A Stone Ladder
A Beautiful Bride
A Forbidden Love
A Life in the Wilderness
5, A House on the Hilltop
The family of six, led by 20-year old Guijiang with a toddler
on his back, carrying whatever they had scavenged in the
water drenched field, jagged their way up along the trials
between ragged rocks. Eventually they arrived near the hilltop
at a cave hollowed out of a cliff face, which had a small
level patch before the entrance and the patch gradually opened
up to a tilting strata stretching to the gorge.
Though surviving at something close to a stone-age condition,
at least they had been kept save from lightening, thunder
and excessive summer rains. They felt lucky. Yet little they
had realised that thunderstorm and flood were not the biggest
threats to their mountain existence. A far more deadly presence
was walking towards them, literally.
One night, Xu started up to the sound of growl that was
intimidating and awe-inspiring. Opened her eyes, she saw
magnified shadows animating on rocky surfaces, and the stones,
in the wavering flames all seemed to come alive, with alien
whispers booming and echoing here and there.
The fear took hold of her heart. She checked the children
who were all in deep sleep, and looked for Guojiang, seeing
him sit at the entrance feeding dry branches to an open fire.
The growl arose again, and the whole ground groaned in the
"What is this?" Xu was alarmed.
"Tiger," Guojiang returned, trying to be as calm
as he could manage.
But Xu clearly sensed the danger in his voice. "Will
it come over?"
Guojiang hesitated a little, and said, "Let’s hope
That sounded bad enough to Xu.
Moments later, the ground bulked in the roar. Apparently
the beast had drawn much closer to the cavern.
Xu was shaking to the soul and looked Guojiang in horror.
Grabbing a chopper, Guojiang headed straight out of the cavern.
Outside was a shadowy expanse, wild and loud. Ragged edges
of precipices appeared indistinctively in the distant moonlight,
and nearby beneath the jetting crag before the cave, the
abbey was in uproar with echoes of the tiger’s howl.
Xu rushed to the children. Some of them were woken up by
the hellish night wailing, sobbing and shivering. Cuddling
them in her arms, she tried her best to pull herself together.
It was a long night, but finally she heard the roaring sound
trailed off, and saw the silvery light of dawn emitted in
through a crack in the rock running at an angle.
Though still tense with lingering fear, she made for the
entrance where her man stood up squarely against a purple
sky. Seeing her came, Guojiang gave her a relaxed smile,
but he was actually bathed in cold sweat all over.
The family decided to build a dwelling at the top of the
hill where they would not be haunted by beasts. And Guojiang
wanted a proper house made of bricks and tiles, because that
was where Xu and her kids used to live in the village.
It took the family whole year to carry clay soil from the
lap of the mountain to the top where Guojiang set a brickkiln.
And it took them another year to produce the materials enough
to build a house.
Two years later on the utterly desolated hilltop where probably
no man had ever set a foot on previously, a brick and tile
house emerged, along with vegetable gardens and children’s
playground. The big woods in a short distance provided resources
to the family, from edible herbs, games, firewood to a bee
farm. Once in a while, Guojiang went down to market fairs
trading honey for daily necessaries, piglets and cashes.
Before long, on their dinner table fish and games were no
longer the only delicacy to serve; they got pork
dishes. And they were able to send older children to
boarding schools in the town, while kept new babies well
fed at home.
One morning, Xu got up at dawn as usual and found Guojiang
had already left home for market. Opened the door and windows,
she let in a fresh breeze. Then, she got the breakfast ready
for the children, cleaned the house, swept the yard, watered
the vegetables, and fed
the pigs. When the first slice of sunlight touched down
to earth, she told the older kids to mind the younger ones
and, carrying an empty basket on back, set off to the woods.
Since Guojiang wouldn’t be able to return home until nightfall,
she had to start early to collect enough herbs to feed the
whole family on her own.
Soon she reached the other end of the woods, but her basket
was just half full. Her eyes were dazzled in the sun, and
she saw the hills were shrouded in ruddy aura. Reckoning
that she still had a bit time to spare before she needed
to hurry back to make lunch, she picked her way down through
narrow winding trials among the rocks to another woods.
By the time she re-emerged with full basket of herbs to
ascend the steep hillside, the mountain sky was blocked by
the clouds, and light drizzles enshrouded the landscape.
Under the full load of the basket Xu bumbled her way up.
Then she slipped. And she fell …
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