War Among the Insects
The bees have decreased in number. Before the bees, the fireflies decreased in number. One day, a pink flamingo (bending its long neck, standing on one leg, as if about to doze off) appeared in my dream. From that one bird, innumerable others suddenly multiplied, assembling in neat ranks, like a matrix. The flamingos spoke soundlessly: We must reclaim our pink from Hello Kitty.
To the right, red; to the left, white. In the middle, pink. A color cheapened from indiscriminate use by young girls and their imitators. A color now calling to mind "Sex and the City." Desiring glamour, but also purity; not daring to be "Red Rose," but not content to be "White Rose" either. Pink flamingos, if you seek redress against those who have stolen your hue, I'm afraid you'll have too many enemies.
At the time the following story takes place, very few colors belong to mankind. Pink is not among them.
Nights are still very black in these times; the stars in the sky are plainly visible. Not one by one but in constellations: the beast, the dragon, the bird, the woman, the fish, the hunter. No other light exists. Except for lamps inside homes, fires at city gates, and the infinitesimal glow of the few species that emit light in the wilderness outside the city, night is pitch-black. Come night, more concrete entities can be seen in the realm of the sky than on land.
Fireflies are lights delimiting the visible. At riverbanks where water and earth mix, in swamps and in wetlands, animals hesitate, vacillating between the use of gills, the use of lungs; the need to swim, the need to walk. In terrain characterized by ambiguity, the faint light of insects can be seen. Their glow absorbs the darkness surrounding it, softens it, then penetrates into its deepest interior. Man can take heart: in Night's darkness, the source of light is yet contained. Even under a cloud-covered sky, one can see the star mimicked by a firefly. Cool twilight. A concrete body in the midst of the unknown. The man in this story has seen this firefly. In the empty spaces of his own body, a light seems to flash as well. The firefly copies the star, the cells in his body copy the firefly.
At a further distance from the riverbank is another kind of light. Marsh lights—will-o'-the-wisps. There, the earth has left behind the shore. Life—having transcended the vacillation between habitats, having grown the corporeality required for Earth's gravitational atmosphere—becomes resolute. The man now looks at the distant marsh light with the same pair of eyes he used to look at the firefly. A corpse lies below it, he knows. Although, from this distance, in the night's blackness, the corpse's white bones are denoted by mere light, flickering intermittently like a faint smell. At times, he thinks: It's not life but death that is bright. Life is in darkness.
He knew that skeleton. He knew it when it still had flesh, blood, and a person's name.
Man does not decide who gets to be man. War decides. Which ones get buried under the ground, whose story gets recorded as History, which women get to keep the children that they have borne.
That year, the locusts came from the East.
"A conceptual attack. Afterwards, the real battle of the flesh."
A lone green grasshopper perches on a reed, munching leaves. A child reaches out and plucks it gently with his fingers. He plays with the grasshopper. When his mother calls out "Dinner!" the child crushes the insect and throws it away.
One day—nobody knows when or why—the grasshoppers multiply past a critical point; en masse, they mutate, grow mad. Having grown ferocious trampling limbs, these newly aggressive insects will even eat animals. Unrecognizable, a new species. Overpopulation (and with it, increased friction among grasshoppers) has emboldened them, causing a change in their very nature. They become something different altogether, just like the city dweller is unlike the human being of the underpopulated plains.
"Such is the stubborn resistance you shall face. In reaction to the victory of the Kingdom of Qin, the six kingdoms in the East will band together. These dust-like Easterners will form one hybrid beast: an animal with the wings of the Yan Kingdom, the body of the Chu Kingdom, the eyes of the Zhao Kingdom, and the bones of the Qi Kingdom."
Yingzheng, at 15 years of age, had a clear-headed solution to this problem—it involved taking matters into his own hands.
An eagle, suspended at a height. Buoyed by air currents. Waiting, or watching. Maybe neither. Being in mid-air—that's its existence entire. Just as mating is sometimes an animal's only raison d'être. The eagle in flight can perceive the direction of every feather, and the directions of the different air currents lifting it up. It senses too the empty spaces in its body, in conversation with the immense space of the sky outside. Space translating space.
It hears coming from all directions above and below the sounds of other bird species. Among these others who travel in the same air, some have small wings, flying at low altitude, disturbing the air at greater frequency, shrill, noisy. Bigger birds fly at higher altitudes; their wings, which beat only once in a while, nevertheless control the direction of air currents, as if leaving a claw print in the air. Thus the eagle merges its body into the air current, flaps its wings a few times, thereby signaling its respect to the giant condor in the distance.
After gliding past the mountaintop, the eagle begins its descent. At touchdown, it metamorphoses into a man, with a head of white hair but a youthful face.
At the very beginning, the ancestors of the Qin people lived in the East and kept watch over sunrise. Later on, they moved to the West and kept watch over sunset. The ancestral spirits of Qin became a flock of birds, scattering between the East and the West. Each one of these birds, wherever it was, kept watch over its own meridian line where day changed into night. Time is a seam. Where you stood—east or west of this line—might yet determine the course of an entire civilization. At its easternmost point, the birds welcomed daybreak; at its westernmost, the birds welcomed night.
The flock had heard that on the other side of the mountain was another God watching over sunset. This was not merely hearsay; the birds themselves sensed it. So they each kept to their own lots, careful not to overstep their boundaries out of respect for that netherworld God of whom they knew nothing, only that He was completely different from them, so completely different that both of them could not exist on the same mountainside. Keeping one's distance seemed the best way of showing reverence.
There were several rumors about who this Western God might be. Some said He was a tiger. Some said the Golden people. Some said He was the God of Autumn, the God of Death, the God of Executions. The day He appeared, true and false, right and wrong, were born. With truth came the possibility that man could commit wrong. No one could be right forever. Thus man would always live in fear of severe punishment from the Gods. No one escaped; no one could forego the process of maturation, of getting old, of dying that the Gods made mortals go through. Once he became an adult, Man would be held accountable for his wrongs. Then, when he became old and afflicted with sickness, he would feel, as death approached, that he was being punished. At his death, he would at last enter the netherworld. What happened thereafter could no longer be discussed among men.
Some say life and death are blurred. It's possible to die without realizing it. No voice has ever returned from that place. The dead leave behind their voices. Their voices echo back and forth in the valley of the dead, waiting for the arrival of those they had stood up in their past lives. There, there'd be no other place to go; one would not miss one's appointments.
The ancestral spirits did not know what would become of the Qin Kingdom, the situation having unfolded beyond the understanding of these Gods turned birds. The spirits of all Qin emperors before Yingzheng were now part of the flock; only momentarily do they become men, before transforming into birds.
There was something about this Yingzheng that poised him to overturn ancestral etiquette, all the past emperors knew. But what exactly, none of them could say. They only knew time, the fact that with time all life goes to seed. That the soul would return to the flock, its time on Earth having been merely a field trip to gather data, to add one more computational variable to collective knowledge.
Keep watch, that was all one could do. And to keep watch was just to wait.
At sunset, a commotion arises in the West. The man metamorphosed from the eagle stands on a ridge, pricking his ears. He seems to understand, but also not to understand. The voice has come from the opposite side of the mountain, from the land of the dead. The dead: those who stubbornly keep watch and wait without end while their voices echo back and forth within the valley.
Can Yingzheng resist repetition? Can you? Can Man resist repetition?
The man jumps off the mountain ridge. His body, like a drop of rain falling into the ocean, merges with the air currents of the mountain. His arms transform into wings. He is an eagle again.
At 13, Yingzheng inherits the throne.
Before power comes death. The throne by necessity a product of death. After all, only when Yingzheng's father dies does he stand to inherit it.
Too young to be king? Not really, since most matters are overseen by Lü Buwei. Lü who has supported him, even killing, for his sake, Yingzheng's half-brother borne of a different mother. Because—and he read this from Lü's gaze—no one must stand between Yingzheng and his rightful throne.
Rumor has it that Yingzheng's younger brother was killed because he was not the Emperor's biological son, but a bastard that resulted from his concubine mother's straying: a walking time-bomb of scandal each day he was alive.
"Must have been Old Lü's doing, this rumor," Yingzheng thought, the first time someone told this to him. Lü couldn't care less about the purity of the throne's lineage or a woman's claim to chastity, he believes. His informant was the eunuch who waits daily on him hand and foot. Every morning, as the eunuch dresses him, he also delivers updates of the previous day's goings-on, news of the palace. Yingzheng relies almost too much on this eunuch. But after all this is the person he opens his eyes to every day, since coming to live in the palace. At night, dreams and visions envelop him; half asleep at daybreak, he can't tell where he is. It's this eunuch who gets him out of bed. Puts clothes on him, awakens the sensation of touch in his skin. Speaks to him, restores through language his world, his identity, his history, the very rules of his existence.
"According to hearsay, he was not in fact borne of the Emperor. Your Highness, if word got out about this, can you imagine the scandal it would have brought your father? That's why Master Lü had no choice but to kill him. The dignity of the Emperor must be preserved at all costs; if not, chaos will rule. You, your Highness, are the Emperor's only son. It's you who are the Prince!"
Hearing this, he starts. "Must have been Old Lü's doing, this rumor." But he only grunts in acknowledgment, throwing the eunuch a glance. He is surprised and disgusted, but he doesn't show it. He must be obeying Old Lü, telling me all this. This eunuch is Old Lü's underling.
Only one second and the glance is over. From that point, whenever he looks upon this eunuch again, he feels only indifference.
Yingzheng does not mind having a younger brother. But his grandmother had doted on this younger brother; this alone made him more than a younger brother. Now he represented danger; he had to die. Yingzheng learns: love is dangerous; he must, if only out of self-preservation, eradicate the love he never got.
He still remembers the day he first arrived at the palace from Handan. He was taken to pay respects to his grandmother, Queen Mother Xia. His half-brother was sitting on her knee. Even then, his younger sibling was the one getting all the attention.
At that time, his father, Yiren, a former hostage of the Zhao Kingdom, had absconded back to his own country and ruled it for several years. At Handan, Yingzheng and his mother waited for the day they would return to their kingdom and reunite with his father—whether that promise would be kept or broken, who knew. All this while as they waited, it was constantly drummed into Yingzheng that there existed in a faraway land another version of himself, nobler and richer, a Yingzheng who had no need of worry. A Princehood, like a piece of stored luggage, waiting to be claimed.
It was during this period of waiting, while Yingzheng counted the days to his return, that his half-brother was born. A child who never lived apart from his parents, growing up in the palace as he did; a child who even had a grandmother. Yingzheng doesn't have a grandmother. When, taken to pay respects to the Queen Mother for the first time that day, he raised his eyes hopefully and beheld instead her cold expression, the thought occurred to him at once: "I don't have a grandmother."
One day, the Queen Mother sprang a visit on the two of them and his younger brother, despite his age, switched immediately to a nasal childlike voice, playing innocent, Yingzheng could tell, or playing dumb. The Queen Mother bought the act hook, line and sinker. Everything the younger sibling said was met with laughter and praise from the matriarch. The moment the Queen Mother stepped out, however, he switched back to his arrogant and cold self. This episode marked the first time Yingzheng experienced what others call jealousy. Even though he told himself that it was the pretense of it all that offended him. A pretense by this spoilt sibling who had never gone through his ordeal. Ignoring Yingzheng, the younger brother kept his head down and continued playing with his alloyed toy—a bronze beast.
Love, like any luxury item, ought to be strictly rationed according to a quota system. Love: something that the younger brother got immediately, at birth. Yingzheng knew, however, and this was what Lü wanted him to believe too: only he had the right to the luxury of love. Transgressor, die.
The Palace of Life
One's right to the throne, one's sexual allure, one's status: none of these is fixed. No power is inherent. All has to be won. I know. From the first, I have known. Including who I am, whose child I am: these can all be tampered with. My father—he's a good example.
Yiren, my father, was the son of the Qin Prince.
At that time, the Prince—that is, my grandfather who later ascended to the throne—was married to many wives who collectively bore his many children. So many that adding one more made no difference—or taking one away, for that matter. Having more children increases the probability of passing on one's DNA. My grandfather cared a lot about increasing this probability.
But to my father this posed a problem—an existential problem, if you will. Amid the heap of sons bore by my grandfather, that is, amid my father and the heap of his brothers, only one of them stood to become the Prince, and thereafter, the Emperor.
Apart from this Prince-elect, any one of the other sons might be offered up for barter.
My father belonged to the kind that might be exchanged for another. His mother, Concubine Xia, was not the first in line (hers was not the womb designated to bear the Prince-elect) nor was she the apple of the Prince's eye. Far from it, in fact. She had lost her sexual allure. Nor was my father outstanding in any way since he did not leave a deep impression on the Prince. As such, the probability of his being elected to Princehood was as good as nil. One day, at a diplomatic meeting, the Qin chancellor and the Zhao chancellor had a falling out. As a result, both threatened to use military action to batter the other kingdom's city walls, farmlands, palaces, and temples. After threatening each other, they yet concurred to blackmail both their own Emperors upon return to their kingdoms; it was put to each Emperor that one of his Prince's sons might be dispatched as a hostage to the other Emperor.
Over in the Qin Kingdom, the officials from Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs drew up a list of possible candidates and submitted their names to the Emperor and to the Prince. The most resourceful of the Prince's sons had managed to win the affection of both Emperor and Prince—no question about it; their names would not make the list. The second most resourceful were those who managed to pull strings; their names would also be excluded. Yiren belonged to the third kind, and so entered the list.
Before leaving, he went to bid farewell to the Prince.
"What's your name?" asked the Prince.
"I am Yiren," he said before adding: "Father, Your Excellency."
His calling him father awakened a feeling of kinship in the Prince's heart. He felt shame, forgetting his own son's name. The Prince clasped Yiren's hand, and bid him drink wine. The drink caused Yiren to fall into a stupor the moment he boarded the carriage, so that he departed in a daze, without a single tear.
The anxiety began after his arrival in the Zhao Kingdom. If peace had been assured, the hostage exchange would never have happened in the first place. Rumors of war between the two kingdoms had never been far. Yiren worried that the very moment something went awry, Zhao soldiers would barge into his room and drag him to their torture chambers. In a foreign kingdom, in a foreign land, in a foreign city, he was hard-pressed to pinpoint his value as guarantor. If war erupted, no one would give a damn whether he lived or died. Except himself.
Yiren would rather perish amid a battlefield's confusion than die alone, as a hostage. A hostage dies a most lonesome death. Before fighting even begins on the battlefield, he is singled out for torture and execution. Being in a group is safer than being alone; it's in numbers that life achieves victory, anyway. Had it not been for his father's sperm swimming en masse towards his mother's egg, Yiren's birth would have been most unlikely. Just as life begins among other sperm, so too should life end among other people. There was something terrifying about dying alone. At least that was what Yiren thought.
The first person to tell him not to obsess about dying alone was Lü Buwei.
"Come now, think again. It's you who should be Prince," Lü cajoled. "I know you don't want to die alone, but this doesn't mean you ought to hide among the rest. It's you... It's you who are Prince." As if Yiren himself could not recognize his own worth. But the image that came to Yiren was that of a sellavision ad. In it, he was the product being advertised.
At heart a trader, Lü had a certain flair. A flair for picking out a good, multiplying its value, then selling it. A flair for seeing into the "future." Known as "the Fisherman," Lü could locate the strange, the rare and the precious in the commonplace, transforming a piece of rock into luxuriant gold.
It was said afterwards by all that Lü had sharp foresight, investing as he did in Yiren. What a fantastic pick. Lü only smiled. In point of fact, Yiren was not his first investment. Concubine Zhao was.
Some say that Lü is my second father. Others have said he is in fact my true biological father. I know what people whisper among themselves, that he planted me, seed-like, in a woman's body, then sent that woman to Yiren. Like parasitic wasps laying eggs in other insects' bodies so that their offspring might feed off their hosts. Carrying Lü's DNA in me, I have infiltrated the Qin to become their heir.
They say that Lü only did so much for me because he truly loved me. Who knows. Traders aren't exactly known to put all their eggs in one basket. Who knows how many other eggs Lü might have planted, in other kingdoms? I may simply have been the first to incubate successfully.
(The unsuccessful don't get written up, you understand? For every person who makes it into history books—those whose eggs have hatched successfully—are the hundreds of thousands that don't!)
We resemble parasitic wasps, all of us. The grand plan conceived for my father, Yiren, by Lü, was exactly the sort of strategy adopted by these parasites. He found the crux of the problem: that my father was not special in any way—which is why he even became a hostage in the first place. What my father should have done was not hide among the crowd in the hope that people would forget to kill him—no! It should have been to cultivate his individuality. "If you desire to live, be that special one. Your father's true heir." Lü cajoled.
"How can I be that special one?" My father asked. He who only thought of hiding, not how to vie for affection.
"Your father has a thing for Madam Huayang. She has no son. Go and be her son."
In my and my father's time, sons can be created artificially, outside the womb. Lü pulled some strings and before long, Yiren was calling Madam Huayang his foster mother.
First Yiren's biological mother, the Concubine Xia, lost her allure—and with it her husband's affection. Now her son, Yiren, called someone else Mother. This meant that on the woman's battlefield, she had lost twice. But my grandmother was no ordinary woman. Swallowing anger and hatred, she meekly congratulated Madam Huayang for acquiring a truly excellent heir.
Thereafter, my father Yiren became a parasitic wasp, feeding off the Prince and Madam Huayang. While his biological mother, Concubine Xia, kept silent. It's not the end of the story yet, so no one can know who the real Queen Bee is.
Madam Huayang was originally a Chu princess. One might also see her as a parasitic wasp. A parasitic wasp sent to infiltrate the Qin Palace. Perhaps that was why she was willing to play the role of Yiren's host. They had the same goal, the two of them. Without a child of her own, Madam Huayang knew, she would not hold the Prince's affection forever. To procure her own long-term survival, she needed to deposit her future somewhere on the Prince's body. Yiren represented an opportunity to do just that. She recognized that opportunity and cultivated it.
It must be stressed that this was as much Madam Huayang's strategy as Lü's. He was the one who sent Yiren to her, but she had also to agree to take Yiren in. It was he who planted this egg in Madam Huayang and the Qin Prince's marriage, but wasn't she, a Chu princess, also planting a Chu egg in the Qin Kingdom? Perhaps she had known then that this egg would hatch into a monster that would in the end finish her. But she must have been prepared for such a possibility. When I think of it now, it must have been at that time that the seed of discord was first sown that later grew and bore the fruit of massacre. I am the child of a parasitic wasp, and the executor of that massacre.
The world is about to close its doors. A long era is about to end. Those who know better do their best to find good (read, wealthy) families to host their offspring, so their DNA will pass on into power and affluence. Breeding, bartering, placing all on that one bet: anything for the upper hand in a new era, anything to win. In Madam Huayang's homeland, the Chu Kingdom, almost the same games are being played, the same parasitic experiments. For example, Chun Shenjun made a singer pregnant, then sent her, knocked up, onto the palace grounds. But he did not succeed. He did not even see that the singer's true love was her own brother. "Their child" was in fact the consequence of incest between the singer and her brother, and the political struggle only a cover.
The Womb of Death
At this point, you might think to pity me. Even though I don't care for anyone's pity. But you understand now why I hardly knew anything about myself, afterwards? I had forgotten where I had come from, my true provenance. Which is the correct version: the one in the official Qin records—the story that Lü, my father, wanted me to believe—or what Queen Mother Xia hinted at with her glacial expression? Whose child am I? I don't know anymore. Perhaps I'll ask Mother. Only for a long time now, she has stopped speaking to me because I have had all her lovers killed.
One day I closed my eyes and saw the sea. The sea that I had never before set eyes upon, an endless body of water.
Seeing this image, I suddenly got it. As if someone had projected a documentary on the wall of my brain. A silent film but I got it all the same:
"What's happening now doesn't matter. Only the future matters."
"Everything I see now will disappear. Everyone I know will die. Only the future, no matter what it brings, will happen."
I want to go to that future. To participate in it. I want to be present for a certain something when it happens. Even if it's death.
From now on, when I see people walking before me, people who are alive and walking, I think I'm looking at the dead future. I already see the deaths that lie in store for them. I shall wear black. I shall make it our official color. Still alive, these citizens of Qin don't know I am paying respects to them, sending them off to heaven. But death is the end result—nothing to grieve about. At least for me, who knows nothing yet of life's joy.
Life's joy was the first thing Lü taught my father.
"Someone of your status should indulge in more pleasures," he said.
"Women, for example." Lü continued, nostrils flaring, looking meaningfully at Yiren. "Not any woman. A good woman. Which is not easy to find."
Saying this, Lü slowly undressed Concubine Zhao, one piece of clothing after another.
A maid, having filled Yiren's wine cup, lowered herself; she used her fingers first to envelope Yiren's penis, then her mouth.
The final piece of clothing slid off of Concubine Zhao.
"Have a look, isn't she exquisite? Not only are Zhao women beauties, they have been groomed to service men and make them feel ten years younger. The kind of woman who can distract men from battle but also make them go to war."
By now completely naked, Concubine Zhao was not in the least red-faced. Lü put a finger inside her. "See, Master Yiren? Here's a good woman for you. Always wet." Lü now set Concubine Zhao on the bed, his finger rubbing her clit.
"I'm over the hill," Lü said, and stood up. "You young people have fun. Make sure that Master Yiren has a good time." He grabbed the maid, who was still fellating Master Yiren, and went with her to the area behind the folding screen.
The bright, smooth body of Concubine Zhao sidled over. He put his arms around her waist. Her nubile body wrapped around him like a summer shirt. With a deft twist of her hip she slipped inside his robe. Her thigh pressed hotly against his cock.
It felt good. Despite himself, a moan escaped from his throat.
Wine and food be damned. He pinned down the beauty and commenced love-making.
Lü, while being serviced by the maid, watched over the short folding screen. That old fox. Yiren cursed inwardly, but the depraved voyeurism only added to the thrill. Eyes glazed, Concubine Zhao thrashed even more; he suddenly felt as if he had known her for a long time. Their acquaintance went back further than ancient times—a memory stored in genes, perhaps from the time when the two of them were beasts, no, when they were insects, mating. Just mating. It felt good. Forgetting. Forgetting one's status, forgetting one's kingdom, a kingdom pitted against other kingdoms; forgetting barter, forgetting all these rare, precious things.
The light cast Lü and the maid's love-making on the folding screen; Yiren could make out from their silhouettes what was going on. Fat Lü had grabbed the petite maid by her waist and was pumping into her, his stomach whacking against her uplifted ass.
Yiren accepted the woman that Lü Buwei gave her and with it his alliance. What Lü knew, Yiren would come to know too.
One day, a Chu envoy arrived, sent by Madam Huayang. He was a young man of aristocratic background, with the self-importance of someone who has never tasted hardship, and the inclination, often seen in someone carrying out his very first mission, to fuss over every detail. At night, Yiren sent Concubine Zhao to entertain him. This time, Yiren played Lü's role—that of the voyeur behind the folding screen, the old hand able to transcend desire's possessiveness, who shares pleasure with others.
The youth went from panic to utter bliss. The next morning, by the time of his departure, he was filled with gratitude towards Yiren for initiating him into this adult world nobody had told him about. Gratitude for Yiren's selfless sharing. An unforgettable experience that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Such a perfect body, and such pleasure it brought! Nevermore would he find either again back in his kingdom. To the very end of his life, he would remember this episode. He turned it over and over in his mind. The memory let him feel that he was different from the dead.
From that time, we return to the present. From Handan to Xianyang, from my mother and the men who moved in and out of her, to me. From countless sperm rushing forward to only one; its DNA passed on. Into my body. Into me, at age 15, on the eve of war with the six kingdoms, calculating the number of troops, the extent of the power at my disposal. Plotting to increase this power even more. To make a soldier possess more than one soldier's power. How did man evolve to the point where he could have so much power, and need so much power? When we were still sperm, we only knew to rush forward—and only momentarily.
How many enemies?
"Many. Everyone outside our gate is our enemy. As one kingdom, I shall fight six kingdoms; this is not even counting the smaller ones."
"It's an illusion, this idea of a collective," my advisor says. "Every one of these six kingdoms is our enemy. Don't treat them as one. They are six kingdoms. Don't treat them as six kingdoms either; they are just a lot of people. No matter where you look, you'll see only one man; he's only one man, you are also only one man."
If only it were that simple.
The locusts have come. My servant deceives me, keeps this from me, but I can feel it. From the other side of the sky, like a dark cloud, they arrive. Awakened from my dream, I sit up. The sound in my ears is like oneiric dust, scattered and adrift in air. A demon flaps its wings. They are here.
I shake off my bodyguard and jump onto my horse. I charge out of town. They are here. Massive, red-eyed and hungry, the locusts swarm at my body and at my face. Burrowing into my robe. One after another after another. A madness in their flight. It's not to eat that they fly like this. Not even to live. It's to die.
I need strength. I need the power to kill these insects, to weaken them, take away their strength. Presently, the power comes. A power summoned from within, like a cloud. When Man really needs power, he often gets it unexpectedly. Or perhaps that very moment, I changed. Genetically. The way locusts that wreak havoc are no longer insects. I'm no longer a descendent of a Qin emperor, or a bird. I am instead the conductor of a power whose provenance I have never known.
Eagle-man observes Yingzheng from afar. Yingzheng stands in the middle of a plain, besieged by the swarm. Yingzheng is as mad as the locusts, Eagle-man thinks. Unbeknownst to Eagle-man, fighting these mad insects gives Yingzheng even more power. It comes from the other side of the mountain, Eagle-man hypothesizes—Yingzheng's newfound strength. No matter what caused it, neither he nor the Qin ancestral spirits has any say; Yingzheng is as good as unstoppable. What will this move of his bring the Qin? From the time they were one people, never had a leader taken such a risk. Now they have only to wait and see what fate has arranged.
A fog rises.
Black locusts dive into the milk-white fog. Impossible to tell how much time has passed. Is it day or night? Both sun and moon are blocked. Light's flaw is that it can be blocked.
A roar comes from within the depths of the fog. Like a tiger. Or a leopard. There's a bestial quality to it, it gives fright. Fright that causes Eagle-man to abandon his human form for wings and fly away.
The fog induces the locusts to undergo a metamorphosis. Shrouding each locust, the fog tricks it into thinking that it alone showed up for the battle, even though it is surrounded by fellow locusts. Each one reverts to a cowardly, docile plant-eater. Perhaps the docile behavior was always a pretense, which explains why the switch takes place so quickly. Or perhaps it is aggression that is the pretense. These false insects are now drawn to the smell of the swamp rising from the depths of the fog. One after another after another, they plunge into it. On the water's surface, the swift-moving fog suddenly coalesces into a blue, python-like form, its mouth open for the locusts to fly into.
That year, the Qin people had a poor harvest, but there were more fish and prawns in the rivers and streams than ever before, and Yingzheng's soldiers received a boost in protein intake. The combined force of the six kingdoms was easily toppled. As if their souls had first been consumed elsewhere. It is not always on the battlefield that the final outcome is enacted.
No one we defeated knows the secret to our strength. My mother rebuilt the Qin Kingdom like a beehive. At the very heart of the colony is its Queen Bee: Concubine Zhao―my mother. Her sexual history, after coming from Handan, the capital of the Zhao Kingdom, to Xianyang, the capital of the Qin Kingdom. She had countless lovers, countless faces, Mother who spent day and night copulating. The more her desire was stoked, the longer she could mate; the more frequently she came to orgasm, the better our harvests, the more victorious our battles. She was the goddess of Victory, and she was my mother. But I don't set much store by these triumphs. In truth, I don't consider them real, and for that reason, they cannot last forever. After life comes death. And yet, before this realization came to me, I had already used death to rebuild my kingdom.
translated from the Chinese by Lee Yew Leong
With thanks to Chutzpah! (天南杂志) editor-in-chief Ou Ning (for letting us run this translation) and English editor Austin Woerner (for editing it). War Among the Insects will also be published in Chutzpah!'s Oct 2012 edition. This simultaneous publication marks our first collaboration with the Chinese literary biennial whose English website can be found here.