Excerpt: Chapter 6, "Ill Winds"


“I’ve seen the Wild Man of the Forest. In the islands south of Nam Viet. He’s no different from you or me except that he’s covered with long copper hair. He has no need of clothing. He speaks his own language, but he understands every other language spoken by men without even having to study. An educated man is like a child before him.

“On one of the islands there are little dragons, merely the size of two men, but faster than a man, and with an appetite for human flesh. If you climb a tree, and if the dragon pursuing you is young, he’ll follow you up the tree. You can’t escape him. And he doesn’t care if you’re dead or alive; when he gets hold of you, he’ll just start eating. And if you’re eaten by such a dragon, part of your soul will be trapped in the creature forever. You’ll be looking out through its eyes, going wherever it goes, but unable to exert your will, helplessly compelled to witness and experience everything the dragon sees or does, including its terrible hunting and eating. You’ll not be able to escape for a long, long time, because the dragon lives for about a thousand years. It’s said that some men, dying of disease or old age, will purposely offer themselves to such a dragon, so desperate are they for life of any sort, even if it means dwelling within this brute, listening for hundreds of years to the crunching of its victims’ bones and their dying shrieks, enduring its dreadful mating rituals and dozing in the dirt amidst flies and carrion.”

“Yes. Well.” Dee considered. “It certainly speaks to us about the intensity of our desire for life, doesn’t it?”

The man telling Dee his tales of faraway places looked as though he had been gnawed on by a variety of beasts. He had almost as many stumps as he had fingers, one leg below the knee missing entirely and in its stead a perfectly carved replica in wood complete with a foot and a hinged ankle joint, one glittering black eye and one milky white eye which gazed distractedly toward the horizon while the other looked right at Dee, a couple of  long yellow fangs, burns, scars and pock-marks everywhere on his leathery hide, and a chunk missing from his scalp on one side of his head.

“That it does. That it does. Truer words were never spoken, master Dee. Me, I’d rather be good and dead. On the same island there’s a huge stinking flower, as big across as a lady’s bathing-tub, smells like an open grave, and if you step in it, your foot’s stuck in heavy glue and the petals close around you and you’re done for.”

“Is that how you…?” Dee indicated the man’s carved leg.

“No, but it might have been! Might have been! No. You see this?” He leaned over to where Dee sat on the deck of the man’s sailing vessel and offered his scalp for Dee’s closer inspection. The patch of purplish skin, as big as the palm of a man’s hand, was tight, shiny and hairless.

“If you sail south between the islands I told you about and then head toward the rising sun, you’ll come to a place where the men are blacker than the night sky. And they’ll greet you as if you’re their oldest friend, and invite you to dine, and then when you’re good and full and about to fall asleep they’ll cut off your head and scrape out your brains and eat them like a dainty confection, then boil your head down so it’s the size of a cat’s head, and put it on a shelf in their huts next to all the other heads. They do it so that your power becomes their power. Well, naturally, they wanted my head.”

“Naturally,” Dee agreed.

“My host, who’d just fed me a fine meal of dog and monkey, tried to chop off my head with his stone ax when he thought I was asleep. I wasn’t, though. One thing I’ve learned in my travels is never go to sleep in the hut of a stranger who’d acted like your friend from the first moment he saw you. Especially if he’s fed you a fine meal. So I was ready. I was lying there with my eyes closed when I heard him rustle about and then I heard the sound of his ax whooshing through the air. I rolled. He missed my neck but he got a slice of my head, hair and all, and a little bit of bone as well. I was on my feet in the next moment. Yes, I said ‘feet.’ I had ‘em both then. See this?”

He pulled a long knife out of his belt, slowly, his one good eye on Dee, and held the weapon flat on his hand. Handle and blade were one long piece of smooth, polished yellow bone.

“There’s not one man in a million has a knife like this one,” the seafarer said with slow emphasis. “Here,” he said, and proffered it to Dee, who took it and looked at it.

Dee was not sure what he meant. The knife was crude, with no decorative carving of any sort. He waited, certain that something portentous was coming. The seafarer leaned close and whispered.

“There’s not a man in a million has a knife made from his own leg bone.”

Dee gazed at the thing in his hand and then at the man’s one black eye.

“It’s how I bought my life,” the man said. “I made an offer to my host. There I was, blood pouring off my head so I could hardly see. But I didn’t act afraid. I knew I had to scare him, so I laughed. I acted like some other kind of creature—a creature that feels no pain. I made him a wager. I told him he could have my leg in exchange for my life, that he could cut it off right then and there and that I’d enjoy it. I’d prove to him that I’d enjoy it. If I so much as grunted or grimaced while he was doing it, he could kill me on the spot. If I didn’t, he’d have to spare my life.

“Well, he liked the wager. And he did it. I held my leg still for him while he hacked it off with his ax. And I smiled while he did it. He cauterized my stump, cooked the leg over the fire and ate it. I ate some, too. My own cooked flesh. Then he took the bone and carved me this knife, and set me free. I carry it with me wherever I go. And I swear, Master Dee, that my story is the honest truth.”

“I have no doubt,” Dee said.

And in truth, he didn’t. He sat on a block of wood on the deck of the man’s vessel. The boat rocked gently on waves made by ceaseless traffic passing on the wide river that led from Canton to the sea. A stiff breeze whipped along the water and the hot bright sun danced and glinted on the swells. The filthy, stinking river was a sheet of rippling opaque silver. He squinted his eyes and imagined that a man could walk on it: Down the river to the South China Sea and west with the setting sun to Malaysia and India. And beyond India: Persia, Arabia, Africa. He only had to whisper the names to almost smell the hot perfumed wind of a distant shore.

Timbers eased in their joists and the rigging ropes groaned gently with the motion of the boat and the sun was hot on Dee’s back. He closed his eyes and imagined that they were out on the open sea, beyond the sight of land, on their way to Sri Lanka or Madras.

India was an ancient lure for him. His first woman had been an Indian, a courtesan bought for a night by his older cousin on the occasion of his birthday. He could still recall minute, explicit details of that long feverish night of nearly thirty-five years ago. Many was the time he had been guiltily sure that his wives could read his thoughts when he recalled the exact way the Indian woman had lifted her legs or placed her experienced hand on some secret part of his body. The memories were hot and fresh, and still had the power to cause him to stop and gaze into space in the middle of a day of ordinary business. He had been fifteen and had expended himself six times that night, and he remembered each incident clearly and separately. A whiff of patchouli was sufficient to send him rummaging through his private treasure trove. Once he had been hearing a case involving an Indian trader whose person and clothing exuded the scent, and Dee’s assistant had had to nudge the magistrate’s shoulder to bring him back to the present.

And there had been a night many years before when a murdered man’s collection of erotic Indian temple art had distracted Dee to the point where he very nearly became the murderer’s next victim, attacked from behind in the midst of a trance. He had been gazing at a carved wooden apsaras, a divine courtesan in Hindu mythology, a female creature of unearthly beauty who waits in paradise to reward the righteous dead. His imagination had easily transformed old, dry wood into smooth, sweet, living brown skin, and then a slip of paper had fallen out of the carving to the floor. He had been astonished at the effect of mere written words, and could remember them still: her thighs form a sacrificial altar, the hairs between them the sacrificial grass where a man kneels, her skin the sacred liquor a man drinks to become intoxicated, the two lips between her thighs the place where the rubbing-stick makes holy fire…

“The honest truth,” a voice repeated loudly.

Dee blinked. The divine apsaras and her black hair and eyes and gold jewelry transmuted into a pock-marked one-legged leathery old seafarer.

“Oh, I believe you,” Dee said, exhaling. “I believe you. And what about Africa?”

“Some of the men there are black and twice as tall as a normal man, but sweet and peaceful as little girls. There are others who are half as tall as you and me but deadly as little vipers. Horses with stripes. Antelopes as tall as a tree with spots and human eyes that weep perpetual tears.”

“And what’s beyond Africa?” Dee asked dreamily.

“I intend to find out,” his new friend said. “Some say if you sail far enough you’ll fall off the edge of the world in a great roaring waterfall. But my father knew a man who sailed east and vanished. Everyone thought he was dead. Five years later he appeared again, approaching from the west. My plan is to sail west as far as I can go. If I fall off the edge of the world, so be it. But I have to know. I have to see for myself.”

“I need to go to Hainan,” Dee said then. If ever there was someone who could give the eunuchs the slip, this was he. “I’ll pay you to take me there.”

“Hainan?” the man said. “No, thank you. You don’t have enough money to tempt me to go there. You know what they say, don’t you?”

“What do they say?”

“That the island is the source of all pestilence in the world. Illness comes belching up out of the ground, pure and concentrated, then separates into the ten thousand different sicknesses that afflict mankind, and spreads from there over the entire world. No, Master Dee. I don’t care to go there. I would prefer to sail off the edge of the world.”


Excerpt: Chapter 3, "The Way of Purity"

A.D. 671, late autumn, Loyang

The lama Hsueh Huai-i seized his robe at the neck and ripped it open all the way down to the hem. He shrugged the robe to the carpet and stood naked but for a blindfold, his long lean body oiled and shining. There were nervous titters, whispers and little gasps. He held up a hand for silence. He stepped majestically from the heap around his feet. Hands raised and fingers arranged in a graceful mudra of prayer and contemplation, he flared his nostrils, filled his lungs, and expelled the breath through his teeth with a hissing sound while he turned in a slow pirouette.

There were forty women in the big bedchamber, standing in a loose circle around the lama. The Empress had selected them herself from among her court and servants. They were chosen for their general resemblance to her: height, size, age. Today, they all wore nothing but the Empress’ perfume. The Empress herself stood naked between a chambermaid and a lady-in-waiting.

She was careful to control her own breathing. He was familiar with every hair and mole on her body, and surely knew the pitch and rhythm of her breath. His senses were as acute as an animal’s. Could he hear her heart beat? She exchanged a smile with her mother, Madame Yang, fully and elegantly clothed, sitting on a divan nearby, a little whip in her hand. Her mother had declined to participate, even though Wu had begged her. But Mother, she’d said, it will make it so much more a challenge for him! He knows you as well as he knows me! But her mother had simply said that she was past that sort of thing, though she would be more than happy to watch. Wu had wanted to throw a little tantrum, but she didn’t. Madame Yang was the only person in the world the Empress deferred to.

Lama Hsueh moved around inside the circle of women in a languid Tai-chi-like dance. He stopped occasionally, poised like a stalking cat, then resumed the dance. He moved toward one of the women on the other side of the circle from the Empress. He approached to within a hand’s length. His palms moved down and up in front of her without touching her. They stopped in front of her breasts, and moved closer, still not touching her.

The woman’s face and neck flushed hot and pink and she bit her mouth to keep herself silent. Her nipples puckered and hardened with the proximity of his hands. There were muffled giggles from the other women. Some covered their mouths, some squeezed their eyes shut and quaked. Madame Yang brought her little whip down hard on the divan, just once, silencing them.

Lama Hsueh smiled a little, and with his blindfolded eyes looked down in the direction of his groin. His member hung, relaxed and flaccid. He backed away from the woman and resumed his slow dance.

He approached this woman and that, his hand sometimes moving as if it were going to slide between their legs but stopping just short, sometimes moving over their heads and faces, sometimes their breasts or around back and over their buttocks, never touching, just hovering, making gooseflesh and blushes, while his own flesh remained limp and unaroused.

He stopped in front of the woman standing next to the Empress. He tilted his head back and sniffed deeply like an animal testing the wind for prey. Then he tipped his head to the side, as if listening. Slowly, slowly, he turned away from the woman until he faced the Empress. He did not raise his hands or move. He simply stood there. Wu did not move either. She gazed at the blindfold as if she could see his black eyes through it. Her strong white teeth glinted between her lips. He smiled. She looked down.

His member was rising, rising, like a cobra, the purplish head with its little eye coming out of its sheath, until it stood at its full glorious length, pointing toward Heaven. She reached out and closed her hand around the shaft, and the women burst into applause and laughter.

“I am nothing,” Hsueh said, still blindfolded. “I am merely its servant. And it is yours. It rises in the presence of divinity the way a flower rises toward the sun.”

“What rubbish,” Wu said, suffused with vigor and omnipotence, hungry to hear more. Her mother simply smiled.


Excerpt: Chapter 16, "The Ten Billion Sorrows"

"I can smell them already. Pox, walking sickness, the Bleed­ing Eye." He sniffed the sea wind like a connoisseur. "Worm Fever. Breakbone. Skin-of-the-Snake. Blackwater. Death-In-The-Morning. Weeping Rat. Brain Fever. Lion-face."

The physician heard each name with an expression of rapture as if he were listening to exquisite poetry.

"Yes! Yes!" he said happily. "Skin-of-the-Snake! Superb! I heard of it when I passed through Nam-Viet, but was not lucky enough to see it myself. A man showed me strips of human skin that he said had been shed by such a sufferer, but that was all I saw. I was not sure it wasn't his own fancy!"

"It's no fancy, Persian, I'll tell you that," said the man with one black eye and one milky white one. "I saw an entire suit of human skin, complete, you could have stepped into it and buttoned it right up. Scalp and all. Long dark hair flowing down."

He leaned close, fixing his shiny black eye on Abu Zeed. "And breasts. It was a woman."

The physician looked at the man for a long moment before he put his head back and laughed up at the sky.

 "Oh, excellent, excellent. Do you have any idea what I would have paid to have such a specimen for my collection?" He grasped the rail where the two of them stood and looked in the direction of Hainan. "Will I be lucky enough to see this sickness with my own eyes?”

"That and ten thousand others!" The man spoke with pride, as if he himself were the author of this army of scourges. "But there's one you don't want to see. Not even a man of learning such as yourself wants to gaze upon this one.”

"Then you had best tell me, so I will be protected," the physician said gravely.

The seafarer shook his head. "Some say it's not good even to talk about it. But I believe such cautions are for the weak. You and I are not weak." He turned and looked at Dee, who stood nearby, keeping his eyes on the horizon in a resolute effort to calm his lurching stomach. "Nor is he," he said doubtfully. "But once I've told you about it, you must not think about it too much, or it might get you anyway. The Bleeding Eye," he said and looked from the physician to Dee and back again, "is also known as the Ten Billion Sorrows. It is when the pain of every living creature becomes your own pain. The illness begins with uncon­trollable weeping, with ordinary tears flowing from the eyes. Once it starts, it never stops, and every sorrow in this world flows into you, and you weep until you have no more tears, but the last tears you cry are tinged with red as the only liquid you have left in you begins to flow as well, and you weep until all the blood in your body has been shed through your eyes.”

"And if I see such a sufferer, then I myself will become one?"

The seafarer gave the physician a long look. "It has been known to be passed that way. Some may risk it. I myself have seen it. I wanted to weep, but I did not permit it to begin. Once it begins, that is the end. You will have to decide for yourselves if you have the strength to gaze upon this pestilence."

"And what of the pestilence afflicting me at this moment?" Dee asked. It was the first time in his forty-nine years that he had been out on the ocean, and he had been unhappy to learn that the gentle rolling motion which had been so pleasant and exhila­rating when they first set out presently caused a greenish queasiness to rise in his belly as though he had eaten spoiled fish. And indeed, the seafarer's vessel gave off a rank and salty stench under the hot sun which did not help matters at all.

The physician regarded Dee with pleasure.

 "Worms and snails," he said. "Dung and maggots, flies and rat fur, phlegm and pus. Pound them together into a paste, moisten with hag spittle, and drink it down. That is my prescription!"

"I am most grateful, Physician," Dee said, and leaned miser­ably over the railing. Now the seafarer put his head back, dis­playing his pink naked gums and laughed with delight at the beautiful blue sky.

"Lion-face," said the physician thoughtfully, turning his attention back to the conversation. "The nose turns black. It shrivels, dries and falls. The fingers and toes as well. Then entire limbs."

"It's a terrible sight. Terrible. You are a rotting corpse above the ground. On the island," he said, tipping his head in the direction of Hainan, "they save the parts as they fall. They have their own religion, which says that someday a great physi­cian will come and put them all back together again, but only if they save the lost parts. And so they have the arms and legs bundled and stacked like firewood, the small pieces like noses and fingers stored in little jars, waiting. Perhaps it is for you that they wait, Physician!"

"No," he said, returning his rapturous gaze westward. "It is I who have been waiting for them. All of my life. I have seen a few cases of this affliction, but never an entire village. No doubt I will be able to see every stage of the disease. I am particularly interested in the extremes. The final stages, and also the earliest manifestations. No doubt they breed, eh?”

The seafarer snorted. "They love nothing better. The chil­dren are born pink and perfect. But the parents are not satisfied until the children are just like them. And I have it on good authority," he said, lowering his voice though there was no one within a hundred li to hear him, "that they believe in the cura­tive powers of their young pure flesh. Two-legged mutton, if you know what I mean."

"A delicacy you have sampled?" asked the physician eagerly.

"If I did I didn't know it. Though I do recall a meal served to me once by a chieftain in the islands to the southeast. There was something about the shape of the bones..." A groan from Dee stopped him. "My apologies, Magistrate."

“They say it is sweet," the physician said reflectively.

"Sweet it was."

"Was there skin?"

"Gentlemen," Dee interrupted. "I am begging for mercy."

"Perhaps, Magistrate," said the physician, "we will be fortunate enough to see the lesions which are the earliest signs of the disease."

"I would be overjoyed," said Dee, resting on his elbows and looking down at the rushing water and thinking that it was a good thing his stomach was empty.

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