On the day of the battle, General Yu woke up with a severe stiff neck. He had fallen asleep while reading in bed. The book—on the peccadilloes of the cotton merchants of Shanghai, generously laced with erotic illustrations—had fallen under his chin and pinned him to a dream of luscious watermelons and cavorting concubines. He rang the little bell on the side table and shouted for his tea.
The door slid open and a small bald man appeared, dressed in the dark sombre indigo of a hundred-year old egg.
The General glared at him through the corners of his eyes, not quite able to turn his head. “Where is my tea?”
“All ready, General, on the balcony.”
General Yu snorted and got to his feet. He wrapped a silk robe around his floppy sleep-fattened flesh and went out onto the balcony. The teahouse had a commanding view of colossal rocky hills and a slow broad river. It had been built by the great Emperor of the Han Dynasty who liked to complete his ablutions facing the paps of heaven. This was a landscape that was said to inspire even a donkey to poetry. The morning air was fresh and cool. Mist rose lazily out of the trees, the green snake of water down below lay lethargic and quiet. General Yu rubbed his neck and sat down on a bamboo chair and waited for his servant to hand him his tea.
The veins in his neck thickened. He flexed his arm. “What would happen to this kingdom, Mr. Wu, if we all sat on our backsides painting pretty rocks and cumuli and singing lullabies?”
“I want a boiled egg for breakfast and a massage for my neck,” he demanded after he had taken a sip.
The servant went to make the necessary arrangements and the General tapped his bowl of tea pensively. In two hours he planned to unleash his army upon the enemy to destroy every single man, woman, and child on the other side of the river. His technique of total obliteration in warfare—with no mercy, no prisoners, no survivors—had made him the most heartless and feared warrior of his time. After another sip of tea he stood up. He was a man of action. He began to pace the balcony, tensing his muscles, subjugating pain. On the terrace below he spotted the superintendent of the teahouse, Wu Li, rubbing down an ink stone. He had several laid out with their respective bowls in a precisely ordered pattern.
“What are you doing, Mr. Wu?” he called out.
“Preparing to paint, General.”
“But today is the day of the battle.”
“It is also the day of the equinox. A moment of perfect balance.”
“Today, Mr. Wu, the enemy will be obliterated. The kingdom will be free of pestilence. If you wish to paint, should you not paint our battle? Commemorate our victory? I find it very odd, Mr. Wu, that the walls of your teahouse are covered with paintings of mountains and streams, birds and flowers, but nowhere do we see the reality of our existence. The struggle between the forces of your monarch and those elements that oppose him.”
“On the contrary, General. In every painting you can see the opposition of light and dark. The struggle is for balance.”
“War, Mr. Wu, is what defines us. Blood, not a wishy-washy smear of ink.” The veins in his neck thickened. He flexed his arm. “What would happen to this kingdom, Mr. Wu, if we all sat on our backsides painting pretty rocks and cumuli and singing lullabies?”
“I suppose my tea-house will be full of artists then.”
“Until the barbarians turn you into tea pluckers.” General Yu wagged his finger. “You need us, Mr. Wu. Come with me at ten o’clock and paint a scene of valour and action. The real world is a realm of pain. Paint us as we are in full blood.”
“The mountains, the rocks, the river. These make the real world, General, and they will be here long after you and I have passed. Your actions, General, will only live in the heads of those who survive them.”
The servant appeared and told the General that there were no eggs—the hens were all dead—worse still, the masseuse had fled.
The General loosened his robe and delved about. He found his sword and made a couple of passes in the air holding his head high. “Come, Mr. Wu, enough words. Time to swing a sword. It will invigorate your brushwork, free blood, and relieve the pain in my neck.”
Wu Li looked up and saw the General grow large. His flags had been unfurled and his robe billowed behind him. A huge shadow fell across the lower terrace. Wu Li turned to his sheet of paper set out with a black wooden block at each corner. He dipped his brush in a bowl of ink and steadied his mind. As the General lunged at his hapless servant, Wu Li made his first brushstroke. He drew a writhing snake across the pristine expanse of paper. A coagulated river of dark and light.
The ink was red.
Romesh Gunesekera’s first novel Reef was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize. He is also the author of The Sandglass (BBC Asia Award) and Heaven’s Edge which, like his collection of stories, Monkfish Moon was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His most recent novel is The Match (The New Press).