The Boxes 

The lecturer leaned back against the blackboard, covered with chalk pictographs, and asked everyone to imagine a myriad of boxes, all of them empty, all of them impossible to open. Now, she asked, what are they? Physics! said one. Epistemology! another called out. Some said the human heart, others shouted out world religions, department stores, pulmonary diseases, bank accounts, the modern city, wasp nests, libraries, television, questions, the way. And one joked, the final exam! And then the bell rang, and it was time to depart. 

The Whip 

Only one shadow of ink splashed into the radiance of the white adobe walls. It was the priest beyond the gate, awaiting the seeker, an insomniac and physicist who wanted to cure his migraines and questions. The priest wore black and his whole head was clean shaven. The physicist thought he looked more like an assassin than a priest. The walls burned the eyes. What would you like? the priest asked kindly, coiling a dark rope. I want my headaches to stop, said the physicist. And I want to know how and what to think. Textbooks, monographs, journals, newspapers, whole libraries and even radio shows contradict themselves and each other. I don’t know what to think anymore. A dark flash and loud crack startled him. The priest slowly rewound the whip that had left a dark stroke on the wall. You are wasting your own time. You will have thoughts whether you want them or not. The world never asked your permission to exist, why do you asks its permission to exist and think? The whip cracked again and another dark stroke appeared on the wall. That helps, the physicist said, but I still do not know what kind of thoughts to follow, or where they will lead me. There are only a handful that really matter, said the priest, and only one that means anything. What is it? the physicist asked. The wind, the explosive sound, and then the dark matter of the third stroke on the wall. Sacrifice, said the priest. The mystery of the stone. Once upon a time, a stone was a word, then an obstacle, then it could spark and make fire, then it was a tool, then a sacred item, then something to study, then industrial material, and then it was garbage. The stone gives itself to the world. The world gives itself to you. The world and the universe was made by sacrifice. You should give yourself. To yourself and to others. Then you will think. The physicist stared at the dark matter on the adobe wall. It looks like a wound, he said, and it also looks like the ancient character for the heart. Possibly, the other murmured. Once more the priest whipped the wall, adding the last stroke. Why do you have a whip? the physicist asked. To buffet the wind, the priest sighed, to scourge my thoughts. 

The Interpreter 

In the night of the cafe, the interpreter spoke slowly, conveying every nuance and subtle hint embedded in the exchange of cigarette smoke between the banker and the foreign diplomat. As in the old days, his recent employer had followed the ancient custom of paying the interpreter too well—to avoid complications and embarassments, of course. And yet, he wondered if perhaps the wrong party had been bribed. It may have been the sleeplessness of the season or the glassware whispers from the other tables, but as he watched the motion of their eyebrows and the shifting shadows of their hands, the interpreter first suspected and then was convinced that his companions both understood each other completely in some conspiratorial, nonverbal or even telepathic way that made his position absurd, if not outright dangerous. Only their laughter and the texture of the long expected drinks would reveal what he should whisper in the soft ear of the dark and slender waitress. 

The Clouds and Trees 

A woman bought a field of clouds and elegant trees. Pilgrims would come to view the cumulus, taste the amber sap and stroll under roofs of whispering leaves. For some years, she cultivated it in peace until clerks, new priests, teachers and magistrates came to tell her how she should grow and tend to it. She followed their advice, and within a season, the leaves fell, disclosing the nudity of the dried up branches. The dark soil turned to red sand. The woman left without locking the gate to the park. Nobody knew where she went or if she would someday return. Losing interest in her desert, the clerks, teachers, new priests and magistrates also abandoned the far field. In the following years, however, old priests and pilgrims returned. They returned to admire the gnarled roots, the petrified stumps, and the dried-out bushes, staring blissfully into the epiphany of the cloudless blue sky and the red sands, as if viewing the approach of magi and their caravans. 

The Grapefruits 

Once upon a time, a captain fell in love with a retired admiral’s daughter. They were married in a private ceremony in her solarium overlooking a gray sea. The solarium had a rare shaddock tree full of beautiful fruits, but the tree fell sick, as did the young bride. The girl told her captain that they would no longer be able to share the fruits of the shaddock or grapefruit tree unless he found a replacement, since the tree in her solarium was clearly dying. There was nothing to be done. Time was running out. The captain set sail on his fastest ship, departing for the southern isles. On one island, he found an abundance of grapefruits, but they were the wrong kind. The second island he visited had the right trees, but just as he had filled his hull with tree specimens and fruits, the ship was attacked and commandeered by buccaneers. Reduced to the clothes on his back, the marooned captain waited. One day, some whalers picked him up and made him their captain, as their own had just died of a fever following a prolonged battle with a humpbacked whale. The whalers set out and thus the captain came to the third island. Here the whaling was good, the natives friendly and patient with the newcomers, the trade winds fragrant with the scent of perennial blossoms, the mountains cool and misted. And it was here that the captain found a paradise of grapefruit groves by the sandy shore with trees and fruit identical to the one he had left in that faraway solarium. The natives sold the groves to the captain in exchange for a few gifts and for enjoying the protection of his ship and guns. A strange thing happened, however. After allowing him to pick a few fruits and suck their sweet juice, eat their magical pulp and inhale their intoxicating fragrance, the tree refused to grant anymore precious fruits to the captain. Outraged, the captain employed every means possible to harvest the shaddocks—ropes, knives, shovels, guns. Nothing availed. The bright globes would not detach from their branches. In the end, he fell into a long reverie of whispers and tears. Sometimes, he imagined that a thief came by night, and nonchalantly harvested with ease what he would have given a limb or two to take with much labour. And despite the occasional sound at night or chimerical vestiges in the morning sand, there was no evidence to support such mad suspicions. Night and day, he circled the tree, he clasped its trunk in his arms, he counted and miscounted its tantalizing, plump fruits, losing track of the hours and the numbers. Losing weight, he continued to walk around the lone tree of paradise, mounting the same seventeen arguments again and again. My grapefruits should be mine. Other citrus are forbidden; they have no value for my enterprise and cannot help; I cannot compromise. Other citrus are not grapefruits and thus not desirable. If I did not want the grapefruit, I would not have made an oath. I would be free and master of my own fate. The difficulty of questing for the grapefruit should not outweigh the benefits to be derived. Grapefruits are full of nutrients; it is good for women and men to have nutrients. The grapefruit tree should be thankful it has grapefruits. Some trees never produce fruit, like those cursed fig trees of scripture! The teleology of grapefruits is such that they are to be eaten and to scatter seed. It is inconceivable for a tree not to share its fruits with the world. A grapefruit tree without grapefruits is incomplete. A grapefruit tree pretending not to have grapefruits is absurd. In the beginning, the tree yielded its fruit–it should do so now as well. Grapefruits are celestial like little suns! They glow with such beauty and they taste divine! There is a long tradition of grapefruit consumption; there is nothing abnormal or irrational in desiring this fruit. My bitterness and hatred of grapefruits has made everything else loathsome. I want to eat ashes. Something so trivial should not have such power over life. The rebellion of the grapefruit blasphemes the creation and the creator! Grapefruits should symbolize life, not death; they are sacramental. Exhausted and hungry, the captain began to dig a grave in the sand under the radiant branches, a shallow, soft place to daydream of his lost princess, a place to drift into sleep. The golden grapefruits continued to dangle from the disenchanting tree in the changeless blue sky of the tropics. What they were sacraments of nobody—not heaven nor earth—could know. 

The Screen 

There was once a priest who served in a temple in the west. Nobody knew where he came from. Though he spoke rarely, he was always polite. Monks and wealthy patrons complained that his sermons were too traditional, abstract, enigmatic, and ethereal. The poor and afflicted thought him unrealistic. Everyone thought him rather irrelevant to real life, and wished that he would pursue more connections in the towns, the countryside, and the court. Not only his speech but also his paintings and calligraphy radiated the same effervescence of nothingness, as if his whole life were soaring through clouds of silver and gold. The scrolls he inscribed and the screens he painted reeked of an obsolete and useless paradise. Moreover, the mystery of his origins continued to haunt them. Some even accused him of having converted to the ways of the southern barbarians. One day, an abbot determined to solve the mystery and expose the fraudster as nothing more than a headless idiot. To this end, he gathered a mystical herb that would force its consumer to tell the truth. He brewed a thick tea and delivered it to the priest, who was about to begin working on a new screen. The priest warmly thanked the abbot for this surprising act of kindness, and for a moment he thought that he had finally earned a single friend. As he gazed into the abbot’s eyes, however, he read the treachery therein and felt sad. Nevertheless, he drank the tea and set to work. Day after day, he drank the tea that the abbot brought and painted, but no one was allowed to see the work in progress. On the last day, the priest prayed, laid down his brush, and died. Afterwards, they found his body, death poem and the completed screen. The pictures were unlike anything they had ever seen before, full of paradoxes, horrors, beauty and reality, of this world and of other worlds. There were forests of rusted iron rebar and scaffolding, buildings crushed in earthquakes, shattered clocks, beaches littered with charred, empty soda cans, pits of ash, wastelands of abandoned machinery, ruins haunted by tattooed thugs, smoking fires, walls and citadels of propane bombs and stacked rubber tires where dark waves licked the oil-gray sand. They could recognize some of the landmarks. All of these scenes could only be made out through a veil of leaping, curling flames in expert brushwork of crimson, vermillion, orange, copper and gold. And yet, through these flames one could see the walker, a pale figure who suffered and survived, recurring in numerous scenes and vaguely resembling the dead priest. In some scenes, he communed with angels and boddhisattvas, in other scenes he dragged the poor and sorrowful from smoking tar pits. In the final scene, he held out a handful of shiny washers. What was really frightening is that if you walked along the screen, or viewed it from various angles, the flames seemed to leap out from the screen in radiant threats. It is a hell screen, the abbot muttered to the others. The work of a twisted, self-absorbed mind. No, it is not a hell screen, said one penitent monk. It is the landscape of the heart; it is a confession.