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Stories for the Long Silk Road

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dawn Wilson: The Grand Search for Immortality, as Performed by the Qin

210 B.C.

“Don’t you want to live forever?” the self-proclaimed Emperor asked.

“Not particularly,” his eunuch replied.

The Emperor frowned.

“But, I wish for you to live forever, your high untouchableness.”

The Emperor, known to some as Huang Di, his chosen name, nodded.  “Good answer.”

They continued upon horseback through the Chinese wilderness, which was a lot like living in a zoo.  Animals and plant life abounded and no one was allowed to touch anything or else they would be shot with the bolt of a crossbow and shipped home to their wives in little pieces for a clever stew.

“How much longer?” the Emperor asked.

“As long as it takes, correct, sire?”

“I’m anxious.”


“I’m bored.”


“I’m impatient.”

“Yes, yes.”

“The Isle of the Immortals is not to be trifled with.”


“Tell me, eunuch Gao, what do you think happened to the first two contingents I sent to search for the Isle?  Do you think it’s true?  They were all eaten by a lone sea monster, save the one who returned to us with a grave limp?  Or do you think they drew lots and he was the loser, the one sent back, and everyone else is now immortal?”

“I think it was a good idea to send children the second time, as it is a long journey.  This way, even if they got lost in the wilderness and all had the same excuse of the giant sea monster, I think eventually they would find the ocean.”



“But children aren’t always obedient.”

“You’re thinking of your son?”

“Don’t mention Fu.  My heart aches.”

“You only banished him.  You didn’t kill him, as you should have.”

“Did he have to argue with me?”

“It’s what sons do.  Challenge the father to prove their worth.”


This was a historical moment, bathed in gold.  The moment the world changed with a single proclamation: “I am Emperor!”  Huang Di said it grandly, many years before his fateful trip to the Isle of the Immortals.  He raised his arms.  He tied his hair in a topknot.  He bellowed and belched and scratched where peasants weren’t allowed to scratch in public.  “I am Emperor!  I have united all these lands.  I have killed the people who did not want the land to be united, and now everything is better, and I shall call it Qin.”

A well-meaning eunuch with a quill and parchment said, “Sir, you need to use a U.  After a Q.  Otherwise, I cannot make historically accurate note of this moment—”

The eunuch was savagely cut down.  After he died, his tongue was removed and shoved up the little urethra where his little dingaling used to dingle-dangle.

Times were still savage, though the People had been united.

The Emperor mused, “I wonder if he was right?  Perhaps another letter with the same sound?  Q.  Q…  Ch?  Nah.  If Qi were Chi, it would never catch on.  No one wants to exercise their Chi.”

Another eunuch said, “I think you’ll find you’re sorely mistaken.  A life force doesn’t care how it is spelled and will be exercised thusly—”  And he, too, was cut down.

There were a lot of eunuchs running around.

In fact, having a eunuch for a son was one of the few things parents could be proud of.  Sometimes they would take a scalpel to their newborn child in the hopes that someday the son, pure of voice and spirit as eunuchs always are, could serve at the palace.  Which was a large place.  And required many eunuchs.

Forget carrying on the bloodline, right?  When you were a peasant, all you could aspire to was a eunuch son or a beautiful daughter kidnapped by the Emperor.  That was the state of grace.

Huang Di would carry the bloodline for the entire People.  That’s why the man had a thousand wives.


Down in the wives’ chamber, luxuriant and silk-covered, stones and pillows, women and perfumes:

“Speaking of wives, you just wouldn’t believe what #3 said the other day…”

“Stop gossiping, you old shrew.”

“I’m only eighteen.”

“An old shrew, as I said.  A good wife is thirteen.”

“I heard #882 was invited to the palace while the Emperor was off in the country.  He came upon a village with one beautiful girl and a thousand very not beautiful girls.  Rather than shame the not beautiful ones, he killed them all and sent the pretty one back here.”

“Where is she?  #882?”

“Being bathed by that eunuch.”

“The good one or the nasty one?”

“Has anyone seen the Emperor lately?  Tonight was supposed to be my turn.”

“Bite me, darling, I’m his first and foremost favorite wife.  I am the one he demurs to.  And as soon as he comes back, I’ll have you dropped down into the cesspit with our waste where you will drown.  Fitting for a 150th bride, don’t you think?”

“Women are like eunuchs; they shouldn’t think so much.”


The Emperor had come to the sea, a great expanse of water, lapping upon the rocks.  He scanned the horizon, looking for an island.  The Isle of the Immortals would be far… but not too far, right?

In the water, frolicking, leaping, a giant sea monster lay in wait.

“It was accurate information,” the Emperor said, surprised.  “Perhaps I shouldn’t have buried the man alive.”  He picked up his crossbow and aimed at the giant whale-sized creature.

He hit it.

It writhed and sank.

A storm came up.

Dark clouds gathered, rain fell, a wind like a hurricane blew fierce as a battle.  The grasses bowed before the ancestors.  Trees creaked.  The sea churned.  A great head rose from the sea in the form of cloud vapor.  Lightning lit the cliff on fire.

“Well!” the Emperor said, crossing his arms and tapping his foot.


“Well!”  He gestured at the sea.  It spoke for itself.

“Do you think this storm is caused by your murder of the sea beast?” a eunuch asked.

“Of course not.”  The Emperor climbed back into his carriage and bid his men turn around.  The Isle of the Immortals could not be reached in this weather, and besides, he was starting to feel ill.

Mortality, that’s what he felt.


“Master Huang Di?  Do you feel peckish?”

“No.  I feel the need to write a letter.”

The eunuch nearly swooned with joy.  “Correspondence!  Calligraphy, the beauty of the heart in the beauty of the words.  Each character formed by your mood and the steadiness of your hand.”

“Shut up.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Emperor wrote his thoughts in the missive.  “Go, Zhao Gao, deliver this; my tummy hurts.”



“I have always done what you’ve asked.”

“Then go.”

“But this letter is to your eldest son.  The one you banished to the North.”

“Well, yeah.  He needed a slap on the wrist.”

“He needed to be hung.”

“He needed to grow up.”

“He spoke against you and your practice of burying all those scholars alive.”

“And now he will come back and assume the throne.”

Zhao Gao bowed to the Emperor one last time, turned to go on his way, and said, “Shit.”  The word was full of feeling.


One should live to learn not to kill a frolicking dolphin with a crossbow.  But Huang Di did not live to learn from his mistake.  He never ascended the Isle of the Immortals.  In fact, he died.

The advisors muttered amongst themselves.  “When it gets out that the Emperor is dead…”

“We might not have heads by morn.”

“We might not have posts by morn.”

“We’d lose our power.”

“The soldiers would revolt.”

“They are very powerful men.”

“We mustn’t tell them.”

“They must not find out.”

“It’s a long way to the palace.”

“They must not find out.”

“Okay, okay, they mustn’t find out, geez.”

“Your head, you could afford to lose.”


Back at the palace, the first and foremost wife of the Emperor had her rival, the very pretty new bride, strung by her feet and held over the cesspit.

She still lived by morning, and so the wife had the rival’s nose and hands cut off and had her flung into the pit like a pig.  “Snuffle around in there for a while and see if you still want to be married to my husband.”


Morning rose.

“We would like to ask his Emperorness about the lay of the land,” a soldier said to the advisors.

“He’s resting.”

“He’s been resting all night.”

“He’s meditating.”

“He can do that anytime.”

“I speak for him.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

The advisor let the land lie.

“Does his highness want breakfast?” another soldier asked.

“He’s eaten.”

“He did?”

“Better than you’ll ever know.”

The soldier left, grumbling, back into formation.


Up North, Zhao Gao, the Emperor’s closest and most trusted eunuch, pulled out another sheet of parchment, having collected the Emperor’s youngest son from a country estate on the way to the Wall.  The eldest son had been banished to the Wall for speaking up against his father.  That just wasn’t done.  The eldest son had… opinions.  And the eldest son often had opinions about eunuchs.  Which were unfavorable opinions.

“Whatcha doin’?” the youngest asked.

“Take a look at this,” Gao suggested.

“S’at’s my big bro’s name, I recognize.  That character there.  I was taught young to recognize it, ‘cause he’s Next in Line.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what say you, Hu Hai, you take over the throne?”


“Yeah, you.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re… much more fun than your brother.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“So, how’s about it?”

“A eunuch acting all sweet and innocent is kinda creepy, Gao, keep a lid on it, okay?”

“Sure thing, my future Highness.”

The boy leaned over the elder’s shoulder.  “Hey, hey, what’s that say?  Edict from Father?  Calling Fu Su a disappointment?  Really?  That’s rude.”

“Yeah, it is.  But what practical joke isn’t rude, boy?”

“That’s true.”  The boy pointed at another character.  “Hara-kiri?  Really?”

“What lad is going to get a letter suggesting he commit hara-kiri and take it seriously?  Ha ha, it’s a joke, lad, right?  Kind of like you on the throne.  Everyone will go bonkers when it happens.  Swell, right?”

“Fu Su is pretty obedient, though…”

“Now, come on.  I know he’s got a stick up his butt, but—”

“And calling him a disappointment like that?  Using Dad’s name?  Fu Su will take one look at that and he’ll weep.  He was really sad when Dad went bon soir on those scholars.”

“You gotta do a joke thorough, right?  Or else it isn’t a joke.  If you can see through it at the outset…”

“Yeah, your handwriting is pretty convincing.”

Zhao Gao tied the letter to a brand new sword.  The icing on the cake.  The rice in the sake.

“It’s a pretty good joke…” Hu Hai said, sucking his thumb after downing a liter of the strongest liquor available.

“Yeah, you got it, kid.  Now go fuck a pretty maid and forget all about it.  I’ll call you when it’s time for the coronation.”

“I like pretty maids.”

“Show ‘em how it’s done.”

Hu Hai got up and started off to find a brothel.  He turned back.  “Hey, Gao?  You ever pleasure a woman?”

The eunuch frowned deeply.

“Forget it.  You’re with the harem all the time.  Forget I said anything.  I would never suspect you of tiddling with Dad’s winks.”


The advisors bought a cart of half-rotted fish from a passing merchant.  “Gonna go bad soon,” the advisors were advised.

“It’s all right.  We are a large group.”

“I see that.  Who ya got in the carriage?  Someone famous?”

“Forget you saw us.”


“Forget, or I kill you now.”

The merchant left hastily.

The advisors employed a soldier to pull the cart right next to the carriage.

“Hey, won’t the Emperor get tired of this smell?  He’s kinda wussy when it comes to body odor and stuff, you know.  He’s always bathing in perfume and stuff.”

“It’s his penance, he decreed, for killing that sea beast.  Dead fish for dead fish.”

“Hey, you know, I haven’t seen the Emperor go for a wash lately.  He okay?”

“He washes with a cloth and the hand of a eunuch.  Again, penance.  He’s meditating on the misdeed that robbed him of his chance to visit the Immortals.”

“Yeah, but—”

“If you ask me one more question, I’ll have you executed.”

“You’re just the advisor.  I’m a soldier.  I’m strong as an ox.”

The advisor rose up to his full height, pointed a long bony finger at the soldier, and invoked Huang Di’s immortal name (the only part of him to still hold the tenuous character of immorality).  “Kill yourself.”

“Damn,” said the soldier, and pulled out his sword.


Fu Su opened the letter from his father, the Emperor.  Rather than the original sweet letter explaining Huang Di’s sudden ill tummy and a request for Fu Su to retire from the Great Wall project and rejoin him in the City, this letter said all the wrong things.  And this letter came wrapped with a present.  A new sword.

“Decree of the Emperor: kill yourself.”  Fu Su sighed.  His father was a powerful man.  He unsheathed the new sword and did as he had been ordered.

Zhao Gao had the grace not to snicker.  In public.

Hu Hai popped his head out of the carriage and said, “Hey, Gao, what’s taking so long?  When do I pop out and say, Surprise?”  He stepped down and came closer, stepped over his brother’s fallen form.  He frowned.  “Told ya so.  I told you he was obedient.”

“Come,” the eunuch said.  “Back to the palace.  After they bury all your father’s wives with him, alive, of course, you get to pick out your own harem.  You like ‘em young?  Tall, short, fat?  Whatever you like.”

“I get more maidens?”

“Of course.”

“But you’ve already bought me like twenty pleasures at the brothels all the way up here.”

“And you’ve weakened?”

“Quite the contrary.  I’m randy as a tiger smelling a kitty in heat.  Bring them on!”


A lot of people were buried alive that year at the grand funeral procession of the First Emperor.  Life-sized clay soldiers were buried with life-sized clay horses, an entire army of undead soldiers to protect the Emperor in his afterlife.  His wives keened, his staff members sobbed, the doors were sealed with stones, caked over with clay.  From overhead, you couldn’t hear the wailing so much.  After a couple days, the unearthly noises stopped, and all was peaceful in the land again.


Hu Hai, starry-eyed and drunk with power: “Hey, Gao, hey, Gao, let’s go invade someone or something.”

“Go visit your harem, child.”

“Gao, I’m the Emperor now, right?”

“That’s right.  Go play with your harem.”

“But Gao, shouldn’t we do something important?  Dad buried all those scholars.  He united all those little countries into one big one.  He started building that great big wall.  He had all the artisans in the region commissioned to build him an entire clay army.”

“Sign this.”

“What is it?”

“Something for you to sign.”

“What does it say?”

“Don’t look at it.”

“But if I’m going to sign it—”

“Hu Hai!  I’m your advisor!  I take care of the mundane details for you so you are free to seek immortality.  Here, have some Elixir.”

“That groady stuff?  Nah.”

“Sign this.”

“But Gao…”

“Sign it!  That’s better.  If you spent all your time actually reading these missives, your head would drop off.  Let me protect you.”

“From what?”

“From the tough decisions.”


One day, lounging on his throne, satiated, Hu Hai said to Zhao Gao, “I don’t think I like you, man.  You got all these practical jokes, but they’re mean, man.”

Gao doled out more opium.  And while everything was hazy, he persuaded Hu Hai to cut his own throat.

“Feels… good…”


Hu Hai’s harem and many wives walked into his tomb like the troopers they were, heads held high.  They barely cried.  Some held hands.  Some straightened their robes and hair as if going to meet a new husband in the other world.

One snapped, “Not again.”


“I nearly married the last Emperor, but I got off easy.  He died before we were hitched.  So I married the kid, thinking he’d live forever.  You know how those emperors are about their immortality elixirs…”

The women walked into the tomb.

“Welcome to Hell,” the one said chipperly.

“Anyone want to play canasta?”


Little Emperors were always a hit with the ladies.  Despite the fact that Fu Su and Hu Hai had multiple brothers, better aged, better educated, and fit to rule, well… children were just so much easier to place on a thrown.  Fu Su’s son was under ten when Zhao Gao dressed him in royal robes, filled him with ceremony, and told the world that this little boy was their new god and he would never die.

Little Zi Ying got a kick out of it.  He stood at the top of the stairs of the palace, looking over his subjects, kneeling with their heads pressed to the ground, a secret little smile on his face.  Zhao Gao had promised him a rip-roaring succession.  Games and girls, toys and friends.  Everything a little boy could ever want.  Pillows and baths, butterflies and lizards, all he had to do was point and demand and his wishes would be fulfilled by scurrying housemaids and eunuchs, all at his command.

“Begone!” Zi Ying ordered at the end of the ceremony.  Everyone fled.


“Place your seal here,” Zhao Gao the eunuch and chief advisor to the Emperor said.  The boy placed his seal.  He asked no questions.  It was his job to stamp or paint his symbol with a brush.  In return for his play on the parchment, he was given horses and hippos, trollies and pilgrims.

Zhao Gao fed candy to the new Emperor and said, “Here you go, my little puppet.”

“Puppet?” Zi Ying asked, looking around for a new toy.

“I mean, poppet.  My poppet.”  Gao caressed the new Emperor’s little head.  He put his hand over the top of the skull and squeezed, lightly, as if testing for soft spots.  “You want to be immortal, don’t you, my puppet?”  He pulled out an elixir of mercury.  Dynasties had fought and killed for this elixir.

“It makes my tummy hurt,” Zi Ying whined.

“It’s supposed to.  It needs to kill off the impurities that would kill you.  The sicker you get, the better it works.”

Zi Ying didn’t have trusting little eyes.  “Then why did Grandpa die?  Grandpa Huang Di.  He was searching the lands for immortality.”

Gao pressed the vile into Zi Ying’s hand.  “He committed a grievous error.  Grandpa Huang Di may have been a god, but there are still sea monsters.”

“Sea monsters?”  Zi Ying’s eyes glowed.  He took a sip of the elixir and sat down at his chief eunuch’s feet to hear the stories of his grandfather’s braveries.  He took another sip each time Gao mentioned immortality.

Immortality was at hand.

Until the day the little poppet decided he didn’t like Gao.

Poor Gao.  Killed by his own puppet.

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by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

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I go and go

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I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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