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.    1
   "Li Kao," said the abbot, "you were born to be hung."    2
  "Hanged," I said.    3
  "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.    4
  "...and cut off their hands and feet!" yelled the abbot, poking a finger against my chest.    5
  "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."    6
  "...burned right down to the ground!" the abbot bellowed, kicking me in the shins.    7
  "If you must do something, do a thorough job," I said approvingly.    8
  "...every last man, woman, and child!" screamed the abbot in a spray of spittle, as he pounded me upon the shoulders.    9
  "Wasteful," I sighed. "Some of the girls must have been pretty."    10
  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 vein.    11
  "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."    12
  The abbot paused for effect.    13
  "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 moon."    14
  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.    15
  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.    16
  "Manure!" he yelled in a high cracked voice. "Fresh manuuuuuuuuuure!"    17
  "Stone wheels?" another voice faintly said. "Stone wheels?"    18
  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 hair.    19
  "Great Buddha!" this apparition gasped. "They are stone wheels!"    20
  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.    21
  "What a bonanza!" the follow cackled.    22
  "At least two copper coins saved, Master!" cried the cook.    23
  "A million mortifications!" wailed a voice from above.    24
  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.    25
  "Cook, bring more cutlery!" the fellow screamed. "Bring the hoes and shovels too!"    26
  "Manure!" yelled the peasant. "Fresh manuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuure!"    27
  "One hundred horrible humiliations," the pretty young woman moaned.    28
  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.    29
  "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.    30
  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 high-pitched voices:    31
  "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 Transcendent Pig!"    32
  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.    33
  "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!"    34
  "We must add more cayenne, my turtle dove," said One-Eyed Wong to his wife, who was mixing the stuff behind the counter.    35
  "Two hundred and twenty-two transcendent miseries!" wailed Fat Fu. "We have run out of cayenne!"    36
  "In that case, 0 light of my existence, we shall simply substitute mustard flavored with engraving acid," One-Eyed Wong said calmly.    37
  "Truly yours is genius of the highest order, 0 noble stallion of the bedchamber," cooed Fat Fu.    38
  One-Eyed Wong and Fat Fu play only a tiny role in this account, but they have since become my closest friends.    39
  "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 oxen!"    40
  "Perhaps a few flattened flies might add bouquet," One-Eyed Wong said thoughtfully.    41
  "A splendid idea, but we must be careful not to overpower our famous flavor of crushed cockroaches," cautioned Fat Fu.    42
  "I shall leave the blending to your exquisite taste," purred One-Eyed Wong.    43
  The thug with the earring did not approve of me and my begging bowl.    44
  "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!"    45
  "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."    46
  The thug thought about it.    47
  "And where are their bodies?"    48
  "They are like you," I said. "All mouth."    49
  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.    50
  "Notice this boy's balanced posture, my pet!" cried One-Eyed Wong.    51
  "Notice how properly he hods his dagger, prepared to strike upward with the thumb alongside the blade!" cried Fat Fu.    52
  "Notice how he turns so that the sun is at his back!" cried One-Eyed Wong.    53
  "Notice how his free hand scoops up a bowl of pepper to fling into the eyes!" cried Fat Fu.    54
  "Mark my words, this boy will be emperor one day!" cried One-Eyed Wong.    55
  I bowed politely.    56
  "My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and there is a slight flaw in my character," I said.    57
  "My ear," the thug sniffled, and he sat down at a table and began mopping blood.


A Bridge of Birds - The Original Draft, copyright 1999, Barry Hughart