A thousand peaks: no more birds in flight.
Ten thousand paths: all trace of people gone.
In a lone boat, rain cloak and hat of reeds.
An old man’s fishing the cold river snow.
I am alone in this mountain fastness, on a steep downward path in the deepest shadow. I play with the twelve characters of Lui Tsung-yaun’s poem. How few poems tell of the desolation of winter. The coming of Spring, the passing of Autumn? Yes. But the onset of Winter? Even my sharp memory only recalls a meagre handful of poems to this season: the time of the first snows. Against all good sense I set out from Stone Village too late in the year: now I search for comforting word images to accompany me on this journey. Just below the snowline I pass through a stunted forest of ancient walnut trees almost leafless; the unrelenting wind has dispatched them crinkled brown into the valley below. I see there a winding river. I see its distant lake. I think of this poem known since my teenage years, puzzled over that one could see in one sweep of the horizon a thousand peaks. Here are that thousand and more if the ranks of limestone pillars in these mountains can be counted as peaks. I count them as peaks. And those thousand paths? At every turn there is some fresh way falling into the valley, or a faint trail rising to the heights. But this path I tread asserts itself on the traveller. Its stones are worn and the excrement of passing pack animals sticks to my boots.
Last night a cave, tonight I will reach the village of Psnumako. My former guide provided its name with a disdain he could not hide. When questioned he warned me not to enter without a stout staff against the mastiffs that guard each house, supposedly ******* during the day but apt to break their bonds at the smell of a stranger.
The steep and ever steeper descent brings pain to my knees. At this hour of the day my body would prefer to climb to the heights, but descend I must. The cold, the damp cold begins to stiffen weary limbs. I am tired from a day’s travel, tired from three hard climbs, two descents and this, my third, to complete before nightfall. I enter a narrow gorge loud with clamour of running water, cascade upon cascade flowing from the heights, falling fast to the river soon to interrupt my path. I shall have to force a crossing. What passed for a bridge were two fallen pines lashed together. Now they lie akimbo a little distant, thrown apart like sticks by the spring flood as the deep snows melt. I must divest myself of boots and lower garments and wade across, stumbling on stones up to my waist in swift waters, terrified under the weight of my pack that I will fall and be swept under and along. To travel alone at such moments is foolhardy, but on this cold afternoon I have no choice.
I am so intent on preparing for this crossing it is only when I reach the end of the path that I notice snow is falling, its flakes sharp and white against the dark-water flow. The whirl and turn of the water mesmerises. Fatigue, fatigue embraces me, a day’s fatigue holds me fast on the river’s stony side. I close my eyes and hear the water rush and place myself into the protection of a mountain charm learnt from a passing traveller. Dwarfed by the size of his burden I see him negotiate a narrow path high above a chasm; he walked trance-like to the intoning of this charm.
It is soon done, the cold crossing, and with a lighter step I walk the remaining leagues to the lake-side and sight of the village. There are the faintest sparks of light amongst the silhouettes of houses. Animals are being brought in from the home fields against the night. A sudden shout, the barking of dogs, and now the snow falls thick and fast.
The guttural dialect here is barely discernable as speech. We are from different worlds this shepherd and I who meet at the stupa guarding the village entrance. This is not a Buddhist shrine but an acknowledgement of some mountain giant of terrifying aspect. The shepherd sees my official insignia and nods, knowing I will require shelter. He utters what may be a welcome, but could be a warning, and leads me forth. The mastiffs leap and bay as I pass between the primitive two-storey houses, animals below, humankind above. He disappears. I stop and wait. He returns with a woman who beckons me to climb the ladder to what may be her home. A widow perhaps? She is alone unless the rank darkness hides a man or child. But there is none. I hear animals move and grunt under the floor, a mat of dirt and straw. There is a sleeping loft, a cooking corner. I can see little else. But I am out of the snow, the biting wind, the cold. She pulls at my cloak, wet and caked with ice. There is a bowl placed in my hands; a rough tea. I speak a greeting, but there is no reply just a rustle of straw as she moves across the room.
The stupor of a journey’s pause is upon me. After three days on the trail to the heights I am numb with fatigue. I need food and sleep. I need rest before a final trek into the wilderness. Beyond Psnumako Lake known paths end. Except for the tracks used by shepherds to move their flocks to different seasonal pastures, there is wilderness. I hope for guidance, for the whereabouts of the sages who, in the winter months I am told, leave their reed huts on the heights for caves in the lower valleys. I shall be patient, remain here a little while. I am now immune to the discomfort and dirt of travel. That is how it is. That is how is must be. I miss only the mental absorption of writing, the caress of the brush on a scroll. In my home in Louyang I keep brush and paper close to hand; wherever I may be I can write, even in, especially in, the privy. If a line comes to me I can write it down. Here there is only the comfort of memory.
To think that in the past I wrote of this mountain wilderness out of my imagination and the descriptions of others. I once thought of these remote places as havens of spiritual liberation.
In the hills there is the sound of zither.
White clouds stay over shaded peaks,
Red flowers shine in the sunlit woods
Rocks are washed in the stream like jade;
How very different is the reality of it all; in this emerging winter world of mist, where the sun rarely visits and most living things have departed, where wind colours silence and one’s footfall becomes consolation. The sound of stone rubbing stone on the path is the eternal present. There have been days when only a distant crow moves in the landscape. Lammergeyers are known in these parts, but I have yet to see one. If there are wild beasts, they shun me.
As this bowl of tea cools in my hands but warms my frozen fingers I form pictures of the past day on its dark surface. Before dawn from the mouth of a river cave I sensed changes in the qualities of darkness that have hidden the heights above me. Then a perceptible line appeared and divided the mountain from the sky. That line became variegated; there were trees bristling on the highest rocks. It appears that at this hour the prevalent mist settles in the valleys leaving the sky clear.
The woman comes to me. She kneels to untie my boots. She looks with a curious innocence at my strangeness, the distortion of my face, the cleft palette, the deformed upper lip, the squint of my left eye. She is kindly as I give her my best smile though my face seems frozen still. There is a whisper, a prayer of welcome possibly. Then she bows her head, unravels a long scarf to reveal a mane of oiled hair, and sets about removing my boots. I see only the top of her head, a severe parting, hair held tightly in wooden combs. I close my eyes to bring to mind the image of Xaoli, so slight in comparison, her butterfly hands flittering into and around my sleeves, her seeing touch mapping out the extent of me, each piece of clothing, only later my face.
My reverie is broken by the entrance of two men. They squat behind the woman and, after taking in my ugliness and my hairpins of office, patiently wait for her to finish and retire. We stand and bow, then sit again amongst the straw.
‘Honoured Lord, I am Yun. You have travelled from Stone Village? And beyond?’
I pass him the Emperor’s seal he cannot read, but remain silent.
‘You are seeking those who live in the heights? The village only sees their servants, young boys sent for a goat or flasks of barley spirit. They bring herbs our women favour. Some have seen their huts when seeking lost animals. Now it is said they are gathered in the caves like animals waiting for the spring moon.’
‘When was the village last visited by their kind?’
‘ Hanlu, my Lord, the time of cold dew, two boys appeared with a pony. There was trading. They brought Chrysanthemum flowers and herbs for two geese and wine. They left scrolls for passage to Stone Village. Now the snows fall we may not see them until the Spring’
‘How far are your summer pastures? Have you any who would guide me there ?’
‘We do not seek these places after the first snows. The sages haunt the region beyond Chang Mountain. Before the 11th moon you might pass into the valley of Lidong where it is believed their caves lie, but to return before the Spring will not be possible.’
‘How many days there?’
‘Allow four. A difficult way, unmarked, rarely trodden, much climbing. There is one here who we could send with you – part of the way, and at a price, My Lord. Dahan travelled two seasons since as groom to a party of six with ponies, but then in late Spring.’
‘I will stay three days.’
‘Just so My Lord. Xiu Li will see to your wishes.’
And they depart, Yun’s companion has remained silent throughout, though searched my face continually. By the door he places his hand against the stout bag that carries my lute. ‘Guqin’, he says tenderly.
This instrument is my pass to the community of the reclusive. I am renown for my songs and their singing. My third-best guqin has not left its bag since Stone Village and I fear damage despite all my care on the path.
Later, as the village mastiffs gradually cease their baying as the quarter moon rises I take this instrument and place it across my lap. Its seven silk strings I wipe with a cloth and gently tune with its tasselled pegs. I then prepare myself through meditation to avoid the intrusion of distracting thoughts. With my eyes closed I allow my hands to seek out and name each part of guqin: from the Forehead of the Top Board, to the String Eyes, the Dew Collector, The Mountain, Shoulder and Phoenix Wings, past the Waist, the Hat Lines and the Dragon’s Beard, to the Dragon’s Gums and thence to the Inner Top Board. I can feel the Pillar of Heaven – the sound post – has moved a little in my recent travels. So too the Pillar of Earth – but with care I move both to their rightful positions. And so on naming the inner and outer parts of each of the two boards that make up the guqin. I begin to regulate my breathing and allow the fingers of my left hand to stroke and touch, to press and oscillate in the manner of vibrato. Zhoa Wenji describes twenty-three kinds of vibrato. I feel in turn each of the hui, the thirteen gold studs that mark the harmonic nodes and allow me to play the guqin by touch alone. In these moments of preparation I hear the words of my teacher: a good player makes sounds that are plentiful but not confused. As the moon reflecting on water, so the sounds are together but not combined. Like wind in the pines, they are combined but also spread out. Such sounds are valued for their lightness. Avoid the addition of inappropriate "guest" sounds. This is the refined theory of the guqin. To be knowledgeable about music, one must seek this, then one can realize its beauty.
I have tuned to the Huangzhong mode. The song *Amidst Mountains Thinking of an Old Friend I have brought to mind. I recall the words of The Slender Hermit who says of this piece that its interest lies in holding cherished thoughts, but having no way to tell these to anyone. There are emotions about the present time, longings and laments for the past, but there is no way to express any of this. And so this piece.
In this poor reed hut the room is filled with mist and haze,
how far away are the things I love;
the old plum tree seems exhausted, its flowers about to die,
the mountains are lonely and I am nostalgic for past times.
The moon shines brightly on this lovely evening,
from this distance I think of my old friend and wonder where he is.
The green of the mountains never fades,
but before I know it my hair will turn white;
the moon is waning and flowers wither,
Old friend, I dream constantly of meeting you.
How hard it is to recall the joy of our last meeting!
With the many mountain ranges,
and its hidden tigers and coiled dragons,
I am unable return to you in Chang An.
The road is distant, the tall trees make the road dark,
and the world is vast.
I mourn Aquila and Lyra
separated by the Milky Way like the cowherd and weaving girl,
on the ground we are separated by 1,000 li
in the sky we are each in a separate place,
though our passions remain strong
There has been no warm correspondence,
there is restraint to the bright harmony,
and the flowing streams are swallowed by the setting sun.
The thought of this song of mid autumn touches me before its words have issued from my lips. I play the last two lines in harmonics and sing.
Zuo Si was the brother of the courtesan and poet Zuo Fen. This short story is based on a chapter from my novel Summoning the Recluse. The opening poem appears in a translation by David Hinton from his collection Mountain Home.