In the great city of the twin seas, where there were ruined temples and soaring cathedrals, stone towers and elegant ships, seagulls and snowfalls, a poor priest went into a tavern. He prayed at the icon in a corner, sat down, and ordered some plum liquor. A man in religious robes but built like a boxer sat down next to him and ordered coffee. The priest saw that his prayer had been answered, and explained to the rogue monk that his sermons repeatedly failed. He pulled out some parchment and handed it to the monk to read. After reading it and drinking his coffee, the monk said, “This is a beautiful, tenderhearted sermon. There is not a harsh word in it. And did you deliver this sermon in a voice of equal kindness and softness?” The young priest nodded, saying: “I believe so.” The monk laughed, stood up, and began to read the sermon, shouting and screaming the golden, honeyed words of the sermon until every patron, prostitute, barmaid and even the innkeeper were on their knees, weeping and crossing themselves, praying for God’s mercy. The young priest understood. They both reassured the guests, bought them a round of coffee, and told them to take communion the following day. Not long after, the young priest ran into the monk again at the market by the wharf, where crates of beautiful silver fish glinted in the winter sun. The priest was beside himself. For a while, things had worked, but one day the lectionary called for brimstone. He pulled out the parchment on which he had written his sermon, and showed it to the monk. The monk read it quickly. “And did you shout and thunder at them?” he asked. The young priest admitted that he had. The monk began to sing gently and sweetly, in the kindest, most heartfelt tones imaginable, the words of the sermon. In a short time, he was surrounded by kneeling sailors, workers, merchants, and captains, drinking in the words of judgment with tears in their eyes. The monk finished, blessed and dismissed the crowd, and bought some fish for his dinner. The young priest was amazed. The last time they encountered each other, the young priest was gently singing in a square below a great tower overlooking the sea. It was not a sermon, however, but a mere announcement of some historical facts, presumably to explain some recent news or proclamation. In seconds, the crowd was upon him, beating him and cutting him up with their swords. The monk was too late and too outnumbered to save the priest, but this did not hinder him from breaking a few crania and backbones. When he got to the dying priest, he tried to wrap up his wounds, but the poor man was quickly expiring. “What have I done wrong this time?” the dying priest gasped. “Nothing,” the rogue monk sighed. “The sheep are broken and the world is wrong.”
Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.
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.
In the monastery, the inquistors found the visiting confessor at a wooden desk in a barren cell, surrounded by books of world history, geography, anthropology and philosophy. In a corona of candlelight they saw the typescripts and manuscripts and his inked hands. What is this calligraphy and typography all about? one of them demanded. I am writing an epistle, the confessor replied. Towhat end? To the ends of the earth! To the world! In the early days, the apostle wrote epistles to the great cities to share his wisdom and his vision of glory. Many centuries of darkness have passed, and there is seemingly no law or good will left on earth. I thought of writing my own epistle to the great cities, to thank them for the good they have done, to praise their monuments and books, to admire their peoples and to wish them well. I would not write such things, said one. The cities do not wish to be praised. It will only make them feel worse—they will see all the more clearly how far and how deep they have fallen into darkness, and they will resent you for it. Another inquisitor agreed, saying, Moreover, such unqualified praise could cause them to ignore their own evil. It would make them feel justified in their pride, animosity and aggression. An epistle like yours would plant the seeds of smoke and famine. A third said that such a fawning epistle would belittle the great cities and trap them in typologies they had no interest in inhabiting or incarnating. It would be a letter of mirages and betrayals. One by one they left the cell. Crushed, the confessor stared at his silent towers of books and felt his brain turn into ice. That night, his heart broke, he suffered a grand epileptic fit, and lost part of his reason. In the days to come, weeping but almost catatonic, he continued to compose his letter in secret to all the invisible cities of the world—cities of damask and morrocco, cities of delftware and china, cities of port and sherry, cities of roman candles and greek fire, cities of rugby and japanning, cities of afghans and astrakhans, cities of the siamese and burmese, cities of landaus and leyden jars, cities of berlins and limousines, cities of homburgs, cities of nankeen, cities of bikinis and chicago screws, cities of mocha, assam, keelung and darjeeling, cities of java and sumatra, cities of turkish and virginia tobacco, cities of lancashires and parchment, cities of indigo and india ink.
Masks of wood, papier-maché and metal glimmered above ornate costumes in black, gold and silver. An orange moon and stars of paper and paint burned in the background scenery, followed by mineral mountains, castles, wastelands, moors dotted with wildflowers, royal blue skies with angelic clouds, coasts like shards of green, blue and colorless glass. Kingdoms divided, cities burned, kings ravished their princesses, beggars philosophized, mechanics invented, merchants whored along endless trade routes, and the weather ate the faces off the actors. One of them stepped forth into the barrage of applause as the curtains tidily hid away the gibbets, and cried out: What did you come to see, the events of history or impassioned monologues? The background scenery or the voices of the actors? The mirror or the mirrored? The treachery of things or the traitors among us? The machinery of the stage or the long hidden playwright? The midnight-black curtain?
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.
On a spring morning, the boxer awoke with a strange case of clairvoyance, or to be more precise, the ability to read minds. As he smoked a cigarette on his porch, a woman walking down the street smiled and bowed, and he sensed how he became part of a poem she was composing in her head. Later, as he strode to the train station, his black jacket triggered an episode of acute anxiety in a man begging for change to buy coffee. The pigeons looked at him in expectation, and the gentleness of their thoughts almost made him stop and abandon his plans for the day. As he inserted coins into a machine at the train station, his tall figure burned in the dark thoughts of a stranger pretending to gaze at the large signboards mapping the train routes and announcing departure times, while his angular jaw and musculature gave the waitress at the coffee shop across the way a warm, unspeakable feeling. Disturbed by wave after wave of passing thoughts and emotions that did not belong to him but included him, the boxer bounded up an escalator and boarded his train. The sounds, whispers, pulses and screams that flooded him on the train left his head throbbing and his body almost lifeless. To a hundred minds crammed in the train car he became a hundred different ghosts, haunting their interior monologues. He began to lose his bearings and forget where he should go. The boxer got off at a stop in his old neighborhood and began to walk down quiet streets, where there were few passersby, heading for the home of his old friend, a beautiful girl with long, dark, red hair. It was not his original destination, but he wanted to see her and feel her thoughts more than anything. The world seemed heavy. He tried to remember as many faces of those whose minds he had read as possible. Lost in such thoughts, he was crossing a street, when he felt the fear and love of someone dear. As he looked up, he briefly saw the truck, the blanched face of his old friend with her dark, red hair through the windshield, and heard the scream of the brakes. Losing consciousness, he hardly felt the broken glass embedded in his skin or her hands on his chest, and he could not read her thoughts anymore. All he wanted was to remember the faces, little bodies and wings of the pigeons he had disappointed.
The moon that night was four-fifths gray and had a tail of two stars. It looked like a little cougar or a leaping cat. It looked like a silver dandelion about to blow its seeds into the galaxy. Or a lamprey. The burning, thin and tilted crescent smiled down from the dark indigo sky, and the traveler got up again, able for the first time in weeks to breathe and walk the stone paths along the shore of an infinite sea.
There was lightning throughout the day, but a clear blue evening followed. The black mountains with snow-bound peaks glowed and loomed larger than possible in the last light. The mysterious stranger in the poncho wandered the high roads skirting the slopes and washes of stone and runoff. Among the boulders he encountered one who was infirm. The stranger sat down next to him, exhausted and unwell. I am not well, he said quietly. That is not possible, said the infirm one. They told me that I am the one who is infirm. Maybe, said the stranger, but I have been sick for many years. Stay with me and we can help each other. No, the infirm one said. You are a liar, perhaps even a thief, and you are not sick; you do not know what it is like, and you cannot help me. I don’t even know where you have come from. The stranger said that he had been in the mines. You do not look like a miner, the infirm one said. You look like an illiterate blacksmith. My ancestors were blacksmiths, the stranger admitted, but I was in the mines. The infirm one shook his head vehemently. His eyes were an abyss to look into, filled with darkness and an indefinable fury. The mountains were also starting to fade into penumbra and silence. I have too many languages, the shadow of the stranger said by firelight. I do not know which one to speak, and I do not know which world this is or what a world is. The infirm one embraced him, and shoved the knife deep into his body. The mysterious stranger bled out alone as the fire died and the mountains vanished.
Where the gray waters brush the silver hair of the sands on the islands of olives and broken walls and bleached statues, the young rhapsodist covered her eyes and wept for the burning city, whose smoke rose into the fading sky. Alone, she walked into the mountains, into the snow and wind, to seek the source of voices and words, for words had been catapults and voices had been spears, as ordained by divine songs. On the summit, naked and cold, she raised her fist and sang to the racing clouds, birds, sun, planets, moon and stars. They revolved in an endless whirlpool of light and darkness, too fast for her to stretch her fingers into their machinery and pluck the strings of their orbits or halt their vibrations. The disembodied voice finally spoke through the blindness of vertigo and despair, asking her what she desired. Stranger, return what is ours. Our tales are to be returned at once, she said. It is through our stories that you have dared to disclose yourself and speak, as we rhapsodists stitched our verses together and plucked the sacred strings. Return our stories to us once and for all! They are ours and not yours. And we shall speak through them, not you! There was a long silence; the whirling lights of heaven seemed to freeze. The disembodied voice agreed to honor her request. The rhapsodist staggered down the mountain, almost sliding and tumbling upon the streams of pebbles and scree, eager to report the good news. When she appeared below, the survivors of the burning city screamed out in fear and ran away, for her body was covered in leprosy, her eyes were as blank and shiny as silver, and her mouth had been sewn shut with stitches of adamant.