That evening Shang stood on his front porch watching the stars come up. The creak of floorboards startled him and he spun to see his wife approaching. She held up her hands playfully. “Please don’t attack me, great warrior. I only wish to embrace my husband, if such a thing is allowed.”
Shang tried to smile at her joke, but couldn’t, so he turned back around to hide his grim expression. The idea that his wife would ever be intimidated by him broke his heart, joke or no joke. “I’m just thinking,” he said.
“You do that a lot lately.” Daxia wrapped her arms around his stomach and kissed his back through his satin robe. “You can talk to me, you know. I’m a good listener.”
Shang patted her hands tenderly. “Of course, my love.”
Even if he wanted to, Shang didn’t know where to begin. It seemed impossible to explain war to someone who never experienced it. He imagined it was like a mother trying to explain childbirth to a man. No matter how precise the words or how eloquently they were spoken, the experience could never be adequately conveyed.
“I’m sorry if I’ve seemed distant,” Shang said. “I’m still readjusting. A year is a long time to be gone.”
“I know.” Daxia nestled her head into his back. “You gave up so much for us. I want to do something good for you in return.”
Shang listened to the rising song of the crickets and the soft sound of the apple trees swaying in the breeze. He savored the scent of wet earth, grass, and leaves. “Are you happy with our new home, Daxia?”
“Yes,” Daxia answered. “I’m happier than I ever thought it was possible for any person to be.”
Shang turned in her arms and faced her. He kissed the top of her head and brushed her hair back behind her ears. “That’s all I ever wanted from you, and that’s all I’ll ever need.”
They embraced as the smell of cooking rice, beans, and eggs wafted out through the window. He loved his little mole so much that tears welled in his eyes. He didn’t deserve her, no matter how much land he gave to her. Not after the things he’d done.
Shang tilted Daxia’s chin up and kissed her. For that moment, at least, he had her. For that moment, she loved him and had no idea what he’d become. He closed his eyes and tried, for a small time at least, to believe that such simple contentment could last forever.
In the morning, Shang rode to the edge of his land to mend a fence. Tasks of greater urgency needed to be done, but he wanted to be far away from Daxia when he faced Deshi, and that was what he’d decided had to happen. No matter the outcome, a fight in the open was better than living in uncertainty.
He enjoyed the honesty of sweat and strain as he hoisted rocks in the growing heat. If only the world were built in such a way that every man could spend all his days building fences and harvesting apples under a blue sky, Shang mused, then there would be no war at all. He was smiling to himself when he looked up to see Deshi standing near the oxen cart.
“The war is over.” Shang set his rock down and stood. “I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry, and I’ll be sorry for as long as I live, but I’ve had enough of this game.”
Deshi attempted a smile, but the muscles of his face didn’t appear to be working and he only achieve a sagging, halfcocked smirk. “I won’t leave you alone until you’ve suffered like I’ve suffered.”
The rage Shang felt surprised him. Without thinking, he walked towards Deshi with his hands clenched in fists. He didn’t know what he was going to do, or if there even was anything he could do to such a creature, but he no longer cared. He stopped just a few feet from it. His hands trembled.
“Every night I dream of dead friends screaming in pain. Behind them waits a crowd of children crying for the fathers that I cut down. Night after night they haunt me. I’ll never know a day of peace again. All because I wanted some damn apple trees for my wife. And you have the nerve to talk to me about suffering.”
Shang picked up a rock. He started towards Deshi but stopped at the last instant and threw the stone into the wall instead. “There was so much chaos, so many things to avenge. There wasn’t any time to think. I didn’t even know my own name most of the time.” He clutched his own head, as if trying to drive something out, or to keep it in. “You talk to me about suffering? All I ever do is suffer.”
Shang closed his eyes. “Just do it,” he said. “Do it and then leave my orchard and my wife alone.” He was ready. Daxia would mourn, but she was young enough to find another husband. No matter what, she’d have the farm and the apples.
Shang held his arms up to his sides and waited for the killing stroke, but nothing happened. When he opened his eyes, Deshi was standing there with a deep, very human sadness in the eyes of its decapitated head. “Your pain doesn’t bring me the joy I’d imagined it would,” he said hesitantly. “Is there nothing in this world that doesn’t end in sorrow?”
Shang felt a deep sadness in his heart. The world was hopeless, indeed, if even the dead had no peace. “What are you, Deshi?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what happens now?”
“I’d planned on my revenge taking much longer than this.” Deshi laughed. “I guess there’s only one thing left. For that, I need your help.”
Shang packed a knife, a flint, and a jar of oil into a sack and headed out to the road.
The cool night air felt good and he reveled in the feeling of walking through his own land. It was a sensation that, as a child, he never thought he’d be able to experience, and one that he might never know again. His life had been good. He’d known the taste of his own apples, the joy of mending his own fence, the embrace of the most radiant woman in the Thundering Valleys. His love for her burned intensely, and he decided that no matter what came of his meeting with Deshi, he could not complain about the life he’d lived.
He stepped off the road into the hills where he found Deshi waiting at Yang Fe’s Ledge, overlooking the Sun and Autumn River. He set down his sack of materials. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Deshi held up his head for display. “You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to talk to women when your head is rotting in your arms,” he said. “And what’s the point of life, after all, without women?”
Shang laughed. “Have you ever considered the idea that we might have been friends, if not for the war?”
“I used to,” Deshi said. “I don’t care to think about such things, anymore. I’m tired. I’m ready to sleep.”
Shang took the flint, knife, and oil from the bag. His hands shook and he dropped all the items to the ground.
“Forgive me, Deshi.” He choked on tears. “Forgive me for what I did. It was war.” That last word hung in the air. It seemed very large and yet very empty at the same time.
“You’re not the only one with blood on his hands,” Deshi said.
“No. I don’t blame you for coming for your vengeance. You were only a boy. I could have let you go to experience a full life, but I didn’t.”
“There is something you must know,” Deshi said. “I wasn’t a soldier. That much was true. I was not, however, a stranger to the murder. Before we met, I’d spent months as a throater. My job was to comb the grounds after battles and cut the throats of any enemies that weren’t dead yet. By the time you and I met, I’d killed dozens of men. Many of them would plead for me to leave them there. I never listened. After a while, killing men felt no different than scything hay had. It was a job, and it paid well.”
Shang wasn’t sure how to react. To kill a man on the battlefield, while risking one’s own life, was one thing; to cut his throat while he already lay dying was another.
“Are you still willing to end my misery?”
Shang thought a moment and nodded. “The only ones I don’t forgive are those that put us there in the first place.” Shang held the flint and oil out to Deshi. “I can leave these here, if you’d rather do it yourself.”
“I can’t do it myself. I’ve tried many times, but some inner force always compels me to stop. It’s a property of the devilry that allows me to walk around like this in the first place, it seems. That’s why I need you. I can’t go on like this anymore.”
Shang sighed. He didn’t want to do this. He’d had enough killing for ten lifetimes and had vowed after the war that he’d never do so again. But this was Deshi’s wish, and he had no right to refuse him that. “Will it hurt?”
“I believe it will,” Deshi said. “But only for a time. After that, all that will be left in the world will be sleep.”
A bubble seemed to expand in Shang’s throat and he fought back more tears. “I’m going to name my firstborn son Deshi. I’m going to teach him how to grow apples and fix fences. He’s going to cultivate life, not death. I promise you that.”
“That’s a good promise,” Deshi said. “And Deshi is a fine name for a boy.” He examined his arms and chest, making sure they were sufficiently oiled. “Now, my friend, I would like to leave this life.” He turned so that he was overlooking the valley. “It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it? When it’s quiet and dark, it’s quite a thing to behold.”
“Yes it is.” Shang said. He struck the knife against the flint. Sparks shot forth onto Deshi’s clothes and the young man burst into flames.
Dawn was lighting the orchard by the time Shang got home and found Daxia waiting on the porch, hair springing up from her head and redness rimming her eyes. “Where have you been?” she asked.
Shang opened his mouth to tell her some lie or other, but the words wouldn’t come. He hung his head. Before he could stop it, he began to cry. His whole body shuddered with grief and terror as he expected Daxia to ridicule him for his weakness. His wife did no such thing. Instead, she rushed down the steps and embraced him.
“My dear husband.” She pulled his head down to her shoulder and kissed the top of his forehead. “My dear, sad husband.”
Shang sobbed. He tried to pull away, but Daxia only pulled him closer. He stopped resisting and allowed himself to melt into her. “We need to talk,” he said.
“I know, my love.” Daxia brushed his hair back behind his ear. “I know.”
Part 1 is here.