Weird Tales/Volume 36/Issue 11/The Man Who Amazed Fish

Weird Tales (vol. 36, no. 11)  (1943)  edited by Dorothy McIlwraith
The Man Who Amazed Fish by Frank Owen

It is bad form to murder one's customers. But the ancient Chinese alchemist had other, more subtle methods with which to take care of his country's invaders.

TheMan Who Amazed Fish

By Frank Owen

Through the lattice-work screen, Doctor Shen Fu watched the Japanese officer enter "The Drug Shop of a Thousand Years." In his heart was a sharp sword but his face was bland as he walked out to meet the smug little man.

"I am the proprietor, Doctor Shen Fu," he said aloofly.

"And I, General Nishikori, in charge of this district."

The Doctor nodded but he did not bow. He stood tall and straight as a bamboo reed, despite his years. He was shrewd, a Han-lin graduate, a famed alchemist who had discovered the secret of immortality, so he spoke without fear.

"The district needs no one to take charge of it. It has been Chinese soil for countless centuries and so forever shall it remain, unless by some fantastic power you are able to carry it back to Nippon."

The stunted general wondered whether he should be insulted and claim that he had lost face. It was the usual trick of his people but he turned from it. He could make better use of the famed Doctor by treating him with a modicum of respect. Therefore, he ate bitterness and managed a somewhat bilious-looking smile.

"I wish tea," he said.

"This is a drug shop, not a tea house."

"Nevertheless, I wish tea."

The Doctor said gently, "I accept your command. Tea shall it be."

A clerk went to fetch the divine beverage, and though he was overly long, the General made no comment. He could afford to be patient since he had caused this noted Doctor of Hangchow to bend to his will.

Finally the tea was ready and the clerk brought a small table and one chair.

"Will you not join me?" asked General Nishikori.

"Alas, I had seven cups before you came. I can drink no more."

"At least sit at the table with me," said the General. He was provoked beyond reason but he did not show it. "I have important matters to discuss with you."

"I prefer to stand."

"And if I command?"

"I will obey, but I will not listen. The heart is without fear. If you have come to me for help, choose your words well. I was walking this earth, a free man even before your grandfather was born. I refuse to cringe before his grandson. Honor should be bestowed upon age as well as bombs, the firing squad and poison gas."

The General's education had been extensive. He repeated maneuvers by rote. But here was a set of circumstances that had not been drilled into him. He tried to sit straight and tall, drawing his back up till it looked as though his neck was being goose-stretched. He was a member of the

Bushido. He loomed large in his own

importance but he avoided looking in mirrors. He resented the fact that Doctor Shen Fu was so very tall, he hated to have the Doctor towering over him as he sipped his tea. He found it unpalatable.

"The tea is bitter," he said fretfully.

"Unfortunately, for years we, of China, have been drinking only bitter tea."

"Our Japanese tea is fragrant."

"Drink of it well, while you have the opportunity."

"It is ill-advised for the conquered to threaten."

"Why threaten? I might have poisoned the tea had I so desired."

Mr. Nishikori had a bad moment but he did not show it. "I hope you did not," he said, "I am too important to my nation to die."

"That is debatable. However, you were served naught but bitter tea. I cannot be untrue to business tradition. It, is bad form to murder one's customers."

"A customer, yes, and one who can pay well."

"With what?"

"Chinese money."

"I cannot accept money that has blood on it. Rather pay me in rice."

"It would be unwise. You might feed it to the poor. Starving people are more easily overcome. They have little opposition in them. Our new order in East Asia must be established."

"By undernourishment."

"I am General Nishikori. I will not be defied. My word is supreme law in Hangchow. You can be of service to my soldiers. And I repeat you will be well-paid."

"For treachery."

"No, for certain drugs that I need."

"Then you must pay in rice."

"Should I hand you over to a firing squad?"

"It matters little. I have solved the riddle of immortality. Your bullets could do no more that wound me severely. But in time I would recover. However, I do not presume to decide such weighty problems for you. Though if I am shot, your chances of getting drugs are nil. Speak quickly, I have other customers entering the shop."

"Throw them out!" the general stormed.

"No, their wishes shall be attended to while you finish your tea." As he spoke, Doctor Shen Fu turned and walked over to greet tine newcomers. Usually he left the tending of shop to clerks well-versed in the intricacies of the pharmacopia, but not now, for he wanted to.throw Nishikori's pomp in his face. For a thousand years Shen Fu's ancestors had ruled over this drug shop with its large areas of ground that were used for warehouses, clerk's homes and gardens, besides a considerable reserve for the herd of deer whose horns were ground up to make important and popular medicines.

A rich man was desirous of purchasing ginseng tonic, one of the most expensive preparations in all the world for ginseng is the medicine par excellence, the dernier resort when all drugs fail. A few drops of ginseng will raise the dead to life. And it is even whispered that after three centuries the ginseng root changes into a man with white blood.

Doctor Shen Fu measured out the lifegiving fluid with reverence though he knew that as a restorative it was somewhat overrated. The drug was about forty percent tonic and sixty percent folklore and legend, still it was worth ten times its weight in pure gold and so not to be handled carelessly.

A coolie wanted some powdered dragon's bones to reduce his child's fever. Dr. Shen Fu made no charge to the poor man but added the cost to the sum for the ginseng, since the rich man was better able to pay.

Before returning to General Nishikori, he surveyed the familiar scenes about him, the black enameled boards with golden characters, containing suitable proverbs. The shelves filled with rows of blue and white procelain jars with square pewter covers containing various liquids of an array of colors. Vermilion medicines were those eagerly sought for by the sick. Above, on the upper shelves were smaller octagonal-based jars containing sundry expensive seeds, or ready-mixed powders. It was the custom of Doctor Shen Fu to give advice free to those too poor to afford a doctor.

Intense hatred gnawed at the Doctor's heart. All this might be swept away, lost forever, if something were not done to stem the vicious Jap flood. He stood for an instant before the tiny alcove that sheltered the altar to Shen Nung, the God of Healing. The smoke of burning incense spiraled languidly upward as though to foretell that some day China would sweep out her invaders with the broom of circumstances. But could the old Drug Shop be saved? That was a moot question.

Shen Fu's face was a mask as leisurely he returned to General Nishikori who appeared as puffed up with venom as an adder. Nevertheless, he swallowed his pride though it was harder than gulping a live toad.

"Take me to a room where we may speak without interruption," he said and there was silk in his tone. But he could not help adding, "If we remain here I may be forced to order your execution."

"That is hardly a prelude for a satisfactory conversation," the doctor said gently. "However, your command shall be obeyed, come." As he spoke, he led the way through a steep, winding hall of unusual length, until they entered a windowless room, at the far end of which a single candle burned feebly.

"See," said Shen Fu, "the candle weeps, it weeps for China." As he spoke, a heavy, brass-studded teakwood door swung closed and they were wrapped in silence.

The sudden change from daylight to a room that was almost in darkness was more than Nishikori's myopic eyes could stand.

"Light!" he cried. "I demand light!"

Instantly a lantern blazed forth so brightly that it dazzled Nishikori.

But Doctor Shen Fu ignored the general's discomfiture, as he said, "Be seated. Here we can converse secure from interruption. The room is soundproof and below the level of the earth. In this hidden room it would be well for you not to be too arrogant. Here, I alone, am master. This shop has never been invaded by the Japanese, nor will it ever be. Rather would I turn it into a monstrous bomb that would annihilate Hangchow. Rest assured that in my warehouses are the ingredients and facilities for doing so. It is pleasant to mull over the extraordinary proposition that I could order your destruction, and dispose of your body by using an acid bath to eat it away, and no one would ever know what had become of so illustrious a general. However, I hesitate to do anything distressing to your person, since you have already said you have come as a customer. Only a fool turns away business. But what you buy, I repeat, must be paid for in rice—Japanese rice. I will deal with you on no other terms."

"I admire your spirit," said Nishikori, and there was surprisingly little bombast in his tone. "Of the situation you are now master. Naturally I agree to your terms. I am confronted by a curious perplexity and I have decided you are the one best fitted to solve it."

Not by as much as the flickering of an eyelid did Doctor Shen Fu acknowledge the compliment. His face was a grim mask in a play that was certainly not for children. But Nishikori, drilled in a military school of automatons, was unable to distinguish the signs of peril that were all about him, for they were written in water. So he went on speaking, "Our conquest of your country has gone on well. For the most part, we have met with little opposition."

"And so you were forced to drop poison gas and disease germ infected cotton on unprotected people so that plagues might break out. Relinquish your filthy untruths or I shall close my ears against your words, and if you leave this room alive it will only be by a miracle. Let us both speak bluntly. Your slogan is not 'Asia for the Asiatics' but Asia for the Japanese. Your war lords are vile! Proceed."

"That is an affront to the Bushido!"

"Here, let us put aside our heroic robes. My patience is wearing thin. If you have a purpose in your visit, expound it, otherwise I must turn to my own affairs. Like a frog in a well is a man of small thoughts."

At that moment General Nishikori had the feeling that he was wearing a hair shirt.

But to argue farther with this ancient doctor, who was without fear, was as futile as catching a fish and throwing away the net. So he continued speaking as though there had been no interruption.

"My visit to you is not concerned with war," he said in a honeyed tone. "I am here to help save lives, not to expend them. We have found, as we march peacefully through your vast cultivated river provinces, the farmers have an unpleasant habit of opening the dikes and spreading havoc among our soldiers. Recently, after we had taken the city of Hankow and were marching forward toward further conquests, the dikes of the river were suddenly opened and fifty-five thousand Japanese soldiers, carrying full pack, were drowned, while the Chinese lost three times that many, stamped into the earth by roaring floods to make fertilizer for next year's crops. What manner of people are the Chinese who would throw their own lives away in such stupid fashion?"

"Our men died that China might live. Perhaps the spirits of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu walked among them to welcome them among the immortals. Our sages are great because they never look for ivory in a rat's teeth."

"Nevertheless, this problem of losing almost as many soldiers by drowning as are killed in battle is a serious problem that I have set myself to solve. Knowing that your Drug Shop is renowned throughout all the Eighteen Provinces, I lay my problem at your feet. I have heard that you are a hundred and fifty years old."

"Age is elastic. A boy with a sore foot is an old man. An ancient with firm step and good teeth is young. Some say I have drugs to cure all sicknesses, but alas I have none to cure China's present acute distress. Unless, unless—but I hesitate to express the knowledge that recently my eyes have given unto me as I walk through the countryside. Once more the che plant is growing in profusion in our farms and hillsides."

"The che plant, the che plant," repeated Nishikori. "What is that?"

"It is a plant of supernatural growth and auspicious omen. It is only to be found when virtuous leaders are leading our government. It augurs well for the future of Chiang Kai-shek."

"But China is beaten!" protested Nishikori. "She is on her knees!"

"Beaten? Beaten? What is the meaning of that word? We know it not in the Eighteen Provinces. But let us proceed. You have come to me for help because you are concerned over the loss by drowning of so many men."

Mr. Nishikori smiled. Now they were on firmer ground. "Perhaps you can prepare an elixir for me so that my men will be able to live beneath the water, to survive floods without undo fatigue. In short a drug that will bestow upon them the province of living under water indefinitely."

"An interesting proposition," said Doctor Shen Fu gently. "And I am glad that you have consulted me for my library is bulging with ancient manuscripts, some that have been recopied from bamboo books, on the 'lien tan', the drug of trans-mutation and of the powdered pearl medicine which is the concrete essence of the moon. Let me ponder over my manuscripts for a few days. I am sure that the results will be worth your trouble."

So General Nishikori departed and returned again in three days. Doctor Shen Fu greeted him in a manner that was almost affable.

"A book is only a man talking," he said, "and since your departure I have been listening to the voices of the ancients. But it was not until this early morning, that my efforts were rewarded. All through the night I loitered in my garden, entranced by the countless whispering voices about me. When the dawn crimsoned the sky with peony splendor, I drank the dew that had fallen from the magnolia trees, for I had solved the riddle that so perplexed you. I walked with padded footsteps into my mixing room. No one was about, no one was stirring. The accumulated mass of knowledge I had absorbed so hurriedly, became simplified. I worked fast and with sure hand. I mixed the ingredients well. The resultant pills are perhaps the most expensive to be found in all the world, and, for their purpose, the most powerful."

From his sleeve, he drew an elegant jade bottle with a legend in red grass characters upon it: "May Chiang Kai-shek have ten thousand lives." But Mr. Nishikori paid not the slightest attention to the inscription for he did not understand Chinese, but it wouldn't have mattered if he had been versed in the language of the Four Seas. So intent was he on his purpose, cold perspiration stood out upon his forehead in beads and even his narrow, close cropped head was damp. He took off his glasses and polished them carefully that he might the better see, for Doctor Shen Fu was pouring small vermilion pills into the palm of his hand. Nishikori liked the color. The doctor had staked much on its psychological effect.

"One pill and one pill only, that is all that is necessary," he explained. "Your men will find little difficulty swimming for sustained periods under water. Nor will the effects of the drug wear off, rather will the power of it intensify with each day that passes. My idea for this great boon to humanity was motivated by the writings of renowned Lieh Tzu who ages and ages ago conquered the laws of gravitation. Accounts of his adventures are written history for all who care to read."

While the doctor was speaking, General Nishikori gulped two of the pills, believing he was unobserved. Shen Fu smiled and the eyes of his heart grew merry but his face mirrored not his thoughts. Perhaps, ere long, the ghost of chaos would be halted and the ruined sky swept clean of enemy planes.

"The elixir has been delivered," he said. "Now your payment shall begin. Set out at various street intersections of the city, huge tubs of cooked rice that the poor may eat till their stomachs groan. My clerks will designate the positions where the tubs are to be placed and they will go along with you to see that instructions are carried out and to insure the good quality of the rice. It is fitting that I have put into those tiny pellets certain ingredients that, for want of a better word, I shall call harmonious elements. With discord they will evaporate as surely as the clouds are a dragon and the wind a tiger. The slightest chicanery might spoil the experiment."

General Nishikori was a man of action. He lived by the sword and had little respect for words, nor did he know that many an unhappy culprit has been impaled on a sentence. He liked not the idea of wasting rice when so many of his own people, back in Japan, were starving; true it was only the peasant whose stomachs were being gnawed constantly by hunger. The Bushido and the war lords were well fed. The Emperor feasted well in his golden prison and wondered what evil was abroad in the land. But he was too weak to lift his hand to stem it if he had wanted to. Nishikori was more than half-tempted to destroy this vile doctor who had flaunted his power and insulted the Bushido, now that his use was at an end. But suppose the pills did not work, suppose the doctor had anticipated just such treachery and acted accordingly. What good would be a dead Shen Fu? Better keep him alive so that he could be tortured fittingly in the Japanese manner if the pills failed. But there was another factor also to be considered. The doctor, living, might be a safeguard for him if sickness or distress flittered about his person. With a sigh, Nishikori reluctantly agreed to put out the tubs of rice, reluctance that was seasoned with fear. He shuddered to think of what might happen if all the hungry were fed. Famine was the best Ally Japan had, next to disease. What a pity it was that the plague germs dropped from airplanes, in carefully prepared cotton batting, had not caused the anticipated havoc. Asia for the Asiatics but for the Chinese bubonic plague—the Imperial Japanese "New Order."

During the next few days, General Nishikori was much pleased with the effects of the drug. A few of his men had experimented. They had stayed under water for over an hour. The experiment had been conducted at West Lake not far from The New Hotel where Mr. Nishikori was living in luxurious quarters. So long did his men remain below water, he imagined they had been drowned and was about to return to his hotel for tiffin when they re-appeared, laughing and jabbering excitedly. The only casualty was that one of them had lost his glasses. The general was overjoyed. Now he was indeed the leader of an army of supermen, but there was one oddity that was of little importance. He himself, scarcely aware of his own actions, plunged into the lake, all clothed as he was, and swam about, all forgetful of the war and of the officers that were waiting to have tiffin with him at the hotel. When at last he came out of the lake he was jubilant though his uniform was a sorry spectacle and he looked as bedraggled as the lowliest soldier. But what matter, his head was in the clouds. Now indeed would he be a conqueror and his fame would go down in history among the greatest warriors the world has ever known. Perhaps it would be better to kill Shen Fu after all so that no other person might learn this amazing secret.

Back at the hotel, after he had bathed and put on dry clothes, he swallowed two more pills before joining the officers who were waiting for him. The doctor had said that one pellet was sufficient; sufficient, perhaps, for a private soldier but he was a noble general, a member of the Bushido and his father had been an aristocrat with special privileges.

Late that evening, when he had been able to shake off the leech-like petty officers, he returned to West Lake, cast off his clothes and plunged into the cool refreshing water. His throat had felt parched. Though the day had been cool, he had suffered intensely. There must have been much humidity in the air. Another thing that troubled him was that red marks had appeared on either side of his throat just below the ears, odd straight marks, half as long as his thumb. They looked like old knife wounds that had only recently healed. He had an unaccountable feeling, a wish that they would break open. Then it would not be so difficult to breathe. But now as he glided through the waters of West Lake, among the lotuses, all was right once more. No longer was it difficult to breathe. The night was full of spring even though it was early autumn. A yellow moon hung low in the sky, or was it "the Rising Sun of Japan" glistening on the wide domains it would soon encompass. He laughed gut-terally. Some day Japan would control the world.

General Nishikori remained in the water until the first silver fingers of morning lifted to gently push aside the veil of night. Then with great reluctance, he came ashore, put on his clothes and became an important personage once more, the commandant of all the armies in Chekiang Province. However, he could not refrain from casting a glance over his shoulder at the enticing water of the lake. Never had he passed so glorious a night. Nor was he.aware that after ten long desolate years of constant defeat, the scales of fortune were tipping slowly in China's favor. In Szechwan and Hunan Provinces especially, old China, revitalized by supplies from the Allied Nations was slowly pushing back her enemies, topped by an especially brilliant victory at Changsha. Once more the tea of the Middle Kingdom was fragrant, free of its bitter, bitter taste.

General Nishikori walked about as though in a dream, little concerned with what was happening about him. He even ceased to deplore the necessity of putting out tubs of rice for the poor in accordance with the directions of Dr. Shen Fu. His officers tended to this for him, obeying like automatons. The red marks at the sides of his neck caused him almost constant discomfiture. Occasionally they bled slightly.

Every day he stopped at the Drug Shop of a Thousand Years to talk with the learned doctor.

He asked the doctor to examine the marks on his neck.

Shen Fu smiled as he gazed upon them. "You have nothing to worry about," he said.

"Strangely enough some of the officers of my staff are similarly marked."

"You are blood brothers. It is a good omen." He did not bother adding, that he meant a good omen for China. After a moment, he continued, "When the flesh separates, you will be able to swim even better."

Nishikori was little perturbed at the prospect, on the contrary he seemed well satisfied. He walked out into the garden to the large artificial fish pond. The water was like clear turquoise. The gold fish reflected the sun. How clear and cool the water was with here and there a pond lily or a lotus.

His throat was dry. Slowly he walked around the pool, gazing at the shimmering fish. He was so fascinated, that hours passed without his knowledge.

Meanwhile his men were acting in a peculiar fashion. All seemed keenly elated. They cast aside their guns, their interest in war had evaporated. Many of their necks were bleeding slightly from small slits below the ears. As though they were fleeing from a plague infested city, they rushed down to the river's edge. Some were running. But it was a joyous rout, many were laughing. A few tried to sing but their throats were too dry for that. And in their wake, walked many of the people of Hangchow, uninterested in their actions, but still bent on one of the great occasions of the year, to watch the Hangchow Bore at the autumnal equinox, that strangest and most startling phenomenon of nature along the entire Asiatic coast.

The estuary at the mouth of the Ch'ien T'ang River from Yangtze Cape on the North to the opposite point of land on the South is about sixty-five miles in width. And from the Yangtze Cape to where the Bore begins to form is about eighty miles. Throughout this distance the estuary narrows down to about eight miles, producing a broad funnel shaped channel. The roar of the tidal wave can be heard for forty-five minutes before it comes into view. Instead of the banks of this channel being straight and regular, they are very crooked, the right or Southern bank being pushed in upon the land a great distance. This concavity of the channel bank deflects the tidal currents, throwing them against the river currents which together with the piling up of the water as it crowds into the apex of this funnel-shaped channel produces the phenomenon known as the Bore.

On this particular occasion thousands of Chinese, quiet and orderly, were crowding the great stone embankment, throngs which permitted the free movement of the Japanese troops who ran pell mell down the dikes to await the coming Bore. Many, over-zealous, sprang into the river and swam toward the onrushing flood. But none of them spoke, none of them said anything, nor did they utter a sound though their lips moved. It was the supreme hour of their existence. On, on they came like beetles, swarming over one another, forcing the front ranks into the water, but none cared. The cool water closed over them willingly.

Onward the monstruous wave plunged as an ancient poet has written, "muttering, hurrying, seething and surging; confused and troubled, vast, unbridled, immensely deep and wide, a chaos unlimited; it hopes to seize the southern hills, it reaches up to the azure sky, confident it will leap over the steep banks." The poet wrote long before Ch'ien Ch'iu built the first dike walls in A.D. 910. Since that time many superb engineers have added to this great work, so that now the thousands of Chinese spectators were enabled to stand at the summit of the dikes and watch the water carnival with considerable safety. They ate cumquats, mellon seeds and dried almonds. The children chanted verses and laughter was plentiful. But the elders were silent. The few venturesome river boats were tied fast to the shore, but the water lifted them so high that they strained at their chains and ropes. They rocked madly at the impact of the water which rose to a height of twenty-five feet, carrying all the Japanese soldiers along with it. Certainly, for the Chinese it was a time for eating cumquats. Within forty-five minutes, the flood subsided but the invading soldiers returned no more to Hangchow, preferring to go out to sea on the ebb tide, but none were drowned, all were content. Doctor Shen Fu's experiment had been eminently successful. Truly he had created Thousand Blessings Pills. But he was unable to visit the ramparts of the river, it would not have been in good taste, for he still had a guest in his establishment. In the lotus pond General Nishikori was swimming around joyously. The fish were amazed.