The Days of Dust

In the morning, the silent one gathered with the others by the gate, to receive a punishment if there was one to be had and to hear instructions and curses. Throughout the day, the slave repaired the carriage wheels, swept out the stables, and was ever ready to be berated or whipped. When the shadows lengthened, he meditated on the laws and the sawdust and the spikes and wounds and the laughter of the laundress. In the evenings, the stars shimmered above the olives and cypresses as he wandered amongst their cool leaves, whispering to himself and the great world exclusively in gerundives.

The Anthology

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.

The Wizard

It was another difficult day. A worker went into the coffeehouse to get a drink, and then stepped outside with his cup to smoke, settling at a cast iron table with two chairs. He smoked and drank his coffee, watching the trains cross the bridge, watching the buses and passengers come and go. A lunatic was leaping and crouching, leaping and crouching along the curb where the buses pulled up. He was dressed in a fine suit and good patent leather shoes. The only thing that marked him was his pallor, wild eyes, indistinct muttering and manner of walking. Not far behind him came the wizard, who looked like an old friend, gaunt and dark and feline in his black raincoat, carrying a book. The worker loved books and could not resist asking what the book was about when he drew near. It is the very book that just drove that stockbroker insane, the wizard sighed, reluctant to open the book. It is a book full of vertigo, whirlpools, circles and angles, moon phases, starlight, questions relating to questions, landscapes of wheat and milkmaids, bone-dry pine trees, unfinished sentences and abrupt silences, keys and locks, locks without keys and keys without locks, labyrinthine pear orchards, rusted wounds, robotic ghosts, and endless rivers. And then, of course, there were the winters, bears and hurricane lanterns. Would you really wish to be mad? the wizard asked. Why not? the worker laughed. The world has been mad for a long time. The wizard handed him the book, sitting down across from him at the cast iron table. The sun digressed; the shadows murmured. The worker read page after page, sucked into the skull of the words, into the very heart of the sentences that gripped him in a bittersweet trance. After he had closed the book, he thought about what he had read. Will you be going mad? the wizard asked, gesturing like a hesitant cat. The worker lit a cigarette and sighed. It was a blue dusk with a comma of moonlight. Not today, he sighed. I have to ride the 8:20 and then stop by the grocery store to bring home milk and bread for the children. Then there’s some leftover paperwork, washing dishes, and a lightbulb to replace, but thank you for the invitation. The wizard asked for a smoke, and they remained seated and awkwardly silent for a while, just smoking.

The Reader

There was a reader with rare tastes, who found the small sum of books that he wanted to read and reread. After working his first job as a youth, he spent his pay to buy these wonderful books. What little remained he used for food and clothes. Work prevented him from having the time to read. Because of his literacy and erudition, he was hired by a library, and this seemed more conducive to his heart’s desire, but there he had to catalogue books, and still had no time to read his own. By and by, he was hired as a teacher, for it was clear that he had a real gift for words. Now, it seemed he would be able to read what he wished, but now he had to read and teach what the curriculum prescribed, and none of his books were in the canon, and none of the students were in the least bit interested in his books. From there, he moved on to buying a bookstore, supposing that with a better income, he would buy himself some leisure time to read. Again, he was thwarted. None of the customers seemed interested in the books he liked; they seemed more interested in hunting for trifles and recommending the commonest things. Moreover, the government required him to read laws, tax forms and other reports that stole his time and energy. The man grew weak and the bookstore went bankrupt. The man retired to a monastery, where he hoped the silence and peace would afford him a reunion with his books, but the abbot forbade him from having his little collection delivered. In despair, he burned down the monastery, and was sent to prison in exile. In the prison, he lost weight and suffered, but the warden, chaplains and other inmates allowed him to have his small library delivered, to read to his heart’s content, and even to read to them. Although he thought the pleasure of this freedom somewhat limited, somewhat short of the glory that could have been, he accepted his lot, and contemplated his books, wondering if he had chosen the right texts, and if the texts were really the same as they were when they had first shone their dark bold ink and soft, bone-white pages.