That morning, Lee opened his eyes one at a time, cringing. He pulled himself to sit at the edge of his wooden cot and stretched his arms, which ached with the soreness that came as a result of yesterday’s training. He looked out the window, a pleasant break in one of the four towering stone walls of his chamber, seeing faintly the stars of the Azure Dragon of the East, as the coal-coloured sky was slowly being penetrated by traces of brightness. He got dressed and left his chamber.
Lee met Master in the grand hall just before the crack of dawn, but instead of commencing with endurance training, as on most days, Master led him silently out of the hall.
The morning spring air was still quite cool, for the sun had barely emerged from the horizon. They travelled noiselessly along the mountain trails in the dim light as Lee followed in Master’s footsteps. They walked for what seemed to Lee like hours in silence, travelling farther and farther away from the Temple of Xunlian, where Lee trained.
“If I may ask, where are you taking me, Master?”
“One shall not ask questions. One shall be attentive to his surroundings only. Look, listen and feel what is around you.”
Lee looked around at the mountainside; it didn’t seem like anything he hadn’t already seen before. But following Master’s instructions, Lee took note of the sun, now rising in its full fiery glory, shedding light on the beauty of the calm spring morning. He noticed the dew drops on the grass and the stones along the trail that glistened in the first rays of sun that fell upon them. The wildlife in the area was scarce, he knew, but he still heard a few birds calling to their mates and singing in melodious harmony to provide a background score for this scenery.
“This is the cave of Kuaile Siwang,” Master said as they approached what Lee thought was their destination. The cave was reputed, a common participant in the numerous rural myths and legends about its spiritual properties and closeness to the greater universe, or so the nearby villagers thought. Despite much fame and promise, the path leading to Kuaile Siwang was one less travelled by.
Lee stood before the cave, not knowing what his reaction should be or if he should ask Master another question. Lee stood there awkwardly as Master took in the sights of the mountainside, and took a minute to catch his breath.
The relationship between Master and Lee was such: Lee was sent to Master as an infant, an unwanted child from a faraway relative; and Master, having no surviving family of his own, had agreed to raise Lee like his own son and train him to the highest degree of excellence in martial arts.
Like Lee, Master had been young once too: able-bodied and vigilant, agile and resilient; the brightest and toughest fighter China had seen in centuries, apparently. A tragedy had occurred in Master’s life – or so Lee heard from the villagers in the valley – that discouraged him from continuing martial arts. Now, Master was aging. There were no signs in his skin or what was left of his hair that he was once a rough fighter. Other than being Lee’s trainer, Master looked after the Temple with his whole heart. For Lee, there was no imagining of Master as a fierce and aggressive young fighter.
Master was not a man of many words; he spoke very little and very wisely. Lee, on the other hand, spoke often and often spoke nonsense. The differences between the two of them were vast, as they are between the oxpecker and the hippopotamus, yet they continued to live together in accord.
From where they were standing, Lee could see mountains with curtains of clouds covering their high tips and ragged surfaces. He saw valleys, deep gorges that delved into dark parts of the earth where no sunlight could reach.
He looked to Master, who now sat atop a rock in the entrance of the cave, overlooking the valley below. Master’s eyes closed as he drew in a deep and deliberate breath. Lee watched in amazement as an instant sense of serenity washed over Master’s face, his breathing slow and steady, his face expressionless. Extreme tranquility.
Lee sat down on the ground across from Master, curious in anticipation. His father and brother, his teacher and companion; Master was all he knew and all he had. Lost in his train of thought, Lee was startled as Master spoke unexpectedly.
“Lee,” he began, “I have brought you up from the time you were an infant. I have taught you whatever could be taught. I have given you the knowledge and respect I know you deserve.”
Lee listened as Master went on, his eyes still closed, his demeanour still calm.
“Since before the rise of the Chinese empire, martial arts trainers and their disciples have shared the relationship we have shared over the past many years. It has been both a challenge and an honour to be your teacher.”
Lee was confused still, not knowing where this was going. He nodded, and listened further.
Master continued in a weak voice, “You have acquired all the knowledge of a successful fighter and now I truly feel it is time to take on the responsibility that comes with this talent and training.”
“Master, may I ask, what is this responsibility to which you refer?”
“Son, in my years of living, I have learned many things. One of these is that you never get straight answers; not from other men, not from the universe, and sometimes, not even from God.”
Realizing the lack of recognition on Lee’s face, Master attempted to be clearer: “Lee, you will return to the Temple of Xunlian on your own today.”
“Master, would you not like for me to accompany you on your journey back this morning?” he asked.
“We do not travel our journey backwards, my son. Only forward. You will go to the Temple and continue your life as a fighter and put to use everything I have taught you and shared with you during our years together.”
“What about you, Master?” Lee asked, concerned.
“My journey is not the same as yours. I assure you that I, too, will venture forward, as far as this aging body permits.” Master let out a subdued laugh and coughed a little. “We do not live forever, but we must attempt to live all of forever while we can. Death is always chasing us, and we must defy it while it is in us to do so. And when the time comes where we are no longer in a position to refute it, we must accept it with respect and quietude.”
With that, he regained his centre of balance and gestured for Lee to make his way to the Temple.
“But Master…” Lee began, but he was hushed by the silent wave of Master’s fatherly hand. Master’s face had returned to its state of serenity and unfathomable peace, atop that rock overlooking the valley beneath the cave of Kuaile Siwang.
Still bewildered, Lee began walking away from Master and towards the Temple, unusually lonely. Is Master alright? Will we train today? Is he leaving me, leaving the Temple? Why? A thousand and one mysterious questions buzzed around in Lee’s head, but he hadn’t the grasp of what was really happening.
Lee stopped in his tracks to think for a moment and then turned around to make his way to Master so he could ask him at least some of the questions that had him so quickly and intensely perplexed. As he reached the opening of the cave, he didn’t see Master.
“Master!” he called out. “Master, where are you? Master!” he screamed out into the mountains. The towering mysterious monsters replied in Lee’s own voice, only repeating his questions and not giving him any answers.
Lee fell to his knees. “Master…” he let out with a whimper. He closed his eyes and in his head, heard Master’s voice repeating what he had said just moments ago.
Lee awoke the next morning, with the first rays of sun spilling in through his window. He sat at the edge of his wooden cot and stretched his arms, which no longer ached. He heard a knock on his chamber door.
“Master! Master” an unfamiliar voice called.
I hope you enjoyed that short story. What did you think of it? Anything you can relate to?
Also, as an aside, I’ve been asked why I named this story Kuaile Siwang; the literal translation of these two words into Mandarin is ‘happy’ and ‘to die,’ so it seemed somewhat fitting to the theme of the story.