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.
In the land of lakes far to the north, a young man with silver hair sat down on the sand by the blue water and wept. What ails you? a raven inquired. My life divorced my life, and I am their abandoned orphan, said the man. I do not even know my name. Long ships full of shadows sailed to that shore and carried away the orphan to a another, distant shore, where they hung him from an ash tree with rope. The man hung there and looked out on the sea. Sometime later, the raven arrived. What ails you? the raven asked. I am a hanged man, a cursed man, said the orphan. My life divorced my life and abandoned me to the elements. I do not remember my name. The raven ate one of his eyes. You are Time, said the black bird. And then it flew off into a deep sky of ancient snows.
A man returned to the river of goldenrod and silver grass to meet his soul once again. My soul, he said, where have you traveled? Do not ask me that, said the soul. I have wandered far, for my home is far away, and I have not found my tree. The man asked about this mysterious tree, but the soul merely stared at him with indifference. The man said that it was a depressing age, a time of confusion, a chaotic world. Where was the world going? He recalled the better times—warm nights with lanterns and moths, the willows along the river, the fragrance of oil paints, the roar of the sea. And you were there, you were always there, he said warmly. Do not look back into time, the soul said. You were as empty then as you are now, a daydreamer and a cloudhead. The world has always rebelled against itself; it is not going anywhere. The river never travels. The water travels from the source to the sea, but the river is always in the same place. It is pure nothingness and emptiness. It has no time, and nothing happens to it. The soul threw a stalk of goldenrod into the icy streams. They watched the stalk drift away and disappear around the corner. What do you think? asked the soul. The man suddenly felt a warm, southern wind blow through the grass from beyond the curve of the river. My soul is somewhere else, he said with both fear and relief, and I was mistaken in believing you were her.
It was an important holiday in the old capital. Several captains were allowed to return from the distant provinces to take part in a military parade. Among them were two old friends posted at opposite ends of the realm who rarely saw each other. After the military parade on the first day, there were days of rituals, long-winded lectures from old priests, moon-viewing from boats on the river, drinking parties, constant changes of clothing, endless exchanges of gifts and poems, visits to shrines and temples, audiences at court, and then another military parade. The old friends caught glimpses of each other through the crowds, but because of their many respective duties, they never had a moment alone to talk. On their last day in the capital, they were finally relieved of all obligations and official functions. In the morning, they drank tea under the willows by the river. Throughout the day, they walked the stone streets, reminisced, and quoted their favourite books. In the afternoon, they drank tea near a silver temple by a renowned walkway through the wooded hills cherished by philosophers. In the evening, they returned to the lantern-lit banks of the river to watch the beautiful young girls stroll by in their brocade gowns and to drink firewater from earthenware cups. One of the friends complained about the distance that separated all of the good, unique things of each province. The other complained of the old capital and all of the time wasted on empty rituals, parades, appearances at court and meaningless lectures. Then, after listening to the willows and the river, they drank one last cup together in gratitude for the great distance and lost time.