In the land of lakes far to the north, a young man with silver hair sat down on the sand by the blue water and wept. What ails you? a raven inquired. My life divorced my life, and I am their abandoned orphan, said the man. I do not even know my name. Long ships full of shadows sailed to that shore and carried away the orphan to a another, distant shore, where they hung him from an ash tree with rope. The man hung there and looked out on the sea. Sometime later, the raven arrived. What ails you? the raven asked. I am a hanged man, a cursed man, said the orphan. My life divorced my life and abandoned me to the elements. I do not remember my name. The raven ate one of his eyes. You are Time, said the black bird. And then it flew off into a deep sky of ancient snows.
Once upon time, stories always began with an old man and an old woman, possibly as a way of honoring the first parents, who were the first to sacrifice for their children and the first to experience mortality in all of its sadness. This story begins with an old beggar, however, for the earth is old and bankrupt, and everyone is either an orphan or pretending to be one. The old beggar lived on the streets of a vibrant city of bridges and bell towers, lovely trees and arabesques, churches, shops and plazas of cobblestone. The beggar was highly regarded by both the aristocrats and the low lifes. One day, he fell to weeping. A friar came over to see him and comfort him. Perhaps the time was near. Would you like to confess? the friar asked. I would, said the old beggar, but I do not know how. I do not remember my life. The low lifes say that I was once a master assassin, a thief, and a womanizer, and that I continue to rule every gang from where I sit on the street, whispering orders and advice while begging. The nobles praise my devout and pure life and recite the prayers I once taught them. I remember none of this—not one voluptuous body, not one corpse, not one sacred prayer, not one moment from earlier in the day. I cannot even confess my name. Please help me. I beg of you. The friar wanted to laugh and weep. My child, he said, you have been damned in this life. Nobody is more open to grace than you. Please absolve me. The old beggar stood up, briefly embraced the friar, and after rolling up his bedding, took it and started to walk. The old beggar strolled the length of the city, passed through the city gates, and then walked out into the endless countryside.
A master potter sent his son to the old capital, both as a reward for his growing skill with ceramics and his good behaviour and also to test his true character. The master gave the son a large sum of money in a purse and sent along a servant as a bodyguard and companion. The servant, however, was forbidden to interfere in the choices the son might make, unless there was a serious risk of illness or death. On the first day in the capital, the servant showed the son all the stores and workshops of the pottery district. They observed other master potters at work, traders selling every kind of ceramic item imaginable, and labourers mixing and shaping clay or stoking the kilns. With their heads full of cups, bowls and flames, they went back to their inn and rested, the son demanding nothing beyond the frugal dinner and tea they were served. On the second day, they visited the furniture, paper, cloth, and wheelwright districts, followed by a grand tour of several shopping districts. Sometimes, the son would reach into his robe to pull out his purse and count a few coins or make a mental calculation, but after a moment or two, he would replace it and stroll on. The servant was puzzled. On the third day, the servant took the son to see medicine shops, incense stores, tobacconists, liquor stores, confectioners, butchers, rows of restaurants, barber shops, acupuncturists, teahouses, taverns and brothels, but the son hardly even read the signboards, inspected any merchandise or set foot in most establishments. The servant realized that the son was either a madman or a saint. And thus, on the fourth day, he took him to see all of the temples and shrines, monasteries and sacred groves, schools and libraries, but the son expressed not a single word of praise or criticism, nor did he bring out his purse to donate to a single monk, mendicant or holy place. On the fifth day, they made their way home. As they were traveling, they passed a famous waterfall. The son rushed down to the blue waters and stood under the cascades to meditate. After several hours, he emerged from his trance and the waters and shaved himself in the shallows of the stream with a dagger. Astonished but mindful of the master’s instructions, the servant led the son home. When they arrived, the servant prostrated himself and begged forgiveness for his failure. The son calmly and politely handed the full purse back to his father. What has happened, my son? the master potter asked, shocked and dismayed. Forgive me, father, the son replied, but I will never be a potter or a merchant. I will become a hermit. Why? the father wept. What happened? The son answered, In the old capital, everything looks like heaven, but it is truly hell. For four days, I felt every kind of desire possible, but I quickly saw something ferocious in it. A man will never shape, fire, or sell enough pottery, buy enough books, smoke enough tobacco, take enough medicine, sleep with enough women, drink enough tea and liquor, eat enough dinner, build enough temples or walk enough streets. The old capital is hell, a bottomless pit, and I wish to forget it all by becoming a hermit. After some silence, the father handed back the purse to the son and said, You will need some supplies to build and stock your hermitage. Take this. It is the only inheritance you would have from me. After the son departed, the father took in an orphan to train and mentor. The orphan learned quickly and would be a master potter himself one day, for he possessed real genius and a strong work ethic. One afternoon, the servant found the aged father smoking his pipe on the veranda overlooking the garden. The servant burst into tears and apologized once more failing with the master’s own son. The master took a thoughtful drag on his pipe and said that on his own first trip to the old capital, he had blown all of his money on his first night and had been forced to work several months for a potter there. Those were the days. To travel to the capital is to test the nature of your character, he said. My son had no character at all, no character to test. I do not fault you. The only thing you may have failed in was forgetting to show him the poor district, where men and women desire at least something, are grateful for anything, and work for nothing.
Standing on a wrinkled map of the city and some faded monochrome photographs that had fallen from his hands, the man who was looking for his missing wife screamed “O angel!” as a blade from his mysterious double, a renowned painter, dove into his lungs while the lights of a small, private museum near the bus depot switched on to welcome an oil-gray twilight of falling snow with their soft apricot glow.
One winter never thawed in the cave of her chest. And yet, it had no trees with icicles; it had no hills that sparkle with the glass of dead grass locked in frost. It had no screens of snow, no sculptured ice rivers. Wrapped in sheets of concrete she slept and wandered, leaving no prints on the earth. For the earth left her fallen on stones and stars. For her long legs were songs of hollow straw. Those who have skinned the earth blood-raw have said that she has no skin to speak of. Those who read verses in the vault of heaven have said that her tattoos are illegible. And nothing she holds in her permafrost hand finds its shape once again or remembers its name.