Marching against their will down a winter road, the skeletons in chains headed for the towers of darkness. I told you we should have joined the other army, said one. You are an idiot, said his comrade. No matter who won, we were headed for prison anyway. Why would you say that? the first one demanded. Because we have voices, the other whispered. They stared into the silence of dead golden grass and naked trees immersed in snow. The wind blew through their threadbare coats.
The old tower shifted and then crumbled during the earthquake, obstructing the great road. The starving pilgrims looked like scared black foxes in the twilight. One pilgrim sat down in the rubble, and whispered to nobody in pariticular, “What an impasse! Now we shall have neither wisdom nor excess!”
A young woman was setting off on the great road when she encountered another, older pilgrim, a beautiful woman dressed in a dark coat and boots, carrying little besides her book, her rosary and her staff. Dear sister, the younger pilgrim asked, could you share some water with me? Without the slightest hesitation, the woman stopped, got out a bottle of water, and handed it to the younger one with a radiant smile. After drinking, they resumed their walk. At one crossroads, the young pilgrim puzzled over a road sign until the older one gently explained its meaning, sounding out the letters for her. They rested on a boulder. With a stick, the older pilgrim wrote the alphabet in the dust, and made the other copy out the letters while sounding them. When they had finished, they took the left road, and headed into the mountains. Once again, the younger pilgrim ventured a question. Dear sister, please share some of your wisdom with me, she humbly asked. I don’t think I have any, the older one said, tears filling her bright, green eyes. She leaned on her staff and wept. I have had twenty-six masters. With the last thirteen, I have learned nothing but despair and confusion. Every time they have asked me a question, I have given the wrong answer, and they have said that I think and pray like a novice. The road has not been good to me. A vast silence engulfed the road through the countryside. What about the first thirteen? the young woman whispered. What did they teach you? Oh, they were very kind, said the older pilgrim. They taught me to read and write, to speak plainly and take nothing for the journey, to walk in love and hope. The young woman locked arms with her new friend and said, That sounds very wise–only a master could remember and share that. Thank you for helping me. After they had walked another mile, the younger pilgrim shed her robe, for great, white wings had stretched forth from her radiant, naked shoulders. In a cloud of light, she transfigured into an ascending angel, and then into a white bird, and then into the open sky.
Only days ago, perhaps even hours, departing from the land of smoke, the wanderer staggered off without a thought of how to find his home. The water he drank along the way was a river falling into bottomless thirst. The roadside ponds of swaying fish refused to carry his reflection. They had told him that the road, stripped of its grass, was a falling down, a slumber like death, a rising and falling of water and wind. The invisible ripples over every curve and turn of the road. There were no white clouds. There were no black pines.
On the wayside, the pilgrim sat below cedars under the wooden rafters of a shelter. On his palms there were no maps to guide, and his head was heavy with seeds of death. Day after day, he counted the hours, and every footfall was a waterfall. The pilgrim had lost his way in a golden sickness. His throat was parched and his eyelids closed. And still he could not bear to name a single mountain of the ancient land, and the closer he drew to its rotting gate, the less he seemed to exist. The pilgrim dreamed it was a woodblock print. It was the long gaze of a stone statue.
Into a garden lost on some wayside, through the paper doors the exile opened the world, bronzed and blackened like smooth pebbles embedded in grouts of cool white clouds. Beyond the paper doors the rain divides the pebbles into respective shapes of charcoal pear and ash persimmon, into six different shades of silence. In that first land the paper doors were holes through which the moths would dance, through which the night time coiled. Like cool green tea the summer set all the fields in a foam of sedge.
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.