Mr. Kong is steeping tea. He hears a rustle of silk.
He looks up.
It is a winter evening. His house is cold. He can see his snowy yard. No one is visible, but he can hear motion. No one has announced themselves, but he can hear the shifting of metal against leather and the soft hissing of someone’s breath.
His eyes narrow.
There is a stool inside the entryway, where there was none before, and a staff leaning against the wall. There is a dusting of snow.
He can hear, distantly, the jingling of a bell.
It is 501 years before the common era. The sun hides behind the clouds. An assassin has come.
This is a history of Mr. Kong.
It is the Latter Days of the Law
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.
“In these degenerate days,” says Mr. Kong politely, “it is good to have an assassin who is observant of the rites and practices. Will you take tea with an old man before you kill me?”
Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.
It is probable, he thinks, that the assassin has unwound a length of garrote. It gleams between the man’s fingers—behind Mr. Kong, no doubt, and to the left, and three steps back: the honorable place for an assassin, according to the Book of Rites.
But the man does not move.
He is like a statue, frozen by Mr. Kong’s question.
“It would make me happy,” says Mr. Kong.
The assassin reaches his decision. There is a snap as the garrote retracts. He walks seven quick paces and now he stands before Mr. Kong. He lowers himself, with great decorum, to sit opposite Mr. Kong, and Mr. Kong pours the tea.
“It is unusual for an assassin to attend diligently to the rites,” says Mr. Kong. “The requirements of attending to giving and repaying are the principal matter of contention.”
“Yes,” says the assassin.
Mr. Kong studies the assassin. The man is dressed in white; his hair is tied back; he has features of grave discernment and etched with terrible sorrow.
“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”
Whom are you mourning, that you would seek to kill a humble scholar in his home?
“We sparred,” says the assassin. “With sticks of wood. I struck him. The mark was red on the paleness of his skin. He skipped back. He laughed. He blurred to the side, and came forward to attack. But I caught his stick and twisted it from his hand and I struck him again; and this time his eyes opened very wide and he cried out, ‘It is thus!'”
Mr. Kong sighs.
They sit there. They drink.
“In the days of the Zhou,” says Mr. Kong, “it did not matter how many times you hit a man with a stick; still, he would retain his false conceptions and his attachment to material existence. But the world has changed.”
The assassin’s voice is choked.
“You deny your responsibility?” he says.
Mr. Kong thinks on that.
“I do?” he asks.
“The men of old,” says the assassin— “they lived with unhesitating purpose and they loved virtue. The nature of them prevailed, and they could not hesitate to act. Is it not so?”
“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.
“Our ancestors exceeded us.”
“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.
“Heaven is distant from the world; it acts through mortal men, who must struggle to hew to the spirit of goodness—is it not so?”
Mr. Kong says, “You are in mourning for the days of antiquity, when humans possessed the character of uprightness that allowed them to perform miracles, and we did not suffer the plague of spiritual enlightenment.”
“You speak of it,” says the assassin, “as if these days were centuries ago; but they were not.”
Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.
“It has been less than forty years,” he says, “since last I witnessed magic in the world—you mean? But I have told my disciples, I do not discuss magic.”
“So,” says the assassin.
“I am not dissembling,” says Mr. Kong, in tones of gentle protest. “It is not the matter of spirits, or ghosts, or devils that concerns me. When I look upon the past, it is not the flying brooms and wishing boys and Heaven-Defying Lightbringing Yama Kings that draw my eye, but the spirit of humaneness that pervaded the ancients even in the face of all these wonders.”
“You are a man,” says the assassin, “who spoke unto the world words that changed it. You told Heaven and Earth: we are not like the ancient men. And thus it was. You told Heaven and Earth: we are empty; we are in disorder; we are the only channel by which Heaven may affect the world—and thus it was. You teach a disregard for spirits, and they flee from us—or so I must conclude.”
He sets down his teacup.
He folds his hands in his lap. His face is very bleak.
“My name is Zheng,” he says.
“Please tell me that when I have killed you, my son shall return; and magic; and purpose; and the will of Heaven manifest on Earth; and things will be as once they were.”
Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.
It is not Mr. Kong’s way to deny an accusation when doing so will only heighten the wound in another man’s heart; so he searches in him for an answer that is courteous, honest, and humane.
A sadness rises.
“It is the character of humanity,” Mr. Kong says softly, “to be wrong.”
A sound comes from Zheng. It is like the peal of a bell, and it comes from his throat as if it were ripped from it.
“Once,” says Mr. Kong, “I imagined that I had the power in me to make all things correct. That I could right all the practices of the world. That I would do these things because I am Kong. And when I understood that it was not so, I cried out: Heaven, Heaven, why have you abandoned me?”
Zheng does not respond.
“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.
Zheng looks up.
He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.
“Do you understand? It is because we are not as the ancients were that we may look up to them. Were we as gods, we would spend our lives in the affairs of gods; but because we are human, we may practice humaneness.”
Mr. Kong tilts his head.
“Why,” says hoarse-voiced Zheng, “should we practice humaneness, when Heaven denies us righteousness? Why should we strive for good, when we are always wrong? What is this world we live in, where a man may burn out his own son’s soul?”
But Mr. Kong ignores the last of these questions, and answers only the second.
And Zheng let him to live, and went away, and in the mountains he taught his students that it was not so important to kill as to kill with good character as a righteous assassin; and Mr. Kong found himself a limited employment in government service; and the world went on for many years, severed from its gods.
The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”
In the darkness of the sea, Max slices through Sid. The knife glitters darkly in his hand.
A wire snaps.
Like all the wires of Sid, it is under high tension. It scissors through the world and cuts the sea and causes a great turbulence in the mechanisms of Sid. His thoughts become deranged, disordered, and unbalanced.
It is June 3, 2004.
Sid is furious and maddened, under the staring eye of Good.
Since cutting does not work, he slams Max down into the silt floor of the sea. He smashes Max against the shell of the world; but the human—
The heap he reminds himself; not Max, it cannot be Max—
slips aside and the blow only widens the crack at the base of the rising Good.
Max is thinking something wry about learning from the lessons of history. Sid can taste it; it amplifies in the jangling of his thoughts. The man is going to stab him again. The opening in the world through which Good rises is nearly critical mass: much larger, and the Good will transform the shell that holds it back and all the stories of the world shall end.
Sid conceives a plan.
His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.
He anchors himself. He hooks himself with shivering cutting lines into the sea. He insinuates himself into sea and sky and the shadow of the sun. He hopes for time—
Not so very much; just a little bit—
To finish cutting away the heart of the Good. But if he does not have it—well, very well.
Max cuts at a great bundle of the mind of Sid and Sid’s memory of 1955 and his knowledge of differential equations and his power to taste snow all snap and the tangling spinning power of it progresses inevitably through the system of him and a great spinning wire hits Max’s chest and, because Max will not cut, drives him into the Good; and a great heaving convulsion in the world slams together the elements of the crust and makes an island of stone and sky where once there was a crack beneath the sea.
In the aftermath, there is blindness to match the silence of his world.
He drifts there, free of attachment to things.
Max loved him, he thinks.
Certainly, so did the Good.
He wonders why.