One day, the sheriff arrested a man who seemed to have tangled his kite strings in an electric tree on the gray moors. The tree belonged to an old estate. The initial interrogation revealed that it was not a kite string but a fishing line, and the suspect was a repeat offender, having attempted in the past to fish for road coaches, moon phases, letters blowing in the wind, girls in winter coats, torches left in the wet grass, Yorkshire puddings, bones, silverware, moths, bottles of whisky and secret wolves (or valves? the report is almost illegible). Nobody in the shire knew what to make of it. The king was summoned to investigate, which was exasperating because the king was tired and needed rest and wanted to return to his study of meteorology and astronomy in the great tower where he was imprisoned. At the inn near the old estate, the king drank several pints of ale with the suspect, and might have plotted to overthrow parliament had he not discovered the one key fact in the investigation: the suspect could name a thousand different fish skeletons but did not possess a single one—or a pair of scissors. The answer was simple. The man would have to be drowned or taught to fly a box kite. The king thought the latter punishment to be more interesting.
The white cat walked through the silver grass while the philosopher strolled on the gravel. A winding river followed the country road. What are words? the white cat asked. They are running water, said the master. The cat thought about it and stopped to gaze at the midautumn moon. They walked on and strayed from the road to climb a great hill. Below and beyond the other side of the hill, the coastline curved with its smokestacks, breakwaters and steamers. What are thoughts? the cat suddenly asked. They are smoke, the philosopher replied, lighting a cigarette. They strolled down the hill. The moon kept its distance. Back at the old house with steel siding, the philosopher laid out the bedding while the cat watched a late night historical drama full of swordplay on the black and white television encased in an impossibly heavy, wooden box. The master sat on the floor at a low table to smoke one last cigarette and finish his cup of low grade tea. A sound of papery wings rustled within the shade of the ceiling lamp. What are feelings? the cat asked, once the television was turned off. They are just moths. The cat yawned and stretched. The sound of waves and a gentle storm splashed against the old house. What are prayers? the cat whispered softly after the philosopher had crawled under his quilt. They are the wind. The man absent-mindedly stroked the puzzled creature’s head between its ears as he drifted in and out of sleep. The wind made the trees scratch at the sides of the house. What is the good life? the cat asked even more softly. Through a distant dream of long boats, whales and marlins, the philosopher answered. A long walk at night with a white cat.
There was a printer who felt empty inside, unvelievably and unbearably empty. Night and day, he made woodcuts and printed posters and newspapers, but no amount of work could fill the horrible void in his chest. Then one day he received an unexpected gift from a happy client, a sum so great that he could finally afford to take a vacation. He boarded an old carriage and traveled east until he came to a river. Nobody of any number or consequence lived there, but there was a stone wall and walkway along the watetfront, a few teahouses, and of course the inn and waystation where the carriages stopped, only rarely picking up or depositing travelers. To the printer, the river looked more like a great sea. It hissed at the black trees in the dark rain, it lapped gently in the clear sun, it rolled in silver and indigo waves all the way to the stars. The printer spent most of his holiday just watching the river, listening to its plashing, gurgling and rippling. The longboats came and went, their oars casting up little wavelets of white foam, their bright lanterns shining like stars. He took several boating trips and sailed far out into the great currents until the coastline blurred into a thin, gray stroke of ink. Something painfully heavy, bittersweet and eternal wafted up from the waters and filled his soul. The nights and days passed like a dream. Then the printer ran out of time and money and had to return to his city. All he bought as souvenirs were a few books of poetry, some chopsticks, cough drops, and some patterned cloth. The road home was long and tiresome, but the printer felt different. Whenever he was alone or asleep, he felt the rippling of the river or heard the bells of the passing boats. Once he arrived back in the city, he set about making woodcuts of his journey, but something puzzled him. The river was in him somehow. Closing his eyes in the dusty shop, he could still see the stars and water as if they were brand new; he could hear the surprising sound of the waves washing the stones. He was still discovering the strange boats, still seeing the prized chopsticks and patterned cloth, still reading the books of poetry—all for the first time. The old emptiness had fled, but its pain remained. For years, the river had been absent from his life. Then the river had been present, like a short dream. It was absent once again, but its enigma persisted in the work of his hands and in the sleepwalking of his soul.
The white stone was ordinary, almost oval, and beautiful to look at. The pilgrim allowed the other travellers to take turns holding it, but nobody could see what was so special. They returned the stone to him, and went their way. The pilgrim walked the great road past monuments, famous views, venerated boulders or trees, and ancient bridges without seeming to notice anything. Several carriages almost ran over him and a donkey had to gently nudge him out of the way at one point, since he was so lost in the radiance of the stone. A sentry at a gatehouse watched him, and decided to ask what the stone was all about. The pilgrim took him down to the river. This stone is like a library or a gallery, said the pilgrim. When I wash the stone, I see a line of boats along the shallows where I grew up. Or a little army of frogs racing over black rain drops on white water! The sentry smiled at the thought. The pilgrim led him by the arm back up to the roadway, and held the stone out in the sun, drying it in his palm. Now, I see the great plain where they hunt stones; it is covered in snow! The distant mountains are a pale but bold shade of blue. The cranes have already departed. The houses scattered across the fields look like hayricks. Sometimes at night, when it is quite warm, I see the steam rising from a volcanic lake or the nape or throat of a beautiful girl. The sentry laughed, not sure if the pilgrim were the wisest or maddest person he had ever met. Where can one find such enchanted stones? the sentry asked. I found mine when I was a child. I found it at the back of an old stone warehouse where my grandfather stored his rusting farm implements. There were all kinds of tools! Rakes, scythes, shears, plows, hoes, saws, and other things I can no longer name! Do not worry, you will find your stone! The sentry thanked the pilgrim, and invited him to tea in the gatehouse before sending him along. On the roadway at twilight, he found a black stone, dusted but ink-dark once he polished it. The nights of long ago wafted out of the hard mineral surface, and he could see the rooftops, a rusted sea of tiles, and the moon and stars far above.
None of the fire ants loved sand bags. They were not sure of their existence or purpose, but only too familiar with their mirage. They would carry them to and fro, haul them down undulating streams of glass, or even build mountains of them to dance upon, but in their deepest hearts, the fire ants despised the sandbags, and perhaps even sand itself. To work is to carry a certain weight for a certain distance for a certain time, and a fire ant can lift and carry a hundred times its own body weight. The sand, however, is the very blast of time; it is weight atomized; a magic lantern one cannot eat. It is not work. It is far more suspicious.
An exile wandered through the city of rain, full of despair and exhausted from ceaseless walking. It was tiresome to try to hunt down a potato, a piece of coal, a well-tarred roof. Woodcuts on posters and postcards advertized light bulbs on every broken wall, but they were not to be taken from the wet trees, not to be stolen from the glassy shops or passing girls in their swelling coats, not to be conjured from the bare hands of beggars or from old cameras with twin lenses or oblong radios encased in wooden sideboards that one often found discarded in the alleys. The exile walked through arcades of black thoughts and arcades of rain, hungry for golden, silver light. On a rare dry corner of birch trees and gray, box-shaped buildings, a whore whispered to him what he had suspected in the depths of his heart for a long time. The world around him was not his world, and its history was not his history. It would be best if the mysterious stranger forgot about light bulbs and this world altogether. The exile walked off once more into the dark matter of life and weather, a matchbox rattling in his coat pocket.
The exile returned to his old town, but no friends or relatives remained and most of the shops were closed. The shops that had survived were largely confectioners, and he had no desire for cakes or candy. It was almost impossible to buy anything practical with his silver to start a new life. At long last he found a shabby clothing store and a traditional blade shop. He picked out a black field jacket and a dagger with a curved, charcoal-gray hilt of carved wood. With his coat and blade, he left the rusted train stations, the warm mist, and the lightbulbs burning in the cake shops, heading up the coast into gray lands of sad acacias and somber larches. One evening, he came upon a way station nestled among the boulders, lit only by a headlamp that had once been mounted on a steam engine. A pilgrim had made a wood fire in the cast iron stove. They warmed their hands and drank black tea. A great forgetfulness falls upon the earth, said the pilgrim. What brings you north? I want to find the things I need to live, said the exile. At first, I thought I could live as long as I found my old town, but that is not the case. What should I have to really live? The pilgrim stared into the porthole-shaped opening of the stove. To live, he said quietly, you need a mountain of dragon horns, a tiger skin, the sweet dew of the western paradise, some giraffes or hippogriffs, cabbages, creosote pellets, soap stone worry beads, willow charcoal, rolling tobacco, pocket sized books of philosophy or poetry printed on fairly good paper, a hurricane lantern, an abacus, straw, rice paper, brush and inkstone, hemp oil, dried squid cut into thin strings, grain, swordfish, dried herring, canned mackerel, an old shotgun, bandages, and iodine. Oh, and don’t forget a jar of black tea and a jar filled with a fistful of sand from your old town. The exile sighed. I have only my coat and a small blade. The pilgrim poked the fire and they listened to the waves. One cannot really eat larch trees, said the pilgrim. One cannot eat steel or cotton, either. In the old days, there were trains. And the engineers and conductors would know what to do. Midnight came, and the exile went out into the darkness, walking along the abandoned railway that skirted the forgotten sea, dreaming of swordfish and giraffes, and hoping to befriend a roadside larch or acacia.