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(Traditional Chinese cover scanned by Dairytea)
The first time it's strange and exciting. The second time around, however, it's old news. Perhaps hammering imparts character to the face the way it does to wrought iron.
The next morning, the inn attendant, Laixi, comes to my room with water for the morning wash, but when he sees my face, his hands tremble, almost dropping the basin.
Meanwhile, I warn kindly and calmly, “Careful there. Wouldn't want to get scalded now.”
Clearing his throat, Laixi places the basin on its rack and wrings a towel for me. His gaze flickers and drifts towards me.
“Is it very swollen?” I ask pointing to my face.
His wandering eyes finally fall on my face squarely. “There's an Ointment Patch w.a.n.g across the street who specializes in external injuries. How about I fetch him for you, sir?”
By the time Ointment Patch w.a.n.g arrives, everyone else has, too. When Master Su sees my eye, he simply takes a seat and drinks tea. On the other hand, Xiao-Shun and Zhong-shu stand before me, fidgeting apologetically with their hands.
“Young Master, next time you need to relieve yourself, please summon us to serve you. It is our fault that you were not attended properly.”
“It was solely my fault and no one else's,” I declare with a wave of n.o.blesse oblige.
I peek over to where the young marquess and his servant boy are standing, farthest from everyone. Maintaining a poker face, he takes a seat next to Master Su and pours himself a cup of tea. Moyu waits to his side with his head bowed.
Ointment Patch w.a.n.g's ego takes up a lot of real estate. As soon as he sees the room full of people, he hollers, “Anyone with no bi'ness here, move outta the way! Where's the good man who needs a patch?”
The diligent Xiao-Shun nods and approaches explaining it's this good sir, me, who needs a diagnosis. Arms crossed, the doc squints at me, one eye half opened, the other half closed, for a moment before inquiring, “How did this happen, sir? Did you crash into the door frame last night when goin' to the loo?”
I nod. “Precisely.”
Ointment Patch w.a.n.g shoos Master Su and Fu Qingshu away and gestures to me to sit down. Then he scrutinizes my face again, shakes his head and sighs. “Pity we can't patch up the eye. We can only rub on some ointment. Too bad! I'm not tootin' my own horn, but in Zhongzhou, my d.a.m.n patches are amongst the best, if not the best! I use real dog skin! All authentic!”
Xiao-Shun smiles apologetically. “Then would you please provide a bottle of ointment for my young master? We really must be getting along.”
Shaking his head, Ointment Patch w.a.n.g fishes out a small container from a pouch. He looks at me, sighs and shakes his head again.
“My good sir, you got any other bruises, sprains, arthritis, joint pain, or hip and back pains? No matter what it is, I guarantee it'll disappear with my patches! They're completely authentic! Real dog skin, I tell ya!”
After we get rid of the doc, the inn's attendant arrives with another reminder. “It'd be wise to hit the road now before it's too late to reach your next stop.”
Xiao-Shun suggests staying one night to let my eye heal, but I dismiss him with a flick of the wrist. “Absolutely no need! It's just a bruise. It won't hinder our progress.”
Afraid to offend, the little servant leaves to prepare the carriage.
The inn owner is nice enough to give us a bag of zongzi on the house. Leaving the town behind us, we are hit with the relentless sun and never-ending clouds of sand. With nothing much to discuss, Master Su and I untie and peel a zongzi – it is duanwu after all.
After a couple of hours on the road, I hear Zhong-shu yell, and the carriage comes to a stop. A half-eaten zongzi in hand, I lift the curtains to see the butler pointing ahead.
“Sir, there's no more road.”
I get down and finally see why the attendant kept urging us to leave like his life depended on it. About a hundred metres away is a wide stretch of roaring water. I squint under the sunlight.
“This... Could this be the Yellow...”
Master Su follows me out. “Ah, the Yellow river.”
d.a.m.n, it really is!
Fu Qingshu reins in his horse and shields his vision with a hand above the brows as he looks yonder. “Let's go ahead until we find a boatman to ferry us. We'll be able to make it to an inn on the other bank well before sunset.”
Zhong-shu hollers at the mules to start again while Master Su and I follow on foot for a hundred metres or so to the bank.
The river runs for as far as the eye can see. Against the vast expanse of emptiness stands a sloppily put together hut within which appears to be two dots.
Turns out those two dots are the heads of two older men chewing tobacco. After eyeing us from under their straw hats, they spit out the chaw and beckon.
Come on down? I look to either side, confused, and find that Fu Qingshu is the same. The two men rise, and I quickly begin explaining, “Sir, we are-”
“Ya wanna cross the water, right?” one of them interrupts as he straightens his hat. “We can take ya! But one thing we gotta get straight: humans only. The beasts and the cart can't go over.”
Even Master Su looks like he's stuck between a rock and a hard place. The two boatmen were not younger than Zhong-shu. If added up, they'd be well over one hundred fifty! I'd ride across on the mules before I'd let those two geezers take us.
Not wanting to hurt their self-esteem, I inquire gingerly, “Are there any other boatmen at this ford?”
The man who spoke squints at me. “Yeah, plenty. But today's duanwu, and they all went to race in town. Be only us two bag o' bones here watchin' the dock.” He scoffs bitterly. “If you sirs find our service lackin', then might I suggest spendin' the night in the cart and crossin' tomorrow?”
“Oh, of course not,” I chuckle nervously. “The greater the years, the greater the experience, as they say. We only fear you won't ferry us. Hah...”
As soon as the words leave my mouth, I wish I could slap myself across the face. Fu Qingshu shoots a deadly glare at me, and even Master Su shakes his head with disapproval. The two boatmen, however, grin.
“This young master's a wise man. Great skills are needed to work the sheepskin raft. She's definitely trickier than them simple rowers.”
I think I'm seeing stars. I gasp for air. Sheepskin raft!?
The raft turns out to be neither very long nor very wide. Only three can fit on at once: one in each corner with the boatman in the fourth to balance things out.
I'm sitting in one corner munching on my zongzi.
Master Su and Fu Qingshu are sitting in the other two, and they are actually chatting about the scenery. Of course, they're quoting all sorts of poetry and proverbs which makes my brain shut right down. So what else can I do but dig out a zongzi and entertain myself?
Squatting on a sheepskin raft with the roaring river below, the broiling sun above and a cold zongzi in hand... I dare say, no one else in the history of time has had as good a duanwu as this one.
I bite down angrily on the zongzi, hitting the sweet red date hidden inside.
Pushing the raft along with a bamboo oar, the old boatman belts out a local tune:
Sun in the east, oh how bright it shines!
Clouds in the west, oh how fast it climbs!
Missin' my gal, oh how I miss her so!
My gal in my dreams, oh how I miss you so!
How bright it shines, aye! How fast it climbs, aye!
My gal in my dreams, oh how I miss you so…
Master Su is chatting with the young marquess when I notice his face turning a bit pale. After all, he is of delicate build. By the time, the geezer has repeated the song five or six times, Master Su is looking like a ghost.
At the end of one cycle, I clear my throat and make small talk with the old man. “May I know your age, sir?”
The boatman guffaws at the rolling waves. “I've just turned seventy-one.”
“Still as lively as ever!” I chuckle flatly. “I can see you going on for another decade, easily.”
That rubs him the right way. “Poor life of a poor man. If I was born in a respectable family like you sirs, I'd be sittin' there, legs up, waitin' to be served at my age.”
I cleverly take the hint and continue along his train of thought. “But what old gentleman is in healthier condition than you? I imagine I'll need someone to help me simply walk by the time I'm seventy-one. From the song earlier, I gather you've had quite an eventful life.”
I guess that really scratches his itch because he becomes so excited that even the raft trembles.
“Haha, you've got a good eye, sir! I did have a wild time in my youth. But you know women. They're too much work. You can't be too near, and you can't be too far. Too far, and you'll miss her like crazy. Too near, and you'll go crazy.”
With that, I'm reminded of my suffering all these years, all the drama with Yan Ni. I can't help but sigh and add, “And you know what happens? When you're near, she finds you troublesome, but when you're far, she says you don't care about her. It's trouble either way!”
The geezer runs a hand through his beard, sighing as he casts his gaze over the water. He looks back with a smile. “So I reckon this gentleman is married. The other two good sirs, have you married yet?”
The two sirs in question have long stopped chatting and are listening to our conversation. When the topic of the opposite s.e.x is brought up, they both turn to me, making me feel rather uncomfortable.
“These two young masters have not. And I-” I want to say that I haven't either, but then I recall that piece of wood on the altar in the main hall. I cough. “I'm married, but my wife is but a wooden plaque. So in reality I'm the same bachelor as before.”
The boatman gives me a sympathetic look. “All the better. Less trouble.”
I chuckle along. “There are benefits to having a family. All the gold and all the silver cannot buy a wife, kids and a warm bed.”
“To each their own,” he laughs heartily.
I laugh along, but I feel something is amiss. I look around. Master Su is enjoying the view. The young marquess is gazing towards the other raft that the servants are on. Nothing peculiar.
Our boatman takes a swig from his gourd before singing again.
The pulley over the well, oh how loud it creaks!
In the twilight, oh how I miss you so!
One bucket of water, and my hands tremble at the thought of you.
Two buckets of water, and my mouth can't speak at the thought of you.
How loud it creaks, aye! How I miss you so, aye…
Tremors from his voice run through the raft. I can't help but look at Su Yanzhi again. His face is turning waxy yellow, and he has a hand on his forehead. I reach over and tap him on the shoulder.
“Want some water?”
He looks up. “It's nothing. I just need to rest when we find an inn. I haven't rested well these nights.”
I feel bad seeing him force himself like this. “Maybe I can scoot over, and you can lean on me for some rest. It might help.”
Fu Qingshu coughs. The boatman turns to me and reminds, “Avoid movement on the raft. Sir, please hang on for a bit longer. Another two, three hours before we reach the bank.”A sheepskin raft is an ancient vessel of crossing the Yellow River, especially in modern Gansu and Ningxia, made from inflated sheep or cow skin.
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