AND SO I CAME to Muping and discovered the panda. Yes, I discovered him! I had traveled far and wide through China by then, from the plains to the mountains, from the desert to the sea. I had discovered hundreds of new species of flora and fauna: the butterfly bush and blue corydalis, the small snow finch, the Mongolian gerbil, the Chinese wild peach, and on and on. There was the deer they ended up naming after me, too, the one whose parts are strange and incongruous as a chimera’s, unknown outside the imperial gardens until I introduced it to the world. I sent three carcasses back to Paris, and how I wish I had been present when they arrived! To be able to stand before the Académie des Sciences and say, “This is a creature that no longer exists in the wild, but I have seen it in its home far away on the other side of the world, and now I give it to you to study.” Then to pry open the boxes and see the wonder on those great men’s faces. Like children, they must have been, eyes so wide they were ringed all round with white, seeing the world expand tremendously in a moment like that.
I was—I am—both a naturalist and a priest, and for years my parish was the entirety of China. I made few sermons, but instead put my mind to studying the text of the land. Year after year, I kept turning the leaves, and when eventually I stopped, I was still nowhere near through. In my study, God led me everywhere, north and south, east and west, and though sometimes he took me into dangerous places, he always took me safely out of them again. I was lucky, blessed, for we did not all make it home. There were some of us who were lost, some I mourn still. On certain evenings here in France, as the carbon lights flare up on the street corners, and laughter spills out from the open doors of the dance halls, and the telephone in the downstairs hall of my building begins trilling—I think how my old friends would not recognize this world. The Daughters of Charity in Tientsin, what would they make of a telephone? They might think it a candlestick hung with a bell. Or they would assume it was one of my instruments used to examine the stamen of a lily, or to listen to the whir of a fly’s wing in motion. “Père David came to us by way of Noah’s Ark,” Sister Clementine used to say when introducing me to a new member of the Christian community in Tientsin. “It is not enough for him to bring the Word to China’s millions; he must go off on his explorations to bring it to the beasts and the birds as well.”
But it was not only the beasts and birds; it was every living thing. And not only far off, but even in Peking and Tientsin: the floating lotuses in Pei Hai, the blue-gray moss coloring the walls of the buildings, the centipede shimmying its way across the long plain of my desk—in a foreign land, you might not even finish your breakfast before the discoveries begin.
Over the years, I filled notebooks with sketches and measurements, with reports of habitat and behavior written in long careful lines that met each edge of the page. I was taught early by my father to write that way—carefully and neatly, and so as not to waste any space—and it was a habit I have continued throughout my life. In total, I filled 173 notebooks. I prepared countless boxes of skins, skeletons, and living plants to send back to France, and when I could, the animals went alive, too. For it was the desire to honor life, the diversity of life, that drove me—to observe and describe and, finally, to pin each species to the fabric of human knowledge by seeing it named. In those lands, I was an ambassador of faith and science, and the two were so intimately connected that I saw no division.
The panda—he came to me on my second journey through China. The first took me from Peking to Mongolia, and though at the time it seemed a great journey (this my first west of Peking), once I was back home and rolled out my map, it looked to be little more than an afternoon’s stroll. It might as well have been my father and I heading out from the castle in Ezpeleta for a walk round the hills, with just a little sack of bread and peppered sausage, and a great knife for cutting back the brush.
We took these walks often when I was young, and it was from my father that I learned to love not only life, but the understanding of life, to seek knowledge through the study and scrutiny of nature. “What is this vine here?” he might ask. “What is that bird with the stick in its mouth, and what song does he sing to the one he woos?” For he was intent on teaching me to know every living thing I encountered. To call something by its name, he told me, is to love it. To address it correctly is to praise God.
My father, that excellent man, would have loved China. Indeed, he did love the letters I sent back to him from that land. When I returned to Ezpeleta after his death, I found my old letters collected in a flour sack tucked into a trunk in his bedroom. He’d kept them all those years, separate from the others.
It is a terrible and wonderful thing to read old letters. One encounters the younger self in such a quiet way—by soft lamp light, or seated by a window thrown open to an afternoon rain—and yet there is a certain violence to it. The two selves are at odds. There, on the page, are the younger self’s aversions, his hopes and postures. There he is speaking of the places just visited, the people just met, and himself completely ignorant of what the older self knows: that which will transpire the next day, and ten years on—who will stay in his life and who he will forget, the mistakes as yet to be made, the tragedies and joys that still await him—in that blurry future which is now, of course, the hard and uncorrectable past.
Yes, it’s strange enough to read such missives, but what’s more remarkable about those I found stored in my father’s house was that there were two ghostly presences instead of just one. Not only my hand, but his as well, for he conversed with me by scribbling notes on the page. There was no room in the margins or between the lines, so my father’s words are scrawled at a perpendicular over my own, asking questions and giving advice. Reading them, it is as if I were sitting right across from him in conversation. Like I was there beside the fire, legs crossed and a cup of wine resting on my knee as I told tales of Peking, the Forbidden City in all its red and gold splendor, the rickshaws chopping along down the narrow streets, or what was more interesting to him still, the little blue flower I found up in the high grasslands of Tibet. I see him with his hands on the arms of the chair, leaning forward to question me. But what shape were the leaves? They were pointed, Father, like the shoes of an elf. And the petals? No bigger than a lentil, and their color that of the sky reflected in water.
I am remembering that flower now, so high up in the mountains—halfway to the moon, it seemed—and the wind galloping faster than the men’s horses there, and the sunlight like crystal, cold and shining. Think of this flower: so small, so very small in a landscape so big you can’t conceive of it except by closing your eyes. I wrote that in one of my letters, I recall: You cannot take this land whole in your vision, but only in your mind. I am not certain I was writing about Tibet; it may have been another place, another great mountain or wide-open plain. I don’t have the heart to go through all those pages in order to find it. Listening to echoes is not a pastime I wish to pursue.
They were sent from all over, but somehow I imagine all the letters coming from Muping in the year 1869. That was the year of my second journey through China and into Tibet, the year I went south and west, the year I discovered the panda. The Sisters remained, as always, in Tientsin, gathering in the converts—I pictured them, sometimes, jogging down the stone streets with butterfly nets upraised in their hands—there in the northeast corner of the country by the sea, while I was far inland, two thousand kilometers away. I went with my notebooks and my instruments, with the boxes that I filled and sent back to Paris whenever the opportunity arose. I sent letters to my father and mother, to the Académie des Sciences and the Société de Géographie, to Savona College in Italy, to the Sisters in Tientsin. I wrote about the flora and fauna, my faith in our great God, the vast spectrum of life revealing itself through his grace and lovingkindness.
1869—this year lodges in my memory like a splinter, or like a holy relic enshrined in glass and gold.
I am not yet sure which is the more accurate metaphor.
In order to understand the affair of the panda, you must envision the place. You can’t imagine that creature unless you can conceive of his home, and his home is like nothing you have ever seen. Mountains you have seen, perhaps; fog you have seen. But not these mountains, not this fog, not this bamboo tossing and shushing like the sea, causing the very land to waver before you. It is a land that seems apart from this world, or mixed, perhaps, with elements of another. It puts one in mind of ghosts. And indeed, the people there live with ghosts as a daily presence, members of the family to whom they give food and drink. They get into quarrels with them, squabble and grumble and shake their heads at the petty grievances their ghosts hold toward them. And the gods, too, are nearly the same. There are dozens, hundreds—a confusion of deities even the average Chinaman is unable to keep straight in his mind.
It is not a Christian land. It is a land of ghosts and spirits. And a land, too, of mountains: green, green mountains rising up vertically from the narrow valleys. Red clay earth. Striations in the cliffs that tower over the muddy rivers. The lines in the rocks run nearly perpendicular to flat, so you can see the way the mountains formed, the way they jutted up out of the earth, plates buckling and breaking like ice on a late-winter pond. There are the impossible slopes, and a collection of people—Tibetan, Chinese, Miao—who cut terraces to farm them, and birds and butterflies, spiders, voles, tiny-faced monkeys. And way up among the peaks—way up in the quietest part of the fog with no other living thing near, or at least not where you can see it, up where you know you are not being watched by anyone, but are utterly forgotten, swallowed up, up where the world flips around so you don’t even know whether you are living inside it or it is living inside you—that is where the panda makes his home.
I did not come upon him in the wild by accident. On the contrary, I searched and searched. I was on a quest, a hunt—but I will come to this shortly.
His existence, however, the very idea of the panda as a creature that treads this earth—that discovery was entirely fortuitous. It came about when I had set up in Muping for a period of months. There was a small college there, just a few rural scholars who had taken their exams in Ch’eng-tu and then come back upland, serious young men who wished to learn whatever I could teach them about botany, biology, and the natural world, and whose local expertise was of the greatest help to me. This was the region between China and Tibet which belonged to no one, and was therefore unsafe. There were Miao bandits roaming the mountain passes. There were thieves and murderers of every kind. And yet somehow I recall feeling safer and happier in Muping than I ever did anywhere else. It was a place of great and unrealized biological significance, and in four months’ time I accumulated a greater store of new specimens than any other place I had been in China. I felt an urgency to swallow up all the knowledge I could, for I had heard and seen enough in Ch’eng-tu and Chungking to make me think that there was a wider discontent simmering, even while I felt shrouded in safety up there in the clouds.
I came to Muping with Jean Lee, my guide, the man who had accompanied me since I first stepped off the boat in Chungking. Not a scholar, a bit; he could no more sign his name than he could recite the entire New Testament. But Jean and I got along well, and he knew the land and people intimately. In a place where the dialect differs from one valley to the next, and no one uses maps and there are none to use even if one wished, a place where a white man has rarely if ever been seen and the West is a notion hardly even conceived of—it is imperative to have a guide you can rely on and trust.
And so Jean and I had hiked up the hills from the college in Muping one day in search of the golden-haired monkey. For some time I had been trying to capture one of these animals. They are tricky creatures, as tricky as their faces suggest, with their snub noses and that singular aspect that makes it look as if they are wearing blue masks over their eyes. Whenever one peeped at me out of a tree I would freeze as I planned my next move, but it watched me, you see, waiting for me to blink. Then all I would see was the tip of its tail disappearing into the leaves. A spot of gold that was gone before I could fully comprehend what it belonged to. I set traps, put out offerings of loquats and plums, and when I came back to them a day later the food would have disappeared as if by magic.
But a man in Muping, a merchant who sold me a fine bamboo comb, told me that half a day’s hike up the mountain would take me into the heart of the monkey kingdom. They ran around in this place, he said, jumping from tree to tree, conducting the business of a royal court. It was said that the creatures were brazen and curious, that they would come right up to a man there and inspect him with eyes and hands. “Where is the place?” I asked as I handed over my money for the comb, and the man pointed me to it. Up, up, way up over there.
We took packs with food and water, bedrolls for the night, and two cages for carrying monkeys back down to the village. It was no easy trek, and I feared it would be even more difficult if we managed to catch some of the creatures and tried to bring them back down. But up we went, and after a time the trail nearly disappeared, no more beaten earth, no more steps wedged into the red mud to give you a foothold. I went first and Jean came up after me and I did not waste any breath on conversation, but Jean was a talkative fellow and could not help himself. He was full of stories about his hometown of Chungking. I had not been much impressed with it, myself—the air full of soot, the streets slick and treacherous and steep—but his stories made me feel I had visited a different place. He described for me how the two rivers came swirling together, how the cliffs leaned down over the rushing waters below, how the tiny boats were tossed about like handfuls of birdseed. Those great stone walls, that stone-gray water, the thundering wind stampeding down the corridors—I should go there in the spring, Jean urged me. In the spring the peach trees were frothed with flowers, and the air settled on you like a warm damp cloth, thick, not thin, as it was up here.
So up we went and the air was indeed thin, but it was full of water, too, a chilly mist that soaked the skin. This mist was perfectly still, not swirling, not ghostly. It was more like a gel in which the landscape was set, and this made you feel as if you should stay still within it, be watchful and quiet and refrain even from blinking. As we made our way up the slope, I kept my eye out for monkey faces peeking at Jean and me through the leaves. But I saw nothing but green. Green stalks of bamboo caught within the gelled mist, green pines and bushes, green moss on the rock faces that marked off the steepest parts of the slopes. Green and green and otherwise gray.
And so it went until we came upon a collection of houses, four or five of them, no more. If it was a village, I no longer remember its name. It was noontime and the men were at home, and we were invited for dinner. We ate in the open air with our coats bundled around us, for it was still early spring and rather cold. Of course, there was liquor to warm us up, served in tiny thimble cups; the jug was refilled again and again from an urn big enough to hold a child curled up inside with his knees to his chest. I grew sleepy and warm. I took too much. At last, they invited me to take a rest in the house.
The room they put me in was dark and I fell asleep quickly. Two or three hours later when I awoke, the sun was shining through the mist and had moved west so the open door was glowing like a golden crown. Jean Lee’s voice floated in from the courtyard and I heard the crackle of sunflower seed shells and peals of laughter. I looked about me and saw a trunk in the corner stacked with lumpy pillows, a bamboo broom leaning against the wall. The rafters overhead were laced with spider webs. Then I turned onto my back and was confronted by a giant pelt of black and white fur nearly covering the wall behind me. The fur was coarse and thick, the hairs two inches long, and it had a pattern of contrasts such as a child might make with a charcoal on paper. It smelled of rancid oil and musty wool, as all pelts do.
I got up out of the bed on unsteady feet. The effect of the liquor was still with me, but changed now from a sleepy slowness to a dizzying jostle, as if I had been shaken like a die and tossed onto the floor. Out in the courtyard, the men, still drinking, shouted their welcome. They made room for me at the table—somehow my stool was gone, cleared away or else occupied by another neighbor who had appeared—but I refused to sit. In my awkward Chinese, and with a series of gestures, I implored the master of the house to come into the room and explain to me what was tacked to the wall. I could not recall which member of the table owned the house, and so the end of it was that the whole group, seven or eight men altogether, plus myself and Jean Lee, crowded into the tiny room and exclaimed over the skin, for the men were excited, too, seeing it with fresh eyes, and realizing that I had never encountered such an animal before. Several of them pinched it, just as they had pinched the skin on the back of my hand when we’d arrived in order to ascertain that I was, in fact, real. And at last, the thing was given a name for me to call it by: chu hsiung, the bamboo bear, which was not the scientific name I later assigned it, but the name by which I sometimes remember it all these years later.
We returned to Muping the next day, but a great many questions had already lodged in my mind. How did the beast move? Where did it sleep? Did it utter a great roar, lumbering after its prey, and did it run quickly, and could it swim or climb? No longer did I care whether we came upon the kingdom of the golden monkey; it was the panda I cared about now, the panda I longed to see. I became obsessed. I made drawings of the creature in my notebook. At night, I dreamed of flying over the land, slipping low down the mountains, spotting punctuations of black and white within the endless green.
And of course I went looking for him. Every day I went out hoping to catch sight of one of the bears. I would never find one close to town, the people of Muping told me, for it was as shy of human contact as it could possibly be, but I went looking anyway. Once, I found a crop of bamboo torn down and shredded, and I knew it was the panda’s work, but that was as close as I came to finding one on my own. Always the sense of the thing just out of sight. Always the feeling that if I turned quickly enough, I could catch a glimpse of him in his natural abode.
Jean Lee left me during this time. He went back to Ch’eng-tu, and from there on to Chungking, for he was to be married, and this was the time that the fortune tellers had determined to be auspicious. The Chinese have a complicated system for such determinations, having to do with the birthdates of the bride and groom, the alignment of the stars, the moon’s waxing and waning. They have lucky and unlucky numbers, the twelve animals, the five elements, cycles of construction and destruction. It is all cycles within cycles, as complex as the linking of gears required to make a clock tick.
He had never seen his bride, and I do not know whether he was satisfied when at last he laid eyes upon her, for though he’d said he would return in thirty days’ time, I never saw him again, nor heard anything of him. He is one of many who have stepped forward from the crowd and then returned again. I imagine them swallowed up as if by the ocean.
It strikes me that I mention Jean Lee’s marriage for more reasons than I am perhaps aware of myself. It was some while before I truly felt the loss, for the hard times ahead were not yet upon me. But I feel it now, looking back. Only now, in my old age, do I truly feel how very different creatures we priests are from our flock. Ordinary men and women orient their lives around a center that is made of two cleaved halves—God and the family, joined as one. It is like the picture you see pasted to the wall in Chinese medicine shops: the circle of black and white known as the yin and the yang (whose pattern I see reflected in the panda’s appearance). At the center of a priest’s life, there is only a perfect circle, undivided. This gives one a feeling of completeness. But occasionally, too, it can feel like emptiness.
I have sought my own balance, therefore, in science. For I believe that God reveals himself most clearly in the wonders of his creation: the eggshell breaking open to reveal a peeping chick, fully formed; a bright purple flower clinging to a limestone cliff; the water strider skimming the surface of a pond. In my understanding, this first belief necessarily leads to a second: that we come closest to knowing him through the exercise of those processes that keep us alive. Through biology, holiness. (I must look up the Latin for this phrase I have coined.)
Here we come to a conundrum, however. For what, precisely, are these processes? I eat. I sleep. I attend to those requirements of the body that do not need to be spoken of here. Yet though I have loved as much or more as any man on earth, I willingly deny myself that kind which brings each of us into existence, that which is held by a man for his wife.
Let us come to the point: I have never loved a woman. I have admired a lank of hair falling free from its headscarf, felt a surge of appreciation at the sight of a woman laughing in the sun. In Italy, I once witnessed a young lady of sixteen or seventeen teeter on the edge of the curb before seizing up her skirts to leap full-hop over a puddle, and the sight of it nearly stopped my heart. Even now I can see each drop of water rising up in its silver casement to meet the bare ankle. I can feel the displacement of air made by the rushing forward, I can almost grasp between my fingers the soft fabric of her skirt. I tell you, I felt in that moment a great cavern of longing open up and nearly pull me down into it.
But I have never lain with a woman and I have no children. How then do I know that I have learned all that I was intended to learn? Who is to say that my life is as holy as that of the man whose wife calls him in to dinner, whose children tug on his sleeve as he crosses the room? I have been content to live according to my vows, but still I wonder. And often I feel one or other of man’s pettier emotions, primary among which is a great sense of loneliness, and a suspicion that I am not as important to those I love as they are to me.
With Jean Lee gone, I enlisted the services of two men from Muping. Hsiao Feng, one of my assistants at the college, was to go with me, along with his father and uncle. But on the appointed morning, Hsiao Feng awoke feeling unwell, and so it ended up that I went with only Messieurs Wu and Yang as companions. I was never certain which was the father and which the uncle. They were both short wiry men with skin the color of milky tea and eyes that disappeared into slits when they smiled. It was impossible to know whether they were the same age, or years apart, whether they were thirty years old, or forty, or sixty. M. Wu had a patch of white hair, all contained in one spot; M. Yang had a deformed ear, which he reached up to touch whenever he was speaking, almost as if he were holding a shell to his ear to receive the sound of the ocean, as I had done as a child when my father brought a bag of them from the sea.
We departed in the early morning, the fog as thick as cotton batting pulled down around us, so it seemed as if it might tear on the rods of bamboo. There was a smell of wet wood and wet earth. We each carried guns, though I made clear to my companions that I did not wish to shoot a panda; I wanted only to see one. Of course, what I wanted most of all was to capture one alive, but I did not know whether this was possible, and certainly the first step was simply to observe the creature in its habitat, to understand what it was and how it lived, so that at a later date I might return with an effective plan for its capture. The rifles were a necessary precaution, however—there were bandits, as I said, and it was a time of unrest.
In addition to weaponry, I had with me my notebook and box of instruments for collecting specimens, and I carried the little packets of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves that Jean Lee and I had taken with us everywhere for months. Tsungtzu, they were called, and though I have not had one now in decades, I can still remember the flavor, herbal and salty-sweet, that came from the boiled leaves, and the gluey residue left on one’s fingers after peeling it open. As we walked along, my two companions engaged in a long conversation that was entirely incomprehensible to me. I did not mind being left to myself, for my head was full with the thought of finally seeing a panda in the wild, standing tall on his hind legs, facing us across a stream or a narrow gorge. (I imagined him ready to use his teeth and claws, and it was therefore convenient to have, in my imagining, a barrier of some sort between us.)
We struggled uphill for hours, following a stream that cut through the woods. My legs burned and my breath came fast, but I didn’t dare ask for a rest. Instead, I distracted myself by silently cataloguing the flora I saw: a stand of fragrant osmanthus, rhododendrons of several kinds, a large purple magnolia, narrow-leaved pines. At last, we stopped at a ridge to rest, and as my companions squatted down and looked out over the valley that opened below, I went a little way down the hill to sketch a fern I’d seen growing up out of a rock.
It was a remarkable fern, or at least it seemed so at the time. In fact, I am not sure it was more remarkable than any other fern you could find growing at the bottom of your yard, or behind the toilets. But my senses were so alive in that moment that each specimen of life I encountered was a wonder. This fern may have been seen a million times over by generation upon generation of men just like my companions, and yet still have been an undiscovered species. So much life! So much uncatalogued, unidentified life! I was overcome by the idea of this vast earth, of all God has put on it, the care, the meticulousness of his vision, this very fern tucked away in a rock high up in the misty mountains, waiting to be discovered.
I sat sketching it, and so caught up was I in capturing the tines at the edges of the leaf, and the nodes on its bottom, that it took me some time to notice a change in my environment. I was sitting on a little cliff edge that allowed me a more open view than we had had most of the day, and so was level with the upper portion of the bamboo growing a little way down the slope. The wind was swaying it gently, and this motion made a background like the movement of waves when one is aboard a ship. But then there came a different motion, a more concentrated rustling. Once I became aware of it, I stopped my pencil on the page and sat watching carefully. My eyes traveled downward; I saw nothing. I looked up again at the tops of the bamboo, thrashing about now, and when I returned my gaze to the area directly below, I saw it: a flash of black and white, hidden immediately by the green, and then revealed again, and then gone.
I watched and watched, but the bamboo was still now, and the revelation had disappeared. Turning my head slowly, so as not to disturb even a trace of air, I saw that I was alone, for MM. Wu and Yang were still resting up the way. My pack sat open on the rock to my left. On my right was the rifle.
I sat like that, alert and still, for a time. I dare say it was only a minute or two, but it felt as if it were all day, indeed many days, indeed as if I had been sitting there always, with my eyes trained on the area below, where the bamboo had been moving (though now it was calm), and my ears open to the music of the forest: the wind, a single call from a laughing thrush on a distant perch, the droning of a mosquito somewhere much closer by.
And so it was that I heard a rustling sound, and immediately turned to a place fifteen meters to the right of where I had been looking before. I don’t know how it got there so soundlessly, and without my seeing it, but suddenly the panda was fully revealed among the bamboo. It was as if he had stepped out from behind a curtain to present himself on a stage.
How to describe that moment? Seeing this beast I had been ceaselessly imagining ever since my first glimpse of the skin on the wall, I felt myself instantly submerged in wonder, shocked and breathless. I stared and stared, but the bear did not see me. It was standing on its hind legs, sweeping its paws through the bamboo, gathering it all up like a child in a field of flowers. I watched it pulling down the long stalks and felt that this animal was not at all as I had conjured him in my mind. His paws, so clumsy-looking, were actually dexterous as human hands, his legs much stockier than I had anticipated, and his eyes, looking out from patches of black, gave him an appearance of grief.
I try to convey to you the wonder I felt, the overwhelming nature of it, the way it swept me up completely, because it is necessary to understand what happened next. I had the gun there, loaded with three bullets. Why three? I don’t know. I don’t know why I had loaded it at all. But when the panda froze for an instant—my presence scented on the air—I understood that it would soon disappear and be gone forever, and I knew, too, that the only way to stop it was that gun. So I took it up, and leveled it, and shot.
It is said that the Chinese were the first to discover gunpowder. They wrote up a recipe centuries ago, a thousand years and more, and naturally the emperors and generals soon put it to use in war. But that was not its original purpose. The alchemists did not go looking for death. No, it was exactly the opposite—they were searching for life, the elixir of immortality. Imagine these men, these learned Chinese men, these students of philosophy and religion (for then, as now, it was all one to them), experimenting with every chemical and herb at their disposal, with sulfur and saltpeter, with birthwort and honey, making concoctions of these things, adding a bit of this and that, in equal parts or in varying ratios, measuring and recording and making a science of the endeavor as best they could. And for what purpose? For life, for a continuation of life. Knowing nothing of heaven, they were unwilling to let go of earth.
And who is to blame them? Without heaven, indeed, how could we bear to do it? How to release our fingers’ grasp on the dirt and flowers, the house with its dripping eaves, the fire smoking in the kitchen, the cat winding round the table leg? How to set down a pencil? to blink at the stars? to press your cheek to the cheek of your mother or to hear your father sigh as he takes off his shoes? How to accept that the sky that expands endlessly overhead is all you will ever know of eternity? How to allow yourself to love? To utter a single goodbye? How could you ever hope to recover from weeping?
My father and I once encountered a bear on one of our walks into the hills. I was nine years old at the time. It was late March and there was snow on the ground, but it was melting; from all around came a steady drip as the melt fell from tree branches and from the protrusions of rock that made minor cliff-faces here and there. My father was silent as he walked, and so I did not speak, either. I understood the sanctity of that silence, the assurance that here was the soul that was closest to my own soul, and there was no need to speak of it, since it would be that way, always.
I was feeling this quite strongly without actually thinking it, until my father suddenly stopped and turned to me. I was certain that he was going to tell me something very important, very wise. His eyes were wide and he moved his head slightly. And so I looked, and there I saw the bear. It was not twenty meters away. Its head was massive, its muzzle dripping, for it had been bending to drink from the creek running a narrow track between us. But now its great dark head was raised. The creek was shallow; the bear could have splashed through it in an instant. I saw its eyes, black and glinting and absolutely unafraid.
My father had told me many times that there was no use trying to outrun a bear, and without needing to look around now, I realized that it would be impossible to try, for there was no place to run for shelter. With the trees stripped of their leaves, it was only too clear how empty the woods were of hiding places, and how far they went on in every direction, piled upon each other like rumpled blankets.
For what seemed an eternity, we each stood frozen in our places: the bear, my father, and myself. I did not trust that I had any control over my limbs. And yet all my senses were enlivened. I heard each drip of melting snow as it fell to the slushy ground. The light all around me glinted hard and white as marble. In the air, I caught the scent of pine and mud and the sharp tang of the bear itself.
In that moment, I felt the animal aspect of myself take over and all my knowledge and memories drain away. There was nothing but that instant of complete stillness, and in it my awareness shifted so that it was as if I had never been in that place before. I was a minor beast in the presence of a greater one, and I felt just this one imperative: live, live, live. It was entirely selfish; I had no thought of my father, but felt only that I had to survive, and that I did not know how to do it.
The bear reared up on its hind legs and let out a strange cry, neither a roar nor a growl, but more frightening than either. Then it dropped to all fours and began lumbering forward. If I could have moved I’d have turned and run, despite what my father had told me. But I was frozen and so had no chance to test his advice.
He had another method, however, to rebuff the attack. My father stood up tall, puffed out his chest, and waving his arms over his head, began intoning the opening passage of Génie du Christianisme in a clear firm voice. If I could have felt anything but terror then, I’m sure it would have been incredulity—to be able to recall Chateaubriand’s words at such a moment!—but in any case, the bear stopped moving forward. For several long seconds, as my father continued his recitation, it seemed to be considering its options. Then it rose up on its hind legs and waving a paw in front of its face, opened its mouth wide. I was certain it was about to attack. Instead, it dropped to all fours once again, and turning slowly on its hips, sauntered back into the forest, leaving my father and me safe and shaking with gratitude.
Whether it was by some strange accident or by God’s arrangement, I don’t know, but though I was never a marksman, never much of a hunter, the shot I fired at the panda that day was the truest to ever leave the barrel of my gun. The panda staggered; it fell. It was not yet dead when MM. Wu and Yang came dashing through the bamboo toward me—both men silent but for the rocks they sent tumbling—and I had a moment’s hope, a wish so strong I thought I might make it true by the force of my wanting it, that the animal would live. Even in that instant, however, I knew that I was guilty, and that the guilt would stay with me all the rest of my life. Something sacred had been destroyed, some part of me unearthed that I hadn’t known was there. I wanted it buried again. But there is no means of reversing any such discovery.
When I learned of my father’s death, he was already nearly four months in the ground. This was some time after the episode just spoken of—one season finished and the next begun. The letter reached me in Muping in the last days of July, when I myself was feeling sickly. I had taken to my bed and stayed there for three weeks. The people told me it was bone typhus, and though I had never heard of such a thing, I came to believe it, to tell myself I had this ailment and to brave the local cures. I tried boiled bamboo, for it was supposed to act as a diuretic, but it did nothing but give me horrible cramps that kept me curled like a worm in my bed. Then there came the goosefoot grass, which they mashed up with oil and vinegar and fed me with a spoon. Finally, the Chinese medicine man, a gentleman with a long yellow-white beard and a face that was strikingly smooth, considering that he could not have been under the age of seventy-five, came and put a poultice on my abdomen. We didn’t share any words; when he came into the room, he simply indicated that I should stick out my tongue, and looking at it, shook his head sadly and began mixing up the concoction to spread on my skin. I lay atop the covers for several hours so as not to trouble it. He had a calming air that made me think perhaps his poultice would save me, but in fact, it had no effect at all.
I languished in bed. There was a window with a swinging door covered in paper that I kept open so I could look out, for though my sickroom was on the ground level, the college was built up on a slope and so provided a view. There never seemed to be any wind, but just a deep stillness and the sound of the river moving over the rocks. I lay there and thought of the panda. I had left him in the taxidermy room of the school, cleaned and stuffed, frozen in a walking position with his head straight ahead, eyes level on a far horizon. What had made me position him that way? He was a mountain dweller, and could have no sense of a horizon—only the undulations of mountaintops in a sea of fog. I regretted placing him in such a manner. It did not do him justice.
I called to the boy who took care of me to bring me the chu hsiung. He did not bring me the panda, but instead brought Hsiao Feng, the scholar whose father was M. Wu or M. Yang. Hsiao Feng came up to the bed and squinted down at me. He was nearly blind; I do not know that he could see any further than his nose. But I imagined myself as he might see me, if he could have seen clearly, and what I imagined was not good. I was laid out on the stiff bed with the blankets pulled up to my chin. My skin was pale and sweaty. I looked like a sick man, not quite in control of his senses, asking for a panda bear to be brought to his room.
“Mushih David, you want us to bring you the body?” he asked, and when he put it that way, I could not say yes, because it was suddenly so horrible to me to think of the beast that had been in the wild, grasping with his paws like a child’s hands in mittens, this animal who hated to be found, a solitary being both graceful and lumbering—to think of that animal as a dead and dull thing, a coat wrapped round a frame—it filled me with shame.
“Oh, never mind,” I said to Hsiao Feng, and was just sending him away when he pulled a letter from his coat and presented it to me. I examined the return address and seeing that it came from Ezpeleta, asked if there were any others, for I thought perhaps there might be something from the university in Peking, or the Académie in Paris.
“No others.” His eyes hovered on me, unfocused, which was his way of watching. He was an unattractive fellow, small and dark. One shoulder was raised higher than the other. He had never ventured any further than Ch’eng-tu, and yet as a scholar he was a sort of local hero. He didn’t swagger a bit, however, and I respected him for it. “You do not look much improved,” he said hesitantly.
I waved a hand wearily in front of me. “That is because I am not.”
He questioned me on which potions and herbs and poultices the medicine man had applied, and what effect they had had. He knew it all already, as he had been in the room each time the man came. “We will have to find another method,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, “and that is my removal to Ch’eng-tu.” For I knew that I would have to leave the place. My options for recovery were too limited there. I did not tell Hsiao Feng of the suspicion I had that it was the panda I’d shot who had brought this sickness upon me. It was merely my fevered brain, heated and scrambled, that had spawned this notion, and even in my belief, I understood it to be nonsense and sacrilege. The ghosts of the place were intruding upon me, despite my knowing that they did not exist.
“I think that is best, Mushih,” Hsiao Feng said, surprising me by his agreement, and then he quietly left the room.
My dear son, your father is dead, the first line of the letter read. My mother went on to give me the full account. Father had gone out for one of his walks shortly after the sun had risen on a morning in early April. Mother had been beating the curtains clean. It was a beautiful day. She had worn herself out and lain down for a nap and when she got up, Father had still not returned, so she sent the neighbors out looking. They found him near the castle, crumpled in the grass with a brown speckled butterfly perched upon his shoulder. A neighbor thought to uncurl his hands to see what they grasped, for it seemed as if his open eyes were staring at his fists. But they held nothing. It was a stroke that had killed him, or a heart attack. Mother did not know how she would get on. She would be glad to see me when I returned to France, and she hoped that I would stay with her awhile before I went back out into the world.
I set the letter down upon the cover and looked out the window at the swaying bamboo. All of a sudden, I felt frightened by the sight, as if I were caught below the waves and had only just realized it. My father had been dead for nearly four months and I had not had a jolt of any kind, not an inkling. What could this say about love, about the spiderweb threads connecting us one to another? Can it be that death is so insignificant a barrier that when one leaves this earth, the thread simply extends out and out, maintaining points of contact without so much as a tug on the other end? Or is it the alternative, at once easy and terrible: the filament cleanly broken, and so light to begin with that one does not even notice the change?
Hsiao Feng had first handed me the letter in the late afternoon and after reading it once, I did not look at it again. I closed my eyes and attempted to drain my mind of all thought and memory, to make my soul—my consciousness—as an empty bowl, ready to be filled by the grace of God. I laced my fingers over my chest. I felt my breath softly pushing my shoulders into the mattress. And I listened to the sounds of life that surrounded me even there. In the evenings, the residents of Muping liked to walk along the river, hands folded behind their backs, visiting with each other in the slow blue dusk. I had been used to doing the same when I was well. Now, I listened to the titter of voices floating up to me through the open window and thought for the first time how very alone I was in this land.
What is there to say of what happened next? I left Muping for Ch’eng-tu, not entirely recovered—I am not sure I have ever recovered completely—but well enough to take a boat down the Yangtze to Shanghai. From there, I sent on a precious cargo of specimens; the panda sailed to Paris without me, and I boarded another ship bound for Tientsin. But I never got there, for en route, we stopped off at Chefoo and I learned of the massacre that had taken place up north. The danger I had felt was not for me. It had boiled up elsewhere. My friends at the mission, the Sisters—they were all dead, murdered. The cathedral had been burnt to the ground.
I do not much care to dwell upon those years. Everything was of a piece; it was violence and grief every way I turned. I put in a request to return to France and departed soon after. But when the ship stopped in Ceylon, the news came that war had come to my homeland, and so I was not allowed back in, after all. I stayed in Italy, in Savona, and went over my old collection there. I lodged with friends and acquaintances, one and then another, cycling through them all so as not to overburden any one. I was a man without a home. And the war in France went on and on.
Of my mother I knew nothing. Of the fate of my specimens at the Académie in Paris I could get no information at all. I imagined the building wrecked and smoldering, the collection ravaged. So much of what I had sent there had not even been catalogued yet; it had been my intention to help with this work upon my return. This was the worst of it, somehow—the idea that these specimens of mine, so carefully collected, might be destroyed without anyone’s knowing a single true thing about them. I imagined the Prussians poking the carcasses of monkeys and deer and giant salamanders on their spears, dragging them out into the cobblestone squares in a sort of triumph and abandoning them there. It would be a tragic tableau: these creatures from all across China, so remarkable and strange, discarded like trash in the streets.
I worried most of all about the panda. Looking down from a friend’s house in Savona at the red tile rooftops falling away down the hill, and beyond them the water of the Mediterranean, glittering and restless, it struck me how bright all the colors were in this place, how firm the outlines, how shattering the sun. It was all too aggressively distinct. Muping, hovering within the scrim of the clouds, was so far away it was another world, another realm. And I knew that I would never see it again.
I remember an evening of celebration in Muping. It was the New Year or some other holiday, Chinese or Tibetan—I do not exactly recall. But I remember the lanterns. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them rising into the air, paper balloons going up amongst the black hills, a deeper blackness within the darkness of night. The lanterns rose up as if pulled by strings and I imagined a crowd of children above, playing with yo-yos. You can understand how a people would create myths to explain the quotidian miracles, how they would cast these stories with a great variety of gods, how the gods would become so numerous that one could only imagine them as occupying a vast crowded room, like one of the balls at a royal court. There is much shouting and dancing, and a great deal of confusion. There are the shyer deities hanging back by the walls, the old ones seated as they bicker and tease one another. The young ones laugh as they twirl about. And there in the corner are the child gods, playing with their toys, sending up and down through space these spots of light in the dark.
Or so it seems in memory. The paper lanterns going up, up, up, not so high, really, but with the clouds pulled down low over the mountains—we were always in clouds up there; I don’t know that I ever saw sunlight that wasn’t filtered through a gauze; I don’t know that I ever saw any stars at all—the lanterns looked as if they would bump up against the sky. They rose all together, but if you watched one individually, followed it with your eyes, you would witness the instant when it finally stopped rising. That period of stasis, that turn. It makes me weep to think of it—how brief and gentle that moment, how sweet the pause before it fell back to earth.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.