|The Huang family had two oxen and Father Huang needed both to farm the land to its greatest potential. Worried about a farming season with only one ox he drew Xing Ren aside. Xing Ren had been listening to one of Youngest Sister’s endless implausible stories, in his decades of mountain solitude he had forgotten how much people could talk.|
“We are so grateful” Father Huang began “and Little Fish certainly needs an ox to ride. At the same time there is a farm to work and five mouths to feed…”
Xing Ren looked into Father Huang’s face, following the trails of tiny lines into his dark eyes, eyes akin to those of his ox. After traversing the broad forehead, Xing Ren’s gaze paused on Father Huang’s left ear. Knowing better than to fidget under the scrutiny of a wise man, Father Huang waited patiently. Focusing beyond the ear Xing Ren watched the three Huang girls who would stay at the farm, sitting and playing a spinning top game.
“Your ox…” Xing Ren spoke slowly, almost distractedly “your ox will be returned to you in a timely manner.”
After the midday meal the ox chosen for the journey was loaded with four bags of rice, two bags of goods from the farm, and Little Fish. So weak he could barely sit up, Little Fish slumped back against a bag of rice. Second Sister held an umbrella above him to keep off the hot sun. And so they set off down the road. As they rounded the first bend, the farmhouse slipped out of view. Second Sister tugged on Xing Ren’s robe as he padded ahead leading the ox.
“Please, Sir, Venerable One, Grandfather…what am I to call you? But, please, how are they to know how we are doing?”
Xing Ren stopped, the ox stopped. Xing Ren regarded the girl; the ox gazed into the distance, an ear cocked towards the man’s voice. Here again was something Xing Ren had forgotten during his decades of mountain solitude; the concern of family members for one another. A kind of love, when it didn’t tip the scales into imbalance. He could tell the girl to trust in the Tao, but she was too young to take comfort there.
“First, you shall address me as Shifu*. Second, how long have you worn that bracelet?” He pointed to a slender circlet in orbit around Second Sister’s wrist.
“I’ve worn it for three years, I keep it on all the time. When I practice Kung Fu I push it up out of the way.” She demonstrated.
“Take the bracelet off, run back and give it to Youngest Sister. Tell her to hold it every night and tell the family a story of whatever comes into her head.”
“But how…” Second Sister was full of questions.
“No time, do as I told you and catch up with us. Hup, hup.” These last words were addressed to the ox. Second Sister turned without a glance and sprinted down the road, back to the farm, her family and the fat black chickens.
As the sun was beginning to consider peering around the earth to another side of the globe, Xing Ren came to a small traveler’s hut.
“We’ll spend the night here.” He said as he tied the ox’s nose rope to a small tree, which seemed to exist for that very purpose. Xing Ren lifted Little Fish off the ox and settled him under an adjacent tree in the shade.
“Unload the ox, Second Sister.” Then Xing Ren turned and stepped toward the forest, which had been their constant traveling companion for half the day.
“Wait, where are you going?” called Second Sister. Not used to having to account for his actions, Xing Ren was momentarily puzzled. He replied before disappearing into the shadows “I’m going to look for something.” This was true, but it was not Xing Ren’s primary motive. He really wanted to be alone.
Upon his return Xing Ren produced from inside his robes a large skin of water from a spring he had located. This was set to boil in a three-legged pot over a fire Second Sister had made. As the water began to bubble Xing Ren slipped what looked like grass into the pot. From one of the sacks the ox carried, he took a handful of vegetables. These he broke into pieces and added to the pot.
“Shifu, there is a knife” said Second Sister.
“Metal disturbs the QI paths of the food,” she was told.
Xing Ren allowed Little Fish to drink only the watery broth. He and Second Sister ate the vegetables and bits of dried meat. That night on the Huang’s farm Youngest Sister told the family a story wherein Little Fish drank moonbeams and frolicked with the rabbit that lives on the moon.
For a week the trio walked through woods and mountains. The three became comfortable with each other; Second Sister asked her questions only when they burned too hot for her to answer herself, Xing Ren pointed out useful plants and at night made the children look at the stars with him and listen to a story about one of the great Celestial Teachers. More that once Xing Ren wondered if he were talking as much as Youngest Sister. Little Fish spoke only when spoken to and then only in muttered monosyllables. Each day Xing Ren made Little Fish walk 100 steps more than the previous day. Each night Little Fish drank the broth from the three legged pot and in the morning ate more rice and meat than the day before.
On the morning of the seventh day of traveling Xing Ren woke with a feeling of anticipation, had he been Second Sister’s age he might have thought it was his birthday. Before setting out he knelt and felt the path, then placed a pinch of its dust on his tongue.
“Come” he said, probably to the ox, which seemed almost to skip behind the fast moving hermit.
*Teacher or master, as in someone who has mastered a skill to a high degree.