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Chrysalis. The Conclusion

by on March 6, 2015

Indeed, Tonio was fortunate to have the friends he did. Few young men could so easily throw down their entire existence and step aboard a ship to the East.  He had sold the few possessions accumulated over the years. And, in turn the money became provisions with some gold pieces left over. His friends included a shipmaster going to Cyprus.  And in Cyprus, friends of the shipmaster who traveled to a small port near Layas, a city in Asia Minor.  From Layas his destination was Cathay.

It was dawn over the eastern Mediterranean.  Beneath a pile of canvases on the foredeck Tonio lay wondering how he would get from Layas to Cathay.  They would reach the small port that morning, and he would be in Layas that night. He thought about Venice and home. Home was gone, if it had ever been there.  It was as if he had dreamed it all the night before. He was beyond guilt; he was free. 

The cool blue of the morning poured its radiance down on him. On the open sea there were no boundaries, no blockades which narrowed the sky; the earth lay unashamedly open, flat on its back with arms and legs spread wide before the coming sky. He wondered if he would ever again see the sky as he had as a child.

In Layas his way became clear. The only realistic course was to work his way by sea.  He hired on as a baggage hand in a goods caravan going to Basra, a city built on the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  There he signed as a deck hand on a merchant ship to Mien, or what was later called Burma.  His years of experience aboard ships paid him good service and he laughed to think of himself as a deck hand in the company of merchants, often young and flamboyant men.  His experience as a sailor became more crucial, for though he was capable of assimilating the basic, job-oriented jargon of his fellows his two year pilgrimage across thousands of miles and dozens of cultures drove him further within himself as the focal point of all company, amusement, and peace.  The world spun about him.  His past, present and future mixed in a meaningless but ultimate swirl which encircled but could not quite hold him.

In the late afternoon of a summer day a ship from Ziamba, loaded with spices, sailed hard before an onshore squall blowing toward the harbor where the Huto river met the Gulf of Pohai.  The ship was bound for Tientsin, a couple of hundred kilometers southeast of Khan-balik, the district capital which would later be called Peking.  As the ship moved along the safe waters of the river hundreds of sampans scurried in and out of side inlets.  Tonio, hard at work, watched and heard and smelled Cathay.  He thought briefly these sampans reminded him of something, but the awesome sight of green and black mountains rising up to the western sun washed all memory from him.  As his leathered hands worked the ropes he was completely unaware of being foreign. He was at home among totally incomprehensible surroundings.

When the ship was safely unloaded and he had his paltry salary in his pocket Tonio slipped away, as had become his custom.  He was soon aboard a junk heading for Khan-balik.  Already he had seen marvelous things such as paper money made from the thin layer between the bark and the wood of the mulberry tree.  And chickens, uncommon in the West.

Again, dawn found Tonio waking on the deck.  The trip had been slow but, wrapped in canvases, he had a solid night’s sleep.  The sun was just fully above the tree line when the shipmaster put into the quays.  Tonio arose and stepped quickly to the shore.  He was dimly aware that his wide eyed curiosity was returned manifold by the people who noticed him wherever he walked.  In an hour he had entered the outermost fringe of the suburbs of Khan-balik.

The city, built in a circle, had twelve suburbs representing the signs of the sodiac.  Each suburb had its own gate through which its inhabitants could enter or leave the walled city.

Tonio entered the city amidst the uproar of an average day. Caravans from all over the Empire streamed through the gates carrying raw silk, gold, jewels, spices, drugs, and foods.  Merchants and shops were everywhere. Travelers from all over the Empire walked the broad expanses of strong roads. The city was spotless. As soon as a horse or camel defecated it was swept up to be used as fertilizer in the terraced foothills of the western mountains, or as fuel for cooking fires.  Just to the west, from a high point in the city one could see a great grey snake slithering through those mountains; the Great Wall.  And on the other side, the vast expanses of Mongolia and Russia, the Region of Outer Darkness.  For a moment Tonio pondered the connection between the direction of his origins and what was now the direction of tractless no man’s land, peopled only sparsely by savage tribes that appeared and disappeared as dark phantoms in youthful sleep.  But again he dropped it; he forced himself back from contemplation. He was sure his mind was telling him this was not yet the time for contemplation; he had to see more, he had to prepare more wood for his fire.

After a small but succulent dinner he wandered out into a suburb.  He had no thought of the future; it would come as it always had.  This evening there were pleasant streets to wander.  And when he was tired he would go out into a field to sleep.  As he walked along the street he realized the suburbs had two conspicuous features not found in the city:  narrow side streets, and opium dens.  He noted this as he kept walking.  He had a compelling urge to look into as many shops as possible before they closed for the night.  Soon the streets were left to travelers, of which there were countless thousands, and the prostitutes, of which there were more than 25,000.  The prostitutes were forbidden to practice their trade within the city walls.  In the evening, the travelers and interested locals poured into the suburbs to take their pleasure.  So, the opium dens.  Each trade drew business for the other, and quite often the dens had their own stock of women to service their clients.

On several occasions Tonio’s fellow sailors had invited him along to such places.  He always refused.  But tonight he was alone.  And, he was vaguely aware that his solitude went back further than his two years at sea, and further than his estrangement from his family. He was suddenly burdened with the realization that, except for gestures and small talk, he had had no emotional, non-rational communications with anyone since the day he inherited an old feed sack.  Whatever happened to that sack, he wondered.

A sing-song voice appeared to him, cast by a young woman in a doorway.  She beckoned him through and he found himself, as if in a dream, walking along a dark corridor leading to another door through which he passed.  He stepped into a very large room.  Light from dozens of candles illuminated the erotic paintings along the high ceiling. Several small windows near the ceiling vented the smoke of candles, opium, and lust.  Something seemed familiar.

His throat and heart hammered in accompaniment as his eyes swept the room. Along the walls were silk enshrouded booths apparently occupied by one or two people each.  In the center of the room was a round table atop which were bowls of powdery stuff, pipes, towels, and a brazier of glowing coals.  Beautiful women glided noiselessly about dressed only in sheer silk robes which billowed about them like transparent auras.  An old man stood by the table filling pipes and tending coals used to light them. His glance, and a faint smile, drew Tonio closer to the table.  The pipes were beautifully ornate, an ivory serpent which carried the bowl high on its back, a wooden woman who held the bowl in her groin.  The designs and motifs were fascinating.

The old man drew closer and, for just a moment, looked deeply into Tonio’s eyes.  His faint smile then returned as he took Tonio to a booth enshrouded in light blue silk.  Inside was a pallet of silk covered cushions, one lit candle and a towel.  Without a word, the old man directed Tonio to lie down.  He then closed the curtain. leaving Tonio to gaze at the light coming through. In a moment he returned with a pipe; the serpent.  With the pipe he brought a small brass bowl with a live coal.  As he placed the tail of the serpent to Tonio’s lips his other hand worked a pair of tongs over the coal and dropped it into the bowl of the pipe.  Tonio puffed and gasped, caught a breath of air and deeply inhaled.  He puffed and inhaled several more times and the smoke was warm and cool, rushing into his body.  His blood bubbled and tingled. He laughed, but the sound came from across the room.  The old man, smiling, withdrew. Tonio fell back and watched his grin slowly detach itself and float above his face.  Curving and blending with the smoke, it hinted of subtle forms, lithe thighs and creamy breasts.  As his body fell away from him he flew to his mother’s arms, to a green meadow where he lay on his back among the flowers, to a cloudy sky.  And his voice asked why he must see all these things and count.  He was here, and he could see there; why was he not there? Wasn’t knowing here the understanding of its relation to there?  Wasn’t knowing here knowing there?  If so, was there a difference except as one might whimsically draw it?  Why did people have to die?  How many thousands went to their graves without tasting life, without burying themselves in depths of lust and depravity and musk and self disgust?  They can never rise from their own ashes, for they have never burned.

Just then the curtain parted, the blue opened to reveal a young woman whose black hair fell to the smooth slope of her hips.  She came forward, closing the curtain behind her.  As the candle danced in her almond eyes Tonio struggled for breath.  Her eyes, at first polished obsidian mirrors, opened into a deep pool beyond, gateways for scrying into timeless dimensions, a technique he had learned of in Persia.  As Tonio gazed, breathless, he saw through her eyes the nimble hands of a small girl as she gathered sticks, twine, and discarded scraps of fabric.  She fashioned them into a doll, and he understood she was dressing her doll for her wedding, complete with a flower she picked daily to present to the young man who would love and cherish her for eternity.  He saw the rough adult hands as they snatched the doll and tore it apart.  He saw those hands strike her and throw her against the pig and chicken enclosures, her sleeping quarters where she performed her nightly duties of guarding the animals.  He saw the looks thrown her way by her parents and her brothers, the looks that told her she was unwanted.  And, he saw her flight to the city, to survive by the only means available to her.

Perhaps she saw this in Tonio, perhaps not.  Language was not necessary to tell her he did not want to take sexual service from her.  She turned and was gone.

Hands held his arms.  Sinewy, old hands.  An old man’s smiling face bobbed in front of his eyes.  He was at the dark corridor heading toward a dim gray blob that swam about somewhere ahead.  The blob got larger and he stepped into it to find it was the light of dawn in the street.  He seemed to be fully dressed, but the act of looking down made him soar above the street.  Only occasionally did his feet report the hardness of the stone under him.  He seemed to float through the narrow streets, often touching the stone blocks on either side.  He had no idea where he was.  The street turned and twisted, presenting new scenes to open eyes.  He rounded a corner and, in a few steps ahead in the maze, saw two men standing in the street.  Gray dawn had turned to radiant blue as Tonio closed the distance, an inward smile in his features.  When two steps from them they turned to him and one put his arm heavily around his shoulders.  Tonio coasted under the weight to the wall of the building on his right, his weight suspended by the deep prick of the blade which had slid under his ribs and into his lung.  The arm coaxed him down as the blade was twisted out. He sprawled on his back in the street, blood gurgling in his throat, as hands expertly flitted through his clothing.  No wasted motions,  expert searching, familiar, like merchants with a bale, on a quay somewhere far away, somewhere distant in time.

The sun burst into the street and bathed Tonio a last time. He lay staring up at the ribbon of blue sky over the street.  For the first time he saw the sky beyond its color.  Now nothing obstructed his view.    

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6 Comments
  1. This story drew me like a moth to a flame; I am sorry to see it end. Like so many of your writings, I was captured in your imagery; watching, more than reading, what your words portrayed. You, dear sir, may consider yourself a master craftsman (nay, an artist) in the field of story telling and fiction literature.

    If you don’t mind (or quite possibly even if you do), I will borrow some of your descriptions and place names for a game world of my creation. It is an alternate earth, and I have used many of the old names for its places. Your Khan-balik has not only the perfect name, but would be a perfect capitol for my oriental elves.

    I am saddened beyond words at Tonio’s death. but he will rise from his own ashes, for his light has burned brightly. Thank you so much for sharing his story with me; I am forever grateful to have known him. Rose

  2. Thank you so much, Rose. I am truly honored by your participation in this story, and your assessment of my art. Please feel free to use this, and even to circulate it as you see fit. I can’t help but feel that that, too, would be an honor.

    Your game sounds interesting. Though I may never play that particular game with you, I am so glad we share the game of life. Marco

  3. Dana permalink

    Marco, you truly embody the best of your craft. You have left me wanting to know much more about Tonio; the mystery is so inviting.

    I am not sure why (and I hope this is not too off-topic), but Tonio’s vision of the young woman as a small girl reminded me of my paternal grandmother, and I wept for both of these women. My grandmother grew up in Montreal – a tiny, poor, malnourished child forced to leave school in the sixth grade to work and support the family. Her “childhood” was one of abuse, neglect, and at times, near starvation. The family moved to Saskatchewan when she was an adolescent. Her marriage to my grandfather, not long after her 15th birthday, was basically arranged. He was 28. She was terrified on her wedding day to be married to someone nearly twice her age. I have her story, transcribed by a relative before her death at the age of 67. It is heart-wrenching.

    Returning to Tonio, I was at first quite off-put by his death, having felt very attached to him throughout his life on Earth. But, knowing what I know about Death, it is not the end. Perhaps we will one day hear more about Tonio’s life in the future, but even if not, like Rose, I am grateful and honored to have known him.

    • Thank you so much, Dana. I know putting your grandmother’s story to print would be painful. But so many of us would benefit from it. I guess a sign of a successful story is that it arouses personal connections.

      Tonio’s story came to me “as a piece”, so much so that I wondered what was happening to me. Perhaps I could delve into his life, short though it was, and develop experiences from it. I guess I hesitate to mess with it.

  4. Dana permalink

    Marco, of course I do not know how you measure success, particularly that of a story you wrote. You have reached my soul, and helped me realize I still have one. I think you have been wildly successful in that respect.

    Perhaps it is time to let Tonio rest in peace, but naturally, that would be your decision only.

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