The Reincarnations of Wenn-Hsiu

Simon Whitechapel

To the insults and ill-usage of Wenn-Hsiu, Mhraa-Dlasht has a final answer, and that was death. Wenn-Hsiu was a native of the north, heavy and slow, and neither understood nor held in proper respect the light, fine-boned people of the imperial metropolis of Yihh, deeming them all, in the light of one or another of the atheistic northern philosophastries, fools wound tight in webs of superstition. He had set up his shop and purchased Mhraa-Dlasht in the slave-market to deal with minor customers and dust the wares, and then waited confidently for the mercantile skils that he boasted were bred in his northern bones to garner the iron and gold coinage of the city in barge-loads.

But the looked-for prosperity did not arrive: trade was slow and he was visited regularly by thieves, who filled the capacious folds of their robes contemptuously under his nose, making whistled conversation with comrades half-a-street away, while Wenn-Hsiu smiled oleaginously and winced at the shrillness of the notes and the poverty of the melody, but endured lest he lose trade. In time he came to realize the nature of these customers, and took to using a heavy bronze-tipped staff on any who whistled in his shop, and by dint of ceaseless vigilance managed to reduce the thievish depredation of his wares.

But in his frustration at the losses he had sustained, Wenn-Hsiu took to abusing Mhraa-Dlasht, enriching the native Yihhian store of insult and opprobrium with copious loan-translations from northern tongues, and he began to employ a certain second-person pronoun that is Yihhian is properly addressed only to lepers, atheists, and deadly unfriends, having learned by his growing acquaintance with the language that this was a most potent means of humiliation and insult.

Then came a secondary consequence of the attentions of the thieves, which brought him the first of the law-suits that would doubtless eventually have entirely ruined him — had not his troubles been rescinded by the seeding of his food by Mhraa-Dlasht one night with the powdered seed-pods of a certain mortiferous herb.

There entered his shop one day a priest of the Temple of Sissessusso, the Snake-God, wishing to purchase a cake of ink. In his hand the priest carried a small cage of bronze, covered over with cloth, in which rested a small lizard: cage and lizard had been purchased a few minutes earlier at a stall further down the street, and the priest intended, after buying the ink-cake, to make his way to the city-walls and set the lizard free, for his sect recognized, as a matter of scientific fact, the close evolutionary kinship of snake and lizard, and held, as a matter of doctrinal dogma, that an act of kindness to a member of any reptilian or batrachian species was favoured in the crystalline eyes of the idol of Sissessusso that stood in the gloom of the Snake-God's temple.

This belief sustained in the region a minor but profitable trade in the capture and retail of lizards and snakes (and occasionally, from the cool gwelg's of the Eastern mountains, of frogs, toads, and salamanders), despite the general disregard of these creatures as either pet or foodstuff. These creatures were captured, purchased by the priests of Sissessusso, released outside the city walls and for the overwhelming part recaptured, for the stall-holders and the muzzled ferrets and weasels they employed in the hunt were familiar with such hiding-places as were available to the creatures near the walls, and it was the common practice to lay traps, baited variously with moss and maggots, or sand and bowls of raw egg, to suit the varying tastes of the reptilia and amphibia involved.

However, these facts were unknown to Wenn-Hsiu, who adopted a lordly disregard of the customs and religious practices of the Yihhians, save in so far as he perceived them to have bearing on the profitability of his trade. He did not, therefore, recognize the priest as more than potential customer or thief, nor did he realize the significance of the veiled cage the priest carried. Had he done so, he might have assigned the shrill whistles that arose from the   priest's vicinity with the passing of a vegetable cart outside the shop to their true course, the alarm of the creature in the cage at the noise.

But he did not recognize the true source, and leaping to the conclusion that a thief was openly advertising his presence, Wenn-Hsiu snatched up his staff and proceeded to rain blows on the back and bald head of the priest, who, after a brief period of utter bewilderment, fled from the shop to the accompaniment of jeers and gutter abuse from Wenn-Hsiu.

For the remainder of the day the northerner was in the highest of good humours over the incident, mocking the attempts of Mhraa-Dlasht, who had guessed the truth of the matter, to warn him that things might not have been as they had seemed. On the following day there came the formal delivery of a writ from the Temple of the Snake-God, announcing that an action was to be brought for damages arising out of the assault on the priest. Wenn-Hsiu was at first astonished, though when he finally understood what he had done he affected an air of unconcern. Moreover, he refused to listen to the advice of Mhraa-Dlasht to the affect that he should firstly settle the matter out of court and secondly proceed without delay to be received into the faith whose priest he had maltreated.

And so Wenn-Hsiu contested the suit in court and lost, though the damages he paid were small, for he had some success with his argument that the deed had been due to his ignorance and commercial zeal, and he received some sympathy for the attentions paid him by the thieves, whom the city authorities had long sought to stamp out.

However, despite the smallness of the damages, from that day forth Wenn-Hsiu was marked for destruction by the Temple of the Snake-God, and, through its influence, by half-a-dozen more sects and creeds. There was no open attack, for the Temple of the Snake-God and its allies were somewhat far-down the religious hierarchy of the city, and the use by them of violence would have been frowned upon by more powerful creeds, not from any attachment to pacificism, but because the use of violence for religious ends was a highly dangerous thing in a city where religious hatreds were fierce, and no religion was in overwhelming supremacy. For this reason, indeed, the legal system of Yihh was designed to give protection to the religious sensibilities of all, though no sect exercised its rights against another, but reserved them rather for use against such isolated individuals as Wenn-Hsiu.

The Temple of the Moon-Deity, for example, prohibited the wearing of certain shades during certain phases of the moon, and because the texts detailing these prohibitions were exceedingly old, the true meanings of the colour-terms used within them were almost entirely a matter of conjecture, with the gratifying result, for the priests of the Moon-Deity, that it was possible to claim (and prove, indeed, by judicious scriptural reference) that the wearing of almost any shade at almost any time had offended against their religion: a most powerful weapon against apostates and minor enemies. Wenn-Hsiu, amongst whose faults not the least was conceit, wore rich and colourful clothes; and after three law-suits brought against him for the wearing, respectively, of a subfusc orange collar during the second quarter, of a beige-speckled turquoise cumberband during the new moon, and of plum-purple boots during a partial lunar eclipse, he managed, by the substantial outlay of bribes, to discover from a sweeper in the Temple of the Moon-Deity that a certain delicate columbine grey was at all times acceptable in the eyes of the Moon-Deity, and thereafter, choking off his desires for stronger sartorial stuffs, he wore only this shade.

But this by no means exhausted the legal weaponry of the sects conjoined against him. The Temple of the Priest-God prosecuted him for his failure, during his eating of a fried water-fowl's wing one lunch-time, to refrain from use of the index finger of the left hand; the Temple of Poisons arraigned against him for the drinking of mulled cider in a taverny whose entrance did not face due east; the Temple of the Living Flame brought a suit for his failure to cleanse his mouth   and palate with pomegranate vinegar on its Holy Days: Wenn-Hsiu took to eating in strictest private, behind drawn and triple curtains in the most secluded room of his apartments, and he was forced, for he was not at proficient in the preparation of food, merely in its consumption, to hire a woman to cook for him, whose salary it was necessary to keep at a level more suited to that of an imperial under-chef, lest she be bribed by the priests to reveal details of his menu.

Yet the law-suits arising from other matters continued, piling up indeed for months ahead, and Wenn-Hsiu grew drawn and nervous, while his profits — to which he was attached with a devotion more than paternal — dwindled away to nothing. Nevertheless, he would neither quit the city nor, by being received into the congregation of one or another of the sects that persecuted him, placate their conjoined enmity. His temper grew increasingly foul, and his verbal ill-usage of Mhraa-Dlasht gave way ever more frequently to blows, until Mhraa-Dlasht came to hate his master violently, and finally came to a point beyond which he wished to endure no longer, and reaching an arrangement with the woman who prepared Wenn-Hsiu's food, and who suffered in similar though lesser wise to the slave, he poisoned a dish of the highly spiced river-fish soup for which, alone amongst the native products of the city, culinary or otherwise, the northerner had acquired a liking.

Wenn-Hsiu died that night, and was buried unmourned in an inexpensive grave, with what remained of his capital and possessions passing to Mhraa-Dlasht, as his sole possible heir in the absence of a will. Mhraa-Dlasht continued to run the shop his master had established, ensuring with a judicious investment in gifts to the Temples that had pursued his master that he did not inherit Wenn-Hsiu's flux of law-suits with his property.

Thereafter, it might have seemed, the story of Wenn-Hsiu was at an end. Yet such was not the case. Mhraa-Dlasht found that his hatred for his erstwhile master did not fade with the passing of its object, but rather remained, and if anything grew stronger, nagging him with the thought that the poison he had employed to kill the northerner had been of too mild a kind, and he should have availed himself of one guaranteeing a prolonged and agonizing death, although this would almost certainly have aroused suspicion. In time this nagging thought passed away, argued out of occurrence by logic and the immutability of the past, and was replaced by one even more persistent: in what form of flesh, Mhraa-Dlasht found himself asking daily, had Wenn-Hsiu's foul and maculate soul been re-clothed in metempsychosis?

That it would be a lowly one he had no doubt: Wenn-Hsiu's sins had been numerous: his reincarnation would have been into a creature far down any evolutionary scale. But Mhraa-Dlasht found the desire to know with certitude growing more powerful by the day, for he was coming to wish that his revenge might be extended beyond the interval of death that separates incarnation from incarnation. There are ways and means to trace the passage of the soul, but their realization is long and arduous, involving daily exercise of both soma and psyche, and one who sets out on the path with dark intent finds his purpose softened and altered, so that at last he may find himself unconcerned with the matter that initially impelled him, and he turns instead to the contemplation of the true nothingness that underlies the illusion of reality.

Nor did Mhraa-Dlasht's desire for a renewed vengeance wholly survive the mental austerities he was forced to undergo in pursuit of its satisfaction. When at last he was able to cast his soul forth upon the tideless waters of the black ocean of the netherworld, yet avoid the oblivion that was there, and return with the knowledge he sought, it was a matter of little moment to him. But by a day of strenuous meditation with conscious intent to re-awaken the embers of his hatred, he achieved some small return of the emotion, which would be satisfied with a small revenge.

Wenn-Hsiu had been reincarnated as an insect, a moth of a selenophilic species that was common on the middle slopes of the Eastern Mountains. It had been three months since his reincarnation; in another two the moth would be dead, and his soul would begin the next stage of the cycle that would, in time, see his resume his place amongst the human race.

Mhraa-Dlasht set forth to the Eastern Mountains with a net of fine silk and a container of transparent crystal; in a fortnight, his frame shrunken somewhat by the heat of the desert that lay between Yihh and the Eastern Mountains, he returned, with the crystal container occupied by the moth that contained the soul of Wenn-Hsiu, which creature too had suffered greatly in the heat of the desert, through Mhrass-Dlasht had been highly solicitous of its welfare, sprinkling it hourly with water he would gladly have taken himself, and keeping it shielded from the direct rays of the sun beneath a triple-layered wrapping of silk.

Nevertheless, the moth was dying from the rigours of the journey, and Mhraa-Dlasht hastened to prepare the apparatus of his vengeance. Upon the floor of an inner chamber of his apartments he constructed a complicated mandala of coloured waxes and inflammable herbal powders, with scarlet and yellow droplets of wax let fall from flaring candles in strange patternings, and a seven-sided space left clear at the centre, upon which he placed the crystal container of the moth, still capped. Then he left the room for a time to visit the sellers of reptiles and amphibians in the market, of whom he made certain inquiries, finally purchasing a toad of perculiarly repulsive appearance, guaranteed to him as a member of a species of exceptional longevity.

He returned with the toad to his room, where he dosed it with a sopiferous drug, and placed it within the nigromantic mandala upon the floor, beside the crystal container of the moth. Then he drew the bolts at the door and the curtains at the window and took up a burning taper of oil-soaked dhro-wood, with which, in a particular order, he ignited the inflammable herbal powders that had gone into the construction of the mandala. Smoke rose in thin, tinted trails, which he commingled with careful puffs of breath delivered from precisely judged angles. When the screen of smoke around the centre of the mandala was complete, he uncapped the crystal container, then stepped to a corner of the chamber and opened a secret drawer in a lacquered wooden cabinet, removing a twisted slip of parchment.

He returned with the twist of parchment and knelt before the mandala. The parchment, having been uncurled, proved to contain a quantity of an ecru and granular powder, resembling the imperfectly pounded ashes of an incomplete cremation.

He took a pinch of the powder between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, spoke a single word of nine syllables, and threw the pinch into the centre of the mandala. This operation he performed twice more, after which the powder was exhausted. There being no possibility of obtaining more, he smoothed out the parchment upon his knee, laid a line of tobacco upon it from the sspho-bark pouch he carried always with him, and rolled and lit the cigarette from the glowing ash of the outer precincts of the mandala. This done, he adopted a meditational posture and, puffing occasionally at the cigarette, peered through the mandalic smokes to follow the progress of his nigromancy.

For a time there appeared no change in the minature scene visible at the centre of the mandala: then, with a sudden desperate fluttering of its wings, which lifted it for a moment from the crystalline floor of the container, the moth assumed the stillness of death, and a mote of light, somewhat resembling the flecks and streaks engendered of endoophthalmic debris that float upon the vision on occasion, though seeming to glow softly, rose from the body in a lazy spiral, finding the crystal of the container no obstacle to its passage, but held up short by the hazy screen of smoke encircling the centre of the mandala.

Mhraa-Dlasht clicked his tongue thrice with satisfaction, for the mote was the soul of Mhraa-Dlasht, entrapped and given visible form by the goetic puissance of the mandala. Thereafter for a time the mote spiralled as though seeking an exit from the trap in which it was caught, but Mhraa-Dlasht could see that its movements were carrying it ever nearer to the inert body of the toad. At length, though Mhraa-Dlasht received an impression of extreme reluctance and distaste, the mote circled the toad twice and vanished into the verrucose skin at a point midway between the dully glistening and exophthlamic eyes. Then Mhraa-Dlasht laughed very long and hard, and taking a besom of stiff qiolh-twigs, he whisked the mandala of chalks and powders away.

The operation had ensured that the soul of Wenn-Hsiu would be, for the next century or more, sealed into the body of the toad. Such a fate may be seen at any time as unpleasant, but in this instance there was an addition foulness to be borne, for the body was already occupied, and such a soul as this aboriginal inquiline must be Mhraa-Dlast did not care to speculate.

When the toad had recovered from the operation of the drug with which he had ensured its compliance in the pishoguery, he returned it to the stall from which he had earlier purchased it, and was able to make a reasonable return on the price he had paid. At a later date, a priest of the Snake-God would doubtless buy the toad, and release it to be re-captured and re-sold. Released, recaptured, resold; released, recaptured, resold; released, recaptured, resold: in this way, until the toad's death, Wenn-Hsiu would again participate in the commercial life of the city, not as buyer or seller, but as thing bought and sold.

The revenge indeed was perfect, and Mhraa-Dlast considered the evils of Wenn-Hsiu amply remunerated, and turned his mind to the further pursuit of the mystical practices he had followed in fulfilment of the revenge. But he did not allow the business he had inherited from his unlamented master to decline as a consequence of this, and so he lived out his days rich both spiritually and materially, though the cool-skinned Yofhan slave he came in time to take into concubinage, and the children she bore, were never vouchsafed the reason behind his habit, perhaps once a year, of going forth to the sellers of reptiles and amphibians and making an extensive inspection of their wares, returning on occasion with a toad of peculiarly repulsive appearance, which he would cosset for a week or two, feeding it rich and nourishing foods and dosing it with expensive drugs said to promote longevity, before returning it to the sellers at a loss sufficient to have brought tears to the eyes of the long-forgotten Wenn-Hsiu.

Top of Page