The first sentry always stood in his black and white striped shelter with its red lamp facing the cobblestone plaza in front of the train station. A man of law and vigilance, in his royal blue uniform he was the invisible observer who could not fail to note the humility of those who departed and the arrogance of those who returned. Suddenly these returning travelers knew much, spoke loudly and pretended to have forgotten their native tongue. Hauling their ostentatious baggage, waving around their passports full of stamps and making exaggerated faces and gestures as they recalled all the good sights they already missed, they passed by his post like dirty clouds that stain the clear blue sky. And thus he abandoned his post and bought a train ticket, confessing to the conductor that he hoped he might never return. The man of law who replaced him watched the departing with disgust, envying their wanton displays of freedom, deeply suspicious of their desires for foreign coasts and illegible scripts. Like mimes, these eager travelers acted out the adventures they would have just to remind the company seeing them off of how miserably small and insignificant their worldviews were. One day, the second sentry also abandoned his post, madly crying out to the ticket clerk that he hoped he would return chastised and meek. When he did return, he was court-martialed and shot. The third man of law only appeared when the new lamppost shone for the first time one evening. Standing in the striped sentry box, he watched the pigeons play in the fountain during day shifts and dreamed of books and expensive cigarettes by night. Though friendly and thankful for the bread crumbs and seeds he shared, the birds were careful, being secretly obsessed with the suspicion that he had wandered before and might wander again and knew more of their speech than he let on. When the revolution came, they would be sure to stalk him first and peck out his sandy eyes.
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.
Marching against their will down a winter road, the skeletons in chains headed for the towers of darkness. I told you we should have joined the other army, said one. You are an idiot, said his comrade. No matter who won, we were headed for prison anyway. Why would you say that? the first one demanded. Because we have voices, the other whispered. They stared into the silence of dead golden grass and naked trees immersed in snow. The wind blew through their threadbare coats.
There was a printer who felt empty inside, unvelievably and unbearably empty. Night and day, he made woodcuts and printed posters and newspapers, but no amount of work could fill the horrible void in his chest. Then one day he received an unexpected gift from a happy client, a sum so great that he could finally afford to take a vacation. He boarded an old carriage and traveled east until he came to a river. Nobody of any number or consequence lived there, but there was a stone wall and walkway along the watetfront, a few teahouses, and of course the inn and waystation where the carriages stopped, only rarely picking up or depositing travelers. To the printer, the river looked more like a great sea. It hissed at the black trees in the dark rain, it lapped gently in the clear sun, it rolled in silver and indigo waves all the way to the stars. The printer spent most of his holiday just watching the river, listening to its plashing, gurgling and rippling. The longboats came and went, their oars casting up little wavelets of white foam, their bright lanterns shining like stars. He took several boating trips and sailed far out into the great currents until the coastline blurred into a thin, gray stroke of ink. Something painfully heavy, bittersweet and eternal wafted up from the waters and filled his soul. The nights and days passed like a dream. Then the printer ran out of time and money and had to return to his city. All he bought as souvenirs were a few books of poetry, some chopsticks, cough drops, and some patterned cloth. The road home was long and tiresome, but the printer felt different. Whenever he was alone or asleep, he felt the rippling of the river or heard the bells of the passing boats. Once he arrived back in the city, he set about making woodcuts of his journey, but something puzzled him. The river was in him somehow. Closing his eyes in the dusty shop, he could still see the stars and water as if they were brand new; he could hear the surprising sound of the waves washing the stones. He was still discovering the strange boats, still seeing the prized chopsticks and patterned cloth, still reading the books of poetry—all for the first time. The old emptiness had fled, but its pain remained. For years, the river had been absent from his life. Then the river had been present, like a short dream. It was absent once again, but its enigma persisted in the work of his hands and in the sleepwalking of his soul.
A man was standing under a blossoming plum tree in the middle of a melon field. Another man approached, accused him of trespassing, and demanded to know what he intended to do in the middle of his field. Who are you? the first man asked. I am the bailiff, and this is my field. Why are you here? The first man seemed out of sorts, if not despondent. I was visiting a house on the hill, he said, admiring a beautiful landscape painting of a blossoming plum tree in the middle of a melon field. I had a strong desire to travel into the picture to stand beneath the tree and soak in the glorious light of the spring morning. Then the strangest thing happened. A servant girl opened the rain shutters, and to my great surprise I saw this wonderful tree and this magnificent field. I departed at once without even seeing the person I was calling on. And yet, when I arrived, I felt lost and depressed, for it seems as though I did not really arrive. I have not reached the tree in the picture or the field I saw through the window. That is a difficult thing, said the bailiff. I have always found servant girls difficult to manage. The wind continued to unroll the azure scroll of the sky. The clouds were very far away now. I could arrest you, the bailiff casually suggested after a long silence, but the man would neither speak nor walk away, as if it were impossible to escape being lost wherever he went. The bailiff looked up at the radiant tree and then at his great fields. I could never grow pricklyash, he confessed. It just would not grow.
The citadel was built into the side of a mountain, a confused, terraced mound of walls and quadrilateral buildings of pale stone and clay that formed a gigantic trapezoid. The endlessly blue sky burned above the sawtoothed peaks of snow. It was a beautiful place filled with the music of celestial bodies, a place of eternal serenity. One day, a richly dressed queen arrived with a train of camels, and was greeted at the lowest gate by the gatekeeper, a beautiful but poorly dressed woman. The wandering queen asked if she could live in the citadel. The gatekeeper replied that all who renounced the world were welcome. The queen asked what the palaces looked like inside. The gatekeeper explained that there were quiet courtyards with acacia and chestnut trees, minimal and solitary cells for sleeping, vast libraries, kilns for the earthenware, refectories, scriptoria, and physic gardens. The queen was not impressed, and felt that the kilns, courtyard, and libraries should be cleared out to make way for menageries, pantries, and theatres. She refused to enter until these changes were made. The gatekeeper shrugged and would have closed the gate, but the queen demanded asylum. The gatekeeper offered asylum on condition that the queen sell her caravan with all of its riches and beasts. This the queen refused to do and decided to seek out a magistrate with a large bodyguard to help her enter the citadel. Leaving her camels, she went out and found not one but several magistrates with bodyguards and an army of curious followers. She bribed, threatened and seduced them all into coming with her to rape the palace. When the queen returned with her contingent, all she found was the idle caravan of bored dromedaries laden with jewels. The empty mountains stared back at her with their radiant and impenetrable questions. The citadel and its palaces had vanished into thin air.