The first drops of rain had just begun to fall when the Navigator and the Old Soldier arrived. It had been a long walk from the city, although neither had said anything. Many years ago, when the Old Soldier had been young; the two had come to the base of the mountain with the Captain.
It had been a long, wet winter that year. The river had overflown, washing over it’s banks and into the canals and rice fields. The fields had been empty. All the farmers were in their homes, with their families, feasting away on empty stomachs. The Captain’s stomach was full, as he and the Young Soldier ate their meal as the boat slowly drifted over silent overflown fields. Somewhere in the distance the Navigator spotted lights blossoming in the sky.
The Old Soldier ate silently as the Navigator left the house at the bottom of the mountain. The winter this year had been short and warm. The river had shrunk, and along its edges the detris of the years dipped into the sky, rusted bicycles, impure steel and yellowed bones. The fields were empty now, as were the farmers’ homes. They’d all gone to the city, with their families and full swollen stomachs. At that was left at the base of the mountain were the dead, the dying, and those in between.
The Captain had once lived here, at the base of the mountain. There’d been a story of an Old Soldier, who had retired from war to settle here to grow sorghum, in the shadow of the mountain. The Soldier’s sorghum wine had brought joy to many of the rice farmers and their families, and inspired great praise and admiration. One day, the Soldier disappeared, taken away in the night by the Red Guard. The next morning, a driver, one of the group of Red Guard who had taken the Soldier away claimed innocence. They had not touched the Soldier, merely coerced a confession of desertion. Not the Soldier, nor sorghum wine, were ever seen in the shadow of the mountain again.
The Navigator swept the stones of the grave. Ash and dust had layered over the year, and years still it had been since there’d been someone to provide proper care. The Old Soldier paced nearby, a cloud of burning incense trailing. Neither said anything, not as the Navigator gathered dried branches nearby, nor when the Old Soldier set them ablaze. Then the burning began.
When they had arrived at the water’s edge, the Captain had left the two of them there, waiting on the boat, and stepped into the cold winter night. The Young Soldier watched and waited, eyes gleaming in the dark, darting like knives. The Navigator waited and watched. Smoke rose from the base of the mountain. The wind carried sweet scents, candied treats, succulent meats and something like suntouched gold. The Captain returned before the sun rose, smelling of ash and ancient paper. Dust.
The burning lasted hours. Moments of silence turned to eons. Into the fire went lives and fortunes. The fire burned not red nor blue nor white but black as it drank in the night. Colourful currencies flowed into it, rivers of rice and acres of vice. As the flames grew dim and the night fell back, paper and parchment burned. Truths and lies joined as one in the dying of the light.
The Navigator and the Young Soldier spoke nothing of the mountain, or what rested in its shadow. Moments of silence turned to eons. Then, with a word, eons turned to moments, and moments to dust. There’d one day be a story of an Old Captain, who had retired from war to settle here to grow sorghum, in the shadow of the mountain.
The mountain rose behind them, as the Navigator and the Old Soldier began the long walk back to the city. The morning light glimmered green over empty fields, and towering giants. In the shadow of the mountain, sorghum grew, wild and sweet. Touched by some unseen hand.
The wind skimmed an almost mist off the surface of the river, disappointing Eldest Brother Yimou. Younger Brother Xiaogang had not noticed the light breeze. Neither of them said anything. Eldest Brother Yimou had chosen not to speak to his younger brother, out of fear of starting a family conversation. Something splashed further down river. A fish. Eldest Brother Yimou slouched further, disappointed yet again.
“Yimou, straighten up your back! How do you expect to catch anything with such bad posture!” This sent both brothers into a panic, quickly straighten up their backs and adjusting their fishing rod grips. “Yes, Honored Eldest!” Younger Brother Xiaogang responded, reflexively. Younger Brother Xiaogang still remembered sorely his time in military training, memories echoing painfully in his bones. Eldest Brother Yimou grimaced at the term his brother used. He’d long gotten used to being the eldest of the family. The reminder that this was no longer the case almost incited a desire to glance over at ‘Honored Eldest’. But he didn’t look. To see it with his own eyes somehow made it less real, his own painful reminder.
“Xiaogang, your line is drifting. Reel it in.” Her voice was like icy ocean water on an old wound, Eldest Brother Yimou thought. Another splash down river. Another fish, jumping. Younger Brother Xiaogang hadn’t been as close to Honored Eldest, back when the world had been strange enough to make the unreal seem real. “Yes, Honored Eldest!” He’d been angry, not a youthful anger but an older deep seated hatred. It had been a spiteful time, and he a spiteful part of a spiteful whole. Elder Brother Yimou thought about this often, tried to keep it in mind. It didn’t help.
Another splash downriver. Something drifted by. Two fishermen on a boat, legs hanging over the edge, skimming over the water. An almost mist follow in their wake. Eldest Brother Yimou looked up. They had no faces. Younger Brother Xiaogang spoke a prayer, an old one taught to them by their father, many years ago. Honored Eldest waved. “Xiaogang, keep your eyes on your line! Yimou, I shouldn’t have to tell you not to stare!” The Brothers dropped their heads back down instantly.
The faceless fishmen drifted by, and soon were out of sight. The three sat in silence, backs to each other, eyes on their lines. Younger Brother Xiaogang’s false teeth were chattering. Eldest Brother Yimou suspected it was not from the cold. A gust of wind brushed them lightly. “I’m sorry.” Younger Brother Xiaogang found himself saying. Honored Eldest scoffed. “Apologize to your brother, Xiaogang, not me.” Eldest Brother Yimou rolled his eyes. Years it had been, and years it would be before Xiaogang would admit his mistakes to him.
So they sat in silence. Something splashed nearby. Honored Eldest had caught a fish. She placed it in a bucket of water. Then there was silence, once more. The sun skirted the horizon, and the sky burned a soft warm red. They reeled in their lines, and began the drive back into the city. “I’m sorry” Eldest Brother Yimou said. And Honored Eldest scoffed once more.
The table smelt wonderful, a myriad of dishes covering it’s every surface. The family gathered around it, easily three dozen, sat and politely waited through ceremony after ceremony. Prayers for a half-dozen beliefs were recited, and the room smelt heavily of incense. Then, they ate, smiling.
At a smaller table by the farthest wall stood a shrine, welcoming gods and spirits of the new year, and promising good fortune and prosperity for all the family. There, atop a cushion, sat Honored Ancestor, who smiled.
When the meal had at last finished, the children disappeared to somewhere more amusing, and the elders were sufficiently drunk and tired of discussion, at last the room was empty. Except for Honored Ancestor, who sat, smiling. In the morning, she was gone.