The Immortals

She poured the wine and began her story.

Ah Wong’s head floated down a stream, buffeted by the torrents of water, breaking on the rocks, breaking to gales of laughter. We poets beneath our umbrellas along the banks of the winding stream, served by the giggling girls with lotus feet, skilled at rhyming when drunk, boasted and bragged and demanded a contest: the person who found the head must sup a skull’s worth of wine and compose a verse to conjure a world of poetry, a world that a suffering man might make to distract his thoughts.

There was applause. We men loved the sentiment and watched the skull bobbing in the water. It would either wash into the hands of a poet or pass through the picnic area down to the lake or maybe sink to be rubbed smooth in the whirl pools, turned to a pebble, ground to a powder, dissolved in the lake, sucked into the sky, and rained back down. Instead it washed onto the dangling fat feet of Mei Mei, the ugliest of old women, who poured wine into the skull and began to tell us the story of her lover.


Ah Wong’s day began, said Mei Mei, when a blinding blue light poured into his eyes. He blinked. The light flickered and clouds assembled, subtly changing colours as they moved picking up the browns and greens reflected from the earth. Dawn was perfection awaiting the corruption of night.

Mei Mei, in a flowing gown that flapped lightly in the breeze knelt as she served breakfast beneath the canopy of the Morning Pavilion, Ah Wong’s favourite morning place. She handed a bowl of congee to him and he admired its perfection. The willow patterning on the side was a world in itself and he could watch the lovers meet upon the bridge, sigh, recite their poetry, and promise never to forget each other for eternity. Mei Mei smiled and watched as he ate the contents of the bowl.

“Lacking impermanence,” he said, “We have become ugly.”

Ah Wong held out his hand and ran it over Mei Mei’s cheek. She giggled as her gown slid to the ground and left her naked. She was perfect: her breasts, her thighs, her waist, her neck, were all composed in the most pleasing and perennial proportions. She was soft to touch, her skin smooth and brown. Ah Wong wallowed in the smell of her perfume. He filled his lungs and held the moment. But the moment, despite longing for its permanence, had to be fleeting as that is what gave it its perfection.

“Do you love me?” he asked, and she sighed and asked Ah Wong in return: “Do you love me?”

Ah Wong lay back naked as Mei Mei caressed him. He reached out his left hand and it met Ling Ling, who was as different from Mei Mei, as she was beautiful. Her breasts were long rather than round and firm. Her thighs were round rather than undulating. Her eyes were large and hypnotic where with Mei Mei, it was the lips that one longed for. Ah Wong kissed Mei Mei as Ling Ling stroked Ah Wong. Then the moment was over. As ever the disappointment flooded Ah Wong’s mind. As ever he had found the perfect person and then wondered what it was to have two of them and then why not four, sixteen, two hundred and fifty six… Was not the love of all, greater than the love of one?

“You must choose,” said Mei Mei, leaving.
“Why?” asked Ling Ling, leaving. “Everything is perfect!”
“Mei Mei,” shouted Ah Wong, “Let us go to the temple! Let the monks have their say in this matter.”

The doors of Mei Mei’s garden opened. She was playing shuttlecock with Ling Ling. Neither could win. They returned every volley. Ah Wong watched as the two girls skipped from side to side and into the net and back. In his mind he saw them naked and then perversely as nothing but the skeletal frames of the dead. Was it the running or was it merely the way the upholstery rebounded as they ran that he found so attractive?

“What a tragedy,” Ling Ling exclaimed, “To be in the last generation to die and to never have the prospect of happiness forever!”
“The last person to die, demanded to be allowed to,” Ah Wong told her.
“Why on earth did they demand to die?” asked Ling Ling.
“If one was to remain old,” Ah Wong said, “Then death was the only option.”

Mei Mei’s back began to bend, her silk gown hung limply from her shoulders, her hair thinned and turned grey, falling out of place, over her sagging face. Her nose drooped, her eyes reddened, her lips thinned and cracked. She turned herself into an old woman.

“Not necessarily,” Mei Mei said, “It is a test of true love.”
“Why anyone would love you when you looked like that,” said Ah Wong, “I do not know.”
“If one truly loves the younger version,” said Mei Mei, “One will love the older.”
“Love is not a test,” said Ah Wong.
“But although I love you no matter what,” said Ling Ling. “You love her all the more because she tests you!”
“I certainly do not love her when she looks like that!”
“What a shallow person you are,” said Mei Mei, returning to her glorious youth. Once again her hair shone, her skin glowed, and she moved with grace and flexibility. Her face showed the passing of her thought, whereas her old skin had hung like a mask hiding her.
“And your thoughts were not authentically old,” said Ah Wong, “They were those of our kind. The prospect of death did not haunt you, the uncertainty of memory did not plague you, and the knowledge of having completed the life cycle did not inform you.”
“My youth is no less inauthentic,” said Mei Mei, “in being the box in which an immortal lives, so why should my age be inauthentic?”
“We should forget this obsession with the true and the authentic,” whispered Ah Wong, “it will drive us mad.”
“Language,” said Ling Ling, “Is over-rated. We should simply make love. Would you like to make love for a moment at least?”

Ah Wong sighed. Language, he agreed, was over-rated and so he allowed the garden to fade into twilight and he, Mei Mei, and Ling Ling, no longer embodied characters of the Ming Gardens. They became empty vessels ringing in harmony with each other. Their music grew layer upon layer, from a simple rhythmic pulse, to a syncopated melody, to counter melodies and layers of tones and half tones, and incidentals. They played together. They were the music.

“The metaphor that is not a metaphor is the only metaphor to express the experience,” uttered Ah Wong, as he recovered his composure.
“You have to be there,” said Mei Mei, smoothing her silk gown back into some semblance of tidiness.
Ling Ling wound her hair back up and pinned it in place with black lacquer hair pins.
“He loves me more,” said Ling Ling, “Because he is kind to you.”
“He loves me more,” said Mei Mei, “Because he beats you!”
“Which of us do you prefer?” asked Ling Ling.
“Which?” Mei Mei asked. “You must let us know or we shall live forever in pain.”
“We seek to express our situation,” said Ah Wong, “And yet it constantly eludes us.”
“Never mind,” said Ling Ling, “What would it matter if you could solve every single riddle written on every single lantern in the universe?”
“But,” said Mei Mei, “This is not every single riddle. It is but one! Our one! Ours alone!”
“These are good questions,” said Ah Wong suddenly realising that he was standing alone at a fork in the garden path.

He heard Ling Ling giggling and the sound of water splashing and so took the fork towards the lake and joined them by the jetty. They climbed into the rowing boat to row out into the lily laden lake where they would sit, fish, and grill whatever they caught.

“I have a riddle,” said Ling Ling, “I am not welcome, and yet there can be no harm in me. I am not known, and yet once all feared me. Once, only I was eternal and now I no longer exist. I never existed, that is my nature.”

“I have a riddle,” said Mei Mei, “I have lost my past and have no end. I have no needs and everything that I want. I have no goals and have no pain, my story has been told, but I cannot begin again.”

“I too have a riddle,” said Ah Wong, “I live but a fleeting moment, but believe that I live forever. I have never existed and there is no future. What now?”

The words of the riddles implanted themselves upon the sides of the rainbow coloured lanterns that now lit the shoreline. The cormorants, the great shaggy black birds that listened to all the riddles, sat upon the granite pedestals positioned like chess pieces upon the misty lake and never answered them. Answering the riddles was not the game, merely posing them. To answer would be to end the game and the answers would be too trivial to warrant a riddle in the first place.

Dusk upon the lake was Ah Wong’s favourite time. The mist rolled across the rippling water in dreamy clouds illuminated by the lanterns. Other boats drifted in and out of the mist, their own lanterns reflecting upon their wake, and their fellow fishermen waved and bowed to anyone who could see them.

A fish attached itself to one of Ling Ling’s hooks and she squealed with delight as she hauled it in and with a flash of a blade, in the light of the great round moon that now filled the sky, she gutted the fish, skewered it and held it over the charcoal burner.

“We end the fish’s life,” said Ah Wong, “but know it to dream.”
“It is the nature of the fish to die,” said Mei Mei. “It is no longer our nature.”
“But we are no longer part of the cycle of being. We need no food.”
“Spiritually we do,” said Ling Ling. “Our hunger is eternal.”
“Ah,” said Ah Wong, “The usual excuse for perversity and selfishness!”

They ate the fish, dangled their feet into the lily pad lake, watched the moon, the light of the lanterns, the grey of the clouds. The great cranes flew, sweeping through the sky, so high they could barely be seen, barely be heard, their creaking squawk winding down through the wind. The mountains of the moon could be touched if anyone so wished, but not tonight for tonight they were going to the temple.

The temple of ten thousand faces was on the island in the centre of the lake upon which many of the boats converged as if drawn to the flickering lantern lights like so many fire flies.

“Tonight we should try breaking through to the final experience,” said Ah Wong, making the girls laugh for he said it each time. “When I stop saying it, enlightenment will be mine.”
“Whatever that is,” whispered Ling Ling, giggling.
“Now that it’s dark,” Mei Mei added, “We move into the darker thoughts, the strange and perverse, those of pain, in which there seems to be most life.”
“To live in pain,” said Ah Wong, “Is to be constantly aware.”
“It was the pain that drove us to this solution,” said Mei Mei.
“What solution is that?” asked Ah Wong.
“Our solution to our problem,” she said. “You will see.”
“There are no solutions,” said Ah Wong, “Only more riddles.”

But Ah Wong was intrigued and to the island they flew, taking the cue from the bugs that rose from the lake. Like a dream they rattled their wings, followed the tail lights that said ready for mating. The simple joy was a moment without thought and Ah Wong exclaimed: “Oh, how the simple life brief and with structure is far the best! A beginning and end, with in-between, moments of elation, moments of pain, hope and suffering, hunger and satiety, too hot, too cold.”

“We can have that now,” said Mei Mei, “We merely act it and it is so, over and over, until we get bored, and then we change our clothes, and disappear.”

“Ling Ling, Mei Mei!” cried Ah Wong, but they raced ahead.

Ah Wong flew with the flock, across the face of the moon, seeking his lost loves. This was his nature. He could not die. But he could live the part of those who did. At every crossroad he believed that one path lead to oblivion, but he would never know which. And so he flew, as a great dark bird, crying “Ling Ling, Mei Mei!” And hunted them through the mountains of the moon and thought he would be alone until dawn when he is always ready to begin again, fearing in the blinding blue light, that there is no more to come. But then the great bell clanged. The monks on the island sat astride the dried tree trunk that they swang from a great tripod of pines to clang the bell, which resonated throughout the universe, shook foundations, destroyed cities, awoke the great dead poets who gathered as ghosts shaken loose from the ground, murmuring their life’s works.

And there, before the temple gates Ling Ling and Mei Mei, still panting from their game, waited for Ah Wong.

“What a performance,” said Ah Wong with delight and excitement. “This is a new ritual, the calling of the dead to entertain the forever living! Do they know they lived once? Do they know they live again? Were they living? But then, are Mei Mei, Ling Ling, or anyone else alive in my world?”

The great hall of ten thousand mirrors opened before them, flickering candles lighting the way, and here and there dark faces, some their own, looked back at them: a million billion souls, some living, some dead, some yet to be, so the monks said.

“Look deep into the mirrors,” said the monks, “And you will see traces of everything that ever was and ever will be: the murders and the rapes, the disembowelling and the slow lingering tortures inflicted by man upon man, spider upon fly, snake upon rat, the maddened dream of a suffering god!”

The great temple shook to the clash of the swords that shattered overhead, clattering before the feet of Ah Wong, who, terrified at the sight, cowered behind Ling Ling who cried. They were trapped, as the door swung closed and around in the dark nothing to be seen any more as the voices growled. This was the show tonight.

The ritual began. The monk grasped the great black sword, invisible in the darkness, but its heaviness could be guessed from the strain upon the muscles of the monk’s bare sweating chest, and the clenched jaw of his bald head. Ah Wong watched him slowly approaching, raising the sword, gathering speed, as the surrounding growls of an eternity of long dead souls shook the foundations of the temple.

“Mei Mei do you love me?” screamed Ah Wong, his head pulled down by the monks grasping his long black hair, the great sword swinging towards his neck. He looked for the last time into Mei Mei’s eyes.

Ah Wong’s head flew through the air, propelled by the blood, splattering over the mirrors, his eyes flickering in recognition of every reflection of himself. An end at last? Was that the case? He could still think, but that would fade as the blood coagulated. The system would collapse and consciousness would leave. He was supposed to have no feeling if dead, so how was it, that he was not? But of course he was not, could not be. This was eternity and death an illusion.

The cruelty of the trick was not lost on him then a prick rammed into his mouth. He choked surrounded by boars that squealed and stank of bad breath and pus. Their curling elongated pricks quivering to take turns. Boars are not particular. They shit where they fuck. They snorted and gnawed at his nose. It re-grew to be re-gnawed. He heard Mei Mei laughing and giggling and looked into the boars’ eyes: Ling Ling and Mei Mei, those two boars, their tusks gold, peeling off his skin with their rough tongues. They laughed as they skinned his skull. He screamed but not with pain, that had faded and he knew this could not go on, it must end and he would be the same. But this time, there was doubt. This was not new, he reasoned. He had been here before. It was a ritual and in the light of day, would be no more. He hoped it would be no more.

“I am not perfect,” grunted Ling Ling.
“Are we not perfect,” snorted Mei Mei.

What he silently mouthed, they could not tell.


Mei Mei drank one last gulp of wine from the skull and then cast it back into the stream where it swirled, and clattered against the rocks, on its journey towards the great lake.

“Thank you for providing our inspiration,” said Mei Mei, “Thank you for helping us immortals, gathered about the rhyming stream, take the night and create the next day. From your skull life and death came, and all points in between. Puppets dancing to their own tunes, your skull set them free. They have stories, they have needs and conflicts and obstacles to overcome. This story, my story, is all your stories in one!”

“But yours has ended and mine has begun,” cried Ling Ling, swooping down, net in hand, scooping the skull from the stream. “I drink to my friends! Listen to my story! My story has no end.”