On Xiaoping’s eleventh birthday, his mothers decided to take him to meet the Qlorq.
This was quite a treat, because most kids didn’t get to see the Qlorq at all, let alone meet it, and certainly not at only eleven. But then Xiaoping had influential mothers.
They gathered round him in their bright blue gowns, their hands fluttering, just like a flock of twittering birds. Their eyes glittered like wet pebbles, as they told him just how lucky he was that they were so influential.
“And now,” First Mother said, frowning importantly so that Xiaoping would know she was saying something important, “we’ll take the rocket to Imperial City, and there we’ll go to meet the Qlorq.”
“You’ve got to be on your best behaviour,” Second Mother added. “It’s a tremendous privilege to meet the Qlorq. Hardly anyone outside the royal family gets the chance – at your age. You’ve got to make the best of the chance you can.”
Third Mother had been waiting impatiently for her turn to speak, so impatiently that she began talking even before Second Mother had quite finished and in consequence was glared at by her. “I hope you understand,” she said, “that it wasn’t easy for us to arrange this meeting for you. In fact, it was very, very hard. We couldn’t have done it without a lot of effort – even with all our influence. You ought to be grateful to us.”
They all looked at Fourth Mother, but she said nothing, just lowered her eyes. She was the youngest and least beautiful of the four, and hardly ever spoke anyway. The three other Mothers waited just long enough to be polite, and then turned back to Xiaoping.
“Come on,” they said, almost simultaneously, so their voices overlapped, like the chirping of birds. “The rocket will soon be here.”
Xiaoping had only travelled in a rocket once before, and that was a long enough ago that he hardly remembered it, so that he looked around with keen interest when they arrived at the port. The rocket was green and gold, with a prow in the shape of a dragon’s head and stabilising fins like serrated wings. It was called “Wind Spirit.” A good name, everyone said, a blessed name; the Emperor had chosen it himself.
Actually, the Emperor hadn’t chosen anything himself, because he was a four-year-old boy who could barely write his own name, not that it made any iota of difference. In any case, Xiaoping and his four mothers got on and sat down in their places, which were all near windows except for Xiaoping’s and Fourth Mother’s seats. Then a tall, mannish woman attendant passed round cubes of opium flavoured candy which all the three elder Mothers ate, though they wouldn’t let Xiaoping have any, and Fourth Mother refused with a shake of her head. After a while, the rocket took off and flew quickly over the mountains and seas, which Xiaoping couldn’t see since he wasn’t sitting at a window. Soon enough, anyway, they came down to the port at Imperial City, where the mothers had hired rooms so they could freshen up and rest before they went to meet the Qlorq.
The mothers had, of course, not seen the rooms before they’d hired them, so they immediately started to look for someone to complain to, all but Fourth Mother who took Xiaoping aside and dressed him in his new red and black robe. The robe was too large, of course, because his mothers believed in buying clothes he could grow into, and the hat was so large that it kept trying to fall over his eyes. Finally Fourth Mother solved the problem by pinning it to his pigtail.
The Qlorq had a palace to itself, which was a personal gift from the Imperial Regent and was known as the Hall of Blessed Melancholy. What the Qlorq thought about the title only it knew – nobody had ever asked it, or, if anyone had, it hadn’t deigned to answer. Still, for all its gloomy name, the Hall was a rather grand palace, painted Imperial Yellow except for its green doors, windows, and curving roof. When Xiaoping and his mothers – the first three still squabbling, in turn, over whose fault it was that the rented rooms were so unsatisfactory – finally reached it, they were late. The guards at the gate crashed their halberds on the ground and refused to let them in. Xiaoping was still wondering what the point of arming guards with halberds was, when First Mother reached inside her robes and passed something to the guards, and they let them through at once.
“Opium,” First Mother explained succinctly, as they climbed up a set of broad stairs. “I’d brought a pouch full along. It’s worth much more than money, in Imperial City.” Xiaoping thought this as strange as the halberds the guards were carrying, but he didn’t say anything. His mothers didn’t approve of him asking questions. It wasn’t polite, they said, that a boy should question his elders.
The Qlorq lived in a single room deep inside the palace, a room reached by corridors filled with fluttering eunuchs, several of whom competed to open doors and guide Xiaoping and his mothers. Each one of them had to be given some opium as a reward, and First Mother’s face had settled in deep lines of bitter disgust. Xiaoping watched the lines covertly and with growing dismay, because he knew that later he’d be made to pay for them.
“See how I had to give away all the opium just so you could have your birthday treat,” she would begin. “And do I see the slightest flicker of gratitude on your face, you ungrateful boy?” And it would go on from there, Second Mother and Third Mother joining in turn by turn so that First Mother wouldn’t then blame them for leaving her to discipline Xiaoping alone. Only Fourth Mother wouldn’t say a word, but then they wouldn’t care about her, because she never said anything anyway.
Fortunately, just as Xiaoping had decided that if the lines on First Mother’s face grew any deeper he’d suggest they forget it and go home, they reached the last door, behind which was the room occupied by the Qlorq itself, the room it never left. There was no guard at this door, just an officious little man in the green robes of the Imperial household service.
“Yes, very good,” he said after asking for and checking their permit. “The boy alone will go in, of course.”
“No!” First Mother said sharply. “We will all go in.”
“No knowing what kind of trash the Qlorq will fill his head with otherwise,” Second Mother said.
“You can’t trust the boy,” Third Mother added, glaring at him. “He’s always dreaming, and no telling what he might do in there.”
Fourth Mother said nothing.
“If it’s a question of something extra...” First Mother began, her hand reaching into her opium bag.
“I’m sorry, great ladies.” The official shook his head, with obvious regret. “It’s not something I have discretion over. The Qlorq itself does not see...subjects...unless they’re alone.”
“Alone?” First Mother repeated.
“Why does the Qlorq want that?” Second Mother queried.
“What should we do then?” Third Mother asked.
There was a brief silence. The mothers looked at each other, and First Mother opened her mouth to speak.
“Go,” Fourth Mother said, hurriedly. Since it was her turn to speak, if she chose, First Mother could do nothing but glare in baffled fury. “Go,” Fourth Mother repeated, and pushed him gently towards the door. “We’ll wait out here.”
“Wait –“ First Mother began, but she was too late. The official had already ushered Xiaoping to the door, and was in the act of opening it with the other hand. A moment later, Xiaoping was inside.
The Qlorq’s room was sheathed in silvery metal, which covered the floor, ceiling and all the walls, and was chill, almost freezing. Inside, mists shifted and curled, silvery too, so that it was difficult to see anything, and one might almost think the room was empty. But a few moments later the fog parted, and Xiaoping gasped involuntarily.
The Qlorq sat on a low platform, one of its foreclaws grasping a stalk of sugarcane, the other end of which was clamped in its round mouth. Its heavy head swung towards Xiaoping, as though it could see him, though it had, of course, no eyes or visible ears.
Xiaoping stood perfectly still, his heart hammering, his breath caught in his throat. The Qlorq shifted its huge bulk round until it was turned fully towards him, and raised its other foreclaw in greeting. For a minute or two, which seemed to stretch out forever, nothing happened. There was no noise but for the faint crunch of the Qlorq chewing at the sugarcane.
Then Xiaoping felt something in his mind, like a feather brushing along the surface of his brain. Though he’d expected it, had been told it would happen, his first impulse was of freezing terror. He felt as if his limbs were congealing, and his mouth went dry. If he could have moved he might have tried to run away.
Then, suddenly, the crawling silver mists of the room vanished, and he was standing on a high rocky ledge, with clouds floating around him. At his feet the ground fell away in a vertical precipice, down to a great plain which went on and on as far as the eye could see. It was so sudden that he gasped and staggered involuntarily.
Then it was as though a hand steadied him, and turned him so he looked to one side. There, winding through the land like a great dark ribbon, was a river. His eyes followed its course, till far away, at the limits of the horizon, he saw it vanish into a dark smudge that stretched till it met the sky – and he knew it was the sea.
“Is that what you want me to look at?” he asked. “The river?”
For a long moment there was no answer. Then, abruptly, the river seemed to jump closer, till he could see the water moving, slowly and sluggishly, full of mud and the branches of trees. In the middle of the flood he saw something else, something pale that bobbed in the water. At first he thought it was another piece of jetsam, and then he saw an arm raised in the air, waving as if for help.
“He’s going to drown –“ he began to say, then broke off, because a piece of wood came down the flood, at first sight no better than a mere wooden plank. But the searching arm found it, and pulled the exhausted body out of the water; and the plank stayed firm. And even as Xiaoping gasped, as in shared relief, he saw that it was a boy, about his own age.
“Is he going to try and make for the shore,” Xiaoping asked, “or will he make for the sea?” For a very long time there was no answer, and all he saw was the body lying on the piece of wood. The river bank was close by, and within easy reach, but instead of making for it, the boy on the raft, seemed content to let it sweep him down towards the sea.
Then he saw, on either side of the river, buildings rising, until a mighty city towered over the boy and his wooden shelter, a city of towers and walls that seemed to touch the sky, and streets so broad that nobody had seen the like. There were steps leading down to the river, and at one such the wooden plank drifted, and there the boy stumbled off the river and onto the shore. Before walking up, though, he looked around, hesitated a moment, and then went back down and pulled the makeshift raft on shore. For an instant he looked round at Xiaoping – and the face he had, Xiaoping saw without surprise, was his own.
Moments later the cliff, the plain and river, all disappeared, and a new scene took its place. At first Xiaoping thought it was the room back again, but then he saw that it was smoke which clouded the air, not mist, and that the ground underneath was not the silvery metal of the room, but rather a layer of grey-black ash. And behind the veil of smoke there was red flickering light, as from a great and distant fire, and he seemed to hear a faint noise, like the rustling of leaves, or a million stifled screams. It was as though a city burned on the horizon, and the ash fell from the sky like rain.
He stood on the plain, and beside him stood a figure, silhouetted against the red glow of that far fire. By his side he held a plank of wood, and though he couldn’t see the face, Xiaoping knew who it was. The figure’s shoulders drooped, the attitude full of sorrow, yet defiant at the same time. And there were footsteps approaching, through the smoke, as of many marching men; footsteps coming closer and closer.
Then he was standing atop a high dais, looking down at a cheering throng. And they were looking up at him, and cheering – not at someone with his face, but him, Xiaoping, cheering and waving fluttering banners. And though he waved back and smiled, he felt his heart burdened with worry, because he knew the hard part was still to come.
Then he was standing in the room full of silver mists, and the Qlorq, still chewing on its cane, was staring blandly at him with its eyeless face. He knew he wouldn’t get any more, that he’d been told as much as he needed to know. But he had the right to ask one question.
He asked it.
Years later, when Xiaoping had led the rebellion that had overthrown the Imperial Dynasty, and wrested the Empire from the corrupt band of eunuchs and officials who had drained it and brought it to the verge of ruin, he would look back at that moment.
“I still don’t really know,” he told Fourth Mother, who, though very old now, was still his chief confidant, “what might have happened if I’d chosen to drift on down to the sea, or steered my way to the shore before I reached the city. The Qlorq knew, of course, where it would all lead – it knew that it was showing me a path full of pain and sorrow – but that it was the only way for me. Yet that wasn’t the most important thing that I learned in that room on that day.”
He paused. Fourth Mother raised her ancient, wrinkled face from her reading and looked at him, waiting for him to continue.
“It was what the Qlorq replied when I asked it what it wanted. Nobody else had ever asked that question. I don’t know why I asked it – more out of pique than anything, perhaps, since I was angry with it for showing me a future I didn’t want. But then it showed me...”
He paused again, because his throat was dry. “It showed me,” he said when he could go on, “a world of such beauty, such aching loveliness, that I have no words to describe it. Imagine blue skies over blue water, and ice cliffs towering in the distance, while more ice rises in the foreground, in turrets and arches and flying buttresses. It was an ice city, lovelier by far than anything we can ever create, or even imagine.
“And the Qlorq yearned for this place. It yearned for it with the desperate ache of someone who is exiled from a home he can never hope to see again, with the terrible agony of not even being able to shed a tear to lessen his sorrow. The Qlorq wanted to go home.”
He thought a moment, rubbing his face, trying to find the words to express what he wanted to say. “And that’s why I did, actually, steer to shore at the city, with you, revered Mother. That was why I rebelled, and why we fought those battles, and destroyed so much and harmed so many. That is why I overthrew the Emperor. Not because I wanted to do any of those things – but because I wanted to be in power, so I could release the Qlorq and let it go home.”
He closed his eyes, and he saw again the Qlorq fitting its stubby body into the grey shell of its craft, about to set out on its long, long journey between the stars. “Who knows what it will find?” he asked. “Who knows whether its home has changed beyond imagining? Maybe it was better where it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent it away.”
“You did the right thing,” Fourth Mother said. “It gave you a vision. You gave it its life back. Anything else would have been unworthy.”
But Xiaoping still wondered, and worried; but as the years passed, he drew comfort from one thing.
Just before it had drawn the lid of its capsule shut, the Qlorq had raised one stubby forelimb, and though he told himself it could have been anything, any gesture at all, Xiaoping knew that, at that last moment, it had waved to him.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013