The birds sitting on the branches of the pine tree that extended over the mountain path chirped melodiously, the sound seeming to be echoed from the other side of the valley. If one listened closely enough though, the flapping of wings could be heard from over there as well, indicating that there was another pair of birds circling above.
Zhai Yin looked over to the other side of the valley, his gaze roaming over the sky as if to find that pair of birds. Unfortunately, nothing could be seen save for a wide expense of clouds crowding together in clusters of white overhead, the jagged mountain surface and the irregular shapes of the pine trees in the distance, and a thick layer of mist hiding most of the valley below from view.
Zhai Yin stopped and looked out into the distance for a while, the sun glaring from above. He sighed and raised one hand to wipe his forehead with his sleeve. Closing his eyes for a moment, he turned in the other direction and looked up at the mountain, trying to discern how much farther he’d have to go. It seemed … he had hardly reached the halfway point to his destination.
He turned back to the front, walking further upward. The breeze made his long hair sway in the wind but with his neck and back already slick with sweat, it stuck to his skin, making him feel even worse. Half an hour later, he stopped again and put the box on his arms on the ground. He sighed, wiped his forehead again, and took out a white ribbon, tying his hair up.
Feeling slightly refreshed, Zhai Yin picked the box up again, gently patting off the dust from the bottom before giving the top an affectionate rub. His gaze shifted back ahead to the path in front of him and he smiled.
“Ah, who would have thought climbing up the mountain could be this unbearable? I feel like it was so much easier in the past. But maybe it’s just that my memory is already getting fuzzy?” He shook his head and sighed before continuing up the mountain path, slowly making his way to the top despite the sun glaring from the sky.
From somewhere up ahead came the burbling of a stream and something scuttled over the branches of a pine tree close by, making its leaves rustle. Zhai Yin struck one of the little pebbles on the ground, making it skip forward and bounce off another one, finally rolling over the edge of the mountain and falling down toward the valley.
Once again, Zhai Yin sighed but he didn’t stop and just narrowed his eyes to look up at the sun. It was already far past midday. In fact, the light seemed to be turning faintly orange, making the clouds seem to glow themselves.
It was a beautiful sight to behold. In fact, all of this place was. It was a tranquil place that seemed disconnected from the rest of the world and its troubles by that layer of mist that seemed to have gotten impenetrable now that he had wandered higher up the mountain. Only every now and then, when an especially strong gust of wind blew by would the white cover between the upper parts of the mountain and the lower ones be separated for a moment and allow just one glimpse of the world below.
Seeing that … it was even more breathtaking and it made it feel as if all the worries he had held were inane and not worth worrying over any further. Unfortunately, that sight only persisted for a single moment and, even more unfortunately, he could only enjoy it alone.
Still, walking up this path, he did feel as if his mind cleared and the weight on his shoulders was lifted. Maybe if he made it to his destination at the top, he would finally find peace again.
Zhai Yin took a deep breath and walked on, his pace neither slowing nor accelerating as if he had all the time in the world and did not need to worry about either the light of the day or the might of the weather that could change at the drop of a hat this far above the ground and cost many lives each year.
How many wanderers had either been slain by a landslide or fallen down the cliffs because they were pushed off by a strong gust of wind or stumbled when the rain muddied the ground to their feet?
On the other mountains where the temples and cultivation sects were situated, the paths had either been fortified with thick stone slabs or even paved with stone tiles and secured by a beautifully-carved stone handrail, leading up to the top of the mountain in several thousand steps.
But this mountain wasn’t owned by one of those long-established places. In fact, it wasn’t situated anywhere in the mountain range that was visited often, the path up the mountain even somewhat obscured with a couple of boulders that had fallen close by because of a storm six years ago and the lush vegetation in between. Naturally, it would have nothing of the sort, and only a small, not even clearly-defined path led up to the top.
But Zhai Yin didn’t mind. In fact, he liked it this way. To him, this kind of tranquility … it should not be disturbed by a stranger. Instead, this kind of quiet perfection should be enjoyed with a loved one or just by yourself if that wasn’t possible.
Walking up together side by side, taking each step hand in hand, whether it was relishing in this atmosphere quietly with not a single word leaving your lips or faintly reminiscing about the past or imagining the future together … Whatever happened on the way would only serve to strengthen the bond between the two hearts and the memory of that time would stay with them forever.
And when you reached the top and looked down at the place where he had come from, there would be a sense of contentment at your achievements. Sharing a look with each other, admitting to yourself that you had been able to reach these heights partly because you had been together …
Zhai Yin sighed lightly. That kind of memory seemed long past. Now, he could only press on alone, motivating himself by thinking of his past, not sure what to look forward to in his future. “Ah, the things we take for granted …”
He lightly shook his head at himself and then just continued forward. The sky above turned a deeper shade of red first, and then eventually into a pale pink before everything around him became gray. The brown of the earth to his feet faded away, the dark green leaves of the pine trees seemed anthracite in the twilight, the faraway mountain tops had become a mass of black. Only above his head, there were the white stars starting to dot the sky, flowing forth with light. It made the mountain look different as if it wasn’t even the same place anymore that he had been wandering in for the past hours.
With the darkness also came the coldness that replaced the glaring afternoon sun. The breeze made Zhai Yin shiver and he hunched up his shoulders, pressing the box in his arms closer up against his chest as if it could give him warmth or as if he wanted to keep it warm in turn. Closing his eyes for just a moment, Zhai Yin finally glanced up at the path in front of him again that was much more difficult to make out now.
It shouldn’t be far until his destination anymore but he couldn’t say for sure whether he would be able to make it there in time before everything around him got completely dark. After all, he had been up all day and the ascent was quite harsh at times. He was tired and wanted nothing more but to rest. But if he didn’t hurry up, it might be that he would have to camp outside tonight. That also wasn’t what he wanted.
He gave another sigh and tried to speed up his steps. His originally sweaty back that had finally cooled and dried, was drenched once again from the exertion. Zhai Yin huffed but he still persevered on and finally, the end of the path came into view.
A wooden hut was standing there, the thatched roof overhanging a small porch that led around two sides of the hut. The beams holding it up seemed slightly crooked and uneven and old leaves had gathered on the ground in front of the hut like a carpet, some of them even strewn across the porch.
In the darkness, there wasn’t much else visible but it was obvious this hut should receive some care. Still, Zhai Yin smiled happily for the first time when he saw this hut. He lowered his head for a moment, closing his eyes, and taking a deep breath.
The smell of this place was still exactly as he remembered: The grassy scent of the vegetation around, the dustiness that came from the hut standing empty for so long, and the clear air that the breeze brought from the distance.
“It seems we’re finally home.”
He raised his head again, his eyes shimmering in the night. His gaze roaming over the shape of the hut once again, Zhai Yin slowly walked over to the door, pushing it open, and entering the hut without looking back.
A crude table and a set of chairs that didn’t look any better came into view. Zhai Yin gulped at the sight and took a deep breath before he walked the rest of the way and put the box in his hands down on the table. He brushed over the lacquered wood of the box and then the rough surface of the table.
His eyes couldn’t help but tear up before he forced a laugh. “This kind of thing … you should have left it to the professionals. I guess that’s what you get for being stubborn.”
He shook his head and turned away, almost stealthily dabbing at the corner of his eye with his sleeve. Taking a minute to calm down, he went to light a lantern and put it on the windowsill. Glancing outside, he took another deep breath of the cold night air before he turned back and took everything in.
Other than the table and the chairs, there was an equally crudely-made bed with a chest for clothes sitting next to it, and some shelves on the other side that held various books and types of equipment. There was also a stove — the only thing in this hut that didn’t look as if a layman had made it.
This really was a simple hut but … it held many fond memories.
Zhai Yin’s lips couldn’t help but curve into a wry smile. He never would have imagined that he might end up in such a place. If compared to the life in luxury he had led in his early years, it really could only be said that his life had developed in the wrong direction.
Yes, if he had stayed in the house back then and not arbitrarily ran out because he wanted to explore, then he might still be living the life with a silver spoon in his mouth. Hardships, like walking up the mountain, having to worry about whether he would reach the top before night fell or not, taking shelter in such an old dilapidated hut … nothing of that would have ever concerned him. Still, he wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
If today, he had to choose again, he would do everything exactly the same. Even if he knew that it would end in heartbreak for him, he wouldn’t reconsider. Every single day, every single minute they had spent together was worth it.
He sighed and went back to the table, his fingers once again caressing the box before he finally opened it, taking out the urn inside. Holding it in his hands and staring at it in the glow of the lantern, there was a difficult expression in his eyes.
“I guess I could return to my family. They probably wouldn’t mind taking me back. It’s just that … They’d certainly urged me to get married. Ah Jun, you really left me in a huge dilemma. Didn’t you promise that we’d grow old together? So what did you leave me this early for?”
His eyes teared up but he couldn’t bring himself to put the urn down to wipe the tears away. Instead, he just let them trail down his cheeks and finally drip to the ground, his gaze still fixed on what remained of his husband.
He stared for a while and then forcefully closed his eyes. He didn’t need to think to make his decision. Even though Hou Yong Jun wasn’t at his side anymore, he wouldn’t go back.
He had promised that man his life. Even though Hou Yong Jun wouldn’t be able to keep his part of the promise, that didn’t mean that he couldn’t uphold his end of the bargain. Now, in this life, he would always be Hou Yong Jun’s person. If that meant having to spend the rest of his life alone, then he would do so.
He had had beautiful years with him. Now wasn’t the time to turn his back on those memories and start anew. He couldn’t do that. No, those memories of his lover would always stay with him. On the good and the bad days, even though Hou Yong Jun himself couldn’t be with him, the things they had experienced together would never be lost.
He cradled the urn in his arms and finally put it down on the table before turning to take off his outer garments and getting into bed. Looking at the urn one last time, he gave a faint smile. “Goodnight,” he whispered before closing his eyes, trying to find some sleep in this hut that suddenly seemed empty and lonely despite the beautiful memories they had made here together back then.