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The mountains rise up like crooked teeth from the flat fields in Yangshuo. Their sides are steep so they must be climbed with ropes and harnesses, carabiners and gris-gris; few of them can be climbed just by hiking. By the side of every mountain, a lotus field, their leaves so perfectly scalloped, the pink buds tightly furled until the height of summer. Every year, on a different mountain, climbers fall inexplicably, the karst rock crumbling under their fingertips like dirt, their ropes suddenly fraying, their belayer watching in horror as they fly downward, always into the lotus field. There is never a body when they search for it, only miles and miles of lotus leaves and stems and flowers, serenely swaying in what little breeze there is.

But it is a destination for climbers all the same. What does it matter if a few are lost every year? It's so little compared to the sheer numbers and the circumstances are strange but, the climbers say, there has to be an explanation for it. The locals whisper of mountain gods and demons but even they know it's mostly superstition—accidents happen. People are careless. Ropes break, stones fall. Bodies get dragged away by animals.

{The monkey king sleeps underneath one of these mountains, before his journey to the west, before before.}

Kai was born in those mountains, had grown up with monkey feet and hands so he could climb anything. And he did. He joined up with a rock climbing company that brought tourists out to climb the easier routes, more 5.8s and 5.9s than the more difficult ones. He'd climb part of the day with them then go down to West Street, to a claypot restaurant that the climbers liked. That was where he met the Germans.

Let's say their names are Hans and Lea. It doesn't matter in the end. The chef had come up to them and told them about the local specialty, beer fish, and had explained to them what the story was. How a chef had been cooking the fish in his usual way and some beer had been knocked over and spilled into the fish. He'd thought it ruined but then decided to taste it first and realized, oh, it was even more delicious! They all laughed and the Germans ordered it. When the chef left to get the fish, Kai went over to them and said, “You shouldn't believe the chef. Beer fish is just the easiest dish to make!” They laughed, their understanding of Mandarin just good enough but their speech was slow and broken. Kai did find out that yes, they were climbers and they'd only been around for a couple of days so far but had another week before their flight to Thailand. They were like so many other foreign climbers. Kai had been familiar with their type for years. Kai joined them for their beer fish and later, after a few beers, persuaded them to hire him for a tour around some of the climbing caves in the area for a small fee.

That night, the air muggy and stale, he got onto his bicycle with the giant headlight attached to the front of his handlebars so that others thought it was an e-bike, and began the long ride home. Outside of West Street and the center of town, he passed by the nightmarket stalls and onto the wooden path that, during the day, was crowded with stalls selling trinkets to those who came up by ferry, but at night, was still and silent but for the crickets and incredibly dark. A car with an open engine in front passed him. Off to the side, across the river, he could see the shapes of the mountains. The road turned to dirt and pebbles caused the bicycle to jolt as he slid down a hill, the dark trees crowding around, until he came to an open field and there, beyond the turn of the dirt road, below the bright stars, was his house.

The courtyard was empty but for an e-bike and a few large potted trees. Kai parked his bike and unlocked the door quietly. His parents and sister would be sleeping already. From his room on the second floor, he climbed up onto the roof and lay there, watching the stars.

The next day was sunny and bright and Kai could tell it would reach around thirty-three degrees Celsius by early afternoon. He packed up his equipment and took his bike out to Swiss Cheese, as the mountain was called by climbers, ten kilometers away. There was one other guide waiting, along with a man and his two young daughters, one seven and the other nine. They took turns belaying the man and his daughters who scrambled up the rock as though they were born to it, so light they were. “How long have you been climbing?” he asked one girl.

“We started climbing in a rock gym last month,” she said, “but this is better!” Kai barely had to watch them as they climbed but while the other guide belayed, he scrambled up the mountainside with their camera to take photos of them as though for an outdoors photo shoot. The girls would smile up at him and click, the view of them and the trees around and the dirt below. They squealed over them later, saying how they looked like “real climbers.” Kai liked guiding kids the most, even though they usually required more watching—their excitement was contagious.

By the time they were done, it was noon and hot although they were in the shade of the trees. They took a group photo before saying goodbye. “Want to get lunch with the other guys?” the other guide asked Kai. They'd go somewhere on West Street. Kai shook his head—even among the other guides, he was known as a bit of a loner—and rode his bicycle home to eat lunch with his family since it was his only appointment of the day besides the evening tour with the Germans.

At home, his mother had laid out some dishes: lightly scrambled eggs with tomato, thin strips of beef with spicy green peppers, water spinach sautéed with garlic, rice. His sister was watching TV, Yang Yang fighting with some wolves, but turned around when Kai came in. She was ten but looked younger. Kai sat next on the chair next to her. “How's Yang Yang doing? Did he beat up any of the bad wolves?”

She made a face. “Not really. He's just tricking them.”

“Is lunch ready?” Kai asked, just as his mother called out, “Come and eat!” They went into the kitchen which also served as the dining room. It was only for three people, Kai's father was working in town.

Besides his climbing ability, Kai was a typical young man. Quiet, foolhardy in some ways but independent. His family didn't have much but he gave some of his earnings to his parents. He loved his sister. He loved climbing. He didn't dream beyond that—to continue was enough for now. He was young and the future was there before him. It didn't need to be dwelled upon.

{Buried underneath the mountain, the monkey king shifts in his sleep. He dreams of eating the peach of immortality, the sweetness, the way the juice dripped down his face and collected like dew on the blades of grass.}

After lunch, he took his sister out for a swim in the river, just past where the tourist ferries came in from Guilin. She quickly found a bunch of her friends and joined them in splashing each other. It was summer and the water felt cool but you barely felt cold once you'd left the water because of how hot it was. Fish glimmered underneath them, nibbling on their toes when they were still but flashing away when the water was disturbed. Kai lay on his back and drifted slowly down the river, his eyes closed. He liked these lazy summer days the best. Climbing in the cool morning and evening and relaxing during the heat of the day, the sound of his sister laughing and chattering in the distance.

The Germans were ready when he went to pick them up from their hostel; he'd thought of taking them on the e-bike but because they were two, he would've needed another one and would've had to split the fee with a friend. Instead, he'd arranged for a couple of bike rentals. It was late afternoon but they'd still have plenty of daylight (not that it mattered within a cave) and he'd brought flashlights in case they were caught by darkness.

They biked in the dust, the shadows of karst mountains falling over them, the lotus flowers nodding their blooms in the breeze. The sun was still bright and he and the Germans soon had sweat dripping down their necks. Hans tried to occasionally make conversation and bike alongside while Lea seemed to prefer hanging back a little, taking in the surroundings. There were a few other tourists biking as well but Kai led them off the usual route that led to Moon Rock and the butterfly caverns, over towards the reservoir. The mountains were pockmarked with small caverns, some filled with water, some with old animal bones, some large enough to live in.

{The monkey king, imprisoned by stone, dreams of the gods who insulted him. Those who looked down on him, who, despite his immortality and power, thought he didn't belong with them. He growls through his teeth. He is just an animal to them, less than human, much less than a god.}

Kai had grown up with these mountains. He had explored them, ground up—every mountain around Yangshuo had felt the imprint of his fingertips. He would climb them without a rope, without a harness, with his eyes closed. Everyone knew him as the crazy one but they said it with awe. So young, so nimble, it was as though he were a part of the mountain, knew every loose rock, every crevice.

He brought the Germans to Treasure Cave. There was a wire fence around the entrance but off to the side, where the metal had been cut a while ago, they squeezed in. Kai gave the Germans flashlights although some daylight filtered in from the cave's entrance. He led them further into the cave, which smelled of rain, water seeping down the cavern walls. Down and down and down until the air was cool, almost cold compared to the outside temperature. Then the cave opened up, sunshine coming in from the ceiling fifty meters up, an expanse of dry rock in front of them studded with spots of lichen.

{The monkey king sleeps with his staff, shrunken down to the size of a toothpick, in his ear. It is the staff he used to defeat the celestial troops. He is quick to anger at those who disrespect him. This is why he is imprisoned under the mountain. To learn humility, to learn patience.}

It was a harder climb than some others but Kai judged that the Germans knew what they were doing; they'd brought all their own equipment and had traveled here to Yangshuo specifically to climb. He began to set up the ropes, no harness for himself, his bare feet grabbing onto rock. He'd done this so many times before, the rock cool under his feet and fingers. He reached the ceiling, hanging with one hand while he looped the rope through the tricam. He could almost see out through one of the holes in the ceiling, fringed by bigger boulders and greenery. He looked down, to where the Germans should've been down below but there was no one and nothing, just darkness that the sunlight didn't penetrate. He looked down {underneath a mountain, the monkey king opens his eyes and the world shifts}, his fingers slipped, he fell.

There is a myth in these mountains. It involves the monkey king and stone. It involves the gods. It involves imprisonment and the eating of lotus seeds. These are not the things commonly told to foreigners, they are in the yellowed pages of paperback books in small enclosed rooms within dark libraries, their spines damaged, the remnants of old glue holding the pages together. Those myths are no longer told. They hold power and it is better that they are not thought of, nor believed.

{The monkey king closes his eyes. The mountains move a centimeter to the right. A wind sighs through the lotus fields. The shadows grow longer. Time passes. There are so many years to sleep away.}

During the height of summer in Yangshuo, the air grows hot as the air that blows out from the exhaust pipes of buses. The sun is harsh, it saps your energy; you bike and your head is achey from heat. The roads are pebbly, you find yourself somewhere you don't know, the occasional truck passing you by, and you throw up nothing because there is nothing in you. Your skin grows dark. You cannot find the path. You don't see what you are doing here. You keep going because you can't escape summer. You can't escape loneliness. Dust flies into your eyes and you are so so tired. You find a lotus field and you push your way in, you lie down in the cool under the leaves, you fall asleep and you disappear.

Kai is there and he is here, he is in that space in between stories, between the mountains and the myths of Yangshuo. The Germans have left the cave. His rope dangles empty from the tricam and the dirt on the ground is streaked with marks that could be footprints but also possibly not. Out on West Street, the vendors are selling rambutan and mangosteen, grapes and passionfruit from their carts. The foreigners are paying ten kuai for a bowl of Guilin noodles mixed with pickled vegetables you add yourself for triple the price it would've cost in Guilin. Kai's mother is making dinner for his sister and his father of fish and water spinach. The air is filled with dust and the ferry spews out tourists onto the wooden boardwalk. At the stalls, knickknacks of shining wood; jade Buddhas; light dresses made of synthetic materials, painted over with designs of bamboo, flowers, birds. The fishermen row their boats out, lanterns on the stern and cormorants on the bow, to begin their nightly fishing. Kai's bike sits lonely by the side of the road, near where a vendor is selling whole watermelons to anyone passing by. The sun is hidden behind the karst mountains and the lotus blooms are closing their heavy petals, their scent lingering in the still air.

Su-Yee Lin is a Pushcart Prize–winning writer from New York with work published in The Offing, Day One,, Electric Literature, Bennington Review, and other journals. She is a 2021 NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Fiction. Website: Twitter: @suyeelin
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