Three months earlier
he round little monk waddled out to the mini fruit orchard behind the monastery. He was huffing and puffing as he reached for a low-hanging plum that looked so perfect that it was a shame to pluck it from the tree. He did it anyway because he needed to do something to take his mind off what he had just seen and heard.
The small orchard, located behind the Shaolin Monastery, was a peaceful place, with small stone benches scattered under the trees. It was a place where the monks liked to go to sit and watch the fruit grow, as they put it.
It was a beautiful day, with golden sunshine, not too warm, not too cool. Just perfect. Lazy, fluffy clouds were dotting a sky that was blue as the ocean. A gentle breeze was whispering through the fruit trees.
Unfortunately, the little orchard didn’t seem peaceful and tranquil at this particular moment for Brother Hung, because his insides were in total turmoil. It wasn’t that he had deliberately eavesdropped. It was just that he was in the library, minding his own business, when the Abbot made an appearance. At first he’d been tempted to announce himself, but a heartbeat later, when the door opened a second time and he heard the harsh greeting directed at the Abbot, he’d changed his mind. He supposed that he
have put his fingers in his ears to avoid hearing the conversation, but he hadn’t. Or he
have made a noise or said something to alert the two men to his presence, but he did neither of those things. Instead, he withdrew even farther behind one of the bookshelves and remained as quiet as the proverbial mouse. And listened as carefully as he could, his heart thundering in his chest.
When the door finally closed behind the Abbot and the man with the surly voice, the little monk didn’t move. He felt paralyzed. Finally, after an agonizingly long wait, he was able to make his limbs move, and his feet had taken him outside to the little orchard behind the monastery, where he had just plucked what looked like a perfect plum. He glanced around to see where the nearest bench was and how far from it he had strolled.
He spotted it almost immediately, trundled over to it, and gingerly lowered his bulk onto the hard stone. He started to polish the plum on his robe until he could see his reflection in the fruit. How, Brother Hung mused, was it possible that this piece of fruit from the orchard could be the exact same color as the eggplant in the garden? It was a strange thought, and he could not help but wonder where it came from.
Strange. Everything here at the monastery was strange of late. Strangers appearing at all hours of the day and night. Film people desecrating the sacred grounds. Cursing and shouting. And the Abbot! In his heart and mind, Brother Hung thought of him as some sort of imposter. He’d been tempted to mention his suspicion to the council but was too afraid. What if he was wrong? What if, what if, what if? But he wasn’t wrong, and he knew it full well, felt it in every fiber of his fat little body. He was absolutely certain that something bad was going to happen, and it was going to happen right here at the monastery.
Brother Hung’s hands, which were holding the perfect purple plum, started to shake. His heart pounded, then his heart raced. He stared at his reflection in the purple plum, wishing he were forty years younger and eighty pounds lighter.
Brother Hung was so deep into his thoughts that he almost fell off the stone bench when he heard Brother Shen, a fellow monk at the monastery, say to him, “Are you going to eat that plum? Or are you going to stare at it till it goes all soft and mushy?”
Brother Hung held out the perfect piece of fruit. “Add this to your basket, Brother Shen. I guess you are making plum tarts today. Take it.”
Brother Shen, taller but a man of the same girth as Brother Hung, lowered himself to the stone bench. “Tell me what is troubling you, Hung. Do not tell me it is nothing, because your angst is written all over your face. Sometimes talking aloud helps to sort things out. I have sensed for weeks now that something is troubling you. How can that be, I asked myself. This monastery is a place of tranquil serenity. There are no worries here. All our needs are met, physically as well as spiritually. And today we are having plum tarts for dessert at our evening meal. Your favorite, I might add.”
The words shot out of Brother Hung’s mouth like bullets. “I believe the Abbot is an imposter! Something terrible is happening or about to happen. I know it. I sense it in every pore of my body. I can almost smell the disaster coming upon us.”
There, the words were out, and he couldn’t take them back. He stared at Brother Shen, expecting to see horror on his fellow monk’s features. Instead, he saw his friend nod. Brother Shen reached out and over the basket of plums to pat Hung on the arm. The simple touch worked its magic on the disturbed monk, calming him immediately.
“So, are you saying you agree, or are you humoring me, Shen?”
Brother Shen looked around, then lowered his voice. “The rest of us have been talking about it over the past few weeks. In private, of course. If I am not mistaken, it all started when Lily Wong first came to us. Then Jun Yu visited too many times, more than is allowed, to check on his children, Hop and Gan. That’s when our old Abbot left, and this current . . . ah . . . person arrived to take his place. I agree with you entirely; he wears the robes, but he is no more an Abbot than I am a scholar of the Han dynasty.
“But even if we were to protest his policies, there is nothing we can do about them. As Abbot, whatever his credentials, he has absolute authority over this monastery. We are to obey, never to ask questions.”
“But the students . . . It is suspicious, Shen. Three children, Lily, Hop, and Gan. Children of two of our alumni. Jun Yu and Harry Wong. I suppose I should call Harry by his Chinese birth name of Wong Guotin, but Harry Wong, in the American style of naming people, seems so much easier for some reason. Whatever is going on has to do with Jun Yu and Harry. I feel it here,” Brother Hung said, thumping his chest with a plump fist.
“And I agree. Do you see a solution or a resolution, Hung?”
“The only thing I can think of is for one of us to get in touch with Jun Yu and perhaps find a way for him to visit one more time. And to do it in secret, of course. I do not know how we could manage that. We have no access to the telephones or computers. I work in the gardens, and you work in the kitchen. How can we make that happen?”
“Perhaps we could ask Brother Dui to help us. He does help the Abbot out in the office, and I know that he was taught how to use the computer and the phone system. I also know for a fact that he does not like the new Abbot. He said the Abbot speaks down to him, demeaning him. He said that the man lacks a gentle spirit and all he thinks about is money. I will find a way to speak to him either today or tomorrow. Possibly later tonight after procession. I can try to get him alone. Dui is a good man. Very, very spiritual, as you well know. If it is in his power to help in any way, I definitely think he will.
“I must go now, Hung, so I can prepare the tarts for tonight’s dinner. Classes will be finished in a few minutes, the bell will ring, and this little orchard will be trampled by many feet. It is best if you return to the monastery with me now.”
Brother Hung heaved his cumbersome body off the stone bench and fell into step with Brother Shen. “Before I came to the orchard, I was in the library, and the Abbot and a strange man were having an intense conversation. Though I stayed out of sight, I could hear them talking. I think . . . Shen, I think the Abbot was talking to one of our old students.”
“And what is so terrible about that? Old students visit from time to time, you know that.”
Hung looked over his shoulder. “Yes, yes, I know that. But this particular student was expelled; and he has never before to my knowledge returned to the monastery. I will never forget him or the ugly threats he made the day he departed the monastery and Song Mountain.”
Brother Shen stopped in his tracks. Now there was fear in his soft brown eyes. “There is only one person that could be, Hung. Wing Ping. Am I right, Brother Hung?”
“Yes. I believe it was indeed Wing Ping in the library conversing with the Abbot, Shen, and he was extremely angry. The Abbot said little other than to agree with everything that Wing Ping, or whomever the person was, had to say. It was almost as if the Abbot was taking orders from a superior of some kind. I could hear the voices but could not make out the actual words. My hearing is not what it used to be. I feel safe, however, saying that the person doing most of the talking was angry and controlled the conversation.”
“That is a cause for concern. Several weeks ago, Brother Tung casually mentioned that he thought he saw Wing Ping entering the Abbot’s office. But he was also quick to say he had not seen the renegade in many, many years, so he couldn’t really be certain that it actually was Wing Ping. I do not like to repeat gossip, and it is forbidden, so I said nothing. Brother Tung and I were just having a normal conversation about the children, and he was remarking on one of the students. He said that he had to be extra stern with one in particular, or he would turn out to be our second Wing Ping. Let us keep this to ourselves for the moment, Hung.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Shen, do you think we should . . . I don’t know how to phrase this other than to just blurt it out. Should we perhaps put a plan into action in regard to Jun Yu’s children, Hop and Gan, and Harry Wong’s daughter, Lily? My instincts tell me that whatever is going on involves those three children. Wing Ping blamed Jun Yu and Wong Guotin for getting him expelled.”
“Enough! Enough!” Brother Shen hissed. “The Abbot is approaching. Lower your head and do not look at the imposter.”
Brother Hung did not have to be told twice. He and Brother Shen both stepped to the side to allow the Abbot to pass. No words were spoken. There was no acknowledgment that the head of the monastery had just passed them on the stone path. Nor did the Abbot acknowledge the two elderly monks.
When the two monks had put a good bit of distance between them and the Abbot, Brother Hung said, “I could feel the evil emanating from him. Did you, Shen?”
“I did. We must not speak again of this, Hung, until we are certain it is safe to do so.” Brother Hung bobbed his head up and down in agreement.
The two monks parted company, Brother Shen to the kitchen to bake his plum tarts and Brother Hung to the great room, where he poured himself a cup of tea. He needed the quiet and solitude of this room so he could think. And plan.
As he sipped at his sweet tea, Hung let his mind go back in time to when Wong Guotin, Jun Yu, Dishbang Deshi, and Wing Ping were students here at the monastery. He was teaching back then, and he liked all the boys except Wing Ping. The truth was that no one liked the son of the prominent Wing family. The boy was arrogant, full of himself, and had a sense of entitlement that didn’t go with the teachings of the monastery. Every day there was a new problem. And it was always with Wing Ping. In the four boys’ last year as students, it was finally decided by the Abbot at the time to send Wing Ping back to his family in disgrace. The reason given to the family was that Wing Ping would never master the teachings of the monastery because he had an evil heart and wanted nothing more than to hurt and maim his fellow students. The Wing family did not take their son’s ouster well. They withdrew their financial support and encouraged other prominent families to do the same. And yet the monastery had survived, and over time the families other than the Wings returned to the fold. For that, all the monks and the Abbot were grateful. Serenity and tranquility once again reigned at the monastery as it went about the job of training students in its traditional teachings.
Jun Yu had been pronounced the number one kung fu expert, to Wong Guotin’s dismay. Dishbang Deshi openly questioned the Abbot’s decision, saying quite forthrightly that Wong Guotin’s expertise exceeded Jun Yu’s in the area of martial arts. He was told in no uncertain terms to keep his opinions to himself. Dishbang Deshi did as he was told because obedience was what the monastery and its teachings were all about.
Secretly, Brother Hung agreed with Dishbang Deshi but knew better than to voice an opinion. He was just grateful that the three young men, each so very different from the others, remained good friends. Given that Jun Yu was staying in China, Brother Hung could understand the Abbot’s decision.
Dishbang Deshi relocated to Hong Kong to take over the Dishbang family’s silk business. Wong Guotin, now Harry Wong, went to America. While Brother Hung understood it all, he wished someone had told Wong Guotin that he was the first choice, but with circumstances as they were at the time, that was impossible.
Truth be told, of the four boys, it was actually Wing Ping who was the finest gladiator of them all. It should have been Wing Ping named as the number one kung fu expert, but his early expulsion prevented him from ever being granted the title that he, along with the Wing family, so greatly coveted.
Brother Hung stared at the leaves in the bottom of his teacup, fervently wishing they would provide the answers he was searching for. He immediately recognized the wish as foolish and knew that if he wanted answers, he was going to have to ferret them out on his own, or possibly with Brother Shen’s help.
Once again, he longed for his lost youth and slim body as he contemplated his next move. Whatever it was, he hoped he was up to the task.