My desolate autumn firefly
Is eclipsed by goblins;
My insatiable speck of dust
Is mocked by trolls.
Many years ago, in Shangdong Province, there lived an unfortunate farmer by the name of Dou Zhuo. Like most of us who walk this teeming Earth, he was trapped in the circumstances that fortune had provided him. He owned a patch of land that supported crops only after backbreaking effort, and then with results that betrayed its resentment of the demands he put on it. His cucumbers were bitter, his cowpeas difficult to boil, his leeks over-pungent, his pak choi stiff, and his edible amaranth hardly deserving of its name. Dou burned inside at the unfairness of it all; he saw the universe as a hammer, and himself as an anvil.
He might have lived his entire natural span as just a glowering malcontent, raging at fates over which he had no control, but for the success of his neighbor, Gan Shihuangdi. Gan’s watermelons, grapes, squash, coriander, pumpkins, and hyacinth beans sprang effortlessly to life, tender and delicious, making Gan prosperous and corpulent, while Dou’s land afforded him only frustration and want.
One evening, in the cooling sunset, Dou was particularly struck by the rich colors of Gan’s produce—a glistening rainbow of vibrant hues—and he pictured the rich bounty he could bring to the annual crop festival if he could somehow annex Gan’s land with his own. What riches he would reap, and how much less sweat his brow would have to exude!
As it happened, Dou had inherited some baubles of modest value from his grandmother, a woman of means, but his family had lost most of them to famine and mismanagement. The few jewels that remained had long occupied a dusty chest beneath his floorboards, never adorning the flesh of a woman. He’d never seen any point in having them, but had not until now been moved to sell them, either. The next day, driven by a sudden upswell of hope, he went to a merchant he knew of, and sold the baubles for the best price he could haggle, which was not much, because he had never possessed the charm of a haggling man. But neither was it nothing. His grandmother’s bequest may not have brought him a fortune capable of supporting him in wealth forever, but it did provide him with a sum that in his mind at least should have been enough to compensate the undeserving Gan for the value of his land.
So he visited Gan and made an offer, only half of what the merchant had given him, because negotiations would certainly raise the price by what remained. Gan smiled in deference, saying he was honored by the offer, but he was polite in his refusal. Dou offered more. Gan refused again. Dou grimaced and agitated and made it clear that just to make the next offer was to open a vein and spill his life’s blood, and offered all he had secretly been prepared to pay from the start. Gan still refused, and this time made it clear that his land was not for sale—at any price. Dou wheedled and cajoled and almost begged, but in the end saw that he had failed. He was forced to retreat, a cold and hollow sensation hardening in his chest.
The following day, intoxicated with the anger that had burned in his breast throughout a long night of fuming at his ceiling, he returned before dawn, pounding on Gan’s door until his hated rival rose from the rest known only to the content. When the door opened, Dou cried, “There is such a thing as too much fu. Look at you! Look at the way you live! Look at the possessions you flaunt, the good fortune you wear while others break their backs for nothing!”
Gan said, “Is this what bothers you? Very well; I am aware that my comfort might be taken as mockery of those who are not quite as fortunate. Forgive me. I am sorry if the yellow walls of my house have given you offense. I will paint them white and leave them unadorned. If my bedstead is too opulent, I will tear it down and remake it in a simpler fashion. Once a week I will eat nothing but congee to remind myself that not everyone is as lucky as I am.”
Dou’s throat tightened. “Once a week? I eat that gruel every day.”
“Then I will do the same,” Gan said at once, “saving the best for when my neighbor visits and can dine with me, on the same I am now fortunate enough to enjoy.”
Dou stormed off and again marched back to his land with leaden steps. That night the spit in his mouth turned to dust, and the cavern in his chest became dark and dank. He sat on his uneven chair with the bad leg, and to save on his gruel that day ate nothing but a bolus, a large pill with herbs. In bed, he experienced cold sweats almost as profuse as those of his daytime toils. Exhaustion overtook him and he slept. His soul traveled an enormous distance, all the way to Shouguang, many miles west of Weifang, and there it alighted on the most marvelous display of vegetables and crops he had ever seen. When he woke his lips were moist and his eyes brimmed with tears.
One day, weeks later, breaking his plow on a fresh stone that had somehow managed to survive years of prior attempts to clear the soil for farming, he was overwhelmed by hopelessness. Life, he knew, would never be any better. He threw down his farming implements and left his lands behind, not knowing his destination, knowing only that he needed to be somewhere else.
He wandered far to the north, where after a time he realized he was lost, but he did not let that stop him. Nor did he return, at once, to the crops that needed him. It was as if his legs knew his destination, even if he did not.
In early afternoon, he spotted a magnificent palanquin moving down a barely discernable dirt path, toward gray mountains in the far distance. It was so inset with jewels that in the blazing daylight it glimmered like fire. The soft notes of a seven-stringed quin drifted in the air as it passed by, and bewitched him into following. He would not have been surprised to find that it was carrying the dead to the land where the dead go, but he trudged until his legs ached, and many hours later found himself before a narrow metal gate tucked into an imposing granite wall. The palanquin had disappeared behind the wall, and the gate was now shut.
A gatekeeper’s voice called out, “Where is your master’s visiting card?”
Dou had seen one of these cards many years before, when his wife was still alive. They were strips of red paper, seven inches long and three and a quarter inches broad, and bore a visitor’s name. Servants carried them as credentials. He said, “I have no card. I am my own master.”
“Then you are your own servant as well.”
Dou got the impression the man had stood too long in the sun with nothing to do. “I wish to speak to your master.”
“He asks for a visiting card.”
“I live far from here. It will take me all night to return to my crumbling farmhouse. I will then need to go to market and waste money to buy such a card, and spend another whole day making my way back here.”
“Then I will expect to see you when you return,” said the gatekeeper.
Dou’s shoulders slumped with resignation and he set upon his journey home, his path illuminated only by faint starlight.
Three days later, he arrived back at the same place, but the metal gate was not there. After running his hands across the large granite blocks that made up the stone wall, he eventually traced a path to the tight gate, which seemed to have moved. He shook off his journey’s dust, stood squarely, and presented his humble visiting card.
The gatekeeper accepted it grudgingly and disappeared. When he returned his expression was grim. “My master does not recognize your name.”
“I am one of his southerly neighbors.”
“In the south he knows only Gan Shihuangdi, a prosperous farmer renowned for his honorable conduct.”
Dou stared at his bare feet, bloodied from the trek. “I am the neighbor to Gan’s south, and make up in perseverance what I lack in luck.”
“My master is reclusive,” the gatekeeper said. “There is nothing I can do to change that.”
“But not so reclusive that he ignores visiting cards,” Dou said. “So perhaps he will reconsider. I will make it worth his while.”
The gatekeeper left his post. A long time later, he returned, a curious rictus on his face, and without a word opened the gate.
“Su Feiyan will see you now,” he announced with absurd formality, and closed his eyes as Dou entered the splendid grounds.
Dou heard the soothing tones of a piba-mandolin, and he followed them to a pagoda that seemed to grow, mushroom-like, directly out of the mountainside. It was a scented place, surrounded by a garden greener and cooler than the land that surrounded it, so peaceful in its way that even Dou’s raging blood calmed, if only a little. He drew close, not knowing whether he should enter without invitation. Then an ancient man emerged from the pagoda, wearing a silk mandarin cap the likes of which Dou had never seen.
The man performed the form of salute known as the bow with clasped hands, or gongshou, and then seemed to look without effort into Dou’s innermost being.
“You have traveled a long way,” Su Feiyan said.
Dou removed the knapsack from his back, where its leather straps had long left callouses on his skin. “Your estate is secluded,” he noted.
“I have lived a life disturbed with blood and turmoil. I seek quiet isolation, to calm my spirit while life remains in me. But I see that you mean no harm to me, and so I bid you welcome.”
“Blood and turmoil?”
“I am retired from the Black Touch.”
“Ah.” Dou had not understood the impulse that had led him to seek out an audience with this man, but now a certain excitement flared within him, and he found himself unable to hide a responding smile, except by stroking the unkempt, stringy white hairs that passed for his beard. “I heard of your order once, when I was a child. They were said to be the most divine assassins in the county—in the prefecture—or perhaps the province—or quite possibly the whole land.”
“Divinity is not to men,” Su said. “It is true that those in the order can perform tasks that you might consider miracles, but only in the service of reducing the labor required by our various commissions. We have always believed that in those cases where one can solve a problem by crooking a finger, it disturbs the world less to do so than by making it a labor for oxen.”
“But you are a talented assassin, are you not?”
Without explanation, Su bent forward and picked up a stone. He held it up to the sunlight, as though to examine its finer features, and then promptly put it into his mouth and ate it. “Assassination is the most blunt of our methods. We know six Modes of Transmigration, and seventeen ways to manipulate the vital energy qi that flows through the tripartite mid-region of the human body. We can puppeteer the mind, waltz through walls, reel in time, transform colors into sounds and words into daggers. We can also submerge secrets in the vortices of the twin rivers of space and time, where only we can retrieve them. Next to these arts, the ability to end a human being is mere sleight-of-hand. But yes; I have killed, in the service of restoring life’s balance, or solving those problems that could not be resolved in any other way. Please do not tell me that it is what you want.”
“It is. I offer my life’s savings in exchange for the death of my neighbor Gan Shihuangdi.”
Su nodded, then seemed to disappear in a flash of sudden movement that left him speaking to Dou’s back. “It is said that Neighborly Piety and Respect are the root of Benevolence.”
Dou whirled on hearing Su’s voice from such an unexpected direction. “Benevolence without bread is like sky without air,” he said.
Su reappeared in front of him.
“And how would Gan’s death restore life’s balance?”
“My lands are dry and rocky, while Gan’s are fertile and lush. If I can annex them, I will be able to make a decent living and bring great crops and vegetables to the market, as well as giving freely to the poor. Gan works very little, performing no acts of charity, while I kill myself in the fields. His death would equalize this pressure, and alleviate the burden I face each day to survive. My future generosity will atone for his present selfishness.”
“Could not an equal argument be made in favor of your death? Would that not also lead to the restoration of balance?”
“I am straight and he is bent. More importantly, I am the one before you offering payment, not Gan. The transference of my life’s savings, meager as they are, to you; that would improve the world, since your prosperity is synonymous with the world’s well-being.”
Su considered this. “If I accept your offer,” he said, at last, “you would pay me only after my completion of the task, once you are satisfied.”
“I have no objection.”
“There are two more conditions. I must ask you to witness my exercises this afternoon, as a demonstration of my abilities. If you are pleased with what you see, I must ask that you wait until the next crop festival, where you will point out your wealthy neighbor to me in person.”
Dou did not relish the idea of waiting two more months until the festival, but that was little compared to what he had already endured. “I accept.”
“Then let us begin.”
The master assassin set about his exercises. He tiptoed up the side of the mountain and leapt down to the ground, landing softly like a bird. He disappeared into his estate’s large water fountain and emerged above the surface, walking on the water, each footstep a ripple echoing like the chime of a soft bell. He caught the evening mist with his toes. He seized several ounces of sunset inside a snuff bottle made of tortoiseshell, where they would remain pristine until the end of the world. He stretched the hour of the rooster into an entire day.
Then Su came before him, like any other white-haired old man. “Do you still wish to engage my services?”
“I . . . yes. More than anything.”
“Then leave me. We will meet again at the appointed time.”
Dou fled. There was no other word for it; though his legs still ached from the journey here, he ran with a fleetness of foot that he would have imagined years behind him, and did not stop until his own sad estate appeared, pathetic but welcome, in the near distance. Only then did he fall to his knees, gasping, feeling nothing but relief at his successful escape from powers beyond his ken; and it was only after a long time spent shaking that a smile tugged at the corners of his lips, for he knew that there was no way the hated Gan could possibly survive the attentions of one so powerful, so gifted.
• • • •
Over the next two months, Dou’s life changed little. It remained an exercise in struggling to summon life from earth that had little interest in obliging, earth that instead seemed intent on presenting him with one frustration after another. He slept poorly, woke exhausted, and drove himself to worse exhaustion battling the pests that seemed to mock his sweat while holding Gan’s sacrosanct. At night he lay awake, desperately holding on to the memories of his visit to the assassin, while fearing those delusions brought on by hunger.
Then came the morning of the festival. Dou had fasted the night before to keep his mind and body focused, but he was so full of anticipation that he experienced neither hunger nor thirst, only a certain weakness that was hard to distinguish from his usual tiredness. Before dawn, he loaded his wobbly cart with as fine a sampling of his land’s issue as he could muster, though it all seemed poor and sickly by comparison to what Gan usually offered. Then he took the handles and trudged to town, thinking dark thoughts of promises broken, and burdens that would always be his.
Arrival at the festival did not lighten his mood. It had already begun and he was, in fact, a late arrival. Many of the merchants from the great cities to the north, resplendent in the gowns of their class, were already strolling among the displayed bounty, judging its quality while their obsequious retainers took notes of their every pronouncement. Not every farmer had wares more impressive than Dou’s. There were some almost as poor as his own, but not many, and along the center aisle where the village had erected tents with amusements for visiting children, where the region’s most prosperous farmers all displayed the products of their past year’s labor, were many whose yields were almost as impressive as Gan’s. There were in truth a few worse off than Dou and a few better off than Gan, but they still occupied opposing sides of the spectrum; and while even the most successful irked him, none brought out his inner rage as much as the man whose land abutted his, whose property line seemed to mark the border between Dou’s hostile earth and a more generous one. The mere sight of Gan, traipsing between the stalls, bowing to all he met, was enough to fill Dou’s mouth with the taste of copper.
It was past noon when Su appeared near Dou’s table at the market, to all eyes but Dou’s just another doddering landowner inspecting the wares of others for lack of any useful work of his own to do. “Greetings to you,” the assassin said. “I presume that you have not had second thoughts, that you do still desire my services.”
Dou made a contemptuous gesture at his own meager goods. “Of course.”
“Then I ask you to identify this troublesome neighbor, Gan.”
Dou scanned the crowd and found his much-hated competitor, in casual conversation with other prominent citizens from the village. “There.”
Su nodded and left him. His progress through the crowd was as deft as anything Dou had seen, a genuine miracle of threading himself through heavy foot traffic without ever finding himself blocked by other browsers in his path, or for that matter calling attention to himself; only Dou, watching from behind his cart, paid enough attention to him to be dazzled by the simplicity of every movement, and only Dou saw his fingers dance on the back of the hated Gan’s neck.
Then he returned, just as deftly, and reported: “I have caused your troublesome neighbor’s death. He is mortally wounded.”
Dou’s body seemed to become feather-light. Perhaps not eating had been unwise. “How long, exactly, will it take?”
“Almost precisely the rest of his natural life. Following my order’s ideal of the smallest effort possible, I have taken his very last heartbeat. He will live as he would have lived anyway, without ever being weakened by the injury, but in the end, just before natural death comes for him, the death you wished will claim him instead. But it is still murder, just as you requested.”
Dou felt the color drain from his face. He fought to keep his voice at a low growl. “That hardly counts.”
Su regarded him with placid wisdom. “Does it not? When you are breathing your last, will you not want to hold on to life for every precious second? I have stolen an entire world from the poor man.”
In that moment, several customers decided to sample Dou’s goods, and Su disappeared. When the customers moved along to the next table, without purchasing anything at Dou’s, the assassin returned, waiting for his response.
Dou struggled to keep his voice civil. “I don’t want my neighbor spared a second of pain when he’s old and dying and yearning for death. I wish him to die now. This was our arrangement. I withhold payment until such has been delivered.”
“Ah,” Su said. “You should have specified. I will try again.”
This time he wove his way through the crowds and reached Gan’s table. He moved like a scrap of silk caught in a high wind, weightless and beautiful, until he struck Gan on the neck with an open palm.
This time Gan went pale and fell to his knees, his eyes rolling back in his head like any other man whose body has betrayed him. A few nearby onlookers cried out, certain that something had gone terribly wrong; but then he recovered and stood again, confused, as the strength returned to his limbs. He did not appear to be aware that he had been struck, and indeed he looked right through the assassin without seeing him at all, as Su nodded and returned, with equal grace, back to Dou’s side.
Dou’s skin crawled. He could not deny, now, that Su was as deadly as any venomous serpent, but across the way, Gan appeared to have shaken off his moment of weakness as though it had been nothing more than a fainting spell. Already, he was greeting an interested merchant with more of his infuriating charm.
Dou demanded to know. “What did you do?”
“You said that you wanted him dead at that moment. So again I used the least amount of effort necessary, and caused his heart to skip. For the span of the missed heartbeat, he was indeed dead. But the rest of his life’s heartbeats were still available to him, and when the first of these arrived at its appointed moment, he lived anew, unaware that he had tasted mortality. He is none the wiser—and as you can see, none the weaker. Is that satisfactory?”
Dou felt a fury overcome him. Caring not for the dire skills of the man before him, he spat, “You really are worthless, aren’t you?”
“I am a master assassin from a school of master assassins. I was taught the degrees of death. I can make people die for a moment, or forever. I can make them die in agony or in ecstasy. I can make their deaths glorious or demeaning. I can kill all of someone or just a part. It is not my fault that you failed to specify the result you wanted. Becoming angry with me solves nothing. Why don’t you tell me what your real problem is?”
Dou stepped closer, until his face was only an inch from Su’s. “My problem,” Dou said, biting off each word, “is that I burn inside to see my neighbor gone from this life!”
“Oh,” the assassin said. “That is easy to fix.”
His index finger flashed, striking Dou’s forehead twice.
Dou reeled under a moment of unimaginable pain. He fell back, arms flailing in the air, and slumped off his table. Then the spell passed, bringing with it a moment of profound calm. He took a deep breath, followed by several more, then blinked and stared at the assassin in disbelief.
“What have you done?” he whispered.
“What do you think I have done?”
“You have eliminated my desire for Gan’s death. I no longer feel any hatred toward him whatsoever. I feel no jealousy.” Against his will, he grinned like a fool. “You have killed the part of me that wanted to kill.”
Su nodded. “As per the dictates of my order, I expended the minimum amount of effort necessary. Your problem has been solved. There will be no charge.”
He turned his back and walked away, melting into the crowd before he had progressed five steps. It was the last time Dou would ever see him, save in his dreams, which were always peaceful, and free of turmoil.
• • • •
That night, to celebrate his freedom, Dou brewed the Dragon Phoenix Cake tea that his wife had been so fond of, and he slept like a child.
Over the course of the following year he tackled the challenges of his land with newfound vigor. He was rewarded with succulent balsam pears, sweet onions, crisp, mild radishes, and bushels of tender water spinach. On one occasion he found himself in need of an additional kuan, or iron plowshare, and after only a slight hesitation asked his neighbor Gan. Gan at once lent it to him, and with it Dou planted long lines of cabbage seeds.
Some time later, after a particularly bountiful day, Dou invited Gan over for evening tea, and they exchanged a pleasant conversation. Dou had Gan sample his fruits and vegetables, and after tasting them, Gan’s face seemed to glow with an inner light, particularly when he tried the cabbage.
The following week Gan returned the favor, and this time Dou sampled his neighbor’s produce. They talked with an easy camaraderie about their lives, and Dou discovered that Gan had never married, for he had always been too devoted to his farm. Gan expressed his sympathies when Dou spoke fondly of his wife and the years they had shared together before a fever had taken her. The conversation grew thoughtful; night fell; bright stars bejeweled the tapestry of night, and a consoling zephyr blew through the cracks in Dou’s door. “For a time I was worried that you thought ill of me,” Gan confessed after a meditative silence. “I am very relieved that is not so.”
Dou said, “I consider you an ally and a friend in the making. I am sorry for how I treated you in the past.”
That spring they took their crops to the market together and displayed their wares on a single large table, splitting the proceeds.
During the winter, Gan helped repair the cracks in Dou’s farmhouse, and in exchange Dou taught him ways to save on fertilizer. They made plans to build a waterwheel that would feed from a nearby river and provide irrigation to both farms; within a year, had made those plans a reality, splitting the costs and more than doubling their crops.
By the summertime, the two men, middle-aged, agreed to get together for a game of xianqi once a week, and they kept this tradition alive for many years, not allowing even illness to interfere.
And so time passed.
Eventually, both of the men realized they were old enough to consider retiring from the farming business. They got to talking about their youths, and the old days, and the legend of the Black Touch, that ancient organization of divine assassins famed and feared for its mastery of life and death; death-mongers so talented that they did not even need to kill. The conversation inspired Dou to hug his neighbor. He was glad he did, too, for some weeks later Gan lay in bed feeling the special fatigue that is death’s own visiting card.
As the sun rose and fell, as the clouds heaved and shifted, Dou stayed by Gan’s side and watched his friend grow weaker and increasingly divorced from this reality. “You have been a dear friend to me,” Dou said, even though he was no longer sure Gan could hear him. But Gan smiled.
Cicadas sang their evening song; a light, humid rain fell; Dou shed a silent tear. When the end finally came for Gan, Dou squeezed his hand and stared into his dissolving gaze with a beseeching intensity.
Silently he mourned that his neighbor’s life couldn’t have lasted one more heartbeat.