PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
‘Well?’ the men asked with one voice when Professor Goclenius entered, walking faster than usual and looking noticeably distraught, ‘Well, did they release the letters? — Is Skoper already on his way back to Europe? — How is he? — Have his collections come as well?’ The questions all came at once.
‘Only this here,’ the Professor said. Beside the bundle of letters he put on the table he placed a small jar containing a whitish dead insect the size of a stag beetle. ‘The Chinese Ambassador himself handed it over. He said it had arrived today, having for some reason come via Denmark.’
‘I fear he’s heard bad news about poor old Skoper,’ a clean-shaven man whispered behind his hand to the man sitting next to him, an elderly scholar with flowing locks who — both worked in the biology department of the science museum — had pushed his spectacles up onto his forehead and was examining the insect with keen interest.
It was a strange room where the six men, all specialists in entomology, were sitting. There was a musty smell of camphor and sandalwood, which only served to intensify the exotically macabre atmosphere created by the porcupine fish hanging from the ceiling — goggle-eyed, like the cut-off heads of a ghostly audience — by the garishly painted red and white demon masks of savage island tribes, by the ostrich eggs, hyraxes, narwhal tusks, contorted monkeys’ bodies and all the other manifold grotesque shapes from distant zones.
In the putrid evening light pouring in from the overgrown museum garden through the pot-bellied barred window, faded, larger-than-life pictures of bark beetles and mole crickets, lovingly framed in gold like revered ancestral portraits, were hanging on the walls above brown cupboards full of woodworm that had a somewhat monastic look,.
Crooking its arm invitingly, an embarrassed smile playing round its goitrous nose and circular, glassy eyes, the biologist’s top hat on its head and dry snakeskins dangling round it, a sloth leant forward from its corner, perfectly aping an ancient village schoolmaster being photographed for the first time.
Its tail disappearing in the distant shadows of the corridor and its body, following a request from the minister of education, in the course of being varnished, the pride of the institute, a forty-foot-long crocodile, stared in through the connecting door with its perfidious feline gaze.
Professor Goclenius had sat down, untied the string round the bundle of letters and glanced through the first lines, muttering to himself.
‘It’s dated from Bhutan, 1 July 1914 — that is four weeks before the war broke out — so it must have taken more than a year to get here,’ he said to the assembled group. ‘Our old colleague, Johannes Skoper, writes:
I will give a full account of the wealth of specimens I have found on my long journey from the Chinese border, through Assam, to the so far unexplored country of Bhutan in my next report. Today I just want to describe briefly the bizarre circumstances surrounding the discovery of a hitherto unknown white cricket — Professor Goclenius pointed to the insect in the jar — which the shamans use for their superstitious practices. It is called Phak, which is also an insulting name for anything resembling a European or other person of white race.
One morning I heard from some Lamaist pilgrims, who were heading for Lhasa, that not far from my campsite was a very high dugpa — one of those satanic priests feared throughout Tibet. They can be recognised by their scarlet caps and claim to be direct descendants of the demon of the fly agaric. However that may be, the dugpas are said to belong to the ancient Tibetan religion of the Bhons, of which we know as good as nothing, and to be descended from a foreign race, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time. This dugpa, the pilgrims told me, whirling their little prayer wheels in superstitious awe, was a Samtsheh Mitshebat, that is a being that can no longer be described as human with the power to ‘bind and loose’, a being, to put it briefly, with the capacity to see time and space for the illusions they are and for whom, therefore, nothing is impossible here on earth. There are, I was told, two ways to climb the steps leading beyond humanity: one, the ‘path of light’, leading to union with the Buddha, and a second one taking the opposite direction, the ‘path of the left hand’, to which only a born dugpa knows the entrance, a spiritual path full of horror and dread. Although very infrequent, they went on, such ‘born’ dugpas were to be found in all parts of the world and, strangely enough, were almost always the children of especially pious people.
‘It is as if the Lord of Darkness had grafted a scion onto the tree of saintliness,’ the pilgrim who told me this said. ‘There is only one way by which one can tell that a child is spiritually part of the clan of dugpas: if the whorl of hair on the crown of its head goes from left to right instead of from right to left.’
I immediately expressed the wish — purely out of curiosity — to meet this dugpa, but my guide, himself from East Tibet, resisted the idea stubbornly. It was all nonsense, there were no dugpas at all in Bhutan, he kept shouting, and anyway a dugpa, especially a Samtsheh Mitshebat, would never reveal his arts to a white man.
The man’s dogged resistance made me all the more suspicious and after hours of argument that went to and fro I got him to admit that he was a member of the Bhon religion himself and knew very well — from the reddish colour of the fumes the soil gave off, he tried to tell me — that there was an ‘initiate’ dugpa living in the vicinity.
‘But he’ll never reveal his arts to you,’ was his constant refrain.
‘Why ever not?’ I finally asked.
‘Because he will refuse to accept responsibility.’
‘What responsibility?” I insisted.
‘The disruption he created in the realm of causes would mean he would once more be caught up in the maelstrom of reincarnation, if not something even worse.’
I was keen to learn more about the mysterious Bhon religion, so I asked, ‘According to your faith, does a human have a soul?’
‘Yes and no.’
‘How do you mean?’
In answer the Tibetan plucked a blade of grass and made a knot in it. ‘Has the blade of grass a knot now?’
He undid the knot. ‘And now?’
‘Not any more.’
‘In just the same way a human has a soul and has no soul,’ he said simply.
I tried a different way of getting a clear idea of his views. ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘let’s assume you fell off that narrow mountain pass we crossed recently — the path wasn’t more than a foot wide. Would your soul have lived on or not?’
‘I wouldn’t have fallen off.’
Trying another tack, I pointed at my revolver and said, ‘If I were to shoot you dead, would you live on or not?’
‘You can’t shoot me dead.’
‘Yes I can.’
‘Try it, then.’
I’ll do nothing of the kind, I thought, a fine mess that would leave me in, wandering round these boundless highlands without a guide. He seemed to be able to read my thoughts and gave a scornful grin. I remained silent for a while.
He suddenly went on: ‘It’s just that you can’t “will” anything to happen,’ he said. ‘Behind your will there are wishes, some you’re aware of and others you’re not, but both are stronger than you are.’
‘So what is the soul according to your faith,’ I asked, irritated. ‘Have I a soul, for example?’
‘And will my soul live on after I die?’
‘But you think yours will live on after you die?’
‘Yes. Because I have a name.’
‘What do you mean, a name? I’ve got a name too.’
‘Yes, but you don’t know your true name, so you don’t possess it. What you think of as your name is just an empty word that your parents thought up. You forget it when you sleep. I don’t forget my name when I sleep.’
‘But when you’re dead you won’t know it any more,’ I objected.
‘No. But the Master will know it and not forget it, and when he calls it I will rise again. But only me, not anyone else, for only I have my name, no one else has it. What you call your name you share with many others — just like dogs,’ he muttered contemptuously to himself. I could understand what he said, but didn’t show it.
‘What do you understand by the ‘Master’?’ I asked with apparent casualness.
‘The Samtsheh Mitshebat.’
‘The one near here?’
‘Yes, but the one nearby is only his reflection. The one he really is, is everywhere. He can also be nowhere if he wills it.’
‘So he can make himself invisible?’ I couldn’t repress a smile. ‘You mean now he’s inside the universe, now outside? Now he’s there, now he isn’t?’
‘But a name’s only there when it’s spoken and not there when when it’s not spoken,’ the Tibetan countered.
‘And can you, for example, become a ‘Master’ as well?’
‘So then there’ll be two masters, eh?’
Inwardly I was jubilant. To be honest I was fed up with the fellow’s intellectual arrogance and now I’d caught him out, I thought. (My next question would have been: if one of the masters wants to make the sun shine and the other wants it to rain, who’ll win?) I was, therefore, all the more nonplussed by his strange answer: ‘If I am the Master, then I am the Samtsheh Mitshebat. Or do you think there can be two things that are completely alike, without them being one and the same thing?’
‘But there would still be two of you, not just the one. If I were to meet you, I would meet two people, not one,’ I objected.
The Tibetan bent down and searched among the piles of calcspar crystals lying around until he found a particularly transparent one and handed it to me, saying mockingly, ‘Hold that in front of your eye and look at the tree over there. You can see two of them, can’t you? But does that mean it’s two trees?’
I couldn’t think of an immediate answer and, anyway, I would have found it difficult to pursue a reasoned discussion of such a complex subject in Mongolian, which we speaking, so I let him enjoy his little victory. Inwardly, however, I could not overcome my astonishment at the mental agility of this semi-savage with his slanting Mongol eyes and filthy sheepskin coat. There is something strange about these highland Asians, outwardly they look like animals, but once they open up their minds to you, a philosopher appears.
I returned to the starting point of our whole conversation. ‘So you think the dugpa wouldn’t reveal his arts to me because he refuses to accept the responsibility?’
‘That’s right, he wouldn’t.’
‘But what if I were to accept the responsibility?’
For the first time since I’d known him, the Tibetan lost his composure. He could scarcely control the agitation which animated his features. His expression wavered between inexplicable, savage cruelty and gloating malice. During our many months together we had confronted all kinds of extreme danger, we had traversed terrifying abysses on swaying bridges of bamboo not more than a foot wide that froze the blood in my veins, we had almost died of thirst crossing deserts, but never had he lost his inner calm, not even for a moment. And now? What could it be that had sent him into such turmoil? I could almost see the thoughts buzzing round and round in his mind.
‘Take me to the dugpa,’ I said insistently, ‘you’ll be well rewarded.’
‘I’ll think about it,’ he answered after some reflection.
In the middle of the night he woke me in my tent. He was ready to do it, he said.
He’d saddled two of our shaggy Mongol horses, that aren’t much bigger than large dogs, and we rode off into the dark. The men in my caravan were lying, fast asleep, round the glowing embers of the fire.
Hours passed without a word being said between us. The characteristic musky smell given off by the Tibetan steppes on July nights and the monotonous swish of the broom as the horses’ legs swept through it was almost overpowering; to stay awake I had to keep my eyes fixed on the stars which, in these savage highlands, have a blazing, flickering quality, like burning scraps of paper. They have a disturbing influence, filling one with unease.
When dawn crept over the mountain tops, I noticed that the Tibetan’s eyes were wide open and permanently fixed, without blinking, on a point in the sky. He was, I could tell, in a trance.
Did he know the place where the dugpa was staying so well that he didn’t need to look where he was going? I asked several times without getting a reply. Finally he spoke, his voice slurred, as if he were asleep: ‘He draws me to him, just as a lodestone attracts iron.’
We didn’t even stop for lunch, without a word he kept spurring his horse on. I had to eat the few pieces of dried goat’s meat I had with me in the saddle.
Towards evening we came round the foot of a bare hill and stopped by one of those fantastic tents that are sometimes to be seen in Bhutan. They are black, pointed at the top, hexagonal below, with the sides curled up at the bottom. Supported by tall poles, they look like giant spiders with their bellies on the ground.
I had expected to meet a grubby shaman with matted hair and beard, one of those crazy or epileptic creatures that are frequently to be found among the Mongols and Tungus. They drug themselves with a decoction of the fly agaric mushroom and see imaginary spirits or utter incomprehensible prophecies. Instead, the man standing before me — motionless — was a good six foot tall, strikingly slender in build, clean shaven, with an olive-greenish sheen to his complexion, a colour I’ve never previously seen on the face of a living man, and eyes that were slanting and unnaturally far apart — a racial type completely unknown to me.
His lips, like the skin of his face perfectly smooth as if made of porcelain, were bright red, razor-thin and so curved, especially where they rose up high at the corners in what seemed like a pitiless frozen smile, that they looked as if they’d been painted on.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the dugpa, not for a long time; thinking back to it, I’m tempted to say that I felt like a child, breathless with horror at the sight of a fearful mask suddenly emerging from the darkness.
On his head the dugpa had a close-fitting scarlet cap with no brim; otherwise he was entirely clothed in a costly sable fur dyed orange which came down to his ankles.
There were no words spoken between him and my guide, but I assume they communicated by secret gestures for, without asking what I wanted, the dugpa turned to me and said, unprompted, that he was ready to show me whatever I wanted, but I had to agree to accept all the responsibility, even if I did not know what that entailed.
I — naturally — immediately expressed my readiness.
As a token of that, he demanded I touch the ground with my left hand.
I did so.
Without another word he set off in front of us and we followed for a short distance until he told us to sit down. We squatted by a small mound resembling a table.
Did I have a white cloth?
In vain I looked through my pockets, but all I could find was a faded old folding map of Europe in the lining of my coat — it must have been hidden there all the time I was travelling round Asia. I spread it out between us and explained to the dugpa that it showed the place where I came from.
He exchanged a quick glance with my guide and once more the Tibetan’s face was briefly suffused with the expression full of hatred and malice that had struck me the previous evening.
Would I like to see cricket magic?
I nodded. It was immediately clear to me what was to come, a well-known trick, luring insects out of the ground by whistling or something like that.
And I wasn’t wrong. With a little silver bell these shamans carry hidden about their person the dugpa made a soft, metallic chirping noise and immediately a mass of crickets came swarming out of their holes in the ground and crawled up onto the faded map.
More and more.
I was starting to get annoyed, having endured a tedious ride for a trivial display I’d seen often enough in China, but then I realised that what I was seeing was ample compensation for all the discomfort: the crickets were not just a hitherto unrecorded species — which was interesting enough in itself — but their behaviour was highly unusual. Scarcely had they crawled onto the map than they started running round and round aimlessly in circles, then they formed into groups which surveyed each other suspiciously. Suddenly a rainbow of light appeared in the middle of the map — it came from a prism the dugpa was holding up to the sun, as I quickly established — and within a few seconds the hitherto peaceful crickets had turned into a mass of insect bodies tearing each other apart in the most horrible way. It was such a revolting sight, I prefer not to describe it. The buzzing of the thousands upon thousands of wings produced a high humming note which went right through me, a shrill mixture of fiendish hatred and mortal anguish I shall never be able to forget.
I commanded the dugpa to put an end to it immediately. Having already returned the prism to its pocket, he simply shrugged his shoulders.
In vain I tried to force the crickets apart with a stick; the blind frenzy of killing was unstoppable. New hordes kept arriving and the foul, wriggling mass grew bigger and bigger until it was the height of a man. As far as the eye could see, the ground was teeming with maddened insects. A whitish swarm, squashed together, pressing towards the middle, impelled by the one thought: kill, kill, kill.
Some of the crickets that fell off the pile so seriously maimed they couldn’t crawl back up, tore themselves to pieces with their pincers. At times the humming note was so loud and so horribly shrill that I felt I couldn’t stand it any longer and put my hands over my ears.
Finally, thank God, the insects grew fewer and fewer, the swarms crawling out of the earth seemed to get thinner and eventually stopped entirely.
‘What’s he doing now?’ I asked my guide, when I saw that the dugpa was showing no sign of moving. Instead he seemed to be making great efforts to concentrate his thoughts on something. He had drawn up his top lip so that I could clearly see his sharpened teeth. They were pitch black, presumably from the betel chewing that is customary here.
‘He is binding and loosing,’ I heard the Tibetan reply.
Despite the fact that I kept telling myself that it was only insects that had died there, I felt completely drained and close to fainting, so that his voice sounded as if it came from far away: ‘He is binding and loosing.’
I didn’t understand what he meant by that and I still don’t understand today. Nothing more worth mentioning happened, but I continued to sit there, perhaps for hours, why I couldn’t say. I had lost the will to stand up, that’s the only way I can describe it.
Gradually the sun sank and the clouds and countryside all around took on that improbably lurid red and orange colour familiar to all those who have been to Tibet. To give an impression, the only comparison is the crudely painted walls of the menageries of travelling circuses in Europe.
I could not get the words ‘He is binding and loosing’ out of my mind, little by little they built up into fearful imaginings: the twitching heap of crickets turned into millions of dying soldiers. I was so weighed down with an immense, mysterious feeling of responsibility I could hardly breathe, and what made it all the more tormenting was the fact that I looked in vain for the cause.
Then it seemed as if the dugpa had suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by a repulsive statue, all scarlet and olive green, of the Tibetan God of War. I fought against it until my eyes could fix on the real world again, but it did not seem real enough to me: the fumes rising from the ground, the jagged icy peaks of the mountains soaring above the distant horizon, the dugpa with his red cap, myself in my half European, half Tibetan clothes, the black tent with the spider’s legs — all that could surely not be real. Reality, imagination, vision? What was true, what was illusion? And the abyss that kept yawning in my thoughts whenever the choking fear of the incomprehensible, terrible feeling of responsibility welled up inside me once more.
Later, much later, 0n the journey back, the incident grew in my memory like some rampant poisonous plant which I couldn’t pull up, try as I would.
At night, when I can’t get to sleep, a dreadful suspicion of what ‘He is binding and loosing’ might mean slowly starts to dawn on me. I try to stifle it, to stop it being spelt out explicitly, the way you might try to smother a fire that has broken out. But it’s no use resisting, in my mind’s eye I can see reddish vapour rising from from the heap of dead crickets and forming banks of cloud which, darkening the sky like the grim harbingers of the monsoon, are pouring westwards.
And now, as I write this, once more I’m overcome with — with —
‘The letter appears to break off at that point,’ Professor Goclenius said. ‘And unfortunately it is now my sad duty to tell you what I learnt at the Chinese embassy about the unexpected death of our dear colleague, so far away in Asia —’ The Professor got no farther, he was interrupted by a loud cry: ‘Incredible! The cricket’s still alive! After a whole year! Incredible! Catch it. It’s flying away.’ The men were all shouting at once. The scholar with the flowing locks had opened the little jar and shaken the apparently dead insect out.
The next moment the cricket had flown out of the window into the garden.
The entomologists were in such a hurry to catch, they almost knocked Demetrius, the old museum attendant, flat on his back as he came in to light the lamp.
Shaking his head, the old man watched them prancing around outside with their butterfly nets. Then he looked up at the evening sky and muttered, ‘What strange shapes the clouds have during these terrible days of war. There’s one there that looks just like a man with a green face and a red cap. If his eyes weren’t so far apart it could almost be a human being. It’s enough to make a man get superstitious in his old age.’