Lanning, Brian: The Death of Greatness

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The Death of Greatness

By Brian Lanning

“Then Sun Ch’uan asked Lü Meng, saying, ‘If he fly to a distance, how can he be captured?’ ‘The divination exactly fits in with my schemes,’ replied he, ‘and though Kuan had wings to soar to the skies he would not escape my net.’” I’m reading in my living room on a comfortable rocking chair with my feet on a little footrest. I can smell the pages of the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms; they have that nice “old book” smell like dried-out leaves in autumn. I’m reading about a chaotic time in China, and numerous characters and events, but I can find myself only thinking about Kuan Yu, the man that Sun Ch’uan and Lü Meng are plotting against. The great and invincible Kuan Yu, with his hundred-pound halberd and his long flowing beard, giving him the nick-name “Kuan Yu of the beard.” This is the end of the chapter, so I close the book and put it on the ledge next to me. I slouch down in my rocking chair, knowing full well that these two imps could never defeat the great Kuan Yu.

After slouching comfortably for a minute or two I get up to walk around, and take some pacing steps around my living room. The warm carpet feels nice and relaxing on my socked-feet. I’m not pacing in anxiety or anything, just getting the blood flowing again. I’ve been in that chair reading for about an hour now and just felt like moving. I can hear the soothing sounds of the rain hitting the roof. I feel secure in this room. The room has this nice warm lighting, where it’s not too bright, nor too dark; that’s why I always do my reading in this room. “Maybe,” I think, “I’ll just read another chapter before going to bed.” I stretch my chest, and feel a nice, light pulling in the front of my shoulders.

I return to the chair and ease into it, putting my feet back on the little footrest. I pick the book back up from the ledge, open it up and smell that sweet autumn fragrance emanating and lingering. “When Kuan Yu mustered his fighting men in the city, he had but three hundred, all told.” I let out a little chuckle. These would seem like dire straits to anyone who was not familiar with the hardships that the great Kuan Yu has overcome in his lifetime. This is the man that road out of a kingdom alone and had to slay six officers in order to escape. This is the man that knowingly went to a banquet designed to assassinate him, and walked out unscathed holding the host in the air. His enemies, the country of Wu, is led by Sun Ch’uan and his adviser Lü Meng. They have devised a ploy to make Kuan Yu’s entire troop defect to Wu.

Their plans are working out fine for them, but I’m still comfortable in my chair knowing that Kuan Yu is worth a thousand soldiers. However, to hold a city you’ll need more men and resources than they have. They decide to retreat by a certain path leading out of the castle. “Wang Fu opposed it, pointing out that they would surely fall into an ambush. The main road would be safer. ‘There may be an ambush, but do I fear that?’ said the old warrior. Orders were given to be ready to march.” I lift my eyes from the page and smile. You have to love a great hero that knows that he’s a great hero.

After a couple of laughs I continue my reading, and guess what, they’ve gotten ambushed. “Soon appeared a large force with Chu Jan at their head. He came dashing forward, and summoned the small party to surrender if they would save their lives. But Kuan Yu whipped his steed to a gallop and bore down on the leader with anger in his eyes. Then Chu Jan ran away.” “Smart man,” I think to myself. Another small fit of laughter escapes me. What is Wu thinking? You can’t capture or kill the great Kuan Yu, you can only hope that you’re not the one in his path. Lifting my eyes from the pages, I look at the light bulbs.

I love doing this in this room, because these light-bulbs don’t give me that “sun-spot” in the middle of my vision, so I just get the warm feelings that brightness give. I roll my shoulder in its socket just to stretch it out a little bit. I shift some in my seat because my legs are getting a little numb. Returning my eyes to the page, I’m trying to see if I was right about the lack of “sun-spot.” Yep, I’m right, no “sun-spot.”

Another ambush by another captain, and another captain flees from Kuan Yu. I start shaking my head thinking about the stupid persistence of Wu generals. Seriously, why would you engage someone in battle if you were just going to run away? “It doesn’t matter,” I say to myself, “just read.” “Presently the small party stumbled into another ambush, and the men thrust forth hooks and threw ropes. Entangled in these, Kuan Yu’s horse fell, and Kuan Yu reeled out of the saddle.” “This can’t be good,” is frantically repeating through my head. “In a moment he was a prisoner.”

But at least he’s still alive. As long as the great Kuan Yu is alive, there is nothing to fear. I’ve noticed that my leg is twitching, and that nice comfortable warmth has turned into humid heat. I feel itchy all over. I start scratching my ears; they’re itching the worst. I pull my hat off and rub my hair, pulling the hat back over my head very tightly. The air is way too sticky, and I can’t seem to get a breath of fresh air. I cover my mouth with my left fist, and cough a little bit.

Sitting up straight in the chair and staring fiercely at the pages I start reading quickly. The generals of Wu have brought Kuan Yu before Sun Ch’uan. Sun Ch’uan asks him to switch sides to Wu. “But Kuan Yu only answered roughly, ‘You green-eyed boy! You red-bearded rat!’” I’m thinking “Ahhh… this is where the great Kuan Yu is going to slaughter everybody in the room, whether he’s bound or not!” One of Sun Ch’uan’s generals says that evil will come if they spare Kuan Yu. “Sun Ch’uan reflected for some time. ‘You are right,’ said he presently, and gave the order for execution.” “This can’t be!” My mind is frantic; they’ve just executed the invincible Kuan Yu. His death was at the hands of men that combined couldn’t exist as the great Kuan Yu’s pinkie-finger.

I stand up in haste, throwing the book to the floor, shove my feet into my shoes without tying them, and then walk out into the rain. It’s pitch-dark outside. It’s cold. I look up and try to see the moon. There is no moon. There aren’t even any stars out tonight, just the rain. I’m looking around for some form of celestial light, but all that I can see is one flickering light bulb. How is this one light bulb going to brighten the darkness?

I’m shivering, I’m soaked, and I need a cigarette. I pull my pack out of my pocket and grab one. It’s been out of the box for like two-goddamn-seconds and it’s already wet. I’m looking down as I’m lighting it, cupping my hand around the lighter so that the wind and the rain don’t extinguish it. I can see the wet blacktop. The water passing over it is the blackest thing that I’ve ever seen. To me it seems like emptiness in motion, this black-liquid coming from nowhere, heading nowhere, and washing away whatever it can find.

I find that my imagination has been washed away. I’m trying to think. About Kuan Yu, about my life, about anything. Nothing is coming to mind. There is a black void where all of my fancies and aspirations of greatness used to fill. This is uncomfortable. For the past three-weeks my imagination has been running loose. Everything I’ve thought about or thought-up has been wild and epic; I was plotting world-domination schemes and ways to restore the chaotic order of great Kuan Yu’s time.

Now it feels like there is no point to having great fantasies, or to become great at all. The greatest hero this world has ever known met an ignoble end at the hands of inferior men. Reading about this man’s life had given me hope that greatness would resound through history. He’s in books, movies, and video games; but none of it matters. His life was washed away, leaving me feeling empty. The cigarette is done, the end is still glowing but there’s not much more to smoke. I drop it on the wet blacktop and hear the hiss of the embers being extinguished. The cigarette-butt starts washing away. There is a poem in this novel that keeps resounding in my head. Normally, I’d be able to visualize what it says, but now I can only remember the words and can’t see the dragon or the phoenix. “The dragon in a puddle is the sport of shrimps, the phoenix in a cage is mocked of small birds.”

Copyright © 2003 Brian Lanning