bhudas

Chan Ling mouthed the bristles of his mouse-whiskers brush, re-sculpting its point, before he continued work on the esoteric tome. Had he understood the characters he rendered (with such practiced, meticulous strokes), perhaps his solitary vocation would have bred more joy. But, having learned by rote (each deviation from perfection earning a "THWACK" across his shoulder blades from a taskmaster’s cane), Chan’s was a glum skill. His primary concern was accuracy, an absolutely faithful transcription of other people's thoughts, hypotheses, and formulae, without the slightest comprehension of what they might portend. Year in, year out, the endless repetition, the never changing dawn-to-dusk routine—along with the ascetic bareness of his bleak accommodations, unadorned save by page after hung-up-to-dry page—stained his temperament as indelibly as the ink had discolored his lips, which bore a bluish o at their center like an ever-fresh tattoo. Chan’s facial expression was thereby permanently altered. He appeared to pout; always. Even on those rare occasions when he smiled, his looks retained an aura of perpetual consternation.

Warmth was his abode’s sole luxury—and the dryness that came with it. For professional reasons, Chan could not have it otherwise; mildew was a calligrapher's direst enemy. Housing rolls of the finest silk, and, more recently, reams of expensive parchment, his hermitage’s climate had to defy the frigid mists of its mountainous environs. Thus the furnace he used for burning gnarly limbs of picturesque pine—whose soot served as raw material for his manufacture of ink—ensured a constant temperature and low humidity. In winter, that is. Summer’s tropical conditions turned Chan’s haven into a smoldering hell. He endured. Income was meager but steady (provided he kept working). The demand for his ink sticks helped supplement when scrivener jobs were scarce. And, if the time-consuming process of pounding soot and donkey-skin glue into the proper consistency could be delegated—as Chan’s newly acquired slave labor suggested it could—his sentence to lifelong drudgery might well be commuted.

All hinged on Mung, casualty of a fall, blown, evidently, from the treetops by a rainy-season storm that charged through the surrounding woods on an uproarious rampage of dimwitted destruction… WIND… flexing its muscles, huffing and puffing in a who’s-boss exhibition that shook the mightiest timber to its roots, orphaning many an animal, Mung among them.

Lifted to a terrifying altitude by Wind’s capricious bluster, Mung had watched her Home shrink to shrub-size (before it vanished altogether), her quarter kilogram of weight no more anchor-able than a bob-tailed kite, carried (she knew not how far, or in what direction) at somersaulting speed, until deposited, dizzy and disoriented, atop Chan Ling’s thatch roof (what remained of it), where she was… rescued? Captured? Both, in fact. A puny thong now bound her by the leg—though its unreliable knot implied escape would be a breeze… when the time came… when Mung had studied sufficiently this one of many Upright creatures encroaching on her remote habitat; Chan and his ilk had been noted with prescient alarm. The Elders especially wore worry on their wizened faces whenever word came that Human Beings had been spotted, at whatever distance—the further the better, of course. Every sighting urged the troupe’s migration to a more pristine seclusion. ‘Uprights’ were not to be trusted, was the common wisdom, endowed as they were, from birth, with schizophrenic brains.

Hence Mung viewed Chan with a wary disaffection, suspicious about the Scribe’s motives, regardless his having set her broken leg—for, no sooner had it healed, than he affixed the flimsy tether (proof enough of a mind that went both left and right). Nevertheless, the young monkey found this middle-aged Scrivener fascinating, marveling most at the effort he expended on meaningless activity. To wit, Chan made dark marks on light surfaces with instruments bent to this purpose without their permission. Often Mung sensed the brush bristles’ confusion at being shifted from a rodent’s muzzle to a slender bamboo stem, plucked from their natural owner to serve this egocentric alien, their hypersensitivity forever clogged with blue-black goo (itself infused with longings for the lives of its constituent parts). Inured to, or unaware of, psychic ‘squeaking’ and ‘braying,’ Chan manipulated his tools like means to an end… an impractical end, at that. Or such was Mung’s impression, until she realized that the marks left like wet paw prints on sun-bleached rock were a form of communication, as cogent to the Upright as were grunts, hoots, and hollers to her peers—a deduction based on Chan’s ingrained habit of reading his work aloud.

‘Odd how the runt catches on to things,’ mused Chan, overseeing his minion’s daily toil.

Monotonous, to the point of pinhead-paralysis, the pulverization of soot and animal glue into paste, which, in turn, became ink, had been undertaken so readily by the monkey that Chan considered ‘what else’ might he entrusted to the pip-squeak's care… while Mung, thump, thump, thumping away with a miniature stone pestle in a tea cup, watched the Scribe delineate an endless stream of characters which slowly she connected to corresponding sounds, recognizing few but understanding each held significance, committing every last one to her photographic memory.

 

Weeks passed… months… years… Thump, thump, thumping away, mortar and pestle were content to be mated under Mung’s calm competence, her warm lap and soft paws cradling, caressing, thus helping to absorb the repetitious shocks, monkey and materials in general accord. Theirs had become a cooperative enterprise, as had the other phases of Chan Ling’s ink making. The Scribe’s finished products now attained a purplish luster (hallmark of the finest quality sticks), each impressed with a monogram widely recognized and gaining in renown. Patrons from as far away as Shanghai sent servants to acquire the heralded brand. Plus, volume and caliber of clients commissioning manuscripts concomitantly rose. A trickle of petitions by local petty officials turned into a torrent by titled patrons. Scholars, philosophers, mathematicians sent Chan work… challenging, interesting work… work that excused him from using li shu, a functional style developed by "that upstart criminal," in favor of the more ornate hsiao chuan, its rigid formalism better suited to the Scrivener’s old-fashioned tastes. And though he comprehended these intellectual texts no less superficially, he did approach transcribing them with more aesthetic flair… by degrees… the improvement in his brushwork strangely coincident with Mung’s expanded duties. The monkey was put in charge of tool maintenance in addition to her many other chores. With anthropoid dexterity, Mung cleaned, shaped, and arranged her mentor’s han lin (brush forest) after each day’s labor, chattering to the brass-capped stand as to a platoon of loyal soldiers. In what language, Chan could not fathom. Nor did he care, provided the bristles lent themselves to his newfound artistry. The Scribe was becoming famous, a status he relished… becoming rich, too. But fame and fortune turned into fretfulness whenever he acknowledged (to himself alone) their loosely fettered source. Mung’s leather thong, as a result, was replaced by a cast iron cuff—a length of chain affixed for added insurance.

Seldom surprised by anything Chan did at cross purposes (what could one expect of a creature who imposed "order" on everything from pipe cleaners to chrysanthemums?), Mung accepted the new shackle with humble forbearance. So long as Chan continued to recite each new manuscript during its replication, so long as his human’s hubris ruled out the possibility of literacy being attained by a species other than his exalted own, so long as the Scribe’s insecurity dictated that his prize possession stay in close proximity (Mung’s customary roost was in an old, embroidered skullcap lodged just above and behind her unwitting tutor’s stooped left shoulder), and so long as there were lessons to be learned: equations, analyses, principles, theorems advanced by some of the Dynasty’s most erudite minds, Mung could take imprisonment with a tolerant shrug. Besides, once ripe, Time would surely see her swift emancipation.

 

More years passed. Wrinkles multiplied on the Scrivener’s translucent skin like creases on rice paper, a message of mortality for his fingertips to peruse. But Chan proved no more adept at deciphering these than the sundry truths his methodical brush strokes copied. Whereas his studious serf (no less withered by life’s autumnal seasoning) recognized a threat in the Scrivener’s lifelong work; Mung must impart all she knew to her at-risk kith and kin.

 

One gusty night—Wind revisiting with its typical disregard for things become stationary—the prisoner picked her snoring jailer's pocket of its key, plied it to the cuff, and returned to the wild.

 

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