Li Mao and the Yaoguai

Li Mao had been fishing for hours beneath the strangely wan, misty sky, and would likely be fishing for a few more.

“I know, I know, my friend,” he said.

He untied the string from around the cormorant’s neck, and it squawked at him in gratitude, flexing its long black, feathery neck. The bird would fish for him no more until he fed it; it was on strike. So, though his catch was meagre, he smilingly took a fish from his wicker basket and tossed it to the bird. The cormorant caught it deftly, threw its head back, made a couple of perfunctory biting movements with its long beak, and then gulped it down.

The bird squawked again, letting the fisherman know it was ready, and he retied the string around its neck. The string only indented the supple neck slightly; just enough to prevent the bird from swallowing any fish bigger than a finger. The little ones it could have for itself. Once the string was tied, the fisherman started bouncing up and down on his little bamboo raft and singing discordantly but happily.

“Go, bird, go! Catch me my dinner!”

He was in the middle of the river the locals called Windsong, and so the raft splashed about it the water, sending ripples out in all directions. Finally, the cormorant took the hint and dove smoothly into the water like it had been born to do so.

Li Mao watched the water as it settled, studying the landscape in the mirror plane. It was like another, upside down, underwater world was looking back at him. A bamboo stand on the left shore was reflected in the slow-flowing water, phantom blue bamboos growing down into the depths of the river, swaying with the current rather than the breeze. On the right, a tangle of brush preceded a small fir forest, which when submerged became a black hill reaching down, a great shadow in the river like some hidden leviathan.

Back down the river the way he had come, the fisherman could faintly make out the green smog of a birch wood and in front of it his home, small in the distance. He thought he could even see a finger of smoke curling out of the chimney. Towering above his home were the distant karst formations; great limestone ridges, towers and, hidden from sight, sinkholes, moulded over the millennia by the elements. There was something regal and indomitable about the green mountains.

Eventually, though, his smile wilted, and he rubbed his golden-skinned arm in concern. At fifty years of age, he was an expert on fishing and he knew when something was wrong. One of his other birds should have been back by now. He adjusted his wide, conical, straw hat and mopped his brow with the back of his hand. His hemp poncho and woollen tunic were making his skin itch as the heat rose. Noon must be approaching, Li Mao thought, throwing a glance skyward and frowning at the pervasive mistiness.

It was odd for it to be so foggy and so humid, almost like a great white cerement had been thrown over the land in preparation for its final rest. The mist seemed somehow oppressive, like it was bearing down on him, an inexplicable weight on his chest and shoulders. All the other fishermen had warned him not to come out today; they had said the fog was a bad omen. That was why he was all alone out on the river. It was normally peaceful out here, but not today. He began to shout and bang his long pole against the raft, splashing water on his sandaled feet.

“Birds!” he called, cupping a hand to his mouth. “Birds! Where are you? Come back up, I’m starting to worry!”

The water rippled some twenty feet away from his raft, and Li Mao’s eyes widened. He was sure it had not been the ducks.

He stood very still for a while, feeling his pulse race. Then, something burst out of the water beside the raft, and Li Mao yelped in fright. He saw that it was one of the cormorants an instant later and would have felt chagrined, save that a large, toothy monster followed it up into the air a moment later, making the fisherman yelp again. He only saw the beast for a split second as its jaws snapped shut on the scared bird, and then blood and water spurted in Li Mao’s eyes. He jerked back, cried out and wiped his eyes, but by the time he could see again both monster and cormorant had gone. The fisherman would not have been sure it had ever happened at all if not for the blood stains on his clothes and raft.

If he had thought his pulse was racing before, now it was truly sprinting flat-out, fleeing for its life. His hands were slick on his pole, and he slapped his lips together, trying to wet his dry throat.

A minute later, the beast was back. A moment after that, Li Mao felt a tug on his leg and then he was in the river, his straw hat in the wind. He had managed to suck in a breath, which was fortunate as he was dragged straight underwater with the claws of the beast digging cruelly into his calf. Li Mao had no idea how fast they moved, but it seemed inordinately, supernaturally fast. The water rushed around him, bubbles obscuring his vision, and all he could see were varying shades of blue.

His lungs started to burn before long, and he was just about to give in to the voice in his head screaming at him to take a breath when they surfaced once more. Li Mao cracked his back on the rocky floor and groaned and gasped as the beast vaulted out of the water. Then, without slowing, it continued to drag him onwards and it was all he could do to keep breathing and stay conscious. The fisherman’s back was sore as it bumped over the ground, but it was not scraped raw thanks to the poncho. He could not lift his head to see the monster, though.

After only a moment, they were moving up and suddenly Li Mao was dangling upside down, hanging from the claws embedded in his leg. He felt warm blood dribble up his thigh toward his crotch. It occurred to him to scream then, but he just couldn’t muster the energy somehow. He was exhausted, not to mention dizzy from the rush of blood to his head. The monster bounded up rapidly, and the fisherman realised he was in a narrow, rocky tunnel when his face started bouncing off the walls. He guessed the beast must be unnaturally strong to be able to carry him up such a chimney.

Concussed and only half-conscious, Li Mao was finally dragged out onto a level floor once more, and a moment later he was released. Tiredly, he lifted his head and looked around through bleary eyes. What he saw woke him in an instant, like a splash of ice-cold water, and made him want to vomit in fear.

He was in a mossy cave lit by a beam of sunlight coming in through a small hole in one wall. The cave itself was not what made him want to vomit, however; it was the group of bloodcurdling monsters that dwelled inside. There were eight of them in total, all half-hidden in shadow. They were ten-foot-tall beings straight out of nightmare with large fangs and claws. All were covered in fur of varying hues, and all were topped by two long, sharp, ribbed horns at each temple, like a gazelle’s. All had the same six serpentine, yellow eyes with vertical black pupils – three in a row on either side of their face – and all regarded him in the same manner: hungrily.

Li Mao saw that the beast that had dragged him there had blue fur, through which poked numerous phosphorescent warts. The fisherman wasn’t sure if they were warts or cysts or pustules, but they looked disgusting. They looked ripe, ready to pop. The creature had a pointed face tapering towards its long, wolf-like snout, and it had a long, furry flipper for a tail.

The fisherman thought he was going insane when the blue beast said in a high-pitched rasp, “See what I bring my pack!”

The others shuffled closer, at the same time revealing and hiding more of themselves as they shifted through shadow, looking like inchoate Demons emerging from the void. Li Mao’s chin quivered, and he fought not to cry.

One of the monsters shoved past the others to get a better view of the man in their midst. The others gave way without dissent, for this one was larger than the rest, and blacker, too. It was covered in such dark fur that it looked like a hole in the world, like nothingness, rather than a colour. Its claws scraped the rock as it walked, upright, across the cave. As it passed through the sole beam of sunlight, Li Mao saw it more closely – and wished he had not. It, too, had glowing warts visible through its black fur, like bright blue stars in the darkest night. Its yellow fangs were huge, set into a wolf-like snout beneath its six hungry, hungry eyes. When it loomed over him, Li Mao thought he was going to faint.

“What this puny morsel?” the big black demanded in a bass rumble, pointing a claw at the trembling fisherman. “Pack need more! Need more!”

“Need more!” another echoed in a hiss; a green-furred creature with blue cysts and a scar running through one milky eye.

“This all I get,” rasped the blue beast stubbornly.

“This good, this good!” snuffled one of the monsters, coming for a closer look on all fours. It had reddish fur, dark like blood, and it sniffed at the fisherman like a huge, curious fox.

“So hungry! Been at sea so long!” whined another beast, its six eyes blinking rapidly. This one was grey, which made it look old to Li Mao. Its blue pustules throbbed alarmingly.

An orange-and-purple striped monster licked its lips and drawled almost urbanely, “Has been long time since we taste man! Mm, tasty!”

A golden-furred creature, its breath reeking of rotten meat, thrust its face close to Li Mao and then drew back, purring, “A hundred years since we see lands of man.”

“Is small, but can eat!” growled one of them, sounding youthful in its excitement. This one had stripy yellow and black fur, like a bumblebee. It prowled toward the fisherman, opened its maw wide for a bite, and Li Mao thought he could hear funerary bells tolling.

The big black smacked it back with a heavy paw, however, rumbling, “Wait! This puny. Me biggest. Biggest bit for me.”

“I bring! I bring!” argued the blue-furred monster that had dragged the fisherman off his raft. “Biggest bit for me!”

“For me! For me! Biggest bit for me!” the others roared disharmoniously.

“No!” the big black bellowed, swiping a claw through the air and silencing the rest. It was so loud it hurt the fisherman’s eardrums. “This small, too small! Me biggest. Me kill you. Biggest bit for me!”

The others growled quietly in the backs of their throats, their hackles rising, but none openly challenged the largest of them.  

For some reason he could not explain, Li Mao chose that moment to squeak, “I’m not so small!”

All of the monsters’ eyes turned on the fisherman, and he wished he didn’t have a tongue. As it was, though, he did and he could never stop it from wagging when he was nervous.

“I mean,” he said in a small voice, “there once was a man in my village, when I was growing up, who was only four and a half feet tall. A full grown man! So, I’m not as small as him, obviously. The Gods know I’m not the biggest man in Maradoum either, but I like to think I’m a decent size … I don’t know what you’re used to eating, so I don’t know how I stack up. This one,” he gestured at the warty monster, “seemed good at swimming, so maybe you’re only used to fish and whatnot, in which case I bet I’m a pretty good catch by comparison. People tell stories about you, you know, about the Yaoguai. Only people think you’re mythical – just a tale to frighten the little’uns if they don’t eat their greens, ha! Anyway, they say you’re seen off the coast sometimes, snacking on fish.”

Why he was speaking of himself as food, he did not know. He hated himself while he did it.

“You speak! You know the Yaoguai!” several of the monsters, the Yaoguai, clamoured at once then, shuffling closer and making the fisherman flinch.

“Stories …” the big black repeated the word, his voice almost reverential. “You are storyteller! Tell story now. Eat later.”

Sitting on the floor and looking around at the beasts gathered around him, Li Mao suddenly felt like a schoolteacher surrounded by inquisitive children. He had their attention, and they were not going to eat him – not immediately anyway. So, he knew he had to entertain them somehow, to play for time while he came up with a plan. Surprisingly, a plan leapt into his mind full-formed as soon as he thought the word. He crossed his legs and cleared his throat.

He glanced around at the Yaoguai, forcing himself to make eye contact, to draw them in. Then, he began to tell his story in a slow, lilting, theatrical voice ...

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