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Some who had died would look back on their own lives and feel no worries. Their three hun and seven po souls would then vanish by over half, and they would follow Soulhook Envoys in a fog down Yellow Spring Road, forgetting as they walked it, not knowing what night it even was by the time they arrived at the Bridge of Helplessness. After that, they would pick up that bowl of forgetting brew, and their previous lives would be completely gone.
Those who had done good would have their virtuous merits discussed. Those who had done evil would go to the underworld. If they deserved rebirth or transmigration, they would re-enter the reincarnation cycle. After death, everything was settled, and the consciousness would be as clean as white snow, starting over anew.
Therefore, whenever someone shut their eyes, the people that still lived would always do all they could to satisfy whatever desires they left unfinished, to save them the extra hardship as they traveled Yellow Spring Road.
Some would still have unresolved obsessions from prior to death, and their souls would follow them in their walk, unwilling, all for the sake of material gains from the mortal plane. They would then be made to bathe in the Yellow Springs, and after getting over themselves, a ferryman would pull up to see them off to rebirth.
The living’s events were not for the dead to worry about.
Yellow Spring Road was very long — the length it would take one to forget was exactly how long it would be.
The only thing that couldn’t be forgotten was love. After walking four-thousand, four-hundred and forty-four zhang, they could still look back and line up in a row beneath the Bridge of Helplessness. Those waiting for someone else would sometimes wait a day or two, sometimes a decade or two, or sometimes an entire mortal lifespan.
Some would wait for another to come, but that someone would be so out of it, they couldn’t remember them any longer. Occasionally, there would be some that could, but they would be one aged person with one young one, and even though they shouldn’t recognize each other, they would end up clasping each other’s hands with tears in their eyes, all while a Ghost Messenger would prompt them from nearby: “You two, the time has come. Get going…”
In love of the mortal world, there was always a fondness for saying some oaths of eternal love, but those were only terms that would last no more than a few decades, no more than one life-and-death cycle of rebirth, and then it would be, ‘You are you, and I am me.’ How was that not laughable?
These words were what Cao Weining was hearing the Ghost Messenger say to Meng Po as he crouched beside the Bridge of Helplessness.
The Messenger had stated that his name in life had been the surname Hu, given Jia, and he was a passionate person. Cao Weining listened to him bother Meng Po with his non-stop chatter while she ignored him, ladling soup at her own pace. The Bridge never stopped metamorphosing; legend stated that how much forgetting brew was drunk down corresponded to how wide the Bridge would be. One cup forgot an age, dust returning to dust, earth to earth.
Messenger Hu Jia babbled for half the day but never saw Meng Po raise her head, so he got in close to converse with Cao Weining. “Kid, why aren’t you drinking the soup? Waiting for someone?”
Mortals were insipid in love and luck, and all of them were middling. It was rare to have one that was so clear-headed, where even an immortal ghost of the netherworld would be willing to talk more to him.
“Ah…” This was the first time Cao Weining was speaking with the Messenger, and he was more or less startled from the favor. “Haha, yes. You are—“
Hu Jia had absolutely no intention of having an exchange with him; he was probably just getting bored from having nothing to do, and wanted to find someone to dump words onto. “There was another that waited here before,” he straight-up cut him off, “and once he started, he was waiting for three hundred years.”
Cao Weining was taken aback. “Th-three hundred years… who has lived for so many years?” he trembled out. “The one he was waiting for… didn’t have the surname Ye, right?”
“Oi, why do you care about what his surname is? A surname’s just what you’re called. If someone’s surname is Huang or Di for ‘Emperor’ in one life, after jumping into that spring of rebirth, their next life might have the surname Zhu or Gou for ‘pig’ and ‘dog’. Who even knows.” Hu Jia waved his hand, then pointed at the Three-Life Rock. “He sat there, waiting for three hundred years. Then he went back to the place he started, where he first got to meet his someone. But, well, you know how that went?”
“How?” the other asked, egging him on.
“He chose another, better match.” Hu Jia sighed.
Right then, Meng Po finally lifted her head to glance at him. “Messenger Hu, mind your words,” she said expressionlessly.
Hu Jia gave a yeah. “Fine. This guy was somewhere in the ranks of Emperors, Princes, Generals, and Ministers. I have to obey the law of karma, and can’t talk about it… who are you waiting for, young fellow?”
“I’m waiting for my wife.”
Hu Jia didn’t feel that to be strange at all. “How old was she when you died?”
“Seventeen,” Cao Weining answered honestly.
“Seventeen… back when I died, I too had a seventeen-year-old wife at home. What a shame…” Hu Jia shook his head. That time was too long ago, and he could no longer clearly remember how that wife had looked. “I advise you not to wait. She’ll keep growing up through her life, and by the time she comes down, she’ll be an old lady in her seventies. She’ll have long forgotten a man from her teens. I’ve seen a lot of people before that come waiting and leave waiting, only for a scene of expectation and then heartbreak. You should quit dwelling on things as soon as possible and pour yourself a vat of Meng Po’s soup. You’ll clean forget any sort of wives or concubines you had.”
Meng Po raised her head again, still expressionless. “Messenger Hu, mind your words.”
Hu Jia shut up, dejected, but saw Cao Weining start to smile. “That’d be just fine, and I look forward to it. It would be best if she can’t remember a bit of what I look like anymore. Once she passes before me — bright-eyed, worry-free, and happy — and I see her move on, I’ll have no worries, myself.”
“You don’t feel unhappy?” Hu Jia wondered.
Cao Weining looked at him strangely. “What would I be unhappy about?” he countered. “That’s my wife, not my enemy. How would seeing her be okay make me unhappy?”
The other was mute for a short moment, smiling. “You’re taking this well.”
“Am I?” Cao Weining said with quite some embarrassment, scratching his head. “I’ve had no other advantages in my life than being able to take nothing to heart… well, there is just one thing. I was beaten to death by my own shifu. I’m afraid that she’s taken it hard, and is never going to let him go.”
“What sort of scandalous thing did you do, for him to beat you to death?”
“Cough… it’s probably because of that little thing about the righteous and the demonic being unable to coexist. He said that my wife was a villain of Ghost Valley, and I insisted on being by her. In a fit of anger that his dignity was put on the spot, he killed me.”
His tone was relaxed to the point that it was like he was talking about someone else, and it was hard to tell just from listening that he was reminiscing about his own manner of death. Hu Jia became intrigued, then crouched next to him. “You don’t hold any hatred?”
Cao Weining pointed at a Soulhook Envoy that was floating over with a ghost. “On the road, I heard that gentlemen recite ‘dust returns to dust, earth returns to earth.’ I then felt that no matter how big my grievances are, there’s nothing to hate. I’m already at rest in the ground, so what power would hatred have? Wouldn’t I just be making things difficult for myself?”
Hu Jia looked up to see Hei Wuchang floating past with his black, blank face, and whispered out a complaint. “Hey, don’t listen to them. Our underworldly Soulhook Envoys only ever say one sentence, and they’ve said it for who knows how many years, never once changing it…”
Meng Po’s gaze was a fixed glare once more. “Messenger Hu, mind your words,” she said blankly for the third time.”
Hu Jia sighed, pointing at her as he spoke quietly to Cao Weining. “See? That also goes for our Meng Po. I’ve gone back and forth the Bridge of Helplessness for centuries, and each time I do, she says that phrase, ‘Messenger Hu, mind your words.’ This netherworld is a real lonesome place.”
Cao Weining smiled. As he listened to the lonely Mister Messenger babble in his ear, he gazed out at the traveled road, thinking, If Ah-Xiang became an old woman, what would she look like? She’d definitely be one with plenty of energy, lively and bold. She…
All of a sudden, he stood up, eyes in wide-open circles. He saw that in an area not far away, a familiar girl was currently following a Soulhook Envoy over with a skip in her step. While she walked, she ceaselessly surrounded the Envoy with questions, who was concentrating with their head down as they walked, completely ignoring her. Getting pressed so urgently, they could only say, “Dust returns to dust, earth returns to earth.”
Cao Weining opened his mouth to call out: “Ah-Xiang…”
Gu Xiang stopped in her tracks, then inclined her head to look over. For a moment, she was stunned. At first, it seemed like she wanted to cry, but she ended up stifling it all, transforming it into a face that was smiling wide. She dove at him like a little bird. “Brother Cao! I knew you would be waiting for me!”
As if he hadn’t seen her for a lifetime already, he held her tight, but then got to thinking again: With how she looks, she didn’t become an old lady… doesn’t that mean she died early? After that, he became worried and upset, hundreds of feelings criss-crossing inside him. His tears started to come down, falling into the water of the Yellow Springs, making circle after circle of ripples, startling even the ferrymen.
Hu Jia shut his mouth, watching the mutually-embracing couple with a distant smile.
Only this meeting at the head of the Bridge appeared to stretch on forever, until the Heavens were withered and the Earth was aged.
Another Ghost Messenger on the Bridge called out: “You two, the time has come. Get going…”
Like a pendulum utterly devoted to its duty, that same sentence alone had come out of their mouth year after year.
Gu Xiang lifted her head out of Cao Weining’s embrace, glaring viciously at the Messenger. “What are you so impatient for? You fuckin’ soul-calling over there?!”
The one on the Bridge froze, thinking to themself, Isn’t that exactly what I’m doing?
Hu Jia just started laughing. “What a bold little lady,” he commented. “That’s a dauntless wife you have, young fellow.”
Cao Weining sounded happy and polite, despite his tears. “Forgive my shamelessness.”
Standing up, Hu Jia pointed at the Bridge. “Alright, be on your way. Don’t miss the time of your rebirth. If you’re even a tiny moment off, it’ll be hard to say whether your vast riches will turn into you being roadside beggars. If your karmic links aren’t used up, you can continue as you are in the next life.”
With that, he led them up the Bridge. Standing before Meng Po and her soup, Gu Xiang hesitated. “If we drink this, we’ll forget everything. Can we just not, grandma?”
Meng Po looked at her with a pretty, blank face, silently shaking her head.
“Little miss, if you don’t drink the soup, you’ll be a cow or a horse in your next life,” Hu Jia said. “Drink up.”
Gu Xiang’s eyes quickly went red again. Lowering her head, she was unwilling to move regardless of any persuasion. Hu Jia couldn’t take this, going to speak to Meng Po. “Look at that. It’d be fine to make things a little smoother, yeah? This isn’t easy. In this place, thousands and thousands of years pass, yet it’s not likely that we’ll ever see a pair of lovers that can find love no matter what. It really is—“
“Yes, yes, I’ll mind my words,” he hurriedly picked up.
She hesitated for a moment, then suddenly took out two lengths of red string from her sleeves, spread them out in her hand, and presented them to Gu Xiang. The latter was caught off guard. “Take them quick, young miss,” Hu Jia hurriedly piped up from the side. “Elder Meng Po is showing you mercy. This is a fateful opportunity that even several lifetimes wouldn’t be able to cultivate. Take them and tie them on your wrists, it’ll save you from wondering if you’ll even meet up in your next life.”
Gu Xiang quickly took the red strings, then clumsily tied them to Cao Weining’s and her own wrists. Following that, they held hands, drank down the forgetting brew together, then re-entered the cycle of reincarnation.
Behind them, the faraway voice of that Soulhook Envoy was heard. “Dust returns to dust, earth returns to earth…”
There was also Hu Jia’s musing. “Ask the world what exactly love is… even Meng Po’s broadened her horizons.”
“Messenger Hu, mind your words.”
Fifteen years later, in Luoyang city, the Young Lady of Landlord Li’s home conducted her coming-of-age ceremony. Landlord Li’s long-sworn brother, Hero Song, visited with his only son; one reason was to give birthday congratulations, and the other was to propose a marriage.
Back when this pair of children were in swaddling clothes, they had been brought up together, and upon playing with them, the adults had discovered that of the two little tykes, one had a red mark on their left hand, and one had a red mark on their right hand. How could that not be a karmic tie, produced in the womb? A betrothal had consequently been drawn up.
It was now the season of green plums. A lad rode on a bamboo horse…
The translator says: “messenger hu, shut the fuck up”
Well… I hope that softens the blow a little.
 A bit lost in context: traditionally, when a person got gravely ill, it was sometimes believed that their soul was leaving them, so people would loudly call their name to get their soul to come back. Hence, ‘soul-calling’.
 From Yuan Haowen’s poem, Catching Fish. (Here’s a full version.)
 Based on verses from Li Bai’s Changgan Ballad. (Full version here.)