Thursday, November 30, 2006

ReMix: "The Departed"

The Departed (2006, Dir. Martin Scorcese)

"I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me."
-- Jack Nicholson, The Departed

So says Jack, and so one can say of Martin Scorcese. His career has run the gamut, from taxi drivers who roam the mean streets to kings of comedy who stumble about after hours and goodfellas who hang out with casino wiseguys. And let's not forget the unexpected star turns by Christ and the Dalai Lama. Through it all one thing has remained constant: a Scorcese picture will grab you round the neck and wring you until you are dry. Just as Quentin Tarantino has become a bit of a self-parody with his grindhouse expertise, Scorcese is the caricature of the restless auteur, waxing rhapsodic about the greatness of cinema history with every frame he shoots, never missing a chance to pull out a fancy camera move or ratchet up a climactic moment until it screams with operatic intensity. Blame it on his Italian-American Catholic upbringing if you must, but of the baby boomer generation of directors he broke in with (Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola), Scorcese is the one with the hustle and relentlessness of a boxer, and audiences have been happy to be pummeled, Jake LaMotta-like, into submission.

Forever cycling between the mainstream prestige picture (Gangs of New York, The Aviator), the gangster epic (Goodfellas and Casino), and the low-down remake or update (The Color of Money, Cape Fear), Scorcese has spun the wheel yet again and come up with a canny mix: a remake of a critically acclaimed Hong Kong pulp thriller, Infernal Affairs. At once a regurgitation and a return, it's a chance for him to indulge in some down-and-dirty genre dealings (as he himself ruefully notes, it's the first film he's directed that "has a plot"), while falling back on the gangster milieu that secured fame for him in the past. Not surprisingly, critics everywhere are heralding this one as a "return to form."

The remade plot, which is remarkably faithful to the original, is an ingenious cat-and-mouse setup with two rats as the main players: Billy Costigan (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Costigan is the good cop with the troubled family background who volunteers to get kicked out of the force and infiltrate the inner circle of Irish crime lord Frank Costello (Nicholson), while Sullivan is a Costello stooge who has worked his way up into the police department's Internal Affairs division. Both men become aware of the other's existence, and in fine potboiler style, the two of them race against time to expose the other first.

While Infernal Affairs rates highly with many critics as the best example of post-1997 Hong Kong cinema, I'm mostly unmoved by the film -- it's a chilly exercise that cuddles up to plot dexterity at the expense of emotional involvement, although it has a neat didn't-see-that-coming sting to its conclusion. Some of that chilliness infects The Departed despite Scorcese's efforts to froth things up with back story. The first 40 minutes or so of the film flows by in a workmanlike rush, as Scorcese, working with the redoubtable editor Thelma Schoonmaker, fills us in on one plot detail after another. It's never less than watchable, but one gets the sense that Scorcese is on autopilot; he's at his best when he's building up to crescendoes, the showman mounting his rat-tat-tat set pieces rather than the rigorous helmer making the slow build.

But once the rat hunt (and those set pieces) kick in, the film takes off, and at its best it offers pleasures that Infernal Affairs never even thought to shoot for. A rendezvous at a movie theater becomes a nail-biting foot chase that ends with a shocking, accidental assassination. A strategy meeting between police departments becomes a Mamet-esque flurry of barbs and power jockeying. An innocuous conversation at a diner turns to ribald tangents involving nuns. Forsaking his usual turf of Italian criminals, Scorcese evokes a pungent, humorous vision of the Irish gangster life (this movie could be a continuation of Gangs of New York: one can see the Irish immigrants of that picture eventually hightailing it over to the Southie side of Boston). Here, family and community seep into everything, and the plot's machinations seem to spring from that fact -- everyone is simultaneously on the make and on the outside, and an upstanding cop might consort freely with his drug dealer cousin while the big crime boss might take an interest in a low-life in hopes of making something legit out of him. The very idea that someone's allegiences can be identifiable seems a joke, inflating the rat hunt, with its bewildering assortment of traced cell phone calls, smudgy surveillance footage, and insinuating accusations between cops and baddies, into a near-parodic chasing of tails and identities.

But lest you think there's something deep going on here, rest assured that Scorcese is back on his hallowed ground of wiseguys and smart-alecky cops, where banter becomes a profane game of one-upmanship, and the ultimate insult is to compare a guy to a certain part of the female anatomy. The number-one offender in this regard is Mark Wahlberg's hilarious Sergeant Dignam, one of only two men on the force who knows Costigan's secret. Wahlberg is the film's version of a firecracker, appearing on the scene just long enough to blow up in everyone's faces and leave a trail of pungent smoke behind. "Who the fuck are you?" an uppity police tech snaps at him, and Dignam spits right back, "I'm the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy." Taking what could have been a one-note part and pumping it with hell-with-you charm, he's a clear standout, stealing scenes even from the hammy Alec Baldwin (who knows a thing or two about firecrackers from Glengarry Glen Ross, and seems to have teleported in from that movie).

While Scorcese has filled his cast with savvy character actors, including Martin Sheen as the weary, wary Captain Queenan (the only other man on the force who knows Costigan’s secret) and Roy Winstone as the hangdog French, Costello’s second-in-command, it’s DeCaprio who owns the movie, remarkably enough. In Infernal Affairs, the undercover cop was played by Tony Leung, and ordinarily a Leung-DeCaprio acting showdown would be no contest, yet Leung was hamstrung by his role and turned in a flat performance, while DeCaprio breathes anxiety and humanity into his character. He's built his career on playing confident tricksters (Titanic, Aviator, Blood Diamond), but sweaty desperation becomes him. Not completely convincing as a grown man, he’s expert at playing men-children, and Costigan makes one doozy of a man-child: burning with the need to prove himself, callow enough to believe in justice and jaded enough to know that happy endings are not guaranteed, his eyes betraying his paranoia even as he radiates braggadocio.

If there’s one disappointment among the cast, it’s Damon as Sullivan. William Monahan’s script does him no favors; as played by Andy Lau in the original Infernal Affairs, the mob mole in the police force is a comic-tragic figure, seduced by the prospect of doing good as much as any good man has been seduced by the lure of doing bad, but in The Departed he’s a black-hat bad guy, and Damon does little to suggest any inner life or turmoil that goes against that grain -- doubly surprising since he’s proven adept at playing duplicitous anti-heroes (Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley). He’s even saddled with a dicey subplot in which he becomes involved with psychologist Madolyn (Vera Farminga, who gets to show a bit more pluck than the vacuous Kelly Chan in the original) while Madolyn is tending to what ails DeCaprio’s Costigan -- a love triangle that is a bit too convenient, and never played out convincingly.

And Jack Nicholson? Ah, Jack. As you would expect, Jack is mostly Jack, although he softpedals his usual grinning malevolence at the start of the film. But as Costello ostensibly descends into “crazy mode” as the story wears on (talk about convenient), Jack falls back on his sheer Jack-ness, snorting coke and hookers’ breasts in a scene drenched in the blood-red hues of a Hugh Hefner bedchamber, and that’s when he’s not playing around with a severed hand, or showing off a dildo to Damon while watching a porn movie. Like Jack, Scorcese just can't resist leaving well enough alone: while the first two hours of The Departed are bracing and lean, the film flounders in the final act, as one bloody climax follows another, with a concluding murder that comes without windup or payoff, and all but butchers the original movie’s more psychologically complex denouement. And then there’s that howler of a final shot: a rat crawling on a window ledge, with Boston City Hall in the distance! The Departed may grab its share of awards for Scorcese, and there’s much to admire in its construction, but can someone remind him that every film need not devolve into bad opera?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"Slight" of Hand: "The Prestige"

The Prestige (2006, Dir. Christopher Nolan)

Are you watching closely?

So intones the redoubtable Michael Caine as the first shot of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige is unveiled: a collection of magician hats piled high in a woodsy setting that wouldn't be out of place in a fairy tale. We know this film has something to do with magic, and Caine's opening question is a challenge, the initial gambit of a game. But if you're expecting magic that is equivalent to a fairy tale, something light-spirited, breathtaking and fun, know this: it ain't this movie.

Even as he's indulged himself with remakes (Insomnia) and reboots (Batman Begins), Nolan's focus has never wavered: he is endlessly fascinated with narratives that twist and turn upon themselves, and protagonists swamped by the chill of their own obsessions. Whether you find this kind of puzzle-film intriguing or simply cold and mechanical might be a matter of taste, but it's certainly a welcome intellectual break from the hamfisted blockbuster.

The Prestige, adapted from Christopher Priest's novel by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who also came up with the story for Memento), doubles the fun (or perhaps more accurately, doubles the frost) by supplying not one but two obsessive, steel-hearted protagonists (and possibly more -- but that would be giving away the trick). The film's first ten minutes speed by in bewilderment; like Nolan's classic Memento, much of what happens makes sense in retrospect. We witness a Houdini-like magic trick which goes awry, resulting in the apparent drowning death of magician Angier (Hugh Jackman). On trial for his murder is the glowering Borden (Christian Bale), a former colleague and current rival, with Cutter (Caine), the mechanic behind Angier's tricks and guardian of all that is secret in magic, in attendance. And for our edification, Cutter explains the three parts of a trick: the pledge (setting up the situation), the turn (the performance of the trick -- the lady vanishes), and the prestige (the return to normalcy -- the lady reappears).

Ah, we think: a mystery. We all love a good mystery. But while The Prestige methodically works its way towards the resolution of Angier's death, we are also driven into the past, layer upon layer. In prison awaiting execution, Borden reads a diary that Angier has left behind, a diary that purports to reveal the secret behind Angier's ultimate trick, the "disappearing man," and even as this narrative takes us to the hills of Colorado, and Angier's fateful meeting with the father of electricity, Nikola Tesla (played by a sly David Bowie as a starman fallen to earth), we are taken back even further, as Angier himself reads a diary detailing Borden's attempts to refine his own "disappearing man" trick, a narrative that delves into the genesis of the two magicians' rivalry, involving the death of a woman (underused Piper Perabo) and an escalating conflict that sees both men striving for complete triumph over the other, professionally and personally. Does this leapfrogging between past, further past, and present have a point? Not really, unless you take Cutter's dictum of the prestige to heart: to return to normalcy, one must first be transfixed by misdirection, of the truth hidden in plain view. And as you would expect in a film about magicians, there are numerous tricks, some obvious, some well hidden, and one doozy involving Tesla and a contraption that seemingly comes from left field (although there will always be a few in the audience who will take pride in saying, "I saw that coming from a mile away," perpetual atheists in the cathedral of cinematic disbelief).

Despite sumptuous photography by Wally Pfister and a sonorous score by David Julyan, this is no tasteful period drama, nor is it an airy fable about the science of magic. Too genre-fied to be an, ahem, prestige picture, and too polished to pass as a raw indie product, The Prestige wants to indulge in the big-time vibe that stars like Bale and Jackman provide, and yet it also wants to get down and dirty with its magicians' messed-up minds, as well as blow away any preconceptions about how "fun" magic is. Early on we get a taste of what real magic is all about, as Cutter demonstrates one of the simplest tricks in the book: making a dove "vanish" by smashing it dead within a steel cage that more resembles a medieval torture device. In their private duel, Angier and Borden physicalize the principle that applies to just about any artistic endeavor -- for every production of art, there comes a pound of flesh. In a trick intentionally gone awry, Angier blows away two of Borden's fingers; in return, Borden sabotages one of Angier's tricks, resulting in a crushed leg and a permanent limp.

Poking fun at his Broadway image, Jackman plays the showman-savvy Angier to the hilt; the nominal protagonist at the outset, his obsession soon swells to mythic proportions, and he has a swell time queening it up. On the other hand, Bale lends a Cockney gravity to his quieter role as the somewhat awkward, more naturally gifted impressario, and his scenes with his estranged wife (Rebecca Hall) and daughter (Samantha Mahurin) have a mournful pulse. Thanks to his underplaying, the rivalry between the two men doesn't descend to "boys will be boys" camp, despite an unworthy plot strand that sends a duplicitous mistress (Scarlett Johansson, miscast) into both men's beds -- one can believe, if only for a few moments at a time, that something is at stake here besides the cleverness of the narrative, and its loving glances at the steampunk genre.

For a while Nolan keeps the plates juggling magnificently, but by the end of the movie he means to leave us with a sour taste in our mouths. I won't give away the movie's final image, which is a counterpoint to the innocent tableau that opens the film; when we realize what we're looking at with a sense of mounting unease, Caine smugly proclaims in voice-over: Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it because you're not really looking. You don't really want to know the secret...You want to be fooled. Would that were true, but when all becomes clear at the end, the net effect is less one of amazement than one of grim acknowledgment -- so that particular trick worked, after all. With the collapse of the film's central mysteries, we're only left with one message, again courtesy of Caine: Obsession is a young man's game. If there was any doubt.

Intriguing yet chilly, anything but fun -- it's easy to claim that by the end of The Prestige you're left with nothing but a puzzle box with a few chipped edges, along with some extra ambiguities meant to be debated over late-night drinks. Yet somehow the sadness that seems to shroud the film like that wintry Colorado mist sticks around. The misdirections and sleights of hand Nolan employ are mere window dressing that can't hide the fact that behind every dazzling bit of legerdemain is a dove crushed in a steel trap.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

He Got the (Re)Boot: "Casino Royale"

Casino Royale (2006, Dir. Martin Campbell)

M: While you were away, the world changed.
James Bond: Not for me.

- Die Another Day (2002)

By some estimates, James Bond has been away for quite a while -- but for how long? That depends on who, or what, you consider Bond to be. The James Bond featured in Ian Fleming's trashy little classics has been MIA since the 60s; ditto for the cool-cat cinematic version immortalized by Sean Connery. As I wrote a while back, Bond has outgrown the specificity of his origins to become a Pop Culture Phenomenon, including all the self-reflexivity the term implies. Thus, like an aged elephant lumbering under its own weight, the Bond film series has grown more sluggish with each succeeding entry, all too mindful of formulae and audience expectations it is expected to fulfill. Less crowd-pleasing entertainment than Pavlovian circus, Die Another Day, the last entry in the Pierce Brosnan era, was a greatest hits compilation, chock-full of recycled gags and motifs, outlandish plot turns, and ill-advised nods to modern "filmmaking" -- speed ramping in the edits, CGI stunts -- that were hopelessly clunky, even as they tried to adhere to the style of today's action film. And whither Bond? Overshadowed by the chaos around him, the ever-smooth, self-deprecating, lightweight Brosnan never had a chance. Of course, like many a Bond film, Die Another Day was also fun, in a faintly horrifying kind of way, and there lies the conundrum -- is it possible that we, as an audience, have been conditioned to enjoy these juggernauts because of their inherent awfulness? Has Bond become less a character than a brand, an excuse to parade cringeworthy one-liners, females with suggestive names, and enemy plots to rule or destroy the world? Pavlovian, indeed.

Financially speaking, Bond has never left -- Die Another Day grossed close to half a billion dollars worldwide, enough dough to fund a few SPECTRE attempts to take over the planet. But as the quotation at the top of this essay cannily notes, we have entered a New World Order in the sober aftermath of 9-11. Heroes these days are tough, tormented, and literally tortured -- not necessarily in that order. Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer from 24 and Matt Damon's Jason Bourne from the Bourne movie franchise wouldn't know how to order an aperitif if you gave them instructions, but they sure know how to break terrorist necks, and their ability to withstand pain puts them on par with Schwarzenegger's Terminator. While 24 and Bourne dove straight into the damaged psyches of their protagonists, Die Another Day went the other way; all the accoutrements and epicurean mayhem of a standard Bond flick were in place, but Bond himself was a black hole, sucking everything into a great sound and fury that signified nothing. The very superficialities that made him attractive in the first place -- the opulent tastes, the male model looks, quips and raised eyebrows taking the place of character -- were reducing him to caricature.

So the producers gambled, and came up with Daniel Craig as the new 007, prompting a firestorm of Internet criticism. Blond Bond, Short Bond, Brutish Bond, Ugly Bond -- take your pick. But ironically enough, all the hand-wringing over Craig's ascension to the throne points up the underlying strategy behind Casino Royale: use an actor who doesn't fit anyone's conception of the role to jump-start the series by restarting it, with the focus squarely on the character of Bond himself. Based on the first Ian Fleming novel (the first Bond film in quite a while to use a substantial portion of the book), Casino Royale is a sprawling, ungainly film -- and it also happens to be the most purely entertaining Bond movie in a couple of decades.

The customary pre-credits sequence, unusually concise this time, treats us to sights that are as far from the previous 20 films as one can get. Moody black-and-white visuals herald a brawl in a men's room(!), and an unglamorous death by drowning in the sink. We are flashing back to Bond's first kill, one of two assassinations that will earn him double-o status. Juxtaposed against this slugging match is Bond's second hit, a clean execution of a traitor within MI6 which is as cool and elegant as the first kill is messy. Within these five minutes, we are introduced to a James Bond who has an actual character arc -- an assassin who has the brains and brawn to become the polished secret agent of yore, but who hasn't quite mastered the polish yet (or as he himself puts it sarcastically, "half monk, half hitman"). And it is in these five minutes that the genius of casting Daniel Craig becomes evident: we peer at his craggy features, and those unlikely blue eyes with their tiny irises, and catch flickers of arrogance, disgust, and remorse. This Bond isn't unflappable, but it's dawning on him that he wants to be, and the struggle is intriguing.

It seems only fair that after years of objectification in Bond films -- the comely women, the shiny gadgets, the space-age lairs -- we've finally gotten around to the objectification of Bond himself. The title sequence, usually the domain of "tastefully" nude girls, becomes a tribute to Bond as he is featured in silhouette, beating up would-be killers. Rather than a bikini-clad bimbo emerging from the sea, we get a shot of the impossibly buff Craig sauntering onto the beach dressed in tiny blue swim trunks. Speaking of buff, the film also takes care to incorporate the infamous torture from the novel, in which Bond is stripped to his birthday suit and has his privates pummeled. On the other end of the spectrum, we also get a wry bit in which Craig dons the tuxedo for the first time and stares at himself in the mirror, almost incredulous at his transformation. It is as if the filmmakers are daring us to regard this man as an anthropologist would regard a skeleton, and reconsider him from the outside in. In keeping with this re-invention, our expectations are played with from the start. Many of the usual touches (Q and his wacky gadgets, Moneypenny, the juvenile quips, the flamboyant evildoers) have been jettisoned. The typical gunbarrel opening is repositioned to catch you unawares. At the outset, Bond is dressed down in civilian skivvies, and his ride isn't an Aston Martin but a clunky Ford Mondeo (although the venerable DB5 shows up soon enough). A dalliance with a villain's mistress comes to a crashing halt before a single bedsheet is rumpled. "Vodka martini, shaken not stirred" is given a bracing twist.

Fleming's novel is a trim little tale in which Bond must bankrupt the odious Le Chiffre, high-ranking Russian agent, via a high-stakes game of baccarat. Along the way, all the trappings of the Bond milieu (specially prepared cocktails, dinner jackets, grotesque baddies, and pouty femme fatales) are seamlessly introduced, spiced with a dash of fatalism and a killer ending ("The bitch is dead") that encapsulates the literary Bond's detached yet easily bruised world view. Lacking the grandiose absurdity of Fleming's later works (and most of the films), it's a lean, mean novel, and the cinematic adaptation by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and the ubiquitous Paul Haggis holds true to the book's intent for the most part. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) is now a banker to fashionable terrorists everywhere, and his game of choice is poker -- so far so topical, and just to remind audiences that this is a modern action film, the screenplay tacks on two lengthy action set pieces in Madagascar and Miami that pass the time before we get down and dirty at the titular casino. Although competently shot by Martin Campbell, and blessedly free from the CGI that plagued Die Another Day, these sequences feel a bit perfunctory, and render the film top-heavy. In keeping with Purvis and Wade's previous scripts (The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day), there's also plenty of double-crosses and murky character motivations that prompt some head-scratching down the stretch. The writers would do well to learn from Fleming and the classic Bond films in this regard -- the audience's dream of the Bondian life includes the idea that villains are easily identifiable, and missions and objectives razor-clear. In short, so blissfully not like real life.

On the other hand, Casino Royale has a better sense of proportion than other recent Bonds -- an understanding that a contremps at a card table, or the half-snarky, half-flirty exchanges between Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), the British Treasury agent assigned to keep tabs on the money Bond plays with, carry as much weight as the sight of a runaway truck crashing through a line of police cars. Above all, the film engrosses because of the three-dimensionality of Craig's unruly 007. His Bond is a proto-Bond, all heedless ego and not as much discernment, still susceptible to impatience, pain, and doubt. His Bond understands why one should order Bollinger and Beluga caviar, but he's also too busy tracking down terrorists to allow himself to savor them. It's no accident that early in the film, he pursues his quarry by barreling straight through a wall, and that's before he proceeds to shoot up an embassy and break into M's home to access classified info (as M, Dame Judi Dench is as tart as ever, and this time she has good reason to be). The best Bonds (Sean Connery, Roger Moore) succeeded by playing their personas (charming sexist Connery, playboy aristocrat Moore) against the darker, more perverse tendencies of the character, and Craig carves out a niche by presenting himself as an Everyman Bond. He doesn't breeze through his mission so much as bull through it, and yet he does it with an uncomplicated masculine ease that places the audience on his side.

Fleming himself recognized that his character was all about duality -- the certitude of Bond's actions was forever at a remove from his self-doubts, and his prejudices against the fairer sex never prevented him from constantly placing his missions in jeopardy for their sake. The 007 of the books certainly knew how to cook gourmet eggs and charm the panties off countless women, but he never could completely escape the melancholy of being a "man who was a silhouette." Craig is the first film Bond who has been given the opportunity to mine these depths, especially during the film's lengthy coda, in which he succumbs to the charms of the inscrutable Vesper, only to run headlong into betrayal. All of this leads to an indelible conclusion in which Bond essentially renounces his humanity and becomes the familiar hero we've been awaiting all along.

Of course, this is still Bond, and these more somber strains are mixed in with the usual mayhem, but it is to Campbell and the screenwriters' credit that for the first time in a long time, most of the elements are in sync. While the film is the most down-to-earth and brutal since License to Kill, its humor sneaks up on you (much of the dialogue has an old-time Hollywood crackle to it, no doubt thanks to Haggis's involvement), and when Bond duels Le Chiffre across the gaming tables the tone finds the right balance between old-world glamour and witty character interactions. Ah, the characters: Mikkelsen is a creepy delight as Le Chiffre, gifted with a bleeding eye ("A derangement of the tear duct," he explains apologetically) and a death mask's glare, even when he becomes sweaty and desperate, while Giancarlo Giannini is all swervy charm as Bond's not-quite-trustworthy ally Mathis, and Jeffrey Wright contributes a wry cameo as Felix Leiter, the "brother from Langley." However, it's Bond's star-crossed relationship with Vesper that persists in the memory. Teasing one moment, smoldering the next, and ultimately vulnerable, Green is impossible to nail down, and it's this quality that bewitches Bond (and us). Their doomed love may be slightly short-changed compared to the rest of the hijinks, but like On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the last Bond movie to really cut to the heart of the character, it allows us to gain a glimpse of the tenuous human within the legend...and then the door slams triumphantly shut as Craig says those famous words -- "The name's Bond, James Bond" -- with an authoritative venom that proclaims that James Bond is indeed back.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

National Novel Writing Month: Entry #4

The Last Kingdom: Chapter 3

It is a brilliant summer morning with a westerly breeze, and the sun beats down on the beach, scattering along the tops of the incoming waves. She runs, like a kite on the loose, her braided hair flowing wildly behind her, surpassing gravity and sadness. Long ago the villagers had come to the same conclusion, She’s a rare one, that girl, and now she is proving it, for the young men who trailed her are panting, their clumsy muscled legs too broad and heavy, their pace too erratic, impeded by the sands that are still dark from the previous day’s rainshower.

Come on! she shouts, and like a coquette, she twirls around to face her pursuers, especially the young man at the front of the pack. Come on, Li!

Li, the stallion, the young man who died once and came back, the lone hope of the village, snarls, his lips pulling back from his teeth in a dazzling resemblance to a real horse, and leaps forward, his feet clawing at the sand, driving him forward with inhuman force, and yet he is laughing, a high laugh that seems at odds with the dark power that propels him.

You have to do better than that, Mei! he cries.

The beach concludes with an outcropping of rocks and crags that form the base of one of the three hills from which the town earned its name, but it would be more accurate to say that it is a mountain, for the top of the hill juts into the clouds. In the best conditions, it would be a chore to climb, but at this time of the day, at high tide, the waters lashing the land, it is nigh impossible. Yet Mei does not hesitate; with a practiced leap, her arms thrown out like wings, she runs up the first boulder, her momentum propelling her to the top of it, seemingly outrunning even the spray that scatters everywhere like disintegrating pearls. Her arms thrust out, pulling her up onto the second rock, her tiny feet unerringly finding the little nooks to accommodate them, and she climbs. Within seconds her fingers are sore and bleeding from the water-sharpened rock edges, but still she smiles.
The other young men are huffing their disbelief; foul words have replaced determination. That little witch! She’s not a human, she’s a monkey!

No, a bird, Li grins, and to punctuate the difference he screws his face into the hoo-hoo look of a primate. With a jocular bound from side to side, he climbs up onto the first rock, his pace no match for Mei’s, but possessing a grace of his own.

Soon there is just the two of them, as they intended, and she climbs higher and higher, her knuckles popping and bleeding, and he follows, his tougher skin growing pink with rawness. For them, time does not move, and they take no note of the sun as it rises in the aquamarine sky. He prefers a more circuitous route that takes him out of the sun, into the crags, while she presses on in open daylight, grabbing hold of the tough shrubs that grow in the open, pulling at them to hoist herself up, letting go of them just before they come completely loose from the mountain and tumble into the sea below. Soon they are above the water and mists, but it is still many feet to the top, and the rock face is sheer. Now his physical strength is gaining the advantage, and he has nearly caught up to her. Just another lunge, another reach with his arm, he can touch the sole of her foot, and victory is his.

Don’t bet on it, she smiles, and with a little tap, she sends a loose rock his way. He bats at it with his hand and knocks it away, but at the cost of his progress, and now she is scampering ahead with renewed energy.

Another hour passes; exhaustion sets in. Too tired to even cajole each other, they continue, intent on reaching the top of the miserable little mountain. Li slips out of his outer tunic and lets it fall away – it flutters halfway down the hill before coming to rest on an outcropping, a ghost laid low. Mei wipes at her forehead with her sleeve until the silk droops heavily from her arm. The sun is no longer just light but also heat. Both of them touch their exposed necks from time to time, exploring the pain of touch, as they have both been burned.

They are nearly at the top. Mei stretches out with arms that have gone dead with overuse. It is no good – she cannot pull herself up any more. Even her legs have gone numb. She will be stuck here, at this particular juncture, mere feet from her goal.

Come on, you stupid girl! Li calls up. You’re in the way!

The words are like tonic. With a final agonized cry she hoists her body up, over the last bit of rock, rolling to a dead stop, dust and pebbles in her mouth. Li is right behind her and lands alongside her, face to face. He leans toward her, but she turns her face away, having mastered the art of intransigence.

You didn’t earn it, she says.

Yes I did, he laughs. If I didn’t insult you back there, would you have had the strength to finish?

You would like to think so.

They lie like that for a while as the wind whistles across the top of the mountain. Her head is turned away from him, but his fingers are holding hers, bringing them up to his lips. He kisses them, sucks on the dry blood, runs his tongue around the wounds. She winces at the pain. He has moved on to her sleeve, and he pulls it back, exposing her pale arm. He is kissing that too. Her stomach flutters, and she forgets to breathe.

Stop it, she says, in a calm tone of voice.

This is the only time you let me do it, he says.

She plucks at the earth-toned fabric of her tunic. She has never considered herself vain or fashionable, and yet she misses the greens and yellows of her early childhood. Everything else – the sight of a lantern scoring the night sea, the heavy accents of the villagers, which to her sounded like the slurred happy talk of children who have just woken up in the morning, the pleasing scent of cod cooked over an open fire, marinated with peppercorn and dark salty sauce, the jeers of the other girls as they sat in their single-room school, knocking the bottoms of their wooden chairs against the stone floor, even this insolent boy who had stolen her innocence – everything else was precious to her.

She holds his head between her blistered hands. If she had the strength, she would crush it, just to see what his reaction would be. He would survive, no doubt, even if she pressed hard enough to pop his eyes out of his skull and crush the bones in his cheeks, he would still smile, and he would still demand a kiss, and he would unbutton her tunic with the concentrated solemnity of a priest burning paper money to the ancestors. And once again she would laugh, and pinch his nose betwixt thumb and forefinger, like the other time, and he would accept the punishment with a graceful nod of the head.

She kisses him hard on his chapped lips. Mmm yes, he slurs.

I’ll always defeat you, she says.

That’s fine, he retorts. Just remember, I was the one who saved you.

I let you live, she says.

You people from the central region, you’re all alike. You’ve got that chin.


Yes, sticking up into the air, like you must prove yourselves more worthy than the rest of us.

And you fishermen don’t feel the same?

You want to know how we feel? His hand is moving underneath her tunic, touching her skin. Within her blurred vision, he seems distant, as if he is a dream that is rapidly fading with the first moments of wakefulness.

Li, she whispers. Have you ever thought of leaving?

Only if you go. Then I’d have to chase you down. Always.

You can’t promise that.

I don’t make promises. I simply act.

With an abrupt cough, he sits up, gazing down at the ocean – it has grown gray in the afternoon light. She sits up as well, and rests her head on his shoulder.

See that? He points towards the watery horizon. No one knows what’s on the other side. We have our little world here, and over there are places, people, things that no one can dream. Why don’t you run out there, and I’ll follow you?

Why not together?

You want to be first, don’t you?

You don’t mind being last?

I won’t be last, I’ll be right behind.

She gives a haughty little laugh. You’re just scared to be in front.

Horses runs where they will. They only have a destination when they follow someone they respect.

She clears her tired hair away from her eyes and looks at him. All right. Someday. You will follow.

I will follow, he vows. He has picked some azaleas from the ground and offers them to her. She accepts them with a slight bow of the head, as if they are at a banquet and being introduced for the first time. Then she bites down on one of the petals, laughing. Far below, somebody is shouting, the sound of it as distant as thunder: Li! Mei! Are you up there? Are you all right? Neither of them listen, his arms are around her again, his lips to her neck, her face, her exposed shoulders, and they lie in each others’ arms, out of sight of anyone at the bottom, the plucked flowers rolling away and spun like tops as the wind carries them into the ripening afternoon.

The fishermen have returned to port and are carting their day’s catches up to town when they see the one-armed hunter. This time he carries himself with the air of one who is content, and although he has not gained any weight since his last visit five years before, he saunters into town as if he is a heavy, plodding man of leisure.

Ling, the sole local guardsman, is on his back, loafing at the side of the road, his knees jutting up in the air and a wheat stalk clenched in his teeth. Like many who are given a duty of public importance, he has an indolent manner that indicates that public service, or public niceties for that manner, are of little interest to him. As he sees the hunter emerge, walking the twisting stone path that cuts between the north and central hills, he climbs to his feet with an aggrieved growl and calls out: Who goes there!

Be at ease, slothful public servant, the hunter booms. I’m back!

Ling mutters a few imprecations and returns to his lounging. Damn woodsmen, he thinks. Only come by when there’s good fish to eat.

The hunter has some pelts slung over his shoulder. Some children running down towards the sea, eager to play before the sun grows red and cold, pass by him and stare at the dead animals.

Is that a fox? a rosy-cheeked girl asks.

Yes indeed miss, he replies, crouching down on one knee and letting her pet the fur. It’s a magic fox.


You know what they say about fox spirits—how they can change their appearance, look like you and me?

For how long?

Some do it for years. Some of your friends might be foxes.

She sucks in her breath, stealing a suspicious look at the boys in the group. Why do they do it?

He laughs. So they don’t end up like their cousin, here. But some of them like the idea of being human. It’s like a game. And then one day, the game is up and they must return to the woods.

If one of my friends is a fox, she says solemnly, then I will catch him and put him in a cage.

Oh, he says, his intensity matching her own, you can try. But a fox-human has never been caught. Never.

I will, she says, wagging her body from side to side, caught up in the idea.

Well, best of luck to you, then. And with that, he pats her on the head with his single arm, and continues on his way. Ahead are the town gates, rickety bits of wood that are never closed, and beyond that is the town’s main and only avenue, a dusty promenade where the tea houses and dry goods stores sit side by side. Rich merchant’s wives are driven in bumpy little carts pulled by mules, while the fisherman lope down the street in their sandals, picking at the holes in their mouths where teeth once lived, saying hello to proprietors and fish vendors with wrinkly grins. It is close to sunset, and the locals are preparing an outdoor feast to celebrate the weather; rice wines are rolled out in their barrel-like jars, while the women of the town hang scrolls of good fortune and red streamers across the tiled roofs.

The hunter waves hello to Li’s parents, who have taken charge at one of the cooking tables, stirring bits of chicken, mushrooms, and bamboo in the clay pot.

Hello! Mr. Li says, grabbing the hunter’s hand with both of his own. Compared to the hunter, he is a small, rotund man, but to everyone else in the village, he is a rock. As he is widely acknowledged to serve the best crab in town, high officials and army generals have dined in his rickety restaurant, without complaint: after a helping of his dishes, the rotten high beams are grand and the creaky floor is quaint.

An auspicious evening to you, the hunter greets him. How is your boy? Strong and tall and straight?

And lazy, Li sighs. His wife looks up from her cooking, her face and arms wet from steam, and nods a curt hello to the hunter—she has never trusted him, although it is unclear whether that is because she does not believe in the man’s avowed superstitions, or is afraid of them.

Take over, Li says to his wife, and invites the hunter inside for a cup of plum wine. The hunter lays the pelts out on the table, and points the largest one out.

This one is yours, he says.

I couldn’t afford—

No, no. A gift. It brings luck. You will need it.

Do you see something?

It’s not very clear, but it is a bad portent. Hey, never mind, you’re protected now. He finishes the sweet wine in a single gulp, and politely asks for another cup. And how is the young girl?

Mei is fine. She is a rare beauty.

With rare talents, eh?

Oh yes. Strong as any of the young men in town, and beautiful enough to catch the eye of all of them.

Quite the mystery, eh? Everyone loves a good mystery.

Speaking of which, have you—?

Hmm, yes. I’ve crossed rivers and mountains, made inquiries. It’s difficult to sort out true tales from lies these days … there are so many people who have disappeared, or have changed their names, left their old hometowns…

Yes, Li says quickly, impatient, but anything about Mei?

Possibly from the West, the hunter says. The fabric you gave me—the cloth that belonged to the dead people in the forest—it is definitely from the West. It has the same style of cross-weave. The artisans confirmed it. And you’ve noticed her accent, of course.

We’re simple people, Li shrugs. Accents don’t mean much to us.

You’re lucky. In some places, an accent means the difference between friendship and death. Another cup, please.

Maybe it’s best she remains with us, after all, Li says. We don’t live special lives, but we have peaceful ones.

Absolutely, absolutely, the hunter nods vigorously. Just thought I’d see what I could find. And I must thank you, for if I didn’t investigate this little mystery of yours, I would never have opened up that new trade route past the Song River … or heard some new tales.

What tales? Old Li has rolled himself a cigarette, and eagerly stuffs it in his mouth. It is so rare to receive this kind of break from routine, and experience the power of a simple story.

The thick cloth curtain that marks the entranceway to the restaurant flutters open and Mrs. Li enters. Avoiding the hunter’s gaze, she says, We need more help.

Fine, fine, Mr. Li says, and with many apologies he leaves, Mrs. Li pulling the cigarette out of his mouth as he passes her, repeating a scene that happens every evening. The hunter sits alone in the restaurant. He is pleased by how the scent of cooking seems to permeate every bit of the room, from the table tops to the walls, to the wall hangings with their single characters signifying Luck and Good Fortune. So few of these towns left, he ruminates, where people think of nothing but a peaceful life.

Tell me some of those tales.

A muscular arm has wrapped itself around the hunter’s neck. It is young Li, freshly washed and dressed in the standard evening gown of his clan—deep red earthen tones, a black collar, smartly tucked at his hips, loose and free at the legs.

You’ve improved! the hunter laughs. Caught me daydreaming. Good to see you, young man. You’ve grown big. I daresay you’ll be bigger than me in a few years.

You were going to tell some tales, Li says.

When you’re old enough to drink, I’ll tell you.

Li’s foot flashes down, fast as thought, and bangs against the top of the table, sending the jar of plum wine airborne, into his arms. He holds the tiny mouth of the jar against his lips, and swallows five whole gulps, the liquid bulging against his throat as it courses down.

Well done, the hunter guffaws. If you like your wine, you’ll be interested to know about the Wine of Knowledge.

Yes, yes. All at once Li is like a child again, sitting down to face the hunter with burning red cheeks, both elbows on the table, at all attention.

Back in the days when the country was one, there was a sage who lived on Fuxing Mountain—no one knows exactly where it is, but it’s rumored to be in Tacheng County, deep in the hill country. The sage was said to be all-knowing, and the unifying emperor of the first Chu Empire wanted to make use of his talents, so with his army he marched to Fuxing Mountain, and demanded that the sage sit on his council. But the old sage was tough and unyielding, and declined the request. The emperor was ready to execute him right then and there, for a man with such a talent cannot be allowed to aid anyone if he does not aid the emperor. But the sage suggested a compromise: he would ferment a special wine that would grant the power of knowledge to whoever drank from it.

Outside, torches are lit as the villagers sit down for dinner. The clatter of cups and plates and conversation tinkles, like a slight breeze. Already the village minstrels are singing the well-known folk songs:

The birds alight from the willow trees
And fly off to their winter’s rest
The moon grows cold at the door
As we think of those who will soon be gone

The sage eventually produced a jug of the wine, the hunter continues, with one simple bit of instruction: take a sip of the wine with a question in mind, and the answer will come. But then he wagged his finger at the emperor and warned him that if he were to partake of the wine, he must consider his questions carefully, or else he would encounter only misery. As soon as the sage handed the jug to the emperor, the emperor had him executed on the spot, so one else could take advantage of this great gift. And then he took a sip of the wine. And another. And another. Soon he had finished one cup, then two, then three. By the end of the third cup he sealed up the jar, locked it in a chest in his room, and never spoke of the wine again. In fact, he rarely spoke a word after he drank the wine. He stayed in his palace, having fallen into deep despair, and within two years his reign was over, and the period of the Tai civil wars began.

The hunter paused for dramatic effect, taking advantage of Li’s absorption in the tale to grab the plum wine from his grasp and pour a fresh cup for himself.

So did the wine work?

There are many stories about that one. Some think it was a slow-acting poison that ruined the emperor’s mind and health. Others think that it was perhaps the greatest wine ever created, taking the emperor into a drunken stupor that he never recovered from. And then there’s the explanation from the folks in Tacheng County, which I tend to believe, given their proximity to the origin of the tale. Which is this: the wine did indeed do what the sage said, and answered every question the emperor asked of it. And what do you suppose the answers to the emperor’s questions were? That his reign was doomed to failure in two years, that his descendants would either be executed or reduced to peasants, that his grand empire would never amount to anything but some ink on a historical parchment. And after that third cup, the emperor realized that he had no questions left, nothing he could learn about the universe or his life that would effect a single change to his destiny. He was after all just a small man who happened to be the emperor, who did not have the wisdom or foresight to use this terrible knowledge he had. So the first Chu Empire crumbled, and the wine was lost and forgotten, but some say it is still out there, hidden somewhere, perhaps buried in a grave, or concealed in the present Eastern Empire capital, awaiting the day when a truly wise man will make use of its powers. A day many long for, but just as many fear, because what if the wrong man gains possession of the wine? What terrible events will take place when one is armed with limitless knowledge?

The hunter settles back in his seat. Outside, the folk lament reaches its conclusion:

The Song River turns to ice
The winter fires burn all night
In the distance, a long eagle cries
As we cry out to the end of the world

Young Li licks his dry lips. And you believe all that?

With a great yawn of contentment, the hunter rubs at his eyes. I’ve seen too much to not believe the stories I hear. Go on, join the party outside. I’ll be around later.

With another handshake, the hunter takes his leave, lumbering outside and down the avenue, no doubt making for the woodcutter’s home—it is commonly known that the woodcutter’s daughter has a weakness for the woodsmen. Instead of joining his parents at the front of the restaurant, Li exits at the rear, where there is a view of the hills and the dying sun in the west. Out front, the drinking games have begun, as the villagers call out numbers and rhymes, timing their drinks to their shouted declarations.

What are you doing there? It is Mei, placing a hand on his shoulder. In public, this is the most they can do.

The hunter’s in town, Li says. Brought us a fox pelt.

Ah, she scoffs. More folk tales.

Too simple for an elegant person like you, he mutters.

Taken aback, she dares to wrap both hands around him, her fingers crossing just over his heart. I didn’t mean—

No, it’s nothing. He reaches back and touches her head, where the whitish scar lies. He’s been traveling everywhere, looking for clues about your past.

Almost imperceptibly, her hands’ grip over his heart loosens. Did he find anything?

Not much. Only that you’re probably from the West.

That doesn’t matter to me, she says.

Li thinks, I know it doesn’t. You’re happy being here, but this place is not for you, nor is it for me.

What if we left tomorrow? he asks.

Going where?

Anywhere. The West. Tacheng County.

Hill country? But it’s dangerous in the interior—

Yes, he says, his eyes shining with the last light of day. I believe it will be.

What will your mother and father—

Ah! he shakes his head. That doesn’t matter. We’ll be back someday. I know it.

She lowers her eyes, feeling the evening chill. Maybe not tomorrow, she says, but someday, perhaps.

Still a bit drunk from the wine, he puffs himself up to argue, but then sees that she is cold, and relents. Fine. Someday, he grins.

Out front, someone unleashes a set of firecrackers, and the sky flourishes with yellow and red light for a few moments. Lost for words, afraid of everything but the presence of the other, they say nothing; they just stand there, gazing with uncertainty at the conflagration behind them, and then at the darkening hills ahead.

Ling the local guardsman, tipsy from a full night of drinking, his straw hat perched at a raw angle on his head, totters on his rounds. The last of the villagers has dragged himself off to sleep, and stray bits of fish bone and spilled wine dot the avenue. All the banners that were hung up for the evening festival shiver in the breeze. Three in the morning! he calls out, louder than any drunkard. The lantern torch he carries bobs from side to side, and with an annoyed click of the tongue he tightens his grip along the shaft, but to no avail, for it is not his arms that are the problem, but the rocking of his entire body.

The hunter has pulled up a rattan chair and sits by himself on the porch of the woodcutter’s house. His shirt hangs down to his knees, and his hair is tousled. There is no doubt what he has been doing inside, with the woodcutter’s daughter. Ling stumbles over to him. At last, he thinks, a chance to show him what’s what.

Maybe in the woods you can do what you want all night, but in this village, we have a curfew, he says.

The hunter holds a piece of wood between his thighs, his lone hand carving it, slicing away shreds, forming a pointed object, like a needle.

Three in the morning, he says. The time of demons.

What’s that you say? Didn’t you hear what I told you?

Demons rise when souls are asleep. And woe be the fool who is awake to greet them.

Are you…Ling has been insulted, he is quite sure of it, but no one has ever had the temerity to address him this way in his long career as public official, and he stammers for a response.

Giving a ghoulish little noise, the hunter tucks away his knife, rises and walks over to him. He towers over the little man. Woe be the fool … he hisses in a knowing, half-joking tone.

Stop that, Ling yelps. The lantern swings back and forth, casting anguished shadows over the hunter’s face.

Shhhh, take it easy, says the hunter. He is looking at Ling, but the old man feels as if he is looking through him, as if he is nothing but underbrush, or a stray tree branch, and the real prey is just beyond.

The hunter reaches over and plucks the straw hat off Ling’s head.

Hey! Ling grabs at air as the hunter dodges from foot to foot, keeping the hat out of arm’s reach. You’ll pay the penalty for aggravating a public official –

Ling leans in until his face is right up against the hunter’s. The hunter drops the hat, and as the watchman’s eyes follow it to the ground, the hunter tightens his grip on the sharpened piece of wood, and buries it in the old man’s neck. Soundlessly, Ling collapses, the lantern let loose from his grasp, and the hunter scoops it up in his hand before it touches the earth. On the ground, Ling jangles like a puppet, his mouth caught in a rictus grin and the last bit of breath whooshing out. The hunter observes him for a short while, taking note as the man’s limbs flop, then subside, and kneels down to watch the widened eyes go glassy. He kicks at the body like it is a pebble in the road, and ushers it over to the side of the avenue, down into the stone gutter through which the water runs through the town. He scoops up the fallen hat with his foot and with practiced ease kicks it into the air so that it lands on his head. Adopting the watchman’s stumble, he continues on the rounds, calling out every so often: Three in the morning! Three in the morning!

Soon he is at Li’s restaurant. He blows out the lantern and waits for a good interval, merged with the shadows, making sure that his eyes are adjusted to the dark. That is the problem with villages, he reflects—too much good food and lanterns all night, and your skills deteriorate. When he is ready, he creeps into the restaurant, positioning his feet in all the right places so as to not make noise, as he had noted which floorboards squeaked when he had visited earlier that evening. Engulfed by darkness, he climbs the stairs, to the living quarters. He pauses at each doorway, ensuring that everyone is asleep. Mei’s room is the last, and he finds her in bed, her features relaxed by sleep, completely lacking the sweet ferocity she sometimes wore during the day.

The hunter leans over her and studies the whitish scar on her forehead. Yes, no mistake, he thinks. This is what I was told.

Her eyes flutter. Even as she sleeps, she struggles to awaken. Remarkable, he thinks. She can sense me.

He retrieves the vial from the folds of his tunic, and applies a good dollop to the corner of the bedsheet. He then grabs hold of the sheet and clamps it over her nose and mouth. For a few seconds her eyebrows furrow, and she is on the edge of wakefulness, but the concoction does its work, and she is unconscious again, only this time her skin has a pale cast, as if she is waxwork.

He pulls her up and slings her over his shoulder. The effort steals his breath for a moment, and he feels a slight twinge in his right hip. Cursing himself, he thinks: I become old, after all.

He exits into the hall, and descends to the restaurant, moving fast now, so fast that he does not notice that someone is at the foot of the stairs until he is nearly upon her. It is Mrs. Li, bundled in the sheets of her bed, and she is just as astonished by his appearance as he is by hers. She opens her mouth to scream.

No, he whispers, his hand to her mouth, his fingers digging into her skin, physically keeping her lips shut.

She reaches at him, pounds at his shoulders, whimpering sounds caught in her chest, and all the while her eyes are blazing with something akin to triumph, as if she is saying to him, I knew it, I knew it, I was right about you.

He releases his hold, and in that moment she yells, but only for an instant. If she had decided to run, she would have perhaps escaped, but she was committed to saving her adopted daughter, alerting the rest of her family. And so she stands, frozen in place, and screams, but the sound is cut short by the hunter’s outstretched palm thudding against her neck, snapping the bones there. As the body sags, the hunter catches it in his arm and gently cradles it to the floor, the tenderness of the movement belying the intention. Once again, the hunter waits, and listens. There are no voices from upstairs, no sounds of movement. The scream had been short enough to be mistaken for that of a reveler, or some figment of a nightmare.

The avenue is still deserted, and the hunter runs down it, the girl still draped over his shoulders. The moon is rising, and he gazes upon it in appreciation; it is as if the gods have vouchsafed this endeavor. He follows the trail he took earlier in the day, back into the hills, through the pass, past the treeline. Now he is home again, and the damp comfort of the woods welcomes him. He pushes on, through little-known paths, cutting through thickets and brambles. The girl’s legs are bare and soon they are lacerated with tiny scratches, but he does his best to shield them from the full brunt of the forest. Finally they reach a clearing, where the wind is dead and the grasses are luxurious with incipient dew. His horse is here, tied to a fallen tree, and the animal whinnies in greeting.

He lowers the girl to the ground, wrapping her in a fresh blanket from his saddlebag, and taps her face gently. Groaning, she bats at his hand, and he grabs hold of her fingers, squeezes them hard.

Miss, you remember me? Miss.

Her eyes bulge open and she sits bolt upright. What’s going on?

You have to forgive me, miss. I hope you’re not feeling too unwell.

Where are we? What are you doing? She pops up on her knees, her arm swinging at his head. He has anticipated this move, and raises his burly arm to block it. In his grip is a long, rounded object, and it unfurls. It is a scroll.

Miss, I’ve come to take you home, he says.

Another summer morning, and the sun rises over the Village of the Three Canyons. Young Li paws at the light as it plays over his face, and with a contented grunt, he awakes. The fall solstice is not far away, but for now, the days are long and the air is pleasant. The stone floor is cold, and he dances upon it, making mock-warlike chants. Out the window, he sees the green hills and the Golden Mountains in the distance—it is rare that one can see the latter, unless it is a perfectly clear day such as this one. Yet there they are, basking in the early light, and he envisions himself walking upon them, each step he takes as wide-ranging as a mile.

In a few minutes he will walk downstairs, see the body that lies crumpled at the foot of the steps, and simply stare for a few moments, as if witnessing a magician’s trick. Then there will be the inevitable shout, the run back upstairs, the discovery of Mei’s disappearance, more shouts, and then a general rumble of conversation that spreads throughout the town, the hum lasting throughout the morning and day, and for days thereafter, existing in a separate reality from the calm of the waves and the breezes that brush the azaleas. But in this moment, the young man looks to the hills, his heart devoured by the very thought of a long journey, and an adventure, and tales to be told and listened to.

[word count: 14000 so far]

Thursday, November 09, 2006

National Novel Writing Month: Entry #3


It was late, very late. Even in the most advanced city, night still penetrates, and the halogen lamps burn alone, fighting their losing battles. I couldn’t sleep that evening, and the noisemaker was malfunctioning – it was supposed to be Burney Falls, all forty-plus meters of torrential spray, but the sound was cutting out at random intervals. If I had the training, I would have tried to decode these dashes and dots, make some linguistic sense out of the chaos, but no such luck. I was left to stare at the starless ceiling, my teeth grinding with every unanticipated hit of silence.

Finally my eyes closed, and I was almost there – my thoughts had wandered toward the question of hats, and which was a better choice, a fedora or deerstalker? An utterly random bit of business, because I had never owned a hat or had a particular desire to. I had enough wherewithal to muse to myself, What would the therapist say about this one? And then my cell chimed. The blue pilot light over my nightstand read 3:15.

It’s Chen. Sorry to wake you.
Chen? My tongue was furred. Someday they would have to invent a pill for that one, or some sort of spray. Instant clear speech within moments.
Just wanted you to know, I’ll be gone soon. Three minutes ten seconds, in fact.
Gone? Where?
They say the soul is at its weakest at three in the morning, so it looks like I just made it past that threshold. That counts for something, eh?

Where are you?
My place. I don’t have much time. Two minutes, forty-four seconds now. You know about appendixes?
I was climbing into my trousers, slipping on a turtleneck shirt. Human appendixes?

Seemingly useless. No one has determined conclusively what they were once used for, if indeed we used them at some point in our evolution. But here we are, using our own versions of appendixes, our vestigial talents. And what if there are more? Maybe an organ that we use every day, but we never fired those synapses in a particular fashion, or sent the blood rolling through the right vein …

If you’re in trouble, we can meet. How about you go to –
No need. Two minutes, eighteen seconds. My synapses were firing, let me tell you. They were firing.
Stay on the line. Tell me what’s happening.
Afraid I don’t have much stamina. I did what I could. Rather a failure. But they fired, for a few glorious moments, they fired. Talk to Sylvie. She’ll help you. You’ll help each other. Remember that.
I was out of my domicile, walking down the city street, scanning the lighted grids at my feet, calculating the distance to the closest incoming train – there, one on Lockhart. The rain was falling, blessed rain, usually we didn’t get much in the way of it during the fall season, but tonight it had the smell of salt and something aromatic – had they seeded the clouds with something especially fragrant? What was the occasion?
Chen, you there? I said.
I have to go. Just over a minute left. I prefer to have my last minute to myself. Old-fashioned that way. I hope you can understand.
Give me a straight answer, will you?
Sorry, Kellen is better at that. Better than all of us. Take care of yourself, young man.
And with that the connection was cut. I had reached Lockhart Rd. and stepped onto the platform, the blowers mounted just under the floor drying me with one blast of tender air. The train was approaching and its headlights were leaving a triangular wake. There were only three other people on the platform, two men and a woman, and I noted their heights, their dress, their manner of walking, stored it away with everything else. Vestigial talents, Chen, whatever you say. It was 3:19 now. Whatever was going to happen had happened.
On the train, the seats were stiff and cold – too much air conditioning at this late hour. Electromagnetic power shuttled us along with nary a bump – it was as if the entire world was moving around us. The exhibition tower was on our left, bulging under the night lights like an uprooted bulb. To the right were the lower levels, no building allowed to rise over fourteen stories high for earthquake reasons. What would it be like, waking up to the monstrosity of that tower filling your entire view? No sun, barely any sky.
Something was dancing before me – an advertisement for something new, fresh, exciting, who knew what. The projection sidled up to me, a woman with indeterminate features and an outstretched palm, fingers like daggers, blowing a kiss in my direction. The advertisement culminated in the sound of the ocean against the beach, a sound carefully calibrated to appeal to any listener, an easy resolution of bliss. Then came the ID, the price, the contact number.
The city lights continued to whip by. A curious mix of anxiety and sleepiness was coming over me. One part of me was worried for Chen, gnawing over his last words, and the other part was finally succumbing to the stress that had accumulated over the last day. I examined my bare wrists and hands, counting the tiny hairs there, summing the numbers. In the olden days they counted sheep to fall asleep – I used this method to stay awake. I was up to about one hundred thirty – almost the height of Burney Falls in feet – when the conductor announced that we had arrived at Chen’s stop.
The rain had stopped and the pavement glistened with puddles of neon yellow and red. A late-night food stand at the corner was still serving zho, and I snapped up a bowl of the porridge to eat. It was freshly cooked, scalding. A piece of sweet bean had stuck between my teeth, and I was picking at it with my hand as I entered Chen’s apartment complex. If I had been paying attention, I probably would have noticed the vehicle a few meters down from the front door, the sedan with the color-coded plates, that particular mix of red and green that signified Central.
Chen insisted on living here, on the outskirts, where the communication lines were cheaper, less reliable. I climbed the long steps to his floor, past faded posters and peeling wallpaper. Most of the posters were antiques, political slogans, calls to action, strange turns of phrase that probably actually meant something once. The East is Red. Double Your Pleasure.
At the top of the stairs, a man in an overcoat waited. When he saw me, he raised his arm, his fingers waggling, the universal sign for show ID. I handed mine to him and after a cursory glance, he nodded and snapped me a half-salute. Thank you sir, he said. Mr. Kellen is here.

Kellen – should have known. He stood at the door to Chen’s apartment, a sour look on his face. Two of his assistants were inside, just inside the threshold, casting lazy glances around but doing nothing otherwise.
Good evening, Kellen said. Your arrival is fortuitous. My men are dawdling somewhat. Did Chen invite you here?
No. He just called. Sounded like something was –
Was. Yes, that’s correct. Was. He’s not present. We have no inkling of his current whereabouts. What was the content of your conversation?
Just some – he was being odd. Said something about being gone in three minutes.

Gone. Gone. A suggestive word. Perhaps you can scan the room. Just for a few moments. Summarize your surveillance, and provide us with any conclusions you have, half-formed or no.
His precise-speak was always unnerving, I knew that was his function and his raison d’être, and it still unsettled me.
I said: And why are you here?
We received a call that a disturbance had occurred.
What kind of disturbance?
He shook his head, annoyed. Clearly whoever had contacted him had not been clear, at all. A brief interrogation of all neighboring domiciles has been inconclusive. Whoever made the call is not divulging their identity. We fear the worst, as we always must. Have you conversed with him recently, before tonight?
Once or twice. Nothing important.
Would you be willing to state that for the record?
You can run a check, if you like.
Kellen lifted a gloved hand. No need. Shall you proceed?
I stepped inside, and the assistants retreated without a sound – it was almost as if they were appendages attached to Kellen, and he had reeled them back in, as quick as elastic. I examined the state of his apartment – very much the same as when I had visited him last, perhaps six months ago. The squarish dining table had moved a few centimeters, nothing unusual about that. The slight depression in the living room chair indicated that he had been sitting there recently – given the depth of the depression, the age of the fabric, the angle of the chair to the floor, Chen’s approximate weight, and so forth, I estimated that he had been sitting there perhaps ten minutes ago. Of course someone else could have sat in the chair, but none of the faint impressions left on the floor indicated the presence of anyone other than Chen, puttering about in his outdated slippers. The slippers were arranged neatly by the chair, and I had to fight the urge to pick them up. I remembered teasing him about them once: You know it’s been medically proven that old-time slippers are bad for your feet.
If that is the case, my feet will die in luxury, he retorted.
Conjectures, Kellen prodded.

He was here. You must have just missed him, give or take a few minutes.
Taken. We were not given anything.
Sure, I said. No recent visitors. Not unless their signs were meticulously removed within the last few minutes.
Kellen pursed his lips. Removal could account for the reported disturbance.
No signs of a struggle, though.
A very efficient removal, then. Is that your opinion?
My opinion … I looked him over, the important man in his immaculate overcoat, his hair parted symmetrically, only a fraction shy of perfection in the placement of the part. Wordsmith, everyone called him. In appearance he resembled the letter P – thin and willowy in the body, inquisitive and poking with the head.
My opinion, I said, is that there are only two possibilities. He either left on his own accord, which doesn’t tie in with the disturbance complaint, or he was abducted by experts.

Thank you. We’ll leave the rest to Sylvie and the others.
Sylvie’s coming here?
She should arrive within the next few minutes.
I’ll wait downstairs then.
Oh? I was not aware that you two –
No, just don’t want to get in the way.
I see. Logical, but not completely understandable.
Is that right?
Yes, taking into account your friendship with her, although it is pure speculation as to what state the friendship is currently –
I shrugged. Maybe I just want to say hello to her in private, before she gets on with her work.
Logical and understandable. Very well. With a little flourish, he stepped aside to let me out of Chen’s apartment. As I was shuffling past him he tapped me on the shoulder. In future, please be truthful at the outset, as well.
I waited just outside the building’s front door, hands dug deep in my pockets, breathing piston-like in the cold. Across the street, the lower-level apartments had settled for the night, but even so, windows were lit, and occasionally a lethargic head would poke its way out. Maybe I wasn’t the only one with a sleeping problem. Maybe this was an epidemic that would claim us all.
Hello, Sylvie said, in a very neutral voice. She was standing behind me, bundled in a Macintosh scarf that snaked around her neck three times. In her left hand she held her standard vinyl equipment bag. Her hair was bunched up, arranged under the round cap perched on her head. Fedora or deerstalker? Maybe that was where I had derived the dream.
Been a while, I replied. Did Chen call you tonight?
Last night. Told me to come over tonight.
Tonight? The bastard – somehow he had timed it all out, down to the minute.
Yeah. On the way, got a call from Kellen – is he upstairs?
Yes. Did Chen mention me when he called you?
The corner of her mouth tightened. They have a term for people who think that the world is centered on –
That’s a yes, then. We’ll discuss that later. He called me tonight. From his apartment. Kellen will ask you to transcribe the conversation. Go ahead and transcribe it, exactly. But there’s one part you must leave out.
She shook her head slowly, as if to say here you go again. She said, Are you telling me how –
You’re mentioned in the conversation. You’ll know when you hear it. You’ll know what to leave out.
She looked down at her shoes, then up at me, then down at her shoes again. Kellen will find out eventually, she said.
Not if you’re convincing.
I’m no linguistic master – he’ll trip me up on an elision, an ellipses –
Then speak in simple, short sentences.
And if he asks me what we’re talking about now? I’m obligated –
That’s fine. But he won’t ask you immediately, and that gives us time. You’re tired.
What? Her hand instinctively rose to her face.

Bags under the eyes, depth of a centimeter. Your posture is slightly hunched, four centimeters lower than the optimum. Your stomach –
Charming, she said.
I shrugged. It’s what I do.
She exhaled, a long stream of half-smoke that disappeared within the short radius beyond her mouth. All you had to say is You’re tired.
I was explaining my reasoning –

Yes, I get it. I was listening to a recording all day, for the archives. An interview with a filmmaker.

A type of artist. He was talking about his craft. He said that once you learn the techniques, the little systems and processes behind the art, then the art loses its magic. But if you gain excellence at the craft, a funny thing happens – it becomes second nature to you, suddenly all the artifice disappears once again, and you return to the original state of innocence, where you can appreciate the art for its magic alone, its effect.

What does that mean?
Her lips drew together in a quizzical frown, the expression of a little girl. I’m not sure, she said. We only observe, we don’t interpret.
Does anyone? I asked.
Sylvie, Kellen said. He was standing in the doorway, as still as a slab. Good evening.

Evening, she said. She stood tall now, maybe a little bit on tiptoe, she was a few millimeters above her normal height.

We need your assistance, Kellen said. The rest of the team is waiting inside.

Of course. I’ll see you later. Without a look back at me, she entered the building.
Kellen continued to stare at me. Nothing ever fazed him. Conditions, settings, situations – he always behaved exactly the same, with that stilted perfection of his. Like the control in an experiment. Everything satisfactory? he asked.

No. My friend’s missing.
Mmm-hmm. True. Superfluous question on my part. Thank you for your help. Why don’t you return to your domicile? We’ll contact you should we need further assistance.
Wait. Kellen.
Should I be worried?
That produced a response from him—he tilted his head to the left a bit. That’s cryptic of you. My non-cryptic answer: I don’t know. Good night.

He pivoted and reentered the building. Something rattled close by, and I whirled. It was the food cart, rolling away of its own accord down the street, shutting down for the night. It was now close to four, the time trains were at their lowest frequency. I waited at the platform for an unheard-of five minutes before the cross-town train arrived. During that interval, I executed a quick scan of my surroundings, for I was now on full alert. A man was surveilling me. He was being very circumspect and subtle about it, by all appearances he was sitting on the platform bench, carrying on a conversation on his cell, but by the shift of his shoulders, the way his free ear was cocked in my direction, it was clear he had zeroed me. One of Kellen’s men? Precautionary on his part? Perhaps.
My own cell chimed. It was Sylvie.
Meet me at five at the Alley. We have to talk.

Wrong number, I said, just loudly enough for the other man to hear, and hung up. The train was hurtling into the station. I boarded, the other man locating himself on the other end of the car, still laughing and having his pretend cell conversation. We were the only ones inside. The train hurtled east, towards the harbor district, leaving the stilt-like buildings and the neon lights behind. Ahead, the city was shrouded in disused darkness. I knew the car interior was vacuum-sealed, but I could swear I smelled the salt of the ocean. The man following me was reacting even more strongly, as his eyes were watering. He held up his fingers to his nose, and for an instant our gazes met. I knew at that moment that losing him would not be easy. It wasn’t a matter of pulling off something dramatic, like jumping off, or shaking him with misdirection, because the moment we saw each other I saw his nostrils flare ever so slightly. That was his vestigial talent. He had marked my scent, and he would follow it to the end.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

National Novel Writing Month: Entry #2

Last Kingdom, Lost Kingdom

The Last Kingdom: Chapter 1

To the east of the golden mountains, at the edge of the Great Sea, it is said the azaleas are more pink, more royal, than anywhere else in the provinces. In the spring they flood the grasses of the coast, welcoming the breezes and rains that tickle rather than pelt, and upon seeing them one understands why emperors and poets were often to be seen here, sighing and smiling.

The villagers, following tradition, pluck these fresh flowers at the third moon, cuddling the petals in their hands as if they are they are the limbs of newborn babes. The flowers are gathered in the town square, and piled high atop each other, upon which time the town guardsmen – guardsmen in name only, for all the real guardsmen and their descendents died in battles long ago – march into the square, uneasy and mismatched in their workaday boots, raising swords in an effete salute to the bounty before them. Feasts of dumplings and baked fish are prepared, and the air is plump with the smell of fruit and rice wine. The boys screw up their eyes and rub their noses as they make shy offerings of flowers to the girls, while their parents watch over them, ready to pounce on any improprieties. The local minstrels sing their songs of heroism and honorable deeds, the same songs as years past, but their presence is a mere formality, for the townspeople could probably sing each song, in perfect pitch, by heart.

For two weeks the celebrations continue, and the flowers lie in the square, untouched and unsoiled, dying of their own accord, the pink giving way to a more substantial and final brown, the petals curling into deformities. At the end of the two weeks, bleary and heavy like the spirits that haunt their dreams, the villagers scoop up the dead flowers in their arms and scatter them back along the grasses of the valley, as the circling birds trumpet the arrival of another day. The spring festival and subsequent scattering of the flowers has not changed in eons, and if no one who now lives in the town knows of how these traditions arose, it has been universally agreed that origins are not so important as what is made of the here and now. Some might find sadness in the fact that the past, the why of something, is no longer considered worthy of attention, but sacrifices are made every day in the name of carving out an existence, and this is but a small one.

Stories are not as plentiful here as they were a few generations ago; the world moves on, and nations are ground to dust and decay. Sometimes a thought might enter a young villager’s head: I must ask my grandfather about what happened here at that time – someone must remember … But inevitably the youngsters are called upon to clean the tableware, or fetch a fresh supply of tea leaves from the local shop, and while these activities are performed, the tiny kernels of thought they might have entertained about the past slip from their minds, like an itch that disappears through inattention, only to return at sorrowful moments, as when a grandparent has been interred and placed in the family urn, laid on marble shelves amongst similarly-sized urns, and the youngsters stare at the shiny, inhuman objects before them and mourn: I never had the chance to ask him about that story …

And yet there are those occasions in which the question persists in a youngster’s mind, as when a boy finds himself alone with his grandfather one evening, the air crisp with the burning fires of autumn, the logs spitting sparks and seething smoke, and the grandfather will let out a long hmmmmm when asked to recall the particulars of a legend or tale. The boy sits awkwardly on a stool, a stump where his left leg should be, the result of an accident from years before – a spooked horse, a cart wheel that savaged him. He leans on the cane he uses to walk, both his hands grasped tightly around the crown of the stick, his chin resting on his hands, appearing wise beyond his years. This is a young man with nothing to his name but thoughts, and thus it is quite understandable that he remembers to ask his grandfather. Likewise, the grandfather feels a responsibility to tell him all he knows, for what does this crippled boy have besides stories to tell?

Yes, there is a reason why this place is known as the valley of emperors, the grandfather says, and for a moment that lasts as long as a flicker, he marshals the myriad thoughts in his head: Did it happen like this? I can’t remember. Should I embellish? No, I would perpetuate a lie, but if there is no truth to be had, where is the harm in a beautiful lie?

The youngster asks again: Can you tell me about the Eagle? Is it true The Eagle brought down the whole kingdom?

, the grandfather says without hesitation. This much he knows. It is a tragic, beautiful story. Do you want to hear it? He does not wait for an answer, because the youngster’s desire is irrelevant compared to his urge to tell the tale. It was back in the days when the great Eastern and Western empires still existed, when they were at odds. For people like us, these were times of great misery, but I have heard that this did not matter much to those who lived then – they were simpler people, easily amused, easy to forget about hardship. There is something to be said for that. They lived for the telling and receiving of tales, the passage from town to town of the latest rumors, the newest legends. And the story of the Eagle’s journey is one legend that has survived.

The fire has died, but the boy and his grandfather do not mind – it gives them an excuse to bundle the blankets about themselves and feel the delicious chill as the cold brushes against the backs of their necks. Outside, evening rain has been superceded by crystalline stars. On a chill night such as this, the boy feels an impossible throb of pain where his left leg used to be, and it requires all his discipline to sit still. He plucks at his tunic with slender fingers, and the grandfather notes the movement, proud that this young man can remain calm despite the pain and unfairness that plagues him. His gift to the young man is this pronouncement:

You must promise me that once you hear this tale, you remember it. For this is a tale about the pain of forgetting.


It is the time of horses, when one can gallop from mountaintop to mountaintop without coming within sight of a town, a paved road, or even the thatched roof of a hut. The sky spreads out over the land in azure glory, and even when thunderclouds storm across the heavens, they seem fresh and new.

In Li province, perched between the golden mountains and the Great Sea, a small town sits astride three hills. It is known as the Village of the Three Canyons, and in the winters the wind howls through the hills like the cries of a lonely woman. Travelers unfamiliar with the area have been known to pull their coats up around their faces and seek refuge at these moments, while the townspeople, immune to superstitions and ghosts, laugh at this naivete. Singing happily, they climb the stone steps that wind up from the shore, the fresh catch of the day squirming in their nets, the ocean air singing in their lungs.

This story begins in the twenty-third year of the reigning Chang emperor, during the middle years of the East-West War, the conflict that decided the fates of two kingdoms. The land has been swarmed by great drought, and those lucky to live outside its shadow, such as those in the Village of the Three Canyons, have little inkling of the miseries that lay just beyond. The occasional military detachment or minister of state passes through the town, and they tell the villagers what they are obligated to tell them: The war proceeds well, great feats are being carried out every day, the glory of the Eastern Empire rings throughout the country, and soon the Western Empire will surrender, as it must. Now may I partake of the shellfish? I understand it’s renowned in these parts.

On this day, the fourth regiment is taking rest in the village, and the children, excited by the opportunity, mount a sloppy offensive with wooden swords and spears. The soldiers, too happy to be in this region of plenty after long days seeing nothing but dust and blood, do not even take notice of them. Like trees, they stand perfectly still, luxuriating in the afternoon sun as the children dodge in front of and behind their legs, swinging their swords, hearty thwacks and ughs issuing from their mouths. Tiring of the soldiers’ inattention, they alter their attack pattern and surround the cavalrymen’s horses, happy to see the animals’ nervous reaction to their presence, as they whinny and buck. One small boy comes particularly close to a stallion, and the rider, who happens to be the best in the detachment, pulls back on his reins as he says, Easy there to both horse and boy, but the boy is drowning in the moment and slides to his left, avoiding the thrust of an imaginary spear, his path taking him to where the horse is retreating, panicking the stallion even further, and before the rider can react, a hoof strikes the boy squarely in the chest, and he is sent head over heels into a patch of brambles. Some onlookers say the boy died and returned to life that day – his breath came in great wheezing gasps, as if crushed bits of metal were rattling about inside him, and then there were no breaths at all. The more level-headed among the villagers remark that the boy merely slipped into a stupor.

For two weeks afterwards the boy does not move, and last rites were carried out at his bedside. His face is moistened by herbs and crushed flowers from the nearby valley. The local minstrel sounds off on his flute with desolated tones, and the boys’ parents weep, hands clasped to foreheads, offering prayers, forgoing food, refusing to do anything that could be construed as self-interest.

Two weeks after the accident, the stallion and its rider fall in the battle by the Song River, drowned by an array of enemy arrows, mud, and water. They led the charge, absorbed the brunt of the enemy’s resistance, and sank as one, falling into the waves as gently as one falls into sleep. Neither horse nor man had family or friends to grieve their loss – all the better to have their achievements valorized, for there is nothing more dignified than a hero who is alone and unencumbered. But even as a stone shrine is erected at the stop where both had fallen (one day in the not-distant future the shrine would be ripped apart by local peasants who had little use for names or dates, but much need for millstones), the boy’s eyes open, his hands grasp feebly at the sheets that cover him, and the townspeople exhale.

When the news of the rider and his stallion reaches the village, the question becomes: which soul has found its way into the boy and rejuvenated him? Perhaps both, for the boy grows straight and tall, and he gains the steady gaze of a sentry who can see dozens of miles into the distance, even as his body refuses to sit still for more than moments at a time, and his legs became pliant, tireless. Only the scars of the horse’s hoof, which will mark his chest forever more, remind the townspeople of his encounter with death as a youth.

The boy’s name is Li, named after the province itself, and no doubt he has some vague connection with the Li emperor who currently rules the Eastern Empire. But then so did thousands of other young men and women named Li who had sorrier lots in life, and this young Li has no grand political ambitions. His young mind is not concerned with flesh or monetary gain – it burns clean, like a weapon freshly forged. In the afternoons he seeks solace in the deep forest, paying no heed to the mosquitoes that prick him, or the weeds that threaten to trip him with every step he takes. Moving like the wind, he decapitates imagined foes with a stick, gallops forward with hands curled around an invisible bridle, makes dares with the rain that it would not hit him. His parents, being simple folk, do not abide with such rampant daydreaming, but it would be too cruel to halt it – the boy has been granted the honor of a second life, after all, and he is at the bidding of a power different than the powers they can see.

The boy is eleven; five years have passed since the accident. It is a late spring afternoon, and lightning streaks across the sky in alarming intervals. His feet wet and sore, his clothes soaked and baggy like an old man’s skin, he ventures into the forest, content to luxuriate in the partial cover of leaves and branches. Every so often dollops of water fall from an overburdened branch or leaf, and he snaps at them like a fish would snap at bait, his mouth wide open, accepting the tangy liquid. He is enjoying himself, rapt with the sounds of the thunder ringing in his ears, the little tap-taps of his feet against the leafy forest floor, lost in his own pleasure for the moment, and it is not until he is but a short distance away from the creek that he hears the sound. At first, he believes it to be something from his own mind, an added dash of color to the fantasy he is concocting: The cries of the enemy swordsmen as they flee in despair

No. It is not him, it is not coming from anywhere near him. It is a human sound, as yet unidentifiable. He wipes a muddy hand across his face, clearing water, leaving grime in its wake. He listens again. A low groan. Ahead is the creek, and a small clearing. His feet sloshing in his boots – nothing he can do about that now – he walks gingerly towards the creek. Once he became lost while traveling in this direction, and came across a path that seemed to lead back to the village. It was not until darkness had completely shrouded the trail that he realized that he had gone in the opposite direction, towards the mountains, out of the valley. More angry than embarrassed, he turned and ran, all the way back to the village, covering the many miles within a few hours, his pants gashed, his bare arms lacerated, the sweat pouring into his eyes, down his neck. When his parents saw him, they weeped, for they thought they had lost him for a second time, and all the time he grumbled: I’m fine Mother, why are you so upset? You should be angry. Your son doesn’t even have a good sense of direction. Why aren’t you harsh? Why aren’t you insisting I be perfect?

He is now in the clearing, the sky above a billowing mass of gray. Here rain falls freely, in sheets. He listens again, but the sound seems to have vanished. I did imagine it, he thinks.

The creek runs by him, full and deep, nourished by the spring rains, carrying bits of dead grass, its surface bubbling and popping with every drop that falls in. But even in the failing light, he can see that there is something wrong with the water – it has grown black, opaque, and the stones and pebbles at the bottom that would normally be visible in shards of reflection are hidden from the world.

He crouches and scoops up some water in his hand. It is the color of rust. He touches his tongue to the liquid. Salty, unforgiving. Rubbing his eyes with his free hand, he takes a closer look. The water looks like stained ink.

Half-wanting this to be an adventure, half-believing that there is a boring explanation behind it, he rises and walks upstream, following the current of the black water. In the near distance, at the other end of the clearing, the ground has a peculiar tint of yellow. So close to the golden mountains already? Impossible. It is not gold, it is a yellow tunic, spread across the field as if to dry. Other fabrics of similar taste and refinement lie nearby, scattered in confusing patterns. He lifts the gold tunic, and rainwater drops in a single heavy splash on his feet. The creek continues on into the woods, and he walks a bit further, wringing the fabric with his hands, stretching it out of its effete proportions.

, something mutters.

The boy halts, the courage draining from him in an instant. His left foot is already behind him, pivoting, ready for the retreat. A snake is in the grass, with skin sheathed in cloth rather than leather, bent in half, like a broken bone. Where its head should be is the shape of an anvil, with a snout that peters out in a point. Now something is grabbing at the edge of the fabric he holds in his hands, pulling him down, and he lets it happen, as if he is in the grip of a dream. He is on the ground, the wet grass pushing hard at his face, and his neck is gripped by powerful claws that squeeze. What he thought was a snake is actually a human leg, the snout a boot. The leg is not attached to a body. Blood flows freely from the fresh wound where it was severed, and follows the contours of the forest, finding its way to the creek, where it flows in with the blood from the other bodies that are on the ground. The hands around the boy’s throat tighten even further. Kill, the man says. It is a man after all, lying on his side, facing the boy, blood running in rivulets down his face, his brown teeth frozen in a snarl. The leg belongs to him. Kill kill kill kill kill.

The boy locks his fingers around the man’s arms, but to no avail – the man could be dead, but somehow in his final paroxysm he has fixated on this single action, this single word. The boy’s vision swirls into white – he is losing his breath. Stop it, he tries to say, but his throat can only speak in gurgled non-words. The hands are relentless, digging into his neck, the nails hard like pins. The boy gathers up the wet fabric, thrusts it into the man’s face, covering his nose, his mouth, pressing hard and hard. Kill kill kill the man continues, but now the words are deadened by the fabric. The boy feels a few of the man’s teeth give way under the pressure. Still the man’s hands are tight round his neck, but he continues to push at the man’s face, pushing until he believes the veins in his own arms are ready to burst through his skin, water flooding from his eyes down his cheeks.

It takes a few moments to register the fact that the grip around his neck has loosened, and still he pushes and pushes at the fabric. In his haze, he believes he is holding back the onslaught of a broken dam, and to relent for even an instant means death to all. It is not until the man’s lifeless hands fall away that his strength deserts him and he topples onto his back, looking straight up at the madrone trees and their sensuous, curving branches.

After a time, he takes a deep breath, and the act sends a painful jolt down his throat. He turns to look at the man. In death, he is an old man, his face scratchy with tiny white hairs, his eyes wide and hard. His side is a great mass of red and black, where wounds are already festering. It is clear that he has been in pain for days, and somehow he ended up here, at this extremity. Nearby is a traveling pack, stinking of rotten food. The boy frowns: Maybe the rotting smell is the leg there.

He stands, all senses alert, because another thought has occurred to him: He may not be alone. And that is when he hears the sound again, the sound that he heard the first time. It is indeed a moan. It comes from the thickets near the madrone trees, and he sees them tremble. His head too dizzy to think of consequences, he scrambles over to the thickets on hands and knees, the fabric still clutched uselessly in his hands, and tears at them, ripping them at the roots, clearing them away until he sees a face that stares at him petrified with fear, delicate fingers clutching at soil, long hair that drops to the ground, eyes no older than his own.

[current word count: 5000]