In the south, there were lovely trees, stone bridges spanning limpid blue rivers, and fields of flowers, fields and fields of sunflowers, hyacinths, lavender, wild roses, cosmos, poppies, and lilies. The chronicler had dreamed of these fields for years and was disappointed when he was sent on his first assignment there, for the earth was brown, the flowers were dead, and the sluggish rivers ran in hideous shades of ash or silt. Only the clouds remained beautiful, vanilla clouds of such texture and shape that one could just lie in the grass and daydream forever. At various crossroads, the king’s men were counting the passings clouds, recording the numbers and types of clouds. It was odd that a dry land should be blessed with such beautiful cirrus and cumulus and even the odd nimbostratus. The clouds were a steady caravan coming from the mountain of winds nearby. The chronicler ventured to this mountain and climbed it. On the summit, he found the king and his royal kitemakers launching enormous cloud-shaped kites and montgolfiers. When the chronicler asked about the king’s men on the plain, the king walked over and kicked him off of cliff. Then the king returned to his leisurely viewing of the launched clouds through his golden spyglass. The clouds were beautiful.
In the north, they eat golden ammonia fish, black creosote eels, and mercurial prawns. Clouds are chimercal; water and stone is chemical. They sleep on gravel, and bandage their own wounds. They mine the endless snow and rain, and sometimes summer butterflies. They smoke their straw. In the northern seas, the oarsmen tell the tale of the scrawny mackerel. The mackerel lost its friends and family at a young age, and found it difficult to survive in the black waters. It went to a distant shore and met a marlin. It asked the marlin some questions about sea life. The marlin explained that the world was always eating itself. One had to beware of lying flora and destructive minerals. One was forever caught between the two. The marlin began to talk and to talk, weaving tale after tale to illustrate his points until the mackerel fell asleep. Suddenly the marlin swallowed it whole. Inside the belly of the marlin, the scrawny mackerel woke up in a dark, rosy twilight of brine and acid. It was not the end though. It would have to eat its way out of the eating.
Once upon a time, a paleontologist and a monk would often encounter one another in the great far fields of stars and night trees. Sometimes, the monk would be on his knees, praying. At other times, the paleontologist would be on his knees, chiselling out stones or fossils by the light of a lantern or torch. One evening, they met as they were both walking from opposite directions of the road through the fields. Our lives are very similar, said the paleontologist. We spend a lot of time on our knees. Perhaps there is something like prayer in my work. That’s possible, said the monk. Perhaps when I pray, I am also examining stones and fossils in a different way. And in one sense, we are both communing with our friends. The paleontologist especially liked this last statement as he rubbed a trilobite in his palm. Then he asked whether they were praying or studying the same things. On your knees, you encounter what is up front and close, said the monk. On my knees, I meet what is behind and beyond. One is the reason for the other. The paleontologist was not yet convinced, but he took the monk by the arm and said, Let us walk together. The night is beautiful and it is true.
The monk struck the novice each time he answered poorly, although the novice had been there for ten years, had read a thousand books, and could recite and solve the most complex riddles. Washing his hands with well water, the monk told the novice to read the book of nature before ever presuming to speak or act again. The novice went into the wilderness and lived among beasts and birds. When he returned, the monk asked him what he had heard. The novice answered. It is good to be a stone, for the river washes over it, the reeds cannot choke it, the birds and beasts most often cannot break it, and if they should, one stone becomes other smaller stones, who bathe in rain, sun and wind and wait with the earth in silence and strength. They drove the man and his commentary into permanent exile, but not long after, their monastery burned to the ground, and many monks went up in flames.