The man woke up at dawn. He was a little lightheaded but his body was rejuvenated by sleep. The campfire was already out but the embers were still smoldering. He added a few twigs and the flame came back to life.
He took out a small kettle and filled it with water from his canteen. He unwrapped a piece of cloth and from it grabbed half a handful of tea leaves and dropped them into the vessel. Using two damp branches, he held the kettle over the fire to brew the tea.
He poured the hot brown liquid into a metal cup and drank. His mind began to clear and he readied himself to continue the journey. He washed his face with water and chewed on some fresh mint leaves.
He checked his horse and saw that it too had a good rest and was already munching on some grasses, seemingly preparing for the journey ahead. He petted its face and it responded with a soft contented neigh. After putting out the fire and packing his things, he mounted his horse and rode along.
As they trotted he noticed, or more likely felt, something different. He knew it was not the light although it was darker than yesterday since he was going deeper into the forest. There was something else, something unsettling that he could not describe. He could feel a certain heaviness in the air, a pervading gloom. But little did he know – or perhaps he just refused to acknowledge – that the air was fine, and that the heaviness was in his heart.
He dug his heels deeper into the sides of his horse and it ran faster. He took his weight off the saddle and transferred it all to the stirrups, leaning forward as he did so, willing the horse to give more speed. As the animal hurried its pace, the man bounced along to the rhythm of the ride, feeling the muscles of his own legs burn from the smooth rocking motion, as if it was he who was making the powerful strides.
Sweat rolled down his neck and he felt good. It was as if he could run away from whatever dark force that was weighing down on him. He closed his eyes and for a few seconds he felt at peace, and he smiled.
Satisfied, he opened his eyes and sat back on the saddle, releasing the pressure from his heels, and the horse slowed down. The heaviness in the air was gone, and his head had cleared. He thought of the reasons for this journey, of the task at hand. And with his renewed sense of purpose, even the path seemed to brighten amid the shadows.
He stopped when he saw a stream and got down to drink from it. As he was swallowing the water from his hand, the edge of his vision caught a quick glimmer and from his instincts he knew that it was a fish swimming upstream to spawn. He went back to his horse to get an old shirt and tore it. He tied the edges of the cloth to a pair of branches to make a net. Then he waded into the stream and waited for another fish. Soon enough there was one and he caught it with his makeshift net. He took out his knife and gutted the fish, cleaning it in the rushing water.
He got his iron pan and washed it in the stream and set it down. He proceeded to fillet the fish and put it inside the pan, then sliced it into thin strips. From his pouch he took a small bottle of well-aged, mellowed soy sauce which he sprinkled on the fish, and a horseradish root which he finely grated with his knife. He fashioned chopsticks from twigs, and using them to pick up a piece of the seasoned fish, he began to eat.
As soon as the first piece entered his mouth and landed on his tongue, the first thing he noticed was how soft and succulent it was, and it melted when he pushed it against his palate, releasing its creamy taste. The fish was as fresh as it could be, and spawning fish always contained lots of fat. Then the horseradish burst with its pungent aroma, rushing into his sinuses. He breathed in and closed his eyes as a few teardrops slipped from their corners. He chewed slowly, savoring all the flavors as they blended in his mouth, then swallowed. He got a bottle of home-made rice wine from one of the many pouches strapped to his horse and took a sip to wash down the fish. Then with his improvised chopsticks he picked up another piece and continued to eat slowly, enjoying the meal with every bite and every sip.
As he finished the fish and the wine (it was a large fish and he needed all the wine to wash it down), he felt full and a little drunk, so he decided to take a short nap. He sat beside the stream and leaned his back against a rock, and soon fell asleep.
To be concluded…