When Brother Pig first met Brother Monkey, he'd laughed a hearty laugh and said, "This is the Great Sage Equaling Heaven? Can't even say a word! He's nothing but a dumb macaque!"
And then Brother Monkey had pinched him by one of his floppy sow ears. He'd twisted and twisted until Marshal Tienpeng was squealing for mercy on his knees, desperately crying aloud, "I'm sorry- I'm sorry, eldest brother! Forgive me- Ah, forgive me!" But eldest brother hadn't stopped until the Master's order.
We couldn't tell how angry Brother Monkey truly felt, not with his face painted as it was: brushed red, penciled black, powdered white. But he'd walked away soon after, tail swishing as he bounced the as-you-would staff over his bony shoulders, and that was the end of that. It took second brother some time to recover from nearly having his ear pulled off, and Master was never one to fault eldest brother for his moods. While Tienpeng, or rather, Bajie, suffered, Master climbed atop my back, took the reins (gentle, for he was always gentle) and said, "Let's go."
Nose high, spine straight, stenciled flags hanging from hat to shoulder, the Great Xuanzang of Tang tapped me with his left foot, and on we went.
They say Brother Monkey had been born of stone. And so mighty his birth that even heaven shook. I can't say for sure whether or not that was so. But according to the macaques of Flower Fruit Mountain and their squeak-cheep chatter, it might as well be. They tell me he'd simply appeared one day, a golden monkey well into adolescence, and wandered into their home, a little patch of grass and trees rooted in the corner of Huaguo. He hailed from no clan and bore no name, for even monkeys had names.
He'd been smaller than most, half the size of their grown and about as scrawny as their young. He'd come shivering and coughing, battered black and blue, as if he'd trudged through rain and snow with no concept of hiding. Even the idea of eating eluded him; when they offered him a hanging peach, he first breathed in the fuzz, then rubbed his bruised fingers against that skin, and finally swallowed in one gulp. Drinking too was unfamiliar and he'd sputtered on his first try in their little stream. I asked them if they took him in out of pity, this starved creature from nothing, and they shrugged- No, no, we were curious.
Because he hadn't been pitiable. Ignorant, perhaps, but never pitiful. There was an innocence about him that dazzled them, and he took all his sufferings in stride. He saw no cause for these ailments, and he wondered why, but he hadn't asked for relief, hadn't stopped for a second to lament. Where did he come from? they'd asked in that way only primates could, and he'd only point into the distance, perhaps at some patch of earth or rock. And as they grew accustomed to him and he to them, they soon learned that he could not screech.
There would be no ooohhs and ahhhs, or the peeps and yeeps of their kind, because he could manage nothing more than a dry grunt. He'd tried to mimic them many times, but it was all for naught. For what stone could speak?
They came to know him as Stone Monkey- shiho- and that was that. The four I spoke to, Beng, Ba, Ma, and Lyu (though their names were quite different back then), were especially protective of their shiho.  Their logic was simple: one who couldn't speak could not cry for help, could not take a mate, could not find his kind. And they knew the demon mountain to be a cruel garden- to the animals in that kingdom, Shiho was weak, incomplete, an invalid waiting to die. And Stone Monkey was anything but.
Many had tried to belittle him (tigers and wolves and apes, I'd assume), and he'd be covered in bruises and blood more often than not. Ma believed he drew these challengers because his existence alone defied the very order of Huaguo; he'd never stay down and the more they counted on him to die, the longer he'd stay up. Black eyes, bruised bones, cut over cut in his tangled gold fur. But Shiho never backed away, and perhaps the most miraculous part was- he won. He would always win.
And I suppose that's what fuels Brother Monkey even now. We encountered many a demon on the way west, and always, eldest brother went for the biggest, baddest, strongest of the lot. That was what he did in Flower Fruit Mountain, be it leopard or bear: he'd challenge the largest one first and prove that he, for all his flaws, was not to be reckoned with. He was no one's victim and no one's prey. It was how he'd survived until now.
And that was why he dove headfirst through the waterfall over the cliff-side cave.
Whoever dares enter shall be our king! the clan had declared. And none had tried. Lyu had made a bold attempt, but he'd balked as soon as the water splashed him back. The waterfall had been coarse and rough, as unrelentingly savage as it was to see. But Stone Monkey had plunged straight in, perhaps as a challenge to his clan, perhaps as a way of proving Huaguo's kingdom wrong, perhaps as his way of saying, "Weak? Not I!"
Regardless, everything changed after that. There had been something behind the waterfall after all, a gorgeous little enclave for the macaques to hide and rest. And so, Shiho, with his silky drenched fur, became their chief- the Handsome Monkey King, Mei Hou Wang.
I knew full well who the Great Sage Equaling Heaven was when we first met. He'd beaten me well into submission for swallowing the Tang priest's horse. I took comfort in the fact that I was not the first dragon to face this monkey's wrath. But he didn't kill me, and to this day, I still don't know who I should thank- the merciful Sanzang, the Bodhisattva's order, or Brother Monkey's magnanimity (perhaps all of the above).
He'd communicated with me through a series of prods with his staff. I hadn't known it was possible to beat someone into becoming a horse until I met him. Somehow, I understood his message, and the Bodhisattva was clear in reiterating it- to pay for my crimes, I was to become Tang Sanzang's steed and take him west. I hadn't been pleased, but it was a light enough punishment compared to execution and I was willing enough.
"Eldest brother, forgive my transgressions," I'd said to the monkey.
He'd only nodded. I'd felt rather slighted. But then sensing my unease, the Master said, "Wukong can't speak."
I remember wondering, horrified, if it was some sort of curse put on him for his trespass against heaven. If maybe, screaming for five hundred years under a mountain had destroyed his vocal chords. Or perhaps they'd rot away. But I soon learned that wasn't the case. He'd written it to me himself, Grandpa Sun never could talk. Stop looking so scared. It's not going to happen to you.
And I wondered, had any of us ever really heard him speak? Had his fame grown so wide that he was more myth than real? It was more awe than shock I felt. The Great Sage Equaling Heaven, who trampled the underworld, who ransacked the Eastern Sea, who wrought havoc in heaven, and fought on par with Erlang Shen... was mute.
The Monkey King had been excellent in his reign, and for the years under his rule, the monkey clan flourished. He'd come up with a way to communicate with his subjects, a standard of fixed gestures and moves to speak his mind. Ba had found it difficult at first, but the clan caught on, and even now, they lapsed into it from time to time. Their king made a decree every day, from how much food they should gather to when they should hide. And for once, each and every monkey lived past the summer. Still, again and again, the king's domain was challenged, and each time, he'd triumph with wit over brawn. But he had a stubborn mind and once it was set, there'd be no going back. When their eldest silverback died, Meihouwang had grieved and brooded for exactly five days and nights.
He'd learned of a faraway immortal from the older in his council, and mind made up, the monkey king left his four guards in charge, and sailed away. The five had built his raft together, tied with branch wood and vines, and armed with nothing, their king took to the wavy seas. He spent seven years learning from humans along the way, memorizing the speech and ways of these hairless peoples. To them, he was no more than another animal, one who could not even grunt, let alone speak.
For seven whole years, he endured these slights, pebbles from rowdy children, whacks from bramble brooms, the occasional cage and dagger, and what else, I did not know- mortals were a narrow-minded lot. But he was adamant that he must learn. And one day, when he was again picking himself up from scrapes and mud, he heard a woodcutter sing. Perhaps if eldest brother had been born with his throat complete, things would have been infinitely different for him. He could have spoken to the man, proving himself as intelligent and cultured as they came, and been sent well on his way to the great immortal's dwelling. But alas, Brother Monkey had no such blessing.
Lyu tells me their king clapped his hands instead, in beat with the woodcutter's song. He did this for days on end, gesturing at his silent throat until he made his point clear- he could not speak, but he could hear. Until finally, the woodcutter saw him for what he was- not mindless ape, nor violent devil, or useless mute. And moved (for who wouldn't be moved by my brother?), this man took him in, taught him the ways of mortals, clothed him from head to toe, and most importantly, taught him the stroke of a brush.
Brother Monkey's handwriting hadn't improved for the past thousand or so years, but it was remarkable that he learned in the first place.
I don't dare say I know eldest brother best, but I do know this- when he devotes himself to you, he holds nothing back. And he must have loved this woodcutter in that fierce way only my eldest brother could.
Because Brother Monkey did not go on his merry way afterwards. The man had no one in his lonely woods, not even the company of a dog. Perhaps he had a wife or child at some point, but I would never know. Eldest brother stayed by his side for year after year, caring for him in illness and age, watching with his own eyes as the man fell from the sturdiness of youth to the weakness of age. And it wasn't until the woodcutter was ash and buried that he left. The grave remains.
As it turned out, this woodcutter knew the immortal he sought, a figure clad in white hiding as a hermit from the celestial realm (which, then, felt so far away). This teacher's name, my eldest brother would never reveal.
I imagine it wasn't easy for Brother Monkey to get into the immortal's good graces, though his clothes and demeanor must have been impressive. He couldn't voice his requests, but he could write, and this impressed the immortal so much he took him in. Of course, his other pupils were understandably offended by eldest brother's arrival. They were the best of the best, the brightest under heaven, victorious from the start. Next to them, he was nothing but a dumb beast in patched cloth, whose writing looked like scratches, whose feet refused to leave. And for his lack of voice, he made up in unending movement, for eldest brother could never sit still (to the chagrin of his class).
But try as they might to ignore him, to torment him, to get rid of him, he would never budge. Brother Monkey went on to become the immortal's most dedicated, and perhaps talented, student. The master taught him everything he knew and would have more if not for the student's arrogance. There had been eighty-one transformations, but the old immortal was only willing to pass on seventy-two. The monkey's stature was simply far too small. Such a body could not handle more, no matter what tantrum eldest brother threw or how shamelessly he begged. And I believe this difference of opinion is why eldest brother left when he did.
Immortality obtained, he'd returned to his kingdom, this time with a name in tow, one by now known far and wide: Sun Wu Kong.
There were few in the three realms that really knew about Brother Monkey's peculiarity. And I suppose a huge part of that was due to us.
There were three signature phrases Sun Wukong was known for shouting: "Demon, don't you dare run!" "Demon, have a taste of my cudgel!" and "Old Sun's here!"
The truth is he never said any of those things. Sha Wujing said the first, Zhu Bajie the second, and I, the third. There was a particular voice we mastered for these occasions, a high-pitched battle cry, not too deep or soft, that we felt embodied eldest brother best. We did it for the purpose of warding off demons; at least this way, they wouldn't have to fight Brother Monkey to know what a force he was.
And I suppose we derived some vicarious pleasure from it, as if by being his voice, we were fighting alongside Brother Monkey and not watching from the sidelines. And in the beginning, at least, I'm ashamed to say, we might have felt that someone like him needed a voice to be complete, that there would be no Sun Wukong if he had no lines. But there was never anything wrong with eldest brother. He'd been whole from the start. Voice or no voice, he was the Great Sage Equaling Heaven and his feats alone should have been enough to prove that point. Even Master knew this.
We were the ones who were wrong.
Sun Wukong became notorious among the neighboring kingdoms (especially after he dealt with the unfortunate usurper to his throne). The demon kings came to him one by one, each more shocked than the last that this Great Sun could not speak. They'd sworn brotherhood with him regardless, for you didn't need speech to drink, and prompted him to pay my uncle's eastern palace a visit. Needless to say, it ended sordidly for Uncle. And not long after he'd obtained the as-you-would golden cudgel of the Eastern Sea, Sun Wukong quite literally fought his way through the underworld and removed his tribe from the book of life and death.
He'd done it all without uttering a single word, but his victims no doubt spread the news for him. That was the beginning of the end.
Then heaven's own visited Water Curtain Cave and invited him into the celestial palace. Even speaking of it now, Beng's eyes all but glisten. Royalty like me would never understand, they said. Back then, they'd felt as if they'd spent a life groping in the dirt for a strand of light, and that light had come at last. And how bright it was! It was a day they'd never thought possible. Because when were demons anything but dirt in the eyes of heaven? They were the lowest of the low and the highest of the high had taken them by the hand. It was as if heaven had said, "We see you now. You're equal."
(They were right. I would never understand, but I believe my days as a horse had taught me enough.)
The clan whooped and drank all evening, hoisting their king on their shoulders. They laughed along with his silent chuckles while he clapped and clapped. By then, none dared challenge the Monkey King anymore- he'd proven himself their greater and his domain greater still, but he strove to prove onwards.
I'd wondered what arrogance prompted him to continue afterwards, but now I know. He'd taken it upon himself to prove his subjects greater as well. Their clan would never settle for a patch of forest again, would never have to bow their furry heads, and thanks to him, would never have to settle for being less than anything and anyone else. He'd proven them better and now he was to prove them best. His whole life, Sun Wukong had chosen to barge through challenge after challenge: this was no different.
When they sent him off, the clan brought out their finest drums, strung from bamboo and hide, and decorated their king in polished gold. Their fingers painted a coat of white over his face, streaked his eyes with red and black, each line curved just right, and placed a phoenix crown atop his head. They dressed him in golden armor (gifted by my uncle, no less) and layered it with a crimson cape that trailed long past his feet. He stood among offerings and the like, the best meat and fruit they could salvage, for they wanted heaven to see them at their best. They'd held him high as they beat their drums and chanted with, their faces brushed to match his, torchlight flickering all about. That night, he was as beautiful as the sky itself, crude and raw and true to all that Flower Fruit Mountain was- a wild spirit of earth and fire, never to be tamed otherwise, but there, they offered him up to heaven's cage.
And it plucked him away without a second thought.
They might think on it with regret now, how they'd dolled up their king and raised him to his doom. They'd practically sacrificed him to the gods they'd been so eager to please. But Brother Monkey would never fault them. Because I'm sure he didn't regret a thing.
Master was the only one who seemed to know exactly what Brother Monkey meant. No guessing with hand signs, no need to scratch out words in writing, none at all. They were close in that way and yet not. Because although he understood eldest brother, Master still did not. I believe the only one of us who really knew him in that way was third brother, Friar Sand. But third brother was slow when it came to reading eldest brother's gestures and signs, and that was a point of much frustration over the years.
But when it came to the heart, third brother always knew where Brother Monkey stood, even if I did not. It was Friar Sand who told me Sun Wukong would never abandon us, even if Master told him to go, even if he felt betrayed by each and every one of us here. I learned this the first time Master sent eldest brother away.
"Master knows it too," he'd said, "but I think he's too proud."
We were all so proud, myself included. But not him, not third brother, the humblest in our group, and perhaps the worthiest of anyone's trust.
"I'll go then," I said, or whinnied, "I'll find him."
And this time, I would deliver my third brother's signature line: "Master's been captured by demons."
Heaven turned out to be everything eldest brother wanted, and more. It was lacquered poles and gold banners, cloud-soft silk and endless light, blinking statues and nectar fountains, gleaming harps and erhu stars, clean to a fault, with all the wine one could ever hope to drink. For one like him, who'd known nothing but old trees and dirt-patched grass, this was a siren song that beckoned him in, seducing the Monkey King until he quivered at his very knees.
The celestial palace was the highest realm there was, and it was said that everyone within was happy, for who would be unhappy in heaven, if not content? But he'd never settle for being "content," though it took him some time to learn.
The court titled him the celestial horse groomer- Bi Ma Wen. And in his excitement, Brother Monkey found nothing wrong with this title. There was no such thing as a small title in heaven, only large and larger, and he'd never been as excited as he had been then. Perhaps he felt the same way when he first caught sight of humans and their smooth faces. But the thing about heaven was that its novelty never wore off, like holy opium one could only dream of whiffing.
And vain as he was, Sun Wukong felt, for what I assumed was the first time in his life, a sense of shame. He'd be too proud to truly feel embarrassed, but very few things could make him self-conscious in the first place. The Jade court was one such thing. Like so many in his life, they'd turned their noses down at him, laughed behind his back, treated his presence as if it was moot. All were things he could never stand.
He, in his scratched armor and painted face, stood next to those celestials with their golden eyeliner and silver silks, was as unlike from them as night and day. He was scarred and crass and low as earth, and they- mighty, graceful, cold, as rich as he was poor. But this was not the source of Brother Monkey's shame, far from it in fact, though I'm sure his ego bruised regardless.
He was first instructed to hide his tail. Then heaven stripped him of his armor, washed his face until not a trace of paint remained, and tucked him into a tailored uniform of black and red. And Daode Tianzen, the grand pure one, Taishan Laojun himself came to the horse groomer and offered him a cask of pills. They were no bigger than the smallest of marbles and transparent to the touch, beautiful things that eldest brother couldn't resist.
"We can fix your ailment," Taishan Laujun told him, "one blessed pill for each day in heaven."
Brother Monkey had never considered himself ill. Until then. And it seemed that not a being in heaven understood how he could not. The officials could never fathom why a demon had been summoned to court, a dumb animal no less. His repute meant nothing, his skills even less, if he couldn't even manage to squeak a word. They thought this of him, for who in heaven was imperfect?
And under all his boasts and tricks, under everything he'd ever done, eldest brother wanted something much simpler and so much more impossible to obtain- he wanted acceptance for all he was. He'd always wanted it. And now it was finally within his reach.
He took the pills and ignored the way they burned. Because for once, he felt the right rumble in his throat, felt his vocal chords pull and part. And the very first thing he did was screech and laugh, booming loud for all to hear. He never shut up afterwards, and so bright was his chatter that celestials lined up to hear him speak. Now, any time and anywhere, he could brag of exploits past and shout orders at the top of his lungs. "Old Sun" this and "Grandpa Sun" that, Bimawen spoke and spoke without a care for thirst. Surrounded by his fellow court members and their pleasant faces, he found a new home amongst heaven, far from the demons so down below.
His voice was rather grating on the ears, or so I've heard, though as natural as they came for a monkey his size. But to eldest brother, it must have been the loveliest voice he'd ever heard. He must have been delighted at the tickle each word left upon his throat, at the movement of lips to sound and all that followed. He'd only dreamed of such a thing and now it was true. In spite of the sting in his throat, he'd never been happier, and this joy was enough to intoxicate him for years on end.
But underneath it all, he was ashamed of what he'd done, for in accepting those pills, he'd finally admitted that he was not whole.
Second brother had been strung up in a tree by the time I arrived, Brother Monkey's subjects poking and prodding the poor pig with near sadism.
"Xiao Bailong!" Bajie cried, "get me down!"
"I will soon," I promised, unused to walking on two legs after so long on hooves, "but I must speak to eldest brother first."
The monkeys were clearly told to ignore me, but I pestered them nonetheless. And when that failed, I bribed them (and I meant it too; a noble of royalty never lies, especially one of the western sea). Out of strategies, I resolved to what third brother would do- honesty. I kowtowed before the guards- Beng and his lot- and said, "Please, bring me to my eldest brother. Ao Lie misses him so."
He came out.
The Jade court had lied to him, and as expected, Brother Monkey went absolutely ballistic over that fact. His position was no higher than a stable boy and they'd let him think he was more. He'd been made a fool and worse yet, he'd proven them right- he was just a monkey from below, some demon they could trick and trick until they'd had their laugh. His pride couldn't handle this. Sun Wukong set every horse free, without a care for where they romped. As far as he was concerned, they could gallop straight into the Jade Emperor's bedroom and eat his beard.
"Hark me!" he'd cried, "Sun Wukong is no one's joke! I'll answer to this name and no more- Qi Tian Da Shen!"
And after that storm through heaven, he returned to Water Curtain Cave, the Great Sage Equaling Heaven now born. As expected, the Jade emperor was the opposite of pleased. They'd let him, a damaged demon of all things, into heaven's edge, gifted him with a taste of speech, and he now chose to repay them in this manner. It was a slight the court could not stand. The only two options were to give into his demands (acknowledge somehow that this wild animal was equal of heaven) or slaughter him and his kin on sight. I believe that a good majority of the Jade court opted for the latter, but in the end, they went with the first and caved in.
But Brother Monkey was not so keen to return a second time. Now that he was free, he could admit that he'd hated heaven- hated how they'd bribed his tongue, hated how they'd lied to his face, hated how they'd laughed at his every move, hated how they'd tried to change his every part, hated how they'd made him ashamed of his people's paint, and worst of all, hated how he almost thought they were right. For a moment, he'd believed everything, had thought himself as ugly and ill as they'd tried to make him seem.
He told me once that he'd wept when he returned to his subjects. Because his first thought had been, How ugly. Water Curtain Cave and its mountain could not compare to heaven, not with its hooting animals and tattooed walls. For how could the finger prints of Huaguo's monkeys compare to the glowing brushes of the Jade court's walls? How could their stone beds compare to velvet and silk? How could their drums and leaves compare to the celestial's erhu strings?
The Great Sage wept for these thoughts, for how could he have these thoughts? What sickness had overcome him to make him think such things? He'd looked at his own kingdom the way heaven had looked at him, and to his horror, understood why they did. He'd taken those pills with him as well, never once stopping to think why he'd been given medicine over magic. But it'd pleased his clan to no end- they'd celebrated his return, raged as he raged, cheered at his voice, and sung his praises to the skies above.
It was a miracle to hear their king speak, and Ma, Beng, Ba, and Lyu collectively agreed that if they could have traded their voices to let him keep his, they would have done so in a heartbeat. Such was their devotion, and such was their king's guilt.
I believe eldest brother knew the Jade emperor hadn't truly meant to keep his word, but his judgment had been too clouded to see. When heaven asked for him the next time, Sun Wukong agreed. They gave him a proper office this time, let him keep his armor, and labeled him, Great Sage Equaling Heaven. But it was meant to keep him out of sight and out of mind. And perhaps as additional distraction, he was sent to guard the celestial peach orchard.
Still, Brother Monkey was afraid to paint his face and of his own accord, donned the official's robes. And though he could speak, chose not to at all, save a few words here and there. He knew full well why he came back- he was running out of pills, first and foremost, and secondly, he'd felt unworthy of ruling Huaguo, not after he'd let heaven taint his being. But there was no magic that could turn back time, that could make him Shiho again. He'd never marvel at a peach or its juice again. And even in the Queen Mother's own garden, surrounded by the pink and white of her proudest fruits, he felt thoroughly bored.
And for the first time, he noticed the aftertaste of those pills. They melted like honey on the tongue, but when their fragrance passed, nothing remained save a trace of bitterness, almost sour to the root. Then he'd wondered if this was what he'd wanted after all.
Brother Monkey saved Master, as he always did. Then he'd sobbed in Master's arms, as he was wont to do, and though Master had admitted to being wrong, he hadn't apologized in the least. Of course, eldest brother didn't care. He spoiled Master this way, and in his own way, I believe Master knew. There was no Sun Wukong without Tang Sanzang, and no Tang Sanzang without Sun Wukong. They were bound by that silent fact.
Afterwards, I asked eldest brother, "Why come back?"
He signed back, You lot begged your Grandpa, sheesh.
"But why?" I asked again. He knew full well what I meant. Brother Monkey only shrugged. Why indeed would he come back for us? We believed a demon over him, let Master send him off, and still had the face to ask him back (it does sound rather harsh when said so bluntly).
He hopped up to me and placed a finger on the back of my neck. He traced the lines behind me: I wanted to. And that was that.
On earth, eldest brother's throat had been sore for days on end, as if burning from the inside out. The only thing keeping the pain at bay was a swallowed pill, and he'd be taking two at a time when it was particularly bad. Upon his return to court, Taishan Laojun more than doubled his cask of pills. The more eldest brother ate, the better he was, but nothing stopped the pain from coming back. He'd cough up blood from time to time, the skin within so ravaged that he soon realized without his pills, he'd never make noise again, let alone speak. But why? he'd wondered. Then he'd known- the spirits in one pill were too strong for a demon's form, and the more he took, the more they gathered, until they'd destroyed his chords.
The reality was, those pills had made his condition worse, not better, and he'd have no choice but to keep popping them in if he wished to keep his voice.
The celestials could have cured Brother Monkey any time they wanted. They could have restored his vocal chords forever more. But the pills had been his leash and he the dog. He learned this as he again flew from the heavenly court, the Jade emperor snapping at him in a rage fitting for the king of heaven. And to his own surprise, Sun Wukong was not half as angry as he thought he'd be, not when they'd only confirmed what he'd always suspected.
The Great Sage hadn't been invited to the Queen Mother's peach banquet, hadn't been deemed a high enough title. His pride wounded once more, and this time, the sting went so deep it jolted him awake from whatever dream he was wandering through. This time, he'd looked at the court atop its clouds, its floating lanterns, and its golden lights, and thought, So what?
The peaches in their garden grew from magic and cultivation, noble fruits from seed to fuzz. But the fruits of Huaguo were scattered wild and beat by rain. They survived and died, with no help to grow and every reason to shrivel and dry. Brother Monkey realized then, that based on this alone, his kingdom's fruits were more abundant than heaven's could ever be, his people more alive and true than those celestials would ever know. And this realization changed his course for good.
He would leave heaven behind, no, he would leave it behind in a typhoon of smoke. And he did exactly that. Sun Wukong single-handedly pillaged the peach banquet and everywhere he touched. He stole heaven's wine, made off with the Grand Pure One's most prized pills, and devoured each and every peach there was. He made sure to injure as many soldiers as possible on the way out, and by the time he returned to Huaguo, the Jade emperor's court was all but up in flames.
He had Beng and Ba dig their fingers in white, Ma in red, and Lyu in black, and smear that paint all over his bare face. He'd wear it proud from then on, and never again would he be ashamed. Again, he donned his armor and uncle's phoenix crown, its feathers stretched high as he danced with the ruyi jingubang. And cackling, he burned what remained of his official robes, hat to belt and shoe to sleeve.
Heaven sent force after force to bring him down, but again and again, Brother Monkey would beat them back. And for a while, it seemed that there was indeed no match for the Great Sage Equaling Heaven. To coax him, General Li had even asked, "You base macaque, do you wish to keep your voice!?"
"I do!" he'd shouted back, "I very much do!"
Flanked by his subjects, the creatures of Flower Fruit Mountain beat their drums and cried along, flags raised to the sky, Great Sage Equaling Heaven crudely painted down each cloth. The Great Sage had survived until then, through no intervention of heaven, and for a grand moment, he was proud of where he stood. For all his stories and all his boasts, Sun Wukong had never been truly happy with it all until that instant. He'd always been compensating, trying, wishing, for some way to prove himself fit, to prove himself whole, and now he believed he was.
These were the last words he ever spoke: "But not anymore! Tell old Jadey that!"
And with a final cry, he hurled the cask of pills into the sky, straight at the Pagoda King's chest. Those pills scattered in the air, a whirlwind of burning petals, and with them, all hope of Sun Wukong ever speaking again. But for him, it was just as well. He had no need. Against all odds, the Monkey King had stayed alive and he intended to live on until his earth itself crumbled to dust. For eldest brother was never ill. What he had was no ailment and never again would he let anyone tell him otherwise, least of all the celestial court. It was who he was, what he was, and the price of changing that was much too high for him to pay.
No, Brother Monkey would not stoop so low. He grinned and coughed the rest of his voice out, until he was again a mute macaque. Then he wrote in the air, Come! Come! Let the fight begin!
Heaven's army swarmed him like a cliff of ants, and like a match burning grass, Brother Monkey cut through them all, as if defeating every doubt he'd ever had. No cage could have possibly held him in, for he was a force far out of heaven's reach, so far from them that no celestial could possibly have known why he fought the way he did. It was with a ferocity unmatched, a fierceness more befitting of a spirit than being, a force akin to wildfire rain. In the end, the Great Sage did not fight. The Great Sage danced.
He weaved a path through his foes, silent laughter all the while, even as his cape singed to ash and tore to shreds. But he chose this. He chose to battle with his own two hands, not an ally in sight. He chose to live with his silent tongue, and as he did all this, he dared every other to fight back. Then he'd silence them himself, for he- and everything he was- was his voice, and this one voice roared above all else. Here was the proof that he'd stayed true. And the Great Sage Equaling Heaven needed no more.
I once let Brother Monkey paint my face like his. He'd gotten a few marks on the reins, but otherwise, he'd acknowledged that I looked rather good. He leaned against me, biting into a juicy peach. Second brother was busy brown-nosing Master and third brother had been sent for water.
"Eldest brother," I found myself asking, "did it hurt?"
Did what hurt? He cocked his head, the circlet gleaming against firelight. There were plenty of things that'd caused him pain, but I had been thinking of the past. I'd always wanted to know what he truly felt that day. By then, I'd only heard what Beng, Ba, Ma, and Lyu had said. And did Brother Monkey not have the right to tell me himself? So I asked.
"When they cut your tongue?"
If things differed, perhaps I could have ended his story there. I could say the Monkey King triumphed over heaven and went on to rule his kingdom in joy forevermore. What he did was noble, no doubt, moving, and some day I know he'd become greater than he ever was. But we must remember that my eldest brother was a demon, first and foremost. He was a wild animal. And like all things wild, he had no control. His arrogance cost him, as did his temper and that desire for bloodrun vengeance.
He'd planned to set heaven aflame and fill its rivers with the Jade court's blood. And like the villain of every such tale, he failed.
They'd caught him in the end. He could not overpower the Illustrious Sage's seventy-three transformations or his all-seeing eye, nor did he foresee the Grand Pure One's blow from behind. The Great Sage went down, thoroughly abused, and that was the end of havoc in heaven. Erlang Shen capped his magic with a blade through each shoulder, and then he'd felt Yang Erlang's celestial howling dog tear a chunk of flesh off his leg. Ironically, Erlang Shen did not reside in heaven. He had no particular affection for the Jade Court, so I suppose it was fitting that the one who brought eldest brother down was another who'd cast heaven aside for earth.
And of course, the Jade Emperor had no reason to show Brother Monkey mercy of any sort. Immediately after his capture, eldest brother was sent to the execution stand. I heard that even some celestials balked at the sight. As I've said, Sun Wukong was small in stature, perhaps painfully slight. Once his phoenix crown came off, half his height was gone. Then they'd cut away what remained of his armor, and he was smaller still. This, and his open wounds, and his speechless tongue, made for a shape so helpless that I heard the Jade Emperor's own daughter asked to let him go.
He'd never looked smaller, but in my opinion, Sun Wukong had never been bigger. For who else could look at defeat and laugh?
And as I've also said, Brother Monkey was anything but helpless. So he bore his punishments with a grin, laughing through every and anything thrown his way. Thunder and axes, swords and daggers, clubs and scythes- nothing could do more than leave a shadow of a bruise. But the court was determined to make him suffer some way or another; he would not go unscathed after causing so much humiliation.
"Remove his tongue!" the Jade Emperor had ordered.
Taishun Laojun and Tai Bai Jin Xing, the grand pure one and the great white star, had tried to talk him out of it. Sun Wukong's throat was already ruined, they'd said, he could never speak now. And besides, would it not be more merciful and dignified to schedule a quick death? But the Jade Emperor was not a flawless being, and his armor chipped, gave into his impulse as even a mortal would.
Brother Monkey, still pierced through his shoulders, could only sit still as his head was lifted. The executioner forced his mouth open and pulled his tongue out. The taste of heavenly peaches and rice wine was still on his tongue when the dagger came down. In one slice, his tongue was gone and he was left with nothing but bile and blood. Eldest brother was honest when he told me- yes, it hurt.
His punishment was to never utter a sound, for no pills could restore a lost tongue. His punishment was to be forever banished from the delights of taste. Apples and peaches and lychee gone. Fruit and wine and meat of any sort was a luxury he was never to have again. And perhaps that would have been Brother Monkey's fate if the emperor had showed restraint. But he'd wanted the Great Sage to have no sense left.
Soon after, Sun Wukong was locked into Lao Tzu's cauldron, where he simmered for forty-nine days and nights. The Jade Emperor intended him to die from the heat, and if not for all those pills within him, eldest brother might have indeed. The smoke clogged his nostrils and blinded his eyes, and if he could scream, he would have cried raw. But the flames had been so great that they became one with him instead. When he burst from the cauldron, fur singed and eyes gold, he'd never felt more power than he did then. And one way or another, his tongue grew back.
And now it was the Jade Emperor's turn to pay for his folly, for Sun Wukong was far from merciful. He again shook the palace to the ground and rendered every soldier that came his way a bloodied pulp. When all was said and done, the Jade Emperor could only cower before my eldest brother. And that was when Lord Buddha came, and there was no confusion as to what occurred next. In his haste and in his arrogance, Sun Wukong gambled and lost.
But eldest brother looks back at it with some irony now, for Lord Buddha had treated him as any other. He'd been as capable, as reckless, as wicked and dangerous as any other demon in Tathagata's eyes, and perhaps more so. And as such, he deserved to learn the same lesson. So for the next five-hundred years, Brother Monkey stayed pinned under Five Finger Mountain, and just when he'd lost all hope of ever coming out, the Goddess of Mercy came and told him of a priest from Tang.
The Great Sage is just as prideful now, just as cocky, and just as strong. But the eldest brother I know is not wicked in the least, no matter what else is said. Petty at times, reckless even, and sometimes as childish as they came. And still, there's a nobility to him, a certain selflessness that none could match. In his shoes, I could not have brought myself to love Master as he did, to return again and again despite each slight. I suppose that's why he's the first disciple- regardless of who met Master first, next to Tang Sanzang, Brother Monkey is the one we'd learned from most.
But the most remarkable thing, I believe, is how he'd accomplished all this without a helping hand. There had been no one to say, "You will be great." He'd said that to himself (for he was remarkably egotistic), and it'd worked nonetheless. Through all that pain, he'd climbed and climbed, until he was here and here for sure.
He'd once wondered if he'd been too soiled by heaven to return to earth. And we often wondered if he was too much like earth to go out west. I don't know if the thought ever plagued him too, but regardless, I told him, "You'd make a wonderful buddha, eldest brother."
And I'd meant it, for he knew suffering and he knew triumph and he'd given up everything to stand beside us now. He only laughed. And that was that, pure and simple, as only he could be. So I remembered his story, burned it into my heart, for it was something I did not want to see forgotten.
And if someday, be it on our journey west or a thousand years down, I should come across a child, unsure and muddied and thinking itself damaged, I could pull that child aside and say, "Do not cry. Have you any idea that the Great Sage Equaling Heaven was just like you?"