while the storm ends
Leon finds the temple in the storm.
It’s a good thing, too, since he’d been in the middle of calculating his odds of surviving the night and becoming increasingly depressed about it. He’s already drenched through by the time he scrambles up to the top of the muddy path and ducks beneath the awning over the front door, and he hastily goes to push dripping hair out of his face before raising his hand —
The door slides open before Leon can knock. The boy standing on the other side looks at him with an expression close to revulsion and says something in a language he doesn’t understand, in a tone of obvious displeasure. He’s holding a broom like a weapon.
“I, uh,” Leon says apologetically. He automatically moves back to give them both some space, belatedly remembers the rain, and hastily goes to move back beneath the awning. The boy takes a step back when he does, frowning, probably annoyed at Leon dripping all over his front steps. “Hello, um. Is this — do you keep this temple? It’s raining, I was wondering if I could wait it out inside?”
The boy looks at him some more. Does he not understand? Leon, panicking, mentally picks through the meager vocabulary he’s assembled of the local dialect while backpacking through the area, and finds absolutely nothing of use. He’s wondering if he needs to start resorting to gesturing and hoping when the boy says, “Inside. You can come.”
Leon grins, startled. “Really?”
“Before I change my mind,” the boy snaps, and turns and stalks away, into the temple.
Leon winces, but the door has been left open with the invitation, as unwelcoming as it had sounded. And weren’t temples supposed to be open shelter to all sorts?
The front door opens up immediately to the front of the temple, with the altar glowing with candles, a pot of rice for incense directly in front of it, and the statue of the worshipped god rising up to tower over it all. It’s not a particularly nice temple — everything is sort of cramped together and cluttered — and the air is uncomfortably thick with incense smoke and ash. Leon steps fully inside and shuts the door carefully, quietly behind himself, and then immediately turns back to the god, puts his hands together, and lowers his head.
He’s not very good at praying. He’s been wandering around this country for almost a month, and he still doesn’t really know what he’s supposed to do while praying. Mostly he just tries to clear his mind for a few seconds, until decorum tells him it’s fine to raise his head again. Now, he does his best to thank the god for tonight’s shelter and protection, and feel properly apologetic that he doesn’t know what they’re the god of. He contemplates lighting a stick of incense when he’s done, but settles for bowing three times from the waist. Then he straightens, glancing around for a place to settle.
The boy has set his broom in a back corner and leans there with it, watching Leon with narrowed, disdainful eyes. His hair is long, Leon notices; he didn’t realize earlier because it’s been scraped back severely into a low ponytail at the base of his neck. Leon thinks, vaguely, that he would look better with it down. His features are so sharp. In the dim light of the temple, Leon finds he looks younger than he’d first thought, perhaps even younger than Leon. “Uh,” Leon says. “Thanks, again. I’ll just — sit? Somewhere?”
The boy frowns deeper and gestures vaguely in the direction of the altar. He looks like he’s barely suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. “Dinner,” he announces abruptly without looking at Leon, and then turns and heads through a small doorway behind the altar that Leon hasn’t noticed until now.
“I have food,” Leon protests, but not very loudly. He has food, in the form of a granola bar and a canteen of water, and if the boy is offering, he’ll gladly take it. He doesn’t think the boy would poison anyone — or not in front of his god, at the very least. After a second’s hesitation, Leon slips his dripping backpack from his shoulders and goes to settle it next to the broom, before following after the boy.
The front room was thick with incense but cool, at least, with the storm; the inside of the back room, which turns out to be a combination of kitchen and storage closet with a thin paper screen blocking off half of it, is close and humid and filled enticingly with the smell of unfamiliar spices. Leon’s stomach grumbles automatically, despite himself; he coughs in embarrassment, but the boy barely gives him a second look, already standing in front of the stove.
“Stay away,” is all he says, and then he throws a handful of vibrant sliced chili into a huge wok of oil, where it immediately erupts in delicious sizzling. Leon takes half a step back, alarmed, but the boy doesn’t look perturbed in the slightest, or even vaguely aware that the oil is splattering everywhere. He reaches for the bottles of seasoning lined up against the stovetop: soy sauce and sugar and salt and dark vinegar. Leon surveys the spread of half-prepared ingredients on the cluttered countertop. Had the boy already been in the middle of making dinner when he’d come? How had he heard Leon at the door before he knocked? Had he actually picked up that broom to use as a weapon, and not because he’d been in the middle of sweeping?
“Can I help?” Leon asks, and then louder again to make himself heard, when the boy spills a bowl of blanched pork ribs into the wok and the sizzling intensifies.
The boy glances at him. He reaches for a huge knife lying off to the side, almost the size of Leon’s face, and uses it to point at a chopping board piled full of greens. “Chop,” he says.
Leon chops. The boy moves around the kitchen in tidy, practiced movements, finishing up the pork dish and setting it aside before taking a large bowl and mixing up some kind of sauce with finely chopped mushrooms. He removes the chopping board of vegetables from beneath Leon’s hands almost before Leon has finished chopping and slides them into a pot of boiling water, letting them cook for only a few minutes. He tops the vegetables with the sauce after using chopsticks to lift them out of the water, and then pops open the rice cooker at the end of the counter, beginning to divide everything neatly into bowls and plates.
“I’m Leon, by the way,” Leon says, in the lull. “Thanks for making dinner.”
The boy’s gaze flicks towards him, and then away. He’s scooped three portions of rice and has retrieved a wooden tray from a shelf above the stove, setting one of the bowls of rice and then a pair of chopsticks onto it. He takes two more plates, and begins to pile one with the pork, the other with the vegetables.
Leon sighs. “Alright, then.”
“Yu Qing,” the boy says, picks up the tray with the single serving of food, and strides past Leon back out to the front room.
Leon startles, and then scrambles to catch up. The boy has placed the bowls and plates at the altar, and is lighting several sticks of incense. When he puts his hands together, Leon goes quickly to follow, bows with Yu Qing, waits as he goes to place the incense in the pot to replace the ones almost burned down into ash.
“Okay, now we eat,” Yu Qing says, and goes back into the kitchen without turning back to check that Leon’s following.
The space behind the paper screen, it turns out, contains a low table and a single bedroll, tucked into a corner. Yu Qing goes wordlessly to take two seat cushions from a pile at the side, places them on either side of the table, and then he and Leon carry in all the dishes and plates. When Yu Qing hands him a pair of chopsticks, their fingers brush, and he pauses. The pads of his fingers are stained a little pink, from the incense sticks.
“It’s okay, I know how to use these,” Leon tells him, trying to sound confident about it.
Yu Qing lets his hand fall. He looks directly at Leon. He says, “Idiot foreigner, what are you doing up a mountain in the monsoon season?”
Leon blinks. “Uh,” he says. “Mostly I didn’t realize it was the monsoon season.”
Yu Qing lifts his gaze to the ceiling, mutters something in his own language that sounds decidedly uncomplimentary. He scoops up a bite of rice from his bowl with his chopsticks, stuffs it in his mouth, reaches for a pork rib before viciously tearing into it with his teeth.
“I’m trying to get to the top,” Leon adds. “It’s supposed to have a really good view. You’re supposed to be able to see the whole country from up there.”
“Just see the country from the ground like everyone else,” Yu Qing tells him flatly, still chewing.
Leon wants to laugh, but he doesn’t think Yu Qing would take it well. Instead, he takes a bite of rice carefully to hide his smile, before reaching for some of the vegetables. Yu Qing watches him out of the corner of his eye but he pretends not to notice, and is pleased when he doesn’t fumble his chopsticks. The vegetables are delicious, but he’d already known they would be just from the smell alone. The stems are tender, with a sharp bite of vinegar from the sauce. “Have you ever been to the top?”
“No,” Yu Qing answers, like that much should be obvious.
“No? But isn’t this your temple?”
“Not mine. The god’s.”
Leon frowns. “But you keep it. So you’ve lived here, for how long —”
“And you’ve never been to the top of this mountain.”
Yu Qing shrugs. He’s taken another pork rib, his cheek bulging with it. “Pointless.”
“How is it pointless?”
Yu Qing stares him, gaze disdainful. “I am not here for the mountain. I am here for the god.”
“Well, yeah, but ….” Leon looks at Yu Qing for a moment longer, at a loss for words. Has this boy lived here all his life, and never once ventured out of the temple? Is that possible? He decides to fill his mouth with rice instead. After a moment, he asks, “So what is your god the god of, then?”
Yu Qing’s chopsticks clink against his bowl. “The usual things,” he answers, without looking up.
“Good luck, then,” Leon surmises. He reaches for more vegetables. “Riches, probably? Peace and safety. What else is —”
“Direction,” Yu Qing says shortly, and then, “are you not eating the meat because it is spicy?”
Leon startles. “Uh,” he says, stalling for time.
“You should have said, earlier.” Yu Qing’s tone is accusing.
“I can eat spicy,” Leon protests half-heartedly, but he just reaches for more vegetables instead.
Yu Qing makes an irritated noise and then reaches to scoop up a rib before leaning over the table and depositing it into Leon’s bowl. “At least try,” he says, returning to his own bowl. “Don’t waste food.”
“Will your god get angry?”
“No,” Yu Qing says without looking up, “I will.”
Leon lets himself smile properly this time, unable to help it. He says, “So how did this end up being your temple, anyway?”
“Not mine. The god’s.”
Leon opens his mouth to protest the difference, but then finds that Yu Qing has looked up at him, dark eyes sharp. There’s a smear of ash on the turn of his wrist, visible only when he holds up his bowl. He says, “I have always been here. This is where I live.”
“But you can’t have been born here,” Leon says, and then frowns when Yu Qing only raises his eyebrows. “No, really. That’s not — you can’t have been nowhere else your whole life. Or it’s only that you don’t remember.”
“Then it’s that I do not remember,” Yu Qing shrugs, and stuffs rice into his mouth. “What’s the difference?”
The difference? Everyone has to come from somewhere, Leon thinks. He has been to many places because he likes to wander, but he has a home. He comes from somewhere. He looks at Yu Qing, the dusty walls of the temple behind him shaking with rain and thunder, the thin, ragged bedroll set in a corner. Even the table they’re eating on is weathered and worn, chipped at the corners. It’s obvious he’s lived here a long time. But this can’t be where Yu Qing is from.
“Your parents,” Leon says, then. “You had to have — family.”
Yu Qing shrugs again. “Then it’s that I do not remember,” he repeats. “Eat.”
Leon puts the pork rib into his mouth without thinking. He chokes immediately, and then begins coughing. Yu Qing reaches beneath the table and produces a teapot and a set of cracked cups, pouring a cup of water for Leon before offering it over with half a genuine grin; Leon snatches it up, and downs it. “I was right,” he says, as Leon struggles to clear his airways and find feeling on his tongue again.
“I’m just not used to it. Give me time to get used to it.”
“Have another, then,” Yu Qing says, still smiling, his entire face softened with it, and places another rib into Leon’s bowl.
Leon stares down at it. He says, “You can just say that you don’t want to say.”
“Where —” Leon shakes his head. “Never mind. So this temple, this god, it’s what you have?”
Yu Qing makes a vague sound in his throat, chewing a mouthful of rice.
“You believe in your god, then.”
Yu Qing swallows his mouthful. He looks at Leon. He says, “Does it matter?”
Leon stares. “But of course it matters. You keep this temple, for this god, and you’ve been doing it for — well, you say you’ve been doing it your whole life. How can it not matter whether or not you believe in this god?”
“Hm,” Yu Qing says, sounding thoroughly unimpressed. “Do you?”
“You came to this temple looking for shelter,” Yu Qing says. “Does that mean you believe?”
“I know that the temple is a place to seek shelter,” Leon says. The thick incense in the air is making it a little difficult to think, but he frowns, trying to understand what Yu Qing could mean. “I don’t think that it has anything to do with belief.”
Yu Qing nods, looking faintly approving. He says, “It’s like that.”
Leon frowns harder. “I don’t understand,” he confesses, and puts down his chopsticks. “This … you can’t compare this. It’s different.”
“I’m not religious,” Leon says. “I don’t believe in gods. Not in any god, not ever. But I’m not the one who grew up in a temple.”
Yu Qing puts down his chopsticks, too, and pours himself a cup of water. He looks at Leon. “You don’t believe in gods,” he says. “You came to a temple looking for shelter. You knew you would find one here. That does not mean you believe.”
“Yes,” Leon agrees.
Yu Qing taps at his own chest, where his heart rests. “I keep the temple, because it is my shelter. It is my home. This does not mean I need to believe.”
“But you keep this temple.”
Yu Qing raises his eyebrows. “Yes. I said.”
“How can you —” Leon frowns, struggling with the way to word things. “The world is so big. There are so many places to go. You don’t have to live in this temple all your life, it’s not the only place that can be your home. Why would you stay here if you don’t believe?”
Yu Qing looks thoughtful. “I do not not believe.”
Leon frowns. Yu Qing’s mouth twitches. He runs a finger along the edge of his worn table, contemplatively. “The temple will provide you shelter whether or not you believe. If gods do exist, then they will do what they’re meant for whether or not you believe. They will do the things that need to be done, because they are gods, and they will not ask for prayers or for anyone’s belief, because they are gods, and their existence does not depend on whether or not we think they do, because they are gods. The temple remains my home, irregardless. So. No, I do not think I need to believe in any god, as long as I believe that to be true.”
Yu Qing’s voice is quiet, but steady and careful. In the dim light of the single bare bulb burning abovehead, Leon looks at the stark shadows thrown over his sharp face from his cheekbones, and thinks that makes sense, in a strange way. He doesn’t — he doesn’t really understand it, but he can see why Yu Qing might think of things like that. He digs his chopsticks into the pork rib, and takes another tentative bite. His throat is more used to the spice now; it goes down, still not exactly smoothly, but he doesn’t cough again and he can taste the burst of flavor on his tongue. Yu Qing is a good cook.
“How big,” Yu Qing says suddenly, abruptly. His eyes are averted, his hands still.
Leon startles. “What?”
“The world,” Yu Qing clarifies. His gaze flicks at Leon, and then away again. “You said the world is big. How big?”
Leon smiles. “Are you asking where I’ve been?”
Yu Qing shrugs, still staring at his rice. He reaches for the plate of vegetables, eyes still lowered.
“I’ve always liked to travel,” Leon says conversationally, settling back. “My father is a diplomat, you see. He has to travel a lot for work, and my mother and I went with him everywhere. I guess I was lucky that way. I went to school in another country, on the other side of the world from where I grew up, south from here. And then I got interested in coming up here, so I’m taking a semester off to do that. Before I run out of time. I’m thinking of going around all the Pacific islands after.”
“So you haven’t been home in a while.”
“I —” Leon blinks, startled. But it’s true. He said that everyone comes from somewhere, everyone has a home, but he hasn’t returned to his in a long time. There are so many other places to see in this world, after all. He can barely get his head around staying in one place for longer than a week. “Yes. That’s true.”
Yu Qing hums. “Why will you run out of time?”
“Well,” Leon says, pauses. “I can’t spend the rest of my life traveling like this, even if I wanted to. My parents would expect me to settle down somewhere. I’d have to find a job. There would — this is the only time of my life, probably, that I’d have the freedom to do things like this.”
“To travel,” Yu Qing says.
“You are looking for a place to settle down?”
“That’s not really it. I’ll go home in the end, I think. Right now, I’m just … I like seeing places. I like going places.”
Yu Qing frowns at this, expression uncomprehendingly. His gaze, when he directs it at Leon, is narrowed. “Then what are you looking for so hard?”
“I’m not,” Leon begins, and then stops. What is he looking for? No one has asked him this before. He had always said, this is where I’m going and people had nodded and looked disinterested and sent him off, and no one has ever asked what he expected to find when he got there, or if he expected to find anything at all. He hadn’t thought that was something to consider. “I don’t know,” he says, finally. “I don’t think I’m looking for anything, or to go anywhere specific. That’s not what I care about. I think I’m just — happy knowing I have places I can go if I want.”
Yu Qing tilts his head a little, consideringly. “That sounds nice,” he says, but a little doubtfully.
Leon asks, “Do you not like that idea?”
“I like where I am,” Yu Qing shrugs. “The world is big, okay. But that has nothing to do with me. This temple is the only place I want to go. It is home.”
Leon thinks he can understand that. He just doesn’t think he’ll ever feel the same. He says so.
Yu Qing’s expression does not change. “That is fine. If you are happy like this, and you can live well like this, then that is good. People want different things.”
Yes, Leon thinks. That makes sense, too. He looks at Yu Qing across the table, at his thin mouth, his sharp nose, the slant of his eyebrows. Yu Qing catches him looking, but only raises an eyebrow and puts another pork rib into Leon’s bowl. Leon takes it and puts it in his mouth.
Later, after Leon has offered to do the dishes and then been summarily thrown out of the kitchen, the storm finds its second wind. It had quieted a little while they’d been eating, but now the rain is coming down once more in sheets, whiting out everything save during the sharp flashes of lightning. All the walls of the temple are shaking.
“Monsoon season,” Yu Qing says, shrugging and unconcerned, and then directs him towards the tiny little outhouse set around the back of the temple, where he shows Leon how to draw water from a pump into a wooden tub to wash.
When Leon returns, dressed in crumpled but clean clothes he’d dug out of the very bottom of his backpack, he finds that the only light are the candles burning at the altar, and that Yu Qing has made tea, with the teapot and cups they’d drank water out of at dinner. The tiny room has filled with the fragrance of flowers. There are two bedrolls spread on the floor, side by side.
“Thanks,” Leon says, a little uncertainly.
“You will leave in the morning,” Yu Qing says. He points to a bedroll. “But not now. You will die.”
Leon finds himself nodding. “Thanks,” he says again, a little lamely. “For — letting me stay, and everything.”
Yu Qing only shrugs. He seems disinclined to further conversation; they drink their tea in silence, warm and soothing and pleasant. It makes Leon sleepy. It doesn’t hurt that Yu Qing has set a stick of incense burning on the table, the scent gentler and more soothing than the kind at the altar. When they’re done, Yu Qing sets the cups and teapot onto a tray, bringing them to the kitchen. With a lack of anything else to do, Leon settles himself on a bedroll, tries to imagine falling asleep.
Everything is almost too dark to make out when Yu Qing returns. Leon feels the brush of a hand against his shoulder, and then the sounds of Yu Qing lying down and settling in, too. After a moment, Yu Qing asks,
“Where will you go, in the morning? Up the mountain?”
“I’ll try. Yes.”
Leon startles, and then pauses. “I don’t know,” he says honestly, to the dark ceiling. “Like I said, it’s not where I’m going that I’m really concerned with. The world is so big, you know. There’s always going to be someplace for me to go. I’m not worried about that.”
Yu Qing’s sheets rustle. He doesn’t speak.
Leon says, “I know —”
“I do not like going places,” Yu Qing says, suddenly. His voice has a strange quality to it that Leon can’t quite parse. “I — this temple. You haven’t been home in a long time, but this is — I have always been here. I will always be here, I think.”
“Yes,” Leon agrees, a little confused. “I know that.”
Yu Qing doesn’t say anything else for a very long time. Leon almost thinks he’s already fallen asleep, and is contemplating closing his eyes and trying to do the same, when he says, “Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight,” Leon answers automatically, startled.
Yu Qing doesn’t respond. In the morning, Leon will leave, and it’s possible that they will never see each other again. Leon thinks, you haven’t been home in a while, thinks, I will always be here, opens his mouth to say something else — and then realizes instead, in the morning. He can save these words for the morning. He knows where Yu Qing will be, if he wants it enough.
Xu Ran (she/they) is a coffee enthusiast and tea snob, and spends too much of her free time online shopping and playing video games. She has previously published a short story in the anthology “It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility”.