“The leaf falls but once to the ground,” the old monk said slowly, picking his words as he cast his gaze across his students. They all sat cross-legged on the floor before him, their orange robes and shaved heads blurring into one attentive crowd.
Later that year one of his students would die in training, a snapped spine rupturing. No amount of chi or sweet-smelling smoke could save the child. They were all orphans here, so there was no family to send his body back to. So they mixed the ashes into the walls of the new monastery wing that they were building. This was like they had always done and, briefly, some of the students wondered how many people’s ashes were mixed into the walls around them.
One of the students actually asked the old monk about this. The old monk just smiled and said: “A leaf falls but once to the ground.”
But it was a place of love and kindness, and all the orphans that came were taken in, cared for, schooled and made the family.
Unfortunately, the rest of the lands were not so kind. Civil war flared up as clans vied for power, innocents falling amidst the clashes. Some clans even began attacking villagers, targeting places of safety in other clan territories.
And then vicious mercenaries and a hardened army were outside the monastery walls. They had death in their hearts and blood on their mind.
The old monk called all the children together. They sat down one last time, the shaved heads and orange robes made a beautiful flower before the old monk and he smiled.
“The leaf falls but once to the ground,” the old monk started, “but on the ground, it does not disappear. Being separated from the tree does not make it less of a leaf. Rather the leaf becomes one with the ground from which the next tree and the next thousand trees grow from. Do not fear, my children, for we have many trees around us here.”
Slowly and quietly, the dead began to rise from their monasteries very walls. In absolute silence, they began to climb out of the walls, blank faces, shaved heads and dirty, orange robes. They were not angry, or bitter or hateful. They were the loved orphans taken in by the body of this great tree, and they were here to protect it as a family.
And protect it they did.
There would be myths written about that battle when the rebel army of Wu Chang fell at the hands of ghosts. There would be whispered stories of the dead rising and an ethereal army charging from the small, isolated monastery’s walls like a portal to the afterworld itself. But none of them would tell of the old monk and his family of lost children that had lived there.