Cao Cao is a very famous commander, known all through Han territory. Now this all took place quite a long time ago. Why, this is set between 168-280! Notice we have not yet fallen into four digit years. Yes, this is a very long time ago. And as for the strange names, well, that has nothing to do with time and everything to do with place. Indeed, the names are not very Western—you are so terribly astute—because this very old story takes place in very old China, in the times of dynasties and emperors and commanders of sweeping armies, when the poor are too poor and the palaces are militant in their decadence.
Cao Cao is a dangerous commander. He contains no mercy, no empathy: but there is no name yet for sociopathy, no DSM-V, so he is a good commander, the best in all the lands, conquered and defeated or not. But Cao Cao has never been forced to yield on the field, never needed to carry a white sash, he has only known victory.
One day, Cao Cao falls ill. His brain, it feels like, is knocking around his skull. Physicians, old and young, are called it to aid his suffering. The whole court pauses as the apothecaries attempt and fail to treat him. Finally, the wisest Hua Xin suggests Cao Cao call for Hua Tuo, who is a famous physician, renowned for his unorthodox but compliant treatments. Hua Tuo is called, and he travels a wide distance to reach Cao Cao. First he rode his horse through many different territories, and then he had to walk through many palace doorways and across many drawbridges. He could not have imagined so many moats, each one larger and broader than the previous, he must have walked a long way, long enough for blisters to form on the soles of flat feet and heels. Finally Hua Tuo arrives at the head of Cao Cao. He examines him quickly, superficially—it seems. Cao Cao derides, “The others take so much time, and you give my head a fast thump and that’s it? Why have I wasted my time calling for you? Why, you’re more useless than a wad of mucous!”
“That may be true,” Hua Tuo concedes, “but I know what ails you.”
Cao Cao wipes a strand of hair that has fallen across his sweaty face. “Cure me or
I will display your head in the city square for all your friends and family to see. They will
cry. Think of their mourning.”
“Your highness, there is no need for threats. I am a man of medicine. I give you no more preference or deference than a man without a home: that is my oath.”
Let it be clear, here, that Hua Tuo neither recited nor signed any Hippocratic oath. This is a different time, a different land.
What oath then? A non-discrimination clause? How very 21st century of him.
Hua Tuo withdraws a dense book, and it contains all the medicines and cures he has learned over his decades as doctor, physician, surgeon, and apothecary. All these words are synonymous during time. This was not a time of obstetricians or nurses or their aids. Hua Tho flips the pages, and everyone around him sees the words are all handwritten by the same hand. The characters are long and elegant, without too muchpressure, they are dancing. “Here,” he points his old crone finger, and the room sighs. The sigh is contagious and soon the whole palace shows its relief with a full-bodied sigh. “The problem is that you have an over-active humor. In the small area between your brain and your skull, well, air and fluids have come trapped in there, but—”
“No refusals! You must produce for me the best medicines to cure me. Humors in the head sound very dire.”
“But—sire—there is but one cure, and medicines will do no good. Of that I can assure you with the very life of mine you previously threatened.”
“How do propose to cure me without the use of medicine? Are you a witch, doctor?”
The line between science and magic has always been tenuous, as it remains to this very day.
“First, you will need some opium for the pain. Then, I will open your skull with a cleaver and remove the problem. Anything else will offer you only temporary relief. This is the only way to cure what distresses you.”
“Are you trying to kill me?” Cao Cao asks.
Soldiers take Hua Tuo away and put him in a locked stone room.
They interrogate him because there has been no Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Executive Order 10631 wasn’t put into the US Military Code of Conduct to lay out prisoner of war expectations because it isn’t even close to 1955 and Dwight D. Eisenhower isn’t even conceived in or on the right continent, so none of this has any value. He is a prisoner. They torture him. When they do, he cries out the truth. He is not trying to kill Cao Cao. He is only trying to help. No, no one has put him up to this. No, no one is paying him. He is getting nothing for this, nothing, literally, except this torture. Ten days later, he dies, and with him, his decades of medicinal innovation.
And as for Cao Cao: he doesn’t take Hua Tuo’s advice. Does he live or die? Well, later, he became Emperor of the Wei dynasty, but that was only posthumously.
The Jade Rabbit says: Riddle me a hole and hahahaha everyone dies at the end of the story after it ends, and that’s the truth!
Lily Hoang is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (winner of the inaugural Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Nonfiction Contest) and Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award). With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She is Director of the MFA program at New Mexico State University. She serves as Editor at Puerto del Sol and for Jaded Ibis Press.