Red Poppies

1.

Wild Thrushes

IT SNOWED that morning. I was in bed when I heard wild thrushes singing outside my window.

Mother was washing up in a brass basin, panting softly as she immersed her fair, slender hands in warm milk, as if keeping them lovely were a wearisome chore. She flicked her finger against the edge of the basin, sending tiny ripples skittering across the surface of the milk and a loud rap echoing through the room.

Then she sent for the maid, Sangye Dohna.

Acknowledging the summons, Sangye Dolma walked in carrying another brass basin. She placed the milk basin on the floor, and Mother called out softly, ‘Come here, Dordor.’

A puppy yelped its way out from under a cupboard. It rolled around on the floor and wagged its tail at its mistress before burying its head in the basin and lapping up the milk, nearly choking on it. The chieftain’s wife, that is, my mother, loved the sound of someone choking on the little bit of love she dispensed. Amid the noise of the puppy greedily lapping up the milk, she rinsed her hands in fresh water and told Dolma to check on me, to see if I was awake. I’d had a low-grade fever the day before, so Mother had slept in my room.

‘Ah-ma,’ I said, ‘I’m awake.’

She came up and felt my forehead with her wet hand. ‘The fever’s gone,’ she said.

Then she left my bedside to examine her fair hands, which could no longer hide the signs of aging. She inspected them every time she completed her morning grooming. Now that she’d finished, she scrutinized those hands, which were looking older by the day, and waited to hear the sound of the maid dnmping the water onto the ground. This waiting was always accompanied by fearful anxiety. The cascading water splashing on the flagstones four storeys below made her quaver, since it produced the shuddering seosation of a body splattering on the hard ground.

But today, a thick blanket of snow swallowed up the sound.

Still, she shuddered at the moment that the splash should have sounded, and I heard a soft muttering from DoIma’s lovely mouth: ‘It’s not the mistress hitting the ground.’

‘What did you say?’ I asked.

Mother asked me, ‘What did the little ttamp say?’ ‘She said she has a bellyache.’

‘Do you really?’ Mother asked her.

I answered for her. ‘It’s okay now.’

Mother opened a jar and scooped out a dab oflotion with her pinkie to rub on the back of her hand. Then another pinkie brought out lotion for the other hand. A spicy, pungent odour spread through the room. The lotion was made of marmot oil and lard, mixed with mysterious Indian aromatic oils presented to her by the monastery. -The chieftain’s wife had a natural talent for looking disgusted. She displayed one of those looks now, and said, ‘This stuff actually smells terrible.’

Sangye Dolma offered up an exquisite box containing a jade bracelet for her mistress’s left arm and an ivory bracelet for the right. Mother put on the bracelets and twirled them around her wrists. ‘I’ve lost more weight.’

The maid said, ‘ Yes.’

‘Is that all you know how to say?’

‘Yes, Mistress.’

I assumed the chieftain’s wife would slap her, as others might do, but she didn’t. Still, fear turned the maid’s face red.

After the chieftain’s wife started downstairs for breakfast, Dolma stood by my bed and listened to the descending steps of her mistress. Then she stuck her hand under my bedding and pinched me savagely. ‘When did I say I had a bellyache? When did I ever have one of those?’

‘You didn’t,’ I said. ‘But you’d like to fling the water with even more force next time.’

That stopped her. I puffed up my cheek, which meant she had to kiss me. ‘Don’t you dare tell the mistress,’ she said, as my hands slipped under her clothes and grabbed her breasts, a pair of frightened little rabbits. A passionate qniver erupted somewhere deep inside me, or maybe only in my head. Dolma freed herself from my hands and repeated, ‘Don’t you dare tell the mistress.’

That morning, for the first time in my life, I experienced the tantalizing sensation of pleasure from a woman’s body.

Sangye Dolma cursed, ‘Idiot!’

Rubbing my sleepy eyes, I asked her, ‘Tell me the truth, who’s the real id-idiot?’

‘I mean it, a perfect idiot.’

Then, without helping me dress, she walked off after giving me a nice red welt on my arm, like a bird’s peck. The pain was absolutely new and electrifying.

Snow sparkled brightly outside the window, where the family servants’ brats were whooping it up, throwing rocks at thrushes. But I was still in bed, wrapped snugly in a bearskin quilt and layers of silk, listening to the maid’s footsteps echo down the long hallway. Apparently, she had no intention of coming back to wait on me, so I kicked off the quilt and screamed.

Within the territory governed by Chieftain Maichi, everybody knew that the sonborn to the chieftain’s second woman was an idiot.

That idiot was me.

Except for my mother, just about everybody liked me the way I was. If I’d been born smart, Imight have long since departed this world for the Yellow Springs instead of sitting here and thinking wild thoughts over a cup of tea. The chieftain’s first wife had taken illand died. My mother was bought by a fur and medicinal herb merchant as a gift to the chieftain, who got drunk and then got her pregnant. So I might as well be happy going through life as an idiot.

Still, within the vast area of our estate, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t know me. That’s because I was the chieftain’s son. If you don’t believe me, become a slave or the brilliant son of a commoner and see if people know who you are.

I am an idiot.

My father was a chieftain ordained by the Chinese emperor to govern tens of thousands of people.

So if the maid didn’t come to help me dress, I’d scream for her.

Anytime servants were late in responding, I’d send my silk coverlets cascading to the floor like water. Those Chinese silks, which came from far beyond the mountains, are much slicker than you might think. Since earliest childhood, I never understood why the land of the Chinese was not only the source of our much-needed silk, tea and salt, but also the source of power for chieftain clans. Someone once told me that it was because of weather. I said, ‘Oh, because of weather.’ But deep down I was thinking, Maybe so, but weather can’t be the only reason. Ifso, why didn’t the weather change me into something else? As far as I know, every place has weather. There’s fog, and the wind blows. When the wind is hot, the snow becomes rain. Then the wind turns cold, and the rain freezes into snow. Weather causes changes in everything. You stare wide-eyed at something, and just when it’s about to change into something else, you have to blink. And in that instant, everything returns to its original form. Who can go without blinking? It’s like offering sacrifices. Behind the curling smoke, the bright red lips of golden-faced deities enjoying the sacrifice are about to open up to smile or cry, when suddenly a pounding of drnms in the temple hall makes you tremble with fear. And in that instant, the deities resume their former expressions and return to a sombre, emotionless state.

It snowed that morning, the first snow of spring. Only spring snows are ,moist and firm, able to resist the wind. Only spring snows blanket the earth so densely that they gather up all the light in the world.

Now all the light in the world was gathered on my silk coverlet. Worried that the silk and the light would slip away, I felt pangs of sorrow flow warily through my mind. As beams of light pierced my heart like awls, I began to sob, which brought my wet nurse, Dechen Motso, hobbling in. She wasn’t all that old but liked to act like an old woman. She’d become my wet nurse after giving birth to her first child, who had died almost at once. I was three months old at the time, and Mother was anxiously waiting for a sign from me that I knew I’d arrived in this world.

I was firm about not smiling during the first month.

During the second month, no one was able to elicit a flickering of understanding from my eyes.

My father, the chieftain, said to his son in the same tone of voice he used to give orders, ‘Give me a smile, will you?’

He changed his gentle tone when he got no reaction. ‘Give me a smile,’ he said sternly. ‘Smile! Do you hear me?’

He looked so funny that I opened my mouth, but only to drool. My mother looked away, tears wetting her face as she was reminded that my father looked just like that on the night I was conceived. This memory so rankled her that.her milk drid up on the spot. A baby like this is better off starving to death.

Not terribly concerned, my father told the steward to take ten silver dollars and a packet of tea to Dechen Motso, whose illegitimate son had just died, so she could pay for a vegetanan meal and tea for the monks to perform rites for the dead. The steward, of course, knew what the master had in mind. He left in the morning and returned that afternoon with the wet nurse in tow. When they reached the estate entrance, a pack of fierce dogs barked and snarled at them. The steward said, ‘Let them get to know your smell.’ So the wet nurse took out a steamed bun, broke it apart, and spat on each piece before tossing it at them. The barking stopped immediately. After snapping the food out of the air, the dogs ran up and circled her, lifting her long skirt with their snouts to sniff her feet and legs. They were wagging their tails and chewing their food by the time the steward led the now familiar wet nurse inside.

The chieftain was immensely pleased. Although a trace osadness clung to Dechen’s face, her blouse was damp from the flowing milk.

At the time, I was bawling at the top of my lungs. Even though she had no milk, the chieftain’s wife tried to stuff her idiot son’s mouth up with one of those withered things. Father thumped his cane loudly on the floor, and said, ‘Stop crying. The wet nurse is here.’ I stopped, as if I’d understood him, and I was soon introduced to her abundant breasts. The milk was like gushmg spring water, sweet and satisfying, though it carried the taste of sorrow and of wildflowers and grass. My mother’s meagre milk, on the other hand, tasted more like the colourful thoughts that filled up my little brain until it buzzed.                                 .

My tiny stomach was quickly gorged. To show my gratitude, r peed on the wet nurse, who turned her head to cry when I let go of her nipple. Not long before, her newborn son had been wrapped in a cowhide rug and buried at the bottom of a dee pond after the lamas had recited the ‘Reincarnation Sutra’ for him.

Upon seeing the wet nurse’s tears, my mother spat, and said, ‘Bad karma!’

‘Mistress,’ the wet nurse said, ‘please forgive me this one time. I couldn’t help myself.’ My mother ordered her to slap her own face.

Now I’d grown to the age of thirteen. After all those years, my wet nurse, like other servants who were privy to so many of the chieftain’s family secrets, no longer behaved herself. Also thinking I was an idiot, she often said in front of me, ‘Master? Hahl Servants? Hah!’ All the while she’d be stuffing things like the lamb’s-wool batting of my quilt or a piece of thread from her clothes into her mouth, mixing them with saliva, then spitting them savagely onto the wall. Except that over the past year or two, she didn’t seem able to spit as high as she had before. And so she’d decided to become an old woman.

I was crying and making a scene when she hobbled into my room. ‘Please, Young Master, don’t let the mistress hear you.’

But I was crying because it felt so good.

‘Young Master,’ she said, ‘it’s snowing.’

What did the fact that it was snowing have to do with me? But I stopped crying anyway and looked out from my bed onto a patch of terrifyingly blue sky framed by the small window. I couldn’t see how the heavy snow weighed down the branches until she propped me up. I opened my mouth to cry, but she stopped me. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘the thrushes have flown down from the mountain.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. They’re down from the mountain. listen, they’re calling you children to go otit and play with them.’

So I stopped fussing and let her dress me.

Finally, I’ve come to the spot where Ican talk about the thrushes. Would you look at the sweat on my forehead!

Thrushes are wild around here. No one knows where they go when the sky is overcast, but on clear days they come out to sing, their voices sweet and clear. Not much good at flying, they prefer to glide down from the heights. They don’t normally come to low places, except on snowy days, when it’s difficult to find food in their usual habitat. The snow forces the thrushes to come down from the mountain, where people live.

People kept coming in for instructions while Mother and I were eating breakfast.

First it was the crippled steward, who came to inquire whether the young master wanted to change into warm hoots before going out to play in the snow. He said that if the master were home, he’d want me to. ‘Get lost, you cripple,’ my mother said. ‘Hang that pair of worn-out boots around your neck and get lost.’

The steward left, of course, but didn’t hang, the boots around his neck, nor did he ‘get lost’.

A while later he limped in to report that the leper who’d been chased up the mountain from the Kaba fortress had come down looking for food.

‘Where is she now?’ Mother asked anxiously.

‘She fell into a wild boar trap on the way.’

She can crawl out.’

‘She can’t. She’s crying for help.’ ‘Then why don’t you bury her?’ ‘Bury her alive?’

‘I don’t care. We can’t have a leper storming onto our estate.’

Then came the matter of giving ahns to the monastery, followed by a discussion of sending seeds to the people who tilled our land. Charcoal burned bright in a brass brazier, and before long, I was dripping with sweat.

After Mother spent some time tackling business, her usual look of fatigue disappeared, replaced by a dazzling glow, as if a lamp had been lit inside her face. I was looking at that lustrous face so intently that I didn’t hear her question. She raised her voice, and said angrily, ‘What did you say you want?’ I said ‘The thrushes are calling me.’

The chieftain’s wife immediately lost patience with me and stormed out in a rage. I sipped my tea with the air of an·aristocrat, something I was very good at. When I was into my seond cup, bells rang and drums pounded in the sutra hall upstairs, nd I knew that the chieftain’s wife had now moved on to the busmess of the monks’ livelihood.

If I hadn’t been an idiot, I wouldn’t have disappointed her at moments like that. She’d been enjoying the prerogatives of a chieftain’s power over the past few days, ever since Father had taken my brother, Tamding Gonpo, to the provincial capital to file a complaint against our neighbour, Chieftain Wangpo. It had all started with one ofFather’sdreams, in which Chieftain Wangpo had taken a coral ornament that had fallen from Father’s ring. The lama said that was abad omen. Sure enough, shortly afterwards, a border headman betrayed us by taking a dozen servants with him over to Chieftain Wangpo. Father sent a messenger with lavish gifts to buy them back, but his request was turned down. A seond messenger was sent with bars of gold in exchange for the traitor’s head; Wangpo could keep the remaining servants and the land. 1:he gold was .returned, with a message that if Chieftain Wangpo killed soeone who increased his wealth, his own people would run off like Chieftain Maichi’s servants.

Left with no choice, Chieftain Maichi opened a case inlaid with.sdvr and beads and took out a seal representing the highest offiaal title conferred by the Qing emperor. With the seal and a m ·he went to the provincial capital to file a complaint with the military government of Sichnan, under the control of the Republic of China.

Besides Mother and me, the Maichi family included Father and a half brother from Father’s first wife, plus a half sister who’d gone off to India with an uncle, a businessman. She later went to England, even more distant, which everyone said was a huge place known as the empire where the sun never sets. Ionce asked Father, ‘Is it always daytime in big countries?’                                                                   ‘

He just smiled, and said, ‘You’re such a little idiot.’

Now they were all away somewhere, and I was lonely.

So I said, ‘Thrushes,’ got up, and went downstairs. As soon as I reached the bottom of the stairs, I was surrounded by servants’ children. ‘See them?’ my parents often reminded me. ‘They’re your livestock.’ No sooner had my feet stepped on the courtyard flagstones than my future livestock came up to me. They weren’t weanng boots or fur coats, but they didn’t seem to be any more bothered by the cold than I was. They stood there waiting for me to give an order. My order was: ‘Let’s go catch some thrushes.’

Their faces glowed with excitement.

With a wave of my hand and a shout, I made for the estate entrance with the servants’ brats, a pack of young slaves. We stormed out, alanning the gate dogs, which began barking like crazy, a racket that lent the morning an air of happiness. And what a snowfall! It had turned the world outside vast and bright. My slaves shouted excitedly, kicking the packed snow with their bare feet and stuffing their pockets with ice-cold stones. The thruhes, their dark yellow tails sticking straight up, hopped around looking for food at the base of the wall, where there was less snow.

‘Go!’I shouted.

My little slaves and I ran after the thrushes. Unable to fly to a higher place, the birds flocked towards the orchard by the river as we slogged through the ankle-deep snow in hot pursuit. With no escape, the thrushes were pelted by rocks and, one by one, their heads burrowed into the flnffy snow as their bodies went limp. The lucky survivors, sacrificing their tails for their heads, stuck their tiny heads between rocks and tree roots before they too fell into our clutches.

That was the battle I commanded in my youth, a successful, very satisfactory one.

I sent some of the slaves back to the estate honse for kindling and told others to gather dry branches from our apple and pear trees. The bravest and quickest among them was sent back to steal salt from the kitchen, while the rest stayed behind to make a clearing in the orchard hig enough for a dozen people and a bonfire. The salt thief was my right-hand man, Sonam Tserang, who returned in no time. Taking the salt, I told him to help the others clear the snow. Which he did, breathing hard and kicking it away with his feet. Even at that he. was more adept than the others. So I didn’t say anything when he kicked snow in my face, though I knew he’d done it on purpose. Even with slaves, some are entitled to favouritism. This is a hard and fast principle, a useful rule of thumb for a ruler. And that was why I tolerated his insubordination and giggled as snow slid down my neck.

A fire was quickly built, and we began plucking the birds’ feathers. Sonam Tserang didn’t kill his thrushes before he began plucking their feathers, drawing horrible cries from the flapping birds. Everyone had goose bumps, everyone but he. Sonam Tserang didn’t seem at all troubled. Fortunately, the aroma of roasted bird quickly rose from the fire to soothe our feelings. And before long, each of our stomachs was stuffed with four or five wild thrushes.

 

31.

Border Market

CHIEFTAIN LHA SHOPA RETURNED.

He thought he’d come to the wrong place when he saw a wide-open, magnificent building instead of an enclosed fortress.

This time there was no talk of being my uncle.

Although the gate had been taken down, he still rolled off his horse at the spot where the gate had been. ‘Rolled off’ is not meant as an insult, because Lha Shopa was so fat that he couldn’t lift his leg to dismount. The single most important thing to remember in order to mount and dismount with style is to raise your leg to the proper height. Obesity had caused our one-time horseback warrior to lose his vigor and agility; now he had to shift his body to one side, lift his rear end off the saddle, and, with the help of gravity, drop into the arms of his slaves.

He walked towards me with obvious difficult. I could hear him panting heavily even from a distance. He must have caught a cold, for his voice was hoarse as he announced, ‘Most clever and benevolent Young Master of the Maichi family, your nephew Lha Shopa has come to see you.’

‘I told my people that Lha Shopa would bring us wonderful gifts.’

‘Yes, yes. I have.’

His hands shook as he removed some things from inside his shirt and thrust them into my hands. I told the steward to unfold them and show me. They turned out to be a thick stack of old documents and some bronze seals. His subjects had deserted him, so now he had no choice but to hand over to me the legal documents and seals for the fortresses belonging to his people, thus acknowledging his acceptance of the new reality. The papers and seals, all awarded by emperors of past dynasties, were proof that I now truly owned his fortresses.

I was about to say something but held back, knowing that someone else would say it for me. Sure enough, the steward offered, ‘Our young ,aster said that anyone who wanted our barley would have to pay ten times the usual price, but you wouldn’t listen. Now you’re paying more than ten times.’

Lha Shopa agreed wholeheartedly. ‘Can we have the barley now?’ he asked, adding that the backs of his horses were weighed down with silver.

I said, ‘I don’t want that much silver. I’ll sell you the barley at the usual price.’

He had, of course, been expecting me to refuse. And when I didn’t, the poor, desperate man nearly wept. ‘My God!’ he sobbed. ‘The Maichi family has nearly ruined its nephew Lha Shopa.’

‘Everyone can use a lesson.’

From the logic of the victors, the Maichi family had paid an even higher price.

Isn’t that right? Would we have had to put up with so much trouble if they hadn’t insisted on growing poppies like us? Anger rose up inside me with this thought. ‘We charge everyone the same price for the barley,’ I said. ‘Three times the usual cost. That goes for you too.’

‘But you just said you only wanted…’

He stopped when he saw the icy look on my face and said with a pitiful smile, ‘I’ll shut up. I’ll be in even worse shape if Uncle Maichi changes his mind again.’

‘Now that we’re clear on that,’ the steward said, ‘you may proceed to the guest room. We have prepared food and drink for you.’

The next morning, Chieftain Lha Shopa’s animals were loaded down with barley, but I didn’t really charge him three times the usual cost.

When he was leaving he said, ‘You’ve given food to my people. Please also spare them from being attacked.’

I knew what he was referring to, but I simply gave his horse a whip on the rump, sending the animal shooting forwards with him in the saddle. I shouted at his receding back to come buy more barley when he needed it. For what the Maichi family had built on the border wasn’t a fort, but a market for trade.

Yes, now I could finally say that it was a market, not a fort. The open spaces along the river would be an ideal for traders’ stalls and tents.

The steward said, ‘We should be hearing from the female chieftain soon.’

I told him to write a letter and tell her what we expected from her.

But she didn’t respond at once, since her people were now fed, and she had defeated Chieftain Lha Shopa. Finally a letter came, in which she said she was still getting her daughter’s dowry ready, that she herself had been engaged in the man’s work of leading an army on the battlefield. She even asked me, ‘Would my future son-in-law please tell me if Chieftain Rongong should get a man to do a woman’s job for her? Something like preparing a dowry for her daughter?’

Having eaten the Maichis’ barley and won a minor battle with the protection of Maichi machine guns, the female chieftain was now acting like a mare in heat with her tail raised.

She was quite a capable woman, but not a very smart one, and she should have realized that the world was changing. Whenever new things appeared, old rules had to change. But most people could not see that, and I felt sorry for them. She, unfortunately, was among those who aroused my sympathy. On the other hand, she’d said exactly what I was hoping she’d say. When Tharna was here, my love for her had caused me to lose my head. But over time, I found I couldn’t even recall what she looked like. Which meant that the female chieftain’s most lethal weapon had lost its power. I was quite pleased with what she’d told me.

It took only two days for all the machine-gunners and grenade throwers I’d lent her to return. She sent people to chase them back, but they fell on the road amid the cackling sound of machine-gun fire. It’s hard for an arrogant man to realize his own mistakes, let alone an arrogant woman.

She didn’t know that Lha Shopa had gotten barley from me.

Whenever Lha Shopa’s long procession of horses reached a mill, they unloaded some of the barley, and by the time they reached the centre of his territory, it was all gone. So they turned and headed back to the border. Recalling what I’d said about setting up a market at the northern border, Lha Shopa brought along a large group of servants and threw up some tents on the riverbank so he could trade items from his land for our grain.

After filling their stomachs with the processed barley, Lha Shopa’s soldiers had regained their morale and it would be fool-hardy to go up against such soldiers without machine guns. The Rongong army, not used to fighting without the protection of machine guns, quickly retreated, all the way back beyond the front lines of the first battle.

Instead of returning to his land, Chieftain Lha Shopa settled down near the border market, where he often invited me to his riverside tent to drink with him. On clear days, it was wonderful to sit and drink next to the river by the open field.

Lha Shopa and I soon got down to doing some real business.

He paid for what he bought not only with silver, but also with medicinal herbs, furs, even fine horses. The steward told me that these things would command high prices in the Han area. So he put together a large team of horses to take the stuff to the east and sell it to the Han Chinese, from whom he then bought more grain. Very quickly a prosperous market grew up on the northern border. More and more chieftains came to pitch tents across the river, brining all sorts of good things to exchange for barley. And although the Maichi family had plenty to sell, there is a limit to everything. We were close to the Han territory, which made things difficult when the Han courts were strong. That was the main reason the Maichi chieftain could never be all-powerful. But then the Han people had a revolution, followed by a war, and the poppy seeds turned our luck around. Poppies made the Maichi family strong and impoverished the other chieftains. Now we sent the stuff we received in exchange for the barley to the Han area, where we bought more grain to exchange for other things back at the border. A single round trip turned a tenfold profit. The steward made a careful calculation: even when the famine was over and normal times returned, we could still double or triple our money by trading things other than grain.

In the history of chieftains, I was the first to turn a defensive fortress into a market. And whenever I pondered that, I was reminded of our tongueless historian, who, if only he had been there, would surely have understood the significance of such a beginning. Out here, the people around me said something like this had never happened before, not ever. That’s all they could think of to say. I’m sure the historian would have had much more profound thoughts on the subject.

 

44 .

The   Chieftains                   

THE CHIEFTAINS SAT AROUND chatting day in and day out. One day the steward asked me what I wanted to do with all the chieftains I’d invited.

It wasn’t until then that I began to think about that. Had I rally ivited. the.m over just so they could get together one last tune with their friends and enemies before they died? If I said yes, no one wonld believe that such a kind person existed, even if that person was an idiot who sometimes did very sman things. Bnt if Isaid no, then I couldn’t come up with the real purpose of inviting these people here, no matter how hatd I tried.

Since I couldn’t find a purpose, I asked the people around me, but no two answers were the same.

Tbarna smiled coldly, saying that all I wanted was to show off in front of the two women of the Rongong family.

That wasn’t the right answer.

I asked Adviser Huang, who responded with a question: ‘Do you know why I’ve fallen so low, Young Master? Like them, I believed I was clever. That was the cause of my downfall.’

My question had rekindled thoughts of his sad past, and he recrted an elegant phrase: ‘One has a home but cannot go back. One belongs to a nation but cannot serve.’ He had seen his own future. He said he could find no role to play, no matter which colour won among the Han Chinese. This is exactly what he said: ‘There’ll be no role for me to play.’

He opposed the war between the Red and White Chinese but it had occurred nonetheless. If the Whites won, well, he had nee een a Red. But if th Reds won, he had no share in the glory, smce he could not thmk of a single thing he’d done for them. I neer epected Adviser Huang to be so disttaught. I asked him which side Uncle was on when he was alive.

He said the White Chinese.

‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I like the White Chinese too.’

‘That makes sense, but I’m afraid you’ll wind up on the wrong side.’

A chill ran down my spine as he spoke. I could not afford to shiver in front of everyone, not with the sun so bright overhead. ‘Don’t be in a hurry to pick a colour, Young Master,’ the adviser said. ‘You’re still young. I’m old, so it doesn’t matter if I choose poorly. But your career has just started to take off.’

But I’d already made up my mind. Since I’d liked my uncle so much, I would be on his side.

I then approached the historian, who was burying his head in his writing. After hearing my question, he looked up slowly. I could see what he meant to say in his eyes. He was a mystic, and I knew he wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Sure enough, his eyes said only: ‘Destiny cannot be explained.’

Sonam Tserang was unhappy that I hadn’t gone to ask him, so he sought me out.

‘Don’t tell me the reason you brought these people here wasn’t to kill them.’

I said firmly, ‘No.’

‘Do you really not plan to do that, Young Master?’

My answer this time was the same, ‘no’, hut I sounded somewhat hesitant.

If Sonam Tserang had insisted, I might well have ordered the chieftains killed. Bot he just snotted and said nothing. Instead he took his unhappiness out on his underlings. My tax collector was very hot-tempered. Since killing was always on his mind, he was envious of his best friend, Aryi, who had been born to kill. Sonam Tserang had once complained that Aryi was born to be an executioner, and said that it was unfair for anyone to be born to be one thing and not something Someone then asked him if it was also unfair that someone had been born to be the chieftain. That stopped him. The steward had even suggested that I have him killed, but I didn’t go along with it because I trusted his loyalty, which would be further demonstrated that day. Seeing the disappointment on his face, I was tempted to pick a chieftain for him to kill just to satisfy his urge.

After this minor interlude, I stopped asking myself why I’d invited the chieftains.

One day, I joined them while they were drinking. Everyone came up to toast me, except for Chieftains Maichi and Rongong. After two rounds, I began pouring and drinking on my own, without waiting for their toasts. Lha Shopa and Wangpo, who were closer to me than the others, tried to get me to stop, complaining that the host was getting drunk.

Father said, ‘Let him be. You can’t tell whether my son is drunk or sober anyway.’

He wanted to show everyone that he was the real host.

But that was only what he thought; the others didn’t agree, except for the female chieftain, who flashed him an approving smile.

In fact, Father and the female chieftain had already drunk too much. ‘His son is an idiot,’ she said. ‘My daughter is a rare beauty, but he won’t go near her. Now, don’t you think that makes him an idiot?’ Covering her face with her wine cup, she grabbed the young Chieftain Wangpo by the arm. ‘Let me marry my daughter to you.’ Then, holding the young man’s arm tight, she asked him, ‘Have you ever seen my daughter?’

‘Please let me go,’ Wangpo said. ‘I’ve seen your daughter, and she is indeed a rare beauty.’

‘Then why won’t you take her? You can marry her if you feel like it, or you can just show her a good time.’ This she said in a wanton tone, keeping one eye on Wangpo and the other on Chieftain Maichi. ‘Everyone knows I like men. Well, so does my daughter.’ My new ftiend Wangpo said in a slightly altered tone of voice, ‘Please let me go. My friend will see you.’

I lay on the carpet with my head in a maidservant’s lap, gazing up at the sky. I knew that my new friend was about to betray me. But that caused me no pain; rather, I was afraid that things would stop then instead of moving forward. I wanted something to happen; something should happen when so many chieftains got together.

Chieftain Wangpo was breathing heavily and nervously.

‘All right,’ I said to myself, ‘betray me then, my new friend.’ It appeared that heaven was going to grant my wish; otherwise Tharna would not have picked that moment to begin singing on the veranda. Her loud, melodious. voice floated between the white clouds and the blue sky. I wasn’t sure if she was singing to the crowd or to the open field, but I knew she wore an alluring expression. Her very existence was a temptation. A sage once said that a woman like that was either an abyss or a poison. That, of course, could hold true only for someone with the mind of a sage. I was an exception-I wasn’t afraid of betrayal. I wondered if someone would slip and fall into that abyss or stick his neck out to swallow the sweet poison. I stole a glance at Wangpo, whose face did indeed display the terror of someone who was falling into an abyss or faced with poison.

And now someone was leading him on-my mother-in-law.

‘That girl you hear singing is my beautiful daughter,’ she said, ‘but this idiot won’t stay in the same room with her or share her bed.’

I wanted to tell them that was because her spring had dried up, but I clamped my mouth shut.

‘My God!’ Wangpo muttered to himself. ‘Why would my friend do that?’

‘Your friend? I don’t understand why a lofty chieftain like you has to treat him like a friend. He’s not a chieftain, he’s an idiot.’ The female chieftain’s voice was still as alluring as a young woman’s. With that sort of allure, a voice has the power to sway, no matter what it says. In this case, even the words were tempting. ‘The title of Chieftain Rongong will go to her husband after I die. I lie awake every time I think about that idiot becoming Chieftain Rongong. Prolonged loss of sleep has caused me to age fast. My face is covered with wrinkles, and no man wants me anymore. But you’re still so young, like the early-morning sun.’

I wanted to hear what else they had to say, but I fell asleep under the balmy sky.

It was afternoon when I woke up.

The female chieftain snickered. ‘Aren’t we chieftains supposed to be your guests? Then why did you fall asleep?’

I wanted to apologize, but instead I said, ‘Why don’t you go back to your own land, where you can kill someone who falls asleep in front of you.’

‘See how this idiot treats his own mother-in-law,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t know how pretty his wife is, nor does he know that he should show respect to his mother-in-law.’ In the same incendiary tone, she addressed the chieftains, ‘He wants me to go back, but I won’t. He invited me here. He invited us all. He must have something planned; otherwise, it borders on the criminal to ask us here, when we have vast lands and numerous subjects to manage.’

All the chieftains’ liquor-saturated heads rose at these words.

Chieftain Wangpo turned away, not daring to look at me.

It was Lha Shopa who said, ‘Me, I have nothing to do. And I don’t think the rest of you have either.’

They all laughed, saying that since he wasn’t qualified to he a chieftain, he shonld qnickly hand over his position to someone more suitable.

Neither ashamed nor angry, Lha Shopa smiled and said he’d never had much to do from the day he became chieftain. ‘What’s there to worry our heads over?’ he said. ‘The limits of onr territory were set by our ancestors, and the crops are planted by the people, who then send their rent and taxes to the estates in the autnmn. That too was determined by previous chieftains. They set all the rules, which means that today’s chieftains have nothing to do.’

Someone objected, saying that Chieftain Maichi had found something to do when he grew poppies.

Lha Shopa shook his flabby head, and said, ‘Ah, opium, now that’s bad stuff.’ He shook his head at me, and repeated, ‘I mean it, opium is bad stuff.’ Then he turned to the female chieftain. ‘Opium caused us all to lose many good things.’

‘I didn’t lose anything,’ she said.

Lha Shopa laughed. ‘I lost land and you lost your daughter.’

‘I married my daughter off.’

‘Whatever you say,’ Lha Shopa replied: ‘Everyone knows that for the female chieftain, beauty is the most lethal weapon.’

Rongong sighed, but didn’t reply.

So Chieftain Lha Shopa continued, ‘I followed your example and used my head once. Inthe end, many good subjects starved to death, and I lost a huge piece of land.’

‘I’d like to know what you people want to do while you’re here,’ I said. ‘Something other than relive the past.’

The chieftains asked me to leave them alone for a while so they could talk about what they wanted to do. Since I didn’t know what I wanted, I agreed to let them decide. ‘But be careful,’ I said. ‘It seems to be getting easier and easier for the chieftains to make mistakes.’

With that I tnmed and went downstairs to take a walk around town with the historian, so I could tell him what had happened. I was of the opinion that it should be recorded.

He agreed, his eyes saying, ‘When the chieftains first appeared on this land, every one of their decisions was correct. Now whatever they decide is meaningless, if not totally wrong.’

I stayed away as long as possible. But the chieftains still hadn’t reached agreement. Some wanted to do something, while others wanted to do nothing. And those who wanted to do something could not agree on what that might be. Those who wanted to do nothing said, ‘Things are fine back home. This is where the action is. Let’s stay a while longer and have a good time.’

A glint of excitement showed in the peaceful, sincere eyes of Chieftain Wangpo; he had made up his mind to do something.

I sent the servants to fetch a performing troupe and build a stage.

Then I had tents erected on a grassy field, where I laid out machine gus, all sorts of rifles, and some pistols for anyone who cared to do some shooting.

But I still didn’t know why I’d invited the chieftains over.

I racked my brain for an answer; I thought and I thought but couldn’t come up with a thing. So I stopped worrying about it.

Meanwhile my beautiful wife was singing in that melodious voice of hers again.

 

45.

Syphilis

MY GUESTS CONTINUED TO COMPLAIN that I hadn’t found anything for them to do.

I felt like telling them that they need not look, that something would happen by itself sooner or later. All they needed was patience. But in the end I said nothing.

Finally my servants located a performing troupe.

I must say that it was a very strange troupe; it wasn’t Tibetan or Han. The performers were girls of many different nationalities. I had a huge stage erected for them, but I never expected them to run out of plays in only three days. They even took a pug dog up onto the stage, where it walked around in circles picking flowers from under the girls’ skirts. That too lasted only three days. The owner of the troupe said that she and the girls had nowhere to go during turbulent times like this, and would like to settle down in this peaceful place. I didn’t say no. I even had a large tent set up for them. Meanwhile, construction began on an adobe house at the far end of the street. The owner supervised the work, and construction progressed quickly. In less than ten days, they had completed the framework of a large house with a waiting room and a wide staircase leading up to a deep, dark hallway lined with small rooms.

The girls idled all day long, sending their tinkling laughter flowing up and down the street. Their clothes didn’t quite cover their bodies, so I told the troupe owner that I’d have some made for them. The woman, already past her prime, burst out laughing. ‘My God! I love this place. It’s like a dream world. And I like you, an idiot who has yet to see the real world.’

We were chatting inside the big tent when she gave me a kiss, and not just anywhere, but on the lips. I jumped to my feet as if burned by a fire.

The girls laughed, and amid the laughter, the one with.the darkest brows and biggest eyes came to sit ou my lap.

The owner sent the girl away and told me she wasn’t clean. From what I could see, the skin above her breasts was nice and white, and even her exposed navel was pink; if she wasn’t clean, I couldn’t tell ·you who was. Instead of leaving right away, the girl wrapped her arms around my neck and planted her thick lips on mine, nearly suffocating me.

The owner then gave me a girl she considered clean. The girl walked up to me as the others started giggling. The owner took some silver dollars out of my pocket, and said, ‘This is the price. All my girls have a price.’

She took out ten alrogether. After counting them, she kept five and put five back. Then she put four into a gilded crimson case and gave the fifth one to the other girls. ‘My treat,’ she said. ‘You girls go to the market and buy yourselves some sweets.’

The girls roared with laughter and flitted out like a swarm of agitated bees.

The owner tied the key to her money box around her waist, and said, ‘The carpenter is putting in the floor, so I’m going to go and see how he’s doing. If the young master is happy, why not give the girl some loose change for cosmetics.’

The fermented fragrance of pine drifted over from where the house was being built, enhancing the attraction of the girl in my arms.

My manhood was beginning to stir, but in all other respects I was as languid as the weather.

The girl was very good. After undressing me, she told me to just lie there. I didn’t have to move; she’d do everything. She did, and it was terrific. I felt wonderful all over, without lifting a finger. Afterward, we lay there naked and talked. That was when I realized that these girls weren’t a performing troupe at all, but a group of women who made a living with their bodies. And I was their first client. I asked if she could do something for those old chieftains whose bodies could no longer satisfy their latent desires. She said yes. ‘Good,’ I said. ‘Those old men are rolling in silver. From today on they’ll be your clients.’

That night, the chieftains took pleasure from women who charged them a fee.

The next day, they looked more energetic than usual when they got together. One of them even asked me why their own women didn’t have those kinds of skills.

The female chieftain, on the other hand, slept alone and awoke with dark circles under her eyes. ‘Just look at the Maichi family,’ she said to Father resentfully. ‘Your older son introduced opium and now your idiot son brings women like that.’

‘And what did you bring?’ Chieftain Maichi asked. ‘What did you bring for us?’

‘I think women are all about the same,’ she said.

The other chieftains told her to shut up. ‘All women are different.’

Chieftain Wangpo didn’t join the conversation. He could rest his eyes, but not his hands, on the singing woman upstairs, while the girls in the big tent were both real and beautiful.

The chieftains finally got the answer they were seeking. ‘The young master of the Maichi family invited us here to enjoy these wonderful girls.’

Adviser Hnang told us that the girls were prostitutes and that the big tent was a brothel.

‘There are two girls reserved for the young master,’ the madam said to me. ‘You mustn’t touch the others.’

‘Why not?’

‘They aren’t clean. They’re sick.’

‘What kind of sickness?’

‘A sickness that will rot that thing a man has.’

I couldn’t imagine how that thing of mine could just rot away. So the madam called two girls over and told one of them to lift her skirt. My God, that was no door, it was a cave! Then she showed me the other girl, whose private parts _ looked like a mushroom and stank like a rotting cow.

That night, when I thought about how someone’s private parts could look like that, I lost all interest in women. I stayed at home alone while the male chieftains went to the brothel. But I couldn’t sleep, so I got up to drink tea with Adviser Huang. I asked about the prostitutes’ sickness.

‘Syphilis,’ he said. ‘Syphilis?’

‘Young Master, I brought you the opium, but not the syphilis.’

From the nervous expression on his face I could tell that syphilis presented a real danger.

‘My God!’ he said. ‘Even that has shown up here. What next?’

‘The chieftains aren’t afraid,’ I said. ‘The brothel’s finished, and now none of them wants to leave.’                                                           

Each girl had a room upstairs in the brothel. At night, bright lamps lit up the downstairs room. The upstairs was suffused with the girls’ fragrance, while the downstairs was redolent with the smells of liquor and meat and bean stew in a cauldron. In the centre of the room, a gilded speaker sat next to a wind-up gramo­-phone that played music all day long.

‘Let them-be,’ the adviser said. ‘Their time is over, so let them catch syphilis, let them feel happiness. We need to concentrate on our own situation.’

He then told me some stories about syphilis. When he finished, I laughed, and said, ‘I won’t have any appetite for at least three days.’

‘Money has a terrible effect on people,’ he said, ‘but it’s not as bad as opium, which in turn pales in comparison with syphilis. But this isn’t what I wanted to tell you.’

I asked him what he wanted to say.

He raised his voice. ‘Young Master, they’re here.’

‘They’re here?’

‘Yes, they’re here.’

I asked him who they were, and he said they were the Han Chinese. I laughed, for it sounded as if he himself weren’t a Han, nor my mother, nor the many Han Chinese in the shops in my town. He made it sound as if I’d never seen a Han person before. I was, after all, the son of a Han woman.

But he said earnestly, ‘What I mean is, the coloured Han are here.’

Now I understood. The uncoloured Han came here merely for money, like the businessmen, or for survival, like the adviser himself. But the coloured Han were different-they wanted to dye our land with their own colours. That was what the White Han Chinese wanted. And if the Red Han won the civil war, I heard that they wanted even more to stain every piece of land in that colour they revered. We knew they were locked in a mighty struggle in their own place, neither side gaining a clear edge over the other, because every trading caravan from the Han area brought newspapers. My wise adviser was addicted to newspapers, like a smoker to opium.

He grew agitated without his newspapers, but sighed when he read them. He was always telling me, ‘The war is getting worse, much worse.’

Adviser Huang, once a provincial representative, had met his downfall by opposing the fight against the Red Han Chinese. But he wasn’t happy about the prospect of them winning either.

During that period, there were rumours among the locls that the Han would come soon. The historian had once satd that whatever the people believed would happen sooner or later, even if it didn’t make much sense. So many people talking about the same thing amounted to chanting the same incantation to express a common wish to heaven.

The adviser had always said that the Han were locked in mortal combat and couldn’t break free. Now, all of a sudden, he was saying, ‘They’re here.’

I asked him, ‘Have they come to see me?’

He laughed, saying those were truly the thoughts of a master.

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Send them over so we can see which colour we like better.’

He laughed some more. ‘The young master sounds like a woman picking out a piece of silk for a dress.’ He added, ‘These people sneak in and don’t want to see anyone. Nor will they want people to know about their colours.’

I asked how he knew all this.

‘I’m your adviser. I’m supposed to know, aren’t I?’

I didn’t like his tone of voice a bit. Seeing the displeasure on my face, he quickly added, ‘The yonng master must hae frgotten that your adviser used to be a coloured Han too, which 1s why I can spot them right off.’

I asked him what these people planned to do, but he told me to get some rest, since they didn’t plan to do anything yet. They would act within permissible bounds, more cautious in their actions than others in town. They had come to look around and see what was what.

I went up to my room to rest.

Before falling asleep, I kept thinking about syphilis and about ‘them’. I’d take a stroll on the street as soon as I got up the next morning to see if I could spot the coloured Han.

I slept late the next day and awoke feeling empty, as if I’d lost something. But I had no idea exactly what that was; I just felt that something was wrong. So I asked the servants what was missing. They looked around, at the ornaments I was wearing and at the valuable objects and utensils around the house, before telling me that nothing was missing.

It was Sonam Tserang who finally announced, ‘The mistress isn’t singing today.’

The others agreed: ‘She sits upstairs and 3ings every day, but not today.’

Yes, Tharna always sat behind the carved railing upstairs and sang as soon as the sun was up.

Lately I’d been feeling that time was passing faster than ever.

Consider all that had happened during those days: the chieftains had come, then syphilis had come, and now the coloured Han Chinese had come. Only when my wife sang to seduce the young Chieftain Wangpo did I feel time slow down, returning to its unbearable pace.

But that morning, when she stopped singing, time went on a dizzying tear.

None of the chieftains had returned from the brothel in town yet. Servants accompanied me out of the house, under the malevolent, yet victorious gaze of the female chieftain, who had no way of demonstrating her prowess in a brothel. Itwas quiet all around me, but my heart was thumping as if I were galloping on a horse, with the wind howling past my ears.

The chieftains eventually emerged from the brothel and walked towards us on their way to bed. Time was turned upside down in that big new house in town. After abandoning themselves to the sound of the music and the aroma of liquor and meat, the chieftains were returning, lazily, looking forward to some sleep. The sight of their slothful figures told me that something was about to happen. But then, reminded of my conversation with Adviser Huang, I led the servants up the street. Iwanted to see if!could spot the coloured Han Chinese who had sneaked into town. When I reached the bridge, I was face-to-face with the chieftains. I saw that many of their noses were redder than before. Yes, I thought, they’ve contracted syphilis from the girls.

I laughed.

I laughed at their ignorance of what the girls were carrying.