In the highlands, a woman went in search of wisdom and philosophy. Some clerics said that she must go to a tower on a low peak lightly covered in snow. When she came to the tower, a round, gray structure of stone only three or four stories high, she found that the main hall was dominated by a forge. A tall, wiry man of bleached hair and ice blue eyes in a dark wool cloak worked the anvil. Is this where philosophy resides? she inquired with some hesitation. Philosophy is homeless, he muttered, but some say he dwells here. I had expected someone else, the seeker admitted. A fair princess in torn robes, perhaps, or a naked virgin clothed in the scarlet of a bleeding heart held in her pale hand. The blacksmith dropped his hammer in shock. That is something I have never seen or heard of till now, he admitted, but I like you well enough and will help you with your quest. And this was the nature of her quest. First, she ventured to an abandoned shrine to retrieve a sacred sword. As she was leaving the shrine with it, she saw all the wildflowers and beasts fall dead for many miles around. It grieved her to see this, so she returned the sword to its rightful place, heedless of how the blacksmith would feel. When she emerged from the shrine a second time, the moors flowered and the beasts awoke from death. Returning empty-handed to the tower, she was surprised to discover that the tall, cloaked man was pleased, though he said nothing, and held out the abandoned sword for her to keep. Then she wandered the mountains until she came to a wide, silver lake of mists. On the shores she found bits of metal darkly glinting in the sand. These she brought to the blacksmith, who heated them and made a beautiful blade, good as new and inscribed with fine letters. For her third quest, he sent her to a lone peak far away to recover a relic buried under a cairn. The relic was a heavy thing shaped like a rolled up tapestry and made of rock, mud and rust. The blacksmith showed her how to soak it, boil it, wash it, scour it, and treat it in various ways until all that remained was aperfectly polished sword of the highest quality. On the fourth quest, she entered a tomb in the black woods to sit without water or food for three days as a sword hung over head. Only after her fast did it fall only inches before her without scratching or cutting her skin. Of the fifth sword, nothing is known. Of the sixth, only that nobody else could retrieve it from a great stone in an enchanted town, and yet she pulled it out with ease to the amazement of all. Returning to the blacksmith and now possessing six beautiful swords, the seeker asked him what the swords meant and when she would learn wisdom. And thus the man with the dark cloak and iced blue eyes said that only one sword remained to be found. It was greater than any sword and meant more than any wisdom or philosophy she had learned or not learned till now. To find it she would need some oars, nets, a pearl, or maybe nothing at all. What rare metal is this sword made of? she asked. It is made of ghostskin and the tears of the night, said the blacksmith. Follow the wasp and the kraken, the sheep and the fish, the morning star and an ancient rock. And do not forget the wind.
Long ago, there were lantern trees. Young men and women would deck the branches of large, ancient trees with paper lanterns, hurricane lanterns, bottles and jars filled with candles, and other colorful decorations. In the summer twilights they drank tea and ate cake beneath these glowing trees, stole kisses in the shadows, and dreamed of other planets, other worlds, lands of faeries and elves, secret places of magic and romance. One evening, after a long party beneath such a tree, a night of long glances, soft kisses, and the enchanting glow of amber, rose, sky blue and mauve lights, a young poet fell into a river on his way home. The swift current dragged him into a whirlpool, and the whirlpool dragged him into the darkness. Morning awakened him in another land, perhaps another planet. For a day he wandered through effulgent meadows and effervescent woods until he came to a large barrow. On the summit of the great hill there grew a magnificent beech, a lantern tree covered with lanterns and bottled candles. Strange elves played music, danced, and drank ambrosia from silver cups as darkness fell and the lights grew brighter and warmer. A forward elf welcomed the poet and snaked her arms around him to entice him to a dance, but he seemed unable to emerge from a deep reverie. At last, as they began to dance slowly to zither, harp and flute, the poet asked the elf what the lantern tree meant in her world. She whispered about magic, romance and dreaming of other worlds. Her words were bittersweet to him. For it is a precious thing to share something in common with strangers, but it is a hard thing to wander, to wander after shadows cast by nothing or nobody, to search a horizon that ever drifts away, to find that those who dwell in mysterious places have unsolved mysteries of their own. The worlds are infinite, and infinity wanders off one knows not where, he whispered in the delicate ear of the beautiful elf. That is why we light the lanterns. The tree is beautiful. The tree is the only stable thing.
A calligrapher sat in his library, staring at a blank sheet of paper, an inkstone, and a brush, for he wished to compose a love letter to a girl who loved him, whom he loved dearly. For some time, he had delayed inconfessing this love, and she had been more than patient. This morning, as spring rain fell beyond the sliding doors to the garden, he decided he must make a decision and confess. To confess he needed backbone. Even eels, as unstable as they seem, have backbones. The man dipped the brush into the ink and drew a mouth in the shape of a box, a downward curving line below it, and then another mouth in the shape of a box. There before him glistened the character for backbone. It was perfect in form. When it had dried, he put it into a wooden cylinder for carrying scrolls, and made his way to her home. It was autumn there, and she was raking orange leaves, her long hair blown awry now and then by little gusts of cold wind. She was thinking to herself how the wind was like a river ten thousand leagues long, but surprised by his sudden appearance, she dropped the rake. The man approached her, embraced her and kissed her, saying, The backbone is a journey from mouth to mouth. He unrolled the scroll. They gazed at it together as orange leaves rained from above. And then they kissed again. The girl stopped kissing him and looked at the scroll once more. I will not marry you, she said abruptly, nor be your lover. A calligrapher should know that what look to be mouths in this character are the stylized forms of vertebrae in the original ideograph. The backbone is not a journey. It is a sequence of vertebrae. And even if these boxes did signify two orifices, what evil designs and intentions do they signify? The moment is ruined for me for all of eternity. I cannot be with you. And I do not like eels.
She took off her clothes because she was a river into which he had never stepped once or twice. Dark minnows froze in her crystal veins, shadows of the dark thoughts she could not rein. Now they would stay somewhere within her. Even he could not leave this body submerged. Strange flowers melted off her liquid skin, the wild blossoms of worlds nobody would win. And now he was here, in this somewhere in time. It did not matter—to be or not be. To drown was enough, and just not to see.
She was a young girl, a whisper of mist—seven strokes of ink on an empty page. In a moment, she might not even exist. One brush of wind could have thrown her away into a different dead end, another narrow corridor of closed gates and steps that echo and stay a long while, their sounds diffusing into the fresh darkness, wandering passages of endless stairways, broken sidewalks and blind shop windows. After a while, it seems that she did blow away. Like a dead leaf detached from its twisted branch. She left a few strands of her golden hair clinging to his coat, which had embraced or imprisoned her form.
An old lecher saw a young widow praying with her palms facing upward, and having been rejected by her four times, resolved to report her deviant orisons. It was snowing as he made his way to the office of the tribunal that handled cases of heresy. The office was a maze and a library. The darkness was broken by the occasional red lantern, red as the seals of imperial rescripts. After walking for a long time, he reached the innermost sanctum, where the inquisitor sat reading romances and smoking cigarettes, an island in a sea of stacked papers and rolled-up scrolls. The old lecher bellowed out his case in one unstoppable stream, while cadres arrived embracing several unwieldly scrolls at once or carrying bundles of loose leaves stamped and tied up in string. Behold, the inquisitor said, all of the paperwork I must devour and digest. There is little chance your case will ever be found. To this court, your widow might not even exist. And you might not either. In fact, at this rate, her existence and yours is becoming a statistical impossibility. Night and day, the heretics, scientists and informers change their doctrines, their accusations and apologies, their rebukes and their rebuttals. All they do is revolt and report. Our ancient office cannot say with any certainty what the facts of any case are. The prisons are empty. All of the inmates died before the lawyers could sort it. The hangman has left to go begging; the scribes and copyists are starving. Another ice age is at hand. Before long, we will be rolling cigarettes or lighting our fires with all this paper. It is best if you depart at once. Return to your home while you can and gather some firewood.