I learned about the Emperor Qin’s Terracotta Army for the first time in high school. At the time it wasn’t so extraordinary: We’d just finished studying ancient Egypt and every dead dude back then wanted to reign over eternity. The old monarchs curated their afterlives, filled their graves with golden masks, tables and chairs, food, drink, and even living servants to enjoy after flesh fell away and veins shriveled.
Silly rulers, we twelfth-grade atheists snorted, death is final.
We decide on the Field Museum on a whim. The conservatory I’d wanted to see is too far out of the way for me to make it to O’Hare in time for my flight home to LA. I meet my friend Lianna, who was married the day before, at the Chicago Theater and we walk along the lake toward the entrance. She pulls a bag of tangerines from her backpack as we approach.
“Snack?” she asks, handing me one. Lianna is a schoolteacher; she comes equipped with provisions wherever she goes.
I puncture the rind with my thumbnail to unearth the orange segments, gem-bright, beneath.
“Are you still dating that 40-year-old?” she wants to know.
“Nah,” I say. I finally let go of the basically jobless, 20-years-older-than-me forever-bachelor who recently moved into a furnished sublet in Hollywood because who knows where he’d be three months from now. When I told him that whatever it was we were doing wasn’t working for me anymore, he shrugged.
“Yeah, he probably wasn’t The One,” says Lianna.
The One. Lianna reminisces that she saw it in her now-husband the night of their first date. Of course, Lianna inhabits the world of the absolute more completely than any of the rest of my friends, but they’ve all at least dipped a toe in by now. The right partner, the right job, the pursuit of passion, arrival in stable adult lives carved out for themselves.
We approach the ticket counter. The Terracotta warriors are on exhibit here in Chicago; lucky us.
“Ooh, like from Art History!” I squeal.
The Terracotta Army: Thousands of warriors, frozen in clay, to stand eternal vigil over the First Emperor of China’s sprawling necropolis. An entire kingdom accompanied the First Emperor to his 22-square-mile burial site in 210 BCE: His army, terra-cotta administrators, acrobats, assorted flora and fauna— a mirror image of the animate world above.
Chinese farmers chanced upon the army in the mid ‘70s. Ancient historians had written about the Emperor Qin and his elaborate burial, but those stories had all but disappeared from the cultural consciousness for centuries until the farmers’ discovery. Archeologists have unearthed some 6,000 carven warriors and they estimate that another 2,000 still reside there beneath the ground.
A few weeks ago my roommate’s mother came to visit our apartment. She slept on the flimsy Ikea futon we call a couch.
“How old are you, Sam?” she asked after we’d known each other for a few minutes.
“27,” I told her.
“Ah, you’re in your Saturn return.” She nodded her approval. “I got pregnant in my Saturn return.”
I don’t put much stock into the alignment of the planets and all of that, but that night I whiled away a few hours googling. The ever-trustworthy astrology.com states that, in concrete terms, your Saturn return happens when the planet Saturn circles around to meet your natal Saturn. It happens in one’s late twenties. In more figurative terms, your Saturn returning heralds the approach of your adult life. It’s a time to get your shit together, to make choices. It’s a time, perhaps the first time, in which you’re forced to reckon with your ticking clock.
The Emperor Qin ascended to the throne when he was 13 and began making arrangements for his burial shortly thereafter. He spent more than half of his life preparing for death. But don’t be fooled by his morbid preoccupations: He kept busy in the world of the living. He introduced agricultural infrastructure, he built roads and fortifications—some of which served as the foundation for China’s Great Wall— and he unified China’s Warring States, thus earning his self-given title as First Emperor. A whole life worthy of memorialization and yet for his efforts what we remember most is the memorial itself.
Today, his burial mound exists as a sort of time capsule, a well-preserved picture into the way things were then: The chariots, the weaponry, the wardrobes. It’s been a boon for historians.
Before I dropped out of college, I took a class called Modernism in which we tackled post-WWI existential malaise over the span of 15 weeks. My professor lectured on Pentecost, the day the holy spirit descended upon his apostles in tongues of fire. It wasn’t the fact of revelation that interested the great thinkers of the Modern era, she instructed, but the beat just before. Those moments, not yet fallen, that hang ripe with potential. Imminence, she called it. Becoming.
Ancient historical accounts describe 100 rivers of mercury that flow through the Emperor’s tomb, a constellation of precious stones that shine down from above, galactic. The earth with its water, the sky with its planets, mountains of bronze to loom over the clay figurines.
Some tests have even revealed traces of mercury, in abnormally high amounts, in the soil around the tomb, lending credence to what reads like legend.
But we don’t know if the stories are true, because we haven’t unearthed the tomb yet. Chinese authorities worry that we could damage precious artifacts in the exposing them to new conditions. Excavation is dangerous. The First Emperor’s funerary kingdom has existed underground in centuries-long equilibrium. In bringing the kingdom to light, who knows what we might lose? Better to leave it there, mysterious but intact, for us to puzzle over.
The simplest world to live in is one in which I can trace effects back to their causes. A world in which I can say with certainty that I am not living the life that I thought I would because my father died before I could remember him, because I’ve had my heart broken, because my friends are gracious and composed and I’m still a mess. Because I missed a step somewhere along the way. A life that isn’t only a vague puddle of events, but a network of tributaries, all leading back to a pulsating through-line. Satisfying or not, it’s easy to visualize a path. A trajectory that culminates in either failure or success.
It took ten years to sculpt the terra cotta soldiers. No two faces look alike. One warrior looks off at a point over my shoulder. He’s upright and wary. Another’s mouth curls up into a smirk. He’s squatting, sunk low to the ground on bent knees. Some of the statues grasp at air. They used to wield weapons, but those have long since been looted or curated or perhaps disintegrated. One gazes straight ahead; my eyes meet his. His right arm bends, hand flexed, just below his chest. It must once have brandished something fearsome. Without the prop, his gesture looks like he’s waving me in. Of course the warrior has long been curated, his emperor dead for centuries, but right now I see the life in him. I imagine that a space exists, overlaid upon this exhibit hall in the Field Museum, in which his vigilance serves a purpose, in which the air around him sits thick with undeveloped potentialities. In this space he is just about to strike.
Lately I feel the need to exhume the entire skeleton of my past, polish off the bones, place them in interlocking sequence like jigsaw pieces. To find out, once and for all, why the whole of me always feels so much less than its component parts. So it’s perfect timing when my mom texts me to say that she’s letting go of her storage unit, so I should swing by to claim anything I might want to keep.
At my mother’s house I hear a familiar warble greet me at the door as I walk in. It’s me, on videotape, when I used to perform. I’m singing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” to an audience of 50 at the Civic Arts Center in Thousand Oaks. I haven’t yet discovered that my voice isn’t any good; I’m expansive; I fill the room.
I rifle through a box of my things. I dig for explanations, for signs of trauma.
A poem in Hebrew that I wrote when I still knew how to speak Hebrew about seeing God in flowers.
Dolls galore: Plastic barbies, porcelain fashion plates, paper cutouts of early 20th century feminist icons, strange little trolls with gemstone stomachs.
An old sweater of my father’s, a chunky brown woolen knit. I put it to my face, but all I smell is camphor.
The Emperor Qin froze his world and stowed it beneath the earth, far enough beneath that death can’t touch it. I sympathize with his project, with what he tried to create: A perfect microcosm, safe from time.
Placards at the museum note that originally the warriors had been painted, but that the accumulated years wore away at their bright palates, stripped them down to the terra cotta beneath. In fact, some of the statues still bear traces of their original brightness— a red fleck here, a streak of indigo there— but most stand exposed in their elemental clay, the color of warm earth.
When I scan the placards I sense loss. I could be projecting, but I’m sad when I read the archeologists’ text; I too long for the days of marigold and magenta, for a more vivid past.
But maybe that world of color still breathes somewhere close even though I can’t see it. Quantum physicists theorize that we’re wrong when we think about our lives in terms of past, present, and future. Linearity is just a construct— something our minds impose upon time to reckon with it. To them, time isn’t a trajectory, but instead a vast amalgam of moments that all exist right now. Everything that’s ever happened and everything that’s going to happen is, in fact, happening right now. There’s no arc; only now.
And if that’s the case, then the man who I once thought would love me forever still pulls my face into his, runs his finger along the dark hair above my upper lip, and laughs, “Luigi, why you no make-a the pizza?”
My father still chases me as I chase ducks around the Encino pond.
And the Emperor Qin still walks approvingly through rows upon rows of sword-bearing clay soldiers beneath the ground.
Untouched, the tomb holds whatever we want it to. Perhaps there do flow poison silver rivers, and sapphires twinkle like stars overhead. I like to think of it down there, waiting.