Story by Dustin He
Illustration by Carol Welart
A Chinese rebel during the Qing dynasty loses all higher functions and faculties after a beating so that conventional kung fu no longer serves him in his purpose for revenge.
My body had been found buried under decomposed, brittle leaves and branches by the hermit Lao Xu, whom I now call master.
Imagine the fear I experienced when I darted my eyes uselessly, everything opaque grey but tainted with blotches of red. Blindness makes the Xiang Men wilderness terrifying at night. How long has it been since I focused and earnestly listened to the insects and owls of the forest? The responsibilities of adulthood and being alive in times of war are my only excuses for having forgotten them. In recent days my ears have been ringing with the cries of my countrymen and the guttural barking and abuse of their Manchu overlords.
It is easy to see us Chinese as a meek, submissive people for it seems that the Khan, KaiKai appears to enjoy absolutely no opposition to his reign. However, Kaikai’s control over his throne is recently threatened by two forces, one represented by the constant guerilla raids and assassinations planned by our men and the other from his own bodyguard: the ambitious Dorgon. Dorgon, who surpassed the Khan in the martial arts and in his capacity for sheer inhuman cruelty. Not much can be attested for the bodyguard’s charisma and political acuteness, but even the Kahn himself is rumored to mistrust and fear Dorgon, whose volatile nature very likely threatened himself on the throne. Cursed Dorgon, I will never forget his name. My wife and mother were simply another two peasants added to the list of women he had raped and killed, on a whim. Had he known that he had killed the family of a rebel, perhaps he would have even been justified. But it was not possible for him to have known, and three other women were raped and killed on that day.
During the attack, I pushed past the flank of guards to the dismay of my comrades and leapt to the balcony where Dorgon himself watched the battle, evidently enjoying the bloodshed. His eyes were still grinning when I swung my spear with all my might. With a speed that shouldn’t have surprised me, he evaded and then disarmed me in such a brutal fashion that my left fingers were instantly broken.
For a moment one could say that the placing of the bodyguard and me on the balcony which overlooked the rebels and guards down in the courtyard like a chess game was beautiful. It was symmetrical; it was poetry. Dorgon beat me within an inch of my life; perhaps so convincing was my death that the body was disposed of without checking. How my body was removed from battle and ended unconscious in the Xiang Men forest can only be left to guesswork. The fate of my comrades whom I had betrayed by my abandoning them and the outcome of that raid will remain unknown, though all logic and intuition is leering me towards the answer of death and failure.
I would remain blind for an hour since awakening, though I could sense that the calloused hands that brushed the foliage and dirt off my clothes were benign, and thus I knew that no further harm would come to me. The first thing I did when I regained use of my eyes was to close them and enter qisao; mentally assess the damage. What memories are missing as a result of such a traumatic blow?
The hermit was quiet and did not disturb me during meditation. Yet, his silence was attentive in a way that evinced that he knew gongfu himself.
“Old man, you know gongfu?”
“And the bodies of my comrades, were any buried near me?”
“No, I found only you.”
A single tear crawled down the lines of my mouth. It had the effect of a leak in a dam. I began sobbing uncontrollably. Immediately the hermit put me in into a lock that was less of a sympathetic hug than a restraint.
“You think you cry because your heart hurts,” he whispered in my ear as I struggled. “In actuality, something is gravely wrong with you physiologically. Your mind and body are being estranged from each other.” He was saying that I had brain damage.
“Also, stop moving. I haven’t checked where you are hurt.” When I calmed down the old man carried me back to his hut on piggyback.
— ♦♦♦ —
The third day I was wracked with paroxysms of spasms, and master kept his distance yet with watchful eyes.
I have, like any mortal, much respect for a doctor who could diagnose and discern the causes and sources of afflictions with uncanny speed and accuracy. A good medicine doctor can save his patient an hour and spare him from any elaborate procedures with just a few taps of his pulse, and the reason for his sickness and the source of transmission would be revealed with almost supernatural skill. Though he is no doctor, a lifetime of studying gongfu would bestow a practitioner with knowledge of the human body in inexplicable ways. Also, a hermit’s experimentation and reliance on wild mountain herbs and ingredients is adequate medicinal knowledge. Most importantly, I believe Lao Xu to be kind; his gaze is simultaneously sage-like and grandfatherly. All of his qualities above no doubt contributed to his competent and graceful treatment of me.
Thus I knew that the gaze of Lao Xu was attentive and more for my own safety rather than out of selfishness and caution. When I ceased my convulsions and Lao Xu deemed it safe to leave me he went to make dinner. A hermit and a half-dead man; eating fish and vegetables over a smokeless fire as if the rebellion and the empire didn’t exist. I laughed, and laugh now at how odd it seemed.
I call Lao Xu “master,” because I respect him so much, and because I wish to learn his gongfu. He will not only be an instructor, but a teacher of life. Our meeting was as unlikely as any Chinese farmer stumbling in the mountains upon a living treasure, but I am alive because of it.
Under the wishes of my pupil I will continue Li Sao’s narrative for him, as he had so unfortunately learned that he has lost his higher functions of writing within two nights after his last entry. The grip of the brush eludes the fingers in his trembling hands and already he is showing incoherence and hesitation in reading characters. I would not be surprised to find eventually that Li Sao would only be able to identify the most singular clauses and simple characters of our ancient language. The bodyguard’s art is deadly- it had not only broken his body but has also robbed his culture from him.
For the next few years, as long as it will take, I, Lao Xu will devote my days in teaching Li Sao my knowledge of gongfu. I view our meeting as destiny, fated by the heavens for I am the only student of Ma Yi Ling, who instructed me to pass down the art of Jo Shan Da only to one other student whom I deemed worthy. He will become a wielder of the Guillotine Fist; a move so deadly it will kill in one punch at the cost of the practitioner’s immune system- the sheer effort would activate all dormant evils in the bloodstream, transforming the body into a pestiferous sanctuary of diseases. Li Sao is determined to achieve revenge at all costs, and what he calls “a week of colds and sores” would be a “trifle compared to allowing the emperor to live.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I would not have been able to conceive that the body guard’s fist would infect Li Sao’s brain to this extent. Li Sao had become furtive and less talkative in order to hide his stuttering, slurring speech. A frustrated grimace appears on his brow, betraying the visible mental struggle to search for the right words. And yet, his response would be full of holes- a missing article here, an excessive conjunction there.
It may be needless to say that Li Sao is no longer capable of qisao, or even zendu. The execution of many moves in Jo Shan Da require the alteration of the mind- it is mental fortitude of the flesh; mechanically forcing the body into drowsiness; abilities of which Li Sao will no longer be capable of. My pupil understands this; as of now, silence manages to communicate more between us than broken mandarin and gestures.
If there is one deleterious effect that Li Sao thankfully did not acquire, it is apathy. Though he can no longer perform classical training with me as he used to, his objective, his ambition, every day when he wakes up to a new lesson the reason is clear: to train hard for vengeance. I believe it unhealthy to remind him of his past and his goal, but the merciful effects of time on hatred may not reach him. It seems as if his anger was strengthened by the hour and day. To live the rest of his days quietly in the forest will never occur to him.
I am sending Li Sao to one of my few friends- my rival and cousin, who is master of an art which would be better suited to my pupil’s needs. I will enclose what I have written in this entry so far into the dove’s claws so that there would be less explaining to do to Ji Xia in person, and until then I eagerly await his response.
— ♦♦♦ —
Ji Xia conveyed in his letter that he would very much like to see me and have me learn the art with Li Sao. ; and I saw no reason to refuse and stay in Xiang Men.
Our trip lasted nine days; was made easy by the presence of roads that did not exist during my youth, and only once we entered the mountains of Bei Kang, still untamed and secretive, did we have ourselves any difficulty. The open valleys had been memories of tranquil blue skies and the birds of prey which populated it. Enshrouded by forest foliage, the moisture-heavy air was audible with the sounds of insects masking potential predators. The nights where we camped within the heart of the forest were my most fretful watches, my eyes ever watching for the stripes of tigers or other beasts. When on the final morning I came upon at last a secret marking known only to my cousin and me; I knew our journey was coming to an end.
My cousin’s greeting was polite- an impromptu lunch in the shangwu that ought to have been postponed for dinner. We ate chicken, dog and goat on a bench in his garden outside his house so that we could watch his students practice. A few features of my cousin’s appearance from the thick, whitened eyebrows and unkempt beard was reminiscent of my own, for they reflected the wish of one to live away from society, though it was still clear that we were different: He wore a magnificent ruby-red robe which was not of silk but a material that glistened in the sun. He had three students, and all three were around Li Sao’s age. They looked loyal and hard-trained.
“Rabies fist,” said JiXia. “Was inspired by the shifu of my shifu’s encounters with rabid animals, thrice in his youth and one more during the time he was a youth in a Shaolin temple- all instances being dogs except the fourth which was a monkey. It is an art which mimics the movement and fervor of mammals which have lost their higher functioning of the brain and have succumbed to the horrifying symptoms of insanity. The will to harm others overwhelms all others, and this is the central theme in the art. Though Li Sao has just arrived, he may begin this instant, I will show you. Li Sao!”
“Yes?” Li Sao snapped to attention. Pointing in the direction of a lone ox on his pasture, Ji Xia said:
“Kill it.” Li Sao expressed confusion, to which Ji Xia clarified his intention with one look. Li Sao hopped the fence to confront the ox and the struggle lasted almost the entire xiawu.
Half an hour into his task Ji Xia had turned to me and scoffed.
“He could have taken five minutes with Rabies Fist. He is just tugging on its horns.’
I had been aware from the start that JiXia intended to pit his art against mine, and this remark was punctuated by a swing from his right arm.
Li Sao was either aware of the non-menacing nature of our fight or perhaps was too focused on his task and did not divert his attention to us. He was bruised and weary when the sky tinted orange, with the ox strutting back and forth within its pen in a very human expression of triumph. My scuffle with Ji Xia had long ended.
“You have no carriers of Jo Shan Da, other than your rapidly-debilitating pupil,” said Ji Xia as I beckoned Li Sao back to me. Understanding that I had been complimented, I responded accordingly.
“Good fist, cousin.”
“What say you learn the Rabies Fist with me and Li Sao- and you can teach me and even my pupils your Guillotine Fist? Your art has a right to live, cousin.”
Both of our arts are so secretive, perhaps even more than most styles scattered around this huge land we call China. Both are terribly powerful. I did not think it right to combine the two.
“My shifu has forbid me to teach the art to more than one person, and Li Sao is that person.”
“Oh? Then have you forbid Li Sao to teach anyone?” Ji Xia’s eyes were wide in an expression of good humor; hence I worried not about offending him.
“You may feel free to train and learn with us, cousin,” he declared after I didn’t respond. We bowed, both aware of the tension between us that is human formality.
As I left he could not resist adding, “It seems the line of Jo Shan Da ends with you, cousin.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I had participated once in Rabies Fist’s abnormal fulanpi practice, and will partake in no more. As normal and regular as horse squat punches or lap sao drills, in order to dull human empathy and incite blood thirst, students of Ji Xia kill and scoop the innards of a warm-blooded animal, preferably large-sized such as a deer or ox when the population is healthy. Frequently it is from Ji Xia’s own livestock, though at times of scarcity I have seen dogs and even monkey being eviscerated.
“When JuiXing, founder of our art, was sweeping the temple at the age of sixteen, he observed a rustle from the beech trees towering above the courtyard, and was startled by the most dull thud created from the figure of a deformed child tumbling onto the hard stone floor.
That deformed child was, of course, a monkey. It had more fallen off the branch it clung to than jumped; its sense of balance having been already atrophied at this stage of the disease. Nevertheless, JuiXing was able to detect the intention of the monkey- the malevolent need to have pounced; to ambush the human instead of committing a chance slipping, and the realization made his blood run cold.
More than anything, JuiXing was implanted with a sense to eradicate this evil thing, just as the singular will swimming in the primate’s mind was to destroy him in return. The unpredictability of the ape’s movements allowed it to dart past the blows of the broom in JuiXing’s hands and it bit him purposefully on the neck, where transmission of the disease is known to occur the fastest. Having forfeited his life, JuiXing abandoned the superfluities of his current art and attacked the monkey barehanded in the same feral fashion. When the monkey was dead, in one swift motion JuiXing decapitated the corpse.
That decision, against all logic and philosophies of gongfu seemed redundant and unnecessary, but it paved the way for Rabies philosophy: to utterly destroy and hate the body of your enemy. JuiXing came to this epiphany after a week of the estimated time for symptoms to show, isolating himself from the temple and civilization in the wilderness and reflecting upon this scene repeatedly. Possessing imminent immunity, JuiXing left the forest and spent the remainder of his life developing and perfecting what he called ‘feng gou quan,’ or ‘Rabies Fist.’
He never met another rabid animal in his life, although on his deathbed he deposed to LiFua, his chosen pupil and my old shifu that he would have liked to seen and fight a rabid human- it would have been the ultimate test of his art.”
“JuiXing was a sick man,” I said. “For his last wish to have been that.”
“Sick man?” Eyes bulging and lips twisted into an animal grin, my cousin let out a disgusting laugh. “JuiXing’s last move- his ‘swift motion’ to decapitate the mad monkey…” Walking steadily and deliberately towards a monkey cage, he continued.
“Did you think that his final act of hatred towards it was a mere chop of the hand?” Eyes on us, Ji Xia spitefully threw a knife hand against the cage, nearly breaking the lock, enraging the monkey inside it. We stood transfixed as the monkey rapidly began pounding the giving door, until the locks submitted and the screaming animal lunged upon Ji Xia.
“The apex of Feng Gou Quan,” Ji Xia’s words managed to be perfectly clear and calm despite the warm, flowing blood from his mouth and over his clothes. “Canine decollation.” Dropping the headless monkey unto the ground, the corpse was prudently cleaned up after by a student who dropped it into the cage of another monkey (the corpse quickly became a meal). It took all my meditation training to kill my nausea.
“There are many counters in Rabies Fist where you bite- but it is animal speed and precision you are trying to attain. Would you be able to obtain animal strength to tear off muscle and sinew?” Still talking lucidly through a mouthful of warm blood, the lecture was surreal. Li Sao, through two months of the vile fulanpi drilling was evidently unaffected by the display, though I had at this point retreated for I had not eaten breakfast.
— ♦♦♦ —
Another month into his training, Li Sao and I shared a rare lengthy conversation. To the unwary and unfamiliar observer his weak words, grunts and more detailed gestures were indecipherable and suggested an insanity of sorts. In a way the bodyguard’s deadly fist having eroded his mental fortress so that frustration and irritation would become his default emotions does hint of future mental instability should Li Sao live beyond forty years of age, though there was excitement and shockingly pride detectable in the dream he had relayed to me one morning.
“In my dream,” gestured Li Sao. “I swept the courtyards of JuiXing’s temple itself, though it was devoid of leaves or monks. Sensing the looming presence towering over me before I ever saw the massive hand push aside the tree branches, as soon as I noticed the simian features past the mask of blood the giant wore, I knew it was the monkey which JuiXing decapitated. Fresh red blood ran from every orifice of its face; its eyes were two vacant cavities and its neck was intact.
‘I am the God of Rabies,’ it said. ‘It is I who bit the three dogs which fatefully attacked you in your eighth, tenth and twelfth year of your childhood. The first dog being your old neighbor’s playful, neurotic pet taught you the ease of which innocence morphs to savagery- the second an imperial guard dog unfortunate to have gotten bit by one of my bats, and the third: a filthy mutt whose drooling maw became the face of your greatest fear for the rest of your life.’
‘Whose bite allowed me to perform my canine decollation on you,’ I said.
‘You based almost all the movements of your art upon the mongrels, even the standby stance being on all fours. Yet, you have never been able to forget me, the monkey whose near-human figure and physique scared you more than the concurrence with all three dogs, and chilled you with the vision- the possibility of a rabid human.
You are JiXia’s most valuable student. Even without the virus in your body, your loss of speech, reading and other human superfluities becoming replaced with hunger and fury is all indicative of your retrogressing mind returning from that of a man’s back to beast. With the advent of your mastery you will diverge the way of feng gou quan, evolving from all-fours to bipedal; from blind aggression to unpredictable agility, you will be the carrier of feng hou quan, “mad monkey fist,” its sole founder and practitioner!’
Before I could attack the God of Rabies I had woke up from my dream.”
The nuances of LiSao’s dream did not escape from either of our attention, though he seemed to express contentment, even pride at the ominous prophecy of being the “sole founder and practitioner” of mad monkey fist. Nevertheless, I was disturbed to learn that Li Sao’s default action was to destroy the monster after it had made its speech, though such an action seemed to express true accordance with JuiXing’s barbaric philosophy.
Li Sao practiced Mad Monkey Fist in secrecy, in order to avoid offending my cousin Ji Xia. Both my cousin and I were amazed at how fast my pupil progressed in Rabies Fist as he was able to beat one of the students for the first time in sparring and it had only been the third full moon. If Ji Xia suspected any deviance from his teachings, he probably attributed them to his previous gongfu background or his condition. It is now the fifth month and my cousin believes it is time to make Li Sao hop the fence again.
Li Sao vaulted over the fence just like a monkey, his legs tucked and two arms propelling him forward. He entered the bullpen with confidence, his shoulder muscles abnormally immense from the quadrupedal stances. Before, he could only wrestle aimlessly with its horns, unaware of what to do next. He had learned that the principles behind all warm-blooded animals are the same; that although a four-legged pig was shaped completely different from a human, the pig still possessed a jugular; that all furred beasts, tigers and bears, have arteries and can bleed. We had bull for dinner that night.
— ♦♦♦ —
It had been nine months, and Li Sao and I agreed that it was time for us to leave and attack the Khan’s palace. Surprisingly, Ji Xia asked to join us, along with his three students.
“We plan to make it an assassination,” I said. “Six people will make it a raid.”
The road back to Xiang Men was absent of any robberies, harassing soldiers, or any other form of delay. Every night Ji Xia’s students hunted for game with their bare hands, though Li Sao chose to accompany me in the gathering of wild mushrooms and vegetables. In the absence of Ji Xia and his students my pupil continued to practice his Mad Monkey Fist.
It was a long week until we finally reached Xiang Men. Our walk was always heavy with the solemnity of our mission. The morning we stood before the gates of the Khan’s palace, however, made even Ji Xia break into a cold sweat.
“Your revenge draws near, Li Sao.”
“Think of it as a revolution, cousin,” I said. “Our main target is the Khan himself.”
Without further discussion all six of us leapt over the main gate.
— ♦♦♦ —
My cousin’s men and I stayed behind to keep the guards busy while Li Sao ran on; leaving a trail of bodies that writhed if they were not mercifully dead already. Miraculously we managed to catch up with him, as he thinned the number of opposition we faced. During the courtyard scuffle, I was able to observe all that happened above on the balcony. Although the world has never seen a style such as Rabies Fist, it didn’t take long for the bodyguard Dorgon to understand that the attacks and characteristics belonged to an organized system.
“I see that I’m dealing with a man who knows gongfu,” Dorgon declared. “A very wild, vulgar style. What is it called?” Li Sao could not answer. Three times he was kicked off the balcony. The two-story fall eventually took its toll, his bruised face and concussion eyes like an animal dragged in the cold. Each time, Li Sao promptly climbed back on top to face him.
He was bipedal. He had switched to Mad Monkey Fist. Li Sao’s posture was predatory, his weight no longer shifted on forearms, and his nose turned as if tasting the scent of the bodyguard. In his vision, his target was probably outlined in brushes of red. Dorgon’s arm met Li Sao’s fangs, the death-bite which sent the man howling. The cries of rage from the bodyguard electrified him with the thrill of the hunt, interrupted by one kick which was all it took to break all of Li Sao’s front teeth. The canines, most vital to Rabies Fist, were rendered useless.
The battle ended with a thunderous roar. Dorgon’s limbs kicked convulsively and then he was still. His head rolled off his corpse. The guards retreated temporarily and Jixia and I leapt to the balcony to retrieve Li Sao, who had collapsed.
“That was no dog style,” sputtered Ji Xia. “You couldn’t perform canine decollation. How did you decapitate the bodyguard Dorgon?”
“Guillotine Fist,” I whispered. Li Sao had already closed his eyes, having known all along that the cost for such a powerful move was more than ordinary ailments. His skin appeared to prune like an old man’s, and his body weight was impossibly light. The soldiers, having seen him die, gained back their morale and swarmed.
We abandoned the mission. One can say that the only tangible thing we accomplished was taking care of the itch in the Khan’s backside, with the evil Dorgon no longer a threat to KaiKai’s rule. I parted ways with my cousin Ji Xia and his three students for the last time, for I was determined to live the rest of my days in peace as a lonely mountain hermit, just as I was before I met Li Sao.
I sit in my hut now finishing the last lines of this story and wondering how I should end this narrative. The crackling of the fire is comforting and the woods of Xiang Men are forever preferable to this old hermit than the alien Bei Kang forest.
As soon as I heard the soul-shout of what could only have been the culmination of years of sophisticated human gongfu, I knew that the ultimate move of Jo Shan Da was being performed. How could I have not been aware that Li Sao was still secretly practicing my art as well? The practice of charging up one’s life energy into his fists daily in preparation for the Guillotine Fist should not have escaped me. Li Sao, of Xiang Men, who had sworn his life to me and accepted me as a teacher of life, and I who devoted myself to teaching him- I am ashamed of ever having wondered whether we were still master and pupil. My fears that he would die a mindless carnivore, that he would meet his end by the bloody destiny of Rabies Fist, were unfounded. He chose to die human, and as a student of Jo Shan Da.
— ♦♦♦ —
Four Aces In The Deck. By Gary Priest, Art by John Waltrip
Next week we’ll have “Four Aces in the Deck” by Gary Priest. The Ace of Hearts, The Ace of Diamonds, and the Ace of Clubs are mysteriously summoned to a dilapidated bar close to midnight. When they meet the one that summoned them they know instantly who he is, but they can’t believe he’s real. The man has summoned them to gather the ultimate hand. But wait…where is the Ace of Spades? The summoner describes the task ahead of them to discern whether or not they are part of the ultimate hand. By the time the appointed hour strikes, they will know how high the stakes really are. You won’t believe what fate lies in the hand they are playing.