Lao Ma's Kiss
by Elaine Sutherland
Disclaimer: The characters Xena and Lao Ma are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are being used without permission. No attempt is being made to profit from their use. This story also contains sexual scenes, both heterosexual and homosexual, and some minimal sexual violence. Commentary is invited.
Recent discoveries at Amphipolis of a manuscript of the Tao Te Ching, with its cache of letters written in the same hand sewn into the binding, has rocked the scientific world. Not only is this volume now thought to be the original, (and the other ancient texts thought to be copies made during the same period) but the letters by the same author reveal that the great book of Taoism was composed by a woman, Lao Ma. Moreover, the letters tie the philosophical issues of the Tao Te Ching to historical events of the most personal and intimate nature. To add fuel to an already blazing fire, the events described in the letters are virtually identical to those of Scroll XG 145 unearthed by xenologists in 1986 near Athens. The near identity of the two accounts offers compelling evidence that the events described are historical. That one account could have derived from the other is impossible. Not only is it certain that Xena and Gabrielle could not read the letters, which are in Chinese, it is probable that they never knew of their existence, since they were found undisturbed within the bindings of the volume uncovered at Amphipolis.
These two accounts are here set down in juxtaposition. Here two philosophies , Eastern passivity and Western aggressiveness challenge each other and two lives intermingle, and we see the Yin and the Yang turning in the extraordinary spirits of these two women.
Lao Ma seems to have begun the letters some years after Xena had left her, when she realized that imprisonment and death were imminent. The last letter was written in prison the day before her execution, and smuggled out by an unknown member of her household.
The account in Scroll XG 145 is attributed to Gabrielle who apparently set down Xena's reminiscences in the warrior's own words on their journeys to and from China. It is to Gabrielle's credit that the tone of the undisciplined "Xena of the Steppes" resonates through the narration, even though it was the older wiser Xena who told it. It is also a sign of her skill as a bard that she does not interject her own feelings into the story, although it must have been difficult to learn that Xena had so profoundly loved another woman.
Lastly, the appearance of Lao Ma in Xena's early life is revealed to be not merelyone of the more exotic episodes during her 'dark years', but a precursor of other later benign influences that would temper the aggression of the famous woman warrior throughout her life. The magnitude of Lao Ma's sacrifice cannot be underestimated, nor can the influence Xena had on her. Xena, as it turns out, left her mark on the Taoist religion as it left its mark on her.
Professor Elaine Sutherland
Department of Sinology, Stanford University
Here follow the two tales of:
Lao Ma's Kiss
It started when Borias that sonofabitch threw me off his horse in the middle of a good fuck and galloped off like a puppy to meet with the mighty Laotse. He said that I would just mess up the negotiations. Well piss on that I thought. He wasn't going to leave me like a concubine while he went off to negotiate our fortunes. I grabbed my crutch and stumbled over to get on my horse, the only place I felt whole. On horseback I could ride and fight as good as any man, and I rode like a demon and caught up with Borias at the yurt camp just as he was meeting the ruler of Lao. I nearly fell off the horse again when I saw it was a woman.
She stood in front of her litter talking to him when I rode up. In the two years I had lived on the steppes, I had learned the spoken language of the nomad tribesmen and, like Borias, could converse with the Chinese as well. But she spoke with a formality and a refinement I had never heard before and, answering her, Borias sounded like the rough barbarian he was. When she finally noticed me, and it took her long enough, she stared at me with that expressionless face of hers, and then she said my name. She had heard of me, and heard that I was dangerous. I liked that. Being dangerous. She bowed slightly, but it was the polite bow of a ruler. There was something very powerful behind that porcelain face, and I hated it. I wanted to slap her face to make her show emotion and then I wanted to kill her for catching Borias' interest. When she left, I bowed my head the same way she did, just a little.
The first time I saw you, Xena, you were a wild woman, galloping into the camp and jumping from the horse to the ground on twisted legs . You were dressed in the felt and leather rags the nomads wear for coats, the same thing they use to make their houses. When you came limping towards us I saw at once how dangerous you were. Borias was harmless in comparison; I almost pitied him. You were dangerous because you were smart and ruthless, because you were a cripple and found pity loathsome, and because you were beautiful. Very beautiful. You laughed at my reference to Borias' honor which was the very basis for our agreement, and thereby undermined any hope for an alliance. I looked into eyes of a color I had never seen on any nomad or Chinese. I knew at once why some of my soldiers had called you ghost, and demon. I looked into those pools of ice as long as I dared and saw hunger and greatness, and smoldering rage. At that moment everything I had planned for Borias fell apart, ceased even to be interesting.
Do you remember our 'negotiations' in Borias' yurt? I flattered him, and was the consummate diplomat. I admired his tattoo'd hands, his jewelry, let him preen and think he was impressing me. The nomads are so simple. You watched us from across the table, where you smoked opium and although you scarcely spoke and only sulked, I felt your presence more than his; I felt your interest and your pulsing hatred. You were angry simply because you thought I wanted Borias, would perhaps give myself to him that night. I told you that I didn't eat meat, but you did not grasp what I meant. You were thinking in terms of hours, but the decisions of that night would set off events that would echo through our lives, change the kingdoms of Ming and Lao and bring catastrophe to both our houses.
Borias brought me to the yurt where I was to spend the night before leaving his camp the next morning. Perhaps you thought we intended intimacy. Perhaps he thought so too. I was certain that you were lurking somewhere outside and I felt you enter even before I turned and saw you with your useless knives. You were a formidable fighter on horseback in the field, but in close quarters you staggered pitifully, and of course you did not expect my martial skills. I had no trouble throwing your knives back at you, and it should have ended there. But you were in such a fury that you persisted and I had to hurl you bodily out of the yurt. It filled me with sadness to see you lying unconscious in the dirt, so wild and beautiful and so out of control. When you came to I whispered words that I knew you would not heed, but which I hoped you would remember. I whispered the Tao to you, 'Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things'. But the words rang hollow and my first instruction to you was already compromised. For as I saw you lying there, bloodied by my hands, I already felt the inklings of what I thought I'd gotten free of. The moment I walked away from you, Borias expelled you from the camp and the great disaster began to unfold.
I watched them cooing together like two doves, Borias and that Chinese bitch and it drove my crazy. The opium didn't help. It just made it harder to hear them and to think of how I would kill her. I tried to scare her off by throwing a knife at her hand as she reached toward the plate of meat, but she just made one of her mysterious remarks. I couldn't bear to watch her seduce him so I left. But just to get other knives.
I stepped into the yurt just as she took off her earrings. I thought it would be easy; she looked so delicate, like the groveling servants in the great houses of Chin. But she caught my knives faster than I could see, and threw me into the air. When I came to lying on the ground, she was staring at me the same way she stared at me that morning with Borias. She whispered some strange advice that I should empty myself of desire if I was to know the way, but all it did was make me angrier. Did she really think she could teach me to not want anything after she had just humiliated me? I was fed up with humiliation and would have killed half of China to be free of it. Then, in case I thought things could not get worse, she walked out on the treaty she had made and Borias, who a few hours earlier that day had been between my legs, threw me out of the camp. Well, if that was the way he wanted it, so be it. I had my own plan anyhow, and it would bring him, humbled, back to me.
Oh, Xena, was it merely bitterness and greed that drove you, in full gallop back to Ming? We are wheels within wheels, and always turning. That bit of avarice, that fit of will and rage of yours sealed all our fates. To kidnap a child, MY child, and the heir of the House of Ming. No folly would have been greater, no madness would have hastened your ruin any faster.
It's true, you did not shed the child's blood, but still you injured him. You taught him terror, and desperation, and it twisted him. He would have been a harsh ruler, but you made him a monster. And after all the havoc that you wreaked, you never touched a single coin of all that ransom. The outcome of that ferocious will to power was what you dreaded most, an alliance of your two great enemies, and your total denigration.
Kidnapping Ming Tien was a good idea I thought, and I pulled it off without a problem. Gods, it was the easiest thing I ever did. Ming Tzu had posted almost no guards around him, the fool, and I yanked his princeling up into the saddle with me and rode back into the hills. The boy never cried or spoke, but he pissed himself for fear. There was no one else for me to talk to, so I talked to him, and told him how to handle his enemies. "Kill them", I said, "and make a show of it, so that they learn to fear you. Kill them through your soldiers or your executioners, or with your own hands, if you have to. But kill them or, depend on it, they'll surely kill you". And I knicked him on his little head with my knife so he'd remember. It was a perfect job, no complications, and the ransom was delivered. It was a thing of beauty.
And then Borias betrayed me. That bastard handed me over to Ming Tzu like a pile of skins and left with half the ransom. Ming Tzu wanted to make an example of me to the boy, and had me beaten, but it was nothing more than I could endure. In cruelty, Ming Tzu fell far short of his heir and I think that even Ming Tien was a little disappointed. I had set a standard of ruthlessness for him that he couldn't wait to practice. I could see it burning in his eyes, all the time I was in captivity. I had taught him well, and now I was the lesson. In contrast, Ming Tzu was almost kind. For I slept those two nights in a dry stone cell rather than in a sewer, and in the morning they clothed me for the hunt. It was the ragged dress of the previous prey, a woman who they said died far too quickly, and they hoped I would provide more lengthy entertainment. It stank of dogs and death.
And so I was brought shivering to the hunting grounds in a bamboo cage bound to a rumbling cart. Odd the things you notice when you think you are about to die. It was a cool morning but the sun was shining brightly and birds were singing. It reminded me of childhood games in the woods, although the trees in the land of Chin were different from the ones I knew. Two men marched alongside the cart with bronze halberds, as if I needed escort. Two others walked behind leading strings of hunting dogs. I wondered which of the hounds would be the first to reach me, and how long I could fight them off with my hands before they pulled me down like a deer. The cart stopped and I gathered my courage and my thoughts. But just as our woeful group prepared for the ultimate bloodsport, Lao Ma's litter appeared. She stepped out and came towards us, to give the boy something which he threw back at her. Since I was, I thought, about to be torn apart by dogs, I wasn't paying much attention. But in that red coat - the Chinese color of good fortune -- she stood out against the woods like a flame. For a brief moment, when she looked back at me, I almost thought I felt her warmth.
* * * * *
It was no accident that my retinue crossed the path of Ming Tzu. I was there not only to see Ming Tien, but having heard of your capture, I had resolved to rescue you. How I rejoiced to see you in the cage. Not from hate or bitterness, my darling, but because I saw it as the end of Xena of the Steppes. I could take you now, and guide you on your first steps toward the Tao. Ming Tzu, the fool, thought you were his, just because he had you caged, but the truth was that you were mine. You had only to endure the chase, to stay ahead of the dogs long enough for me to reach the other side of the wood where you could fall into the safety of my arms. Forgive me my brief distraction, speaking to my son. I knew I had lost him, but I sought to keep the thread which tied us still together. But it was too weak and it unraveled, if not there on the road, then soon thereafter .
I heard the dogs and saw the dark spot they pursued, wavering, flickering through the trees. You kept falling and I feared for you, and each time I willed you to stand up again. And then you finally came to me, falling prostrate at my feet. Ironic. You lay in the dust, on your failed legs and in your prison rags, yet it was you who were struggling toward greatness, while I was soon to fall. If I was your rescuer, you would finally be my ruin. I dared not touch you then, you were so suspicious of my motives. But oh, I wanted to.
I thought it was the end. I ran first with the stick and then I lost it and ran on, staggering on my aching crooked legs. I cursed Borias, and Ming Tzu, and every living thing that thrived while I fled from my tormentors. "I'll kill them all," I thought even then, even running for my life. I fled from the hunters, but slowly grasped that I was also running toward something in the distance. I stumbled and fell, and staggered again toward the spot that pulled me, and finally fell again. I felt the hound's hot breath on my heel, and I knew I would not get up again. My last thought was ..nothing. I had no last thought, and so when I saw her feet in front of me, and the hem of her red coat, her image filled up my consciousness, like water flowing into an empty vessel.
She quieted the dogs and helped me to my feet and when I could speak again I asked her why. I thought it was a trick, that someone had devised an even crueler kind of punishment, but she said she could see into my soul and she saw greatness. She seemed to always speak in mysteries.
She brought me to the house of Lao and hid me in the inner court in the pool. I crouched there in the water until we heard them coming and then I sank down under the surface. The court was dark and I was safe from their eyes but my life depended on Lao Ma getting them away in less than a minute. The minute passed and I opened my eyes watching for her signal but gods, it never came. I was at my limit and I heard a roaring in my ears. Then I saw her face in the water and I grasped what she intended. To give me a single breath of air. One small breath to keep me safe for half a minute longer. I turned my face to her and felt her lips. It took a second for both of us to realize that I had to breathe out first, before I could breathe in, and when I had, she pressed her mouth to mine again and gave me the air of her lungs. So strange to take that little bit of life from her. It was more intimate than anything I had ever done.
They were only a minute behind us and I hid you the only place I could think of, in my pool. In the candle lit room the dark surface of the water was opaque, and you were well hidden. But Ming Tzu had to speak his piece, and add an afterthought, and it was the afterthought that almost killed you. I plunged my face into the water hoping to find your mouth, but you found mine. Your lungs were full of useless air and when it bubbled out, I covered your lips again and gave you my own breath. At that moment we were yin and yang, the force and the yielding, breathing together. Only our two mouths touched but I felt you to the core as I pressed air into your lungs, air that had already been in my heart and in my blood. There was life in it and you sucked it into you in our first urgent kiss. It was a kiss that cost me dearly. For as I gave you breath, my darling, it was at the sacrifice of my own inspiration.
* * * * *
It was enough. I watched, and when she turned her head again I came sputtering up for air and she smiled at me. She kept me in the pool even after Ming was gone, but took my ragged clothing off. I must have been filthy, especially by her standards, after sleeping in a jail cell and then crawling through the woods. When I was naked she washed me and poured water through my hair. "Nothing is as soft as water," she murmured to me, in her lovely deep voice, "yet who can withstand the raging flood". She dried me with her own hands and dressed me in silk. I had seen such silk on the Chinese nobles but never felt it on my body. It was like being dressed in a breath of air, and I sat before her speechless while she combed my hair. She combed it smooth and bound it back in a sort of tail in the style of the Chinese women, and fixed it in place with carved wooden hairpins. It was her attempt to civilize me.
But I didn't want to be civilized. I had vengeance to wreak.
I was free again and had only one thought -- to get back to Ming and cut his arrogant head off. But, inexplicably, she delayed me. She had her reasons for saving me and I was faintly interested in finding out what they were I could hold off butchering Ming Tzu for a few days, or a week. I owed her that.
A weight was lifted off us when Ming Tzu was gone. When he came back -- which of course he would do -- he would not recognize you. He sought a wild woman of the steppes, but he would see only the delicate deferential women of my household. You were skittish as a deer at first, but as the days passed your manner softened at least outwardly, and your patience grew. You held my glance more, and you let me show you things. First I showed you silk, which you had never worn. You were suspicious of it, as if its softness and transparency would somehow weaken you. But then you grew to like it and I certainly liked to see you in it. I set about refining you in other ways. I tamed your wild hair and oiled your skin. Your sharp western features fascinated me, and when I colored them with our pigments, a face emerged that was neither nomad nor Chinese but something thrilling and foreign -- and full of expression. Every emotion sprang into your face, in the raising of an eyebrow, the curling of your lips, a sideways glance. Incapable of concealment, or even subtlety, your feelings seemed to rule you. I could read you like a page of text. Now Xena is suspicious, now she is angered, now curious, now amused. It was scarcely necessary to converse with you; your thoughts were already on your face.
* * * * *
And so I let her pamper me and paint me like a doll. No woman had touched me that way, not since my mother, and I barely remembered that.
She knew exactly how to handle me. If she had restricted me the slightest bit, had locked the door or put a guard on me, I'd have gone in the blink of an eye. But she let me wander the palace and the gardens, showed me to the household as her "honored guest", and so I was held there by a sense of obligation--a sense that I didn't recall ever even having before. But I was not so obliged that I always stayed within her reach. On the second day I discovered the stables, and the stable boy Liu Ling. With Lao Ma's grudging permission, he showed me the finest horses and I chose a favorite, the roan stallion, Tai Feng. I rode him most evenings through the fields and woods of her land. I rode to the border with the Kingdom of Ming-- but did not cross it. It was both a way to feed my hatred of Ming Tzu and a way to test my patience. I knew he was over there, and I knew I would one day send him to his ancestors. It was a kind of comfort. I also knew that if I did not train and keep myself strong, Lao Ma's would 'gentle' me to my death. So I rode to the woods often where Ming Tzu's dogs had hunted me and, seething in the memory of it, I practiced leaps and fighting moves until I was exhausted.
When the sun was fully down and the sky dark I returned, as lathered as the horse. I handed Tai Feng over to Liu Ling, who cared for him, and after scrubbing down in Lao Ma's bath, I went for another civilized supper with her.
Their daily drink was tea, but they also had beer and a kind of liquor far stronger than the fermented mare's milk of the nomads. The Chinese foods were also new and pleasing to my taste, after two seasons of the nomads' mutton, goat and kasha. They were spiced in ways I had never tasted before, with cinnamon and pepper and a wonderful thing called ginger. The food was cut into little pieces that barely need chewing, but you were required to pick them up with little eating sticks. I did not get to eat much for the longest time.
Oh, Xena, do you recall our first proper meal together, on the covered terrace? I remember it distinctly, and with great fondness. You had been riding and your face, which you had just washed, was flush from the exertion. When night fell it began to rain and the sound of it on the garden was soothing as we sat down to eat. You were clumsy with the chopsticks, but I forbade you to eat with your fingers, which even Chinese children do not do. Your solution was to try to pick up the food with your knife, which I had to sternly pry out of your hand. I expect I was the only person who had ever wrested a knife away from you and lived to tell of it. With a look first of astonishment and then petulance you accused me of starving you to death. I took up the game and fed you from my bowl, piece by piece, with my own chopsticks. Leaning close to you I placed the chopsticks in your mouth, with fish, or rice balls, or with ginger, and you licked off every morsel. And then I ate from them myself, wondering how much of you was still on them. It must have been our favorite game, for it was many days before you learned to feed yourself, and by then the women of the household had decided you were feebleminded.
* * * * * *
For all the dressing up in silk and all the table games, I did not forget I was a fighter. A fighter with a plan, or the beginnings of a plan. I thought I might stay around awhile, gathering my strength, finding out who could be bribed, how horses could be stolen and what weapons could be used, to make another fighting force. I had a lot of retribution to extract. But I could bide my time. There was no hurry. I would wait, and learn. In the mean time, the Kingdom of Lao, and the Land of Chin, and Lao Ma herself fascinated me.
I had traveled many places by then, from village to the pirate seas and to the harsh steppes of the nomad, but I had never been in a palace. The floors were polished wood, the rooms spacious and stark and the doorways, which their science allowed them to build circular, were patterned and wide enough for ranks of soldiers. There were broad covered terraces on both sides of the palace, overlooking gardens. Her favorite, where we often sat, was on the south, facing a gnarled cherry tree.
With its stables and gardens, and its army of servants, it was somewhat like the household of a Grecian king, with a notable exception. The highest males in the household staff were castrated. Eunuchs she called them, and at first I laughed, but then I saw that they were men to be taken seriously. They were scribes, and guards, and emissaries and household managers and were in many positions of authority, in spite of their sometimes odd appearances and unnatural voices. One of them Zheng Ha, was her chamberlain and often at her side. He had a soft voice and a soft body, and walked in a way no man should walk. I detested him at first, and thought of him as only half a man. I rarely spoke to him, and found it distasteful that such a man should be allowed to lurk about the household.
You expressed contempt for Zheng Ha for his softness and subservience, until I told you he had authority over all the household and was answerable only to me. His docility was born of wisdom, of the knowledge that at court passivity often meant longevity. He had served me a very long time, and I trusted him with my life. I tried so long to teach you that such yielding could also be a source of power. But hardness was in your manner and being, Xena, and it showed in your every act.
Do you remember our little game of smashing bottles on the terrace? The morning sun poured in from the east, filling the room with promise and you had been of late so awestruck by everything it quieted you and I thought it was time to show you what quietude could do. You thought I broke the bottle by sheer force of will, by my own violence. But it was the opposite. It was the kiung, the emptiness I created around the bottle that caused it to shatter from itself, from its own energy. "Teach me that" you said, with such bloodlust, I almost laughed. You threw your will at the object with such ferocity, it was like a battle. You were still always at war.
"The world is driven by will" I said, and I admonished you, "Stop willing, desiring, hating. To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the Tao."
But it was too soon. You could not draw back yet, and quiet your will. There were times when you willed so furiously that I could sense your whereabouts in the house. Your will prowled with you, rumbling like a tiger, voracious. I felt it and it consumed my peace, but it also inspired my verse. Watching you and your errors, I learned to understand the world, and I wrote in my Great Book:
The sky is everlasting, and the earth is very old.
Why? Because the world exists not for itself.
The wise one chooses to be last, and so becomes the first of all;
Denying self, the wise one finds fulfillment in unselfishness.
I said it to you too, but it was so long, so very long, before you seemed to hear.
Yield, she kept saying. It is the yielding and the giving up of will which would be my salvation, but yielding was simply not in my nature. There was far too much I wanted, needed. I said I'd rather die, and she answered, cruelly, "You've been dead for a while now". But she was wrong. She had no idea how alive she made me feel when she stood close to me. How exquisitely aware I was of her in the morning sunshine. She smelled of sandalwood and of the mint we both had drunk that morning. Her Asian eyes were deep and dark and she held secrets behind those lids. I wanted to reach out and touch them, but since the day she had breathed a little of her life into me, she had not touched me, and so I didn't dare. But I think she knew something of my thoughts, of the urges, which simmered beneath the surface. Sometimes out of nowhere in a quiet room, she looked over at me with an expression of weariness and gently said, "Xena, you must learn the meaning of no."
Yielding and emptiness were the themes of her life, and they showed up even in the names she gave things. There was a cat, long-haired and sleek, that had the run of the house. Lao Ma called it 'Kiung' or 'emptiness'. She never asked its whereabouts or made a fuss over it, or even seem to notice its presence in the room, but she stroked it absentmindedly whenever it came near. It seemed to be her attitude toward all things, to take them as they came, to let the forces of nature move around her with neither attraction nor aversion. And the cat itself seemed to embody the peace she always spoke of, always finding the spot of sunlight in a room, or dozing in the garden.
And so the days passed and in the harmony of her house and of her presence I did learn a sort of superficial quiet, if not passivity. I watched her wield a kind of power I had never seen before. With deceptive lightness she issued orders, ran the household together with Zheng Ha, ran the kingdom, in the name of Laotse, and in spite of her softness, her authority remained unquestioned. I saw them often in consultation. She walked gracefully along the corridors or the terrace and spoke softly; he matched her steps, his hands clasped behind his back, nodding his head in agreement or shaking it in dissent. She clearly valued his opinion and his presence seemed to make the absence of her husband less obvious.
I saw him finally, at a distance, sitting at the other end of the garden. Zheng Ha stood at his side and seemed to be in conversation with him. But Laotse did not move, and if he spoke it was without gesture or animation. I thought I smelled conspiracy. Zheng Ha as a spy for Laotse, perhaps? I would soon find out.
* * * * *
You had been there for a cycle of the a moon and the day finally came when I trusted you enough to take you to Laotse. To show you that one could rule a kingdom and still follow the Way. I brought you to his quarters where he lay, immobilized, in his silken finery, as befitted a king and sage. His ancestors had made him a king but it was I who had made him a sage.
"How do you manage to fool the whole household?" you asked. I told you that Zheng Ha helped me to carry out the ruse. He carried Laotse to the garden from time to time where he could be seen, and the 'orders' Zheng Ha carried out in the palace were ostensibly from his master, not from me. And thus, with the help of a comatose man and a eunuch, I ruled a kingdom.
You were pleased that I controlled the Kingdom of Lao, but could not fathom why I had done every thing in his name. Especially when I showed you my book of musings, HIS book the world would think, the Tao Te Ching You were horrified that I was willing to credit my wisdom to Laotse. I told you, and as I said it, it wrote it down:
The sage teaches not by speech, but by accomplishment
And what the wise one brings to pass
Depends on no one else.
Succeeding, the wise one takes no credit
And since credit is not taken
It can never be lost.
Fame is the sparkle on the surface of the water that lasts only as long as the sun is in a certain place. When the light moves, as it always does, all that is left is the water. You must be the water, still and deep.
You seemed surprised to learn that Ming Tien was my child. As if that meant anything. He had my flesh and blood, but none of my spirit. The ties of blood, it seems, are no less fragile than any others. I do not know if you will ever have son, Xena. If you do, I hope you will let him go his own way. But you had not behaved well with children and I could not imagine you as anyone's mother. And so we dropped the subject.
You were far more interested in what I wrote in my book, and so I sat you down with me later that day with brush and ink and tried to teach you the characters for fire, water, and wood. 'Fire' I painted and you proudly painted 'fire'. 'Water' I painted, and you painted 'wood'. 'Wood' I painted, and you dutifully copied 'wood'. 'Water' I painted again, and again you painted 'wood'. It seems you had the fire and the hardness in your skill, but you could not learn the character of 'water'.
* * * * * *
But you were learning to listen. I recall vividly the afternoon we sat in the garden and I told you how I had learned the Tao. How I had been sent as a courtesan at the age of 15 to the court of Ming Tzu and thus fell into his hands. It took me years to learn the art of withdrawal from him. Withdrawal, not from his hands, but from caring about his hands. I grew from fear and loathing to indifference and by the time he sold me to be the bride of the aging and cruel Laotse I had both born him a son and forgiven him everything. I was at peace with the flow of things, and acted only when it seemed the harmony would be greater for it. That was the hardest for you to grasp, that I held power not because I wanted it. When I learned pressure points it and used the skill to render Laotse comatose, it was not to steal and enjoy his sovereignty, but to bring his kingdom back into balance and 'rightness' from the disruptions his cruelty had caused.
While I spoke of peace and the flow of things, do you recall you traced your finger around the embroidered pattern on my robe where it lay over my ankles? I found your touch provocative, but I could not bring myself to brush your hand away. Besides, you seemed to make a point. You asked why a woman's robe would be embroidered with bats. I explained that the word for bat was "pian fu" and the spoken word "fu" was also the word for good fortune, and was thought lucky as a symbol. You replied that bats were creatures of darkness and did I think to find good fortune in the dark? We both laughed then, but there was a germ of truth in your remark. You knew I sat in candle lit rooms writing verse while you lived outdoors, and chased the setting sun on horseback. Sometimes it seemed you were all light and I was all shadow.
You were a difficult student for you asked disturbing questions with your foreign ideas. You asked me whether the Tao left room for love and I answered that where love was craving it was not the Way. Your reply was harsh
"I think you have found peace, Lao Ma, but never passion."
"Passion, that western disease", I said disdainfully. "That longing and wringing of hands is an illusion created by your culture, not by mine."
"Have you never loved anyone?"
All I could do was repeat myself. "The love you speak of is an illusion".
You insisted with your barbarian simplicity "Love is as real as this tree", and you laid your hand on the wood. I had no answer for you and to escape you, fell to writing again.
* * * * * *
I often watched Lao Ma writing her verses but the images in which she wrote them were a great mystery to me. These people have no alphabet! They paint with bamboo brushes and make jagged little splashes in the shapes of houses or stick figures, with wings and feet. The little splashes form a pattern, and the pattern is a word, or part of a word. And the scribes paint the patterns in a row, from top to bottom, in lines that cross the page from right to left like flowering vines hanging down a wall. They make an art of it, writing their poems on pictures, and they care as much about appearances as about the thought. I tried to learn a few of the brush pictures, just to please her, but always made a mess of it.
I wanted to make a gift to her and so I went one morning with a brush and ink to the garden, to practice the word pictures. I remember the way the sunlight fell on the side of my face and warmed me as I sat in our favorite place between the quince trees. I practiced diligently, laboring to make the character for water, with delicate sideways flicks of the brush instead of the hard downward strokes. In a way it was her character I painted, or tried to paint. I hoped Lao Ma would come to me and read her latest verses, or write them, or simply talk, but the only creature to join me was the cat Kiung. She came out regally from beneath a flowering bush and petals stuck to her furry head and shoulders as she did a long cat-stretch and then tiptoed toward me like a maiden garlanded for spring. She groomed herself with concentration and then curled up next to me, adding another layer of peace to the already quiet grove. But if the garden was peaceful, my mind was not. I had thought most of the night about what Lao Ma had said and felt torn between the two ways of thinking. She seemed so at peace, her kingdom prosperous and cultured - surely that was a worthy way of life. Why was it so difficult for me to give up struggling? What was I struggling toward?
I heard a sound behind me and spun around. Had I been carrying a weapon the fool who stood there might have forfeited his life. But it was just the eunuch Zheng Ha, carrying the bamboo scrolls of the household accounts. He bowed politely, looked over at the scroll on which I had made an inky mess and spoke in his womanly voice.
"I see the Lady Xena practices our writing. You honor us. Will you allow me to show you an easier way to apply the ink?"
I nodded, distrustful, and handed him the brush. "You simply have too much ink to start," he said. "And if you create the character from top to bottom and from right to left, the strokes will not run together. Here, try it again", and he gave me a nearly dry brush. To my surprise, a decent character for 'water' appeared. Then with his assistance I wrote 'earth' and 'heaven' 'man' and 'woman'. I was very pleased with myself.
"Show me the character for 'Tao', I said.
"Ah, yes. Lao Ma would like that, if you learned to write 'The Way'. But it is not difficult if you remember that it is an image of simplest life in simplest motion. Look, here is the cow." The brush traced out a vertical oblong shape, and two diagonal lines within. "Here are the head and horns". (Well, it looked to me like a roof with broken chimneys.) "And here on the left is the stroke for movement". He painted an L shape with a long curved foot. "You see, it is just the essence of things, a beast walking along a curving path."
"What a strange people are the Chinese", I said. "They can't even write a simple word without making a philosophy out of it!". But his instruction had made the character come to life and in fact, I copied it accurately.
"Splendid" Zheng Ha said. "Now you grasp the Tao!" Then he added, "I would not venture to write your difficult Greek."
"Oh, then you know who I am".
"I know only what Lao Ma trusts to tell me. She has told me of your origin, but she has not told me why you are so restless and angry -- and bitter."
"How do you know about my feelings? Have you been watching me?"
"Not in the way you mean. Not secretly, or with a bad intent. I know you are important to Lao Ma. What is important to Lao Ma is important to her chief servant."
"Well, I am restless from being in this quiet house. And I am angry because of my infirmity. I sense people watching me as I limp and smiling at me behind my back or worse, pitying me. I am bitter because of the harm done to my legs, to me, when I was helpless."
"I doubt that people laugh more at you than they do at me. But harm was done to me as well, when I was just a boy of ten. If I dwelled on that I would be mad. But you can accept your situation, not out of weakness but out of .common sense. You can turn with it, as a fighter turns with a blow to the body, absorb the force and let it become part of the motion of your life. I have used my own...deficiency in such a way. I do not have a wife or children, but I have the House of Lao, and the trust of Lao Ma, and I have brought myself far from the village of my ancestors. "
"I've heard you're all conspirators."
He smiled. "Well, perhaps it's true. But conspiracies are treacherous only if you are not part of them. But the current conspiracy concerns your rescue and redemption. I believe that makes you a co-conspirator, does it not?"
I found myself smiling as well. "Well then you can end your conspiracy now. I needed to be rescued from Ming Tzu and that's done now. Redemption is not called for."
"Perhaps Lao Ma feels that your spirit needs rescue too. Why don't you give it to her for a while. Let her lighten your burden. It is clear that you love Lao Ma. I see the way you look at her. No one in the house would dare look at her that way. I don't know why she permits it. Perhaps she wants your love and has great hopes for it."
We spoke much longer sitting there in the garden, with Kiung dozing in the sun. I do not remember all of what we said, but I remember how the conversation ended. Zheng Ha said that I should stay a while, listen to Lao Ma's message and learn "to walk a different way". When I had gotten from her what she wanted to give me, I should go back to my own land.
Home? Back to Greece, on my twisted legs? I had not thought of Amphipolis for two years. And I was certain that it never thought of me.
Zheng Ha walked away, as gracefully as the cat which followed him, and I was left alone again wrestling with my thoughts.
* * * * * *
It was midday by then and still Lao Ma had not come to the garden. I became drowsy from the warmth and, tired of wrestling with my thoughts I laid my head back on my arm. My eyes wandered across the sky and over to the wooden gateway where Kiung often perched. I noticed a fringe of her long fur waving gently in the faint breeze. Of course, I thought to myself, she leaves bits of her luxurious fur on every pillow in the house, why not in the garden as well? I was about to shut my eyes when I noticed a bird light on the gate. It hopped along the wood gathering the fringe of delicate cat hairs in its beak and then fluttered off into a tree to line its nest with the fur of its mortal enemy. And its chicks would be warmed by the coat of the cat that might one day devour them. Perhaps that's what Lao Ma meant by the circularity of things. I sat up again, pleased with my new wisdom, and saw more cat hair on the grass. She has beauty enough to spare, I thought, and she leaves it everywhere. So did Lao Ma. Suddenly I wanted to be with her and I roused myself to go and look for her. I found her working miracles.
She was in the court yard where a mule drawn wagon led by a young man had pulled up before the door. An old woman was lying in it, coughing weakly with a sickness of the lungs Lao Ma pulled her to a sitting position and laid her hands on the woman's back, barely touching her. Over and over again she moved her hands over the stooping back, speaking murmurs of assurance. Gradually the woman seemed to straighten up a little, and her breathing was less labored. Finally she coughed a few wet and noisy coughs, and took a deep clear breath. Then without a word she climbed off the wagon, bowed politely and then left the courtyard with the mule, the wagon and the boy.
Then a man burnt on one side of his face and shoulder, hobbled over carrying a whimpering shivering child who was also burnt. Lao Ma took the child and held him, stroking her hand over the injured side of his body without touching it. She kissed the child's forehead and murmured to him. The change was faint at first, and only the blisters seemed to shrink. But then I saw that the redness also began to fade and when the child stopped whimpering she handed him back to his father. The father, himself clearly in pain, bowed gratefully, and asked if she could heal him too. But she only touched him delicately on the shoulder and told him to keep himself clean so the wounds could close, for she could not help him further. When they went out of the court yard I asked her, "How do you decide who to heal? Do you only heal the worthy?" Her answer surprised me, and after what I had just seen, I wasn't sure I believed her.
"No, I cannot heal everyone. Only those who have half healed themselves, who are in harmony and balance. Those I can bring along the path a little further. The father could not be healed by me. He was bitter and desperate because he had lost his wife, and soon he will sell the child because he cannot work. But the child himself was at peace, not knowing the problems that lie ahead, and I could bring him back to himself."
My next question was the obvious one. "Will you heal my legs?"
"You mean you won't".
"No. I cannot. You are not ready. Too much in you is broken and twisted with anger."
"When will I be ready?"
"I don't know."
* * * * *
That evening I went riding furious with frustration on the stallion Tai Feng. There was a bright moon to light the road and so I rode late into the night, not returning for the evening meal. On Tai Feng I felt powerful and I was sorely tempted to keep on riding. I could easily have killed a farmer and taken all I needed for provender, and killed a soldier for weapons. And while I was killing, I could settle matters with Ming Tzu, and then ride back to the steppes. Nothing to stop me. Nothing. Only a woman who spoke in mysteries.
The thought of her drained me of my murderous intent and slowly brought me to a halt. With a vague and haunting sense that there was unfinished business, I turned the horse around and rode back to the palace.
When I returned, I heard sounds in the stable. I dismounted outside, slipped in and saw by the light of a lantern Liu Ling with one of the servant girls. She sat on a sack of oats, straddling him as he leaned between her legs and thrust grunting into her. She faced me but her eyes were closed and what I had heard were her cries of pleasure. I watched for several minutes and remembered Borias, and as much as I hated him, I craved him urgently then, recalling us together on the back of his horse. I left the young lovers uninterrupted and crept into the house and into my bed. I fell asleep hating my loneliness, hating Lao Ma for somehow being responsible for it. I dreamt, of course, of sex, not out on the steppes, but under water. My lover thrusting into me, but not Borias. Someone in silk.
* * * * * *
There was so much to show you. You tried to conceal it, but I could see that you were awestruck by the Kingdom of Lao. Your life had been so chaotic, you had had no leisure and probably never cared to see how a state is organized. You had hunted, or herded, or stolen all your life and had not even grasped the necessity of rice and grain fields to feed a people. But you were much amused by the silkworm farms where the larvae are cultivated and the silk thread unwound and you poked at the larvae with your finger. You were more impressed, as you should have been by the foundry, in which we poured molten iron into wet sand molds to create pots and other objects. Cast iron we called it, and you said it was unknown to the Greeks, who used bronze for almost everything. But your face really shone as you watched the blades being hammered in the forge. It was a harder kind of iron than the west had, and it held a sharp edge longer than the blades you had. The blatant hunger on your face, I knew, was not for all our handsome iron pots and shovels, but for an arsenal of good Chinese steel. I would have given you such a blade as a gift if I was not certain you would soon use it on some poor Chinese head.
On another day I took you north. We stopped halfway to our goal so that I could show you our jails, less hideous places in Lao than elsewhere. In the name of benevolent Laotse I had ordered them kept dry, had abolished execution by torture and the severing of hands and feet for theft. You seemed less impressed by this than appalled by the cangues, the wooden yokes which the criminals had worn, on which their crimes were inscribed. I assured you that these too had been abolished in Lao, but for some reason you could not take your eyes from them.
When the days were warm and bright, Lao Ma showed me around the Kingdom of Lao. She was proud of her land and people and had such hopes for them. For the shorter trips, such as to the grain fields, I walked with the other women alongside of her palanquin. But with my crippled gait we could not go far or fast, nor could I easily speak to her, so for the longer trips, we both rode mounted. Her status as a ruler's wife required an escort of cavalrymen which would not have bothered me. But they carried halberds and these reminded me uncomfortably of the armed escort to my almost execution in the nearby woods. It was another one of the vicious little circles that life seemed to be full of.
She showed me the industry of her kingdom, on the eastern side the silk farm with its mulberry groves, and the village of silk weavers. On the western side, the stone cutters and the foundry, where I saw a new kind of iron, heated in blast furnaces and hammered into axeblades and swords. Such blades were harder and finer than any I had ever seen, even in Greece, and I was determined to have one, no matter what it took.
But in the north, most impressive of all, was the seemingly endless Great Wall. Even from a great distance, we could see it snake along the hilltops. As we came up close, its design and its workings became clear. Brick towers or command posts within sight of one another were connected by earthworks as high as an arrow could reach. Mail was delivered to and from the command posts, and records kept. There were well secured gates where guards inspected passports and monitored traffic in both directions for contraband. I laughed when Lao Ma told me the wall was being built to keep out people like Borias and me, since we had lived on land much farther west of there, and had never seen the wall. On schedule or in an emergency, the towers exchanged signals with smoke and colored flags. The watch towers had several stories, the top ones designed for watching enemy movements and the lower ones for storing food or military equipment. Some parts of the towers were devoted to the manufacture of arrows for the soldiers or bricks for maintenance of the wall, or for the keeping of guard dogs. In the dead of winter, she told me, conscripts or released prisoners were sent for garrison duty, but in warmer weather mostly it was veterans and mercenaries, paid by taxes or payments of those who bought themselves free from military service. Such complicated organization, but it all made sense, I guess.
We climbed to the top and looked out over the vast panorama of China. The day was clear except for distant thunderclouds, a blue-gray horizontal hovering over the green expanse. Lines of geese flew across the landscape, like a Chinese poem painted on the sky. Lao Ma stood slightly in front of me in her red coat and fur rimmed red cap. She pointed out the Kingdoms of Lao and Ming, and the other principalities farther off, and then she turned around to face me. The wind had reddened her cheeks slightly and blown stray hairs out from under her cap. After a moment I felt her finger tips touch mine and she said, "Stay with me, Xena. Be my warrior princess and rule this land with me." I looked at the land of Chin over her shoulder and then at her. She was China and China was Lao Ma. For long moments I looked, and wavered. And then I told her to stand behind me so that I could see the land without seeing her, without being tempted. Because the beauty of them together was too much and I feared losing myself to the mystery in both of them, and never going home.
* * * * * *
We might have gone on for years in such indecision, wrestling for each other's souls. You would not surrender to me, but you would not leave me either, although by then it would have been easy enough, on Tai Feng or one of the other horses. But fate sometimes turns on a pin, or on a roll of the dice.
It was another rainy day, and we sat on the terrace because we could not go into the garden. I loved the rain but you did not. You said it reminded you of too many freezing days on the steppes, of sopping felt and mud-caked boots. But watching the water flow in rivulets from the roofs to gather in pools in the garden made me pensive and on those days I often wrote in my Great Book. On this day too you sat by my side watching me as I dipped the brush in the ink and jotted out the verse. I loved to recite it to you, and you said you enjoyed hearing it, although I knew it was more the sound that moved you than the sentiment. But for me the words were critical, for they held my world together.
Nameless indeed is the source of creation
The secret waits for the insight
Of eyes unclouded by longing;
Those who are bound by desire
See only outlines and illusions.
I would like to have stopped time and sat with you there forever. Writing verse while you were near me and watching the spring rain, with 'eyes unclouded by longing'. It was the closest we ever came to being at peace together. But the demons in you would not rest for long, and soon they emerged again.
* * * * *
I watched her write her wisdom and I thought, this woman does not recite epics before an audience, like the Greeks , but in her own way she is a bard. There is a common thread that ties them all together -- the ones who think and write. If any are to be cherished and trusted it is these, the caretakers of the language and history, and our best thoughts.
I admired her, and loved watching her, but as the afternoon wore on I became bored.
"Lets play a game of dice" I suggested, innocently, "and make a wager". She laughed softly. "What have you to risk, Xena? Everything you have is mine already. And for my part, there is nothing I have I wouldn't give you anyhow. What is there to wager?"
It doesn't have to be for objects. We can wager service. If you win I will hunt a tiger for you. Or steal horses from your enemies. Or steal your enemies and bring them captive".
"Xena, that's what got you into trouble in the first place, if you recall."
I shrugged, and you suggested that we simply wager service. The loser had to accept the demand of the winner, regardless of how distasteful. I agreed to the terms and rolled the dice.
I had forgotten that she could control objects. What a fool I was. It must have been child's play for her that day.
So I asked, innocently, "What service do you demand? The tiger? Or the horses?"
Her answer sent shivers down my spine.
"My demand is that you stop hating for one afternoon and serve Ming Tzu."
" I had thought more of something personal, like washing your feet."
"My feet do not need washing, but that your anger needed resting".
Well, I was the one who suggested the wager in the first place, so I consented.
The next day he came, and I did serve him although I despised him. But for a brief time I stopped caring, and looking down at him from behind I simply saw a man ruling his kingdom by his best judgment and trying to teach his child how to do the same. I saw his flaws, the loose threads on his silk coat, the gray hair in his pigtail, his constant correction of the child. It allowed me to stand just inches from him with a sharp knife and not plunge it into him, in spite of his insults. This feeling passed, as soon as he was gone, and once again I recalled a sadistic man who had hunted me for sport. Still, for a brief period, I had held my hand and kept my will in check. Lao Ma was proud of me, and so pleased with her first victory that she decided to reward me.
She said: "I watched you struggle with yourself, but the softness, the quiet won out. Even if it was only because you lost the gamble, you served him. What would you have demanded of me if you had won? To serve you? I will do it, whatever you ask. I am not afraid of service, or of giving you any gift you might ask for." She was clearly not prepared for my answer.
"I would have demanded that you lie with me."
I recall she stood some distance from me, fearing to come closer, or even look at me. She just stared in the direction of the setting sun and answered, "That is an odd thing to demand".
"Why is it odd?" I asked. I remember the entire conversation. I can hear the trembling in her voice even now.
"That you should want a woman. You belonged to Borias."
"That was different. Very different."
"A thousand ways."
She still would not look at me.
"I've never been with a woman. In my heart I have never even really been with a man. I was Ming Tzu's plaything. It was not very pleasant. And then I was sold to Laotse. That was inconsequential. In neither case was I willing. Is that what you want?"
"No. I want you to want me."
"You can't have that. To desire you would be to destroy what I have worked so long for. You demand too much, Xena. " She ran her hand nervously down the front of her gown, as if wiping something from it. It was gesture I had never seen on her before.
"Then I withdraw the demand. I have no other. The game is over."
I walked out of the room, angry at her rejection, wanting to love her and hurt her at the same time. I was always the barbarian, even in silk and slippers.
* * * * * *
I went to my own bedroom, trying to calm myself. You had done more to me than you could know by your demand, even though you had withdrawn it. I would say you had cut me to the heart, but in fact, it was my living heart you had suddenly made me aware of, for it ached within my chest. You were only a few rooms away and I swear I could hear the sound of you combing out your hair, and the rustle of your silk nightgown. I barred my door to keep you out and lit all my candles to keep away your ghost. In my sleeping robe I sat down on the floor to meditate. With ferocious determination I tore all thoughts of you out of my mind, hollowed out my heart and gave myself over to the emptiness of the night. No will, no will. I thought I would be free, cleansed of all caring, as I had so often done in the past, when Ming Tzu embraced me, or the feeble Laotse. I waited for peace and rightness and the cleansing kiung. But when I opened my eyes I saw the candles flickering out, one by one, until all were extinguished by my anguish. I sat shivering in the dark, tears trickling down my face.
How you had broken me.
Defeated, I stood up, unbarred the door and with naked feet I crept like an assassin through my own house back to you.
You were sitting in your blue robe and it seemed you had been brooding the whole time, perhaps sending your will like a trail of opium smoke curling down the hall to ensnare me. Something had taken hold of me, and I was helpless in it's power, and I stood there enthralled. I said, weakly "You left your hairpin in my room" and held it out to you. You took the carved hairpin, studied the bird's head for a moment and laid it on your table. At that moment I could have died of fear and shame. Fear of what was seizing me, and shame for the part of me that it laid bare. For it was not just my body that you uncovered when you opened both our gowns and took me in your arms. I leaned my weight on you, every particle of me corrupt with wanting you, with needing you to do... I didn't know what. But you would know...and I would let you do it. You were so ardent, I felt your heat wherever you touched me. I had borne one man a child and espoused another, but no man, nothing had ever touched me thus. Wetness flowed from me as if my sex were weeping, with joy, with sorrow at my capitulation, I don't know. We turned in a circle, in a slow somnambulant dance. "Show me, Xena", I whispered and waited, trembling, for you to overpower me. But all you did was whisper back, "Do you want me, Lao Ma?"
"Yes, you know I do."
"Tell me what it is you want."
"I want you....to do what you desire."
And then you backed away from me, you demon. "No, that's not good enough. You're going to have to want me more than that."
Bewildered, I walked towards you and you backed off again.
"What are you doing, Xena?" I asked and reached out for you.
"I am teaching you, Lao Ma. I am teaching you to want." And you walked out of the room, closing the door behind you. Angry at your presumptuousness, I kicked it open, and followed you down the hall. You didn't run, for of course you were not fleeing, only tormenting me. But I was furious with humiliation. I had surrendered to you, had thrown away my whole philosophy for you, and you would not even accept my surrender.
"Stop, Xena. Don't do this to me". I thought I heard you laughing.
I followed you out onto our terrace, lit only by the moon. My writing tools were there and in the darkness I kicked over the ink pot, spilling the ink over the floor. It would stain the polished wood, and ruin its pristine purity. The thought of it increased my fury at you. You had destroyed my peace, disrupted my household, had made me a ravening wolf, and now you walked away from me. You were already at the other side of the terrace, catching the blue gray moonlight on your fluttering robe. Enough, I thought.
"This is Lao Ma's kiss!" I said and threw you to the floor with all my mind's force. I didn't want to hurt you; I just wanted you to stop. Well, perhaps I wanted to hurt you just a little. You lay still, stunned I thought, that I would go so far. I came to you and forced myself on you, pinning you beneath me.
My own verse came to haunt me. "Who can withstand the raging flood," I thought, as I covered your yielding mouth with mine, and let you feel my teeth. I had no idea how to do it, how to still my lust on you, for until that moment I had not even known what lust was. And so I just bit and scratched and thrust against you, forcing open your legs with my knee. I felt heat spreading from the center of my sex and consuming all the rest of me. Oh, Xena, my once soaring inspiration had shrunk to a white hot pulsing between my legs, between your legs. As a poet I was undone.... for as I once burned in spirit, now I burned in you. It was a kind of rape, but I was not the rapist. For while I forced you physically, subduing you while I satisfied my craving, it was you who had taken away my innocence. And you knew it, Xena. For at the end, when I felt myself exploding with sensations I had never known existed, you joined me and we coupled on the floor, in bitter consummation, finally collapsing in each other's arms.
Perfidious woman. Stealer of children. Stealer of souls.
We lay awhile on the hard wooden floor in crumpled robes and stained with ink, until passion subsided and we realized the awfulness of what had happened. Then you softened, Xena, and came back to me. Realizing I suppose that you had total power over me, you gave up struggling, gave up confrontation, and offered me your own surrender. "I am sorry" you said. "Come back to my room, Lao Ma. Please. I will show you how gentle it can be." Of course I went; I was helpless in your hands. We made love again the way you promised and tried to reverse the act of violence we had both committed. And in the last hours before the dawn, we fell into an exhausted sleep.
I woke before you as the light began to fill your room. I looked at your sharp features finally in repose and decided the precious moment had arrived. I woke you, and resisted your efforts to make love again. I needed to use the contentment that you felt, for it was the closest you had ever come to the Tao. It would not last, I feared; such balance was so precarious with you, like an acrobat held aloft by another. I brought you to the room where I often meditated and laid you on the mat. We both still smelled of love and sex, and it was all I could do to not touch you amorously. I swept my hands along your legs, not touching, but remembering them, for I had recently caressed them with my lips. I remembered the silk and the warm skin below and I sensed the blood filled muscles and the crooked bones. Each time I swept my hands over them the wrongness of them gave way a little, the stiffness became pliable, the obstinacy crumbled. I made a space for you, and let you find the rightness of yourself while you were soft and unresisting. Again and again I touched you with my mind, ever deeper, into the very marrow of your bones I went. When I felt your perfect legs, I stood up and called you to me.
I knew it all along. Since the day in the yurt camp I knew a demon lived behind those eyes of hers, and that night, by moonlight on the terrace, it took possession of us both. She threw me down and had me. Had me with a fury I never expected. No man had ever taken me that way; I would have killed him. But feeling her hunger, feeling her Asian composure give way to panting animal want,-- that excited me. I could not see her face, only the sheen on her black hair, and I heard her breathing through clenched teeth. I thrashed beneath her iron grip, but she was extraordinarily strong, and where she scratched me she drew blood.
But it was I who had called up her devils and I submitted to them. Her fury freed me from my; own, lifted the burden I had carried since Caesar. Zheng Ha was right. Submitting to her gave me the first peace I had known in the land of Chin, although she paid for it, I knew, with the loss of her own. When we came to our senses, I was filled with regret for what I had done, and I made love to her again in the quiet of my room in the way Greek women sometimes do. For a short time, for a brief morning hour, I felt release, like floating in water, timeless.
She knew it and not only did she make no recriminations, she took the peace of that moment to heal my broken legs.
I felt her hands flowing over me and it was like the return of air after suffocation. Air that I never noticed I was breathing. It was the nothingness of rightness, of normalcy, the quiet after pain. That was what she meant by the loss of illusion, by the finding of the Way.
I couldn't quite believe it and I leapt to my feet to feel them straight again.
It was incredible. I was healed, I was whole, I was myself again. I was dizzy with joy when she wrapped me in silk and spun me up into the air. We turned together in the air and I barely touched her, only putting my carved hairpin into her hair, but it was better than love; it WAS our love. I felt her aching happiness at the same time I felt mine. Light shone off her face as it must have shone off mine. So must the sun feel rising, and the moon emerging from behind night clouds. It was our truest consummation, the completion of the act that started with her kiss of breath to me.
I had imagined it wrong. I thought to teach you the wisdom of Wu Wei, of the solace of emptiness. But our sweetest moment was full of movement. We were yin and yang, turning in the air, the universe in microcosm. For those brief moments we spiraled in the Tao, and it was your wild joy that brought us there. You leapt into a somersault and then spun in to my arms. We knew love without want and were so light we hovered the air. I came to you and felt your spirit mold to mine; you swelled and I curved around you. We danced the spiral dance and for the briefest moment we were one.
And then Borias came into the room, and you fell from paradise. The anger that exploded suddenly in you broke the spell and you fell to the floor, sputtering in rage.
Gone, all gone. In an instant.
I should have told you that I had sent for him. But that was days before, just after we had been up on Great Wall. You said you would not stay with me in China and so I sought another way to make you happy. I would reconcile you with him, conclude an alliance with the nomads and Ming Tzu and find some place for Borias in the court. It was a lovely plan, to let you be with him and still not lose you.
I had not reckoned with the power of your wanting me, with your claiming me on your own terms, and with the unexpected meeting of two great forces -- yours and mine -- like jets of water colliding and suspending in the air. But with the weight of Borias we were back to earth again. Worse, you fell to pummeling him, though his crimes had been no worse than yours. After separating you I left you both together like belligerent children, telling you to reconcile for necessity's sake.
When I returned an hour later, I did not recognize you.
You and Borias were grinning like devils. Did you think I did not know you coupled with him on my floor? And so soon after having me. You were gone from my world then, Xena. You were wild again.
You agreed to offer Ming Tzu an apology, to let him save face, but not because you saw the wisdom of it. I had misgivings about letting you confront him, and should have acted on them, but did not see the vengeance in your eyes. Another wheel was turning. What folly for you to suggest gambling with him, just because you -- or I -- could control the dice. What folly for me to permit it. Even winning you lost all. You made him lose face again, and when he protested, you murdered him before his son. Oh Xena, you took the harmony of my house and of my kingdom and brought it crashing down.
There was nothing for it but to give you your favorite horse and let you go. And you left, cruelly, without ever looking back. My border guards reported that you and Borias camped a few li's away and the next morning rode on towards the port on the Yellow Sea. So I knew you had gone home again.
But I was not free of you. I was never free of you again.
When Lao Ma left, the peace left with her. Borias knelt in front of me bringing back all the old emotions, the old battles of the field and of the bed. If I couldn't beat him to a pulp, I could fuck him senseless. It always worked. He bent to my will in all his barbarian masculinity. Suddenly I wanted to go home. And Borias was as much home as I knew. He was without mystery or subtlety; he tried to teach me nothing. But an hour in bed with him was like a gallop across the steppes; climaxing was like slashing with the sword and lopping off enemy heads. I always did like a good kill, I had just forgotten how much like sex it was. Lao Ma had underestimated me. She said I was all wood, obstinate and hard. But she forgot about the fire.
Borias and I could have left immediately; there was nothing to stop us, but I felt I owed it to Lao Ma to straighten things out with Ming Tzu. I seemed to be the object of their dissent and I thought I could settle things before leaving. So I swallowed my pride, and groveled before him
But it wasn't enough. The whiny bastard wanted to reclaim me as his property, and rather than butcher him right away I offered the entertainment of a gamble. I thought by then I had mastered enough of Lao Ma's skill to control the dice, and if I couldn't, certainly she could. And so, of course, I won.
But rage feeds on rage and the more Ming Tzu protested the more he threw his life away. For I was free, uncaged and stood on healthy legs. Seizing the sword from where I'd hidden it, I closed my circle with Ming Tzu. One thrust was all it took, with fine Chinese steel. "Kill them all," I thought again as the old familiar bloodlust came over me, and if Lao Ma hadn't thrown me against the wall, I'd have gotten Ming Tien as well. But sometimes we are the lesser wheel and the greater wheel turns. Lao Ma protected her child, as she had to, - and saved the life of her executioner.
She made the choice she had to make, and I made mine. Xena the barbarian was back, with will and weapon, and powerful warrior's legs. And it was time to take them home.
* * * * * *
Borias and I rode unhindered and unhurried out from the stable yard, I on Tai Feng and he on his own horse, Kahn. At the gate, as we passed Zheng Ha, he looked at me with an unreadable expression and slowly bowed. At first I thought it was sarcastic, but I knew that sarcasm was not his manner. More likely he simply bowed to my decision to leave. For a brief moment I found myself between them, on one side of me Borias, bursting with virility and on the other Zheng Ha, the eunuch. Lao Ma's emptiness. It was such an easy choice to make. I nodded back at him and thought I saw him smile, but who knows. I hoped he would take care of Lao Ma. I still cared for her deeply, and I was abandoning her to the consequences of the killing of Ming Tzu. Well, she had her army, and all her powers, and I was of no use to her now. I was still a savage compared to her, but I knew enough to love her and value what she did. She had just come into my life too soon. A few years later, maybe, I would be ready for the influence of a philosopher. But not just then. I had a lot of carnage left in me.
As Borias and I galloped together eastward, to the Yellow Sea, I felt a sort of animal freedom, blood pulsing through the veins of my healthy legs. The robust new part of me craved him, and every night we satisfied our lust. And afterwards, when we drank the airag, the fermented mare's milk, it's sourness seemed a part of his roughness and of the wild outdoors.
But my mind was in turmoil. What had I left behind? What was I returning to?
Dreams and images haunted me, night after night. Mostly of Lao Ma. Not of our lovemaking, but of our turning in the air and of her writing in her book, the delicate winged character of water. And I dreamt of the rounded doorway to her bedroom, with the pattern that came to be her pattern. Later, when I came to carry the chakram, my own 'vicious circle', I had it imprinted with that pattern.. I doubt she would appreciate the irony of my carrying her sign on a murderous weapon, but I keep it nonetheless and when I carry it she hovers at the edge of my consciousness like a guardian spirit.
And I dreamt of the faces of Ming Tzu and Ming Tien, the child whose voice I never heard. But in the dream he spoke.
The Chinese believe in ghosts. I do not, but the ghost of Ming Tzu, whom I had killed, seemed to visit me. His skin was milky white against the purple silk of his robe. He hissed at me "Destroyer of children!" and when I answered "But Ming Tien lives", he opened his robe to show me the child he sheltered there. I looked closer and I saw it was a little girl, with the round eyes of my own people. And the girl child spoke to me in my own language, sobbing in a little girl's voice, "Why?"
The last dream I had at sea, before China faded from my sight and my mind, was of a scene off in the distance, far behind me; a cow lumbering along a winding country path.
* * * * *
When you left it was only my armies and the reputation of Laotse that kept me safe from retribution. Ming Tzu was buried in the tomb of his ancestors and the Kingdom of Ming was ruled by his brothers acting as regents. Ming Tien, who watched you kill his father -- and never acknowledged that he had a mother -- grew in hatred and cruelty all the years of his minority. But last year he came of age and assumed the rule and now the Green Dragon has grown powerful.
Although he carries the title of Emperor now, there is unrest in his house. He trusts no one, and his fears of assassins and conspiracy are well justified. He has arrested hundreds of his own subjects and keeps them in his sewers, their heads locked in cangues. Or else he executes them horribly, making a show of it and instilling fear in every one. I fear him too, and try to keep my kingdom safe from him, by negotiations, or bribery, or the threat of force
Someone must kill him before he has issue.
I have sent four messengers to you, hoping one will find you. I fear it could take many cycles of the moon before you come, of you ever come at all. Oh, how I long to see you again.
Do you see what you have done to me? The terrace floor is still stained where I kicked over the ink. All the water we poured over it would not wash it out. You have marked my home, Xena, as you have marked me. I have had my peaceful moments too, in the course of the years, and the inspirations of these times are set down in my Great Book. Some of my best philosophy is written out of longing for you, or rather to purify myself of longing, as one runs fastest out of the greatest fear. I have had the book copied by my scribes for I want the world to have it. I wonder what posterity would say to know that half of it is inspired by my cravings for a barbarian woman.
* * * * * *
I have been arrested by my own son. He has searched for years for reasons to imprison me, and now he has one. He has intercepted three of the messengers I dispatched, and managed by torture to find out that I have sent for you. I have been convicted of conspiring with the enemy, Xena of the Steppes, murderer of Ming Tzu. I was brought yesterday to Ming's prison, and I know I shall never again see the light of day.
The last image I have of the palace as I looked back was of Liu Ling leading one of the horses back to the stables, and the cat Kiung perched atop the garden gate.
The only benefit I have to being Lao Ma's wife is that I am isolated in a dry cell instead of being thrown to rot in the prison sewer. I wear no cangue and I even have candle light. Thus I write these last letters to you and set down my last thoughts.
A dear friend carries these letters out for me, braver than any of the warriors and soldiers who mocked him. He will hide it with all the others in the Tao Te Ching. These letters are for you, Xena. The book is for the world. Save it for posterity. This shall be my child, not Ming Tien.
I wonder if I affected you the way you affected me. You were my error as well as my achievement and I like to think I civilized you a little. And your gift to me was passion, -- which is both suffering and ecstasy. I am not sorry I experienced it with you. Perhaps the fall into error is the first and necessary step toward the reaching of Tao
* * * * *
I have been sentenced to death and I must prepare myself for it.
I need to find peace but instead I feel longing. I remember your hands, how badly they painted Chinese characters and held chopsticks, and how deftly they caressed me. I touch this letter and it is the closest I can come to touching you. Hold these pages gently darling, for Lao Ma's last love is here.
I know how people die in the Ming jails, how they are executed. They are broken and tormented on the wood. Ming Tien will find a way to keep me powerless and it will take all the emptiness I can call forth to die with equanimity. But he cannot keep me from my memories. When I am blinded by the blood and pain, in my last flickering of consciousness I will remember you.
I have had a dream this night. That I was with you in your own land, my darling. I came to you as a girl at the brink of womanhood and began to flower in your company. Do you know such a woman, Xena? Someone who writes verse? Do her Grecian eyes look at you with love and remind you of a Chinese woman? Do you lie down beside her at night and feel the turning of the yin and yang? I live with you in her, Xena. I am the water, gentle and transparent, and you are the fire and the wood. Look for me, Xena. I promise you I am there.
* * * * *
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