Death and the treasure

by Sam Kriss

A rider appeared outside the camp at midnight. In his left hand, he held a scroll; in his right, a severed head.

As this rider approached the centre of the camp, every door was opened for him, and silent courtiers ushered him towards the seat of power. This was the camp of King Zheng of Qin, who had chosen to conquer all of the Seven Warring States, and bring everything under Heaven into his hands. Now he had turned his armies towards the northern state of Yan. The severed head belonged to Fan Yuqi, a general who had betrayed King Zheng to fight for his enemies. Now the rider threw his head on the table before the king. Then, more delicately, he placed down the scroll. Son of Heaven, he said, I have presented you with these two treasures as a gift. This head is the lesser treasure; I have brought it so you will know I am your friend. The greater treasure is this scroll, which is a map of the state of Yan which you wish to conquer, the most accurate map ever made.

Slowly, the rider unrolled the map from west to east, pointing out all the features of Yan: the roads along which Zheng might march his armies and the towers that defended them; the villages that were good for plunder and the lean wastelands where barbarians roam. Soon Zheng saw that this map really was the most accurate ever made. He examined a minor river, and something in the ink made the water seem to churn and flow. Zheng saw clumps of ice floating in the rapids and fields glittering with springtime frost; he heard the lively chatter of the peasant-women as they took their clothes to be washed, and smelled the good sharp smell of logs burning in a stove. When he peered closer he could even see, between the brushstrokes, the footprints of those women, stamped deep in the half-frozen mud. For an instant, Zheng felt that he was very small, and the map on his table was larger than the room, larger than his tent or the camp that contained it, until it sprawled as vast as the kingdom of Yan itself.

What the Son of Heaven did not know was that the man in his tent was an assassin sent by the Crown Prince of Yan, and that his enemy Fan Yuqi had given his life willingly to help the plot. This assassin had hidden a slender dagger inside the map, and once the entire kingdom had been unrolled, he would seize the dagger and thrust it into King Zheng’s heart. But once the map lay flat on the table, there was no dagger to be seen. Instead, the map showed a large island in the Gulf of Zhili formed in the shape of a dagger: an island that had never been known of before, with many pastures where the blade had been sharpened, many orchards along the line of its grooves, and many cities with strong walls where precious stones had been inlaid in the dagger’s hilt.

At once, King Zheng understood the plan, and he had the assassin buried alive in the black earth. Using the map, he quickly conquered the kingdom of Yan. Afterwards, he declared himself Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of Qin. Then he sent a fleet out into the sea, and found an island there in the shape of a dagger with many pastures, many orchards, and many cities with strong walls, which was populated by his enemies, and thousands of them were slain.

* * *

This story comes to us in two parts. They are pieces of a puzzle, and each is slightly less than half of the whole.

In the first part, there is a poor merchant who lives in Cairo. Once he was rich, but his fortune has vanished; he had to sell his scented palace, and now he lives in a hovel where the dust in the courtyard piles up against the trunk of a long-dead olive tree. But one night, this merchant had a dream. In his dream he saw a beautiful mosque with four minarets and two golden domes stood side by side; the minarets were also coated in gold and carved with all the names of God. In his dream, the poor merchant heard the voice of an angel, who said to him: your treasure is here; find this place, and dig. In his days this merchant had travelled up and down the valley of the Nile, but he had never seen a mosque like this one, and neither had any of his fellows. He tried to draw the mosque of his dreams, but with each version he made it felt as if the image was fading, and every picture was only a more imperfect copy of the last. One day, he presented a painting to a very old traveller who now begged on the streets. Where he had once tried to show the mosque in every false detail – the walls with their mosaics, the pleasant avenues with their trees, the way the light burned on the golden domes, and the cool waters of the sabil – now, there were only six lines: two curving for the domes, four straight for the minarets. I know this place, said the beggar; I didn’t recognise it before. I saw it when I was a much younger man: this is the mosque of al-Kadhimiya in Baghdad.

At once the merchant set off in a caravan for Baghdad. It was night when they arrived in the city, but he saw those golden domes shining above him, and ran to the mosque to dig up its grounds. Soon the noise woke some people in the nearby houses: they sent for the guards, who seized the merchant and beat him with palm-rods until he was all but dead. Finally he was brought before the head of the Caliph’s police, who asked who he was and why he, a stranger, had come to Baghdad only to desecrate its mosque. The merchant, who was an honest man, told him about his dream, but the chief only laughed. You idiot, he said, don’t you know that dreams mean nothing? Let me tell you a story: not long ago, I had a dream in which I saw a poor hovel in Cairo with a dead olive tree in the courtyard; a voice told me that a great treasure was buried there. But I wasn’t foolish enough to actually go to Egypt and start digging up someone else’s garden. Now, he concluded, go back to your own country, and don’t trouble us again.

The merchant travelled back to Cairo and returned to his hovel. He uprooted the dead olive tree in his courtyard and dug; on the third day he found a jar full of faceless gold coins, worth just as much as the money he had lost, to the last uqiyyah.

The second part is also about a merchant of Cairo, but this one was rich. While attending the market in Baghdad, he was jostled by a stranger. He looked up: the stranger was hidden in white robes, but his face was unmistakeable. This was Azra’il, the angel of death, and the figure cast a terrifying glare on the merchant; it started to walk towards him. It is said that only those who are about to die can see the the angel of death. This merchant was a healthy man, even in his age, but there are many ways to die, especially in a foreign city. The merchant fled. Leaving his wares behind, he took his fastest horse and set off across the desert to Egypt, his home, where death would not be able to find him. He made the journey a night and a day; exhausted, he collapsed on the ground in front of his hone. The ride had been hard, the sun merciless, the ground rocky and broken. Now, soft lights burned in the windows of his house, and a scented air came from the gardens – but after such an ordeal he could barely manage to crawl through the gates. At last, a pair of feet appeared in front of him. He looked up to see the face of Azra’il. You have caught me, said the merchant, but tell me: why did you threaten me when I saw you in Baghdad? The angel of death knelt, and as the merchant drew his last breath he replied: I was not threatening you; I was only surprised to see you in Baghdad, since I knew that we had an appointment here in Cairo, tonight, at your house.

Both of these stories have the same form; only a few of the details change. In one, a poor man chases treasure; in the other, a rich man flees from death – but both go on a journey only to find that its cause was already waiting for them. In both there is the apparition of an angel, in both a mystery. Who buried the coins? And why would Azra’il be at the market, when the angel of death has nothing to buy or sell?

Perhaps these tales describe the same merchant: once he was poor, and then he became rich; God, in His wisdom and for the edification of His worshippers, chose to humble His slave according to the same design with which He had rewarded him. But there are some who say that these two men were the same in a more subtle sense. It is known that the followers of Pythagoras held to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls: across the span of many lives, a man is made to repeat the same journey, without end. In one generation he crosses the sands for riches, in another he only wants to save his life – but he does not wonder why there is already a set of tracks leading across the desert. Once this man was Brutus, then he was Judas, tomorrow he might be the brother in your house. Perhaps God creates such individuals only once: in the crystal prism of time their number seems to increase, but in eternity there is a single creature, walking in his own footprints for the first and only time.

Perhaps – and this is the doctrine of the more melancholy scholars – the rich merchant was the first, and the poor merchant came afterwards. After we die, they say, a mourning angel performs one last cruelty. The body that is still here after you have gone: deep in the black earth, it suffers a change, and every heart forever stilled becomes a cold hard blank gold coin.

The most sorrowful of all are those who say that both tales are really a single tale, and that in some mystical sense, glimpsed only by the sages, death and the treasure, yearning and fear, were one and the same thing.

May God, the most glorified, the most high, who knows all things, protect us from what we seek.

* * *

In the town of Kuttenberg in Bohemia there was a monastery and a silver mine, and all the men were either monks or miners. In their abbey, the monks – who were Cistercians, and wore white – praised the Blessed Virgin at all the appointed hours, but the miners – who wore black, so they would be dressed well for their funerals – knew that another power also rules the earth. In the labyrinth of that mine, there were a few hidden grottoes that were the Devil’s chapels: a miner would throw the rough Baphomet a crust of bread on his way into the mine, and then thank the saints for his safety on the way out again. You can afford few enemies underground.

This man was a miner. Every day he would tap on the window of his bride-to-be as he walked up to the mountain and kiss her good morning. In the evenings, when he returned with a face blacker than his shirt and silver nuggets in his pockets, he would tap again. The date of the wedding was set for the feast of St Lucia: the shortest day of winter, when all the world wears silver robes. On that day he, too, would wear a coat of white.

On the morning before their wedding came the knock. I will see you again on my way out, he said, but the evening was silent. She waited long into the night, and when morning came again she folded up her white dress and put it away forever.

In those first few weeks, she would sometimes look at the mountain that rose high above Kuttenberg, and think: he is there. Somewhere behind the walls of stone, in that vast underground world where veins of silver glitter in the dark and the bodies of men disappear. How could she ever forget him? He was made of solid rock now, and his monument would stand over the town, unchanging, forever.

But she did forget. After only a few months, she could no longer conjure his voice in her head when she felt lonely, and when it was winter again, she had trouble recalling his face. The man became a gap in her world. He had only disappeared; she was the one that was dying. Whole regions of herself falling away. That sharp hopeful glance when he came to tap on her window: she would never glance that way again. She’d lost a way of turning her head and opening her eyes, like the amputees whose arms were crushed in the mines – only what she was missing was her face, her lips, her throat. There was no one else she could speak to in the way she’d spoken to her husband-to-be: a part of her voice was locked away where there’s no air to breathe.

But not in her dreams. In dreams he would visit her, with a face that was cloudy and couldn’t be looked at, but which was always his: as immediately his as the ant crossing a sunbeam is itself. She would forget that he was in the mountain, which meant that she forgot to say all the things she needed him to hear. I miss you. Come back. When she woke, it was like that first evening again, and all she wanted was to sleep: sink deep into the stillness of silver seams and stone.

Years passed, and the mountain changed as well. Engineers arrived from every corner of the Empire with new methods and new ideas. Some of them tore open the face of the mountain and smashed up boulders to get at the treasure inside. They built machines: first the wheels were turned by horses on treadmills, then by pistons and steam. Soon the charcoal-burners had stripped the hills of their forests; black smoke poured incessantly from the peak. Everything in Kuttenberg was coated in sticky soot. Even the white habits of the Cistercians turned grey, so they fled the abbey, which was taken over by tax collectors. Men in dark livery who demanded to be paid in silver thalers, since the ground was now too poor to farm and the streams too poisoned to fish. The families who had once lived here moved out, and new people moved in. Dead cattle rotted in their fields, but there were no flies in this sour air. Only thick heavy crows, who hopped on both feet between the exposed ribs, uttering dark and joyful cries.

The machines on the peak were used to pump out old mine-shafts. Some had been flooded with water, some with oil of vitriol, or aqua valens, or any of the other poisons that collect in a working mine. One day they drained a long-abandoned cavern, and when the miners went inside they found a nugget of silver bigger than any they’d ever seen. Hauling it out into the open air, they found that it was not a lump of metal at all, but a man. Some miracle of alchemy had occurred in that mine: a precipitate of silver had formed around the corpse. This man’s face was as full and lively as it had been on the day he went into the mountain, for all that his eyes were fixed open in their silver casing. Still, nobody in Kuttenberg could recognise him. Nobody knew the dead man’s name. He might have fallen into that pool of vitriol the night before it was drained – or he might have been an ancient of these hills, who dug out their silver ten centuries ago.

For a day they let the silver man lie on the church altar, the brightest thing in that black and ruined town. All the people came to look at this marvel, even the blind old woman who had always lived alone in her little wooden house, who went out in a mourner’s shawl even though she had never been married. She ran her fingers over the cold silver of his face, and there was something she remembered there, even though she couldn’t remember what it was. When it was done they put him in the black earth again: a small plot in the churchyard, unmarked, to await the final call.

It was the shortest day of winter; the day of Saint Lucia’s feast.

* * *

Once there was a man of the Umuako whose wife fell ill and died. After she was buried he left his home, which was too full of her things, and his native land, which was too foggy with her memories. For years he walked, seeking a place he had heard about long ago: the shining city of the immortals where there is no death. He knew he would find this place when he came to a village without a graveyard, where there were no beloved corpses to be sent into the black earth, and at last he found one. Here every house had copper wire woven into the thatch, and the mud walls were studded with dozens of copper bracelets; each ngwulu contained the fortune of twenty lifetimes. The eze of this village invited the traveller to dine with him as a guest, and the traveller accepted. As they were eating a stew of well-seasoned meat, the traveller noticed that this eze lived with only his wives and children in the family compound. Respected igwe, the traveller said, if this truly is the city of the immortals, then where are your mother and your father? Or is it the custom in your land for fathers to live apart from their sons? No, said the eze, my parents are here. And he pointed downwards at the traveller’s bowl.