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 Most of those who made it out spoke of outdated gears or rotted roofing—there was no point in describing the sensation of being eaten, of wishing one were safely wrapped in a body cast forever, of the thrill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.
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.
A calligrapher sat in his library, staring at a blank sheet of paper, an inkstone, and a brush, for he wished to compose a love letter to a girl who loved him, whom he loved dearly. For some time, he had delayed inconfessing this love, and she had been more than patient. This morning, as spring rain fell beyond the sliding doors to the garden, he decided he must make a decision and confess. To confess he needed backbone. Even eels, as unstable as they seem, have backbones. The man dipped the brush into the ink and drew a mouth in the shape of a box, a downward curving line below it, and then another mouth in the shape of a box. There before him glistened the character for backbone. It was perfect in form. When it had dried, he put it into a wooden cylinder for carrying scrolls, and made his way to her home. It was autumn there, and she was raking orange leaves, her long hair blown awry now and then by little gusts of cold wind. She was thinking to herself how the wind was like a river ten thousand leagues long, but surprised by his sudden appearance, she dropped the rake. The man approached her, embraced her and kissed her, saying, The backbone is a journey from mouth to mouth. He unrolled the scroll. They gazed at it together as orange leaves rained from above. And then they kissed again. The girl stopped kissing him and looked at the scroll once more. I will not marry you, she said abruptly, nor be your lover. A calligrapher should know that what look to be mouths in this character are the stylized forms of vertebrae in the original ideograph. The backbone is not a journey. It is a sequence of vertebrae. And even if these boxes did signify two orifices, what evil designs and intentions do they signify? The moment is ruined for me for all of eternity. I cannot be with you. And I do not like eels.
The old reaper labors down in narrow valleys of blue lines like irrigation canals and black marks like trees, of fragile golden fields and chalk-white cliffs that rustle like leaves in the evening breeze. The whirlwind of harvests and harrows has aged him, streaked his raven hair with autumns of cloud. A reaper without a scythe, he wanders out along deep furrows flowing with ash and straw. What his hands and the good earth have made he will sometimes survey from the burning fields or from his old wooden chair. Time drains from his darkly stained fingers. The saltwater sky begins to sough. Looking out, he remembers no other voice than the wind that washed through the yellowing leaves.