bizarroVIGNETTE: saltpeter

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

…from the collection ‘ellipses…a compendium of peculiarly dark and droll vignettes’ by Christian David Anderson, a fragmentary fiction writing project for 2013 available exclusively here at the Fanboys And Soulmen blog

武经总要全前集卷十二_火药制法saltpeter

Waking up in a burgeoning bamboo forest, for a moment he forgot what his mission was. For more than a fearful moment, he forgot who he even was, or would be. For more than a disheartening moment, he thought everything had failed, that he had gotten drunk and passed out in someone’s serenity garden. But soon enough, everything arrived back to him. Beyond the bamboo he heard the murmurings of dialect not spoken in over a thousand years.

He checked himself. He was intact. He inspected his clothes: a simply cut dirty beige tunic – no labels – a pair of pants in the same colour – no pockets –  his shoes – no laces – a woven grass sole. Where and when he came from they were called kung-fu slippers, comfortable, stable and quick in a run.

He slapped his head. Clean shaven, as indistinguishable as possible, and despite his round eyes and crooked nose, he was a blank canvas. He knew he would never pass for Asian, but the least he could do was not draw attention to himself with strange clothing and prominent, alien features. He got up and began to walk through the thick brush and tall fleshy bamboo shoots. He knew that he was at least a mile from the village; all he needed though was a direction. He saw the path. He waited.

It was not long before he saw the first traveller, a young girl, maybe 12. She carried a small basket of vegetables. He moved out of the bush, and walked slowly, delicately towards her. He had to be careful not to draw too much attention to himself, and more importantly, not affect change, at least not any changes other than the one change he had been sent to affect. She finally saw him and she stopped. She did not make a sound. It must have felt like finding a strange new animal in the wild.

He offered only a hint of a friendly smile. He had to proceed delicately. He spoke calmly, one of the phrases he had studied. He had to keep it simple, not include any strange words, lest she did not understand, and more vitally, she would not repeat. He knew he couldn’t ask the time. Time, at least how he knew it, had not been conceived yet. “Which. Way. To. Wujing-zongyao?” He hoped it would not be in the same direction she was travelling. She pointed out in front of her, along the path that moved in through the trees and beyond. Her simple face held no emotion. He thanked her with a single, simple word, and smiled, but not too broadly. No interaction, no changes. That was the mantra for this mission. They stood staring at each other for more than minute. He dare not move closer, or away from her. A startled animal might change things. Suddenly, she started walking down the path again, not looking back at him. It was as if it had not happened at all. Hopefully.

He looked up at the sky. He measured he would have about three hours until dusk, when he felt comfortable enough to enter the village. He stepped back beyond the brush and bamboo, where the path would not see him. He found a rock and sat awkwardly. He pulled up a bamboo shoot and began to suck out its moisture. He worked over the details in his thoughts. He hoped all calculations were correct. There were exactly 6 hours in which he had to complete the task.

It was simple enough: one man, one piece of paper (would it be paper? Rock? A piece of cloth?) – destroy them both. Leave. In a sense, his easiest mission ever. A humble Chinese alchemist would have no guards, no protective fortress, no idea he might be in danger.  Ninth century China would have no security systems, no cameras and more importantly, no guns. There would be no questions, no speaking at all. Simple, clean, methodical.  He could hear the path beyond his hiding spot. It was a busy artery, connecting one village to the next. He could make out some of the words spoken by the travellers. Something about a sorghum harvest and how bad one man’s wife’s cooking was. Some things never change.

The sun had almost set when he snuck into the village. The alchemist would not be difficult to find, just follow the smells. He snuck past houses where families had begun to eat their evening meal. There was chattering, only some words he could recognise. They were a simple people, preoccupied with simple things. He was struck by how calm and collected the voices were. Not an angry word.

The alchemist sat alone in his house, at a table, inscribing on a silk parchment with a hard stylus, intermittently picking up containers, smelling them, dipping his fingers in some of them and tasting their contents. Smoke rose from one saucer beside him, and a naked flame illuminated the room.

He stepped into the room quietly, and watched the alchemist for a moment. He calmly called out the alchemist by name. Recognising his name, the alchemist turned in his chair to face his assassin. They stared at each other silently. The man was old. A lot older than he had imagined.

Alchemists were erudite men, men who had devoted their entire lives to finding the one thing that would change the world. They were respected men, full of knowledge, able to see things not as they were, but what they could be. This man, the alchemist, had found the one thing, at last, which would change the world, which would immortalise his name and his art. He also knew someone might want to take it away from him. The old man had seen him coming. He calmly turned back to his table and continued his work.

“Who has sent you?” he asked, picking up a bowl and smelling its contents. He understood the question, he was just unsure of how to answer the alchemist. The silence between them bothered him more than it seemed the alchemist, who continued to potter with his concoctions.

“Have you recorded the formula?” he eventually asked, and then quickly, “do you realise what you have discovered?” By his silence, he knew the alchemist had known.

The old man picked up an earthen jar, like a celebratory drink, moved it to his face, inhaling the invisible fume. “The saltpeter must grow to make it more powerful. I have not reached the final measurement to complete it, and somehow I know I will not live to achieve this.”

He now stood beside the alchemist. “But I know someone will finish this work,” he looks up at his assassin, “have you come to destroy me or my discovery?” There was so much he wanted to tell the old man, about these simple experiments of his, the cooked mixtures and innocent brews that gave him so much pleasure and won his repute, how this ‘elixirs of immortality’ he so devotedly sought would buckle the wheel of history. There was so much to tell, he just did not know where to start, how to start, or whether even telling the stories would change his mind. Both their minds.

“Have you written it down?” he asks impatiently. The old man laughs serenely, “everything I know is here,” pointing to his table, and then to his head, “and here.”  The assassin clutches his hands around the alchemist’s neck, gently enough for the old man to still ask, “who, may I ask, is asking for my life?” “I cannot weigh the souls, old man, but all of them, each and every one, express a thousand eternities of gratitude to you.” A final throe kicks over a naked flame.

It had been simple enough: one man, one formula. In a sense, his easiest mission ever.

(fin)

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