The Silver Eaters

The middle of nowhere, that was the English expression, and it summed the place up. Li Chong had travelled by train and bus to get from Tsinghua University to the village, a journey of hot carriages, jostling people and the thick odour of instant noodles. Now he felt an uncomfortable ring of sweat under each arm. But he was happy to be there, in the village in the shadow of the Great Wall.

He trod the familiar path towards his grandfather’s house, which lay apart from the main cluster of dwellings. Li Chong passed the lake beneath which a section of the Wall lay submerged, paused to watch the insects which skimmed the top of the water. He remembered, as a child, climbing dilapidated parts of the wall while his grandpa turned a blind eye.

His grandfather had lived in Huanghuacheng for most of his life, growing vegetables and selling food to the small number of tourists who showed up every summer. Li Chong often wondered how his grandfather had sustained himself over the years. He’d passed through the Cultural Revolution apparently unscathed, though he was usually unwilling to talk about those bloody years.

Li Chong’s mum had told him, in not so many words, that they didn’t know how long his grandfather had left to live. Apparently the old man had suffered a health scare, although he was being cagey with his relatives about the details. Anyway, it was decided that Li Chong should pay him a visit. The importance of keeping a light, casual manner had been impressed upon him.

Eventually Li Chong reached the solidly-built townhouse where his grandfather Li Yichang lived, an airy and pleasant place surrounded by cypresses. Before he could knock the door opened, and his grandfather patted him on the shoulder. He led him inside, offered him a seat, and began to boil a pot of water for tea.

‘I brought you a gift,’ Li Chong said, unzipping his rucksack and pulling out a book. It was a Chinese translation of twentieth-century Russian poetry, a genre his grandfather had recently become fond of.

‘Very kind of you,’ said Li Yichang, glancing into it before placing it delicately on the shelf.

He poured two cups of tea, his hands trembling faintly. He’d had Parkinson’s disease for almost a decade and had refused any treatment except that given by his local practitioner of Chinese medicine.

To the annoyance of the doctors at the community hospital, the dried herbs and colourful potions had somehow kept the symptoms under control.

‘Snow on a jade pond, from Sichuan province,’ said Li Yichang, passing his grandson a cup.

They drank tea in silence. It tasted of jasmine and vanilla. Li Yichang had no mobile phone, no television, not even a clock—the house was suffused with a brilliant silence. They drank it in, as they drank in the ‘Bi Tan Piao Xue’.

‘I want to give you something,’ his grandfather said, getting up from his chair. ‘Wait here and I will fetch it.’

Li Chong did as he was told. He watched the sunlight filter through the thin curtains. And sipped his tea. After a few minutes Li Yichang returned, carrying a large rectangular rosewood casket. With both hands he passed it to his grandson, who turned it around to examine the carving. It depicted a battle scene. Or rather the potential for a battle. The individual participants were hard to make out, but the overall image was clear: two armies, holding back, waiting for a signal…

‘Did you carve this?’

‘Yes. Open it.’

He opened the casket. It was empty. He showed it to his grandfather, whose eyes widened with surprise. Li Yichang grabbed it back, knocked on the inside, shook it over the wooden floor. Then he spotted a little thing which had fallen out of the box and knelt to examine it.

‘Look!’ he said. ‘Look!’

Li Chong knelt too. It was a white ant, its body bloated.

‘Termites,’ Li Yichang said. ‘They must have gotten inside. And eaten the contents. This is intolerable.’

‘Why didn’t they eat the wood?’ Li Chong wondered aloud.

‘It was coated in a special residue, to keep the termites away. Poisonous to them. But they must have discovered a way to get inside; perhaps a few of them sacrificed themselves by eating the deadly wood, leaving a gap for the others to enter.’

‘What was inside?’

‘Silver.’ Li Yichang stood up, folded his hands over his belly. ‘Valuable pieces of silver, which I have collected for many years. I wanted to give them to you.’ His eyes glinted like the substance which had been eaten. ‘I have an idea. Think about it: the white ants must have only recently escaped from the casket, otherwise the one that was still trapped would have died by now. We can get the silver back, maybe not all of it, but some of it. We just have to find out where they went.’

After twenty minutes of searching, Li Chong saw them in the garden. A stream of termites, hundreds of them. An uneven column.

‘Grandfather, come quickly!’

‘These must be the stragglers,’ his grandfather said, peering down at them. ‘It would have taken hundreds of thousands to eat the entire treasure. But we can follow them back to their home.’

They traced the march of the white ants all the way to a small, hollow cave. The termites flooded back into the rock like a stream of milky water travelling in reverse.

‘We must capture the whole lot of these termites,’ said Li Yichang. ‘Then we can put them in a crucible, melt them down, and recover at least a part of the silver they ate. Some of the pieces were beautiful, but we will have to settle for the scrap.’

‘Please, grandpa!’ Li Chong said. ‘Don’t kill them, not for the sake of some silver!’

‘Let me remind you that I’ve been saving that silver for years! I wanted to give it to you, the only son of my daughter.’

‘I appreciate it. I really do. But those pieces are gone. Like you said, all that remains is the scrap metal. Maybe we can only recover ten percent of what was eaten. I can’t bear to watch all those creatures killed for such a small amount of silver.’

His grandfather sighed. ‘Very well. I suppose you are right. But it still seems like an awful shame.’

‘I’m very sorry about this loss. But I’m grateful that you had the kind thought to give the silver to me.’

Li Yichang was upset about the silver all afternoon, but by the evening he had become more cheerful, and told Li Chong stories of his childhood. They ate a simple meal of vegetables and mantou, and then the boy went to sleep in his old room, the one he’d always stayed in when visiting his grandfather.

That night he dreamed.

He was in the midst of a mighty army. White soldiers all around. White armour, white swords, white shields. They had, it seemed, received good news, because they were cheering and beginning to leave the battlefield. A group of the soldiers came to Li Chong, bowed low, and courteously requested him to climb into one of their carriages, which were pulled by horses with pink eyes and flowing golden hair. He did so, and was whisked away; the vehicle moved so fast he could hardly see the landscapes they passed. Forests, lakes, rivers rushed past, a blur.

In no time at all they reached a shining utopia. A town of wondrous proportions. Castles of ivory, seas of glass. Adamantine towers pierced the clouds. All the buildings in the town gleamed. The people, all dressed in white robes, radiated health.

Li Chong was taken to the palace of their king. He stood before a throne made of polished silver and gemstones. The king, finely dressed in his royal robes, smiled upon the young boy, and said: ‘We faced certain destruction on the battlefield, but your benevolence has saved us from our enemy. You cannot begin to imagine how long this war has raged. It stretches back beyond the beginning of time; we are but vague, material extensions of unknowable forces. We are the eaters, the eaters of things. Do not judge us for our appetites. For centuries the scales have been tipping in favour of the Form Creator, our eternal nemesis, but you have restored balance. I apologise that the bad discipline of some of my soldiers caused you trouble recently, and I’m grateful that your mercy has saved us from disaster. How could we let your kindness go unrewarded? There is a tree near your grandfather’s home, one much taller than all the others. Three hundred years ago someone buried there a jar full of precious gold, silver and jewels. Dig it up, keep it for yourself! It is worth ten times the value of what you lost. You are the Unicorn. You will never hurt any living soul; I see this in your eyes. Reap what you have sown.’

Li Chong woke suddenly, feeling unusually well rested. He sat in bed, thinking about everything that had happened in the dream. The sky outside his room was still dark; the air was windless and cool. Nonsense, he told himself. It was just a dream.

Nevertheless, he crept out of bed and began to look for a spade.

(Based on a story from Lao Tzu’s Treatise on the Response of the Tao.)