I had scouted the terrain, of course, and I landed quite safely in some soft shrubbery, and then I was up and away and laughing through the night. To be young and in China! Better yet, to be young and rich in China! I raced through alleys and vaulted fences and climbed over the city walls. I dove into a river and emerged dripping and triumphant on the other side - and it was then that I began to suspect that the love of money could work miracles. It was impossible, yet a head broke water right behind me.    1
  "Bring back my five hundred pieces of gold!" screamed Miser Shen.    2
  I raced through a valley and over a hill, across another valley and up the side of another hill. The sun rose, and a shaft of light shot through the morning mist and sparkled upon a tiny figure jogging determinedly in the distance.    3
  "Bring back my five hundred pieces of gold!" screamed Miser Shen.    4
  I began to climb up a mountainside, and for hours I twisted and turned through dense forests and wriggled through dark ravines. When the sun was high overhead I climbed a tree and peered back. I saw no sign of pursuit, but I heard a strange sniffing noise. Then Miser Shen came crawling on his hands and knees through the underbrush, sniffing the trail like a bloodhound! His eyes stopped at the trunk of the tree, and then moved slowly up, inch by inch. I crashed down, bouncing from branch to branch, and took to my heels again while Miser Shen screamed: "Bring back my five hundred pieces of gold!"    5
  Evening shadows fell, and the clouds turned crimson, and I climbed higher and higher in the mountains. Miser Shen was finding it hard to keep up. Now and again I would see his tiny figure far below me, and I would faintly hear, "bring…", but he fall farther and farther behind, and when the sun set and the moon rose I had finally lost him.    6
  By then I was lost myself. I was somewhere in the mountains, but I did not even know which mountains. I was sitting on a rock catching my breath. Above me a silver moon drifted through ten thousand miles of blue-black sky, like a dark pond with a plate of white jade floating across it, as Yang Wan-li once said, and the silence was unnatural. I was wondering what had happened to the crickets and the owls and the small scurrying night creatures when I became aware of a tiny noise. It was so faint and far away that I had to strain with every nerve to make it out.    7
  Someone was whistling. Three notes, two short and one long, repeated over and over, and while I could not explain it I knew precisely what those notes meant. They penetrated to my very soul.    8
  "Come ... to ... meeeeeeeeeeeeee ... Come... to...meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..."    9
  I suppose that I should have remembered the parting words of the Abbot of the Monastery of Sh'u. "You will be called, and when you are called you must follow, no matter how difficult and dangerous the path may be." I should have remembered, but I did not. I only knew that someone was calling me, and that I must obey, and I slipped my dagger into my hand and stalked the whistler like a tiger stalking a deer.    10
  " ... meeeeeeeeeeeeee ..."    11
  All night long I followed that strange sound. Sometimes it seemed to be ahead of me, sometimes behind, sometimes to the side, but the whistler never stopped whistling and I never stopped stalking. Then the whistle was close, straight ahead of me. Morning mist was rising. I could barely see my hand in front of my face.    12
  "Come ... to ... meeeeeeseeeeee ... Come ... to ... meeeeeeeeeeeeee..."    13
  I took two steps forward, and with the third step I walked right out into space. I remember the sensation of falling from a great height, and blows that knocked the breath out of me as I struck the branches of trees, and then there was a terrible crash and everything went black.    14
  When I awoke the sun was shining brightly. I could not understand what seemed so peculiar about that sunlight until I realized that it came from low in the west. The sun was setting, and I had been unconscious for nearly a day. I looked down and discovered that I was lying upon the red-tiled roof of a large building. I looked up and saw the broken branches of the trees that had slowed my fall rising fifty feet up the side of a cliff, and I said out loud:    15
  "Li Kao, it is a miracle that you were not killed!"    16
  The sound of my voice made me aware of a tremendous hustle and bustle all around the building, and when I crawled to the edge of the roof and looked down I found that I was gazing at a truly horrifying spectacle. In fact it was the most terrible scene I had ever witnessed in my life.    17
  Everywhere I looked I saw young men about my own age who were being forced to work like demons! It was like a lunatic outdoor classroom where learned voices incessantly droned: doctors in field hospitals, veterinarians in stables, architects, surveyors, engineers - it was bedlam. Boys hoed furiously in fields and hammered insanely in carpenter shops and pounded like madmen in smithies. There was even a river where one group of boys built a dam while another built a bridge, and as I gaped in stunned disbelief they tore the things down, traded places, and started all over again!    18
  "Faster, you lazy dolts!" roared the slavemasters. "Faster! Faster!"    19
  A dread suspicion tried to creep into my mind but I shoved it aside. I needed more evidence. I found some heavy vines and climbed down the wall and crawled through a window, and I found more evidence than I wanted.    20
  I was in the most ghastly room I had ever seen. It was long and narrow, with two rows of beds lining the walls. The beds were impossibly neat. The chamber pots were aligned with geometric precision. Not one wrinkle could be found in the towels. The desks were spotless. The writing brushes were placed precisely six inches to the left of the inkstones. Nothing in that inhuman room was so much as a quarter inch out of line, and that included the neatly lettered signs that covered the walls: Kung-kuo-yo, tables of merits and demerits. I walked over and examined one of them.

Each Demerit Is To Be Punished By One Stroke of The Birch Rod

Exciting lustful thoughts in oneself   5

  Showing one's nakedness when easing nature at night   1    22
  Lewd dreams   2    23
  --If such a dream occasions a lewd action   10    24
  Singing frivolous songs   5    25
  Studying frivolous songs   10    26
  Not yielding the way to a woman in the street   1    27
  --If at the same time one looks at the woman   2    28
  --If one looks longingly at her   5    29
  --If one conceives lewd thoughts about her   10    30
  Entering women's quarters without warning   2    31
  Telling a woman about some love affair   5    32
  --If done in order to excite lustful thoughts   10    33
  Telling smutty stories to a woman   10    34
  --Exception: if one tells such stories in    35
   order to develop the woman's sense of shame   none

That dread suspicion was now a certainty, and I felt my heart sink to my sandals, and I slumped weakly to the floor and buried my head in my hands.

  "Li Kao," I sobbed, "you were killed in that fall. You are in Hell!"    37
  I will admit that I wept like a baby for a minute or two, but then I managed to get hold of myself. Tales were told about hundreds of heroes who had wound up in Hell but had managed to escape, and if they could do it so could I. I hopped to my feet and tiptoed out the door. As I made my way past the classrooms that lined the long hall I began to get a more favorable impression of Hell. Snatches of lectures reached my interested ears:    38
  "...local customs. Never wear a Confucian hat when passing through Legalist territory. When a Legalist sees a Confucian hat he promptly snatches it from the wearer's head and pisses in it. Furthermore--"    39
  Invaluable information for spies, I thought.    40
  "...closest attention to scandal. The senile and lecherous Magistrate of Ho, for example, who is well past one hundred and has not a tooth left in his head, employs a small army of beautiful and buxom young mothers and lives entirely on milk. It is also rumored--"    41
  Blackmailers would find that worth knowing, I thought.    42
  "...and our founder's formula for the Fire Drug may be enhanced by the addition of five ounces of dried aconite tubers, five ounces of langtu, two and one half ounces of pitch, one ounce of bamboo fibers, and two ounces of arsenic oxide. If it is necessary to destroy an army of bandits it is permissible to build our founder's terrible flame throwers, Meng huo yu, which--"    43
  What glorious relief! This admirable institution was not Hell at all, but a school for assassins, blackmailers, and spies. It also occurred to me that such a place was bound to have something worth stealing, and an hour later I slipped out a side door with my belly filled with an excellent congee which I had found untended in the kitchen, a huge jar of Mao-t'ai (seventy-three percent alcohol) which I had found untended in the cellar, and a large sack filled with very expensive silver candlesticks which I had found untended in the chapel. The place still swarmed with young men who were working like crazy, but I saw a fence that circled a willow grove on top of a hill and I spied a path on the other side. I climbed the fence and started up the path. In the center of the willow grove I found a clearing which was filled with strange objects. In the center of the clearing was a perfectly round pool of clear spring water. I walked over to the pool and looked down. Lying on the bottom was a bleached white skull, which grinned up at me in a friendly fashion.    44
  Now I knew where I was. Anyone in China would have known. I was gazing at the skull of a man who had been dead for five hundred years, but whose fame would never die. In life he had been one of the greatest geniuses in human history, and in death he had left a mystery which would make him immortal. I was gazing at all that remained of the great Chang Heng.


A Bridge of Birds - The Original Draft, copyright 1999, Barry Hughart