Three Times Around the Circle

Three Times Around the Circle

Lau Wei had come to the Southern Highlands by way of the Chinese Nationalist Army. As a loyal member of the Gwomingdang, he had spent the twenty prime years of his life warring. When their cause had become corrupt, and defeat certain, the Gwomingdang retreated to Taiwan. He parted from them, heading South, choosing his own future.

He was a peasant. At birth, he passed from the midwife's hands onto the earthen floor and was bound to the earth ever since. His father was a peasant, as was his mother, his aunts, uncles, grandparents, and on down. For hundreds of years, his family worked the land, and, after generations of marriage among neighbors, most of the villagers came to acquire the family name "Wei," and so it was. Were it not for war, he would have remained in the village of Wei, and by now would have been an honored elder. Had nature's course held true, he would have had many children, and even more grandchildren, which he would have prepared carefully for their own lives in the village Wei.

But the years of war changed that. First was the anarchy, stirred by the warlords; then the nationalist struggle; and then the occupation by the Japanese; and finally, the revolution. When all was over, the village of Wei had disappeared. The people, his people, were gone.

So, having nothing to return to, he chose to go South.

Only those closest to him knew that he had spent his youth in the Temple of Hwang Lung. As was the case in many pre-revolution villages, youths with promise were hand selected from among the many to learn the skills of the ancestors. The chosen ones eventually became the village leaders, as well as the healers, teachers, priests, and protectors.

In line with temple custom, the flat bottom of novice Wei's right foot was tattooed with a dragon, its fiery breath pointed frontward. The left bore a raised hand. These were the traditional marks of one charged to suppress evil. He was a protector. The brands had been placed in those places so only the holder need know of their existence, and their significance.

Spending his later years in the South, he worked the land and kept to himself. Except for chosen students, no one knew his secret, that he was the twenty first master in the line from Southern Mountain. Because he was a healer, and a renowned thinker, the peasants venerated him, though they seldom lured him away from the land he worked and loved.

Eventually, other scions of the Guomingdang also turned South, especially when the Cultural Revolution of the North marked a dramatic end to their reign of influence. But these men journeyed South for reasons other than peace. The peasants of the South proved no match for the displaced warlords. In just a few short years, the harvest changed from rice to opium. The dust roads, meant to carry oxen, now bore the crisp tire marks of western limousines, inevitably preceded and followed by the staccato tracking of armored vehicles. The peasants, who had never before experienced poverty, were now desperately poor. Their families had become weak, and households with eligible daughters were few.

The southern village of Chu Nan lay in a most fertile but inaccessible valley, protected by a limestone gorge, through which only one man and a cart could safely pass together. The warlords coveted the fertile valley for its rich soil, and for its natural defenses, but could not gain influence with its traditional elders, many of whom over time had become disciples of Lau Wei.

It was clear. The interests of the warlords required they solve the problem of Lau Wei. Killing him would be inappropriate. But surely, humiliating him would weaken his influence among the leaders, and the ambitious youth, tipping the scales to the interests of the warlords, and allowing the desired foothold into the valley. They knew once they gained entry to the protected valley, they could never be forced to leave, by insiders, or by outsiders.

They searched long and far for a warrior certain to defeat the old man.

After they found him, this is what came to pass.

It was mid morning of the seventeenth day of the harvest month. Change was in the morning air, and steam bellowed from the sweated students who attacked the blindfolded Wei. Though 72 years old, when Wei demonstrated "fighting blind," his speed and power were that of a man much younger.

On that day, a stranger entered the camp.

Finishing the drill, Wei removed his blindfold, announcing that he would journey to the market for two days in search of buyers for his crop, but before he could finish his thought, he turned slowly and sighted the one whom he already knew had come with malicious intent.

"Welcome stranger. How may I serve you?"

"If you are Wei. I have come to test you."

In the distance, the old man saw the cool mist lift slightly from Cat Lake. Laughing children played to his rear, and in the far distance, a dog barked.

Facing the stranger, he answered, "For what purpose shall I submit to your test?"

Unyielding, the challenger spoke, "If you defeat me, you will have great honor."

The old man laughed, shaking his head. A snake darted in the grass at his feet. "No disrespect meant. Honor I have. It is peace which my weary bones seek."

"That is not an acceptable response, old man!"

"Then fight my students!" the old man, clearly annoyed, added. "Don't disturb me today, I am headed to market."

Ju Ming, a young peasant, stepped between them and, facing the stranger, warned "We are peaceful people here. You are not welcome...," but before he could finish, he was down and unconscious.

The old man motioned for others to assist, trembling and angry that his failure to act promptly had allowed an innocent to be injured.

Eyeing the stranger, his brows arched upward as he hissed, "You refuse from a cursed womb. In my time I have dispatched countless mongrel dogs of your ilk to their karmic reward. You defile the very earth on which you stand, and your presence here offends my land and threatens to curse my harvest."

The old man had already kicked dirt onto the stranger, but when he punctuated his tirade by spitting at the stranger, everyone, including the stranger, was shocked. All stood silent. The wind tossed the husky caps of rice. From within his jacket, the stranger whipped out a short sword, and in one fluid motion, attempted to slice the old man from left clavicle to right hip. But the old man nimbly avoided the strike, heckling that, "You come for honor, but slash at an unarmed old man, intending to kill the innocent. Did not your teacher explain righteous conduct to you?"

"I am a man of honor," responded the challenger, defensively, as he threw down the blade and tossed off his jacket. He stood before the old man like a tiger, timing the movement of a grazing doe, patiently tempering its appetite for the certain kill. "You have your challenge, neither of us will leave until you recognize it!"

"What I recognize is that another worm has surfaced from the excrement to announce it has come to defeat me. But the worm knows nothing about who I am, or what I can do. I will grant you this. I now challenge you! If you defeat my challenge, then I will acknowledge that you are my master."

The old man turned to his students, "You have all heard this. Will you bear witness?" Instantly, they swore to witness what was to follow. That satisfied the stranger, whose taut upper torso glistened in the warming sun.

The challenger issued forth, "Then throw your challenge old man!"

Walking to a clearing, the old man knelt on the ground and with his finger, scribed a circle in the soft black earth. Laughing, the young man bellowed, "Surely, that cannot be our arena. There is barely room for me to stand within the circle."

"True, but that is my challenge. Once you accept, you will enter the circle, and try to stay within.  I will walk three times around it. If you are able to resist my powers, and I warn you now, that they are far greater than you might imagine, then I will declare you victor and leave the valley forever. If you fail, and if you are a man who values honor, you will leave as you came. There will be no disgrace. I will not humiliate you."

The challenger's steel hard body attested to a lifetime of physical discipline. He walked to the circle, eyed the old man and the students, looked again at the circle, and, confident that he could defend the circle against all present, stepped within, then, looking at the old man, announced, "I accept."

The old man knelt before the stranger, chanting sutras in the classical dialect, which no one present could understand. A student mumbled that "The old man must be calling upon the spirits for power." Hearing this, the challenger studied the old man closely, thinking only how well the old coot concealed his fear over what was, in the challenger's own mind, an inevitable outcome.

"I assume that after you’ve lost, old man, that my colleagues can use your land to introduce the new crop?"

The old man stood, continued his chant, and circled the challenger.

Beads of perspiration began to trail down the stranger's forehead. Was he feeling unsteady, or was it his imagination? The late morning sun glowed warm beating against his flesh. He eyed his jacket, sitting useless in the distance. He asked for someone to pass it to him. No one moved.

He was not intending to be anyone’s fool. "You'll have to do better than this old man. Did you say you had daughters to throw in with the bargain?"

The old man fell flat to the ground. In his mind's eye was the image of a midwife, minding an infant on an earthen floor. A disciple called out, "See how he draws strength from the earth, stranger!"

Lau Wei, again rose, and stood tall, his face void of expression, empty of emotion. He circled the stranger a second time, performing the five animals breathing form. The sound of his breath was one with the wind tossing against the soon to be harvested rice, one with the barking dog, and one with the harmony of the land.

The challenger stood hypnotized, recognizing from his movement that the old man was indeed a great master. When the old man completed the second circuit, the challenger jolted back to reality, then called out, "You are a cobra, old man, but putting me to sleep has not caused me to leave the circle."

The old man faced the stranger, "Think sir, inside, how do you feel?" For an instant, the challenger's concentration broke, and his consciousness flashed that the sun had scarcely moved in the sky, but his skin was burning, as were his innards. It seemed he had been standing there all afternoon, but it had been mere moments. No sooner had the thought surfaced, then his discipline purged any more of it from further distracting him. He looked again, now regretfully, at his jacket sitting uselessly out of reach.

The old man walked close to the circle, and stood defiantly before the stranger. "You have already failed the challenge, but lack the insight to recognize it. Someday, you will appreciate my challenge was an act of mercy to you and was all I could do to spare your life. Hopefully, you will be a better man for it." As he finished the words, his body exploded toward the stranger, stopping just short of the circle. The stranger, reacting only on instinct, had struck out at the old man with such ferocity that the witnesses felt uncertain that the old man would prevail. Fortunately, the challenger's discipline held him in rein long enough for his consciousness to recognize the old man's ploy, and to stop himself from exiting the circle. He broke off the response.

"Very good," responded the young man, still in control, even though his heart was pumping wildly. "First you hypnotize me, then you shock me. What tricks will follow next?"

"These are not tricks," Wei responded, "It was important for the witnesses to see who you were, and the level of your skill, we agreed that there should be witnesses. All that remains for me to do is to walk the circle one more time. I assure you that when I have completed my third trip around the circle, it will be empty."

The thumping cadence which was the old man's voice gripped the challenger's spine. It was not a natural sound coming from the throat of a man. Sweating in the mid-day sun, the stranger felt a snake coiling within his spine, gripping ever so tightly. For an instant, he imagined he had been cast helplessly nto the world of the dead, forever detached form the prospect of proper burial with his own ancestors.

The old man approached, smiling, and asked "Do you wish words before you leave?"

The stranger's defiant but questioning stare answered for itself.

The old man turned about, calling his students to come close. "It is already into the afternoon heat, and I have delayed my trip to the market long enough. I will be going for two days, and will return on the third.  There will be no class during the interim. You should all take the time to make preparations for your own harvests. I will return on the twentieth day of harvest month, and at mid-morning, class will commence with my walking the circle for the final time. I ask that all of you who stand as witnesses remain to monitor our friend and be here to confirm the final outcome of the challenge."

With that, the old man left for his journey to market. The stranger could manage only silence.

There was great merriment in the valley when Wei returned to perform his final course around the circle. By then, word had spread afar to the outer reaches of the valley, and all who heard, came to "witness" the outcome. The stranger, of course, was gone. In the end, he proved true to his word, a man of honor.

After several more harvests, Wei, too was gone. The time to rejoin his ancestors had come.

The peasants in the valley carried his ashes to the valley's entrance, where they were enshrined with great ceremony. The characters carved onto the monument read "Lau Wei, teacher, protector, man of peace." Above the characters, etched into the limestone, was a white Buddha, sitting in lotus. Looking closely, one could barely discern what appeared to be the image or outline of a dragon on the sole of its right foot. The left hand of the statue was raised, palm outward, in what all who saw recognized as the classic position for suppressing evil.

To this day, the village remains intact, and the valley at peace.

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