Shining Path


Chapter 18

Matabee had a job title translated as "professor of Dutch learning," but most of the learning in question was actually from other nations entirely. He knew, even if most people in Tenpou-Era Nagasaki did not, that the Dutch were just middlemen, linking the holy land to countless savage nations around the globe. His own specialty was understanding the work of certain English and French inventors. Matabee was a devotee of Jacquard, Faraday, and Babbage. He was also expert in the kagee gankyou magic lantern, the karakuri ningyou automatic doll, and especially the furikuri iruiigyou, which combined the two. If he had lived in the Shoumei Era, he would have invented a starship drive. If he had lived in the Shouwa Era, he would have directed anime movies about brave little girls. Someone who believed in reincarnation would say that maybe those things did happen, too – but in the Tenpou Era, Matabee was just another glorious fool casting his eyes beyond the horizon. Nagasaki was full of those.

Matabee was a conscientious man and he loved his wife Miya, so when he visited the Entertainment Quarter teahouses he always said that he was paying for talk only and nothing else. Most of the girls were happy to give him talk only and nothing else. He didn't even need it to be dirty talk; mostly he just wanted to hear about the Dutch, the most trivial and boring things they said and did. There were one or two others like him, but generally customers had less innocent ideas – the Dutch themselves were the worst – and they had to be satisfied even if a percentage of the fees they paid ended up in the bathhouse's coffers for herbal soaks to wash away their filth. The deadly contaminated feeling, on the inside, never quite washed away at all.

The young one, Suki, had enough of that contamination inside her now that she could never just leave a reluctant customer alone. Sometimes if she had nothing of import to say about the Dutch on a particular night and seemed to need it, Matabee allowed her to get on her knees and apologize in the only way she was trained to do. He always felt worse afterward, and she seemed happier, so it was strange that he was the one paying for it. He had no children of his own. He felt a fatherly need to protect brave little Suki from all the men he imagined had forced such apologies from her in the past. He knew about as much about her life and background as she and the other girls knew about his, which is to say, nothing at all.

Matabee told his wife, so many times that they both almost believed it, that his visits to the Entertainment Quarter were a strict necessity because of the Tokugawa cultural protection laws. The Dutch were not allowed off the artificial island of Dejima lest they corrupt the holy land with their barbaric feet and worse ideas, and as a scholar of those ideas, eager to be so corrupted, Matabee would certainly not be granted a pass to visit. Only a few high-ranking officials and traders with a documented business need could cross that bridge; and girls from the Quarter, of course, because the Shogunate was nothing if not pragmatic. All that was not strictly true: actually the current government policy as of the Tenpou Era was to encourage scientific and cultural exchange, within certain limits, and there were opportunities to buy books and meet with foreign scientists under the watchful eye of Shogunate minders. But the Quarter certainly was a cheap and candid source of information that would be hard to obtain any other way.

Miya let Matabee take money for his scholarly pursuits and she washed his dishes and folded his clothing, even when he came home with very little Dutch learning to report, smelling like Suki's room and Suki's perfume. She was a conscientious woman and she loved her husband, so she did not complain, but it could not last forever. Their marriage resembled a uranium nucleus: likely to split at any moment into fission fragments thrown violently in opposite directions, themselves unstable and ready to decay further.

The fire at Edo Castle, marking the beginning of the Kouka Era, killed two professors of Dutch learning, passing acquaintances of Matabee, who had been conducting a chemistry demonstration at the time. Matabee felt it an appropriate memorial to learn about their work on the acid of nitrogen. From there it was perfectly natural that he would spill some, wipe it (in a hurry to clean up the dangerous substance, having nothing else ready to hand) with an exotic cotton cloth from England, and observe the resulting effect. It would be tiresome to detail his inspiration to repeat the experiment under controlled conditions, and the many failed attempts, the minor injuries and property damage, consultations with other scholars, and trips to the Entertainment Quarter, that followed. Matabee had no interest in explosives, so credit for the military and demolition applications of cellulose nitrate ("guncotton") goes rightly to the three Europeans who would all discover it independently of him and each other, a year later. Matabee found another use for the stuff.

In an effort to reduce the explosion risk he tried a standard chemist's purification trick: dissolving his nitrated cotton in chloroform, he washed out the impurities with water, and decanted the slimy organic phase onto a clean glass plate borrowed from his kagee gankyou work. One morning while impatiently watching one of these puddles dry, the experimenter noticed something – not a big thing, but one of those little things that later become important. The plate covered with liquefied resin looked a lot like a plate covered with albumen he might smooth and expose to make a magic lantern picture...

We can know the exact date because he made a notebook entry about it: 9-day 8-month Kouka 2 was the day Matabee invented the wet collodion photographic process in Nagasaki, three years before Frederick Scott Archer would do the same in faraway London. The next logical step, of peeling off the solidified film from the glass and painting it to make furikuri iruiigyou with a semblance of life, seemed so obvious, once he thought of it, that it is barely mentioned in surviving notebooks.

The first few attempts were monstrous abortions, and it is as well they did not survive long and were seen by no other scholars. He had heard, by way of a report from Suki of a comment made by a Frenchman, about de Vaucanson's famous duck – and his attempt at replicating it succeeded only in the digestive aspect, when it exploded and the resulting acid spray digested a section of the floor. But each new experiment survived longer and behaved better than the last, and in just a short time, still working in secret, he felt confident enough to take his invention to its logical extreme. Go-ren achieved first motion on 4-day 6-month Kouka 3. The name abbreviated Matabee's hope for his brainchild to be "vigorous and economical."

In general form the thing resembled a fat, bald monkey, with green skin and a prominent depression in the top of the head for adding film lubricant. This design was both practical and suggestive. It made Go-ren resemble a kappa, a swamp-spirit, so Matabee could deflect questions on the part of curious neighbors by telling them he had tamed a kappa to help him in his experiments. The neighbors went away happy to have factual support for the stories they told to scare their children. "Eat your vegetables, or we will call mad Professor Matabee to bring his kappa, which will eat your vegetables and perhaps you as well!"

Matabee raised the creature like a child, suckling it on pigments and resins in milky chloroform-water emulsion, the materials from which it had been made, then happily switching to much cheaper human-style rice and vegetables when Go-ren expressed an interest in those. It seemed able to digest almost anything, though still requiring some artificial nutrition beyond that of truly living creatures. Go-ren was able to walk and talk much sooner than a human infant would, and took up its duties as a laboratory assistant before its third birthday. It had a deep fear of fire, perhaps reasonable considering the inflammability of its construction, but it was indefatigable, patiently staying up long into the night to supervise an experiment or perform simple repetitive tasks like cleaning equipment. Despite many efforts, Matabee never succeeded in teaching Go-ren to read or write, and its speech never progressed beyond a child's simple declarative sentences.

Despite his scientific discoveries Matabee was not visionary enough to guess how far a race of artificial beings might eventually distort human society; but he reasoned, at least, that he ought to work out all the bugs before making any grand announcements. He therefore kept the details of his research, and the full story of his assistant's creation, secret from all but his wife. He made no more complete living creatures, but poured his efforts into one organ at a time. Over the course of years, as his academic work on Dutch learning gradually fell out of favor and his students dropped away, he devoted more and more time to the laboratory, attempting to perfect each system and component of an artificial body. He followed the general program and sequence in the Muscle and Tendon Changing Classic and Marrow and Brain Washing Classic of Bodhidharma. Some modifications had to be made to accommodate the realities of the cellulose nitrate and paint, but the general principles seemed well-founded and appropriate. The latter Classic's focus on rigid control of the generative principle was especially intriguing. Without knowing it, Matabee had drifted out of the realm of engineering and well into that of alchemy.

The automatic creature Go-ren soon became difficult to control. Likely the degenerative principle of the nitric acid concentrated in the material of its marrow and brain, despite fervent washing, eventually exerted an influence in the form of devilish disobedience, or devilish overly-literal obedience. Assigned to rinse the dust from a valuable set of kagee gankyou slides, it might scour away for hours until every trace of the images had been removed, leaving the glass sparkling clean and almost worthless. Given a piece of the thinnest wire available and told to wind a new hairspring for a karakuri ningyou mechanism, Go-ren might instead drill a hole in the wire – lengthwise.

And it would contradict any factual statement not uttered with the greatest of care. Matabee could not so much as say "The sky is blue." without prompting a flat denial: "The sky is not blue." Careful questioning might bring out an elucidation like "The sky is often white when overcast, or black with stars at night."; but such a debate was seldom worth the trouble. And at all times Miya spoilt the thing like a child she never had, taking its side against her husband's on any question. He was driven to spend greater amounts of time in the Entertainment Quarter, drinking too much sake. Sometimes he would sit alone in his laboratory with the creature sent away on some time-wasting errand, and inhale the dangerous solvents.

It was on a Winter night in Ansei 5, with the waxing crescent moon separating from its conjunction with Chiron the wounded healer (3-day 12-month) that they argued bitterly about whether one and one really made two. Go-ren said not; and Matabee ordered it to leave. That was the last order he gave to Go-ren. He was an ethical man and still felt a fair bit of object-empathy toward Go-ren even through his temporary annoyance, so he took great care to impress on the creature that it was now free. Go-ren could give itself commands from now on and need not take any from anyone else – not even Matabee, not anymore. There was no way of knowing whether the message would be understood; freedom is hard enough to explain to a human mind that has never known it; but Matabee felt better for making the attempt.

Go-ren bowed low to its former master, causing the pool of oil on its head to pour out on the floor. Matabee hastily poured in a fresh supply – then after a moment's thought, wordlessly offered the bottle. Go-ren took it, carefully did not bow, said "I am not free," and walked slowly off down the street. Matabee never saw the little green-skinned monkey-like being again.

On careful, later consideration of that night's events, Matabee decided that since there was another word for the number "two" depending on the type of objects being counted (for instance, two persons as opposed to two inanimate stones) that could explain the implacable contention that one plus one did not necessarily equal "two." The hypothesis did not bring him much comfort. Nor did Go-ren's final, bleak statement. He thought hard about whether to tell his wife that Go-ren had spontaneously decomposed in a puddle of acid and powder – she knew that was the eventual fate of all his cellulose nitrate creations – but, wisely, he decided that an honest explanation would be better. Miya cried a bit, but understood and eventually forgave his decision. The nucleus of their marriage escaped decay a little longer.

As for Go-ren, it – let us say now he – he headed for the swamp, remembering the kappa stories and thinking he could find friends there, others like himself. He found none. For the first week or two he thought they must be afraid and hiding, but the days wore on with no sign of kappa, and the day came when Go-ren said "There are no kappa." There was no food, either, or the wrong kind – he tasted the water and the plants and found them unsustaining. Although he was only conscious of a vague diffuse hunger, in fact his body was craving the inorganic nutrients only a chemist's laboratory could provide.

Go-ren returned to the city and, scarcely understanding his own motivations, followed his nose to a pharmacy. He broke into the storeroom. In the early hours of the morning the proprietor awoke to sounds of crashing, banging, and the peculiar flapping sounds of Go-ren's footsteps; he reasonably concluded he was being robbed, and headed for the storeroom with a kitchen cleaver. To the West at that time, across the Sea of Japan, the Korean peninsula, and the Yellow Sea, the Qing Dynasty was painfully losing the War on Drugs. The end of the Ansei Era would coincide with their near-total surrender: legalization, reparations to the British and French, and (incidentally) new privileges for Christian missionaries, which would pave the way for Charlie Soong's activities a few years further into the future. Now, in Ansei 5, the Shogunate's general trade restrictions had mostly succeeded in keeping opium abuse out of Nagasaki. The pharmacist did have opium on his shelves, though, for strictly medicinal purposes, as well as gentler native preparations of hikageshibiretake and benitengutake, and he had heard enough stories from abroad to reasonably expect that the dope fiends would pay him a visit sooner or later.

The pharmacist could not have reasonably expected that his burglar would be non-human; even the wildest stories of crazed junkies did not extend as far as green skin and kappa-like features. Rather than rushing straight in with the knife he paused to demand an explanation, and on hearing Go-ren's story he took pity on the creature. There were damages that would have to be paid for; and when, by systematic experiment, they eventually formulated the supplement Go-ren needed, that had a price as well. But the creature was polite (except that he never bowed) and reasonable in pleading for assistance. After testing Go-ren's laboratory skills, the pharmacist offered him a job. He could earn enough money to fill his own needs by helping prepare prescriptions. Wisely, the pharmacist kept him in the back room carefully out of view of the general public.

Go-ren could have survived indefinitely working there, but pharmacy work bored him, and he sought out other ways of earning his keep. He begged. He sang (in a dull, flat monotone) to entertain the customers in tea houses. Eventually he fell in with some Buddhist preachers, who would use him, introduced suddenly from behind a screen at an appropriate point in the sermon, as a living parable to illustrate some point or another of doctrine. Go-ren's startling apparition, and his resemblance to a mythological being, were impressive enough to trigger more than a few instant conversions to the Shining Path, and in that way it can be said that he was a benefactor of all beings. He carried on this small but laudable vocation for some years as the world changed around him and the unstable cellulose nitrate of his body gradually decayed, and he died peacefully at a temple near his birthplace in Nagasaki, in Meiji 19.

The humans of Go-ren's generation saw and forgot the changes wrought by Commodore Perry; the Boshin War; the Meiji Restoration; the relaxation of the kaikin rules that had limited foreigners to the artificial island of Dejima; the subsequent flood of outside influence, people, and of course money to the holy land; and too many other wonders to count. A little green man in a revival meeting somewhere was no more wonderful. So many other important things were being written in history books at that time, that there was little attention left for Go-ren, and history did not pick up his story until much later. He was buried in an unmarked grave. Cremation might have been more appropriate and traditional; maybe they buried him in respect for his fear of fire.

It happened that the last decaying fragments of cellulose nitrate which had once been Go-ren's body, as well as the long-forgotten site of Matabee's laboratory and most of his equipment and writings, were obliterated in the Second Impact – crushed under the reptilian foot of an American superweapon that climbed out of Nagasaki Harbor on 9-day 8-month Shouwa 20. That was not exactly a century to the day after Matabee's notable invention of collodion photography, because of an intervening calendar reform, but the numerical coincidence remains suggestive. A skilled numerologist could doubtless assign worlds of meaning to the story of Matabee and Go-ren: the man who independently developed something like seru animation decades before anyone else did, and the man he created.