Nov 142010


Esta Fischer

The horses and carriages, each with the remains of a human inside, were lined up in precise order: first the six horse carriage, then the four horse carriage, then the two. The horses lay on their right sides, the leg bones bent in running position, as though even in death they were hell-bent for battle. Standing in the underground tomb with his group from the University, Chen wondered what method had been used to kill the animals before they were interred. Shot with bow and arrow? Hit on the head with a blunt instrument? The humans had doubtless died fighting. He could not imagine the modern city of Luoyang as a battle site. Not that it was teeming with tall modern structures like Shanghai. In fact, Luoyang’s tall modern structures were sparse and looked like ancient monoliths in a barren landscape.

A cell phone rang, penetrating the drone of the local guide’s lecture. Professor Ma, head of the Archeology department, reached into his pocket and flipped open his phone as he hurried out to the corridor to take his call. Chen wondered if the call was from the University on some academic business, or only Ma’s wife calling to ask if the flight back to Shanghai would get him home in time for dinner. Professor Ma’s calls could frequently be overheard in the department office: ahs of assent, grunts of dissent, and an occasional laugh. He saved speech for his lectures.

The guide was explaining the discovery of the tomb. During digging to enlarge the town square, the tomb, from the Eastern Zhou period twenty-five hundred years ago, was uncovered. Chen wondered how many more tombs would be found in future years, dug up as more of the country modernized, ancient crypts lying beneath sites of luxury condos. A Han dynasty tomb had been discovered in Hong Kong in 1955 during an excavation for an apartment complex. The tomb was now preserved in the back yard of the apartments. Chen wondered how he would feel about living next door to an ancient tomb, or to any tomb. He wondered what the Eastern Zhou officials whose remains he was now viewing would think of his group of archeologists with their modern Western clothing and their modern technology, their carbon dating and their cell phones, standing around the bones listening to information that might not even be true.

His cell phone rang. He whipped it out of his pocket and flipped it open as he hurried to the exit just used by Professor Ma.


Chen heard a man’s voice but it did not seem to be speaking to him. The voice faded in and out.

“We will change the plans,” the man said. “We’ll go toward the mountains. It will be half a day’s ride.”

“Who is this?” Chen asked curtly. “Who is calling?”

Professor Ma snapped his phone shut and left the corridor. Chen nodded and smiled as Ma passed  him.

“I will make the arrangements,” the voice continued. “Tell me how many will be with you.”

“What arrangements? How many what?” Chen demanded. But the man seemed not to hear him.

“I’ll see you there if I don’t speak to you again,” the voice went on. “Then we will discuss our next move.” The call was disconnected.

“Who is this?” Chen demanded again. He pressed the buttons on the phone to try to retrieve the number of the person who had called him. The message flashed “number unknown.” Chen snapped the phone shut and hurried back into the tomb.

When his phone rang, he had hoped it was his girlfriend-not-girlfriend Cinnamon calling from Shanghai. Her Chinese name was Ying. She had taken the English name Cinnamon in mistaken homage to the music group Spice Girls. Chen had tried to explain  that the spice in Spice Girls was not to be taken literally, but she liked the sound of the word and insisted on keeping the name. She was twenty-two and had recently graduated from the University at which he now did graduate work.

Chen thought of Cinnamon as the New China, and himself as the Old China. Cinnamon liked to wear flashy Western clothes like hip-hugger jeans and t-shirts that left a line of bare flesh showing between shirt and pants. She tinted her hair with blond and brown streaks. Sometimes she would drag him to a disco and stand by herself in the flashing lights, swaying and gyrating to the music. She had graduated in the top ten percent of her class at the University and had majored in Mathematics.  She said she didn’t want to work for a company or a bank, or be a teacher. But she had to do something. Chen wanted to help her to settle down and not waste her life. In fact, he thought the reason she dated him at all was because she needed a steadying influence.

Chen, on the other hand, was traditional. He pursued his studies in archeology. He wanted someday to be a Professor, to lead other students on digs, to understand China’s past. He was happy to live with his parents until he married. Why not? His mother was an excellent cook. His father was a chemist, his mother a school teacher. Their apartment was small but comfortable. But many of the young, educated women in Chinese cities wanted to escape the Chinese life by marrying rich foreigners. At least that was what they said.

Sometimes Chen felt that Cinnamon was his girlfriend, sometimes not. He suspected she had other boyfriends that she didn’t tell him about. She would let him accompany her to one of the pubs in the Xin Tien Di and buy her favorite drink, a vodka martini. Chen always drank a beer.

“Why are you studying that archeology, anyway?” Cinnamon would say. She would lift her drink to her lips, her cherry red fingernails like bright lights against the pale glass.

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“You’ll never make any real money, and you’ll spend your life digging in dirt and visiting all those dark underground burial places.” She shivered dramatically.

“At least I have a career,” Chen told her. “I don’t notice you doing anything constructive with your life.”.

“I’m studying to get my driver’s license. After I get it, I’m going to be a driver for a rich businessman, and make a lot of money,” Cinnamon explained. “The businessmen like to be driven by young beautiful girls. Some of my friends already have such jobs.”

“You should aim for something with a future,” Chen said. “What will happen when you get older and you’re not so beautiful?”

Cinnamon shrugged.

“Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with archeology,” Chen insisted. “It’s steady work. China will never run out of tombs.”

“If you lived in America,” Cinnamon said, “you would be called a nerd.”

“China will never run out of tombs,” the Luoyang guide was saying. “At least, not in our lifetimes.”  He smiled and nodded to the group, signaling the end of his talk.

Several hands shot up with questions.

Suddenly, as Chen gazed down into the tomb, he recalled the words just spoken to him on his cell phone.

“We will change the plans.  We will go toward the mountains.  It will be half a day’s ride.”

He looked down at the horse skeletons.  Half a day’s ride. The voice could have been referring to the Flaming Mountains not far from Luoyang, near the area now occupied by the Shao Lin Monastery and numerous martial arts schools. But whose voice was it?

“Tell us how many will be with you.”

He looked at the scant remains of the officials, shards of their bones barely visible in the dust. Could it be possible? Could his cell phone have picked up the remains of a conversation held twenty-five hundred years ago?

As the guide fielded questions from Chen’s group, Chen took out his phone and looked at it. The conversation, at least the part he had overheard, could be a battle plan.

“Half a day’s ride. How many with you.” Number unknown.

All the way back to Shanghai, on the airplane, on the bus from the airport, while he ate the meal of bean curd, vegetables, and pork dumplings his mother placed on the table, he thought about the conversation. Could modern technology intercept vibrations in the atmosphere and transpose them into a voice from the past?

He decided to discuss the matter with his friend Li.


Chen called Li the next morning. Li did graduate work in physics at the University. He and Chen had been friends since childhood, and Chen knew Li would listen to him and without immediately thinking he was crazy. He asked Li to meet him on the Bund at three o’clock in the afternoon that day, directly opposite the Peace Hotel on the corner of the Nanjing Road.

It was early November and the sky had a gray cast. A chilly wind came off the Huang Pu river. The Bund, a promenade that ran along the river and gave a view of the newly developed Pudong area with its tall modern buildings, was popular with tourists, but there were few tourists in Shanghai at this time of year. The two men could speak without being overheard.

Chen climbed the steps up to the promenade. He saw Li lighting a cigarette. Chen wished he would give it up. It was not healthy, and he hated smoke blowing into his face.

“What’s up?”

The men began to stroll along the promenade.

“This is going to sound very strange,” Chen began, “but do you think the laws of physics would support the idea of a modern transmitter picking up a conversation that occurred twenty-five hundred years ago?”

Li dragged on his cigarette and blew out smoke rings which quickly dissipated in the wind.

“Do you mean, do the vibrations still exist so much later in time?”

“I’m not even sure what I mean,” Chen admitted. “What is the speed of sound? Could sound travel quickly enough to reach a future century?”

“The speed of sound depends on the weather,” Li said. “On the temperature and the humidity of the air at the moment the sound was emitted. Do you know what the weather was at the moment the sound was made?”

Chen shook his head.

“How could I possibly know the weather on a particular day twenty-five hundred years ago?”

“Anyway,” Li continued, pausing to blow more smoke rings, “the speed of sound refers to distance, not time.”

“But if the sound kept traveling, it might eventually come back to its point of origin, many years later. And someone might hear it.” Even to his own ears, Chen thought this deduction lacked credibility. He shook his head. “Anyway, there’s still the question of how the sound waves entered my cell phone.”

“Are you saying that sound waves from twenty-five hundred years ago entered your cell phone and exited in the form of conversation?” Li asked. He didn’t seem the least bit nonplussed by the idea.

Chen nodded.

“Where did this occur?”

“Luoyang.” Chen explained what had happened.

“Interesting,” Li remarked. He tossed his cigarette to the ground and stubbed it out.

“You don’t think I’m crazy?” Chen asked.

“Of course not,” Li assured him. “Actually, what you’ve just said has some interesting possibilities.”

“What do you mean?”

“You just might have stumbled on some as yet unknown capability we have to connect with the past. A lot of Western fiction has been written about a time machine that can take us back to the past. It’s thought to be impossible. But perhaps we just haven’t developed the correct technology. Maybe there’s some accidental abnormality in the construction of your cell phone that’s allowed you to pick up the past.”


“A sort of crossed wire,” Li said thoughtfully. “You were in the presence of the physical remains of people who once spoke. Just as their bones are still there, perhaps some of their words were spoken and never heard by anyone. The energy that held them has finally been released.”

“Do you mean their chi?” Chen asked. “Their unreleased chi?”

Li nodded.

“Even,” Li continued, “if that theory is incorrect, there is still the strange coincidence of your being in a tomb and receiving a call discussing a possible battle strategy, when you are looking at horses and carriages from a battle. Even if the call was a wrong number, it’s still odd.”

Chen nodded in agreement.

“And then, there’s the problem of language,” Li said.


“The Eastern Zhou did not speak modern Chinese. But there’s another possibility,” Li said. “Someone was playing a trick on you.”

“A trick?” Chen frowned.

“Someone knew you were going to the tomb. They called and pretended to be talking about a battle plan.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

Li shrugged.

“Who has your cell phone number? Who knew you were at the tomb?”

Chen thought. Most of his colleagues from the Archeology department had his telephone number, but they were all there with him in the tomb. In any case, he would have recognized their voices. Li himself had the number, but Li hadn’t known Chen was in Luoyang.  His parents. Cinnamon.

“I’ll have to think about this,” Chen said.

Li lit another cigarette as they crossed the street and each caught a bus to go home.


When he got home, Chen called Cinnamon. Her cell phone rang several times and when she answered, Chen heard loud music in the background. He thought she must be in a pub.


“Where are you?” Chen asked.

“I’m at home,” she said. “Wait, I’ll turn down the music.” The music shut off. “What’s happening?”

Now that he was speaking to her, Chen didn’t know what to say.

“Let’s get together,” he finally got out. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No,” she replied.

“I’ll treat you,” he told her. “Where would you like to go?”

She named a new Thai restaurant, Kin Kho, popular with the University students.

“Meet me there at six,” Chen said.

On the bus to the restaurant, Chen thought about how to find out if Cinnamon had gotten one of her other boyfriends, if she had others, to call him in Luoyang. He felt guilty even suspecting her but he couldn’t think of anyone else who would have done it, even as a joke.  If he asked her straight out she would deny it. He decided to first find out if she’d even known he had gone to Luoyang.

She was already at Kin Kho when he arrived. The restaurant was decorated with fake palm trees, and candles stuck in hollowed out pineapples provided scant light. A waitress showed them to a table and handed them menus. Chen squinted at the menu and ordered Pad Thai, a noodle dish that seemed the closest to a Chinese dish. It was also the least expensive item. Cinnamon ordered shrimp in green curry, which was, he noted, one of the more expensive items.

“So what’s the celebration for?” Cinnamon asked.


“You never take me to a restaurant,” she pointed out. “I thought there must be something important you have to tell me.”

With a jolt, Chen realized she might be thinking he would propose that they become engaged. But this was impossible. He was only twenty-six. Most young men waited until they turned thirty to get married. Of course, they could become engaged now, and marry in four years.

“What do you mean?” he asked her. “What kind of important thing?”

“Oh,” she said, “maybe you have a new job. Maybe you’ve discovered some new old bones that will make you famous.”

Chen laughed with relief.

“No,” he said. “Nothing like that. I just thought it would be nice to go to a restaurant.”

The cell phone conversation popped into his mind. Half a day’s ride. How many will be with you. Number unknown.

He looked her in the eyes.

“Did you know I was in Luoyang several days ago?” he said.

Cinnamon looked at him and blinked. Chen waited. She frowned.

“No,” she finally said. “Was I supposed to?”

“I didn’t tell you I was going? To look at a tomb?”

“You’re always going to look at a tomb,” she said. “What’s the difference where it is?”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

The waitress brought their food. Cinnamon picked up her chopsticks and popped a shrimp into her mouth.

“Why?” she asked when she had finished chewing and swallowing.

“Something happened,” Chen said. He described the conversation.

“And you thought I asked someone to call you? As a joke? Why would I do that?”

Chen shrugged.

“I was looking for an explanation. You don’t approve of my work. So I thought maybe—look, I won’t be angry if you did it.  I just need to know.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m too busy to be bothered with such things. But what you’ve told me is really strange.”

They continued to eat without speaking.

“You know what I think you should do?” Cinnamon suddenly looked up at him. “You should go to the temple and pray for enlightenment.”

Chen looked at her in surprise. Although most Chinese, however modern, still kept household shrines and went to a temple at the New Year, he would never have expected the disco-dancing Cinnamon to give him such advice.

“Do you really think so?”

“If you really heard a conversation from the past,” she said, “I would think there might be some kind of personal message in it. Personal for you,” she added.


“Why did you get the call? Everyone else there had a cell phone. Why yours?”

“Good point,” Chen conceded.

He finished his noodles.

“I’ll go to the Long Hua Temple,” he told her. “I’ll go tomorrow.”


The next morning, Chen took a bicycle cab to the temple. He gave the driver a tip, something not usually done, but he felt it would bring him good luck. He passed through the first hall of the temple compound, making a brief stop to bow to the Buddha of the Future. He continued through to the courtyard, where clouds of incense smoke dissipated in the gray air. The fiery red burning dots at the ends of the incense sticks were the only bright spots in the gloom. Chen lit several sticks and thrust them into the burner. Then he stepped over the threshold of the second hall. A monk, who knew his entire family, nodded silently. Chen walked over to him and exchanged pleasantries, assuring him that all was well. Then he returned to the altar.

He faced three statues: the Buddhas of the past, the present, and the future. Surely between them he would receive guidance. He took a kneeling cushion and sank to his knees. Supporting himself with his hands, he bent forward and touched his forehead several times to the stone floor.

“Oh great Buddha, give me enlightment about the conversation,” he murmured out loud.

He sat up. In the silence, his cell phone rang. He was sure he had turned it off before entering the temple, but here it was ringing anyway. He hurried outside and removed it from his pocket. He pressed the Send button.

“Wei,” he said.

A voice, but not the same voice that had called him in Luoyang, spoke.

“You must go back,” the voice intoned. “There is unfinished business.”

“Who is this?” Chen demanded. “Go back where?”

“You must take six —“

The phone went dead. Chen pressed Display to see the caller’s number. “Number unknown” flashed on the display screen.

“Damn!” he exclaimed.

Chen left the temple and hailed a bicycle cab. He rode to the Bund. A fine mist came off the water. He marched up and down. He had the urge to throw his cell phone into the river. Perhaps that would solve the problem. But perhaps not. What if he were destroying an accidentally mutated device that could communicate with the past? He would be haunted by the idea for the rest of his life. Or, suppose he bought a new cell phone with a different number and he still received the calls? That would be worse. Finally, he decided to go to the person who, he now realized, would be the best advisor, the most expert on all ancient matters. He would see Professor Ma.


Professor Ma was a small man who wore thick glasses, threadbare, out-of –style suits, and soup-stained neckties. He had been the head of the Archeology department for fifteen years, and was considered one of China’s top three experts in his field. He had published numerous books and scholarly articles on his subject, his specialty being tombs. He had been called to Luoyang immediately after the Eastern Zhou tomb in the town square was discovered.

Although Professor Ma was not especially friendly with his students, his reticence was understood as an extreme preoccupation with his field of study. So Chen did not hesitate once he made his decision.

“I wonder if I could have a word with Professor Ma,” he said to Ma’s secretary.

The woman, middle-aged and dressed in a high-necked white blouse and a tight navy suit, frowned.

“The Professor is extremely busy,” she said.

“It’s a matter of great importance,” Chen persisted. “Otherwise I would not dare take up his time.”

The secretary’s frown turned to a scowl.

“What is your name?”

“Chen. Chen Meng Shao.”

The secretary heaved herself out of her chair, knocked briefly on the Professor’s door and entered his office. She emerged and beckoned Chen to go in.

Professor Ma’s desk was covered with papers. A thick book lay open in front of him. Two walls were covered with diplomas and award certificates, and a piece of calligraphy in Seal style filled the wall behind the Professor’s chair. A mug of tea, the porcelain lid next to it, rested on a dictionary.

“Have a seat, have a seat.” The Professor motioned to one of the antique wooden horseshoe-style chairs facing him. He smiled at Chen. “How can I help you?”

Chen scanned the room. Surely the Professor, steeped in the lore of ancient China, could solve the mystery.

“While we were at the tomb in Luoyang, I had a call on my cell phone, “ Chen began, and he proceeded to relate the entire story.

Professor Ma listened attentively. When Chen was finished, the Professor took a long drink of tea. For several seconds he seemed to be thinking. Finally he spoke.

“Most interesting,” he commented. “I, too, had a call on my cell phone, from my secretary, while we were in that tomb.”

Suddenly Chen recalled Professor Ma leaving the tomb to take a call.

“I thought it very strange that cell phone calls could be received below ground,” the Professor continued, “and when I returned to Shanghai I immediately contacted a high government official in Luoyang. They also believe it is impossible to receive calls in the tomb.”

“Then how—“ Chen began.

“We don’t know. Yet,” the Professor said with a smile. “As with all mysteries, we must begin an investigation. I have sent them my cell phone by special delivery. They will go with it to the tomb to see if they receive any calls. I’m sure they will now want your cell phone as well.”

“But—“ Chen protested.

“We will lend you another cell phone,” Professor Ma said. “I know it will be inconvenient to have a different number. Do you receive many calls?”

Chen thought for a moment. He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who regularly called him.

“Not really,” he replied.

“I will have my secretary telephone you as soon as I hear from Luoyang.”

Chen handed his cell phone to Professor Ma. He left Ma’s office and hurried outside the building. He had a sudden vision of a horde of ghost horses, carriages and officials galloping into the Luoyang tomb, the bones he had seen rising up for battle. Then he realized he had forgotten to take the temporary cell phone. He turned and went back inside to see Ma’s secretary. Then he called Cinnamon, and then Li, to relate the latest development.


One week later, Chen received a call from Professor Ma’s secretary to come to Ma’s office.

“The mystery has been solved!” Professor Ma announced.

Chen leaned forward in anticipation.

“There is a motorcycle gang in Henan Province that has been terrorizing some nearby villages, and they have been using the tomb in Luoyang as their unofficial headquarters,” the Professor said.

He explained that the investigators had found cell phone signal stations attached to several steps leading down to the tomb. This explained why he and Chen had received their calls. And the cell number of one of the gang members was identical to Chen’s, except for one digit, so that a careless mistake resulted in Chen receiving the calls. The police, posing as tourists, had staked out the tomb and apprehended the gang members.

Chen remembered the words: We will change the plans. We will go toward the mountains. It will be half a day’s ride.

“The police used your cell phone to catch them,” Professor Ma said. “They were glad you spoke up about the calls. Thanks to you, the gang has been stopped. However, they must keep your phone to use as evidence in court. So you can keep the temporary phone the Department loaned you.”

Chen nodded. Then he and Professor Ma stood up and shook hands, and Chen left.

Chen stood in front of the University building for several moments. He was relieved that the mystery had been solved, yet disappointed that the calls were not the leftover conversations of the Eastern Zhou officials. Now that he thought about it, the idea of an ancient conversation on a cell phone was preposterous. Yet if he had not had that idea, he might not have spoken to Professor Ma, and the gang would not have been caught.

He began to walk toward his bus stop. He would call Cinnamon and ask her to meet him at a pub. Then he would tell her how his mental acuity had helped to apprehend criminals. Maybe that would help to improve her opinion of him. And he would try to persuade her to use a different English name. He liked the name Mary.

“Ma-ry,” he said out loud.

He took out his cell phone and punched in her number.

  3 Responses to “The Conversation”

  1. This was a beatiful story.

  2. Great story. And an interesting trip to China – in the comfort of your own home

  3. Interesting. Excellent use of descriptions. i could see the places and the characters in front of my eyes. Glad that it did not lapse into true science fiction. That would have been a copout. More interesting this way.