|FAT Fu, One-Eyed Wong, Cut Off Their Balls Wang,
and other eminent persons having asked me to set down the entire story of
the Bridge of Birds from beginning to end, keeping back nothing but the
locations of the duke's treasure troves, since there is treasure still to
be lifted, I take up my writing brush and begin my account on the
fifteenth day of the eighth moon in the Year of the Dragon 3,337 (A.D.
639) when I walked for the last time toward the outer gates of the
Monastery of Sh'u. The abbot was waiting for me. It was the morning of my
nineteenth birthday, and he thought for a long time before coming up with
the proper words of congratulation. For the last time I watched the
familiar flush spread across the abbot's face, and the familiar finger
waggle in front of my nose.
| "Li Kao," said the abbot, "you were born to
| "Hanged," I said.
| "I mean the gallows!" roared the abbot, who had
turned quite purple in the face. He went on to say that the flaw in my
character ran too deep to be explained by unfortunate parentage, and that
in some previous incarnation I must have been a rabid jackal, or a
scorpion, or even the notorious East Idiot Ruler of South Tsi. The abbot
became rather upset as he reviewed the career of the notorious East Idiot
Ruler of South Tsi.
| "...and cut off their hands and feet!"
yelled the abbot, poking a finger against my chest.
| "Venerable One," I said politely, "I could
not possibly have been the Notorious East Idiot Ruler of South Tsi. I
would have cut off their noses as well."
| "...burned right down to the ground!" the
abbot bellowed, kicking me in the shins.
| "If you must do something, do a thorough job," I
| "...every last man, woman, and child!"
screamed the abbot in a spray of spittle, as he pounded me upon the
| "Wasteful," I sighed. "Some of the girls must
have been pretty."
| Actually I was very fond of the abbot. When the dear old boy
began to froth at the mouth and turn blue I picked up the bucket of water
which I had thoughtfully brought along and dumped it over his head.
"Ten thousand gratitudes for sparing me a heart attack," he
sputtered, and after I dried him off he was able to continue in a calmer
| "Li Kao, on the occasion of their nineteenth birthdays
the novices of the Monastery of Sh'u are presented with the saffron robes
of our order, and take the vows of poverty, piety, chastity, and
obedience. On this, your nineteenth birthday, I present you with a begging
bowl, the robe of a mendicant, and a warning."
| The abbot paused for effect.
| "There are no accidents in the Great Way of Tao,"
he said solemnly. "Nothing is wasted, nothing is without purpose, and
surely the gods had a reason for placing a rogue such as yourself upon the
red dust of earth. I have thought long and hard about this matter, and I
have come to the conclusion that somewhere in the world there is a task
which can only be performed by a consummate criminal who is completely
unburdened by moral principles. If I am correct, you will be called. Mark
my words, Li Kao! You will be called, and when you are called you must
follow, no matter how difficult and dangerous the path may be. It is my
fervent prayer that the path you take will lead you ten thousand miles
from the Monastery of Sh'u. Preferably," said the abbot, "to the
| And with those comforting words the abbot tottered back into
the monastery for a medical examination and I skipped blithely out into
the great land of China to make my fortune. To be specific I skipped
toward the bustling little city of Peking. The moon and I share the same
birthday, and there is no better place and time to make one's fortune than
in Peking during the Moon Festival.
| What a glorious day for a festival! "A spring wind is
like wine," wrote Chang Chou, "A summer wind is like tea, an
autumn wind is like smoke, and a winter wind is like ginger or
mustard." The breeze that blew through Peking was tea with a touch of
smoke, spiced with the fragrance of plum, poppy, peony, plane tree, lotus,
narcissus, orchid, wild rose, and the sweet-smelling leaves of banana and
bamboo. The breeze was also full of messages, of course: the twanging of a
long tuning fork meant that a barber had set up shop, and a porcelain
spoon rapping against a bowl meant that little dumplings in hot syrup were
for sale, and clanging copper saucers advertised soft drinks made from
wild plums, or sweet and sour crabapples. Crabs, chrysanthemums, melon
seeds, chestnuts - each vendor had his special sound, and only a country
bumpkin would resort to using his vocal chords. One such was just ahead of
me. He was an old peasant who led an ancient ox that pulled a cart that
belonged in a museum: a stone-wheeled cart.
| "Manure!" he yelled in a high cracked voice.
| "Stone wheels?" another voice faintly said. "Stone
| The shutters on a window in the second story of a shabby
unpainted house crashed open and a man stuck his head out. He had a pair
of glittering little pig eyes, a bald and mottled skull, a sharp curving
nose like a parrot's beak, the loose flabby lips of a camel, and two huge
drooping elephant ears from which sprouted thick tufts of coarse gray
| "Great Buddha!" this apparition gasped. "They
are stone wheels!"
| His head disappeared. I heard his feet clattering down the
stairs and his voice bellowing: "Cook! Cook! Don't waste a
second!" Then the door crashed open and the fellow dashed out
followed by the cook, and they started trotting behind the ancient cart.
They carried armloads of kitchen cutlery, which they sharpened against the
slowly revolving stone wheels.
| "What a bonanza!" the follow cackled.
| "At least two copper coins saved, Master!" cried
| "A million mortifications!" wailed a voice from
| A young woman had appeared at the upstairs window. She was
extremely pretty, and she wore a cheap often-patched dress and an
expression of despair as she gazed at the scene below.
| "Cook, bring more cutlery!" the fellow screamed.
"Bring the hoes and shovels too!"
| "Manure!" yelled the peasant. "Fresh
| "One hundred horrible humiliations," the pretty
young woman moaned.
| Outside the front door, I noticed, cheap incense was burning
before cheap statues of the Immortal of Commercial Profits, the Celestial
and Venerable Bringer of Lucrative Legacies, the Celestial and Venerable
Discoverer of Buried Treasures - all thirty-two greedy deities of the
Heavenly Ministry of Wealth.
| "Li Kao, you must definitely pay this household a
visit." I said to myself, and I made a careful note of the address
before strolling on down the street. The cries of the old peasant and the
cackles of the greedy miser faded behind me, and the cheerful cacophony of
the Moon Festival took over.
| I shouldered through the crowds clutching the begging bowl
that the abbot had so kindly given me. Men and women laughed and wept in
open air theatres, and gamblers screamed and swore around the dice games
and cricket fights. Gentlemen basked in the practiced admiration of
sing-song girls, or tiptoed into the Alley of Four Hundred Forbidden
Delights if they wanted more action. In brightly painted tents beautiful
young girls banged drums with sticks as they chanted the Flower Drum
Songs, and on every streetcorner I heard professional storytellers raise
| "Aiiieeeeee! Aiieeeeee! Come closer, my children!
Spread ears like elephants, and I shall tell you the tale of the great
Ehr-lang, and of what happened when he was devoured by the hideous
| I hated to tear myself away from the Moon Festival, but I
was in a hurry to make my fortune so I asked for the address of the worst
wineshop In town and made my way down a dark alley, stepping over dead
cats and snoring drunks and other refuse, toward the tattered blue flag
that waved above the wineshop of One-Eyed Wong. I stepped through the door
and jumped aside, just in time to avoid being struck by a wine jar that
hurtled through the air and smashed against the far wall. A thug with a
very good jade earring dangling from one chewed earlobe apparently did not
approve of the local product.
| "You Peking weaklings call that watery piss wine?"
he yelled. "Why, back in Soochow we make wine so strong that it
knocks you out for a month if you smell it on somebody's breath!"
| "We must add more cayenne, my turtle dove," said
One-Eyed Wong to his wife, who was mixing the stuff behind the counter.
| "Two hundred and twenty-two transcendent
miseries!" wailed Fat Fu. "We have run out of cayenne!"
| "In that case, 0 light of my existence, we shall simply
substitute mustard flavored with engraving acid," One-Eyed Wong said
| "Truly yours is genius of the highest order, 0 noble
stallion of the bedchamber," cooed Fat Fu.
| One-Eyed Wong and Fat Fu play only a tiny role in this
account, but they have since become my closest friends.
| "You Peking weaklings call these things flies?"
yelled the thug with the earring, who was lurching around the room
slashing the air with a dagger. "Why, back in Soochow we grow flies
so big that we clip their wings, hitch them to plows, and use them for
| "Perhaps a few flattened flies might add bouquet,"
One-Eyed Wong said thoughtfully.
| "A splendid idea, but we must be careful not to
overpower our famous flavor of crushed cockroaches," cautioned Fat
| "I shall leave the blending to your exquisite
taste," purred One-Eyed Wong.
| The thug with the earring did not approve of me and my
| "You Peking weaklings call these midgets men?" he
yelled. "Why, back in Soochow we grow men so tall that their heads
brush the clouds while their feet are planted on the ground!"
| "In my humble village," I said meekly, "we
grow men so big that their upper lips lick the stars, while their lower
lips nuzzle the earth."
| The thug thought about it.
| "And where are their bodies?"
| "They are like you," I said. "All
| The thug grabbed my begging bowl in order to hit me over the
head with it. He was rather surprised when a pair of fake hands and a
shoulder harness came along with the bowl. He was even more surprised when
my real hands reached out. I sliced off his left ear, and prepared to have
a little fun.
| "Notice this boy's balanced posture, my pet!"
cried One-Eyed Wong.
| "Notice how properly he hods his dagger, prepared to
strike upward with the thumb alongside the blade!" cried Fat Fu.
| "Notice how he turns so that the sun is at his
back!" cried One-Eyed Wong.
| "Notice how his free hand scoops up a bowl of pepper to
fling into the eyes!" cried Fat Fu.
| "Mark my words, this boy will be emperor one day!"
cried One-Eyed Wong.
| I bowed politely.
| "My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and there
is a slight flaw in my character," I said.
| "My ear," the thug sniffled, and he sat down at a
table and began mopping blood.