"A monk asked Master Haryo,
'What is the way?'
And Master Haryo replied,
'An open-eyed man falling into the well.'"
- Zen koan -
With his shadow as his guide, the traveler wanders through the realms of the twilight dawn. Stranded on an uncharted island amidst an ocean of crystal clear, blue sky. Surrounded by the rolling dunes of sand rippling through the desolate land. Submerged in the molten light of day. Subdued by the specter of the black sun slowly drifting over the horizon's edge where the towering mountains return to dust. And the undercurrents take their timeworn course.
A bird of passage. The weaver of elusive skylines. Used to string stars into fortunes, hanging around the necks of those who could afford them. A prospector of opal dreams in no man's land. Now and again he would dig himself a desperate hole, only to find himself at the bottom. Once a seeker of the golden dust in nameless streams. Pursued the river of his life back to its source within the cavernous canyon of echoes. Until it too vanished in a sunken crevice of dusk. As the years sifted through his hourglass. As his hope turned to sand, slipping through his fingers. And so he set out to find his way in this shimmering vastness of a desert.
Now, he thirsts only for water with parched, peeling lips. Once in a while, a morning brings a few dewdrops salty as newborn tears. Never quite enough. So he moves on. With his gasping breath a muffled cry. His smooth, ageless face. Soft as clay in the insatiable heat. Glazed with a coating of dust. Etched with the thin scars left behind by the hands of strangers. A desert robe embracing a slender figure of bronze skin. As a jade ring hugs a finger which grew around it. And the wind ties sailor's knots in his dark hair.
Walking a long road into the arid wilderness of the mirage. In the wake of his tall shadow. The traveler leaves behind his outworn footprints. Just to keep the relentless pace. Under the burden of a bulging pack. With careworn pain. With open hands. With closed eyes. Perhaps to be certain of his chosen path on the shoreless journey into the unknown. Perhaps only to keep the sand from getting in. And still the light seeps in through the cracks.
At last, he catches a glimpse of a secluded oasis of passage. A final refuge for those souls lost at the crossroads of parallel paths. Marooned in the precise middle of nowhere. A high cairn marks the spot. Only the forlorn remnants of a lush garden of the past. Nestled in a withered grove of agaves. The serpentine vines once bloomed with the velvet wings of butterflies. Now they knit tangles of barbed wire, with thorns instead of leaves. All shade had long been razed to the ground and set ablaze to warm the desert night. Marble ruins of a roadside shrine where a snake shed its skin. As rosary beads turn to pebbles, leaving no trace of their master. Mute gravestones lean gently over the face of the Earth. And every name has been wiped clean by shifting sands.
Swooping down towards the oasis with scampering feet. Stumbling on the hard, beaten ground. He picks himself up with gnawing thirst. A water well and a water pump. There, at the very center of the picture. But nearby someone else is watching. Sitting on a foot-worn step of the ancient marble stairs which stop just short of the heavens. Next to a fishing pole with a cast out hook. The haggard profile of a beggar bent over his lot. Calm, gaunt face wrapped up in a web of wrinkles. Veiled eyes. Lips lined with sand. Strands of straw hair await the flame of a match. Holding out an empty, tin cup. And the slight shiver of a dowser's hand.
The traveler stops in his tracks when he arrives at the weathered cairn. A quiet monument to those who came here before and who believed they would come again. Presently inhabited by horned lizards daydreaming leisurely on the sun drenched rocks. Looking straight through him. While he reaches into his leather pack. Takes out the smooth, round stone he has carried for so long. Sets it on the very top of the growing pile. As the honored custom of this land dictates. And so the pyramids arise.
Then he goes over to the water well. A circular opening encased by sun-dried bricks. Steadily chipped away, leaving behind a hard honeycomb of mortar. Nooks crammed with the arched bodies of wasps. Perfectly still. Hollow and transparent. Sucked dry, every last one. With a shrill grinding whine, the traveler turns the crank of the battered wooden shaft which spans the opening. Yet there is no bucket. Only the jingle of a couple of iron rings of a broken chain. And something on the other side had been set loose.
So he proceeds to the water pump. Frosted over with a dark tarnish. A thick cylinder with a tiny spout carved up like a gaping, toothless mouth caught between a spit and a smile. He seizes its long arm with the tenacity of thirst. Pulls it as far as it dares to let him. Up and down. Then down and out and sideways. Only the laughter of decrepit metal. While he almost dislocates a shoulder in despair. And receives a handful of rust in return.
All out of breath. Watching the beggar clutch his tin cup. The traveler searches out his purse. Procures a gold coin with its edges neatly filed off. Sparkling in his fingers as well as his eyes. A moment's hesitation and calculation. He treads back to the ancient well. Throws in his treasured coin with a whispered wish for water. Dissolving within the tranquil whirlpool of darkness. A silent echo. Imbued with a tenuous presence. Slivers of azure emerge, merge, and submerge. All together. All at once. And all are nothing but the crystalline reflections of his gazing eyes lit from within.
First come the wary footsteps. Then the familiar creak of the pump. Finally the precious trickle of water. Just enough to fill a cup. The traveler turns around in time to see the beggar take his drink. And wipe his chin with a smile.
"Thank you for helping out an old man. May you find whatever you were looking for in that well." A soft serene voice trails off quietly. The beggar puts down his tin cup. Swings his fishing pole over his crooked shoulder. Waves goodbye to the marble stairs. And walks away on that long road into the arid wilderness of the mirage.
The traveler opens his mouth without a word on the tip of his tongue. Just listens to the receding clatter of the beggar's sandals. Eventually he picks up the tin cup. Worn razor thin by human lips. Bearing the subtle impressions of countless teeth. Lustrous in the searing sun. He swallows the last drop. Along with the lingering metallic aftertaste. Checking twice to be certain that there is nothing left. Then he works the pump until the flakes of rust are sprinkled evenly all around. At last he lets go of the arm and it drops lifeless to the ground. Peering back at the well, he rummages through his purse. Nothing left save a thread pulled out of a seam. One final attempt to untangle his hair with his bare hands. In the end, he takes the beggar's spot on a foot-worn step of the marble stairs. Yet he remains a traveler. And he will not wait for a raindrop to fall from a cloudless sky into a tin cup.
The moment ceases to stir among the few remaining blades of grass. With the motionless, silver wings of a crow soaring in solitude. The well stands there in front of the weary traveler and his tireless thirst. On the one hand, there is the road back. On the other, there is the road forwards. One appears like the other. Forever leading away into the distance. Possibly they will never meet again. Here is his choice. The only choice. Must have a choice for he is a free man. Yet he has already cast his coin. Either way. It takes just a moment of recognition. As a hunter stalking his fate, he senses that one day he will be caught. Only a matter of time. Until he waves goodbye to the marble stairs and leaps into the ancient well. And his heart falls silent as a stone skimming the waters' edge.
Postscript: Which came first, the story or the quote? Yes. I composed the story without knowing that the Zen master Haryo (Baling Haoqian) summed it up almost a thousand years ago. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. Every vision is a ripple: what goes around, comes around.
Copyright © 1994 Mark Grundland. All rights reserved.