Strangers raced up the beach screaming. I watched and considered my situation.
I wasn’t dreaming. There was nothing to be done, so I would be worthy of my tradition and sit, sick of heart but accepting the certainty of my life being over. My survival had been a fluke.
I smiled and made a gesture of welcome, for the strangers’ clubs would serve me. They would relieve me of my hopeless discomfort…for the results of cold and starvation would be just as certain and far more painful.
Stranded as I was on a narrow beach, escape was impossible. An honorable death was all I could hope for. I wouldn’t shy from what was before me, so sat sick and exhausted…longing for release.
Over the past year my closest family and friends had died and on my ill-fated journey here the captain and sailors conveying me had slipped beyond life’s trials. I alone had been doomed to survival. Nan-Hua no longer mattered; my career had been a dream. All I wished was to follow the others into stillness. The refuge of death looked benign.
My attackers were strong, thick-bodied men; of a different species from the bloated bureaucrats my father served, their bodies far stronger than monastery priests. My gaunt frame exposed weakness while their bodies pulsed with vigor. A filthy rag, moss and tree-bark barely covered my bruised skin while they wore warm, elegant clothes, capes and finely woven hats. Their tattoos and scars lent the look of guardian demons.
The first offered a leering grimace. I returned a stiff smile and a nod. He displayed his mace, but I shrugged. It was beautifully made, but I was too tired for pretense.
After raising his weapon to strike, he paused as his friends approached. Their screams echoed off the cliffs as his club swung. The mace made a smooth swift arc, but halted inexplicably a finger’s width from my skull. Wary and confused, I watched as he swung with flashing speed again and again. The razor-like edges nicked my shoulder and cut my ear so that blood flowed down my neck. I’d assumed his cooperation when I accepted death; it was the first mistake of many.
In all truth I was far more shaken by his not killing me than my nearness to death. I was ready for my end. My spirit was light and empty. I ached for a single, clean strike that would relieve me of my burdens.
His friends proved strange ghoulish spectators. They seemed to have missed that I was far from aggressive. The one I labeled “Angry Man” leaned close to growl saliva spattering curses then stalked about as if drunk with blood lust, taunting and grinning with pleasure.
Studying me carefully, First Stranger again displayed his weapon. Our eyes connected as he drew back his arm. Perversely, instead of fear I felt only gratitude. Meeting his gaze, I gave a tight-lipped smile then an encouraging nod. He swung again, but it seemed that time itself slowed. His mace almost hung suspended; out of sync. I awaited oblivion as it whistled in its lethal sweep. But it simply grazed my scalp.
His eyes held mine a long empty moment. Then, still watching my face, he gave a disgusted headshake and turned to consult his friends.
“Life is illusion.” I mumbled to him in Chinese. I had no idea what had happened. Certain that I’d shown neither strength nor resolve, I was embarrassed. However it might seem; instead of bravery I was merely too weak and slow to flinch.
Strange as it seems, my life began then, with the strangers’ arrival.