Any Skillful Minister
Updated: Jan 16
'...Brocheux does look majestic in his layered, finely pleated skirts. He has stitched several embroidered jackets together so that they fit across his back.'
Any Skillful Minister
by Julian Barrett
“But if any skillful minister of nature shall apply force to matter, and by design torture and vex it, in order to effect its annihilation, it, on the contrary being brought under this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; for nothing but the power of the creator can annihilate, or truly destroy it.”
- Sir Francis Bacon
In the closing months of last year, local newspapers out of Yunnan province, south-eastern China, began reporting on a strange discovery. In the south of that region, near the border with Vietnam, a fisherman and his son recovered a skull from a tributary of the Red River. It was not so much the skull itself that was interesting but rather what was found inside that set off such a flurry of reportage and speculation. An enormous gold nugget, as big as a man’s fist, was lodged deep in the throat. Upon X-ray, the gold was found to have filled the entire oral cavity, worked its way up into the nasal cavity, into the temporal-mandibular joint and fused the jaw bone in place. It had also penetrated through the back of the throat so that the first vertebra was still attached. It was suggested that this could only be possible if molten gold had been poured into the mouth while the flesh and musculature was still intact. The skull was that of an otherwise healthy male and had clearly been submerged for a great many years. Homicide was not ruled out. Representatives of the State Mineral and Metallurgy Department were dispatched to the region and soon the gold, rather than its receptacle, became the focus of official attention. It had long been held that the region harboured vast deposits of gold, but no prospecting efforts had yet been successful.
At this point, as is wont to happen in that part of the world, the reportage, if not the speculation, fell silent.
Hanoï. 2nd of October, 1895.
This is the journal of Dr. Gaston Hémery, Physician and (self-appointed) Botanist to the D’Aurbie expedition out of Hanoï, Protectorate of Tonkin.
I understand the administration has big plans for Hanoï. As it stands now, it is a squalid, muddy little town on the bank of the Red River. I believe, at this point, the Tonkinois call it the Pink River and it is easy see to see why; it is the end of the rainy season and the waters are swollen and quite literally pink with silt. This will make the first leg of our journey, by Navy steamer to the falls at Lao Cai, all the more easier going. There are eight of us Frenchmen plus one H’mong interpreter and guide. Our expedition has been quite generously funded by the Société Géographique de Lyon. Mr. Brocheux represents the interests of the Lyon silk manufacturers while Mr. Roulin is our resident metallurgist. Our captain is Cpt. Olivier D’Aurbie, a Marseillais and a Navy man. Mr. Lavergne is an engineer with the Société d’études industrielles en Chine. The three crew members are Messrs Rivière, Belard and Brunat. What their motivation for joining this expedition might be I cannot say, but there are rumours of vast deposits of gold in the area into which we are headed. I have my doubts, however, as to the providence of the fantastical maps that were presented last year to the society. Nuggets as big as a man’s fist, they said. Well, time will tell.
Our goal is to navigate as far as possible up the Red River into Yunnan, then head west into the vast, mountainous and uncharted region of that province’s interior. Our quest is naturally of great interest to the Navy and merchants’ association out of Marseille, who seek to open a corridor from Kunming to the port at Haiphong – this would greatly expedite the export of raw silk and opium from the region.
My interests are somewhat more benevolent; collect specimens for the society, administer quinine and perhaps set a broken bone or two.
8th October, 1895
Easy going on the river. Limestone karsts on the horizon, shades of deep purple to soft violet to silver and gold. Beautiful. Children and buffalo on the banks run terrified from our little steamer, I don’t suppose they’ve ever seen an ironclad. Struck up an acquaintance with our H’mong interpreter, a fine fellow (though I have a suspicion that Mr. Paul is not his native name). Am very intrigued to see more of these people and their villages.
End of the easy going. We disembarked at the base of the magnificent waterfall at Lao Cai. We now trek overland and embark upon a smaller boat on the Chinese side.
The country here is much the same as upper Tonkin, and that is to say spectacularly beautiful. Magnificent rice terraces, feats of engineering at least on a par with our Suez (though I’m not sure Mr. Lavergne would agree). And there the engineers sleep in wooden huts perched precariously on their creation’s side. We thread through them in our rusty little steamer, not enough room for all the men to lie down on deck at once. Weather is dry. I am extremely content to watch the scenery pass by but can’t help feeling a little short changed by this pleasure cruise, I signed up for adventure, peril!
Beginning of adventure and peril. Disembarked at a small river village where the houses are built on stilts, right out into the swollen river. Now we head west into the hill country.
Moderately hard going, though perhaps too early to tell and this is the easy part. Terrain is steep but the ground is firm and the vegetation much sparser than the jungles of the south. Mr. Paul bounds ahead and carries his pack by a strap around his forehead.
We have reached the edge of the known universe, at least that one known to white men, there are H’mong dotted all through these hills. Yesterday we came upon one of their villages. Mr. Paul spoke to them, we acquired some supplies and the chief invited us to eat with them. They are a squat, dark skinned people and their costume is quite remarkable. They wear long skirts of thick black hemp, embroidered with vibrant oranges and greens. Their long-sleeved jackets are embroidered with the same and hung with beads and coins as decoration and symbols of prosperity. If our expedition is as successful as we hope it will be, I look forward to seeing this worn by ladies on the Champs-Élysées. Our charts stop here. Terrain remains much the same. We are steadily climbing.
Nights at our high altitude have been ghastly cold. Thankfully, we are beginning to descend into a vast basin and vegetation grows lusher with each passing hour. We had our first injury yesterday; Mr. Rivière was bitten by a snake. He was extremely lucky. It was a small and apparently non-venomous species. I expressed the wound and Mr. Paul did not seem too concerned by any of it. Mr. Rivière himself is of tough Cévenole stock, no stranger to snakes, I imagine. There is some swelling so we rest a day here and take this as a warning from Mother Nature to be vigilant.
Undocumented species of birds and insects. Fascinating. I have taken some specimens, though Captain D’Aurbie made it quite clear that this is not a zoological expedition and will not allow our progress to be impeded. He is right, of course, but I cannot help but resent the fact that I am unable make a more thorough study. The captain is a stern but, I think, fair man. If the expedition is a success it will make his career. And the careers of us all.
We find ourselves surrounded by such a magnificent abundance of flora and fauna. We passed under a grove where silk hung from the trees in such quantity that one could have made a cravat out of it simply by reaching out and gathering the threads. Mr. Brocheux took samples. There are Piastres in his eyes already. We made camp at the edge of a stream and a shooting party of Mr. Belard and Mr. Brunat was sent out into the forest. They returned, grinning, laden with fowl, and a peculiar pig-like mammal was slung over Mr. Brunat’s shoulders. This is another new species, I believe. It has the body of a small Vietnamese pig but with long dog-like legs. I have made a sketch. It is black and covered in fine hairs. The perfect eating beast it would seem but Mr. Paul, our interpreter, said it was not to be eaten. He offered no explanation for this, only that the H’mong did not eat this animal.
“Why not!” said Mr. Brunat, slapping its plump behind.
“We do not need to,” replied, Mr. Paul.
Mr. Brunat laughed in his face. He and Belard prepared the beast despite Mr. Paul’s frantic protestations. We roasted it along with the birds they’d shot and ate a fine meal. A fine, fine meal. The best we’ve had since leaving Hanoï, perhaps even before that. Mr. Paul would not touch the beast but had a small amount of fowl and his usual portion of rice. The flesh of this beast is simply delicious, not at all pungent like boar, I can see it on tables in France. Perhaps I’ll go into the livestock business!
If anyone is ever to read this journal please excuse the vulgar expression I’m about to employ, but it must be said that we all woke up full of piss and vinegar this morning. We made great progress following the stream where we made our camp of last night. Mr. Lavergne, the engineer, seems to think it would lend itself to canalization, I’m not sure I agree, but then he is the expert, I suppose. We have made another camp beside this stream and Mr. Roulin is currently panning for gold. Belard and Brunat along with Mr. Rivière have gone hunting and I do hope they find one or two of our mystery swine. I have had a voracious hunger all day.
I must say the fortuitousness of our expedition is palpable. Mr. Lavergne is now convinced the stream could be canalized through to the upper reaches of the Red River. I think he is dreaming aloud when he says a lock could be built at the waterfall at Lao Cai, but perhaps even this is possible in our modern age, they are trying again at Panama after all. If the Tonkin section of the river was dredged it could be easily navigable year round, a vast body stretching from this wondrous region of Yunnan to Haiphong and then on to the rest of the world. The Canal D’Aurbie, perhaps? I made this suggestion to the captain and I’m sure the thought pleased him, he has been grinning all day.
The silk is abundant here. Mr. Brocheux has started pulling the threads from the trees and draping them over his neck as if he were wearing an opera scarf. He joked that he could set up looms and spin it as fast as it came out of the worms’ behinds. I feel invigorated by the abundant good food and have no trouble keeping up with the party whilst darting off into the forest to collect specimens. I’m running out of room to store them all but I’m certain they will be the talk of the town. (And that I will be the toast of the Société Zoologique.)
I have never had an appetite like this, it must be the excitement and the extra miles we have been marching. I find myself snacking on the insects I can’t keep or that I have doubles of already. The other men found this strange at first but it’s caught on, I see. There’s really nothing strange about it, especially not in the east, insects are a staple food and full of protein. So far Mr. Roulin has not been successful in his prospecting for gold, silver and tin, but he has certainly embraced the power of positive thinking. He seems as bright and optimistic as the rest of us and I’m sure he will ultimately be successful.
We came upon a H’mong village today. It was charmingly clean and prosperous. There were chickens and pigs and children running about the place, and women pounded rice and worked looms outside in the sun. Their costumes were slightly different from the others we have encountered, even more elaborate and beautiful. Mr. Brocheux could not help but approach the women and covetously touch the hems of their jackets. Mr. Paul tried to speak to them but I gather there were differences in dialect. He informed them that we wished to trade some silver coins for food, we had eaten through our stocks already, but they seemed unwilling. Before too long the captain grew fed up with this and ordered Brunat, Belard and Rivière to take what was needed.
“We are wasting time here. We must keep moving. Progress! To stop moving forward is to stagnate!” said the captain, apparently to himself.
He dropped a few silvers in the dirt while rifles were trained on the villagers. Mr. Paul continued to speak to them, trying to calm them perhaps, though it seemed to me he was trying to tell them something. The villagers looked at us with a mix of fear, disgust and pity in their eyes and I must admit I felt pangs of all three myself.
My hunger is voracious. It could be the excellent quality and abundance of meat we are eating coupled with our ever increasing exertions of the day but I am not certain. The other men are reporting a similarly enflamed appetite. I am beginning to wonder if we might have ingested some kind of parasitic intestinal worm. However, if that were the case it would be unlikely that we would put on weight the way we all, quite apparently, have. Perhaps it is simply the vigorous lifestyle and rich diet. We must be the only expeditionary party in history to gain weight!
My specimen cases are full and I fear I will have to throw something away if I come across a new moth or beetle that I simply cannot live without.
Mr Brocheux is carrying with him a large quantity of raw silk. He has collected enough to furnish samples on every silk merchant in Europe but does not seem to notice its weight at his back.
Mr Roulin has found traces of gold and tin. Foregoing rest, he pans the stream at every available opportunity.
Mr. Lavergne is so convinced of the viability of canalizing the stream that he can’t help himself from kicking rocks aside and broadening it as we go. “It’ll all have to go eventually, may as well make a start,” he says.
I do believe Messrs Belard, Brunat and Rivière have stolen my idea to export our wonderful Yunnan swine. Stolen is perhaps not the right word, I believe I excitedly gave them the idea before I had fully grasped it. Clearly I do not have a head for business. Frankly, I wouldn’t have thought they had the heads for it either, but to listen to them chattering away as we walk I think they could just about pull it off.
“What I can’t get my head around is why them Mongs don’t eat ‘em.”
“Well it’s like the Jews ain’t it? Why don’t they eat pork?”
“That’s an idea. I wonder if they’d eat these? There’s not gonna be anything in the scriptures ‘bout these things is there? We don’t even know if they are pigs.”
“Y’know, if we sent them downstream. Butchered them. Then sent the meat back up by rail in chilled cars we could sell them to these Mongs too… They wouldn’t even know what they were eating.”
The captain is always at the head of the column, keeping a steady, brisk pace. At this rate we’ll be in Nepal by January. Perhaps we could simply walk over the steppe, back to France, laying tracks in our wake.
We came upon another H’mong village today. They are spread all through this mountainous region, down into Indochina and parts of Burma. Their sporadic interactions and isolation has created multitudinous variations in costume and custom. These villagers wore a loosely folded headscarf and a bright sash around their waists. As we entered the village our interpreter, Mr. Paul, immediately began speaking to them in a (it seemed to me at least) furtive manner, and I watched that same look of horror and pity I had seen in the last village come into their eyes. I’m beginning to question our Mr. Paul’s integrity, as is the captain. He did not instruct Mr. Paul to arrange for an exchange, he simply ordered Rivière, Brunat and Belard to take what was needed. The villagers were then lined up outside their communal long house, they numbered about 50, and we trained our rifles on them while their stores were requisitioned. Mr. Brocheux could once again not help himself from toying with the sashes at their waists, presumably to ascertain the quality of the material. He then asked Captain D’Aurbie if it would not be a good idea to invite some of them along with us, some of the young fellows could help to carry the stores of silk and if Mr. Roulin was to find gold in any real quantity, as we are all certain he will, they could help with the carting of it. I was inclined to agree and was delighted at the prospect of having an assistant or two to carry an even greater haul of specimens. And of course, they themselves would be specimens. I could present them at the Société Géographique, and if they were to be educated in France they could later be great assets in the opening up of the area to foreign trade.
D’Aurbie duly selected five of the fittest young men and two girls of marriageable age to join our expedition. Mr. Paul explained that they would be safe and well looked after and would later bring prosperity back to the village. Though, again, due to some dialectic inconsistencies I’m not sure if this was entirely understood. The captain did not think it proper to exchange silver for the new members of our expedition, after all we were bringing prosperity and education to them and their families. It was a mutually beneficial exchange.
We seem to have reached a leveling off of our exertions. It is true that we have all gained weight and that we are having to devote ever greater lengths of time to the hunting, cooking, and consumption of our nightly meal. Tonight, none of our new H’mong friends would partake of the roasted Yunnan pork, though they ate rice and some of the forest birds we had caught. Their appetites are nothing compared to ours. They sit huddled together and speak in nervous whispers.
This morning, Mr. Paul was given a long overdue flogging. He had informed the captain of our H’mong colleagues’ desire to return home. Apparently, being the fittest, they were needed back in their village for the harvest. At my advice the captain gave Mr. Paul an hour to recover, then we pushed on. I cannot help but think the captain blames me for what happened next.
Mr. Paul was very quiet, I don’t think he spoke a single word, but he must have been communicating with one of the H’mong fellows somehow. After an hour’s march Mr. Paul suddenly broke rank and dashed into the forest and just then the other fellow broke away, in the same fashion, in the opposite direction. The captain shouted at them to halt. Then, alas, there was the crack of a rifle and Mr. Paul fell. Immediately, there was another crack and the other fellow was shot dead, too. Brocheux took the lad’s sash and now wears it around his own, considerably more rotund, waist.
We made camp at around midday on a broad stony bend in the river. Belard, Brunat and Rivière set out on their hunt immediately. There is a meadow adjacent to the beach here. We have all broken off to amuse ourselves as we see fit.
The captain and Mr Lavergne are beginning to draw up charts. Apparently, they would like to push on until we are above Burma and possibly on to the Himalayas. There is such a peculiar concentration of great rivers in this part of the world, and all seem to have their source somewhere in that mysterious region; the Ganges, the Irrawaddy, our own Red River for instance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were each fed by one single source? Of course in a way the Himalayas are that single source, but if they were fed by an inland sea, if they could be brought together as if in a knot, through the damning and flooding of some and the joining of others, France would control the great rivers of the world. From their source. –Their scheme is something along those lines anyway.
Mr Roulin has had more success panning in the river. He has found gold in quantity and would like to stay in the area for a few days to survey the land. We are glad of this furlough. Our hunger is beginning to weigh upon us.
Mr. Roulin has struck gold! Though the discovery could have been made by any one of us, it lies on the surface here in chunks as big as, perhaps not a man’s fist, but certainly a child’s. We have all started going out on our own prospecting sorties and coming back with our pockets bulging. Belard, Brunat and Rivière have set up a sort of round-the-clock butchery, market and mess. They butcher these Yunnan pigs and everything else they can lay their hands on. The river runs red with blood married of a thousand species. Captain D’Aurbie told them to mind their ammunition but he is clearly as conflicted as the rest of us. Our hunger is insatiable and we are getting genuinely fat. We are obviously afflicted by some physiological imbalance, it is a mystery to me and I cannot satisfactorily answer the captain’s questions on the subject. Mr. Roulin, laughingly, says that if the hunters use up their ammunition he could forge them bullets of pure gold and we would still be rich. Perversely, this is some consolation.
We have had to restrain our H’mong guests as they are apparently frightened of us and keep trying to escape. A certain fear in the two young women is understandable, I have noticed some of the men looking lasciviously at them and Mr. Brocheux insists upon stroking and toying with the embroidery of their garments.
There was a fight and two of the H’mong boys were shot. Mr. Brocheux insists he was only interested in the girl’s clothes. I’m inclined to believe him, he is a good man, only pathologically obsessed with new clothes. He is now wearing the clothes of the two boys who were shot, plus the skirt he did, in the end, manage to wrest from the girl. I feel Captain D’Aurbie should insist he return it to her for she is clearly mortified at having to display her bare legs and hides behind her tree. Captain D’Aurbie and Lavergne, however, are obsessed themselves with plans for an inland sea, built and administered by France.
There is madness here. The bodies of the two H’mong boys have mysteriously disappeared and I am disturbed by something Belard said about selling meat already butchered so that the customer would not know what it was. I am more disturbed by the fact that in an hour’s time I will be hungry again.
Captain D’Aurbie was correct in his assertion that to stop moving forward is to stagnate. We have stagnated and our camp is fetid. Disease stalks us – though I do not understand the nature of this malady. I suspect it is an entirely new zoonotic pathogen and we are its first human receptacle.
There was more fighting today. This time it was between the butchers – I don’t know what it was about, some duplicitousness no doubt. Belard was killed. A short memorial was held then we men returned to our work. No questions were asked about the disposal of the body.
The ingenuity of man never ceases to amaze, even in these admittedly dark days. Roulin has collected so much gold that he realizes he will never be able to take it with him. He has begun smelting it and pouring it into a deep rectangular pit, thus creating a single great bar that no one will be able to remove until the opening up of the canal. Rather an elegant solution, I think.
The captain and Lavergne left in the night. Perhaps we will hear news of them in a few months, or years, even. Perhaps we will drink a toast together aboard a gleaming white liner, as the band strikes up, for the opening of the D’Aurbie Sea. Perhaps, perhaps. I do have some concerns about their physical condition. I hope they make it through.
Even to the layman with no knowledge of anatomy it would be clear what we are eating. The butchers have done away with all pretense, there are wrists and hands and feet attached to their increasingly crude cuts. We have become morbidly overweight and I believe it is making it difficult for Brunat and Rivière to hunt effectively. I am going to set the remaining H’mong free. I can foresee their pitiful fate and know that when the time comes, I too will eat. I must enlist the help of Brocheux, I trust him and think I can buy him off by giving him my belt, not that it will be any use to him, just as it no longer goes around my own waist.
Last night we helped the H’mong to escape. I do hope they make it back to their village. Brocheux’s only request was that he be allowed to keep their clothes. I had to submit to this. I reason that being sent naked into the forest is better than staying here to await god knows what fate, as we now do. Roulin was too preoccupied with the smelting and sinking of his gold to care. Rivière is a good man, I think he was relieved to see that they had escaped. Brunat was livid. Brocheux and I kept mum but it was inevitable, I suppose, that he would start wearing his new clothes. Brunat flew into a rage. Rivière shot Brunat.
Brocheux does look majestic in his layered, finely pleated skirts. He has stitched several embroidered jackets together so that they fit across his back.
We all pitched in and ate a fine feast for Christmas dinner. I dare say we have depopulated the area of its swine and the birdlife has been culled considerably. I would eat protozoa and leviathan, I would consume every living thing down to the bedrock.
That evening we sat around a fire and spoke of home. As a young man I studied medicine at Montpellier, Rivière is from a small town not far from that city; Le Vigan, a former silk town, fallen on hard times after disease wiped out the silkworm. Brocheux was naturally learned on this.
“Pébrine,” said Rivière. “Shut down the mills, the factories, everything.”
“Yes… Nosema Bombycis.”
“Pasteur identified it, didn’t he?”
“That’s right, Doctor. It’s a parasite. Microsporidium. The mother moth passes it on to her children. It will colonise and destroy each succeeding generation if it is not caught.” Brocheux arranged his skirts. “It came from their feed, you know? The mulberry.”
Roulin put down the trotter he was gnawing on and went away to his part of the camp. He came back a few moments later with something wrapped in a filthy handkerchief. He opened it with a flourish before our eyes.
“Joyeux Noël, mes amis!”
There were six solid gold bullets for Rivière, a heavy gold bangle for Brocheux and a crudely cast and purely decorative gold fountain pen for myself. We laughed until there were tears running down our greasy faces.
25th December, Christmas day, 1895.
Roulin shot Rivière over a trifle. I think it was entirely calculated, he wants his gold back and Rivière was the only one who could still pose him a physical threat. Roulin, Brocheux and myself have completely gone to seed. We cannot, ourselves, venture into the forest to hunt. We were dependant on Rivière. I do not know what will happen to Brocheux, I have told him I will shoot myself before I eat him or the body of Rivière. He says he will do the same. Roulin has been working his forge furiously all day. Eventually, whether we are alive or dead, he will consume Brocheux and myself. But when we are gone, what then will he eat? What thoughts fill that man’s wretched head only the devil knows. I have seen him several times raise the foundry ladle, brimming with molten gold, to his lips as if he were a chef tasting a broth. He shies away from the heat at the last moment only to look upon us with unguarded hunger.
I am sharing my insect specimens with Brocheux. We are like two boys gorging ourselves on bonbons. It is disgusting and exquisite all at once. He speaks lucidly, as a patient after a fever.
“Doctor, what is the nature of this thing? We have ingested a parasite, of that I am certain, but is it intestinal or of the mind?” He selects an immense ambrosia beetle and pops it, laterally, in his mouth. “…Is this honest hunger or madness?”
“I don’t think it’s a parasite, Brocheux… We must remember that we are the foreign organism here... I wonder what Pasteur would think… It almost seems as if an immune system were resisting us...”
“But to whom does it belong?”
“To our host, I suppose.”
Brocheux runs his eye along the bend in the river, the meadow, to the forest beyond. “...The mother moth.”
"Yes... Quite right."
Then he pulls his embroidered lapels about himself as if he has felt a chill. “Indeed... Well, at least we shan’t pass this thing on to our children.”
"Perhaps... perhaps we already have."