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August 08, 2022

On the Matter of Being Old: A Shinway Story by Mei-ling Weaver

By Bernie Pilarski

There was a older man 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. In he went to 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 older man glanced neither right nor left as he walked slowly down the path to the solitary figure kneeling at the far end of the hall.

"Are you the one they call the Master?" asked the older man.

"Who wants to know?" the kneeling man said without opening his eyes or moving from his prayer posture.

"I do," said the older man.

"And you are?"

"Yu Jumjie."

"Yu Jumjie? You related to Yu Qianfan?"

"Cousin," said Jumjie. "You know him?"

"Like a rash on my backside," said the Master opening his eyes to look at Yu. "The sucker owes me a hundred coppers. Met him at the sedan chair races this spring. He couldn't tell a good team of chairmen from the rats under the Squirrel-on-a-Stick concession stand, but he couldn't refuse a bet. Ten heats, ten coppers a bet, ten straight losses. Then he says he's gotta go to the latrine, and boom, he's gone."

"He's a distant cousin," Jumjie said apologetically.

"Yeah, well, if you see him, remind him that he owes me money," the Master said as he rose to his feet and turned to face Jumjie. "So, what can I do for you?"

"I'm depressed," said the man with a sigh.

"Oo, oo," the Master said excitedly. "How about a joke? A man walks into a bar with a duck under his arm ..."

"Nah," Jumjie said waving the Master off. "Heard it."

"Okay. A blond walks into a restaurant and orders shark fin soup, and the waiter says ..."

"That's old," Jumjie said with a dismissive hand gesture.

"So is that why you're depressed," the Master said just a bit peeved at having been interrupted. "You've heard it all before?"

"In a way." Yu said. "Like your jokes, I'm old. I feel burnt out."

"Oh, in that case try taking some hin sat," The Master suggested. "Two tablets at evening meal with plenty of water."

"Hin sat? That's for yeast infections," Jumjie said.

"Really?" said the Master. "Okay, then maybe a hai tong dietary supplement would be better suited."

"Hai tong is for diarrhea," retorted Jumjie. He cast a suspicious look at the Master. "Just what are you a 'master' of?"

"Actually," the Master said. "It doesn't really matter what you take since none of it is going to make you younger."

"I don't want to be younger," protested Jumjie. "I'm just not ready to be older."

"What? You want to live forever?" The Master asked, but he did not wait for an answer. "I have an uncle whose wife had a big ass."

"Pardon me?" Yu Jumjie gasped.

"Real big. I think that's why my uncle married her. It was part of her dowry. Uncle Fuhua had a drayage company, and was always on the lookout for strong animals to pull heavy loads. The very first time he saw the animal, he knew it could be a big money maker for him and that nothing would do but that he had to marry that woman."

"What about love?" Jumjie asked. "Didn't he consider whether or not he loved the woman?"

"With a dowry of that donkey, dinnerware for twelve and a cedar chest filled with bed linens, what was there not to love?" The Master answered.

"Sounds pretty cold to me," the older man said.

"I don't know about cold, but it was profitable. My uncle, his wife, their three kids, even the ass lived pretty darn well for many years. But, inevitably, the time came that the donkey couldn't haul what it used to. Smaller but younger animals could haul more and were faster about it, and the profits dried up for the old animal."

"Look, I know what you're doing," Jumjie said. "You going to tell me that your uncle appreciated all that the donkey did for him and put him out to pasture to comfortably live out his days, and I should look forward to my retirement."

"Nope, my aunt and uncle didn't believe in keeping an animal that couldn't pay its own way, so Uncle Fuhua took the donkey out back, whacked him several times with a shovel, and had the knacker haul the carcass off with rest of the discarded plugs in the neighborhood."

"How heartless!" Jumjie cried.

"You, sir, are an ass," the Master stated matter-of-factly.

"I beg your pardon," Jumjie said sharply.

"Long in the tooth, over the hill, past your prime," the Master said. "Face it Jummie, the knacker's at the door."

There was a long period of silence as Jumjie considered what to make of the Master's words. Finally he turned and began to slowly retrace his steps toward the door of the Great Hall. In the middle of the hall, he stopped and turned back to the address the Master.

"You want me to stop feeling sorry for myself and find something useful to do, right?" he said with a brow furrowed in thought.

The Master smiled. "I'll send you a bill," he said.

"Right," Jumjie called back. "I'll have my cousin Qainfan drop off the payment."

As the door of the Great Hall swung shut, the Master sighed.

"The problem with being a monk," he said to no one in particular. "Is that, no matter how much you sugar coat it, they never want to hear what you have to say."

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-10-15
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