fear and ran after it without hesitation. After a few quick turns, I had the thing cornered in one of the monks' cells.
I was about to pour the remaining dog piss on it when I realized that the animal was much smaller than the hulijing we had been chasing. It was a small white fox, about the size of a puppy.
I set the clay pot on the ground and lunged.
The fox squirmed under me. It was surprisingly strong for such a small animal. I struggled to hold it down. As we fought, the fur between my fingers seemed to become as slippery as skin, and the body elongated, expanded, grew. I had to use my whole body to wrestle it to the ground.
Suddenly, I realized that my hands and arms were wrapped around the nude body of a young girl about my age.
I cried out and jumped back. The girl stood up slowly, picked up a silk robe from behind a pile of straw, put it on, and gazed at me haughtily.
A growl came from the main hall some distance away, followed by the sound of a heavy sword crashing into a table. Then another growl, and the sound of my father's curses.
The girl and I stared at each other. She was even prettier than the opera singer that I couldn't stop thinking about last year.
"Why are you after us?" she asked. "We did nothing to you."
"Your mother bewitched the merchant's son," I said. "We have to save him."
"Bewitched? He's the one who wouldn't leave her alone."
I was taken aback. "What are you talking about?"
"One night about a month ago, the merchant's son stumbled upon my mother, caught in a chicken farmer's trap. She had to transform into her human form to escape, and as soon as he saw her, he became infatuated.
"She liked her freedom and didn't want anything to do with him. But once a man has set his heart on a hulijing, she cannot help hearing him no matter how far apart they are. All that moaning and crying he did drove her to distraction, and she had to go see him every night just to keep him quiet."
This was not what I learned from Father.
"She lures innocent scholars and draws on their life essence to feed her evil magic! Look how sick the merchant's son is!"
"He's sick because that useless doctor gave him poison that was supposed to make him forget about my mother. My mother is the one who's kept him alive with her nightly visits. And stop using the word lure. A man can fall in love with a hulijing just like he can with any human woman."
I didn't know what to say, so I said the first thing that came to mind. "I just know it's not the same."
She smirked. "Not the same? I saw how you looked at me before I put on my robe."
I blushed. "Brazen demon!" I picked up the clay pot. She remained where she was, a mocking smile on her face. Eventually, I put the pot back down.
The fight in the main hall grew noisier, and suddenly, there was a loud crash, followed by a triumphant shout from Father and a long, piercing scream from the woman.
There was no smirk on the girl's face now, only rage turning slowly to shock. Her eyes had lost their lively luster; they looked dead.
Another grunt from Father. The scream ended abruptly.
"Liang! Liang! It's over. Where are you?"
Tears rolled down the girl's face.
"Search the temple," my Father's voice continued. "She may have pups here. We have to kill them too."
The girl tensed.
"Liang, have you found anything?" The voice was coming closer.
"Nothing," I said, locking eyes with her. "I didn't find anything."
She turned around and silently ran out of the cell. A moment later, I saw a small white fox jump over the broken back wall and disappear into the night.
It was Qingming, the Festival of the Dead. Father and I went to sweep Mother's grave and to bring her food and drink to comfort her in the afterlife.
"I'd like to stay here for a while," I said. Father nodded and left for home.
I whispered an apology to my mother, packed up the chicken we had brought for her, and walked the three li to the other side of the hill, to the abandoned temple.
I found Yan kneeling in the main hall, near the place where my father had killed her mother five years ago. She now wore her hair up in a bun, in the style of a young woman who had had her jijili, the ceremony that meant she was no longer a girl. We'd been meeting every Qingming, every Chongyang, every Yulan, every New Year's, occasions when families were supposed to be together.
"I brought you this," I said, and handed her the steamed chicken.
"Thank you." And she carefully tore off a leg and bit into it daintily. Yan had explained to me that the hulijing chose to live near human villages because they liked to have human things in their lives: conversation, beautiful clothes, poetry and stories, and, occasionally, the love of a worthy, kind man.
But the hulijing remained hunters who felt most free in their fox form. After what happened to her mother, Yan stayed away from chicken coops, but she still missed their taste.
"How's hunting?" I asked.
"Not so great," she said. "There are few Hundred-Year Salamanders and Six-Toed Rabbits. I can't ever seem to get enough to eat." She bit off another piece of chicken, chewed, and swallowed. "I'm having trouble transforming too."
"It's hard for you to keep this shape?"
"No." She put the rest of the chicken on the ground and whispered a prayer to her mother.
"I mean it's getting harder for me to return to my true form," she continued, "to hunt. Some nights I can't do it at all. How's hunting for you?"
"Not so great either. There don't seem to be as many snake spirits or angry ghosts as a few years ago. Even hauntings by suicides with unfinished business are down. And we haven't had a proper jumping corpse in months. Father is worried about money."
We also hadn't had to deal with a hulijing in years. Maybe Yan had warned them all away. Truth be told, I was relieved. I didn't relish the prospect of having to tell my father that he was wrong about something. He was already very irritable, anxious that he was losing the respect of the villagers now that his knowledge and skill didn't seem to be needed as much.
"Ever think that maybe the jumping corpses are also misunderstood?" she asked. "Like me and my mother?"
She laughed as she saw my face. "Just kidding!"
It was strange, what Yan and I shared. She wasn't exactly a friend. More like someone who you couldn't help being drawn to because you shared the knowledge of how the world didn't work the way you had been told.
She looked at the chicken bits she had left for her mother. "I think magic is being drained out of this land."
I had suspected that something was wrong, but didn't want to voice my suspicion out loud, which would make it real.
"What do you think is causing it?"
Instead of answering, Yan perked up her ears and listened intently. Then she got up, grabbed my hand, and pulled until we were behind the buddha in the main hall.
She held up her finger against my lips. So close to her, I finally noticed her scent. It was like her mother's, floral and sweet, but also bright, like blankets dried in the sun. I felt my face grow warm.
A moment later, I heard a group of men making their way into the temple. Slowly, I inched my head out from behind the buddha so I could see.
It was a hot day, and the men were seeking some shade from the noon sun. Two men set down a cane sedan chair, and the passenger who stepped off was a foreigner, with curly yellow hair and pale skin. Other men in the group carried tripods, levels, bronze tubes, and open trunks full of strange equipment.
"Most Honored Mister Thompson." A man dressed like a mandarin came up to the foreigner. The way he kept on bowing and smiling and bouncing his head up and down reminded me of a kicked dog begging for favors. "Please have a rest and drink some cold tea. It is hard for the men to be working on the day when they're supposed to visit the graves of their families, and they need to take a little time to pray lest they anger the gods and spirits. But I promise we'll work hard afterwards and finish the survey on time."
"The trouble with you Chinese is your endless superstition," the foreigner said. He had a strange accent, but I could understand him just fine. "Remember, the Hong Kong-Tientsin Railroad is a priority for Great Britain. If I don't get as far as Botou Village by sunset, I'll be docking all of your wages."
I had heard rumors that the Manchu Emperor had lost a war and been forced to give up all kinds of concessions, one of which involved paying to help the foreigners build a road of iron. But it had all seemed so fantastical that I didn't pay much attention.
The mandarin nodded enthusiastically. "Most Honored Mister Thompson is right in every way. But might I trouble your gracious ear with a suggestion?"
The weary Englishman waved impatiently.
"Some of the local villagers are worried about the proposed path of the railroad. You see, they think the tracks that have already been laid are blocking off veins of qi in the earth. It's bad feng shui."
"What are you talking about?"
"It is kind of like how a man breathes," the mandarin said, huffing a few times to make sure the Englishman understood. "The land has channels along rivers, hills, ancient roads that carry the energy of qi. It's what gives the villages prosperity and maintains the rare animals and local spirits and household gods. Could you consider shifting the line of the tracks a little, to follow the feng shui masters' suggestions?"
Thompson rolled his eyes. "That is the most ridiculous thing I've yet heard. You want me to deviate from the most efficient path for our railroad because you think your idols would be angry?"
The mandarin looked pained. "Well, in the places where the tracks have already been laid, many bad things are happening: people losing money, animals dying, household gods not responding to prayers. The Buddhist and Daoist monks all agree that it's the railroad."
Thompson strode over to the buddha and looked at it appraisingly. I ducked back behind the statue and squeezed Yan's hand. We held our breaths, hoping that we wouldn't be discovered.
"Does this one still have any power?" Thompson asked.
"The temple hasn't been able to maintain a contingent of monks for many years," the mandarin said. "But this buddha is still well respected. I hear villagers say that prayers to him are often answered."
Then I heard a loud crash and a collective gasp from the men in the main hall.
"I've just broken the hands off of this god of yours with my cane," Thompson said. "As you can see, I have not been struck by lightning or suffered any other calamity. Indeed, now we know that it is only an idol made of mud stuffed with straw and covered in cheap paint. This is why you people lost the war to Britain. You worship statues of mud when you should be thinking about building roads from iron and weapons from steel."
There was no more talk about changing the path of the railroad.
After the men were gone, Yan and I stepped out from behind the statue. We gazed at the broken hands of the buddha for a while.
"The world's changing," Yan said. "Hong Kong, iron roads, foreigners with wires that carry speech and machines that belch smoke. More and more, storytellers in the teahouses speak of these wonders. I think that's why the old magic is leaving. A more powerful kind of magic has come."
She kept her voice unemotional and cool, like a placid pool of water in autumn, but her words rang true. I thought about my father's attempts to keep up a cheerful mien as fewer and fewer customers came to us. I wondered if the time I spent learning the chants and the sword dance moves were wasted.
"What will you do?" I asked, thinking about her, alone in the hills and unable to find the food that sustained her magic.
"There's only one thing I can do." Her voice broke for a second and became defiant, like a pebble tossed into the pool.
But then she looked at me, and her composure returned.
"The only thing we can do. Learn to survive."
The railroad soon became a familiar part of the landscape: the black locomotive huffing through the green rice paddies, puffing steam and pulling a long train behind it, like a dragon coming down from the distant, hazy, blue mountains. For a while, it was a wondrous sight, with children marveling at it, running alongside the tracks to keep up.
But the soot from the locomotive chimneys killed the rice in the fields closest to the tracks, and two children playing on the tracks, too frightened to move, were killed one afternoon. After that, the train ceased to fascinate.
People stopped coming to Father and me to ask for our services. They either went to the Christian missionary or the new teacher who said he'd studied in San Francisco. Young men in the village began to leave for Hong Kong or Canton, moved by rumors of bright lights and well-paying work. Fields lay fallow. The village itself seemed to consist only of the too-old and too-young, and their mood one of resignation. Men from distant provinces came to inquire about buying land for cheap.
Father spent his days sitting in the front room, Swallow Tail over his knee, staring out the door from dawn to dusk, as though he himself had turned into a statue.
Every day, as I returned home from the fields, I would see the glint of hope in Father's eyes briefly flare up.
"Did anyone speak of needing our help?" he would ask.
"No," I would say, trying to keep my tone light. "But I'm sure there will be a jumping corpse soon. It's been too long."
I would not look at my father as I spoke because I did not want to look as hope faded from his eyes.
Then, one day, I found Father hanging from the heavy beam in his bedroom. As I let his body down, my heart numb, I thought that he was not unlike those he had hunted all his life: they were all sustained by an old magic that had left and would not return, and they did not know how to survive without it.
Swallow Tail felt dull and heavy in my hand. I had always thought I would be a demon hunter, but how could I when there were no more demons, no more spirits? All the Daoist blessings in the sword could not save my father's sinking heart. And if I stuck around, perhaps my heart would grow heavy and yearn to be still too.
I hadn't seen Yan since that day six years ago, when we hid from the railroad surveyors at the temple. But her words came back to me now.
Learn to survive.
I packed a bag and bought a train ticket to Hong Kong.
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