A poor man saved up his money to buy a good coat, a black coat with a hood. It was to replace a long dynasty of shabby coats that fell apart. The black coat would take him onto the roads and through the fields into events he had long anticipated. There would be rain and starlight and absolute quiet for miles and miles. When he purchased the coat it fit perfectly, and he felt a freedom and comfort he had not known to be possible. At once, he set out through a light rainfall. And then he noticed in the last glow of twilight that the new coat was already coming apart at the seams. It had not even gathered one straw or fleck of dust, and yet it was tearing. The man stopped and whispered something mournful, for he knew that his soul would live forever, but his story had ended, for the coat was integral to the plot.
A man returned to the river of goldenrod and silver grass to meet his soul once again. My soul, he said, where have you traveled? Do not ask me that, said the soul. I have wandered far, for my home is far away, and I have not found my tree. The man asked about this mysterious tree, but the soul merely stared at him with indifference. The man said that it was a depressing age, a time of confusion, a chaotic world. Where was the world going? He recalled the better times—warm nights with lanterns and moths, the willows along the river, the fragrance of oil paints, the roar of the sea. And you were there, you were always there, he said warmly. Do not look back into time, the soul said. You were as empty then as you are now, a daydreamer and a cloudhead. The world has always rebelled against itself; it is not going anywhere. The river never travels. The water travels from the source to the sea, but the river is always in the same place. It is pure nothingness and emptiness. It has no time, and nothing happens to it. The soul threw a stalk of goldenrod into the icy streams. They watched the stalk drift away and disappear around the corner. What do you think? asked the soul. The man suddenly felt a warm, southern wind blow through the grass from beyond the curve of the river. My soul is somewhere else, he said with both fear and relief, and I was mistaken in believing you were her.
It was a winter of rain and snow. A man walked into a church to inquire if anyone had seen his gifts. They had not, but tried to ask what kind of shopping bag they would be in. The man walked out, confused, and wandered amongst cats and lampposts. Later, at the police station, they wanted to know how he had lost them; at the pharmacy, they inquired when. Nobody could help him. Then he walked into a candy shop and once again announced that he had lost his gifts. They asked for a receipt or a description of the items, but he only replied that he suffered from the sleeping sickness. Once more, he entered the night, passing through mazes of stone and shadow. In a bar with a gold and yellow signboard, he drank some ale. Nobody there knew what he was talking about, either, especially as he did not seem to know who the gifts were for. In the end, he walked back into the night and stopped by a lamppost on a bridge. I lost my gifts, he said to the lamppost, his voice cracking. What happened? the lamppost asked. I don’t know, he whispered, opening his coat, unbuttoning his cotton shirt and exposing his scarred skin to the whirling snowflakes. They took them, he cried, while I was sleeping! That was cruel, whispered the lamppost, but there will be other gifts that they won’t find. Don’t let them know. They cannot take anything else if they think you are empty.
A young woman was setting off on the great road when she encountered another, older pilgrim, a beautiful woman dressed in a dark coat and boots, carrying little besides her book, her rosary and her staff. Dear sister, the younger pilgrim asked, could you share some water with me? Without the slightest hesitation, the woman stopped, got out a bottle of water, and handed it to the younger one with a radiant smile. After drinking, they resumed their walk. At one crossroads, the young pilgrim puzzled over a road sign until the older one gently explained its meaning, sounding out the letters for her. They rested on a boulder. With a stick, the older pilgrim wrote the alphabet in the dust, and made the other copy out the letters while sounding them. When they had finished, they took the left road, and headed into the mountains. Once again, the younger pilgrim ventured a question. Dear sister, please share some of your wisdom with me, she humbly asked. I don’t think I have any, the older one said, tears filling her bright, green eyes. She leaned on her staff and wept. I have had twenty-six masters. With the last thirteen, I have learned nothing but despair and confusion. Every time they have asked me a question, I have given the wrong answer, and they have said that I think and pray like a novice. The road has not been good to me. A vast silence engulfed the road through the countryside. What about the first thirteen? the young woman whispered. What did they teach you? Oh, they were very kind, said the older pilgrim. They taught me to read and write, to speak plainly and take nothing for the journey, to walk in love and hope. The young woman locked arms with her new friend and said, That sounds very wise–only a master could remember and share that. Thank you for helping me. After they had walked another mile, the younger pilgrim shed her robe, for great, white wings had stretched forth from her radiant, naked shoulders. In a cloud of light, she transfigured into an ascending angel, and then into a white bird, and then into the open sky.
Once upon time, stories always began with an old man and an old woman, possibly as a way of honoring the first parents, who were the first to sacrifice for their children and the first to experience mortality in all of its sadness. This story begins with an old beggar, however, for the earth is old and bankrupt, and everyone is either an orphan or pretending to be one. The old beggar lived on the streets of a vibrant city of bridges and bell towers, lovely trees and arabesques, churches, shops and plazas of cobblestone. The beggar was highly regarded by both the aristocrats and the low lifes. One day, he fell to weeping. A friar came over to see him and comfort him. Perhaps the time was near. Would you like to confess? the friar asked. I would, said the old beggar, but I do not know how. I do not remember my life. The low lifes say that I was once a master assassin, a thief, and a womanizer, and that I continue to rule every gang from where I sit on the street, whispering orders and advice while begging. The nobles praise my devout and pure life and recite the prayers I once taught them. I remember none of this—not one voluptuous body, not one corpse, not one sacred prayer, not one moment from earlier in the day. I cannot even confess my name. Please help me. I beg of you. The friar wanted to laugh and weep. My child, he said, you have been damned in this life. Nobody is more open to grace than you. Please absolve me. The old beggar stood up, briefly embraced the friar, and after rolling up his bedding, took it and started to walk. The old beggar strolled the length of the city, passed through the city gates, and then walked out into the endless countryside.
In the mountains of steam, there lived a hunter who watched and learned from every animal and knew what they ate and what they did not. One day, a tiger and an elephant fell into a large trap meant for catching a man-eating bear and died. Though saddened by the deaths of these noble beasts, the hunter set to work to clean them. When he opened them up, he was surprised to find that both had been stuffed with rice.
One day, a pilgrim visited a famous waterfall, where a monk was washing a skull. The pilgrim asked the monk what tragic fate had befallen him. Once upon a time, the aged monk said, a roadside skull rebuked a philosopher for expressing pity—for how could the philosopher know how the skull felt? Long ago, I tried to seduce a young and beautiful princess. Day after day, I begged her to sleep with me, but she would not relent. I sent her poem after poem expressing my incurable passion. Then one day, perhaps because stories about her virtue or vice were already circulating, she agreed to give herself to me if I would strike off the head of her husband with my sword. Only then could I possess her body and soul forever. Naturally I agreed, for I was blinded by lust. She told me to come that very evening. She would get her husband drunk and make him take a hot bath—that would ensure that I could decapitate him without a struggle. Once the deed was done, I was to come to this waterfall with his head. She would be waiting under the cryptomeria tree. That night, I did as I was told. I crept into the house, found the bedding, and felt for the damp hair in the darkness. With one clean stroke, I severed the head. I wrapped it in a large, blue cloth and made my way here. A lantern was burning under that very cryptomeria over there. As I waited for my love, I grew impatient, and unwrapped the cloth to have a look. It was her head that stared back at me with cold, questioning eyes. That very night, I shaved my head and began my penance. Starving myself, I meditated under the waterfall for days and nights. Then I traveled the land, trying to do good things and serve others, trying to forget the horror, trying to make sense of her deception and suicide, trying to expiate my sin. The years passed, and I remained an unforgiven murderer and a haunted man. Not long ago, however, I was down by a river, listening to the sound of the water; when I saw a hooded woman, a pilgrim, crossing a bridge. She was very beautiful and reminded me of my love. Her hood was brand new, and suited her face. Suddenly, I realized something and faced the real mystery of my crime. My lady had not tricked me in any way at all. It was not her body that I had craved, nor her soul. How could I have desired what I had never seen? How could I desire what remains to this day unknown to me? I had only ever seen her head, and that was exactly what she had given me. I have now received her message and gift. For years I have carried around this precious skull; it is now time for it to rest. I only wish it were mine.