Now it was the hour between day and night, and the newcomer watched for the third time as the people around him moved from happiness to despair.
He had arrived at this village after he lost his way. He remembered the heat of battle, the bodies and noise and sweat, and then waking up surrounded by hundreds of small mounds covered in a shimmering black velvet that turned into swarms of flies as he passed, rising in a cloud and settling down again.
He walked through the plain until he came to a forest and through the forest until he came to a bank of fog. He followed the line of trees uphill; the way became rocky and then levelled again, and the fog broke like a curtain to reveal a neat orchard of mulberry trees. Silkworms covered the bark and the leaves, excreting threads that swayed in the wind and caught the light. A dog barked in the distance and he followed the sound until he came to the village.
He had arrived at noon, a time he now understood, of maximum activity. The red-tiled roofs appeared, then bodies moving through the streets, wearing yellow silk robes and old-fashioned turned-up embroidered slippers. The people looked like illustrations in an ancient parchment. As he came closer, he felt a tremendous thirst, and he saw the fountain in the courtyard, and then an old man sitting in the shade of the roof offered him a jar and a cup.
“You’ve come!” the old man said and at first, he thought that this was the way strangers were always greeted in the village. When the man invited him to join him for the midday meal, he followed; his smile was like no other he had ever seen, as if the old man were lit up from inside, intimate, directed at him and no one else. Of course, he followed.
He had a light head, and was so hungry he could hardly see or hear; the four women sitting at the table, daughters of the man, their children and a few other men around his age — husbands or brothers, they all spoke in a hurry, rushing over each other, and he had not listened — at first.
Only when he saw them finish their soup, and take their spoons to break the sides of the bowls as if they were eggs, only when he saw even the children pick up the shards and chew on them like bread, and when the oldest mother gathered the coals of the brazier into her palm and pop them into her mouth like nuts, did his forehead break into a sweat and his palms grow cold.
“You are alarmed, I see,” the youngest woman said, “but nothing here is strange or wrong. It is only not what you have come to expect.”
The old man offered him a pipe. The afternoon was ripening outside and the village had quieted; the streets were empty.
“I will explain everything, but you will not believe me — at first. You must watch and see; then you will understand for yourself.”
The children had fallen asleep at the table; their fathers lifted them gently and carried them away to pallets lined up at the far end of the hall. The mothers swept the table with long feathered brooms.
“You have come from a world full of conflict and war. Hundreds of years ago, the men from this village also went into the world of conflict and war; one day none of them returned. The women left behind decided to close their borders; they wove a barrier of fog and made sure that no one could come in or go out — with few exceptions. They made a vow to practice harmlessness.
Generations passed. Children were born, grew old, died. Their children, too. Little by little, the people who lived in this village — we who live here — discovered two things: nothing that we put into our bodies can harm us. No poisons, no flames; all things are energy. And, every morning, we wake up as ignorant as babies, as ignorant as you yourself are now — but as the minutes and hours go by we find we come to understand everything, as if the universe itself held this knowledge all around us all the time and we alone of all people on earth are able to tap into it.”
“Right now, for example, I know your name and your family history.”
The newcomer smiled because it seemed he had come upon a village of madness and he would only have to wait until he was fed and rested to move on his way; he started looking around to see if there were any treasures he might take with him, when the old man laughed.
“We have no treasures! We do not want them. Remember when you stole your sister’s phoenix broach when she was fifteen, and you denied it? What good did it do you? You ended up burying it in the garden. It’s still there!”
For the second time that day, the man felt a cold sweat come over him.
“Now you will see a strange thing. Soon the light will dim. Everyone around you will become broken-hearted. The weight of all we know will become too much. That is why we let the children sleep through this time of day.”
As if to confirm his prediction, the newcomer heard wailing from inside the house, a heart-rending series of sobs — the mature cries of men and women in despair. He looked at the old man, whose eyes were leaking tears, a line of water creasing both his cheeks.
“I’m old and I have enough from many days and nights to endure the knowledge that is tearing my children to pieces, and I know, too — that when night comes, the crying will give way to peace.”
The newcomer wanted to bury his head in the pillows, to cover his ears; he jumped up and ran out the door. An hour later, he was back again, broken. He had walked from street to street, listening to the wails from inside the houses, unable to find a road that led to the fields. The house where the old man lived with his daughters, the one he found at the edge of the village, now seemed to be in the middle –each road returning him to the same place.
Night fell as he found his way back to the familiar fountain. Inside, candles were burning. The men and women of the house emerged from the bedrooms, drying the tears on their faces with embroidered cloths.
“To know everything is also to accept everything,” the old man said.
The newcomer began to rage now — to throw chairs and to smash plates against the ground.
“I want to leave! I want you to let me go!”
The men and women sat and watched him calmly. He rushed towards them, intent on violence, but all strength drained from his limbs. He lay on the reed rushes, wailing — a lifetime of grief and frustration filling his chest.
A young woman, one he had not noticed before, shy and quiet, with a curtain of dark hair, sat next to him and stroked his forehead.
“My love, my love,” she whispered his name, “this is so hard at first. It is harder than birth, much harder than death. But you will see — like birth and death it passes quickly. Tomorrow will be easier; the day after that even easier. Soon you will begin to see as we see, to know as we know. The heartbreak is over in an hour or two, and at night, with the stars over our heads, you cannot imagine how wonderful the world reveals itself to be.”
He looked up at her through swollen eyes. He could not remember having cried like that — in all his life, maybe since he had been a baby. A peace settled over him. He saw that far from plain as he first assumed, she was dazzlingly beautiful. He only wanted to hold and be held by her.
They clung to each other. The old man spoke into the silence.
“My son you have come here out of great need. Only those who have completely finished with the world find their way to us; over the generations — a few men, a few women — and that has been enough to renew our lines. We would never prevent you from leaving; we practice harmlessness. Only you have made a decision already that you have not yet recognised as true.”
That had been three days before. Three days when the world as he remembered it had grown foggy, an uncertain path leading to something he could no longer make out in the distance. Why would he travel back to that world when every moment, he felt himself trembling on the verge of knowledge, knowledge so powerful it would make him laugh like a wise old man, then cry like a mother who has lost her child, knowledge so powerful that every night, it would settle over him peacefully, fill him so he would have to sleep and let it go until the next morning, knowledge that kept the village of the harmless apart from every other ignorant, blind place on earth — safe in a moment they lived and lost every day — over and over again.