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.
In hell, it is no uncommon thing to see ghosts, walking nightmares, shadows of indefinable depth. The broken stones, slanted towers and crumbling, cliff-like streets invite the constant haunting of the imprisoned mind, the chained soul, the perennially garotted heart. Hell indeed has nine circles, but they frequently subduct into eachother in tremendous and explosive earthquakes of dark flame and scarring sound. In those quiet nights between such tremors, it is said that a rather peculiar ghost
haunts the streets, walking silently, whispering ancient words, sounding hours, calling out invitations to the granite faces that make mouths against the emptiness. The maimed one walks with cruciform shadow, a beggar cloaked in dried blood, leaving a trail of nails and wood splinters. Nobody ever follows him, this maimed one making rounds by candlelight, like an incongruent firewatch in an impossible and invisible inferno of cold fire. And yet everytime he passes, it seems a vault or arch lights up, a skull softens, a distant and forgotten bell chimes. It is a face that the souls of the lower depths long to recognize or understand, a ghosted face, a radiant body, an illegible cipher. And in those unbearable and short intervals when his broken silence breaks through stone and fire, the souls hold their breath and long to breathe the pure wind of another world. And in those sixty seconds or less, hell is beautiful.
There was once a priest who served in a temple in the west. Nobody knew where he came from. Though he spoke rarely, he was always polite. Monks and wealthy patrons complained that his sermons were too traditional, abstract, enigmatic, and ethereal. The poor and afflicted thought him unrealistic. Everyone thought him rather irrelevant to real life, and wished that he would pursue more connections in the towns, the countryside, and the court. Not only his speech but also his paintings and calligraphy radiated the same effervescence of nothingness, as if his whole life were soaring through clouds of silver and gold. The scrolls he inscribed and the screens he painted reeked of an obsolete and useless paradise. Moreover, the mystery of his origins continued to haunt them. Some even accused him of having converted to the ways of the southern barbarians. One day, an abbot determined to solve the mystery and expose the fraudster as nothing more than a headless idiot. To this end, he gathered a mystical herb that would force its consumer to tell the truth. He brewed a thick tea and delivered it to the priest, who was about to begin working on a new screen. The priest warmly thanked the abbot for this surprising act of kindness, and for a moment he thought that he had finally earned a single friend. As he gazed into the abbot’s eyes, however, he read the treachery therein and felt sad. Nevertheless, he drank the tea and set to work. Day after day, he drank the tea that the abbot brought and painted, but no one was allowed to see the work in progress. On the last day, the priest prayed, laid down his brush, and died. Afterwards, they found his body, death poem and the completed screen. The pictures were unlike anything they had ever seen before, full of paradoxes, horrors, beauty and reality, of this world and of other worlds. There were forests of rusted iron rebar and scaffolding, buildings crushed in earthquakes, shattered clocks, beaches littered with charred, empty soda cans, pits of ash, wastelands of abandoned machinery, ruins haunted by tattooed thugs, smoking fires, walls and citadels of propane bombs and stacked rubber tires where dark waves licked the oil-gray sand. They could recognize some of the landmarks. All of these scenes could only be made out through a veil of leaping, curling flames in expert brushwork of crimson, vermillion, orange, copper and gold. And yet, through these flames one could see the walker, a pale figure who suffered and survived, recurring in numerous scenes and vaguely resembling the dead priest. In some scenes, he communed with angels and boddhisattvas, in other scenes he dragged the poor and sorrowful from smoking tar pits. In the final scene, he held out a handful of shiny washers. What was really frightening is that if you walked along the screen, or viewed it from various angles, the flames seemed to leap out from the screen in radiant threats. It is a hell screen, the abbot muttered to the others. The work of a twisted, self-absorbed mind. No, it is not a hell screen, said one penitent monk. It is the landscape of the heart; it is a confession.
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.