Chapter 4 - Ancient Grave in the Mountains
Even though it was called Inner Mongolia, it actually wasn’t too far away from the Hei Long River. It was pretty close to the border of Mongolia. Most of the civilians here were Han people, and there were very few Mongolians. If you haven’t been to Gang Gang Camp, then you’d never understand the hardship of living there. There was a total of six Educated Youths that had been assigned there. Four boys and two girls. When we arrived, we were all dumbfounded. All around us were long stretches of land. There wasn’t a single tree in sight. If you walk out of the village, you won’t see another person for a hundred miles.
To top it off, this place didn’t even have a decent highway. Much less any electricity. Even oil lamps were considered a privilege reserved for the government officials. Using a flashlight there was equivalent to living in the presidential suite. Those were luxuries we would have never imagined living without back in the city. At the time, we had thought that everywhere in the motherland had buildings with electricity and phone lines.
Back then, everything was a new experience for us. None of us had seen such a vast mountain before. It was also our first time feasting on the many different varieties of food grown there. The mountain nearby was rich and abundant with wild fruits and vegetables and we could fish in the river nearby, so filling our stomachs was never an issue. After we returned to the city, we heard that those who went to Shanxi province to cut in line complained about how truly miserable they were without a whiff of proper food for years.
The lives of the Educated Youths were not too difficult. As the place heavily depended on the mountain for resources, we didn’t have problems with growing many crops. Every summer night, we would take turns to go out to the field, and check up on the crops in fear of them being eaten by the wild animals. There wasn’t a night where we didn’t require a few people to sleep in the fields.
The amount of the crops grown in the mountain were unlike the wide green curtains found in the Northern China plains. Instead, they were planted all over the place. As long as there was a flat area of land available, there would be crops planted there. Because of this, we had to frequently roam large areas of land at night in order to guard the crops. Tonight happened to be the night where Fatty and I were partnered together. Fatty ended up sleeping in the hut so I went out to survey the area. There didn’t seem to any trouble stirring so I decided to go back to sleep.
Near the hut, I noticed a big round white figure close by. I had to rub my eyes a few times, just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Unfortunately, it was too dark so I couldn’t focus my eyes on the figure. During the time, I didn’t believe in ghosts and thought it was some random animal so I picked up a stick, as I planned on chasing it away.
In the complete darkness, the glaringly white pile swayed slightly. Just what was it? It didn’t look like an animal at all, but if it wasn’t one, then why was it moving? The sky was pitch black and I didn’t have a kerosene lamp to light up my surroundings, making it difficult to tell what it was.
Although ghosts and monsters don’t frighten me, the very thought of facing an unknown being still struck fear in my heart. The stick I held in my hand was actually a tree branch I had picked up from the ground. I didn’t dare to whirl the stick at it. Instead, I gently poked it. It was very soft and squishy…. Suddenly, I heard Fatty let out a loud cry in the darkness, “Ah…….What the hell? Hu Ba Yi! What are you doing, poking my ass with a tree branch?”
False alarm. Apparently, Fatty had eaten some rotten fruits during the day giving him a stomachache later at night. He squatted to take a dump but his big white butt looked very conspicuous in the dark.
The next morning, Fatty mercilessly dogged me to compensate for scaring him to death. He even proclaimed that I managed to kill off over one million of his brain cells. So I shot back, “Are you even certain that you have that many brain cells in that big head of yours? We are poor bachelors who received the highest order to come to the countryside to be re-educated by the poor and lower-middle class peasants. How, pray I ask, do you want me to compensate you? As your closest and most intimate war brother, I am informing you in advance that the pair of pants I’m wearing now is what’s left of my entire family fortune. Are you implying that you want me to give it up?”
Fatty gave a wide grin and said that I didn’t need to go that far. He had found a large hive in an old forest on Tuan Hill and suggested that we break it open and make some honey drinks from it. Not only that, we could even exchange it for rabbit meat from Swallow’s father.
Swallow was a girl whose father was a famous old hunter in the village. At the time, Fatty and I both stayed at her house, the Educated Youth Settlement. Both the father and the daughter frequent the mountains to hunt and would occasionally invite us to feast on game they had caught that day. Being constantly treated by them did make us feel bad, but we were too poor and we didn’t have anything of value to pay them back.
Fatty had discovered a hornet’s nest so we agreed to extract the honey and give them to Swallow as a gift. Both of us had impulsive personalities and we were well known as the King of Mischiefs in the entire military. Poking a nest wasn’t that much of an issue. We had done deals that were ten times worse than this.
In fear of getting lost, I borrowed Swallow’s hunting dog. It was almost fully grown and raised by Swallow herself. She named it Yellow Chestnut, and couldn’t even bear the thought of bringing it hunting. The moment she saw that we wanted to go Tuan Hill to play, she lent her dog to us.
At a glance, our village wasn’t far from Tuan Hill, but since there weren’t any roads leading there, we had to walk half a day through uneven terrain to get there. This part of the forest was enormous. The villagers had warned us not to go there in fear of the brown bears that we might encounter. In the village, a man who only had half a face left told us the tale of how he ran into a brown bear once when he was young. Luckily, Swallow and her father arrived in the nick of time, lit a fire and frightened the bear away, saving his life. However, the bear had already taken a huge lick out of the child’s face. The bear’s tongue was covered with sharp tiny barbs, removing a large portion of his flesh with that lick. There wasn’t an eye or an ear to be found on the left side of his face. Even his nose and mouth were askew. He was already forty years old and couldn’t even find a decent wife. Whenever the old people of the village talked of him, they would always shed a few tears.
Although we were bold, we didn’t dare to rashly venture into the primeval forest. When Fatty went out to extract the pine seed oil with the villagers, he found out that the nest was located near the edge of the forest, on a large tree near the small stream.
But what we didn’t expect to see was how huge the nest was. The size of the nest was even bigger than all the ones we had poked combined together. From afar, it looked like a calf without legs hanging from the tree, with a dark swarm of giant hornets surrounding it, buzzing loud enough to deafen the ears.
So I said, “F*ck Fatty, you’re cheating me aren’t you, is this seriously a nest? This is a downright hornet atomic bomb. What if it explodes into pieces?” Fatty replied, “Exactly, would I have called you over if it was a normal nest? If it was one, I could have easily taken care of it myself. So what do you think, are you up for it?”
I said, “This isn’t a big deal. Our team is pretty much unbeatable. We weren’t afraid of the American aircrafts and tanks, much less a couple of small bees! They are all just a bunch of paper tigers! F*ck it, we’re definitely feasting on honey today.”
Even though we joked about that, we still didn’t dare act recklessly. If we made even a tiny mistake, the hornets would rain down and sting us to death. These hornets were huge and without a doubt, poisonous. Just a couple of stings and we’d be as good as dead. Fortunately, as if help had arrived from heaven, there was a river right beside it. I first broke a biscuit in half and fed Yellow Chestnut with one piece and let it run as far as it could. Then, we quickly donned military coats we brought along, put on the hat, tied a scarf around our necks, and slipped on gloves. We also covered the front of our hat with a silk towel that we borrowed from one of the female Educated Youths. After making sure none of our flesh was exposed in the open, Fatty went around and found two hollow reeds in which he gave one to me and kept another for himself. It was so that we could use it for breathing underwater when we jumped into the river to protect ourselves from the hornets’ attack later.
Once we were done, we looked like two bloated bears and we staggered to the base of the tree. In my hands, I held a pile of winter grass and matches to be well-prepared for the situation. Fatty held onto a long pole and counted, “One, two, three.” The moment he counted to three, he aggressively poked the area where the nest and the tree bark met. He managed to poke it for about four to five times before the giant nest dropped to the ground with a loud thud. Countless hornets inside immediately fled the nest and formed a dark buzzing mass shrouding the sky over our heads.
We were adequately prepared and did not need to worry about the hornets attacking. I quickly used the match to light the winter grass on fire, and placed it next to the gap in the nest. The giant hornets fled from the hive and flew around aimlessly the moment the smoke enveloped them. They couldn’t make heads or tails of where they were flying. Using soil, Fatty and I built a wall around the dried leaves, to prevent the fire from spreading further.
Those that were not enveloped by the smoke had already recognized their target, and quickly flew towards us. At that moment, I felt like hailstones were heavily raining down on me. Not daring to stop, I hurriedly ran towards the nearby stream with Fatty. The stream wasn’t deep, only having a depth of less than a meter. We dove to the bottom of the stream, and washed the hornets on our bodies away. I held onto my hat with one hand to prevent it from being lost to the currents. With my free hand, I took out the reed and used it to breathe from underwater.
We waited for a long while before we dared to poke our heads out of the water, only to find the hornets had drowned or passed out from the smoke. There were no longer any dangers. Even though it was midsummer, the stream in the mountain was still icy cold to the point I shivered. It took me a while and with much difficulty to climb back on shore. While I laid with my back pressed against the rocks trying to catch my breath, I felt an incredible sense of relief as the sunlight over my head warmed my body.
In the end, Fatty also couldn’t take it anymore, so he unsteadily climbed back onto shore. Suddenly, halfway through climbing, he yelped in pain, jerking his arm back to examine it. It was bloody and he had no idea what had cut him.
Hurriedly, I went down to the middle of the brook to support him. Fatty covered his wound tightly with his hand and said, “Be careful, there’s a broken bowl. It fucking cut me.”
There wasn’t anyone living nearby so why was there a broken bowl? My curiosity raised, I stripped myself naked and dived topless into the stream. My hands felt around underwater and found half of a broken bowl in the place where Fatty got cut. Judging from the pattern and the design of the bowl, it looked like one of the Northern Song Dynasty’s blue and white porcelain from my grandfather’s collection back then.
My grandfather’s antiques and paintings were destroyed by the Red Guards during the Destroy the Four Olds political movement. Never would I imagined that I could find such antique relics lying deep within the old forest. It certainly brought back nostalgia. But unfortunately, these things didn’t mean much to me so I raised my hand and flung the broken bowl far into the forest.
Fatty stripped himself of his wet clothes as well and wrapped the cut on his hand shoddily before jumping into the brook again. We took a bath and later on, dried our clothes, shoes and socks on the cobblestone by the brook. Letting out a yawn, I called for Yellow Chestnut to return.
The sight of Yellow Chestnut running back came into my view from afar. Its mouth was biting onto a fat grey rabbit. I had no idea how did the unlucky rabbit even ran into Yellow Chestnut and ended up in the hunting dog in-training’s mouth. When I saw the wild rabbit, I hugged Yellow Chestnut and rolled around the ground in happiness. It was a great dog, so to reward him, I fed him a big chunk of honey taken from the hive.
Fatty said, “When we head back, let’s get a couple of puppies for ourselves. We can have all the rabbit meat we want everyday.”
I replied, “Keep on dreaming. Even if there’re a lot of rabbits in the mountain, they couldn’t even hold up with your fierce eating habit. Stop talking nonsense. I’m honestly getting a bit hungry. You prepare the rabbit quickly while I’ll go and get some branches to make fire with.”
Fatty washed and skinned the rabbit by the brook as I made a bonfire with the bundle of pine branches I found. We glazed the skinned rabbit with a good amount of honey, and roasted it on a rack over the bonfire. Not long after, the fragrant smell of roasted honey rabbit meat filled the air entirely. I sliced the rabbit’s head and fed it to the dog and had a great time sharing the remaining rabbit meat in half with Fatty. All those years I had never once eaten such an aromatic meal. I was this close to swallowing my finger as I ate. Although we didn’t have any oil and salt to season it with, glazing it with honey and using pine branch to roast it was able to give the meat a more natural and distinctive flavoring. One could never dream of eating such a good food in their entire lifetime if one only lived in the city. The lives of the Educated Youth had always been full of happiness and suffering. Outcasted by society into the remote mountain area, we lost something dear to us and yet at the same time, we also learned a lot of things that couldn’t be learnt in the city. Looks like there’re things in life that simply cannot be measured by how much one had gained and lost.
Bloated from the food, we noticed the sky was already getting dark. Our clothes were also almost dried. Each of us stood on both ends of the thick branch which we penetrated the large nest with, and sang a revolutionary song as we proceeded to carry it back to the village. “The sky and the earth are vast~ But they’re not as vast as our determination~ Father and mother~ But they’re not as affectionate as our communist party~ ” It was truly the moment where everyone would sing the victory song amidst the clashes of the golden metal. The only thing that wasn’t harmonious was the sound of Yellow Chestnut happily yipping among our loud and vocal singing voice. The atmosphere reminded me of a scene in a horror movie where the ghosts entered the village.
After returning to the village, we saw that the number of people around had decreased so I asked Swallow, “Swallow, where did your dad and the others go?”
While helping us carry the hive, Swallow answered, “Cha Gan Ha River is flooded and Lin Yang’s logs were soaked because of it. The majority went over to help move the logs in the afternoon. Zhi Shu asked me to inform you guys to look after the crops diligently. Don’t stir up trouble! They can only come back after seven or eight days.”
I always hated hearing others preach to me not to cause any trouble and make it seemed like I am a natural born troublemaker myself. So I retorted to Swallow, “Has Zhi Shu been drinking till he’s muddled again? What trouble can we cause? We’re good kids of Chairman Mao’s.”
Swallow laughed and said you two won’t be stirring up any trouble? Ever since Educated Youths like you come here from the city, the hens couldn’t even lay eggs in peace anymore.
The other two male Educated Youths who came with us also went to help out at Lin Yang’s. Only the two of us, Fatty and me along with two other female Educated Youths were left behind. We didn’t get sent to help out at Lin Yang’s because we had went out to play. Feeling very lucky, I pour the honey into jars and managed to fill up about a dozen of them. Swallow had informed us that the remaining honeycomb can be made into a dish and she would be cooking stir-fried venison and honeycomb tonight.
When Fatty heard the word ‘food’, he was extremely happy. He said our lives now were similar to celebrating the new year since we just had roast rabbit for lunch and now, we’re going to have stir-fried venison and honeycomb for dinner. My saliva almost overflowed from the thought. Swallow asked where did we get the roast rabbit? I told her about what happened and she gasped in surprise. She told us not to fool around anymore as it was dangerous to even roast rabbit meat by the forest since we could easily lure the bears out.
Gradually, it finally hit us as we listened to what she said. What a close call. We were extremely lucky that the bear was probably fast asleep so it couldn’t smell the aroma of the roast meat. While helping Swallow light a fire, I told her about how Fatty’s hand got injured by a broken bowl in the stream. Why would a desolated place like that would have a Song Dynasty’s blue and white porcelain?
Swallow said that it wasn’t news at all. When the young ladies of their village get married, their family would use a couple of vases and pots as dowry. All of them were actually fished from the river itself.
The more I listened, the more weird it felt. Antiques could be fished from a river? Swallow showed me the two porcelains she took out from under her bed. “They didn’t grow in the river. They were washed over via the currents upstream. The headstreams of the rivers near the village are all located at Lama Gou’s Niu Xin Mountain. I heard from the elders that in the mountain, there’s a tomb where the Empress Dowager of Liao or Jin Dynasty was buried and a lot of good things were buried with her. A bunch of people went and searched for her tomb but it’s always either they couldn’t find it or they got lost in Lama Gou and never returned. The forest in Lama Gou is too dense. My father claimed he had seen savages appearing there. Some even said Niu Xin Mountain is haunted. Anyways, nobody dared to venture there anymore. ”
Night had fallen as we talked to each other. After Swallow finished preparing the meals, Fatty went to invite the other two female Educated Youths for dinner. In the end, Fatty came running back as soon as he went with one of the female Educated Youths named Wang Juan. Both of them were breathing heavily so I quickly asked them if something had happened.
Wang Juan tried to catch her breath before she began to explain. Apparently, the other female Educated Youth named Tian Xiao Meng had received a letter from home with news that her mother was admitted into the hospital because of Asthma and it had gotten worse. Tian Xiao Meng heard from others about the mysterious effect of a fruit called Buddha’s Hand which was only grown in Lama Gou so she left on her own to find it this morning. It was already nightfall and yet, she hadn’t returned.
Veins in my temple pulsated when I heard what happened. Tian Xiao Meng was too careless. That place was entirely a primeval forest. Even the most experienced hunters wouldn’t dare to venture alone carelessly, so why is she still going off on her own?
Bursting into tears, Wang Juan explained she couldn't manage to stop her and pushed us to look for her as soon as possible. What are we going to do if something bad had happened to her?
Right now though, the majority of the manpower had went to Lin Yang’s. Only the children and elderlies stayed behind so Fatty and I were the two candidates left to search for her. Swallow also brought Yellow Chestnut and a rifle along with us, leaving Wang Juan to look after the crops back at the village alone.
One wouldn’t be lost as long as there’s a dog with you in the mountains. We didn’t dare to stall so we lit a torch and led Yellow Chestnut along into the mountain that very night. No pathways existed deep inside the mountain’s forest. Till now, I still didn’t understand how can a girl like Tian Xiao Meng be brave enough enter the place on her own. Fatty said she was worried to the point of confusion and who wouldn’t be in her state when their own mother was sick.
Since it was already dark, we had to use the dog to track her scent. We kept losing track of her because it wasn’t a trained trail dog. Several times we had to head back frequently to look for him. A trip which was supposed to only take four to five hours before now took us one whole night. Dawn broke in the east. The forest’s morning breeze gave us goosebumps and the fresh air lifted our spirits. Pointing towards the west to us, she said. “Look, that vast mountain is Niu Xin Mountain.”
Fatty and I turned to face the west and saw a large weirdly shaped peak towering above the boundless sea of mountains. The entire mountain was shaped like an ox’s heart. The nine waterfalls resembling silky white jade dragons poured down at great speed from the top of the mountain. The porcelain the villagers collected was carried down the currents from the waterfall. Looks like the legend where the Empress Dowager of Liao Dynasty’s tomb was located in the mountain is true. Yet, nobody managed to find the entrance to it after so many years.
When I laid my eyes on the magnificent peak of the mountain, I suddenly had a familiar feeling that I had seen this type of mountain when I pledged to Chairman Mao somewhere before. Struck by a thought, I finally recalled an account recorded in an old book belonging to my grandfather which I used to read when I was free. This type of landscape layout was an extremely fine piece of land with excellent Feng Shui with a great view in front and well-protected from behind. The nine waterfalls were like nine dragons fetching water, causing the hills to split akin to a blooming lotus flower. Right, I think it was called “Nine Dragon Jade Lotus”.
The nine waterfalls on top of the mountain wouldn’t make much of a difference if it’s one less or more since the water currents weren’t that strong to begin with. It wasn’t even up to par with the structure of the Nine Shaded Dragon Jade Lotus. Nine is the highest number in a single digit and carries the hidden meaning of utmost honor. The pronunciation is similar to the character ‘jiu’ which means eternity.
This type of land with excellent Feng Shui was also known as the Roselle Chariot. According to the book, it was the perfect place to bury women. If men were buried here instead, their family would have fallen on hard times.
At this moment, I had a faint feeling in my heart that told me my grandfather’s book, the <<Sixteen Secrets of Yin and Yang Feng Shui>> wasn’t just simply a mess of the Four Olds. The content of the book definitely had substance. I needed to give it another good read once I returned home.
However, I didn’t feel that this sort of Feng Shui technique was of any practical value. Since ancient times, China had had its large share of emperors, generals and ministers and which of them hadn’t been given a proper burial place after death? The change of a Dynasty and the flourishing and declining of the tides of history wasn’t something that could be controlled by whether the ancestral tombs were buried in the right place or not.
Swallow pointed at the valley in front of Niu Xin Mountain and said, “This is the famous Lama Gou. Legend has it that there are wild men inside and it’s also haunted at night.”
Fatty did a double take at the omnipresence of the primeval forest, frowned and said, “Tian Xiao Meng would definitely get lost if she’d entered Lama Gou. There’re only three of us and a dog so it won’t be easy to find her. ”
Seeing the both of them feeling slightly discouraged, I went on to boost their morale by saying, “As a materialistic communist, you shouldn’t believe that ghosts exist in the world. Whether it’s a ghost or a savage, it’ll regret it if I lay my eyes on them. I’ll catch a few of them alive and present them to Chairman Mao in Beijing. Chairman Mao will definitely be very surprised to see them.”
Fatty and I were both born into a military household so we have a natural born fearless element in our blood. After he heard what I said, he became more spirited, eagerly preparing to enter the valley.
Only Swallow appeared worried. Growing up as a local, she had heard numerous scary legends about Lama Gou, naturally causing her to have an innate fear of the place. But right now, it’s more urgent to save lives so she had no choice but to shove the thought to the back of her mind.
The three of us sat down to eat our rations while reorganizing some equipment. We had a total of two shotguns with us, each used by Swallow and her father during hunting. One of them was a three sleeve while the other was a gun barrel which was frequently used by the people of Orochon. The shotguns were very behind times since all of them were muzzle-loaded guns. When used at close range, the killing power was great. However, if it was used to shoot a target of more than thirty five metres away, the power and precision were greatly compromised. It was definitely more suited for animals like rabbits and deers.
Since I was six years old, my father would bring me to a shooting range to play with guns. I was actually well experienced in using guns of all types from the People’s Liberation Army but I had no confidence in handling this type of flintlock shotguns. Fatty had the same experience as I did. After discussing it, Swallow and I each took one shotgun while Fatty took a machete that was used to cut firewood. Once we were ready, the three of us headed off into the dense forest of Lama Gou.
Compared to the legendary savages and ghosts, the most realistic and dangerous threat was actually the brown bears living in Lama Gou. Although the brown bears and black bears were of the same species, the brown bears had a knack of walking upright on two feet, which was how it got the name. Brown bears had a wide physique, rough skin and thick flesh. Hunters would only dare to take one down if they had formed a team of people, including a large number of hunting dogs. If anyone carrying an old gun had encountered a brown bear in the primeval forest, it was the same thing as being passed a death sentence.
Half a day went by as we continued walking. The sound of the flowing water from the nine waterfalls on top of Niu Xin Mountain was getting louder by the minute. Soon, we would have reached the base of the foot of Niu Xin Mountain at the end of Lama Gou in no time.
We didn’t bump into any brown bears or savages, but there also wasn’t any trace of Tian Xiao Meng. Tired, Fatty collapsed onto the ground. “I can’t do this anymore… I… really can’t walk another step.”
Swallow proposed all of us rest for a while. Yellow Chestnut couldn’t seem to trace Tian Xiao Meng’s scent anymore. “Sigh, How do we do this! If we couldn’t find her, Swallow said Zhi Shu and her father would scold her to death when they returned home.
Exhausted, I grabbed a water bottle and drank a few gulps of it before telling them, “Is there a chance Tian Xiao Meng is eaten by a brown bear? Or maybe she had been captured by a savage to become his wife.”
We gossiped while resting. Suddenly, we heard Yellow Chestnut start barking madly in the direction of the dense forest. Hunting dogs are of a good pedigree, they won’t bark in this manner if they didn’t feel threatened.
I asked Swallow, “What’s wrong with the dog? Did it sense a wild animal?”
Swallow’s face went pale. “Climb up the tree quick! It’s a brown bear.”
When I heard it’s a brown bear, I hurriedly climbed up a big tree as fast as I could. I lowered my gaze and saw Swallow exerting her strength to hold onto Fatty’s ass. Fatty didn’t know how to climb trees so all he could was hug the tree trunk and force himself to keep sliding upwards. I quickly rushed down from the tree I was in and helped Swallow drag his ass up. Eventually, he managed to get onto the lowest fork of the tree, his forehead covered in sweat and said, “I...this tree is too damn...tall!”
Yellow Chestnut’s barks were getting more and more rapid. Before Swallow and I could climb, we saw a entirely black-furred Brown Bear coming out of a bush. The moment it laid eyes on us, it got excited and roared with rage in a standing position.
Swallow spends most of her time hunting in the mountains with her father, and had abundant experience. Without another thought, she raised the gun and fired a shot at the brown bear. “Peng!” sparks flew and the bullet buried itself into the bear’s belly.
Since the shot was fired relatively close, and the brown bears stomach was soft, this shot created an enormous hole in the bear’s stomach. Blood and organs began to pour out. When the bear took the injury, it grew furious. It began pawing at its own intestines. Then, in a fit of rage it lunged at Swallow. Swallow’s hunting gun couldn’t shoot repeatedly, and so she could only run towards the bramble behind her and close her eyes, waiting for death.
Saving a life was more important. And so I quickly reacted and grabbed the gun, and aimed it at the brown bear’s head. If I missed this shot, Swallow was a goner. My hand shook as I thought of that. I grit my teeth and released the trigger. “Hong!”
The backfire on this gun nearly took my teeth out. I fell onto my bum. I don’t know if the force behind the gun wasn’t enough, or if I had missed, but I had only shot out one of the bear’s eyes.
Although this shot didn’t deal mortal damage, it still managed to save Swallow. The brown bear was now blind in one eye and its face was covered in blood. Part of its eyeball was still hanging from its socket by a thick vein. It turned even more crazy. It spun around, and left Swallow behind and started charging at me.
At that moment, Yellow Chestnut ferociously bit down onto the bear’s leg. The bear turned its head around and swung its paw at the dog. Thankfully, Yellow Chestnut was extremely intelligent. The minute it saw the bear turning around, it ran away and provoked the bear some more.
Yellow Chestnut stalled for just enough time for Swallow and I to climb up into the trees.
The brown bear took pretty heavy injuries. It’s stomach had a gaping hole that was still dripping blood. To top it off, it was blind in one eye. In the mountains, even the tigers were wary of him. How could he take such a hit and not take revenge? It charged forward and tried to grab Yellow Chestnut, but it couldn’t run as fast as the dog. When it tried to bite at the three of us, it couldn’t because we were all high up in the trees. It circled around the tree a few times. Despite the rage in the pit of its stomach, it couldn’t do anything. Then, with a stomp, it roared, shaking the entire valley.
As I hugged the tree, I looked down and couldn’t see the bear circling around it. Forgetting the danger that we were in, I suddenly felt the urge to laugh. I then shouted over at Fatty, “Little Fatty, why isn’t your mom leaving yet? What’s she pondering underneath the tree for? Go talk to her a little, tell her not to kill herself.”
Fatty wasn’t afraid of the bear, but he was afraid of heights. In modern speak, he had acrophobia. He was trembling as he hugged the tree. Despite that, he still heard my taunt. Not willing to take it, he cursed at me, “Hu Ba Yi, why are you so f*cking cruel. How could the thing down there be my mom? Look more carefully before you talk. Are you sure it isn’t your wife?
I laughed and pointed at the bear and said to Fatty, “Oh, I was wrong. It was actually your aunt. I ain’t going to become your uncle in law.”
Fatty was so angry he wanted to chuck a branch at me. Unfortunately for him, he needed both of his hands to hug the tree. He was afraid that if he let go of a single hand, then he would fall off. Without the guts to do anything drastic, he could only glare at me.
Seeing Fatty’s expression made me laugh some more. I quickly stopped after a few moments. Regardless of the dangers, the brown bear rashly started climbing up my tree.
Even though it was heavy, it had incredible strength. On top of that, it took a lot of injuries, and so the pain had muddled its logic. In its eyes, all that was left in its life was us three dogs. It glared at me with its one remaining red eye. The great bear hugged the tree and began to climb. It climbed about a meter up. I cursed in my head, “Who the f*ck told me that these brown bears couldn’t climb trees? Aren’t they just trying to f*ck me over right now.”
There was an old saying among the hunters in the mountain, “Rather fight a mountain lion than fight a crazy bear. That’s because brown bears that suffer injuries go completely kookoo. Both its capacity for destruction and its explosive strength were both terrifying. I could feel the blood draining from my face. How could I possibly have the mood to joke around with Fatty any more? I was constantly thinking of how I could escape this dilemma.
At that moment, Swallow suddenly reminded me something, “Hurry…load the bullets and hit its other eye!”
It was only then that I remembered the shotgun on my back. I cursed myself for being dumb. I then climbed up a little higher on the tree, loosened the weapons belt and tied it to one of the branches. I prayed that the branch could hold my weight. Then, with one hand, I held onto the center of the gun and began putting bullets into the other end. I funneled a big half of the gunpowder in the cow horn before I felt satisfied.
The brown bear was pretty fast at climbing the tree. It was getting closer and closer to me. Swallow and Fatty were both sweating in fear for my safety. I did all that I could to focus on the gun rather than the bear that was climbing towards me.
After stuffing all of the gunpowder in, I began to stuff the brush down the barrel. I could feel the sweat roll off my nose. This shotgun really was annoying. I could swear it would take my life. In the forests northeast of us, just how many hunters have lost their life because they didn’t have the precious seconds to prepare the gun? If only I had an automatic gun, then even if there were two or three brown bears, I would still be able to survive. Under these circumstances, even a handgun was fine.
Right as I finished putting in the gunpowder and bullets, the brown bear swung its claw at my foot. I quickly pulled my foot up and pointed the gun downwards. I fired a shot right at the bear’s head. There was too much gunpowder in it. Smoke exploded in front of me, coloring my entire face black.
The shotgun scattered a lot of dust into the air, but the low angle pressured the gunpowder in the wrong direction, causing it to fire at a fraction of its real power. On top of that, I could only support the gun with one hand. There wasn’t any support for the gun at its but. And so, the aim was a little off. The bullet didn’t hit its head. Instead, it shattered the brown bear’s shoulder. The bear fell a dozen meters from its place on the tree. It fell with a heavy thud, causing the leaves on the trees surrounding it to fall. Adding on the fact that it had extremely thick meat, falling from such a high place actually didn’t deal much damage to it.
The brown bear rolled over and stood up. This time, it wasn’t going to climb up the trees anymore. Like a tank, it charged at the tree and rammed its heavy body at the trunk, shaking the entire tree.
Thankfully, the belt secured me to the tree and so I didn’t fall off. I was a little worried about whether or not the tree was strong enough as the bear rammed it a few more times. Who knew I was about to die in this deep forest. In the face of death, I didn’t want to lose face. I need to pull out some of those “principles” from the Revolution out, let Fatty and Swallow witness that I, Hu Ba Yi, wasn’t some coward. And so shouted with all I could to Swallow and Fatty, “Looks like I’m going to have to meet Marx before all of you. Sorry my friends of war, I’ll be leaving one step before you and save a place for you all on the other side. Do you have any words you want me to tell the Teacher of the Revolution? I will make sure to tell him.”
Fatty yelled back from a dozen meters away, “Old comrade, don’t worry, there won’t be too many people in the Revolution with you, and there won’t be too few without you! When you’re over there with Marx, make sure you learn a lot about the principles of the Revolution. I heard that he always ate potato and beef soup. Will you be accustomed to that?”
I replied, “When have I ever been picky during the Revolution? Comrade Fatty, before the Revolution even came all you did was push forward. The Red Flag rolls up in the wind while a shadowy evil chief whips. The remaining sixty percent mass who have been enslaved can only be freed by you guys. I can only eat potato and beef stew for the rest of my life.”
Swallow began panicking and started crying, “We’re already at this point, and you b*st*rds actually have the heart to chat? Hurry up and think of something.”
Right as we were talking, the brown bear suddenly stopped ramming into the tree. It sat down onto the ground and huffed. It appears that the brown bear had lost too much blood. On top of that, it had continuously been working itself. Even though it had incredible strength, when it ran out of energy, it would calm down from its craze. Afterwards, it decided to conserve energy and sat down to wait us out. Now it was a battle of will.
Yellow Chestnut saw how scary the brown bear was and didn’t dare get close enough to be bit. The dog sat far off to the side. It was also getting pretty hungry, but it remained loyal to its owner and didn’t go off to find its own food. Swallow felt bad for her own dog and whistled, telling it to get its own food. It was only then that Yellow Chestnut left.
The three of us began discussing strategies. However, even after thinking long and hard, we still couldn’t come up with any viable plans. Right now, the only plan we could think of was crawling down and fighting it head on with the shotgun. Without a doubt this was a suicidal plan. Most of the people in the village were gone so we couldn’t hope that someone would come and save us. So that we wouldn’t fall off the tree, we tied ourselves with our belts. Now it was just a matter of who could wait out who.
As a result, a stalemate was reached and this kind of situation was most unfavorable to the three people on the tree. We had already wasted a large amount of our stamina in the previous suspenseful human-bear fight and it was already almost nightfall. The three of us had not slept for days and only had a few pieces of corn flour biscuits to eat during the day. Exhausted and starving, it was likely that we would pass out from hunger and fall off the tree before the next morning.
This situation reminded me of a line from one of Chairman Mao’s poems: “Thousands of enemies strongly surrounded us, I still steadfastly stood my ground.” However, there were no flags and banners in sight below the hills, only a brown bear awaits.
As my thoughts ran wild, I unknowingly dozed off against the tree trunk. I didn’t know how much time had passed and I eventually woke up from the unbearable pain in my tummy due to hunger. The sky was already decorated with stars and a waning crescent moon. It was already late at night. The entire forest was silent. With the help of moonlight, I could tell that the brown bear under the tree was already long gone. I wasn’t sure when it left. But I couldn’t see well past the thick tree branches to locate if Swallow and Fatty were still on top of the tree, so I yelled loudly. “Swallow! Fatty! Are you guys still up there?”
I kept yelling for a few times, my voice echoed through the valley in the night, yet there was still no response from both of them. Even though I was I had a lot of guts, I still couldn’t help feeling scared when I was reminded by the fact that I was left all alone in the primeval forest. I thought in my heart that it was really mean of those two bastards to forget and leave without telling me.
I shouted twice again from the tree top and still, there was no movement. Panic stricken, I observed my surroundings and noticed flickering lights not too far from here. I didn’t expect anyone to be living in a place like this and wondered if both of them had also seen it and went towards the same light source to search for people.
I had lost my sense of direction in the darkness. I could only hear the sound of water. I looked up to locate the North Star. It seemed like the light came from the direction of Niu Xin Mountain so I slid down from the tree and felt my way along the darkness towards the light source.
I began to imagine that the owner of the light was a kind, warm and very hospitable old hunter with white beard who lived in the forest. Upon seeing a lost Educated Youth like me, he definitely would give me a warm reception– by offering a cup of warm tea to me first, then roasting a deer leg for me to eat…… The more I thought about it, the hungrier I became. I wiped away the trail of saliva from the corner of my mouth with my sleeve.
I arrived at the giant mountain cave very quickly as I thought about food. I could see a light deep within the cave. That was weird, the light I saw just before was not very far from me and now it seemed to be from deep inside the cave. Was I so hungry that my eyes had started playing tricks on me?
Driven by the tempting thought of roasted venison in my head, I entered the cave. I quickly walked in the darkness and discovered that the cave was deep and spacious. I suddenly spotted five or six young girls walking side by side with each other while chatting merrily up ahead. It was summer right now but they were dressed in a classy style with luxurious fur wrapped around them; it didn’t seem like they were dressed in modern-day outfits. The odd one out of the bunch was wearing khakis, her hair tied in twin tails and the slogan “To Serve for the People” was imprinted on the army green sling bag on her shoulder. Eh, wasn’t that Tian Xiao Meng?
I was right, that was definitely Tian Xiao Meng. She was the Educated Youth from Su Zhou while Fatty and I were from Fu Jian. Even though we were all Southerners, we were not really familiar with each other. To top it off, Fatty and I were troublemakers, so honest and quiet ladies usually kept their distances from us.
But to be able to meet acquaintances in a weird cave like this, I had a hunch as to what was going on. I quickly walked up to Tian Xiao Meng and asked her in a loud voice, “Xiao Tian, why are you here? Is there any food here?”
Tian Xiao Meng turned her head and waved as soon as she recognized me to signal me to come over. I approached her and said “So you were here playing all this time. We were almost eaten by brown bears while searching for you. What is this place? Do you have anything to eat? I’m famished.”
“I’m terribly sorry, it’s all my fault. I got lost while picking herbs in Lama Gou and was saved by these kind big sisters. They are going to be performing in the Shadow Play performance later. You’re just in time, let’s go watch it first before we go back,” Tian Xiao Meng said while gesturing to the few young ladies beside her. Judging from their way of speech, they sounded like locals. Their speeches were accented and they were very polite. I was even offered some dried venison to snack on and got invited to the show.
We followed them deeper into the vast cave only to discover that there was a busy town within it. The buildings were magnificent and the town was brilliantly illuminated. Mountains of antiques could be seen in the surroundings.
Paper lamps and white screen were set up in front of the city gates. around ten musicians playing the bronze drums were seated behind it. A traditional long table was placed in front of the stage, with a beautiful and elegant tea set placed on it. Aside from the tea set, an agate red-colored tray filled with fruits and snacks were also served on the table.
There were three chairs in front of the table. The ladies in marten fur coats led Tian Xiao Meng and I to the right and left seats respectively. It looked like the seat in the middle was reserved for the guest of honor.
When Tian Xiao Meng saw that there were only three seats and all the other audience were standing behind, she felt a little bad and tried to refuse the offer. But I couldn’t care less about formalities as I was already exhausted and starving. A seat was a seat; it didn’t matter who sat on it. So I sat down and started to feast on the food in front of me.
Perhaps I was too hungry. But, even though the food looked great, they were tasteless; it was as if I was eating wax. After a few bites, the more I thought about the taste, the stranger I felt.
A frail old lady who was dressed wealthily entered through the front door with two young ladies supporting her by her hands. She walked over and sat in the center seat. Tian Xiao Meng and I stood up to greet the host. I felt even stranger in my heart after seeing the old granny; why was there a landlady* in this time and day?
TL Note: This is right after the Cultural Revolution when all of the land lords were forced to give up their wealth.
The old granny nodded at us before she sat down and waited quietly for the performance to commence.
The young female attendant standing behind suddenly clapped her hands as a signal. Upon hearing the signal, the troupe of musicians and puppet masters worked together to put on their best performance. Shadow Play, which was also known as “Silhouette Show” was a popular cultural art that originated from the Han Dynasty. Figures of men and animals were carved from donkey leather and were given a life by the puppet masters behind a white translucent screen, accompanied by drum beats and other musical instruments. To date, there were already nearly a hundred plays written and performed.
However, this artistic form was naturally affected during the Cultural Revolution. It had been deemed as advocating for a time period of emperors, aristocrats and officers, so no one even dared to perform it any longer. I never thought that I would be able to see it with my own eyes today. The performance which was almost non-existent during the Cultural Revolution period was incredible. I was completely absorbed in the show and had forgotten about everything else.
The plays being performed in the Shadow Plays all had very exciting titles; first one being the “Tai Zhong* Sleepwalking in the Moon Palace” and then followed by “Di Qing** Seizing Kunlun Pass at Nightfall”。
*TL Note: A famous emperor during 1400-1448 China
**TL Note: A famous general from the Song Dynasty
The exhilarating display of the glint and flash of cold steel along with the clashing of soldiers onstage that was accompanied by the beats of the drums drew out continuous cheers from the audience. I too, watched the show in fascination and felt my throat dry up. As I reached out for a glass of water on the table, I unintentionally noticed the old granny beside me. She was watching the show joyfully while snacking on the fruit snacks on the table. The way she chewed her food looked extremely weird; much like how an old ape would.
My grandmother lost all her teeth in her old age, but she never ate this way for sure! Is this old granny a human or a monkey? In my nervousness, I dropped the glass in my hand and it shattered into pieces. The broken glass was no big deal compared to when the old granny’s head falling to the floor. Her eyes were still glued to the Shadow Play and her mouth was still chewing.
The old granny’s maid quickly picked up her head and respectfully put it back on her body.
I knew in my heart that this had to be a paranormal encounter, so I pulled Tian Xiao Meng and ran in the direction of the cave’s exit. We stumbled in the dark as we dashed out of the cave, endless loud rumbling noises echoed in our ears as the earth quaked. A great wall of stone formed at the mountain cave behind us. We could have been crushed alive in between those mountain walls if we had escaped half a minute too late.
The sky outside was already turning bright as I pulled Tian Xiao Meng and escaped to the stream at the foot of the mountain. There was a sudden strange pain in my stomach. The pain was so excruciating that cold sweat broke out on my forehead. I couldn’t help but squat down. Seemed like there was something wrong with the food that they fed us. I remembered that my grandfather mentioned that ghosts and monsters would turn things like stones, frogs or maggots into delicious food to deceive humans. I had no idea what we had ate just now. The more I thought about it, the more disgusted I felt and I really wanted to vomit.
In the midst of pain, I vaguely saw two people coming our way. The lady in the front looked a bit familiar. I let out a sigh of relief when I realized that she was Swallow before I passed out cold.
By the time I regained consciousness, it had already been three days. Swallow and Fatty stayed on the tree until the day broke. The brown bear under the tree had died due to excessive blood loss but there was no sight of me anywhere. They finally found Tian Xiao Meng and I laying unconscious by the river.
I had been in a comatose state for the past three days and was running a fever of about 40°C. Fatty ran a hundred miles of mountain road to seek medical attention from a doctor in the province. I was pretty strong physically, so I was able to recover. Xiao Meng however, never regained her consciousness so we could only ask her relatives to bring her home for treatment. None of us had a clue as to what had happened to her after that.
I told Swallow’s father about my unfortunate incident and he told me that what I encountered could have been the “Ghost City” or “Ghost Movie”. An urban legend that originated from the mountains stated that during the demise of the Empress dowager, a number of popular entertainers were buried alive along with her. Ever since then, some people had experienced the same incident as I did at Niu Xin Mountain.
But some of these events were hazy in my memories. Sometimes even I was unsure if they had really happened. My life as an Educated Youth lasted for only about half a year; it wasn’t a very long period of time, yet the memories that remained could never be erased for the rest of my life. When I went back home during spring of the Year 69, there was another huge turn of events in my life.