For generations, my clan has been related to an obscure creature I’ve never heard outside our own stories. Shadow Monkey, according to Sifu, used to be an ordinary Monkey that was always hungry. One day, from the top of a tree where he looked for food to grab or steal, he saw in the distance a bright red dancing glow. Curious, he followed the light and found an old man sitting next to the cracking radiance, watching it dance. But it wasn’t the light that the enchanted the simian, it was the other body the light gave the man. It was dark and flat, started on the floor, right from where the elder sat, and stretched for miles, crossing trees, rocks and all things and beings on its way.
Mesmerized, the Monkey asked: “What is that dark body you grew on your tail, Master?”
The master grinned. “It’s a shadow, little friend. It comes from the fire that feeds me.”
Monkey sat next to him, for the ancient man was talking about everything that mattered to the Monkey. But the man said nothing else. No instructions or teachings. So he reached his furry arm to grab a piece of the fire to see how it tasted.
“Ouch!”, shouted the ape. “This fire just bit my hand!”
The ancient smiled, said nothing. So the Monkey sat and observed. He thought and thought about how that stingy hot thing could feed the man, but couldn’t understand. Then he thought more until there were no more thoughts to be had. And since he had not understood, there he stayed, watching the fire dance for his empty thoughts, waiting for an idea to happen. He remained there for days before he realized his wrinkled bald friend was no longer there. He checked his sides, up and down. And there wasn’t. Till he looked back, and there it was: his own second body, stretching for miles. The form the master called shadow.
So glad he got, the ape wished all creatures in the world had their shadows too, and so the fire listened.
That’s when Monkey heard his stomach rumble. It’d been days he was nourishing only on light. Maybe it was time he had real food again. But the flame kept dancing, so beautiful in front of him, he chose to stay a little more. He emptied his head of questions and thoughts and stayed there, feeding from the brightness the fire offered.
So pleased was the fire with the dedication of the Monkey, it decided to transform him into the diaphane and flat shape of himself he loved so much. That’s how he became the Shadow Monkey, the only creature who could move through things without touching them. A mystery my family holds for generations.
That story Sifu used to tell me every morning after a fight. “Loose or win, the next day you will meet yourself to eat the same hot congee and meditate on the meaning of your latest fight and the tale of the Shadow Monkey.”
So I did, so I do. Last night’s loss made me appreciate the ritual even more. With the ache in my jaw, eating anything else would have hurt too much. Quite a practical piece of wisdom hiding in plain sight!
I take a few spoons, let the fire warm me inside and attempt to clear my mind. Flashes from previous battles invade my vision. I let them play and dissolve into nothing. Those fights are all me. What I was, what I am becoming. Sifu told me I should have an abundance of fights until I turned thirty and my body could heal fast. A little less leading to forty, then focus on the spiritual side and prepare to pass my skills and allow the immortals to confide to me the secrets of the Shadow Monkey. The Enlightenment.
I travel back to China, years before. It’s night and I am seating around the bonfire with my Kung Fu brothers. Young and arrogant, we talk about the fable of Shadow Monkey. Some say that’s an allegory for a very simple technique he hadn’t taught us yet. Others believe the real magic of chi was hiding under our noses, we were just too obtuse to see it. One way or another, the same way Sifu was right on the congee we take after every bout, he aches to be right on this fighting regime and the meditation, etc. too.
New recollection: me and him, sparring. I am furious. No matter how fast I am, I can never touch him. He waves his blue clothes in front of my eyes and all of a sudden he hits me on the back. I fall flat, scratching the side of my face on the dirt. The blood burns its way through my skin. He giggles. Next to my head, his hands in front of the candles mock me with a shadow in the shape of a little monkey.
Back to my congee, I wonder: If he can turn his body into shadow and move right across me, why shouldn’t the world be able to witness such feat of skill? Isn’t it time fighters from all paths are allowed to learn and build from that point forward? Just like the Shadow Monkey gave everyone their own shadow, it may be my duty to share our method with the world. But I have to understand it first.
That’s why the rush. Can’t wait one full life to unravel the secret. If once I crack it, I’m no longer abe to use it in a fight because I’m in the spiritual phase of my training, there is no progress beyond my body. “That, ancestors, you got wrong.”
I apologize to the Dao.
I moved to America, and I tried a University because of that quest. But through science, the Dao gave me riddles instead of answers. I had no sense of how close I was. Until those two scientists presented themselves after a loss. Was it the path answering my call? The money was welcome too, although for that, Master would say I was cheating, fixing reality to feed my curiosity as opposed to the noble way of letting the Dao play.
But he is also the one who told me if I thought playing ping pong would make my Kung Fu better, ping pong I should learn well.
The choice was mine. So I answered the path.