It was dark in the tavern across from the great cathedral. Despite its location on the square, it was not very attractive or popular. A blue twilight reigned among the scratched wooden tables, the cast iron stove in the corner, the long bar behind which bottles and glassware barely glimmered. An obstetrician stood at the counter with a journalist. “It’s time to settle up,” said the doctor. “We wouldn’t want to be late for the service,” the journalist agreed. They left some coins on the counter and went out just as another man was entering. The man was muscular, tall, and had a broken nose and chestnut hair that fell to his shoulders. One might say he was very good-looking, dark and mysterious like a gangster. He was dressed in a shabby black coat. There were scars on his face. He sat at a table by the frosted windows with a view of the cathedral. At the other tables sat thieves, militant racists, and well-off but disgruntled trades people who had just broken up with their mistresses. The mysterious stranger, or perhaps thug, ordered in a whisper, and the waiter hurried off to the back. One by one, the others cleared out. First, an adulterer, who loudly proclaimed he was heading to the church. Not long after, some thieves talked a militant racist into joining them on their way to the service. “It’s not a good idea,” said the militant racist. “Get over yourself. They won’t even notice you,” the thieves said. They wandered out the door. Only three men were left. “Aren’t you going to church?” the thug asked. They shook their heads. “Most of us here aren’t welcome there,” said a bald, bearded elder in a wheelchair. “I’m surprised the others are going.” “Want to join me?” The other three came over to his table by the window and arranged themselves on the other side facing him. “And what do you do?” the thug asked the elderly man. “I’m just an old veteran. Army.” A young, ginger-headed man with square spectacles said he was a tax lawyer. “And you?” the thug asked the chubby, baby-faced man with cropped, silver hair. “I own a laundry service. I started out driving the laundry trucks.” They sat in silence, waiting for the order to arrive. “Shouldn’t you be at the cathedral today? Everyone else is there. Why aren’t you there?” the old veteran asked. “They wouldn’t let me stay,” said the thug. An explosion rocked the plaza, filling the windows with an uncanny, rosy-orange light. The cathedral was burning. The waiter brought the order: some broiled sardines, rustic bread and a carafe of wine. “Want some?” the thug asked, and he poured out four glasses of wine after handing them slices of bread. “What do you do?” the tax lawyer asked the thug. “I’m a carpenter,” the other replied, his pales eyes aglow from the cathedral on fire.
The evening show was exquisite. The script was thoughtful, the pacing of the performance was thoughtful, the actors and actresses were elegant and beautiful. It would be hard to imagine a better production. An adorable redhead played the daughter of the Comtesse, and the young man who played the gaunt Curé with the bicycle had a haunting presence. A real donkey crossed the background at one point—for verisimilitude and symbolism. The way the light shone off the gunmetal bicycle, the simple but measured gesture of the hands—everything was animated with—what shall one call it?—spirit. I shall never forget the addition of old cinematic or phonographic static to the soundtrack—that pure, nostalgic sound of snowflakes falling. All was grace. The curtain closed. It was silent. My applause had been delayed by my ecstatic scribbling of notes, but the silence was paralyzing. I turned around. The lifeless audience just sat there; some were even slumped over. I got up and walked past rows of blanched faces. They were all dead. An actor joined in me checking pulses and listening for heartbeats. They were all dead. Someone mentioned gas, but there was no scent of any such thing. And as the possibility was being pondered a nervous stagehand struck a lighter to light his cigarette. Nothing happened. Large tears flooded the pale blue eyes of the daughter of the Comtesse. The Curé went backstage to telephone the police. And I walked out of the theatre and onto the rainy street of glowing lampposts to light my own cigarette and wait.
What a strange tale, said the monk, and with a knife he excised the pages from a codex. A fire broke out in the aedificium, and he had to abandon the scriptorium to help draw water. The abbey burned. The copyist and most of the other monks perished when the tower fell, and only the detached scriptorium remained among the smoking ashes. One winter a knight rode into the ruins and sought shelter in the scriptorium. While searching for supplies, he found the excised pages on the floor, and sat down by the hearth to read them as he drank from a wineskin. It was the tale of a knight, who went riding out one fall in search of adventure. Not far down the road in a golden forest, he found a damsel stranded. The axel of her cart had snapped and the horse had run off. The knight made a temporary fix for the axel and attached his own horse to the cart and drove her to the town she had named, but she abused him the whole way in the vilest of language. At the town, he detached his horse and offered money to properly repair the cart, but she threw the coins in his face. What madness, both knights exclaimed simultaneously, and the knight in the tale sadly rode on toward the northern coasts. Near the cliffs, he saw an ocean dragon threatening a young noble man. Shielding himself from the hissing spray of flames and smoke, the knight set to work hewing off tail, limbs and wings until the dragon fell to the beach below and immolated itself. When the knight approached the youth to check for wounds and offer bandages, the youth began to weep and to scream, and hurled himself into the pyre where the dragon burned below. The knight sat down on the cliff to watch the calamity until the tide rose and a rainstorm blew in, the ocean waves washing away the charred remains of the victims. The knight prayed, rose, and mounted his horse. Word of his deeds spread, and he could not enter a town for the high king of the south had outlawed him, placed a bounty on him, and had sent out packs of knights like hungry wolves after him. The knight wandered northward, crossing the ancient wall, the old rivers, and the desolate moors. Archers in lone towers refused him hospitality and rained arrows upon him. When he drove wild boars away to save the peasants’ fields of oats and rye, they burned their own fields in horror. What madness, both knights sighed, as the lost knight of the tale stared at the smoking fields and prayed. That it was some curse he was well aware, but he did not know where to turn for succour. The heavens seemed as hard and silent as the stones of the heath. One evening, as the knight rode by a lake, he saw strange blue flames rise from the water. Dismounting, he ventured down to the pebbled shore, wading into the loud lapping of the waves. In the midst of the blue fire, he beheld the pale arm of a woman, partly clothed in a sleeve of samite, holding up an elegant gleaming sword. A gentle, sweet song seemed to emanate from her hidden form. Without undressing, the knight plunged in and swam toward the bright sword, when suddenly it disappeared and the arms of the woman in the lake snaked around him, crushing him with prodigious strength and dragging him down into the depths. For how long he wrestled in the deep, he knew not, until something like a rainfall of molten silver lit up the deep. The knight saw the liquescent form of an angel plunging a blade into the water sprite. Seconds later the angel lifted the knight with one arm, drawing him out of the deep and into the clear starry sky. They could have flown for an eternity. Below, the knight saw a great battle unfolding between knights like white specters and knights like ghostly shadows, hewing at each other above the passing clouds and drifting stars. They flew higher still until he could see the rings of planets and the tails of fiery comets. They flew towards a whirlpool of stars that circled furiously until suddenly there was a great explosion of stardust and he blacked out. It was early morning when he awoke beside an empty stone tower near the peak of a snowy mountain. All of his armour, his shield and his sword had rusted. Inside the tower were many books. What madness, said both knights, although the knight in the scriptorium lay down the page and took a drink. Most stories are utter lies, he sighed. What does one call a true history? For this is nothing less than the tale of my life! Once again, he took up the page and read. The rusted knight made a fire in the hearth of the tower and began to eat a book, reading a page, tearing it out, and chewing it in his mouth as the flames shimmered on his ferrous mail. What madness, said both knights in between mouthfuls, but it was midnight now and they were too tired to come to the next page.
Driving into the lake town, one noticed the beautiful way the magical lights danced on rain-polished streets. At every intersection, a different triad of traffic lights hung from above. At the first, the lights were chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but things quickly got complicated. The next intersection had cotton candy, tiger tail and cake icing. Down a side street, one could glimpse other triads–rum, spumone, neapolitan; raspberry, peach, caramel; matcha, sesame and kinako. It was hard to make out the architecture; one caught glimpses of old houses with pointed roofs and stainless steel siding, gray brick warehouses and old shops with clean glass windows full of colorful round paper lanterns. Most of the stores were shuttered, but outside one of them on a three-way crossroads stood a glowing, human-sized vanilla ice-cream perfectly reflected in the puddle lapping against the curb. It was impossible to tell what the colors of the traffic lights meant; one had to guess whether the order from top to bottom was the same as everywhere else. One drove slowly. One saw crosses, stray wheels and shredded metal under the pine trees. Gardens were lined with rubber tires or cinder blocks. The broken glass on every lane sparkled with the glimmer of a fair ground. Mobiles of spark plugs, zinc fender washers, wing nuts, rod bolts, and other automotive innards hung from cottonwoods. Had it not been for the lack of other motor vehicles on the road, it would have been impossible to get around the maze of streets meandering along the hills overlooking the deep indigo waters and gray shores lined with overturned, beached boats. One would like to stop somewhere and have a pint of amber ale amongst friendly faces under strings of naked light bulbs with outdated songs playing from a jukebox. One felt the bitter pang of nostalgia, regret or relief as one drove through the last intersection of town, lit by the last triad of signals glowing in rose, butterscotch and mint.
A rainfall of coins rang in the lacquer box of the minstrel. Though blind, his years of experience and sharp ears detected the sounds and weights of various coins; a small fortune of copper, brass and silver had landed after he had just finished singing of the drowned warriors, an ancient tragedy belonging to the great epic that allowed him to wander and eat and not become a masseuse or pure beggar. You are too kind, said the minstrel. No, said his benefactor. It is history and song that make the day worth living. You have a great gift, and I wished to reward it. Do not pity me, the minstrel suddenly said. I make a good living. I may be blind, but I know it is a cloudless day. The courtyard here has soft, crunching white gravel that leaves a white ash on your palms. For half of the day the cryptomeria shade me, and in their branches a green woodpecker has been busy. The tea seller has not been by today; his rheumatism must be acting up, and the housewives who passed by earlier have solved the mystery of the young woman who went missing—it turns out that she was brutally murdered. And you are a postal courier. The smell of horses on your clothing is fresh. I know more than just dusty old epics. Throughout the long silence, the warrior listened and looked about the courtyard. To begin with, he said hoarsely, they are pine trees. I drank three cups of tea while admiring the black woodpecker, and the housewives do not know that the missing girl is safe and sound. She tried to drown herself, but was rescued by some charcoal-burners who nursed her back to health and brought her to a priest. The poor girl will return in a few days. Moreover, you may have smelled horse but you missed the jingling of chain mail and the scent of fresh lacquer armour. I am not a postman. There are other things that bother me—too numerous to get into with you at the moment—but I will allow myself to make two observations. The first is that you lack gratitude. If you were truly grateful for the gift I bestowed, you would not have become unwarrantedly defensive, launching into your prideful rant about your worldly knowledge. Secondly, you despise your gift—a mystery I am too exhausted to try to solve, but one that belongs to a greater, mysterious plague of pettiness one encounters everywhere in every town these days. To date, I have never been bettered in a sword fight. That does not make me a great man, and it does not make me the best sword fighter. One day someone better will cut me down, and hopefully soon. Until then, it is a brute fact that I am apparently very good with a sword, just as you are very good with your musical instrument, your singing voice, your knowledge of history and the dusty old epics. None of those make you the best minstrel or a good man, either, but they are good things. And don’t bother listening for the bird. The black woodpecker can be masterfully silent when it wants to. The minstrel inadvertently caused his lute to twang as his trembling fingers slipped. I have no words, he mumbled, bowing deeply. The warrior laughed and began to fill and smoke a pipe. One of the great monks, masters, philosophers or poets—I do not remember which one for the life of me—found enlightenment while resting in a place just like this and listening to a minstreljust like you, said the warrior. Never despise your gifts, whether it is the smallest copper or most meager bowl of rice. And always wash your bowl. The minstrel nodded out of fear and curiosity. I should do that, he agreed. You seem to be very wise. Who did you learn under? I am not wise, the warrior muttered. The road taught me what little I know. You were not entirely wrong. Though I’ve cut my fair share of necks, like most warriors these days I have not seen a battle, and most of my work is no different than that of a courier. I am a postman in armour. And yet, the minstrel protested, you seem to be skillful and enlightened! The road must indeed be a good teacher. I have wandered the roads for decades, but I was a poor student. What else taught you? The warrior puffed out a cloud of smoke. The old tales of warriors, priests, merchants, judges, nuns, princesses…folktales, legends, history. I have loved them since I was young. Throughout my travels, I have collected as many books of history from all around the country as I could, and I never travel without a book. I probably live in the past more than in the present. I do not think that is really wisdom after all. Besides, it is getting harder and harder to find good books. The minstrel, who did not realize his gaze kept turning from the warrior to his lacquer box, looked up suddenly. Why is that? he asked. The warrior sighed. It is nothing but painted scrolls now—tales of imaginary beings who fight like warriors and solve problems for people, but they have no substance—I do not know how to even explain it. They are like legendary characters without legends. Characters without character. Ghosts. The minstrel shook his head in disbelief and confusion. Ghosts? Yes, ghosts, said the warrior. The affluent love these painted scrolls and picture books. Old men, young women, novice monks, abbots, and even generals. Tales of monsters and ghosts who fight monsters and ghosts. Stories about things that never happened. The minstrel suggested that perhaps they were like parables or koans. The warrior shook his head and relit his pipe. No, they are not like parables or koans. One can travel a long way with a koan or a parable, with a folktale or an epic. These picture book stories have no roads and they lead nowhere at all. And their heroes! Such strange names, like Fox Mask or Mårhund Mask. By day, Fox Mask is an ordinary person, blending into the crowd. At night, he puts on his Fox Mask which gives him prodigious powers. He can fight bears and turn himself into a fox or back into a human at will! Now this is most strange for several reasons. First, he is said to have been given fox powers because he was bitten by a fox one night after his parents were brutally murdered by an insane travelling minstrel who stabs people with a sword concealed in his lute. It would make more sense if he were the offspring of a warrior and a fox—like in the old folktales about bewitching maidens who are really foxes. Moreover, if he has fox powers and can turn into a fox, why does he need a fox mask? I have shared many of my campfires and scraps with foxes up north, and I have never been bitten. Foxes tend to be skittish. They are not going to bite you. They are beautiful and crafty, but they are not very brave or strong. They are certainly not going to vanquish a bear. And why on earth is the Fox Mask the eternal rival of the Mårhund Mask? Some complicated love triangle involving Rabbit Mask—a female warrior from the Moon! In the end, they have to set aside their differences and work together to defeat The Heavy Snow Mask—a creature who is sometimes just a translucent snowstorm and sometimes a naked woman! And somehow she represents the corrupt nobles of the land! What idiocy! I liked it better in the folktales when the Rabbit tricks the sharks and goes to live on the Moon; the Mårhund gets drunk and haunts the temples and monasteries, interrupting prayers with his raucous singing, or the old great sage scalds himself with hot water and flees from his guests in his furry Fox form. And the Snow Woman never wore a mask, lived in a forest far from any nobles, and to my knowledge never appeared naked in the wild. She was elegant and terrifying, but mostly just elegant and chaste. Those were real folktales, but at the end of the day, I prefer the annals of yesteryear, to know what emperors decreed, what ministers enacted, what warriors accomplished, what philosophers preached, what tragedies and triumphs shaped the world. It is an age of confusion now. Instead of respecting the ancestors, men and women speak of nothing but nonexistent beings and small-minded emotions. They do not know anything about heaven or the gods, but fill their minds with imaginary monsters with godlike powers. It makes no sense to me. The truth is that the girl who went missing was not really trying to drown herself. She had filled her head with stories from picture books and imagined she could fly off a cliff like some crow or seagull. What nonsense and barbarism! That is why your gift is precious; that is why you must not despise it. Behold! The tea seller has returned! Would you like some tea? The minstrel shook his head, lost in thought. The warrior tapped the ashes out of his pipe and stood up. I don’t know why, but I have a craving for noodles, the warrior laughed. So long! The long summer days passed, and farmers began to burn their barley straw and wrap their trees. The wind began to bite. The warrior returned to the courtyard. The minstrel was there without his lute, surrounded by housewives, youths, maidens and farmers, reciting tales of Fox Mask and Mårhund Mask, lacing the stories with jokes and irreverent references to lords and priests. Coin after coin rained into his lacquer box. All of the faces in the audience looked ghostly in the late afternoon light. And yet nobody seemed to notice him—not his fine chain mail, not his swords, not his dark cloak. It was as though he were invisible. Maybe I am the ghost, he thought. Maybe I have been dead for a long time. The warrior passed on, riding to another town by the sea. After watching the rough waves wash the empty shore, he entered a crude tavern and ordered some liquor. He pulled out a book and began to read by lamplight. What is that you are reading? the tavern keeper asked. It is my last book of history, said the warrior; I have not been able to find any more. I have run out of roads and books. A warrior who likes books! the tavern keeper laughed. He brought another bottle of liquor, leaned over the counter and whispered in a conspiratorial manner: There is a notorious swordsman who is looking for you. He was heading north when he stopped by here a few days ago. The warrior counted the remaining pages of his book, and closed it. That is good news, he said. I will have something to eat. After dinner, he walked along the shore, leading his horse, thinking of the ancient drowned warriors, and watching the lanterns on the fishing boats flicker as they returned through the rough sea. Mounting his horse, he began to gallop down the shore into the blue dusk until the wind, the road and he were one.
It was the godless month when rain lashes the coasts and leaves fall from the trees. The wandering monk entered an abandoned town full of smoke and mist. An old lantern bearing the name of paradise flickered outside a run-down building with missing roof tiles. It was most likely a tavern, and it also seemed to be the only place open. Calling out a greeting, the monk rolled the sliding door open, only to see the strangest sight. Only a few lanterns, some of them misshapen, were burning. Instead of the master standing behind the counter ordering around barmaids with trays, he saw a warrior sitting next to an empty suit of armour at the bar, pouring it some liquor and muttering a toast. There is nobody here, said the warrior. The monk nodded and sat down at the far end. The warrior got up, went behind the counter into the kitchen and returned with a filled bottle of liquor and a cup, which he placed in front of the monk. It is cold, the warrior said. The firewood was wet. The monk thanked him and downed a cup of liquor. You see me, the monk finally said. Yes, the warrior mumbled. And it appears you see me. Then we are not ghosts, the monk deduced. I don’t know, the warrior sighed, moving closer, leaving his armour to drink alone. Ghosts, the warrior repeated quietly. The rain beat a constant harsh rhythm on the roof. My horse did not follow me, the warrior explained. That is some consolation. A bitter consolation. And my wound seems healed, although I am not keen to undress and look. And I still have my bow,quiver and sword. They poured themselves more liquor and stared at the dusty furnishings and lamps. I was the only one left on the battlefield, said the warrior. I got up, and walked to the edge of the escarpment, and saw a meadow filled with the slain. I was the only one alive, though my wound was fatal and I did not have much time. The morning sky was beautiful, blue, with only scattered clouds. The larch and the birch had already turned golden. Bloody corpses lay everywhere. I wept out loud for the first time in my life. Then suddenly a clear, grating voice spoke behind me. Why are you weeping? Is it because you regret losing them? They are nothing other than you. I turned and saw a young priest, probably a heretic, with a cold, pale face, holding an accordion book of the sutras and some beads. What do you mean? I demanded. Those bodies, and every body you have ever encountered, is no one other than yourself. You have only ever met yourself. I regarded the corpses once more, and they were still lying there in the vanishing morning dew. When I turned back again, the priest was gone. My horse was nowhere to be found, yet I still felt the pain of falling from him after the enemy arrows struck me. I am a lie, I thought, and the way of the warrior is a lie. I walked into the forest. It began to rain, and I stumbled into this village. I have not seen a soul. A sound of thunder shook the mountains. They told me the same thing, said the monk. I had a raging fever, and I figured my days were done. One cool evening, I awoke. Dark monks like puppets surrounded my bed, smiling. Their smiles reminded me of those hideous festival masks or theatrical masks. Where are the others? I asked. For I did not know any of these people. They were not my friends. They were not the acolytes or monks of my monastery. I called for the abbot, but the radiant monks started to laugh. Who are you calling? they asked. I repeated the name of the abbot, and they laughed even more. That person is you, they said. No, I argued vehemently. The abbot is corpulent, kindly and good at mixing herbs. I am gaunt, younger, and fairly inept at medicine. They shook their heads in silence. In the world, you are the only one who exists. Everyone you have ever met is you. Madness, I cried. They began to make a magic lantern show on the temple wall. I could not bear to watch anymore. I ran screaming down the corridors, into the courtyard, and down the country lane. It is one thing to say that the world is an illusion, but to think that the world is uninhabited, that I have always been alone. The warrior laughed and said, I kill myself in a thousand ways for no reason. It makes no sense. The monk went into the kitchen. After some lengthy digging around, he got a fire going and heated some liquor, bringing the steaming bottles back to the counter. I had a concubine and a son, said the monk. You had nobody, said the warrior. You may as well have married your sister or mother—what difference would it have made? And don’t get any ideas about sharing a bedroll or a bath with me. The monk burst into laughter, spewing liquor all over the counter. Then the spell of laughter turned into weeping. She got angry with me one winter, the monk said. She walked into the stormy sea clutching our child, and a riptide washed them away. That is a cruel thing to endure, said the warrior. I betrayed my lord, he said after a long pause. Only my army was to be massacred. The battle got out of hand, and everyone died. The monk refilled the warrior’s cup. My concubine was my aunt and my wet nurse, said the monk. She was still my wet nurse when she took her life and the life of our child. The mountains of the north are truly cold. There was nothing to say. They just listened to the rain and stared at the old lanterns.
In the dark amber woods of the majestic blue mountains, there were glowworms as long as snakes or eels, and generally came in two types of coloring–one copper and the other brass. Their incandescence, as they draped from tree limbs or wound around the trunks, quite magically and romantically illuminated the forest paths and allowed nocturnal creatures and pilgrims a better view of the undergrowth and trails. Weather either affected the worms, or the worms affected the weather. In the lore of the old days, the copper worms were associated with rainfalls, good winds, safe passages. The brass worms meant an abundance of fungi, followed by droughts and an explosive growth of weeds. One could argue both were necessary. The caretakers–a glorified title for peasants who wrote reports–seemed to favour the brass worms. In the beginning, it was rumored that this was because their pay was low and they needed the excessive fungi and weeds as forage. Some decades ago, they found evidence that the copper worms had eaten through birch trees or had colonized forest that other species needed for their habitat. The foresters and villagers were scandalized, and planted the idea of a witch hunt against the copper worms. Later on, scientists investigated the claims and found them grotesquely exaggerated. One main problem was the unresolved nature of the worms. At times they seemed like the same species, despite superficial differences; at other times, their ethology and impact on the environment seemed antithetical. A number of entomologists believed that it was actually the brass worms that caused more harm to trees, deer and bears. Nevertheless, the caretakers began to suppress reports on the brass worms and publish report after report on the hazards posed by copper worms. At night, they glowed just the same, but tradition was forming among the peasantry, as it had formed among the caretakers before, and copper worms became proverbial for the harm they brought to the woods. The caretakers and peasants treated the bark of the trees with herbs that either killed or inflicted lifelong harm on the copper worms. They grew scarce, though pilgrims who ventured deeper into the mountains claimed that they thrived at higher altitudes not visited by brass worms. Some charcoal burners and wood-cutters feared that the herbal vermicides had also damaged the brass worms—they did not glow in the same way, and they did not seem to bring about expected harvests of fungi or edible weeds. One day, a surveyor wandering through the woods stopped by the shack of a charcoal-burner to ask his opinion of the matter. The worker had just sat down to a humble repast of sourdough bread, cheese and some ale. The charcoal-burner thought about the surveyors’ questions and said, The only reason there are worms in the first place is because the woods are rotten. It is good that they light up the trails at night, but someday a wildfire will burn them and the woods, and then other trees and other worms will grow, as long as the earth remains.
In a dark pine forest of bright, cold stars, a sad knight sat on a broken wooden chair in an old, makeshift tent before a brazier of cold ash. It had been days since it had been safe to light a campfire or brazier of any kind. A coded whisper came from outside, and the knight acknowledged the password with another whisper. A messenger–his squire–came in, exhausted from a long ride, and handed a packet of letters to his master, who lit a small candle and began to read them. One contained a map, which had to be spread out on the ground by the brazier. In the depths of the silence, the squire finally asked what new horrors had appeared and what quest they would undertake. In disbelief, the sad knight looked at the map and shuffled through the letters one by one, reading and rereading them. Sometimes tears fell from his eyes and blurred the gothic script of the letters. Why are you sad? the squire asked. I don’t know, said the knight. Whom shall we battle? Is it demons? And the knight, holding up the letters, said, This is the quest. These are the horrors, the worst demons. None of the messages makes any sense, whether from friend or foe. Who are our allies? the squire asked. I don’t know, said the knight, and other than reading these letters, I no longer know our quest. The silence returned, and they looked at the map in the flickering light of the candle. It is cold on this earth, said the knight. I will ride long and quick to the northeast, beyond the edge of this map. It is time to get lost in the northern darkness of deeper forests, longer nights, and deeper cold. And I ride there to build a fire.
In the early afternoon, the man summitted the high mountain. Sitting down on a rock next to a large wooden cross, he burst into tears. What is the matter? asked a woman, who had arrived just after him. I have longed for this mountain for years, I have pined for it. And now I cannot see it! I cannot see it at all!! The woman shook her head in disbelief as he bawled with his head in his hands. At last, he calmed down and asked her what she suggested. The woman drank from a stainless steel flask and said that he should never marry. And if possible, he should enter a monastery on a high mountain with a lovely view of other mountains in the distance. The man thought about her words. Twilight came, and other mountaineers found his dead body embracing the snow beneath the cross.
In a mining town with one short railway and one horse-drawn trolley, there was a long, low shack near the market square: a wooden structure of three solid walls, an open front which once had sliding doors, a roof with some missing tiles, and indigo cloths bearing the symbol for ice hanging above the entrances, although ice had not been sold there for years. In the shade inside, one found a long, scratched, wooden table and behind it a wooden chair. Most of the time the place was empty and only a cat could be found curled up in one of the corners. On market days and some holidays, one could find the kindest man in town here. When he was not in the shack, he was usually sweeping streets, hauling sacks of coal, or washing iron kettles for the miners, kindly listening to their problems. When he was in the shack, however, he would sit on the old chair behind the table with a bottle of firewater and a hurricane lamp. Customers would come, place silver or copper coins on the table, and hear him drunkenly rant and swear at them. Some considered him a seer, and invested great thought and time into how to interpret his offensive and enigmatic words. Others just went to be entertained—or for sadder, more delicate reasons. Most of the early evening visitors only stayed a quarter of an hour; the midnight visitors would last anywhere from one to three hours. And then before the morning light burned above the blue and white peaks, the man shuffled off with his lantern, his coat pockets stuffed with coins. And for days after, the man who had ranted and raved at his customers in the most abusive language would be sweeping the streets, happily washing kettles for the miners, and patiently listening to the old farmers complain about the frost or the blight. One night, a newly arrived doctor came to the shack. Nobody else was there, but the kind man was already flushed and deep into another bottle of liquor, his beard and pony-tail in disarray, his eyes shining with a menacing fire. The doctor placed a revolver and three silver coins on the counter. This is the last of my money, and that is what awaits me if I do not find a solution to my problem. I cannot get enough patients. The miners visit the company doctor and die before they can finish their treatments. The others stay at home and eat medicinal herbs or drink tea. I thought I could make it, but I am irrelevant here. That’s what the midnight train is for, growled the drunkard. One train—two ways to leave. Any idiot can figure that out. Is that all you’ve got? The doctor laughed nervously, noting how the drunkard never looked at the money or the revolver. They sat through a long silence. I would like a cigarette, said the drunkard suddenly, in a subdued, kind and even plaintive tone. The doctor reached into his coat and found a crumpled pack, which he pushed across the table. Keep the pack, he said. The drunkard lit a cigarette, pocketed the pack, and pushed the coins back toward the doctor. I came here some years ago to work as a cook, said the drunkard, but I was hungry and there was no work. The company would not take me on. A month passed, and I was on the verge of starving. I sold my kitchen knives and other belongings, and got drunk. I was headed for the midnight train, but got confused in the town square, just in front of the ice shop. I started ranting and raving. I got madder and madder and threw my hat down on the ground. At some point in my sermon, I realized a crowd had formed. They were laughing and clapping and throwing coins into my hat. And I repeated this once, sometimes twice a week, and before long, I had enough to buy the ice shop. The iceman was forced out of business by the company, which had built an ice factory nearby—who knows why? It’s not like coal expires. It was hard, though. It was hard in those first days, and still is. I have never liked strong drink that much and my liver always hurts. The doctor shook his head in disbelief. The kind man got up, and picked up his hurricane lantern. It’s not that they don’t need a doctor, he said, gently clutching the physician’s shoulder. It’s just that they need a disease. The kind man is said to have left on the midnight train, and the cat was never seen in the abandoned ice shop again.