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.
An old priest traveling southward met a young priest heading north at a lonesome place, where the way skirted high cliffs that fell into a dark oblivion. It was windy, and they rested behind a rock to eat, drink and converse. The old priest asked what had drawn the younger one into the way. I wanted to find safety and acceptance, said the young priest. The divine has no such words in its language, the old priest laughed. Then you do not believe in heaven! the young one exclaimed in horror. On the contrary, the old priest replied, it is because I do believe in heaven. I may not believe in earth, though.
An old grandfather found a raw youth sitting under a cypress tree lost in despondent thoughts. The old man asked what was wrong. The youth said that he had gone to see the priest, to ask about the book of life in heaven. The priest had said that it was just a symbol and there was no actual book in heaven. Wonderful, the old grandfather sighed, feeling a strange bitterness well up in his heart. Now they have even taken away his books and the right to read.
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.
I was writing the last pages of my text on eclipses of the moon and sun when the event happened. I was still wearing my bronze armour for I had to write in a hurry between battles, and wanted to finish my treatise before beginning my tragedy on the life of the destroyer who traveled on a winged horse armed with a crystal eye and the horror that turns men to stone. And then there was thunder, a rainfall of stars, and smoke all over the surface of the earth. Logic fails to explain or express the journey, for either I was carried off by a comet or another strange cosmic phenomenon, or spirits transported me from the earth into the vicinity of unfamiliar stars and planets. The third possibility is that I have gone mad. It is unlikely I could have survived the first type of event without burning up or suffocating. Travelers have often reported the burning up of falling stars and the way the air grows thinner the higher you climb into the mountains. It would seem that there is no air in the ether and traveling through the atmosphere is a violent and hazardous event. The second possibility is no less impossible or disconcerting, for it is said that even if spirits or immortals exist, they are too far away in space to notice our earth or care about our life, and being transported by them to this area of space by their powers makes no sense, for I have not encountered anyone or anything other than a great void of orbiting stars, streaming luminous clouds and the shadows of planets. The one planet in my vicinity, which I orbit each day, at about the same distance of the moon to our ancient earth, glows with swirls of amber, molten gold, topaz and black steel. It is like looking into the forge of a blacksmith or into one of those strange marbles of glassblowers, or a rare gem. It is a cat’s eye without a body. Its warmth wafts over to me. I do not seem to have difficulty breathing, but I know there can be no air, for nothing lives or grows in this empty sea. This morning star, like an ember in the dark sky, like a mysterious cat’s eye, seems to be made of gases and elixirs. I believe these elixirs drift outward, the way heat drifts from a hearth, the way an aura of light spreads from one little lantern into the night. It seems possible that these elixirs have made me immortal. I do not breathe, I do not eat, I do not weep or feel pain anywhere in my body, and I do not die. The only thing I feel is an infinite sadness. My mind works without ceasing as I ponder the revolutions of stars and planets. Some five hundred years must have passed since my arrival. I can guess this by the patterns of changes in the stars, the seasons of my planet, and the number of calculations I have made from where I float like a drowned sailor in the universe. I now know the circumference and age of my planet, I have numbered the planets in this ring of stars and guessed the durations and lengths of their orbits, I have predicted countless phenomena with increasing accuracy. I am a living almanac who cannot impart a single iota of what I have observed and tested. On the earth I once heard legends of subterranean hells full of darkness and flames that maidens would fall into and heroes would visit at great risk. I did not think about such things much. I was too occupied with the codex and the spear. Whether or not a hell exists under the earth, it certainly exists here. It is a beautiful hell. My soul burns with the beauty and sadness of the starry chaos. The third possible explanation for my night voyage remains. I may be locked into a an infinite madness, a madness so great that my body may have died but my mind cannot sense it and sleep, a madness that only increases my pointless calculus of astronomical phenomena while decreasing my memory of life. Perhaps all three explanations are interwoven, swirling together in this maelstrom of suspended and turning lights and shadows. I pray that this is true, for if there is a hell, then it seems more possible that there is a heaven that will someday draw me from the dance of flames, from death without death, from infinite madness. I have come to experience infinity, but I have yet to find eternity. I would like to find a friend in this great emptiness.
Every day, the mariner watched the clouds and recorded their migrations in the sand. Every night, the wind and the waves erased his cloudscapes. Though he could count ten types of clouds, four heavens, and numerous variations and subdivisions of both, and though he often pondered the possibility that clouds were living things, far more mysterious and majestic than eels, oarfish, calamaria, or dragons, sorrow grew inside of him as he watched them pass by in armadas, in caravans, in solitary paths, their beauty filling him with a lightheaded gravity. Why did the ice, snow, rain and steam find these shapes to form? Why did they change and reform? Were there worlds with different types of clouds with different shapes? Where would snowflakes and raindrops go if there were no forms to receive them? It was undeniable that billions of their atoms would only fill a teacup, and trillions of teacups formed the atmosphere, and it was beautiful to live on an endless beach of soft mornings of soaring kites and white sails and deep nights when the lanterns flickered and the surf moaned. The man lit a smoke and threw the burning match into the infinite night.