Logically speaking, it wasn’t difficult to see the statue’s face. But we were looking up at it from below, so no matter where we went, we still couldn’t see it clearly because of the angle. Not only was I feeling annoyed now, but that bad premonition I had earlier was becoming stronger and stronger.
Based on how livid Boss Wang’s expression was, he probably felt the same way I did. The more we wanted to see the statue, the harder it became to actually get a clear view of it. In the end, after changing places several times without finding a satisfactory angle, we decided to climb over the collapsed section of the plank boardwalk. The rock wall here was full of roots so it wouldn’t be too difficult to climb up. Plus, there were several levels of the plank boardwalk below, so if we slipped, we wouldn’t fall to our deaths. There was nothing to worry about.
We returned to the edge of the collapsed plank boardwalk, where Boss Wang checked the hanging roots to see if they were strong enough to support his weight. Finding that they were, he then pulled out a multifunctional pickaxe and used it to start nimbly climbing up the cliff. I held onto the flashlight for him, illuminating his path up the cliff while secretly praying that he would fall. Unfortunately, Boss Wang’s skills didn’t match his corpulent figure at all—he managed to climb to the other side and jump onto the plank boardwalk in no time at all.
As soon as he landed, he turned and threw the pickaxe back to me before rushing off. I figured he was anxious to see what was up there, but I didn’t pay him any mind as I turned on my headlamp and climbed up the cliff just like he did. Gripping the pickaxe tightly in one hand, I used my other hand to grab onto the roots and pull myself forward. I didn’t know how long these things had been growing here, but they felt as solid as rocks. They were so hard, in fact, that they almost didn’t seem like living things at all. Even the patterns on them looked very similar to animal scales. If I wasn’t looking at them closely like this, I would have thought that they were the fossils of some kind of ancient creature.
I climbed very carefully so my progress was very slow, but when I was about halfway across, I suddenly heard Boss Wang say, “Hurry up and come over here! You can see it more clearly from here. In that cluster of roots, there seems to be more than… one statue, but I don’t really know what’s been carved.”
When I heard him say this, I gritted my teeth and used my hands and feet to push my body towards a nearby root. Once I managed to grab it, I then swung myself to the other side and looked for the light of his flashlight—it was on the plank boardwalk three levels above me. Boss Wang was standing up there, looking through a pair of binoculars at the bronze tree across the way. I followed the direction of his gaze and found that, because of the change in angle, I really could see that something was wrapped in the tree roots. But it was still too difficult to make out what this thing was.
I was panting for breath by the time I finally caught up with him and took the binoculars from him. When I looked through them, I saw that there were a lot of rusty bronze arms sticking out from inside a gap between the huge, python-like cluster of roots. Based on how many there were, I estimated that there should be at least four statues inside, all standing in the four cardinal directions. But it was impossible to accurately determine whether the statues had all been carved in the same shape or not because only the arms were exposed. The other parts of the statues were deeply encased in the tree roots and hidden from sight. After eyeballing them, I could tell that these statues were very big, probably about the same size as the one we had seen on the cliff.
Lao Yang’s so-called “huge profit” wasn’t these terrifying roots but the thing wrapped in them. But even if these statues really were of great value, it wasn’t like we could take them with us. There had to be something worthwhile over there, but we couldn’t find it if we stayed here. We definitely had to find a way over there.
We continued walking along the plank boardwalk since the distance between the cliff and the bronze tree near the upper part of the cave gradually decreased. The farther we walked, the more clearly we could see that at the top of the bronze tree, there was a round sacrificial altar with four bronze statues facing the four cardinal directions. We had originally thought that we would be able to see the statues’ faces after changing the viewing angle, but the higher we climbed, the more disappointed we became—their bodies and faces were firmly wrapped in the tree roots. It was going to be impossible to see them clearly unless we cut down all the roots.
When we reached a spot on the plank boardwalk that was basically parallel to the sacrificial altar, Boss Wang stopped and looked at it for a while before saying to me, “These four statues are placed at the four corners, which means that there must be something in the center of them. If we had all of our equipment, we could go up a ways and use a spotlight to illuminate the whole area. Unfortunately, everything got swallowed up by the waterfall so that’s impossible right now. Young man, we have to go over there and take a look.” With that said, he folded the sharp end of the pickaxe back until it formed a hook, tied a rope around it so that it became a grappling hook, spun it around a few times in the air like a cowboy with a lasso, and then threw it out.
The pickaxe flew in a high arc, wrapped around a tree root near the sacrificial altar a few times, and then hooked itself back onto the rope. Boss Wang pulled the rope so taut that the tree root shook a little bit. A bunch of strange gray bugs were surprised by the sudden movement and came flying out of the gaps in the roots, quickly scattering in all directions.
Boss Wang frowned and said, “Young man, you go first this time!”
Knowing that he was afraid of these bugs, I secretly cursed him out before eyeing the distance. It was much closer than when Lao Yang, Master Liang, and I had climbed earlier, so there shouldn’t be any problems. I nodded my head and climbed onto the rope.
After crawling along the rope for a little bit, I couldn’t help but admire Boss Wang’s skills—he had expertly thrown the rope so that the two ends formed an almost sixty-degree downward angle. As long as you had both legs wrapped around the rope, you would naturally slide to the opposite side. With hardly any effort, I swiftly made it across to the cluster of roots by the sacrificial altar. Once there, I immediately grabbed the root above me, climbed off the rope, and stood firm.
Boss Wang gestured at me from the opposite side, ordering me to scope out the situation first. I looked around and found that those gray bugs weren’t Deadly Dragons but some kind of insect that resembled cicada larvae. There were a large number of them, but they didn’t seem dangerous. I quickly drove them away and gestured at Boss Wang to come over. He shined his flashlight around me to make sure there weren’t any bugs and then climbed onto the rope.
The tree roots here were almost as thick as two or three of my thighs put together. They were so intertwined that the places where they came into contact with each other almost seemed like they had merged together into one root while the places where they didn’t come into contact were all hollowed out into small holes. After countless years, there were more and more of these places where the roots seemed to merge together and the hollowed-out holes would extend out in all directions, forming a network of paths. This kind of thing was very common in banyan forests. Where there were large banyan trees, the whole forest would seem like it was glued together, forming a kind of labyrinth. One hollowed-out section of roots would lead to another until you got so lost, you wouldn’t be able to find your way out. It was even more terrifying than a ghost forest.
We held onto the tree roots as we walked around. As it turned out, this place was so old and so completely encased in the tree roots that we couldn’t see what was underneath. But we couldn’t cut the roots, so I didn’t know what to do. After a while, Boss Wang said that we might be able to see by looking through the hollowed-out spots between the tree roots. We should split up and see if we could find one with a better view.
The roots were so thick that I thought it unlikely, but he wasn’t planning on discussing it with me. He simply raised his hand and ordered me to get moving.
I vaguely felt that this man was very ruthless, a bit like that Fatty Wang I had met before. I started to wonder if they were relatives, but the fat Wang I knew was more loveable and very frank. This man was too shady.
The tree roots here were so entwined that they almost looked like a burial mound, and even when we shined the flashlights into those hollowed-out holes, we still couldn’t see anything but tree roots. We tried for a long time until we were exhausted and sweaty, but we still couldn’t see anything. I had also hurt my lower back earlier, and the aching pain was causing me to break out in a cold sweat.
The two of us met back up, both unsuccessful. Boss Wang looked at me and suddenly swore, “Son of a bitch! Did that jerk Li Pipa trick me?”
I also had some doubts in my heart. Since there was nothing here, why was Lao Yang so insistent on coming? It wasn’t like him to make such a poor joke, so the problem had to be with us. But what was it? Where did we go wrong?
We both remained silent, quietly thinking over the problem. I recalled all the lies Lao Yang had told me along the way. No matter what reason Lao Yang had for telling me these lies, they were nothing more than a means to lead me to this place. But now that I was here, I didn’t see anything. What was this so-called “huge profit” he couldn’t tell me about before? Granted, even if I did know what it was, I doubted that I would make a “huge profit” anyways. But still, what exactly was it? I didn’t understand at all.
Just as I was trying to figure it out, Boss Wang suddenly gave me a push. When I turned to ask him what he was doing, he gestured at me to remain quiet.
What’s going on? I wondered as he waved at me and then carefully pulled me down into a squat. He then leaned his ear against the nearby tree root and listened carefully…
I immediately calmed down and also pressed my ear up against the root to listen. There was no wind down here, so in this extremely silent cave, I could clearly hear a faint clicking sound coming from the root of the tree, as if someone’s teeth were chattering from the cold.
The sound wasn’t too loud, so it would’ve been easy to miss if we weren’t paying attention. It seemed to have a regular rhythm to it, but it sounded nothing like the noises a blood corpse would make. It was also different from the sounds those bugs had made when they were crawling on the bronze trunk.
Boss Wang said softly, “The interval between each sound is the same, like a monk knocking on a mokugyo.(1) It might belong to some kind of mechanism. It looks like there really is something at the center of this platform, but it’s not clear whether it’s alive or dead.”
I immediately broke out in a cold sweat. If someone with chattering teeth really was in the roots of this thousand-year-old tree, did that mean that we had encountered a tree demon? Just as I was about to speak, Boss Wang pursed his lips, shook his head, and lifted his short rifle up. After drawing the bolt back, he then motioned for me to follow him. We crept along on tiptoe, following the sound until we reached one of the hollowed-out holes among the banyan roots—this was definitely where the sound was coming from. Boss Wang turned on his flashlight and looked into the hole, but the sound suddenly stopped.
He glanced at me and said softly, “That’s right, it should be here. The things mentioned in ‘A Collection of Rivers and Trees’ should be in here. Maybe this is the only place where we can enter.”
I frowned, “These hollowed-out holes in the roots are very complicated, probably way more complicated than the passages in those karst caves. Besides, we don’t know if this bronze pillar is hollow or not. It might be dangerous to enter it rashly.”
He nodded and said, “I know. Since the two of us can’t go in at the same time, one of us has to go down first and scope it out.”
I felt my heart thump as I thought to myself, surely you don’t mean me…right?
Boss Wang, seeing me standing there hesitating, lifted his short rifle and said softly, “I’m too fat. You go down first and I’ll follow right behind you. Don’t worry, nothing will happen.” Then he shoved me towards the hole.
I looked down at the bottom—it was pitch black—and then glanced back at him. He returned my gaze with a stern look, his expression grim. I gritted my teeth and told myself that I just had to turn on my headlamp and play the role of a pushover again. But just as I was about to go in, the fat boss stopped me again and handed me a small walkie-talkie. “If it’s deep inside, just use this to contact me,” he said. “Now go on. Young people are destined for great things.”
I cursed to myself as I took it, familiarized myself with how to use it, and then put it in my pocket. “Boss Wang,” I said to him, “intelligent people like us should be honest with each other. Since I’m risking my life for you, you should at least give me a weapon. If I die in there, your plan will fall through, right? If you don’t want to give me a gun, will you at least give me a knife or something?”
Boss Wang looked at me warily, but he must have realized that what I said was also reasonable because he reluctantly pulled a small dagger from his boot and threw it to me. Then he immediately pointed the muzzle of his gun at me and said with a smile, “Silly me. I almost forgot.”
I took the dagger and found that it was one of those long-handled hunting knives, which were specially used for skinning. I figured it was better than nothing, so I gripped it tightly and headed down into the hole. I immediately smelled a musty odor, so I put on a gas mask and continued to crawl inside.
Not only was it very damp inside, but the surface of these roots was completely different from the ones I saw outside. They were very soft and there were a lot of unknown mushrooms growing on them. Many of those bugs that looked like cicada larvae were frightened by my sudden presence and started to flee in all directions. I crawled further inside for a while before coming to an abrupt stop—the tunnel in front of me forked off in several directions. Which one was I supposed to take?
I carefully looked around and saw that there was a mark by one of the forks. It must have been made by someone who came here before me. With no other options, I crawled over to it and advanced a few meters down the tunnel. As I was crawling, the tunnel in front of me suddenly came to an end and I found that my upper body was now in an open space.
Maintaining my position half in and half out of the tunnel, I turned on my headlamp and looked around—I was in a small, cave-like hollow among the tree roots (to be honest, this was really just a place where the cluster of roots was relatively sparse compared to everywhere else). As I sat there wondering why this might be the case, I suddenly saw the corner of a stone slab sticking out from among the tree roots.
Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a huge stone coffin. It was sitting on a coffin bed that was now firmly encased in tree roots. Based on how far I had crawled just now, I assumed that I was at the center of the sacrificial altar, which was exactly what we were looking for.
As I crawled on all fours to the exposed corner of the coffin, I found that this thing was unusually large, almost like a miniature shipping container. I could also see that the side of the coffin lid had been engraved with double-bodied snake patterns, much like the bronze tree. The rest of the coffin had practically merged together with the tree roots, so it was impossible to tell what other things had been carved on it.
I heard Boss Wang shout something twice from outside, but I was so stunned by my discovery that I didn’t answer him. Thinking that I had gone down into the bronze tree, he tried contacting me on the walkie-talkie, “Young man, did you find anything?”
“There’s a coffin!” I replied while trying to find a place where I could at least sit up. It was way too uncomfortable to lie down on my stomach.
“A coffin? Can you tell whose it is?”
I scoffed, “How would I know? But it definitely wouldn’t be easy to transport a coffin here. A large number of people must have been involved. The person lying inside may have been the one to order the casting of this bronze tree.” By putting their coffin here, they were probably hoping to be closer to the heavenly palace after they died. I didn’t know who this person was, but he definitely had the means to commission such a masterpiece.
At this time, I noticed that the coffin’s lid wasn’t tightly sealed to the main body of the coffin. As it turned out, a section of tree roots had found a small gap in the coffin and snaked their way in. As they grew bigger over time, they gradually lifted the coffin’s lid up. When I saw this, I couldn’t help but feel a little alarmed and said into the walkie-talkie, “Um…”
When Boss Wang heard this, he immediately became anxious and asked, “What’s the matter?”
“This coffin…the lid on it isn’t closed properly,” I said as I crawled over to the gap. Was it possible that the coffin lid hadn’t been properly sealed when it was buried here and that was how the roots grew inside of it?
After thinking about it, I decided that it wasn’t likely. A small root probably just grew under the coffin lid and lifted it up as it grew thicker over time. The roots of these trees extended out in all directions, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they already covered this coffin. Moreover, their exterior was so hard that even if we had the proper tools to cut them, we probably wouldn’t be able to dig this coffin out for who knew how many years.
I crawled even closer to the edge of the gap and used the light from my headlamp to take a look inside—it was completely empty and gray. It almost seemed like the light was being absorbed by something, so I couldn’t see anything at all.
Historically, in archaeology, the most troublesome thing was to lift the inner coffin out of the outer coffin. The sides of a regular inner coffin usually fit snugly against the sides of the outer coffin, with a maximum gap of about one centimeter. But this coffin here seemed to go against that trend—there was quite a lot of space inside, which was very strange. I couldn’t understand why it had been built this way. The burial customs of the Western Zhou Dynasty had been quite developed at that time, and even the nobles in the royal palace wouldn’t use such an outrageous burial method. It seemed that what Master Liang had said before was right—this place was probably the royal tomb of an ethnic minority group at that time. Their state didn’t appear to be weak and must have been at least on par with the Western Zhou Dynasty at that time.
I picked up the walkie-talkie and said, “This coffin seems to be empty. There might be something inside, but my headlamp isn’t as powerful as your flashlight. It’s too dark to see anything. You should come down now. It’s safe here.” As I spoke, I crawled back to the hole I came through, telling myself that as soon as I saw him stick his head out, I’d grab him by the throat and see what he’d do.
The walkie-talkie made a few static noises as if there was some kind of interference, and then I heard some indiscernible sounds come from it.
“What?” I asked.
There were a few more static noises, followed by some strange sounds that were very noisy and completely inaudible.
“What?” I called again impatiently.
<Chapter 29><Table of Contents><Chapter 31>
(1) A mokugyo is also known as a wooden fish, Chinese temple block, or wooden bell. It’s basically a percussion instrument. It’s a type of woodblock that is used by monks and lay people in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism to help them maintain rhythm during chanting. They are used in Buddhist ceremonies in China, Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries. Info here.
It looks like after next chapter, the page count gets a little more manageable (back to 10 min chapters. SUPER manageable lmao) so I’m hoping there won’t be as long of a gap between uploads as I’ve been doing. Plus, no more Thursday night work gatherings. As a self-certified hermit, two weeks in a row has utterly devastated my social meter. Gotta recharge for like 2 months now hahahaha
6 thoughts on “Chapter 30 Old Routine”
Agreed! 😆 Yay for shorter chapters! I actually had to read half of some and finish the other halves on another day! You’re doing an amazing job tackling these longer early books. 👏👏👏
I wonder how Wu Xie can compare Fatty to this master. Maybe Wu Xie misses him too.
I think after busy weeks, watching some good drama and Lost tomb episodes or clips, can help to increase the speed of recharging.😄
Yay for shorter chapters and gaps between chapters! And yay for no no more night work gatherings! Recharge as much as you can! And thank you so much for your hard work!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I am reeling from Wu Xie describing Pangzi as ruthless, not the first adjective I would think of! Thanks for the chapter and enjoy your quiet recharging – hermit solidarity here!
Yay for shorter chapters!
thank you for the chapter 🙏🏼