Saturday, November 17, 2012
Free Peek at The Silk Code 750 AD
"My favorite section was a long historical flashback, set in the eighth century ..." - The New York Times Book Review
Part II: The Tocharian Chariot
TARIM BASIN, on THE SILK ROAD, circa 750 AD
A man of 40 and a man of 14 sat on a hill overlooking a river that some called the Tarim, near a settlement that would someday be called Aksu in a province known as Xinjiang.
"So the T'angs no longer have their secret," the 14-year old said. "Soon the whole world will know how to make their precious silk."
The older man, who was the younger's father, frowned. "Secrets come and go. All that really matters are the realities they contain."
"You take no pleasure that we have finally broken the Eastern hold?"
"They never had that hold in the first place. There are things about silk--"
A third man, age 16, came running up to them. "Father, Gwellyn, there's a dead singer down by the river."
The three walked quickly, without words. All knew there was no point talking about the singer, until they actually saw the body.
The older man gasped when he saw it. Skin, parched with age, over thickset bones. Eyes mossy green, framed by brows that protruded like cliffs, and the withered remnants of half-closed lids.... "Yes. He was a singer."
"How long has he been dead?" Gwellyn, the 14-year old, asked.
"A very long time," the father answered.
"Was he a maker too?" Allyn, the 16-year old, asked.
"Impossible to tell just by looking at his corpse."
"What should we do with him?" Gwellyn asked.
"Burn him. Then grind up his bones and spread the dust to the wind, as the laws prescribe," the father answered.
"Should we tell anyone about this, or--," Allyn persisted.
"No. Just do as I instructed."
Gwellyn rankled. "It doesn't seem right just to destroy all trace of him, without even telling anyone, as if he never existed."
"That's the very reason we must do this," the father replied.
* * *
Gwellyn looked at his face in the river, muddy red first blush of beard on ancient silt of a similar color. His blue, deepset eyes were lighter than the water, but heavier now with the burden they carried. He could still see the singer, first stretched out by the water here, as he had been found, then burned, charred, ground into dust, as his father had commanded.
"Legend says the singers looked like us, before they died." Allyn had joined him at the river, and had guessed what was still very much on Gwellyn's mind. Likely because it was still on Allyn's.
"And the sorcerer of death gave them their brutish appearance?" Gwellyn asked.
"Father says sorcerers are for children," Allyn replied. "He says men of reason look for explanations in the natural world. I suppose he got this idea from the Philosopher."
"From Aristotle? From the Byzantine teachings?"
"Yes," Allyn replied. "You know the texts -- Father keeps them next to his favorite spices."
Gwellyn nodded. "He wants me to continue with the lessons -- so I can read those teachings for myself." Gwellyn sighed. "Comes from being a Shaman's son. You've read those teachings already. Do they speak of singers and their changes after death?"
"No," Allyn said. "The Byzantine writings speak of the need to find explanations in natural causes, in the world at hand."
"Ah, I see," Gwellyn said. "So what does Father think are the natural causes for the singers and the way they look in death?"
"Father says it's an illness," Allyn replied. "Except it is deeper than just an illness, and it's very old, and it will still be alive long after we are gone."
Gwellyn's brows furrowed. "I never thought of an illness as alive."
"Well, they are in some way tied to life," Allyn said. "Our livestock get sick, fruit trees get sick, we get sick, but rocks and tents do not."
"Are we sick with this ... this illness now?"
"No one knows," Allyn said. "Perhaps we are. There's an idea -- very ancient, Father told me -- that everyone has illness. And the difference between those who get sick and those who do not is that the healthy ones have also an illness of illness that preys upon the illness, renders the illness lifeless so it can do us no harm."
"This second illness is our friend," Gwellyn mused, "like a dog who stops a wilder animal from attacking us in the night."
"But how do we know which is which?" Gwellyn asked. "How can we try to keep out one and welcome the other? Where do we find illness when it isn't already within us?"
"The legends say everywhere. In the food we eat, the air we breathe, the women we love."
"Women?" For the first time Gwellyn smiled, because making love was still a thrill to him that far outweighed any thought of illness, even one which might cause death. His smile deepened, as he attached a specific face and body, one which he had seen just last week, to the general prospect of making love.
"Yes," Allyn replied, smiling a bit too. "And we them. The legends say we are all brothers and sisters in illness."
Gwellyn nodded, but he was thinking more of Daralyn's face and body than his sisters'...
Allyn continued anyway. "Some of the legends say that our seed can do more than one thing, that sometimes it can leave evil inscriptions in the souls of women it may come to know."
* * *
Daralyn was a woman Gwellyn had very much enjoyed coming to know, and in fact was still enjoying.
Despite her name, Daralyn was not entirely of Gwellyn's people. Though she had muddy red hair, her eyes were almond, and their color an iridescent edge closer to brown than blue. Her maternal grandfather and perhaps others in her line had come from the Land of Silk. She had high intelligence, noble bearing -- altogether fit, Gwellyn's father had concluded, to educate his son, five years younger than she, in some of the world's ways.
They lay in each other's arms, her legs still wrapped yet relaxed around his waist, after a third round of love making.
"There are really only three kinds of people in this world," Daralyn said, picking up a thread of conversation from their last brief interval of rest. "Our people; the people from the Far East, of whom I'm also a part; and the people from the hot, humid southern land."
"The singers look like none of those," Gwellyn said.
"Maybe that's because they're dead."
Daralyn meant that as a joke, and Gwellyn laughed, but he still took it seriously. "Has anyone ever seen one of them alive?"
"I don't think so," Daralyn said.
"Then why do we call them singers?" Gwellyn asked. "Surely they don't sing when they are dead?" He thought again about how he had helped destroy the corpse they had found, how they had committed those smoky green eyes, that neck like a tree-trunk, to the flames... Would he have felt even worse about destroying it if there was some chance that that neck could sing? Or was there a way of singing without words, without the impact of vocal cords upon the air, an impact that a corpse could have on the world without actually singing?
"I'm not sure," Daralyn said. "Whenever I've heard them called by a name, it's always been the singers. I think someone once told me that the way they talk is by singing -- that they have no words to speak, just melodies and harmonies to sing."
"But that sounds like someone must have seen them alive," Gwellyn said.
"Melodies sound like life, yes." Daralyn smiled. "I like that. But you're right -- no one has seen them alive."
"But how can that be?" Gwellyn asked.
"I don't know," Daralyn replied. "Maybe they were alive a long time ago, before any one of us or our people, but other people saw them then, and passed word down to us about what the singers were like when they were alive."
"But they don't look like they have been dead that long..." Gwellyn didn't want to, but he blurted out to Daralyn what he and his brother had done with the corpse. He felt better after his confession in his lover's arms.
"True, they don't look like they have been dead that long," Daralyn said soothingly, stretching out her legs over Gwellyn's. "But if no one alive has seen them alive, what other possibility could there be?"
Gwellyn considered. "How long can a corpse stay a corpse?"
"Not very long," Daralyn said. "Usually they're picked clean. But I've heard stories of people found in the ice, almost good enough to kiss, though they were dead for fifty years."
"I wonder," Gwellyn said, "if there are some illnesses that work like the ice, but from the inside." And he was struck again by the thought that maybe he and his brother had ground into dust something -- someone -- which was somehow still alive.
* * *
He took in the deep cerise of the setting sky.
"Looks good enough to drink," Jakob said, and joined in the contemplation.
"Yes," Gwellyn said, "like the wine of your Passover. But the only trace we soon will have of this sky will be in our minds."
"Many of the beautiful things are like that -- perhaps that's why they are beautiful." Jakob was a merchant from Antioch. He had travelled the Silk Road many times in his long life, the hostile northern route as well as kinder southerly. He had strode upon the Indian Grand Road too, and traversed the Spice Route by water in pursuit of trade with the Byzantines, the Persians, the Mohammetans.
Gwellyn regarded Jakob as a master of judgement in things beautiful. Yet... "I could write a description of it anyway," Gwellyn said. "I could try to capture that color in my words, so that others could know of it."
The older man scoffed. "Impossible. Your very words would change the color they were attempting to describe -- like trying to fathom the texture of a snowflake between your fingers."
Gwellyn looked back up at the sky.
"Writing is wonderful," Jakob continued, "but it is not for everything. The Philosopher's mentor's mentor -- Socrates -- had no use for it. He said reliance on it would cause our memories to dissolve."
Gwellyn smiled, because he knew enough to know that he had just gotten the better of Jakob at least in this tiny round. "And how do we know this?" Gwellyn inquired.
The smile was returned. "Yes, fortunately -- or unfortunately -- for Socrates, Plato troubled to record in writing the objections of Socrates to writing. Otherwise, we would never know of those objections. I'll grant you that. Just as Julius Caesar himself wrote somewhere that he admired the Druids, because they refrained from writing. And we would not know of Julius Caesar's admiration for lack of writing had he not troubled to record that admiration in writing. But that still does not mean that writing is advisable in all circumstances."
"When is it not advisable?"
"Writing is a chariot to the future," Jakob said. "It usually conveys the voice of someone no longer present. If I say something now that confuses you, you can ask me to explain. If I write something that confuses you, and you read it after I am gone, whom do you ask for clarification? I myself am not in the chariot -- just my words."
"But aren't your words -- in writing -- better than no words at all?"
Jakob stroked his grey-white beard. "Yes. But that is not the choice. We will always have words. The question is whether we prefer them to be spoken or written. For the keeping of records of commerce, I agree that writing is best. For communication of confusing things -- like philosophy -- I would rather pass my words on to someone else by speech, so he can question me, and understand my meaning, and then pass his words on to someone else again, who can question him."
"I still think writing is more dependable," Gwellyn said. "What if someone makes a mistake as the words are being passed along from speaker to speaker?"
Jakob shrugged. "That could happen, yes. But words in writing are in their own way not very dependable either. The Library at Alexandria has been burning on and off for centuries!" Jakob lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, louder actually than his normal speech. "They blame it on the Mohammetans. But my friends tell me it's the Christian bishops too -- they're afraid of the learning!"
Gwellyn took no offense, being a believer in neither Mohammet nor Christ. He believed in the sun and the stars and the moon and the trees -- true to the Druid lines that still ran through the mixed weave of his people. But unlike the Druids, he believed in writing.
And so he was horrified by the burnings in Alexandria. Just as he had been horrified by burning the corpse by the river.
"We found a singer by the river last month," he said.
Jakob put an urgent, bony finger to his lips. "It's better not to talk about such things!"
Gwellyn laughed in exasperation. "I see. The singer is not only someone I can't write about, but someone I can't talk about!"
Jakob held up a quieting hand again, and whispered even more intensely than about the burnings in Alexandria. "You want to learn more about the singers?"
Jakob sized up his young friend, so passionate for wisdom. "All right," he said. "I'll tell you where you can go to find out more about them. It will require a long trip, by sea. And years, perhaps, of your life."