At sunset, the river was dyed a warm orange.
The river flows downwards between the narrow cliffs, its water sparkling. A flat-bottomed boat slowly drifts between the cliffs, leaving behind a faint trail.
I stood alone on the bow, holding my sword in my arms, steadily moving towards the setting sun.
Passing between the cliffs, the boat came to a valley. On the other side of the valley the river morphed into rapids. If not for the valley, the river channel would not have been blocked off.
There is a village in the lower reaches of the river, and when it rains for several days the river often overflows its banks because the accumulated water has nowhere to escape.
When that happens, most of the crops die and even the roads where the people of the village walk often become impassable due to the waist-high waters. Although flood-control works have begun years ago, they had failed time and time again.
This time, the mountain drainage works has lasted seven months so far. Nearly all the village's manpower was focused on it, and my Master Attendant was no exception in joining the Flood Control Army. The only difference was that it was my Master Attendant himself who put out the call to initiate the mountain drainage works.
Bamboo rafts drifted lazily along the sparkling river. Tied to them were the glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in leaves which my Master Attendant loved so much. I followed the rafts and as we entered the valley, the sound of people cheering erupted all around.
Of course I knew what that meant.
Before these last few months of trying to control the river floods, I had never really appreciated just how long it took to transport food down the river by raft.
I very much wanted to share this hard-won joy with the others, but at the moment it was more important to me that my Master Attendant be able to return home early to see his wife.
More than a month before the mountains works started, my Master Attendant's wife had become pregnant. Even so, he left his home with a heavy heart to dig through stone with the villagers.
I had tried to dissuade him.
"Flood control is a long and difficult road."
He always has to do everything himself, but I was afraid that he might miss the most important moment in his life because of it.
However, he just smiled at me and said that he hoped his child could be born into a more peaceful world, a world where worries about survival didn’t exist. To make that happen, he had to take the first step.
It's not like I don't understand his reason for doing so, thus I have been quietly supporting him and doing my best to keep him from worrying. That's all I can do for my Master Attendant.
And that's precisely why I hoped that, as the big day draws nearer, Master Attendant will be able to return to the most important woman in his life.
II. Summer’s Cicada
The night was quiet.
I walked along a small path illuminated by moonlight. The path led to the village where my Master Attendant's home resides.
In a yard surrounded by a bamboo fence stood two camphor trees flanking the house. Their dense branches and leaves covered the brick and stone hut, cooling the house down during the summer.
I noticed the distant figure as soon as I reached the crossing. A woman with her hair in a bun and a round belly was stepping out in front of the small courtyard. That was my Master Attendant's wife.
Standing outside the bamboo fence, she supported her pregnant belly with her hands and gazed out at the road.
That was the path my Master Attendant always took when returning home. But due to the mountain drainage works, he had not returned home for several months.
So she came out here every day to wait for him, waiting to see his familiar figure under the moonlight.
That's what she did every day. She just kept waiting; even though the only person she ever saw was me, traveling between the mountain and the village every day because I was responsible for bringing food to the villagers working on the drainage. Still, she never gave up.
"Master Attendant will be back soon." This is what I told her every time I returned. Even though that day was nowhere in sight. And every day she accepted my lie with a smile.
Now the summer cicadas were already singing in the camphor trees.
The woman raised her head and gazed at the greenery of the camphor trees that even the dark night couldn't hide. After a long time, she looked back toward the road. At this point I had stopped a short distance away from her.
When our eyes met, I saw the same sad smile that she always wore. She believed that this time would be the same. But behind me, another figure gradually emerged, causing her eyes to well up with tears.
It was the man she had longed to see during those countless long nights.
For that moment, she seemed to forget that she was pregnant and ran to embrace the man she had missed so much.
Watching the scene before me, I couldn't help by smile.
I no longer had to look at her lonely eyes as she forced herself to smile.
I looked at the evergreen camphor tree, listening to the cicadas, and sighed.
"It's already summer."
III. Existence’s Implication
The sky is overcast, and it feels heavy. The wind blowing through the camphor trees outside the house was making a ruckus.
From time to time, a woman's agonized groans could be heard from inside a house while Master Attendant and I sit anxiously in a neighbouring house waiting for the child to be born.
Then rain started pouring which only adds to the stifling atmosphere.
Suddenly there was man rushing up to my Master Attendant, telling him that a huge boulder had fallen and was blocking the river they had worked so hard to open up.
My Master Attendant stared blankly for a moment at the news. Then the next second, he was putting on his rain gear. As he was preparing to leave, I grabbed his hand and tried to stop him:
"Master Attendant, the weather is awful and the water there is swift and dangerous. If you go rushing off and slip up, something terrible could happen."
But my Master Attendant was unwilling to change his mind. He pulled his hand free and put on his bamboo rain hat. Giving me a slight smile and a simple “I’ll leave it to you then”, he left.
One of my hands rested on the hilt of my sword, while the hand which he shook off remained empty.
"Leave it to me? But what can I do for you?"
How I wish I had the ability to smash through all the stones with my sword. How I wish I could take away all my Master Attendant's burdens.
If only I could cut through the boulder... Oh! Why didn't I think of that sooner?
"Waaah...Waaah..." A loud wailing noise interrupted my thoughts, but at that moment there was only one thing on my mind as I rushed out.
The river waters were far more turbulent than I could have imagined; although the ride on the raft was bumpy, I soon reached my destination. There was already a group of villagers constructing a dam, trying to break up and remove the boulder that had fallen from the hill.
My Master Attendant had already removed his rain gear and was in the river working on the dam.
I watched my Master Attendant as he stood by the newly constructed dam, endlessly hammering around the boulder while the villagers tried to loosen it by using thick wooden stakes as levers.
"What are you doing? Hurry up and help!" The panicked villagers shouted at me, not recognizing me.
That's right, I should have done this sooner. What I can do for my Master Attendant isn't bothering myself about his worries. I am my Master Attendant's sword, and it's my job to cut down any obstacles that stand in his way, that's the purpose of my existence.
For some reason I felt much happier standing here by his side, cutting into the rock.
Suddenly, I seemed to feel the stone begin to move a little. "Master Attendant! The stone is loose!"
"Really!" My Master Attendant started calling out to the other villagers to rally and push the stone free.
"Booom————" All I could hear was the deafening noise.
The stone rolled away as if it was weightless, and the river flooded into the torrential main waters with all the exuberance of a reckless child.
Before I even had the time to enjoy the moment, I saw my Master Attendant, working side-by-side with me just a moment ago, loose his footing in the gushing waters and got washed away into the river.
As the accumulated water had burst through in an instant, the plain force of it carried him far away. Even though he tried swimming back, there was no way to overcome the resistance of the river and he was pushed further and further away.
Were the heavens punishing me?
The moment I saw my Master Attendant fall into the river, I dove into the water without hesitation.
If I was going to be punished, let them do their worst to me. But nothing must happen to my Master Attendant, someone was waiting for him!
I thrust my sword into the rocks. With one hand holding onto the hilt, I stretched out my other hand as far as it could, shouting:
"I live to protect you, Master Attendant!"
IV. Old Path
The familiar sunset scenery surrounded me once again, and I am still standing on the raft all alone.
Where is my Master Attendant now?
I stared at my hands. One hand was holding onto my sword while the other remained empty.
I still couldn't forget that fateful day. Our fingertips were just inches away from each other, and then he was beyond my reach the next moment. All I could hear was the sound of the waters rushing up against the rocks, drowning out the desperate cries from the villagers.
All I had wanted to do was reach out and grab the hands in front of me, but they slipped away so quickly.
The distance between us grew as he drifted further and further away. My last memory before losing consciousness was of him sinking into the cold river.
I don't know how I was rescued after that. I've been told that the villagers managed to find a rope and dove into the water after me, but they couldn't find my Master Attendant.
Why am I the one who was rescued? Obviously I wouldn't die like this.
I still remember the feeling of suffocation as I sank into the ice-cold river. A despair like agony peeling away my mind, then falling asleep on the river bottom.
I’ve always wondered about my Master Attendant's last thoughts. Did he blame me?
Faced with the torrential force of the river, I was powerless in resisting it.
This was what I hated most.
All I could do was watch it happen wide-eyed, unable to do anything.
And it wasn’t the first time I made this mistake. When my Master Attendant was working on the mountain drainage, I thought that as a Food Soul, I should just follow whatever my Master Attendant says and not cause him to worry.
However, I hadn’t considered what I wanted to do. What was the point of my existence as a Food Soul?
I'm not some hollow puppet. I clearly have my own thoughts, but all I had done is go with the flow.
That day was the first time I had a realization so simple that it startled me.
All I wanted was to protect my Master Attendant!
It was such a simple thing, why did it take me so long to understand?
Maybe that's why my hands were unable to hold onto anything.
I bent down and dipped my hand into the cold water, woodenly watching the water escape from my hand.
Since that day, I often go rafting on this river.
Perhaps there was still a sliver of hope in me, that my Master Attendant was somehow rescued by others, that maybe something was just preventing him from coming home.
So I started to search for an answer that I already had. Maybe I was just trying to escape.
However, even though I had spent many cicada song-filled nights searching for him, even though the child he had never seen was all grown up; I could no longer fulfil the woman’s wish of seeing her husband come home down the moonlit road anymore.
All that remained was moonlight falling on the branches of the camphor trees and the endless singing of the cicadas. It was almost like a reflection of this endless waiting.
There was a peaceful village surrounded by mountains. Sixty years ago, the rainy season caused a flood in the village due to its location in the lower reaches of the river. The problem was further exacerbated by fallen rocks which caused a blockage in the river outflow. Crops rotted in the excess water and people’s daily lives were interrupted.
Fortunately there was a young man in the village named Liang Jun who called on the villagers to build a mountain drainage system together. After months of hard work, their project was completed. However, on the day of a sudden downpour, a huge boulder fell into the river channel and blocked off the river outflow. Liang Jun once again led the villagers to cut through the rock.
They succeeded in preventing the storm from causing another disaster. However, Liang Jun had fallen into the river while working and was never found. The villagers spent days searching the riverbanks to no avail.
Later on, to commemorate Liang Jun's deeds, the villagers would throw his favourite food, glutinous rice wrapped in leaves, into the river on the day he disappeared.
This story continued to spread through the mountains surrounding the river.
"Zongzi, do you know the story of this village?" Tangyuan asked innocently while lying on the ground practicing her writing with the Chinese character for ‘good fortune’.
Not receiving a response quickly enough, Tangyuan raised her head and looked at Zongzi standing silently to one side. She looked at his wrinkled brow and the sword grasped tightly in his hand.
"Zongzi, what are you thinking about?" Tangyuan proceeded to stick the sheet of paper she had been drawing onto Zongzi's body. "A sad face will chase away all the good luck! That's what Mooncake told me! Hee hee~"
"It's nothing. I was just thinking about someone I once knew." Zongzi maintained his usual wooden expression.
"Now that you mention it, what kind of person was your Master Attendant? Was he like you?"
"He was a much greater person than me. I can’t be compared to him."
"You're really great too, Zongzi! You're always protecting me."
Zongzi was silent again. He didn't know what to say. In the beginning, he wouldn’t return to that house because he couldn’t bare to break the news about her husband’s death to his wife. After that, he kept to the shadows nearby to protect his Master Attendant's wife and child secretly. Only after the child had grown up and could protect the family did he finally leave.
But the guilt he felt towards his Master Attendant's death had never diminished. His Master Attendant… did he ever blame him for being so helpless? Zongzi had asked himself that question endlessly.
No matter how long Zongzi continued keeping a firm grip on his sword, he still couldn't find an answer.
He had thought he would spend the rest of his life living with this emptiness, until he met this kind-hearted girl, Tangyuan. Staying by her side, all he wanted was to protect her innocent smiling face.
"This time I’ll keep her safe." After a long silence, that was all Zongzi said.