Objectively speaking, there was nothing too shocking about Zhang’s records of Old Nanyu, excluding what was obviously fantasy. It was Zhang’s crazed style and excessively alien citations that clashed with orthodoxy. His work had done little to earn academic recognition. Although I had been his friend for over a decade, I had to admit his hypothesis seemed like nothing but wishful thinking: having made a small discovery, he had become obsessed, seeking out evidence that confirmed his theories and disregarding the fundamental principles of archaeology. The vice president of the Sichuan Archaeology Institute, Prof. Ke Jianhua, felt the same. He rejected Zhang’s proposal to investigate the countryside, and instead sent him on compulsory sabbatical—allegedly, for his health and peace of mind, to spend some time away from the cage of academia; effectively, to avoid any further negative influence on the Institute. Of course, Zhang paid no heed to the words of the vice president. As I understood it, he took off for southwestern Sichuan on the second day of his vacation, April 2nd, survey tools in hand and luggage in tow, to commence the institute’s first extralegal excavation.
The details of this round of research remain a mystery, but he and I made contact when he returned to Chengdu. On May 4th, during an interview at the University of Sichuan, I received an unexpected phone call. He told me breathlessly that he had brought back an alarming discovery. I made haste to Beimen Station to receive him.
At first glance, I could hardly recognize him. His clothes were filthy; he wore a tattered trenchcoat and hauled a bulging canvas backpack on his shoulder. His shaggy hair framed a face flecked with stubble, and his left hand was loosely bandaged with blackened gauze. When he finally saw me, his tired eyes lit up and he embraced me briskly, already tripping over himself to tell me of the investigation’s smashing success. He had discovered something that archaeology could not even imagine, he said; something that could capsize history as we knew it.
I remember that he spoke at great length in his excitement, but somehow failed to divulge any substantial information. The sly devil avoided divulging any of his precious secrets, only repeating what an immense, important discovery he had made. I understood that he wished to protect his discovery until he could reveal it to the public, so I didn’t press the matter. I remember asking him about the bandage on his hand. He told me he sliced it when he fell on a pottery jar. He extracted a few pot shards from his canvas bag for me to study, saying he had kept the broken pieces.
I could easily perceive the pottery’s exquisite craftsmanship. Traces of paint were discernible on the larger fragments. The meticulously drawn scales, in veinlike pattern, depicted a portion of a serpentine animal with violent realism. If these fragments were as ancient as Zhang claimed, then this piece was an equal—perhaps an usurper—of the masterpiece at Altamira…7 The pottery was curved slightly, making it trickier than a flat surface to grasp, much less paint upon. Yet the artisan had ingeniously exploited the natural contours of the stone—the pottery, and the snake thereon, twisted as one. However, during my study of the fragment, I was compelled to an emotion I could not name. Distraught, anxious thoughts bubbled to the surface of my mind. I eventually noticed that the pottery shard leached a noisome ichthyoid scent, which I instinctively loathed. Zhang was more than familiar with the smell—he told me the odor had been left by a liquid stored in the pot, which had spilt its contents all over his body when he knocked it over. He guessed that it was some kind of fermented alcohol or herbal medicine. I doubted either.
I saw him home, and we began to discuss other things, though my heart honestly wasn’t in it. I couldn’t fathom why I felt so preoccupied, but—the ancient, grotesque fish-smell of the pottery shard had evinced in me an indescribable reaction. Somehow, even after Zhang had returned the fragment to its burlap sack, the feeling persisted, and I fancied I could still smell the damned thing—weakly, yes, but maddeningly, imperceptibly definite. What’s more, I saw hidden in Zhang’s every gesticulation a compulsive, crazed excitement—not too unusual, I supposed, in light of his recent discovery.
I could not have foreseen that we had just met for the last time. I concluded my visit to Sichuan University and returned to Hangzhou three days later. Another seven days thereafter, I gave Zhang a call to check in on his work. As any archaeologist would tell you, the idea of an undiscovered prehistoric civilization held an irresistible magic. To my surprise, his wife Wangyun answered the phone, grieving, and informed me that Zhang had been admitted to a mental hospital four days prior, for mania and severe neurosis. She said Zhang was acting especially impatient since returning from his trip. He had taken to working nonstop in his study room, resting intermittently; he slept in his chair for two hours a night at most. He had forbidden anyone from touching his materials—in one of Zhang’s rare episodes of rest, Wangyun had snuck into his study to tidy his desk, but he awoke immediately and became furious with her. After that, no one was even allowed near his study room. After a ferocious argument, Wangyun left for her parents’ home in a huff, and did not speak with him after that. Then, on the midnight of May tenth, her phone rang. Her neighbor had called to say her house had caught fire. Wangyun, rushing home, discovered that Zhang had tossed his neatly-taken notes and research materials together in a metal bin and set them on fire. But he’d done it right next to the wastebasket, which also caught flame, and the whole study room soon followed. Miraculously, some bystanders noticed the smoke in time to stop the blaze from spreading, and in the end Zhang suffered only minor shock, no serious injuries. The neighbors suggested that Wangyun should see Zhang to the emergency room. Two days later, he was transferred to Chengdu Humane Mental Hospital.
Careful readers may already have some idea of what happened next. On the afternoon of May twenty-fourth, Zhang took advantage of his ward’s lunch break, stole an unattended doctor’s coat, and slipped right out the front door of the mental hospital. Nonviolent patients who had made no previous escape attempts did not need to be kept under nurse supervision in the high-security ward. As far as the hospital was concerned, Zhang’s breakout had been a “totally unpredictable accident.” Staff investigation found that he had not stolen anything from the hospital, nor had he retrieved the personal items he had been admitted with, likely out of fear of alerting the hospital staff. He had, however, taken a personal journal which he had previously applied to keep.