I. The Story of Zhang Cunmeng
Five years ago, Zhang Cunmeng, doctorate researcher at Sichuan Cultural Anthropology Institute and a good friend of mine, escaped from the Humane Mental Hospital of Chengdu and vanished without a trace. The date was May 24th.
Most people won't have heard of this, of course, but his disappearance caused quite a stir in academic circles. Just before being diagnosed with the severe anxiety that prompted his admittance to the institution, Zhang had announced his discovery of a once-flourishing prehistoric civilization——somehow absent from modern archaeological records——in southwest Sichuan province. A few sensationalists believed that his mental episode and sudden disappearance were a publicity stunt, carefully crafted to redeem his academic reputation. Others believed the "new discovery" was a delusion of his insanity, and his disappearance only further illustrated the extent of his incurable condition.
Zhang’s most frequent contacts had a different perspective. They maintained that Zhang’s advancing neurological problems prevented him from publishing his eccentric, but genuine, research on the ancient civilization. However, even his few sympathizers had to concede that his surviving materials, although consistent, were scattered and lacking in substantial evidence. In order to bear out his life's work, a few of Zhang’s truest supporters organized a private investigation in the hopes of uncovering some workable proof——and I, your author, chose to join them. I would soon wish I never had. The results of the investigation were never released to the public.
Last month, the People’s Court of Qingyang district proclaimed Zhang Cunmeng deceased after being missing for one year. His family were to hold a symbolic funeral procession in his honor. Upon hearing the news, I immediately bought a ticket to Chengdu to attend the simple ceremony with a few of his former research associates——together for the first time since concluding our expedition. We did not mention the investigation during the funeral. Our monstrous discovery would have only made the others more suspicious. Besides, on occasions like that, some things are better left unsaid. Despite our ten-year friendship with Zhang, despite everything we’d done for the investigation and sworn never to speak of again——we had lost him for good.
Once in a while, I wondered whether Zhang was still alive. Although it terrified me to imagine the unspeakable fate that may have befallen him, I could not resist the morbid allure of this unbanishable nightmare. I followed the breadcrumb trail he had left behind for years, feverishly studying anything I could get my hands on. Much of the best evidence had been lost along with his original work, and I worked tirelessly to assemble what had really happened from the pieces of what remained. With time, even I lost track of what was truth and what was wild hallucination.
My few friends from that expedition were content to let sleeping beasts lie, but I could not bear to leave our incomparable discoveries——and what could have been Zhang’s own revelations——in the dark. Science, and history, must record what we have learned, no matter how dire its portent. I will tell the whole story, from hard facts to bizarre conjecture, both to settle my mind and to forward a new perspective on Zhang’s disappearance——and the scrap we glimpsed of endless time.