Maîtresse de la mort, A green thriller by Julie O’Yang

Maîtresse de la mort

A vert thriller

Julie O’Yang©2013

{***Originally published in One Imperative, curated by Jeremy Fernando. Theme: Tune http://www.oneimperative.com/wp-content/uploads/One_Imperative_Octlow2.pdf. !!!Check out all One Imperative past issues}

“OK, students, attention  please! You have two hours. We are leaving Rose Ash by sunset. I repeat: everyone must return to the bus after two hours or you’ll be left  behind!” My professor gestures significantly, pointing at his wristwatch while raising a loud, dangerous voice. He almost lost his footing when the driver took a sharp turn. I looked out the window, and my breath caught in my throat.

Rose Ash was a basin hallowed out by steel-grey rock mountains that recall ever-constant ineffable lost to fogs and ill winds like souls crossing ages. Bizarre, dark elements of unpredictable episodes truly owned by nature, painless, mesmerizing, and peacefully miraculous but unsettled, like a crinkle in the rainbow that suggests another world waiting for us; dreams that wave before the half-shut eye. Folie à deux, a madness too intimate to permit. Perhaps this is the reason why the spacious bosom has stayed rather a deserted place despite the booming tourism in the crowd-pleasing yet harsh spectacle of land –

           What has happened?

A long time ago – I don’t know how long exactly – the basin enjoyed a grand reputation because of a rare tea standing on the edge of a jutted, bare rock. From afar you develop a fantasy of the murmuring splendour of tea rose steeped in unmistakable fragrance. Small creeks gliding through moss-covered visions like liquid willow singing in low sound of voice to lull one into delicate daydreams; and the squawking, large shadow of birds being the keeper of this strange, haunting tranquillity –

Rose Ash. Its name relates to tea rose, whose colour is known to be a plain white to common people. We – fourth-grade students specialising in Botanic Archaeology – we knew better than to accept anything so common and familiar. The legend goes that once upon a time there was a tea plant growing on the rock cliff, and the singular flowering tree of stretched, austere arms would give a handful of blood-red petals like a lover’s blush in the early spring. It was our mission to search and find the lost tree. As I fixed my eyes on the challenging landscape and its fearful beyond, I could feel the dominant, ancient spirits that still visit the enchanted 3000 meter altitude and cool temperature, hurrying along in the gloom of time, alive and breathing –

One week ago I celebrated my 20th birthday. In my prospect as an academician, it is wise I choose a dead person to be my friend from the Kingdoms of the Oblivion. In the shades of massive domes enclosed by tiered pagodas of faint implications and pale delicacies, it’s hard for me to imagine I’m merely a passerby caught in the web of mysteries. The countless courtyards of conspiracies sealed in an air solemn yet cruel and weird, grey stone palaces that witness centuries of history-making events. My hungry soul pictured myself brushing shoulders with a formidable past, heading to the private quarters, secret of secrets where no male is admitted. The harem of lunacy and fantasy. I would like to think history is a place of conquest, the same intimacy as an odalisque carved from cold marble to become a mistress of flesh and blood, a madness shared by many, mute and voiceless –

History is a bone made of water; I am a happy, warm puppy.

“Collect her bones. Find her, whiz kid,” my professor whispered in a thrilled voice as I walked past him to the exit. For a moment we looked at each other in the eye, and I read the ringlets of fire in his dilated pupils as if his mind whirled with a new knowledge: Ari Arban.

            It was the name of the only genus in the entire tea family that bears scarlet flowers. The oldest species, whose memory had been erased from our collective memory for some strange reason. And yet my common sense screamed at the same time: Ari Arban ought to be a fabulist’s invention! There is no such tree on earth except the idea of it! Tea with red flowers is madness. But only those things are beautiful which are inspired by madness! I bobbed slightly and stepped out of the bus.

The bowl of the valley reeked of smoke. A bright winter sun hanging low, exposing a scenic panorama in a state of devastation like the aftermath of military defeat. Charred vegetations breathed the hint of a remote warfare I didn’t know it ever took place –

I climbed to the summit and walked through scattered scrub, observing the sensual forms of wooden arms and bark skin, the unnoticed shapes of antique herbs and ancient weeds.

What if the delightful leaves were closed doors which I will only enjoy from outside, and if they opened, I should have a different experience – at a cost I  had not yet learned to pay? The antechamber of inner moonlight one should have strayed into once and say: I am THAT. I caught myself thinking out loud. If Ari Arban had existed, I dared myself, looking down into the giant crater of barren, chilly wonderland. I made sketches of the scarce growings, filling up the margins of paper with things I’d be proud to say I saw them. Striking lilac of crape myrtle, pigmy bamboo, wild chillies, silver wormwood, winter’s joy…I must admit that a scientist often serves the same rules as a novelist; both are to feed the vacuum of knowledge with fancy which are more true than they are. Call it mystery wild card, the greatest powers of the mind, the most puzzling of shivers. It can be anything it wants be – the  promise of imagination.

In lightning flash of self-awareness I lost my way. The voices of the world where I came from had faded along the long and leafy curve like a foreign language. As I watched myself turn the very last corner, my heart began to throb wildly like a big bird in a small cage.

The narrow path was carved into stone and was about half a meter wide. Stretching out in the murky light, the radiant trail dazzled in smouldering, intermingled tones of green, amber and cream. I stooped to rub my hand over the surface smooth and spotless as the mirror of a fastidious woman. It reminded me of Luoyang tricolour earthenware; potteries they traded on the Silk Road once upon a time, complete with horses and tomb figures. I stepped on the path that I felt would change things forever – for better or worse. Immediately, I was blinded by a blaze of light bursting upon my sight, piercing through the thin chasm between two sharp blades of rocks slanting, balancing on one another to form some kind of gateway wide enough for me to squeeze through. I walked in with my eyes wide open, seeing what I want to see.

The sharp edges of twigs cut my face, one branch stabbed me in the stomach, another cracked into my shoulder and a third nearly broke my back. If anybody’s life needed saving, it was mine. That was what my head was thinking, but my heart surprised me: the tree is telling the plain, unvarnished truth. The tree is trying to make love to me! Make love like a stranger, all night long, no complicating motives, no possible pre-meditation, in full faith and confidence. The best of lover, fascinating, tantalising and dangerous!

Now I found the singular tree on the spot was burnt. I touched my finger to the  charred black shadow of dead limbs with knots and holes made by birds, when an electric thrill radiated through my ribs and spine. Aghast, suddenly I felt large raindrops hit my head, pelting down my face like ripe fruits and cold, homeless tears. Chopin, a twofold of black and white. The light dimmed quickly as the heavy winter torrents soaked me. Thick, black liquid and toxins shattering noisily, flying apart painfully on my bare skin like toothed, strayed kisses buried so deeply in your mind it is like a lost file, demonic castle and tender skin…

The sky had turned a wine dark, sinisterly tempting. I mumbled some solemn curses and remembered. Wheeling round, I ran as fast as I can to find my way back. I can’t believe what this is doing to me, kissing frog and making promise to the moon! Gulping, tripping over my feet, I started to notice something is wrong. I didn’t recognise a thing! A ridiculous idea entered my mind that I must have hallucinated. Where’s the damn bus!?

I paused to think clearly. I sniffed at my fingers stained by the petrified tree. A familiar odour crept into my nostrils, shivery, illuminated nerve ending snapping me back to the broken corners of memory. I have found it!  I must go back to the black tree because that’s why I’m here. That’s why I ever have lived. The ripe earth, new rushes of bitter and honeysweet spraying into my soul, containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost –

I found the path quickly and followed the smooth, tricolour course hidden under crumbled walls, which I gathered were the remains of primeval temples. This time it took me longer to locate the tree. The stone gate had disappeared, a greenish glow lured me in the dark. I walked closer, astonished to find the tree had only one pointing branch: “Wouldn’t you just love to walk down this one? Just to see where it would lead you?”

A sudden blast of air slinked past me. Within my eyeshot, the ghostly breeze showed the way in the one-hued pile of ancient rock. A beehive ensemble of citadel was chiselled out with its meticulous, precise details. Vast inward-sloping walls broken only in the upper parts by straight rows of many windows under its flat roofs at various levels. The entity is not unlike a fortress I once saw in a book. Great porticos on the inner, snaking walls joined by steep staircases leading to the summit of the massive stature. In the sea-grey shadows of torchlight, the edifice looked quadrangular and robust in complexion, not great big but yet it made such a tough impression on me that I almost choked in my own breath. My heart bouncing in my throat, for the first time in my young life I understood what fatal attraction of poets meant. It’s a knife that demands blood but won’t kill you. Audacity is the virtue of youth. Now I can die with tingle of pride, what a man!

I didn’t know when the rain had stopped. In front of me a piazza unfolded. A woman sat in the four-sided, abandoned space, her feathery red silk gown floating in the blustery weather, tangled, erupting flames. Surrounding her white powder oval face of wide-apart eyes and full red lips, her cloud hair-do rustled pearls, precious stones, and jade ornaments, a hymn of such splendour finished off with the last, dramatic hairpin. She didn’t speak – as I had expected of those appear in my dream, dreams have their own syntax. I could see straight into her eyes, a maze where I could be lost gently and deep, a latticed mesh of will as if saying there must another language, beneath and beyond. But then, in the middle of her miracle, she suddenly raised a clear, dense voice.

“…You and I, there is a story from the clouds. I have been waiting for you for thousands of years, since Mountain and Sea. Since before the word “mountain” was pronounced – Come – ” She waved.

As I approached, I noticed her face was captured inside a birdcage of tiny, thin bars resembling the zigzag pattern of  tree skin. It’s a hat for every thought in her head. In my head, as I realised just now that the little black velveteen bird perching on her hairpin attached to the rising black cloud of hair was my beating heart that is trapped inside her exhilarating face! Silk tassels swung from the two sides, matching the flower-pot shoes that elevated her straight posture, giving her an extra air of femininity and royalty.

She chortled quizzically, causing sudden quivers of her head, triggering the ephemeral, fleeting embroideries on her silk gown. Hovering ruby tongues consumed the curves of her body silhouetted against the semi-dark. Now I was close enough to hear the invisible, miniature gearwheels of the Machine. The riches of the land, and of the sea, and of the air.  Animals, flowers, scalloped clouds, and insects, the kisses of the sun. It’s a promise older than the world, kept in every leaf in springtime.

I’m here to take you home, young man. I’m not supposed to be here, but then that’s how the curve of Time works – Come play with me?”

            You bet.

As she gestured for me to be seated opposite her, I watched her placing under her arched wrist two little stones onto the Go-board in front of us: a round black stone and a round white stone. A twofold of black and white. I would make a Kasparov of Go should I have flouted life’s peculiarity to become a scholarly corpse dealing with dead plants!

The light of the smoking torches gave her a patchy, inconsistent, almost variable existence. They were held behind her by four birdcage-masked figures dressed in ink black, the sort of fashion popular over two thousand years ago, in the First Dynasty. I was aware that the racing gearwheel noise came from the masked men, designed to predict something. But what? Presently, one of them whispered in her ear.

“I see you’re a daredevil. You still need to exercise options,” she said in a voice tenser than fire but yet chilled me to the bone. “Listen, here are the rules. If you win, you can leave, but if you lose…” She looked up, our eyes met. I jolted, appalled to find two dim marbles as if the dark membranes were coated in age-old dust.

“Well if one loses, then…” I offered, stumbling, “his blood belongs to Ari Arban?”

It was an ancient fairytale well known to every mother in China to tell her child when he or she gets a little unwieldy. Ari Arban lives from a young man’s blood. Her flowers are not just flowers. The scarlet tea roses produce Dancing Water, the juice of eternal youth.

“Shall we?” she wheezed.

I nodded and chose black. She brushed the two stones from the board.

In Go you start from nothing and build. The board is square, it signifies the Earth. The stones of the two sides – yin and yang – scattered in groups all over the board, they correspond to celestial bodies. Dealing with people enthralled by the mystique of Go, that play of black upon white, white upon black. Some say it is a fine art, like love; others believe it is a game of motion, a dialogue, like making love. It’s a flow of the spirit and a harmony of songs where two minds are intertwined. The vanilla sky bends down to kiss the earth in sweet music! Life is a song, that’s why we succeed. Fate and chances. How does a butterfly fly? How does one ever lose a game of love?

It had to be her presence, the indefinite perfume she wore merged with the sharp, spicy smell of the big floral embroideries that transfixed me. Serene, wild flowers fresh from dew, with a dash of putrefaction. Hard to believe, she wore a garden – on silk! Weaved sceneries and composing stitches of Time glint with a strange vivacity like a dead face of lingering beauty. Ruins of red palaces, dark forests hiding huntsmen on horses, monstrous vines, rosebuds of trickling pearls of blood…Unknowable wonders unfolding like petals of flowers, and shriveled this instant as if touched by Death’s breath, ruined, wasted. I stole a glimpse into the fetid bowels of Earth…

Rooted to the spot, I stared at her ever-changing black crown of cloud hair, and my eyes hurt from feverish invisible needles. Suddenly, I stood up.

“You see? This black stone in my hand?” Leaning across a cliff – it was cliff between us – I spoke softly in her ear as if afraid to wake her from a dream we shared. “If I put it down, I win. But that’s not what I want – ”

“Then what is it you want, young man?”

I breathed deep to absorb her. I pressed my lips on her ivory, pulsing throat and kissed her for a second which lasted till eternity.

She flinched. The four figures carrying four torches crept up, their looming shadows stretching long and sharp to lock me in. Horrified, she took the stone out of my hand to place it on the board between us.

“You won!” she cried, short of breath, snatching a torch from one of the masked ghouls. “Now run, my love! Run for your life and don’t look back!”

The flame fluttered in the wind. I ran and ran. I kept running until I reached the dawn in the eastern sky. To my surprise, I was standing in the open place where the bus stopped the day before, the track was still fresh in the soil. I felt exhausted. I sat down and wondered where clouds go do they visit a parallel world sometime somewhere do they leave a trace does anyone witness such a disappearance. Leaning against a rock wall, I tried to warm myself at the dying fire. I must have slept for some hours. When I opened my eyes again, the pale wintry sun had climbed toward the mid-sky. I felt something. I reached in my pocket and I scooped a stone. A white stone! When did she put it in my jacket, this crucial stone that decided I was going to win the demon’s run? And Why? Feeling woozy from questions and curiosity, I recognised a faint trace of her perfume. Entranced, I decided that I wanted to make sure I didn’t dream it up all by myself.

Once again I climbed the dark brow of the illuminated rock, tracking down the razor-sharp edge, led by an extraordinary buzz of noises that seemed to make sense to me. It took me only an instant to find the slit opening. The pathway was gone. I forced aside a thorny bush I hadn’t seen before. “Damn it!” I mumbled in my head, sucking a swollen rivulet of red surging from my thumb. The tree stood alone, and on its one russet and gold-hued arm, a blotch of ruby petals was opening up to frosty blue sky like a dead turquoise, charcoal stamens glinting like a banging headache. A suspended armour of bees guarded the languid oozing of fragrance. So that was the noise.

I reached for the flower. Oddly enough, the bees shrunk away.  I let the white stone drop out of my hand and picked the flower. Afterwards I began to walk to the west where I saw a fisherman’s boat in the river the day before. The fisherman could take me back to the world of the livings.

“A piazza?” the fisherman arched his eyebrow, his paddling arms stopped for a moment. “But that’s impossible, young man! The village with the temple was destroyed in the war. Of course, nobody wants to hear a word of it, because the bomb was dropped by our American friends. They had us believe it was an accident.”

“How is that?”

“People were scared. The Americans used to have an army base in the village, top secret. I know, it all sounds like some bad movie. Is this the potato farm with scarecrow hamburger?”


“Nothing. I’m a poet trying to sell souvenirs in my spare time,” the man cracked a smile. “They say young soldiers were lured to that weird place, all of them have vanished like fog.”


“They were killed by an old legend. Groundless rumour, I stick to true love story, you know, how does wind extinguish candles and fans fires – We all deserve to die once in a lifetime – ”

“The legend of Ari Arban?” I insisted.

The man fixed his eyes on me. “D’you know what Ari Arban means? A-R-I-A-R-B-A-N.” He spelled cautiously, lowering his voice to emphasize the drama, “ ‘A rose is a rose by another name’.”

“You mean a rose like this?” I removed the red flower from my chest pocket.

The fisherman narrowed his eyes, his jaw dropping a tad. “My sweet goodness!” he mumbled weakly. “You’ve done it, young man! Now there’s no way back!’

Ten years after my return to the inhabited world, I worked as a forensic researcher at the municipal police headquarter. Obviously, my professor’s oracle didn’t come out; I was not the unparalleled virtuosity he had expected of me. At the job interview, my future director had informed me about an unclosed case classified under a curious dossier name: Maîtresse de la mort. The eponymous women’s club was noted for their revolutionary cures of rejuvenation. Over the years these women had gathered a circle of powerful patrons, including celebrities from soap stars to politicians. Appalled as well as admired, the notorious association of modern witches certainly knew how to whip up and play the media attention. However, people seemed to believe in some way that they were linked to the mysterious disappearance of young men in the city. The police failed to find successful evidences. The suspects practised the cherished old tradition in which they excelled like no other,  “Tea, the inspiration for eternal youth” being their soul-liberating mantra.

The New Year’s party took place in the city hall. I had accepted the invitation from the mayor because he wanted me to meet someone. “A very special lady. She is flesh and bone of our country’s past. I recall you once have written a famous article on the oldest tea, haven’t you? Well then you must talk to her. Something tells me your paths are entwined – if not joined.” The mayor smiled quirkily.

“What was her name again, Sir?” I asked, a little reserved.

“Guess? No?” The mayor beamed as if the press was taking more pictures. “The lady has been inspired by you, she told me. Speaking of the devil. May I introduce: madam Ari Arban, the owner of the club that has made our city famous – ”

As she approached, her birdcage veil fluttered in the flickering candlelight like a crow. Yeah, that’s it, like a crow, pacing back and forth, you’ll never hear the end of it! I could hear the rustling whispers of her evening dress one-hued with her lips, blood red, burning and fiery as my secret desire. She didn’t bat her eyes: two dusky marbles wrapped in age-old dust. Her presence oozed the perfume I remembered and never forgot. She didn’t change. I squeezed the hand she offered me. She pulled back her black lace veil. Leaning over towards her, I plucked up my courage and muttered in her ear: “What kind of love would drive a man for miles through solid rock? Songbirds. At long last.” And then to my astonishment, I pressed my lips on her ivory, pulsing throat.

She shuddered gawking at me, her soft, dim eyes widened.

“But you were that boy, weren’t you? You were the young student who died ten years ago in Rose Ash during a scientific quest for the oldest tea tree. You lost your way and slipped into the ravine. When they found your body, you held a charred branch close in your arms. It was the New Year’s Eve, black rain poured like rats. I remember it was in the same night my own Ari Arban in the garden gave me her first flower after so many nursing years. Wait. I cut the newspaper the next day and have kept it with me ever since.”

She opened her purse and handed me the shred of foxed paper.

The black and white photo showed a young men with a burnt, charcoal black stick clenched in his hands. He had my face, my clothes and my hair from exactly ten years ago, with a bone made of water next to him that sings me lullaby, like a midnight express taking a band of lovers to their immortal mistress –


 de la mort 5


The Stone Forest or Shilin  is a notable set of limestone formations located in  Yunnan Province, China. Shilin is about 120 km from Kunming, the provincial capital.

de la mort 4

Men laden with tea on the Tea Horse Road, a.k.a. the Southern Silk Road, photo by Ernest H. Wilson, 1908.

julie 超辣

Determined dreamer. Published author in English, Dutch, and Chinese. Former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) captain turned artist entrepreneur and screenwriter. She survived the Cultural Revolution as a baby. In the 1990’s she left for London and has lived and worked in free exile ever since. Her work covers a wide spectrum. As journalist, she creates content covering a range of topics on contemporary China from an insider perspective. In 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, she hosted a 5-episode talk show TV China for Netherlands’ national broadcaster and discussed China’s media landscape with media stars and experts from both China and the Netherlands. From 2013-2016 she was the Editor-in-Chief of the English/Chinese bilingual magazine XiN 新, focusing on today’s China shaped by consumerism. O’yang contributes a weekly column to Hoje Macau on contemporary Chinese art and culture. Her English language book titles include: Butterfly, a historical crime love story set in the Second World War. Since May 2016 O'yang has been collaborating with Flemish photographer Filip Naudts on an art project, which has resulted in the photo novel The Picture of Dorya Glenn. Julie works from the Netherlands and Denmark.

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  1. A wonderful story, Julie. So enjoyable. You have a way of marrying different cultures and linking fact and fable to art. Keep up the great work!

  2. Thank you, Walt! So great to see you!

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