An Episode With No Foundation
There’s one kind of guard that can hardly be called a guard. Those who belong to this category do nothing but sit at the foot of the bare mountains, month after month, year after year, until they forget their own existence. In the silence, the sound of a branch can be heard, broken by the wind, knocking against the trunk, one blow after another. I call such people guards. Why? Maybe I’m using the term as an excuse to fill the utter emptiness in my own heart, or maybe I consider it a real explanation.”
“No, there’s nothing that can be named that needs to be guarded. As soon as I open my mouth, I feel superficial and frivolous. Nevertheless, there’s always a mountain behind you, and there’s the resonance of a branch striking. Sitting there, you listen attentively, all alone. This is contradictory to common sense. In the morning, when the sun rises, the world becomes noisy. Yet you sleep in the sunshine, completely oblivious to the surroundings. This is another contradiction of common sense.
“There are always two or three people listening at the feet of different mountains. Nobody is aware of their existence. Even they themselves can’t figure out the puzzle: How did this person arrive at the mountain? How did his person sit down under a tree and never move again? Did anybody look for this person when he or she disappeared from the crowd? Could it be that one of the relatives stamped his foot and discovered certain traces of the person? Does such a disappearance last forever? Is there a possibility of the person’s return?
“I think you are guarding because you have been sitting in the same place without any movement and because you have always heard the sound. Few people have mentioned the significance of such work, but rather have relegated it to the category of insignificant work. Ordinary people would consider it unnecessary. As I happen to know, there’s another person doing the same thing in a place quite a distance from here. He is completely ignorant of your situation, and he has also disappeared from the crowd unintentionally. At one moment, he was bending over to take off his shoes in order to dump out the sand and dirt. All of a sudden, people realized he had disappeared. His family members called his name loudly.
“You should think this way: There exist in this world two people who are listening to the sound of a branch striking the trunk in two different places. These two are very much alike. You may think that I am telling a lie, but your doubt is unimportant. The important thing is that it is a fact—you are listening all the time.”
“I’ve forgotten the details of how I disappeared, and of other things as well. For instance, am I still a youngster or a dying old man? As a result of sitting here for so long, I can’t make such judgments anymore. I only remember vaguely that there was a time when the wind was fairly strong, and that is when the branch was broken. Now the wind has died down, though there is hardly a chance for complete quiet.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been assuming there is someone else doing the same thing somewhere else. Without such an assumption, I would keep silent with the mountain and stop listening to any sound. There is such a possibility. Can an assumption last forever? Would I still be able to hear the monotonous sound of the striking once this assumption disappears?”
“Of course you may call your present condition an illusion. As a matter of fact, the other person has been on guard at his location the whole time. I can see him whenever I want to. He never talks, never makes any sound. Yet he is there. You two who have disappeared will never meet each other. You carry on a silent dialogue through me, you realize each other’s existence through me. Now you should feel satisfied.
“Let me tell you your age—you are neither young nor old. This question doesn’t require consideration, because the physical changes in your body have long been at a standstill.
“Just think, he did nothing but bend over to take off his shoes—such a trivial event. Nobody had anticipated his disappearance. Such things are always somewhat mysterious. If I tell them that he is sitting at a place not very far from where they are, and that a careful search might result in some discovery, they would give me a cold stare and keep silent with their heads bowed low. Among them there was one young fellow who told me once that he really shouldn’t have left. They had many foresters, and there was no need for him to take the job. Besides, guarding a forest was a job suitable only for the elderly, and he was still a youngster.”
“I once admired the forester, one who has a substantial mind and a definite goal. But now I can see how laughable the idea is. There are also fishermen and hunters who are clear-headed, vigilant, and courageous. Do I envy them because I have nothing to guard or kill? I’m doing nothing but sitting at the foot of this bare mountain, addlepated and half asleep. Whenever the moon is covered by the clouds, I can’t even feel my own existence.”
“You are only sitting here. There are two people doing the same thing.
“And I am taking the responsibility of a messenger. Now let me confess to you that I was born a messenger. Just now I’ve told you about the event of his bending down to take off his shoes. You should have made all kinds of associations. I always convey such information to people like you, and sincerely enjoy doing it. Before my arrival, you had only an assumption about the existence of the other person. And you are often doubtful of such assumptions. Now I have proved your assumption. That is my specialty. I have a unique ability—I can see anything if I want. Such an ability is very beneficial in a messenger.”
“If the person who has captured and killed the lion finally becomes the prey of the lion, at the instant of death, what kind of information would be transmitted from deep inside his pupils?”
“Yes, I’ve seen eyes like that—they’re monochromatic, and they are completely different from the eyes of guards like you. When you are listening attentively to the sound of the branch striking, your eyes are simply blazing with colors. It’s a pity that you can’t see the color yourself, a real pity. We always have many things that we feel pity about. It doesn’t matter whether we can make sense of it or not. Just quit making sense. Making sense is too troublesome. You have certainly quit thinking of such troublesome things long ago.”
“I must have been sitting here for a long time, yet I’ve never had one dream! I’ve forgotten how to dream. I tried and tried, but in vain—either I can’t go to sleep at all, or I sleep like a log without any dreams. Why are such things so easy to forget? I would go to sleep while thinking about that branch, hoping the branch would enter my dreamland. But once I fall into sleep, everything turns black. It seems that I am too single-minded—one dark tunnel to the bottom. Now I’m not able to see anything once I fall asleep.”
“Such an ending is unchangeable. Both of you sleep amidst darkness. You look and look but can see nothing. It’s no use to struggle. Some people are so extremely upset that they end their lives early for it. But I can see you are nothing of that kind. You close your eyes in time and fall into sleep.
“It happened that before you arrived here, all the dreams had been dreamed, and you had entered a dreamless territory. Fortunately I can tell you how magnificently colorful the light from your eyes is. It is through me, the messenger, that you have found out that fact. I’ll convey such information to you frequently. It’s my privilege as well as yours. Once you enter the dreamless territory, you have obtained this privilege permanently.
“There are very few pure guards. Once they appear, messengers like me occur with them. Only once in a while does this world produce guards like you and messengers like me. We are rare, and nobody cares for us. Sometimes the world simply stops producing people like us. As a result, the world is flooded with foresters everywhere.”
“I really need the comfort you bring me. The first time I received it, I was totally infatuated with it. But now I’ve gotten used to it, and am not that excited. When I feel idle, I recall the experience you described to me—because it is somewhat strange that eyes can beam out a variety of colors. This reminds me of the old puzzle: Would my eyes keep beaming out that strange light without the existence of you, the messenger? Is it because of the special structure of your eyes that you can receive the information from my eyes? This puzzle has always added a layer of shadow to the comfort I receive.
“Another problem is that my eyes and ears are losing their functions gradually because I sleep during the day. Consequently many colors and shapes and many words are disappearing from my memory. At this moment I am searching carefully. In my mind there appear only two words, ‘mountain’ and ‘tree.’ Yet when I pronounce these two words, the corresponding images do not appear.
“As I’m sitting here, I sometimes work out something completely unfamiliar in my mind. For instance, I imagined that a magnificent gathering was once held right here. Among the participants were numerous strangers. When the gathering ended, people gradually left, some running toward the street for the bus, some taking shortcuts home. The ground was littered with scraps of paper. As for me, it seems that I did attend the gathering, and I stayed on after the meeting. It was just before dawn and dew was about to fall. The last person left on a bicycle. He even rang his bike bell. With my back against a rock, I fell into a confused sleep. Until that point, I hadn’t had a thought about becoming a guard. I only felt tired and needed to rest by the rock. I was confident that I would go home eventually. I even determined the direction I would be heading. But afterward I felt apathetic about returning home.
“I also imagined that on the path to the country I met a man in a dark green robe. I brushed his shoulder as we passed each other. I couldn’t help turning to look back—only to find that he was walking hurriedly. Consequently, I hastened my pace in the opposite direction. That was how I arrived at the foot of this mountain. He could have been the person you mentioned, or he might not be that man at all. During the first few days after my arrival, I could vaguely recognize the path that had led me here, because I had made signs at every bend and fork. But now that path no longer exists.”
“I’m the only one who knows exactly how you disappeared. But I’ll never tell you. I can only tell it to the other person, the one who is sitting at the foot of the mountain, as you are. And I can only tell you about him, but not the person himself. The distance between you two is somewhat wide, so wide that you will never be able to meet. Thus the stories of your own disappearances will remain secrets from each of you. Therefore, you will continue using your imagination to pass the endless time.
“If you like, you may consider me as a bird flying between you and the other person. You will imagine forever. Both of you have once lived among crowds of people, and therefore both have learned about logic and imagination. The game is pretty simple, yet effective. But I’m only an observer. In the shadows of the mountain, the eternal light is pulsating. And I have become the only witness of the spectacle.
“Your ears are just suitable for listening to that sound; your eyes started shining as soon as you arrived here. As a result, you’ve forgotten the past. However, I remember everything, but I’m not going to tell you. No matter if you ask me or not, I’ll tell you some anecdotes about the other person; for one example, how he bent to pour the sand and dirt out of his shoes, and how he disappeared right after that. For another example, he seems to have a brother who left home with him that day. After the disappearance, the young man’s shrill voice stood our amidst those calling for the vanished one. However, the person who disappeared did not hear anything. He walked very fast. What he did could be described either as duty-bound and regret-free, or as hasty action. At the corner, he kicked off his shoes. Barefooted he arrived at the foot of the mountain, and fell down in a sleep.”
This imaginary dialogue could probably go on forever. But if you watch the two speakers carefully, you will realize that their lips have never moved. The dialogue recorded above is merely an episode that the author has written down without any foundation. Many things can never be decided, and many people’s lives have been wasted in trying to solve unresolvable puzzles. But the mountain remains silent.
As for those people who have voluntarily disappeared, what have they been thinking? It seems nobody will ever know, and the author can only imagine, on and on.
Why didn’t anybody at that kind of grand gathering near the river notice that a person was about to disappear forever? I have heard that such occurrences happen very rarely, yet the relatives of the vanished person never search for long. They gather at the riverbank and call out loudly until exhausted and then return home the very next dawn. The second night, they call at the riverbank again. But the number shrinks sharply and only a few show up. After the third day, nobody goes back to the riverbank, but instead everybody discusses the odd event at home. By the turn of the new year, nobody raises the issue anymore, as if everybody had agreed beforehand to fall silent. The clothing of the vanished person would still be kept in the wardrobe. His bowl and chopsticks would still be placed on the table at mealtime. The family members would pretend that he still lived with them in the house.
I once visited the relative of a vanished person. This relative was a tragic character with long hair and beard and an expressionless face. Yet his hands were restless with anxiety. One after another, he tore the buttons off his jacket. He repeated, “It was completely unnecessary to take such extreme action.” His tone sounded quite superficial. I asked him to talk about what happened that night. “I bid him goodnight, not having the faintest idea that he would leave. Isn’t that funny?” That was all he could remember.
I strolled to the riverbank and looked around. I found a horse galloping against the wind, and the dead rider had a secretive expression on his face.