Why was it just the girls who were sent over?
Because they could maintain the livelihood of the city’s original inhabitants while allowing them to build up a fortune. It did not matter whether they were young and tender or mature. Once they entered the city, they would all become a single kind of person—the kind who would live a life worse than death, and who would never see the light again.
Rows of carriages from all over Zhongdu would gather here, then disperse. More than a dozen innocent lives would be crammed into those sealed compartments. Whether it was a woman who entered regardless of age, or a child who exited regardless of gender, they would all turn into other animals. There were no longer human beings, but livestock up for human trade. Their necks were secured with ropes, and they were unkempt and shabbily dressed. It made no difference where they were transported to, because it would all be perpetual night everywhere they went.
There were innumerable brokers in Zhongdu. If someone were to draw a winding line from North to South, they would be able to trace out a long journey forged in blood and tears. En route here was Dong Lin’s daughter who had frozen to death, and a solitary Gu Shen who had yet to find his home.
This was a meticulously constructed and isolated spot that was cleverly hidden in the remote mountains to evade the authorities. From here, they could reach out to the human world with the most cold-hearted claw ever. It would tightly clench the hearts of those who lost their women and children; at the same time, it would drag in even more innocents into its den.
The reason the copper bell summoned Gu Shen here was not to tell him where his home was; rather, it was to urge him to search for that fixation in his heart.
Those memories about his “mother”.
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Gu Shen was not called Gu Shen. Before learning martial arts, his name should be Chuanzi. The Daoist priest carried him through the forest for half a month before he reached a densely populated place.
The Daoist priest had intentionally starved Chuanzi until both his legs were weak. He sprawled over the Daoist priest’s back, not even having the strength to jump off. Both of his eyes were swollen from crying, and he had lost his voice from wailing. It had only been half a month, and he was so starved he was emaciated. His back was dripping with cold sweat even though he was lying on the Daoist priest’s back, and his stomach was so empty that he could not even regurgitate the acid in it.
“The child looks as if he’s almost dead from hunger.” The man weighing him turned Chuanzi’s head. With his hand at the side of his neck, he said, “This isn’t fucking easy to sell. Who wants to buy an invalid? People spend money to buy sons, not masters.1 This thing can’t run or jump, how do you expect me to convince others?”
“He’s not sick. As you can see, he’s hungry. How is this sick?! If he’s sick, then won’t I be asking for trouble myself by carrying him? The prefectural yamen has been conducting searches during my journey here. If he died on my back, I could never clear my name!” The Daoist priest was initially following the man with his waist bent and his sleeves before him.2 When he heard this, he quickly fiddled with Chuanzi and weighed his arm. “Look at this bone. When he grows up, he is guaranteed to be a capable farm worker. He’s easy to raise; all you need is to feed him a mouthful. Doesn’t everyone who comes here to buy children want a capable, hardworking child who can carry on the family name in the future? This one fits all the requirements! His mother is sturdy from what I’ve seen. How bad can he be?”
“You even saw his mother?” The man laughed as he cussed him. “Why didn’t you grab her?”
“I didn’t even dare to look back. I fled the moment I hoisted this kid over my shoulder. The woman chased me for an entire two li.3 If I hadn’t hit on a bright idea and ducked into the forest, I wouldn’t have shaken her off.”
“She sounds like a good choice for childbearing. If you had brought her along, I’d have given you a good price without another word.” The man got up. He felt that Chuanzi fell short of expectations, and so he said offhandedly, “A batch of them had just died recently. I’m urgently looking for women ideal for childbearing to fill the vacancies.”
The Daoist priest said, “Wasn’t there a new batch of supply before the New Year? Why are they dead now?”
“The small ones are difficult to raise.” The man pulled out the ledger and added a new sum for the Daoist priest. He continued, “Those fuckers in the North behave as if they have never seen a woman before. The moment the women entered the city, they tormented them like crazy. At least thirty or forty of them were tortured to death just in that month alone. How could the younger ones withstand the abuses? They can’t last for a few nights. The sturdy ones are better; they can bear children and are easy to raise.”
“But that won’t be easy.” The Daoist priest frowned and said, “Most of those who can endure hardships are women from rural villages who can work on farms. They looked out for themselves and wouldn’t give would-be captors any openings. Even if we get our hands on them, it won’t be easy to straighten them out. If we slap them, the petite ones won’t be able to withstand it. If it’s a child, we can just pick them up and run. It won’t attract that much suspicions on the way either. Why not you tell them to miss out on some business for once? It’s not like we are that short of money now, are we?”
The more the Daoist priest spoke, the more the man’s face darkened. He snorted. “Lad, I think you’ve forgotten how hard it was for us in the beginning. If you feel that you have too much money, we can pay you less. Why don’t you think about how many mouths we have to feed? We still have to rear women. When autumn arrives, the ‘cargo of babies’ from the previous batch will be born. Before we sell them, we still need to feed them.”
The Daoist priest went silent. He did not dare to retort.
The man set aside the brush and said, “Go. Go to the counter for your money and scram. I’m telling you. No matter where you are, you have to return to hand over the accounts when snow falls. If you can’t deliver the number Old Daddy is satisfied with, then you and I will have a hard time in the coming year! You don’t want to be hauled back and reared as a stallion in a stud farm, do you?”
The Daoist priest shuddered. He quickly apologized, then hurried to the counter to get his money and take his leave.
Chuanzi was dragged into a prison cell. He was so weak and limp all over that the rope would not stay on him. The man threw him some steamed buns before he locked the door and went about busying himself.
Chuanzi felt as if he was crushing someone underneath him. He did not do it on purpose. This cell was so narrow and cramped it was impermeable. It was as if it was specially dug out to hide children. Even two adults would not be able to lay down in the cell. But there were over ten children crammed in there, with their shoulders and arms pressing against each other and scraping against the wall until their skin was rubbed raw. Even a tiny movement would give rise to vague cries.
Chuanzi’s dirty fingers clasped the steamed buns and, with some difficulty, delivered them to his mouth. He moistened the crumbs with his saliva and swallowed them bit by bit. He leaned on his side, and tears trickled from the corners of his eyes, pricking them.
I can’t cry anymore; my eyes are going blind.
The person under his body moved a few times and went still. Chuanzi was not in a position to be concerned about others. He ate more than half of one of the steamed buns before his stomach felt a little better. The acid in his stomach rose. Unable to hold it down, he let it dribble down the corners of his mouth. Chuanzi felt nauseated. The stench in the cell almost made his stomach cramped. But he gritted his teeth and swallowed hard to keep the steam buns down.
One meal he ate was one meal less. He had to hide one of these two steamed buns, because he did not know when he would get them again.
Chuanzi laid down. The person below him was pressed against him, and the heat made him sweat. His sweat dripped down like rain onto the person below him. But there was not a single reaction from the person. Chuanzi slowly turned his head over. His eyes met the empty eyes of the person beneath him.
A small hand made its way onto the dead child’s feet and pulled the shoes off to wear on his own feet. The children jostled. Their wails were so low they were almost inaudible.
Chuanzi looked at the dead child, and the dead child stared back at him with glassy eyes. They looked at each other for a moment. Two bubbles of tears welled up in Chuanzi’s eyes. His lips trembled. The sobs in his throat were small and soft. He felt terrified, and at the same time, he felt as if he was looking at himself.
He pressed the word weakly against the tip of his tongue and chewed on it with all his strength. It was as if he wanted to live on by the strength of this word. It was as if he could get everything he yearned for right now from this word.
He cried out in a feeble voice. “Mother.”
◈ ◈ ◈
They were held captive in the cell for a night. The next day, the children were bundled into sacks that were then tightly secured. The lads unconcernedly carried the burlap sacks through the bustling streets. Among the commotion of livestock trading, they delivered the sacks to a horse carriage full of animal excrement. Chuanzi had a stroke of bad luck. He was thrown upside down, and so he could only thrust his head down and kicked his legs up. The entire weight of his body was pressing down on his neck. He gradually felt his arms and legs going cold and numb. The pressure on his neck caused him to cry out in pain involuntarily. A sense of panic from not being able to breathe assailed him. He struggled until he finally caught the attention of one of the lads. After enduring a few kicks, he was returned to the correct position.
Chuanzi’s throat was stuck, and he gasped for breath. The carriage jolted and headed for some unknown location. Chuanzi curled into a ball and pressed himself against the edge as he gripped the sack with his long fingernails.
The crudely made hemp rope was not that durable. He tore out a small hole with his nails and pressed his eyes against it to look out. The pitch-black carriage rattled. There was no one guarding them.
Chuanzi stabbed his finger into the small hole and tugged at it vigorously. When his hands had no strength left, he tore at it with his teeth and pulled apart the flaxen threads. He ground it so hard that his mouth was a mixture of scraps, blood, and saliva. His heart was pounding wildly. The intelligent him had realized that if he did not make his escape during this journey, he would never be able to return home.
Chuanzi wanted so much to turn himself into a mouse, or a wild dog. He had to get out! He kicked out at a corner of the sack and swallowed whatever scraps he had torn out with his mouth but did not spat out in time. His throat burned with pain. He gnawed away like a maniac until he finally heard a ripping sound. There was a hole in the sack big enough for him to claw his way out.
Chuanzi spat out the rope and stretched his arms out. Even when his shoulders got stuck, he ignored it. He struggled desperately to squeeze out of the sack, sending out his head after his arms. The hole was so tight around his chest he felt strangled. He choked and clawed at the wall. He felt no pain even when his fingernails were scraped off. He wrestled with the sack and fell face down in the carriage. A thud rang out as he hit the wooden planks. His lower body was still in the sack.
The carriage stopped instantly. One of the men in front who had been chatting away came down and lashed out with the whip as he made his way around the carriage.
Chuanzi heard the man unlock the door. His heartbeat quickened. It was as if there was a rainstorm in his tiny chest.
“What the fuck…” The man swore and cussed as he pulled open the door to the carriage. He poked his head in and brandished the whip.
The sunlight outside was glaring. In the instant he squinted into the darkness, the sound of his rantings slowed down.
Chuanzi suddenly burst into action, using up all the strength he had obtained from the steamed buns yesterday. He pounced on the man, just like those times he had wrestled with others among the fields. Chuanzi crashed his head hard into the man’s nose. The man’s eyes watered as he lowered his head to cover his nose and berate him.
Chuanzi fell to the ground along with his sack. When he bent over to get up, the man had already grabbed him by his back collar. A desperate scream like that of a cornered cub escaped from Chuanzi’s throat. He bit the man’s hand in despair, kicked off the sack, then kicked the man in the crotch. The man immediately released his hand. Chuanzi dropped to the ground and ran on all fours like a canine, even tumbling once before he got to his feet.
The snarls of rage behind him were almost pressing in on him. Chuanzi did not dare to look back. He put an entire lifetime of effort into this pair of legs, and poured in all the strength he had spent in the past running around the mountain into this pair of legs.
Chuanzi gritted his teeth. His eyes blurred from the tears. It was hard to tell in the wind whether he was crying or laughing. Right this moment, his facial features had transformed into those of a savage beast. He darted towards the deep forest, stepping on scattered rocks and thorny undergrowth. He ran as if he were flying.
Once I run home, I’ll be able to see mother.
- Basically saying they buy sons to serve them and their needs (e.g. work on the farm or carry on the family line, etc), but if the child was an invalid, they would end up taking care of the child instead of the other way round.
- Kind of like this. Partially bowing with hands/sleeves before you in a show of humility or subservience.
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, approx. 500m, so two li is about 1km (0.62 miles)