The wave broke against the boat and plucked the man from the mast. It seemed at first as though it might carry him, as though it were merely helping him down. But then it lost interest in his safety and he was left to plummet toward the ship’s leeward sail. His body struck with a bloody plume that dyed the rain red, and then he took his flags with him into the ocean.
Philosophers have debated the wisdom of immortality. They say that it is unnatural to live forever and to wish for it is hubris. They say it will drive a man mad. His friends and family will grow old and perish, his world will change, and his immortality will become a kind of helplessness. Death, in this logic, is our only defense against suffering. And yet in the years before my father’s death, he wrote his most startling and accomplished verses. It is life’s cruelest trick that just as we begin to master our minds, our bodies begin to fail us.
In the case of the man who fell from the mast, we can argue whether his mistake was trying to appease the water dragons in the middle of a storm or forgetting to appease them in the first place. On this matter, I once would have turned to Confucius. But soon after coming to power, the Emperor had burned all of his books.
Xu Fu, the narrator and protagonist of this piece, was a real person. Details of his life differ, as they usually do for those from the 3rd century BCE. Google his name, and you’ll find many legends. They mostly agree on several points: he was the fangshu, a combination doctor, prophet, sorcerer, and alchemist, to the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang, and he sailed from China on two journeys, one in 219 BCE and one in 210 BCE, to search for immortality for his Emperor; he never returned from the second voyage. The Japanese have built statues to him, as it’s believed he ended up there, and possibly became its first Emperor, Jimmu Tenno.
Jake Wolff discusses, in his One Story Q&A, how he borrowed from several versions of these legends to form the story we read here, and of course added his own elements. The plot is somewhat complex, with elements bouncing off each other and echoing in later events. But in the end, the story excels because of the standard arsenal of storytelling tools: conflict, voice, and imagery. The conflict, between self and obligation, has dramatic consequences; the voice is understated and restrained, with just the right “long ago and far away” quality; and the imagery is soaked in meaning.
It starts with a scene between Xu Fu and the Emperor. They were boyhood friends, and the Emperor saved Xu Fu’s life back then by leading him out of the desert. So now that the Emperor has developed a frightening cough, Xu Fu thinks of the stories about Mount Penglai, on an island surrounded by huge fish, where the Eight Immortals dwell and keep the recipe for the elixir of immortality. He decides to find Mount Penglai, and save the Emperor’s life, to “cure him of his mortality.” He’s aware of the pitfalls of immortality; friends and family pass on, and one is left behind alone. But he feels China itself depends on the Emperor, and on his death, rebellion and chaos will break out.
The virgins had been the Emperor’s idea.
Five hundred boys and five hundred girls are to be sacrificed on Mount Penglai to assure the mission’s success. Xu Fu is concerned: “One thousand children would make for a difficult cargo.” But it isn’t until he falls in love with one of the young women, Jing-Wei, that he reconsiders the sacrifice, in spite of the dire warnings made by his servant, Kon Tsen, that there is no other choice if he wishes to live.
There is a phenomenon I have observed in the counting of things. If you have twenty pebbles and subtract five, the difference is immediately evident. In large quantities, however, the individual units cease to make an impression. What, after all, are five stones out of five hundred? Even the keenest eye would struggle to notice a change. Until that day on the island, this principle applied to all things measured – grains of rice, bricks of clay, even soldiers or horses.
And yet as the possibility of losing Jing-Wei grew more real in my mind, I realized I had found the exception. I saw what she had been trying to show me in the belly of the boat. If you have one thousand virgins – taken from their homes, assembled on the decks of Lianyungang – and remove just one, the effect is as if you stole the sun from he sky. The whole world feels the loss of it. Truly, the energy of a thousand virgins is enough to power the sun.
This is the primary conflict, as Xu Fu tries to reconcile saving Jing-Wei and carrying out his mission for the Emperor. It isn’t just his pride that is involved. He knows that to fail – to take her, steal her from the Emperor, will be punished by death, for him, faithful servant Kon Tsen, and the rest of his crew. And it’s pretty clear that Jing-Wei isn’t exactly eager to be saved, if it means life with Xu Fu. Other than a few talks, they have very little contact, and she spends most of her time belowdecks with the other virgins.
He nevertheless returns to China with the virgins – most of them parents themselves now, none of them still virgins – and manages to talk his way into another voyage, with more crossbows and soldiers. A new group of a thousand virgins is gathered. The old group, including Jing-Wei, is executed.
I did not know the name of the last virgin sacrificed, but he waited more than eight hours on this knees on a blood-soaked dock for his sentence to be delivered.
Xu Fu departs on his second journey. But it isn’t the journey everyone was expecting:
I gathered the virgins and crew on the deck. I looked for the faces of my friends in the crowd, but of course I found only strangers. I imagined immortality for Kon Tsen, Jing-Wei, the dead virgins and their children. I wondered if our many virtues and evils could extend infinitely into time, unchanged by the length of it.
I said that we were sailing to the edge of the world, as far as the Earth would allow. Perhaps we would discover a new home. Perhaps we would drift at sea until hunger drove us mad. Perhaps the Emperor would find us again, if he lived long enough.
Penglia was still out there, I told them, but we would never land on its shores. We would have to live as mortals do.
Wolff chose to end here, with that element of immortality – losing all those you love – balanced against the hope of the future, and I think it’s perfect.