Special thanks to The Green Chick, who practically deserves a co-author credit. All of the Lao-Tse comes from Stephen Mitchell’s beautiful translation of the Dao De Jing.
The first night of the new moon, a stranger came to the monastery. He was guai lo, a white devil, tall even by their reckoning, and he looked haggard and scared.
"Fetch Brother Xiao," the abbot ordered. Xiao had been raised in Beijing, and spoke some of the guai lo’s languages. The novices who had clustered by the gate ran back towards the temple, their dark robes flapping behind them. The guai lo waited out in the road, shivering into the blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
Xiao came out to examine the stranger: pale skin, dark circles under his eyes, brown hair worn long in an old-fashioned style. Not the sort of man he had known in his youth, but since the Fist of Righteous Harmony had begun their revolt, all sorts of strange foreigners were fleeing Beijing. "Ni shi yinguoren ma?" he asked, and when he got no response, he tried it in translation. "You are English?"
The stranger’s face lit up. "English, yes, I speak English." His accent was strange to Xiao’s ears.
"What do you want?"
"Sanctuary," he whispered.
"I do not know this word."
The stranger frowned. "Sanctuary? It is a safe place. Do you know ‘safe’? I need cover."
"We have a guest house. You may stay there tonight." Xiao motioned to one of the novices, who lifted the heavy bar.
"Thank you. Thank you," the stranger said, and he stumbled through the gateway.
As he crossed the monastery’s threshold, a deep and ululating wail came up from the ground itself. The monks looked at each other in confusion and fear, but the abbot raised his arms and chanted an incantation. There was a noise like thunder, and the stranger was thrown to the other side of the road as the gates slammed shut again.
"Xiang shi," said the abbot, and turned to go.
The monks were looking at the stranger and the abbot, whispering in each other’s ears: they couldn’t have heard that right, could they? The stranger had already scrambled to his feet and was hurrying back to the gates. "Please," he said.
"Is this true?" Xiao asked. "You are xiang shi?"
"Xiang shi." The stranger seemed to know this much Chinese, at least. "Vampire. Yes, yes I am. But --"
"Tell him to leave this place now," the abbot said, "or I will strike him down."
"Our abbot is very strong in the Dao," Xiao warned the vampire. "If you do not try to harm us, he will not destroy you."
"I’m… I’m not like the others. Please. I don’t mean anyone any harm. I just need a place to stay when the sun comes up. I don’t… I won’t hurt anyone here. I won’t." He said the last words with a fervency that made Xiao notice yet again how sick he looked.
"Xiang shi feed on humans," shouted one of the novices at the back of the crowd. "Send him away."
"What can you live on if not human blood?" Xiao asked the stranger, who was now stealing glances at the sky, worrying over the coming dawn.
"Do you have rats? I can eat them. I can clear them out, earn my keep? Please."
"How is it that you say you do not hunt us? Is it not in your nature?"
The stranger looked pained, and tried to explain. "I have been cursed with a soul. I may be xiang shi, but I know right from wrong now."
Xiao looked into the stranger’s red-rimmed eyes and decided to believe him. "Wait." He ran after the abbot, who had headed back to the temple, and relayed what he had heard.
Abbot Wu was intrigued. "He is xiang shi, but his higher soul has been restored to him? This is unprecedented. If it is true." He thought for a moment. "We cannot risk turning him away if it is. We will protect ourselves, but he must come in." And the abbot returned to the gate, spoke another incantation, and gestured for the vampire to come across the threshold.
"Xie-xie nin," he said humbly, bowing to the abbot.
"You do speak a little Chinese, then," Abbot Wu said. "That will make this easier." The vampire shook his head, trying to signal that he did not understand, but the abbot just smiled and gestured again.
The monks moved away from the gate as the vampire entered, but followed a few yards behind the tall foreigner and the abbot as they moved across the broad stone courtyard, past the temple on the right and the larger living quarters on the left, back to the monastery’s gardens and the small stable building. There, the abbot took a knife and a cup from the worktable and cut a wound in the throat of one of the oxen. The beast bellowed as the blood poured into the cup, but the abbot never stopped smiling. "Make sure the wound heals correctly," he said to one of the monks in the crowd, and the man ran to the beast, soothing it with words and pressing a hand to the injury. The abbot brought the cup to his new guest and urged him with his hands to drink. The vampire’s face registered confusion, surprise, and gratitude in rapid succession, and he drained the cup quickly and bowed again. His hands trembled as he handed back the cup, but Xiao thought he looked a bit less tired.
"Xiao, explain to him that he will stay in the cellars; he can take straw from here to make a pallet if he likes," the abbot ordered. "I will take him to a room and cast wards around it myself. Tomorrow, you will translate for me again, and we will teach him more of our language. I want to learn how he comes to be here, and how he could possibly be what he says he is. There may be things that we are meant to learn from him."
"As you wish, Master," Xiao said as humbly as he could. He was torn between astonishment at the abbot’s decision and delight that he was to assist him in this work. For all that Xiao believed in his vocation, there were times when following the Way could be more deathly dull than blessedly serene.
"And find out his name; it will just make the younger boys jumpy if we’re calling him by ‘xiang shi’ all the time."
Xiao did as he was told, and before Abbot Wu took the creature to his basement cell, he told the assembled monks that he had made the xiang shi a proper Chinese name out of his strange foreign one: Ang-Nuo.
The second night of the new moon, Brother Xiao followed his abbot down into the cellars of the monastery’s living quarters, where dark rooms held their stores. The abbot stopped at the only shut door, knocked twice, and entered. Ang-Nuo rolled off his pallet and into a standing defensive crouch in what seemed to Xiao no more than the blink of an eye; then, realizing who his visitors were, he stood up straight and relaxed a bit. Abbot Wu gestured to Xiao, who brought forward a cup of oxblood the abbot had had drawn; Ang-Nuo bowed and drank it down in two quick gulps, his dark brown hair falling down in front of his round eyes.
"Did you sleep well?" the abbot asked. Xiao translated.
"Yes. Thank you. And thank you for… for the blood, as well."
"The abbot says to say xie-xie, if you will; he would like you to learn more Chinese so he can speak with you directly."
Ang-Nuo looked startled. "Why would he want to do that?"
"He is interested in you," Xiao said simply. The abbot’s interests were wide-ranging for a man with a monastic vocation; he felt that it was through a thorough understanding of the world that one could best rid oneself of desire for worldly things. He loved to take the novices on long walks through the countryside, teaching them about the equilibrium of nature and how to spot a demon’s tracks. "Abbot Wu does not think you arrived here by accident."
"I didn’t set out to find this place, I swear…"
"I believe you. But my abbot thinks that by finding what you were not looking for, you may have found what you sought." The vampire looked confused. "It will take some time for you to understand our beliefs. Should you choose to learn. But the abbot has questions for you now, should you wish to stay here through tomorrow’s sunrise or longer."
"Stay? I could…?" Xiao nodded, and the vampire smiled, and nodded exaggeratedly at Abbot Wu, to show he agreed. The abbot clapped his hands together once and smiled back.
"The most important question, I think," said Xiao, "is if there is anyone who might be looking for you. We might not survive an attack by a pack of xiang shi if we are taken unawares."
A shadow passed over Ang-Nuo’s face. "No one will be looking for me. I left them all behind in Peking, and they’ll not be coming after me now."
"Not even to kill you?"
"I’m dead to them already," he said flatly, and Xiao shivered. But when he translated for his abbot, the older man just nodded, and asked another question.
"You were in Beijing, then?" Xiao over-enunciated the proper pronunciation of the name.
"Yes. That’s where the rest of – we called ourselves a family," he said, and laughed bitterly. "A family! A pack of wolves, more like."
"They also have higher souls, like you?"
"No. I’m the only one. That’s why they wouldn’t have me stay."
"Where were you going?"
"I – I just left. I had to leave Beijing." He stumbled a bit on the unfamiliar pronunciation, but he’d caught the hint. "It’s a difficult time to travel, and I have very little money. I hid in a cart that I thought would take me south towards Shanghai for two nights, and then I was found. I have been on the road alone, finding shelter where I could, for four days since."
"We are still a long way from Shanghai, Ang-Nuo."
"Well, yes." A smile twitched at the side of his mouth. "I had figured that much out myself."
"How is it that you are the only one of your kind with a higher soul? We are taught that it leaves the body at death."
"It does. Mine did."
The vampire sighed, and sat back down on his pallet. "It’s a long story."
"Abbot Wu and I will stay here all night if need be. Please, begin at the beginning."
And so he did.
Xiao had not lived a righteous life before he came to the monastery; the teachings of the Dao had found him after the law had, when he met his first teacher in a Beijing jail. He had stolen and worked at gambling houses and sold opium to the guai lo. But he could not have imagined a story like the one Ang-Nuo now told. He spoke slowly at first, as if the words cost him great effort, and when he stopped, Xiao would prompt him by providing the Chinese word for something he had said. Travel. Fight. Kill. The abbot’s expression never changed from one of sympathetic curiosity, and Ang-Nuo seemed to derive some courage from that: the story came from him more easily as it continued. Xiao was enthralled, imagining this creature before him, so tired and sad, as he once was, as he strode across foreign countries wreaking havoc, causing terror. And the woman he described, the one who had turned him into a xiang shi, the one who had been with him so often: the way he spoke of her made it clear he desired her even as he despised her, and Xiao’s mind was aflame with the image of her, ghost-pale skin and lovely form and seductive laughter.
"…She told me that I needed to prove I could still be what I had been. And I -- I couldn’t. And she told me I disgusted her. So I took the child, and I left. The rest you already know."
"Where is the child now?" Xiao asked.
"With the Methodists, in Beijing. I took him there. I saved him."
"There is no ‘saved’ among the missionaries in Beijing," Wu said, "not now. The child is most likely dead."
Ang-Nuo started as if he’d been slapped. "Oh, no. No. I didn’t… I suppose I should have known, but I…" He bowed his head and turned away.
Abbot Wu sat quietly for a long moment, regarding his guest with a thoughtful expression. Finally, he spoke, and he gestured to Xiao to translate for him.
"Had another man told me he had heard this story, I would think he had been fooled by an especially crafty xiang shi looking for a meal. But I see your behavior and I hear your voice, and I cannot believe you are lying to me." He paused for a moment, watching Ang-Nuo intently, before he continued. "You may stay till you regain your strength, and then we will help you get to the train station in Jinan so you can continue south to Shanghai. Or, if you want, you can stay on here as a student. Daoism teaches that there are two opposing forces, yin and yang, which structure the five elements of the universe. The true Way, the Dao, exists in the balance between them." Wu’s voice became gentle as he continued. "Your soul is new to you, and you have not found your way yet. Perhaps we can help you learn to find that balance."
"Thank you. I would welcome that," Ang-Nuo said. "I am honored by your generosity."
"It does not come without conditions," the abbot warned. "First: though I can never make you a monk of our order, as long as you are here you will live as one, and obey my commands completely."
"That seems fair."
"Second: you will give me your solemn oath that you will never harm a single person within these walls, and that as long as you are here, you will never kill a human."
The vampire nodded solemnly and met the abbot’s eyes. "You have my word."
"Excellent. Tomorrow, we will begin your lessons." Wu rose, and the other two followed suit. "Is there anything you need before then?"
"No. I’ve been – it’s good to be able to rest in safety."
"Good. Then, may I ask one favor of you?"
"Yes. Of course. What can I do?"
"Lean forward," said the abbot. Puzzled, Ang-Nuo leaned over until he was almost eye-to-eye with the shorter man. Abbot Wu reached into the sleeve of his hassock and pulled out a piece of parchment on which some characters were scrawled in red, licked the back, and stuck it to Ang-Nuo’s forehead. Startled, the other man tried to pull away, only to find himself frozen in place where he stood.
"What – what have you done?" he managed to sputter.
Abbot Wu pulled the parchment from the vampire’s forehead. Released from the charm, Ang-Nuo fell backwards onto his pallet again, and the abbot laughed. "Thank you. I always wondered if that really worked."
Later that night, when he returned to his own bed, Brother Xiao dreamt of rutting with Ang-Nuo’s demon woman on a bed of corpses. He awoke from the dream with his heart pounding, terrified and disgusted and aroused.
In the morning, after meditation, the abbot was a flurry of activity in the courtyard, going from building to building, making things happen. Xiao stayed in the temple until the dinner bell rang, breathing in the incense, letting the disquiet from his dream fall away. Then after a meal of rice and vegetables with his brothers, he joined the abbot once again in the cellars.
"Xiao, can you ask them, do they not have a longer robe?" Ang-Nuo, released from his magically warded room, was now seated on a barrel in the cellar’s wide hallway, the torches on the walls around him all lit for the first time Xiao could remember. The abbot and two other monks were down there with him.
Xiao had to laugh; the way he was sitting, the robe barely covered the Westerner’s knees. "You are too tall; I do not think there is enough fabric in the entire monastery to make you a robe long enough."
Ang-Nuo started to protest, and then, thinking better of it, just shrugged. "It’s not like anyone else will see me like this, I suppose. But between this robe and the hair, I’m starting to feel grateful I don’t have a reflection." His hand went up to his long brown hair, and he smoothed it down pensively. "Darla always liked my hair worn loose. She said it made me look… It…" His eyes turned glassy with remembrance.
"Well," Xiao said loudly, clapping his hands with a cheerfulness he did not feel, "then it is good to leave that behind you, as you start a new life here, is it not?" That brought Ang-Nuo out of his reverie; he dropped his hands and nodded gratefully.
"I’ve done so – so much wrong. And you are all so good to me. I hope I can… I hope I can be what you want me to be."
"No one here wants you to be anything other than who you are, Ang-Nuo."
Ang-Nuo didn’t respond to that; he just gave Xiao a smile, small and tight and entirely unconvinced. Brother Wei picked up his shears and began to cut off the xiang shi's hair.
"…So we arrive at a paradox: to study the Dao is not to know it at all. The more you talk of it, the less you understand."
"That sounds like the sort of thing Drusilla would say," Ang-Nuo replied, and his smile, though small, was a real one.
The abbot looked at him skeptically, and quoted a passage from Lao-Tse. "When a foolish man hears of the Dao, he laughs out loud." Xiao grimaced an apology as he translated.
"I’m sorry. Please, tell him I didn’t – I don’t -- mean to be disrespectful. I, uh, well, Dru was right, most of the time, if you understood her."
Xiao remembered Drusilla from the previous night’s stories. A seeress. Ang-Nuo had made her a xiang shi as well, but not before he made her insane. There was tenderness to his voice when he spoke of her that Xiao preferred not to think of.
"To know the Dao, we study the teachings of the ancient masters. We learn from their words. But we cannot know the Dao truly if we have not experienced its truth within ourselves. And so we meditate." Abbot Wu smiled and made a wide, sweeping gesture as he continued. "There are as many ways to meditate as there are blades of grass on a hillside. Walking meditations. Standing meditations. Sitting meditations. For the ancient masters, all actions were a meditation, because everything they did, they did through the Dao. Their paths were clear as light to them. The rest of us – well, we have to practice. The brothers of this order share our sitting meditation every morning from sunrise to midday; we work at tasks on the land or in our buildings from the midday meal till dinner; the evenings we spend in meditation or study. You can join the work in this building in the afternoons, no?"
"Yes. I don’t need to sleep all day; I just need to stay out of the sun."
"Good. Brother Wei here –" Wei nodded to him, and Ang-Nuo bowed his head in response, "he teaches the novices. You will study with him as well until he says he can teach you nothing more. Xiao will work with you to help you learn more Chinese, and I look forward to being able to speak with you directly."
"As do I, sir."
"Sir?" The only translation Xiao had been able to come up with was a title for a nobleman. "That is not what you should call anyone here. You may call me Wu Laoshi."
"That means Teacher Wu," Xiao added.
"Wu Lah-shurr," Ang-Nuo repeated back.
"He’s going to need a lot of practice," Wei said.
"The guai lo always do," Xiao replied, and he was surprised at the defensive sharpness in his own voice.
Abbot Wu shrugged. "Never mind; it will come to him in time. It is past nightfall: let us all return to the temple together."
And so Xiao’s days took on a new rhythm. His mornings remained the same: meditating with his brothers in the temple, the centering peace he found there now his day’s one great luxury. His afternoons had once been spent out in the monastery’s gardens, tending to the vegetables, fruits, and herbs grown for the monks’ meals. Now they were spent in the monastery’s living quarters; his afternoons began with Wei and the novices, translating for the strangest of Wei’s students, and ended at a calligrapher’s desk, helping with the monks’ laborious record-keeping and listening for the sound of sandals running on stone that would tell him he was once again needed for his English.
Ang-Nuo did not join the monks at their dinner; he returned to his room in the cellars. Every second day the brothers who watched the animals would bring him blood to drink. He would thank them and shut the door, and return the empty cup to the stables later that night. He had told Abbot Wu that feeding every other day would be more than enough for him, but Xiao knew that the cooks called him the Demon Rat-killer.
After dinner, Xiao went to Ang-Nuo’s cellar room and if the weather was clear, they would sit out on the broad stone steps of the monastery’s living quarters, speaking in a mixture of English and Chinese that Xiao reassured himself was slowly becoming more Chinese with every passing day. Mostly they spoke of small things: the heat as spring turned to summer, the antics of the young novices, a phrase from Lao-Tse that Ang-Nuo had just learned. After a little while, Ang-Nuo would go to the temple to meditate. Xiao went most nights as well, but as often as not, he came up with some excuse to go back to the living quarters beforehand, just for a moment, so he would not have to share his meditations with the xiang shi. Human novices were twitchy and restless, the life forces within them not yet in balance; Ang-Nuo was utterly still, and that was somehow even more distracting.
One night near midsummer, Xiao chose not to return to the temple. His bones ached from too much sedentary work, and he didn’t think he could concentrate in the still close heat of the temple. Instead, he found a torchlit flat spot out on the courtyard, stripped to his undergarments, and assumed the opening pose of his taiji-qian regime. The buzzing tension in his head disappeared as he focused on each position in turn, grounding himself in his body, honoring its connection to the forces that move the universe as his muscles uncoiled and his breath deepened.
"What are you doing?"
Xiao dropped out of the pose and tried to let go of his annoyance. "Why are you not inside?"
Ang-Nuo shrugged. "All this sitting, it’s very hard for a man used to action. I get… itchy. And I can’t stop thinking --"
"It’s hard for all beginners," Xiao interrupted. "You get used to it." He remembered learning to sit in the noise and stench of the jail, how unbearable it had felt to do nothing before it became natural.
"I know. That’s what Wei told me too. But, when I couldn’t sit any more, I looked for you. And you hadn’t come in, so – what was that you were doing, before?"
"Taiji-qian. It’s a sort of physical training that was created for Daoist monks many centuries ago."
"I’ve never seen anyone here doing something like that before."
"It’s usually practiced in the early hours of the morning."
"Oh." Ang-Nuo’s face took on the shuttered, inward look Xiao already knew well, but that quickly changed to confusion. "Then why you are doing it now?"
"I had other things I needed to take care of this morning." Xiao’s dreams were sapping him of sleep, and a few more moments in bed had seemed more inviting than following old Mingzhu through the movements in the dawn cold.
"Oh. So you don’t have to do it in daylight, really? If, uh, you couldn’t?"
Xiao sighed. There were times his charge reminded him of a small child. "Fine. I’ll teach you." Ang-Nuo grinned, a huge smile that spread across his whole face, and Xiao couldn’t help smiling back. "But before I do, Ang-Nuo, let me explain: this is not just a way to stretch your muscles. Taiji-qian trains you to move with focus and clarity, the mind and body acting in harmony – it should be another form of the same doing not-doing that makes you itchy in the temple."
"But if you can not-do without, you know, doing nothing…" Ang-Nuo sighed. "I used to hunt almost every night, stalking the streets, chasing… chasing people, I liked the chase." He closed his eyes against the memory and shook his head. When he looked at Xiao again he spoke in a firm voice. "I haven’t even walked further than from the temple to the main building and back again in weeks. I won’t be what I was again, Xiao, I won’t. But I swear to you, if I don’t get to move about I think I’ll go mad."
"Very well, then. Get ready." Ang-Nuo took off his robe and stood before him in his long brown drawers. He was no longer the frail creature he had been when he arrived: although he was still as pale as a ghost, his body had become thick and muscular. "Stand as I stand; feet at shoulder width, arms loose, spine straight. Look inside yourself, as you do when you sit in the temple: find your center. Now plant your feet firmly on the ground. Feel yourself connected to the spirit of the earth, to its energy. We start all of our movements from the feet; you will want to use that power."
That night, Xiao dreamt that he and Ang-Nuo were chasing their terrified prey across dark Beijing streets. They cornered a couple, both young and beautiful and wealthy, in a corner behind a tavern. Ang-Nuo ran possessive hands up and down the woman’s body, and Xiao laughed as her screams blended into the drunken party going on inside. As he leaned in to consume the young man in his own arms, Xiao woke with a start. He stood and went to his window, hoping the night air would help blow the images out of his head. In the wide courtyard, lit only by one torch, Ang-Nuo continued to step through the movements of the basic form Xiao had taught him. His white skin glowed in the firelight, and there was a feral grace to his turns and bends. The scene was so dreamlike Xiao wondered for a moment if he were still asleep. The story of Zhuang Zi’s dream of the butterfly floated back to him then, and his face twisted into an unamused smile. Am I a monk dreaming he is a vampire, he wondered, or a vampire dreaming that he is a monk?
The first night of the next new moon, Brother Xiao found himself being called to the abbot’s table at dinner. He was surprised by this honor, though he told himself later that he should not have been surprised at all to learn that it was because the abbot wanted to discuss with him the progress of his xiang shi.
"He is not my xiang shi, surely," Xiao protested in as calm a voice as he could manage. "I have taken on the role of translator for him, true, but that was at your request, Master."
"Indeed it was," said the abbot. "But I thought he had become your friend as well?"
"I do not think that xiang shi have friends."
"Xiang shi do not study the Dao, either. But Brother Wei tells me this one is doing quite well with it."
"Wei would know better than I do."
"But I wish to know for myself, Xiao. How are his studies of Chinese coming along?"
Xiao considered this for a moment. "He continues to improve," he said at last. "He needs my help less and less, and he is starting to be able to have conversations with the other monks here on his own."
"Excellent news. Then he will converse with me tonight." Xiao must have looked alarmed at this declaration because the abbot added, "You can join us, of course, if you think it will be helpful."
Xiao did, and so he and the abbot went to the cellars together that night. Ang-Nuo’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of Abbot Wu, and he bowed. "Wu Laoshi. I am honored by your presence."
"Your Chinese has gotten much better, Ang-Nuo," said the abbot.
Ang-Nuo ducked his head at the compliment. "Nali, nali; Brother Xiao is very patient with me."
"Patience is an important part of our practice."
"I am learning that, Wu Laoshi."
"This evening in the temple, we shall be patient together, Ang-Nuo."
"I am at your disposal, Wu Laoshi." Ang-Nuo bowed again, and gave one of his small half-smiles.
In the temple, Abbot Wu lit candles at the altar and at the feet of an old stone goddess, and then motioned for his newest acolyte to join him in a far corner. Xiao could feel the eyes of the other monks on them as they crossed the long wooden floor together. As they settled themselves onto their seating mats, the abbot turned to Ang-Nuo and said, "You do not breathe?"
"No. I… I take air in to speak, and to smell, but I don’t need to."
"We usually have the novices start with breath meditations; they are a good place to begin our practice."
"I found it hard to remember to breathe when I tried that, Wu Laoshi."
"Hmm. I see. What does Brother Wei have you do instead?"
"He told me to meditate on a word, or a concept, or a teaching."
Wu considered this, and nodded. "Good. What is your current meditation?"
Ang-Nuo looked uncomfortable to be asked the question, but after a long moment he said, "Compassion."
Wu smiled, and nodded again. "An excellent choice. Let us begin."
Xiao settled on to his mat, his legs crossed in front of him and his hands resting lightly on his lap. He had been mortified to hear the abbot refer to breath meditation as a novice’s technique; it was the method his first master had taught him for centering himself every time he sat, and he still used it. Not all of the abbot’s teachings needed to apply to him equally, he told himself; not all of them would. He closed his eyes and breathed in.
He began by focusing on the movement of his breath into his chest and down through his body. When his lungs were full he breathed out again, concentrating on the sensation of release. Slowly, the room, the incense, the stares of his brothers, everything began to fade as his attention turned further inward. His breaths became deeper and more regular. He envisioned the Dao itself filling his heart with each inhale, spreading itself across his limbs with each breath out, spilling out through his skin and --
"Is this how you meditate?"
Xiao’s came back to outward consciousness with a start, astonished and ashamed, to find that the abbot had been speaking to Ang-Nuo.
He shrank into himself under the abbot’s examination. "I -- I…"
Wu shook his head and waved an arm dismissively. "This is not the posture of a monk seeking the truth, Ang-Nuo. This is the posture of a warrior."
"I was a warrior," Ang-Nuo said sharply.
"And you wish to be one now?"
Ang-Nuo looked down at that, and said nothing.
"You are still fighting. Who is your enemy now?" Wu’s voice had gotten louder, and the monks sitting nearby had given up even the pretense of not staring at the scene. Ang-Nuo did not respond, and the abbot repeated himself more sharply. "Who is your enemy, Ang-Nuo?"
Xiao heard a sharp intake of breath from one of the monks behind him, but the abbot’s expression softened at this response. "The demon. It calls to you."
"And you fight it."
Ang-Nuo was startled by the question. "Why? Well, I… I don’t want to hurt anyone."
"And to do that, you hurt yourself?"
"I don’t hurt myself – I just do what I have to do."
Wu looked hard at him, as though he were trying to solve a puzzle. "Is Brother Wei so poor a teacher?"
"What?" Ang-Nuo looked up at this. "Wu Laoshi, no. He has helped me a great deal."
"But we have failed you if you cannot see that fighting the demon makes it stronger."
Ang-Nuo looked tired and skeptical. Wu placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and quoted Lao-Tse again. "‘If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die.’ To escape the thing you fear, you must acknowledge it. When you meditate, your thoughts and emotions are like the clouds in the sky – you see them, but they are separate from you, and they pass by without touching you. When you feel the xiang shi upon you as you meditate, then, let it come. Sit and observe its presence. Let it come and then, in its turn, it will go. If you are afraid of it, it will retain its power over you forever."
"Let it come, Ang-Nuo. I am not afraid."
There was a noise like a parasol opening, and Ang-Nuo changed. Xiao was transfixed. He had never seen a xiang shi’s true face before except in pictures in the monastery library, and those wood-carved images could never capture the experience of seeing a face he had come to know well shift into something else, something inhuman, with a protruding ridged forehead and long sharp teeth. Off to Xiao’s left, a monk scrambled to his feet and ran out.
"Very good," said Abbot Wu. "Now, return to your meditation."
The xiang shi’s bright yellow eyes turned to him in confusion.
"Go on," the abbot said. "You know what to do."
Ang-Nuo looked shocked, but he placed his claw-like hands back in his lap, and slowly once again closed his eyes.
The abbot looked for the first time at the other monks who were still watching the scene. "Do you think you will find enlightenment by watching another walk the path?" he asked, and settled back on his own mat.
Xiao closed his eyes, but his heart was pounding and he found it more difficult than usual to keep his concentration on his breath. After what seemed an unbearably long time, he broke off the attempt and opened his eyes again. Ang-Nuo still sat beside him, but he had shifted back to his human form, and there was no sign in the calm of his expression that he had ever been anything else. Xiao watched him there for a long time, and his sleep that night was dreamless.
It was after that night, Brother Xiao would later realize, that things began to change. He did not notice the changes at first, since they were small ones: the monks who already avoided Ang-Nuo did so more assiduously, while the ones who stared and whispered seemed even more transfixed by him. Ang-Nuo himself was much the same: quiet and tentative, a ghostly figure a head taller than even the tallest monk. But although his smile grew no wider, it was more frequent, and he spoke less hesitantly when Brother Wei asked his students a question. It was not long before Xiao was able to stop attending classes as Ang-Nuo’s translator, and to resume his work in the monastery gardens in time to help with the early harvest, and with preserving their crops for the winter ahead.
He still spoke with Ang-Nuo each evening after dinner: it had become as much a ritual as anything, a breathing space in his day before the evening meditations, and after all Ang-Nuo’s Chinese was still far from perfect. One night, Abbot Wu had even seen them on the broad steps of the monastery’s living quarters and joined their discussion. Before long, Wu’s answers to Ang-Nuo’s questions about the writings of Zhuang Zi had drawn other monks to listen in, and to ask further questions, and soon a large discussion was underway. Xiao looked over to Ang-Nuo and saw that although he had not moved from his spot at Wu’s left, he was somehow at the edge of the group. He was sitting very still, as was his way, and clearly working to follow the conversation as it became more animated. Xiao caught his eye, and Ang-Nuo smiled at him and raised his eyebrows, an expression of complicitous amusement so unexpected that Xiao laughed out loud. Ang-Nuo’s face was blank again by the time Wu had finished chiding Xiao for his disruption, but Xiao thought that, just for a second, he might have seen Ang-Nuo smirk at him.
But it was another night, under a bright full moon, when everything changed for good. Xiao and Ang-Nuo were again in their familiar place on the steps: they had talked for longer than usual as Ang-Nuo tried to describe a demon that did not exist in China, a wolf-man brought to life by the moon’s phases, when he held up a hand for silence. "I hear horses," he said. "A few of them, and no wagon."
Days could pass between the times a horse came down the road from Laiwu, even in broad daylight, and they were almost always beasts of burden carrying a merchant and his wares. Xiao wondered if Ang-Nuo might have some sort of moon madness himself, but then he heard the sound too, a faint echo in the dark. The two of them looked at each other for a moment and then ran to the monastery gates to watch for the riders.
As the noise grew louder, Xiao realized that the horses were moving fast, too fast even on a night so luminous. The hammer of hooves sounded like a raceway and he wondered how the riders could find their way in the dark. Then, as they came around the bend to the black iron gates, the horse hooves pounding loud enough that a few other monks had come out of the living quarters to see what was going on, he saw how they managed it. They carried torches.
The first rider -- one of two torchbearers -- stopped at the gates and wheeled around to face them as the other four joined him. All five were long-haired and bearded and dirty, like peasants from the west, but they wore armor breastplates and helmets no peasant would ever have.
"Greetings, brothers!" the first rider called out.
"Now isn’t he a friendly one," Ang-Nuo muttered in English.
Xiao glanced back at the monastery buildings. More of the monks were gathering at the doorways, but he could not tell if the abbot was among them. "What do you want?"
"What do we want? We want as you do, honored brother – to be at one with the Universe itself." The rider smiled, showing brown teeth behind his long moustache. "Until that time, we’ll be satisfied with your food and your gold."
"We have no gold here, my friend." Xiao peered through the iron bars at the horsemen. He could barely see them on the other side of the torchlight. "But the abbot of this house is a powerful magician. Leave, and you’ll be safe."
"Leave?" The man laughed. "Monastery life must make men soft in the head as well as the belly. Zhang, show our friend what we think of his superstitions and magics."
The second torchbearer tipped his light to the rider furthest back in the group. Something blazed in the darkness, then flew – an arrow with a tip covered in burning cloth. It landed on the sloping wood roof of the temple, which quickly began to smoke.
"So much for your magical protection."
"The abbot will --"
"If he doesn’t want to see this entire place turned to ash, the abbot will give us your harvest and your riches, and he’ll thank us for it. Zhang, again!" Another arrow landed close to the first, and now there were flames, and smoke coming from inside the temple, and frantic shouting. Xiao could hear the fire bell sounding behind them.
"Don’t be a fool," he said, his heart pounding against his chest. "There are forty of us to five of you, and if our buildings burn it is nothing to us. But we will defend this place from evil to the death."
"To the death?" the man said, and laughed. "If you insist."
There was a loud noise, and Xiao was pulled down and over, behind the wall at the right side of the gates. His left arm was warm and itchy.
"Guns," Ang-Nuo hissed. "Damn it! I should’ve seen them. Where are you hit?"
"Hit? I --"
"You’re bleeding, Xiao. I can smell it. It’s your arm? Can you move it?" Xiao nodded. "Good." Ang-Nuo’s face changed. "Hold the wound tightly to slow the blood. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of our visitors."
He was already gone, jumping to the top of the tall stone wall around the monastery in one inhumanly long movement. "I wouldn’t try that gun on me," he called. "They just make me irritable." Another gunshot in reply, and then he was over. Xiao crawled back towards the gates on his stomach, trying to see what was happening.
Ang-Nuo had landed on the back of one of the bandit’s horses. He had one arm wrapped around the rider’s neck, and he pulled him up, almost out of the saddle; his head lowered and his hands went around the rider’s neck, and when he looked up again it was to throw the bandit to the ground, where he fell with a thump and lay still. Two of the others were already aiming their guns at Ang-Nuo: he flattened himself against the horse’s neck and galloped towards them.
The second torchbearer’s horse startled at this, and Ang-Nuo grabbed the torch from the struggling rider’s hand and in one fluid motion threw it at the rider farthest from the gates. The man screamed as his clothing caught fire and his horse ran off with him, terrified. Xiao could smell the man’s burnt flesh and his stomach heaved.
The torchbearer tried to counter-attack, urging his horse against Ang-Nuo’s, but the animal balked. Ang-Nuo rode up beside the man and snapped his neck. Sending that horse away with a kick, he turned to the remaining two bandits, who faced him from opposite sides of the road.
"Miserable beast," the leader shouted, "you think I am afraid of you?"
"You should be," Ang-Nuo said, and he roared, a harsh animal sound Xiao hadn’t heard before. As Ang-Nuo charged again at his adversaries, the far rider wheeled and ran. The group’s leader was now the only one left.
"Follow your friend, and you get to live," Ang-Nuo called.
The bandit fired his pistol three times in response. Ang-Nuo’s body jerked as the bullets hit him, and he fell limply forward on his horse’s neck. The animal seemed to take this as a signal, and started walking slowly forward towards the bandit, who laughed.
"Next time," he said, turning his horse to face the small crowd that had gathered a few yards back from the gates, "I’ll bring forty men." He gestured at Ang-Nuo, now practically close enough for the bandit to touch his horse’s head. "And you won’t have your beast-man to protect you."
"Not so fast," Ang-Nuo said, and he threw himself at the bandit, knocking them both to the ground. The bandit’s torch flew out of his hand and broke against the gate. Xiao covered his head with his hands protectively, but not before he saw Ang-Nuo, fangs bared, lowering his head to strike.
A moment later, Ang-Nuo stood, letting the man’s body drop at his feet. His face shifted back to human; there was a gash on his forehead and red blood on his chin. He took the two horses still in the road by the reins, gentling them, and walked them back towards the monastery; Xiao scrambled to his feet and unlocked the gate for him. As he stepped into the courtyard again, the ground wailed.
Abbot Wu stepped forward from the crowd. "Ang-Nuo," he said. "What have you done?"
Ang-Nuo looked astonished. "I have saved us! Those men would have destroyed this place, killed us all!"
The abbot reached up to him, his fingers gently brushing the wet spot on Ang-Nuo’s chin. "Does their evil excuse your own?"
Ang-Nuo’s eyes dropped, and his expression grew pained. "I was… I only wanted to help."
"No," said Abbot Wu sharply. "It was more than that. You took pleasure in your actions. Do you know what Daoism teaches about violence? That it is detestable! The honorable man will take up arms to protect himself if he must, but always with restraint. Always! ‘How could he rejoice in victory, and delight in the slaughter of men? He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.’ Did you have compassion for the men you killed here? Or did you rejoice in the battle?"
"I only rejoiced in protecting you, Wu Laoshi."
"You must not call me that again. I have taught you nothing. I’m sorry I led you to believe that I could."
Ang-Nuo opened his mouth as if to protest, but no sound came out. He took a deep, hitching breath, and lowered his head. "I only meant… I am so sorry."
The abbot just nodded. "Tomorrow at sundown, you will take one of these horses and ride to Jinan. There is a Shanghai-bound train from the station there every night: ride hard and you’ll make it on time. You’ll be warded into the cellar until then. Please, go there now."
Ang-Nuo looked up again, stricken. "I… I mean, I --" He stopped, composed himself, and straightened, squaring his shoulders. "Thank you," he said, and his voice was steady. The crowd parted for him as he passed.
"The fire is out?" Wu asked, looking towards the temple. Seeing that it was, he continued, "Get some torches and get those bodies to the temple to clean them up for proper burial. The last thing we need is for more xiang shi to rise here."
The monks standing by the gate stayed in their places, looking dumbly at one another, until Wei bellowed "Now!!" and they scattered. Abbot Wu walked over to Xiao, who was still standing by the gate, clutching the top of his left arm with his right hand.
"I’ll be fine. Master, --"
"Go see Peisen, have him make sure that the wound doesn’t get infected."
"Master, you must not send Ang-Nuo away. Please."
"He saved my life."
"He took three others."
"No, Xiao. He cannot stay here."
Xiao’s arm throbbed, and his chest felt like a weight was being pressed into it. "And me? I have taken lives too, Master. Will you put me on the train in Jinan as well?"
The abbot looked shocked, but not at all surprised. "Xiao," he said softly. "That is a terrible burden for you to have to bear. I am sorry for it. But you have been one of our brotherhood for three years and you have lived in peace, in the Dao, for all that time. Ang-Nuo has barely been among us for three months and he has already broken the solemn vow he made to me not to hurt humans."
"But he did it to help us. Can’t you give him another chance?"
Wu smiled. "And you told me once that xiang shi do not have friends."
"Master, please --"
"I do not blame Ang-Nuo for what happened here tonight. I realized, watching him attack those men – yes, Xiao, those evil men --" he added as the younger man began to protest, "I realized that I had been arrogant to think that I could make a monk out of a xiang shi. Even one with a higher soul. It is like making a house pet of a scorpion. It may grow to love you, but that does not mean it will not sting. To think you can change a creature’s nature, it is against everything I know about the Dao. I blinded myself to this in my vanity, thinking I could teach him how to overcome the demon. I thought I was a great enough teacher to do this. But he cannot overcome what he is. Letting him stay would just be waiting for the day when he realizes this too." Wu shook his head and quoted Lao-Tse again. "‘If you blame someone else, there is no end to the blame. Therefore the Master fulfills his own obligations, and corrects his own mistakes.’ I do not blame Ang-Nuo for what he did, but I have to correct the mistake I made with him. He must go."
Xiao was filled by a sudden, blinding rage against the abbot, with his white hair and complacent smile and constant quotation. He spat back the first lines of Lao-Tse he had learned by heart: "What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is a bad man but a good man's job?"
"But Ang-Nuo is not a man. And I can do nothing more for him now." Abbot Wu turned to look at the temple, where the monks were pulling water- and smoke-damaged items out to the courtyard. "I have a monastery to take care of."
The sun was high in the sky when Brother Xiao went to the cellars the next day. He knocked on the storeroom door and waited a moment before he walked in.
Ang-Nuo was sitting in the far corner, against the outside wall of the building. His knees were pulled up in front of him, and his arms were wrapped around his chest. He was still wearing his brown monastic robe, which Xiao could now see was stained and torn.
"Good morning," Xiao said softly.
"What do you want?" Ang-Nuo asked in English.
"I came to see you. You were injured last night --"
"Good. I brought you clothes. For tonight." Ang-Nuo looked directly at him for the first time, and his face shifted from surprise to anger to sadness before he looked away again. "It’s your own clothes: they were cleaned, and set aside. I suppose someone thought you might need them someday. There’s nothing else here that would have fit you, so…"
"Well, as I said, they’re clean, and they’re mended. You’d stand out more in Chinese clothing anyhow."
Ang-Nuo snorted and muttered something to himself. Xiao put the pile of clothing on the floor by the door, and patted it reassuringly. "It’s there for you when you’re ready." No response, and Xiao didn’t know what else to say, or how to say it, in the face of this silence. Finally, he decided he’d just have to speak. "I also have two letters I wrote for you. Don’t let the abbot see them when you leave." Ang-Nuo looked up as Xiao took two envelopes out of his sleeve and added them to the pile.
"What is that?"
"The top one, that’s for Shen Baojun. He runs a gang on the Shanghai piers, and he’s a cousin of mine. I worked for his brother for a while in Beijing. The letter asks him to hire you. I tell him that you need work, that you’re stronger than three men, and you have the power to terrify people, but that you won’t kill for him. Don’t let him tell you that you have to."
"Your abbot thinks that I don’t need to be told."
"My abbot doesn’t know everything." Xiao tried to ignore the expression on Ang-Nuo’s face as he heard that. "Listen, Baojun will pay you well, and you can use the money to buy passage on a boat to America, and maybe have some left over, to help you start again somewhere new. If I had money of my own --"
"I couldn’t take it."
"I would insist." Ang-Nuo smiled at that, a ghost of his familiar half-smiles. "The other letter is for when you get to America. My first teacher lives there in a city called San Francisco. I’m told many of the boats from China land there. The letter is for him."
"Your first teacher?"
"Yes. Wang Yan. He taught me the Dao when – well, when I didn’t think I had anything to learn from anyone. The letter tells him all about you, and why you are leaving this place, and it asks him to help you if he can. He was a taiji-qian master when he was younger. I think you would like him."
"That doesn’t matter."
"I think he would – well, he never judged me, anyhow. And I gave him reason to. If you want him to, I believe he would continue to teach you."
"Teach me?" Ang-Nuo was incredulous. "Teach me what, exactly?"
"No, really, Xiao, tell me what I’ve learned here. Besides a few words of Chinese, of course." Ang-Nuo pulled himself to his feet and in a few steps he was across the room, toe to toe with Xiao and staring him down. "What is it that your Wang Laoshi could continue to teach me? Because I’ve learned nothing here."
"That’s not true." Xiao was surprised not to be intimidated. "I know that’s not true. I’ve watched our practice change you."
"You saw what you wanted to see."
"No," Xiao said. "No, I didn’t."
"It wasn’t enough, though, was it? Or the right kind of enough."
"It can only ever be enough for you yourself. It’s your path, Ang-Nuo."
"My path?" Ang-Nuo snorted again. "It’s not my path taking me to Jinan tonight. Not my choice." He turned away, and Xiao ever so slightly relaxed. "Would you like to know the most amusing part of this, Xiao? Last night, when I jumped up on the monastery wall to fight those men? It was perfect. I moved without even thinking. The entire fight, it was as though my body knew what to do without my having to will it. As though there was something greater than myself that I had tapped into. That was. . . breathing through me. As though I had found the Way." He laughed softly and shook his head. "I was protecting you, and I was the demon, and I was at peace. I had clarity. I thought I was enlightened. And then --" He swallowed hard. "So, tell me, Xiao. What did I learn?"
Xiao’s voice lodged in his throat. If Ang-Nuo had been one of the novices, a boy unsure of his choice and missing his home, or a hardened criminal trying to accustom himself to a life of contemplating all the things he’d spent years trying never to think about, Xiao might have known what to say, might have even made him feel better. But there was nothing he could say to this.
After a long silence, Ang-Nuo ran his hand over his scalp and laughed again. "This is where you tell me that killing humans goes against the Way, isn’t it?"
"You know that already."
"I do. I just. . ." His voice trailed off, and they were quiet again. Finally, Ang-Nuo said "You should go. You’ll be missed."
"I can stay if you…"
"No. Thank you, Xiao. I’d rather not."
"All right." Xiao started to leave but then, for a moment, turned back. "Tell Wang Laoshi for me that I’m well. And that I miss the sound of his voice."
At sundown, a horse was brought to the gates, and Ang-Nuo was brought up from the basement. The blue Western trousers and white shirt sat awkwardly on him, and he shifted several times in his jacket. Xiao stood on the porch of the living quarters and watched as one of the monks went over the route to the Jinan train station one more time. Ang-Nuo nodded and mounted the horse. He dug his heels into its flanks, and he was gone. Xiao hadn’t expected him to look back.
He stood and looked out past the gates, at the road to Jinan and Mount Tai in the distance. The sky grew darker but he stood there till the other monks began to return from their evening meditation, when he went reluctantly back to his bed. That night, he dreamed again.
It was the first dream he recalled having in weeks, and it was more vivid than any dream he could remember. In it, he saw himself walking out the monastery gates with his rucksack, still wearing his monk’s robes. He was walking towards Jinan and the sun was warm on his face and scalp. At the end of the dream, he sprouted large brown wings on his back and begun to fly, upwards and up, until the entire valley was no larger than a postage stamp below him. He’d woken up at that, breathless and awed. All day, even as the funeral preparations in the temple and the abrupt silences of the other monks as he walked by felt like weights, the memory of flying made him feel dizzyingly light. Sitting in the temple, at the deepest center of his practice, he thought he could feel his wings.
When he left the temple that night, he looked toward the gates again, out towards the road. That was when he knew that this much of the dream was true: he would leave the monastery. Not soon, but in time, and forever. And not to follow Ang-Nuo to America, or to leave his vocation behind either, but to teach the Dao where it was needed. To help where he was needed. He felt light again as he watched his path change.
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