A master potter sent his son to the old capital, both as a reward for his growing skill with ceramics and his good behaviour and also to test his true character. The master gave the son a large sum of money in a purse and sent along a servant as a bodyguard and companion. The servant, however, was forbidden to interfere in the choices the son might make, unless there was a serious risk of illness or death. On the first day in the capital, the servant showed the son all the stores and workshops of the pottery district. They observed other master potters at work, traders selling every kind of ceramic item imaginable, and labourers mixing and shaping clay or stoking the kilns. With their heads full of cups, bowls and flames, they went back to their inn and rested, the son demanding nothing beyond the frugal dinner and tea they were served. On the second day, they visited the furniture, paper, cloth, and wheelwright districts, followed by a grand tour of several shopping districts. Sometimes, the son would reach into his robe to pull out his purse and count a few coins or make a mental calculation, but after a moment or two, he would replace it and stroll on. The servant was puzzled. On the third day, the servant took the son to see medicine shops, incense stores, tobacconists, liquor stores, confectioners, butchers, rows of restaurants, barber shops, acupuncturists, teahouses, taverns and brothels, but the son hardly even read the signboards, inspected any merchandise or set foot in most establishments. The servant realized that the son was either a madman or a saint. And thus, on the fourth day, he took him to see all of the temples and shrines, monasteries and sacred groves, schools and libraries, but the son expressed not a single word of praise or criticism, nor did he bring out his purse to donate to a single monk, mendicant or holy place. On the fifth day, they made their way home. As they were traveling, they passed a famous waterfall. The son rushed down to the blue waters and stood under the cascades to meditate. After several hours, he emerged from his trance and the waters and shaved himself in the shallows of the stream with a dagger. Astonished but mindful of the master’s instructions, the servant led the son home. When they arrived, the servant prostrated himself and begged forgiveness for his failure. The son calmly and politely handed the full purse back to his father. What has happened, my son? the master potter asked, shocked and dismayed. Forgive me, father, the son replied, but I will never be a potter or a merchant. I will become a hermit. Why? the father wept. What happened? The son answered, In the old capital, everything looks like heaven, but it is truly hell. For four days, I felt every kind of desire possible, but I quickly saw something ferocious in it. A man will never shape, fire, or sell enough pottery, buy enough books, smoke enough tobacco, take enough medicine, sleep with enough women, drink enough tea and liquor, eat enough dinner, build enough temples or walk enough streets. The old capital is hell, a bottomless pit, and I wish to forget it all by becoming a hermit. After some silence, the father handed back the purse to the son and said, You will need some supplies to build and stock your hermitage. Take this. It is the only inheritance you would have from me. After the son departed, the father took in an orphan to train and mentor. The orphan learned quickly and would be a master potter himself one day, for he possessed real genius and a strong work ethic. One afternoon, the servant found the aged father smoking his pipe on the veranda overlooking the garden. The servant burst into tears and apologized once more failing with the master’s own son. The master took a thoughtful drag on his pipe and said that on his own first trip to the old capital, he had blown all of his money on his first night and had been forced to work several months for a potter there. Those were the days. To travel to the capital is to test the nature of your character, he said. My son had no character at all, no character to test. I do not fault you. The only thing you may have failed in was forgetting to show him the poor district, where men and women desire at least something, are grateful for anything, and work for nothing.
There are no empires today. There are corporations and governments, but there are no empires. An empire is a night sea that washes the shores of the bookshelves and polished furniture, its long dark rivers bringing back tea, tobacco, cups and plates, distant poems, contraband, strange inventions, phonographs, words and fragrances, the very ingredients of thought and empire, the very possibility of a world. The night sea is the mirror and the gate. There is no world tonight. The phonographs, ashtrays and pale pages are bone-dry.
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.
Long ago, a nomad won an enormous rug from a princess after a glorious campaign. One could have sat four or five tents on it. Rolled up, it had to be carried by ten camels walking abreast, with ten servants to guide. Fortunately, the camels and servants came with the rug. The poor herdsman was now almost a prince. As time went by, the generous nomad offered the rug to host royal banquets for khans, concerts for itinerant musicians, weddings for blacksmiths, and prayers for priests from faraway lands. One day, a khan asked for a piece, thinking it to be enchanted. Another day, an unhappily wed girl asked for a piece by which to remember the handsome herdsman and to have at least something for a dowry. By and by, a priest begged for a square to carry with him on his trek along the silk, spice, and tin routes. A musician demanded some scraps as payment for a performance he had already been paid for. In this way, the rug shrank considerably. After several wars and circuits of the various trade routes, the nomad married a captive girl he freed from a slave market. She gave him many children, but they took up a lot of space. After she died, each child demanded his or her own piece of the rug to remember their departed mother and to have an inheritance. And then one by one, they departed, cursing the nomad’s miserliness for hanging onto his last shreds of fabric. Alone now, the old nomad barely had enough rug to lay on or wrap around his body. Like his scraps of rug, all but one of his camels remained. On the rug each night, lying on his back and staring at the stars, he prayed that heaven would allow him to keep this one last piece, for he had heard that the princess had passed on, and he wished to make a pilgrimage to her tribe and city, to offer the last scrap as a burial gift. And if that were not possible, then perhaps heaven would enchant this rug with the magic of old tales, so that he might fly into the stars and converse with celestial spirits and angels. And then he would sigh, remembering something he had heard somewhere. One cannot be many.
In the beginning, the city had a high thick wall of stone that rose to the great sky. Its gates were beautiful with ornate, calligraphic signs. When times of wealth came, the princes, princesses, merchants, and even a few priests and lawyers, proposed the destruction of the wall. The main argument was that it might look threatening and exclusive. It would be an impediment to trade, diplomacy, and prestige. Nobody should fear the city, they reasoned. Through various machinations, legitimate and illegitimate devices, they managed to convince the citizens to tear down the wall and recycle the stones. The work was difficult and dangerous. Collapsing segments of the ramparts destroyed many houses, killing all within, and some districts even became divided by partitions of fallen rubble. There were riots. Eventually, all of the debris was cleared, the riots were quelled, and the outer wall vanished from history without a trace. Within a generation, the city itself was almost deserted. There were several reasons for this. First, travelers, bankers and traders were afraid to stay in a city without walls, and so commerce dwindled. Secondly, the destruction of the wall had destabilized the very foundations of the city. Many houses sank or caved in. Lastly, there was the weathering, which the wall had formerly slowed. The city did not fall to invaders, as some had thought. Without walls, it just crumbled and faded into dust, like a boneless dead fish in a dried out land.
One of the assassins was entrusted with leading an armed caravan into the deserts. Perhaps it was to stalk and kill an escaped conspirator, perhaps it was to escape a conspiracy or a trial, or perhaps it was a secret mission to better determine the way of the sands and clouds, the history of his nation, the possibilities of empire and the nature of trade routes. The caravan took up its arms, tools, merchandise and machines and departed for the dry oblivion. As they drifted deeper into the soft dunes and burning blue sky, the assassin felt that they were transforming into a song. The caravan was a strong and strange piece of music. Lost in ecstasy, he did not notice the approach of the sandstorm. All of the warriors and camels, except for the assassin, were buried alive. The assassin made his way to a desolate oasis and survived for many years on water, wild grains, and non-integers of birds. One day, a caravan stopped at the oasis and found the bewildered survivor. The travelers decided to take him along. As they crossed the wastes, the assassin spoke of all that he had learned of clouds, sands, and little creatures. When the caravan arrived back in civilization, the assassin learned that his language, nation and cities were no more. Other caravans were departing for newer cities and different times and places, with stronger and stranger music. Lost, the assassin made haste to join their sand-blasted journeys into oblivion.
The visitor apologized and bowed deeply before the sumptuous banquet, claiming that it was not his custom to eat the flesh of beasts but only the flesh of humans. The empress, courtesans, warriors and scholars looked at one another with great embarassment, and then sank their daggers into their necks. Awed at their generosity, the ambassador began to feast, and feasted for one hundred days. When he had eaten and drunk, he concluded that it would be most fortunate to trade with this empire, and clapped his hands thrice to summon a scribe or diplomat. Nobody answered, for the palace was empty and quickly filling with sand.