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.
Once upon a time, a traveler came through the village, and stayed for a day, selling beads under a straw parasol out on the roadway. Nobody had ever seen such kindness, heard such tales of wisdom or enjoyed such good company in years. Everyone went out to see him. After he left, everyone lost their beads, forgot the tales and life went on. Some decades later, word came that the traveler had perished in distant mountains. Everyone mourned for days and days. And then at last a great stone monument was built on the roadway, right where the traveler had traded in proverbs and stones.
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.
Only days ago, perhaps even hours, departing from the land of smoke, the wanderer staggered off without a thought of how to find his home. The water he drank along the way was a river falling into bottomless thirst. The roadside ponds of swaying fish refused to carry his reflection. They had told him that the road, stripped of its grass, was a falling down, a slumber like death, a rising and falling of water and wind. The invisible ripples over every curve and turn of the road. There were no white clouds. There were no black pines.