I Master Liu and the Demon

To the Minister—

When I was a child,

my parents said I should be a monk.

I went to the Seven Mountain Pass

and copied the History every day.

Petals were reflected in the blue pool,

and I heard the lute from White Moon Temple.

Now you say I must come away,

but there is no medicine for soul poison.

The alchemist Master Liu was called to court, but he wanted to decline. ‘What have you there that I would not find at the bottom of a jade bowl?’ he asked.

He knew better than to disobey, however, and when he arrived, they showed him Yü Ch’ing-chao, the governor’s Little Flower. She had been ill for a total of twenty-one days.

Master Liu prescribed longgu. He consulted the Tang Ben Cao and suggested that hers was a wasting illness, reflecting poor character. He recommended cold baths.

She called for the lute players herself after that, but by the following morning she had reverted to her old lethargy.

Master Liu prepared another medicine and administered it himself.

The next morning, the handmaidens awoke to find their mistress once again like a ghost, half-drained of chi.

Master Liu consulted his scrolls. Then, standing by Little Flower’s side, he read the Taoist formulas aloud. Little Flower rose up out of her bed, howling. Her handmaidens ran from the chamber shrieking.

Master Liu drew back, waiting for the attack to subside. But whenever he came near the Little Flower, she rose up screaming.

That night, Master Liu resolved to keep watch himself. ‘See how she grows lean with grief?’ He lit red lotus incense and sat on orange cushions, pen and ink in hand. He wrote ideograms until the wine-sick stewards closed up the East Tower. The handmaidens, who had all sworn they would not sleep, were passed out on their pillows. The mist rose up and the moon flooded the Cloud Chamber.

Master Liu put his pen aside and waited, gazing at the smoke from the incense until he too felt exhaustion stealing over him. The mist grew white in the chamber. To fight off his drowsiness, he quietly recited old poems. A chill began to pass over him, but he stayed his ground. When the mist finally began to thin, Master Liu thought he heard a child crying for help from outside, in the courtyard, but he was not deceived. Half-closing his eyes, he settled back onto his bed of cushions, feigning sleep. Presently, the mist cleared still more, and took on mass, substance. Master Liu waited until the thing was but a foot away from Little Flower. The curtains around the bed were already stirring when Master Liu struck.

More than once, the demon very nearly killed Master Liu, knocking him down and leaping at his throat, but the old monk knew what to do. Singing prayers to the Eight Immortals, he parried with a flash of his ritual mirror. The demon screeched and fell to the floor, writhing in agony.

They cut the demon’s corpse into twenty pieces and burned offerings to the Jade Emperor. Little Flower has recovered and, it is true, has the mark of this demon. They say she can drink as much wine as she wants and never grow drunk. Master Liu took no payment, asking Is this the Middle Path? He went to Hundred Flower Pavilion, where I have heard that he writes prescriptions for idle ministers and never turns his back to the stars.

II A Folk Tale

A traveler came to Red Sign Inn and asked for the east room.

‘You can’t have that room,’ they told him. ‘It’s for a rich man.’

He offered them a handful of coins.

They said ‘That room is no good. It leaks.’

He claimed that he had no fear of rain.

Again they tried to dissuade him, this time telling him the truth. ‘It’s haunted,’ they cried. ‘You will not sleep.’

He paid them no heed, ignoring their entreaties and forcing his way into the room that they had tried to bar.

When, later that night, the ghost came to into the room, the traveler said to it, ‘You are sick for longing. Very well, I shall burn medicinal herbs and speed you on your way.’

The innkeepers found the traveler in the morning, drained of chi. He was a very great doctor, grown so pompous that he tried to heal one who was already dead.

III A Memory from the War

My sister wore bright rouge and powdered her cheeks. An American businessman would marry her, she said, and they would have grandchildren who would play in cornfields. I remember when she would dance. Her stockings were all torn. She said, if we are truly modern, should we not industrialize? Sweat soaked her clothes. She could not stop crying when our parents died. ‘Take this,’ she said, handing me the papers. ‘Our family was once proud.’ She took the papers out each night and read them to me. ‘The shi ren are not to be countenanced,’ she said. ‘They know nothing of the arts of immortals.’ This is one of the secrets: ‘Now, there is a certain demon who feeds upon chi. In this way, the creature has found an elixir so that he is never ill and never dies.’ Every time the army came, she hid the papers in a new place. At last the soldiers came and took her away, and stewardship over the papers passed to me. ‘For soul sickness, huo xue hua yu.’ The ghost that my sister has become wears a ribbon around her throat so that when she visits I can’t see where they bled her.

IV The Last Alchemist of S— Province

If a bus is taken to the end of the — line, one will find himself in front of the Science and Technology Institute of the S— Province. Here, a student turned lead into silver nitrate in front of a crowd of onlookers in 1974.

This was the one and only public experiment performed by the student in question, whose family name was Y—. His reluctance to perform more public demonstrations was in part a reaction to the notoriety that his amazing feat had inspired. For months, reporters approached him. Strangers came up to him on the street, requesting some medicine to ease their ailments.

Y— pretended that he didn’t understand the reporters’ questions. If he knew of something that might in fact be of use in treating an ailment, he would make a recommendation, but always said it was just something his grandmother had taught him. He denied having any special knowledge one way or another about the working of the world. When people asked “But aren’t you the one who changed lead into silver?” he would ask, “Am I?”

Soon, people stopped pestering him. Instead, suspicion began to mount. The very people who had witnessed his experiment started to question what they had seen. Had Y— somehow tricked them? If he wasn’t a fraud, why was he so unwilling to repeat the experiment?

When asked about what they had seen, witnesses began claiming that they had known all along that it was a ruse. They had only gone along with the stunt as a lark.

Resentment against the student began to build.

Meanwhile, Y— continued his studies into the art of alchemy in secret. He made use of papers that had been passed down in his family for centuries.

He regretted his one public demonstration, but performing the experiment in front of others was the only way that the Science and Technology Institute would grant him access to certain valuable equipment.

Y— resolved to avoid compromising himself like that in the future.

One day, a pretty young woman approached Y— in the library as he was reading.

“Are you the famous scientist who transformed lead into silver nitrate?” she asked.

Y— blushed furiously. He was not used to pretty young women speaking to him. Nor was he accustomed to lying, but he didn’t want people to start talking about him again. Stuttering, he began, “D-d-don’t—” He paused. “I don’t know what you mean.”

She smiled. “Oh, you mustn’t be humble. Everyone knows who you are.”

He shook his head, but it was obvious that she didn’t believe him.

“I have come to you because my family needs your help,” she continued.

Despite his misgivings, Y— didn’t want to refuse her. “Is someone ill?”

“Someone is dead.”

She explained to him that her grandfather had passed away two weeks earlier. Her parents had performed all of the appropriate rituals, but every night since the old man’s death, he had been seen moving about the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, her little brother was growing ill. He grew weaker as the nights passed, and her parents feared that her grandfather was to blame.

She asked the alchemist for his help.

Y— didn’t know what to do.

His practice of alchemy left him ill-suited for facing the world. He had no friends, because he cultivated silence. He was studying for a degree, but he didn’t seek advancement. Once he completed his education, he hoped to find a post that would afford him the solitude required to forget the world altogether.

But nor would he turn away a person in need.

Y— said that he would do what he could for the young woman. He had never before encountered a problem like this, but his family’s papers told of similar cases and he was willing to try.

That night, he and the young woman waited in her brother’s room for her grandfather to appear. Y— had taken the necessary precautions, but when the visage of the old man appeared outside of the window, Y— was unable to dispel him. Not until Y— ran outside, did the entity flee.

The same thing happened the following night. None of Y—’s efforts to protect the house proved successful.

Y— begged the young woman’s forgiveness. “I will consult the papers again,” he said.

“Papers?” she gazed at him in confusion.

“They belong to my family. All of my knowledge about the nature of things is derived from them.”

The next day, just as night was falling, Y— was still in his rooms going back over these papers when he heard a knock at the door. It was the young woman. She said that her brother was declining quickly.

Y— hastily returned the papers to the lockbox under his bed. Y—’s roommate had shown little interest in prying, but Y— always practiced the utmost care when it came to protecting the archive that meant so much to his family.

He and the young woman hurried to her parent’s, and found that a large gathering of friends and neighbors had assembled in the bun shop next door.

Where have you been? members of the crowd demanded as soon as they saw Y—. Will you help the boy or not?

Y— was at a loss, bewildered by the size of the crowd and not knowing what else he could do to dispel the ghost.

Nevertheless, Y— held his ground. He wouldn’t abandon the boy, whose condition had indeed worsened.

Everyone waited for the old man to appear, the crowd peering out of the windows of the bun shop and Y— waiting in the boy’s room.

“There he is,” someone cried from the bun shop.

Y— could not see what everyone was looking at. The window in the boy’s room offered a poor view of the street.

“But—look at him!” another voice cried. “He is no ghost!”

Shouts of outrage sounded from the bun shop.

“Seize him!” one voice yelled, followed by others, and Y— heard the commotion as the mob poured into the street.

Coming outside, Y— saw the crowd tugging a fellow forward. The man’s face was smeared with make-up, but it was obvious that he was human and, what is more, he was alive.

“What is this?” the young woman asked. “Are you just an actor?”

The men who were holding the impersonator shook him, demanding an answer. Feebly, the impersonator tried to defend himself. “I was hired,” he said. “Don’t blame me.”

“But who would hire you to do such a thing?” the young woman asked.

The impersonator raised a hand, pointing at the alchemist.

Y— stumbled backwards in shock. How could anyone make such a claim?

“What about my brother?” the young woman wanted to know.

“He will be fine,” the impersonator said. “The alchemist gave me the medication to use. I offered it to the boy the other day at the park. Your brother will recover.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would do this,” the young woman cried.

“The alchemist wanted to impress you all with his powers,” the impersonator explained. “Then everyone would go to him for help and pay him for his services.”

Y— couldn’t believe what he was hearing. None of it was true. He had never asked for anything in exchange for his help.

“No,” he started to reply, but it was too late. The crowd was already surging forward to seize him.

Y— turned and ran. He ran as he had never run before, rushing down the street and slipping through an alley, then racing down another thoroughfare and narrowly escaping capture by slipping through yet another alley. He ran block after block, evading his pursuers, who wondered at the alchemist’s amazing swiftness of foot, but did not slacken the chase.

Returning to his apartment, Y— hurried inside and headed for his bedroom, intent upon absconding with the lockbox containing his family’s papers.

He was brought up short by the sight of his roommate, kneeling on the floor over the lockbox.

“What are you doing here?” his roommate asked.

The alchemist had no response, too shocked by everything that had happened to summon a reply.

His roommate scowled. “How did you get away? She—she’s my girlfriend you know—” his roommate sneered. “She said that she’d see to it that you couldn’t get away.”

Y— heard the sound of feet pounding up the stairs to the apartment.

The roommate smiled. “That must be them coming for you now.”

Y— shoved his roommate out of the way, grabbing for the box. His roommate tried to fight back, but it was no good.

Tossing the lockbox in a backpack and slinging it over his shoulder, the alchemist went for the window.

“It isn’t fair,” his roommate cried from his place on the floor.

A thud sounded from the next room. The first of the alchemist’s pursuers had arrived.

“You can’t keep your secrets from us,” Y—’s roommate warned, as the alchemist slipped through the window.

Y—shimmied up the drainage pipe to the roof. And by the time that his pursuers had followed him there, he’d escaped again.

They could see him in the distance, leaping rooftop to rooftop, but the space between the buildings was too great. None of them would dare jump.

The crowd went back down to the street and tried to continue a ground pursuit.

They searched for days, scouring the city for the alchemist. But they never found him.

V The Transplant

She was not herself. Or maybe she was two things at once, and they didn’t quite fit.

She was the girl who was here, in high school, reading Shakespeare and studying Biology. Going to cheerleading practice after school and texting on her phone until one in the morning.

Yet she was someone else, too.

She knew better than to talk about it at school. Not even her family liked to hear her bring it up.

“That’s just nonsense,” her mother would say. “They’ll make fun of you in class if you talk about it.”

She tried to explain it to her best friend once. “Taoist alchemy isn’t just about making gold,” she said. “It’s about who you are inside.”

Her friend nodded politely.

But it was obvious that alchemy wasn’t the kind of thing that a girl in high school should be talking about if she wanted to be taken seriously.

So what should she do?

It was like something was broken inside of her. Like there was a contradiction between the thing that she knew that was supposed to be, the girl who went to school and fit in, and the thing that she felt that she was really meant to be.

She tried for a while. She gave herself over wholly to the world, concentrating on her friends and her family and everything that they wanted for her. She was very popular and was the recipient of many invitations to dates and parties. She excelled in school and became the captain of her cheerleading squad.

And every day she grew more and more miserable.

She had several books on alchemy sitting on her bookshelf, all bequeathed to her by a relative she’d never met. But these books couldn’t possibly be the source of her fascination in the art, for the very first time that she opened one of them, the words called to her. Something inside of her answered, having lain in wait all of this time for her to find the right words.

What was the source of this aberration?

It wasn’t as if she really believed in fairy tales. She didn’t believe that men could really fly or change lead into gold or live forever.

It was the way that the alchemists could apparently slow it all down, see everything at once, indifferent to tribulation. It was the way that they set aside everything that didn’t matter, living in the eternity of the instant, as if that was obtainable.

It was like the sound of rain on eaves. Horses’ hooves on cobblestones. The smell of cinnamon and leaves in the cold autumn air. The sight of dappled light on a sidewalk. The tickle of a breeze on a warm day. The hint of stillness in mist hovering over a pond.

It set her at ease. It made her feel like herself, her real self, if only for an instant.

And then it was gone.

And she was back in the world where she didn’t belong. Where it wasn’t right to talk about the one thing that made her feel right. The very thing that took her out of the world.

She was not herself. Or maybe she was two things at once, and they didn’t quite fit.

She was the girl who was here, in high school, reading Hemingway and studying Geometry. Going to parties on the weekend and not getting home until one in the morning.

Yet she was someone else, too.