年兽 Nián Shòu

“Long ago, in the mountains of ancient China, there lived a terrible, wicked monster whose name was Nián. Every new year it would crawl from its lair beneath the blackened sea and ravage the countryside, consuming crops and devouring the most delectable of children. The beast was enormous. Arrows bounced like rain off its thick lion-like hide, and hunting hounds were gobbled up in its wicked pointed teeth, each the length of a man.

“The villagers could not defeat the beast. And so each year they would hide in the mountains until the Spring Festival had fully passed, praying to whatever god might save them.”

(Illustration by Marie Ginga with an image from qgadrian on Pixabay.com)

Nián Shòu, the “New Year Monster,” had never visited San Francisco, and Jim suspected that had something to do with his grandmother. The boy watched as she banged a ladle and a pan, advancing slowly down the narrow space between the apartment buildings on Preston Avenue. Birds took wing and stray dogs vanished. Only a single frightened feline remained, its ears flattened and fangs on display. Bright eyes glimmered with fear, their black orbs reflecting the stars of neighborhood evening lamps.

“Go, go, bad cat!” the old lady chanted once more. A final metallic ringing sent the cat sailing, its striped yellow tail disappearing over a short length of fence.

Jim had watched little of this struggle between man and beast. Instead, he had stared at the source of their contention: a rat that lay sprawled across a glue trap, doomed and deathly weak.

In a single dispassionate motion, Jim’s grandmother hoisted the prize and dropped it in the nearest waste bin. “Don’t look so sad,” she chided, pinching his cheek with her strong fingers. “It was only a rat.”

“But năinai,” Jim replied, as feeble shufflings sounded from the bin, “I’m a rat.” It was neither the strongest nor the largest of the zodiac signs to be born under, but it was his.

“Then you’d better be more clever than that!” Grandma chortled. Jim dodged her Tiger palm as she shooed him back inside.

His diversion short-lived, Jim trudged back to his extra math homework. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve, and though his năinai was busy making dumplings in the kitchen, there would be no “vacationing” here. In truth, Jim preferred Christmas, but his family barely celebrated it. His rationale was simple: teachers didn’t assign homework for Christmas. In contrast, the nights of Spring Festival were like any other school night, and all he’d receive from his parents were stuffy new clothes he didn’t need and a red envelope of cash that he couldn’t spend. (That would be deposited in his bank account, just like every year, in preparation for college.)

A half-realized detail started Jim from his desk, and he slid his chair to the window next to his narrow bed. In San Francisco’s famous Chinatown, tenants and tourists alike made last-minute purchases. They stocked up on red-and-gold decorations to fill empty spots around the house, biscuits to share with family, or beer to accompany late-night games of májiàng. The ever-present cacophony of firecrackers and fireworks was a soothing melody, a familiar refrain of remembered holidays and shared traditions.

But tonight, the street outside his window was unearthly quiet. A strange gray mist swept along a long earthen avenue. It peeled back to reveal pale yellow paper lanterns hanging from the wooden slats of a single-story brick house. Directly across from Jim’s apartment, where the corner convenience store should have stood, a tall oak stood in silence. These were the only structures for what should have been a crowded row of buildings.

Jim could hear a faint chorus of conversation coming from the new neighbors across the street, somewhere inside their strange old house. Words flowed freely in the language of his grandmother, but their rhythm was unusual. Foreign. Archaic.

Jim ran downstairs to his front door. It opened upon familiar Preston Avenue, disappointing and mundane. Chinese lanterns sang in chorus lines of cheery crimson tones. Mr. Liu finished his house cleaning with a flourish, sending the last clouds of the old year’s dust into the street. Mr. Wang hung spring couplets around his shop door: one blood-red banner at the top, and two more on each side.

Nearby, Angela recognized her classmate and waved, eager to show Jim her new red qípáo dress, but she was out of luck. Jim was too busy studying the outside of his bedroom window: a strange silvery glow obscured its surface, the reflection of a moon that was nowhere in San Francisco’s nighttime sky.

Jim’s grandmother, busy preparing tonight’s penultimate feast, didn’t hear the front door bang with his return. Nor did she hear the bedroom window creaking ajar, nor the scuffling noises. As she hummed to herself, an eight-year-old boy struggled to lower himself from an unfamiliar roof onto an unfamiliar dirt road, into an ancient land he’d only learned through tales and legends. A land that predated the festival of red.

She did, however, hear the rumbling roar.

✸✸✸

It took a few moments for năinai to force Jim’s bedroom door, but even locks and bars would not keep her at bay. Her wide eyes glared at the disarray. There were soil marks on Jim’s pant legs and dirty footprints across the bedroom floor, which had been carefully-swept to welcome in the new year’s luck.

“Gànmá? What are you doing?” she practically yelled.

Jim’s mouth gaped like the fish she’d just put in the oven, but no words came out. He pointed nervously to the window, now ajar far beyond what she allowed, but only the cheerful lights and colors of a familiar Californian city were visible. He could not (or would not) explain what he had seen, nor how he’d dirtied his clothes.

The episode earned Jim two swift swats across the ears and the loss of any late-night privileges. The boy winced at each of his grandmother’s censures, but he strangely gave no retort. With a final admonition to finish his studies, năinai returned to her tasks in the kitchen, though not before giving a short worried glance behind her.

Long after her departure, Jim kept one wavering eye on the window. His unsteady hand wandered and his multiplication numbers crept into the margins of his pages. When darkness finally fell within the room, a lullaby of muffled TV announcers and gala music coaxed Jim to slumber. Yet he still cowered silently beneath his sheets. At times, a wind-tossed branch scratched the glass panes menacingly, from a tree that did not exist in his own world.

Jim’s tense muscles clenched in cycles through what must have been a week of sleepless nights, before exhausted eyes finally blinked open to the warm welcoming sun.

✸✸✸

“One year, as the villagers were again preparing to hide in the mountains, they were visited by an elderly Taoist monk. The old man asked for a single night’s shelter, but the villagers refused. Didn’t he know about the monster that would soon attack?

“The wise man listened to the terrified villager’s stories and their descriptions of the beast, stroking his long white beard thoughtfully. Then, leaping to his feet, he declared that he and he alone knew how to stop this monster of myth.

“‘It is more important to be clever, than to be strong,’ the monk added, tapping the side of his head with a wink. ‘I know this monster, and I know its fears. Come, and I will show you how to best him.’

“At first, the townsfolk did not believe his bold claims, but they were quite desperate. The monk told them where to go, and what they must do, and each carried out his instructions.

“When Nián showed itself again, they were ready.”

✸✸✸

Jim had always been the runt of the family. His older sister was already attending university at USF, but he was still in third grade. And thanks to his August birthday, some of his classmates had an entire year of growth on him. Most had been born in the year of the Pig; and, like Pigs, they trampled, shoved aside, or even simply forgot the Mouse that shared their classroom. Jim’s quiet demeanor (and his quick tendency to cry) hadn’t helped his situation.

“Remember, you’re little Mouse,” his mother would say, on one of the rare nights where there was time between work and sleep. “And mice are small, but smart! Do you remember the story of the Race of the Zodiac Animals? There was fast Horse, and strong Tiger, and flying Dragon. But Mouse won the celestial race anyway, because he was clever!”

Jim nodded but held his tongue. He recalled too that Mouse had won because it had cheated its friends, pushing the cat into the water as the two crossed a river, then leaping from Ox’s nose for a photo finish. If being intelligent meant knowing how to use your friends, he wondered why it was so important.

In art class at school, the students used water colors to paint a scene from their favorite story. Most had chosen young adult fiction or comic books. Jim, on the other hand, drew a large water cistern in which a small boy distinctly drowned. Other children screamed and wailed. However, at the cistern’s base, a new boy carefully swung a stone. At its impact, the mortared tiles burst, and water flowed from the rent.

“He’s Sī mǎ Guāng,” Jim announced to his classmates. “This story tells us that it is important to always stay calm and use your head.” Such were the same words his năinai had used when she’d first passed on the tale.

“Dumb,” Chris declared. Taking his own watercolor brush, the taller boy scarred a messy X of colluded colors across the top.

Jim’s face burned, and his clenched jaw hurt. His vision dimmed as his eyes watered. It was pointless to go to Teacher; Miss Gorski would, at best, make Chris apologize, but the damage had been done. Starting a fight would accomplish even less, as Jim would receive the lion’s share of the punishment.

But a third idea sank its claws into Jim’s mind and refused to retreat. Calmly, Jim stood up and marched to Chris’s desk. A dragon of western fairy tale crouched upon his paper. The taller boy hungrily scraped the last fragments of red pigment from his watercolors tray; the brush’s bristles canted to the side like the whiskers of a ravenous lion.

Jim raised his elbow and carefully nudged the plastic cup of used water. Rivulets of red paint raced over the dragon in a great wound, splashing across Chris’s shirt and pants. Jim made certain his “oops” was loud enough for everyone to hear.

Miss Gorski swooped in before Chris had flung more than a few fists. Jim apologized immediately as instructed and returned promptly to his seat, but it was difficult to suppress his grin. He would receive no further punishment. After all, it had been as much an “accident” as the black mark still blemishing his own paper.

Yet as the hour dragged on, Jim thought of the first Spring Festival he could remember celebrating. Back-to-back, he had messily devoured three sticks of “lucky” táng hú lu—that is, skewered sugar-glazed cherry tomatoes. They had melted in his mouth but had quickly turned his stomach sour.

Sitting in the class now, Jim could still feel those tomatoes.

✸✸✸

It was now the first night of the new lunar year—Chinese New Year proper. The older folks would stay up till midnight, or later. Jim, on the other hand, had school in the morning. Firecrackers exploded like machine guns in front of various shops and homes, spooking away malevolent spirits and keeping the human ones cheery. Yet inside, Jim flinched each time a fresh batch would catch. He couldn’t blame monsters for avoiding the annihilations.

The mists gathered once he was in bed, along with the tree’s tapping talon. Jim burrowed underneath his sheets. The clamor of conflagrations still floated from the front door downstairs, but ancient China hid in silent terror outside Jim’s window. A substantial shadow skulked down their street, one Jim had witnessed at a distance.

A distant crash jerked him into immobility. Perhaps it was only a neighbor’s clumsy fingers as they carried the next pan of jiaozi dumplings; perhaps it was a house torn asunder by gigantic claws. A distant screech came to his ears: perhaps from a child that had not run fast enough. Or, perhaps, from only a night owl.

The moonlight shafts through Jim’s shivering sheets were suddenly snuffed, and a heavy warm wind invaded the room in short, humid gusts. A familiar acidic aroma prowled the air, the same that ambushed Jim whenever he passed the local butcher’s. Jim pinched his eyelids shut and prayed to any ancestor that would hear him. He prayed to his grandfather.

A new batch of firecrackers erupted in San Francisco, its ruckus ricocheting up the stairs and into Jim’s bedroom. A rumbling, surprised snort replied from the bedroom window, and the darkness disappeared. A thunder of footfalls dissipated in the distance.

Jim slowly lowered the bedsheets; the beast was gone. It was an ancient Chinese moon that observed him now beyond the glass. He quietly contemplated the imprint of the Jade Rabbit, still fresh and dark upon its pale face. It was not too hard to imagine Cháng’é dancing somewhere on its surface; she too had outwitted her pursuers, drinking a magic potion to fly to her new home in the heavens.

The tiniest of ideas unfurled a hairless tail in Jim’s mind and began scampering through its hidden recesses.

✸✸✸

“Nián Shòu landed with a hearty laugh at the first villager’s house, but there were no screams of terror. Instead, there were red banners placed on either side of the door, and also across the top. Red lanterns hung from the eaves and glowed from inside the windows. Nián drew back in disgust. There was not a hue it hated more.

“The sound of children soon captured its attention. It bounded into the nearby alley, saliva pooling from its mouth, eager to snatch up a fresh meal. Yet again it halted. Someone had dressed his snacks in fresh red clothes, from their heads to their toes. Their taunting laughter rang in its head.

“Nián hissed in anger. As it did, the doors of the houses belched forth villagers to surround and confound. Clanging cymbals and jangling pans deafened its keen ears. Shooting firecrackers and whooshing rockets blinded its night eyes. And everything—from the paper lanterns along the eaves to the candied fruits the children held in their hands—was anointed with the color red.

“Confused and terrified, Nián Shòu sprang away from the village, retreating to its home under the sea. It would never again return to harass the people that had so easily bested it.”

Grandmother had ruffled Jim’s short straight hair. “And that is how the tale was told to me by my own grandmother when I was small. And that is why, even today, Spring Festival is marked with the brightest of lights, the loudest of sounds, and the reddest of clothes and decorations.”

“Năinai,” Jim had asked as his grandmother reached for the bedroom light, “why is Nián so afraid of the color red?”

Grandmother smiled as she closed the door. “No one knows, dìdì. Now go to sleep. It’s just a story.”

✸✸✸

“You are a kind boy, Jim,” declared Mr. Pham, as he bandaged the cat’s bloody paw. Jim had happened across the same orange tabby in the same home alleyway. This time, the cat could not flee, its leg mangled by the strong arm of a spring-loaded rat trap. First, he had chased away two older boys who were throwing pebbles at it, threatening to summon his grandmother until they left. Then, he had spent several tense minutes (and earned several painful scratches) transferring the cat to a cardboard box.

Mr. Pham was not actually of Chinese descent, but Vietnamese. Still, Chinatown was home to more than just those who hailed from the “Middle Country”; and just as he had been welcomed in, Mr. Pham welcomed any animal sick or injured, even if no coins changed hands.

“You are kind,” the vet continued, “and your heart is strong. And it is better to only have good heart, instead of only have good brain.”

I wish my grandmother felt the same way, Jim pondered glumly. He wiped his oozing cuts and studied their reddening outlines. He wondered what sorts of marks a beast like Nián would leave.

It was the second evening of the Spring Festival. According to tradition, Chinese wives joined their husbands (and their husbands’ parents) in their new home. This time of the year was set aside to remember one’s roots: Jim’s parents were gone tonight, his mother refreshing old relations. Again, he and his năinai were alone in the homestead, along with his eternal homework.

The short, gray-haired lady stood silently before a small shrine. The face of an elderly man Jim barely remembered returned her gaze. Grandmother visited no one today; she’d left her own family many years before, when Jim’s grandfather had trail-blazed a new life on a new continent. It’d been his fervent studies in engineering (and English, and finances, among others) that had cemented the Xu family’s new life in America. Jim knew this, because his grandmother reminded him each night.

“Xiū xíng zài gè rén!” she would admonish, pushing his head closer to his books, as if studies were an enemy that could be conquered through sheer will alone. “The teacher teaches, but only you can learn! Jiāyóu, jiāyóu!”

She was quiet now. The family would be visiting his grandfather’s grave a few days from now, when it was a more “auspicious” time to do so. Still, Jim wondered if his grandmother wasn’t visiting him in her own secret way tonight. Even the most fearsome of tigers still slunk home every dawn.

✸✸✸

It was time. The beckoning tree had returned. Jim awaited rigidly in his bed, fully clothed, pursing his lips in stern anticipation. He had buttoned up each of the knotted fasteners of his bright new chángshān coat. He had also located his lucky red mandarin cap from last year; it barely covered his straight black hair, but he had jammed it on just the same.

A dark cloud of thunder rolled by outside, and the boy rose to the window. A dissipating swirl of mist showed the monster’s most recent passage. Jim inched the bottom of his window up slowly and carefully so that his grandmother wouldn’t swoop in to stop him. His second drop to the dirt road below was more practiced than the first.

Tonight, the house across the street was dark, its yellow lights snuffed and its door sealed. No spring couplets adorned the door frame here. The monk with the long white beard had not yet visited here. Perhaps the villagers hid inside; perhaps they’d already left for the mountains.

It did not matter. In Jim’s right hand he held a butane lighter, and in his left hand a string of firecrackers.

Jim followed the easy trail of paw prints away through the mustering mists, to where thick copses grew. A rumbling clamor ahead assured he was on the proper path. The boy imagined he was chasing another dancing devil through the streets of San Francisco: the figure of the famous “lion dance”. Its bright bulbous eyes and wide grin had always seemed too festive to represent the Nián monster of legend. There too, the furry gold costume would finally flip up to show two young men, laughing and dancing with abandon. No such revelation awaited him here tonight, yet he was not afraid.

The road angled down into a muddy mess of squelching grass and slippery soil. As the fog faded, Jim entered a clearing that stretched for miles. And there, in the distance, a dark mountainous shape stood, briefly illuminated by flashes from the firmament: the object of his quest.

Jim tripped as his foot met sudden obstacle. Under him, nearly buried in the mud, lay the body of a soldier laced in leather armor. His metal helmet had been smashed like a soup can, and his spear lay shattered.

The mists slowly drew back, gradually uncovering an ancient apocalypse. Impaled horses twitched. Crushed chariots twisted. To his left, a great beast coiled in death throes, the loops of its immense body creating impossible knots. A single scream of agony issued from its nine separate heads.

The dark masses overhead roiled and rumbled. Living lightning flashed between cloud banks. Celestial shields boomed and banged like crashing gongs. A smoldering meteor dipped beneath the veil and detonated like a divine firework, its glowing globules flinging far in bright sparkling remnants. At its passing, a smoking winged form fell limp and lifeless.

It was the war of creation. The gods had marched to battle, and they had summoned their greatest beasts before them. And in their collisions, these great machines of war lay tangled and tortured, wrenched and wrecked, tools that were tossed aside and abandoned.

The great beast was here too, some distance ahead of Jim. Nián Shòu (for that was its name) was too late to join the battle. A roar—not of triumph, but of fear—caught in its fledgling throttled throat. Its flanks shivered before each new crackle of light and sound. No glory awaited this youngling.

The beast dashed to a massive grassy mound. This knoll convulsed at the sudden touch, and a red ribbon spilled from a tortured mothering maw. Nián Shòu retreated, howling. Golden fur lay matted from the sanguine deaths of friends and foes alike. Wherever it looked flowed streams of red, rivers of red, oceans of red. In time, there would not be a hue it hated more.

The beast finally sensed its tiny pursuer, and it twirled. The bulbous eyes and wide grin reflected those of the lion dance, but these were drawn wide in terror. Beholding Jim were great orbs of darkness, reflecting pinpoints of celestial light; in their depths, the boy saw multiple memories mirrored. A mouse in a trap. A frightened cat and an old lady’s ladle. A clever Mouse with a will and a way, leaving behind it a Cat in a river of betrayal.

This monster was a monster that had already been slain.

Jim slowly dropped his firecrackers, and then his lighter. With careful movements, he removed his cap, and then his red coat. Nián didn’t retreat from the boy’s slow, deliberate steps. Its haunches flinched at the first touch, but it didn’t withdraw. And as Jim placed first one arm—and then another—around the monster’s great hairy neck, its eyes closed. Its voice gave forth the tiniest of stirrings.

The boy and the beast huddled together like this for a time. The storm overhead slowly bled away, its combatants gradually consigning themselves to the pages of history. Below, great tortured muscles unknotted from tense shiverings, and halted gasps eased into the gentle rumble of sleep. The sun would rise soon enough, summoning new ancient kings to war and blood.

With Tiger came strength. With Mouse came shrewdness. But alongside strength and shrewdness there now rested kindness, and perhaps that was enough.

This story previously appeared in wattpad.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Nathan J. Fealko grew up in a very sheltered environment, being homeschooled until he attended a private liberal arts college. After this, he rather overcompensated by enlisting in combat arms, spending several tours in Iraq. Nowadays, he's achieved a healthier life balance, living in Taiwan with his wife and son while teaching students online and writing in his spare time.