Chapter 18

Master Zhang Rides the Boat and Meets Holy Auntie
And Squire Hu Braves the Snow to Seek an Acquaintance

Interactions of five phases never have led anywhere
A bit of spirit lays ten thousand secret laws all bare!

They conjured up a river and a little boat to ride
Where else may such fairy spirits possibly reside?

As the story goes, Bonze Dan spit out water that changed into a river and Teacher Que cast down a gourd that became a skiff, and then they sought to persuade the county magistrate to join them. When he looked at the boat he saw that it was no longer than eight or nine feet and wondered how it could accomodate so many people, so he repeatedly declined. Bonze Dan let Zhang Ying get in first to sit in the middle, while he rode at the bow and Quezi at the stern. The three then waved goodbye to the magistrate. Zhang Ying held up that tortoise shell fan of his and with sails set to the wind a loud whistling sound arose and they appeared to fly off! And in the wink of an eye the boat and its water had both disappeared, leaving only the same scene of the path they had walked down, wall and gateway as before.

The magistrate just stood there in shock, eyes wide open and mouth speechless, as if he had been having a ghastly dream. Although Zhang had successfully taken the altar and made rain to relieve the suffering masses of people, he and the other two had also left the utmost reason to take care against future horrors! It was indeed hard to determine whether they were fairy immortals or heterodox, evil sorcerers. Fearing that they would be back to cause trouble he ordered the wulong altar be done away with.

Three days later the news had spread to all the counties in the district that a wandering Daoist had brought rain to Boping County. Now these other counties had also been in drought and one by one began preparing their own ceremonies and enquiring about him. The district governor himself sent a letter down to the county, where the magistrate was in no mood to deceive him and told everything. These shady fellows, he wrote, two wizards and a monk, had engaged in a sorcerers' duel at the rain altar, conjured up a river and a boat in which they embarked, and left behind a host of other weird occurances. The district governor was very unhappy with this news. Furthermore, Boping County alone had received enough rain and the others were all now extremely jealous, their magistrates appearing together before the governor.

"It's obvious that the place is a den of sorcerers!" accused one. "We don't want any dealings with them," shouted another, "because the evil set in motion there may infect our county!" shouted another. The governor listened and then issued strict orders for Boping County to report the names and whereabouts of any other visiting sorcerers. He also reported those strange events to the State Council, which in turn memorialized the Emperor. The entire greater capital area was then fearful of calamities to be caused by the sorcerers' party and notices went up ordering people encountering any traces of strange occurances to report them to the officials, stating that concealment of such things was not permitted. And so the capital had been alerted, and no wandering monks or wizards dared enter its gates. And here is a poem:

Conspiracy goes forward hand in hand with jealousy
The rainmakers stand helplessly accused of sorcery.

Prejudice and fear are so unrighteous and unfair
The lofty soul's a fisherman or woodcutter somewhere!

Now, let's continue with another thread of the story. Zhang Ying and the two others sailed before the wind in that small boat of theirs and in a wink landed on the riverbank. Bonze Dan led him and Quezi ashore and in a little while they arrived in a lush grove of cultivated bamboo where cranes and deer abounded, and within which they came upon a finely thatched grass hut.

"Is this where Teacher Dan practices Zen meditation?" asked Zhang.

"A mere lifetime is too impermanent for Zen!" answered Bonze Dan; "When I go to live among the clouds it all comes so naturally."

Zhang Ying sighed in admiration. Bonze Dan then had a word with Quezi.

"Now that Master Zhang is here, why don't we ask Holy Auntie to come and meet him?"

Quezi then turned his face towards the moon and shouted "H-o-l-y A-u-n-t-i-e!" three times without stopping, and as they watched a brilliant golden ray shot forth from the moon and changed into an old woman!

She appeared old and grey with snowy white hair and long eyebrows, wearing a Daoist star-crown and an overcoat trimmed with crane's down, a fast runner for her age who left no tracks, riding down as if on a gale! Zhang Ying had known at once that it was Holy Auntie and immediately fell to kowtow, giving his name and title. The old woman quickly addressed him as "master" and returned the greeting, and after a few moments they were expressing their mutual admiration. Holy Auntie saw that tremendous eight-foot height of Zhang's, his high stylish hairdo and face all red as if bursting with blood, his bright starry eyes and handsome body like no mortal man's, and she quietly pronounced him strange indeed.

That night beneath an idyllic moon the four of them went into the hut and sat together in council, Holy Auntie at the head followed by Zhang Ying, with Quezi by their side and Bonze Dan last in order, accompanying them. Holy Auntie first addressed a question to Zhang Ying.

"Have you ever met a young woman by the name of Mei'r?" she wanted to know.

Zhang Ying then began to tell how, thirteen years earlier, Mei'r had descended on the wind into that quiet garden, continuing to her being reincarnated and raised in the home of Squire Hu. He related all the details of everything that had happened and Holy Auntie expressed her deep gratitude.

"I'm sure it's because of your feeling for her that she's been constantly reborn as a human!" she said.

She then turned to Quezi.

"Remember what Yan Sandian told me? What a godly physician he is!"

"Do you by any chance mean Yan Banxian of Yizhou District?" asked Zhang Ying.

"Have you also happened to meet him?"

"Back in the capital I once stole a life-booster pill from an official's home and gave it to Squire Hu's wife Mama at childbirth, to get her past danger. At the time I learnt that it had come from the great physician Yan of the Banxiantang, but I've never met him. I know only the name."

Quezi interrupted them. "Why don't you cut the serious discussion and talk about some light stuff?"

Zhang Ying then brought up the matter of Beizhou, and Holy Auntie told him all about the dream in which she'd met Granny Wu Zetian. "This is already set in motion by Heaven and cannot be stopped!" she finally said.

Zhang Ying then mentioned the lines about a daughter of the Hu family becoming queen in an imperial house of Wang.

"The first part of the prophecy has come true with her rebirth in Squire Hu's family," he said, "but what about about her becoming queen of some Wang family's dynasty?"

"You'll find out in the days after we arrive in Beizhou!" said Holy Auntie.

"And just when do we start this undertaking?" asked Zhang.

"Fifteen years from now, and you, a Daoist master, will be the first. You'll get things started and then the others should arrive to assist you. We'll see what's fated to happen, and then we'll use all our strength to help things along in their course and ensure success!"

They talked for a long time and Bonze Dan told a novice to take care of tea. The graceful acolyte came forth bearing a red dish loaded with apricots bigger than pears and brighter than oranges.

"The golden apricots this youngster is serving are the same sort that Han Wudi loved best, and warriors today still call them Han Imperials. Now, enough talk; how about a spot of tea?"

There were eight slices on the plate, just enough for them to have two each. The young acolyte could only stand aside and watch them eat the delicious fruit. His mouth naturally began to water and the plate slipped from his hands, fell to the earthen floor and shattered. Bonze Dan was furious and picked up the novice with one hand, running him out of the hut and throwing him for a somersault in the night sky. Just as Zhang Ying was thinking of flying up to catch the boy he could already be seen and heard falling to earth with a sharp noise, and he just lay stretched out in silence. But when Zhang Ying looked closely he saw only a short carrying staff lying there, and what was more that broken red plate had changed into a bouquet of pomegranate flowers.

"Who dares wield an axe in front of the greatest carpenter of them all!" exclaimed Holy Auntie. This was clearly meant to imply that though Zhang Ying was likewise a wizard, he was still no match for the likes of one such as Bonze Dan.

"Master Dan's powers are truly miraculous, far beyond my own!" said Zhang Ying.

By this time the moon was waning in the western sky and the east was beginning to brighten with dawn's light. Holy Auntie rose up slowly from her place.

"I guess I'll be off to the capital now to check up on my daughter. In a little while I'll call you and we'll all get together again."

Having spoken she then soared up into the sky and was gone. Zhang Ying and the others each went on their own ways as well; nobody knows where. And here is a poem:

The moonlight on the hut of grass was pure as you could please
The so-called hermits all night long made council on their knees.

Then wandering at will within a perfect state of Dao
So many people long to learn such holy secrets now!

As has been written, Squire Hu invited a scholar into his home to teach Yong'r to read. The girl was intelligent and clever, superior to many boys, able to read after one look and to remember after being told only once. Suddenly we see her grown to thirteen years of age, with the beauty and bearing of a flower as well as mastery of writing and sums, incomparably perceptive and quick-witted.

Many of the other leading families of commerce so admired and loved her talent and beauty that they sought matchmakers to try and arrange her betrothal as their daughter-in-law. Squire Hu was too protective in his love, however, and was far too fussy in choosing among the candidates, and as a result no match could be made. That's just the way it is with your pre-destined marriages; sooner or later there will be somebody!

As things would have it Holy Auntie arrived in Dongjing, as the capital was known in those days, and gave Squire Hu's house a good looking over, inside and out. And as she left no traces coming or going his family would never know, either. Having seen with her own eyes how mature and intelligent Yong'r had grown she she got the idea of teaching and inducing her into the craft of secret law. She then pondered the wealthy home in which Mei'r was living, with the women's quarters deep inside its labyrinthine halls. How hard it would be to meet her, and even if they were able to talk she wondered if her daughter could take such teachings of the heart very seriously. Better that she make a little misfortune happen and snatch up the family's entire wealth and affairs in her hands, placing everything in peril and causing her daughter a bit of hardship and privation as a result, so that the girl would be sure to fall under the spell of the craft.

Now let's take our leave of Holy Auntie for now and get back to Squire Hu. It was now the eighth lunar month and as usual at this time his family was preparing a drinking party for the mid-autumn festival. It would be a private gathering for the three, as Professor Chen had left the household with Yong's reaching womanhood and no others were invited. Squire Hu instructed for the wine to be served at the octagonal pavillion in the rear garden, and father, mother and daughter enjoyed the scene together. The night sky was clear and bright and in the east the moon was just rising like a large jade dish. But beware:

Laurel from a mountain on an island in the sea
From Heaven's boulevards the flaming euptelia tree

Rosey clouds are mirrored brightly for ten thousand li
A silver moon illuminates the mountains like the sea.

That big white disc can separate and purify the sky
Dividing light from darkness in the cosmos up on high.

At mid autumn does a broken family reunite
Some secrets of the universe to be explained that night.

Silver shadows influence the open plains below
Awakening in fright a single lonely resting crow.

Its beams of light pass through a hidden window set so fine
On figure of a lonely sleeping spinstress do they shine.

That disc of ice has ground three thousand worlds into the sand
Its cold bright spirit dooming autumns all across the land!

Squire Hu finished work early that day, sent his managers away and went home to conduct the mid autumn festivities. He ordered the buildings and stables brightly decorated with strings of candles. He then sat drinking wine with Mama and Yong'r on that octagonal pavillion in back, with the old wetnurse looking on and a slavegirl serving; there were no pageboys to be seen. Suddenly at the stroke of the first watch a slight wind blew and what did they hear but the guard running over and shoutling wildly.

"Disaster, my lord!" he gasped upon reaching the pavillion.

"What disaster?" asked the surprised Squire Hu. "Where?"

"A fire's started in the middle warehouse!" answered the guard. Now Squire Hu, Mama and Yong'r were terrified, and on clamboring down from the pavillion they saw that it surely was a huge conflagration. How can it best be described?

First like fireflies in the night
Next came a glow like lanternlight.

Then flaming like the signal fires on Queen Bao's hills of old
Or Cao Cao's ship ablaze because of Zhou Yu's plan so bold.

Cloudy mist and blackish smoke soar up into the skies
From clouds of red down to the earth the flashing lightning flies.

Buildings all collapsing just like broken lantern frames
While earthen godowns fall like rocket racks amidst the flames.

After having broken out in the warehouse the fire spread to the rooms of the main hall. Now for a fire to spread so quickly takes some preparation, and as this particular blaze was created out of Holy Auntie's magic lightning from Heaven it could spread through windows and walls with ease, toppling the strongest uprights and beams. Even the powder on your average professional fireworks display doesn't go off and spread this fast! And she had combined it with a fierce wind: the gale behind the hungry flames drove them forward to devour all in their path so very ferociously! Squire Hu fell to the ground crying out bitterly, calling on spirits and fairies and summoning his ancestors.

He then ordered the nurse and slavegirl over to the servants' quarters to spread the word that a rich reward would be given to anyone fighting the fire. He also had the men and women of his own family enter the endangered house and rescue what family heirlooms and possessions, wicker trunks and drawers that they could. The neighbors crowded over to wield the hooks and axes and man the bucket brigade, climbing over the fire scene like ants on a fallen leaf, but there was no saving the place from the hungry flames. Within the hour a great ball of fire soared into the night sky with an accompanying earth-splitting roar, and the terrified crowd fled screaming. From front to back the entire compound was transformed in a single instant into a mass of flame and smoke, with heat so intense that no man or woman could go near. Mama and Yong'r just sat holding their heads in their hands and sobbing. Squire Hu was deeply touched by the sight of their tears and knelt to comfort them.

"There's nothing to fret over," he murmured optimistically. "When the flames are out we'll simply pick up and begin the second half of our lives!"

Then they only watched the leaping flames that roared and raged on and on the whole night through. It was all they could do to try and get some rest on that little pavillion, their only surviving property. Upon awakening at dawn they called on the assembled folks to help comb the site of the blaze. A number of people fanned out searching through the smoking rubble but soon their mouths and eyes were agape in disbelief, so complete was the destruction. It's commonly said that people may keep double accounts but Heaven's got a stricter set of books. Why, if Heaven were as sentimental as people, the world would soon be overflowing with humanity! Squire Hu still did not quite realize that this fire of Heaven's had not left a single inch-long blade of grass, to say nothing of the main hall, rear quarters, corridors, kitchen and scales rooms, all completely gone. He now instructed them to look for bits of gold, silver, tin and brass that may have survived the blaze merely covered with soot and might still be laying about in addition to the few family heirlooms and the little in baskets and trunks that had been saved, Little did he realize that Holy Auntie had stripped the place for the enrichment of those on high. So thorough had she been that not a trace of anything was to be found. Squire Hu, his wife and daughter just watched as the searchers and those he had placed in charge gave up and left.

Now, the nature of a wealthy mogul was always present in Squire Hu and thrift never completely relaxed its hold on him, so he had never spent his money on much of anything aside from coal. But now before very long his money was gone and there was no providing for their customary three meals a day. Well-intentioned friends and neighbors sent over a few dishes but gave it up shortly. They were driven to borrowing rice and kindling: one special occasion became twice, one day turned into three days and three days into nine, six months lengthened into a full year's anniversary and finally they had no more credit and nothing to eat or wear. Reduced to begging, they were eager to sell off parcels of their land to the adjoining two neighbors for cash.

"Land burnt over by Heaven's fire is ten years' barren!" they only objected. "Fires set by lightning leave the land dry and damaged for a decade!" Alas, such was the taboo on their treasured land! They were now dressed in rags, and when they went calling on old acquaintances everybody pretended not to be home. Once-familiar people no longer recognized them. When hailed on the street they would cover their faces with their fans, unable to bear looking at them. As the old saying goes, "Amidst the bustle of the town the pauper is alone; to a rich man in the mountains every relative is known!" And it is also said that "Spring winds are followed by summer rains!"

In normal times Squire Hu, who had been born into bitter poverty, could turn one coin into ten and ten into a hundred with his business acumen and so built his fortune. Self-made men like that are often reluctant to give out anything in the way of kindness or largess to others and prefer the company of their successful peers, and they prefer glib happy talk to utterances of pity. His old acquaintances from his wealthy days found him repulsive and he had no sympathetic and trusting friends like Guan Zhong and Bao Shuya of olden times. He was truly stuck in poverty and anyone considering helping him back up to his feet might themselves fear stigmatization and total ruin and be forced to reconsider.

Squire Hu thus continued living on the wide open pavillion. It was good enough on fair days but what could they do to protect themselves from wind, rain and snow? They had to go around begging for a place to live in like the free apartments for the lonely elderly of today. One day in mid winter, Shortly after moving into such solitary beggars quarters dark clouds gathered and a bitingly cold, fierce wind blew up, bringing with it out of the heavens a heavy and continuous blizzard. What can we make of that great snowfall? Consider:

Like willow fluff and goosedown do the flakes go flying by
As whitest gulls and egrets in their flocks play in the sky.

Jade inlays in the mountains tempt the woodcutter astray
And chasing riches breaks so many hearts along the way!

The poor man shivering in cold prays God would end the stuff
While princes dream of winter scenes and hope there'll be enough.

Although it's said that heavy snow ensures a banner crop
For sake of Changan's huddled poor could Heaven make it stop?

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