Chapter 6: Mid-Autumn
On the second day, the rain stopped unexpectedly and the skies were clear again.
The flowers in the courtyard inevitably withered after experiencing several days of rain and winds cleansing; however, there were even more verdant leaves emerging. In between those green leaves, there was a small flower bud that had yet to mature. Looking at this scene, it would probably take less than three to five days before the trees would be in full blossom again.
Shen Qingxuan sat in the courtyard, smelling the scent of the earth in the air as he looked into the distance. He hadn’t seen the mountain forest for a few days, and the entire being had been washed by the rain into an indistinct green that was suffused with a gem-like glow.
Sitting until noon, the sun grew vicious, shining down onto the people until they were sweating all over— as if the temperature that had been brewing for so many days was going to erupt simultaneously. It was so fervent that the birds in the forest were going listless.
Shen Qingxuan squinted his eyes as he glanced upwards at the dazzling and golden sun in the sky. It only took a split second before he saw a vast expanse of whiteness in front of him.
He hurriedly closed his eyes to let his eyes rest. Shen Qingxuan could not help feeling an internal sense of gloom. He helplessly thought that the sun now dared to come out after the old demon was gone.
This train of thought turned, and he felt that it was laughable. He leaned back on the chair with his head raised up and sighed softly.
He sat there until the afternoon rolled around.
The sunshine elongated the shadow of his sole wheelchair.
In the blink of an eye, several months had already passed since Yi Mo had left for his trip, but no news came from him.
Shen Qingxuan simply chalked it to his ignorance. He did not think about the affair of his departure, but only occasionally, in between tossing from side to side in his bed, his mind would flash thoughts of whether his snake molt had been found, and how long more would he take to come back to the mountain. The moment those thoughts formed, they would be forcibly suppressed; he was unwilling to seek frustrations for himself.
In this way, the month could be counted as smooth sailing.
In the second month, just after the seventh day of the first lunar month, Shen Qingxuan flipped the almanac, the mark drawn out by the writing brush appeared in his sight and he thought of how his mother’s birthday was approaching. He didn’t know what he should give her and he was worried again.
The young servant boy next to him saw that he was looking melancholy, and he guessed what was bothering Shen Qingxuan. The boy also accompanied him to be gloomy for a few days before coming up with an idea. He said, “How about the young master take some wild mushrooms from the mountains, personally cook them into a bowl of longevity noodles and send to the Madam as a congratulatory gift?”
Shen Qingxuan thought for a moment and readily agreed.
Madam Shen believed in Buddhism, and everyone knew that she do not touch meat and fish. The mushrooms in the mountains were all fresh. Furthermore, bamboo shoots would spring up after a rainfall. With a slight bow of your head during your searching, they would fill every inch of your vision.
Shen Qingxuan sent someone to pick up a large basket worth of them and had them stored. He then entered the kitchen and started kneading and rolling the dough.
After a few days of busy work, a long and continuous dough was finally kneaded out. Madam Shen’s birthday was also approaching.
The boiled, fresh mushroom soup was packed; the fresh bamboo shoots were shredded and sprinkled as toppings. Shen Qingxuan packed them into the food box and sent the servant boy to carry the food down the mountain. He informed him that the longevity noodles should only be cooked after it had been delivered to the house, and that, simply pouring the mushroom soup would do.
The servant boy received the orders, carried the food box and a basket of wild mushrooms, and left as instructed.
Shen Qingxuan saw him to the door and looked back at the young servant boy for a long time, lost in thoughts.
The servant girl beside him saw his behaviour and felt rather miserable inwardly. After standing there for a moment, she softly said, “Why won’t Young Master go down the mountain and send it to Madam personally, since the Young Master misses the Madam so much? Madam will be delighted to see Young Master.”
Shen Qingxuan returned to his senses, and when he heard this, there was no expression on his face. He shook his head slightly and made a gesture to ask her to push him back to his room.
When the young servant boy hurriedly down the mountain with a food box and the rest of the items, the sun had just set as he reached Mansion Shen. Mother Shen heard the news and came out. She burst into tears when she saw the soup in the box. She took out her handkerchief to wipe her tears and said to herself, “My son is filial.”
The young servant boy was smart. He bowed, said a few auspicious words, before explaining, “The noodles sent by this little servant was made by Young Master himself. As this servant was leaving, he instructed me to cook them once I reach this place. Would Madam like to have her meal right now?”
Mother Shen nodded her head and went into the kitchen. She watched the kitchen maid boiled the water and put the long strand of noodle into the pot. Once they were fished out, she put them in a bowl and poured the mushroom soup—which was still warm—over them. The hot noodles that were placed into the warm soup were perfectly suitable for the tongue. They were neither cold nor hot.
After eating noodles, Madam Shen called the servant boy to bestow a reward to him, saying, “Go back and tell Xuan-er that mother knows his intention. I cried each time he came back home in the past years. He is already suffering inside, to see me like this, it will only increase his sorrow. I don’t blame him for not coming down the mountain. Let him have a good rest there. As a mother, I do not ask of him to be a merchant or enter the official business; I only seek for him to be safe and sound.” Speaking of this, she joined her palms together and said a Buddha’s blessing before leaving in tears.
As a reward, the servant boy received a lot of silver. He placed the silver on his person and returned to the mountain to relay the words of Mother Shen’s to Shen Qingxuan. He was rewarded again, causing the little servant to retreat with joy.
It was summer again, and life in the mountains was very slow— the days were long and the nights were short.
Shen Qingxuan also felt that the days were passing very slowly. He sat under the trees during the day, muddled for most of the time, and then when he’d opened his eyes, it was still daylight.
He also didn’t know how to squander his time away. On this day, he opened a window and sniffed the sweet-scented osmanthus fragrance that floated past the tip of his nose, and he was shocked again. Was it August already?
This put Shen Qingxuan in the mood. He asked the servants to wash the courtyard with clean water and spread fine sand on the ground. He waited until it was cool at night, and later invited all the manservants, maidservants, and kitchen maids to set aside three or four tables of wine. He had dozens of huge, fat crabs cooked and placed in the middle. He boiled hot wine and told everyone to admire the moon as they ate and drank.
The servants in this mountain courtyard were not sent by the main house with the purpose to supervise. One particular servant had a wild disposition. When he obtained the permission of his master and also saw his master in a rare occasion of high spirits, he began to chat and eat at that moment.
Shen Qingxuan sat down at a table with his attendant servants and laughed at their jokes. When they saw that the master was happy, they also grew happy. At the moment, jokes and ridiculous stories fired off one after another— some of them were quite rude. Shen Qingxuan laughed until he lost his manner, rewarding them with wine afterward.
Three cups of yellow soup3 had gone down his stomach, the servant boy was very proud, and he no longer restrained himself from making ridiculous jokes. His speech grew more absurd and unrestrained as he went on. Eventually, he breached the subject of gods and ghosts, telling them about the matters of Xingtian4, Fuxi5, and throwing in a few more stories about ghosts, foxes and immortals. One story after another, he kept them coming. He even mentioned their favorite topic of discussion about the poor scholar and the loyal and righteous demons, ghosts and immortals, pledging their eternal love under the moonlight in front of the blossoms. Though the servant boy initiated these stories, the rest of the servants narrated everything thereafter. Each narration increased in melancholy and became even more touching as they went on.
The courtyard was full of excitement.
The festivities went on until the third night watch6, and all the people in the courtyard were thoroughly intoxicated. Basking in his happiness, Shen Qingxuan drank a few more cups, and he was soon cloaked in drowsiness. The maidservant, who had sat next to him and served him, was still awake, she escorted him back to his room to rest. As Shen Qingxuan lay on his bed, he sent the maidservant back to the courtyard for her to continue drinking while he get some rest by himself.
When the maidservant closed the door and left, Shen Qingxuan felt that the liquor he’d drank was beginning to make his head swirl. Though it was quite uncomfortable, he still managed to restore some of his clarity. He could hear the noises from outside as they slipped through the cracks in the lattice door of his window— seeming so near, yet so far away… like it was all real but so closely resembled a fantasy. All of a sudden, he felt somewhat miserable.
He couldn’t help thinking of Yi Mo, wondering where he was now: what he was busy with, whether he had found his molt, whether he drank wine at the Mid-Autumn Festival… Had he ever thought of himself, the time when they had light conversations of brushes under the candlelight..?
As he was thinking nonsensically, he suddenly heard a melodious female voice, calling frailly and weakly in his ears: “Young Master.”
Shen Qingxuan’s eyes opened violently and saw that there was no one around him. He almost thought he had misheard. He paused for a bit before opening the curtain suddenly.
Only to see that a lady dressed in red was standing under the pavilion not far away. Her styled tall hair7, her flushed complexion and picturesque facial features were indescribably charming just like a flower.
She was looking at him with such affection at the moment.
Shen Qingxuan stared at her quite a while only to see the woman’s pink powdered cheeks growing redder into a enchanting and flirtatious expression.
Thinking that he was in a dream, Shen Qingxuan stretched out his hand and pinched at his body, but it was very painful.
Suddenly, he came to a realization: the woman not an immortal but a demon. At that thought, he grew alert.
The woman moved lightly, coming to stand beside him. She bowed her head and shyly said, “As the young master concluded, this slave is a flower demon of the mountains. After years of receiving the young master’s kindness, she has put her heart into cultivation and managed to obtain a human form. Just now, in the courtyard, when young master was drinking, he poured a cup of wine onto this servant. Does young master still remember?”
Shen Qingxuan was stunned as he listened and thought back. Suddenly, he remembered that there was indeed such a matter as this; it was a cluster of Balsam Roses8
The woman’s pink neck lowered and she said, “That was this servant.”
Shen Qingxuan then returned to his senses. However, he did not understand her intentions and looked at her suspiciously.
“This servant has received young master’s gratitude and was able to become what she is today…” As she spoke, her face suddenly turned rosy, and her beauty became even more unparalleled in that moment. With a voice as small as a mosquito, she whispered, “I came here tonight to repay the young master.”
She kept her tone light and dared not lift her face due to her shyness. Shen Qingxuan was a very intelligent person and he understood her intentions. In response, he immediately grew very shy; his ears grew red, he had no idea how he should reply back.
Both of them were shy and awkward for a while. The shadows of the candles quavered, and the atmosphere grew charming.
When the demon saw this, she was still blushing and dared not look up, she then stretched out her hands, gently untied her crimson garment9, and lay down slowly, snuggling into Shen Qingxuan’s arms.
A warm and fragrant jade was in his bosom, there was no reason for him not to be moved.
Shen Qingxuan was indeed moved, but he hesitated. The matters of men and women were extraordinary. Although he was born into a home of merchants, he was educated since he was three. With the teaching of his great teacher, he learned many literatures and etiquettes. So far, he had never done anything frivolous. Although he had thought about the affairs of men and women, he had long discarded this idea due to the condition of his body.
Yet, tonight, here he was, faced with a woman who was as beautiful as a flower. Although she was different from human women, she was still so pure and innocent. So even if he favored her, Shen Qingxuan dared not act rashly.
After this consideration, Shen Qingxuan gradually calmed down. The woman, however, did not comply, and her soft limbs soon entangled with his bedclothes.
Shen Qingxuan couldn’t speak, so he could only push her away. As soon as she was pushed away, she went forward timidly and entangled with him again. Another push, another entangling.
This repeated for several times. In the first place, the two person on the bed were a pair of male and female at their prime, like how a single spark would start a big fire, it ignited with a boom.
Shen Qingxuan’s state of mind was exhausted, he only knew dazedly that he was reaching a crucial moment. Suddenly, he felt the warm and fragrant jade in his bosom getting cold. A cold palm touched his forehead. The groans and moans from earlier suddenly dissipated, all he heard was a voice whispering in his ear, “Young Master Shen is indeed an unadorned elegant with an anomaly allurement, heaven made beautiful.”
Shen Qingxuan was shocked. His waist shivered and he suddenly opened his eyes.
However, the surrounding sight was still as empty as before. The bed was about ten steps away from him, the pillow was neatly arranged on the bed with no sign of any rummaging.
Shen Qingxuan felt his forehead dripping with sweat, but his whole body was piercing cold, as if he were still coiled by the cold body in his dream.
Looking down, he saw himself soaking in the bathtub. The water had cool.
So, he was bathing but fell asleep and dreamed a spring dream?
With a sigh of relief, Shen Qingxuan shook his head in amusement and raised his arm to ring the bell.
In this instant, his eyes glanced underwater, and his outstretched hand suddenly froze in mid-air. Shen Qingxuan’s face was pale as he peered foolishly at the traces of cloudy fluid floating to the surface.
He actually… released his essence.