By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908), from Stories, out this month from Dalkey Archive Press. Translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil.
Do you know about the academies of Siam? I am well aware that there have never been any academies in Siam, but suppose that there were, and that there were four of them, and just listen to my tale.
Upon seeing a cluster of milky-colored fireflies fluttering throughout the night sky, the stars used to claim that they were the sighs of the King of Siam, who was entertaining himself with his three hundred concubines. And winking slyly at one another, they’d ask:
“Oh royal sighs, what is our handsome Kalaphangko up to this night?”
To which the fireflies replied solemnly:
“We are the sublime thoughts of the four academies of Siam. We carry with us all the wisdom of the universe.”
One night, there were so many fireflies that the stars took fright and took refuge in alcoves; the fireflies took over the space that was left behind and stayed there forever. They were called the Milky Way.
This enormous ascension of thoughts stemmed from the fact that the four academies wished to answer this curious question: Why are there feminine men and masculine women? It was the temperament of their young king that led them to pose this question. Kalaphangko was practically a lady. Every ounce of his being exuded the most exquisite femininity: he had honeyed eyes, a silvery voice, an effeminate, submissive posture, and true aversion to arms. The warriors of Siam bemoaned their lot, but the rest of the nation lived a merry life, full of dances, comedies, and songs, after the manner of their king, who cared for little else. Thus the stars’ misconception.
This went on until, suddenly, one of the academies discovered this solution to the problem:
“Some souls are masculine, others feminine. The anomaly in question is a matter of a soul in the wrong body.”
“Not so,” cried the other three academies. “The soul is neuter, it has nothing to do with this external contrast.”
Nothing more was needed to stain the alleys and canals of Bangkok with academic blood. First came controversy, then disorder, and, finally, an attack. It wasn’t all that bad in the early stages of the conflict: the rival groups never hurled a single insult that wasn’t scrupulously derived from the Sanskrit, which was the scholarly language, the Latin of Siam. But after that they became shameless. The enmity grew, tousling its hair, putting its hands on its hips, and lowering itself to the mud, resorting to flinging rocks, fisticuffs, and vulgar gestures, until the academy in favor of gendered souls, exasperated, decided to put an end to the three others and prepared a sinister plan . . . Oh you winds that blow past me, if only you would take these pages with you, so that I’d never have to relate the tragedy of Siam! It pains me — oh, woe is me! — it pains me to describe such extraordinary vengeance. The academics secretly took arms and went out after the others, at the very moment that these other academics, bent in study over the famous question, were sending a cloud of fireflies into the heavens. The former fell upon the latter, seething with rage. Those who managed to escape weren’t free for long; pursued and attacked, they died on the banks of the river, aboard barges, and in darkened alleys. All told, there were thirty-eight corpses. They cut off the ear of one of the leaders and used it to make a necklace and some bracelets for the victorious president, the glorious U-Tong. Drunk with victory, they celebrated their success with a great feast, at which they sang this magnificent hymn: “Glory to us, who are the rice of science and the lantern of the universe.”
The city awoke in shock. The multitude was overcome with fear. No one could absolve such a cruel, ugly action; some went so far as to doubt their own eyes . . . Only one person approved of it: the beautiful Kinnara, the jewel of the royal concubines.
Languidly lying at the feet of beautiful Kinnara, the young king asked her for a song.
“I’ll sing no other tune but this: I believe that souls have a sex.”
“What an absurd belief, Kinnara.”
“So, Your Majesty believes that the soul is neuter?”
“That, too, is absurd, Kinnara. No, I don’t believe that the soul is neuter, nor that the soul has a sex.”
“But what, then, does Your Majesty believe, if you don’t believe in either of these?”
“I believe in your eyes, Kinnara, which are the sun and the light of the universe.”
“But you must choose: either you believe that souls are neuter, and you punish the lone remaining academy, or you believe that souls have a sex, and you pardon it.”
“How delicious your mouth is, my sweet Kinnara! I believe in your mouth; it is the font of all wisdom.”
Kinnara got up, agitated. Just as the king was a feminine man, Kinnara was a masculine woman — a buffalo with the feathers of a swan. It was the buffalo who, at this moment, was storming out of the bedroom, but seconds later it was the swan who stopped and leaned her long neck down to her king, requesting and receiving, between caresses, a decree proclaiming that the doctrine of gendered souls was legitimate and orthodox, the other being absurd and perverse. On this same day the decree was sent out to the triumphant academy, and to every pagoda, mandarin, and the entire kingdom. The academy lit its festive lanterns and peace was restored throughout the land.
Meanwhile, beautiful Kinnara had developed an ingenious secret plan. One night, while the king was studying some documents pertaining to the State, she asked him whether his subjects paid their taxes on time.
“Ohimè!” he exclaimed, repeating a word that had stuck with him after he heard it from an Italian missionary. “Very few taxes have been paid. I didn’t want to give the order to cut off the taxpayers’ heads . . . No, I could never do it. Bloodshed? Bloodshed? No, I don’t want any bloodshed.”
“And what if I had a solution to this problem?”
“What is it?”
“Your Majesty decreed that souls are feminine or masculine,” began Kinnara, after giving him a kiss. “Suppose that the souls in our two bodies have been switched. All we need to do is return the soul to its rightful body. We can switch bodies . . . ”
Kalaphangko laughed loudly at this proposal, and asked her how they’d go about making the switch. She responded that they’d use the method of Mukunda, the king of the Hindus, who entered the corpse of a Brahman, while a jester entered the vacant body of Mukunda — an old legend that has been passed down to the Turks, Persians, and Christians. Okay, what about the words of the invocation? Kinnara stated that she knew them; an old bonze had discovered a copy of them in the ruins of a temple.
“So, we’ll do it?”
“I don’t even believe in my own decree,” he retorted, laughing, “but why not? If it’s really true, let’s switch bodies . . . but only for half a year, no longer. At the end of this period we’ll switch back.”
They decided to do it that very night. While the rest of the city slept, they summoned the royal canoe, got in, and let the current carry it. None of the rowers noticed them. When dawn appeared on the horizon, whipping the resplendent cows that pulled it along, Kinnara proffered the mysterious invocation. Her soul detached from her body and floated above her, waiting for the king’s body to become empty as well. Her body fell to the carpeted floor of the canoe.
“Ready?” said Kalaphangko.
“Ready, I’m waiting up here in the air. Please excuse the undignified state of my body, Your Majesty . . . ”
But the king’s soul didn’t hear the rest. Swift and scintillating, it left its physical vessel and entered Kinnara’s body, while her soul took possession of that royal reward. Both bodies arose and looked at each other — just imagine their astonishment. It was the same situation as Buoso and the snake, according to what old Dante has to say; but take note of my audacity here. The poet silenced both Ovid and Lucan, believing that his metamorphosis outdid both of theirs. And I silence all three of them. Buoso and the serpent never crossed paths again, while my two heroes, once switched, keep conversing and living together, which is even more obviously Dantesque, and this fact imbues me with modesty.
“Truly,” said Kalaphangko, “this business of looking at myself and calling myself ‘Your Majesty’ is quite odd. Doesn’t Your Majesty feel the same way?”
And both of them felt fine, like people who have finally found the perfect house for themselves. Kalaphangko luxuriated in the feminine curves of Kinnara’s body. Kinnara, for her part, became stiff in the rigid torso of Kalaphangko. Siam had a king at last.
The first action taken by Kalaphangko (from here on out the body of the king with Kinnara’s soul will go by that name, and the body of the beautiful Siamese woman with Kalaphangko’s soul will be called Kinnara) was nothing less than to bestow the highest honors on the gendered academy. He didn’t elevate its members to the ranks of mandarins, for these were men of contemplation rather than action or administration, given to philosophy and literature; but he decreed that all must bow in reverence before them, as is customary with mandarins. Furthermore, he presented them with extravagant gifts, things of great rarity or value: stuffed-and-mounted crocodiles, marble chairs, emerald eating utensils, diamonds, and relics. The academy, grateful for all the favor shown, also requested the official right to use the title Light of the World, which was granted to them.
Having done all this, Kalaphangko turned his attention to public finances, the justice system, religion, and ceremonial matters. The nation began to feel the “great weight,” to borrow a phrase from the sublime Camões, for no fewer than eleven delinquent taxpayers were soon decapitated. All the others, naturally, preferring their heads to their money, made haste to pay their tariffs, and everything got back to normal. The justice system and legislature improved greatly. New pagodas were constructed, and even the religion seemed to gain new life, ever since Kalaphangko, imitating the ancient Spanish techniques, ordered that a dozen poor Christian missionaries who were in the area be burned at the stake; all the bonzes in the kingdom called this the pearl of his reign.
All that lacked was a war. Kalaphangko, under more or less diplomatic pretexts, attacked a neighboring kingdom and carried out the swiftest and most glorious campaign of the century. Upon returning to Bangkok, he was greeted with lavish celebrations. Thirty ships, wrapped in scarlet and blue silks, went out to meet him. Each of these had a golden swan or dragon on its prow and was manned by the city’s finest inhabitants. Music and applause thundered through the air. That night, the festivities over, his beautiful concubine whispered in his ear:
“My young warrior, fill this void I felt in your absence, tell me that the greatest celebration of all is your gentle Kinnara.”
Kalaphangko responded with a kiss.
“Your lips contain the chill of death or disdain,” she sighed.
It was true, the king was distracted and preoccupied; he was contemplating an atrocity. The end of the half year was approaching and they would have to switch back; he intended to do away with that stipulation by killing the beautiful Siamese woman. He hesitated only because he didn’t know whether he would also suffer in her death, seeing as the body was his, or whether he might even expire as well. This was Kalaphangko’s plan, but the thought of his own death darkened his countenance as he held a flask of poison close to his chest, in imitation of the Borgias.
Suddenly, his thoughts turned to the erudite academy. He could consult with them, not candidly, but hypothetically. He sent for the academics and all of them came, save the president, the illustrious U-Tong, who was ill. There were thirteen altogether, and they prostrated themselves before the king, saying, after the manner of the Siamese:
“We, worthless weeds, run to attend the call of Kalaphangko.”
“Rise up,” said the king, benevolently.
“The proper place of dust is on the ground,” they insisted, their elbows and knees on the ground.
“Then I shall be the wind that raises the dust,” rejoined Kalaphangko. And with a gesture filled with grace and tolerance, he extended his hand to them.
He then began to talk about various subjects right away, so that the subject at hand would come up of its own accord. He spoke of the latest news from the west and the Hindu law of Manu. U-Tong was brought up, and the king asked them whether he really was a great sage, as he seemed to be; seeing that they mumbled their response, he ordered them to tell him the whole truth. They confessed, with striking unanimity, that U-Tong was one of the most remarkably stupid people in the entire kingdom, a shallow soul of no worth at all, who knew nothing and was incapable of learning. Kalaphangko was shocked. An idiot?
“It pains us to say so, but it’s simply the truth: he’s a shallow, hollow soul. He has an excellent heart, and his character is pure and noble.”
Kalaphangko, when he came back from the shock to his senses, sent the academics away without having asked them what he wanted to know. An idiot? It was necessary to remove him from his position without offending him. Three days later, U-Tong showed up in response to the king’s summons. The king affectionately asked after his health, and afterward said that he wanted to send someone to Japan to study some manuscripts, a matter that could only be entrusted to an enlightened individual. Which of his colleagues from the academy did he think would be suitable for such a matter? Make note of the king’s clever scheme: he would consider two or three suggested names and conclude that he preferred U-Tong himself to all the others. But U-Tong replied thus:
“My Royal Lord, please forgive the frankness of these words: those thirteen men are all camels, the only difference being that camels are modest, and these men are not. They compare themselves to the sun and the moon. But in truth, neither the moon nor the sun ever shined on such exceptional imbeciles as these thirteen . . . I understand Your Majesty’s surprise, but I would not be worthy of my position if I didn’t tell you this in all honesty, albeit in confidence . . . ”
Kalaphangko’s jaw dropped. Thirteen camels? Thirteen, thirteen. U-Tong’s only word in their favor was that they all had good hearts, which he declared to be excellent; no one was superior when it came to the question of character. Kalaphangko, with a graceful gesture of complacency, dismissed the glorious U-Tong and turned pensive. No one knows the nature of his reflections. It’s understood that he sent for the other academics, but each one separately this time, so that what he was doing wouldn’t be obvious, and in order to encourage greater candor. The first to arrive, although he was unaware of U-Tong’s opinion, confirmed what he said in full, the only correction being that there were twelve camels, or thirteen if you counted U-Tong. The second didn’t differ in opinion, nor did the third, nor did any of the remaining academics. They differed in style alone; some said “camels,” while others used circumlocutions and metaphors, which relayed the same meaning. Nonetheless, there was never any attack made on the moral character of the academics. Kalaphangko was astonished.
But this was not the last shock that the king would receive. Unable to consult the academy, he attempted to deliberate on his own, which he did for two days, at which point the beautiful Kinnara told him, in secret, that she was to be a mother. This news made him recoil from the planned crime. How could he destroy the chosen vessel for the flower that would bloom the coming spring? He swore to heaven and earth that the child would be born and survive. The end of the arranged term arrived and, with it, the time to switch bodies.
Just like the first time, they got into the royal canoe at night and let themselves be carried downriver, against both of their wills, feeling empty longing for the body they were going to restore to the other. When the shining cattle of dawn began slowly to tread the sky, they proffered the mysterious incantation, and each soul was returned to its former body. Upon returning to hers, Kinnara felt a maternal sensation, just as she had felt a paternal one while she occupied the body of Kalaphangko. It even seemed to her that she was, at once, both the child’s mother and father.
“Father and mother?” repeated the king, restored to his prior form.
They were interrupted by enchanting music coming from afar. It was some junk or canoe coming upriver, for the music was swiftly approaching. The sun had already flooded the waters and verdant banks with light, lending an undertone of life and rebirth to the scene, which, in some measure, helped the two lovers forget their psychic restoration. And the music kept coming closer, clearer now, until a magnificent boat rounded a bend in the river and appeared before them, adorned with feathers and banners. In it were the fourteen members of the academy (including U-Tong), and in unison they raised their voices to the heavens, singing that old hymn: “Glory to us, who are the rice of science and the light of the world!”
Beautiful Kinnara (formerly Kalaphangko) stared in astonishment, her eyes bulging. She couldn’t understand how it was that fourteen men gathered together in an academy could be the light of the world yet individually be a bunch of camels. She consulted Kalaphangko, who could offer no explanation. If someone should happen to find an answer, you could render service to one of the most lovely ladies in the Orient by sending her a sealed letter, or better yet, for added security, a letter sent in care of our consul in Shanghai, China.