Misfortunes come to many scholars, but not all of them involve poverty, exile, loss or the sorrows of desire. Watching a wizened old calligrapher casually write characters from famous poems at his table with a view of the garden and its sculpted pines, one scholar said to his friend that it was utterly vulgar to answer a poem about spring with a poem about the fall. The friend readily agreed, but added as an afterthought that the ancients must have been most barbarous, for they lived through an age which they named for both the spring and the fall. The calligrapher began to laugh, and said: The longer you live, the shorter the distance between the blossoming plum and the golden birch. It’s one and the same wind that scatters flowers and dead leaves; it’s the same sun that journeys through the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. In winter the night stars are bright, and the silence of the earth and sky is sublime. The earth looks like birch bark, the snow like plum blossoms, yet both seem far away and one feels the wistfulness of the pure and empty wind.
Happy Earth Day!
Ten years seemed like a century, like ten days, or even ten seconds. Only moments ago he had kissed her cheek before departing. Only years ago, he had arrived back home the day before yesterday. The hall, now emptied of unwanted guests and washed clean, looked as it did only yesterday, which was possibly twenty years ago. The wife was much older, and yet softened by time and almost girlish as she blushed in the firelight of the hearth while the king stirred the embers with his spear, speaking of the wooden horse, the monsters of the sea, the whirlpools and the one-eyed cannibal. Her eyes gleamed, and she whispered that one day every voyage would bear his name, words of praise that were as romantic as they were unrealistic. The old sailor could not help but smile at her touching and youthful kindness. What was the strangest thing he ever saw? she asked. Words failed him at first, but slowly he began to speak of the realm of the dead in the far, far west. Through nights of rain and stars he had wandered among standing stones and old forests until he had fallen through a crack in time or space, falling into the underworld the way one falls overboard into the waves from a longship. There are no incantations or libations; one just suddenly awakens in the wrong place, among the shades in a world one was never meant to visit. What was strange about it? she asked eagerly, already captive again to that familiar but distant voice. The strangest thing, the sailor replied, was that everything looked flat, like wall paintings. And there were no colours, just flickers of light and shadow, and trembling scratches on the surface of everything. In our world, human beings have shapes. They are like statues you can touch and walk around. In the land of the dead, the departed souls are colorless and flat, flat like wall paintings, but they nevertheless drift by, engaged in their labours. There was a titan there who was forced to drag the world around on a chain shackled to his leg. The world looked strange. It was round like ours, but instead of a sphere, it was flat like the base of a crater or amphora or a dish. And the titan had about as much colour as a black figure on a piece of pottery lost in white mist. He would pass by, hauling the black earth, vanish somewhere to my left and then reappear to my right hours later, tensing his every muscle, sweating profusely and muttering to himself. This is a strange punishment, I said to him. You are dragging the world around. The titan slowed down and looked in my direction the way the blind will stare through someone, or the way a cat stares at imaginary birds and rats. My second death is indeed worse than the first, said the titan. Though it is physically easier, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. In the old days I held the globe of the earth. It was back-breaking work. The muscles in my shoulders and back permanently tore, and my feet were alternately numbed or plagued with stabbing pains, as if I were stepping on nails or charcoals. And yet it made sense, for I held the world close to my heart. I could see the lofty mountain peaks, the great pines spearing the clouds; I saw the endless stars above and below. The moon and stars moved, and I knew that what I did was important. Now, I am forced to walk in circles, and I have a secret suspicion that this is not the real world which I drag around, but some cheap copy carved from marble by a second rate stone mason from the market place. The weight of the world feels different, almost insubstantial, and there is no moon or sun to light the great darkness all around me. I would love to see the earth again with all of her acorns and oaks, all of her chariots and scythes, her ploughs and silver springs, her warm stones and endless wheatfields. I would love to watch the grain grow once again.
It may have been ironic that the tall, dark harpooner had escaped his own death twice, that while his beloved friend drifted to safety in the shelter of his own coffin, he himself found refuge in the coffin of the captain, which had somehow emerged intact from the wreckage, that he had drifted through the swells and storms of the ocean without finding his friend, drifting northward and then westward, always northward and westward, without a sign of the whale or the sign of another living soul. And thus the spearman of the seas drifted in the coffin. The initial struggle with the whale as it pulled everyone down, the long voyage leading up to the ghosted encounter, the terror of struggling for breath and for the open sky, these were but distant flashes in his memory now. The whaler lay in the coffin, listening to the lapping water, staring at a wash of stars that he did not recognize and inhaling an oceanic scent that was both familiar and foreign. As he drifted, he did what he had long been pondering—he offered his life up to the holy one of the other whalers, the holy one who had been speared. Dreams of his pale, crucified body drifted in and out of the harpooner’s mind. Like the prophet of the old parable, the harpooner had been swallowed by the gigantic whale, swallowed and then spat out to find the drifting coffin—it was a resurrection and a second birth. A morning finally arrived, as the strange stars faded, and the coffin washed up on the shores of an island that could have been his own many thousands of days or years ago. To his surprise, he was greeted by the tattooed natives. Like the whalers, they were a polyglot ensemble, but dressed in black sarongs printed with white fish bones, various accurately drawn whales or pale, tropical flowers, such as the incomparable plumeria. They wore tattered monkey jackets and other coats of indescribable fabric. Their skin was pale, copper, mocha, golden, but always printed with dark blue tattoos—some interlaced like the woodwork of the whalers, some sketched out like scrimshaw, some more familiar to him from his own islands. Some wore spectacles; others wore helmets of metal and glass, the visors of which resembled ships’ portholes. They lived in makeshift longhouses that were nothing less than overturned ship hulls or shipwrecks patched up with tar and driftwood. Among the natives, the whaler was treated with respect. It was almost paradise—a veritable blending of the life of the whalers and the life of the islanders, of the faraway west and the endless south. The manner of living was good, but the locals were poor sailors and would not build boats or rafts to venture out. While scavenging shipwrecks and often feeding off the survivors, the colony had degenerated into a darkness of mind. Every now and then, the elders would punish one man with ritual whippings—the man who read. He was tall, like the whaler, refused to eat human meat, and collected books which had escaped the waves and bonfires. He was accused of lying for reading and speaking about a time when surgeons could cut into the human body and repair various organs, or for speaking of the mystical truths in tales of fishermen and shepherds who heard the voice of the divine in the desert or at sea, or for being able to predict an eclipse, for praying to one abstraction that none of the natives could name or recall, for drawing pictures of tools and machines that could only be the figments of the most demonic imagination. One day, the elders took the whaler aside and said that they were losing patience with the reader. Perhaps there were some good things in those books—if only the reader understood that they were myths and not realities. Once the reader realized that there was no world beyond the island and the sea, he would see reason again. The whaler smoked silently, saying little, lost in doubts and the depths of his own fading memories and the endless roar of the waves. One day, the elders lost their patience indeed. The whaler was roused by his assigned wife, who whispered that the reader was to be hanged. By the time the whaler got to the beach, it was too late. They had hung the reader from an old, half-buried mast and its crosstrees and were spearing his ribs with old harpoons, opening up his flesh. It was then that the whaler believed once again.
Madmen in striped suits, mimes and anarchists with dynamite wandered the streets. The traveler crossed a great square and stopped by a fountain where a homeless man sat warming potatoes over a makeshift fire. The man wore a dusty black frock coat covered with iron crosses and gold and silver stars; his queue was beginning to silver; his expensive boots were muddy; his sword seemed to be missing. Shouts erupted now and then in the archaic buildings around the square. A bomb exploded in the belltower of a nearby church, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust. “Good afternoon,” said the man. “I was the prince of this town. I would warmly welcome you, but I cannot find the right words.” The traveler, also wearing a great coat with stars and crosses, nodded sadly and sat down next to him. The prince gave him a delicious potato. “Will you miss the palace?” the traveler asked. “No,” said the prince. “It was a prison, much as this town square is.” A mime walked up to them and made threatening gestures that possibly suggested a gallows and hanging. Then he started running and silently screaming, chased by a cursing lunatic running with a live stick of dynamite in his hands. There was another explosion. “Are you sure there is nothing you miss?” the traveler asked. “I miss having someone to talk to,” the prince confessed, and bit into his dust-caked potato.
An old plaintiff came to the courthouse. Inside, he found the bureaus empty, the glass cracked, the ceiling fans inert. Cobwebs covered the ceiling and old documents littered the floors. He wandered through rooms of broken typewriters and empty desks. At last he came into the courtroom itself where a bailiff was meditatively sweeping with a large broom. “I have come to lodge a complaint!” the plaintiff shouted. The bailiff paused and turned to him, saying, “It’s a bit late for that. The magistrate has run off, and the other officers walked out.” The old plaintiff sighed. “What happened?” “Nothing,” said the bailiff. “And that is why he left. The land was on the brink of revolution. The people were drunk with fury. Day after day the crimes of the lords and ladies, peasants and thieves, rapists and traitors were exposed. There were pamphlets and posters, marches and speeches, but nobody was arrested or charged. The bureaucrats worked around the clock to explain what happened, and then the clouds of revolution dissipated. Besides, even before that, the courts were backed up with absurd lawsuits and impossible trials. There were onions that wanted to be declared potatoes, robots who murdered their wives, the censorship or revision of fairy-tales, dissolutions of parliament, agencies working against themselves and each other, stolen secret letters, taxes on cotton candy and tariffs on steel!” The plaintiff shook his head in disbelief, and cried: “There is corruption and death in the land!” The bailiff quietly agreed, but seemed eager to return to his sweeping. Then he reached into his pockets and pulled out brass and silver stars, the abandoned badges of the magistrate, marshalls, sheriffs, bailiffs, and sergeants. “This is all I have,” he said sadly, giving them to the old man. The old plaintiff held the seven stars in his hands and wept.
They met on the beach in the early morning, as the dark blue sky still hovered over the waters and the wind whipped at the dry grass on the dunes. After building a fire, the older youth drew circles in the packed, wet sand, filled them with triangles, and began to explain the angles, the measurements, the laws that ruled the division of space. The younger boy, shaved liked his companion, watched in awe. They recalled the old man in another seaside city far away who had taught them about machines, space, and the stars whenever they brought him olives, squid, ink, or wine. I wonder where it all comes from, the younger one asked. The elder looked up into the dark sky where the stars were beginning to fade. Then he gathered some sand into his palm, letting the wind carry most of it away until only a few grains were left. It began with something smaller than one of these grains of sand. What happened? There was an explosion, said the older one, his gray eyes staring through the sand, through his own palm, through the very fabric of the universe. And out of that explosion came everything—time, matter, heat, the workings of the planets and stars. The younger boy opened his mouth and then closed it as he stared intently at the sand grains by the light of the fire. One of these grains of sand could be an explosive, then. Maybe, the older one sighed, dusting off his hands. I don’t know. What are stars? the younger one asked. They are part of the explosion. It happened thousands and thousands of years ago, maybe millions of years ago, and we are still seeing it. The moon, sun, and stars are all part of the great explosion. Then they are explosives, as well! the younger one shouted with joy. Perhaps, the older one sighed. Explosives like our old city. The smoke must have risen for days. The younger one filled his hands with dry sand, throwing the grains at the sea. Then he turned to his friend and asked how many grains of sand there were in the universe. The older boy began to speak of myriads, and myriads of myriads, and myriads of myriads of myriads, writing letters on the sand to explain as he went. The young one felt as if his own head were suddenly hollow and filled with distant stars. When his friend had finished he asked him how large one star might be, and how many grains of sand it might contain. The older one ventured a guess. The younger one walked back to the surfline and stared into the paling sky. Everything is explosive, he whispered, almost breathless.
And what questions would you pose to my golden pears? the demigodess, cloud-white in the amber, asked. That they rot not and forever ripen, that their motion be as perpetual as their silence and stillness, said the thief, the shadow of long lines and a shaded face. That they hold fast the downward gaze of the black bird and the bright stars, the whisper of wind, the consolation of reason and heartbeat of prayer. That they are to be invested in the golden hour, the devotion of rock sugar, the tobacco at twilight, the softness of milk tea and cottonwood blossoms. May the mound and barrow swell with swords and dragons and coins. May the hearth smoke and the song trail off. May the orchard rustle; may the sheep return. May the golden pears burn into the galaxy.