In the morning, the silent one gathered with the others by the gate, to receive a punishment if there was one to be had and to hear instructions and curses. Throughout the day, the slave repaired the carriage wheels, swept out the stables, and was ever ready to be berated or whipped. When the shadows lengthened, he meditated on the laws and the sawdust and the spikes and wounds and the laughter of the laundress. In the evenings, the stars shimmered above the olives and cypresses as he wandered amongst their cool leaves, whispering to himself and the great world exclusively in gerundives.
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.
An old plaintiff came to the courthouse. Inside, he found the bureaus empty, the glass cracked, the ceiling fans inert. Cobwebs covered the ceiling and old documents littered the floors. He wandered through rooms of broken typewriters and empty desks. At last he came into the courtroom itself where a bailiff was meditatively sweeping with a large broom. “I have come to lodge a complaint!” the plaintiff shouted. The bailiff paused and turned to him, saying, “It’s a bit late for that. The magistrate has run off, and the other officers walked out.” The old plaintiff sighed. “What happened?” “Nothing,” said the bailiff. “And that is why he left. The land was on the brink of revolution. The people were drunk with fury. Day after day the crimes of the lords and ladies, peasants and thieves, rapists and traitors were exposed. There were pamphlets and posters, marches and speeches, but nobody was arrested or charged. The bureaucrats worked around the clock to explain what happened, and then the clouds of revolution dissipated. Besides, even before that, the courts were backed up with absurd lawsuits and impossible trials. There were onions that wanted to be declared potatoes, robots who murdered their wives, the censorship or revision of fairy-tales, dissolutions of parliament, agencies working against themselves and each other, stolen secret letters, taxes on cotton candy and tariffs on steel!” The plaintiff shook his head in disbelief, and cried: “There is corruption and death in the land!” The bailiff quietly agreed, but seemed eager to return to his sweeping. Then he reached into his pockets and pulled out brass and silver stars, the abandoned badges of the magistrate, marshalls, sheriffs, bailiffs, and sergeants. “This is all I have,” he said sadly, giving them to the old man. The old plaintiff held the seven stars in his hands and wept.
The first sentry always stood in his black and white striped shelter with its red lamp facing the cobblestone plaza in front of the train station. A man of law and vigilance, in his royal blue uniform he was the invisible observer who could not fail to note the humility of those who departed and the arrogance of those who returned. Suddenly these returning travelers knew much, spoke loudly and pretended to have forgotten their native tongue. Hauling their ostentatious baggage, waving around their passports full of stamps and making exaggerated faces and gestures as they recalled all the good sights they already missed, they passed by his post like dirty clouds that stain the clear blue sky. And thus he abandoned his post and bought a train ticket, confessing to the conductor that he hoped he might never return. The man of law who replaced him watched the departing with disgust, envying their wanton displays of freedom, deeply suspicious of their desires for foreign coasts and illegible scripts. Like mimes, these eager travelers acted out the adventures they would have just to remind the company seeing them off of how miserably small and insignificant their worldviews were. One day, the second sentry also abandoned his post, madly crying out to the ticket clerk that he hoped he would return chastised and meek. When he did return, he was court-martialed and shot. The third man of law only appeared when the new lamppost shone for the first time one evening. Standing in the striped sentry box, he watched the pigeons play in the fountain during day shifts and dreamed of books and expensive cigarettes by night. Though friendly and thankful for the bread crumbs and seeds he shared, the birds were careful, being secretly obsessed with the suspicion that he had wandered before and might wander again and knew more of their speech than he let on. When the revolution came, they would be sure to stalk him first and peck out his sandy eyes.
Long ago, the peasants were allowed to make three kinds of requests: an appeal for justice, an appeal for mercy, or an appeal for solidarity. Sometimes, they could appeal for all three at once. An appeal for justice meant that a person could demand what was owed to him. An appeal for mercy was a request to have a debt forgiven, a crime pardoned or to receive an unmerited gift. An appeal for solidarity was a request for assistance to solve a problem or merely to have one’s complaints heard and recorded for future reference. This was the law. One day, the bonesetter traveled to the capital to make all three requests. The magistrate seemed to be listening, but suddenly denied all three requests without reason. A trifecta of this nature was rare, and it was actually punishable by law. To be denied thrice or to be denied in all three categories was a symptom of either hidden crime or contagious misfortune in the supplicant, or perhaps both, for no one is really guiltless or innocent. Death or exile was the usual penalty. The bonesetter was exiled. The only place for him to go was the desert. The only desert where he thought he might survive or be happy was some 12,000 kilometres away and almost impossible to reach. Moreover, it was a land of cold waves, golden grasslands and dark mountains, a land of living skeletons, sleepwalkers and sheep. The bonesetter hoped that he would have the courage to venture there, the courage to learn about the sheep and to live with the sheep. The sheep are weighted down with so much beauty and sadness.
The omnibus was just starting to pull out when it had to stop for traffic. A terrific deluge was gurgling into the drains and brimming over curbs as the clergyman ran up to the bus stop. The man waved without hope to get the driver’s attention, and to his surprise, she graciously opened the door. As he stepped on and dropped his coins into the fare box, the clergyman said, “I don’t think you are really supposed to do that.” The light changed, traffic moved, and she drove on into the dark rainfall.
It was spring time. The scholar brought his paper on the revolutions of the spheres to the court of the academy. Despite the fact that his citations were all in order, the provost accused him of quote mining. The scholar revised his paper, adding summaries of the experts he cited, but this time the provost accused him of misrepresenting the sources and misusing the quotes, although the scholar could not see why. The provost demanded that for all future papers, candidates would have to supply the complete texts of the authors referenced in order to have their papers even considered for perusal. This was not a disaster for the scholar; he acquired the handful of books and departed for the office with his revised paper, but he could not even enter the courtyard of the academy, for all of its gates were cluttered and clogged with stacks and stacks of books. At first, the scholar was delighted. Is this a booksale? he asked a bystander. Clutching his head in his hands, the bystander said it was not. Some librarian had just submitted a new paper detailing the history of several ancient libraries and printers and had brought in all of his sources in accordance with the new laws. It is without question that half of these books are written in languages the provost cannot read, the scholar mused. The bystander laughed, and said, But look at all of the trees in bloom! Indeed, the streets had filled with white magnolia blossoms.