When I was a child I used to beg the Old Buddhist to tell this story over and over again, especially the descriptions of the soldiers. He would try to dampen my enthusiasm by insisting that it was a magical tale, very old and very powerful, not to be taken lightly. According to him, the account of the Great Army was told hundreds of years ago to a fasting monk by a ghost; I’ve always imagined that telling the tale set the ghost free. In the end, no matter how much the Old Buddhist tried to dissuade me, I’d get my way. We’d sit on the warm stone wall by the fish pond, and he would begin.
A ghost told this story to Chen Li. Chen Li told it to Shih Ho, and so it passed down through the years like a worn stone, smooth to the touch. Now I tell it to you.
When China was a land of forests and rich grasslands, there was a young monk who lived in a small Buddhist village in the foothills overlooking a wide, flat valley. This young man was in the habit of sitting on the temple steps every afternoon, counting the coins that wealthy patrons gave to the monastery. One day he looked up from his work and saw a cloud of smoke and dust rising from the far side of the valley.
“What is that dark cloud in the distance?” he called out to the cook, who was seated nearby, bundling dry herbs with bits of twine. “Is it a storm?”
“A great storm,” the cook said, looking up from his work. “I’ve seen that cloud on the horizon for many years now.”
In the courtyard stood a tree whose wide branches shaded the circle of huts, and from whose strongest limb hung the summons bell. Alarmed by the cook’s words, the youth scrambled up its branches to get a better look at the dark, fast-approaching cloud. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he saw red banners above the cloud, and then, below these flags, five thousand horsemen riding at breakneck speed. As they moved, everything in their path was leveled, and they were headed straight for the monastery.
The young monk shimmied down the tree, striking the bell several times to sound the alarm. He ran to find the teacher and stumbled over the gardener.
“Save yourself!” he cried to the gardener. “An army of five thousand horsemen is headed this way!”
The gardener took hold of the fleeing boy’s arm with his strong, calloused hand. “I know,” the gardener said. “I’ve smelled their stink on the wind for many seasons.” Laughing, he wrinkled his nose, then continued to break the ground for planting.
The young monk climbed a steep hillside. From there he could see the flashes of the army’s shields and swords in the sun. Green cloths were draped over the horses, and their harnesses and saddles glittered with jewels. They moved like the wind. The fields and orchards, the farmers’ huts and bamboo groves vanished in the army’s path. And then he saw that behind the horsemen marched ten thousand footmen.
The boy slid down the hillside. On the temple steps he grabbed the offering basket with the gold coins. Forgetting to bow he entered the temple, raced to the altar, and shoved the holy icons and writings into the basket. All the way to the root cellar he spilled coins and dropped amulets. Quaking with fear, he was barely able to take off his shirt to wrap the sacred treasures before burying them in the soft earth. Then, climbing out of the cellar, the young monk spotted the teacher walking toward the temple.
“Venerable one,” he called out, “save yourself. An army of fifteen thousand men approaches.”
The old man turned, smiled, and signaled for the boy to follow him into the temple. The young monk bounded up the temple steps but stopped short of the entrance, seeing that the horsemen were moving up the hillside. The ground shook. The thunderous roar of the horses’ hooves and the falling trees was deafening. Stones from the temple wall fell away. The boy clung to the doorway for support, grazing his cheek on the rough stones. The smell of sweat, dust, and death made him sick.
Before the small temple the horsemen came to a standstill. The young monk could see the thick lather on the snorting horses’ coats and the dirt and bits of twigs in the soldiers’ beards. The cook, still sitting in the yard, reached over to retrieve another handful of herbs from the basket by his side. The gardener looked up at the sun as if to estimate the time, wiped his forehead on his sleeve, and continued striking his digging stick rhythmically into the ground. Emerging from the darkness of the temple, the old teacher cupped ashes and bits of charred wood in his outstretched palms as if they were jewels. One horseman, a captain’s insignia emblazoned with emeralds and rubies on his shield, moved forward slowly. Laughing, the old monk let the ashes sift through his fingers, the breeze scattering them across his bare feet and the temple stones. The master clapped the rest of the ash from his hands, then bowed before the army.
The captain scowled. Reining in his horse so that it leapt into the air before it plunged forward, he signaled for the others to follow. The great army thundered onward, engulfing the cook and the gardener, toppling the tree so that the bell gave one last, short clang. The soldiers’ swords lifted the young monk high into the air and then let his bloodied corpse fall onto the crumbled walls of the temple.
The last foot soldier pocketed a coin the young monk had dropped. The setting sun’s glow through the dust in the air turned the sky a dark shade of orange. A swallow returning to her nest in the eaves of the temple cried out in confusion, her home having vanished. The swallow swooped low and high, but nothing was as it had been before.
“And the captain’s horse,” I asked, “what color was it?”
The Old Buddhist shrugged impatiently. “I won’t tell you any more,” he said, “until you tell me what the story was about.”
It was my turn to shrug. “Take care to bury your money well,” I suggested. “Watch for armies, be prepared.”
The Old Buddhist laughed and rapped his knuckles on my head.
“The answer is very simple. When there is nothing to be done, there is everything to do.”
“And the horse?”
“The captain’s horse was brown, dark brown, like a freshly plowed field.”
“And his sword?”
“His sword, my little one, was very sharp.”