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.
The flat-out madness beckoned. The young shadows would want to depart for the threshing lands, the sixty mile waste of abandoned barley fields, old machinery, derailed boxcars, empty barns, burnt out cars, rubber tires, tar pits and smoking trees. It was a right of passage, a way to find their lucky stars, or just a visit to the unknown in search of answers. Some were just suicides waiting to happen. Some just wanted to look for fossils and poems or a cold, quiet, darkness in which to slowly kiss or pray. One had to have jeans, boots, hoodies, a hunting knife, matches and cigarettes, rum and hot tea, maybe even a tattered paperback classic or a pocket-sized notebook with a good pen. A good flannel shirt, a toolbox and a radio wouldn’t hurt. One had to have a head full of old leaves and roads never taken. There among discarded carriage wheels, weed-covered crossroads, mounds of sawdust, broken fences and deer bones, they walked in the brisk landscape of midnight without end. The machines and burnt out cars would eventually wake up. The screaming weeds and the deathberries would animate. The sabretoothed threshers and reapers bared their fangs and growled after the running shadows, leaving trails of fragrant dust. Prehistoric wolves and obsolete foxes skulked and skirted the wired roads through the great nothing and its twisted constellations. It was unusual to get out without open wounds and deep inner scars, and nobody was ever quite able to describe the horror and the passion in everyday words. Most of those who made it out spoke of outdated gears or rotted roofing—there was no point in describing the sensation of being eaten, of wishing one were safely wrapped in a body cast forever, of the thrill of having no body cast, of what it means to be thrown through time, of what it is like to be eaten by earth or sharp metal. And behind their silence was the secret revelation that lucky stars only burned back there in that land of golden grain and rust, and the roads never taken are the only ones worth taking.
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!”
The white stone was ordinary, almost oval, and beautiful to look at. The pilgrim allowed the other travellers to take turns holding it, but nobody could see what was so special. They returned the stone to him, and went their way. The pilgrim walked the great road past monuments, famous views, venerated boulders or trees, and ancient bridges without seeming to notice anything. Several carriages almost ran over him and a donkey had to gently nudge him out of the way at one point, since he was so lost in the radiance of the stone. A sentry at a gatehouse watched him, and decided to ask what the stone was all about. The pilgrim took him down to the river. This stone is like a library or a gallery, said the pilgrim. When I wash the stone, I see a line of boats along the shallows where I grew up. Or a little army of frogs racing over black rain drops on white water! The sentry smiled at the thought. The pilgrim led him by the arm back up to the roadway, and held the stone out in the sun, drying it in his palm. Now, I see the great plain where they hunt stones; it is covered in snow! The distant mountains are a pale but bold shade of blue. The cranes have already departed. The houses scattered across the fields look like hayricks. Sometimes at night, when it is quite warm, I see the steam rising from a volcanic lake or the nape or throat of a beautiful girl. The sentry laughed, not sure if the pilgrim were the wisest or maddest person he had ever met. Where can one find such enchanted stones? the sentry asked. I found mine when I was a child. I found it at the back of an old stone warehouse where my grandfather stored his rusting farm implements. There were all kinds of tools! Rakes, scythes, shears, plows, hoes, saws, and other things I can no longer name! Do not worry, you will find your stone! The sentry thanked the pilgrim, and invited him to tea in the gatehouse before sending him along. On the roadway at twilight, he found a black stone, dusted but ink-dark once he polished it. The nights of long ago wafted out of the hard mineral surface, and he could see the rooftops, a rusted sea of tiles, and the moon and stars far above.
An old priest traveling southward met a young priest heading north at a lonesome place, where the way skirted high cliffs that fell into a dark oblivion. It was windy, and they rested behind a rock to eat, drink and converse. The old priest asked what had drawn the younger one into the way. I wanted to find safety and acceptance, said the young priest. The divine has no such words in its language, the old priest laughed. Then you do not believe in heaven! the young one exclaimed in horror. On the contrary, the old priest replied, it is because I do believe in heaven. I may not believe in earth, though.
At long last, the pilgrim reached the edge of the west. For years he had walked, wooden staff in hand, dreaming of the alabaster pagodas, rainfalls of flowers, delicious morning dew and utter peace. At the edge there was a gate, made of wooden scaffolding, a twisted, fragile affair that vaguely resembled the script of a language he might once have known. On a bedroll spread upon the red sand, the lame gatekeeper lay, looking at the pilgrim. The bald gatekeeper resembled an emaciated stone statue. I have come, said the pilgrim. I have not strayed, and I have not turned back. No, said the gatekeeper, you have not. The road was long, said the pilgrim, but I was able, and it was a road of peace and illumination. And sickness and death, said the lame one. What do you mean? the pilgrim cried. The gatekeeper was silent, but then finally spoke. The woman you begged alms from ten years ago lost her infants, for she had nothing left to feed them. The man who hid you in his cart and secretly transported you over several borders was captured and nailed to the wheels of his cart. The old man who cut himself while trying to mend your sandals suffered from a horrific infection that lasted for years before he died in agony. These are only a handful of cases. There were many such events along the way. The pilgrim shuddered and looked at the naked gate which had no doors or locks. Clouds of dust rose and blew through the frame. Where is the garden? asked the pilgrim. Is this not the west? It was not a reasonable question—straight ahead beyond the gate the sinking sun burned his eyes with its melancholy radiance of brass and orange light. The sun sets in the desert, said the gatekeeper. It always sets in a desert.
A trader was pressed into the service of the army to survey a tract of wilderness and to deliver supplies to anyone who needed them. As he journeyed along, he passed through a vicious mountain pass and then through a dreadful, stony land that wore out his boots and cut his feet. On the far side of the land of stones, he met pilgrims who were heading in the direction he had come from. He offered them some of his provisions, but they refused. He asked for water and his request was denied. The trader warned them of the land of stones and the vicious mountains, and inquired about the country they had passed through. The pilgrims shrugged, saying that they doubted any such mountain or land of stones could exist, and they had nothing special to report about the lands they had seen. As they headed off towards the land of stones, the trader could not help but notice that they wore the poorest of straw sandals, which would come undone before the end of the day.