By Roshita Narasimhan
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 2nd contest was Evolution.
Whuribumi Province, Majapahit Empire(Java), 1408 AD (Gregorian Calendar)
“So, these are some of them?”
“Yes, Bhre, hunters found a tribe of them in the hills”
“And these definitely aren’t … monkeys?”
“No. One of the farmers came from one of the villages there, and he recognized them. He had seen one of them as a child, but never saw them up close. He says that they are definitely not monkeys. He says that they were way too large to be monkeys. ”
“Agreed, upon closer inspection. Too large, also not enough hair. Wrong color. Send one of them to the King.”
“This… creature might be valuable. The King does have that herd of small elephants that they found in Nipa, after all.”
The King’s Palace, Majapahit, Wilwatikta, Majapahit Empire (Java), 1409 AD
“The Chinese have come yet again.”
“Of course. We already gave them what they wanted, but they want to ensure that we don’t attack any of their envoys again.”
“Should we give them more gold?”
“No, eventually they will tire of it. However…. I need to get to the gardens. I think I have the best gift for the Chinese. Something they can’t possibly get anywhere else.”
The Imperial Palace, Nanjing, the Great Ming Empire, July, 1411 AD
“Behold, your Imperial Majesty, the king Alakeshvara and his subjects!”
Zheng He, Chief Envoy, presented his prisoners before the Yongle Emperor. Zheng He, during his Third Voyage at sea, had come across the kingdom of Kotte, under Alakeshvara, threatening various allies of the Great Ming through piracy and invasion. Zheng He marched with 2000 troops into Ceylon, when Alakeshvara cut him off from the rest of his treasure fleet. He and his troops proceeded to invade Kotte, and capture the King, his family, and his officials, overthrowing them in the process.
The Emperor examined the king momentarily, looking down at the Sinhalese monarch from his throne, before announcing to the Court, “I hereby release King Alakeshvara and his family to be returned to Ceylon. We will also explore within the Ministry of Rites to have a replacement for his rule.”
The Sinhalese captives were lead away as Zheng He stepped forward once again. He had been presenting the various treasures that he had been given over the past few years. Zheng He had already undertaken two other journeys on behalf of the Yongle Emperor. He had explored various lands south of the Great Ming. The neighboring kingdom of Champa, the Southern kingdoms of Malacca and Java, and the distant kingdoms of Ceylon, Cochin, and Calicut.
He contacted kingdoms, settled disputes with those who had opposed the Ming, and had received gifts and treasures to bring back to the Emperor. He would transport envoys from the various kingdoms to present their gifts before the Emperor. Though, sometimes, he was forced to intervene to ensure that the interests of the Great Ming were maintained, like what had happened in Ceylon during his latest voyage.
“ We have an envoy from the Majapahits in Java, prepared to give two tributes to his Imperial Majesty”
He gestured as the two envoys from Majapahit , dressed in their traditional garb entered the palace.
The Emperor watched the two men approach. He had already made the decision to move the capital back to Beipang, or Beijing as it was now called, as a precaution against potential invasion and after he had ordered this third voyage, he had left to supervise the construction of his new imperial grounds there, where he, his family, and the bureaucrats could live. To receive the Eunuch commander and his fleet, he was back in Nanjing. He was greatly interested in these voyages, and the treasures and peoples that he had discovered and interacted with. That said, as the two diplomats talked, the manner of the continued campaign against the Mongols still occupied his thoughts, and he seemed to largely tone out whatever it was
The Ming and Javanese had a difficult relationship. The Majapahit kings had continually defied the Ming. Several years ago, during their Civil War, 150 diplomats were killed when they landed in East Java by forces allied to the king of West Java, Wikramawardhana, when they landed in the Eastern territories of his rival. After a forced reprimand by the Emperor, and Zheng He’s visit, they made a gold payment of 60000 ounces.
“We have some final treasures to show his Imperial Majesty.”
Zheng He had been told to monitor the Javanese, since their attack on Chinese diplomats. Apparently, these gifts were to further smooth out relations between their two nations.
One of them gestured towards the door, and another one of their envoy emerged to reveal one of them with what appeared to be a small elephant, not taller than a man. However, it appeared to have the tusks of a fully grown elephant.
“This elephant came from a whole herd that was its same size. This is a fully mature elephant, yet it still is small.”
The Court was intrigued. There were elephants in the Middle Kingdom thousands of years ago, but they rarely ever saw one now. They knew that they were supposed to massive. Still, this elephant, with its long straight tusks, resembled those from the statues and paintings depicting elephants
Zheng He recalled the confusion of him and his crew upon being presented this creature in Java. He had seen Elephants in Champa, Cochin, and Calicut, and he had come to expect them to be fully grown when they had large tusks.
What was shown was an elephant with strange long, straight tusks, that was only the size of a man, yet by all appearances was a fully mature elephant. This was a very interesting and valuable gift to be given to the Emperor. Though not nearly as interesting as…
Anyway, the Emperor continued to examine the creature, with its long tusks pointing directly at the Emperor. The elephant, for its part, just stood, and waved its head around.
“This animal shall have a fine home in my Imperial Gardens.” The Son of Heaven finally announced to the Court. “You said you had a second creature?” he added to the Javanese envoys, as the elephant was led away to be transported to the Imperial Gardens elsewhere in Nanjing.
“Yes, though it might be far different than anything you have ever seen. Yet, there would be a strange familiarness to the proceedings you might appreciate”
Zheng He certainly thought that when he first saw it back in Majapahit. Through the journey, both to Calicut and then back to the Middle Kingdom, the crew initially feared it, seeing it as a possible demon, dangerous and potentially cursed, which would cause the fleet to sink. However, over time, it proved harmless and the voyage went over with great success, so their fear gave way to fascination with the strange thing. How it ate, how it walked, how it communicated.
The attendant finally emerged, and next to him, held by a rope around the attendant’s hand, was what appeared to be a child, much shorter than the attendant. However, as they approached, it became clear that this was no ordinary child.
It had long unkempt hair, all over its body. It’s frame appeared to be bulkier and stubbier than any child, or indeed, any man that they had ever seen. Its belly and breasts flopped down Its face looked vaguely like a man, but more resembled that of a monkey, squat with large eyes and nostrils.
As they walked, the Small Man grunted and snarled like an animal. He walked hunched over, almost as if a monkey had learned to walk. It looked around at the other patrons of the court, who looked on with fascination.
The envoy and Small Man stopped in front of the Emperor, who stared at the beast, examining it closely.
“Is this a man?”
“It looks like a man, certainly, but these creatures don’t appear to have the traits that give men knowledge. They are more like monkeys.”
Zheng himself had seen the gardens where the King kept him and his tribe. They lived simply, forest men who lived like nomads. They had no language, but appeared to understand each other and their intentions.
“What do these… men eat?”
“They eat both plants and animals. Apparently, they had been notorious in the hills for many years for stealing rice grains harvested by farmers.”
“There are a race of these creatures?”
“Yes, we have found others since this one was caught a couple years ago.”
The Emperor turned and called the Chief Envoy before him.
“Can you confirm the statement from the envoy.
“Yes.” Zheng explained that the Majapahit King himself had told him that the thing had been found in the mountains by a group of hunters. There were rumors of them for many years, but these were the first physical manifestations of them. They were also apparently found on the same island of Nipa that the small elephant had been found, based on what some of their surveyors had told the King.
The Emperor sat back in his throne for a bit, before addressing the envoy again.
“This is certainly a big gift. I shall act accordingly.”
He called for the official calligrapher, Shen Du to come, and paint the creature as it had appeared in the Imperial Court. Just as the calligrapher was leaving to do so, the small man suddenly began to approach the Emperor.
The Emperor, already towering over the tiny man, stood in his magnificent Imperial Yellow robes. The Small Man stared up in awe of him, his mouth agape at his presence.
The Emperor then unexpectedly knelt, and slowly extended his hand. The small man winced, before extending his own hand towards the Emperor. The hand of the Small Man in the Emperor’s palm resembled that of a newborn upon that of its mother. The hand of the Small Man rested upon the palm of the Son of Heaven for several minutes, before the Small Man withdrew it. The envoy pulled the Small Man back to his side
The Emperor stood again, and returned to his throne. He turned to the two Javanese envoys, and brought them before him
“These were truly impressive gifts given to us by your king. An excellent tribute, hopefully signaling a new era between our kingdoms.”
He then turned to the Court.
“Upon the completion of the painting, the Small Man shall be given a home within the Imperial Garden.”
Unlike the previous creature, the envoy remained with the Small Man, to remain for the official painting. In the meantime, the Emperor called Zheng He to his side.
“You are aware this voyage was issued as your Second Voyage was underway?”
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty.”
“I have not yet issued such an edict for the next voyage you will undertake. However, with the success of this current voyage, I will likely issue the next edict in a short while.”
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty”
“ However, I will say that, given there are likely more, to maybe make a stop by the Island of Nipa on your next voyage.”
Island of Nipa, 1414 AD
Sunwalker led his small tribe to the beach, with their spears at hand. They had rarely ever come to the beach. However, a rival tribe had driven them from their homeland, and a roughskin had attacked them while they were fleeing.
Sunwalker breathed a sigh of relief, and his tribe dispersed to find food, mostly walkers in the sand and swimmers in the sea. Sunwalker was glad the tribe could finally find food. The Longnose they had killed for food couldn’t have sustained them for very long.
He waded in the ocean in search of a swimmer, finally catching sight of one, and stabbing it at just the right moment. Sunwalker triumphantly yelled, and raised the swimmer, still moving on the spear, before the others. He was about to leave when he saw something in the distance.
It was a large brown round object, with something red poking up from it. It looked vaguely like the ships of the Large Men, who stalked the island on occasion. However, this was far larger than any Large Men ship he had ever seen.
Sunwalker squinted, and found that more ships emerging. Others in the tribe started to see them as well, and retreated for land. Sunwalker kept his spear at hand, but kept it to the side. He would have to assess any danger as it comes.