Laying Stones

"You need to form a tree - that's how you win."

Bujang looked at the baduk board and looked back at the strange old man sitting across from him. "A tree?" he asked. "What do you mean?"

"A tree," the old man repeated. He must have seen that Bujang was still confused, because he took a deep breath to continue.

"The way the board is now, that is the trunk. Whether it's good or bad, it's what lies in front of us: the most important thing we have."

Bujang nodded. It sounded simple enough.

The old man continued. "Each possible future is a branch. If I put a stone here in the left corner, that is one branch. If I put a stone here in the right corner, that is a different branch."

He paused, breathing deeply again. "Think of trees: how each branch branches, and the branches of the branches branch. So it is with the future. If we are on the branch where I have put a stone on the left, then you could put a stone above mine or below it. So that single branch itself has two branches. If we are on the branch where I have put a stone on the right, then you could put a stone one any side of it. That branch also has several branches. Then I can place another stone, so each of these branches have branches of their own. These branches continue forever. As time passes, each branch becomes a trunk in its own right. Its past become its roots. Any branch of any kind grows its own dazzling variety of branches itself."

"But the branches don't go on forever," Bujang said. "Before long, the board will be filled up. Then no more branches can grow. The tree ends."

The old man smiled faintly. "More branches will always grow. In one branch, we play another game. In another branch, we quit playing and drink mare's milk. In yet another branch, I sit alone while you excuse yourself to go to another corner of the inn to write a poem for a pretty girl. The branches will continue for as long as there is anyone under the sun who can make a choice. Each choice, no matter how small, pushes the whole world onto a new branch, and leads us to a new infinity of possibilities for the endless future."

Bujang nodded. It was a simple enough idea, but the way the old man had said it made him feel heavy, as if he were responsible for the shape of the whole future of the world. He looked at the board and realized that he had lost the game. He suggested they start a new one, and as they reset the board, Bujang remembered a baduk game he had played many years before.


The unopened cherry blossoms had just started to appear on the trees around Bujang's father's house. The winter cold had given way to the vital thaw of a new spring. Most of Bujang's friends were running races in the relative warmth. Bujang, though only 11 years old, didn't care to run or play with his friends, instead preferring to play baduk with his younger brother. The clink of the stones and the latent smell of the newly born blossoms on the breeze would always make him think of spring and hope.

They were in the middle of a game when they heard a shout from a distance, and then the clatter of hooves. Within seconds Bujang and his brother saw a black horse running towards them, looking anxious. Bujang had little experience with horses, but he suspected that it was running away from its owner. He instinctively stood up, raising his arms to signal for the horse to stop, and saying "whoa" as he had heard men in town say to their horses.

Within seconds, a man on a light brown horse appeared galloping towards Bujang and his brother. Bujang suspected that this was the owner of the black horse, chasing him. Meanwhile his father and mother had come out of the house to investigate the noise. They approached the man on the light brown horse.

The man addressed Bujang's parents as he stopped his horse a few feet away from them. "Your boy has saved me from a chase, and maybe saved me from a loss. Did he learn the ways of horses from you?"

Bujang's father looked carefully at the newcomer before replying. "We have no horses, and the boy has never studied their ways. Perhaps it was his calm spirit that stopped your runaway."

The horse's owner looked impressed. "I am Ngan. I am a horse trader. Do you wish to buy this skittish black specimen?"

Bujang's father smiled in spite of himself. "I wish to," he said. "But we have little money, and less need for a horse. We are but herders, and our dogs and our feet are all we need to guide our reindeer."

"Herders," Ngan repeated thoughtfully. "And will your son become a herder like you?"

"He is already a herder like me," Bujang's father said immediately. Bujang felt a burst of pride to hear his father say it so unhesitatingly. "Though I wonder if he could rise up beyond my station, and do something more glorious than what I and my fathers have done."

Ngan smiled. "I cannot say that trading horses is higher or more glorious than herding. All honest work is honorable. But I have need of an apprentice, to care for the horses, to carry my luggage, to help with the breeding and the buying and the selling. Do you want to send your boy with me to work and to learn?"

Bujang could see that his parents were surprised at this sudden offer. So was he. Bujang looked at Ngan and tried to imagine what it would be like to leave home and travel with this stranger. He could see red in Ngan's cheeks. Could it be that he had already been drinking rice wine so early in the morning? In town, he had heard stories of wicked masters who took advantage of apprentices. He wondered how he could know Ngan's heart, and whether he would meet a happy or dark fate with him.

Bujang's parents invited Ngan into their little house to talk it over. Bujang, not sure what else he could do, continued to play baduk with his brother. After an hour or so, they invited Bujang inside to explain their thoughts and desires.

The ideas were mostly inscrutable to an 11-year-old. The low capital of the family, with a dwindling herd. The mouths to feed, and the need to decide who to split the estate. The need for horse skills and business and travel to give Bujang a semblance of a cosmopolitan education. The desire to make the future better than the past for all of them.

Bujang could not grasp most of this. But he knew that he desired new sights and fresh air and, though he had never admitted it to himself during his life of reindeer herding and baduk games, he desired adventure above all else. When they asked him what he thought of becoming an apprentice, he didn't hesitate. He bowed to Ngan and said only "Tell me my first task, new master." Ngan laughed and clapped him on the back. The baduk game he had started with his younger brother remained unfinished.


Bujang smiled to himself as he thought of how he got started with horses. The stones were set up for a new game, and Bujang suddenly remembered where he was. He looked at the old man across from him again, and remembered his talk about trees and branches and choices. He wondered what branches of the future had been opened up at the moment when he jumped into his apprenticeship. He wondered what branches of the world had died.

Bujang and the old man started placing their stones on the game board, quickly at first, then more slowly as the stones' arrangement developed into its bewitching complexity. Bujang continued to think about branches, but there was one thing he didn't understand.

"Why does it help?" he asked.

The old man raised an eyebrow. "Why does what help?" he said.

"Forming a tree," Bujang answered. "Why does that help you win? Can't you win without a tree?"

"Ah. To form a tree is to make a map of the future. You see every possibility laid out in your mind, and the path that you can take to arrive there. If you can see, on a branch of a branch of a branch that grows from putting your stone on the left, a victory, then you put your stone on the left. If you can see,  on a branch of a branch of a branch that grows from putting your stone on the right, a defeat, then you keep your stones away from the right. As soon as you have the tree as your map, you can arrive anywhere you want to go."

Bujang frowned. "But the tree is too big. There are dozens of places to put a stone. And there are dozens of possible replies to where I put a stone. If I make a map of all possible replies of all possible replies of all possible replies, it will have many thousands of branches. How can I see all of those at once?"

The old man raised his eyebrows. "You are beginning to see the heart of baduk's mystery. We are only men, and we can never see the full tree, or even more than a few branches in our limited minds. So, one solution is to prune the tree. You say there are dozens of places to put a stone. But with a moment's reflection, you will see that I have just attacked with this stone here. Anything that ignores that attack would be preposterous. So instead of dozens of branches, maybe you only need to consider two or three defenses. And the same goes for replies of replies of replies. Instead of building a full tree, you can prune out the branches that you think have no promise, build a smaller tree, and use that to find the path to the best future."

Bujang placed another stone. The old man's words, "path to the best future," made him uneasy. The reason he had gone to the inn in the first place had been to avoid the future, and stay for a while in the eternal anonymous present of a place where he and his obligations and longings were unknown. He couldn't help but think of another baduk game, the last he had played with his father on his most recent visit home.


"You were always better than me at this," Bujang's father said to him, laughing a little as they placed their baduk stones. "I don't know how. I taught you the game and everything you know about it. So there's no reason you should surpass me." He chuckled again.

Bujang wasn't sure how to reply. "I've just been getting lucky these last few games," he said.

Bujang's father shook his head. "We both know that's not true. But I am glad for it. When a son surpasses his father, the father should be glad. Really it is a compliment to the start I gave you."

Bujang smiled at his father's kind words. But he also heard a frailty in his father's voice. It pained him to think that his father wouldn't be able to play baduk with him forever. Death had been on his mind ever since Ngan had passed.

It was as if Bujang's father could sense exactly what he was thinking. "What will you do without Ngan?" he asked.

"His brother was his heir," Bujang said. "I had to give the herd back to him. They buried him and I suppose they will sell all the horses."

"To you?"

Bujang laughed. "Where would I get enough silver for even one horse?"

Bujang's father nodded. "Then, what's next?"

Bujang smiled ruefully. "I don't know. Can I herd reindeer again?"

"Of course. We are always glad to have you with us here at home. But is that what you wish for? Is that what you think the gods intend for you?"

Bujang shook his head. "I don't know that either. I thought about working with one of the businesses in town. Or even going to the cities in the east to study at their universities."

Bujang's father looked as he listened. "What about horses? Would you ever want to have your own herd?"

"I've got no silver, remember?" Bujang said. "The only real way to get a herd is to buy one or inherit one. The only wild horses left to capture are in lawless areas full of robbers and murderers. And they say that the horses there are impossible to tame anyway."

"Hmmm." Bujang's father looked thoughtful as he placed another stone. "It is difficult. But I am sure that you will find the right path to the best future."


Bujang placed another stone, and looked at the old man again. "So, is that all there is?" he asked. "The best baduk players are only forming trees, pruning the obviously bad choices, and finding victory in a tangle of branches?"

The old man shook his head. "No," he said. "There is much more you need to learn. For example, you will notice that the best baduk players know when to make a bad move."

Bujang couldn't help but laugh. "How could there be a good time to make a bad move?" he asked.

The old man looked surprised. "You are truly young, if you haven't yet learned the value of a mistake," he said, half smiling. "There are many reasons to make a bad move, even in baduk. A move that looks bad can unnerve the opponent, make him think that there is something deep and inscrutable afoot, and force him to make a series of errors in reply."

Bujang thought that sounded a little underhanded, but he couldn't help but nod as he saw the sense in it.

The old man continued. "There is also the matter of time. A move that has bad effects in the short term can lead to certain victory in the longer term. This is part of the meaning of sacrifice, and part of the reason why the patient are so often victorious in so much of life. This is why pruning the tree is so difficult: because the moves that seem obviously bad and in need of pruning are sometimes the best if we can see a few branches ahead."

"There are other reasons to make bad moves. Remember that winning is not the only possible goal of a baduk game. There is also the thrill of risk and the excitement of uncertainty. Even if it leads to loss, a move can be worthwhile if it adds to the richness of the experience of the game."

"Finally, there are the gods," the old man said.

Bujang was taken aback. "The gods? What do they have to do with anything?"

The old man looked serious now. "The gods can see the full tree of all possible futures. They know the aims that are proper for us and the path each of us is meant to tread. If the gods tell you to make a move, you can be sure that it is right, even if it seems like the worst possible choice."

"But how can you know that the gods are telling you something?"

The old man paused. "This is a mystery that you must solve for yourself." He placed his final stone on the board, surrounding Bujang's formation and winning instantly.


Bujang put his coat on, tied his knife to his belt, and wrapped his rope around his shoulder. He closed his eyes and in his mind's eye tried to look at the tree of his own life. He could see endless branches in front of him: glory, death, riches, mediocrity, pain, love, sacrifice, and adventure. There were far too many branches for him to consider all at once, and they were all constantly shifting and transforming in his mind. Nor did he know the proper aim he should seek - life had no simple version of the victory of a baduk game.

Without certainty, he could only rely on a vague hope that he was choosing well, and a fervent longing that his choice was sanctified and favored by the gods. He knew the direction of the lawless areas where the wild horses were supposed to live. He also knew the danger of the robbers who had strongholds there. He walked forward, steady and strong, ready to make his name and win his herd.