There was a young couple in Shinway, in the time before the Tragedy of Mushroom Remembering Day, who went up to the monastery on the hill in search of truth. They entered the great Hall of the Ancestors where one thousand life-sized statues stood shoulder to shoulder in three ranks on each side of a center path. The young woman, her arms rigid and her fists clenched, glanced neither right nor left as she strode quickly down the path to the solitary figure kneeling at the far end of the hall. The young man followed a few paces behind, his head swiveling from side to side to take in the details of the Hall.
"Are you the one they call the Master?" demanded the young woman.
"Who wants to know?" the kneeling man said without opening his eyes or moving from his prayer posture.
"We do," said the youth.
"And you are?"
"Ho!" Her eyes remained fixed on the kneeling man as she waved for the young man to hurry and take his place in front of her. "Talk to the man."
"I am Mu Ho," the young man said slowly, his eyes and his attention focused on some architectural detail of the Hall ceiling. "Wow, those are some big logs holding up the roof. What kind of wood is that?"
"Redwood, actually," said the kneeling man, still neither moving nor opening his eyes.
"My uncle built his own house up in Daxing, and he used some big larch beams running cross ways so that he could have as much space as possible without too many posts clogging things up, but they weren't nearly as big as these guys," Ho said.
"It wasn't your uncle, it was your cousin," corrected the young woman.
"No, my uncle, my mother's brother," countered Ho.
"Your mother's brother's eldest son Shing," the woman said. "Your cousin."
"Shing couldn't build a dog house," Ho said. And even if he could, he's my father's sister's son, not my mother's brother's son."
"Cong is your father's sister's son, and he is a dolt, but Shing is very clever with his hands," the young woman said.
"And how would you know that?" Ho turned his attention from the ceiling to the young woman, and he eyed her suspiciously.
"Tsk," she said to dismiss his accusation. "Tell this man," she said with a quick nod in the direction of the kneeling man. "Tell him we are looking for the Master."
"Why me?" Ho protested. "It wasn't my idea to come here."
"It most certainly was," said the young woman.
"No, it was your mother's," Ho said.
"All mother said was that if we had questions, we would do well to seek out someone who had the answers."
"No, she asked me if I knew how difficult it would be to be married to you. And when I said 'I guess so,' she thought I should get a second opinion."
"What she wanted to know was if you are mature enough to handle marriage!"
"Whoa," the kneeling man said holding up his hand. He slowly got to his feet and faced the couple. "Time out, kids."
"Could you just tell the Master we want to see him," snapped the young woman.
"That would be me," said the man.
The young woman looked him up and down, obviously not impressed by what she saw. "And you are supposed to be able to answer our questions?"
"Depends," said the Master. "If you're gonna ask me something like 'what do I have in my pocket,' then no, I'm not your man. But if it is understanding you seek, I may be able to help."
"Okay then," the young woman said. "I am Chew Li Mei. Ho and I are to be married in the Spring."
"Summer," said Ho. "After planting season."
"We want to be certain as this will be a great affair, and there are many details to attend to," continued Li Mei.
"Just us, our parents, and few friends," said Ho more to Li Mei than to the Master.
"Over four hundred guests," Li Mei said sharply to Ho, and then with obvious pride to the Master, "including the governor of Hebei Province and his consort."
"Lao Long, the Butcher of Baoding," Ho said scornfully.
"The Honorable Lao Long," Li Mei countered. "The governor of Hebei Province, patron of my family and good friend of my father."
"Your father owns the largest distillery in Eastern China," said Ho, his voice getting louder. "Every drunk in the province is your father's best friend."
"And they all know your mother," snapped Li Mei.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, nothing. Just the massage parlors she operates. Seems that me that sore muscles are not the only thing that gets massaged in there, if you know what I mean," Li Mei said.
"My mother!" Ho shouted. "My mother runs an honest business ... "
"Hey!" the Master yelled. Ho and Li Mei stopped and looked at him. "Why are you two getting married?"
"We love each other," both said in unison. The Master squinted incredulously at them.
"At least we think so," said Li Mei sheepishly.
"We want to get married," added Ho. "We are just not sure if we want to get married to each other."
"But everyone says you are the perfect couple?"
"Yes," said Ho. "Our families are convinced we are well suited."
"We have come to ask the Master what is love, so that we will know if we have it," added Li Mei. "Or if we can get it."
"Bobby Jones," said the Master.
"Pardon me?" blinked Ho.
"Bobby Jones," repeated the Master. "Bobby taught me everything there is to know about love. We were seven when we met. Bobby's parents were missionaries, and they spent an entire summer in my hometown trying to convince people to wear clothes we didn't like and sing songs we couldn't stand, but Bobby and I really hit it off.
"I walked out of my house one day, and there's this kid with a head full of curly blond hair. Imagine that? Right there in the middle of black-haired China is this mane of golden locks. Never saw anything like it in my life. So I walk up to him and look him up one side and down the other, then I look him square in the eye and say, 'Hey, what's wrong with your eyes?'
"'What's that on your shirt?' he says tapping his finger lightly on my chest. When I look down to see what he's talking about, boom, he chucks me in the nose and laughs hysterically and runs off. I took off after him, and next thing you know, we're best of friends. Every day, I'd wake up and couldn't wait to find Bobby so we could go off fishing, or play kickball, or pull the wings off of flies. And we got to have quite a reputation too, Bobby and I, because he was a real practical joker and he was always talking me into something.
"Like the time we caught a bat, and we put it in a rice paper bag and put it down the hole in the privy. The bag gets a little wet and soon enough the bat can break out, just as it so happens, when Mao Lok's grandmother sits down. You wouldn't believe how fast that old lady could run!"
"And your point?" Li Mei asked.
"Best summer I ever had in my life. If you want to know if you love someone, you have to ask yourself if you're having fun," said the Master.
"I could have gone on forever like that, but Bobby's parents moved on. It was ten years before I saw him again. His parents had come back to pester people again, and when I heard they were in town, I dropped what I was doing and ran to see my old friend, but the minute I saw Bobby, a chill ran up my spine," the Master said.
"What?" Ho asked anxiously, caught up in the Master's narrative. "What happened to Bobby?"
"Boobs," said the Master.
"Boobs?" Li Mei said, confusion wrinkling her brow.
"Boobs," repeated the Master. "Bobby, it seems, was a Roberta."
"And boobs are bad?" asked Ho.
"Not these," replied the Master, giving Ho a knowing grin. "Bobby, who had been a rough and tumble tomboy had blossomed into quite a young woman."
"And you never suspected she was a girl?" Li Mei asked incredulously.
"Never gave it much thought," the Master said. "Bobby was a stranger, and it was the strangeness-- the yellow hair, round eyes, and pale skin -- that preoccupied me."
"She was still your friend, right?" Li Mei asked.
"I'm not sure," said the Master.
"You didn't like her once you knew she was as a girl?" asked Ho.
"I couldn't really tell you if I liked her or not, all I knew was that I couldn't stop looking at her," said the Master.
"Boobs, huh," winked Ho.
"Boobs, hair, lips, legs, fingers, toes, eyes, ears, nose and throat," the Master chanted. "Couldn't get enough of her, and I remember thinking that I could spend my life looking at Bobby and never get bored."
"So, what? Are you saying that you have to be beautiful for someone to love you?" Li Mei asked.
"I'm saying it's really important to be attracted to that which you say you love," the Master said. "You are a gift to one another."
"That's just typical guy talk," Li Mei protested. "Men are like crows, they are obsessed with shiny objects."
"Rang Park," the Master said invoking the name of the Shanghai actor whose wavy black hair, broad and hairless chest and resonant voice were causing women throughout the provinces to swoon.
"Oooo," Li Mei said, her lips puckered into a perfect circle and her eyes narrowed as she was momentarily lost in a parade of images that crossed her mind. "Okay," she said quietly as much to herself as to the men. "He may have a point there."
"Oh come on," Ho sneered. "That pork butt? The man wears fuzzy bunny slippers."
"Oh, like you would know," Li Mei said snapping out of her reverie.
"Your true love then," Ho said turning back to the Master, "is someone you have the hots for?"
"Ah, true love," said the Master. "For true love, one must consider the snake."
"Oh, please," Li Mei said rolling her eyes in disgust. "If I hear one more time about how much the snake likes to be petted ... "
The Master shot a questioning glance in Ho's direction. Ho blushed very red, gave a sheepish grin and shrugged his shoulders.
"Excuse us for a moment," the Master said to the young woman, and putting his arm around Ho's shoulders, led him off out of her hearing. There was a brief conversation that consisted of the Master talking and Ho nodding his head. When Ho tried to speak, the Master held his hand up to halt the conversation. Ho appeared to reluctantly agree. The Master smiled, and the two returned.
"For true love, one must consider the snake," the Master said.
"A snake is a scaly reptile," Ho said. "A treacherous creature of the earth." Ho's words were stiff, obviously hastily rehearsed, and layered with a reluctant contrition. "What can a snake tell us of true love?"
"Yes, do tell," said Li Mei with a bemused, satisfied smile on her lips.
"The last time I saw Bobby, I was stacking wood in my parents backyard, trying to figure out if I was in love or not. On the one hand, there were all the things I liked doing, like kick ball, hunting, sedan races, men's night barbecues at the Baths, and on the other hand there was Bobby, who was beautiful and fun and very desirable. And while I'm thinking about all these things, Bobby shows up. She tells me that her family is moving on, and she says she was wondering if I had anything I wanted to talk about.
"It was decision time," the Master said.
"So, where's the snake come in?" Ho asked.
"Right then, as it turns out," the Master continued. "I'm trying to figure out what to say to Bobby, and to stall for time, I pick up one more piece of wood to put on the wood stack, and there under that piece is pit viper. Hard to say who was more startled, me, Bobby, or the snake, but Bobby screams and the snake and I start moving in opposite directions. As I am levitating backwards, I drop the piece of wood, and as luck would have it, when I drop the wood, it lands smack on the snake and pins him.
"So there we are, Bobby clutching the back of my shirt as she peers out around me at the snake, and the snake wriggling back and forth trying to get out from under the wood. Bobby says to me, 'well, what are we gonna do?'. I say, 'kill the damn snake,' and she says 'oh, no, it's so beautiful,' and I say 'but it's a poisonous, deadly snake,' and she says 'no, we can't kill it.'"
"Is there a point somewhere in here?" Li Mei asked.
"I'm getting to it," the Master said. "So Bobby finds herself a long stick, and after she gingerly inches toward the trapped snake, she lunges out and pins the snake's head to the ground, then dancing nervously from one foot to the other, reaches down and grabs the snake around the neck. 'Okay,' she says, 'pick up the piece of wood.' So I go over and kick the wood off the snake. The snake starts wiggling and Bobby starts screaming, and then she starts spinning around, faster and faster, until the snake is stretched out in front of her like a piece of rope. The next thing I know, the snake is sailing high in the air in a trajectory that will take it well off into the brush, and Bobby is sitting on her butt in the dirt, golden curls hanging down in her eyes. That's when I knew I couldn't love her."
"Pardon me?" Ho blinked.
"Bobby loved the snake," the Master said.
"But she was afraid of the snake," Li Mei observed.
"Oh, indeed," said the Master. "And the snake, being a snake, had the potential to hurt Bobby, yet Bobby was willing to risk being hurt so that she could make sure that the snake could go on being a snake."
"And this told you that you couldn't love Bobby?" Li Mei asked.
The Master nodded. "I was afraid."
"Of a woman?" Ho said in disbelief.
"You are a wise man," said Li Mei.
"Bobby was not Chinese. She was an alien from an alien land. I only knew how to love as a Chinese. I could not demand of her to be anything that she was not, and I was afraid that I would not like what I would have to do to love her as an alien."
The Master grew quiet, and there was a momentary sadness in his eyes.
"You could have found a way, some common ground between you," Li Mei said.
The Master's eyes brightened and he looked at Li Mei with an expression that beckoned her to continue with her thought, but it was Ho who spoke next.
"No," said Ho. "Women are stubborn. They say a man never lives in his own house. His born into his mother's house, and then lives his life out in his wife's house."
"Mother was right," Li Mei said.
"About what?" Ho said.
"We need a second opinion."
"Didn't we just get one?" Ho asked.
"Do you know what he's talking about?" Li Mei nodded her head in the direction of the Master.
"Yes," Ho said. "Sort of. Maybe. I won't call it a snake anymore if that's what you want."
"See! You didn't understand what he said either, did you?"
"Neither of you do," said the Master quietly.
"Do we love each other or not," Li Mei said. "Yes or no?"
"Can't tell you," said the Master.
"Then we're outta here," said Ho, and the couple turned to leave the Hall.
"Good luck," he called out as they strode off. "By the way, two copper pieces, a corn kernel, and a note from a girl friend."
Ho and Li Mei stopped and turned around. "What are you talking about?" asked Li Mei.
"That's what he's got in his pocket." The Master said. Ho pulled the items from his pocket, and Li Mei snatched the note from him.
"Who," she said with an obvious chill in her voice. "Who is this 'Shu Fang?'"
"Nobody," Ho snapped angrily. He turned and stared meanly at the Master.
"Just an old parlor trick they teach you at monk school," the Master smiled. "I wish you both the best."