“Even lifeless, he was still the beating heart of this barren courtyard, you know?” The old man didn’t wait for an answer to his rhetorical question. “His stone eyes stared through the entrance to the monastery. His sandstone skin was smoothed by time and he wore sandstone clothes from a bygone era. He leaned on his cane, hand over hand, waiting as if for news of better times, or maybe that dinner was ready.”
He smirked as if the last bit had just occurred to him, and adjusted himself on the hospital bed as a pain shot up his sciatic nerve. “The back of his hand was smooth and polished,” he continued as the nurse humoured his story, “a thousand other pilgrims having blessed it with their touch over the centuries, while he had stayed his vigil there, carved out his place on the stone bench by the well where he had always sat and contemplated life, so they say.”
His gaze drifted out of the window as if he was recalling the scene in front of him. His eyes were opaque now, faded as if they had seen too much in his eighty-something years, but his voice was light and easy, like a friend telling you his favourite story, painstakingly painting the picture and gently enthralling you as he lead you to the gems that waited for the patient.
He probably doesn’t even see me, she thought. This is how it was every day; she attended to him and he rewarded her with a story. She didn’t pay much heed now – he had shared so many variations on his theme of an Old Chinaman’s travels – that she felt it enough to be convivial and respond at the right times.
He continued as she wiped the yellow discharge from his eyes. “Travellers came to visit just him. The walls of the temple were crumbling and weeds dotted the cracks in the steps that led to chambers around its wide terrace. The faded jade green tiles of the pagoda roof were now cracked and stained with lichens, just echoes of their once majestic curves that dominated the broad courtyard. They sagged, weary from their lifelong duty, leaning against the mountain for support. A bit like me.” His laugh transformed into a cough as he nudged her hip with the back of his mottled and bruised hand.
She smiled, resting her hand on the back of his. Like chalk and cheese, she thought. Hers soft, slender and pale and his dry, swollen, tanned and mottled.
“Cracked and broken dragon effigies jutted from the ridge tiles and fragments of marble clung desperately to the memory of the temple. Only one dragon remained whole; a sweeping, coiled beast looking out over the valley below but stripped of its colour and missing one fang.”
He raised his free hand as if indicating the effigy, fingers barely uncoiling. He lowered it and pointed out the window.
“Two trees stood like guardians where the courtyard ended and the mountain dropped into the valley below. Once bonsai, they had long since regained their majesty, no longer ornaments of their masters.” A touch of excitement seeped into these words and she glanced at his vitals on the monitor. “Their containers now consumed by the naked root mass which crept ever downwards in search of life-giving water and their branches curving back towards the monk as if pulled by a magnet, though more likely because of the constant winds rising from the valley.” He let his hand drop onto the sheets and nodded as if revealing a big secret. “And he sat there waiting still; waiting and greeting all who came with his fixed gaze. Some brought flowers and laid them at his feet, or on his head, or around his neck, and for a brief moment, there was warmth in this remote place. Some lit candles in the makeshift altar that had grown beside him next to the now-dry well.”
“That’s …” she began.
He raised his finger to his lips and continued. She had never managed to interrupt one of his stories. “We left our offerings. Cherry blossoms, of course, being spring. His stoic stare gave nothing away as we circled with the other pilgrims and gave our thanks to this nameless monk. He always had a smile for the children, so they say. He was the last monk of Shao-Yun, the one who called time on the Order of the Shifting Wind. He stayed behind after his disciples left, one by one, to other monasteries. Tears flowed, though nothing could be done to reverse this old man’s decision. Nobody knew why he decreed it, but His Holiness was the arbiter of faith within these walls. The winds had changed and the life drifted away from this holy place on its stiffening breeze. But he stayed behind until all had gone, and stayed still longer to make sure none returned, in case they drifted back on gusts of nostalgia, remorse or, worse still, pity.” He paused to let this point register on his audience of one. “Some say he never left and this figure is his petrified remains. So the custodians say, and it keeps Shao-Yun alive.”
A machine beeped and she began changing the syringe that slowly pumped morphine into his system to ease his pain. He fumbled the jade dragon he wore around his neck.
“Night was falling for the unknownth time and the custodians waited by the gates as the last pilgrims of the day returned to their guides and began the short trek to the visitor centre nearby. A chill wind rolled down from the peak above and dust devils danced across the courtyard and leapt to their deaths over the balcony, sending a rustling shower of debris down the mountain and into the darkening sky.” His throat tightened and he injected some drama into his words. “The bonsai shuddered as if chilled to the core. Candles blew out and the well moaned mournfully. It was the last sound anybody had heard of the monk, or so they say. We, Shen-Lung and I, looked back and a door banged shut off to one side. We looked at where it came from and a custodian lazily waved an apology.”
“’Time to leave now, please. Have a nice stay,’ we heard a thick oriental-English voice call out next to us.” The old man settled back into his normal pace. “It was a custodian, dressed as the monk used to be. He smiled and ushered us through the door and outside the monastery, slowly closing the giant wooden door behind us. It creaked. Its old paint peeled and rusted bolts jutted out of its massive bulk while the hinges laboured and complained. We watched the door close and glanced once more to the nameless monk, but the bench was empty and the door closed on a thousand questions that flooded our minds. It was a trick of the light, they say. Happens all the time, they say. But the monastery remained closed for repairs after that day and pilgrims never returned as if its memory had already faded millennia past. Maps forgot its name and the mountain trail all-but disappeared.” He trailed off.
“Is that so?” The nurse asked once she was sure he had finished. “And how long ago was this, Mr Shan?” She listened to the story more out of duty than interest.
“Mr Shuen,” he corrected, looking her straight in the eyes. “Forty-five years ago.”
“That’s nice. And what happened to your lady-friend? You don’t have any visitors, Mr Shin,” not really attempting to pronounce his name. She looked mournfully into his eyes, resting her hands on his.
“I have you,” he said cupping her hands in his. He looked away. The monitor went beep, sputtered and then proclaimed insistently that his heart had stopped. A tear rolled down his cheek.
There was an explosion of activity in the ward but nothing could be done. The time of death was announced as 8.07 pm on 5th May.
As the team held a moment of silence for another soul lost to time, the smell of cherry blossom filled the room. The team were used to the oddities of death and still felt each passing as if it were their first but the floral fragrance was the strangest thing they had experienced. They exchanged glances and followed the nurse’s gaze as she stared at the door.
A young woman stood in the entrance, dressed in navy high boots, black leather trousers and a floral silk shirt. A navy blue silk jacket hung over her shoulders, worn like a cape, and she wore a blue fedora to match. Straight, dark hair ran down her back to her waist. She was clearly the source of the perfume, not the dead oriental man in the bed as they had wondered.
“Mr Shuen?” She asked with perfect intonation.
The orderlies looked at each other.
“Passed. And you are?” said the doctor.
Her oriental features were like a porcelain mask, but the corner of her left eye twitched just once. She entered the room and approached the bed. The two orderlies moved to allow her to pass, but the doctor moved to intercept.
The nurse didn’t remember what happened next. She hadn’t moved from the end of the bed, clipboard and charts still in her hands, but the lady in blue was gone and so was the jade dragon around Mr Shuen’s neck. Papers fluttered to the floor around her and only the perfume scent lingered as a memory of what had just happened while the orderlies helped the doctor up.
She put the clipboard on the end of the bed and moved to help the doctor. He had a welt on his neck that hadn’t been there a few moments earlier. As she moved, she felt something tickle her left wrist. Instinctively, she flinched. As her hand reached the top of its arc, she felt something trickle down her arm. She jolted her arm and pulled it back to try to dislodge whatever had got itself stuck inside the sleeve of her whites. Something nudged her hand, glinting in the light. She froze. It was the jade dragon necklace, its gold chain wrapped around her wrist and perfectly fastened.