One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.
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.
A woman wished to be wed, but she did not know how or to whom. The girls on the trams laughed at her; the typists and notaries at the office ignored her. Thus she wandered the city of old concrete and sand, lonely and invisible. One cold evening of brilliant stars and a dark moon, she entered the train station. Kerosene lamps burned on the platforms. A clock suspended from the iron rafters cast a mournful glow. A man in a dark coat walked toward her, flickering in and out of light and shadow. A long whistle sounded in the distance as they accidentally collided. The man reeked of soap, cigarettes and pine needles, old ink, motor oil and wool. She held onto him and gasped, “You have the fragrance of the last train to depart!” Pressing her to himself, and feeling her trembling body, he sighed, “Or the train that will never arrive.”
Long ago, before there were maps and charts, an old king commisioned his sons to venture out into the night, one to the east and one to the west, until they found the great white tree, which is said to be the heart of the world. Both sons had good hearts, and wanted to please their father, but they differed in temperament. The first was rash, while the second was longsuffering. It would be a long journey full of trials, tests and tempests. As he was leaving the stronghold, the first son met an alchemist in the market, a man well learned in the sciences, engineering and magic. He offered to give the prince a means by which he might travel through time and and space to arrive at the white tree immediately. The first son accepted, being a man of science himself, and wanting to please his father quickly; thus he paid the alchemist a fair amount of silver for the craft of such marvellous travel. The second son went to an inn, drank some ale, and spent a fortnight thinking. First, he tried to guess the cost of such a journey. When he realized the sum, he began to sell all he had. Night after night, merchants came to the inn. Some came to buy what the second prince sold. Others came to offer longboats, caravans, provisions, armies, shepherds and oarsmen to assist in the great undertaking. On the fifteenth day, having settled all his accounts and having finished all his preparations, the second son set out, his only possessions consisting of the armadas and caravans by which he would reach the white tree. Not many hours after the first son arrived in the mysterious land of the great white tree, a land of charcoal hills and old stars, the second son arrived, alone with one skeletal horse, his clothing torn, his head shaved and tattooed like a slave’s, his eyes almost dead of light. The great white tree towered above them, majestic and silent. The first son, whose journey had been instantaneous, asked the other how long he had traveled. And the second son said that it had been ten years. What have you seen on your travels? the second son asked. Nothing, said the first. And you, my brother, what have you seen? he asked, puzzled. Everything, said the second son, his eyes flickering back into life. The silence and power of the great white tree is a secret and tremendous thing, and it bestows its gifts differently to each who approach it. When the first son reached out to touch it, he faded into smoke and sand. And under the pale, long, and gnarled branches, the second son wept as the mineral stars sparkled in the night, but as he wept he knew his heart and the kingdom would live as long as the white tree soared into the sky.
The lampreys are sad. They do not like the twilight sea. It only flows in one direction; its coloration is obscured by clouds of ink; it tastes of cold metals. It tarnishes their silver scales. What is worse, the lampreys never find anything to latch onto and suck. Instead, they feel as if they are being sucked forward, body and soul, into a great distance withour stars or starfish, where they cannot feel their innards, where they cannot feel the waves touch their outer skin. One lamprey who mysteriously escaped the twilight sea to return to our blessed waters said that even now, his hunting is obscured by that dreadful nightmare, and he is often blinded to things he could suck. It is hard to live. Moreover, despite the horror, he sometimes misses the sensation of having his body being vaccuumed by the great and unreachable maelstrom. Once, the souls who drift below asked him to summarize the sounds, tastes and textures of the twilight sea in as few words as possible. And the lamprey sadly whispered. Hunger. Time.
To read the book of time is to be inspired to write other books, and thus every planet and every world has become a library. On a machine planet a shepherd read the great book of time while tending to his sheep of cast iron and lead. Only one in a hundred sheep would provide steel wool; only half would survive the galactic winters. Through dusted concrete pastures, down tunnels of naked light bulbs and across railroads and scrapyards and mounds of coal and slag, he faithfully led the sheep, resting now and then to smoke or search for straw and stray tools. When he had finished reading the book of time by the light of an old train signal, burning like a tiger’s eye in the darkness, his heart burned with a thousand books, tens of thousands of thoughts, hundreds of thousands of words. At the same time, he hungered for more books, more words, more thoughts to devour. Not a single new codex turned up on his nomadic searches, but he did find a book of blank pages, a book that rather resembled the book of time. The only thing left was to read and write as time permitted, and this is what he did. A word or two by matchsmoke, one page here and there in the company of growling and purring metallic sheep. One day, in the graveyard of rubber tires, the censors arrived with gendarmes and arrested him for reading a forbidden book, for plagiarism and for crimes against truth. They seized the two codices—one bone-white and the other gray like steel wool. The interrogations began at once while the bailiffs and sergeants built a ready-to-wear gallows in a matter of seconds, anchoring it on a mound of coal dust. The censor read out the charges again and demanded the reason for the shepherd’s activities and his refusal to strip for his execution, which was a crime of resistance. The shepherd claimed not to have known that the book of time had been banned. Great books were difficult to come by, and he had found his copy in an abandoned kiln, where books turned up now and then, most of them half-burnt as kindling. Since he had so little time to read or write, he had been forced to choose. And thus he chose both—he copied words from books, especially the book of time, which was the only reading material still in his possession—so that he could immerse himself in the joys of both impression and expression. The censor shook his head in disgust. The shepherd said that from time to time he would slip into a daydream or trance, and during those minutes or hours his pen would not follow what was printed in the book but what randomly appeared in his mind. Thus, in the thousand pages of his bone-white codex that still had some blank spaces left, at least one hundred had not been copied, but had come from the pain in his heart and head. For this reason, the shepherd requested that he be allowed to wear his coat and hold his codex as he hanged. It is a strange thing to hang a legend. And the poor sheep were left alone.
They called him the legend or the angel. In the distant past, he had visited their planet of stone and had given them the book of time, a codex filled with philosophy, starlight, good grain, whales, and warnings. He was good at teaching, healing, and opening hearts to infinity, but the legend always warned of a great meteor. The book of life, he insisted, would help everyone survive the great burning, whether they departed or stayed. One day, he vanished. Centuries passed. Copies of the book of life could be found in every library and household, but few read it. Nevertheless, the people of that distant planet continued to celebrate the legend, making stone statues and paper effigies of him, gathering on special days to exchange gifts and drink ale, or telling children apocryphal bedtime stories of the legend’s exploits. It was during a great festival for the legend that he reappeared, looking nothing like his effigies and seeming quite awestruck at the quantities of ale, the bright lanterns, the colorful mounds of gifts. Not knowing who he was, some of the people, in a show of hospitality, invited him to speak to their festive assembly. Standing up tall and straight, he pulled a bone-white codex from his coat pocket and began to read. Only a handful of people recognized the words from the book of time. Closing the book, the legend declared that it was the eve of the great meteor and the great burning. The air filled with bitter laughter and angry scorn. An older woman, offering him a pint, gently explained that the last heretic to say such things had been exiled from the world two centuries ago and had probably added his skeleton to the great whirlpool, a handful of moons and exoplanets where the people of that planet sent their human refuse. The meteor, explained another, was a metaphor for hate, and the real legend had used such language to teach kindness and justice. Were there any living beings in the whirlpool? the legend asked, ignoring their reproaches. Quite a lot, conjectured a young scientist, who seemed very nervous. The exiles maintained contact with the mother planet now and then by firing up great flashlights that could blink out codes. They used this to broadcast meteorological and astronomical reports or warnings. In fact, they seemed to be telegraphing now. The scientist pointed upward. It was a beautiful sight. A coil of lights flashing one after the other in the dark sky, spiralling inward, going dark, and then spiralling outward in strange rhythms. The legend said it was time to depart. Only the scientist followed. The others returned to their ale and opened their gifts. As they boarded the rectangular, blue-black ship resembling the coal tender of an old railway train, the legend asked the scientist what the flashlights from the whirlpool had telegraphed. It’s nonsense; it’s no longer one of our words; it’s not a word we use anymore, the scientist mumbled. What word? the legend demanded as the box car ascended into the starry night. Miserere, the other whispered, as a great light blossomed ahead.