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.
It was another difficult day. A worker went into the coffeehouse to get a drink, and then stepped outside with his cup to smoke, settling at a cast iron table with two chairs. He smoked and drank his coffee, watching the trains cross the bridge, watching the buses and passengers come and go. A lunatic was leaping and crouching, leaping and crouching along the curb where the buses pulled up. He was dressed in a fine suit and good patent leather shoes. The only thing that marked him was his pallor, wild eyes, indistinct muttering and manner of walking. Not far behind him came the wizard, who looked like an old friend, gaunt and dark and feline in his black raincoat, carrying a book. The worker loved books and could not resist asking what the book was about when he drew near. It is the very book that just drove that stockbroker insane, the wizard sighed, reluctant to open the book. It is a book full of vertigo, whirlpools, circles and angles, moon phases, starlight, questions relating to questions, landscapes of wheat and milkmaids, bone-dry pine trees, unfinished sentences and abrupt silences, keys and locks, locks without keys and keys without locks, labyrinthine pear orchards, rusted wounds, robotic ghosts, and endless rivers. And then, of course, there were the winters, bears and hurricane lanterns. Would you really wish to be mad? the wizard asked. Why not? the worker laughed. The world has been mad for a long time. The wizard handed him the book, sitting down across from him at the cast iron table. The sun digressed; the shadows murmured. The worker read page after page, sucked into the skull of the words, into the very heart of the sentences that gripped him in a bittersweet trance. After he had closed the book, he thought about what he had read. Will you be going mad? the wizard asked, gesturing like a hesitant cat. The worker lit a cigarette and sighed. It was a blue dusk with a comma of moonlight. Not today, he sighed. I have to ride the 8:20 and then stop by the grocery store to bring home milk and bread for the children. Then there’s some leftover paperwork, washing dishes, and a lightbulb to replace, but thank you for the invitation. The wizard asked for a smoke, and they remained seated and awkwardly silent for a while, just smoking.
She was not golden, and so she had no fear. She spoke in the gray town squares every day, laughing and sneering at the enemies of her truth. None dared burn her, for she had her own fires to kindle. The woods called to her, she said. The earth was crying out for salvation. And thus she departed from the land of gray towers. She entered the dark woods with the book of her seven sacraments. She followed her heart. It was darker and brighter than she had hoped. There were black shadows and bursts of pure light through the spring and autumn leaves. Even the shadows seemed to hum with unseen light that burned her eyes. It was exhausting to walk between the lush boughs and the fallen leaves. It was tiresome to travel at the mercy of the terrain, the rocks and great trunks determining her every footfall. There were no gray mists. At last she came to the cabin, the woodshack, the lion’s den. Inside, it was too silent. She was disappointed to find that there was only one table, one bowl, and one bed. She tried to laugh, and lifted the bowl to her lips, but it was empty. Weary, she climbed into the long, great bed of cold wood and hay, and fell asleep. In the morning, a searing pain awoke her. She opened her eyes to see a solitary, gigantic bear, sleeping on his side with her ribs in his mouth. The bear awoke as well, and spat out her ribs. Why did you eat me? she gasped. I thought your ribs might save the world. The birds were whispering of it for years, but they were wrong. There is nothing in your ribs but death. She looked down into the abyss of her chest, and there was indeed nothing but a whirlpool of black flesh, dark blood and blue bottles. A distant groan like soft thunder passed through the woods. What will happen to me? she asked the bear. I do not know, the bear sighed. I do not think your carcass will make me any honey. And since your ribs grow nothing, I cannot keep you. She passed out, awakening later to find him dragging her body far, far from the woods into a great field of snow. And yet, I came to save you, to save your woods, to save the truth, she choked as her body slid down the slope of a pit. Why was the bowl empty? she cried out with the last of her strength. You stole our grain, the bear sighed. The last thing she saw were her ribs flying down from the bear’s paw to land in wet snow by her feet. A distant voice growled farewell. There were other empty and rotten ribs to eat before the end.
To read the book of time is to be inspired to write other books, and thus every planet and every world has become a library. On a machine planet a shepherd read the great book of time while tending to his sheep of cast iron and lead. Only one in a hundred sheep would provide steel wool; only half would survive the galactic winters. Through dusted concrete pastures, down tunnels of naked light bulbs and across railroads and scrapyards and mounds of coal and slag, he faithfully led the sheep, resting now and then to smoke or search for straw and stray tools. When he had finished reading the book of time by the light of an old train signal, burning like a tiger’s eye in the darkness, his heart burned with a thousand books, tens of thousands of thoughts, hundreds of thousands of words. At the same time, he hungered for more books, more words, more thoughts to devour. Not a single new codex turned up on his nomadic searches, but he did find a book of blank pages, a book that rather resembled the book of time. The only thing left was to read and write as time permitted, and this is what he did. A word or two by matchsmoke, one page here and there in the company of growling and purring metallic sheep. One day, in the graveyard of rubber tires, the censors arrived with gendarmes and arrested him for reading a forbidden book, for plagiarism and for crimes against truth. They seized the two codices—one bone-white and the other gray like steel wool. The interrogations began at once while the bailiffs and sergeants built a ready-to-wear gallows in a matter of seconds, anchoring it on a mound of coal dust. The censor read out the charges again and demanded the reason for the shepherd’s activities and his refusal to strip for his execution, which was a crime of resistance. The shepherd claimed not to have known that the book of time had been banned. Great books were difficult to come by, and he had found his copy in an abandoned kiln, where books turned up now and then, most of them half-burnt as kindling. Since he had so little time to read or write, he had been forced to choose. And thus he chose both—he copied words from books, especially the book of time, which was the only reading material still in his possession—so that he could immerse himself in the joys of both impression and expression. The censor shook his head in disgust. The shepherd said that from time to time he would slip into a daydream or trance, and during those minutes or hours his pen would not follow what was printed in the book but what randomly appeared in his mind. Thus, in the thousand pages of his bone-white codex that still had some blank spaces left, at least one hundred had not been copied, but had come from the pain in his heart and head. For this reason, the shepherd requested that he be allowed to wear his coat and hold his codex as he hanged. It is a strange thing to hang a legend. And the poor sheep were left alone.
In a city far away and long ago, a bookseller came with his cart of books and made speeches to the wind and to the passersby. Rarely did anyone buy a book from him. Quite often, they harangued him for his monologues on the planets, on spirits, on truth and on the end of time. Some threw stones at him, cursed him, or shouted so loud that nobody could hear what he was trying to say. Then one day, he vanished. A time of plague and famine came, and some of the gentler citizens went in search of the bookseller, hoping he would have a book of medicine. After a long journey, they found him dwelling in a shack on the gray coasts of a winter sea. The shack was empty save for some old machinery, a cast iron frying pan and a cold hearth. Where are your books? the travelers demanded. I don’t have any, said the bookseller. Where are they? they shouted. For we are in dire need of them! The poor man looked at the hearth. I burned them all, he said. I burned them to keep my wife warm for we had nothing else. Where is your wife? they inquired. My wife is dead, he replied. The wind soughed in the crude chimney and dark clouds began to roll in from the gray sea. As the travelers were ready to depart in despair, the poor man told them her name, but they could not hear him because of the glory of her name and of the wind that shredded their faces.
They called him the legend or the angel. In the distant past, he had visited their planet of stone and had given them the book of time, a codex filled with philosophy, starlight, good grain, whales, and warnings. He was good at teaching, healing, and opening hearts to infinity, but the legend always warned of a great meteor. The book of life, he insisted, would help everyone survive the great burning, whether they departed or stayed. One day, he vanished. Centuries passed. Copies of the book of life could be found in every library and household, but few read it. Nevertheless, the people of that distant planet continued to celebrate the legend, making stone statues and paper effigies of him, gathering on special days to exchange gifts and drink ale, or telling children apocryphal bedtime stories of the legend’s exploits. It was during a great festival for the legend that he reappeared, looking nothing like his effigies and seeming quite awestruck at the quantities of ale, the bright lanterns, the colorful mounds of gifts. Not knowing who he was, some of the people, in a show of hospitality, invited him to speak to their festive assembly. Standing up tall and straight, he pulled a bone-white codex from his coat pocket and began to read. Only a handful of people recognized the words from the book of time. Closing the book, the legend declared that it was the eve of the great meteor and the great burning. The air filled with bitter laughter and angry scorn. An older woman, offering him a pint, gently explained that the last heretic to say such things had been exiled from the world two centuries ago and had probably added his skeleton to the great whirlpool, a handful of moons and exoplanets where the people of that planet sent their human refuse. The meteor, explained another, was a metaphor for hate, and the real legend had used such language to teach kindness and justice. Were there any living beings in the whirlpool? the legend asked, ignoring their reproaches. Quite a lot, conjectured a young scientist, who seemed very nervous. The exiles maintained contact with the mother planet now and then by firing up great flashlights that could blink out codes. They used this to broadcast meteorological and astronomical reports or warnings. In fact, they seemed to be telegraphing now. The scientist pointed upward. It was a beautiful sight. A coil of lights flashing one after the other in the dark sky, spiralling inward, going dark, and then spiralling outward in strange rhythms. The legend said it was time to depart. Only the scientist followed. The others returned to their ale and opened their gifts. As they boarded the rectangular, blue-black ship resembling the coal tender of an old railway train, the legend asked the scientist what the flashlights from the whirlpool had telegraphed. It’s nonsense; it’s no longer one of our words; it’s not a word we use anymore, the scientist mumbled. What word? the legend demanded as the box car ascended into the starry night. Miserere, the other whispered, as a great light blossomed ahead.
The cardinal clutched his chest and fell backward into an indefinable abyss. When he opened his eyes, he was sitting upright on an ornate chair in a long, empty chamber of bone-white walls. A pale, almost golden light passed through the ornate windows and gleamed on the hardwood floors. Exquisitely crafted in a late renaissance or early baroque style, a wooden desk stood at the far end of the room. Standing up, the cardinal approached the only door, but it was locked and all he could hear through the keyhole was the infinite wind and the sound of breakers. He walked over to the writing desk, upon which sat a book of empty pages and a brass cage with a wren inside. The wren looked through his eyes. The cardinal wept into the sleeve of his robe. And then the cage was empty. The bone-white walls transfigured.