Wild Dog River

Chapter Twenty-one – The Beautiful Bird

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

Liang left his bed in the early hours of the morning, then dressed and buckled on his knife belt. He wrapped a few handfuls of cooked rice and dried fish in some linen and placed it, along with a flask of cold tea, and a bound volume of the work of the famous poet Li Bai, in a shoulder bag.

On the journey south-westwards along the River Tanjiang, Liang passed countless rice paddies glowing under the moonlight, and candlelight in the windows of peasant houses along the way as the families inside rose ready for a day of planting rice on the flooded ground. Labourers, carrying loads at either end of strong bamboo poles began to pass as dawn neared, reminding Liang that a life of hard work was the fate of most men.

The Temple of the Five Immortals stood at the end of a five-mile walk, almost hidden on the edge of a marshy wilderness of islands, masses of bamboo and towering reeds. When Liang finally reached it, the sun was a handspan clear of the horizon, making the sacred place glow with such fierce orange fire that he paused to admire it.

Finally, he followed the path to the open main doors, and entered the darker space inside. Once there, he kowtowed, his forehead fully touching the floor. The smell of burning joss filled his nostrils as he looked first at the shrine then the surrounding walls.

Liang was not alone. Three monks in saffron-coloured robes were praying close to the shrine. There was also a family of rural poor, and at the rear a beggar in rags.

Liang’s observations were not yet complete when a sudden and terrible squawk sounded across the temple. He was so alarmed that he had to stop himself from drawing his knife, ready to fight. Surprisingly, he realised, the sound had come from the occupant of a bamboo cage standing in the left front corner of the temple. It was a bird such as he had never seen before. He walked up close. It was coal-grey, with an enormous curved black beak, twice the size of a raven and far more beautiful, with intelligent black eyes.

Most impressively, it had a crest of swept back feathers, and a triangle of vivid red from eye to lower beak on both sides. Overall, it was a regal creature, but curious and active at the same time.

The White Paper Fan’s words filled Liang’s head:

At the Temple of the Five Immortals, look for a beautiful bird.

Liang looked around. No one else was paying the bird any mind, except perhaps for the peasant boy, who was staring at it, entranced.

Satisfied that he was in the right place, Liang kneeled on the stone floor, praying silently, grateful for rest and sanctuary at the end of the long walk. At length he changed to a squat, and removed his flask from his shoulder bag. From this he sipped a small amount of weak tea, wondering what might happen now that he had found the beautiful bird. Every time it squawked, he jumped, smiling at the sharpness of his own nerves.

An hour passed, and very little happened. The family left, monks came and went, and the beggar continued to pray at the rear of the temple. Liang watched the bird in its bamboo cage, narrowing its black eyes at him, studying him. This interaction helped to pass the time, along with the shadows moving across the floor of the temple as the sun rose higher in the sky.

In the middle of the morning a girl of around twelve years arrived at the temple. Her tunic was well-worn, but lovingly embroidered. Her hair was piled into a bun at the rear and fixed with two splinters of bamboo. She kowtowed as she entered, then moved to the shrine and lit two joss sticks.

When the joss sticks were smoking properly, she moved back until she was alongside Liang. There she kneeled and began to pray, her body undulating like a willow branch in a breeze. Soon Liang saw that tears filled her dark eyes and rested on the tip of her snub nose. She seemed so helpless that he felt a surge of tenderness for her.

‘Little Sister. Why are you crying?’ he asked.

At first the girl tried to turn away, but he touched her arm gently and persisted. ‘Please, perhaps I can help you.’

‘It would take the Five Immortals themselves to help me,’ she said bitterly.

‘Perhaps, perhaps not,’ said Liang. ‘But I can’t possibly assist you if you do not speak.’

‘My father lies in his deathbed,’ she spluttered out at last, ‘and a man who was promised to my mother when she was a girl has come to our house. He beats her, and keeps the money from the crops, though he does not work himself. He says that when my father passes away, he will take his place as head of our household.’

Liang was silent for some time before he spoke, ‘What is this man’s name?’

The girl’s eyes flashed. ‘I can scarcely bear to utter it, but if you must know, his name is Zhang.’

‘Thank you. I would like to talk to your mother. How far away is your house?’

The girl’s eyes appeared to lighten, as if hope glimmered there, ‘A short walk only – that’s why I come here to the temple – to get away from him and to pray for deliverance.’

Liang took up his belongings and placed them against the eastern wall of the temple, then walked over to the beggar and tossed him a copper coin. ‘Old man, my name is Yeuen Liang. An important man or his emissary may come here to look for me. Would you tell them that I am absent on a matter of urgency, and will be back very soon?’

The beggar took the coin, and rubbed the face with his thumb, as if to make sure that it was real, before secreting it amongst his rags. ‘It will be my pleasure, young master.’

Liang followed the girl along a path that skirted the marshes to the south of the temple. He saw that there were many small farms on the fringes, some with water wheels and other ingenious ways of bringing water onto the rice paddies, where dirt was being mixed into mud preparatory to planting. There were few young men, for this was a land torn by rebellion, strife and poverty, where so many had already left to find fortunes overseas; to the Gold Mountain in California, the Klondike, the Victorian rush in Aodaliya, the Bathurst area of the same continent and now the River of Gold in the state of Queensland.

The girl’s house, when they reached it, was very modest, built entirely of bamboo, apart from the roof, which was made of thatch. It showed signs of painstaking care, but little money. These twin circumstances reminded Liang of his own upbringing.

A woman came to the opening and Liang saw that her left eye was surrounded by a puffy black bag, and that there was a fresh bruise on her upper arm. She held a finger to her lips to shush her visitor, and while the girl held a whispered conference with her mother, Liang noticed a heavy, laboured sound from the front stoop.  He walked closer to investigate.

The sound was emanating from a man, asleep on a bamboo stretcher, snoring. He was somewhat of a giant, with thighs like tree trunks and thick arms. Beside him were two empty clay pots. The aroma of rice wine filled the air. The girl appeared and took Liang’s hand, leading him inside the house. Again, Liang noted the simple pride of the homeowners, and again he was reminded of his childhood.

In one room lay a man, wracked by some terrible malaise, but still able to nod his head and greet the visitor. Liang bowed. He could see from the sick man’s bare torso that he had once been a powerful fellow, now withered.

Liang turned to the woman, who had come up beside him, and he pointed to her bruises. ‘Did Zhang do this to you?’ he asked.

‘Yes, this and more. He has brought a nightmare to our home. I was promised to him as a little girl, until my father learned his true nature and released me. Soon he will wake and his rampage will begin.’

‘No,’ said Liang. ‘He will wake and he will answer to me.’

Liang walked back through the front door to the nearest stand of bamboo. There he selected a cane as thick as his forefinger. He used the knife on his belt to cut it to length and trim the branches away.

Swishing the cane several times to test its flight, Liang walked back to the stoop and took position over the sleeping man. Using the tip of the cane he jabbed Zhang in the side. The snoring stopped, and he grunted and opened one eye.

‘Who are you who dares to disturb me?’ came the thunder of Zhang’s voice.

‘One question,’ said Liang. ‘What gives you the right to come here and terrorise this family?’

The man sat up, grinning. ‘My right is that I wish to. And now I will squash you flat for daring to disturb my repose.’

Zhang had barely managed to come to his feet when Liang whipped the cane sideways, striking the big man hard in the middle of his face, his nose bursting like a ripe fruit. There was a terrible roar, and he bent forwards, holding the bleeding appendage.

Again, down came the cane, this time on the nape of the neck. This blow was followed almost instantly by another to the back of the thighs.

‘Go,’ roared Liang. ‘Leave this house and do not ever return. It is now under the protection of the Sheathed Sword, and you are not permitted here.’

At first stumbling a few paces, Zhang gave the impression that he might turn and fight. In response, with all the strength of his right arm Liang again whipped him across the side of the face, striking his ear and right cheek.

‘My belongings …’ howled Zhang.

‘Your belongings are forfeited to the family. Go, and if you come back I will return also. Next time your punishment will be severe.’

When he was satisfied that Zhang had left on the south road, and showed no sign of returning, Liang hurried back to the temple. There was no one waiting for him. The bird was still in its cage at the front of the room, near the altar. It seemed to notice Liang’s return, making a series of strange thrumming noises as if in greeting.

The beggar looked up as Liang entered. ‘Did you solve the girl’s problem?’

‘I believe so. Did anyone come for me?’

‘No one, young master.’

Liang fetched his bundle, sat down beside the beggar, and untied the cloth in which he had wrapped his provisions. ‘I don’t have much, but would you share with me what I have?’

The beggar’s face lit up. ‘Oh, thank you sir.’

They ate the rice and dried fish together, then Liang settled back to wait. Hours passed, and the sun arced high overhead.

In the early afternoon there was a commotion amongst the monks, and Liang left his place to see. ‘What is wrong, good monks?’

The elder of the three answered, ‘Every week one of us walks to the bank in Sanbu with the money that has been donated to the temple. Today it was young Qingting, but he was accosted by a robber and forced to run all the way back here.’

Liang sighed, even if he hurried it would take ninety minutes to walk to Sanbu and the same back. Still, there was nothing happening here just yet. He looked at the young and slender monk.

‘If you would like to try again, I will walk with you,’ he said.

Liang went to the beggar and gave him another coin. ‘I must ask you to look out for my visitor again. Will you give him my apologies?  I’ll be away for much of the afternoon, but please ask him to wait.’

The young monk, Qingting, Liam found, was a very fast walker. They covered ground at a good rate, and conversed on a range of topics, from religion to the state of the roads and government.

When they came to a place where the road passed the rocky spur of a hill a man stepped out from the bushes with a muzzle-loading pistol in his hand. He was a rascally looking fellow if Liang was any judge – with crooked teeth and eyes that swam with depths of wildness.

‘Throw me your money, and you will not be harmed,’ cried the robber.

Liang turned to young Qingting. ‘Step back, friend, while I deal with him.’

In preparation to fight, Liang stretched one leg forwards and the other back, with his arms tucked at his side, and his chest out-thrust. The robber, who seemed to be unsure of how to react to someone who wanted to stand up to him, raised the pistol and took unsteady aim.

Liang, however, was already moving, knocking the weapon aside and bringing his knee up onto the robber’s chin. A pivot, then a slamming blow to the side of the head brought the man fully to the ground, groaning.

Without giving him any time to recover, Liang picked the man up by his clothing and carried him bodily twenty or thirty paces to where a patch of the distinctive green xun ma stinging nettles grew. With a grunt of exertion Liang dropped the man into the nettles, where he screamed, as the sharp stinging needles attacked his face and hands. Finally, he came to his feet and ran, still shrieking, away from the road.

 When Liang picked up the discarded firearm and returned to Qingping, the young priest’s eyes were shining with admiration. As they walked on Liang threw the pistol in a deep bend of the river and promised that the fiend was no longer armed and no threat to either of them.

At the bank in Sanbu, the money was counted and a receipt issued. Qingping and his escort walked back to the Temple of the Five Immortals without incident.  

When Liang questioned the beggar, he reported that there had been no visitors looking for Liang. This seemed strange, especially since it was now late afternoon.

Through the remainder of the day, the beautiful bird squawking at intervals, Liang watched the approaches of the temple and felt his fear and nervousness at meeting the Dragon Head turn into disappointment.

When sunset came, the sky filled with red fire through the bamboo, the beggar came to his feet and addressed Liang. ‘My friend, my abode is very humble, but would you come with me and spend the night? Perhaps the person you need to meet will come tomorrow.’

‘Thank you,’ said Liang. ‘I’d appreciate that.’

Before they left, the beggar walked to the front of the temple and lifted the bamboo cage with the beautiful bird inside.

‘Is the bird yours?’ asked Liang incredulously.

‘Yes. He’s mine.’

Still carrying the bird, the beggar led Liang down a path, and then to a wooden canoe. It was a simple craft but well made. The beggar waved Liang to the bow seat, then took up position in the stern. When they were both aboard, he began to paddle. They went through a maze of channels amongst bamboo islands.

‘Where does the bird come from?’ Liang asked.

‘Across the sea, from the wild rainforests north of the river of gold in the land of Aodaliya. The Englishmen call them cockatoos. This one is the rarest of them all, the palm cockatoo. They tell me that in the wild they will pick up sticks and drum them against tree branches, making an eerie and frightening sound.’

‘The river of gold,’ Liang breathed. ‘Have you been there?’

‘No.’

The channel they had been following widened, and on one side the grass was clipped short. There was a jetty made of massive teak logs, all enclosed by a fine pagoda. Behind it was a line of garden beds, vivid with colour.

The house beyond was a veritable palace. Banners flew in the breeze, and on each was the image of a dragon – not just any dragon, but the war dragon of the Sheathed Sword – the secret mark of the Dragon Head himself.

A coterie of servants and ranks of men-at-arms waited on a jetty, and one seized the painter to make the craft fast. When the beggar ascended the jetty, all present kowtowed, pressing their foreheads to the timbers.

Liang followed his host up from the canoe, a terrible suspicion settling upon him.

The beggar placed one hand on Liang’s shoulder. ‘Yes, I am the Dragon Head of the Sheathed Sword, and today you have impressed me greatly. Let it be a lesson – by not revealing myself I learned far more about the nature of Yeuen Liang than if I had arrived in my finery, with an escort of bodyguards and advisers.’

Two men-at-arms stepped forward from the line. Each of them carried a bloodied sword and the head of a man, held by the hair. With a catch of his breath, Liang recognised both of them. One was the head of Zhang, still with the mark of Liang’s cane across his face. The other was the robber, his dead skin blotched from the sting of the nettles.

‘Your only fault was leniency,’ said the beggar who was truly the Dragon Head. ‘You made two enemies today, then set both of them loose to come back at you again. That was a mistake, but we will talk more of such important matters tomorrow. Tomorrow is for business, and tomorrow I will ask of you a great favour.’

‘Tonight,’ the Dragon Head continued, ‘you are my honoured guest.’

©2024 Greg Barron

Read past chapters here.

Continued next Saturday.

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