And I can assure you that in the fruit season it often happens that fruit gathered in the morning in the city of Khan-balik is delivered on the evening of the next day to the Great Khan in the city of Shang-tu, ten days’ journey away.
– Marco Polo
My elbow hurt, and I had to urinate again. I put down my hoe and walked to the edge of the field. I had been gathering peas that were ripening early, pulling weeds and loosening the earth around the roots of the vines as I went by. By mid-morning I was halfway through; by mid-afternoon, I thought, I should be finished. I was beginning to imagine the dinner my wife would be preparing for me that night, a platter of fresh peas fried in oil with garlic and ginger, my son beside me and my daughter at my feet while I lifted the rice bowl and peas to my mouth and savoured the fragrance of the steam.
I looked down at the untilled ground and relieved myself, slowly. With my free hand I mopped my brow and massaged my elbow. The sun was burning brightly over the rolling fields and hills ahead of me and a heavy smell of clay and weeds and urine rose from the earth. Then I heard the bells in the distance, courier bells, ringing in code. Something was being brought northward from Kahn-balik to Shang-tu with high priority, passing through our Station, and soon to arrive.
The bells were like the singing of birds in the morning, or the rushing of water at the wheel-house by the river. I had laboured for years as a daily messenger, constantly at the call of those bells, and I became a new being because of it, proud of what I had become, what I had accomplished, what I had acquired – the land granted to me by the Khan, the offices and honours the village officials have bestowed upon me. On the one hundred and eighteenth day of the year I assist the Mayor at our festivities for the Message of the Spring; I am usually assigned to help supervise the fireworks display. On the one hundred and eighty-third day of the year I have a position near the front of the third formation in our mid-year parade, and I carry one of our ceremonial guns, an ornate arquebus, unloaded. On the seventeenth day of every month I am the Assistant Station-Master, acting in the Station-Master’s place. I get the couriers ready. I make sure the floor is swept. I enter an account of the day’s activity on the Station’s scroll. I am a man who has been lucky and happy and blessed and the bells are what have put me on the path.
Lucky man that I was, the earth was still moist in my nostrils as I lifted my head to the sound of the bells that day. Then a high-pitched whistle sounded out, two long notes followed by a short one and then another long. I was being summoned. I hadn’t expected that. It had been a long time since the Station had summoned me for courier work. I couldn’t really run anymore. Everyone knew that. But the whistle sounded out again, two long notes followed by a short one and then another long.
I put down my basket and my tools and dashed off. Fatigued or not, I would have to be at the Station by the time it took to count to one hundred and fifty. I dropped my tools where they were. Hoes and spades and baskets like mine are hard to come by, but I didn’t have the time to stow them securely; I hadn’t a moment to lose. And besides, I reminded myself, this was the age of Khan; there was no need to worry.
“Hoa-Tzen is sick,” the Station-Master told me as soon as I got to the Station and put my head through the door, “and no one else is here.” Because of our location – there are many villages like ours, equally close to Khan-balik, equally well situated as early posting points – our Station is not very large. The Station-Master led me to the back of the Station and indicated I should look out of the window to the yard. There was Hoa-Tzen, a very old acquaintance of mine, writhing on the ground, clutching his stomach. As we watched him jerking backwards and forwards on the ground the northward bells came upon us louder and louder. We went back to the waiting room in front, and in a moment Chiang-Lo-bak, who is a very good runner, was rounding the path to our door.
“Watermelons for the Emperor,” he told us, panting. He was wearing an unusual contraption, a large piece of canvas that was slipped over his head. The canvas had five very large compartments like pouches, three in the back and two in the front; and in each of the compartments was a large, spherical watermelon, deep green with pale green stripes. He had to unstrap the bells that were tied around his waist before he could remove the canvas. “Five watermelons, the best in Khan-balik,” he said, telling us his message. “It must be five, the mystic number five. From the gardens of Jiao-Li, grateful servant, to the table of the Great Khan, to be served during the festival on the twentieth day of the month. One of the watermelons doesn’t have any seeds.”
The Station-Master quickly took the contraption from the messenger Chiang-Lo-bak. I bent down on my knees and the Station-Master and Chiang-Lo-bak together raised the contraption over my head and fitted it over my body, three of the enormous melons in the back, two in the front. They were very heavy. As the Station-Master strapped the bells over the cloth around my waist, I repeated the message, which was to be repeated word for word from Station to Station for the next two days, until it reached the Steward of the Emperor, who would do with the message – and the watermelons – what he would.
“Five watermelons, the best in Khan-balik. It must be five, the mystic number five. From the gardens of Jiao-Li, grateful servant, to the table of the Great Khan, to be served during the festival on the twentieth day of the month. One of the watermelons doesn’t have any seeds.”
Chiang-Lo-Bak nodded, the Station-Master handed me a little note, and as I made it down the pathway to the road I could hear both of them saying behind me, “Go!”
An unusual assignment. I had carried gifts of fresh fruit to the Emperor before, but never watermelons. I was tired. I was old. And something wasn’t quite right. The cloth wasn’t fitted on me correctly. With every pace I took the watermelons bounced in their pouches; the watermelons in the back hopping up and down, banging against my back, the watermelons in front swinging somewhat wildly, from side to side and up and down. The canvas wasn’t tied tightly enough. The Station-master and Chiang-Lo-bak must have thought that my belt with the bells would hold everything in place, but the belt itself hung a little loosely, and there was plenty of slack in the canvas contraption. I was running as best I could, trying to pace myself, but as I went up on a stride the watermelons at my back flew up, and as I came down the watermelons at my back fell down, slapping against my backbone. As I was coming down the watermelons were still going up; as I was going up the watermelons were still coming down, and they would thump and slap against my spine. In the meantime, the watermelons I was carrying in front of me were hanging so loose and swinging so wildly that I had to hold onto them with my hands and my forearms, clenching my elbows to my sides, lest they jump out of their pouches altogether.
I considered stopping and retying my load, but how could I stop? It is my responsibility to move and to keep on moving. Already, perhaps, the next Station had heard my bells, announcing the northward dispatch of something for the city of Shang-tu, where the Emperor was in residence. They would be listening to the volume and the rhythm of my bells, estimating my time of arrival. They would not know what to think if they heard me stop. I would be humiliated if they heard me stop.
In moments like this, one needs to concentrate on one’s task and imagine the happiness of completing it. For me, at first, this was easy. All the main roads in our part of China have a row of poplar trees planted on both sides; this makes the road visible from a distance. As I made my way up and down the inclines of the road north, hugging the watermelons hanging in front of me, trying to keep my strides low so that the watermelons at my back wouldn’t hop up too high away from me and crash too hard against my backbone, I imagined the long sweep of poplars ahead of me, the two parallel rows of them, evenly spaced, all of them virtually the same height, their leaves twinkling like coins in the wind, like stars amid the winds of the heavens, one tree after another after another, one on the left, one on the right – I imagined and I saw those rows of poplars ahead of me and I thought of how easy and stately was the path that had been laid out for me. For a moment I could even imagine that I was myself one of those trees, and that my outstretched arms might support a constellation of twinkling stars. I scented the fragrance of the mid-morning around me. I listened to the jangling of the bells tied around my waist. My arms were cramped, my back was starting to smart at the repeated blows it was suffering, my sides were aching because of the adjustment I had had to make in my stride, and I was tired. I thought about my heart. There was an ache in my heart. But now I passed one tree, and now another, proceeding on the path that had been laid out for me, and even while moving, hurrying my strides, I felt myself to be no less a heavenly sentinel than the trees themselves; it was in my motion that I partook of the heavens and stood for the heavens and experienced in myself the contentment of the heavens; and I recalled my good fortune in life, my field, my honours, my family, my home.
So I tried to make the necessary adjustments and to overcome my discomfort. I ran with my head tight, my back straight, my knees bent, my elbows clenched to my sides, my hands out, palms open, holding onto the ends of the two bouncing watermelons hanging from my neck. I was holding the thumping of the watermelons at my back to a minimum. My bells were clattering, and the people at the next Station by now had certainly heard them; they were waiting for me. I did not have that far to go. I was a sentinel in motion, I said to myself, animating the movements of the stars.
There is a part of the road from our Station to the next which rises steeply from the side of a gully to a long plateau. The incline gave me trouble. A load of any kind would have slowed me down as I made my way up the rise; now I had a heavy load, and I couldn’t run with a normal posture and I was afraid of losing my balance. I was forced to slow down – I am ashamed of it – almost to the pace of a walk as I pushed myself up the rise, now one foot forward, now the other. The canvas full of watermelons was tearing at my neck; it was cutting into my skin.
Just as I was coming to the top of the rise, though, when I could feel a pain in the pounding of my heart, and my legs were just about giving out, I heard a rustling from off the side of the road. What was it? How could I have heard anything over the sound of the bells clattering at my waist? I looked to my right. A thicket of small trees and scrub, not fifty paces from the line of poplars on the side of road, rose up the incline from beside the gully. Then, at the top of the rise, the thicket opened up into a grove of oaks and elms. I thought I heard a young woman’s voice, or maybe a child’s voice, or maybe both. I ambled toward the side of the road. I was so tired, my legs were so weak. But what was it? I dared not stop to look. I must have been daydreaming. I hadn’t heard anything, I hadn’t seen anything. My load was falling and I had to go on. But I thought I heard a woman’s voice. Up on the plateau, the road giving before me, I looked through the poplars into the grove, and for a moment I thought I saw a woman, yes a young woman, naked, making her way through the trees. And there was a man there, fully dressed, a young man with very short hair. But no, I couldn’t see anything. There was no one there. Except – “Aii!” I heard a scream, and I looked over to the right again, and tried to stop myself, and I felt myself losing my footing, stumbling over something, and lurching off the road into a tree.
The tree stopped my fall. I righted myself. I took a deep breath and started down the level road. I had to make up for the lost time, the lost heartbeats of time. I might have to explain the momentary silence of my bells. But I had to keep going, and kept on going. I ran. It was easier now. The road led straight and level to the next Station; there was not far to go. But I felt it now: during my fall against the tree the pouch at my belly had ripped. If I wasn’t careful the watermelon would tumble out. I grasped it more tightly. And then I saw that the watermelon had a gash in it, a deep gash, about two thumbs long.
Now I had a problem. I could not deliver a watermelon with a gash in it. By now my bells had to be very loud to the men at the next Station. I thought of the stars and the movement of the heavens and I thought of how, just a few moments before, I had managed to recall how fortunate I had been in my life so far. I had done what I had been obliged to do and I had been honoured for it. I thought of our parade on the one hundred and eighty-third day of the year, how I marched in the third row of the third formation with the ornate arquebus.
And then I came to a decision. It was clear – for a moment, everything was clear. Coming to a near stop, I went off the side of the road, behind a poplar. I kept my legs going up and down and I swung my hips to and fro to keep my bells ringing, lest anyone think something had gone wrong. Then as I jogged in place and swung my hips I drew the gashed watermelon out of its pouch, raised it over my head, and threw it as far as I could into the brush. My throw was not very elegant, but there the watermelon went, away from me, away from the road. It hit the ground and smashed into pieces, the dark green rind bursting open, red juice erupting from the melon’s flesh. Wet red flesh and large black-brown seeds, bits and pieces of flesh thrown out about the ruins of the melon’s hull. I went up to it for a moment, still shaking my bells, and kicked the largest pieces into the scrub, hiding them as best I could, leaving the rest for the birds and the worms. Then I jogged up and down back to the road, and without breaking the rhythm of the bells around my waist I resorted to a run at my regular pace.
I did not have far to go. Though I was more tired and sore than ever, and though my heart was on fire, as the road was level, and my load a little lighter, and the end of my journey in sight, I picked up my pace, I ran with confidence now; I had seen what had to be done; I had understood, I thought; I had kept to my path and now my final goal was happily before me. I unbent my knees and curved my back and went swiftly and smoothly down to the Station, my load still bouncing on me but not so precariously. I lifted my head, I clenched my teeth and my lips together. I made my way up the path to the Station, where a large group of men were waiting for me. Just as I reached the threshold of the Station I heard something, a loud blast coming from somewhere behind me, gunpowder going off. Announcing my arrival? It couldn’t be; it had to be children somewhere, playing at making a festival, setting off bombs. The men around me started, but we all knew that we had work to do and couldn’t allow ourselves to be interrupted. I handed the Station-Master my little note. I bent down and several men unloosened the bells around my waist and lifted the canvas contraption over my head. We heard another explosion and again we paid it no attention. I stood and watched as the men placed the canvas over the head of the next messenger for the road to Shang-tu. I put my face into a countenance of seriousness, purposiveness, and pride. Everyone was silent, waiting. There was a third explosion in the distance. I caught my breath.
“Watermelons for the Emperor,” I finally said. “Four watermelons, the best in Khan-balik. It must be four, the mystic number four. From the garden of Jiao-Li, grateful servant, to the table of the Great Khan, to be served during the festival on the twentieth day of the month. One of the watermelons doesn’t have any seeds.”
* * *
I walked back to my village slowly, wanting to give my body time to heal itself. My back and my shoulders were cramped. There was a sore around my neck where the canvas had cut into my skin. My heart was still on fire. I had never felt myself so overcome by labour. I had succeeded in my mission, but I wasn’t satisfied. I had never felt so old.
I would have to check in at my Station before returning to my field, and I thought of telling my Station-Master that I was taking ill, perhaps with the same malady that was afflicting Hoa-Tzen, so that I would not be called upon to run any more messages that day. It was time, perhaps, to petition the Emperor for my formal retirement from the service. My son was still too young to take my place, but even so, couldn’t a man rest himself when it was time? Or would my early retirement jeopardise the place at the Station that had been reserved for my son? What would my son do if there wasn’t a place at the Station for him? We would not have enough peas for dinner tonight, I reflected. I would not be able to work my field any longer that day.
As I was thinking about all this, coming down the road to the gully, I noticed some commotion. I saw something awful: a body, bloody, the body of a man, motionless, prostrate on the ground. It looked as if the man was dead. I saw an Officer of the Peace standing over him, holding a firearm in his hand. There were other people, another Officer of the Peace. There were several women from our village. The Mayor of our village was running down the road coming toward the gully. “What has happened, what?” he was saying. I could hear the sound of a horse trot coming near – one of the noblemen resident in our sector of the world. Others were coming, more women, more children. I could hear a second horse. They had heard the gunshots. By now the word was probably already going around the district that something awful had happened by the gully.
I came down the sloping road and approached the crowd. I saw the dead man plainly. I didn’t know him. His face and his shoulders and chest were covered with blood; a chunk of his shoulder was blown off. I started to get closer, then I retreated. I didn’t want to see this. Amidst the crowd there was another body on the ground, the body of a naked young woman. I looked. Her belly and her throat were covered with blood. She had been stabbed. She had been stabbed many times. Her pudendum was unusually large, covered with unusually thick, black wiry hair. But she was very thin and her skin was very light. She had not been eating enough. The ribs were sticking out from under her skin. I didn’t know her.
“Stay away, stay away,” I could hear one of the Officers of the Peace saying. A woman was bending over the dead girl.
“She’s breathing,” the woman said.
“She’s not breathing,” someone else said.
“She’s dead,” a third person said.
“She had a child,” the first woman said. “She always had the child with her. Where’s the child?”
“Someone look for the child,” the Officer with the firearm said. He was looking up, trying to take command of the situation. He was trying to hold back the tears in his eyes.
Several people ran into the scrub. I could no longer stand by passively, I decided. I went into the scrub with the others. We tramped around the rocks and the grass and the mud of a stream. The Mayor was among us. “Go that way,” he said to someone. “Go that way,” he said to me, pointing up the hill. I went a few paces up into the trees, and then away from the trees to an outgrowth of brush. I kicked around the undergrowth, and then I saw it lying on the ground: more flesh, another body. It was a little boy, about three years old, shirtless, wearing only a pair of thick cotton shorts, his body gashed and hacked by a dagger. From a gash in his belly something pink was slipping out, like watermelon meat; blood had run from the cut at his throat onto his neck and shoulders. There were other cuts on his upper body, shallow cuts mainly, as if his assailant had been hacking at him uncertainly until he’d finally found the puncture point at the child’s belly and the fatal point at the child’s neck, just under the chin, where the blood would gush.
I bent down and stared into the little boy’s face. I found myself brushing the hair back from the boy’s forehead, I don’t know why. And then I touched his nose, his tiny nose, the way I used to do with my son when my son was about this age, tapping the nose lightly on the tip. I waited awhile, staring at the boy’s nose as if by concentrating on it, responding to its beauty, I could provoke a sign of life from it. But there would be no heavings of life from this boy anymore.
I don’t know how long I waited there staring at the boy. Eventually I had him in my arms, and I was walking with him in my arms down to the gully, and while I was walking I could feel my hands getting wet from the blood, and I wanted to cry. At first when I returned to the gully no one noticed me. They were all huddling in front of the Officer with the firearm, standing over the body of the man who had been shot, and the woman who had been stabbed, listening to the Officer tell his story.
“I could hear her screams halfway to the village,” the Officer was saying. “When I got here I could see the man chasing her down the gully, but she was already hurt. I could see her fall. I saw him pounce on her. I called out for him to stop, but he didn’t pay any attention to me. I ran up to them. He was straddling her, stabbing her with his knife. ‘Stop or I’ll shoot,’ I said. But he didn’t stop, he kept on driving his knife into her neck, and so I shot him. I had to. And the first shot didn’t even slow him down, so I had to reload and shoot him again and then one more time just to make sure.”
Everyone was quiet, listening to the Officer, watching him choke back his emotions.
“He was her husband,” one of the women said. “He used to beat her, so she left him. She was living alone with her child. Her family wouldn’t take her back.”
There was a silence. I stepped forward. Then finally everybody turned to me, saw me with the boy in my arms, and gasped in horror.
* * *
Some time later I made it back to the Station. Hoa-Tzen had recovered from his stomach illness. He and the Station-Master and a couple of other couriers, now returned from their latest runs, were sitting together in the main waiting room, drinking tea, playing a board game. They had probably already heard about what had happened by the gully, and when they saw me walk in, still smeared with the blood of the little boy, they must have inferred that I had been involved in the affair.
I didn’t know what to say. So much was running through my mind, so many ideas, so many messages, so many images I didn’t want to imagine, so many complaints I didn’t want to lodge. There are no mystic numbers, I wanted to say. There are too many sentinels. There are not enough sentinels. There are too many stars and too many leaves on the trees.
I don’t think I managed to say anything at all. I stood in front of the other men, silent and shaking, and then I walked out, wandering by the hedges and the ponds and the fields, not even knowing what to say to myself anymore. Wouldn’t you know it, I finally heard myself saying to myself. I wanted to blame Jiao-Li, that nobleman of the city with the daring ideas, but it would not have been right and I did not blame him.
Eventually, after wandering for how long I don’t know, I made it back to my little plot of land close to the Station, and returned to the point from which I had begun, to the little space between two rows of peas, where the vines were healthy and tall, and the pods were pregnant with early fruit. But my hoe and my spade and my basket of peas were gone.
Robert Appelbaum is Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Uppsala University and Senior Professor in Arts and Communication at Malmö University, both in Sweden. A native New Yorker, he was educated at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley. His many publications include Aguecheek's Beef, winner of the 2007 Roland H. Bainton Prize, Dishing It Out: In Search of the Restaurant Experience, and Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption.