Confused, the stone statues awoke into the twilight of time. Some stood in rows by the shimmer of water and grain, some bore the burden of smoke and darkness in deep halls, some faced the sea and the mountains. In the awakening of their consciousness, they hesitated, for they now knew that what they were meant to represent did not exist, that the carving of their gentle forms was not meant to give life, and yet here they stood, in heady smoke and clear rain, coming into life as the earth was sinking into death. Like old friends, they gazed placidly at the roadways in patient expectation.
A novice was sent out by the old master to gather information on a stranger who had taken up residence in an abandoned temple nearby and was giving lessons in the law. When the novice came back, he found the old master ready to practice calligraphy. Master, said the novice, things are terrible over there. The stranger is an idiot! Not only is he an inveterate smoker, calling his tobacco time blowing meditation, he is a clueless daydreamer, watching clouds all day and practicing his poor penmanship. Then he teaches utter nonsense, mixing song lyrics into quotes from the koans and sutras, mixing up his metaphors, and getting his proverbs backwards! Interesting, the master sighed. What does he say? Oh, all kinds of nonsense, the disciple exclaimed, and began to list the verbal atrocities, which the master copied down on his fresh paper as he listened. The earth is slow but the oxen are impatient. To meet a buddha in heaven. To head west you must travel north. Clutching the footprints of a stray dog in times of disaster. Only whores eat cold rice. The river of a thousand leagues is a thousand leagues. A spark is lighting. I don’t even know what this means! I am sure he is a peasant or a disgraced, masterless swordsman of low rank only pretending to be a teacher! The novice clutched his head in anguish. Do not worry, the old master laughed, I will bring him to justice. And the following day, the old master traveled to the once abandoned temple to bring the stranger the award of a dragon staff and a parcel of mugwort-flavoured rice cakes.
A robed acolyte came back to the river and found the boatman. Questions, guessed the boatman as the river whirled and rolled by in scintillating soughs and eddies of blue and green. Five, said the acolyte. Five jewels. Why the thirst to escape thirst? Why are illusions bound together? Why is the emptiness hungry? Why are symbols able to exist without real referents? A stray dog suddenly jumped from the grove of fig trees and ripped his robe to shreds before running off into the river and drowning. Shaven, naked and scarred, the acolyte covered a wound in his abdomen with his hand and stared into space as the rain began to fall.
The time traveler rolled a cigarette with a little machine and then struck a match. The glow briefly lit up his face. The one memory that always haunted him, he whispered, his favourite memory, was the night he spent lying in the cool grass of a park with a man and his wife, talking softly in between long intervals of silence, while watching a meteor shower. Though they were skeptics and progressives, incorrectly doubting what they did not know they could not doubt, the gentleness of the time they shared and the closeness of their bodies and souls under the blaze of dead stars seemed more precious and indelible than any of the great events he had witnessed, and he wanted it so much to mean more than the weight of truth that the natural history of time had taught him, but in his heart he knew well that it did not. It was a moment of escape perhaps, said his voice or the voice of another, a moment of bittersweet envy and stolen liberty.
Only one of the hunters objected to the premature and unnecessary moving of chairs, phonograph, and coffee service into the rustic wooden shelter as the rain pelted the dark trees for several minutes. When the others carried everything back out to enjoy the cool evening air and the wet scent of the earth, the very same one remained inside by the hurricane lantern, reading a book, for this was now the only way to keep the sonorous rain falling beyond the speckled windows.
At long last, the pilgrim reached the edge of the west. For years he had walked, wooden staff in hand, dreaming of the alabaster pagodas, rainfalls of flowers, delicious morning dew and utter peace. At the edge there was a gate, made of wooden scaffolding, a twisted, fragile affair that vaguely resembled the script of a language he might once have known. On a bedroll spread upon the red sand, the lame gatekeeper lay, looking at the pilgrim. The bald gatekeeper resembled an emaciated stone statue. I have come, said the pilgrim. I have not strayed, and I have not turned back. No, said the gatekeeper, you have not. The road was long, said the pilgrim, but I was able, and it was a road of peace and illumination. And sickness and death, said the lame one. What do you mean? the pilgrim cried. The gatekeeper was silent, but then finally spoke. The woman you begged alms from ten years ago lost her infants, for she had nothing left to feed them. The man who hid you in his cart and secretly transported you over several borders was captured and nailed to the wheels of his cart. The old man who cut himself while trying to mend your sandals suffered from a horrific infection that lasted for years before he died in agony. These are only a handful of cases. There were many such events along the way. The pilgrim shuddered and looked at the naked gate which had no doors or locks. Clouds of dust rose and blew through the frame. Where is the garden? asked the pilgrim. Is this not the west? It was not a reasonable question—straight ahead beyond the gate the sinking sun burned his eyes with its melancholy radiance of brass and orange light. The sun sets in the desert, said the gatekeeper. It always sets in a desert.
Every Thursday evening, the father took the little boy to the candy shop. There were mountains of rock candy, rivers of chimerical bottles gleaming with cream soda, vertiginous peppermints, serpentine licorice ropes, gardens of dried fruit, trees dangling jawbreakers and banquets of lemon cakes. The little boy immediately fell in love with the lemon cakes. The father bought three and watched earnestly as the little one ate them in the blue twilight on the long walk home. For six days, all the boy could dream or think about was the softness and sweetness of those fragrant, magical lemon cakes. On the following Thursday, the boy was not allowed to get the lemon cakes. They did not have enough money, the father said. And so they bought some cream soda, which was pleasant, but nothing like the lemon cakes. Later on, during another visit, they had enough money, but the father made him buy jawbreakers, which were not at all pleasant. Another Thursday came, and there were no lemon cakes to be had. They were discontinued, the shopkeeper explained. They were not to be found anywhere in the city. As they began the long walk home, the little boy tried sucking on some rock candy, but he burst into tears. I don’t want to go to the candy shop anymore, he said to the father. In the blue twilight, the father gently patted his head as he surveyed the many signs of the shops, banks, cabarets, cafes and boutiques sparkling throughout the city. My son, he whispered, almost to himself, you can never leave the candy shop.