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- from Wu Pao Ransoms His Friend, a short story from the Gujin Xiaoshuo
The master of this cave was known as the Wild Bodhisattva, and was even more of a terror. When he learned that Cheng Xiang had repeatedly tried to escape, he took two wooden boards, each three or four inches thick and measuring five or six feet long, had Cheng Xiang stand with one foot on each board, and drove iron nails right through the tops of his feet into the boards.
During the day, Cheng Xiang had to move about with his feet nailed to the boards in this manner, and at night he was thrown into a hole in the ground, the opening of which was firmly covered with thick, heavy boards. The barbarians of the cave would then sleep on the boards to keep guard over him, so that, caged in this way, he could not even make the smallest effort to turn his body. Often, too, the places on his feet where the nails had gone in discharged blood and pus. Indeed it was like suffering the tortures of hell.
When Cheng Xiang was brought to him, Pao An beheld him as though he were his own flesh and blood. Only now did these two friends meet face to face. As soon as they lay eyes on each other, even before they could utter a word, they fell on each others’ shoulders and wept, each not sure whether this was all a dream. It goes without saying that Cheng Xiang was overwhelmed with gratitude to Pao An for freeing him. On his part, Pao An was filled with grief to see how drawn and exhausted Cheng Xiang looked – like some strange creature that was neither man nor ghost – and that he could not move his two feet at all.
Pao An therefore gave him his horse to ride while he followed on foot behind, and together they entered Yaozhou and made their way to the residence of Governor General Yang.
It turned out, in a way no one would have expected, that on completing his term of office, Pao An had been too poor to journey to the capital to await reappointment, and had resigned himself to making a living at Pengshan. Six years previously, both he and his wife had fallen ill during an epidemic and died. Their bodies had been wrapped in straw mats and buried in the waste ground at the back of the Yellow Dragon Temple.
Their son, Wu Tianyu, had been taught since childhood by his mother to read and write. He was supporting himself by tutoring youngsters in the area. When Cheng Xiang heard this, he was overwhelmed with grief, and sobbed without restraint. He then had some mourning clothes made of coarse sack cloth, and with a belt of white hemp girt about his waist and a staff in his hand, he made his way to the Yellow Dragon Temple.
As he stood before the graves, he mourned for Pao An with tears and loud lamentations. Then with full ceremony, he offered sacrifices and poured libations. When the rites were finished, he sought out Wu Tianyu. On seeing his friend’s son, he took off his own robes and put them on him, addressing him as his younger brother, and invited him to discuss plans to take his parents’ remains to their native place for burial.
Then, after composing a prayer to inform Pao An’s spirit of their intentions, he had the graves opened and found there two dried skeletons, which were all that remained. Cheng Xiang cried bitterly and could not be consoled; among the onlookers, not one could hold back his tears. Cheng Xiang had prepared two silk bags to contain the bones of Pao An and his wife. Afraid that the bones might get mixed up, thereby making it difficult to arrange them in their proper order for reburial, he marked the position on each piece with ink. He put the bones in the bags, placed them together in a bamboo basket, and then put the basket on his back and started walking.
But Wu Tianyu remonstrated, saying that since they were the bones of his own father and mother, it was he who should be carrying them, and he reached for the basket. But what could induce Cheng Xiang to relinquish it? Still weeping, he said, “Yeng Ku labored for ten years for my sake. Carrying his bones for a little while is the least gesture I can make to show my gratitude.”
Cheng Xiang wept every step of the way. Every time they stopped at an inn, he would put the basket in the seat of honor and scattered rice and wine before it as an offering before he and Tianyu had their meal. At night, in the same way, he would make sure that the basket was in a safe and suitable place before he dared go to bed himself.
They covered the journey from Meizhou to Weichun, a distance of several thousand li, entirely on foot. Although the wounds on Cheng Xiang’s feet where the nails had been driven through into the boards had healed, the blood vessels had in fact been damaged, so that after several days of continuous walking, his feet became black and swollen and sent out shocks of pain. He could seen that soon he would not be able to move another step, but he had made up his mind not to let anyone help him with the load; so he had to force himself to endure the pain and struggle on.
There is a poem that says:
Too late to repay his friend, he honors him in death;
Day and night on foot he hurries, a load of bones on his back.
Straining his gaze toward Pingyang, thousands of li away,
He silently wonders, how long to reach the native place?
Cheng Xiang thought about his condition and about the long road before him and did not know what to do. That evening, they stopped at an inn to spend the night. Cheng Xiang set out wine and rice before the basket and, with tears in his eyes, made repeated prostrations before it, pleading earnestly in prayer: “May the spirits of Wu Pao An and his wife manifest their divine power. May they intervene and rid Cheng Xiang’s feet of pain and trouble so that he can walk with ease again and reach Wuyang at an early date to perform the burial.”
Wu Tianyu joined in the prostrations himself. When Cheng Xiang got up the next morning, he could feel that his feet had become light and strong again; and all the way to Wuyang, they gave him no more pain. This must have been the work of Heaven intervening to help a good man, and not just the work of Wu Pao An’s spirit.