Li Bai's legacy as a poet and author was well-known in my era, but the mole on his cheek had been new to me two years earlier, when I'd joined his entourage on its eternal march towards exile in remote Yelang. I watched it move as he spoke, as he ate, and tried to remember if the inch-long tuft of hair growing out of it was sign that cancer was more or less likely. I wondered idly if medical students had some sort of mnemonic device to remember things like that, or if it, like so many other things, was simply a piece of vital information I had to learn to do without.
He noticed me watching him, and smiled. “Out with it, Chou.”
I flushed, and looked away. “It is nothing, honored master.” I looked at the campfire and used the chopsticks to feed myself rice. It was already cold; the road to Yelang had been long, and the fate ahead of us, unknown to Li Bai, had sapped my will.
The poet laughed roughly. “Honored?” He shifted his legs, and his knee popped audibly, blending in with the sound of the crackling fire. “I have been around the honored for most of my life, and I'm a far more virtuous person than any of them.” He chucked at his joke. “My name sufficed for my enemies, in my youth and at court. It will certainly suffice for my friends.”
I smiled at Li, and nodded. “Of course. I was simply wondering how long we will be in Ma'anshan.” Even after a year and a half, the dialect felt like metal filings on my teeth. Three months of training with historical linguistics before I left, and I still sounded like I had a speech impediment.
“In such a hurry.” He chided me. “There is nothing awaiting us in Yelang that we cannot have in Ma'anshan, and quite a bit that isn't. If I must go into exile, I must. But I'll not rush like a child during Duanwu, clapping my hands and singing at the moon.”
He settled into silence. That was the most I'd heard out of him in weeks, and it pained me. I had heard him perform, stone drunk, poems that brought tears to the eyes of governors and cart-drivers alike. I watched him, when we were in a town, write classics of Tang era poetry in a wine-soaked inn, prideful poems with Li himself as a barely disguised figure that simultaneously spoke of profound loss and childish stupidity.
Li Bai misunderstood me. He thought I was eager to be on my way, on the road, where I could lose myself in the caravan, and my odd ways weren't gawked at by the locals. The truth is, I was dreading every day, beginning with tomorrow.
He didn't know it, but Ma'anshan was where Li Bai was going to die.
I was finishing a lecture at Shantou University when I noticed the dark-suited men entering at the rear of the hall. I didn't think anything of it; the days of purges among academics were long gone. Still, when my students began to file out, talking quietly amongst themselves about the day's lecture, and the men continued to stare at me, I do admit to a moment of doubt.
My parents were from Hong Kong, and proudly spoke of their days protesting the handover. Shantou wasn't Beijing, but it was still one of the major cities in Guangdong, and it wasn't inconceivable that some previously unknown shift in the government might reach here before word of it trickled down through my circle of friends and academic contacts. I breathed a sigh of relief, then, when the two men approached me, friendly and direct, without the extreme politeness meant to prevent spooking potential fugitives into flight.
“Professor Chou?” The one on the left smiled slightly, a quirk at the corner of his mouth. He had a slightly fleshy look to his face, as if he had recently lost weight and his skin hadn't adjusted yet to its new frame. “I'm Kon Xung-Men, with the Council of Science. It's a pleasure to meet you. I've read your papers on Xianzong's military reformations, quite brilliant.” Kon held out his hand, which I shook politely.
“A pleasure, Mr. Kon.” I glanced expectantly at his companion. Slightly taller than Kon, he'd have made a passable model if not for his nose, which had clearly been broken a least once. He seemed familiar, and as I tried to place him, a smile began to form on his face.
“Ju-Han Kow,” he answered my unasked question. “I was in your class about seven years ago.”
I smiled and snapped my fingers. “Good student. Missed too many lectures, but you had other things clamoring for your time as well. Parallel bars?”
“Rings, actually. I'm surprised you remember.” He shook my hand, and this one I returned warmly. I always enjoyed meeting old students who remembered me fondly. It was a pleasant change of pace.
“I always notice students whose interests are well-rounded.” A slight stretching of the truth; Ju-Han had been an Olympian before his college career, and the administration had quietly let his professors know that his studies might have suffered. Happily, he had proved a decent student with a bright mind, albeit one that probably would not have come to my attention otherwise. “Are you with the Council as well?”
Ju-Han shook his head. “No, but I'm working with them on my current assignment.”
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” I glanced at their clothing, conservative cuts in expensive materials. “I'm guessing this isn't a social call?”
Kon smiled more widely. “No, it's official, but I don't think you'll be put out. In fact, we have an offer for a position for you that I think you'll be hard pressed to turn down.”
I smiled apologetically and began to pack up my lecture notes. “I can stop you there and save you the time. I'm very happy here, and I seriously doubt there's anything you could say to lure me away.”
The honest truth, there; I had tenure at Shantou, and my expertise in my field had been largely responsible for the worldwide renown the University had gained in the field of Chinese history. I saw it as an affront how few Chinese institutions were considered at the forefront of studies in their own culture. I had a well-appointed condo with an ocean view, furnished to my liking in an eclectic mix of modernist furniture and Tang Dynasty art. I had several good friends among the faculty, and while I wasn't married, there was Meilin, a young sociology graduate student who often shared my bed without the drama and histrionics of a serious relationship.
“Professor,” Ju-Han said, “I recommended you personally to the Science Council.”
“And I appreciate that,” I replied. “I'm glad you thought so highly of me.” I held up a hand to stave off the hard sell. “Okay, I'll hear you out. There's a restaurant nearby, nothing fancy, but wonderful starfish soup. They know me well enough there that the lack of reservation won't be a problem. Please, do me the favor of joining me for an early dinner there, and I can explain why a job full of government paperwork simply doesn't appeal to me.” I smiled to ease the sting of the words.
Kon didn't seem perturbed by my protests. His smiled remained on his face, obstinately cheerful. “The offer we have can't really be discussed in public,” he said. “But it's a position you won't be able to pass up.”
I shrugged. I had tried to make my refusal enjoyable for all involved, around a dinner of steamed salmon and a glass or two of wine. Now it was going to be a brusque rebuff in my office.
I led them up three flights of stairs to Teacher's Row, the hallway of the History Building where all the professors had their offices. Mine were towards the front; I could have done without the extra traffic of everyone passing my door, but the long hall made for missing the train if I got too late of a start. I unlocked the door, and entered, motioning for them to follow me. I grabbed my raincoat, draped over one of the two chairs for visitors, and hung it on the back of the door, and moved around to drop into my chair behind the desk.
Kon and Ju-Han filed in, the later smiling at the mostly unchanged office. A few more books on the shelves, a few more scuffs on the wooden floor, but the eye-catching Three Kingdoms tomb bricks on the right side of the room were the same. The government men sat down, glancing at each other, and Ju-Han waved a hand in Kon's direction, as if ceding the floor.
“Li Yuan,” Kon said.
I nodded. General Li Yuan, founder of the Tang Dynasty, one of the major historical figures of my area of specialty. “What about him?”
Kon's grin grew wide enough for him to swallow a frying pan. “How'd you like to meet him?”
Li Bai picked his way down the hill, using his walking staff to knock small rocks out of his path. Every once in a while, he'd playfully aim one at one of our escorts, a group of Uyghur horsemen with little sense of humor, but enough love for Li Bai's coin to endure his antics.
The camp was less than half a day from Ma'anshan, so there was no real urgency to the caravan that morning. Even poking about at an old man's pace, we'd reach the city long before dark, with plenty of time to find rooms at an inn. I was dragging my feet for other reasons.
I knew Li Bai's history, probably better than anyone alive, in his era or mine. A flamboyant man, he was as renowned in his time for his antics and lifestyle as he was for his poetry in later eras. Considered one of the finest poets in an age of great poets, he was a charismatic, charming and occasionally infuriating figure. He'd spent years in the court of Emperor Ming Huang, becoming progressively more drunk and belligerent, but never so drunk as to be unable to recite a poem for the Emperor or his mistress. He'd spent an equal number of years wandering, after being dismissed, exquisitely politely but firmly, from the Emperor's service for insulting those around him one too many times.
Sentenced to death during the An Lushan rebellion, Li Bai had the sentence reduced to exile. He had been on his way for ten years, meandering about China as slowly as possible, making friends and trying to outlast the rebellious general. I had been with him for the last two, working my way into his entourage as a fellow writer, albeit of short stories. I have no ear for metaphor, and had no interest in matching skills with one of the greatest poets of history besides.
Li Bai called me to walk with him. “I feel like abusing someone, and these Uyghurs are apparently too disciplined to give me the satisfaction of losing their temper.”
I chuckled and shook my head. “Your abuse is lost upon me, Bai. I know the sentimental heart beats louder than the angry shout.”
He frowned at me mockingly. “Such words! I thought you were a friend, but such slights will ruin my reputation as a miser and lout.”
“But not as a drunk,” I said, passing him wine. He took the offered jug with a grin.
I had been dreading today for over six months, as I looked at maps and realized where our path was taking us. Ma'anshan is where Li Bai died, or would die, shortly. He had actually been named in absentia as the Registrar of the Left Commandant's office by Emperor Daizong, and was free to return from his feet-dragging exile. But the word would never reach him.
Li Bai died of natural causes in 762, in Ma'anshan. From his friendship, I knew he'd have been disappointed. A story circulated many years later that he drowned, trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. Drunk, no doubt. I much preferred that story. I planned on spreading the rumor.
“Why Tang?” I asked. I was in a nameless, faceless building in Beijing, one of hundreds like it that serviced the giant central bureaucracy of the People's Republic. In a rush, I had packed up a bag for an overnight trip, leaving most of my clothes back in Shantou. Overnight had stretched into a week, as I was poked and prodded, tested and evaluated. The shirt I was wearing was beginning to take on an odor that refused to be washed out. “Why not Nanking, 1949?”
Ju-Han sat across the table from me, looking far more comfortable than me, in a clean, pressed shirt. “It's been considered, Professor. At length, believe me. But the physicists claim it would be a disaster.”
Leaning on the wall of the conference room, Kon nodded. He was one of the aforementioned physicists, junior enough that he wasn't vital to the preparations, but knowledgeable enough to answer my questions with fair authority. It was the first time I'd seen them since they handed me off to the doctors and psychologists.
“You've got to go back far enough that it won't cause ripples. It's like an ocean. If you drop a five-ton weight from a helicopter in the middle of the ocean, what's going to happen at the point where it hits?” He stepped forward and smacked the desk with the palm of his hand, making a cracking sound. “It's going to smash whatever is right there, and create a huge splash, and a wave.”
“But what happens five hundred miles away?” He walks along the side of the table, making waving motions with his hand, starting large and gradually becoming less and less emphatic."The wave doesn't hit the shore any harder than other natural waves. It gets subsumed in them, and eventually evens out into the natural pattern of waves.” He gets to the end of the table, and rubs the palm of his hand absentmindedly.
“The present, right now, is the shore of the ocean of time. If we go back to some pivotal event that's too recent, it's going to alter things too much. Nanking, Tiananmen Square, the Tibet Annexation. By changing any of these things, the China we know, and likely the world, will be vastly different.” Kon smiled. “Although we may wish these things turned out differently, the end result is one that we're all mostly satisfied with.”
I nodded in agreement. A thriving economy as the world's largest superpower, education and mortality rates the envy of even most first world nations, I was hard-pressed to imagine how much better China could have weathered the socio-political waters of the previous century. Most of our problems were those of foreign relations, and what we couldn't get through smiles and promises, others found it difficult to deny us when we threatened to play hardball.
“Besides,” Ju-Han said, “We're not going to authorize any travel that might alter the path Chairman Mao set us on. That, unfortunately, requires things we find distasteful to occur.”
I looked at Kon, who shrugged infinitesimally. Ju-Han was clearly a political officer of some sort, and although we were hardly in the bad old days of dissident crackdowns, it paid to be polite.
“So why me?” I changed the topic. “I'm an expert in the era, but it's more along artistic and cultural lines. Why not a military adviser? Send back a few soldiers with a crate of AK-47s and take over Russia?”
Kon shook his head. “That wouldn't be dropping a weight in the ocean. That would be like a dinosaur-killing asteroid starting a tidal wave. You might come back to an industrialized China that conquered Russia, a superpower, yes, but where the culture is still dominated by Yuan Dynasty Mongols.”
“We're not trying to take over all of time,” Ju-Han explained. “Time travel is far too complex for that; we'd inevitably shoot ourselves in the foot. All we want to do is ensure stability. A stronger China in the past will generally lead to a stronger China today. Like interest in a bank, it compounds on what has already been deposited.”
I nodded, drumming my fingers on the table, then stopped. “What do you mean, ensure stability?” I asked slowly, my mind trying to piece together the a half-dozen facts. “How can the past be made less stable?” It suddenly hit me. “We're not the only nation with this technology, are we?”
The two government officer looked at each other. “We don't believe so, no,” said Ju-Han.
My brow furrowed. “How can you not know?”
“It's difficult to explain,” Kon said. “When the past changes, most things relating to it in the future change as well. History texts, memories, anything that might definitively prove something was different, it changes. But there will still be... leftovers. Have you ever been convinced you'd read a fact, with absolute certainty? Bet money on it, and then found out that you were wrong?” I nodded, and Kon did in reply. “It's very similar to that, and it's more noticeable among those who know their hsitory well. After all, they have access to more facts, so they are likely to know those facts after history changes around them.”
“Who was the regent who tried to form his own dynasty during the Han Dynasty?” Kon asked.
I had to think for a moment; the question was unexpected. “Wang Mang.”
“We have three experts in Han history who swear that they remember him as Fu Sung. One wrote a book on the man,” Kon replied. My stomach lurched. I wondered how much Tang Dynasty history I know is wrong.
Ju-Han smiled like the cat who swallowed the canary. “We actually have a new department of intelligence analysts, who read and reread history textbooks to make sure the facts are remaining the same.”
We were getting off-topic. I waved my hand in dismissal. “So, how is our past unstable?”
Ju-Han rubbed his chin. “We're not entirely sure it is. But we'd rather be safe than sorry. That's why it's you, instead of some Flying Dragon captain with a history degree. We want you as a cultural gatekeeper, not a soldier. We want to make sure that Tang art and poetry flourish, not to start wars across history.”
“Shame on you, then, Ju-Han.” He looked shocked, eyes widening at the rebuke. “I had hoped you'd paid closer attention in class. If it's culture I'm guarding, Li Yuan will be useless. He founded the Tang Dynasty, but he's not the soul of the culture.”
Ju-Han began to smile slowly, as the truth dawned.
I was spitting blood into my cup, wondering if medicine had yet developed any effective ulcer treatments, when Shen, one of the children of the innkeeper, ran in, bowing and requesting that I come outside. I grimaced as my stomach clenched, as it had dozens of times over the last six months, wondering if it was Li Bai's time.
My heart sank as I saw Li Bai waiting for me, rocking back and forth on his heels, and I hated myself for it. I hated that I both dreaded and looked forward to the death of this man who had grown into my friend so easily and completely. It was as if I met a childhood hero, only to find out he was exactly the sort of person I had dreamed he was. And I couldn't do anything to stop his death. His death was, in fact, part of his legacy, and although he was my friend, by the time I was born, he belonged to the ages.
“Chou,” he called in greeting. I bowed as I approached him, which he returned. “You look awful.” He was right, of course. Besides my ulcer, my eyes were sunken, my cheeks were hollow. My hair was turning grey at an alarming pace, and I had taken to biting my nails.
“My illness lingers, but it will be gone soon.” Probably true; the year of Li Bai's death wasn't in dispute, and he didn't have long. A few weeks, at the most, and history will be ensured. My mission was open ended, and Kon was checking a predetermined spot in the Dabie Mountains every three months. Remote, so he didn't accidentally retrieve a random passerby. I could make it back to the spot in two months and be ready in time for the next return trip home in four.
“Walk with me, then. The exercise and night air will do you good.” He smiled impishly, and motioned forward with his staff. I fell in next to him, hoping that the reddish light from the lanterns lining the road would disguise the dried blood I could feel on the corners of my lips.
Li Bai seemed in good spirits, and I was morbidly thankful. I was glad he was not going to linger. However the end came, he would certainly not spend months writhing in pain. We walked in companionable silence, our path leading us to edge of the Yangtze, with Shen trailing behind us.
Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. “What is going on, Li Bai? Why are we out here?”
He smiled at me, and pulled a stoppered jug of wine from beneath the folds of his robes. “We're here because I cannot sleep, and if I can't sleep, you'll just have to share my pain.” The lie was put to the words by his smile and swig from the jug. He offered it to me, and although my stomach howled at me in protest, I couldn't refuse the generosity of a friend.
As I lowered the jug from my lips, he produced a scroll from his robes. There was a wax seal, red and slick, but broken. He held it out to me, and I traded the jug with him. I looked over the outside of the scroll, eyebrows knitting together.
“What seal is this?” I asked. “I don't recognize it.”
Li Bai rolled his eyes. “I think you are a barbarian at times.” He drank, then tapped the wax seal. “Imperial, Chou. Imperial.”
I felt a terrible pain in my stomach as I unrolled the scroll. Li Bai laughed, looking out at the Yangtze.
“A magistrate rode in this afternoon and found me at temple. Presented himself formally, and begged my forgiveness for not reaching me sooner.” He smiled at me. “My exile is over before it begins, Chou. The Emperor, the new Emperor, Suzong's son, is recalling me to Xi'an.”
I looked at him, shock plain on my face. His smile was awful, for all it meant to my efforts. “That can't be.”
He nodded. “But it is. Complete with a position and title. Registrar of the Left Commandant. Until I get on the Emperor's bad side, but I've been there before.” He clasped my shoulder. “What do you say, Chou? Care to see the capitol? Nepotism is only bad if you can't do your job. I'm sure I could find something for you.”
I drew away from him in horror, aghast. His brows beetled with confusion, and he took a step towards me, hand out in placation.
“What's wrong, Chou? Calm yourself.”
How could this be, I wondered. He never got that scroll. The magistrate found him too late, and Li Bai never heard of his recall, let alone practically did a jig over it. I thought his time was almost up, but that was a lie. His time had ended, and no one bothered to tell him.
My mind raced. This was not how history was supposed to be. This wasn't how I remembered history, and I was an expert. Something had happened to alter history. I felt a cold shadow over my heart. I was the cultural guardian of the Tang Dynasty! My memories were supposed to be trusted, unimpeachable. Li Bai died, should die, in Ma'anshan.
Was this some sort of plot? Perhaps the magistrate was, like, me, not native to this era. An American, or Brazilian, perhaps, with a long-shot theory to destabilize modern China. I thought of history. Could the survival of Li Bai have some effect on the culture of my era? I racked my mind, to think of ways the prolonged life of a great man could be a drawback. Perhaps Li Bai's later works exposed him as a fraud, or a hack. Perhaps some personal peccadillo, of which he had many, eventually came overshadow the art he created.
It couldn't be anything that influential, I thought. Kon had drilled that into me, that the so-called butterfly effect wouldn't destroy Chinese culture if a single mistake was made. But a mistake had been made, somehow; what if Kon was wrong? Although the science of time travel itself was exact, the effects on the future were not. Li Bai was entering a phase of his life that my history never knew.
I had a terrible image, of Li Bai's survival steamrolling over the history I knew. The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, would it be extended or shortened? Would the Great Wall still be built up during the Ming? How many minor changes could be made before they combined, like oil in a bowl, each tiny drip sliding towards the pool at the bottom. Individually, barely enough to rub between your fingers. But put together, enough to leave a stain that could never be washed out.
I flexed my fingers, and felt my muscles tense. I could knock him over the side, into the Yangtze. The thought shot through me like lightning. Perhaps Chou did die drowning in the shallows of the famous river, not trying to spread love, but held under by a terrified visitor out of time.
Could I truly be responsible for this man’s death? Perhaps the history I always knew was due to my own interference, which had yet to happen. It’s not something I would have chosen to do, all things being equal, but the weight of the future I knew made things far from equal.
Given a choice, I would let the man live. Each poem was a gift, to the China of the future, to the world. A coin, buried and discovered anew by thousands, millions of students over the years, never losing its shine for all of its years.
Surprisingly, I thought of the graduate student I had been sleeping with at Shantou. She hadn't entered my thoughts in a season, and only then it was simply missing a warm body to have next to me over the winter in the Yangtze Valley. I was shocked to realize that I couldn't remember her name, but that she found a book of Li Bai’s poetry in my library, and read them into the early morning, cross-legged and nude in my bed. I unclenched my hands, and Li Bai took another tenative step towards me.
“Chou, are you sick?” He raised his voice. “Shen, Chou needs you! Get up here, before I clout you!” He brandished his staff at the running boy, but I put a hand up.
“It's all right, Li Bai. Just my stomach.” I straightened up. “But it's better now.”
Li Bai nodded slowly, watching me. He was no fool. “So, what do you think, Chou?”
“I think you are going to make quite the impression at court, Honored Registrar.”
My old friend's said goodbye to the west, here at Yellow Crane Tower,
In the third month's cloud of willow blossoms, he's going down to Yangzhou.
The lonely sail is a distant shadow, on the edge of a blue emptiness,
All I see is the Yangtze River flow to the far horizon.