Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
In the holy city, the city of mercy, the city of benevolence, the city of justice, the last ancient apostle and philosopher fell ill, and was carried to hospital. It felt as if he were swimming in and out of shadows, through twists and turns of colonnades and lamplight, masked faces and chrome wheelchairs, their wheels spinning mindlessly like the ancient law. The apostle slept, but woke to the cry of deer. Water dripped somewhere, and a cripple moaned in his sleep in another bed. Midnight woke him again to the sound of whispered voices, but he was too weary to open his eyes. The doctors had assembled to pronounce their assessment and judgment. “It is a clear case,” said the first. “The chart is here. Let us retire to the library.” “No,” said the second. “It is not decided, for he is below the required tax bracket.” “Good!” laughed the third. “Maybe he will draw a long, painful death! The man is an insufferable idiot!” The first doctor brought out the gilded box and reached into an opening on top, pulling out a bone-white card, which he read out. “That’s unfortunate. Utterly and immediately curable!” the second doctor sighed. The apostle also sighed, and then closed his eyes.
There was a redhead getting stabbed in the alley. There was a hungry clocktower in the dark square. It wanted to eat him. He passed the quiet fountain quickly to avoid the gaze of the clock. Nothing remained in his head except for a paper lantern, a moth and a cat. the other streets were full of amber lights and the air was fragrant with rum and kerosene. He had tobacco and two little bottles–one black and one amber like the lights among the winter trees. There was some silver left. The streets blurred and slept and came alive again. No matter which street he took, he kept seeing the hungry clock and heard the flickering moth. He was being followed by shadows or maybe the star from the east. There had been a red cat. And a girl who purred. The man needed to find his coat. An antidote would be found in an amber bottle. There was some silver left. He tried right angles and then left angles, but the clocktower returned, tall and lowlit and voracious. It is a terrible thing to be lost, to almost drown on poison, on rum, on knives in alleys. The cat offered him the torn wings of the moth, but neither his coat nor his silver. He needed to stop the man who was stabbing the redheaded girl, but she was far behind or had not arrived yet. Then he would have a smoke if he could only find his medicine and his coat. The hungry tower burned like an amber candle above the starry waves. The virgin appeared but she was not an asterism, nor was the asphalt dragon until the icewater cracked its lightning into his head and the constellations began. A mad eruption of water and wind revealed the dark square, the fountain where she had baptized him and the clocktower. Her dark red hair dripped onto his overcoat. It was too late, but he needed to take his medicine. He reached into his coat pocket and found the silver and tobacco and the amber bottle. Her hands and lips were bloody, but the wounds were shallow. For some reason, he threw the empty medicine bottle into the fountain. Then they drank some rum and smoked to wait for the end. I wanted to live, he whispered, but I could not remember what that was. The hungry clock flickered.
The flat-out madness beckoned. The young shadows would want to depart for the threshing lands, the sixty mile waste of abandoned barley fields, old machinery, derailed boxcars, empty barns, burnt out cars, rubber tires, tar pits and smoking trees. It was a right of passage, a way to find their lucky stars, or just a visit to the unknown in search of answers. Some were just suicides waiting to happen. Some just wanted to look for fossils and poems or a cold, quiet, darkness in which to slowly kiss or pray. One had to have jeans, boots, hoodies, a hunting knife, matches and cigarettes, rum and hot tea, maybe even a tattered paperback classic or a pocket-sized notebook with a good pen. A good flannel shirt, a toolbox and a radio wouldn’t hurt. One had to have a head full of old leaves and roads never taken. There among discarded carriage wheels, weed-covered crossroads, mounds of sawdust, broken fences and deer bones, they walked in the brisk landscape of midnight without end. The machines and burnt out cars would eventually wake up. The screaming weeds and the deathberries would animate. The sabretoothed threshers and reapers bared their fangs and growled after the running shadows, leaving trails of fragrant dust. Prehistoric wolves and obsolete foxes skulked and skirted the wired roads through the great nothing and its twisted constellations. It was unusual to get out without open wounds and deep inner scars, and nobody was ever quite able to describe the horror and the passion in everyday words. Most of those who made it out spoke of outdated gears or rotted roofing—there was no point in describing the sensation of being eaten, of wishing one were safely wrapped in a body cast forever, of the thrill of having no body cast, of what it means to be thrown through time, of what it is like to be eaten by earth or sharp metal. And behind their silence was the secret revelation that lucky stars only burned back there in that land of golden grain and rust, and the roads never taken are the only ones worth taking.
Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.
One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.
Misfortunes come to many scholars, but not all of them involve poverty, exile, loss or the sorrows of desire. Watching a wizened old calligrapher casually write characters from famous poems at his table with a view of the garden and its sculpted pines, one scholar said to his friend that it was utterly vulgar to answer a poem about spring with a poem about the fall. The friend readily agreed, but added as an afterthought that the ancients must have been most barbarous, for they lived through an age which they named for both the spring and the fall. The calligrapher began to laugh, and said: The longer you live, the shorter the distance between the blossoming plum and the golden birch. It’s one and the same wind that scatters flowers and dead leaves; it’s the same sun that journeys through the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. In winter the night stars are bright, and the silence of the earth and sky is sublime. The earth looks like birch bark, the snow like plum blossoms, yet both seem far away and one feels the wistfulness of the pure and empty wind.