We came in buses that barreled through checkpoints no other cars could pass. When the bus veered outside Song Mountain, our earbuds tumbled loose. We tautened our faces and looked at each other to gauge if we should worry or chuckle. The driver pulled over, stumbled out, and taped cardboard over our rear license plate, and we drove on.
“We’re entering the sacred place nameless,” someone joked.
“Identity forgone,” someone else said.
Behind me, Peter Mu mumbled something about illegality. He taught Business Ethics at the Chinese school. Students hated him.
Sunshine filtered through cumulous clouds. Smog seemed shunned here. The bus ripped past students now. They clustered along the highway’s shoulder, part of the tour, of the special occasion. They represented schools in the city of Dengfeng. The students, moving in unison, wore kung fu robes and Feiyue sneakers. They rotated into mountain-climber stances, axing waxwood sticks (fist to hip, shoulders square) while others screwed spears into invisible enemies’ ribcages. Blades unsharpened, spear points dull, they showed routines to foreign faces flashing by. We must’ve been gassing them with diesel exhaust.
Then into the temple’s parking lot. No locals today, just us VIPs, and in pairs and cliques we wandered where Shaolin students, skin painted sparkly gold, held poses on red-clay rooftops, weapons raised, fists clenched, faces smooth.
“They worship idols,” Peter Mu spit, maybe sensing our awe; maybe sensing theirs.
We left him at the gate to trade gratitude for silence.
Justin Nicholes the author of two novels and some short stories and lives in China.