A golden forest of larch grew beyond the mountains and plains. Pilgrims went there to pray, to find healing sap, to gather and to commune with the bears. The most delicious water bubbled up from secret springs in its depths, and there were magic wasps. The ever-golden spires could be seen from hundreds of miles away, whether from the last snowy mountain passes in the west and south, from the frozen, rusty tundra in the north, or the pale land of lakes in the east. Because of its sacred and precious character, the officials determined that proper signage should be placed every few miles along the perimeter. This would alert the pilgrims to the fact that they had arrived at the right forest. Some of the signs would provide instructions that could be of great use to the visitors as well. Of course, most pilgrims did not mind this gesture. The ones that could read appreciated the verbal confirmation that their long journeys had ceased. The coffers were opened, the materials gathered, the signposts were built. Not long after, an officer found that one of the posts had warped; another had fallen facedown. Extraordinary sessions took place to combat this new plague of violence, although one officer had quietly suggested that the culprits were merely wind and snow. Consequently, the man of law in that region drafted new laws and fines. To vandalize or destroy a sign was punishable with the extreme force of the law. It was necessary to be strict. What began as the destruction of signposts could lead to the destruction of the entire forest. Sometime later, however, a badly scratched signpost was found. Improbable as it was, one of the pilgrims was seized and shot. The officers cleared the forest. Nobody could enter its sacred silence anymore. The man who kept the wasps’ nests deep in the forest resisted arrest, but the officers eventually dragged him out as well, in manacles and chains. Some whispered later that they had seen the man of wasps gather dust and needles in his palms, blowing it to the wind in some mysterious commination. And then one day, something disturbing and unexpected happened. A great explosion, its origins unknown, but thought by land surveyors to be a meteoric event, levelled the forest for hundreds of miles in every direction. Not a single larch was left standing. Lightning fell later in the year, and burned the dead wood and the scrub until only a lake of monochrome ash remained. Old laws were amended and new taxes were enacted, so that the officers could return to the work of replacing the signposts along the perimeter. Marksmen were also posted at strategic approaches, and they straightaway shot the rare pilgrim who came to steal ash in glass jars. Exiled after his arrest to a windblown steppe near the cold lakes, the man of wasps bitterly confessed to visiting pilgrims that it would be easier to bear if the calligraphy on the signposts had at least been somewhat elegant.
Through the wasteland the twin pilgrims wandered, stopping in the ruins of monasteries, camping by old traffic lights that grew like strange, lone trees from mounds of gravel and dust, and unearthing the odd relic here and there as they went. One night, they camped upon the tiled roof of an old sacred site now level with the shaved plains. Winds fiercely blew, and they broke through the roof to get to shelter in the dusted spaces below. The girl wandered with a candle while her fellow built a small fire. She returned with an old book mostly
charred. The script was familiar, and she read aloud the few legible pages that remained. “What a worthless book,” she sighed. “It is nothing but names and genealogies.” The other stared into the fire. She hurled the book at him, and lay her bedroll near the glowing warmth, her body sinking into shadow. The other read the page, and said to his twin, “Bone of my bone, this is not worthless. Maybe the ones who wrote it believed that heaven cares for all people and their stories and where they came from, and this was proof that it was worth praying for others.” The twin did not reply. Later, when she was asleep, he carefully cut the surviving pages from the book and placed them into his journal. Then, taking a fountain pen, he added his own name and the name of his twin. Closing the book, he listened to the fire snap hiss and kept watch on the grim and endless stars shining through the broken roof.
Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
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.