“You’ve got to be kidding me Sherme.” He ducked under a low branch. “Won’t you just stop for once?” Snagged on Sherme’s backpack, a wet spruce branch bent with him as he crept forward and when he straightened, snapped back and slapped Jen straight across the cheek.
“Cào! Watch it! I am sick of this Sherme. Why did you take me here?”
He’d saved Jen’s life and now, taking him south across the Longhuan, threatened it himself.
“Why did I take you here? Haven’t you taken a look around?”
“Of course I have. Mountains. Mountains on every side. Peaks covered in snow. We’re standing in the middle of the forest, Sherme. I understand. It is beautiful, I know, but I am wet and cold, my throat is sore, my skin is dry and livid, and I have not seen the sun in three days.”
Over ridges and through narrow valleys they had trudged. He’d said the Longhuan was not far. “Not far” for Sherme equaled five days away and now, four days since they’d entered the Longhuan, Jen, his face stinging from the haughty spruce, stood amongst firs, larch, pine, and birch, halfway between jagged mountain peaks and the valley floor. He’d crossed steams and forded fivers, fought squalls of sleet and diamond winds across high alpine meadows permanent with ice and snow.
“You said you studied the great painters, right?”
“Studied them. Knew some of them myself.” He brushed water droplets from his overcoat. “What of it?”
“Well it just seems quite ridiculous that you can appreciate a painting, but not the source of their inspiration.”
“For your information, no one I know would ever bother painting a place like this.”
“You know very well that is not what I mean Jen. Haven’t you seen the brooks and the streams shine like slivers of the sky, the way they trickle and spill and twist between the rocks? You of all people should love them—they go their own way, no one to mind them. As you might say, they follow principle…”
Sherme bringing up principle? Sherme, this decubitus, this excretory perineal pustule, just went epidermic. Sherme, his feckless escort, who could not even follow a straight line talking about principle?
“…Haven’t you looked into their deep pools and wondered? Years go by, their depth never changes.”
“All I am saying is here you are, take it in. Loosen up. Come on little…Let’s just keep going. What I wanted to show you is not too far.”
Not too far. That could mean anything. According to Sherme’s definition of space, the end of the Silk Road (some thousands of miles away) could lie right around the next bend.
Down the mountainside the forest gave way to one mixed with hemlock, pine, and maple past its turning. Bamboo in the understory. Rufous-headed robins with their deep tucs and tocs, their soft thin sis; snowy-cheeked laughingthrushes grated thier hwii-u hwii-us. A troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys whined and chuckled, belched and moaned. A thousand winds strong, heavy clouds the color of dried moss piled one atop the other. They’d missed the full moon, missed its light, luminous as a boundless ocean and Jen could only look forward to more rain, rain that roared like the night-watch drum forever keeping him awake.
Twice he’d returned to Chao Dingbang, working at his furnace, his disgruntled face even more twisted the second time. He kept a frog in a newly dug well and a quail in a cage. He’d complained about not having the right ingredients: how the water he used was not young enough, how the pearl did not flow enough. “You are seeing the result,” he said gesturing to the corner. Jen went to inspect. Three distinct piles, separated, in a way, by category: you had those fetuses with one head and two mouths, those with two heads of unequal size, and those with two complete faces on a single head.
“Anything I can do to help?” Jen asked the second time.
“You’ve done enough already.”
Jen tried to take Sherme’s advice: he tried to take it all in. But Sherme never stopped. He even ate on the move and in a place like this, Jen could not risk lagging behind. How could he possibly take it all in if he couldn’t pause for but a moment? Hadn’t Kuo Hsi said one possessed an ethical obligation to study nature, to take note of every changing moment? Jen closed his eyes and located his reference. Yes, yes he had. In order to do so, however, one had to take pause, view nature from a fixed and determined position. Study nature to give it shape. Give it shape to understand its principle, its essence. Understand principle, paint what cannot be seen. Make a mountain the embodiment of mountain-ess; capture the bud and the branch in pristine, limitless space. Study in order to master. Taking pause—an ethical obligation.
Sherme never stopped.
This vacuous reprobate who giggled before him whenever he heard a sparrow squabble or a wild dog howl did not follow his own advice. A man, Jen now understood, who lacked in ethics, who lacked in proper discrimination. An unformed man who lacked in righteousness. Worst of all—Jen scratched his sore throat and scraped the scurf from his hand—a man he had to follow.
“Did you hear that?”
Sherme held his hand above his head. “That. That snap. Did’ya hear that?”
“Yes Sherme. I heard it.”
“I was just answering—”
“Quiet.” A pronged whisper. Another snap. “This way.”
Sherme took a hard left up a slow incline toward a bamboo canebrake; much as he’d done in Nu-Kua’s crowds, he slipped though narrow spaces and, gesturing Jen to his side, stopped. Left index finger plumb to his lunulate lips, he pointed with the right.
There it sat on its hind legs. Jen rubbed the disbelief from his eyes. He’d heard of them, but didn’t believe they were real. He heard a story
about how once a leopard killed a little girl for trying to protect a young white bear. Holding a funeral for the girl, the bears wore black bands the length of their arms as a sign of mourning. They cried rivers; the black dye ran. To console themselves, they hugged one another, leaving black spots on their backs. Wiping their eyes, they left black marks, and to muffle the sounds of their cries, they covered their eyes, so too giving them color.
“Oh, look at that.” Though he whispered, he said it the way a little girl tells you to look at a puppy. “A baby. Oh my, what an absolute treasure. So quiet, so unassuming. I guess that’s why people think they’re not real.” A tear, slow and thoughtful as the panda herself, trickled down Sherme’s cheek. “An absolute treasure. Look how she strips the bark. Such focus, such concentration. As if there is nothing else in the world. Such poise. How she gets to the inside, to the essence.”
To the inside, to the essence. Just like Kuo Hsi said about painting, what Ch’eng-I said about investigating things. Jen looked to Sherme, the tear comfortable atop his cheekbone.
He looked to Jen. “Well, that’s what I was hoping to see, let’s keep moving.”
Jen shook his head: Sherme just did not comprehend.
Sherme found the “path” they’d been on before their little detour and before they continued on, Jen asked why he cried.
“Because I was happy.”
Jen folded his arms. “Happy.”
“Yes happy. Ever since I was a little boy, I have wanted to see a panda.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Honest.” He paused. “Okay, okay. I am a little sad too.”
“They’re just…” He plucked a mottled maple leaf from a twig and twirled it by the stem. “Just so gentle. The way people should be, but are not. Not enough of them anyway.”
“Is that it?”
Sherme shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I feel bad for them. I don’t know why, but I feel like as many of them might be out here, it’s like they are already gone…this entire forest, already gone. It’s like they just linger, desperately holding on. Did you see how the baby clung to its mama? It’s like it already knows and it is afraid.” The corners of his lips twitching, he glanced at Jen. “I know, stupid right.”
For the first time, Jen saw in Sherme a glimmer of humanity. Maybe the way he sniffled or the way he looked at the maple leaf as he talked. Perhaps he wasn’t totally devoid of virtue after all. Shamelessly uninhibited? Yes. But completely dissolute? Maybe not. Jen placed a hand on Sherme’s upper arm. “No Sherme, not stupid. Not stupid at all.”