Since I am now old and no longer performing any productive labor, you may well wonder how I am able to afford such a beautiful, rare, and valuable object as this scholar’s stone.
You know that here in New Peng Lai we no longer live under the Rule of Money that still threatens much of the world with destruction and desolation, but even so we are not quite an egalitarian society. The descendants of the Founders still possess certain prerogatives, whether for good or for evil I cannot say — but certainly I cherish my advantages and am in no hurry to renounce them.
My grandfather actually designed this island. In his youth he met some bohemians in Amsterdam, back in the late XXth century, who built boats and even small floating islands (“crannogs”) by gathering polystyrene and other floatable garbage in used fishing nets, and lashing together the resulting “rolls” into platforms on which to build with wood, or soil. Thus amid Holland’s canals they created free housing and even “land” for themselves out of “useless trash” that no one else desired.
Grandfather’s idée fixe was to implement the Dutch discovery in the Pacific Ocean, where (in the early XXIst century) a vast conglomeration of floating detritus had coagulated into a garbage patch the size of Ireland. He convinced a consortium of American and Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs to invest in his scheme: to wrap the entire mess into net-bound rolls, cover it with dirt, and turn it into a “paradise” for low-carbon green technologies
and intensive agriculture.
Once the basic structure was completed (in about five years), shiploads of sand, dirt and manure were loaded onto the surface. A new cheap light concrete-like substance was used to construct vast catchment basins for rain water (which was abundant, thanks to climate change); fields of solar-power units were also constructed, but these have not fared so well over time and electricity is now an expensive luxury for us.
Irrigation however was soon perfected, and Grandfather designed a system of rice paddies and mills that proved quite effective. This complex of farms was organized as a cooperative, so when the first global anthropogenic catastrophe occurred in 2066, and the island’s economy came close to collapse, the rice business survived and even continued to produce surplus for export and trade. Our consortium of capitalists imploded, but Peng Lai had come to life and was designed to go on living even amidst the new paradigm of infrastructural decay and social violence that darkened the “real” lands of Earth for
the next fifty years.
Grandfather did not, I fear, pass on his genius to his descendants — but his daughter (my mother) proved to be a loyal disciple at least. She spent her entire adult life as head manager of the co-op, and held our little village enterprise together through the years of trouble. By the time I myself reached adulthood the bad days had largely receded into the Past, and we lived in our not-very-brave new world, based on ecological virtue and hard work.
It’s said that no one in our little country enjoys more than ten times the wealth of the poorest citizen. If so, I am perhaps “wealthy” — but scarcely in the style of an old-time millionaire!
At present, Peng Lai has a population of a million, which we consider sparse. Much farming and fishing (in oceans and lagoons) keeps us self-sufficient; the sea has made a miraculous recovery after the global collapse of petroleum-based industry and other sources of pollution. (Ironically there will probably never be another “trashland” like ours, since plastics are now hardly produced anywhere anymore.) Rice, corn, wheat, and soy are our main exports (transported in huge sail-powered trimarans) and we trade for everything we
can’t produce — such as bicycles! Interior transportation is mostly by bicycles, bike-rickshaws, horsedrawn carriages and ox-carts. We have many jobs for animals. Our diet is rather Chinese (the population is perhaps three-quarters Chinese) being based on grains and vegetables with fish, pork, chicken and the like as “flavorings” rather than staples. We “Europeans” however keep cows, sheep and goats, and consume dairy products.
Our government has devolved and become “minimalist” and is largely composed of part-time administrative committees in charge of production and distribution, schools, roads and the like. As a general rule no one is paid a “wage” but belongs either to a cooperative as a “co-owner,” or to a family business such as a small farm or workshop. (Bricolage, repair and recycling are really our main “industries.”) Our “police” are actually a kind of “people’s militia” who serve for two years and then retire. Most public decisions are made by direct democracy in “councils” of revocable delegates. At present Peng Lai has no real “enemies” amongst the remnant nations of an exhausted Earth. Who can say what the future will unfold? But for now, Proudhon and Kropotkin would find much to admire in our quiet boring little artificial country.
We have quite decent schools and even our own university in Cheng Ho, the capital city. I took a double major there in agricultural science (I specialized in rice and tropical fruits) and comparative (Chinese and classical Greek and Latin) literature. Naturally I went to work for the Co-op, and when mother died, I was elected Manager. The family talent for business had indeed run thin in my blood, but at least I held the business together until I could pass
it on — not to someone in our family because I am the last of our family, having never married and having no siblings or cousins.
When I retired I was given lifetime use of a nice house, a “bamboo hut” with a trash foundation and a thatched roof, surrounded by a little garden beside a canal, where I live quite comfortably with my books and my 100-yearold green parrot, “The Repeat Offender.” My “share” of pecks of rice from the Co-op allows me small luxuries such as a weekly cleaning lady and some nice art, but I live without electricity or indoor plumbing, and like to picture myself as a failed Taoist recluse.
Well, I think I’ve said enough about my unworthy self. Of course you want to hear about the scholar’s stone, and now for a start you know how I could afford it.
I found it in Mackenzie and Chen’s antique emporium (near the quay in Cheng Ho) — a rather dim and dusty place, like a magic shop in some tale by Lord Dunsany, crammed with fakes and rubbish, but hiding some genuine surprises. Young Mr McKenzie knows better than to bother me with mere junk, and at once took me into the back office to show off his latest acquisition. Pedantically the Scotch connoisseur lectured me: “Here we have a scholar’s stone, probably late Ming or early Ching, of the type known as Tai hu, from Jiangsu Province near Shanghai. As you can see, it stands about 17 inches high on a carved wooden base, which is itself especially beautiful. The stone appears unbalanced, yet it sits on the stand quite steadily — thus it embodies the Taoist ideal of grotesque asymmetricality. According to the famous Tang Dynasty stone connoisseur Mi Fu, a great stone must have
Shou — Thinness
Zhou — Wrinkles
Lou — Channels, and
Tou — holes.
Holes within holes, hidden channels, produce the fractal effect known as ‘infinite.’ A good stone appears ancient, hard, hollow and intelligent — that is, not ‘intelligently designed,’ but intelligent in itself. The highest aesthetic term of praise for a stone is Chou — ‘ugly’. “This piece closely resembles a famous stone mentioned in the Treatise on Superfluous Things and known as “Cloud of Peculiarity”; as you can see the stand has been carved with an anonymous poetic fragment: ‘A peculiar cloud indeed to hold within itself so many worlds’.”
“McKenzie,” I exclaimed, “it’s love at first sight. I must have it. But tell me, what natural process could have produced this bizarre result?”
“The stone is a composite of basalt and black limestone. Lying in the bed of a rushing river for centuries, it erodes unevenly and is polished to a high sheen. Lithophiles believe that the Tao itself is the ‘artist’.”
The “Cloud” cost me every rice chit I’d managed to save for a year and a
half, but I considered it a bargain.
While in the Capital, I lit some joss at the Temple of Ma Tsu, Goddess of our Eastern Ocean, then I did a bit more shopping: at the hardware store I found the doohickey I needed to repair my water-purifier. Then I browsed the bookstalls outside the university and found a few promising things, some Chinese detective novels, and an English treatise called Christianity Under the Sign of Mercury by a former archbishop of the Non-Juring Anglican Church in Hong Kong, including many intriguing alchemical woodcuts. At the outdoor market I bought some spices and an expensive jar of Indian green mango pickle. Loaded down with my purchases I hired a one-horse tonga to take me back to the village (seven miles); on the way the beastly humidity relented and unleashed a thunderstorm that cooled the afternoon. We passed by flat farms and palm groves and eventually reached the village about five PM.
I’m afraid our village (which is called Murdoch, after my grandfather’s family name) cannot be considered beautiful. It exudes a certain sincere utilitarian dullness, typified by the looming water towers with their aqueducts leading up to the wall of the great catchment basin. The rusted skeleton of an abandoned desalinization plant (one of Grandfather’s less successful investments) adds a note of industrial decay, and the Nightsoil Treatment Plant can smell quite rank when the wind’s from the West. Many of the one-storey houses are walled with concrete and roofed with tin. At least the lanes are lined with plenty of trees, and the back gardens are lush.
I stopped the tonga at Wang’s general store and treated the driver and myself to little fruit ices from Wang’s electrical freezer, the only one in the entire village. I chose a squid and some bok choi and fresh soy-curd for my supper, and a few other necessities, then climbed onto the tonga for the last leg of the trip, back to my house a mile outside the village.
The first thing I did was to re-arrange the “altar” in my tea-room so as to make a place of honor for the Stone. I found new positions for the scrolls I’d inherited: “Lao Tzu Vanishes Into The West,” “Chuang Tzu And The Butterfly,” “Lieh Tzu Rides The Clouds With His Cranes.” The little Russian icon of Mary and Jesus receiving the gifts of the Three Magi now flanked the Stone on one side; the old Japanese incense burner squatted on the other. I lit the whale oil lamp and the flickering shadows brought the Stone to life: the effect was mysterious, a bit unnerving.
After supper I took my fiddle from its case and went out on to the veranda to play a bit in the twilight. I inherited the instrument (like so much else) from Grandfather, who had attained a certain proficiency. I however had never bothered to practice, and in my old age I remained just as inept a musician as I’d been in my lazy childhood. Nevertheless, now that I’d “retired,” I’d sworn to improve, and after lighting a coil of anti-mosquito incense, I began industriously
scraping away at a bit of Vivaldi.
Just as I was about to curse and give up as usual, suddenly a face loomed out of the dusk (nearly night) grinning at me from a toothless jaw. Startled, I stopped playing and studied my visitor. He appeared to be an old beggar, dressed in rags, with a crooked staff and gourd water-bottle as signs of his profession, hair tangled in clumps. He wasn’t Chinese and he wasn’t Euro either.
At a guess I’d say he might have been a “negrito” from the Philippines, so dark
was his complexion. But he spoke well.
“Greetings, Maestro! Might I trouble you for a hand-out of some sort, some left-over cold rice, a pinch of tea.”
“Of course, dear sir. Please join me on the porch here and let me serve you.” I always treat beggars as well as I can. I served him a bowl of my supper dish (squid and rice) and while he chopsticked it, I went inside again to make tea. I brewed up some “Dragon Well” because I myself was in the mood for something good.
“Ah! This is excellent Lung Ching,” he said, surprised. “I haven’t had such good tea for years.”
After a contemplative pause punctuated by noisy sips, he said, “I used to be a fair fiddle player myself — but age has twisted my fingers and I can no longer manage a tune.”
“I have no such excuse. I’m simply inept and untalented.”
“Sir, don’t disparage yourself. There’s still hope…. Perhaps, in return for your kind hospitality you might allow me to re-tune your violin — a special open tuning I learned from my teacher — which might amuse you. My fingers will suffice for such a simple task, I think.”
It didn’t occur to me to protest that this was an expensive old Italian instrument. For some reason I trusted him. I handed over the violin. He tucked it under his chin and began twisting the pegs and experimentally plucking the strings. The results sounded weird.
I got up and went inside to refresh the teapot. I couldn’t have been gone for more that a couple of minutes, but when I went back outside, the beggar had disappeared. The violin lay on his vacant seat cushion. The night had swallowed him.
With a shrug I picked up the instrument and strummed once across the strings. The result was an incomprehensible chord, unharmonious but seemingly not randomly so. I shrugged again, yawned, went back inside, shut the fiddle in its velvety bed, and went to bed myself.
Next morning I rose early and took my tea (an ordinary keemun, locally grown) while watching the mist float over the irrigation canal, which was choked with pristine white and blue water lilies. I then spent a hour in the garden, raking leaves off the gravel walk, weeding and generally fussing about. The pink peonies were just past their first bloom, heavy cabbage-like heads nodding on bent stems, a few petals fallen on the grass.
I mixed some leftover cold rice with a raw fresh egg, some crumbled seaweed, cold tea and soy sauce, and had breakfast, then went back outside. My cannabis “tree” had produced a marvelous bud since last I’d visited her — it sparkled with crystals and bristled with fine pale green hairs. It reminded me of the legend of Ma Ku, “Miss Hemp,” the Chinese goddess of cannabis, a beautiful Taoist Immortal with the feet of a parrot. (My parrot “the Repeat Offender” relished her seeds above all other grub. They rendered him more than usually talkative, and it’s no wonder the ancient Persians saw parrots as symbols of stoned eloquence.) As I’d learned from that genial XXth century American Sinologist, Edward Schaefer, Ma Ku’s flower blossomed only once every 3,000 years, an event that called for a party of all the Taoist deities of the Peach Garden of heaven. The poet Ts’ao T’ang said:
Blue Boy transmits the word,
requiring them to come back:
his report tells that Miss Hemp’s “jade
stamens” have opened.
The Watchet (blue-gray) Sea has turned
to dust —
all other affairs may be disregarded:
they mount dragon and crane and come
to observe the flowers.
In real life, the “blue-gray sea” had not dried up — but my bud certainly demanded some celebration. I decided to prepare a drink of bhang according to the ancient Chinese or Indian manner, and devoted the rest of the morning to that ceremonial task.
First, I reverently harvested the heavy blossom, and took it into the kitchen. Over a low fire I heated it on a dry griddle till the first puff of vapor was released, then removed it. I stripped the greenery and seeds from the stem (which I discarded) then washed the herbage in cool water. The resulting blob was then placed on a flat black stone, and I proceeded to macerate it with a smooth chunk of volcanic tufa. This took some time, and resulted in a fine
I scraped this up with a spatula and transferred it to a square of cheesecloth. I positioned the cloth over a little black cauldron and from a pitcher I slowly poured a trickle of water over the paste, while gently kneading it with the fingers of my other hand. When no more color came through the cloth, I had about a pint of good bhang, almost as bright as green waterpaint.
I carried the cauldron into my tea-room and sat down on the floor in front of the altar. I poured a cup and toasted the Stone, inviting all the deities to attend the inauguration. The bhang tasted quite pleasant, nutty and verdant. I finished off the liquid with another half cup, then smoked a few pipes of (home-grown) tobacco while I contemplated the Stone.
I admired its eccentric dynamism — its off-kilter pose set the mind in motion, almost in flight. I enjoyed the visual tactility of the convoluted smooth inky surface. I marveled at the sheer baroque exuberance, the twisted torque, the bubbly permeability, the eternal modernity, the unnatural naturalness (or natural perversity) of its involuted, uncanny coruscations. The holes invited me toward an imaginal interiority. In short… the bhang had begun its work.
Now I saw it as a Mountain, one of those Sung Dynasty inkbrush landscape Southern marchmounts, haunted by hermits, wreathed in fog. Then I saw it as a dragon, petrified for centuries but still alive, waiting for a magical summons to become once again the steed of some valiant alchemist.
Time passed. It could have been 3,000 years for all I knew. Christ, this stuff was sheer dynamite — I was blasted. I felt I could levitate. I felt I was shrinking, down, down, till I stood in relation to the Stone as an ant to an alp. I felt ready for a journey. I picked up my fiddle case; I took off, a tiny bird headed for a Stone now the size of Mount Meru. I blanked out.
When I came to self-consciousness again I found myself lying perched at the lip of the cathedral-door-sized portal of a black basalt cave — one of the holes in my stone, which now loomed above me like a gigantic mountain. The cave-mouth was fringed with long hanging curtains and tendrils of moss and strange orchidaceous flowers the size of human heads.
Behind me I could see nothing but swirling clouds — my room (and the world) had disappeared. Before me I could discern nothing in the murk of the cave. But I detected a sound emanating from within, a distant pentatonic tinkling, and although I’d never before heard jade chimes, I knew at once that someone in the Hole must be playing that most archaic of oriental instruments, so praised by Confucius. Only hanging lozenges of pure jade struck by delicate wooden mallets could have produced such a limpid, bright and gem-like sonority. Entranced, I rose to my feet and stumbled through the cave-mouth.
As my eye adjusted to the penumbral shadows I found myself in a space that instantly evoked for me the words (read so often in the Mao Shan Tractates, which I love), “caves of cinnabar.”
The Stone walls were slick and dark red, almost like flesh, and adorned with a myriad grotesque hepatic stalagmites and stalagtites. Everywhere mushrooms sprouted from the ground, some tiny, others big as trees, some spotted red and white, some yellow, pink, blue, mottled or plain brown; and from the walls huge shelf fungi protruded, rainbow-hued and fluorescent — the legendary Ling Chi! I was reminded of that weird old American “scientific romance,” Etidorpha by the mad dentist, John Uri Lloyd, in which forests of giant mushrooms were depicted growing everywhere down in the Hollow Earth, tended by naked, eyeless, albino telepaths.
The inhabitants of the cave, however, proved quite unlike Lloyd’s; rather they appeared exactly as described in those Taoist “Scriptures of Highest Clarity,” over which I’d pondered: here were the Blue Lads and Jade Maidens of the Cinnabar Caves: boys and girls, all seemingly aged about 12 to 16, dressed in diaphanous Han Dynasty silk robes with fluttering ribbons and scarves, white silk stockings and lacquer-black dancing pumps. They wore bracelets, necklaces, brooches, diadems and fingernail-guards of gold, silver, jade, moss agate, red coral, emeralds and other precious jewels. The boys’ skin and hair were
cerulean blue, the girls’ an elegant pale green. I’m afraid the first thought that popped into my mind was yet another literary allusion. I remembered a passage in Giraldus Cambrensis in which he told how two children appeared out of a cave in medieval Wales, with green skin and green hair, speaking an unknown language; and how they had sickened with melancholy and eventually vanished back into their subterranean world.
The Blue Lads and Jade Maidens noticed me at once. They restrained their surprise with admirable sang-froid. The player of the jade chimes ceased in mid-phrase, and the sedate dance the adolescents had been performing came to a halt. An older girl approached me, bowed deeply and said — in an ancient literary Chinese I hadn’t heard since my university days — “Greetings, O venerable sage.” (It occurred to me that medieval Welshmen would indeed have found this an unknown tongue!) Apparently my age impressed them as an indication of wisdom.
I shook my head to clear it of the last waves of intoxication and (hopefully) to activate the rusty neurons that once connected my tongue to a knowledge of Old Mandarin. “Alas, I am no sage, but I greet you, uh, respectfully, O Blue Lads and Jade Maidens.”
“Truly you must be a sage, since no mere human would have found the way to our grotto. Are you an adept of some noble school of mysticism? Perhaps an alchemist?”
“Ah… I am a humble student of… of… the Mystery of the Spirit of Stoned…. I mean, Stone,” I improvised.
“And the case you carry,” asked the lad who played the chimes, “does it contain a musical instrument? Can you teach us new tunes for our revels, which we are celebrating today?”
“O dear me, I don’t know why I brought this with me, since I am such a poor musician. But,” I added, snapping open the case and taking out my bow and fiddle, “you can see that it is indeed a musical instrument.”
“Hmm,” said the Lad, “like a Khotanese rebab, but really quite different. Do please favor us with a dance, for we dearly love that art.”
I wondered what to do. It occurred to me that I seemed to have been “taken away” and abducted into Fairy Land, and I recalled certain Irish folktales about such situations — and I also remembered that some Irish music, like Chinese music, is pentatonic. Perhaps, I thought, I could attempt a jig. Fairies like jigs. Dimly I recalled the changes to an old tune called “I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave.” Full of apprehension I raised the fiddle to my chin, forgetting how the beggar last night had re-tuned it, and I began to play.
To my utter shock and amazement, the sound I now heard myself producing bore no relation to the usual scratchy awkward see-saw ham-fisted performance I was used to. Instead the fiddle seemed to come alive in my hands with a mind of its own — the mind of a virtuoso, a legendary genius, the devil of a fellow.
Who was that beggar?!
I had no time to wonder about it — I was too busy giving my heart and soul to my own inexplicable new talent. As I ripped through the first part of the tune the Lads and Maidens stood there with their mouths hanging open in dumb amazement. As I launched into the reprise and variation however, they came alive, laughing and whooping. They paired off and began to dance like they’d been taught by the Tuatha De Danaan — they spontaneously discovered a viable choreography, as if possessed by some long lost pub-full of whiskey-maddened Celts (or at least, so I imagined, having never in my life been closer to Dublin than James Joyce or Flann O’Brian could transport me).
After a rousing finish, I paused for exactly one deep breath and then launched into “Paddy’s High Jig,” a tune that — on the conscious level — I simply didn’t know how to play. I had however heard it once, at a music festival in Cheng Ho about fifteen years ago, and my enchanted fiddle sucked the melody from deep storage and whirled it out without a pause. The dance went on.
After that came a medley of the blind harper O’Carolan — his “Big Fairy Fort and Small Fairy Fort” (a composition he’d learned from the Fairies themselves,having overheard it one night as he was reeling home drunk from the pub) — then “O’Carolan’s Retreat” and “O’Carolan’s Farewell,” played uptempo. Then I gave them “McSweeney’s Jig,” “The Yellow Tinker,” “Paddy’s Trip to Scotland,” and “Kitty Gone A-Milking” in quick succession. Then I went on. And on. And on. I’d given up wonderment and fear. I was simply the slave of the violin.
If I’d had a watch (I never carry a watch), it might have measured off five or six hours — or five or six days and nights, for all I know — before I finally felt exhaustion about to overwhelm me, and I finished my “set” with a rousing rendition of “The Moving Pint.” The Blue Lads and Jade Maidens cheered me to the echoing vaults, rushed me and crowded round slapping me on the back. Maidens kissed me, boys kissed my fiddle. “Poor mortal,” said the princess who’d first greeted me, “Your vital energy (chi) is spent. Run, people, and bring food and drink for our honorable guest!”
Almost at once some small immortals rushed up with platters and goblets. The plates were loaded with fruits and mushrooms — no grains, no meat — and some odd-looking big Chinese pharmaceutical pills. I took a cup and sniffed it — the liquid smelled like perfumed wine. I was about to gulp it down when I suddenly remembered the legend that any human who eats or drinks anything in Faeryland will be stuck there forever after, till Doomsday.
I drank. My decision had been instantaneous. The “world” could go hang, for all I cared. I was happy.
I should say now, that as you’ve no doubt surmised, the legend proved not true. Here I am, back in Peng Lai talking to you! However, at the time, I felt quite ecstatic to have burned my boats behind me. In fact, as I munched on strange fruits and glow-in-the-dark fungi, and gulped down another flagon of nectar or ambrosia, I was feeling more and more ecstatic. In fact I was feeling quite quite intoxicated. Colors were becoming pyrotechnic, tastes were divine, smells acquired colors, sounds had smells and touch combined them all. I suddenly
realized what “enlightenment” really means: to be lit up from within with the cool fires of sheer attentiveness. I mean literally lit: my body itself was glowing like an occult mushroom, or so I believed at the time.
I’m not sure what happened next. I wouldn’t want to cast any aspersions on the morals of my troglodyte friends by recounting what might have happened, or what might only have been dreams. Of course, the entire episode, the Journey within the Stone, from beginning to end may well be criticized as a dream — a mere hallucination — although, as I shall show, I have reason to think otherwise. In any case I can truthfully say that my state of exaltation (or sheer drunkenness) now reached such a pitch that my ability to recall detail became impaired. I shall pass over certain confused and disconnected images of doubtful ontological status, and simply say that… I passed out.
When I came to myself once again, there seemed to be a “morning after” feeling suffusing the air. Blue Lads and Jade Maidens were lying about the cave floor cushioned on beds of moss and wrapped in cloaks of silk and fur, gently asleep. My friend the Princess was nudging my shoulder and wafting toward my nose the fumes from a cup of some hot beverage that smelled like oolong tea perfumed with cardamon, amber and musk: I felt sober and awake, not hung over, but rather like a blank slate, waiting for its next inscription.
“Venerable Sage, what are your sensations?”
“Splendid, my dear. Glad to be alive.”
“You are wise. But perhaps you would seek to become even wiser?”
“If I could, given my small capacity, I would indeed.”
“Then may I suggest a further quest you might pursue, here inside our Hollow Earth?”
“I await your instructions with eager gratitude.”
“Deeper into the channels and tunnels of our grottoes lies another land, where dwell our Elder Ones. May I suggest that you journey thither to pay your respects?”
“Nothing would please me more, Princess.”
Daintily she helped me to my feet. With a porcelain-green finger she pointed toward a dark archway, further “down” into the heart of the Stone.
“You will enjoy meeting them, my friend. Don’t be afraid of their rough appearance. In truth they are gentle and live only for the Way.”Her word for “way” was Tao.
So I set out on the path down and in. Would I become lost in a labyrinth of holes and channels, tunnels and culs-de-sac? Might I not be engulfed in darkness? No — the pathway was well-worn by (apparently) long centuries of foot-traffic, and easy to see because the forest of mushrooms lit the scene with a dim but even and uncanny glow.
So, toting only my fiddle, it proved to be an easy hike. After some time (my sense of duration while inside the Stone was disrupted and I have no idea really how long I walked — perhaps two or three hours?) — the tunnel began to open up and become better lit.
At last, bracing myself against a frigid wind, I turned a sudden corner and was shocked to find myself facing into a space so vast that it no longer seemed to be a grotto, but a whole world. In the far distance I thought I would see rock, but the air was softened with clouds and I couldn’t be certain. The effect was dizzying. I stood there, amazed. The Hollow Earth!
The source of light remained a mystery to me — I never figured it out —
but I sensed that it was unfading, that the great Hollow knew no nightfall. As I gazed and gazed I made out distant ice-born waterfalls here and there cascading into empty space and breaking into frozen rain. I saw birds, some small and familiar, others huge and strange, vaguely recalling childhood memories of books illustrated with pterodactyls or the Simurgh, or the Roc!
My rapture was interrupted by the sound of a pebble dislodged on the path below me. I looked down and beheld a creature staring up at me. He was about my height but fearsomely robust in all his limbs — heavily bearded and longhaired, covered all over as it were in red fur. He looked a bit like the Beast in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” — that is, wild but strangely attractive.
The ridges over his eyes bulged, not hiding his bright green pupils, and his skull was oddly shaped, with a “bun” at the back, and altogether apparently rather larger than any human’s. He wore only a simple loincloth and held a crooked staff in one hand. His bare feet were furry and his second toes were much longer than the first.
In a gruff low voice he said something that sounded like, “Hee-o, Cwo Manwon!” I was to learn that he and his people spoke Chinese and some English with a strange accent caused by a non-human formation of mouth and larynx, and that what he’d actually said to me was, “Hail, Cro-Magnon!” I won’t try to reproduce his pronunciations (particularly weird-sounding in Mandarin) but will simply “translate” them into ordinary phonemes.
All at once I intuited not only what he’d said but what he’d implied, and after a long fraught pause I replied, “Greetings, Neanderthal!”
So, I thought, this is where they disappeared to in 28,000 BC. At that moment it seemed to me like a perfectly sane idea, if rather astonishing. Even now I have no other explanation.
“What brings you hither?” he asked politely.
“I’m just floating, sir, in the stream of happenstance. I was recommended to you by the Blue Lads and Jade Maidens, with whom I have just now passed an amusing interlude.”
“Then you are welcome indeed — and perhaps a bit tired after your trek from the Cinnabar Caves. Come with me and let me and my people feed you according to the sacred law of the Gift.”
“Much obliged,” I responded, and climbed down to meet him. Close up, now, I noticed that he smelled furry and musky and a bit as I imagined a bear might. Oddly enough I felt no apprehension at his beastiness, but rather a warm friendship. This instinctual reaction, by the way, leads me to reject the theory of certain paleontologists, that our two “races” were ever enemies. I now believe that the Neanderthals represented for us early humans a set of elder siblings, later mythologized as totem animals and guardians. The Neanderthals left our world not because of “war” but rather when the Ice disappeared, because they could no longer make a living hunting the megafauna of the glacial world. Indeed I discovered that the Hollow Earth is quite a chilly place, and that this temperature suits the Elder People, although they’ve long since given up the Hunt and become fungophages, like the Fairies. Their hunting “instinct” had been transmuted into something else, as I shall relate in due course.
My new acquaintance never told me his name (if he had one) — nor did I learn the names of any of the other N’s; but he now led me in amiable silence down the path to a cavemouth or opening in the rock face. The cavern within resembled the one in which I’d serenaded the Lads and Maidens, although its walls were not made of cinnabar, but rather seemed to be pale limestone, bristling with an amazing array of stalagmites and stalagtites, like a vast surrealist pipe organ.
On the floor of the cave a small campfire was burning, and around it a group of Elder Ones (fifteen, as I later counted) were seated and working at various chores, or else stretched out and napping. There were women and a few children as well as men; the young women (adorned in shell-bead necklaces) appeared not very different from Cro-Magnons except for their browridges, while the children were as cute as teddy bears. The men appeared all as hirsute as my friend, and one or two long-haired elder Elders had turned white as fleece. Some of them were knapping flint (a process I’d never seen in real life); others were engaged in various obscure crafts, including food production (with stone metates).
As far as I could tell — based on book knowledge — nothing seemed to have changed in the last 40,000 years. The Elders seem in some senses incredibly conservative; they say they discovered the best way to live long ago and see no reason for “progress” which can only lead (in their view) to degeneration. They have in fact made some changes since moving into the Hollow Earth, but only a few, dictated by the new environment. On the whole they remain as always, set in their ways.
The tribe greeted me politely and calmly, evincing no great surprise at my appearance. (The children stared, but also smiled.) Sleepers were awakened, and all settled attentively to listen to my conversation with the patriarch of the clan, who appeared to be a true centenarian. We are taught that N’s lived short lives, but there inside the Stone, free of germs, dangerous animals, and inclement weather, they apparently now survived for aeons. They knew no measure of days or years there, so their concept of time was never clear to me. I’m not sure they actually had a concept of time.
A broad fern leaf was set before me, loaded with mushrooms and dried fruit. A beautiful chipped-stone goblet of some delicious drink accompanied my snack. I soon noticed a slight psychedelic effect — some of the fungi must have been psychoactive, and the “wine” was especially exhilarating.
The Patriarch began by opining that I must have some Neanderthal “blood” in my family tree — “otherwise you could not have found your way to us, as you have.”
I replied that I had no idea of such ancestry, but that red hair and long second toes did appear in my family. And I must confess that ever since my sojourn in the Stone I have felt myself to be a little less or more than “merely human.”
I then asked him if he and his people still pursued an economy of hunting and gathering. “We do not hunt or kill animals in waking life,” he answered, “because the Great Ones with whom we once communed have vanished into Dream. We hunt them now only in sleep. In waking, we are gatherers, and make our living by hunting only roots, herbs, fruits and mushrooms. Also — we hunt for beauty, and for magic, and this takes the place for us of our former
art of the chase.”
“How do you hunt in Dream?” I asked.
“Our people have always specialized in the Dream. When we sleep we are able to awaken within sleep and control our visions and adventures to some extent. Children must learn how to do this. At my age, I can almost completely direct my Dreaming, and so I am a teacher.”
“In Dream do you still see the sabre-toothed tigers and cave bears and mammoths who lived during the Age of Ice?”
“Yes. But we no longer kill each other. Instead we become each other.”
“Are the animals your gods?”
“When we are animals we are gods. The world of Dream is, finally, the same as the world of waking. That which is asleep is as that which wakes. The world itself is all gods.”
“Do you express this realization in any form of representation, or does the vision itself suffice?”
“You refer to art? We know that you people can only achieve the union of Dream and Waking by making art, but we feel no need for such exteriorization. However, we have always made music, which is not separate, in our view, from the Unity.”
“Did we Cro-Magnons invent art in an attempt to share with you in the Dream?”
“It would seem so. We fear that this emulation has led your people to endless restless change, while we have remained unchanging in our truth. Your penchant for experiment has led your world, as we have heard, to the brink of extinction. We hope that eventually you will learn to live with nature as it intended. Why use metal (which is imbued with negative energies) when flint will suffice? Why cut the body of earth when she provides food in abundance without labor? Everything is alive, even rock. All that exists is worthy of love.”
“The goal of wisdom is not indifference?”
“We think not. Passionate engagement knows no obstacles. The Tao is essentially erotic.”
Now, as I mentioned before, I have never claimed to be any sort of real musician — only a poor amateur. But suddenly, as I listened to the Patriarch, I was overcome all at once with the conception of an entire musical composition, every part clear as if I could see it all notated. Unlike the lilting dance tunes that so pleased the Lads and Maidens, this music arose from my intuitive response to the calm millennial mysticism of the Neanderthals. I heard a composition for violin that reflected the enlightenment I’d just received, with some help from magic plants to be sure, and from the Patriarch’s words. In part the music I imagined resembled the slow section or alaap of a South Indian raga — and in part it resembled a partita by Bach — and in part it might sound a bit like free jazz. In my former life I could never have played such a strange and difficult piece, which would require sections of intense improvisation as well as an overall intellectual structure of terrible complexity. But in my present mood, I felt I could do it. In fact, I felt compelled to do it. I opened my violin case and said, “O Elder Ones, this is an instrument with which I too make music. Let us exchange our thoughts in that form. Let me give you my song.”
“Feel free to do so,” said the old one.
My concept was based on the strange open tuning of the mysterious beggar. It was essentially a-rhythmic, although it possessed an underlying structure that could become a rhythmic pattern. It used very few notes but many in-between notes, so to speak. It began in great slowness, like the light before dawn. It created a world, as does the rising sun. It had an over-all shape, but it revealed itself only incrementally, so that sometimes it seemed to wander aimlessly; but then it snuck back up on itself, so to speak, and uncovered its plan with abrupt bursts of lucidity. It went on for about (I’ll guess) four hours. When I finished I was deucedly pleased with myself, and I could sense that the cave people had experienced something of the mood I’d intended. For a while they sat in silence as if meditating on what they’d heard. Then, without a word, the Patriarch stood up, walked over to a corner of the cave where a pile of sticks was lying, picked up two of them, and proceeded to choose a set of stalagmites and stalagtites to use as percussion instruments. He began to play. One by one the older men and women arose, picked up sticks, and moved to positions in the cave where they too could play the living stones. The effect distantly resembled a Javanese gamelan orchestra, in that each player had only a few “gongs” to play but in ensemble an entire composition emerged, using a 12-tone scale. I realized that the “orchestra” of natural lithophones was being played extempore in a composition based on mine. No set rhythm seemed to be followed, but I noticed after a while that an extremely long complex pattern
was being repeated, not note for note but structurally, as the piece unfolded. Not a rhythm but a pulse with elaborate corruscading variations structured the Neanderthal music.
After a while the Patriarch looked over at me and nodded. I picked up my violin and began to accompany the orchestra. I wove my melody in, out, around the big pattern they’d set up. Every 23 pulses “spelt out” a cycle, and eleven of these cycles completed a section of development. I’d never imagined anything so dense and yet so transparent. Truly this was “alien” music — and I was part of it: — pre-human? post-human? non-human? super-human? I don’t know. The cave reverberated in such a way as to double and triple the music, to delay it and yet push it forward. The cave was the instrument. The people played the cave.
When the symphony had lastled exactly as long as my prelude and alaap,
it came to an end. It had re-created my composition and yet built on it in every
direction. I had surpassed myself — I could do no more. I had become one
with the tribe, the cave, the Stone.
Then it was time to Dream.
So the people disposed themselves around the fire to sleep. I too lay down. The Patriarch approached me and spread over me a robe of red fur. Shocked, I realized it was the skin of a long-dead Neanderthal, cured and saved out of love and memory. By covering me with it he was adopting me into the clan. Spooked but happy, I fell asleep.
Well, that’s the story of the Stone. When I awoke I found myself back in my tea-room, lying before the altar on which the Scholar’s Stone stood. A day and a night had passed and it was again morning. I got up and greeted the parrot, who addressed me in a secret manner of his own, in return for a handful of hemp seeds. I made tea. I contemplated my experience. Like Chuang Tzu and his butterfly, I wondered exactly who had been dreaming.
You may well call it a dream. Yes, it was a dream. But…
… the strange result of this dream is that I am now quite a good musician.