The Old God’s of Shanghai
By Marc T. Housley
(This is a draft of a story I will enter into a competition. Please give me your comments so I can revise it before submittal. Thank you)
I sit in a Chinese prison for crimes I did not commit, but I have no alibi. I was covered in their viscera, the only survivor, and I am mad. The embassy has asked me to talk, to see if I truly am the butcher of Shanghai, or an innocent victim. If the former, the ambassador will apologize profusely to the Chinese and ask that I be given life in prison instead of being shot in the back of the head. And what does it matter if I am innocent? I can’t live outside these walls, I am mad. The only reason I wish to be found innocent is I fear death, for to die means to be cast headlong into an eternity of madness. I must not die, not ever.
I find I have to write only when I know I am fully sane, completely focused. I have found myself choking on the manuscript when I have tried to eat a page, then it takes me hours to re-write the section I had almost ingested. Sometimes I find I have been tearing at my skin, and find the pages smooth with blood. I don’t remember cutting myself. You may wonder, as I have, how I can write so clearly when I can’t see. But, I have been so affected that I do not need sight now. I know the pages, and the words, just like I hear the crying of the other prisoners even through the concrete walls, how I can smell the salt of their tears, smell the fear, feel their hate. Or maybe I am just mad.
Did I, one who believes that humanity can better itself through its own advancement, did I kill hundreds? Murder thousands? They have no other suspects, nor any living witnesses, for I am the only one who emerged from the dark entrails of the earth. Of course they believed I had killed everyone, for I was covered with their gore. It was caked on me in layers, soaked through my cloths, worked under my fingernails, stuck between my teeth.
I was a devout atheist, whose job it was to study why other humans weren’t. This was a task that had taken me around the world studying religions of all kinds, and the people who believed them. It was a part of a larger intellectual movement funded by my billionaire benefactor; his goal to rid the human race of its primitive concepts.
I had studied all the esoteric religions, wicca, celtic, shamanism, vodoo, the majic of the Gypsy’s, the rites of the Zoroastrians, the darkly kept cults which still visit the ancient sites in Scotland and Ireland. I was the anthropologist who collected the rituals and histories. Another group, also funded by my benefactor, studied the outcomes of those beliefs. Did the wiccan’s spells’ have any effect more than a placebo would? The answer, scientifically, was a resounding no. Yet, the witch did not stop practicing. The belief was stronger than the fact of its failure.
There was a place where primitive beliefs held on so strongly that violent oppression and 50 years of re-education had failed to eliminate the most base of beliefs– that place was China.
I can tell you the story that brought me into the presence of such insane ancient evil, but evil can’t be explained, only experienced, and that experience would unmake you. If I could regain my ignorance I would gladly cast myself back into it and forget the horrors which I have seen, the horrors which opened my eyes while they stole my sight and shattered my mind.
My disbelief started as a child, sometime after I lumped god in with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus as objects created by adults for a purpose, a narrative that has an impact on little kids.
My current belief came crashing into my life not long after the Airbus landed in Shanghai. Had I merely been able to relax, to enjoy the city for a few days while I got over my jet lag, I might have missed the horror altogether. But, that isn’t me.
The approach to Shanghai is beautiful. The bright blue waters of the South China Sea stretched out toward Japan, and the city starts at the beach and extends to the west. The airport is clean and modern, and the train station built into the airport makes travel into downtown Shanghai simple. Instead, I took the company limo. When your boss helped build portions of the city, you can at least accept the basic courtesies.
What is the saying, ‘don’t put old new wine in an old wineskin’? Well, Shanghai is a new wineskin into which China poured old wine, for China is ancient, and its people, even uprooted from their land, have ingrained in them old ways and old concepts. It showed in Buddhist symbolism in the signs and artwork. It showed in the modern architecture, built by Communists, using feng shui.
Back to my arrival in Shanghai. The building my employer owned was one of Shanghai’s largest. His firm had been involved with the Communist party for decades, and so had assisted in the city’s development. I was in a guest apartment over 70 stories up. It kept a traditional feel, with wood paneling in the walls decorated with storks, kebodi, and boating peasants.
I had been up for twenty-seven hours. Fly from England to China, and your body and mind get so numbed by the flight that whatever reality you land in feels alien. I set the alarm and collapsed.
I left my first appointment that morning disappointed. The acupuncturist had been hostile from the beginning. I was now searching a tightly packed section of small store fronts for my interview with Ling, an old man who ran a traditional, albeit illegal, healing shop.
I was wandering around looking lost when I saw the small tobacconist on the corner. Amongst the neon signs of the crowded street, its little wooden sign might as well have been invisible.
“Ah, Mr. Kerr, it is my pleasure to meet you,” the small man said in halting English with a heavy Chinese accent.
I looked around the small shop. Along the walls different types of tobacco, pipes, cigarettes and cigars were kept in small glass shelves. The place smelled of deep spice, thick scents of wood, and old smoke. The old man sat behind a small cash register and old scale, which sat on a small wooden counter.
“I run this smoke shop, but I know this is not why you are here,” he said and moved the sign on the door to closed, and shuffling past me, he began to rotate the small shelves. Each rotated around its own axis revealing the tools of his trade: vials of forbidden items.
“My family has been studying and performing traditional medicines for more generations than your western civilization has existed.”
I read over the bottles. Viper poisons, ground rhino horn, elephant tusk, human bone. Vial after vial. All illegal. Some deadly.
“Tell me why you believe these work.”
“They work because they balance the factors that are out of balance. Like a top that spins wrong then falls over , our spirit— our life force— it spins wrong and we get sick, we die.”
“And you believe this?”
“It has nothing to do with belief, it works whether I believe or not.”
“Aspirin works if we believe it or not, why is this, King Cobra Venom helpful?”
“Is not your chemotherapy a poison. This is about balancing the life force and spirit,” he said, and placed on the hanging scale near the register a few grains of Rhino horn. It moved the scale a tiny amount for the scale was finely balanced, “for a scale out of balance, it only takes a little to get it back in balance.”
He grabbed a rock and dropped it on the other end of the scale. The grains of Rhino horn tumbled off the other side as the scale crashed down. “You Americans are so out of balance, you will never get back in balance with a remedy designed to balance a fine tuned scale.”
I watched for a moment, unsure how to respond.
“You come here doubting, but I sense you are more in tune with the spiritual than you think. I sense a keen awareness.”
“Really?” I ask, incredulous.
“Yes. Why else would you carry your talisman in your coat pocket?”
I looked down at my own hand as if it was alien. I had been subconsciously fiddling with the items in my front pocket. I took them out and laid them on the counter: a carved shell, a stone, a small piece of Egyptian pottery.
“Why else would you carry such talisman?” he asked.
“I received them from others I interviewed,” I said, and held up the carved shell, “This was from a voodoo priest. This I picked up while at Stone Henge while interviewing a wiccan priestess. And, this,” I held up the Egyptian pottery, “is from a souvenir shop in Cairo.”
“You have a good eye for powerful objects, Mr. Kerr, now I think this interview is over, as I have to attend to paying customers,” he said, and reached under his desk to remove a large, aged book that as he opened it I could see pictures of plants drawn amongst ancient Chinese notes. “Please, come back tomorrow morning and we can continue our discussion.”
I was up early the next morning and I took rickshaw to the neighborhood near ling’s store. A black limousine was stopped in the middle of the road forcing me to walk the last part. As I did, I saw a commotion ahead of me and the crowd parted for a tall man who was escorted by armed guards. I moved out of the way with the throng of workers.
I watched as the man passed. He was older, with a strong posture and confident stride. What shocked me was that I recognized him. I was quite sure it was Counselor Lau, a person whose picture was on my bosses’ wall. He was a confidant of Chairman Mao and a key architect of Shanghai’s reconstruction. I assumed he was dead, but apparently I was wrong.
I continued to the small shop and I saw the closed sign in his window. The groaning was hard to distinguish over the din of the street, but I heard it. It was a low convulsive groan, followed by crunching and grinding sounds as if someone was rolling over glass.
I went to force the door in, but it swung freely. Ling was laying on the floor with is arms and legs curled in an unnatural ball. He was convulsing. All the shelves’ contents had been scattered across the floor.
Three vials were rocking back and forth on the broken remains of the counter-top. I recognized the inscription on them immediately: Serpent Venom, King Cobra Venom, Sea Snake Venom — someone had poured all three down Ling’s throat.
Looking over the rubble I realized the destruction of the shop was just a cover, it was Ling’s books they stole. I was about to flee when I saw the small package which had slipped under the broken table.
I reached under a fallen board and picked up the small package. It had my name written on it and then in Chinese it said, “one more trinket.” Three Chinese words were scratched in the wood of the cabinet above the package. They said “ Ravenous old gods.” I put the box in my pocket and fled.
I was more composed when I reached the rickshaw. I spoke to the driver hurriedly.
“Did you see where the limo went? If you can follow it you’ll get all this,” I said, and held out all my Yuan. He didn’t say a word, just began to haul away.
Chasing a limo through the crowded slums wasn’t as hard as it would seem. The rickshaw cut through alleyways and dashed through side streets, and soon we saw the limo ahead of us. It was parked at a large housing complex the type of which I was familiar with because my boss’s firm helped build them. I had an unnerving sense that my entire reality had changed, that some celestial clock had chimed and was ringing in my ears. I could no more fight against this then the second hand could choose to run backwards.
The group had entered the building, but I didn’t follow. Instead, I opened the package. Inside there was a small bone knife, the handle was intricately carved with Chinese characters. Its total size was no bigger than my pointer finger. The short blade was watered steel. As I was looking at this the men exited the building and entered the limo.
This happened five more times. When I looked on my phone’s GPS I realized that the buildings would all fit equidistant round a circle. If I did the math right, this was the last one. My suspicion was confirmed when ten minutes later the group didn’t emerge. After twenty minutes I had become antsy. I felt the energy of the giant clock moving forward one tick at a time.
I entered the building through the lower emergency exit which I had seen the men go through. The locking mechanism had been taped open.. This entered into the underground maintenance area. I noticed that of the supply room doors was set into the exterior wall, a spot that would lead out of the building, but I was two stories down. I pushed, and to my surprise it swung open. It was thick metal and moved soundlessly. My blood froze for a moment as the ray of light illuminated the narrow hallway beyond. The passage was empty.
The only thing in the hallway was a single bundle of cable about as thick as my thumb which ran into the ceiling. The cords were color coded with yellow with a black stripes twisting down it. The last place I saw something like this was during a TV show on explosives.
I didn’t think about what I did next, I just acted. I rapidly removed the knife and cut the cord, then moved down the tunnel and cut it in a second location. A chalky powder fell from the ends where it was cut and covered my fingers.
Closing the door behind me I turned the flashlight app on my phone on and proceeded down the corridor. My heart raced as my steps seemed to echo into nothingness.
At some point I realized the tunnel was no longer silent. I clicked off the light and let my eyes and ears adjusts. A faint sound was echoing up the tunnel and its disconcerting cords caused me to fall to my knees grasping my ears. I am not sure how long I lay in fretful agony before I again felt the ticking of that great clock force me up and forward.
A flicker of light was coming from where the cave opened into a larger chamber. From this opening the sound flooded into the tunnel: the sound of chanting voices, singing in a language that should not come from human lips.
I crouched next to the wall of the cave peeking into the larger room. It was roughly circular with the far wall disappearing into darkness. The light was being generated by a ring of braziers at the center of the large room. Over two hundred feet of space was between myself and those fires. That space was filled with rows of chanting figures in dark robes.
I slunk along the outer wall, a dark shadow moving along dark rock. Each footstep shakily followed the next. My pulse was pounding in my ears so loudly I couldn’t here a freight train whistle if it blew behind me. But their song wouldn’t leave my head.
At any moment I expected a dark hood to turn, a black face with red eyes burning to stare into me, but none moved more than the rigid posture they maintained for their rite.
I found the second tunnel as I assumed I would, and again I saw the bundle of cables running along the wall. I reached into my jacket pocket to grab the knife, and found the pocket empty. I reached into the pocket on the other side and found my trinkets, and let them fall through my fingers back into the pocket. I was trying to figure out if I had lost the knife or put it into a different pocket when I saw a shadow move and felt and object slam into the back of my head. My nose bounced off the wall in front of me and I felt it break.
Hands grabbed me and I was dragged toward the center of the large room. Hanging with my head an inch off the floor all I saw was feet. Then the human feet stopped, and instead I saw legs with talons on them, crouched next to hands with claws covered with a black oily substance that glistened in the brazier’s flames.
The last thing I saw before being tossed onto the alter were the rows of freshly dismembered bodies over which I was carried moments before the rough hands laid me on the blood soaked stone, and cold claws grabbed my wrists and feet to hold me there.
A dark figure in a dark robe stood over me. In one arm he held a large book, and in the other I saw a curved knife.
I felt a burning down my arm and saw him raise the blade into the firelight. Then he did it again just above the previous spot. Each time he cut on the would “Ughultach” if such a word could be written in a human tongue.
“Ughultach” and my arm was cut.
Ughultach and my check was sliced.
“Ughultach” and the knife carved a river of blood in my chest. My blood flowed into the pools from those who had lain on this alter before me.
The chill of the creature’s cold grips were the only other things my body felt, and they held me like icy shackles.
The ever present tick of the clock had reviled itself as the swish of blood in some great inhuman vein. My mind felt the other enter it, appraise it, almost devour it. I felt its tentacles, incorporeal wisps the size of tree-trunks, flailing throughout the room– unformed yet moving the air as a tempest.
The chant reached a crescendo, and I felt the power surge. The priest threw his head back in exultant glee, and the world shook. The air compressed and there was a roar as clouds of dust and debris cascaded into the chamber. The dark cloudy mass knocked over those cultists nearest the entrances as rocks and concrete propelled by the wall of dust-filled-wind crashed into their ranks.
The power I felt had been thousands of people dying, feeding the hungry god with with lives, as explosives collapsed five large apartment complexes around Shanghai. Five apartment complexes, not six.
I felt the power waver like a car engine attempting to turn over, but not having enough electricity too. The force ebbed, and as the presence of the ancient being faded in rage, the room erupted in violence.
I looked up and the high priest threw his head back and raised the knife. As he did his hood fell about his shoulders. I gazed into the eyes, not of an stranger, but of my boss. The same eyes that had sat across the desk from me discussing the stupidity of human belief were now filled with hate as he was about to bring the knife down into my chest to revive an ancient god.
My life became clear in that one moment. He hadn’t been sending us out to disprove gods and belief, but to find those that held power to gain that one thing all megalomaniac’s want, immortality.
In one smooth, thoughtless, move I felt my hand find the small knife in the business card pocket where I accidentally left it. In a quick flip of my wrist I cut off the cold talon which held my arm. Then I drove the small blade clenched in my fist into my boss’s sternum. It priced the thick robe and bone, and I dragged it down cutting heart and vein, muscle, bone, and guts.
The sacrificial knife fell from his hand and as it fell I saw a blue flash over my chest, and I watched it slide sideways in the air as if it was roiling down a curved slope. The trinkets in my left hand felt hot to the touch. The knife sank its blade deep in the rock alter.
The priest flailed in death, and his arm knocked over a brazier. The last thing I saw was glowing ambers and then then black pain.
When I regained consciousness I saw the room as I see everything now, in a clear montage of life and death, powers and vacuums. I felt the objects in my pocket, and the knife in my hand. I felt the imps and cultists spilling each others blood in a mad frenzy.
I picked up the sacrificial dagger and cut the throat of an imp that lunged at me, then drove the small knife into the eye of the cult member who fallowed it. I was walking over squirming dying bodies, and cutting my way through the living ones. When I fell I bit the legs of those above me, and rose like a demon to slice arms, legs, throats and faces.
When I stepped into the light, exiting the same building I had entered less then three hours before, I saw the rings of police cars, experts disarming the explosives which had been built into the buildings supports, the thousands of little lives scurrying about, and I felt the dark god beneath the city longing for their blood, but displeased that it was of such low quality, the human spirit diluted by modernity.
The man enters the room stepping carefully over the papers. I recognize him as Counselor Lau.
“You’re trial has ended, and you have been found guilty. You and I, of course, know you are not,” he looked around the room, “but we both know that what was begun isn’t complet…”
His sentence was cut off first by my driving the pen into his thigh, and then as he bent over in pain I stood up and drove my teeth into his throat. I felt his ancient blood spill across my lips and splatter over the pages on the floor.
The earthquake destroyed only three locations, forming, if you had looked on the map, a triangle in the middle of the circle of apartments which had been demolished earlier. No prisoners survived from the jail, no staff or patients survived from the hospital, and no one emerged from the city morgue. When you look, China is one large source of blood for an ancient god.
I alone stood from the rubble. I hadn’t been the butcher of Shanghai, but there was still time.