|Disclaimer: The characters Xena and Lao Ma
are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are being
used without permission. No attempt is being made to profit from their
use. This story also contains sexual scenes, both heterosexual and
homosexual, and some minimal sexual violence. Commentary is invited.
Recent discoveries at Amphipolis of a manuscript of the Tao Te
Ching, with its cache of letters written in the same hand sewn into the
binding, has rocked the scientific world. Not only is this volume now
thought to be the original, (and the other ancient texts thought to be
copies made during the same period) but the letters by the same author
reveal that the great book of Taoism was composed by a woman, Lao Ma.
Moreover, the letters tie the philosophical issues of the Tao Te Ching
to historical events of the most personal and intimate nature. To add
fuel to an already blazing fire, the events described in the letters are
virtually identical to those of Scroll XG 145 unearthed by xenologists
in 1986 near Athens. The near identity of the two accounts offers
compelling evidence that the events described are historical. That one
account could have derived from the other is impossible. Not only is it
certain that Xena and Gabrielle could not read the letters, which are in
Chinese, it is probable that they never knew of their existence, since
they were found undisturbed within the bindings of the volume uncovered
These two accounts are here set down in juxtaposition. Here two
philosophies , Eastern passivity and Western aggressiveness challenge
each other and two lives intermingle, and we see the Yin and the Yang
turning in the extraordinary spirits of these two women.
Lao Ma seems to have begun the letters some years after Xena had
left her, when she realized that imprisonment and death were imminent.
The last letter was written in prison the day before her execution, and
smuggled out by an unknown member of her household.
The account in Scroll XG 145 is attributed to Gabrielle who
apparently set down Xena's reminiscences in the warrior's own words on
their journeys to and from China. It is to Gabrielle's credit that the
tone of the undisciplined "Xena of the Steppes" resonates
through the narration, even though it was the older wiser Xena who told
it. It is also a sign of her skill as a bard that she does not interject
her own feelings into the story, although it must have been difficult to
learn that Xena had so profoundly loved another woman.
Lastly, the appearance of Lao Ma in Xena's early life is revealed
to be not merelyone of the more exotic episodes during her 'dark years',
but a precursor of other later benign influences that would temper the
aggression of the famous woman warrior throughout her life. The
magnitude of Lao Ma's sacrifice cannot be underestimated, nor can the
influence Xena had on her. Xena, as it turns out, left her mark on the
Taoist religion as it left its mark on her.
Professor Elaine Sutherland
Department of Sinology, Stanford University
Here follow the two tales of:
Lao Ma's Kiss
It started when
Borias that sonofabitch threw me off his horse in the middle of a
good fuck and galloped off like a puppy to meet with the mighty
Laotse. He said that I would just mess up the negotiations. Well
piss on that I thought. He wasn't going to leave me like a concubine
while he went off to negotiate our fortunes. I grabbed my crutch and
stumbled over to get on my horse, the only place I felt whole. On
horseback I could ride and fight as good as any man, and I rode like
a demon and caught up with Borias at the yurt camp just as he was
meeting the ruler of Lao. I nearly fell off the horse again when I
saw it was a woman.
She stood in front of her litter
talking to him when I rode up. In the two years I had lived on the
steppes, I had learned the spoken language of the nomad tribesmen
and, like Borias, could converse with the Chinese as well. But she
spoke with a formality and a refinement I had never heard before
and, answering her, Borias sounded like the rough barbarian he was.
When she finally noticed me, and it took her long enough, she stared
at me with that expressionless face of hers, and then she said my
name. She had heard of me, and heard that I was dangerous. I liked
that. Being dangerous. She bowed slightly, but it was the polite bow
of a ruler. There was something very powerful behind that porcelain
face, and I hated it. I wanted to slap her face to make her show
emotion and then I wanted to kill her for catching Borias' interest.
When she left, I bowed my head the same way she did, just a little.
The first time I saw you, Xena, you were a wild woman,
galloping into the camp and jumping from the horse to the ground on
twisted legs . You were dressed in the felt and leather rags the nomads
wear for coats, the same thing they use to make their houses. When you
came limping towards us I saw at once how dangerous you were. Borias was
harmless in comparison; I almost pitied him. You were dangerous because
you were smart and ruthless, because you were a cripple and found pity
loathsome, and because you were beautiful. Very beautiful. You laughed
at my reference to Borias' honor which was the very basis for our
agreement, and thereby undermined any hope for an alliance. I looked
into eyes of a color I had never seen on any nomad or Chinese. I knew at
once why some of my soldiers had called you ghost, and demon. I looked
into those pools of ice as long as I dared and saw hunger and greatness,
and smoldering rage. At that moment everything I had planned for Borias
fell apart, ceased even to be interesting.
Do you remember our 'negotiations' in Borias' yurt? I flattered him,
and was the consummate diplomat. I admired his tattoo'd hands, his
jewelry, let him preen and think he was impressing me. The nomads are so
simple. You watched us from across the table, where you smoked opium and
although you scarcely spoke and only sulked, I felt your presence more
than his; I felt your interest and your pulsing hatred. You were angry
simply because you thought I wanted Borias, would perhaps give myself to
him that night. I told you that I didn't eat meat, but you did not grasp
what I meant. You were thinking in terms of hours, but the decisions of
that night would set off events that would echo through our lives,
change the kingdoms of Ming and Lao and bring catastrophe to both our
Borias brought me to the yurt where I was to spend the night before
leaving his camp the next morning. Perhaps you thought we intended
intimacy. Perhaps he thought so too. I was certain that you were lurking
somewhere outside and I felt you enter even before I turned and saw you
with your useless knives. You were a formidable fighter on horseback in
the field, but in close quarters you staggered pitifully, and of course
you did not expect my martial skills. I had no trouble throwing your
knives back at you, and it should have ended there. But you were in such
a fury that you persisted and I had to hurl you bodily out of the yurt.
It filled me with sadness to see you lying unconscious in the dirt, so
wild and beautiful and so out of control. When you came to I whispered
words that I knew you would not heed, but which I hoped you would
remember. I whispered the Tao to you, 'Empty yourself of desire and
understand the great mystery of things'. But the words rang hollow and
my first instruction to you was already compromised. For as I saw you
lying there, bloodied by my hands, I already felt the inklings of that I
thought I'd gotten free of. The moment I walked away from you, Borias
expelled you from the camp and the great disaster began to unfold.
I watched them cooing together
like two doves, Borias and that Chinese bitch and it drove my crazy.
The opium didn't help. It just made it harder to hear them and to
think of how I would kill her. I tried to scare her off by throwing
a knife at her hand as she reached toward the plate of meat, but she
just made one of her mysterious remarks. I couldn't bear to watch
her seduce him so I left. But just to get other knives.
I stepped into the yurt just as
she took off her earrings. I thought it would be easy; she looked so
delicate, like the groveling servants in the great houses of Chin.
But she caught my knives faster than I could see, and threw me into
the air. When I came to lying on the ground, she was staring at me
the same way she stared at me that morning with Borias. She
whispered some strange advice�that I should empty myself of desire
if I was to know the way, but all it did was make me angrier. Did
she really think she could teach me to not want anything after she
had just humiliated me? I was fed up with humiliation and would have
killed half of China to be free of it. Then, in case I thought
things could not get worse, she walked out on the treaty she had
made and Borias, who a few hours earlier that day had been between
my legs, threw me out of the camp. Well, if that was the way he
wanted it, so be it. I had my own plan anyhow, and it would bring
him, humbled, back to me.
Oh, Xena, was it merely bitterness and greed that drove you, in full
gallop back to Ming? We are wheels within wheels, and always turning.
That bit of avarice, that fit of will and rage of yours sealed all our
fates. To kidnap a child, MY child, and the heir of the House of Ming.
No folly would have been greater, no madness would have hastened your
ruin any faster.
It's true, you did not shed the child's blood, but still you injured
him. You taught him terror, and desperation, and it twisted him. He
would have been a harsh ruler, but you made him a monster. And after all
the havoc that you wreaked, you never touched a single coin of all that
ransom. The outcome of that ferocious will to power was what you dreaded
most, an alliance of your two great enemies, and your total denigration.
Kidnapping Ming Tien was a good
idea I thought, and I pulled it off without a problem. Gods, it was
the easiest thing I ever did. Ming Tzu had posted almost no guards
around him, the fool, and I yanked his princeling up into the saddle
with me and rode back into the hills. The boy never cried or spoke,
but he pissed himself for fear. There was no one else for me to talk
to, so I talked to him, and told him how to handle his enemies.
"Kill them", I said, "and make a show of it, so that
they learn to fear you. Kill them through your soldiers or your
executioners, or with your own hands, if you have to. But kill them
or, depend on it, they'll surely kill you". And I knicked him
on his little head with my knife so he'd remember. It was a perfect
job, no complications, and the ransom was delivered. It was a thing
And then Borias betrayed me. That
bastard handed me over to Ming Tzu like a pile of skins and left
with half the ransom. Ming Tzu wanted to make an example of me to
the boy, and had me beaten, but it was nothing more than I could
endure. In cruelty, Ming Tzu fell far short of his heir and I think
that even Ming Tien was a little disappointed. I had set a standard
of ruthlessness for him that he couldn't wait to practice. I could
see it burning in his eyes, all the time I was in captivity. I had
taught him well, and now I was the lesson. In contrast, Ming Tzu was
almost kind. For I slept those two nights in a dry stone cell rather
than in a sewer, and in the morning they clothed me for the hunt. It
was the ragged dress of the previous prey, a woman who they said
died far too quickly, and they hoped I would provide more lengthy
entertainment. It stank of dogs and death.
And so I was brought shivering to
the hunting grounds in a bamboo cage bound to a rumbling cart. Odd
the things you notice when you think you are about to die. It was a
cool morning but the sun was shining brightly and birds were
singing. It reminded me of childhood games in the woods, although
the trees in the land of Chin were different from the ones I knew.
Two men marched alongside the cart with bronze halberds, as if I
needed escort. Two others walked behind leading strings of hunting
dogs. I wondered which of the hounds would be the first to reach me,
and how long I could fight them off with my hands before they pulled
me down like a deer. The cart stopped and I gathered my courage and
my thoughts. But just as our woeful group prepared for the ultimate
bloodsport, Lao Ma's litter appeared. She stepped out and came
towards us, to give the boy something which he threw back at her.
Since I was, I thought, about to be torn apart by dogs, I wasn't
paying much attention. But in that red coat � the Chinese color of
good fortune -- she stood out against the woods like a flame. For a
brief moment, when she looked back at me, I almost thought I felt
* * * * *
It was no accident that my retinue crossed the path of
Ming Tzu. I was there not only to see Ming Tien, but having heard of
your capture, I had resolved to rescue you. How I rejoiced to see you in
the cage. Not from hate or bitterness, my darling, but because I saw it
as the end of Xena of the Steppes. I could take you now, and guide you
on your first steps toward the Tao. Ming Tzu, the fool, thought you were
his, just because he had you caged, but the truth was that you were
mine. You had only to endure the chase, to stay ahead of the dogs long
enough for me to reach the other side of the wood where you could fall
into the safety of my arms. Forgive me my brief distraction, speaking to
my son. I knew I had lost him, but I sought to keep the thread which
tied us still together. But it was too weak and it unraveled, if not
there on the road, then soon thereafter .
I heard the dogs and saw the dark spot they pursued, wavering,
flickering through the trees. You kept falling and I feared for you, and
each time I willed you to stand up again. And then you finally came to
me, falling prostrate at my feet. Ironic. You lay in the dust, on your
failed legs and in your prison rags, yet it was you who were struggling
toward greatness, while I was soon to fall. If I was your rescuer, you
would finally be my ruin. I dared not touch you then, you were so
suspicious of my motives. But oh, I wanted to.
I thought it was the end. I ran
first with the stick and then I lost it and ran on, staggering on my
aching crooked legs. I cursed Borias, and Ming Tzu, and every living
thing that thrived while I fled from my tormentors. "I'll kill
them all," I thought even then, even running for my life. I
fled from the hunters, but slowly grasped that I was also running
toward something in the distance. I stumbled and fell, and staggered
again toward the spot that pulled me, and finally fell again. I felt
the hound's hot breath on my heel, and I knew I would not get up
again. My last thought was�..nothing. I had no last thought, and
so when I saw her feet in front of me, and the hem of her red coat,
her image filled up my consciousness, like water flowing into an
She quieted the dogs and helped
me to my feet and when I could speak again I asked her why. I
thought it was a trick, that someone had devised an even crueler
kind of punishment, but she said she could see into my soul and she
saw greatness. She seemed to always speak in mysteries.
She brought me to the house of
Lao and hid me in the inner court in the pool. I crouched there in
the water until we heard them coming and then I sank down under the
surface. The court was dark and I was safe from their eyes but my
life depended on Lao Ma getting them away in less than a minute. The
minute passed and I opened my eyes watching for her signal but gods,
it never came. I was at my limit and I heard a roaring in my ears.
Then I saw her face in the water and I grasped what she intended. To
give me a single breath of air. One small breath to keep me safe for
half a minute longer. I turned my face to her and felt her lips. It
took a second for both of us to realize that I had to breathe out
first, before I could breathe in, and when I had, she pressed her
mouth to mine again and gave me the air of her lungs. So strange to
take that little bit of life from her. It was more intimate than
anything I had ever done.
They were only a minute behind us and I hid you the only place I
could think of, in my pool. In the candle lit room the dark surface of
the water was opaque, and you were well hidden. But Ming Tzu had to
speak his piece, and add an afterthought, and it was the afterthought
that almost killed you. I plunged my face into the water hoping to find
your mouth, but you found mine. Your lungs were full of useless air and
when it bubbled out, I covered your lips again and gave you my own
breath. At that moment we were yin and yang, the force and the yielding,
breathing together. Only our two mouths touched but I felt you to the
core as I pressed air into your lungs, air that had already been in my
heart and in my blood. There was life in it and you sucked it into you
in our first urgent kiss. It was a kiss that cost me dearly. For as I
gave you breath, my darling, it was at the sacrifice of my own
* * * * *
It was enough. I
watched, and when she turned her head again I came sputtering up for
air and she smiled at me. She kept me in the pool even after Ming
was gone, but took my ragged clothing off. I must have been filthy,
especially by her standards, after sleeping in a jail cell and then
crawling through the woods. When I was naked she washed me and
poured water through my hair. "Nothing is as soft as
water," she murmured to me, in her lovely deep voice, "yet
who can withstand the raging flood". She dried me with her own
hands and dressed me in silk. I had seen such silk on the Chinese
nobles but never felt it on my body. It was like being dressed in a
breath of air, and I sat before her speechless while she combed my
hair. She combed it smooth and bound it back in a sort of tail in
the style of the Chinese women, and fixed it in place with carved
wooden hairpins. It was her attempt to civilize me.
But I didn't want to be
civilized. I had vengeance to wreak.
I was free again and had only one
thought -- to get back to Ming and cut his arrogant head off. But,
inexplicably, she delayed me. She had her reasons for saving me and
I was faintly interested in finding out what they were I could hold
off butchering Ming Tzu for a few days, or a week. I owed her that.
A weight was lifted off us when Ming Tzu was gone. When he came back
-- which of course he would do -- he would not recognize you. He sought
a wild woman of the steppes, but he would see only the delicate
deferential women of my household. You were skittish as a deer at first,
but as the days passed your manner softened at least outwardly, and your
patience grew. You held my glance more, and you let me show you things.
First I showed you silk, which you had never worn. You were suspicious
of it, as if its softness and transparency would somehow weaken you. But
then you grew to like it and I certainly liked to see you in it. I set
about refining you in other ways. I tamed your wild hair and oiled your
skin. Your sharp western features fascinated me, and when I colored them
with our pigments, a face emerged that was neither nomad nor Chinese but
something thrilling and foreign -- and full of expression. Every emotion
sprang into your face, in the raising of an eyebrow, the curling of your
lips, a sideways glance. Incapable of concealment, or even subtlety,
your feelings seemed to rule you. I could read you like a page of text.
Now Xena is suspicious, now she is angered, now curious, now amused. It
was scarcely necessary to converse with you; your thoughts were already
on your face.
* * * * *
And so I let her
pamper me and paint me like a doll. No woman had touched me that
way, not since my mother, and I barely remembered that.
She knew exactly how to handle
me. If she had restricted me the slightest bit, had locked the door
or put a guard on me, I'd have gone in the blink of an eye. But she
let me wander the palace and the gardens, showed me to the household
as her "honored guest", and so I was held there by a sense
of obligation--a sense that I didn't recall ever even having before.
But I was not so obliged that I always stayed within her reach. On
the second day I discovered the stables, and the stable boy Liu
Ling. With Lao Ma's grudging permission, he showed me the finest
horses and I chose a favorite, the roan stallion, Tai Feng. I rode
him most evenings through the fields and woods of her land. I rode
to the border with the Kingdom of Ming-- but did not cross it. It
was both a way to feed my hatred of Ming Tzu and a way to test my
patience. I knew he was over there, and I knew I would one day send
him to his ancestors. It was a kind of comfort. I also knew that if
I did not train and keep myself strong, Lao Ma's would 'gentle' me
to my death. So I rode to the woods often where Ming Tzu's dogs had
hunted me and, seething in the memory of it, I practiced leaps and
fighting moves until I was exhausted.
When the sun was fully down and
the sky dark I returned, as lathered as the horse. I handed Tai Feng
over to Liu Ling, who cared for him, and after scrubbing down in Lao
Ma's bath, I went for another civilized supper with her.
Their daily drink was tea, but
they also had beer and a kind of liquor far stronger than the
fermented mare's milk of the nomads. The Chinese foods were also new
and pleasing to my taste, after two seasons of the nomads' mutton,
goat and kasha. They were spiced in ways I had never tasted before,
with cinnamon and pepper and a wonderful thing called ginger. The
food was cut into little pieces that barely need chewing, but you
were required to pick them up with little eating sticks. I did not
get to eat much for the longest time.
Oh, Xena, do you recall our first proper meal together, on the
covered terrace? I remember it distinctly, and with great fondness. You
had been riding and your face, which you had just washed, was flush from
the exertion. When night fell it began to rain and the sound of it on
the garden was soothing as we sat down to eat. You were clumsy with the
chopsticks, but I forbade you to eat with your fingers, which even
Chinese children do not do. Your solution was to try to pick up the food
with your knife, which I had to sternly pry out of your hand. I expect I
was the only person who had ever wrested a knife away from you and lived
to tell of it. With a look first of astonishment and then petulance you
accused me of starving you to death. I took up the game and fed you from
my bowl, piece by piece, with my own chopsticks. Leaning close to you I
placed the chopsticks in your mouth, with fish, or rice balls, or with
ginger, and you licked off every morsel. And then I ate from them
myself, wondering how much of you was still on them. It must have been
our favorite game, for it was many days before you learned to feed
yourself, and by then the women of the household had decided you were
* * * * * *
For all the
dressing up in silk and all the table games, I did not forget I was
a fighter. A fighter with a plan, or the beginnings of a plan. I
thought I might stay around awhile, gathering my strength, finding
out who could be bribed, how horses could be stolen and what weapons
could be used, to make another fighting force. I had a lot of
retribution to extract. But I could bide my time. There was no
hurry. I would wait, and learn. In the mean time, the Kingdom of
Lao, and the Land of Chin, and Lao Ma herself fascinated me.
I had traveled
many places by then, from village to the pirate seas and to the
harsh steppes of the nomad, but I had never been in a palace. The
floors were polished wood, the rooms spacious and stark and the
doorways, which their science allowed them to build circular, were
patterned and wide enough for ranks of soldiers. There were broad
covered terraces on both sides of the palace, overlooking gardens.
Her favorite, where we often sat, was on the south, facing a gnarled
With its stables and gardens, and
its army of servants, it was somewhat like the household of a
Grecian king, with a notable exception. The highest males in the
household staff were castrated. Eunuchs she called them, and at
first I laughed, but then I saw that they were men to be taken
seriously. They were scribes, and guards, and emissaries and
household managers and were in many positions of authority, in spite
of their sometimes odd appearances and unnatural voices. One of them
Zheng Ha, was her chamberlain and often at her side. He had a soft
voice and a soft body, and walked in a way no man should walk. I
detested him at first, and thought of him as only half a man. I
rarely spoke to him, and found it distasteful that such a man should
be allowed to lurk about the household.
You expressed contempt for Zheng Ha for his softness and
subservience, until I told you he had authority over all the household
and was answerable only to me. His docility was born of wisdom, of the
knowledge that at court passivity often meant longevity. He had served
me a very long time, and I trusted him with my life. I tried so long to
teach you that such yielding could also be a source of power. But
hardness was in your manner and being, Xena, and it showed in your every
Do you remember our little game of smashing bottles on the terrace?
The morning sun poured in from the east, filling the room with promise
and you had been of late so awestruck by everything it quieted you and I
thought it was time to show you what quietude could do. You thought I
broke the bottle by sheer force of will, by my own violence. But it was
the opposite. It was the kiung, the emptiness I created around
the bottle that caused it to shatter from itself, from its own energy.
"Teach me that" you said, with such bloodlust, I almost
laughed. You threw your will at the object with such ferocity, it was
like a battle. You were still always at war.
"The world is driven by will" I said, and I admonished you,
"Stop willing, desiring, hating. To conquer others is to have
power. To conquer yourself is to know the Tao."
But it was too soon. You could not draw back yet, and quiet your
will. There were times when you willed so furiously that I could sense
your whereabouts in the house. Your will prowled with you, rumbling like
a tiger, voracious. I felt it and it consumed my peace, but it also
inspired my verse. Watching you and your errors, I learned to understand
the world, and I wrote in my Great Book:
The sky is everlasting, and the earth is very old.
Why? Because the world exists not for itself.
The wise one chooses to be last, and so becomes the first of all;
Denying self, the wise one finds fulfillment in unselfishness.
I said it to you too, but it was so long, so very long, before you
seemed to hear.
Yield, she kept saying. It is the
yielding and the giving up of will which would be my salvation, but
yielding was simply not in my nature. There was far too much I
wanted, needed. I said I'd rather die, and she answered, cruelly,
"You've been dead for a while now". But she was wrong. She
had no idea how alive she made me feel when she stood close to me.
How exquisitely aware I was of her in the morning sunshine. She
smelled of sandalwood and of the mint we both had drunk that
morning. Her Asian eyes were deep and dark and she held secrets
behind those lids. I wanted to reach out and touch them, but since
the day she had breathed a little of her life into me, she had not
touched me, and so I didn't dare. But I think she knew something of
my thoughts, of the urges, which simmered beneath the surface.
Sometimes out of nowhere in a quiet room, she looked over at me with
an expression of weariness and gently said, "Xena, you must
learn the meaning of no."
Yielding and emptiness were the
themes of her life, and they showed up even in the names she gave
things. There was a cat, long-haired and sleek, that had the run of
the house. Lao Ma called it 'Kiung' or 'emptiness'. She never asked
its whereabouts or made a fuss over it, or even seem to notice its
presence in the room, but she stroked it absentmindedly whenever it
came near. It seemed to be her attitude toward all things, to take
them as they came, to let the forces of nature move around her with
neither attraction nor aversion. And the cat itself seemed to embody
the peace she always spoke of, always finding the spot of sunlight
in a room, or dozing in the garden.
And so the days passed and in the
harmony of her house and of her presence I did learn a sort of
superficial quiet, if not passivity. I watched her wield a kind of
power I had never seen before. With deceptive lightness she issued
orders, ran the household together with Zheng Ha, ran the kingdom,
in the name of Laotse, and in spite of her softness, her authority
remained unquestioned. I saw them often in consultation. She walked
gracefully along the corridors or the terrace and spoke softly; he
matched her steps, his hands clasped behind his back, nodding his
head in agreement or shaking it in dissent. She clearly valued his
opinion and his presence seemed to make the absence of her husband
I saw him finally, at a distance,
sitting at the other end of the garden. Zheng Ha stood at his side
and seemed to be in conversation with him. But Laotse did not move,
and if he spoke it was without gesture or animation. I thought I
smelled conspiracy. Zheng Ha as a spy for Laotse, perhaps? I would
soon find out.
* * * * *
You had been there for a cycle of the a moon and the
day finally came when I trusted you enough to take you to Laotse. To
show you that one could rule a kingdom and still follow the Way. I
brought you to his quarters where he lay, immobilized, in his silken
finery, as befitted a king and sage. His ancestors had made him a king
but it was I who had made him a sage.
"How do you manage to fool the whole household?" you asked.
I told you that Zheng Ha helped me to carry out the ruse. He carried
Laotse to the garden from time to time where he could be seen, and the
'orders' Zheng Ha carried out in the palace were ostensibly from his
master, not from me. And thus, with the help of a comatose man and a
eunuch, I ruled a kingdom.
You were pleased that I controlled the Kingdom of Lao, but could not
fathom why I had done every thing in his name. Especially when I showed
you my book of musings, HIS book the world would think, the Tao Te
Ching You were horrified that I was willing to credit my wisdom to
Laotse. I told you, and as I said it, it wrote it down:
The sage teaches not by speech, but by accomplishment
And what the wise one brings to pass
Depends on no one else.
Succeeding, the wise one takes no credit
And since credit is not taken
It can never be lost.
Fame is the sparkle on the surface of the water that lasts only as
long as the sun is in a certain place. When the light moves, as it
always does, all that is left is the water. You must be the water, still
You seemed surprised to learn that Ming Tien was my child. As
if that meant anything. He had my flesh and blood, but none of my
spirit. The ties of blood, it seems, are no less fragile than any
others. I do not know if you will ever have a son, Xena. If you do, I
hope you will let him go his own way. But you had not behaved well with
children and I could not imagine you as anyone's mother. And so we
dropped the subject.
You were far more interested in what I wrote in my book, and so I sat
you down with me later that day with brush and ink and tried to teach
you the characters for fire, water, and wood. 'Fire' I painted and you
proudly painted 'fire'. 'Water' I painted, and you painted 'wood'.
'Wood' I painted, and you dutifully copied 'wood'. 'Water' I painted
again, and again you painted 'wood'. It seems you had the fire and the
hardness in your skill, but you could not learn the character of
* * * * * *
But you were learning to listen. I recall vividly the
afternoon we sat in the garden and I told you how I had learned the Tao.
How I had been sent as a courtesan at the age of 15 to the court of Ming
Tzu and thus fell into his hands. It took me years to learn the art of
withdrawal from him. Withdrawal, not from his hands, but from caring
about his hands. I grew from fear and loathing to indifference and by
the time he sold me to be the bride of the aging and cruel Laotse I had
both born him a son and forgiven him everything. I was at peace with the
flow of things, and acted only when it seemed the harmony would be
greater for it. That was the hardest for you to grasp, that I held power
not because I wanted it. When I learned pressure points and used the
skill to render Laotse comatose, it was not to steal and enjoy his
sovereignty, but to bring his kingdom back into balance and 'rightness'
from the disruptions his cruelty had caused.
While I spoke of peace and the flow of things, do you recall you
traced your finger around the embroidered pattern on my robe where it
lay over my ankles? I found your touch provocative, but I could not
bring myself to brush your hand away. Besides, you seemed to make a
point. You asked why a woman's robe would be embroidered with bats. I
explained that the word for bat was "pian fu" and the
spoken word "fu" was also the word for good fortune,
and was thought lucky as a symbol. You replied that bats were creatures
of darkness and did I think to find good fortune in the dark? We both
laughed then, but there was a germ of truth in your remark. You knew I
sat in candle lit rooms writing verse while you lived outdoors, and
chased the setting sun on horseback. Sometimes it seemed you were all
light and I was all shadow.
You were a difficult student for you asked disturbing questions with
your foreign ideas. You asked me whether the Tao left room for love and
I answered that where love was craving it was not the Way. Your reply
"I think you have found peace, Lao Ma, but never passion."
"Passion, that western disease", I said disdainfully.
"That longing and wringing of hands is an illusion created by your
culture, not by mine."
"Have you never loved anyone?"
All I could do was repeat myself. "The love you speak of is an
You insisted with your barbarian simplicity "Love is as real as
this tree", and you laid your hand on the wood. I had no answer for
you and to escape you, fell to writing again.
* * * * * *
I often watched Lao Ma writing her verses but the images in
which she wrote them were a great mystery to me. These people have
no alphabet! They paint with bamboo brushes and make jagged little
splashes in the shapes of houses or stick figures, with wings and
feet. The little splashes form a pattern, and the pattern is a word,
or part of a word. And the scribes paint the patterns in a row, from
top to bottom, in lines that cross the page from right to left like
flowering vines hanging down a wall. They make an art of it, writing
their poems on pictures, and they care as much about appearances as
about the thought. I tried to learn a few of the brush pictures,
just to please her, but always made a mess of it.
I wanted to make a gift to her and so I went one morning with
a brush and ink to the garden, to practice the word pictures. I
remember the way the sunlight fell on the side of my face and warmed
me as I sat in our favorite place between the quince trees. I
practiced diligently, laboring to make the character for water, with
delicate sideways flicks of the brush instead of the hard downward
strokes. In a way it was her character I painted, or tried to paint.
I hoped Lao Ma would come to me and read her latest verses, or write
them, or simply talk, but the only creature to join me was the cat
Kiung. She came out regally from beneath a flowering bush and petals
stuck to her furry head and shoulders as she did a long cat-stretch
and then tiptoed toward me like a maiden garlanded for spring. She
groomed herself with concentration and then curled up next to me,
adding another layer of peace to the already quiet grove. But if the
garden was peaceful, my mind was not. I had thought most of the
night about what Lao Ma had said and felt torn between the two ways
of thinking. She seemed so at peace, her kingdom prosperous and
cultured � surely that was a worthy way of life. Why was it so
difficult for me to give up struggling? What was I struggling
I heard a sound behind me and spun around. Had I been carrying
a weapon the fool who stood there might have forfeited his life. But
it was just the eunuch Zheng Ha, carrying the bamboo scrolls of the
household accounts. He bowed politely, looked over at the scroll on
which I had made an inky mess and spoke in his womanly voice.
"I see the Lady Xena practices our writing. You honor us.
Will you allow me to show you an easier way to apply the ink?"
I nodded, distrustful, and handed him the brush. "You
simply have too much ink to start," he said. "And if you
create the character from top to bottom and from right to left, the
strokes will not run together. Here, try it again", and he gave
me a nearly dry brush. To my surprise, a decent character for
'water' appeared. Then with his assistance I wrote 'earth' and
'heaven' 'man' and 'woman'. I was very pleased with myself.
"Show me the character for 'Tao', I said.
"Ah, yes. Lao Ma would like that, if you learned to write
'The Way'. But it is not difficult if you remember that it is an
image of simplest life in simplest motion. Look, here is the
cow." The brush traced out a vertical oblong shape, and two
diagonal lines within. "Here are the head and horns".
(Well, it looked to me like a roof with broken chimneys.) "And
here on the left is the stroke for movement". He painted an L
shape with a long curved foot. "You see, it is just the essence
of things, a beast walking along a curving path."
"What a strange people are the Chinese", I said.
"They can't even write a simple word without making a
philosophy out of it!". But his instruction had made the
character come to life and in fact, I copied it accurately.
"Splendid" Zheng Ha said. "Now you grasp the
Tao!" Then he added, "I would not venture to write your
"Oh, then you know who I am".
"I know only what Lao Ma trusts to tell me. She has told
me of your origin, but she has not told me why you are so restless
and angry -- and bitter."
"How do you know about my feelings? Have you been
"Not in the way you mean. Not secretly, or with a bad
intent. I know you are important to Lao Ma. What is important to Lao
Ma is important to her chief servant."
"Well, I am restless from being in this quiet house. And
I am angry because of my infirmity. I sense people watching me as I
limp and smiling at me behind my back or worse, pitying me. I am
bitter because of the harm done to my legs, to me, when I was
"I doubt that people laugh more at you than they do at
me. But harm was done to me as well, when I was just a boy of ten.
If I dwelled on that I would be mad. But you can accept your
situation, not out of weakness but out of �.common sense. You can
turn with it, as a fighter turns with a blow to the body, absorb the
force and let it become part of the motion of your life. I have used
my own...deficiency in such a way. I do not have a wife or children,
but I have the House of Lao, and the trust of Lao Ma, and I have
brought myself far from the village of my ancestors. "
"I've heard you're all conspirators."
He smiled. "Well, perhaps it's true. But conspiracies are
treacherous only if you are not part of them. But the current
conspiracy concerns your rescue and redemption. I believe that makes
you a co-conspirator, does it not?"
I found myself smiling as well. "Well then you can end
your conspiracy now. I needed to be rescued from Ming Tzu and that's
done now. Redemption is not called for."
"Perhaps Lao Ma feels that your spirit needs rescue too.
Why don't you give it to her for a while. Let her lighten your
burden. It is clear that you love Lao Ma. I see the way you look at
her. No one in the house would dare look at her that way. I don't
know why she permits it. Perhaps she wants your love and has great
hopes for it."
We spoke much longer sitting there in the garden, with Kiung
dozing in the sun. I do not remember all of what we said, but I
remember how the conversation ended. Zheng Ha said that I should
stay a while, listen to Lao Ma's message and learn "to walk a
different way". When I had gotten from her what she wanted to
give me, I should go back to my own land.
Home? Back to Greece, on my twisted legs? I had not thought of
Amphipolis for two years. And I was certain that it never thought of
Zheng Ha walked away, as gracefully as the cat which followed
him, and I was left alone again wrestling with my thoughts.
* * * * * *
It was midday by then and still Lao Ma had not
come to the garden. I became drowsy from the warmth and, tired of
wrestling with my thoughts I laid my head back on my arm. My eyes
wandered across the sky and over to the wooden gateway where Kiung
often perched. I noticed a fringe of her long fur waving gently in
the faint breeze. Of course, I thought to myself, she leaves bits of
her luxurious fur on every pillow in the house, why not in the
garden as well? I was about to shut my eyes when I noticed a bird
light on the gate. It hopped along the wood gathering the fringe of
delicate cat hairs in its beak and then fluttered off into a tree to
line its nest with the fur of its mortal enemy. And its chicks would
be warmed by the coat of the cat that might one day devour them.
Perhaps that's what Lao Ma meant by the circularity of things. I sat
up again, pleased with my new wisdom, and saw more cat hair on the
grass. She has beauty enough to spare, I thought, and she leaves it
everywhere. So did Lao Ma. Suddenly I wanted to be with her and I
roused myself to go and look for her. I found her working miracles.
She was in the court yard where a mule drawn wagon led by a
young man had pulled up before the door. An old woman was lying in
it, coughing weakly with a sickness of the lungs Lao Ma pulled her
to a sitting position and laid her hands on the woman's back, barely
touching her. Over and over again she moved her hands over the
stooping back, speaking murmurs of assurance. Gradually the woman
seemed to straighten up a little, and her breathing was less
labored. Finally she coughed a few wet and noisy coughs, and took a
deep clear breath. Then without a word she climbed off the wagon,
bowed politely and then left the courtyard with the mule, the wagon
and the boy.
Then a man burnt on one side of his face and shoulder, hobbled
over carrying a whimpering shivering child who was also burnt. Lao
Ma took the child and held him, stroking her hand over the injured
side of his body without touching it. She kissed the child's
forehead and murmured to him. The change was faint at first, and
only the blisters seemed to shrink. But then I saw that the redness
also began to fade and when the child stopped whimpering she handed
him back to his father. The father, himself clearly in pain, bowed
gratefully, and asked if she could heal him too. But she only
touched him delicately on the shoulder and told him to keep himself
clean so the wounds could close, for she could not help him further.
When they went out of the court yard I asked her, "How do you
decide who to heal? Do you only heal the worthy?" Her answer
surprised me, and after what I had just seen, I wasn't sure I
"No, I cannot heal everyone. Only those who have half
healed themselves, who are in harmony and balance. Those I can bring
along the path a little further. The father could not be healed by
me. He was bitter and desperate because he had lost his wife, and
soon he will sell the child because he cannot work. But the child
himself was at peace, not knowing the problems that lie ahead, and I
could bring him back to himself."
My next question was the obvious one. "Will you heal my
"You mean you won't".
"No. I cannot. You are not ready. Too much in you is
broken and twisted with anger."
"When will I be ready?"
"I don't know."
* * * * *
That evening I
went riding furious with frustration on the stallion Tai Feng. There
was a bright moon to light the road and so I rode late into the
night, not returning for the evening meal. On Tai Feng I felt
powerful and I was sorely tempted to keep on riding. I could easily
have killed a farmer and taken all I needed for provender, and
killed a soldier for weapons. And while I was killing, I could
settle matters with Ming Tzu, and then ride back to the steppes.
Nothing to stop me. Nothing. Only a woman who spoke in mysteries.
The thought of her drained me of
my murderous intent and slowly brought me to a halt. With a vague
and haunting sense that there was unfinished business, I turned the
horse around and rode back to the palace.
When I returned, I heard sounds
in the stable. I dismounted outside, slipped in and saw by the light
of a lantern Liu Ling with one of the servant girls. She sat on a
sack of oats, straddling him as he leaned between her legs and
thrust grunting into her. She faced me but her eyes were closed and
what I had heard were her cries of pleasure. I watched for several
minutes and remembered Borias, and as much as I hated him, I craved
him urgently then, recalling us together on the back of his horse. I
left the young lovers uninterrupted and crept into the house and
into my bed. I fell asleep hating my loneliness, hating Lao Ma for
somehow being responsible for it. I dreamt, of course, of sex, not
out on the steppes, but under water. My lover thrusting into me, but
not Borias. Someone in silk.
* * * * * *
There was so much to show you. You tried to conceal it, but I could
see that you were awestruck by the Kingdom of Lao. Your life had been so
chaotic, you had had no leisure and probably never cared to see how a
state is organized. You had hunted, or herded, or stolen all your life
and had not even grasped the necessity of rice and grain fields to feed
a people. But you were much amused by the silkworm farms where the
larvae are cultivated and the silk thread unwound and you poked at the
larvae with your finger. You were more impressed, as you should have
been by the foundry, in which we poured molten iron into wet sand molds
to create pots and other objects. Cast iron we called it, and you said
it was unknown to the Greeks, who used bronze for almost everything. But
your face really shone as you watched the blades being hammered in the
forge. It was a harder kind of iron than the west had, and it held a
sharp edge longer than the blades you had. The blatant hunger on your
face, I knew, was not for all our handsome iron pots and shovels, but
for an arsenal of good Chinese steel. I would have given you such a
blade as a gift if I was not certain you would soon use it on some poor
On another day I took you north. We stopped halfway to our goal so
that I could show you our jails, less hideous places in Lao than
elsewhere. In the name of benevolent Laotse I had ordered them kept dry,
had abolished execution by torture and the severing of hands and feet
for theft. You seemed less impressed by this than appalled by the
cangues, the wooden yokes which the criminals had worn, on which their
crimes were inscribed. I assured you that these too had been abolished
in Lao, but for some reason you could not take your eyes from them.
When the days were warm and
bright, Lao Ma showed me around the Kingdom of Lao. She was proud of
her land and people and had such hopes for them. For the shorter
trips, such as to the grain fields, I walked with the other women
alongside of her palanquin. But with my crippled gait we could not
go far or fast, nor could I easily speak to her, so for the longer
trips, we both rode mounted. Her status as a ruler's wife required
an escort of cavalrymen which would not have bothered me. But they
carried halberds and these reminded me uncomfortably of the armed
escort to my almost execution in the nearby woods. It was another
one of the vicious little circles that life seemed to be full of.
She showed me the industry of her
kingdom, on the eastern side the silk farm with its mulberry groves,
and the village of silk weavers. On the western side, the stone
cutters and the foundry, where I saw a new kind of iron, heated in
blast furnaces and hammered into axeblades and swords. Such blades
were harder and finer than any I had ever seen, even in Greece, and
I was determined to have one, no matter what it took.
But in the north, most impressive
of all, was the seemingly endless Great Wall. Even from a great
distance, we could see it snake along the hilltops. As we came up
close, its design and its workings became clear. Brick towers or
command posts within sight of one another were connected by
earthworks as high as an arrow could reach. Mail was delivered to
and from the command posts, and records kept. There were well
secured gates where guards inspected passports and monitored traffic
in both directions for contraband. I laughed when Lao Ma told me the
wall was being built to keep out people like Borias and me, since we
had lived on land much farther west of there, and had never seen the
wall. On schedule or in an
emergency, the towers exchanged signals with smoke and colored
flags. The watch towers had several stories, the top ones designed
for watching enemy movements and the lower ones for storing food or
military equipment. Some parts of the towers were devoted to the
manufacture of arrows for the soldiers or bricks for maintenance of
the wall, or for the keeping of guard dogs. In the dead of winter,
she told me, conscripts or released prisoners were sent for garrison
duty, but in warmer weather mostly it was veterans and mercenaries,
paid by taxes or payments of those who bought themselves free from
military service. Such complicated organization, but it all made
sense, I guess.
We climbed to the top and looked
out over the vast panorama of China. The day was clear except for
distant thunderclouds, a blue-gray horizontal hovering over the
green expanse. Lines of geese flew across the landscape, like a
Chinese poem painted on the sky. Lao Ma stood slightly in front of
me in her red coat and fur rimmed red cap. She pointed out the
Kingdoms of Lao and Ming, and the other principalities farther off,
and then she turned around to face me. The wind had reddened her
cheeks slightly and blown stray hairs out from under her cap. After
a moment I felt her finger tips touch mine and she said, "Stay
with me, Xena. Be my warrior princess and rule this land with
me." I looked at the land of Chin over her shoulder and then at
her. She was China and China was Lao Ma. For long moments I looked,
and wavered. And then I told her to stand behind me so that I could
see the land without seeing her, without being tempted. Because the
beauty of them together was too much and I feared losing myself to
the mystery in both of them, and never going home.
* * * * * *
We might have gone on for years in such indecision,
wrestling for each other's souls. You would not surrender to me, but you
would not leave me either, although by then it would have been easy
enough, on Tai Feng or one of the other horses. But fate sometimes turns
on a pin, or on a roll of the dice.
It was another rainy day, and we sat on the terrace because we could
not go into the garden. I loved the rain but you did not. You said it
reminded you of too many freezing days on the steppes, of sopping felt
and mud-caked boots. But watching the water flow in rivulets from the
roofs to gather in pools in the garden made me pensive and on those days
I often wrote in my Great Book. On this day too you sat by my side
watching me as I dipped the brush in the ink and jotted out the verse. I
loved to recite it to you, and you said you enjoyed hearing it, although
I knew it was more the sound that moved you than the sentiment. But for
me the words were critical, for they held my world together.
Nameless indeed is the source of creation
The secret waits for the insight
Of eyes unclouded by longing;
Those who are bound by desire
See only outlines and illusions.
I would like to have stopped time and sat with you there forever.
Writing verse while you were near me and watching the spring rain, with
'eyes unclouded by longing'. It was the closest we ever came to being at
peace together. But the demons in you would not rest for long, and soon
they emerged again.
* * * * *
I watched her
write her wisdom and I thought, this woman does not recite epics
before an audience, like the Greeks , but in her own way she is a
bard. There is a common thread that ties them all together -- the
ones who think and write. If any are to be cherished and trusted it
is these, the caretakers of the language and history, and our best
I admired her, and loved watching
her, but as the afternoon wore on I became bored.
"Lets play a game of
dice" I suggested, innocently, "and make a wager".
She laughed softly. "What have you to risk, Xena? Everything
you have is mine already. And for my part, there is nothing I have I
wouldn't give you anyhow. What is there to wager?"
It doesn't have to be for
objects. We can wager service. If you win I will hunt a tiger for
you. Or steal horses from your enemies. Or steal your enemies and
bring them captive".
"Xena, that's what got you
into trouble in the first place, if you recall."
I shrugged, and you suggested
that we simply wager service. The loser had to accept the demand of
the winner, regardless of how distasteful. I agreed to the terms and
rolled the dice.
I had forgotten that she could
control objects. What a fool I was. It must have been child's play
for her that day.
So I asked, innocently,
"What service do you demand? The tiger? Or the horses?"
Her answer sent shivers down my
"My demand is that you stop
hating for one afternoon and serve Ming Tzu."
" I had thought more of
something personal, like washing your feet."
"My feet do not need
washing, but that your anger needed resting".
Well, I was the one who suggested
the wager in the first place, so I consented.
The next day he came, and I did
serve him although I despised him. But for a brief time I stopped
caring, and looking down at him from behind I simply saw a man
ruling his kingdom by his best judgment and trying to teach his
child how to do the same. I saw his flaws, the loose threads on his
silk coat, the gray hair in his pigtail, his constant correction of
the child. It allowed me to stand just inches from him with a sharp
knife and not plunge it into him, in spite of his insults. This
feeling passed, as soon as he was gone, and once again I recalled a
sadistic man who had hunted me for sport. Still, for a brief period,
I had held my hand and kept my will in check. Lao Ma was proud of
me, and so pleased with her first victory that she decided to reward
She said: "I watched you
struggle with yourself, but the softness, the quiet won out. Even if
it was only because you lost the gamble, you served him. What would
you have demanded of me if you had won? To serve you? I will do it,
whatever you ask. I am not afraid of service, or of giving you any
gift you might ask for." She was clearly not prepared for my
"I would have demanded that
you lie with me."
I recall she stood some distance
from me, fearing to come closer, or even look at me. She just stared
in the direction of the setting sun and answered, "That is an
odd thing to demand".
"Why is it odd?" I
asked. I remember the entire conversation. I can hear the trembling
in her voice even now.
"That you should want a
woman. You belonged to Borias."
"That was different. Very
"A thousand ways."
She still would not look at me.
"I've never been with a
woman. In my heart I have never even really been with a man. I was
Ming Tzu's plaything. It was not very pleasant. And then I was sold
to Laotse. That was�inconsequential. In neither case was I
willing. Is that what you want?"
"No. I want you to want
"You can't have that. To
desire you would be to destroy what I have worked so long for. You
demand too much, Xena. " She ran her hand nervously down the
front of her gown, as if wiping something from it. It was gesture I
had never seen on her before.
"Then I withdraw the demand.
I have no other. The game is over."
I walked out of the room, angry
at her rejection, wanting to love her and hurt her at the same time.
I was always the barbarian, even in silk and slippers.
* * * * * *
I went to my own bedroom, trying to calm myself. You
had done more to me than you could know by your demand, even though you
had withdrawn it. I would say you had cut me to the heart, but in fact,
it was my living heart you had suddenly made me aware of, for it ached
within my chest. You were only a few rooms away and I swear I could hear
the sound of you combing out your hair, and the rustle of your silk
nightgown. I barred my door to keep you out and lit all my candles to
keep away your ghost. In my sleeping robe I sat down on the floor to
meditate. With ferocious determination I tore all thoughts of you out of
my mind, hollowed out my heart and gave myself over to the emptiness of
the night. No will, no will. I thought I would be free, cleansed of all
caring, as I had so often done in the past, when Ming Tzu embraced me,
or the feeble Laotse. I waited for peace and rightness and the cleansing
kiung. But when I opened my eyes I saw the candles flickering out,
one by one, until all were extinguished by my anguish. I sat shivering
in the dark, tears trickling down my face.
How you had broken me.
Defeated, I stood up, unbarred the door and with naked feet I crept
like an assassin through my own house back to you.
You were sitting in your blue robe and it seemed you had been
brooding the whole time, perhaps sending your will like a trail of opium
smoke curling down the hall to ensnare me. Something had taken hold of
me, and I was helpless in it's power, and I stood there enthralled. I
said, weakly "You left your hairpin in my room" and held it
out to you. You took the carved hairpin, studied the bird's head for a
moment and laid it on your table. At that moment I could have died of
fear and shame. Fear of what was seizing me, and shame for the part of
me that it laid bare. For it was not just my body that you uncovered
when you opened both our gowns and took me in your arms. I leaned my
weight on you, every particle of me corrupt with wanting you, with
needing you to do... I didn't know what. But you would know...and I
would let you do it. You were so ardent, I felt your heat wherever you
touched me. I had borne one man a child and espoused another, but no
man, nothing had ever touched me thus. Wetness flowed from me as if my
sex were weeping, with joy, with sorrow at my capitulation, I don't
know. We turned in a circle, in a slow somnambulant dance. "Show
me, Xena", I whispered and waited, trembling, for you to overpower
me. But all you did was whisper back, "Do you want me, Lao
"Yes, you know I do."
"Tell me what it is you want."
"I want you....to do what you desire."
And then you backed away from me, you demon. "No, that's not
good enough. You're going to have to want me more than that."
Bewildered, I walked towards you and you backed off again.
"What are you doing, Xena?" I asked and reached out for
"I am teaching you, Lao Ma. I am teaching you to want." And
you walked out of the room, closing the door behind you. Angry at your
presumptuousness, I kicked it open, and followed you down the hall. You
didn't run, for of course you were not fleeing, only tormenting me. But
I was furious with humiliation. I had surrendered to you, had thrown
away my whole philosophy for you, and you would not even accept my
"Stop, Xena. Don't do this to me". I thought I heard you
I followed you out onto our terrace, lit only by the moon. My writing
tools were there and in the darkness I kicked over the ink pot, spilling
the ink over the floor. It would stain the polished wood, and ruin its
pristine purity. The thought of it increased my fury at you. You had
destroyed my peace, disrupted my household, had made me a ravening wolf,
and now you walked away from me. You were already at the other side of
the terrace, catching the blue gray moonlight on your fluttering robe.
Enough, I thought.
"This is Lao Ma's kiss!" I said and threw you to the floor
with all my mind's force. I didn't want to hurt you; I just wanted you
to stop. Well, perhaps I wanted to hurt you just a little. You lay
still, stunned I thought, that I would go so far. I came to you and
forced myself on you, pinning you beneath me.
My own verse came to haunt me. "Who can withstand the raging
flood," I thought, as I covered your yielding mouth with mine, and
let you feel my teeth. I had no idea how to do it, how to still my lust
on you, for until that moment I had not even known what lust was. And so
I just bit and scratched and thrust against you, forcing open your legs
with my knee. I felt heat spreading from the center of my sex and
consuming all the rest of me. Oh, Xena, my once soaring inspiration had
shrunk to a white hot pulsing between my legs, between your legs. As a
poet I was undone.... for as I once burned in spirit, now I burned in
you. It was a kind of rape, but I was not the rapist. For while I forced
you physically, subduing you while I satisfied my craving, it was you
who had taken away my innocence. And you knew it, Xena. For at the end,
when I felt myself exploding with sensations I had never known existed,
you joined me and we coupled on the floor, in bitter consummation,
finally collapsing in each other's arms.
Perfidious woman. Stealer of children. Stealer of souls.
We lay awhile on the hard wooden floor in crumpled robes and stained
with ink, until passion subsided and we realized the awfulness of what
had happened. Then you softened, Xena, and came back to me. Realizing I
suppose that you had total power over me, you gave up struggling, gave
up confrontation, and offered me your own surrender. "I am
sorry" you said. "Come back to my room, Lao Ma. Please. I will
show you how gentle it can be." Of course I went; I was helpless in
your hands. We made love again the way you promised and tried to reverse
the act of violence we had both committed. And in the last hours before
the dawn, we fell into an exhausted sleep.
I woke before you as the light began to fill your room. I looked at
your sharp features finally in repose and decided the precious moment
had arrived. I woke you, and resisted your efforts to make love again. I
needed to use the contentment that you felt, for it was the closest you
had ever come to the Tao. It would not last, I feared; such balance was
so precarious with you, like an acrobat held aloft by another. I brought
you to the room where I often meditated and laid you on the mat. We both
still smelled of love and sex, and it was all I could do to not touch
you amorously. I swept my hands along your legs, not touching, but
remembering them, for I had recently caressed them with my lips. I
remembered the silk and the warm skin below and I sensed the blood
filled muscles and the crooked bones. Each time I swept my hands over
them the wrongness of them gave way a little, the stiffness became
pliable, the obstinacy crumbled. I made a space for you, and let you
find the rightness of yourself while you were soft and unresisting.
Again and again I touched you with my mind, ever deeper, into the very
marrow of your bones I went. When I felt your perfect legs, I stood up
and called you to me.
I knew it all along. Since the
day in the yurt camp I knew a demon lived behind those eyes of hers,
and that night, by moonlight on the terrace, it took possession of
us both. She threw me down and had me. Had me with a fury I never
expected. No man had ever taken me that way; I would have killed
him. But feeling her hunger, feeling her Asian composure give way to
panting animal want,-- that excited me. I could not see her face,
only the sheen on her black hair, and I heard her breathing through
clenched teeth. I thrashed beneath her iron grip, but she was
extraordinarily strong, and where she scratched me she drew blood.
But it was I who had called up
her devils and I submitted to them. Her fury freed me from my; own,
lifted the burden I had carried since Caesar. Zheng Ha was right.
Submitting to her gave me the first peace I had known in the land of
Chin, although she paid for it, I knew, with the loss of her own.
When we came to our senses, I was filled with regret for what I had
done, and I made love to her again in the quiet of my room in the
way Greek women sometimes do. For a short time, for a brief morning
hour, I felt release, like floating in water, timeless.
She knew it and not only did she
make no recriminations, she took the peace of that moment to heal my
I felt her hands flowing over me
and it was like the return of air after suffocation. Air that I
never noticed I was breathing. It was the nothingness of rightness,
of normalcy, the quiet after pain. That was what she meant by the
loss of illusion, by the finding of the Way.
I couldn't quite believe it and I
leapt to my feet to feel them straight again.
It was incredible. I was healed,
I was whole, I was myself again. I was dizzy with joy when she
wrapped me in silk and spun me up into the air. We turned together
in the air and I barely touched her, only putting my carved hairpin
into her hair, but it was better than love; it WAS our love. I felt
her aching happiness at the same time I felt mine. Light shone off
her face as it must have shone off mine. So must the sun feel
rising, and the moon emerging from behind night clouds. It was our
truest consummation, the completion of the act that started with her
kiss of breath to me.
I had imagined it wrong. I thought to teach you the wisdom of Wu Wei,
of the solace of emptiness. But our sweetest moment was full of
movement. We were yin and yang, turning in the air, the universe in
microcosm. For those brief moments we spiraled in the Tao, and it was
your wild joy that brought us there. You leapt into a somersault and
then spun in to my arms. We knew love without want and were so light we
hovered the air. I came to you and felt your spirit mold to mine; you
swelled and I curved around you. We danced the spiral dance and for the
briefest moment we were one.
And then Borias came into the room, and you fell from paradise. The
anger that exploded suddenly in you broke the spell and you fell to the
floor, sputtering in rage.
Gone, all gone. In an instant.
I should have told you that I had sent for him. But that was days
before, just after we had been up on Great Wall. You said you would not
stay with me in China and so I sought another way to make you happy. I
would reconcile you with him, conclude an alliance with the nomads and
Ming Tzu and find some place for Borias in the court. It was a lovely
plan, to let you be with him and still not lose you.
I had not reckoned with the power of your wanting me, with your
claiming me on your own terms, and with the unexpected meeting of two
great forces -- yours and mine -- like jets of water colliding and
suspending in the air. But with the weight of Borias we were back to
earth again. Worse, you fell to pummeling him, though his crimes had
been no worse than yours. After separating you I left you both together
like belligerent children, telling you to reconcile for necessity's
When I returned an hour later, I did not recognize you.
You and Borias were grinning like devils. Did you think I did not
know you coupled with him on my floor? And so soon after having me. You
were gone from my world then, Xena. You were wild again.
You agreed to offer Ming Tzu an apology, to let him save face, but
not because you saw the wisdom of it. I had misgivings about letting you
confront him, and should have acted on them, but did not see the
vengeance in your eyes. Another wheel was turning. What folly for you to
suggest gambling with him, just because you -- or I -- could control the
dice. What folly for me to permit it. Even winning you lost all. You
made him lose face again, and when he protested, you murdered him before
his son. Oh Xena, you took the harmony of my house and of my kingdom and
brought it crashing down.
There was nothing for it but to give you your favorite horse and let
you go. And you left, cruelly, without ever looking back. My border
guards reported that you and Borias camped a few li's away and the next
morning rode on towards the port on the Yellow Sea. So I knew you had
gone home again.
But I was not free of you. I was never free of you again.
When Lao Ma left, the peace left
with her. Borias knelt in front of me bringing back all the old
emotions, the old battles of the field and of the bed. If I couldn't
beat him to a pulp, I could fuck him senseless. It always worked. He
bent to my will in all his barbarian masculinity. Suddenly I wanted
to go home. And Borias was as much home as I knew. He was without
mystery or subtlety; he tried to teach me nothing. But an hour in
bed with him was like a gallop across the steppes; climaxing was
like slashing with the sword and lopping off enemy heads. I always
did like a good kill, I had just forgotten how much like sex it was.
Lao Ma had underestimated me. She said I was all wood, obstinate and
hard. But she forgot about the fire.
Borias and I could have left
immediately; there was nothing to stop us, but I felt I owed it to
Lao Ma to straighten things out with Ming Tzu. I seemed to be the
object of their dissent and I thought I could settle things before
leaving. So I swallowed my pride, and groveled before him
But it wasn't enough. The whiny
bastard wanted to reclaim me as his property, and rather than
butcher him right away I offered the entertainment of a gamble. I
thought by then I had mastered enough of Lao Ma's skill to control
the dice, and if I couldn't, certainly she could. And so, of course,
But rage feeds on rage and the
more Ming Tzu protested the more he threw his life away. For I was
free, uncaged and stood on healthy legs. Seizing the sword from
where I'd hidden it, I closed my circle with Ming Tzu. One thrust
was all it took, with fine Chinese steel. "Kill them all,"
I thought again as the old familiar bloodlust came over me, and if
Lao Ma hadn't thrown me against the wall, I'd have gotten Ming Tien
as well. But sometimes we are the lesser wheel and the greater wheel
turns. Lao Ma protected her child, as she had to, � and saved the
life of her executioner.
She made the choice she had to
make, and I made mine. Xena the barbarian was back, with will and
weapon, and powerful warrior's legs. And it was time to take them
* * * * * *
Borias and I rode unhindered and
unhurried out from the stable yard, I on Tai Feng and he on his own
horse, Kahn. At the gate, as we passed Zheng Ha, he looked at me
with an unreadable expression and slowly bowed. At first I thought
it was sarcastic, but I knew that sarcasm was not his manner. More
likely he simply bowed to my decision to leave. For a brief moment I
found myself between them, on one side of me Borias, bursting with
virility and on the other Zheng Ha, the eunuch. Lao Ma's emptiness.
It was such an easy choice to make. I nodded back at him and thought
I saw him smile, but who knows. I hoped he would take care of Lao
Ma. I still cared for her deeply, and I was abandoning her to the
consequences of the killing of Ming Tzu. Well, she had her army, and
all her powers, and I was of no use to her now. I was still a savage
compared to her, but I knew enough to love her and value what she
did. She had just come into my life too soon. A few years later,
maybe, I would be ready for the influence of a philosopher. But not
just then. I had a lot of carnage left in me.
As Borias and I galloped together
eastward, to the Yellow Sea, I felt a sort of animal freedom, blood
pulsing through the veins of my healthy legs. The robust new part of
me craved him, and every night we satisfied our lust. And
afterwards, when we drank the airag, the fermented mare's milk, it's
sourness seemed a part of his roughness and of the wild outdoors.
But my mind was in turmoil. What
had I left behind? What was I returning to?
Dreams and images haunted me,
night after night. Mostly of Lao Ma. Not of our lovemaking, but of
our turning in the air and of her writing in her book, the delicate
winged character of water. And I dreamt of the rounded doorway to
her bedroom, with the pattern that came to be her pattern. Later,
when I came to carry the chakram, my own 'vicious circle', I had it
imprinted with that pattern.. I doubt she would appreciate the irony
of my carrying her sign on a murderous weapon, but I keep it
nonetheless and when I carry it she hovers at the edge of my
consciousness like a guardian spirit.
And I dreamt of the faces of Ming
Tzu and Ming Tien, the child whose voice I never heard. But in the
dream he spoke.
The Chinese believe in ghosts. I
do not, but the ghost of Ming Tzu, whom I had killed, seemed to
visit me. His skin was milky white against the purple silk of his
robe. He hissed at me "Destroyer of children!" and when I
answered "But Ming Tien lives", he opened his robe to show
me the child he sheltered there. I looked closer and I saw it was a
little girl, with the round eyes of my own people. And the girl
child spoke to me in my own language, sobbing in a little girl's
The last dream I had on shipboard
out at sea, before China faded from my sight and my mind, was of a
scene in the distance, far behind me; a cow lumbering along a
winding country path.
* * * * *
When you left it was only my armies and the reputation
of Laotse that kept me safe from retribution. Ming Tzu was buried in the
tomb of his ancestors and the Kingdom of Ming was ruled by his brothers
acting as regents. Ming Tien, who watched you kill his father -- and
never acknowledged that he had a mother -- grew in hatred and cruelty
all the years of his minority. But last year he came of age and assumed
the rule and now the Green Dragon has grown powerful.
Although he carries the title of Emperor now, there is unrest in his
house. He trusts no one, and his fears of assassins and conspiracy are
well justified. He has arrested hundreds of his own subjects and keeps
them in his sewers, their heads locked in cangues. Or else he executes
them horribly, making a show of it and instilling fear in every one. I
fear him too, and try to keep my kingdom safe from him, by negotiations,
or bribery, or the threat of force
Someone must kill him before he has issue.
I have sent four messengers to you, hoping one will find you. I fear
it could take many cycles of the moon before you come, if you ever come
at all. Oh, how I long to see you again.
Do you see what you have done to me? The terrace floor is still
stained where I kicked over the ink. All the water we poured over it
would not wash it out. You have marked my home, Xena, as you have marked
me. I have had my peaceful moments too, in the course of the years, and
the inspirations of these times are set down in my Great Book. Some of
my best philosophy is written out of longing for you, or rather to
purify myself of longing, as one runs fastest out of the greatest fear.
I have had the book copied by my scribes for I want the world to have
it. I wonder what posterity would say to know that half of it is
inspired by my cravings for a barbarian woman.
* * * * * *
I have been arrested by my own son. He has searched for years for
reasons to imprison me, and now he has one. He has intercepted three of
the messengers I dispatched, and managed by torture to find out that I
have sent for you. I have been convicted of conspiring with the enemy,
Xena of the Steppes, murderer of Ming Tzu. I was brought yesterday to
Ming's prison, and I know I shall never again see the light of day.
The last image I have of the palace as I looked back was of Liu Ling
leading one of the horses back to the stables, and the cat Kiung perched
atop the garden gate.
The only benefit I have to being Laotse's wife is that I am isolated
in a dry cell instead of being thrown to rot in the prison sewer. I wear
no cangue and I even have candle light. Thus I write these last letters
to you and set down my last thoughts.
A dear friend carries these letters out for me, braver than any of
the warriors and soldiers who mocked him. He will hide it with all the
others in the Tao Te Ching. These letters are for you, Xena. The book is
for the world. Save it for posterity. This shall be my child, not Ming
I wonder if I affected you the way you affected me. You were my error
as well as my achievement and I like to think I civilized you a little.
And your gift to me was passion, -- which is both suffering and ecstasy.
I am not sorry I experienced it with you. Perhaps the fall into error is
the first and necessary step toward the reaching of Tao
* * * * *
I have been sentenced to death and I must prepare myself for it.
I need to find peace but instead I feel longing. I remember your
hands, how badly they painted Chinese characters and held chopsticks,
and how deftly they caressed me. I touch this letter and it is the
closest I can come to touching you. Hold these pages gently darling, for
Lao Ma's last love is here.
I know how people die in the Ming jails, how they are executed. They
are broken and tormented on the wood. Ming Tien will find a way to keep
me powerless and it will take all the emptiness I can call forth to die
with equanimity. But he cannot keep me from my memories. When I am
blinded by the blood and pain, in my last flickering of consciousness I
will remember you.
I have had a dream this night. That I was with you in your own land,
my darling. I came to you as a girl at the brink of womanhood and began
to flower in your company. Do you know such a woman, Xena? Someone who
writes verse? Do her Grecian eyes look at you with love and remind you
of a Chinese woman? Do you lie down beside her at night and feel the
turning of the yin and yang? I live with you in her, Xena. I am the
water, gentle and transparent, and you are the fire and the wood. Look
for me, Xena. I promise you I am there.
* * * * *
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