The question of whether Chu Lun was insane or not could be set aside for now. But the way others saw it, he had already gone bonkers, and it was pretty serious. When Young Master Chu took a break while selling his literary services1 on the street, he would, with a pleasant countenance, say regularly to the brush, “It has been hard on you.”
A passer-by stretched out his neck and asked, “How has it been hard on this brush?”
Chu Lun said, “It has been busy for the whole day. Naturally, it hasn’t been easy for it.”
The passer-by added, “The brush is just a tool. How would it understand you?”
Chu Lun was about to reply to him when he stopped and spoke to the brush in his hand. “Don’t cry. The ink is dripping out.” Then, when he raised his head again, everyone around him was looking at him like he was loony.
Chu Lun also felt that he had gone mad. The whole day, he took out paper after paper and re-dipped the brush in the ink the moment it ran out. Thanks to his reputation for being a wacko, his business improved. After all, it was really rare to have a lunatic who could not only write well, but was also good-looking. Chu Lun’s life grew more comfortable; he could even afford to buy medicine now. However, what he did not know was that even if he tried his best, his life would still come to an end before his third trip to the capital.
Because, in the Underworld’s Registry of Human Life Expectancy, Chu Lun would succumb to an acute illness in the spring of the twelfth year of Tianjia.2 Before he met his end, he would be adrift on a boat3 all alone with no one to rely on. His body could no longer take in medicine, and it would take two days before he finally breathed his last. After his death, someone would roll him up in a straw mat4 and throw him into a mass grave, burying all those so-called talents and reputation with him in the soil. Furthermore, the Life Registry even clearly named another talent with the surname Zuo as the top scholar.
The more the brush demon saw Chu Lun studying hard through the night, the worse he felt. He wanted to tell Chu Lun, but time and time again, he swallowed back his words. Chu Lun was like the spring breeze, and so, out of his own selfish reasons, the brush demon was willing to stay with him.
Seeing that winter had come, Chu Lun put things into order and prepared himself for spring. But the luggage he had packed was always stolen and hidden away, and his remaining silver would somehow disappear for no reason.
One day, Chu Lun held up the brush and called out to it, saying, “I’ll head for the capital by river in spring. Do you have any plans for yourself?”
The brush demon rolled to a side and transformed into a youth sitting cross-legged on the table. He said, “Why do you have to go to such a faraway place? Stay at home. I’ll play with you.”
Chu Lun said, “The preliminary round of the imperial examination is around the corner. I have to go.”
The brush demon knew that it was of no use, but he still persisted, “You are already renowned in Dongxiang. Why seek those so-called positions and riches?”
“Regardless of my fame, I’ve yet to have the opportunity to serve my country.” Chu Lun moved his legs. They frequently hurt during winter. He covered them with a thin coat and said, “For over ten years, I’ve persevered in my studies despite my hardships. All I wish is to be of use in the future.”
The brush demon’s mood was waning. He clenched the paper tightly and leaned forward to ask, “Even if you die?” Chu Lun was stunned. The brush demon immediately tried to frighten him. “There are many demons in the capital. All of them are major demons! They all have a particular liking for scholars like you.”
Chu Lun asked, “Are you a major demon too?”
The brush demon nodded. “My former master is the Sage Yining of Ninth Heaven. Of course, I’m a major demon.”
He did not expect Chu Lun to laugh upon hearing this. Although Chu Lun was usually gentle, it was rare for him to burst out laughing like this. It was as if his laugh had dispelled the gloomy clouds over them.
“If all of them are like you.” Chu Lun said. “Then all the more I want to take a look.”
The brush demon felt Chu Lun’s gentle gaze on him. His forward-leaning body jerked back as if he had been pricked. With a hand behind him, he said sulkily, “You don’t understand… You don’t understand! Shenzhi, listen to me.”
“You called me Shenzhi.” Chu Lun sat up straight and looked level at him. “But how should I address you?”
The brush demon lowered his legs and sat down on the edge of the table with his side facing Chu Lun, refusing to let himself look into Chu Lun’s eyes. He said vaguely, “My name is Le Yan.”
Chu Lun had made up his mind to go. Le Yan understood him, and yet he could not comprehend it. He followed behind Chu Lun all day long. Even if he turned into a brush, he still had to keep harping on it until Chu Lun’s ears grew callus. Even in Chu Lun’s dreams, Le Yan the brush would still be standing upright offering him well-meaning advice.
His fellow townsfolk would often see Young Master Chu walking a few steps before turning back to grab the brush to talk to it. This horrified them more. All they felt for Chu Lun was admiration; they had to hand it to Chu Lun for not forgetting to head to the capital for the imperial examination despite being this nuts.
No matter how Le Yan tried to stop him, Chu Lun would eventually board the boat. On the eve of his departure, Le Yan said to him, “In that case, take me with you.”
Chu Lun said, “If anything untoward were to happen to me on the way, you would be adrift on the river for many days. ”
On hearing that, Le Yan wanted to cry again. He said, “How can you say it like that? It’s as if you know for certain that you would meet the King of Hell.”
Chu Lun pushed the books together, lit the oil lamp, and said to Le Yan with a smile, “I’m afflicted with an old ailment. Lately, it has been hard for me to remain at my desk. I can more or less understand what’s to come. You have saved me once that night and repaid any kindness you’ve owed. Why tag along with me again?”
Le Yan dripped water droplets and said, “You are fully aware of that, and yet you still want to go ahead. I can’t fathom it.”
Chu Lun sighed and said, “Even if I don’t go, I’ll still die… I’m originally without kin. But you have cried for me again and again. This is already enough for me.”
Le Yan wiped away his tears and said, “I don’t want to cry either, but I, I was born this way. The Sage always scold me too! You know it’s impossible, and yet you still do it. You remind me of another person five hundred years ago. Whenever I think of him, I always want to cry.”
Chu Lun asked, “Who?”
Le Yan sobbed, “Spring, spring water weeps over precipitous rocks; morning light shrouds green pines in frost.”5
Chu Lun handed him a handkerchief. He did not know whether to laugh or cry. “I’m asking you who. Why are you reciting a poem instead?”
“Because that person is from this poem.” Le Yan blew his nose with the handkerchief and said, “I admonished him for so many years, although it couldn’t be helped since the Sage doesn’t like him. But I feel guilty. Alas, you have no idea. He once slew demons and eliminated devils. Yan Quan is Ninth Heaven’s most powerful sword! Seeing you like this reminds me of him before he met his end.”
“He must have his own reasons.” Chu Lun folded up the handkerchief and said to Le Yan, “… Although this illness holds me up, I still have to give it another try. You and I met by chance, and I’m indebted to you for your care and concern… I don’t know how I should thank you.”
Le Yan said, “I’m a demon. I’m very powerful. I don’t need anyone to thank me!”
Chu Lun could not help but laugh. “I never knew that demons are such crybabies.”
Le Yan lowered his head and choked with sobs. “I’m originally a brush. I have to discharge ink every day, so I could only cry all day. As time passes, it became impossible for me to stop.”
The corner of the quilt had been soaked with Le Yan’s tears. Even Chu Lun’s handkerchief was not enough. Chu Lun watched as Le Yan cried until he started to hiccup. Then, Le Yan turned over and continued to cry. His hiccups sounded like the little rooster pacing around next door. Chu Lun felt amused again. The sound of Le Yan’s weeping receded, and with a “poof” he turned back into a brush thick with the fragrance of ink.
Chu Lun put his handkerchief under the brush. His back was slightly curved; he looked emaciated under the light.
“There are benefits to being demons.” Chu Lun whispered. “Even if you encounter a chronically ill person like me, you don’t have to be afraid of getting infected. It’s just that time is too short… it’s getting harder to be contented with my lot.”
The brush wept ink and said nothing more.
◈ ◈ ◈
Chu Lun boarded the boat and departed from the shore. Le Yan was in his luggage. The weather was chilly during early spring, and Chu Lun’s illness took a sharp turn for the worse. In less than a month, he was already unable to get up from bed. He lay on his deathbed, beseeching Le Yan to burn his books for him.
“I’m afraid I can’t make it to the capital.” Chu Lun smoothed the paper and said, “Many of the remaining chapters have yet to be completed. If I leave them behind, they would also end up as kindling for others. We might as well use them today to keep ourselves warm.”
Le Yan refused. There seemed to be quite a number of affidavits.
Chu Lun continued, “The cases in Dongxiang have yet to have their verdicts reversed. My fellow countrymen have entrusted me with these. After my death…”
Le Yan said urgently. “You won’t die! You won’t die!”
Chu Lun gave a bitter laugh. “Things have already come to such a point. Why are you still deceiving me?”
Le Yan bundled the papers back into the luggage. Then he rose to pat Chu Lun’s cheeks and said with red eyes, “You are dedicated and talented, how could you die here? You must top the scholar list and petition on behalf of the common folks. Just you wait. Although I, I love to cry, I’m very loyal to my friends! I won’t let you die.”
Chu Lun laughed it off and said, “Every man has his own destiny.”
“You met me.” Le Yan stood up. “Nothing will happen to you.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Le Yan headed for the Underworld. He had the Sage Yining’s nameplate,6 so no one stopped him from entering or exiting Li Jin. He used to tag along at Sage Yining’s side, so all the various grades of Ghost Guards did not dare to act rashly and offend him. Because the Sage Yining was exceptionally skilled at penning condemnation missives. Even Lord Lin Song was not spared, so how would they be able to defend against him?
Le Yan’s entire journey went smoothly, with no one getting into his way. It was when he got his hands on the Registry of Human Life Expectancy that he knew that the battle was already half won. Although he had trained himself to be good at fleeing, he was still the most proficient when it came to words. No matter who wrote it, as long as he had seen it before, he could imitate them precisely. Le Yan surreptitiously found Chu Lun’s page, erased the section “dies of acute illness” and replaced it with “lives his life pursuing his ambitions, and meets his end after fulfilling his dreams.” After a moment’s thought, he searched for the page that originally had “Top Scholar in the Twelfth Year of Tianjia” on it and wiped away this man’s top scholar title.
Expressing his shame quietly, Le Yan looked at this man’s name, written neatly in three characters, “Zuo Qingzhou”. He did not know who this “Zuo Qingzhou” was, but he understood that his rescindment would cause him to miss the top scholar title this year. He looked at the man’s life. It was clearly written that he would be “successful in his official post, eliminating corruption and cleaning up the imperial court” until the end of his life at seventy. Only then did he feel reassured enough to return the Life Registry without anyone noticing and left with a peace of mind.
◈ ◈ ◈
“Then he would gradually recover, make it to the examination in time, and fulfill his dreams.” Cang Ji interrupted Le Yan. He poured cold wine from the stall, tasted it, and continued, “Nothing is that easy in this world. Although I have no idea what that Life Registry is, I can still guess that even if you change Chu Lun’s fate, someone else will have to pay with his life. Who knows who will be that unlucky scapegoat?”
“No, he won’t!” Le Yan said in a panic. “I’ve checked that registry and ascertained that no one will die!”
“Life is full of uncertainties.” Cang Ji gave a mocking smile. “You have gotten your wish. Why give a damn about others?”
Le Yan said, “Shenzhi’s illness came out of the blue. Who should he give his life for then? This kind of arrangement is wrong to begin with. “
“I often hear an old man talking of the ‘decree of heaven and earth’. In that case, everything planned in the Human Life Registry must have been orchestrated by someone.” Cang Ji said, “Each man has his own destiny. Why not just resigned yourself to your fate?”
Le Yan suddenly raised his head and looked at Jing Lin. He did not even bother to cry and merely said, “Is… is My Lord also resigned to your fate? This kind of arrangement… How can I accept it?! Don’t tell me Heaven and Earth gave him life merely to have him go through his entire life sick and full of regrets? I… I can’t accept this…”
Cang Ji tapped on the mouth of the cup and said, “The word ‘love’ is all but a mess of rotten debts.”
Le Yan kowtowed. “I’m willing to pay with my life. All I ask is…”
The night wind rose violently and sent Jing Lin’s sleeves fluttering. Before Le Yan’s voice died down, his words had already dispersed in the wind. Cang Ji looked up and saw something approaching them from the east. He downed the cold wine and rose to walk towards Jing Lin.
“I smell…” Cang Ji frowned, “the fragrance of a brush?”
Jing Lin said, “That is the fragrance of classics.”7
Both of them saw the creature from the east traversing the sky; it turned out to be a white fox. The fur of the fox demon was soaked in the scent of the classics. It held a person in its mouth as it leaped and dashed towards Huachang’s inn. However, there was another person with a whip in his hand in hot pursuit behind the fox. He berated out loud,
“Fox demons bring ruins upon humans by luring them with lust! How dare you dream of having an affair with a human! You’ve caused him to lose his life. Release him!”
The fox crashed to the ground. Cang Ji saw that his tail was broken in half and he had been beaten until he was bloodied all over. What was more shocking was that the man in his mouth no longer looked human. The fox sobbed and whined, but he refused to let go and held onto the man as he limped and fled into the inn.
The person with the whip was about to give chase when he heard Huachang snorted.
“Wu Ying, this place has the Goddess Sheng Le at the helm. Who do you think you are? How dare you chase him all the way here!”
Wu Ying cracked his whip and said, “When demons harm humans, I’ll enforce justice on behalf of heaven!”
Huachang rapped on the window with her polished nails and coldly said, “You’re neither deity nor ghost. Are you even worthy?”
Wu Ying was furious. On the contrary, Cang Ji folded his arms to watch the show. This was his first time watching the commotion others had stirred up. But then, he heard Jing Lin say.
“You lied to me.”
Le Yan held his head and said nothing. Jing Lin turned back.
“You secretly changed the fate of a human—You made another man stand in for Chu Lun. All you’ve said are half-lies and half-truths… You did not do it for the sake of friendship, but for ‘love’. You knew someone would die, but you were still bent on getting your own way.”
Le Yan shook all over. Sobs tumbled out of his throat. “What else could I do?! Lord… Lord…”
Jing Lin could not hear Le Yan’s voice in the wind. All he could hear was the copper bell, which was originally on Chu Lun, splitting into two and ringing incessantly on the fox demon.
The suffering of “illness” was entwined with another suffering.8
Right at this time, the mournful cries of the fox in the inn reverberated through the sky. A gale tore its way from south to north. The lanterns in the entire capital suddenly went out as the lantern poles broke. Cang Ji raised his hands to shelter himself from the wind even as he held Jing Lin tightly.
Jing Lin said, “Someone’s dead.”
- 卖字 literally to “sell words”, or one’s own literary skills. Many common folks in ancient times were illiterate, and sometimes, scholars and learned men would offer to help the common folks with reading or writing such as penning letters, affidavits, and so on in exchange for some money.
- 天嘉 The Era of Tianjia, 560-566, during the Chen Dynasty, also known as The Southern Chen Dynasty
- One of the simplest forms of burial. For the poor who couldn’t afford a coffin, or the unidentified dead, their corpses were usually simply wrapped in a straw mat before being buried or thrown into a mass grave.
- 泉声咽危石，日色冷青松 a line from the poem 《過香積寺》 Passing By Xiang Ji Temple by 王維 Wang Wei.
A small tablet identifying the bearer, either to prove their identity or as a token of authority (e.g. if they are there in an official capacity, or running errands on behalf of their masters).
经(香) could refer to literary classics or scriptures , i.e. books and scrolls. Books and scrolls in the old days were written in brush and ink. Thus, the scent is similar to brush (and ink), except it also has the smell of paper (or bamboo for scrolls) too. Refer to this image for an example of the inside written in ink.
- Refers to the eight sufferings the bell is leading Jing Lin through. So far, we have Dong Lin’s ‘Death’, Gu Shen’s ‘Parting’, and Chu Lun’s ‘Illness’.