“I’m just trying to understand. Not why these books are special, but why any of that matters at all to us. Isn’t it all about the money?”
“With some collectibles, it’s the story of the book rather than the one written inside it that gives it its value. Look, here,” as he brought down a battered volume from the shelf over his desk. She moved closer, interested despite herself. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover, pirated knockoff, 1939. A three thousand copy run. It’s a cheap reprint, and even if it hadn’t been soaked in what looks like salt water it wouldn’t have much value. Except for its history.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover isn’t even all that racy today; worse things happen on soap operas — but in the 1930s it was scandalous. So of course it was banned. But so great was the demand that someone rushed a stolen proof to Belgium, where three thousand were quickly run off and smuggled back to England in small open rowboats. In wartime, mind you; Belgium was about to be overrun, and the Channel was far from safe. But the demand was high, so they smuggled them in — which might be where this one got soaked. Or maybe on the trip to America; you can see the inscription here, a gentleman sending it to a lady of his acquaintance in North Carolina in 1941. From Belgium past the censors and not one but two German blockades in a world war — this book has led an adventurous life.”
“So what’s it worth?”
“As a book? Maybe ten bucks…”
General Huang was ecstatic. “I have your queen!” he cried. And indeed she was rather thoroughly trapped — a complex web of pawns and knights that left her without any escape, and his own rook pinning her completely.
Master Sun nodded. “Yes, you seem to. Check.”
The General was annoyed, but blocked the threat on his own king — only to see it replaced by another, and another. Each threat he countered in turn, and the last– He was on the verge of moving his rook when he saw it: This would release the queen from his trap and leave him on the defensive. Not an outcome he liked. The general scowled, raised his hand… and moved his king instead.
“Ah,” said Master Sun. “Interesting.”
The Master was testing the new students. For once, the General was here watching. He had just been promoted and he wanted to celebrate with a chess game. He also had another purpose.
Master Sun tested all his students with the bonsai. Some had no patience, and butchered their trees; they were sent back. Others were timid and failed to cut at all; these too were sent away. But some performed their task with thought and delicacy, and were kept on to be taught for a year. They would return to the army, some to become officers, others as the palace guard. A very few were kept on to become teaching brothers.
One prospective student was having trouble choosing where to start. He kept glancing over his shoulder at the General, then back at the shrub. Finally, he took a deep breath and began cutting. The shape that emerged was… peculiar, but recognizable; he had crafted in a very short time a topiary cup or bowl.
Master Sun stood over the trimmed plant, thoughtful. None of the other students had ever made a figure before; their instructions were simply to trim. The young man grew more and more embarrassed; looking about, he could see he was the object of much curiosity.
The Master smiled after a while. “This one can be trained, but to do what?” he asked, as if speaking to himself. “We shall see how it grows.” The General could hardly restrain his pride, but he managed.
It was the General’s own son who had been brought here to be trained. He confided later to Doj that his father had brought in an elderly tutor from outside at great expense so his son would not shame him by failing at this curious task. Over time, the two young men became friends, and Doj wept bitterly after the other’s graduation and departure to become an officer in the army.
He wept again when he learned his friend had died in a border skirmish.
Against expectation, the topiary thorn survived. Doj planted it in the grounds, where it soon reverted to its natural shape.
“…that the young lady herself was not of a par— parti…”
“Sound it out, Boy. Say each letter as I told you.”
“I think you’ll find it’s ‘particular genius’. Try that and proceed.” Her stern expression was belied by a faint twinkle in her eyes, concealed with practiced ease. She had been a governess before she herself became a mother, and she never tired of teaching.
“…not of a par-ti-cu-lar gen-i-us, and to wonder how she should be so stupid and act so well.”
“Very well done indeed, Boy. That will do for today; we shall take this up again on the morrow. Now, mark the page as I told you — good. Well done. And back to its place on the shelf.”
The boy did as he was bid and she continued. “You are becoming aware, I think, of the value of these books, and of their uniqueness especially here, a thousand miles and more from the presses of Europe. Each of these books has traveled an unimaginable distance to find themselves here, and at considerable expense — and what wonders they have seen on their journey! What dangers they may have endured, if only they could speak! These volumes came over even before there was a canal at Suez, but did they go overland on camel-back or brave the Horn? We’ll never know, I fear.” The boy had only a very basic idea of what a canal was or a camel either, and none whatsoever of the difference between Suez and the Horn. But he nodded solemnly.
“The important thing is that they’re here, a treasure hidden in the wilderness indeed. You must never let them come to harm, Boy. That is your… your particular trust here in this house: These books.” And she gestured at the shelves as she instructed him further in his duties, which young though he was he already understood intimately: Dust regularly, keep them from damp at all costs, and be sure the windows were open in the mornings and evenings but closed before the rains. He heard this lecture twice a week but always listened intently.
They were still at it when the young master burst in. “Grandmama! You haven’t heard? You must come quickly — the natives are rising!”
In moments all was in chaos as the servants scurried about, packing; the old woman was bustled into a carriage in her day-dress, a horse-cloak over her shoulders to protect her from the rains, still expostulating with her grandson over the indignity even as screams began to rise from the edge of town. At this, he snapped at the reins and they were off.
The boy never moved. He was the guardian of the great treasure of the house. Danger threatened; here he would stay and watch over it.
And he did — for almost forty-five minutes, which was when the soldiers came.
You know how this works: Send me money and I’ll keep writing.
I’m not sure how this comes together. I know how the chess game ends, but sometimes it’s not about who wins but how you play. I’ve been years learning that, and I’m still not good at it. Maybe that’s why the end of this is eluding me.
Then again, sometimes fiction, mirroring life, leaves us with a few loose ends.