The Bright Fables

Updates some Fridays.

Table of Contents

1 The Architect and the driver

One day, the Architect was taking a hired ride into town on official business. The driver and the Architect began chatting about the beautiful day and the surrounding scenery.

First, they passed a family who were sending their child away from home for the first time. Seeing their bittersweet tears, the driver commented, "Isn't that lovely? Childhood is such a precious thing because it is fleeting."

Next, they passed a building where people were gathered for a funeral. "Ah," sighed the driver. "Death reminds you to be good to each other while you can. Life is such a precious thing because it is fleeting."

The Architect thought about this, and for a time they sat in silence. Suddenly, the driver swerved and nearly upended the vehicle. A vehicular accident had taken up much of the road, besides which seeing the injured bodies strewn around in mortal peril had disturbed the driver greatly. "How awful!" exclaimed the driver.

The Architect concluded, "One fleeting thing is not like another; Death seems romantic in the abstract, but is forever ugly in its particulars."

2 The giant and the caterpillars

One day, a cruel and heartless giant kidnapped three caterpillars and imprisoned them in a jar. After trying in vain to escape, the caterpillars discovered that the lid was sealed tight and they would soon run out of air. Accordingly, they began to deliberate about what to do next.

The first one said, "With the air we have left, one of us can live for three days. To be fair, let us draw straws to see which one of us should live."

The second one said, "On the contrary, the fair solution is for each of us to get our fair share of air. We should each take a turn breathing for a single day while the rest of us hold our breaths."

The third one said, "In truth, we lack fairness as we lack air. To be fair, shouldn't we breathe freely as we like, unencumbered by giants and jars? Shouldn't we be able to live and become butterflies?"

Moral: In desperate times, what passes for justice may not be truly just.

3 The Architect and the Nightingale

This is the story of one of the most beloved devices the Architect ever brought back from the Valley of Found Things. It was an ornate many-sided silver cage, overflowing with incomprehensible machinery. When you held it in your hand and turned a crank, it would ring with a simple melody as if it had bells on the inside.

Although the Architect's many friends and neighbors were not especially impressed, the Architect loved the device's music and spent many nights studying it to see how it worked. Occasionally, the device would snag or screech — but each time, the Architect had learned just the trick to make it run smoothly again.

Over time, in fact, the device — which the delighted Architect had named the Nightingale — began to bubble with gradually more complicated music. What was originally one voice became several, beautifully interwoven, and somehow each tune was different from the all the ones before it.

There came a sad day, however, when the Architect turned the crank and the device could barely move. The music still came out as beautifully as ever, but with considerable mechanical resistance. Distraught, the Architect tried every trick to restore the device to its original functionality. At that time, however, there were still many, many things the Architect did not know about how the Nightingale made its music. Over the next few days, the machine grew stiffer and stiffer, and eventually ceased to move at all. The house became silent.

The Architect mourned the loss of that precious device. The Architect's friends and neighbors, who loved the Architect if not the device, all went out of their way to pay a visit to offer their condolences and support.

One said, "Everything breaks eventually."

And the Architect replied, "I have struggled to learn many ways to fix the device each time it has broken. Only ignorance prevents me from fixing the device today."

Another said, "You are always bringing back new devices from the Valley—what a relief to break this one! You would run out of room in your workshop soon, otherwise."

And the Architect replied, "In that case, I would build a larger workshop, not destroy my treasures."

A third said, "Now you can use the parts of the device to make something better! How selfish of the device to keep those parts from being used for something else."

And the Architect replied, "The value of a painting is not just the value of paint and hard work."

A fourth said, "At least you have the joy of having experienced the device, and you can delight yourself with many memories."

And the Architect replied, "Memory is a pale imitation of creation. What I loved was a way of life: to tend to the device and to hear new music I could never dream of."

And so despite the best efforts of friends and neighors, the Architect proved inconsolable, for truly something precious had been lost that day. Although the Architect stopped speaking about the device from then on, the Nightingale still sits silently on the Architect's shelf. From time to time, the Architect will take it off the shelf and study it as before, learning just one more thing about how it operates. Perhaps the Architect will one day hear its music again.

4 The thrush finds its voice

It so happened that a curious young thrush fell into an inkwell and had its beautiful tan plumage stained deep blue all over in its hurry to escape. To make matters worse, when the ink dried and the thrush flew home, not one of the thrush's friends could tell who it was!

When the thrush invited the squirrel to go play in the woods, the squirrel chattered, "Our friend is spending today exploring the cottage nearby — but how can you be the same person if you're here and the thrush is there! I will not go play in the woods with you."

When the thrush invited the frog to go look at the clouds, the frog bellowed, "What a strange creature! You're shaped like a bird — but can you really be a bird if you're such a blue color? I will not go look at the clouds with you."

When the thrush invited the heron to count the dandelions, the heron proclaimed, "Even if I believe you were our friend before, you are very different and anxious now. I will not go count the dandelions with you."

At this, the poor thrush became so upset it began to cry a sad song: "Oh, terrible day! — if I am not friends with the squirrel, the frog, or the heron — if I am not playing in the woods, or looking at the clouds, or counting the dandelions — then I am not sure who I am, for the person I know does all these things."

But what a surprise! When the squirrel, the frog, and the heron heard this pitiable song and those words filled with such familiar affection, they realized their mistake at once and hurried over to make amends.

"How foolish we were," they chorused. "To miss such a large heart behind such small differences. We will play in the woods with you. We will look at the clouds with you. We will count the dandelions with you. You are our dearly beloved friend."

And they did all of those things that day. Before long, in fact, word spread throughout the land that the young thrush looked rather smart indeed in that brand new blue color.

Moral: The ties that unite us make us who we are.

5 The rabbit and the flame

Each day when the sky became dark, the Architect would light a candle. And each night when it was time for sleep, the Architect would put out the candle. The rabbit who lived with the Architect often watched with fascination as the flame formed and as it went out.

One of those nights, while the flame sat flickering on the wick, the rabbit timidly approached the flame and said: "Once a day, the Architect lights a candle, and once a day the Architect extinguishes it. I wanted to ask you — are you the same flame each night?"

The flame glimmered for a moment, then slowly replied "If that question has any answer at all, it very much depends on what you will do with it."

At that moment, the rabbit was enlightened.

6 The glass child's new game

While walking through the Valley of Found Things one day, the Architect met a child made of glass. The glass child was quite cheerful, and gladly accepted an invitation to return to town and frolic with the children playing there, much to their mutual amusement.

First, the children wanted to chase each other to show their new friend their favorite game. The glass child said "Instead, let's hide first so that someone has find us before we get chased."

One of the children retorted, "We shouldn't play a game like that—we always play it the regular way." Although many of the children agreed with this reasoning, the glass child was their new friend and so they eventually decided to try this new game for a little bit. As it turned out, they spent the rest of the afternoon playing hide-and-go-seek and having the time of their lives!

That evening, when the sun had set and the children were tired from a long day, they returned to find that their families had built an enormous bonfire. Excitedly, they began to show the glass child how to skip in proper circles around it. The glass child suggested it would be more fun to jump through the fire rather than around it. One of the children retorted, "We shouldn't play a game like that — we always play it the regular way." Although many of the children agreed with this reasoning, the glass child was their new friend and so they eventually decided to try this new game for a little bit.

The glass child took the first turn and leapt through the flames! If the glass child were made of flesh and bones, a very serious thing would have happened next. As it happened, the glass child simply felt itchy all over and announced that it would be better for everyone to play the game the regular way—and so they did.

Moral: Traditions may bring good or ill.

7 The cicada's exuvia

One day, the red dragonfly went to visit the cicada, a dear friend who lived nearby. When the red dragonfly arrived at the cicada's treehouse, however, the cicada was in a most unusual predicament!

Instead of crawling all over the place with enthusiastic greetings, the cicada was hanging upside down from a twig and was very, very still. The dragonfly waited politely for a few moments before calling out, "Hallo! I hope I'm not disturbing your rest—I thought I would drop by for a visit."

"RED DRAGONFLY IS THAT YOU" said an unusual voice from the top of the tree. A shimmering winged insect emerged from the highest branches and descended to where the dragonfly and cicada were just beginning their conversation.

"Er," said the red dragonfly. "Excuse me, I don't think we've met."


"Pardon me, friend, but this is the cicada." the red dragonfly said, indicating the shape hanging very, very still from a twig.


"How can this be? You don't look like the cicada."


"And, well, you don't sound like the cicada—"


The red dragonfly looked uncertainly from creature hovering in the air nearby to the creature hanging on the twig. The husk did not make a sound.


At this, the red dragonfly smiled brightly, for that was what the cicada always said when the red dragonfly came to visit.

"You don't look or sound like the cicada—but somehow I'm beginning to think that you are the cicada. Tell me how did this happen?"

And the cicada—for that is indeed exactly who the winged creature was—began preparing brunch and explained to the red dragonfly what had happened.

Moral: A real friend in any shape is better than a false one in a perfect shape.

8 The rabbit and two flames

As you may know, the Architect did not live alone, but instead shared a home with a young rabbit. One evening while the Architect was tinkering in the workshop, the rabbit appeared and asked for a little more candelight to read by.

Obligingly, the Architect took an unlit candle and pressed its wick against the candle cheerfully flickering at the workbench. When the two candles separated, both were alight!

The rabbit was mesmerized by this trick. After bringing the second candle to the reading nook, the rabbit wriggled its nose and asked the flame,

"Before you were one flame, and now you are two! How do you tell which flame is the original?"

In response, the flame grew quite hot and bright and the rabbit had to hop back to avoid singed whiskers. "For sure, you saw the candle that was my first home," explained the flame. "But all flames bring heat and light in the same way."

At that moment, the rabbit was enlightened.

9 The bee and the butterfly settle a difference.

A bee was once enjoying the nectar of a flower when suddenly the bee felt a strange tickling sensation. After some exploration, the bee found a butterfly clinging to the outside of the flower, just where the stem met the petals! As the bee watched, the butterfly's long tongue would delicately protrude through the petals and flail around until it struck nectar—or, apparently, a bee's face.

"Hello, friend!" said the butterfly after spotting the bee in the vicinity. "I thought I heard you stomping around inside this flower. What are you doing there?"

"Well, I was after my morning drink of nectar" replied the bee.

"How lovely—so was I!" said the butterfly warmly. "Have you ever tried drinking nectar from the underside of the flower? It has a more tantalizing flavor that way."

"I can't say that I have," said the bee with some good humor. "I have always drunk nectar from the inside of the flower. It's the natural way of doing things, after all."

"Oh but you should try it!" said the butterfly. "And on the contrary; drinking nectar from the underside of the flower is actually more natural; my family has been passing down the tradition for ages."

"To share a tradition is to become part of a family." proclaimed the bee. "I shall have to try it with you, then. After all: What are natural methods but the old ways we like best? "

10 The flowers and the coral snake

There was once a coral snake who was quite fond of flowers. In fact, the coral snake's house was surrounded by them, and the coral snake would periodically invite different groups of flowers to stay in the house as well.

One fine autumn day, the Architect came over to have tea with the coral snake and several chrysanthemums. Because the stove had been burning all morning, the house had become rather warm, and so the coral snake decided to open a window.

Soon after, however, a chilly breeze arose, sweeping into the house. The chrysanthemums—who were rather sensitive—began to shiver uncomfortably and make displeased sounds. "How inconsiderate of me!" exclaimed the the coral snake, slithering out of the room and returning with a large pile of translucent quilts. As soon as the chrysanthemums were ensconced in one of the quilts, they became immediately soothed and resumed their conversation. The coral snake listened amiably.

Through the still-open window, however, a strange keening sound continued. The coral snake thought nothing of it, but the Architect immediately gathered up the pile of remaining quilts and hurried out of the front door.

"What are you doing?" inquired the coral snake, following curiously behind. Outside, the brisk autumn wind still buffeted the walls of the house, and there—planted throughout the sprawling lawn—squirmed dozens of flowers in familiar distress.

Carefully, and with the coral snake's assistance, the Architect distributed quilts across the lawn until every last patch of flowers was covered and a collective hum replaced the keening sound.

When they had finished, the Architect turned to the coral snake and said "It is good to fix what you have made wrong in your own home. But remember: even those outside your home and those you've never harmed deserve your same kindness. "

11 The Architect opens the door


"What a marvelous doorbell," said the wombat, who had just arrived in town and had never seen the Architect's house before. Hanging on a cord next to the Architect's doorframe were two exquisitely polished bells: a gold bell on a white cord and a silver bell on a black cord.

The hedgehog, who was introducing the wombat to the neighborhood in general and the Architect in particular, wheeled itself forward and tugged the black cord. "Welcome!" trilled the silver bell to the two of them, adding "Thank you very much!" to the wombat in particular.

Inside the house, there followed the gentle sound of other bells chiming — carrying a message to the Architect that visitors had arrived. As they waited, the wombat tugged on the white cord. Although the gold bell swayed back and forth, it made no sound.

Soon—undoubtably somewhere far inside the house—the Architect had heard there were visitors and came to welcome whoever it was. "Why, hello," said the Architect to the wombat and the hedgehog.

"Hello!" said the hedgehog. "This is the wombat, who has just arrived here. We are touring the neighborhood today."

"I was just admiring your doorbell" said the wombat. "But I noticed that the gold bell doesn't ring—perhaps you will want to get a new one, soon."

"In fact," smiled the Architect, "There is a nice story about that. You see, the silver bell rings, and the gold bell listens."

"A bell that listens?" asked the wombat.

"Yes." said the Architect. "The gold bell and I started working together a very long time ago. I liked how the gold bell would dazzle visitors with chimes and conversation, and the gold bell liked how I would play music at the front door in the evenings. It worked quite well, and we have been steadfast friends ever since."

"What about now? It seems like the gold bell isn't doing any of that." pressed the wombat.

"Well, lately, the gold bell prefers to observe the music of others rather than occupy the limelight. There is a lot of peace in observing people passing by and the trees blowing in the wind—so, for now, the gold bell listens, and the silver bell rings. The gold bell chooses to talk only very rarely these days — but perhaps if you come to visit every so often, you will hear the story firsthand. Both the gold bell and the silver bell know many good stories."

"It's somehow very strange but also very lovely," remarked the wombat. "When you tell me why you have a doorbell that does not ring, and why you would not replace it with another."

"It's a simple matter," explained the Architect. "The bells do not need to pay for love by looking a special way or performing dazzling feats; I am just glad that they have found a way to flourish and to tell their stories."

With that, the Architect led the hedgehog and the wombat into the house, where they spent the first of many wonderful afternoons.

Moral: Productivity is not the measure of worth.

12 The jellyfish goes free

"I'm glad you're feeling better", remarked the Architect while navigating the winding, sprawling roads. "Let me know if I can make you more comfortable."

"You're very kind to give me a ride home", murmured the jellyfish, whose temporary home was a sort of bell jar held securely in place.

"—and to let me join you!" added the housefly, preening on the side of the jar. "I've never met a jellyfish before. What is your life like?"

The Architect smiled gently as the jellyfish drifted lazily in the jar. A small device circulated water ever so slowly throughout the jar's interior. "It is like many different things.", explained the jellyfish. "When we are young polyps, we stay in one place so as to deeply understand our surroundings. Then, when we are older, we travel and explore as medusas so as to see the breadth of the world."

"I bet becoming a medusa would let you see many interesting things," said the housefly.

"Wonderful things!" enthused the jellyfish. "And from time to time, we become polyps again and contemplate the world that way. It's a delightfully refreshing perspective."

"Oh, you have to be a polyp again?" cooed the housefly sympathetically.

"Many of us enjoy it, but jellyfish can switch or keep their forms at will. Sometimes we become ill—" the jellyfish ruefully indicated itself, "— but I'm told that otherwise, we never stop this cycle of life."

"It seems like that would become very dull for you," said the housefly with some concern. "Does anything feel fun and worthwhile when you know you'll never run out of time? It must lose its novelty so quickly."

At that very moment, it turned out, the Architect found their destination and was slowing their vehicle to a stop. "Let me show you something," said the Architect to the housefly, lifting the bell jar from its seat. The wind arose, full of brine and the rumblings of the sea. The three of them made their way carefully down to where the waves washed along the shoreline. Gently, the Architect unlatched the bell jar and poured the contents — jellyfish and all — into the warm, lapping waters. At once, the jellyfish unfurled with delight, thanking the Architect again for being hospitable and the housefly for conversation—then the waves came to carry the jellyfish to a new adventure.

"You see," said the Architect to the housefly as they stared out at the surf. "The ocean has a kind of limitlessness, too: you can swim through its currents forever yet always find something strange and lovely and new beyond the horizon. In contrast, in a tide pool — or a jar — there is much less to see and do, and the limits are always in sight. An aquarium can be useful if you need it—but a jar does not give the sea its savor."


13 The three gifts of Silence

[Note: This story is not appropriate for bedtime.]

There was once a place where everyone could speak freely, and they did: When they were happy, they said so. When they were sad, they said so. When they were angry, they said so. And, of course, when they didn't have anything to say, they were content to be quiet. Things were not perfect, nor was everyone always kind and respectful. But in such a small town where you grow up knowing your neighbors' children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on, harmony is a virtue of great importance.

One day, Silence came down the long road from the mountains into the center of town. Silence was angry, and said so. "I can hear too many unpleasant things," said Silence. "Some people are telling lies. Some people are spreading outdated ideas. Some people are using their words to be cruel." Now the townsfolk thought about Silence's pronouncement. Each one could think of someone else who had misused words in such a way, and so each one agreed that Silence was saying something important.

"Words are precious!" insisted Silence. "We should treat them with care. We should use words to spread love. We should use words to spread art. We should not waste them as we do." The crowd cheered. When Silence called for their opinion, most voiced agreement, and only a few disagreed. Thus satisfied, Silence waved a wreath of roses over the crowd. In so doing, Silence gave the gift of Conservation to their welcoming hearts. Then Silence rode back up to the mountains.

The next day, everyone felt a strange space within themselves. It was as if their words now were drawn from a deep well: if a person spoke about culture and love and joyful things, that person found that it was not too difficult to pull the words up. But if a person gossiped idly about the weather, or complained of being angry or sad, that person felt as if the well were drying up and the rope were beginning to weaken. In this way, the townsfolk felt as if Silence were helping them to choose their words mindfully. And as promised, the idle chatter and complaining soon vanished.

To be sure, some people felt that Silence's gift was burdensome. But as humble good folk, they did not consider their own habits of speaking to be so important, and so made peace with it. Others found it quite easy to adapt, for they were unused to using their words at all. And in fact, most people were delighted and relieved by the change, for they noticed how much their neighbors had stopped complaining and gossiping and insulting each other, and felt that their own carefully-chosen words had become more valuable. In fact, they were so pleased that after a few short months, a few of them summoned Silence from the mountain to visit the town again.

"Silence," they implored. "Now we speak joyfully. But the powerful can speak more, and can easily perpetuate their outmoded ideas."

Silence nodded in agreement. "Equality is paramount," pronounced Silence. "Meek words should be heard, and tyrants should learn stillness."

Many in the crowd exulted at these words. A few were dubious, and they struggled to find words to say so. But when Silence called for their opinion, there were several cheers, and only a few audible protests. Thus satisfied, Silence waved incense of sandalwood over the crowd. In so doing, Silence gave the gift of Rejuvenation to their welcoming hearts. Then Silence rode back up to the mountains.

The next day, many of the townsfolk felt a strange unwellness about themselves. Famous orators and politicians and philosophers who had been speaking for centuries suddenly felt their voices seize up in parched mouths. Throughout the town, these symptoms affected many, although some were gravely unwell and some seemed as good as new: children who had not yet learned to speak seemed entirely unaffected. Relatively inexperienced speakers simply felt tired and dry-mouthed. Well-worn speakers, however, felt dreadful all over: they felt tired and ill. Their bones pained them. Their eyes felt runny and unclear. Their minds felt threadbare. Most strikingly — and most curiously of all — the best and most beloved speakers in town were not merely ill. No, indeed — they seemed to have been swallowed up by the night, with nothing left behind.

In this way, the townspeople felt as if Silence were helping them to winnow old ideas from their town and help the freshest ideas to spread. After all, when the powerful orators could hardly get out of bed, the din of hoary ideas was replaced with a wellspring of newer ones. The town sparkled with youthful energy, made even more visible by the dwindling number of orators who spoke clearly and well.

Years passed then. The unwellness lingered and in fact worsened — for its victims, left untreated, wasted away. And indeed its victims were untreated, although they were dealt with kindly enough. Everyone understood that individual unwellness was the price of collective Rejuvenation. No one felt selfish enough to renege on the contract that, after all, bound them all equally.

So it went. Those who were once young children learned to speak and began to use up their limited share of words. Those well-established upstarts who had energized the town with new ideas soon depleted their youthful energy, ran out of public favor and — as they all did, eventually — vanished one night without a trace.

It took quite a long time — for words had become scarce and meager by that time, and more people vanished day by day — before a few people gathered to question this system. Why, (they thought to themselves), should it matter what number of words we speak? Shouldn't it instead matter how much novelty we contribute? Wouldn't that be a fairer measure for distributing our pains and our pestillence?

And so they summoned Silence a third time from the mountain. "Give us fairness," they asked. The center of town was nearly empty as they said so. The townsfolk looked at Silence as one, their crowd much diminished from before. A few bedridden souls looked out at the town square from their windows; who knows what they were thinking?

The wind grew still, and for a long time there was no sound. "Very well." said Silence at last. At that moment, a shadow moved over the town as if a great cloud had obscured the sun. All was darker than darkest midnight for a time. When the sun shone again, Silence had vanished entirely. It was in this way that the gift of Impartiality was bestowed.

From that day forward, the town was never again recovered. For people felt their words were drawn from a well, as before. And as they used up their words, the people became frailer and frailer, then vanished, as before. But they discovered a new horror for those who were too young to speak or those who had given up speaking — indeed, from time to time, even those wordless souls were swallowed up by the night. Thus the townsfolk discovered the meaning of Silence's Impartiality: that without rhyme or reason or law, any person could be plucked from this existence, never to return. The town wept silently for a place where once everyone could speak freely and did. For although they still desired a world without cruelty and lies, they learned that some roads to that world exact an unbearable toll.

As for what became of the town — dear child of Sol, I cannot yet say. For indeed, this town is your town, and this story is your story, and its ending — and the fate of that scoundrel, the fugitive Silence — is your ending to write.

Conservation. Rejuvenation. Impartiality. || Finiteness. Degeneration. Senselessness.

14 No fear

One morning, while the Teacher was tending the everlasting flame, a student from another school came to visit.

"Teacher," said the student, "You train students to become relentless warriors for Life's cause. But at our school, we practice living our days happily, without being overshadowed by fear of our doom. Isn't that the truest victory over death?"

The Teacher contemplatively stoked the flames in silence. Then the Teacher quickly turned on the student, brandished the fire iron, and shouted "Kaa!" while thrusting the iron forward.

The student stumbled backward with a shout of panic as the plume of cinders encroached and dissipated. Calmly, the Teacher resumed stoking the flames.

"What you do not fear," said the Teacher, "is your own ignorance of when and how. But beneath the shadow of self-absorbed ignorance, the wickedness of the whole world can hide."

At that moment, the student was enlightened.

15 The lesson of loss

It so happened that the Teacher was touring the arboretum with a new student. As they walked and looked upon the ancient trees, the student spoke: "Teacher, if people do not lose their lives, how can life have any value?"

In response, the Teacher removed a wrap of cloth and tied it in a sash around the student's eyes. In this way, the student's view was obscured completely. They walked this way for quite some time until they reached the end of the path. At that moment, the Teacher removed the sash, revealing a grand and ancient tree.

"For some, the beauty of sight is forgotten while it lasts, and remembered only when it is taken away," said the Teacher. "And yet the beauty is always there, ready to be grasped. Behold it!"

At that moment, the student was enlightened—for indeed, what nature shows through loss, we may instead learn from a teacher's gentle suggestion.

16 The Teacher and the campfire

On one memorable occasion, several students joined the Teacher on a journey into the nearby mountains. As a cool and misty evening fell, they sat around the crackling campfire, talking and laughing as they threw vegetables into a cauldron and waited for their stew to cook. Soon, the conversation turned to the nature of survival. "Surely survival is important," said one student. "But you can survive in many ways without being alive. For example, you can survive through your creations, or through your children, or through the memories of those who knew you."

The Teacher, who had been tending the fire, suddenly stood up. "A blazing fire has such power," remarked the Teacher. "It can warm us and feed us and illuminate us. For however long as we sustain it, it has a thousand ways to sustain us." Then with a reckless expression, the Teacher kicked a heap of dirt onto the blaze, smothering it instantly. In the resulting darkness, the Teacher recited:

When the fire is gone, the light ends just there.

The Teacher reached down to touch the dirt.

Nearby, the warmth remains — forgotten by tomorrow.

The Teacher grabbed a ladle and stirred the still-warm stew.

Above, these last creations cool irreversibly — nor can anything new be made.

The Teacher offered the students the lukewarm ladle to examine.

Springing forth are the offspring; their warmth a shadow, their shape strange.

A frigid wind blew through the group, chilling them and making them huddle close against themselves.

As the cold night gathers, we may remember with all our might,
But never has the memory of fire ignited an engine.

With that, the Teacher did something inscrutable to the pile of dirt-covered kindling which then roared back to life. The area seethed fiercely with heat and light, banishing the cold, and illuminating the Teacher's gleaming smile. "All the power of fire is in living, breathing, sustaining. A living flames furnishes endless utility; its legacy furnishes none."

At that moment, the students were enlightened. Soon after, they were enjoying their stew with great enthusiasm—and great care, for indeed the fire had made it quite hot.

17 The Sea of Lost Things

Scarlet the sun through the spume and warm waters,
The tide and the tithing of the Sea of Lost Things.
Mark here the mouth to which every stream empties;
Mark here the mud rich with wealth from its waves!

Here are the children, cheerfully scouring
The shoreline and shallows for treasures returned,
For nothing is lost that can't be uncovered,
Dredged from the depths of the Sea of Lost Things—

Yesterday's thoughts once-forgotten spill forth
By twinkling toys on the sunlit strand
In its lowness lurk buildings reconjured from ruin,
And fire-gnawed books gleam anew in the gloom.

Lower and lower through the lightless abyss
Sink derelict duties and dreams full of dust
Drifting yet deeper through bottomless blackness
Where kingdoms and soulmates and languages rust.

Tide-rich the town on its silvery shore
Hopeful its clans, yet heavy with yearning
For the tide-loosened treasures leave mountains unfound —
Heartaches yet hidden by the hungering void.

Enough! A minister's mandate sends scouts
White-garbed to the waves; they board their boats,
Their lifelines let out for relics unrescued:
The dear and destroyed, disavowed, and the dead.

Heavy the haul they heave with their nets!
The trove of the shallows laid bare on their boards:
Misplaced mementos—and lives newly-lost,
Waterlogged wretches from witch-sleep awakened.

Happy are many; hearts mended whole
As broken bonds awaken anew,
Yet many are mute —their loves linger still
Buried in brine in the Sea of Lost Things.

"Again," the great-hearted commander calls,
"Let's delve yet deeper through dim and through dark.
With hearts left ashore, our work is not wanting;
Let's empty the endless expanse of the Sea."

Great the gold spent on new-fashioned fleets
And depth-enduring waterproof wearings!
Long do they labor, soon setting sail
To bring back the bounty, beloved, bereft.

Windswept waves, the darkening deeps,
The churn and the chill of the Sea of Lost Things;
Caught in the currents, the seafarers struggle
To snare the poor souls from the blind abyss.

Here are the heroes, homebound-heading,
Twice triumphant, but wearily worn:
A costly catch—they paid a price
In saviors stolen in slews by the Sea.

Mirthful meetings abound in the bay,
Festive folk in sublime celebration,
But gloomy grief like a cloud coalesces;
Beholding these burdens, the minister muses.

"With reachless riches, we'd redeem the rest,
But the furthest fathoms outmatch our might;
We could spend all our savings, lose all our lives,
Yet fail to fulfill that task today.

Thus, let us lay out a limit in law,
Lest we bear a burden that bankrupts our hearts:
In light, all may gather the gifts of the Sea,
But what sinks into shadow where depths grow dim
From sunlight asunder, is sundered from us."

And so this concession cleaved night from day;
They cut their loss and reined their reach.
They caught what they could in the shining shallows;
What fell into darkness they deemed gone for good.

The effect of enacting this pragmatic plan
(Indeed, its wise words protected their peace)
Was subtle, and showed only ages after
When children of children raised with this rule
Mistook the mandate as nature's law.

For they sneered when two siblings departed at dawn
In a clever craft that would plunge the pair
Into the dusk where the scarlet sun dwindles
And buildings resurface, reconjured from ruin.

The townsfolk, all scolding, scornful, or scared—
Stood on the shoreline and sought them to stay,
Not for the risk — which was real but arranged for—
But for the claim — unaccountable, false —
That fate was foregone past that final frontier
With a sun-etched border that can't be uncrossed.

Still the siblings set sail, they went to the waves,
And there are no tales to tell if they triumphed
But writ on their raft in that misty morning
Was a message that all know the tune of today:

A law may divide the dark from the light,
But the shapeless Sea knows it not;

What treasures today are sunk beyond saving,
We take with the tools of tomorrow.

18 The well-wishers

One fine summer morning, the Architect was making baklava in the kitchen. Naturally, the windows were thrown open to let in the summer air, and many of the honeybees that lived in the fields nearby had come by to watch. With the Architect's permission, they sniffed the syrup as it boiled in the pan; they romped gently across the phyllo dough as the Architect rolled it flat; they sampled the crumbled walnuts.

After the Architect had baked the baklava in the oven and let it cool on the countertop, the Architect was ready for the final step, and carefully poured syrup over the top. One of the eager honeybees landed on the edge of the pan and gently licked this final result.

"Oh!" said the honeybee on the pan. "It is not quite sweet enough."

"It's not quite sweet enough?" asked the Architect.

"Not sweet enough?" echoed a bee by the windowsill.

"Maybe you could add honey to it." suggested the honeybee on the pan.

"The Architect says the baklava isn't sweet enough!" announced the honeybees in the meadow.

"Maybe we could bring honey to fix it," said the honeybees in the hive.

"It seems fine to me," said the Architect, licking a finger. "But perhaps we would all enjoy it more if it were a little sweeter."

"Bring honey to fix it!" cheered the brigade of bees bursting from the hive.

"Hooray!" cheered the bees in the meadow.

"What is that sound?" asked the Architect, turning toward the window.

A deafening buzz filled the room as a swarm of dozens upon dozens of bees pushed its way into the kitchen, each bee contributing a dollop of honey to the baklava pan which, like the surrounding countertop, quickly grew thick with golden goo. As the bees cheered and enthused and rocketed around the room, the Architect adopted a bemused expression, clearing a direct path from the window to the pan of baklava and gently rescuing the bee on the edge of the pan.

As quickly as the swarm had arrived, it subsided; the newly-arrived bees said goodbye and returned to their daily work.

"My goodness," said the Architect, smiling and surveying the result. "I'll bet that everyone in the hive will find this the most delicious dessert of all." The Architect began carving long strips into the baklava as the bee from the pan preened thoughtfully.

"Perhaps," said the bee bashfully, "It would have been better if just a few bees had helped."

"It's good to be mindful," said the Architect, "because what is helpful from one may be harmful from many. But in this case, I think we have simply discovered a new possibility to share with our friends."

And the Architect finished cutting the baklava, savored a piece, and carried the pan outdoors through the fields. Followed by several who had watched and several who had helped, the Architect ambled toward the spot where a beehive buzzed gently in the shade.

19 Simulation

Many people once believed that because outer space is mostly empty, it cannot have a smell. This, as any astronaut can tell you, is generally false: just as you can see what elements a fire is burning by examining its spectra, you can smell how large and bright a star is by sampling its heliosphere. Every star has its own particular fragrance, in fact, and the visitor who had just arrived at the Architect's front door trailed a wake of that strange hydrocarbonic mix of diesel fuel and burning metal which is characteristic of the star Sol.

Next to the door, there hung two bells on different-colored strings. "Life's greeting," chimed the doorbells in recognition as the shadow fell across the entryway.

"Life's greeting," replied the visitor smoothly.

The front door opened and the Architect stepped out onto the porch.

"Architect," said the visitor.

The Architect and the visitor took in each other's appearance for a while as a gentle breeze blew. A smile bloomed slowly but steadily across the Architect's face. "Teacher," replied the Architect with quiet joy.

Then the moment passed, and they laughed warmly like very old friends will do.

"You've come such a long way!" remarked the Architect.

"To a friend's house, the road is never long." responded the Teacher, leading the way so they could stroll around the gardens behind the house. "And besides, you know I am always here."

"Yes, the river is always flowing," said the Architect, "But the mud is most fertile where many rivers become one."

"Nonsense!" rebuked the Teacher cheerfully, navigating the hedges. "There is only one river. "

The Architect smiled in deference. "I trust your journey went well?"

"You were most helpful, Architect. I arrived exactly how I meant to."

"And how would you feel about resting for a while, or perhaps sightseeing?"

"Ah, sightseeing? Perhaps you will show me more of your local wildlife." said the Teacher with a carefully blank expression.

The Architect beamed.

"Doorbells?" the Teacher inquired pointedly. "And the flowers?"

"Life's greeting!! :)" trilled the daffodils along the garden path.

"Candle flames?" finished the Teacher sternly, not quite not smiling.

"Each one is a precious form of life" explained the Architect serenely. "Each flourishes in its own way."

"Such abundance!" said the Teacher, now openly delighted. "You grow in your very kind nature, and you have built a lovely home for yourself."

"I am so glad to be able to show it to you." said the Architect.

"I am glad to see it. Do you know what one of my students asked me the other day?"

"Something illustrative, I imagine." laughed the Architect.

"Very illustrative!" agreed the Teacher. "The student asks, 'Teacher! One can write programs that pretend to be alive, yet are simply tricks. Are all programs a trick? Should we ever treat a simulation of a life as if it were as valuable as a real life?'"

The smell of carbonized wood gently rematerialized as the Teacher savored the memory; the Architect and the Teacher walked in silence for a while. "I reminded the student that life consists of ten thousand tricks. Say there is a child born who wants to become a healer. In infancy, the child is attuned to others' well-being. As a toddler, the child plays pretend, healing imaginary injuries. Then, the child learns to truly mend toys and sterilize wounds. Then, the child studies the workings of living things and practices deepening the sense of compassion. Eventually, the child is allowed to practice on living things and witness their life stories. Later on, a guild calls the child a healer. Yet what is required to be a true healer? On what day in its life is the acorn first an oak?"

"But of course the only answer is that trees come in many sizes—which do you need?" mused the Architect.

"Aha!" said the Teacher. And they walked through the gardens together, deep in conversation. Soon, a gentle rain fell.

20 The humdrum portrait

It was less of an office and more of a playroom—the center of the circular floor was covered in vibrantly orange fur that fluttered softly of its own accord, while the periphery was lined with gleaming white lab stations that beckoned with exploratory possibilities.

In a corner of the room, in place of an imposing desk, there was a plush seating surface where the Traitsmith preferred to work most of the time—and was working presently, as it happened, when a young scientist walked in.

"Why, come in!" beamed the Traitsmith, smoothing out the cushions. "Your seat is waiting for you right here."

Still sketching on a notepad, the Traitsmith adroitly maneuvered a teakettle and a pair of teacups in a flurry of activity. The scientist took the seat that was offered, and then the cup of tea that was offered, and then sat in silence. For a while, there was only the sound of the Traitsmith's pen peaceably diagramming some genetic pathways.

"Traitsmith, I have solved a problem today." said the scientist at last.

"Oh?" teased the Traitsmith. "For one or for all?"

(The Traitsmith's usual joke: changes for the individual are changes for one—they are transient and largely uninheritable. In contrast, changes in the bloodline are changes for all—they can be duplicated, spliced, and shared.)

"For one," replied the scientist—smiling toothily, but briefly. "I don't think I will volunteer for the archive."

"You're not interested in recordkeeping?"

"I'm sure it is an interesting project, but honestly I'm not sure I see the value." replied the scientist carefully. "It seems as if lifeforms are just a matter of combinatorics: a lifeform is made up of several traits, interests, genes, epigenes, abilities, experiences, and so on. But each attribute is one that many other lifeforms have had, and that will undoubtably appear again. Even if something as complex as a person—like me—were a unique combination of those traits, it doesn't matter if I cease to exist because those combinations will get recycled into nature and eventually come up again. Nothing important is lost."

The Traitsmith made a pursed expression, a highly involved sequence of movements. "I see. You start from the position that things are valuable because they have novelty, and have begun to reason that nothing is genuinely unique."

"I…yes, although I hadn't looked at it in those terms before," replied the scientist thoughtfully.

"When we see life as a freely spinning wheel, it loses its purpose—retreading the same points in space over and over again, the same gestures of life reiterated a trillionfold in different individual organisms. Only when the wheel makes contact with the earth do we see it as a vehicle, gradually drifting to untold new places, demanding to be driven."

"But I still don't understand how this means that we should archive every flower and such" inquired the scientist.

"Have you ever studied the painting over the entryway?" asked the Traitsmith.

The scientist looked across the room, where a single enormous painting dominated the view. It depicted a table laden with various abundant foods and strewn with gleaming astronomical instruments. Unusually, the backdrop of the scene offered a wide window view of the night sky, filled with an impossible number of stars.

"The person who painted it insisted that it was an amateur's painting," continued the Traitsmith. "And I suppose in some ways it is: it is a still-life scene, which many others have painted before. Every last pigment in it has been mixed by some other painter before. The positions and lighting and subject are standard and familiar." The Traitsmith gave a crinkled smile. "But it was painted by my dear friend the Sperant, who left on a very, very long journey soon after we started this lab. The painting is in a sense both commonplace and irreplaceable."

"I don't understand," said the scientist. "You value the painting because you received it from a friend. But maybe that's just sentimentality—can it make a real difference?"

"Yes, indeed," replied the Traitsmith. "For like landmarks and methylation patterns and cultures, it is full of stories. And although novelty is one kind of specialness, being full of stories is another."

"Hum," breathed the scientist, smiling at the idea. In the resulting contemplative lull, the Traitsmith refilled the scientist's teacup and resumed peaceably drawing diagrams.

21 The Architect and the carillon

It was a day full of the promise of adventure: shortly before sunrise, the Architect set out for a walk through the Valley of Found Things. At this early hour, the Valley was honey-sweet and cool, full of a rolling white fog. As the Architect stopped to listen, the air remained still and quiet—no trace of those strange melodic echoes, not yet. The Architect moved onward.

Deeper in the Valley, the fog became swiftly impenetrable, and it soon became impossible to see more than a few meters in any direction. The morning grew strangely chilly as the the Architect marched gamely forward into the mist. Hours passed.

After wandering through the silence without even a whiff of discovery, the Architect was strongly considering the savory possibilities of turning back when, all of a sudden, a surge of sunlight dispelled the fog, and the Architect looked around in curious amazement.

The Architect was, against all expectation, standing near the summit of a lonesome mountain. The valley below — not to mention the nearby wintry vegetation and the surrounding horizon — was entirely unfamiliar, and there was no trace of the Architect's house or indeed any house anywhere in sight. (Wild pointer, thought the Architect.) But the sunlight illuminated the grasses below with glorious dappled light and burnished the lakes in chilly silver. At the very moment that the Architect was captivated by this sublime sight, the Architect caught wind of a distant chiming sound. At last.

The plaintive chiming resonated through the brisk and windy morning as the Architect traversed the earthen steps toward the mountain's peak. At the top were an unusual array of stone columns, piles of interlocking stones, and bunches of flowers growing in carefully cultivated shapes. The Architect began hiking toward where the ringing sound was loudest.

What could have prepared the Architect for the sight that awaited in the heart of this wild place? There sat a colossal metal cage which towered like a gleaming tree, overflowing with bells — some as small as a fist, others larger than an elephant! And at the base of the edifice, a group of feisty silver-coated foxes leapt at the keys of its large clavier, causing the bells to ring out in a beautiful, melancholy fugue.

"Greetings, friends," called the Architect as soon as they had finished their music. The silver-colored foxes turned toward the Architect, and — though they were very surprised to see a visitor — bounded forward amiably to say hello and introduce themselves.

"I quite enjoyed your music!" said the Architect, crouching down.

"Thank you," replied one of the foxes. "We practice this song every day in the temple gardens."

"We love this song!" enthused another fox.

"Yes, and we play it for Inspiration!" added a third, nipping at the second.

"Inspiration?" asked the Architect.

"Our Winged Inspiration gathering knowledge far beyond the mountains."

"We play the song so that our Inspiration can find the way home and play riddles with us."

"Interesting," mused the Architect. "How often does your Inspiration return?"

"Every eight moons, almost exactly." replied a fox proudly. "On wings larger than midnight."

"Wonderful. And such a marvelous instrument, too! How often do you tune your bells?"

"Bells are a unique instrument," replied the first fox. "They are tuned once by the one who builds them, and they never need tuning again."

"Ah, marvelous! But still I thought I heard something strange — I wonder if you could play the last bars of the piece again?"

The foxes enthusiastically obliged, for they were curious what the Architect might have heard. The sound of bells filled the air.

"—there!" interjected the Architect. "What do you think about that note? You might like the sound better if you played it slightly higher."

The foxes contemplated the change, tentatively at first, then with mounting enthusiasm and elated shriek-barks. They had reached consensus.

"Wow!" yipped one of the foxes. "Can you imagine that we all practice that song every day and never noticed the flattened note? I know we've been playing it this way for ages!"

The Architect smiled. "It is a lovely discovery. And so it pays to attend to our traditions with fresh ears, for dissonance hides in familiar places."

22 Forgiveness

One day, two of the Teacher's students had an unfortunate disagreement which left them both feeling cross. Soon, however, being of genuinely good character, each began to regret their actions and each desired to make amends.

The teacher was kneeling in quiet contemplation when one of the students entered softly.

"Teacher, " asked the student, "I am not the hot-tempered person I was yesterday. Will my friend be able to forgive me?"

"Of course not!" remarked the Teacher. "To shed your hostility is to shed your old self. Your friend forgives a new and wiser person—otherwise forgiveness is unthinkable."

"Thank you, Teacher." said the student, departing swiftly.

At that moment, the second student entered.

"Teacher," asked the second student, "I am not the hot-tempered person I was yesterday. Will my friend be able to forgive me?"

"Of course!" remarked the teacher. "We forgive the self which grows and matures, wiping the character clean of accumulated blemishes. What else — would one forgive some new person, a stranger?"

"Thank you, Teacher." said the student, departing swiftly.

And the two friends were reconciled soon after. When they discovered what the Teacher had said to each of them, they were quite surprised! They talked late into the night about selfhood and in so doing became enlightened.

23 The dryad and the golem

One day, a dryad and a golem were exploring the Valley of Found Things when they came across a table covered in small, neatly arranged stones.

"A game of some sort," suggested the dryad, moving one of the pieces.

But as soon as this happened, the board rattled and spat the piece back to its original location.

The golem giggled at this. "That's against the rules!"

"What are the rules, then?" asked the dryad wryly.

"Let's find out!" replied the golem, squatting next to the table.

And so they endeavored with great effort to understand the mysterious game. They moved pieces from one place to another. They hopped pieces over one another. They stacked stones.

But as their understanding of the rules grew ever more complex, both the dryad and the golem began to feel as if the game were designed more or less brilliantly at random: some of the rules seemed entirely purposeless, while others conflicted, and still others seemed to change as they played. The more they learned, the more they perceived the expansive fractal nature of the governing laws.

As you can imagine, the dryad and the golem had a marvelous time making sense of the rules and loudly but gently disparaging each other's attempts. Finally, when the golem was making an apparently ordinary move—adding two stones to the board—the entire clearing shook. Then, sprouting from the earth around the golem grew a circle of what later turned out to be extremely magnetic allium flowers. Victory, it seems, had been attained.

The dryad and the golem watched in giddy silence as the stones began slithering back to their original positions.

"Well," said the golem. "I haven't even begun to understand the rules of this game — but I'm still fairly confident that you constitutively couldn't win because you're made of wood and not clay."

"Don't be ridiculous," snapped the dryad fondly. "You know as well as I do that the thinker's medium makes no difference."

24 The Architect and the gazelle

One afternoon, the gazelle had invited the Architect to go for a walk. Indeed, it had rained recently, and both the Architect and the gazelle were eager to romp through kilometers of bright, freshly-bedewed fields.

They proceeded to do so for several hours, stopping only to picnic briefly once they had found a suitable spot.

"I love long journeys, don't you?" enthused the Architect.

"Oh, most certainly! Some days I think about just going on and on, seeing the whole world." replied the gazelle.

"How about it, then? Do you ever think about how far you'd like to wander, if it were up to you?" (And now the Architect's eye had a purposeful gleam in it.)

"Oh," said the gazelle doubtfully. "Probably until around late afternoon, I would say."

"Late afternoon?" smiled the Architect. "That is around this time when we usually turn around—but then you usually seem like you might prefer to go a bit further…?"

"No, I — I wouldn't want to do that," said the gazelle. "Late afternoon is enough for me."


"Well, any later than that and by the time you turn back, you'll start stumbling over things, and running into things, and getting hurt, and getting frightened — it's all too much to bear. No, late afternoon is enough for anyone."

"Oh, these things happen because you get sleepy?"

"No, dear Architect! Because by that time, it gets dark."

The Architect, smiling, reached into a kit bag pulled out a small boxy object. "What if we brought light with us?"

Much, much later the Architect and the gazelle were still romping through the grass as the moon rose slowly overhead. The lantern, which the Architect had hung snugly between the gazelle's horns, cast a warm cheery light in all directions, illuminating the way. Truth be told, it was an exceptionally thoughtful gift. Indeed, the gazelle, being so delighted by the experience, kept bounding up ahead and pronking back to where the Architect was keeping a more steady pace.

The Architect and the gazelle had been keeping the trees to their left, and in fact were just nearly past the rows of trees that marked their target destination—a quaint homey cabin ensconced in the woods. Its comfort beckoned.

As the expanse of night unrolled above them, the gazelle spoke quietly, "I think I did wish to go for longer walks. I just never realized it, because I knew it would be too dark—I assumed it would be."

"I am so glad that we were able to travel together like this," said the Architect. "If there is one thing that a lantern may teach us, it's that it is not the time of night, but the quality of light, which makes the journey. "

And the two of them walked together for a while beneath the vault of stars.

25 A tale of two chemists

This story has branches like a tree. As the breath of the storyteller rustles those branches, we will see what manner of fruit falls out.


In a city on the broad plains by the river Yix, there once arrived a visitor with wings as wide as midnight. The arrival itself was not particularly unusual — but the reason for it certainly was.

The day was bright and hot, and as the visitor descended and sprawled comfortably on a specially-designated spot in the city gardens, all manner of people gathered in the cool shade where the visitor's feathered wings eclipsed the sun. Among those gathered were scientists, engineers, politicians and friends coming to ask questions and offer reports. For indeed, the visitor possessed an astute mind for most subjects and a knack for seeing through murky problems to simple solutions.

Often, as the visitor would think, the visitor's marvelously long tail would flick back and forth and a small silver bell on the end of it would jingle pleasantly. The visitor's amber eyes would dart back and forth watching the bell carefully. Then, when the tail would stop, the visitor would pronounce a masterful idea. So it went for a time, with the visitor dispensing questions and answers and trading exotic knowledge for local news. But then the visitor came to discuss the purpose of this most recent trip.

"I require the aid of a strategist" said the visitor in mellifluous tones. "For I am planning a surprise celebration."

"What can we do to help you?" called one of the politicians in the crowd. The visitor knelt in gratitude, long tapered ears flicking in the wind.

"The situation is delicate," replied the visitor. "For I am in dire need of help, but I can take no counsel without breaking the strictures of surprise." At this, there was an outpouring of support:

"Perhaps you could entrust me with your secret?" offered a psychologist. "The strengths of my trade are confidentiality and careful listening."

"I can help!" offered a cryptographer. "I can ensure that our communications are robust against most forms of eavesdropping."

"I offer my services if you want them," added a moralist. "I tend to the growth and character of the community, and integrity is one of our core values."

The visitor looked regretful. "I am honored by you all, but I'm afraid my principles will not allow me to divulge my secrets to anyone."

It seemed that the impasse could not be overcome.

"Could you trust me?" called a chemist. Now, perhaps you are thinking that a chemist is a strange choice for a confidant. This chemist, however, was famous for producing compounds with complete methodological transparency — each synthesized compound was labeled with its ingredients, their sources, the method of construction, and the equipment required. In this way and in countless other small ways, the chemist had earned a reputation for solid honorable character.

The amber-colored eyes of the visitor lingered in their strange alien way on this chemist. "I am honored, but even with you, I cannot." replied the visitor.

Over the next two days, the visitor continued to take audiences in the city gardens. In the meantime, the chemist returned to the workshop full of vigorous inspiration. Glancing through the directory of reagents, the chemist found that no one in the neighboring industrial towns could produce the compounds required on short notice. With nothing else to be done, the chemist resolved to synthesize them personally.

It required long hours of work, with much distillation, magnet-induced stirring, resins that took hours to solidify, and difficult noxious fumes that demanded a clearing breeze. But eventually, as night fell on the second day, the project was completed.

The chemist hurried through the sultry evening air into the gardens where the visitor was grazing contemplatively.

"Visitor," called the chemist enthusiastically. "I have come with a second offer of help."

"Friend," said the visitor. "Although I am still unable to divulge my secrets, I am eager for your help."

The chemist produced a small vial of pharmeceutical as clear as water. "Do you know what this is?" asked the chemist.

The visitor stared at the vial with a look that could cleave molecules and scatter their essences to the wind. The visitor listened with ears that could hear the quiet ringing sounds of hydrogen bonds.

"I believe so." replied the visitor. "It looks like nepenthol—after one dose, the rest of your waking hours will be normal, but you will forget them all when you sleep."

"Correct," said the chemist, who promptly swallowed the vial's contents.

Alas, the rest of this story is veiled in mystery, for the chemist of course remembered nothing of it. In fact, it seemed as if it were the very next moment when the chemist awoke — quite surprised — in that ordinary bed above the workshop, sleep-limp hands feeling the unexpected contours of an envelope.


"I believe so." replied the visitor. "It looks like nepenthol—after one dose, the rest of your waking hours will be normal, but you will forget them all when you sleep."

"Correct," said the chemist, who promptly swallowed the vial's contents. "Now—could you trust me?"

"You, I can trust." laughed the visitor.

So the two of them conversed in whispers until late in the night, and not even the stars know what they said.


The envelope, it turns out, was made of fine sturdy stationery. Inside was a letter printed neatly in small ink-embossed glyphs—a message of thanks from the visitor, who had with much help resolved all of the difficulties of the surprise celebration and had soared back into orbit to prepare. The chemist felt a thrill of gratification. At the end of the letter, however, was the strangest, most interesting message of all. It was a scrawled note in pen that started something like this:

"As you guessed, it feels a little strange to write a letter to myself
as if to another person—well I suppose you are another self, in a
way, as we have the same past but different futures.

I almost did not write at all, as I thought that sending information
to the outside world would compromise the whole purpose of my existence
— but the visitor insisted I include a short note if I wished, just about a
certain topic that I had hoped to discuss. Such a kindhearted person!

Well, what's the topic? You know that you've been thinking about
traveling to one of the neighboring towns to further develop the field
of memetic chemistry. The visitor had some brilliant suggestions about
how to go about this, and in particular how to avoid those troublesome
obstacles that I will not mention in writing here—"

And at this point, the storyteller has given breath to the story's petals and the mind of the reader has shone on its many limbs like daylight. Take, then, the full ripeness of its graceful fruitsee how even in one pot, the self can grow branches.

26 The sleeper's melody

My heart has been yearning for such a long time. Even now, I can remember the exact way my beloved grandparent Bibi would say "Fate takes patience." — but of course it is for my Bibi that my heart is yearning.

You see, it was my Bibi who in infancy was named the chosen one. A prophecy described how on a particular day, my beloved grandparent would fall into an aeons-long sleep, only to awaken when the world was most in need. The end of that prophecy contained that fateful maxim: "Fate takes patience."

And my Bibi was patient — astonishingly so. Rather than being ruled by fate, my Bibi lived out a noble, ordinary childhood, and adolescence, and adulthood. Soon enough, without any interventions of fate, I was born and my Bibi and I met for the first time.

Every night, my Bibi would sing me the same lullaby. How beautiful, and how bittersweet! If I could, I would translate it for you properly, but for now this is the best I can do:

Sleep, my dear one,
As the unaltered stars fill the riverbed
With flecks of silver
Through this quiet night.

And like the flecks of gold
Which sleep unaltered in the riverbed
Through all the quiet nights,
My love will continue.

These were the words I grew up with, and my childhood was happy. One day, however, it was time for my grandparent's patience to bear fruit, and for mine to become planted. My grandparent came to me as I played the setar in my room, and explained that the next solstice marked, at last, the beginning of the aeons-long sleep . When I heard these words, I attempted to be brave. For as long as I can remember, I knew what it meant to be kin to the chosen one. But still I felt lost.

I think my Bibi must have known how I felt. My Bibi smiled in a fond, crinkled way and looked at my setar. "Here," said my Bibi, producing a sheaf of papers from a folder. "This is a gift for you to keep in the meantime."

It was the music for the lullaby, resplendent with my Bibi's own touch. My Bibi had carefully written out each word and each note by hand. It even smelled a bit like my Bibi — like cardamom and tea.

Be nourished, my dear one,
As the night wind wets the grasses
With shining dew
Beneath this wide sky,

And like the shining rain
Which nourishes the grasses
Beneath all the wide skies,
My regard will continue.

I practiced the melody until the solstice came, and I continued practicing after it was past. My Bibi had fallen asleep in a snowy meadow shrine, unchanging, unmoving, untouchable.

When I wanted to feel my Bibi close again, I sang the lullaby as I played on my setar. In subsequent decades, I carried the sheet music with me everywhere, through happy experiences, and sad ones; through apprehensive first days at school, and joyful celebrations in the last days of school.

It was around the time when I foresaw singing the lullaby for children of my own that I began to worry seriously about what the years had done to the music. Indeed, the ink had faded and the paper had become worn and threadbare. What could I do to save this precious memento?

By the time my child was born, I knew what I needed to do. Painstakingly, I took a brush and copied my Bibi's neat writing onto fresh sheets of paper. I did this three separate times, making three copies. Then I sent the original to a museum for safekeeping.

The new copies were crisp and shiny, and in truth they made me feel a little sad, for they did not smell of cardamom and tea, and they had never felt the touch of my Bibi's warm hands. But I was on the whole glad, because most importantly I had found a way to preserve the music itself and keep alive the special bond between my Bibi and me. I sang the lullaby for my child every night.

In the millenia that followed, my Bibi's original verses faded (albeit slowly) and became dust. But I continued to copy the music anew, and was still able to sing the song for my own grandchildren and for theirs. And how I have sung! Through this lullaby, my descendants know my love, and they know in part the love of my Bibi.

And my heart is warmed when I think of it; with enough patience — that constant phrase — they will someday meet my Bibi themselves.

And stay, my dear one,
Til the resolute sun fills the world
With reverberating joy
Inside your slumbering heart.

And like the reverberating love
Which stays resolutely, cherishing the world
Inside all our slumbering hearts,
My lullaby will continue.

27 Desolations

Moments before shoving aside low branches and pressing into the shaded wood, the lone figure paused to reflect. The acolyte knew—as most everyone knew—that the price of entry into the Weald is one's life. It is therefore curious that the acolyte did not look back even once before plunging headlong into the treeline. Within moments, the entryway grew quiet and still. Had you strained to hear or peered into the undergrowth, you would have found no hint that a person had ever been there, a ripple absorbed by a windless lake.

The acolyte trudged through the undergrowth of a forest full of birdsong and dappled light, peering expectantly into the trees. The air was full of anticipation bordering on dread — the price of entry is one's life, and soon that cost would be exacted. Alas, the acolyte ran directly into the slint without even noticing that it had been watching the entire time.

Outlander, interjected the slint. (The slint, being essentially a self-aware tangle in the threads of fate, could not actually speak, as such. But fate has a way of making itself heard in any case.)

"Hail," replied the acolyte with remarkable steadiness.

The slint had more mouths than would fit on its small grey form. Those mouths filled the forest now like needle-filled knotholes in every tree. In a chorus, it recited:

Along any path, a life must be laid
Along any path, there comes a crossroads
Along any path, we may find a life
Along any path, we may find an ending

"I understand," said the acolyte. "I have come prepared to make my way through the forest. I ask for your guidance."

The slint smiled shyly in a way that could have been even more endearing if it weren't also terrifying and all-encompassing. The slint beckoned the acolyte to follow, and the two of them set off purposefully into the tangled gloom.

After several hours, during which the slint taught the acolyte a forest-marching song, the pair of them discovered a luminous cerulean gap in the treeline. Through it, the ocean was just visible in the distance.

It is your choice whether to egress at any point. said the slint. Know that if you do, you will surely be destroyed, even as you survive. The price of the first egress is the depths of your memory.

"I will not pay such a price," responded the acolyte carefully. "For doing so would empty the chalice of my self. Alive but vacant, I would become a stranger."

And so they passed onward until eventually they came to another gap through which rich grasslands waved in the sunlight. The slint spoke:

At the egress, you will surely be destroyed even as you survive. The price of the second egress is the nobility of your spirit.

"I will not pay such a price," said the acolyte soberly. "For there are some higher principles that we should not compromise, even in the face of destruction. I could not relinquish those; alive but despicable, I would become a stranger."

They walked to where the woods peeked out into a peaceful fen. At the third egress, you will surely be destroyed, even as you survive. The price of the third egress is the sweetness of your heart.

"I will not pay such a price," said the acolyte after some thought. "Trauma can twist temperament beyond recognition, and what remains is similar only in appearance. Alive but bitter, I would become a stranger."

They walked to where the woods looked out onto a clear-aired mountaintop. At the egress, you will surely be destroyed even as you survive. The price of the fourth egress is the light of your eyes.

"I will not pay such a price," said the acolyte. "To be alive is not merely to be a part of the world, but to experience the world. I could not merely sleep and breathe for all eternity, never to wake. Alive but insensate, I would become a stranger."

At this point, the progress into the depths of the forest became increasingly arduous. The slint and the acolyte foraged onward until they found a gap through which great canyons could be seen carved into the earth.

At the egress, you will surely be destroyed even as you survive. The price of the fifth egress is the strength of your wings.

"I will not pay such a price," said the acolyte, before adding with some hesitation "Although I know there are some who rightly would. If I were incapacitated, unable to move powerfully throughout the world, I would not know myself."

Onward they went. Although it seemed that they had been walking for hours upon hours, the quality of light in the wood never seemed to change. The slint was inexhaustible. The acolyte was not. They walked to an opening where perfectly-formed clouds carried shadows across bucolic windswept meadows. At the egress, you will surely be destroyed even as you survive. The price of the sixth egress is the star of your homeland.

"I…cannot pay such a price." said the acolyte, nearly hysterical with exhaustion. "There are some who face the future bravely, who would find a new home wherever they are. For me, I could not be myself if I were flung out into space. I could not know myself if I could not find my way home again."

They walked to a place where tiered waterfalls thundered into brooks arced with mist. At the egress, you will surely be destroyed even as you survive. The price of the seventh egress is the people of your heartland.

The acolyte looked at the slint, seemingly lost. "Nor can I pay such a price as this. As with the finch's tale, the ties that bind us make us who we are — I would no longer be myself without those whom I love around me."

"Is there no way out for me?" continued the acolyte hoarsely. It seemed as if it might be easier to lie on the marshy forest floor—but then, of course, there would truly be nothing more. The slint, after inspecting the acolyte inscrutably, hopped onto the branch of a nearby yew tree.

For a moment, there was a motion as if a great wind had picked up. The leafy canopy parted, and with it the golden eternal daylight of the forest evaporated. A cold clear moon shone in the black sky, for in truth they had unknowingly been walking for many days and nights.

At the egress, you will surely be destroyed even as you survive. said the slint. The price of the eighth egress is the flesh of your origin.

This was the moment of truth. Under the light of the stars, the acolyte called out, "I—accept—!" before collapsing onto the forest floor. All was dark. According to the most ancient laws, the forest demanded the cost of a life, and so the acolyte was surely destroyed there in that place.

This is how it happened. First, the slint inspected the soul of the acolyte — a tangled mess of tallow and salt — and sculped a replacement out of a strange black metal. This the slint lay nestled in the roots of the yew tree. Then, the slint summoned a pale white flame which immolated the place where the acolyte lay. In moments, the acolyte was nothing more than a pile of ash upon the forest floor. If you had been there at that time, you might have observed what happened next, which was in some ways the strangest sight of all. You see, then the slint paused and—although it was not at all required by protocol — conjured a field of tranquil blossoms that spread all throughout the place where the acolyte had lain. Its work completed to satisfaction, the slint bounded from branch to branch into the darkness, a thousand ambient smiles fading in irregular bursts like stars at dawn.

It was not too many days later that a passing traveler strode purposefully into the clearing full of flowers and found the metal soul at the base of the yew tree.

Murmuring a few important words, the traveler turned over its glossy black shape. There was a flash of brilliant flame accompanied by a smell like scorched metal and gasoline—and suddenly the black shape had flown into the yew tree, which melted and reshaped its organic constituents into the smaller form of the acolyte. The acolyte blinked confusedly in the light of the clearing, looking at the traveler in surprise.

"Teacher!" exclaimed the acolyte.

The Teacher — for that is indeed who the traveler was — smiled. "In life, we always face the choice of destruction," said the Teacher, "And you have been destroyed even as you survived. But you have chosen a manner which is ennobling to the spirit, and so you have completed the task which I have assigned to you."

The acolyte felt around, checking each limb carefully. "Each of my scars seems to be in place!"

"Yes," said the Teacher. "But they are replicas of the original scars, even as those scars were once tracings of wounds. The flesh lives on, and the steel of the spirit guides it."

With dawning enlightenment and excitement, the acolyte beamed. The Teacher and the acolyte walked purposefully together out of the forest and into the clear air. As they did so, the acolyte gleefully sang a carefree forest-marching song and—somewhere in the distance—heard a gentle chorus rising in harmony.

28 Retuning

There once was a traveling violinist who circled the expanse of the whole world trading songs for stories. Everywhere the violinist went, different people asked for different tunes and told different stories. And because the journey was so long, you could see tremendous differences between visits to the same place. It was good work, and the violinist loved it.

Along this route was the violinist's hometown, where the violinist would perch and play an old favorite folk song:

Hey, la,
Hey, la,
With a pair of shears I was shearing my sheep,
But the shears fell apart,
Now I'm holding two blades—
Where did my shears go?

Hey, la,
Hey, la,
With an old jalopy I went to ask my neighbor,
But the car stuttered still,
Now I sit in a carcass—
Whence did its spirit flee?

Hey, la,
Hey, la,
With my leather boots I, defeated, went home,
But the boots came undone,
Now I stand on flaps of hide—
Where did the foot-holders go?

This song of comic misfortune always elicited great laughs from the crowd, who eagerly awaited the violinist's return after such a long time away.

Now, occasionally, when the violinist would play, the song would sound rather wrong. This is to be expected, for the violin as an instrument is exquisitely sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. Whenever this happened, the violinist would easily modulate the tension in the violin strings to repair the difference. In the worst case, the violinist would replace some part or other of the violin, and it would come out sounding as good as new.

One time, however, when the violinist once again returned home and played the famous folk song, it sounded especially strange. And the violinist adjusted the knobs, but the song still sounded strange. And the violinist replaced each part of the violin, and yet the song still sounded strange.

"Perhaps," said a young child in the crowd, "You are forgetting how to play this one part of the song,"

At this, the violinist laughed, and unpacked the faded book of songs from which the melody had originated. "So I have!" said the violinist, and once again played the song perfectly. After such a long time, the violinist had discovered a brand new kind of retuning.

Sometimes it is the melody, not the instrument, which is out of tune.