Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure
Dunhuang, in the summer
is beige and washed with soft, settled dust. It nests between sand dunes, two-tone hills that whistle and whisper at dusk, the breeze bringing mysterious dreams to those who sleep under its soupy night sky. My guests, pilgrims whose cotton shifts are streaked with the brown patterns of their journeys, spend the last of their silver on a bed and a meal at my inn. They are tired, worn, and bone-thin, but there is that momentary sense of relief in their eyes when they clap an ugly coin into my palm. I lead them to their cots and my husband ladles precious wine into their bowl. Twice a year, he makes hard candies out of the sugar grains that have stuck to the bottoms of emptied jars, and I hand them to the pilgrims’ children. “Ah—” I tease, holding the candy just out of reach. “Say, ‘Thank you, Mister Innkeeper!’” The parents smile as their toddlers’ fingers work to unwrap the treats. Inside the wrapping paper, my husband makes an inscription: a character from a sutra, painstakingly calligraphic and minuscule—just big enough to cast a spell. I don’t believe in these words anymore, but he does, and I adore him for his insistence on sewing whole sheets of sutras into our winter clothes so that they sometimes swish and crinkle as I do the morning chores.
Not that we need winter clothes here in the desert, but even after twelve winters—a full zodiac cycle—we haven’t shaken that habit of renewing ourselves for the start of each year. In the weeks before the spring festival, we sew sutras for each other, then exchange them over a rare feast of pork buns. It would shock our younger selves, the effort we put into every stitch and our miserly use of the cloth, but now that we’re poor, we pay more attention. In recent years, I have become worried that our annual gift-giving lacks fairness, that he has ruined his eyes copying our sutras by candlelight. I have offered to write my own, but he says it wouldn’t work—heathen that I am. It has taken me some time, but this summer, I have prepared an extra gift for him: his own sword.
When we’d left the world, he pretended not to mind leaving it behind—he threw it nonchalantly into the Yangtze and didn’t look back. In that moment, I’d thought of that idiom, ke-zhou-qiu-jian, about the fool from the Warring States era who, instead of diving to retrieve his drowning sword, carved a mark onto the edge of the boat and said, This is where the sword fell. When we reach shore, I shall dive from here. They don’t say what happened to him afterwards. For what was a wuxia without his weapon? A martial artist without his art; a fool; a wastrel; an innkeeper, a cook—someone without a name hiding somewhere far off doing ordinary things that would never be told of over campfires across the jianghu. I’d thought of selling the sword, but my husband hadn’t wanted to draw attention from such a famous weapon.
He’d been right, as always—when, some years ago, I began to discreetly ask about the sword, it was too easy to track it down to some middle-class collector in the capital city with the audacity to admit visitors in exchange for an entry fee. The hard part was stealing it. I debated whether to reveal myself to one of our old friends, an imperial general, perhaps, who might remember what I did for him in the war; or instead to venture out on my own with some plausible cover story. In the end, it was one of the rare merchants at the inn who helped me secure the services of a rogue wuxia who could travel to the capital and back, no questions asked. All it took was a tumble in the hay with the merchant, under the watery eyes of our one wizened donkey. And money, of course; money all the time, the entirety of my secret savings as well as one of the two gold bars we hid under the kitchen floorboards, which my husband does not often check and which I will blame on a thieving pilgrim when he does find out.
Would a thief only steal half our gold? I must continue to work on the story, but it is hard to focus when all I can think of is the smile that will bloom on my husband’s face when I present him with the sword next week, the kind of pure and joyous smile that even he is unable to suppress, maybe even a smile with teeth! Or else I worry about the naked blade’s condition after having travelled such a distance—I could not afford the scabbard, which remains with the collector. I think we could go retrieve it together. We’ll shut the inn for a month or two, go on vacation for the first time; a kind of honeymoon. We could detour through Jiangnan, spy on those we left behind: our shifu, our sworn brothers and sisters who by now will have taken on disciples of their own, the teahouses where we eavesdropped on local gossip, and my husband’s grandfather, though perhaps he has died. Would it be too painful? I suppose that question is too far into the future, considering that we cannot afford to shut the inn. Business slows in the summer for reasons I still haven’t fully comprehended. Some days, there are so few guests that I am able to leave our hired girl in charge and accompany my husband to the market.
In town, we are careful not to walk too closely together. Everyone on the Silk Road has a secret, and people in Dunhuang don’t mind these things, but it also means that any tanned, forgettable face could be masking violence. The assumption, I think, is that we are brothers, and technically we are—brothers-in-arms, fellow disciples under one shifu. I don’t mind: it reminds me of our youth, when there was always this invisible hurricane that raged in the space between our bodies and into which we would throw everything we weren’t allowed to say or feel. Sometimes I miss those days, not because we were wealthy, but because of the back-and-forth of our dance, how precarious it all was, how miraculous, how heart-breaking. Everything was so new that I’d sometimes forget we were fighting a civil war; even in the midst of a battle, when across the melée in the corner of my eye I could watch him slash and parry, I’d felt so attuned to him, as though we were the only ones there, as though my hands weren’t full of someone else’s blood. I miss that, too, but I don’t tell my husbandhe’d made me promise, that day on the Yangtze, that we’d leave it all behind. I think he prefers Dunhuang, our inn, the lazy fog of sunlight, the spices and curiosities brought in from the West, the foreign languages that he practices with the street sellers. The callouses on his hands have faded; instead, he has little cuts here and there from the cleaver brought down too fast or too hard.
Today, a week before the wuxia arrives in Dunhuang with the gift, the sunset sends rays of glimmering pink clouds across the sky, and my husband stops by a Persian carpet-seller to feel the soft weave on the tapestries. I am admiring the way that his face, bathed in golden light, seems to be chiselled from the sand dunes that surround and cradle us when I am hit with a nauseating premonition and stumble a little. I steady myself against the merchant’s camel, which wavers its head, as if aware of my distress. It has suddenly occurred to me that my husband may not want his sword back at all, that I have made a terrible mistake; I have overreached, overstepped, overwhelmingly overstated—it is over. I imagine him trying and failing to hide his profound disappointment, turning his back to me as he rolls up his sleeves to knead more dough, the rise and fall of his silent shoulders. My husband is gripping my arm now, saying something with his low voice that I can’t make out—all I hear is the rush of blood in my ears and the fuzziness in my mouth. I am frozen, like that night on the battlefield so many years ago, an agony I’d forgotten. He leads me away from the crowd, into a quieter alley, and I start to calm down a little, I think. He leans against the wall next to me as my breathing slows. After some time, I shuffle closer, lean my head against his shoulder, touch his hand. He lets me.
Dunhuang, a continuation
When we died, how did we know to go to Dunhuang? They say that a monk named Lezun was meditating in the desert, days and days away from the nearest oasis. He did not need water, for he was drunk on his faith. One day, he had a vision of a thousand Buddhas radiating glorious sunlight onto his face. Despite the searing pain at the roots of his eyes, Lezun did not look away. He committed that divine light to memory. When he awoke from his trance, his cheeks were burned red, and as he peeled silken sheets of dead skin from his face. He felt as though he were peeling away the filth of his past lives. Lezun decided to carve a prayer cave into the side of a nearby cliff, and inside the cave, he painted a thousand images of Buddhas. That was the first shrine at Dunhuang, built over a thousand years ago, so it must be dust by now. My love, would you believe me if I told you that your fathers drifted on the Yangtze all the way down to the city of Yu, and then disassembled our boat and created a large bonfire by the riverbank for us to warm ourselves—and in that bonfire, we saw a thousand Buddhas whose half-closed eyes all looked northwest, towards the desert? Yes, your other father saw them too –– don’t look so surprised –– that’s what made it so beautiful, that, even though he didn’t believe, he saw it too. We made our way to Dunhuang on foot, just like the pilgrim uncles and aunties you see here at the inn every day, just like your mother, who carried you in her belly and brought you here to us and gave her life to you, and whose spirit remains to guard you and protect you. We came here because we thought that the cliffs of Dunhuang were the cliffs of the world, that the painted Buddhas were there to catch us if we ever fell off the edge, but when we saw the cliffs for ourselves, we realised that they were doors, with whole other sides. And that we could walk through them, if we wanted to. Why didn’t we? We were tired… We settled, and built the inn, and met you. You must never forget. You were born on the journey to the west, and when you grow up you’ll walk on the roads that’ll take you even farther west, all the way to the real edge of the world –– isn’t that lovely? That’s how we named you. Your name is so beautiful that your father and I don’t need names; we buried them by the riverbank that day by Yu city and nobody ever asked for them again. When we had you, we wondered what to do, if you would just grow up calling us Mister Innkeeper and Mister Cook just like everyone else; what could we do to provide an anchor for you? But here’s a word –– a-no-ny-mi-ty. Not even the inn has a name. You don’t need to name your home to know that it’s there. In our past lives, names held so much power over us, we each had three names for ourselves and gave names to our swords, our staffs, our spears, each of our martial arts techniques, even our shoes so that they’d bless our stinky feet, can you believe it? But we knew that you needed a name, for you to carry with you when you go. Of course you’ll go, my love, or will you stay here sweeping sand from the floorboards until you’re as old as the paintings in the caves? You can go wherever you want, for as long as you want –– your fathers will be here waiting for you to come back and tell us your stories. Do you remember what the wool merchant from Isfahan was saying, last week? He said that the western countries have their own wuxia, called knights, who are always riding horses and who spend their evenings playing music and embroidering special flag designs to carry into war. You could meet a knight, and show them your embroidery, and show them your sword, and tell them that the sword was inherited from your father, who was the greatest wuxia to have ever lived. What –– you don’t think I was the greatest wuxia to have ever lived? Your other father says so! And he really thinks so, or else he would never have gone to all that trouble to steal the sword back. You’ve heard that story a thousand times, my love, but alright. I’ll try to tell my version. Listen carefully… When your fathers were young, we were lucky to be disciples of a renowned wuxia in Jiangnan. He was over a hundred years old, with hard, wrinkly skin and a coarse whisper of a voice. Training with him was painful and difficult, but he was an excellent shifu, because, instead of imposing his techniques on disciples, he encouraged each and every one of us to find our own way. Although my family had a strong tradition with the spear, I found that I preferred the sword, but I did not own one. One of the other disciples was a blacksmith’s son: he taught me how to make my own… It was at the forge, standing together by the blistering fire, that we first began to develop feelings for each other, strange twists of the heart that I suppressed because I did not understand what they meant –– and wouldn’t, for many years. What then? …We graduated, and travelled the jianghu together, but soon a war broke out. Your other father tells this part better… At the end of the war, my sword had become famous. People tried to buy my loyalty, they’d heard about me… So when we decided to go, I left it at the bottom of the river as proof that we’d really died, for a wuxia would never willingly abandon his weapon. But I wasn’t a wuxia anymore, maybe I never was… And after twelve years here in Dunhuang, your other father came into the kitchen one evening and told me that he had a gift… It was the sword, a naked blade that caught the moonlight. He had hired someone to steal it from a connoisseur’s collection in the capital. No, the eastern capital, my love, though I suppose that means nothing to you. Your other father was worried that I’d be offended, since I’d sworn to leave that life… I said, I hardly think I can cook with this, and he was relieved, because I’d made a joke… The next day, your mother arrived at the inn, with you in her belly. My life becomes interesting after that. Ah, she’s asleep… Silly child. Goodnight. I love you.
Jiaqi Kang (亢嘉琪) is a Sino-Swiss editor, writer, and art historian. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Sine Theta Magazine, an international, print-based creative arts publication made by and for the Sino diaspora. Recent work is featured in harana poetry, Ghost City Review, and Jellyfish Review. Find her online at jiaqikang.carrd.co. “Dunhuang, in the summer” originally appeared in X-R-A-Y in January 2021.