The Story of Two Fish
At the foot of the Black Spirit Mountain, down her southern slope, lies a narrow little alley called the Carp Street; its sides are lined with old brick houses, some of them painted in yellowish colours. In the summer, they bask in the sun, the air buzzing with insects and the collage of smells coming from various market stands: spices, meat, herbal medicine… in winter, the chilling wind howls down its turns and nooks as people scurry by, their heads hidden in shoulders, or as they gather around makeshift braziers made of oil barrels. It has a number of small restaurants, stalls, a fortune teller’s shop or two and at least one flower shop - an ordinary old town alley, you’d think, with the spirit of the age past still preserved in its many details.
Sometimes, if you were to walk the street in the later hours of night you would heat a brief girl’s laughter, and a rattling of beads; in a split second you’d turn your head to find that it was nothing, just the wind. A sound of wooden sandals would echo away in one of the side alleyways, as if two people were running. Yet, there is no man swift enough to ever be able to follow, and all this is quickly dismissed as mere fantasy. We all live, after all, in a world fully explained (or so we tend to believe), with no use of things magical.
It was not always so.
In the distant past, when things were at still at their beginnings and the City stood young and unspoiled, a violent storm raged above the mountains. The Black Spirit tried protecting her people from the wrath of the Heavens, sheltering them from the direct hit; her many children: pines tall and proud took the blow, becoming smouldered to all but charred wood and ashes. It is said the Black Spirit angered the Heaven itself with her countless doubts and questions, and the gods waged a quarrel that night, deciding the fate of this dark land.
The City was spared, in the end, but left with a mysterious legacy. Those who came to seek refuge among the wild forests of the Black Spirit Mt. found not only places perfect for their dwellings, but also spoils of true power. They picked the charred pieces of wood and gasped in awe, overwhelmed with the sacred heritage of the gods.
When the Temple of Magnificent Fortune was founded, the abbot of those days commanded the local wood smith to carve two powerful charms of protection for the new, impressive treasure hall to be built. In accordance with style favoured by Buddha himself, these were to be a pair of fish, once guarding the holy rivers of Ganges and Yamuna, now the symbol of freedom and happiness. Look how they swim in the azure waters, all the way into the endless oceans, unrestrained and answering to no-one, fearless of what is there, waiting for them in the dark blue billows! Ironically, their boundless forms were to be captured in carvings, as this is our sad, unchangeable nature to be wanting for things to own; now, the fish would guard the treasures of men from evil, and that’s how things were destined to stay for eternity.
It was customary for the Magnificent Fortune monks to go collecting alms in the City below. One night, the Young Brother was late returning to convent - it was already dark and the path up the mountain was narrow and dangerous. He walked hurriedly, for fear of becoming prey to jackals and wolves that roamed these forests. He would surely be punished if the Older Brother was to find out about his lateness, as he’d accuse him of dawdling and spending time and money on worldly pleasures down below. As the monk’s heart was pure and it was the mere thought of such accusations, more than the punishment itself that made him shiver.
Just as he was reciting prayers in low voice to ease his mind, somewhere around half way up the mountain, he saw two vague shapes on the road before him. Judging by the fact of them being here at this time of the night they ought to be fellow monks, he thought, but as he got closer he failed to identify them as his comrades; in fact, the two shapes turned out to be those of a young monk and a young nun, walking hand in hand up the ancient path leading straight to the temple. Thinking that maybe they have lost their way or are guests to his convent, the Young Brother called out:
‘May the Buddha’s blessing be with you, dear brother and dear sister! It is indeed a strange time to find fellow travellers on these wild mountain paths. May I perhaps assist you, if you can tell me where you’re heading?’
Although from the back it looked like the strange couple was deep in conversation, the monk could hear no sound of their voices, and so there was no reply to his query. He hesitated for a moment, perplexed by what he was just seeing and stopped. The monk and the nun continued on their way up the path as if nothing happened.
His heart froze. Surely, they must be up to no good, skulking about in such late hours of the night. To make things worse, it was unthinkable to see a young man and a woman of cloth walking like this alone in the forest. Were they in fact breaking their vows, or were they some ruffians disguised as holy men with intention to cause trouble? The more Young Brother thought about it, the more his pure heart raged at this impudence. He decided to follow the two to see what they’re up to.
First he spied on them from the distance, cautiously. They were heading straight for his temple! The moment they passed the gate, Young Monk started to run and leaped in just behind them, only to find they have vanished in thin air! The temple grounds were quiet and empty, as they should be around this time. There was no sign of the troublemakers. He sighted heavily, and decided to relate all that had happened to the Abbot.
The Young Brother might have been the first to encounter this strange sighting, but he was definitely not the last. In the following weeks the Abbot suffered a headache from all his young disciples yarning stories of a strange and delinquent couple roaming around the temple grounds. First he dismissed them all as childish fantasy or maybe even drunken stupor, but then even lay travellers would become scared out of their wits by these voiceless, ghostly presences. Finally, he came to decide that the wisest course of action would be to try to catch the troublemakers himself, as he believed he would be able to tell which monasteries they belonged to, and then report them to their superiors. It didn’t seem as they were robbers, after all, as no-one got assaulted and nothing was found missing. If there was, however, a sacrilegious affair going on in the holy grounds of the Buddha, and the couple was bold enough to be seen entering the temple itself, it had to be put to stop.
Late evening, he walked all the way down the mountain, and then, just as the sun set down, he proceeded with a slow ascend back to the temple. He would step carefully and take his time; there was nothing there but the rustling of leaves and the song of cicadas. The Abbot, determined at first, began to lose his spirits, and become angered thinking that maybe he had fallen victim to some stupid joke his disciples had played on him.
Then suddenly he came to a halt; there they were, up the path! The unusual couple, hand in hand, conversing cheerfully as if they were in the middle of a marketplace. Yet, try as you might, there was not a single sound to be heard leaving their mouths. The Abbot decided not to call after them, but to follow them closely. Keeping his wits about, he shadowed them all the way until they reached the gate, and as they passed he followed just behind, as not to lose sight of the troublemakers. Now, he could see them clearly, walking the grounds.
He was struck with terror - the mysterious monk and the nun were heading directly towards the treasure hall! So they were either rotten to the bone, committing indecency in the place most sacred, or they were in fact thieves planning on robbing the Lord Buddha himself!
This could not pass; the second they closed the treasure hall door behind them, the Abbot stormed in holding his sturdy wooden pole, determined to teach them two a lesson a painful lesson. He swung the door open.
Immediately, he dropped his pole to the ground, as the moonlight lit the inside of the hall. The face of Buddha smiled benevolently, unharmed. There was nobody inside, but the Abbot himself. On the both sides of the altar, thought, the two wooden fish kept shaking, as if they were recently disturbed. The Abbot let out his breath he was holding for so long, and smiled weakly. The mystery was solved.
Relieved that it all turned out to be just a trickery of naughty spirits, he ordered a heavy cooper chain to be delivered to the monastery the following day. The treasure hall gate was locked tight and from that day on the monks and the inhabitants of the Black Spirit Mountain could walk the forests in peace. He held onto a massive key for the lock that bound the door, and kept it on himself at all times.
Long years had passed, and the Abbot had lived to become an old and venerable master of the Magnificent Fortune Temple. Pondering his life as a monk, he would often stop to think he had achieved everything a mortal man could dream of achieving. Yet there was always an unnamed feeling of a task incomplete that would keep him awake at night and made him doubt if he had really been a good servant to the will of Buddha. He meditated, trying to uncloud his judgement of things, but the answers would not come forward.
Then a night came when gods waged wars in Heaven again - heavy leaden clouds gathered above the City and the tears of armies lost in these battles poured down upon the mortal land. For six days and six nights it rained ceaselessly, and many parts of the City become flooded. Rice paddies burst, and the mud started flowing down the slopes of the local mountains.
The Magnificent Fortune Temple found itself in peril as well. When it become apparent that it too will become submerged by the ebbing waters, and that the rain was nowhere close to stopping, the Abbot commanded the grounds to be evacuated to a safer spot at the feet of the mountain. Monks run around grabbing they belongings and holy objects hectically, trying to save what was there to be saved.
Two Clever Brothers were just about to rush out of the grounds with the others when the Abbot called them to his side.
‘You two! Come here!’ He said, his voice having become weak and husky in his old years. With a shaking hand he procured a rusted, old key from his robes and handed it over to the young disciples. ‘Go to the treasure hall at once.’
‘But Venerable Master! The hall has been locked for decades! Can there possibly be anything of value there, in an old dusted building? Anything worth saving? We have made sure all the holy artefacts and sutras are salvaged already. We should leave here at once, we will take turns carrying you down the path, Master.’ said one of the monks.
The Abbot wouldn’t listen to any of this and firmly ordered them to loosen the huge chain and find the two wooden fish carvings inside. Once they secured them they were to take them down the mountain together with other things, and store them safely. The monks did as they were told, and soon both were seen running knees deep in mud down the path, each holding a massive wooden fish in his arms.
‘I don’t know what got into the old Master!’ said one monk, trying to catch his breath. ‘These wooden charms can’t possibly be objects of value!’
‘This is even worse than you think!’ replied the other, as he remembered the story he had once been told that had happened before his time in the temple. ‘I’m sure these are the exact same fish that used to be possessed by malicious spirits and caused disturbance in the temple years ago! Were we to save them, how can we know they wouldn’t cause more trouble in the future?’
‘On top of the flood, that’s what we need!’ sneered the first monk.
So they conversed, all the way down the mountain, until they reached an small, elevated piece of land that had been saved from the waters. By then, they had already made their minds on to what to do with the fish. Having dug a pit that was protected from the rain, they half buried the fish and burned them to ashes.
The Abbot did not survive the flood. It was said he refused to escape the temple with the other monks, and that was the last of him. The rains stopped the same day, and in the following weeks life in the City returned to normal. It wasn’t long after that a wooden shack was built on the flat and barrel piece of land at the foot of the mountain. A young couple moved in and started to reclaim the land that had before been an infertile wasteland. They toiled days and night and finally managed to start a small, but successful farm. A daughter was soon born to the two, and the three lived a simple yet happy life. When the girl grew older, she would sometimes ask:
‘Venerable Father, Venerable Mother if this is indeed true what people say that you are not originally from here and you only came here shortly before I was born, then where do you hail from?’
‘From a far-away land. We will not talk about this.’ they’d both answer, and never dwelled on this topic.
Every year, when the Qingming Festival came about, the three would climb the Black Spirit Mountain to burn incense and pray for the late Abbot. People said that their piety brought them health and good fortunes; soon their daughter got married and her husband moved in with them. They too, had a child. When the godson was of age, the couple had already become old and feeble. They summoned the boy to their deathbed and instructed him to always remember to pray for the soul of the Abbot when it was the time of Tomb Sweeping. The youngster nodded and promised to honour their will, yet he failed to understand the true reason for their pious devotion. The question of his family origins troubled him too.
‘Venerable Grandfather, Venerable Grandmother, I shall do as you say. Yet you must not leave us in the dark and must tell us where you came from! Only then, can we all find peace!’ He said and fell to his knees in tears.
The old couple both gave their last breath at the same time, and as the family gathered around them, mourning their passing, a radiant light of million colours shone above the hut; in a split second the roof was gone and all there was, was the celestial River of Dharma, its waters reflecting all there was, there is and there is to be, the faces of Buddha pictured in every grain of sand it contained. There was a flash of light and the grandparents were gone too - in their place two carps flew freely up the current of the river of stars. Up they swam with godly grace, higher and higher, until they disappeared among the clouds and could be seen no more.
The word of these strange occurrence spread among the locals, and they soon started calling the farm the ‘Carp Fields’. Since then eons have passed, and it would be futile to look for the fields anymore; they have now become the Carp Street and few even remember where the name originally came from. It is said, however, that if one goes to the Magnificent Fortune Temple on Qingming there will always be a devout person, either a man or a woman, young or old, burning the incense in the memory of the nameless Abbot of the Two Fish.