They found the revenant by the side of the road, sleeping on a bed of pine needles, oblivious to the rain. After wrapping him in a raincoat, they drove him to the ruins of a small, stone warehouse on the side of a mountain, where they had made a makeshift camp. A good fire burned in a cast iron stove, and the fragrance of fresh coffee wafted through the den. They fed him pancakes and roasted chestnuts and gave him some cigarettes. Though he did not sob or speak much, thin rivulets of tears ran down his pale cheekbones. When he had eaten, they smoked in silence, giving him time. Their ravenous eyes were met by his calm, sorrowful gaze that never blinked. The revenant knew well what they wanted, and began to speak before they could ask any questions. Not long after I was buried, I woke up, and I saw myself at a distance. And I was much younger. It was that time of life when everything is on the edge. And I expected to see the harvest of all the rotten seeds I had sown, but there was no such thing. The man I saw was a good man, almost perfect. And she was perfect. I saw them looking after the garden, chopping firewood, rowing out onto the silver lake at dusk, whispering and laughing. Her eyes were often thoughtful, but never hurt, never sad. For ages, I watched, almost blinded by the radiance of their beauty that only burned and corroded me more from the inside out. And then I was sleeping on pine needles, and it was raining. I wonder if they’ll hang me again. The others exchanged glances. The world is not quite the same, they whispered. There hasn’t been a hanging in a hundred years. The revenant sighed. The fire crackled and the rain began again, making a strange orchestra of the sheet metal, stones, tarpaulin, the glittering boughs, the old army truck, the gravel, and his old white skeleton.
An old buddha was sitting under a tree staring into the distance and meditating when a swordsman walked by. Surprised by how overweight the saint had become, the swordsman cried out, You look like a hippopotamus! The old buddha smiled and replied, You look like a blue mountain. The swordsman laughed, realizing this was a type of proverb or parable, and walked away, lost in thought. One only sees one’s own inner reality. The old buddha is filled with beautiful landscapes, whereas I am filled with beasts, he reasoned, feeling slightly ashamed. Meanwhile, the old buddha returned to gazing at the blue mountain in the distance.
The citadel was built into the side of a mountain, a confused, terraced mound of walls and quadrilateral buildings of pale stone and clay that formed a gigantic trapezoid. The endlessly blue sky burned above the sawtoothed peaks of snow. It was a beautiful place filled with the music of celestial bodies, a place of eternal serenity. One day, a richly dressed queen arrived with a train of camels, and was greeted at the lowest gate by the gatekeeper, a beautiful but poorly dressed woman. The wandering queen asked if she could live in the citadel. The gatekeeper replied that all who renounced the world were welcome. The queen asked what the palaces looked like inside. The gatekeeper explained that there were quiet courtyards with acacia and chestnut trees, minimal and solitary cells for sleeping, vast libraries, kilns for the earthenware, refectories, scriptoria, and physic gardens. The queen was not impressed, and felt that the kilns, courtyard, and libraries should be cleared out to make way for menageries, pantries, and theatres. She refused to enter until these changes were made. The gatekeeper shrugged and would have closed the gate, but the queen demanded asylum. The gatekeeper offered asylum on condition that the queen sell her caravan with all of its riches and beasts. This the queen refused to do and decided to seek out a magistrate with a large bodyguard to help her enter the citadel. Leaving her camels, she went out and found not one but several magistrates with bodyguards and an army of curious followers. She bribed, threatened and seduced them all into coming with her to rape the palace. When the queen returned with her contingent, all she found was the idle caravan of bored dromedaries laden with jewels. The empty mountains stared back at her with their radiant and impenetrable questions. The citadel and its palaces had vanished into thin air.
A traveler stopped halfway up the mountain to rest in an old wooden shelter. It was starting to rain, but not even the clouds could dampen his joy; his eyes were aflame with the excitement and exertion of the climb and the hope of conquering the peak. Standing close to the threshold and watching the weather through the doorway, he saw a young woman slowly descending the mountain path. She also took refuge from the rain in the old wooden shelter. She rolled cigarettes, shared her brandy with him, and even listened politely as he grew poetic in his praise for nature and its metaphysical treasures. It was especially intriguing to him how there were many paths that led to the peaks of mountains and that when one climbed a mountain, one was really climbing them all. The young woman took another drink of brandy, looked at him thoughtfully, and said, I am not a seasoned climber yet, and probably won’t ever be, but I can tell you with some certainty that only one mountain can be the highest. Only one can be the hardest to climb. No two mountains are identical–neither in height nor in how one climbs them. Moreover, while some peaks may have several accessible faces, I guarantee you that this one peak has only one path to the summit. To try another approach is certain death. I have buried those who tried with my own hands. The traveler watched her back as she descended the path, irritated and afraid, but mostly just irritated that a strange woman had tarnished his glorious day. The rain was turning to snow.
There were many mountain passes on the narrow road that led back to the land before the smoke. Many years had passed since he had last seen the shapes of its flowers and the clothes of its climates. Of days in the lure of clouds he had more images than a mind could hold. A headspace of tripping through mists and curling paper, of golden sawdust and blue ashes. And yet he could not seem to name a single voice from that other land. The closer he drew to its ancient gate, the more it seemed not to exist. And still he clutched in his one hand the one straw.
There was lightning throughout the day, but a clear blue evening followed. The black mountains with snow-bound peaks glowed and loomed larger than possible in the last light. The mysterious stranger in the poncho wandered the high roads skirting the slopes and washes of stone and runoff. Among the boulders he encountered one who was infirm. The stranger sat down next to him, exhausted and unwell. I am not well, he said quietly. That is not possible, said the infirm one. They told me that I am the one who is infirm. Maybe, said the stranger, but I have been sick for many years. Stay with me and we can help each other. No, the infirm one said. You are a liar, perhaps even a thief, and you are not sick; you do not know what it is like, and you cannot help me. I don’t even know where you have come from. The stranger said that he had been in the mines. You do not look like a miner, the infirm one said. You look like an illiterate blacksmith. My ancestors were blacksmiths, the stranger admitted, but I was in the mines. The infirm one shook his head vehemently. His eyes were an abyss to look into, filled with darkness and an indefinable fury. The mountains were also starting to fade into penumbra and silence. I have too many languages, the shadow of the stranger said by firelight. I do not know which one to speak, and I do not know which world this is or what a world is. The infirm one embraced him, and shoved the knife deep into his body. The mysterious stranger bled out alone as the fire died and the mountains vanished.
Where the gray waters brush the silver hair of the sands on the islands of olives and broken walls and bleached statues, the young rhapsodist covered her eyes and wept for the burning city, whose smoke rose into the fading sky. Alone, she walked into the mountains, into the snow and wind, to seek the source of voices and words, for words had been catapults and voices had been spears, as ordained by divine songs. On the summit, naked and cold, she raised her fist and sang to the racing clouds, birds, sun, planets, moon and stars. They revolved in an endless whirlpool of light and darkness, too fast for her to stretch her fingers into their machinery and pluck the strings of their orbits or halt their vibrations. The disembodied voice finally spoke through the blindness of vertigo and despair, asking her what she desired. Stranger, return what is ours. Our tales are to be returned at once, she said. It is through our stories that you have dared to disclose yourself and speak, as we rhapsodists stitched our verses together and plucked the sacred strings. Return our stories to us once and for all! They are ours and not yours. And we shall speak through them, not you! There was a long silence; the whirling lights of heaven seemed to freeze. The disembodied voice agreed to honor her request. The rhapsodist staggered down the mountain, almost sliding and tumbling upon the streams of pebbles and scree, eager to report the good news. When she appeared below, the survivors of the burning city screamed out in fear and ran away, for her body was covered in leprosy, her eyes were as blank and shiny as silver, and her mouth had been sewn shut with stitches of adamant.