As the beggar slept, I watched the rest of the village through the window, scrambling round like ants under glass. Many were on their third or fourth trip up the mountain, owning no mule or wagon to haul their possessions. On the other hand, some were so accustomed to the annual retreat, it’d become old hat; they’d prepared weeks prior, so could afford holding off until early evening.
Then there was me, standing there like a dope, flustered and shivering with nerves. Shaking myself out of my reverie, I tripped across the room, lifted the beggar’s walking stick from the ground and brought it to the sunlight for closer inspection. I’d assumed the characters engraved in the wood might tell a story of some kind, for the beggar seemed such a natural raconteur but, instead, written in a twist along the length of the stick were seemingly random words – love, fire, happiness, red, community, noise, joy, festivities, good fortune, and so on and so forth – words that ignited and resounded warmly in my chest. This was a walking stick of goodness. The goodness weighed heavily in my hands, making me feel light as a air.
The beggar slept and slept while I ran my fingers along the carvings, watching the villagers flee, waiting for darkness with a heavy heart. I was scared; yes, I was scared. But I no longer trembled as I held the walking stick; it seemed to me such a great comfort that I, too, fell under the spell of sleep, a sleep undisturbed by nightmares, and when I awoke, evening had crept up on the both of us. As if sensing the approaching darkness, the beggar stirred.
He took his time in sitting up. He was truly old, he wasn’t sprightly. But when on his feet, I felt his energy; his goodness was powerful. Spotting me in the corner, gripping his walking stick in the tightest of grips, he smiled.
“Maemae, do you remember what I told you earlier?”
“We will shower Nian in goodness, because goodness is what he fears most.” Approaching me, he reached for his walking stick, and I reluctantly returned it to him. But then he presented it to me with both hands, and said, “What do you believe is the greatest good, Maemae, the greatest above all else?” I realized he had no intention of repossessing the walking stick; he had only wanted me to choose which character, which word, best represented the greatest good. I pointed at the Chinese character for love.
“Love – yes, I’d agree with you there,” the beggar said with a twinkling smile. “And do you remember which element represents love and compassion?” He presented his walking stick again, and I pointed to the character for fire.
“Right again! Good girl! Love and compassion are represented by fire,” here he tapped his velvet bag with the walking stick and out jumped flames of fire. My eyes, round and bright as copper coins, followed the dancing light, which floated precariously above his hand. As if floating fire was as common as the noon hour, he set the flames a-timbre in midair, and then returned his attention to me.
“What do you think is the second greatest good?” the beggar presented his walking stick. I hesitated, then pointed out the character for happiness. “Beautiful, Maemae,” said the beggar, “and what color represents happiness?” My eyes casted over the walking stick until they found the character for red, and the beggar again tapped his bag and drew from it red sheets of paper, red lanterns, red decorations, everything red, red, red. “Nian greatly fears happiness,” he explained, setting the paper decorations a-float alongside the fire. “Red will frighten him back into his darkness.” The objects floated above me, revolving slowly.
“Lastly, I said you should never fear-“ before he’d finished, I’d found the character for community. The old man laughed. “Yes, Nian fears community and togetherness; he fears harmony. And what represents community?” Without hesitation, I pointed at “loud noises.” “You’re very sharp, Maemae.” Thus, the beggar tapped and drew from his bag sticks of fireworks and set them hanging in the air next to the paper and fire.
“All we need to frighten the monster is love, happiness and community. What could be simpler?” With a twist of his walking stick, the objects revolved more quickly and then multiplied, driven off in a dozen directions. The flames blew past my cheeks, the paper fluttered my hair, and I twirled, wishing my eyes could take in everything at once. The fireworks placed themselves for launching near the entrance to the door and out every window. The red paper plastered itself across the whole of the house, inside and out; the lanterns strung themselves across the trees encircling the house. Flames lit the lanterns, the candles, and every corner of the room, until it was brighter than high noon.
“One final thing,” the beggar said, tapped his velvet bag a fourth time; he pulled from it two marvelous red robes, one man-sized, one girl-sized. He flung his around his shoulders and, suddenly, he did not look the beggar he was, but rather more like an emperor. He flung mine around my shoulders and, suddenly, I did not look the coward I was, but rather more like a warrior.
Darkness had engulfed the village, but Wai Po’s house was bright as day. We sat waiting, the beggar laughing all the while as he told me tales of his gypsy travel, tales of the road. I laughed along with him, brimming over with happiness. Safe in my warrior robe, my fear had nearly vanished altogether.
As time would have it, midnight arrived, and the old beggar smiled down at me.
“When Nian approaches, he will be surprised and angry at our defiance. He will likely wish to attack the love and happiness he sees here, so you must blast his anger with community. When he becomes angry, we will set off the fireworks. Don’t be frightened,” he could see the slight tremble returning to my lower lip. “We will defeat the darkness.”
Cries of animals fighting until their last breath bellowed not too far off; Nian was fast approaching, the time was nigh. I crouched near the window, a candle held ready to launch the firework. The beggar stood near the front door, gazing out at the courtyard.
From the outside looking in, the house must have been a spectacle in the night, illuminated brilliantly and red as the sun. And this spectacle must have attracted the monster, because soon enough, I saw him; soon enough, I was face-to-face with the grisly creature once again.
Ugly as ever, Nian slither-scampered into view, but came to a halt as his yellow-slitted eyes absorbed the defiance. An ear-splitting howl reverberated from the monster, echoing like a pack of hungry wolves. For a moment, he stared angrily at the house then, with all his might, he charged, screeching furiously, baring every single one of his bloody teeth.
“Now!” the beggar commanded.
My heart in my throat, I lit the firework, and it launched into the sky, exploding with a cannon-like BOOM, scattering its fairy dust to the earth. Simultaneously, the beggar had set off a string of firecrackers, gun-shooting a staccato of sound in the valley. I peered at the monster over the ledge of the window. He was frozen still in fear, just as I had been at the sight of him three years ago, perched in my tree. I felt compassion for him, but my compassion would only make him see red, so I felt it ever the more, as the job was not quite done: he was still there. I shot another series of fireworks – BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM – into the sky, which set the monster trembling.
The beggar was laughing in his corner, as he too lit another fuse. While the fireworks were bursting, he gestured at me to follow him; we would present ourselves, in all our red-robed happiness to the monster. I came quickly beside the beggar, and we stood for a moment behind the door. The beggar whispered to me, “Are you ready?”
Taking a deep breath in, I spoke the first words I’d spoken in years: “Yes, I’m ready; ready to shower all the world’s evils in goodness.”
The beggar smiled down at me then, holding my hand, he flung the door wide. Like a firework, we burst at the beast, our laughter cascading in the sky. The monster took one look at the love, happiness and community emanating from the emperor and the warrior and, with a yelp, fled fast as he could back to the depths of the sea, to the darkest of darkness, to be consumed by his hate, anger and isolation.
(The following is taken from the true tale of the Spring Festival (http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/SpringFestival/200005.htm)):
The next day was the 1st of the first lunar month. When people came back from their hideouts and found everything safe and sound, they were quite surprised. The Wai Po suddenly realized what had happened and told the villagers about the old beggar’s promise.
The story was soon spread far and wide and everybody was talking about it. They concluded in the end that the old beggar was surely the celestial being who came to expel the calamities and bless the people, and that red paper, red cloth, red candles, and the exploding firecracker were certainly the magic weapons to drive out the monster Nian.
To celebrate the arrival of such good luck, the elated villagers put on their clothes and new hats and went one after another to their relatives and friends to send their regards and congratulations. This was soon spread to the surrounding villages, and people all got to know the way to drive away the monster Nian.
From then on, on each New Year’s Eve, each family sticks on their doors antithetical couplets written on red paper, blows up firecrackers, keeps their houses brilliantly illuminated and stays up late into the night. Early in the morning of the 1st of the first lunar month they go to their relatives and friends’ homes to send their regards and congratulations. These customs have been passed down through the generations, making it the most ceremonious traditional festival of the Chinese people.