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DUTY AND HONOR IN TERRA COTTA
12 March 2007
Ben disembarked from the biplane. It doubled as a crop duster in summer and the pilot liked flying low, fast and edgy. Ben wanted to kiss the ground but he was afraid that doing so would cause the pilot to lose face. A scrawny, eager young man in a white shirt, skinny black tie, baggy khaki pants and clay-encrusted size army boots grabbed him and shook his hand excitedly. He spoke fast. Ben caught a few Chinese words that spewed forth. When the man realized that Benjamin didn't understand him, he bowed slightly and spoke English.
"Benjamin Anthony Kyle, please forgive my mistake. I was told me that you spoke Chinese. I am Professor Wu's assistant, Xiao Shu-Ao. The professor sends his greetings and best wishes on your arrival. He asked me to meet you," Xiao said in meticulous, well-paced English.
"No, it is I who must apologize, Mister Xiao. The news of the fellowship reached me so late that I only had a month to learn Chinese. I almost understood you. I will try harder. I am so happy that you are here to meet me. It was so kind of Professor Wu to send you," Ben said, bowing slightly to his host. As the first western archeology student given a fellowship to study the Terra Cotta Army of Xian, he wanted desperately not to offend.
"Do not worry, Mister Kyle, we will have you speaking Chinese like a native before the three years of your fellowship passes," Xiao Shu-Ao said. He eagerly picked up Ben's luggage and walked to the car in the hot August sun. They drove two hours to reach Shaanxi Museum, the center of study for all matters concerning the Terra Cotta Army of warriors and horses from the tomb of the ruthless Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Professor Wu greeted him warmly, introduced the staff and showed him an office.
Within a week, Ben settled into a routine. Over the next few months, he improved his Chinese and strove to fit into the culture. One morning in the middle of January, Ben found Professor Wu and his staff dashing around the museum manically happy.
"My best graduate student, Xiang Lin-Yu has discovered a second burial mound west of Xian. It is near the village of HuoShaoZhai and Longman's Cave. We have new legions of Terra Cotta Warriors awaiting our study. If you don't mind living with other archeology students in a tent, I'll clear your presence with the military authorities," Professor Wu explained.
"I don't mind camping out with students, especially when I get to work on a major archeological find," Ben quickly volunteered and thanked Professor Wu profusely. Transportation waited. Ben ran to his apartment, barely packed his toiletries and his computer and then made it back to the museum in time to jump on the tailgate of a military truck. Professor Wu's graduate student Xiang Lin-Yu met him in HuoShaoZhai.
Xiang Lin-Yu stood six foot four and 420 pounds. He towered over Ben who stood five foot even and a weighed in at a tight, muscular 135 pounds. Most of the people in China were not tall. However, at the dig site, even the archeology students, who were just barely in their twenties, out-weighed, out-muscled and stood as tall if not taller than Ben. The archeology students at the dig greeted Ben as a colleague and treated him like a little brother. Their accommodations consisted of one large tent with a stove in the middle for warmth, cots for sleeping and footlockers doubling as desks.
The first night, Professor Wu came by to explain the military's safety and security restrictions on the students. He explained that Emperor Qin Shi Huang covered the floors of his tomb with silver rivers of mercury and silvered the ceilings with mercury and pearls to mimic the night sky. Because of the abundance of mercury in the tomb, the military insisted that all of the workers shave their bodies and cover themselves with an oily zinc oxide paste to prevent mercury poisoning. Additionally, when they were inside the tomb, they had to wear the plain cotton clothing that the military supplied fresh every day. At the end of each day, they had to abandon the cotton clothing, shower and make their way back to base camp naked. The Chinese students accepted these restrictions without question. The young men undressed and packed their clothing into their footlockers. Quietly accepting their obedience and desperately wanting to fit in Ben set aside his modestly, packed his clothing and joined his new companions.
The Chinese soldiers cleaned and shaved themselves and Ben fastidiously. They showed no shame about their bodies or anyone else's body. It took a week for Ben to get used to the daily routine of shaving, oiling his body, walking naked through the town and dressing in ill-fitting, rough cotton clothing. He wanted to take a towel with him when he walked through the town but rules forbid it. His small, white-skinned body and stubby blond hair was a bigger attraction for the children. They never saw a westerner close up and they never saw a westerner naked. Ben was Western Society's culture shock to the village.
The Chinese culture shock for Ben came in the form of his roommates—seven sexually active young men who could stay hard all night and be ready to go the next morning. They openly admired Ben's large, circumcised endowment and found ways to appreciate his tight, muscular body. They explained to Ben that this was the duty of brothers. At first, Ben only participated to fit in and be traditional. Within a few weeks, Ben lost his inhibitions and embraced Team ShaoZhai, as they called themselves passionately, without guile, without guilt. Every few months, Team ShaoZhai went into town and had dragons tattooed on their bodies, Ben joined them. The villagers grew familiar with each of the students.
The weather changed from winter to spring and Ben found a local swimming hole suitable for exercise even in the coldest weather. He started to swim five kilometers each morning on his way to the dig site and a second five kilometers on his return. In the beginning, he wore a threadbare Speedo swimsuit, his one piece of western clothing the military permitted him to have. As the weather warmed, the young boys of the village would drop their clothes and try to pace Ben. When the boys teased Ben about the swimsuit, he simply left it on the bank one day and swam naked. When he returned the swimsuit was gone. Some kid's trophy, he thought.
The boys created nicknames for all the archeology students. Lin-Yu became Bear for his size, Long Qiang became Lion for his strength, Ji-Yu became Monkey for his endless talk, and Ben became Dolphin because he swam like a fish. One of the village boys, a tall thin lad of about ten years old and the only son of a widowed soldier, got the nickname Horse because his boyish penis never shrank in the cold water. Ben taught the boy the proper swimming techniques and in return, the boy paced Ben morning and night. Ben always found him waiting morning and evening, ready to swim.
Spring changed to summer and summer to fall. The eight archeology students received commissions in the Chinese army. Ben always stayed quiet about his dual citizenship and worked to be a vital part of Team ShaoZhai. Lin-Yu translated the ancient Chinese texts into English and modern Chinese tirelessly. Ben and the others worked their way through several galleries of Terra Cotta soldiers and horses carefully cataloging, recording, and packing the pieces for shipment back to the Museum for reassembly. With each new discovery, Team ShaoZhai grew closer to each other, physically and mentally.
One day, Lin-Yu ran back to Team ShaoZhai with news of the discovery of a new chamber containing radically different statues from the original terra cotta statues.
"Look at this," Lin-Yu said excited as they examined the base of a statue from the new chamber. Instead of solid legs to support the hollow body of the statue, the legs were hollow with an armature running up the center.
"And the details on the feet and knees, they're nearly human. I've seen one head and these statues are nearly humanistic in detail. Even their uniforms drape more realistically than the earlier Terra Cotta warriors," Lin-Yu said.
"The team at Shaanxi Museum suggests that this chamber may contain the secrets to creating Terra Cotta warriors," Professor Wu emphasized his point adding. He wore a military uniform rather than a business suit. Ben didn't say anything but he this made him acutely aware he was involved in a military operation.
"We found a second chamber filled with hollow statues of unclothed soldiers. We think the legend of living warriors might be traced back to this particular chamber. The initial survey team describes this as resembling a Roman Bath. When they finish clearing the mercury, they will fire the chamber and heat the room. I have arranged for three shifts to complete the excavation of the chamber and Team ShaoZhai is promoted to the rank of corporal with all benefits and pay," Professor Wu said. Team ShaoZhai celebrated with a visit to the town tattoo artist and had their bodies decorated with rank insignias and HuoShaoZhai village emblems. The young boys of the village adored the new tattoos. They accompanied the students back and forth to the dig.
The chamber lived up to its promise. On the left side was a series of alcoves populated with anatomically correct Terra Cotta warriors. Workbenches holding several Dewars of chemicals covered the left wall. At the far end of the chamber sat what looked like a large hot tub filled with clay. Several probes showed it varied in depth from one foot to over six foot deep. A terra cotta statue of a naked man stood posed one leg in and one leg out of the pool. Parts of other statues resting on armatures indicated that they were hollow. Bathtub sized water pits, a fire pit, storage jars and workbenches filled the rest of the floor.
"We sectioned one statue and then stopped," Professor Wu said pointing out the unmistakable marks of a human body on the interior of the statue.
"Apparently this room represents a refinement of techniques," Professor Wu observed.
"The rest of the world thinks that the artisans sculpted the statues after human models. We believe that some of the statues were once soldiers," Lin-Yu said. A sense of amazement filled the room.
"Are you saying that they could turn men into terra cotta statues?" Ben asked.
"We think so. My translations of the ancient texts support that technique. Once we examined the inside of the statue, I was convinced. How else could you reproduce these marks?" Lin-Yu pointed to the interior.
"In addition, we have historical writings from the townspeople describing peasants and soldiers happily becoming statues and guardians of the village," Professor Wu said. Lin-Yu touched the clay tentatively and giggled. His bulk shook all over.
"There's only one way to find out, isn't there," Lin-Yu said.
"Unquestionably only one way, I gave order to prepare the clay. Tomorrow we will find out for certain," Professor Wu said. He gestured imperiously and left the room.
Several hours before dawn, a soldier woke Team ShaoZhai and hurried them to the chamber. The wood fires burning below the stone floor turned the room into a sauna. Steam poured off the pool of liquid clay and the water pits. Professor Wu waited.
"The pool is ready," Professor Wu said snapping his fingers at one of the soldiers.
"Corporal Pan Jiao, you may proceed with the test, please," Professor Wu said. Ben watched as Corporal Pan undressed and faced the clay pool, his naked body gleaming with sweat. He took Ben off-guard when he stepped over the rim and into the liquid clay. With one leg in, he hesitated, and then he praised the government, stepped boldly over the rim, and stood with the hot clay halfway up his thighs. Ben felt his heart beat faster at the sight. He held a folder in front of his body to hide his erection. Corporal Pan pushed his way through the thick liquid into the deep end of the pool and silently immersed his entire body until only his face remained above the surface. Lin-Yu inserted hoses into Corporal Pan's nose permitting him to breathe and Pan sunk beneath the surface. They waited breathless until Pan stood up covered in clay except for the breathing tubes. Lin-Yu guided Pan out of the pool and into one of the alcoves. Pan took a heroic stance as the clay on his body began to dry and harden. Within a few minutes, the clay hardened enough to entrap him. Ben imagined that the grip of the hardening clay held Corporal Pan's body in an ever-tightening grip. When the medical men verified Pan Jiao's presence inside the still wet terra cotta, Professor Wu ordered Team ShaoZhai to guard Corporal Pan overnight as he air-dried. Lin-Yu left with Professor Wu. During the night, Ben poked a finger into the clay and felt its heat. The stuff was hot but not so hot that a man couldn't tolerate immersion without harm. Ben dreamed of the clay.
The next morning, Corporal Pan's clay-covered body rang like a hollow bell. The medical men verified Pan Jiao's presence inside the statue but they couldn't detect a heartbeat. Ben led the effort to section the statue and indeed, the hollow inside revealed the indentations and markings of a human body. The clay absorbed Corporal Pan's human body, only a rough and jagged clay exterior remained.
"Well, Professor, he doesn't have the external detail of the old statues because no one finished the surface. I guess several immersions in the hot clay are necessary. The early artisans must have used several layers of clay to create the original statues," Lin-Yu reported to the Professor.
"Could someone wear Corporal Pan?" Professor Wu asked. Ben's heart leapt in his chest, his attention riveted by the unexpected question.
"No sir, the clay is much too thin. Only a stick man would fit inside the statue," Lin-Yu reported. Wu shook his head and turned to face Team ShaoZhai and the military guards.
"As far as we know, Corporal Pan is now a Terra Cotta Warrior and he is immortal," Professor Wu declared.
"It's like he's a," Ben hesitated. He finally said "Totem" in English. Lin-Yu translated it to obscure Chinese.
"A totem, good Indian word form the past, our next task will be to create an icon, a powerful dragon to stand guard. Do I have a volunteer?" Professor Wu asked, his decision predetermined. Only Ben stayed quiet. Professor Wu pointed to Long Qiang, the older brother of the team who bore the nickname Lion for his solid, rock-hard body with muscles on muscles, a stern personality.
"A dragon? How will we turn Qiang into a dragon?" Ben whispered to Lin-Yu as the soldiers brought out sturdy wooden stanchions.
"This is a great honor for Long Qiang and his family. We'll form the dragon around his body. Just follow our lead," Lin-Yu said. Long Qiang eagerly sat naked between the stanchions with his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around his thighs. The soldiers tied his wrists and ankles tight and slid a thick pole under his biceps and over the front of his chest to lift him off the ground. He wobbled in the air like one of those carnival birds that sips water from a glass. A small platform provided a perch for a flying dragon's feet attached to his human feet. Using gloves to protect their bodies, Team ShaoZhai began to build hot clay around Long Qiang's body increasing the thickness in successive layers. Ben, never good at sculpture, watched in wonder as the dragon's body took shape and replaced Long Qiang's human body. Merely handling shaping clay around their teammate gave them all erections. They pushed a rod into Long Qiang's butt to support a long tail, added wings on his shoulders and front claws over his hands. The soldiers revealed an elaborately carved dragonhead. Team ShaoZhai placed the clay dragon on Long Qiang's head and sealed him completely in terra cotta. Ben listened closely to the two small breathing tubes in the dragon's mouth. He could hear Long Qiang breathing hard and heavy. Team ShaoZhai used a brilliant-red, low-temperature ceramic glaze and decorated the dragon with gold leaf, black talons and black markings. Ben expected that they would let the dragon dry overnight. To his surprise, the soldiers lifted the entire assembly, carried it to a fire pit, set it high over a red-hot, charcoal fire.
"This is a dream come true, a fantasy," Ben said amazed and aroused by the process.
"Now you'll see why we all wanted to become the dragon," Ji-Yu slid his body against Ben's back to hide his erection. Transfixed by spectacle, the Team members spoke to each other in half thoughts and partial sentences, each silently wishing for the same fate.
As terra cotta hardens, it shrinks between 10 and 15 percent with a corresponding loss of mass and volume. Ben watched the terra cotta of the dragon surrounding Long Qiang shrank. He imagined the crushing force of the clay combined with the oppressive heat as a relentless engine intensifying the metamorphoses of Long Qiang's body. Clouds of steam poured out of the mouth of the dragon with each of Long Qiang's breaths. Every thirty minutes or so, the soldiers lowered the dragon deeper into the pit and closer to the radiant energy of the glowing charcoal. The glaze began to melt over the clay forming a smooth, shiny skin. As the heat increased, the amount of steam roaring out of the dragon's mouth increased. Long Qiang's breathing grew faster and stronger, the noise from each blast echoing through the chamber. The time between each breath shortened and the steam blast lengthened as the process continued. Team ShaoZhai pressed close together, their excitement building, their bodies twitching, rubbing, throbbing with anticipation. More and more steam poured from the dragon's mouth until it reached a constant blast. Ben leaned forward barely able to stand. Without warning, the nature of the steam changed from white to dark. One of the soldiers raised a torch and fire burst from the dragon's mouth. The soldiers cheered. Team ShaoZhai lost all self-control and spewed jets of white-hot sperm over each other's bodies.
"The legend says that when the dragon breathes fire, his body and spirit have become one in the clay. The clay maintains the essence of both man and dragon. One in substance, one in thought, one in spirit and nothing can separate them." Lin-Yu said softly. The dragon breathed fire for the better part of an hour.
"I never thought I'd witness anything like this," Ben said in a tremulous voice.
"An omen of great success for HuoShaoZhai and our Team," Ji-Yu, a team member, added.
That night, the cold water of the pond and a very fast-paced swim served to calm the raging sexual desires in Ben's body. While cooling down and drying off, he talked with the young boys ofd the village.
"You know, as a boy, when my parents would read bedtime stories, they spoke of centaurs, minotaurs, satyrs, werewolves, and yes, dragons," Ben said watching the boys crowd around him with eager eyes. He described Long Qiang's transformation into a dragon.
"We dream of warriors, dragons and soldiers," one boy said.
"We dream of keeping our village from harm," another boy added.
"I dreamed of becoming a cowboy, fireman, policeman, astronaut but never a dragon guarding my village. I can't even write back to my university friends, they won't understand," Ben said. The boys laughed and giggled. In the short walk back to his tent, they wanted to know all of the details of the Dragon. Ben left them wanting more. He found Team ShaoZhai waiting. The Team ate and drank beer, celebrating the creation of the dragon.
"Each of us serves in diverse ways. To Long Qiang and his service," Gong-Ban toasted his former team member.
"Would you ever consider such a fate, Ben?" Ji-Yu asked. Ben sat quiet for a moment.
"Not before today, seeing it happen, changed my outlook on sacrifice," Ben put his hands behind his head and leaned back on the chair waiting for their response.
"When the Dragon breathed fire, I wanted to join Long Qiang. At that moment, I would have done so without question. I would have gladly let the fire and clay consume my body to become a dragon," Gong-Ban answered.
"Here, it is cultural. We honor the family, the village, the Team and ourselves," Lin-Yu replied.
"Ah but that's not the point, is it Lin-Yu. I mean, saying it, saying I want to become, is one thing. The words are easy in the heat of passion. However, I'm not sure that I could compel my body to do it purely out of loyalty alone. I just don't know.
"He is correct, Lin-Yu. This is a sacrifice of mind and body. It is more than mere commitment," Gong-Ban said.
"Don't get me wrong, I can think of a dozen mythological and fierce animals that might tempt me to become a statue, but to volunteer as freely as Qiang, and then to participate as unreservedly as he did, well, I'd have to say that I can't tell you now. I'm too logical now," Ben said. He leaned up to the table to get a full bottle of beer.
"We are not done with the experiments, Ben," Lin-Yu said as he rested a hand on Ben's shoulder.
"The honor of being first fell to Qiang because Professor Wu ordered me not to become the dragon mascot. Tomorrow I'm going to try a different method to create a statue. I'm sure that it will succeed. I want your promise that you'll stand by me regardless of what happens," Lin-Yu asked.
"Of course I'll do anything for you guys. You guys are like brothers to me," answered Ben without hesitation. Lin-Yu hugged Ben with his huge arms almost making Ben's small body disappear. A hundred reasons not to take part ran through Ben's mind but he ignored the merely logical concerns and let his heart speak. Lin-Yu had become like a brother and so had these men. He would stand by their decision just as he thought they would stand by his decisions.
A while later, Lin-Yu revealed the plans for creating a statue capable of returning him to flesh and blood. He asked the Team to sign a concord — a compact, a tontine — describing the method. Ben lied about being able to read all the ancient pictograms and signed the document anyway. He even joked that he felt like John Hancock signing the Declaration of Independence because his signature in western script stood out from the pictograms. With great ceremony, Lin-Yu stamped the document with his seal. The Team toasted Lin-Yu with a rare bottle of champagne. That night, each man submitted to Lin-Yu fleshy desires.
During the night, the soldiers installed Long Qiang's dragon statue in the town square and as Ben walked to swimming, he found the boys admiring the statue. They insisted that any adult passing through the square pay obeisance to the dragon. The sun's rays struck and reflect seductive, blood red rays from dragon's body, Ben bowed to the statue and kissed its scarlet lips. The memory of Long Qiang's heady, masculine taste and his thick, salty essence filled Ben's thoughts. The boys swam well that morning.
When he finally joined Team ShaoZhai, Lin-Yu stood covered in a mercury-based compound avoiding the zinc-based compound. Obviously, Lin-Yu was the next experimental subject. As described in the ancient writings, Lin-Yu took a liter of strong rice wine, combined it with liquid mercury and ground jade, then drank the mixture in one deep draught.
"It's as heavy like the beer at the end of the season, very heavy," Lin-Yu belched out as he set the empty container on the counter and walked to the pool of liquid clay. Balanced on the others, he stepped into the clay pool.
The clay adhered to his legs. He leaned, let Ben insert breathing tubes and sank deep under the surface of the clay several times. When he stepped out, a two-inch-thick layer of clay covered his body. Using gloves to protect their skin, the Team guided the encrusted Lin-Yu onto an oiled wooden platform. Ben and the remaining Team members quickly shaped the clay into a replica of Lin-Yu's body recreating his face and dressing him in old style Chinese clothing. They made intricate patterns to represent chain mail and coarsely quilted fabrics from ages ago. Team ShaoZhai worked well into the afternoon to render Lin-Yu into a fine statue.
Lin-Yu's statue looked almost heroic in proportion—taller and larger than life itself. Proud but tired and covered with bits of clay, Team ShaoZhai walked to the showers and cleaned their bodies.
Ben joined the boys at the swimming hole and let the exercise revitalize his body. The boys insisted they talk about silly things that only boys discuss. Their boyishness exuberance refreshed Ben. Eventually, he rejoined the five remaining members of Team ShaoZhai as they ate dinner. Lin-Yu's contract specified that they lay with each other and party until their bodies were spent and exhausted. Their intercourse wasn't spontaneous; it felt rehearsed and forced. They fell asleep on each other's bodies and shared dreams of red dragons, heroic statues and soft red clay.
They woke before dawn, shaved, washed, marched to the town square and when the sunrise struck the dragon, each man bowed, kissed the dragon, and silently went to the chamber. Only the dragon commanded their attention before Lin-Yu.
Lin-Yu's statue stood in the center of the room — solid, tall and imposing. Pumps stood ready to fill the statue with clay if the experiment was unsuccessful. Professor Wu rapped his knuckles on Lin-Yu's clay body making it ring like a bell. He made some derisive observations about Lin-Yu's weight and male parts that shocked Ben. The medical men verified the presence of Lin-Yu's consciousness in the clay and the Team started the long, dirty task of separating statue into pieces. They removed the head, the lower arms, the upper half of the torso in two parts and left the hips and legs standing on the oiled platform. The statue was indeed hollow and marked with the fingerprints, folds and wrinkles of Lin-Yu's human body. Apart from the size of the statue thanks to Lin-Yu's large body, its thick walls could support its bulk with ease.
The Team washed before lunch. Anxious to complete his journal notes, Ben ate quickly and began typing furiously into his computer. He was deep in thought as the rest of the Team prepared batches of mercuric oil to spread on their bodies and flagons of liquid mercury and ground jade.
"Ben, Ben, everything is ready," said Gong-Ban, tugging at Ben's shoulder. Ben looked at him distracted by his notes.
"Yes, Ben we must complete Lin-Yu's concord, his testamentary," Ji-Jing said pulling Ben away from his writing. The remaining members of Team ShaoZhai surrounded him.
"Testamentary? What's this guys, what are you talking about?" Ben answered pulling his notebook back.
"We all signed."
"Yes, all of us."
"You signed, too."
"I signed," said Ben, half asking and trying not to sound stupid.
"We all agreed."
"I agreed to…" Ben stopped typing and closed his notebook.
"Then you must join us."
"Yes, please, join us."
"We must fulfill our promise to Lin-Yu," the soldiers said.
"It is honorable."
"Yes, it is honorable," Ben said not sure of what they wanted.
"Good, good, we must fulfill the contract." They patted Ben's back and pulled him towards the workbench. There lay the parchment that he had signed with Lin-Yu. Lights went on in Ben's head. Neurons sparked into awareness.
Ben tried to remember what he read in the parchment. Complex thoughts rushed to his mind as yesterday's signature now committed him to a course of action his mind didn't agree with. "Oh yes, of course. We're joining Lin-Yu, today. You're right. I got lost in my notes." Betraying these men would be just as bad as his own family's betrayal. These five had accepted him unconditionally where his own family had rejected him when he decided to accept the fellowship in China. His own brother shunned him for being gay. Ben's hand trembled. He hesitated.
"Guys, I couldn't read Lin-Yu's calligraphy. You have to show me what I have to do," Ben smiled weakly. The five young men laughed at his distress and hugged him. They took him to the preparation bench. He quickly counted the beakers. The terms of the agreement and contract became obvious. They were to follow Lin-Yu's example and become clay warriors. Ben made no effort to stop them as they prepared to smear the mercuric oils over his body.
"I am such a fool," Ben mumbled to himself.
"Do you wish to stop, Ben? We would not blame you if you wanted to return to your home in the USA," Gong-Ban asked.
"No, we're family now. It is my honor to join you and Lin-Yu," Ben answered in a brave voice and put his hand into the oily glop. He joined them as they gleefully smeared oil on their bodies.
"We wanted to wait until tomorrow to see if Lin-Yu returned to human form but Professor Wu ordered us to begin fulfilling our agreement today," Ji-Jing said.
"Yes and Professor Wu said that we should have enough faith in Lin-Yu to proceed without verification of his method. He called it a matter of honor," Gong-Ban said. His voice held only obedience to authority and respect for his comrades. These young men lacked cynicism and selfishness. They wholeheartedly, willingly and blissfully welcomed whatever fate awaited them as modern Terra Cotta Warriors. They had no doubts about what they were doing. Resigned to his fate, Ben banished all of his doubts. If he backed out now, he would have to return to America and admit failure to his family and his government. He dismissed that thought. Whatever happened, he would enjoy the upcoming ordeal. He forced his mind to enjoy the preparations. His skin tingled as the chemicals and heavy metals leached into his body. He felt the rush of blood through his bodies arouse his manhood. All of the young men stood with erections. They stroked their poles and grinned stupidly at each other.
"I guess we'll all be horny statues tomorrow," Ben said. He stuck his hips out and waved his unit. They laughed. Ben picked up the container of liquid clay, mercury and ground jade and raised it in a toast. The Team did the same.
"To Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Professor Wu and Team ShaoZhai," Ben said, chugging the thick and tangy mixture. His insides twisted and contorted as it made its way through his stomach.
"Let's really do it right, boys, another round of drinks barkeep," Ben challenged. Like drunks, they prepared a second batch of the liquid and drank it. Ji-Jing almost gagged on the second batch but he didn't throw up, Gong-Ban spilled several mouthfuls down his chest and Ben's legs wobbled. Even so, he held the beaker high. They cheered.
"Last man in is a guppy," Ben yelled. He took a run at the pool of liquid clay and dove over the wall. He smacked the clay hard and sank into its depths. He felt its gritty stickiness on every part of his body from his head down to his toes. This wasn't like water; it was thick and viscous clay. The Team followed him. He could feel their struggles against the clay as they moved through it.
Ben took a foot to his stomach causing him to cough up air and swallow clay. It tasted like granular candy. He thrashed around and finally pushed his head above the surface. His companions grabbed him and forced breathing tubes into his nose. Sucking much needed air into his burning lungs, he felt the clay filling his head, throat and guts. He couldn't talk. Each time he swallowed, more clay slid into his stomach and calmed the raging heartburn from the chemicals. Again, he immersed his body in the clay and he swallowed as much as he could. The clay felt delightfully sinister. It crept into every crevice and hole in his body, sucking at his mind as much as it stuck to his body.
Ben's muscles burned with his exertion. When he opened his eyes, the clay immediately covered them. He could see dimly through the liquid. With each blink, the clay layer grew thicker and cut off more light. He wrestled under the surface with the team and grabbed at their bodies, pulling them down into the pool, deeper and deeper. There would be no return from this, he thought as clay built up on his body. It cemented his toes and fingers together and plastered his penis and testicles against his stomach. Slowed his movements and as it became thicker and thicker, engulfed his being. Finally, it took all of Ben's strength just to stand upright and immobile. He couldn't see or hear anything but his labored breathing. But, he became aware of the rest of team ShaoZhai standing near him, just as still, just as completely encased.
Ben could sense Professor Wu's minions as they guided his teammates to their wooden platforms. He didn't know it at the time, but Professor Wu made sure that the dozen artisans and helpers inserted the stanchions into each man's butt. Finally, Ben felt them lift him out of the clay pool. Again, he had no way of knowing that they lowered his clay-encrusted legs into the bottom half of Lin-Yu's terra cotta body, filling the voids with clay and then reassembling the statue around his body. In the silence, He allowed himself a single regret in that he would have enjoyed glazing and firing like Long Qiang. He could feel them sculpture the clay surrounging his body. Ben assumed they were decorating his exterior. He stood patiently and waited wondering what he would feel as the clay absorbed his human body. When darkness came, he fell asleep.
The sunrise woke Ben. He marveled that he could see at all. He stood taller than before. He knew his mind was not inside his flesh and blood body but occupied a huge clay statue. Bigger than he imagined he should be. He could see Professor Wu and several soldiers enter the chamber and set about cutting him into pieces with knives, chisels and saws. Only when they finished sectioning his terra cotta body did they lift his head from his shoulders and place it on an armature so he could see what they were doing.
They weren't working on his body but the statue of Lin-Yu's body. The statues of Team ShaoZhai stood unattended in classical poses and uniforms. No one worked on them. This didn't make any sense at all to Ben. He could feel them work and watched as they removed parts of the clay body. When they removed his chest and placed it on the armature, Ben could see a human form inside the statue. The workers freed the body and helped it stand before Ben's terra cotta eyes.
"What the hell?" Ben thought as he watched through terra cotta eyes. He recognized his human body and his own voice.
"We have succeeded beyond all bounds of hope Ben," his body said.
"It must be strange for you to see your own body talking to you but rest assured that it is possible. I who was once Lin-Yu am now Benjamin Anthony Kyle. I will replace you when your, or should I say my fellowship is completed. I will take your place in American society without suspicion. Just think of what we've accomplished here. I am the perfect operative, the perfect spy. Publications from this archeological dig will let me sponsor many fellowships for students from the USA. Many of those fellowships will lead here to have their minds exchanged with our faithful operatives. It's an ingenious plan, wouldn't you say?" the new Ben said to the old Ben.
"He's duped us all," Ben thought, staggered by the revelation and unable to do anything. The new Ben and Professor Wu drank whiskey in celebration of their success.
"And you thought we were so honorable, so trustworthy, so gullible. You're nothing but American pond scum floating in a sewer. You and all of Team ShaoZhai, will be pumped full of clay, glazed red and fired into solid statues. All of you will stand in your precious town square as companions to the dragon you adored. You can guard the village like great country-bumpkins, to borrow your language. The simple-minded village peasants will venerate you as their demigod. They are such fools, they deserve their fate and so do you," the new Ben said to his terra cotta statue.
Ben's human body walked out of the chamber with Professor Wu. Several soldiers stayed to stand guard and watch the shadows cast sun. Shortly past noon, more soldiers came to the chamber. They brought the boy nicknamed Horse with them. The child gripped the soldier's hand firmly.
"Horse," the guard called him by his nickname, "This is what they did to your friend Ben."
"This dishonors everyone, Uncle Xi," Heng said. Xi nodded his agreement and went over to the preparation bench. The two men and the boy undressed and covered their bodies with the mercuric oils. Ben wanted to tell them to stop, that the liquid was deadly poison, that he had done this of his own free will, that they should return to the village and that they should live their lives, but he couldn't. He watched helpless. Before the boy entered the liquid clay, he addressed Ben's statue.
"We believe that these actions are shameful and dishonorable. We cannot leave you as one of the guardians for our village. It would defile our village. No village can be defiled in this manner and go on to prosper. We cannot live with the duplicity of Xiang Lin-Yu and Professor Wu. They disgraced us. They put a burden of dishonor so great that if left uncorrected, would crush the village. We cannot abide such wretchedness. We must do what we can to correct Xiang Lin-Yu's error or face a future of dishonor and disrepute," Heng spoke the word in calm and self-assured tones. His Uncle spoke up.
"Your sacrifice however willing was not informed and not freely given. Since we cannot return you to your original body, the village elders decided to offer you the body of one of our children in recompense. Tomorrow you will return to human form in the body of my nephew, Heng-Xi, who graciously sacrifices himself to expiate our shame," the soldier explained. Heng had to have the final word and spoke again.
"Don't worry about me, honorable Ben; I am privileged to serve my village and country this way. Professor Wu told the village that once he glazes and fires the guardian statue, it would stand for thousands of years. I will live for an eternity, a1000 times 1000 years. I will guard our village from harm. For this gift, I freely give my body to you for the rest of its life," the young boy, Heng-Xi said in sincere, high-pitched tones.
Stunned by behavior beyond his control, Ben watched in silence as the boy stepped into the pool of hot clay. He sank into it up to his chest. His Uncle joined him and helped the kid coat his small body with clay. The two soldiers lifted the boy out of the pool and loaded him into the base of Ben's statue. The boy's body was slim enough to fit in the hollow space left by Ben's human body. They reassembled the statue, sealing the boy inside. Ben remained helpless to alter their plans. Saddened at losing his young friend to the clay, he watched as the boy's uncle and the other soldier climbed into the pool, encased their bodies in thick layers of terra cotta, and then smoothed the clay on their bodies into contemporary figure. They looked like ultra-modern, communist-style sculptures when they finally positioned their bodies onto the stanchions. They posed together in a grand gesture of trust and then waited for the clay to harden. No one else returned to the chamber that day.
The next morning, Ben woke to the sound of chisels, saws and knives opening the terra cotta statue. He couldn't open his eyes or talk. Someone lifted his clay-encrusted body from the interior of the statue. He felt different, smaller and more compact as a strong, muscular man carried him out into the sunlight and away from the archeological site. After a few minutes of running, he felt the soldier's pace slow and recognized the swimming hole. The cold water shocked his body into full awareness of itself and the man lovingly washing his new body. Slowly Ben's eyesight returned to normal, he saw his new yellow skin, thin body, small hands, small feet, an uncircumcised penis and straight black hair. It was the body of a ten-year-old boy. A handsome soldier cradled him gently and called him by a new name.
"Heng my son, my dear son, how many times have I told you not to swim alone, you almost drowned," the soldier repeated over and over. Ben looked at him through unfamiliar eyes. This Father was young, strong and athletic. Ben began to speak but the soldier lowered them both into the water, his wet khaki uniform clinging to his muscles. When he pulled out, he held the boy close.
"Be careful what you say, my son," he said softly. Ben scrambled up the man's thick arms and hugged his broad shoulders. He leaned his head onto the man's shoulders and cried real tears.
"Father, father, I'm so sorry. I promise not to swim alone again," answered Ben. He spoke better Chinese than he remembered. The soldier took his shirt off and put it around his son's shoulders to keep him warm. They both walked home under the watchful eyes of the village elders.
The next day, Professor Wu had the large terra cotta statue of Lin-Yu, the seven members of Team ShaoZhai, and the two modern statues, glazed and fired into permanent ceramics and put on display in the center of the village. The elders of the village insisted that the modernistic statues of two soldiers stand at the gateway to the village. Professor Wu tried to talk them out of doing this but they remained resolute. Ben remained silent.
"Who would believe a young boy with a story like this?" were the only words he spoke to his new father all that day. Ben learned that his father Bao Ji-Hu rented the house and lived alone. Heng never told Ben that his father was a father was a widower. His Father explained that their parents and the state had arranged his marriage to Heng's mother on his twelfth birthday. Barely able to have sex, his wife, an old maid at age fourteen, got pregnant after one night of intimacy. Tragically, she died in childbirth leaving Ji-Yu to raise his son alone. That made Ben's father only twenty-two years old and a year younger than Ben himself had been. Bao Ji-Yu loved the physical side of life – hunting, camping, swimming, wrestling and soccer and tried to engage Ben in conversation without luck.
That night, while searching for clothing, Ben found his old and nearly forgotten Speedo swimsuit. He confronted Bao Ji-Yu as he came out of the shower.
"Heng took it that many months ago because he saw so much in you, the stranger, the different one. He came to love and respect you. The Village Elders told me that little boys idolize their fathers but growing boys like Heng sometimes idolize a man who is different from them and learn grown into manhood from that relationship," Ji-Yu stopped for a moment to force back tears.
"I never realized what the swim lessons meant to him until he went to the Elders on his own and rebuked them for Xiang Lin-Yu's and Professor Wu's behavior. He convinced my brother Heng-Xi, his namesake to help him and engineered your return. I couldn't have been more proud of him but I couldn't forbid him from an action as honorable as he proposed. My heart broke that day. I lost my son," Ji-Yu said and broke into tears. Ben sat stunned several minutes watching a grown man cry inconsolably. The import of his decisions weighed heavily on him. Ben hugged him tight. They comforted each other.
"Does the village know who I am?" Ben asked when Ji-Yu stopped sobbing.
"No, only the three Elders and my direct superior in the army know. They said to tell everyone that any odd behavior was due to nearly drowning," Ji-Yu answered. Ben pulled his little T-shirt off and wiped the wetness from Ji-Yu's chest.
"Let's create a new life for both of us. We can perform the loving father and obedient son outside this house but inside we should treat each other as the adults we are. I will do my best to grow up as Heng the son, Heng the boy, Heng the good villager. However, in private we have to acknowledge that we are two grown men in mind and not physically. We have to learn how to love each other," Ben said. He pulled Ji-Yu to his feet and into the bedroom. During the night, Ben and Ji-Yu forged an entirely physical and emotional relationship with each other. The next morning, the rising son woke both man and boy. Ji-Yu lay on his back and Ben lay on his chest and stomach with his head resting gently on Ji-Yu's shoulder.
"You remind me of Long Qiang. You both have the same all male taste on your muscles and saltiness thickness in your essence. It lingers pleasantly," Ben said. The air was cool and his young body had no fat. Ji-Yu wrapped his thick arms around his son's body to keep it warm.
"And you, my young one are sweet as honey. I too knew Long Qiang. We grew up together and we wrestled naked in our academy days. He was a good soldier and an honorable man," Ji-Yu laughed. Ben rested his head against Ji-Yu broad pecs listening to the comforting heartbeat inside.
"I remember wrestling naked boys in high school. Girls too," Ben giggled. Ji-Yu started to say something but stopped. He hummed softly and his voice vibrated his chest. Ben realized that he'd never heard a sound so comforting before. His own father had been cold and distant, His brother unable to touch another male. He curled his legs up and let Ji-Yu caress him like a baby.
"What were you going to say, my loving father," Ben asked.
"Remember, my dear boy, you were born in 1996, not 1984. The only man you've wrestled is me or Uncle Xi," Ji-Yu said stroking his son's hair unconsciously, an unconscious habit.
"I can't be Ben anymore. Ben is dead to me. Ben has left the village of HuoShaoZhai. However, at the same time, I don't want to take more than Heng's nickname, Horse. That's what other boys call him," Ben said. He lifted his head and looked directly into Ji-Yu's eyes.
"No I misspoke, not him, that's what the boys call me. I must to answer to Horse, now. The boys have nicknames for everyone. Ben was dolphin. Long Qiang was lion. Gong-Ban was python. They are gone. My nickname is Horse because I'm bigger than they are," Horse spoke. The decision had been made. Ben no longer existed.
"This is how it must be. Horse wouldn't be my first choice of name but it isn't shameful and will grow with you, my boy," Ji-Yu answered, yawning and dozing. He wrapped his arms around his son's thin body enfolding the old memories into the anticipation of new memories. His closed his eyes and drifted back into sleep. Horse lay silent for only a few minutes before he woke Ji-Yu.
"Are my grandfather and grandmother alive, Father?" Horse asked, shaking Ji-Yu out of his half-sleep.
"Your grandparents live near Beijing. The army transferred me to HuoShaoZhai seven years ago. The townspeople helped raise you. My Father is in the navy and is on assignment for the next 18 months. Your other grandfather doesn't travel. We have time to get our act together," Ji-Yu, explained scattering his thoughts all over the room.
"What about Uncle Xian-Xi who immersed himself in clay and now stands at the eastern gate?" Horse asked.
"Xian-Xi and his companion were local militia. When the Elders asked for help with the clay, they volunteered. We were with the group of guards who witnessed Long Qiang's dragon breathing fire. The elders didn't realize their intentions. They were good men but not blood relations to our family. We told everyone we were family to sleep together," Ji-Yu said.
"You saw the Dragon breath fire. Would you have done what Long Qiang did?" Horse asked.
"Only on direct orders, I had responsibility to you. Long Qiang was not so encumbered. He was born in the year of the pig and consequently he set nearly impossible goals for himself. When he learned of the possibility of serving the village as its guardian, he became fixated. Professor Wu was happy he volunteered. Wu believes in nothing but the state. One thing I remember Uncle Xi talking about was the reaction of the archeologists. All of you spurted when the dragon breathed fore. All of you wanted to become dragons, to become fire once in your lives. I have no such desire. I was born in the year of the rat and have no such fixations about the glory of standing guard." Ji-Yu said showing a sentimental and superstitious streak.
"And what is my birth year?" Heng asked.
"You were born in the year of the dog. You are loyal, honest and faithful according to the old legends," Ji-Yu yawned and hugged Heng closer. He turned over on his side and let Heng lay between his legs. The two talked for the better part of an hour before they rose, ate breakfast and walked to the swim hole. The other children treated Heng as if nothing had occurred. Ji-Yu struggled to keep up with his son in the water and called on all of his strength and endurance to finish with his son. After the swim, father and son dried off and cooled brilliant-red, oxygen-rich muscles. Over the coming months, the two would become morning fixtures at the pond replacing the forgotten archeology student who left without honor or face.
Ji-Yu accompanied Heng to the school and stayed with him for several days. He watched Heng carefully and each night would give him advice on how to be a young boy and not an adult. In the villagers' eyes, Heng settled into being a loving and obedient son after a forgotten trauma. As Heng's body grew older and stronger, thicker and muscular, the love between father and son grew as hard as the fired clay in the dragon guarding the village. Heng never took a wife but instead, stayed with his father. Together, they began to take in troubled boys. They had great success in reforming the boys and converting them into productive members of the village. In this manner, they brought much praise and renown to the village.
8690 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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