A monastery thrived in the dark mountains. The monks prayed and worked. Golden grain swayed in the fields; codices filled the libraries. The walls rose high into the starry heavens. All of the brothers got along well, and there were none of the typical vices or complaints. For miles all around, one could hear the church bells tolling the sweet rhythms of an earthly paradise. One brother was especially grateful and began to pray one evening to voice his thanks to heaven. An angel suddenly appeared and asked the brother what life was like. Exuberant, the monk said that he was living in paradise! A soul could only grow and continue to grow in such a place of purity and sanctity! It was quiet for a long time. Then the angel spoke into the penumbra of the cell. Sixty thousand souls have just perished from war and plague; I must gather many souls to take them to their blissful rest. I do not know if I shall see you again. The monk was horrified and demanded to know the reason. Nobody asked you to live in paradise, the angel replied. The road to heaven leads through hell.
One night, a little girl was saying her evening prayers when an angel appeared to her. Do not fear, said the angel bathed in light. The little girl stared at him in astonishment. I fear, she gasped. You look more like a calamarius than an angel! The tentacles shrank back a little. I am not of the seraphim or the cherubim, but I am an angel from heaven, the strange creature soughed. I thought there was no more sea in the new heaven and new earth, the girl protested. The radiant, anthropoid calamarius wrung its tentacles. Questions and more questions!! he sighed in a voice that could have come from the spiralling twilight of a sea shell. First of all, he argued, it is possible that the new heaven and new earth have not arrived yet. Secondly, when it says there is no sea, it likely means that there is no sea comparable to your polluted black waters, but instead a magnificent ocean of immaculate beauty. Third, the sea has long been associated with the realm of the dead—the saints merely speak of there being no more death when they say that there is no more sea. Have you never read all the epitaphs and poems for drowned sailors? Not all of them, the little girl whispered, but I have read a few inscriptions by the shore. I am sorry for troubling you with questions. The calamarius gently touched her shoulder with the tip of his tentacle. Do not fear. I only came to bring you a gift. Heaven has ordained that you shall receive whatever you ask for. The little girl thought about it, and said: It is written that if someone lacks wisdom, they can ask for it. And I remember reading about a great king who was offered everything in the world, but he only wanted wisdom. Please give me wisdom! The calamarius glowed brighter, and said: That is a good gift, indeed, but one that you are perhaps not ready for. I will give you till tomorrow evening to consider. The calamarian angel turned into smoke and vanished. It was a while before the girl could sleep, but when she did she had the strangest nightmares. First she dreamed of a man who watched as his scrolls were torn up and burned before he himself was lowered into a cistern of filth. Then she saw another man far, far away, wandering from capital to capital in search of employment as he lectured, never dreaming of how his followers would be buried alive in the earth after their books were burned. She saw a queen who dreamed of tranquil lakes and white elephants, giving birth to a beautiful child from her right side, a child she would never know, for she died seven days after his birth. Then she saw a stonemason asking questions and reasoning with friends in a prison cell as he drank a draught of hemlock. She saw a young woman put on her father’s armour and travel north to defend her people, while another woman of another time surreptitiously broke the law to bury her brothers, even though it meant ending her life hanging from a tree. And then there was a slave skilled in logic who did not scream or cave into threats, but calmly discoursed on cause and effect as his enraged master broke his arm. She saw a peasant girl meet a winged angel announcing the birth of holiness. She saw an exiled woman who made tents for a living, all the while teaching the deep things of the spirit despite the dangers of persecution. A man who built amazing machines and had counted every speck of dust in the galaxy died from a sword thrust as he drew geometrical figures and circles in the dirt. A thin old hermit who dwelled on snowbound mountain peaks conversed with clouds and pines. A man who gazed at stars lived under house arrest. And in yet another realm of green islands and pale blue seas with days of glass, there was one who lived among rotting lepers. Bodies burned on stakes; heads fell from gibbets; books burned in pyre after pyre. One by one, faces and screams passed through her head, until she felt a crown of thorns tightening around her skull as she watched a quiet carpenter with loving eyes die on a cross. In the morning, she felt a little feverish, and stepped out into the garden to go cool herself in the nearby pool fed by an aqueduct . She passed through the olives and cypresses until she came to the rolling hills. The early sun painted the grain and flowers in lighter and lighter shades of gray until the world suddenly exploded into warbling and light, into an almost violent radiance, golden and blue, as the birds took flight and the aqueduct loomed in its solid mineral glory, its arches like hundreds of windows into different worlds. Thirsty, exhausted, and stronger than ever before, she faced the day as she embraced the evening to come.
An angel walked through a museum. On one wall, he saw a series of almost indistinguishable, modernist abstract paintings depicting gold and orange squares on deep blue backgrounds. The squares had been rendered with glitter paint and sparkled. On another wall, there were intricate landscapes and narrative paintings of shepherds, saints and mystics in precise anatomical detail with a dramatic realism that drew the viewer deep into the brooding, vertiginous clouds, mountains and lonesome hillside towns of soaring, ancient churches and rustic belfries. The angel pondered the vastly different styles facing eachother from opposite walls, and felt his shoulders tremble. One of the caretakers immediately recognized the divine presence. Slowly and timidly he made his way over to speak to the messenger from heaven. The angel spoke: I was sent down from heaven as a temporary exile. This is the punishment for my stubbornness. I also lacked patience and mercy. Now, I fully comprehend my error. The caretaker looked at the paintings and asked the angel what he had learned. The angel replied that infinity was rich and inviting, like the classical and romantic paintings on the one wall, whereas the finite was obscure, opaque and almost too simple. It was not inviting, not hospitable at all. One could see very little in finitude, and what one did see amounted to little more than some colored tesserae that blurred and left no impression. The caretaker took the angel by the arm and led him to a distant room with large photographs of space and astronomical charts. Galaxies, nebulae, close-ups of planets, comets, stars and blackholes covered the walls. The angel marveled, and grasped the caretaker’s arm with excitement. This is utterly new to me! the angel exclaimed. I only ever saw things as a simple contrast between the infinite and the finite! Now I know there is a dimension more limited than the finite, more inhospitable than the golden and orange squares!
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.
The angel brought the blindfolded doctor into the shade where the dark woods began. This is the border, said the angel. I will escort you into the darkness in a moment before leaving you. What is this place? The doctor trembled, feeling the cold hyrcanian air blowing through black needles and dripping undergrowth. It is the silent wood, also known as the forest of suicides. When someone wants to die, they lose themselves in its depths, walking for days until hunger, exhaustion, hypothermia, wolves or bears finish him off. Then I am to be murdered? Not at all, the angel laughed. You are a man of skills; it will be much easier for you to survive. It is more of a contemplative retreat offered freely. The doctor inhaled the fresh, ozonous air and wanted to believe the angel. Why this punishment or this forest? Some revenge for a tragedy long ago, a malpractice case? Not quite, the angel sighed. They say there are some 164,000,000 life forms in this particular forest. It is the perfect place for you to contemplate the 164,000,000 deaths that will occur in the next ten years from unnecessary or adverse medical interventions—and that is a conservative number. It is also the tonnage of waste your hospitals produce throughout seven countries in only one year. Sadly, the amount of debt created, money wasted or stolen, and the poverty figures far exceeded anything we could dream up in a practical manner—there was no forest big enough to match your needs in that respect, but this one will suffice to give you a general idea. They say that the silence and darkness have a calming, soporific effect, and nothing is better for beginning pure contemplation, confession and penance than a good night’s rest.
In the other land of heretic monks who whispered of the pure nothing and crusaders who wore the black cross, the mouser guarded the long spiral staircase of hewn stone. The stairwell was as high as it was bottomless, and he lived in the shadows somewhere between vertigo and insomnia. The rats were the worst threat to the castle and cathedral tower. With his blade he fought them, through crackles of phosphorus matches, electricity and whispers of radiation and radio waves. It was the tango of life or death. Only after a fury of slashing would he find sleep on some quiet stair. The stairs ascended, descended and swirled. It would have been better if there had been circles of incandescent angels to better light the void instead of the rainfall of rats like black clouds. Sometimes, he awoke after nightmares of chasing long tails like gray eels, freefalling, being chewed by glowing teeth, or being crushed by spring-loaded iron jaws. The mouser awoke in the night to see the dead rats playing in life and in death as if he did not exist. They danced and posed. And he thought that it was possible that the rats lie. And there was too much darkness to contemplate even with the lanterns of his golden eyes. The mouser realized that he lived in a mousetrap.
Once, there was a fox who lost her way in the woods. She came upon a tribe of flickers and switches. The flickers said that foxes were either dogs or not dogs. The fox shrugged and ate some wild berries. The switches came out in droves to examine her ears, pull her tail, and kick at her paws. What are you? they demanded. I am a fox, she said. And she was a very beautiful fox. What is a fox? they asked. Someone like me, I suppose, she said. The switches whispered amongst themselves, debating whether to skin and vivisect her or pretend she was not obscuring their view of the woods.They wanted to be sure of themselves, however. Describe a fox, they demanded. A fox has pointed ears, a tail, reddish fur, and four paws, she replied. Then a fox is nothing more than a hare, they said, just as a hare passed by. The hare knew about switches and scampered off before having to hear the end of the matter. I don’t look anything like that handsome hare, the fox protested. The switches decided then that she was a stray deer, for deer have reddish fur, pointed ears, tails and four legs. I am not a deer, the fox said. You don’t want to be anything, the switches screamed. Some were already sharpening their awls, rakes, butcher knives and forks. I want to be a fox, the fox said firmly. You will be a hare or a deer, and you will understand that a fox is nothing. Is the fox a tail? Lots of things have tails. Is the fox its paws? Even the children of men have paws. Is the fox its ears? What then are we listening to your nonsense with? A dead and empty thing—that is a fox! A pure nothing! Even if we opened you up, we would find nothing but blood and guts, and everyone has that. A fox is nothing! The poor fox was very hurt to hear these things. Her blood and guts trembled a little. Fearing their filed teeth and sharp trinkets, she ran off into the woods, and kept running as fast as she could. Hunger and exhaustion ached through her bones and sinews. She lost her bearings and did not know who she was or what to do. She saw a hare munching on some herbs and tried to do the same, but the herbs gave her bad dreams. She saw a deer eating some horse chestnuts, and tried to do the same, but the horse chestnuts made her vomit for days. Weakfooted and worn down with grief, she could barely walk the paths of the woods. One day, she stumbled by accident into the open country. Blinded by the sun and wind, she wandered over the pale fields, lost and alone. She went to sleep beneath another horse chestnut tree, the only tree for miles around. At least now she knew that, whatever she was, she would not eat those rotten chestnuts! A fox is either a fox or not a fox, she sighed, and went to sleep. Soft voices called through the darkness of sleep. When she opened her eyes, there were children playing in the roadway. Hail, pretty fox! they cried out with joy. They looked like angels. One by one, they brought her presents–berries and scraps that were good to eat and that filled her bones and sinews, her blood and guts, with a peaceful warmth. They beckoned to her, and she followed them down the road, happy whenever they called her name or stretched out their hands with something good to eat.
In the beginning, Heaven gave adamantine rings that shone like silver and platinum to all human children, one ring for each person. The angels passed through the land, gently placing them on the fingers of every woman and man. It was a kind of wedding present or testament of a promised inheritance. Then the angels drifted like brilliant smoke and dazzling snow back to the high mountains. Time went by, and the people grew impatient and greedy. Some traded their rings for food, shelter and clothes. Others traded them for perishable trinkets and vain books. One day, a horde arose, stealing all of the rings. The horde melted down the rings to forge swords, and distributed the swords, one sword for each person, woman and man. All of humanity raised their swords and set off for the mountains. The reason was clear enough. There would be other treasures in heaven. The very stars that shone by night were most likely gigantic gems or precious minerals. The ravenous horde began its ascent, a dark line of ants upon the great white void of the slopes. The way was difficult, and one by one, the climbers fell into snowbanks, chasms, or threw themselves from cliffs. There were some who perished of altitude sickness; there were some who died of cold; there were many who ate the snow and died of famine. The higher they climbed, the more they tended to throw themselves from cliffs of long icicles. Forever they climbed upward through mists and blizzards, forever encouraging themselves with the better view they had of the world from these heights and the closer they had drawn to heaven. Many are buried forever with their swords in eternal snow. A remnant is still climbing today. The mountains of heaven are infinite.
Once upon a time, a heretic was traveling in the west, when he came upon a beautiful walled orchard full of golden pear trees that belonged to a young princess. She saw the lean vagabond, and her heart opened. Come into my reign, she said, come in and eat of my pears. The iron gates opened, and the wanderer entered into the brilliant haze of leaves and hanging fruit. The birds followed him, for his coat was weighted with seeds and grain. For days and days, he ate her pears and grew stronger. She fed him many kinds of pears, and gave him her cider to drink, and their life was like a dream of nectar and ambrosia. The longer he stayed, the more the birds came to play in the trees and feed from their hands. She would ask him about these gentle winged creatures, and so he interpreted their ballads and their epics for her to hear, and he spoke of the birds that are and the birds that are not. As time passed, her head suffered migraines. She became reluctant to give the heretic his pears, and would limit how many he could pick or collect from the garden. She no longer brought him cider, and she looked at the birds with hatred and fear. One day, as he walked sadly through the orchard, she came upon him and demanded that he leave. You are no heretic, she screamed. You are holy death. You are the angel of death. She banished him from the garden and forbid him to take her golden pears with him. The wanderer left the beautiful orchard, and went to live in the dark woods nearby. A skeleton blossomed under the branches of a black pine. It is said that the birds did not follow, but remained to consume every last golden pear while the young princess held her head in her hands.