In celebration of the release of Peter S. Beagle’s THE OVERNEATH, Tachyon presents glimpses from some of the volume’s magnificent tales.
Story of Kao Yu
by Peter S. Beagle
was a judge once in south China, a long time ago—during the reign
of the Emperor Yao, it was—named Kao Yu. He was stern in his
rulings, but fair and patient, and all but legendary for his honesty;
it would have been a foolish criminal—or, yes, even a misguided
Emperor—who attempted to bribe or coerce Kao Yu. Of early middle
years, he was stocky and wide-shouldered, if a little plump, and the
features of his face were strong and striking, even if his hairline
was retreating just a trifle. He was respected by all, and feared by
those who should have feared him—what more can one ask from a judge
even now? But this is a story about a case in which he came to
feel—rightly or no—that he
was the one on trial.
Yu’s own wisdom and long experience generally governed his
considerations in court, and his eventual rulings. But he was unique
among all other judges in all of China in that when a problem came
down to a matter of good versus evil—in a murder case, most often,
or arson, or rape (which Kao Yu particularly despised)—he would
often submit that problem to the judgment of a unicorn.
the Chinese unicorn, is not only an altogether
different species from the white European variety and the menacing
Persian karkadann; it is also a different matter
in its essence from either one. Apart from its singular physical
appearance—indeed, there are scholars who claim that the chi-lin
is no unicorn at all, but some sort of mystical dragon-horse, given
its multicolored coat and the curious configuration of its head and
body—this marvelous being is considered one of the Four Superior
Animals of good omen, the others being the phoenix, the turtle, and
the dragon itself. It is the rarest of the unicorns, appearing as a
rule only during the reign of a benign Emperor enjoying the Mandate
of Heaven. As a result, China has often gone generation after weary
generation without so much as a glimpse of a chi-lin.
This has contributed greatly to making the Chinese
the patient, enduring people they are. It has also toppled thrones.
in the days of Judge Kao Yu, at least one chi-lin
was so far from being invisible as to appear in his court from time
to time, to aid him in arriving at certain decisions. Why he should
have been chosen—and at the very beginning of his career—he could
never understand, for he was a deeply humble person, and would have
regarded himself as blessed far beyond his deservings merely to have
seen a chi-lin
at a great distance. Yet so it was; and, further,
the enchanted creature always seemed to know when he was facing a
distinctly troublesome problem. It is well-known that the chi-lin,
while wondrously gentle, will suffer no least dishonesty in its
presence, and will instantly gore to death anyone whom it knows to be
guilty. Judge Kao Yu, it must be said, always found himself a little
nervous when the sudden smell of a golden summer meadow announced
unmistakably the approach of the unicorn. As righteous a man as he
was, even he had a certain difficulty in looking directly into the
clear dark eyes of the chi-lin.
For more info on THE OVERNEATH, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover design by Elizabeth Story