Bewildering Stories

Change the color of the text to:

Change the color of the background to:

A Bright Year’s Journey into Darkness

by Thomas R.

His parents called him Ming Nian or “bright year.” Since they had wanted a boy for very long his birth seemed quite a bright year indeed. To add to this joy he proved to have an intense and powerful mind. A mind that would prove to delight those around him and ultimately be so disturbing that it may lead to the destruction of us all.

Of course I am getting ahead of myself. I did not know him in his youth for I had reached marrying age by that time. Still all the scholars of Hebei talked of him, the brilliant little boy from the peasant family. Despite poverty he taught himself to read and at 7 had read the works of the grand historian Sima Qian and could discuss the writing of Mencius with elders. As a child he could beat any man at Wei-qi, or what the Eastern barbarians call “go.” Yet he did not lose the common touch and longed to help his fellow poor. For them he designed an improved loom, and studied ways to best breed plants and animals for the farmers of the surrounding lands. Many felt him destined for greatness, and planned to fund his studying to enter the bureaucracy when he came of age.

This began to change around 14. Some felt his mind had taken a disturbing turn around then. He developed an intense interest in math and astronomy. Circles were of special interest to him, and the number that defined them an obsession. He studied all the great Chinese work on the matter and refined the number to 3.14159265. Curiously after that he lost interest deciding that the true value would always remain unknown and unknowable. Do not think practicality deserted him even then. His astronomy led to proposing a much more accurate calendar with 32 cycles that would each last 4 years. He also built useful machines for knowing astronomical positions.

At this point you may be confused. It is true that on their own these things would not have aroused controversy. The anger arose for what these interests led him to do. He consorted with Arabs in an unseemly manner; accepting their ways, preferring some of their ideas, and gossip said preferring their women too. He also unnerved people by being seen late at night staring too intently at the stars. Also his work building strange mechanisms for astronomy frightened the less enlightened. Soon word spread against him with some claiming he worked dark magic. Nonsense, but these peasants can be such a foolish superstitious lot that many of them rescinded their offers to fund his studies. His parents, adamant that their son gain honour, found him enough benefactors to put him through regardless.

He entered my life around this time. My father sent him to me. A powerful man from a noble family he believed daughters should serve the father until they become wives who serve husbands. Yet he believed that to be a good servant a woman must be educated, virtuous, and wise. Thus I had many respected tutors before Ming, but I grew bored with them all. Though pleased by my quick mind, Father feared it frightened off potential suitors. Therefore he sent Ming Nian to me in hopes this flawed prodigy would provide enough challenge that I would quit scaring husband candidates.

The idea of courting him would have seemed ridiculous at that point. His poverty and constant failure at the exams seemed to make him a poor match in my family's eyes as well. Although my problem had more to do with his odd ideas, his youth, and his insistence I learn Arabic. Also I feared the legends true and that he did whore around the Arab districts. Men do these things, but it still repulsed me.

Yet I quickly grew intrigued by this strange young man. He seemed to have a genuine appreciation of knowledge I found remarkable. He also seemed to understand what he said when many of my other tutors merely parroted what they had heard. I began to find his odd ideas about inheritance of traits or movement of stars appealing. More to the quick I found his awkward dreaminess charming.

Nevertheless I remained unconvinced of his suitability. He seemed at times too odd to be a husband, and I found his rumored past disgusting. It is perhaps not so strange then that my father turned positive toward him before I did. During this time Ming had helped Father in contract negotiations with the Arabs and even somehow saved him from choking. He developed a curious method he called “the hugging bear movement” which accomplished it. My father began to push for him as suitor despite his poverty, perhaps because he felt convinced his destiny lay in official position.

I began to consider it, but still hesitated. Oddly his failing again moved me. He visited me that night drunk and afraid. He felt certain his parents would abandon him, he looked so forlorn. I knew then that in his heart he had no ambition. I knew he had only ever tried for them. I knew at that moment too that he had a childlike soul, and had not acted improperly in his life. He had not even been drunk in my presence until then. I felt then we would be good together and that we needed each other. Finally convinced, with family approval we wed. His family could not hide their pleasure that he had married into the aristocracy. This removed the stain of his constant failure. They could not know his heart never truly desired such success, that he did it only to please them. I guess he could not see they would have been proud even if he had failed and not won me. With high hopes our new life in the country initially proved pleasant.

You might now expect a happy ending, but alas life is not like that. Failure and eccentricity could not vanish with a simple wedding vow. As much as I might have hoped otherwise. He tried to live a quiet Taoist life devoted to alchemy and nature, but faced locals fears or torments. At first villagers merely snubbed him or, at worst, poured water on him. Mostly it proved harmless until an incident while boating.

The day had been pleasant, all seemed fine. With a lute he sang a song. A slight rain began and he picked up an umbrella. All seemed well, but then we heard an old woman on the shore shouting. He asked her the problem and she said his parent died and that he must be blamed. That he would be sent to hell, horrid concept only Buddhists could devise, for his desertion of his parents. Enraged, he threw the umbrella at her, injuring her arm. After that the hostility grew far more intense.

The villagers began throwing rocks or dung at him, destroyed his inventions, and even killed our animals. I became determined to return home, but he had become so distant he would not discuss this or anything. All the deaths, insults, and failures had taken their toll. He acted increasingly strange and madness loomed. For days he vanished into caves returning with strange scents upon him. Eventually a local land dealer decided he had abandoned me so took me from him.

What happened next seemed justified. Indeed my husband had the right to attack the land dealer in order to free me. The land dealer acted against law and decency. Yet who could defend the nightmare that has followed? A nightmare that sprung from throwing a simple paper glider through the dealer’s window. I almost laughed when it hit the dealers head, but then it somehow exploded. Though small the blast felled him. Then Ming took me on a journey home under an ominously pale moon. Only later did we learn of the land dealer’s death.

As you would expect of an outsider who killed such a powerful man, the execution of my husband happened without delay. Further, any valid legal justifications fell on deaf ears to the community that despised him. I became eternally widowed, childless, and very much alone. Yet I mourn not for these things. Instead I mourn that somehow the deadly glider lived on after him. I mourn for the innocents who even now die from An Lushan’s flying men with the killing pots they drop. I mourn for the world lost due to my husband. And yes I mourn for my husband too. I pray the Heavens will pity him and the Earth Queen will forgive his rash action. I hope they forgive, because I know I never shall.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.