II. The Second Study of Western Sichuan
I have so far related Zhang’s story in such detail so as to offer the reader some background on the one they are about to read. Above, I wrote that his disappearance sparked a discussion among academic circles, from which I readily excused myself. As his friend of over a decade, I would be caught dead before making a rash comment on his behavior; but, on the other hand, his proposals were nothing if not deviant. Even though I had finally caught a glimpse of that inscrutable pottery shard, I found it hard to purge my heart’s innermost doubts and join the ranks of his defense. Fortunately, I didn’t waste much thought on the matter. Zhang had disappeared quite completely, and although his family kicked up a swarm of resourceful, nosy journalists, their efforts earned them not a single lead. Since he had destroyed all of his records in the house-fire just before his dispatch to the mental hospital, no one had any idea what his research had uncovered. As time inevitably passed, fervent discussion died down, and the story became just another unsolved mystery; a curiosity brought up over afternoon tea.
But something came up only a month and a half later. On the twelfth of July, I received an email from a mutual friend of Zhang’s and mine, Dr. Yang Ye from the geology department of Southwest Jiaotong University. He had attached a few photocopies of something he said he had accidentally discovered while offering his condolences to Zhang’s family—a fire-scorched notebook, from which he had salvaged a few pages of content: all dates, names and addresses. After getting a clear look at them, a wave of ecstasy overcame me—it was his travel notebook! He had neatly written out every location he had investigated—meaning that I could personally corroborate his discoveries and decrypt this enigma once and for all! Dr. Yang and a few of his friends, he said, were sifting through the locations one by one, searching for clues leading to Zhang’s alarming discoveries. Remembering his injured left hand, I told them he had damaged it in a place where he had made a stunning discovery, as they might have been able to use that to sift through the information for that site.
My new information accelerated their search, allowing them to pinpoint the location of Zhang's research site: a village in Ya'an prefecture, Shimian county8, near Chestnut Plains, known as “Lao Wa-Lin”—and yet we consulted every level of administrative records for some mention of “Lao Wa-Lin” to no avail. So, Dr. Ye himself made the long trip south to Chestnut Plains, to ask some locals about the history of Lao Wa-Lin. As it turned out, the name referred to an isolated region set in the deep mountains, accessible only via an arduous drive up a road scarcely wide enough for a small vehicle. The government had changed Lao Wa-lin’s name to “Xiayan Village”9 in the early 1890s to comply with subdivision laws, which explained why we had been unable to find it in any digital records.
Having learned this, I borrowed some vacation time to fly to Chengdu to prepare with the others for the investigation we had agreed to undertake. All told there were five of us on this excursion: Dr. Yao Zhunhua of the Sichuan University department of archaeology; Zhou Ziyuan, research associate of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences; research associate Li Guohao of the Sichuan Cultural Anthropology Institute; Dr. Yang Ye, the civil engineer from Southwest Jiaotong University; and I. Since we had no idea what we might run into, we decided to make our first trip a triage rather than a deep search. We would bring minimal sets of climbing gear, basic necessities, and some photographic equipment. We did whatever we could to keep the operation small-scale, and somehow managed to fit all of it, and ourselves, in Yang Ye's and Yao Zhunhua's cars.
The morning of July twenty-second, we made it out to Chengdu bearing towards Shimian county, and arrived later that evening. We gathered a few more supplies and stopped to rest for the night. Early the next morning, we bid farewell to the roiling waves of the Dadu River to follow its tributary Nan-Ya upstream to the southern country, where it carved through the ascending hills all the way to Chestnut Plains. My memory of that part of the trip has already faded to a haze—I can only recall the dull fog that choked the skies, the pallid sunlight that trudged through the unbroken, undulating mountain range; and those few furtive glimpses I could catch of sunlight glinting weakly off the Nan-Ya as it ran by the highway. At first we only saw crude thatch huts for local night watchmen, but soon we noticed homes of pitch-black wood in the old style, seemingly at random. We passed a few as tall as three stories, steeped in untold history. The houses steadily grew larger, wider, and more frequent, until they seemed to merge together at the walls; we drove on as two dark hedges of chaotic edifice rose up and surrounded the road. We made it to Chestnut Plains by noon, feeling loath to stop the vehicle. We asked a few of the locals for directions, and quickly located a guide willing to bring us to Xiayan. We ate a few simple things, then by our guide's suggestion left by the village’s west side on a disused mountain road, toward a mountain range so massive it scraped the very skies.
We soon left the noise of the village behind us, driving ever deeper in. At last, we submerged in a silence knowable only in the wilderness. The roadside vegetation became lush and murky, higher and thicker in layers until it resembled the walls of an immeasurable labyrinth, enclosing us within. The wheels struck the potholes on the old worn-down little mountain road. Something in the grappling leaves and twigs seemed alive, beckoning, guiding us on our wandering way to an unknown world. Over the shadowed viridian maze towered a mountain range of majestic peaks and precipitous cliffs. In the distance, on the exposed ash-grey granite of those high cliffs, the jungled gleam of shrubs reticulating like scales gave us the striking impression of some gargantuan beast, the likes of which we had not yet begun to understand.
Even this wild realm, so isolated from civilization, did little to calm to our spirits. On the contrary, we took to brooding on our own existence, small and frail as it was; we hoped against hope to glimpse some familiar trace of human activity—and thereby, some small vestige of comfort. To think we would only descend further into this savage abyss made one’s already-repressed thoughts grow yet darker. Fortunately, as dusk had just begun to fall, we spied some mark of civilization at last, and the terror quickly fled. We first caught sight of some reclaimed land by the roadside, then spied some of the Yi tribe’s ornaments hanging from the trees. Layered stone gradually became terraced fields. As the road twisted around a prominent hillside, a plain and simple Yi village cropped up out of nowhere. We quickly realized it was Xiayan—indeed, the Lao Wa-lin straight from the diary of Zhang Cunmeng!—we had already arrived.
The ash-grey stonework and narrow, meager windows silently told the village’s ancient history. A few of the larger, more ancient wooden constructions had been eroded by winds and rain to possess a dark dendronic gloom. The majority of people in the village were old people and children dressed in the traditional attire of the Yi people. The young, all seeking more gainful employment in the city, had left the area smothered in a desperate, decaying desolation. A crowd had already formed as our car pulled into the village; as the place seldom received outside visitors, we made for an attractive distraction. For us, this was a blessing, as the moment we brought out a picture of Zhang and asked after his whereabouts, many people recognized the photograph in our hands. They told us we should seek a man named E’li.10
The E’li they spoke of was a sturdy middle-aged man with a healthy tan and a warm smile, whose Mandarin had been blended with the West Sichuan Yi dialect. He said he had used to be a hunter, until Chestnut Plains had been designated a protected area. At that point, he started anew as a forest warden, and his decades of experience in the mountain forest had earned him peerless knowledge of the encircling territory. He easily remembered Zhang Cunmeng when we explained our visit, since the village rarely entertained company. Zhang had indeed spent four or five nights in the village, he said, relentlessly researching the local folk tales and, what’s more, surveying the surrounding terrain. E’li also said he had been puzzled by some of the other things Zhang had gotten up to, like offering him money to show him the way to a place called “Erzi Cave”.
Around those parts, Erzi Cave was known as a cursed place. Ancestral teachings had taught this to the villagers for generations, although no one know exactly why, said E’li. Some said Erzi Cave was a bottomless pit reaching all the way down to Hell. Some said it was a torturous cyclopean labyrinth that crushed all who were rash enough to enter. Still more said it was home to an enormously dangerous monster that none could meet and live to tell the tale. When he was a child, E’li did not believe in fairy tales, and he had once set out deep into Erzi Cave by torchlight to finally get to the bottom of the question. He picked his way down the cavern until his torch flickered, and yet he still had not even found its end, much less any nasty beasts or monsters—and yet, something in that subterranean dusk summoned in him an unspeakable terror. Crushed between fear and darkness, he cut short his descent and made good his escape, never again to return.
How Zhang Cunmeng had learned of Erzi Cave, E’li had no way to know. He had showed Zhang to the cave despite grave misgivings, although E’li had refused to enter with him (for reasons unknown even to himself), choosing merely to wait at the entrance. Zhang, having not made any special preparations, had entered the cave with what simple equipment he had. E’li remembered Zhang spending a great deal of time in the cave before finally staggering out, battered and dishevelled, a deep wound in his right hand, and his clothes stained with an odd substance, from which diffused an ancient, unspeakably alien scent. Zhang, however, had told E’li with visible excitement that the wound (which he had seemed to completely disregard) was but a scratch compared to the discoveries he had made inside the cave.
This news powerfully excited us. It was indeed here where Zhang had received his injury, and going by E’li’s retelling, this Erzi Cave was quite possibly the place where Zhang had made his most important discovery. Three times we entreated E’li to take us there before he finally relented. We unloaded the camping and spelunking gear from the car and spent the evening in Xiayan Village.
8 Note: Shimian (石棉) is, in addition to the name of a remote county, the word for “asbestos”.
10 see Pronunciation (semantic translation is coincidental).