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The Years of Rice and Saltby Kim Stanley Robinson
Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land; Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end.
Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitaka through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism from India to China.
Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame. Son of a Tibetan salt trader and a Mongol innkeeper and spirit woman, and thus a traveler from before the day of his birth, up and down and back and forth, over mountains and rivers, across deserts and steppes, crisscrossing always the heartland of the world. At the time of our story he was already old: square face, bent nose, gray plaited hair, four chin whiskers for a beard. He knew this would be Temur's last campaign, and wondered if it would be his too.
One day scouting ahead of the army, a small group of them rode out of dark hills at dusk. Bold was getting skittish at the quiet. Of course it was not truly quiet, forests were always noisy compared to the steppe; there was a big river ahead, spilling its sounds through the wind in the trees; but something was missing. Birdsong perhaps, or some other sound Bold could not quite identify. The horses snickered as the men kneed them on. It did not help that the weather was changing, long mare's tails wisping orange in the highest part of the sky, wind gusting up, air damp--a storm rolling in from the west. Under the big sky of the steppe it would have been obvious. Here in the forested hills there was less sky to be seen, and the winds were fluky, but the signs were still there.
They ride by fields that lay rank with unharvested crops.
Barley fallen over itself,
Apple trees with apples dry in the branches,
Or black on the ground.
No cart tracks or hoofprints or footprints
In the dust of the road. Sun sets,
The gibbous moon misshapen overhead.
Owl dips over field. A sudden gust:
How big the world seems in a wind.
Horses are tense, Monkey too.
They came to an empty bridge and crossed it, hooves thwocking the planks. Now they came on some wooden buildings with thatched roofs. But no fires, no lantern light. They moved on. More buildings appeared through the trees, but still no people. The dark land was empty.
Psin urged them on, and more buildings stood on each side of the widening road. They followed a turn out of the hills onto a plain, and before them lay a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind, rubbing branches together over sheeting surfaces of the big black flowing river. The city was empty.
Of course we are reborn many times. We fill our bodies like air in bubbles, and when the bubbles pop we puff away into the bardo, wandering until we are blown into some new life, somewhere back in the world. This knowledge had often been a comfort to Bold as he stumbled exhausted over battlefields in the aftermath, the ground littered with broken bodies like empty coats.
But it was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sutra to himself. "Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O, what an Awakening! All hail!"
The horses stalled on the outskirts of the town. Aside from the cluck and hiss of the river, all was still. The squinted eye of the moon gleamed on dressed stone, there in the middle of all the wooden buildings. A very big stone building, among smaller stone buildings.
Psin ordered them to put clothes over their faces, to avoid touching anything, to stay on their horses, and to keep the horses from touching anything but the ground with their hooves. Slowly they rode through narrow streets, walled by wooden buildings two or three stories high, leaning together as in Chinese cities. The horses were unhappy but did not refuse outright.
They came into a paved central square near the river, and stopped before the great stone building. It was huge. Many of the local people had come to it to die. Their lamasery, no doubt, but roofless, open to the sky--unfinished business. As if these people had only come to religion in their last days; but too late; the place was a boneyard. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. Nothing moved, and it occurred to Bold that the pass in the mountains they had ridden through had perhaps been the wrong one, the one to that other west which is the land of the dead. For an instant he remembered something, a brief glimpse of another life--a town much smaller than this one, a village wiped out by some great rush over their heads, sending them all to the bardo together. Hours in a room, waiting for death; this was why he so often felt he recognized the people he met. Their existences were a shared fate.
"Plague," Psin said. "Let's get out of here."
His eyes glinted as he looked at Bold, his face was hard; he looked like one of the stone officers in the imperial tombs.
Bold shuddered. "I wonder why they didn't leave," he said.
"Maybe there was nowhere to go."
Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them. If that was truly what had felled these people. There was no way to be sure.
"Let's get back and tell them," Psin said.
The others nodded, pleased that it was Psin's decision. Temur had told them to scout the Magyar plain and what lay beyond, west for four days' ride. He didn't like it when scouting detachments returned without fulfilling orders, even if they were composed of his oldest qa'uchin. But Psin could face him.
Back through moonlight they rode, camping briefly when the horses got tired. On again at dawn, back through the broad gap in the mountains the earlier scouts had called the Moravian Gate. No smoke from any village or hut they passed. They kicked the horses to their fastest long trot, rode hard all that day.
As they came down the long eastern slope of the range back onto the steppe, an enormous wall of cloud reared up in the western half of the sky.
Like Kali's black blanket pulling over them,
The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land.
Solid black underside fluted and rippled,
Black pigs' tails and fishhooks swirling into the air below.
A portent so bleak the horses bow their heads,
The men can no longer look at each other.
They approached Temur's great encampment, and the black stormcloud covered the rest of the day, causing a darkness like night. Hair rose on the back of Bold's neck. A few huge raindrops splashed down, and thunder rolled out of the west like giant iron cartwheels overhead. They hunkered down in their saddles and kicked the horses on, reluctant to return in such a storm, with such news. Temur would take it as a portent, just as they did. Temur often said that he owed all his success to an asura that visited him and gave him guidance. Bold had witnessed one of these visitations, had seen Temur engage in conversation with an invisible being, and afterward tell people what they were thinking and what would happen to them. A cloud this black could only be a sign. Evil in the west. Something bad had happened back there, something worse even than plague, maybe, and Temur's plan to conquer the Magyars and the Franks would have to be abandoned; he had been beaten to it by the goddess of skulls herself. It was hard to imagine him accepting any such preemption, but there they were, under a storm like none of them had ever seen, and all the Magyars were dead.
Smoke rose from the vast camp's cooking fires, looking like a great sacrifice, the smell familiar and yet distant, as if from a home they had already left forever. Psin looked at the men around him. "Camp here," he ordered. He thought things over. "Bold."
Bold felt the fear shoot through him.
Bold swallowed and nodded. He was not courageous, but he had the stoic manner of the qa'uchin, Temur's oldest warriors. Psin also would know that Bold was aware they had entered a different realm, that everything that happened from this point onward was freakish, something preordained and being lived through inexorably, a karma they could not escape.
Psin also was no doubt remembering a certain incident from their youth, when the two of them had been captured by a tribe of taiga hunters north of the Kama River. Together they had staged a very successful escape, knifing the hunters' headman and running through a bonfire into the night.
The two men rode by the outer sentries and through the camp to the khan's tent. To the west and north lightning bolts crazed the black air. Neither man had seen such a storm in all their lives. The few little hairs on Bold's forearms stood up like pig bristles, and he felt the air crackling with hungry ghosts, pretas crowding in to witness Temur emerge from his tent. He had killed so many.
The two men dismounted and stood there. Guards came out of the tent, drawing aside the flaps of the doorway and standing at attention, ready with drawn bows. Bold's throat was too dry to swallow, and it seemed to him a blue light glowed from within the great yurt of the khan.
Temur appeared high in the air, seated on the litter his carriers had already hefted on their shoulders. He was pale-faced and sweating, the whites of his eyes visible all the way around. He stared down at Psin.
"Why are you back?"
"Khan, a plague has struck the Magyars. They're all dead."
Temur regarded his unloved general. "Why are you back?"
"To tell you, Khan."
Psin's voice was steady, and he met Temur's fierce gaze without fear. But Temur was not pleased. Bold swallowed; nothing here was the same as that time he and Psin had escaped the hunters, there wasn't a single feature of that effort that could be repeated. Only the idea that they could do it remained.
Something inside Temur snapped, Bold saw it--his asura was speaking through him now, and it looked like it was wreaking great harm in him as it did. Not an asura, perhaps, but his nafs, the spirit animal that lived inside him. He rasped, "They cannot get away as easily as that! They will suffer for this, no matter how they try to escape." He waved an arm weakly. "Go back to your detachment."
Then to his guards he said in a calmer voice, "Take these two back and kill them and their men, and their horses. Make a bonfire and burn everything. Then move our camp two days' ride east."
He raised up his hand.
The world burst asunder.
A bolt of lightning had exploded among them. Bold sat deaf on the ground. Looking around stunned, he saw that all the others there had been flattened as well, that the khan's tent was burning, Temur's litter tipped over, his carriers scrambling, the khan himself on one knee, clutching his chest. Some of his men rushed to him. Again lightning blasted down among them.
Blindly Bold picked himself up and fled. He looked over his shoulder through pulsing green afterimages, and saw Temur's black nafs fly out of his mouth into the night. Temur-i-Lang, Iron the Lame, abandoned by asura and nafs both. The emptied body collapsed to the ground, and rain bucketed onto it. Bold ran into the dark to the west. We do not know which way Psin went, or what happened to him; but as for Bold, you can find out in the next chapter.
Through the realm of hungry ghosts
A monkey wanders, lonely as a cloud.
Bold ran or walked west all that night, scrambling through the growing forest in the pouring rain, climbing into the steepest hills he could find, to evade any horsemen who might follow. No one would be too zealous in pursuit of a potential plague carrier, but he could be shot down from a good distance away, and he wanted to disappear from their world as if he had never existed. If it had not been for the uncanny storm he would certainly be dead, already embarked on another existence: now he was anyway. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond . . .
He walked the next day and all the second night. Dawn of the second day found him hurrying back through the Moravian Gate, feeling that no one would dare follow him there. Once onto the Magyar plain he headed south, into trees. In the morning's wet light he found a fallen tree and slipped deep under its exposed roots, to sleep for the rest of the day in hidden dryness.
That night the rain stopped, and on the third morning he emerged ravenous. In short order he found, pulled, and ate meadow onions, then hunted for more substantial food. It was possible that dried meat still hung in the empty villages' storehouses, or grain in their granaries. He might also be able to find a bow and some arrows. He didn't want to go near the dead settlements, but it seemed the best way to find food, and that took precedence over everything else.
That night he slept poorly, his stomach full and gassy with onions. At dawn he made his way south, following the big river. All the villages and settlements were empty. Any people he saw were dead on the ground. It was disturbing, but there was nothing to be done. He too was in some kind of posthumous existence, a very hungry ghost indeed. Living on from one found bite to the next, with no name or fellows, he began to close in on himself, as during the hardest campaigns on the steppes, becoming more and more an animal, his mind shrinking in like the horns of a touched snail. For many watches at a time he thought little but the Heart Sutra. Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Not for nothing had he been named Sun Wu-kong, Awake to Emptiness, in an earlier incarnation. Monkey in the void.
From the Hardcover edition.
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