The Crane Startles Kunlun, Chapter 18, Part 1.
from Wang Dulu's He Jing Kunlun.
Aluan shed many a tear and thought, There is no way for me to live here, nor am I able to die, so I must go somewhere else. If I am not cautious and tumble down the mountain to my death, I would have no regrets. Otherwise, there must be a temple hidden up in these Qin Mountains. If I were to find a nunnery, I could cut my hair off and dedicate myself to religious practice. I would never meet another person for eternity!
She wept while she endured her pain and the cold wind. Propping herself up on one side against the mountain rock, she waded through the stream, alternately walking a little and then resting a little, and brought herself slowly to another place. She had left the stream, but the water here was still up to her knees. She tested the ground with her feet and continued downward. Before she knew it, daybreak had arrived as she came to a mountain road. She looked at herself. She was soaked from head to toe, had lost one of her embroidered shoes, and besides the dart wound on her shoulder, she now had several bruises from her fall.
The sun rose gradually as birds chirped and rabbits rushed about on the mountain road, though there weren’t any travelers yet. However, Aluan was afraid that Jiang Xiaohe and Ji Guangjie would find her, or that the mountain bandits would come upon her, so she dragged her wounded self down into a secluded gully. Here, where it was thick with trees and overgrown with grass, Aluan curled up inside the grass and sobbed. After a while, her thoughts became narrower and narrower, It’ll be best to end myself now! How can I continue to live in this cruel world?
Around her shirt was tied a piece of green silk cloth. She undid it and looked at it. The cloth was soaked through and covered in mud and grass. Aluan looked up and found a living date tree. She stood up, walked toward it, and flung the cloth over it, pricking her hand on the tree in the process. It hurt, but she clenched her teeth and endured it. She then tied the silk cloth tightly so that it would not come apart. She stood facing the silk cloth and wept, mournful that she would die at so young an age. She was also disheartened that she had wasted all her martial arts training to be dying in such a tragic way. The pain in her heart softened her determination and she collapsed onto the ground, unable to stop herself from weeping as she sat.
She cried for a while and still felt there was no path for her to continue living, so she steeled herself and stood up, craning her neck with resolve. She was about to slip the cloth loop over her neck when she heard someone shouting loudly, “Oh no! Don’t kill yourself!” This took Aluan aback and she looked up high. There was man with around forty years on the mountain, carrying copious branches and dried grass on his back and an axe in his hand. Having been discovered, Aluan naturally could not go on to hang herself, so she quickly untied the cloth, turned and walked away.
The woodsman made his way slowly down the mountain and called after Aluan, “Young miss! Where do you live? Why would someone as young as you be looking for death?” Aluan said, “Leave me alone!” She increased her pace in an effort to get away from this man and look for another secluded area in which to kill herself. However, the woodsman caught up to Aluan after a few strides and grabbed hold of her arm. Aluan jerked her arm away and turned back to say, “You need not pay me any attention! Go away and collect your firewood! It’s obvious that I’m seeking death because I am in a very difficult situation. Nothing you do can save me!”
The woodsman said urgently, “Miss, please don’t talk like that. I have already seen you. Do you think I can watch as you hang yourself? Saving one life mends three lifetimes, and the mountain god has eyes. If I were to ignore someone in danger, sooner or later I would fall off the mountain to my death while gathering wood. Whatever difficulties you have, you can tell me. I’ll help you think of a way out of them. So what is it? Did your parents beat you? Or...did you have a fight with your husband?”
Aluan felt that this woodsman was a good man, so she stopped walking and wiped her tears with the silk cloth in her hand, saying, “It’s nothing you need to know about. Even if I told you, there’s nothing you can do about it. Ah! I have not been forced here by poverty or suffered a beating from anyone. It’s that...I just don’t want to go on living!” So saying, she felt another wave of sorrow. She lowered her head and sobbed, the silk cloth never leaving her eyes.
Hearing Aluan’s words, the woodsman couldn’t help his bewilderment, saying, “Where’s your home? Let me take you back there. If you hang yourself there, I won’t care. Here, though, I must help the mountain god preserve the mountain.” Aluan wiped her tears as thoughts of death slowly faded from her mind. She asked, “My home is far from here. You would not be able to take me back there. Not to mention that there isn’t anyone there right now. Do you know of any nunneries in these mountains? You can take me there. I will never forget your kindness!”
Hearing all this, the woodsman figured that Aluan as an unmarried girl whose parents had probably arranged a marriage for her to a man who wasn’t poor, but petty and mean, or else, her parents had forced her to become a concubine. Thus, she had run away to kill herself or become a nun, refusing to return home. He thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, we have nunneries here. The Dashi Nunnery is ten-some miles from here! You have to cross over three or four mountain ridges though. Actually I’ve never been there, so I wouldn’t be able to find it. My woman goes there often though, to burn incense and pray for a son. How about this! Miss, come to my home first and I’ll have my wife take you. What do you say? My wife knows all the nuns at the temple very well.”
Aluan nodded and seemed to gain some comfort in her heart. She asked the woodsman for his name. The woodsman said, “I’m called Honest Zhang, and I’ve lived in these mountains for a very long time. I’ve been gathering firewood since I was little, and every year I save a few people’s lives. If it isn’t from hanging themselves, it’s from wounds caused by bandits. Because I do good, the mountain god has always provided me with food to eat. Others have either fallen and broken their arms, or encountered wild beasts, but I haven’t met with any of these things. Miss, let’s go to my home! My wife has probably finished preparing rice. We’ll eat and then have her take you away.” Aluan agreed. Gratitude filled her heart as she followed the woodsman Honest Zhang northward.
Before traveling too long, they had wound their way around a couple mountain loops and arrived at Honest Zhang’s home. The Zhang family resided in a yaodong set up under the mountain. There was also a small shrine up the mountain. Honest Zhang pointed at it and told Aluan, “That’s the mountain god’s shrine. He’s very sharp. He doesn’t come out during the day, but once evening arrives, Lingguan rides a divine tiger to patrol the mountains.”
Entering the yaodong, there was a woman of thirty-odd years patching the sole of a shoe. When she saw her husband leading in a wet and dirty young woman who was wearing only one shoe, she was dumbfounded. Honest Zhang put the firewood down inside and placed his axe on the floor against the wall, saying, “This young woman just tried to take her own life and I talked her down after a while. She’s still unwilling to return home though and wants to become a nun. I think that’s pretty great, so make some food quickly, and after we’re done, take this young lady to the Dashi Nunnery!”
The wife put down the shoe sole and needle and thread and remained sitting at the end of the kang and said, “How can I take her there? My foot’s not better yet, so how can I cross four mountain ridges? Do you have the money to hire me a small litter?” Honest Zhang was taken aback. He had forgotten that his wife had an inflammation in her leg and could not walk. So he said, “That’s no problem. If you can’t go today, you can do it after a couple days.” He then said to Aluan, “Miss, please sit. My wife has an inflammation in her foot. She’ll take you when she gets better. Otherwise, I can go up to the temple where Frivolous Second Yang lives. He’s a bachelor, but he’s a very good man. We can ask him to take you too.” The wife said, “Frivolous Second Yang didn’t come back last night. Darkie Sun returned by Horseneck Ridge and said that Frivolous Second Yang went north out the mountains to take care of something! He won’t be back for another two or three days! Anyway, if you want to do a good deed, why are you putting it on other people? Just take her there yourself, why don’t you?”
Honest Zhang said, “How would I know the way? The last time you went to the Dashi Nunnery, you hadn’t come back after a couple days. I got worried and went to look for you. I searched from noon until it was dark and I couldn’t find any Dashi Nunnery.” His wife frowned and said, “That’s because you’re blind! It’s huge nunnery with a tall flagpole, how could you have missed it?” She took a closer look at Aluan’s appearance and asked, “Where do you live and why are you trying to kill yourself? If someone as young and pretty as you doesn’t want to live on, then someone like me damn well should have cut my own throat long ago!”
Aluan came up with a lie, “My family lives in Ziyang, a few hundred miles from here. I was passing through here yesterday when I encountered…mountain bandits. My whole family was murdered by these bandits, leaving me all alone. How could I live on?” The wife was shocked, while Honest Zhang shook his head, “Those mountain gangs are going much too far! We’ve had more and more incidents lately. At first they were only after money, but now people are losing their lives daily. Karma will catch up to them, for the mountain god is always watching.”
The wife hurriedly asked Aluan, “What’s your surname? Were you married? Who’s left in your family?” Aluan said, “My family name is...Jiang, and I am unmarried. My father was a merchant!” The wife said, “Oh! You poor thing. Why don’t you stay with us a few days! You need not worry about food and drink with us, and after two or three days, when my foot’s better, I’ll take you to Dashi Nunnery. The old master there is very compassionate, the nunnery is quite large and the incense burns bright. If you go, they will take you in for sure. Being a nun is much better than getting married!”
Aluan nodded. She had no option but to stay here for the time being and wait a couple days before being taken to the nunnery. It won’t be until she shaves her head and becomes a nun that she could consider all her troubles to be resolved. A wave of sadness hit her, causing tears to spring from her eyes again. The wife consoled her warmly, “Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Perhaps you were destined to become an immortal, and the mistress bodhisattva visited calamity on you so that you were best prepared to enter into the service of Buddha!”
Honest Zhang now went outside to bundle up firewood but directed his voice inside, “Why don’t you hurry up and make rice! This young miss is probably hungry too!” The wife assented and went outside to get firewood. She started a fire in a low clay stove in the center of the room. Aluan came nearer and shook out her shirt to dry in the heat. The wife poured water and two scoops of brown rice into the pot, and then fed more wood into the fire while fanning it with a worn leaf fan. She looked down at Aluan’s feet and laughed, “Miss, your feet are a little large, otherwise you could wear my shoes. What happened, where did you lose your other shoe?”
Aluan said, “The bandits were chasing me, so I hide in the mountain stream. I got all wet and lost one of my shoes.” She continued, “I have two wounds on my body as well, both from the bandits’ spears. They’re not too serious, so I’m able to endure the pain!” The wife cursed, “Those damned bandits! May they all die horrible deaths!”
After a moment, the wife finished cooking the rice. Honest Zhang had also finished tying up the firewood outside, so he came inside and crouched on the floor and ate. The rice was crude and there were no dishes to go with it, only a bit of pickled radish, but Aluan ate it with relish. After everyone was finished eating, Honest Zhang left with firewood to exchange for rice. The wife picked the shoe sole back up to patch and chatted with Aluan. Aluan felt this woman very kindhearted as well, though the language she used was sometimes a little coarse. That was no surprise. She was a woodsman’s wife who likely never left the mountain ever in her life. How would she know conversational etiquette?
Aluan stayed here and thought it quiet and comfortable. She understood now that her previously fierce nature, having met with suffering time and again, had now changed. She used to look contemptuously on Jianghu and the wider world, but she was no longer so arrogant. She just wished that the wife could walk again in a day or two, so she could ask her to take her to become a nun. Presently, a solitary life dedicated to the Buddha seemed much preferable to Jianghu, with constant struggles for dominance and grudges to be avenged.