The Old Lanterns

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.

The Worms

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.

The Sad Knight

Honore Daumier, Don Quichotte et Sancho Panza, 1868

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.

The Mountain View

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.

The Doctor and the Drunkard

            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.  

The Road Along the Cliffs

The road was ancient and horrible, skirting sheer cliffs that descended into an abyss of rough sea. Most of the first trekkers who had found the trail perished, cascading with pebbles and scree into the rocks and breakers below. Other roads were found, and most travelers took them for the simple reason that they were safer and because there was nothing profitable along the cliffs, though some claimed the views were sublime. One could see skeletons emerge from the mists below and the debris of old shipwrecks, but generally the coves below the cliffs were full of clouds and predatory birds. The road itself had caved in at numerous points because of erosion and the effects of earthquakes and tidal waves. It terminated at a sheer cliff where one had to leave the coast to return to other main roads, or continue forward into the nothingness of ocean spray and screaming gulls. To honor the ancient trekkers, perhaps, or to glorify an inexplicable virtue that could never be fully articulated, a tradition emerged that one could neither build a fence along the coast, nor post signs, nor build shelters with rescue gear, nor prevent others from traveling the ancient road along the cliffs. It was not an ancient tradition, but strangely took hold as if it were, and efforts to send surveyors and engineers were greatly resisted by those dwelling in the land. And thus, most of the trekkers who took the trail, few though they were in number, continued to perish, plunging into the abyss below. What is more, it was not uncommon to see the mounted sergeants arresting and dragging off the kind-hearted but old-fashioned sentries who waited at the entrances to the road, begging and praying the trekkers not to depart upon that twisted, cloudy and crumbling path.

The Charcoal-Seller

An old man once told me that in the mountains of Taiwan there were itinerant charcoal-sellers, who wandered from village to village. Not only did they sell charcoal, but it seems they also provided matches, live embers, and tinder. I told you that story long ago, interrupted another old man, and I was not an old man back then! That is true, I admitted, but you are an old man now. And besides, you heard it from an old man at the time. That did not please him at all. In revenge for other past slights, he pointed out that there was no evidence these wandering charcoal-sellers existed. I had seen a black and white photograph of one from the mountains across the straits, I said, but he was not convinced. At any rate, he said, you yourself are an old man now. I was always old, I replied, and I my life was lived in vain, and I can think of nothing I would like to be more right now than a fire-bearer, a wandering old charcoal-seller in the distant mountains–with long matches, short matches, tinderboxes, firesteel, charcoals and embers–maybe some rolled cigarettes and bottles of black tea. And I would sit by a cast iron stove some nights, and watch the cool peaks darken and the flames dance above the charcoals.

The Lake of Snow

I was heading home, but I lost my way, said the pilgrim. In the way station, they fed small birch logs into a cast iron stove. What do you remember? asked the old man feeding the stove. I remember it was like this—cutting wood and feeding stoves—and windows full of snow. And of course, the lake. Not much, the old man sighed, sitting back down on his chair to warm his hands with a mug of tea. No, not much, the pilgrim agreed. Sometimes I dream of an evening of snow, of pine trees wrapped in straw, of lanterns, and of a quiet voice that sounds like a lake. Nothing happened that evening. The snowfall was the only thing that happened, but I remember it very clearly and dream of it sometimes. The infinite snowflakes were like plum blossoms and white stars—endless. One could never count them. The old man shook his head and said, You are lost because you are made of trails without footprints, unwritten letters, and unfinished tales. That will never work. The wind shrieked outside. I don’t want to be an unfinished tale, the pilgrim implored. Return to the lake, said the old man–it is somewhere in the heavy snow.

The Home

In the mornings, he told his older son that he was going to inspect the sheep, but somehow he ended up by the willows, and from there it was not far to the main road. After gazing at the road from the shadows of the willows, he would eventually shuffle up to the highway of stone and dust and stand there most of the day. Should a caravan pass, he would ask for news, even offering rich gifts for news of his younger son. On other days, he would say that he needed to repair a wooden fence, but they would not find him by the fences. Instead he would be following the cool river that wound through the hills and reached the highway below from a different direction. One night, when the moon was full, the older son got up to check on a donkey that was ill, and he saw the shadow of the old man walking in the blue darkness of the road. Coming up to his father, he asked him what the matter was. “Homesick, I guess,” said the old man. The older son grunted and led the old man back to the house. One evening, he came home with a cloth bag full of carobs, and was eating them as he walked into the dining room where his wife was lighting an oil lamp. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Nowhere,” he said. “A pilgrim gave me these carobs. They make me feel better. Maybe you should eat some.” She took one and ate. “What is wrong with you?” she asked as he sank into a chair and closed his eyes. “I am lost and I want to go home,” he said softly. “Me too,” she replied. The lamp flickered in the darkening house.

The Mountain Village

In the mountain village, the visitor was struck by the tall houses with long, severe roofs. They reminded him of wooden clothes pins, perhaps. Obviously, the sharpness of the roofing related to easing the burden of snowfall. It was well known that poorly designed houses caved in under the weight of blizzards, instantly killing all the inhabitants. At the café, he ordered a cappuccino and asked about the distinctive architectural style of the village. The barista happily explained that the village had never had an architect. All of the houses, for generations, had been designed and built by one family of carpenters, whose crafted birdhouses remained the chief export of the village. Whoever was not a shepherd or a farmhand helped the carpenters build both the birdhouses and the houses. The birdhouses had brought in great revenues both through foreign visitors and importers far away. After finishing his cappuccino, the visitor walked out into the bright alpine cold. The white mountains seemed to resemble the angular houses. As he pondered which trail to walk, he noticed a procession. The priest was scattering seed along the paths, and the villagers followed behind, walking awkwardly, their heads down but bobbing to an inhuman rhythm.