GREETINGS, most noble and illustrious and very probably crazy as a hoot owl Chang Heng!" I said. "Have you been whistling for me?"    1
  Of course I did not really believe that the skull of a man who had been dead for five hundred years had produced that strange sound. Somebody had been whistling and when I found him I was going to cut out his tripes - after all, he had nearly killed me - but at the moment I had something more important to think about.    2
  I had stumbled upon a fortune!    3
  The Pool of Past Existences had become a shrine to the great Chang Heng. His famous inventions and designs were placed all around the clearing, and they had been constructed without regard to cost: copper, bronze, gold, silver, the most exotic steels - even the designs for his man carrying kites and for the Bamboo Dragonfly were engraved upon sheets of the purest copper I had ever seen. Priceless! I dropped my sack of silver candlesticks and raced around the clearing trying to lift those treasures, but I could not budge them.    4
  "A thousand curses! I shall need at least twenty men, some carts, oxen, and a derrick!" I snarled.    5
  There was nothing I could do about it at the moment, so I took a slower circle around the clearing. The extraordinary thing about Chang Heng's inventions was the simplicity of concept, I decided. Even the Bamboo Dragonfly was simple - although damned dangerous - and the kites could be built by anybody who had some silk and a few pieces of bamboo for the frames. I will describe one invention in detail in order to give an idea of Chang Heng's workmanship.    6
  His famous seismograph was a large copper kettle about eight feet in diameter, with a finely detailed map of China engraved upon the lid. Eight bronze dragon heads were placed around the rim of the kettle facing the eight points of the compass, and each dragon held an iron ball between its movable jaws. Beneath the dragons, eight bronze frogs lifted their gaping mouths, and inside each frog was a bell. Inside the kettle was a delicately balanced pendulum, which was connected by levers to the jaws of the dragons. When an earthquake occurred the pendulum swung, the levers opened the mouth of the dragon that faced the direction of the tremor, and the metal ball fell into the mouth of the frog and rang the bell.    7
  At the Monastery of Sh'u I had been taught that Chang Heng's seismograph was the world's first delicate scientific instrument which was self-operating and permanently in place. It did not even need to be watched, so long as someone stayed within earshot of the bells. It was so delicately balanced that it could register a shock clear across China, and then the attendant simply aligned the dragon's eyes with the map of China on the lid and asked the authorities to send help to whichever province was in trouble. Copies of the seismograph were placed in every corner of the empire, and over the centuries they were said to have saved more than ten million lives.    8
  I strolled back to the pool. "Chang Heng, you were quite a man," I said admiringly, and the skull grinned up at me through the water. "You cannot possibly have enjoyed nothing but water for five hundred years," I said. I opened the jar of wine I had stolen and poured some into the pool. "Kan pei!" I said, ("dry cup!") and I sat down and lifted the jar to my lips. I felt no inclination to leave.    9
  A warm fragrant breeze rustled the leaves. The clouds turned crimson and gold, and birds sang sunset songs, and I felt a rather pleasant melancholy settle upon my soul as I watched the sun go down and the moon come up. After sipping wine for an hour or so I felt the need for intelligent conversation.    10
  "My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao and there is a slight flaw in my character," I said to the skull in the pool. "Oddly enough we have something in common. You were beheaded by a Duke of Ch'in and I was orphaned by a Duke of Ch'in. The Dukes of Ch'in, in case you are curious, continue to squat in the Castle of the Labyrinth like huge venomous toads."    11
  I rather liked the phrase and repeated it several times, but Mao-t'ai can do strange things to your tongue. Sometimes it came out "huge venomous toads" and sometimes "tuge henemous voads". I preferred the latter.    12
  "Mine is a very touching story, and wonderfully dramatic," I said. "Picture, if you will be so kind, a dark and stormy night. The wind howls and rain falls in torrents. Lightning streaks the sky, and thunder growls like ten thousand dragons. A wagon drawn by two mules clatters at a suicidal rate down a mountain path, and behind the wagon comes the most dreaded sound in China: the high-pitched hunting horns of the horsemen of the Duke of Ch'in. Have another drink."    13
  I poured more wine into the pool. Oddly enough I could still see the skull quite clearly even though it was night. The pool shone with some strange inner light. "Phosphorescence," I said to myself, for although I had never seen that phenomenon I had heard of it.    14
  "Suddenly a volley of arrows shoots into the night!" I said. "One of the mules lurches, and the wagon crashes into a ditch! A wounded man and a pregnant woman crawl from the wreckage. Apparently the duke's soldiers are after the large canvas sack that the woman carries, because the man attempts to take it from her - hoping that she can escape while the soldiers attack him, no doubt - but the woman is equally brave, and refuses to relinquish the sack. They are still tugging back and forth when the soldiers ride up. Another volley of arrows kills the man outright, and the woman is forced to drop the sack and crawl away with an arrow protruding from beneath her left shoulderblade. Mother!" I sobbed. "Father!"    15
  Had I pleased them? Did their spirits consider me to be a dutiful son? I rather thought that my parents were proud of me, but it would be nice to be sure.    16
  "My mother crawled up a narrow path that led to the Monastery of Sh'u," I sniffled. "She carried her passport with her, because the arrow beneath her shoulderblade was stamped with the tiger emblem of the Duke of Ch'in, and the monks would do anything to help an enemy of the duke. And so it came to pass that with the first light of lawn the thin faint wall of a new-born babe lifted above the solemn gray walls of the Monastery of Sh'u. The midwife had worked a miracle to save me, but nothing could be done for my mother. The abbot wiped the perspiration from her brow and said:    17
  "'Brave soul. Brave rebel against the evil Duke of Ch'in.'"    18
  "The midwife held up my tiny wailing form and said:    19
  "'A thousand blessings, my lady. You have given birth to a healthy son.'    20
  "Mother's nostrils twitched. She opened her eyes. With an incredible effort she raised a hand, and pointed to the midwife and said" 'Kao...Kao...Li…Li…'    21
  "'I understand, my daughter,' said the abbot. 'Your son shall be named Li Kao.'    22
  "'Kao', my mother whispered. 'Kao...Kao...Li...Li..."    23
  "'I hear, my daughter,' said the abbot. 'Here in the Monastery of Sh'u your son shall be safe from the Duke of Ch'in. I shall raise Li Kao as my own, and I shall place his tiny feet upon the True Path. Li Kao shall be instructed in the Five Virtues and excellent Doctrines, and at the end of his blameless life he shall pass through the Gates of the Great Void into the Blessed Regions of Purified Semblance.'    24
  "For a moment my mother's eyes blazed with a strong emotion which strangely resembled fury, but her strength was spent, and her eyes closed and her hand fell back to the bed, and a moment later her spirit passed from the red dust of earth. The midwife, who was overcome with grief, reached into her robes and whipped out a goatskin flask and drank deeply, which seems like a very good idea."    25
  I poured more wine into the pool and lifted the jar to my lips.    26
  "When the abbot smelled the odor from the midwife's flask," I said, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, "he was suddenly beset by doubts. That horrible smell could only come from one of the most effective paint removers ever invented: a wine called Kao-liang. Repeat: Kao-liang. Was it possible that the dying woman had not been naming a baby but demanding a snort? Indeed it was possible, and it further transpired that my parents had been pursued by the duke's soldiers not because they were rebels, but because they had stolen the regimental payroll. They were the most notorious crooks in all China, and mother could have escaped quite easily if she had not battled father for the loot. When these facts were learned the monks advised exposing me upon a hill for the tigers, but the abbot had vowed to raise me as his own, and he stood by his vow. I fear that the dear old boy regretted it."    27
  Heredity is a remarkable thing, I thought. I had never known my parents, yet at the tender age of three I had stolen the abbot's silver beltbuckle. When I was five I stole the abbot's jade inkstone. When I was seven I stole the gold tassels from the abbot's best hat, a feat of which I am still proud since the abbot was wearing the hat at the time. When I was eleven I stole the abbot's bronze incense burner, slipped off to town and traded it for a jar of wine, and got royally drunk in the Alley of Flies. When I was thirteen...    28
  "You know," I said thoughtfully, "the Abbot of the Monastery of Sh'u does not believe that the slight flaw in my character is caused by heredity in the normal sense. He believes that in some previous incarnation I was a rabid jackal, or a scorpion, or even the notorious East Idiot Ruler of South Tsi".    29
  Mao-t'ai is very dangerous wine indeed.    30
  "The abbot is a very wise man," said a voice that came from nowhere and from everywhere, "but you were far more faithful than a rabid jackal, and far more dangerous than a scorpion, and far more important than the East Idiot Ruler of South Tsi, and I have been calling you for five hundred years."    31
  I hastily heaved that deadly wine jar away, but the damage had already been done. As I gaped at the pool I saw the skull of Chang Heng slowly disappear, and the surface of the pool turn shiny, and my own pop-eyed face reflected. Then another face began to form around mine. When the picture became complete I jumped indignantly to my feet.    32
  "That is not even a good dog!" I yelled. "Its ears are chewed, its tall has been bitten off, one eye has been gouged out, and its body bears the scars of a thousand bloody battles in back alloys! Is somebody suggesting that I was once the worst damn mongrel in the history of the world? Outrageoush!" I yelled. "Out-rageoush!"    33
  The stars were whirling around in sickening circles, and I was in great danger of being beaned by the moon. The next thing I knew I was lying flat on my back on the grass, gazing groggily at the branch of a tree. But that murderous wine had only begun to befuddle my brain. Poof! The branch had turned into a man.    34
  He had a thin intelligent face and a finely hooked nose and a long gray beard. His eyes shone with some strange inner light. He wore tall Confucian hat and an old-fashioned robe with sleeves big enough to hold a couple of barrels of wine, and he was laughing his head off. He looked down at me and laughed until he choked, and he gasped:    35
  "Never in five centuries have I dared to hope that you would turn out this well. Li Kao, you are perfect!"    36
  Finally he got the laughter out of his system. This hallucination looked down at me rather sadly, and said:    37
  "Li Kao, I can only guide you. I cannot help you. You alone in all the world can find what I could not, and it is a difficult and dangerous path you must follow. There are terrible perils, and heartbreak, and horror, but at the end of the path lies beauty. Beauty beyond mortal imagination, and glory beyond comprehension. Li Kao, I am going to send you to a dragon, and you must follow that dragon."    38
  The figure began to fade, and the quiet voice faded along with it:    39
  "Follow the dragon...follow the dragon...follow the dragon..."    40
  Then I was gazing at the branch of a tree. The soft breeze rustled the leaves, and crickets chirped, and an owl drifted across the face of the bright yellow moon. Far above me the Great River of Stars sparkled like a necklace of diamonds draped around the black velvet throat of the sky.    41
  "Outrageoush," I muttered, and then I passed out cold.


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