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.
In abandoned shrines the man who was tired of life lived through dreams of steel. On his wooden sandals ten thousand universes hid in golden dust. Ancient gravel roads possessed for him the clarity of one polished mirror or sword. Always shouting farewell to wind-blown landscapes in a monochrome mirage, in rivers of scripts, down the road he would fade. Down the road, the man would blur.
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.