[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]
This is a history of Mr. Kong.
It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.
He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.
Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.
Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”
The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.
A woman’s footsteps approach.
“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”
The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.
It’s all right.
He’d held its attention long enough.
His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.
The Island of the Centipede
“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”
Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.
Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.
“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.
She looks upon him and her face is still.
“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”
“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”
“Ah,” says Miss Lung.
He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.
“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”
Miss Lung thinks on these words.
Her eyes close, then open.
“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”
“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”
Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.
She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.
“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”
Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”
“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”
She looks miserably at the trap.
“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”
To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.
He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”
Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”
Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.
Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.
“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”
“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.
She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.
Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.
“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.
“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’
“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.
“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”
“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.
“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”
“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”
He stares at the doors, deep in thought.
“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”
“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.
“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”
For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.
“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”
“Please,” she says.
“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.
“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”
Mr. Kong smiles at her.
“You are skeptical,” he says.
“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.
“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”
“If that’s so—“
She struggles to hold back her emotions.
“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”
“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”
Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”
“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”
She lowers her head.
“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.
“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”
“And if I am?”
“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”
The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.
Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.
Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.
One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.
“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”
“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.
“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”
Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.
“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.
“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.
“Hmf,” Red Mary says.
Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.