The Tengu Trick

If a man has been your teacher for a day, you should treat him as your father for the rest of his life.

― Wu Cheng’en, quote from Monkey: The Journey to the West

When was the last time I used my legs? I think, looking at my swaddled feet. Pins and needles run through them as I wiggle my toes for the fifth time. I shuffle to the edge of the temple and look down from Takaosan’s great height and realise the view is different to what I remember. In fact, looking back at it, the temple looks different as well. Older. Empty. How long have I been asleep?

A hacking cough sounds and I turn in time to see the strange white man take out a grey L-shaped token and stick it in his mouth. I wait quietly as he nurses on it for a minute before putting it away. He hacks a wad of saliva at a tree. At least his breathing has normalised.

I ask if he is alright.

He says, ‘Can’t breathe. Allergies.’

I say I do see, but really, I couldn’t be sure if ‘allergies’ is a disease, demon, or deadly toxin. Whatever it is, I pray it is an affliction confined to humans.

As the pins and needles subside, I acknowledge another desperate sensation in need of addressing. ‘I need to pee,’ I say.

Wet coughing noises.

‘Don’t look at me,’ Luke says, ‘It’s your temple. Go inside and look for a toilet. Otherwise, there’s probably one down at the monkey park.’

 ‘The what?’ I certainly didn’t remember any monkey parks.

Luke tried at the temple door again, but it remained as locked as the first time he tried to open it for help when I first woke. He didn’t take it well as one can imagine when a Tengu statue suddenly yawns at you.

The moon casts a silver light over the temple, highlighting my Tengu brethren still encased in stone. Luke dawdles between them, scrutinising each face as he passes, with a less than subtle glance in my direction at each one. ‘Are you sure you’re all the same species?’ he asks. ‘You’ve all got different faces.’

‘Do all humans have the same face?’

Luke stops, ‘well, no. But why do some have beaks and others a Pinocchio nose? And you – you’ve got monkey feet. He hasn’t got monkey feet.’ He bends down to point at the feet of an old Tengu wearing boots.

‘We are yōkai, demons, our physical appearances vary,’ I tell him.

I head for the path leading down the mountain and groan at the 108-step stairway. At least some things haven’t changed, I sigh.

Luke follows, ‘I thought Tengu were bad priests turned into goblins as punishment? That’s what the tour guide said.’

I walk down the stairs at an angle and try to avoid jostling my bladder. ‘We did that too.’

Luke begins, ‘The tour guide also said-‘

‘Where is your tour guide now? If they already know everything why not bother them?’ I say irritated. Bodily necessities like food and bladder release are beginning to impress on me the importance of reaching the monkey park before I turn this human into a Crow Goblin himself.

Luke coughs gently then says, ‘I got lost when I took a quick detour for pictures. Then I took the wrong path – twice – which lead me to your temple. But by then the sun was setting and I was having trouble breathing, so I…’

I tune out the rest as his accent is strange and his dialect is more southern than I am used to. It’s like talking to dogs whose vocal cords and mouth shape can only articulate so much. Frustrating.

The stairway takes us fifteen minutes to struggle down until we see the monkey park. I don’t know what I was imagining, monkeys taking their young to play among other underdeveloped spawns. The ‘park’ looks more like a cage. A large cage with about seventy snow monkeys inside. In the dark, their eyes reflect the moonlight and I see they’re all looking at me expectantly.

I ignore them for the moment and circle the building looking for a toilet. Luke calls out, so I circle back to find him standing at a door, chained and padlocked.

‘You could always try the one at the train station,’ says a voice, ‘But it’s still a good two kilometres down the mountain. Or if you want to avoid people you could try the gondola. No one should be around there this time of night.’

Luke and I look up to discover a man-sized primate lounging on the roof above the toilet block. His fur is golden, covered in red and gold silks and armour, and his right leg is extended at a right angle with a golden rod balancing effortlessly on his foot. He grins presumptuously.

‘Wukōng,’ I say.

‘Takiko,’ he replies.

‘Hi, I’m Luke. Are you a Tengu too?’

Wukōng chortles, kicking the golden rod into the air and stands on his hands in time to catch it with his tail, feet in a meditative position. ‘I am the Monkey King! Sūn Wukōng! Immortal, cloud surfing, trickster God. Faster and Stronger than the Jade Emperor and his heavenly armies. I have stood in Buddha’s hand and seen the five pillars at the end of the earth. I have served five hundred years imprisoned in a mountain! I journeyed with Tang Sanzang to the West. You have heard of me?’

If my eyeballs were not securely in place they would roll into eternity. I walk back to the cage filled with snow monkeys and am saddened by the lack of green inside. They sit and sleep on stone and sand with human ropes and buckets to play with. Behind me are a forest and a wildflower garden they must look at every day, but never touch.

I hear the sound of water trickling, which makes the ache in my bladder worsen. The trickling sound intensifies until it suddenly resembles that of a waterfall. I look up and see Wukōng walking along the fence like an acrobat, rolling his golden rod across his shoulders, and perfectly imitating the sound of water falling with his mouth.

‘Stop it,’ I say.

‘Stop what?’ he says, hopping on one foot.

He continues to imitate various waterfalls until I can’t take it. ‘Stop!’ I shout at the same time as shifting into a bear. My paws tear at the wire fence containing the monkeys, but I’m so weak that I can’t hold the transformation long. I revert to my own body as Luke comes rushing around the side of the entrance building.

‘What was that?’ his wide eyes and heavy breathing lead to him fumbling for his grey breathing device in his coat pocket. ‘Sounded like a bear. What happened to the fence?’

The fence is mangled and twisted but remains caging the animals. Only a hole big enough for one of the babies is all that came of my outburst. I slump onto the ground where I massage my sore legs and sigh. This is not how I remember Takaosan.

Wukōng’s ever-present grin deepens as he inspects the hole. ‘Fine work, Takiko. But let’s make it bigger,’ he says.

Then, Wukōng steps off the fence and lands as light as a feather on the stone ground, all the while twirling his golden rod. Luke and I watch as the rod spins faster than our eyes can keep up with until suddenly it stops and a blast of air flies from it, peeling the fence like a banana from the hole I had just made. The monkeys recover from the gust of wind and curiously move toward the shredded fence. It only takes a few moments for them to realise freedom is within their reach and before we know it they’re all rushing for the wildflower garden with gleeful chatter.

‘That was amazing,’ Luke has his fingers wrapped in his dark hair, the grey breathing device lies forgotten on the ground at his feet.

Wukōng bows his head ever so slightly in my direction before cartwheeling around in a circle with the golden rod in both hands. Luke laughs at the monkey king’s silly faces and follows after him when Wukōng wheels down another path.

I remain where I am a while longer, massaging my calf, and staring at the great hole in the fence. That isn’t who I am anymore. Then why did I do it?

Luke’s heavy steps alert me to his returning for me, so I stand and test walking on my unsteady legs. Luke comes to my side and wraps my arm across his shoulders. His mouth tugs at the corners in an awkward smile and I am grateful for his help.

We trek down the winding trail for what feels like hours, Wukōng leading the way and twirling his rod, Luke asking as many questions as he can fit into one breath. I ask several times to ensure Wukōng is leading us to the gondola instead of the train station. Luke’s misplaced sense of direction and my unfamiliarity with this time means we must rely solely on his good word. Trickster gods don’t tend to have dealings with good words, just lies, jokes and shockingly bad words. Each time, the monkey king puffs out his chest with hands on his hips and looks affronted, before laughing hysterically, and promises we’ll be there soon.

Luke talks about the legendary creatures of his homeland and how a European dragon differs from an Asian one. They all sound terribly unrealistic to me. But then I do have a beak and monkey feet, so who am I to judge these Europeans.

‘So, what kind of things do trickster gods do anyway?’ Luke asks.

Wukōng shrugs nonchalantly, ‘Play tricks of course.’

‘What kind of tricks?’

‘All sorts of tricks, don’t we Takiko,’ Wukōng says.

Luke raises an eyebrow at me.

I groan internally and remember why the monkey king was barred from this mountain all those years ago. ‘Not anymore,’ I say, hoping to kill the direction the conversation is heading.

The remainder of the trail is walked in relative silence before the forest around us opens for us to see the town and train station. The station is lit by cold, white lights and shows a smattering of humans waiting for the next train. Besides this, I see the toilet block and know I cannot wait long enough to backtrack to where the gondola building is further back up the mountain.

‘This isn’t the gondola?’ Luke says.

My neck is hot as I say, ‘you did this on purpose, Wukōng.’

Giggling is my only answer. Wukōng hops from one foot to the other, dancing with the golden rod in his tail.

I kneel and wrap my feet to appear more like human soles, then take Luke’s coat and pull it up to cover my wings and beak. I know it is a sloppy, ill-fitting disguise, but it will have to be enough. I march toward the toilets with wobbling knees and ignore Wukōng’s laughter behind me.

The toilets are empty and, with relief, I go the first available. I look down and want to cry. After what my poor legs have been through, I cannot believe my bad luck at having to use a squat toilet. That Wukōng, I grumble.


I look up to find the monkey king lounging along the toilet stall wall picking his teeth and flicking whatever he dislodged in my direction. ‘Get out!’

Wukōng smirks then vanishes.

A train arrives while I am taking care of my business and suddenly the station is filled with more people than I am comfortable with. I pull Luke’s coat up higher and rush around the stream of newcomers to where Luke is waiting. Before I reach him I feel a tug on the coat which is abruptly pulled off me. The stream of people stop and gape as I stand in full view of everyone in the station.

Wukōng is standing behind me in his human form. No sign of his tail, golden fur, or golden rod. The coat hangs in his hand in front of his legs like a curtain. A curtain is drawn to reveal the freakshow Tengu come back to life.

A few young people run away, uttering fearful remarks, but most of the people who have seen me stare in awe. An elderly woman kneels and begins praying. Several others follow suit. I look to Luke for an idea. I could try transforming again into something they’re used to seeing. But it is too late for that, they’ve already seen me.

Wukōng’s laughing gets to me and I can’t help but wonder, ‘Why, Wukōng?’

His laughing halts for a moment long enough for him to answer, ‘To play the biggest trick of all.’

‘What trick? Causing mischief on my sacred mountain?’

His smile disappears, but the humour never leaves his eyes. ‘Oh, no. You’ll do enough of that.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You are my greatest trick of all, Takiko. My Crow Goblin. I have woken the heavenly dog to wreak havoc once more,’ he says with his maniacal grin.

‘That won’t happen. I’m not like that anymore,’ I tell him.

‘You won’t be able to help it, Takiko. It’s in your nature.’

A swish behind him has me pay closer attention to the way he’s holding Luke’s coat, giving me an idea. The crowd is growing and gingerly moving closer with each moment. Wukōng’s eyes follow mine to the people gathering around. I must act quickly if I am to catch him off guard. He is much slower and weaker in his human form, but I know better to think he couldn’t take on a giant still.

Another swish behind him and I grab hold of the coat, yanking it away from him as quickly as I can manage without fumbling over. The crowd audibly gasps and Wukōng’s face takes on an uncharacteristic frown. Sūn Wukōng has very few if any, weaknesses. But one is that his human form is never complete. From the waist up Wukōng appears an eccentrically dressed man, but from the waist down he remains monkey, tail and all.

The crowd may have been uncertain about my appearance, but they know too well the legends of the monkey king causing disaster. They shout at him, cursing him and praying for him to go away.

Luke rushes to my side holding a white stick between his fingers. He blows smoke out his mouth and Wukōng growls as the smoke hits his eyes. Someone in the crowd throws a stone, and before things get too out of control, Wukōng changes back into his monkey form and strikes the ground with his rod, causing a rush of wind he disappears in.

Luke puffs on the white stick and I realise it’s on fire, ‘now that was a good trick.’

I’m tired, but I smile, and say, ‘it was, wasn’t it.’

Luke coughs.

‘Throw that away. You won’t want your allergies where we’re going,’ I tell him.

‘Where’s that?’ he asks.

‘We’re going to wake up my brethren. Wukōng wanted a trick. Let’s give him one.’

Luke looks dismally at the steep path we took down Takaosan and says, ‘right. Guess I better use the loo now, then.’


By Emily Morrison


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