Once in a while, the surveyors would come across a mission-white adobe house in the copper wastelands or a log cabin on shores of stone and black sand, only to find a lifer holed up inside. The typical charts were on the walls. The lifer would be working on fixing a radio, picking at a black box with tweezers, lighting a hurricane lamp or playing something mournful on the guitar. The lifers would invariably have books–paperback classics almost worn-out from rereading. There would be a wooden trinket on the wall that looked like the first aid symbol. In the evenings, they would radio, telegraph, fax or phone. The surveyors hardly spoke their idiom, and were uncertain if the sending or receiving of a code were the key mission. The nights seemed interminable, their silence and openness seductive. The moon would misshape itself to the sound of distant and sad music.
The skeletons wrapped their black coats around their bones and sat closer to the campfire, watching the firelight dance off their newly cleaned and oiled rifles. There was a strange stillness in the mountains that hung in the trees like an invisible and intangible mist. The coats have gotten better, said the one. First it was blue against gray, then green and gray, then nondescript shades of sand, and now black or green, but at least they seem durable for the time being. Warming his hands on a steel can of coffee, the other skeleton said that it was a difficult thing, picking a coat. Some were good against the rain, some were better with the wind and snow. It was impossible to wear the right coat–one never really knew what the battle was about or where the open road would lead you. And some coats just left you more naked, lying thrown face down on the side of some forgotten road. And the coats are full of surprises.
In abandoned shrines the man who was tired of life lived through dreams of steel. On his wooden sandals ten thousand universes hid in golden dust. Ancient gravel roads possessed for him the clarity of one polished mirror or sword. Always shouting farewell to wind-blown landscapes in a monochrome mirage, in rivers of scripts, down the road he would fade. Down the road, the man would blur.
Only days ago, perhaps even hours, departing from the land of smoke, the wanderer staggered off without a thought of how to find his home. The water he drank along the way was a river falling into bottomless thirst. The roadside ponds of swaying fish refused to carry his reflection. They had told him that the road, stripped of its grass, was a falling down, a slumber like death, a rising and falling of water and wind. The invisible ripples over every curve and turn of the road. There were no white clouds. There were no black pines.
On the wayside, the pilgrim sat below cedars under the wooden rafters of a shelter. On his palms there were no maps to guide, and his head was heavy with seeds of death. Day after day, he counted the hours, and every footfall was a waterfall. The pilgrim had lost his way in a golden sickness. His throat was parched and his eyelids closed. And still he could not bear to name a single mountain of the ancient land, and the closer he drew to its rotting gate, the less he seemed to exist. The pilgrim dreamed it was a woodblock print. It was the long gaze of a stone statue.
Into a garden lost on some wayside, through the paper doors the exile opened the world, bronzed and blackened like smooth pebbles embedded in grouts of cool white clouds. Beyond the paper doors the rain divides the pebbles into respective shapes of charcoal pear and ash persimmon, into six different shades of silence. In that first land the paper doors were holes through which the moths would dance, through which the night time coiled. Like cool green tea the summer set all the fields in a foam of sedge.
There were many mountain passes on the narrow road that led back to the land before the smoke. Many years had passed since he had last seen the shapes of its flowers and the clothes of its climates. Of days in the lure of clouds he had more images than a mind could hold. A headspace of tripping through mists and curling paper, of golden sawdust and blue ashes. And yet he could not seem to name a single voice from that other land. The closer he drew to its ancient gate, the more it seemed not to exist. And still he clutched in his one hand the one straw.