This is a story about a story. It was told to me in a whisper by a friend who was once part of the story. He is older now, and his face is lined with all sorts of discoveries and disappointments. His hair has turned grey and now, he spends most of his time shaking his head while reading a book or mumbling to himself or both. This story he cannot remember anymore or even that, once, he was part of it himself.
Me? I just wrote it down. Some parts I have forgotten; some I have guessed at. But I have made nothing up. This is all true—if you know how to read. This is all true—if you know how to listen.
So read! and listen! I am writing this so that one day, when and if a story comes up to you and taps you on the shoulder, or touches your cheek, or gives you a kiss; if it blows in your ear, or tears your favorite handkerchief to shreds, or sprinkles gold and blue powder onto your eyelashes; you will remember me or my friend and recognize this story, and know what to do.
Come, let us begin.
The story starts, as all stories do—with a restless heart. There was a boy in an old brown nipa-covered house in a province. He had come from the city to while away the summer and, as all city boys eventually become, he was bored. The world for him had shrunk down into rectangle of light against which he leaned and yawned or sighed as dust motes
floated in and out of his day. Once in a while, the rectangle would be shut and light would filter in, pearly through kapis shells squared and smoothened by a silken chain of long and dry afternoons.
This day, the boy was leaning out his window as usual. Everything seemed to be the same as it had always been. And this was what he expected; this was what he accepted.
Suddenly, however, from afar, he heard a trickle of children’s laughter. And he saw the owners of this trickle raising a lot of needless dust, surrounding and poking fun at the strangest of figures.
It was an old man as stooped as his walking-stick was straight. His hair was as white as newly-cooked rice. His face was lined and lined deeply. But the queerest thing about him was the way he dressed.
He had on a wide-brimmed hat that literally glowed and shone with the color of bleached, nearly-white corn. It seemed that the sunlight was gathered up by this hat and poured into his immediate surroundings. His face only was in shadow.
The rest of this strange old man, however, was wrapped in a black blanket so long it dragged against the ground. The hem had started to fray. The whole thing was streaked with dust and travel.
Now everybody knows that nobody wears a blanket and goes out for a walk in this country. Besides, it was summer and there was no need at all for warm clothes, much less something that, come to think of it, looked like a full-length cloak.
So the children laughed and poked fun at the man. And it took the stranger all of his strength to shoo them away with one hand on his staff and another clutching the front of his blanket tight to keep it from opening.
Only the boy, as he watched from afar, could glimpse a rainbow flash from the insides of the black and heavy cloth.
Come to think of it, the old man did look ridiculous, shivering in his loneliness under a summer sun. Still, he was scary enough to chase the jeering children away. Only the boy remained, having run all the way down from his house to face the man who had also now begun to stare back. The boy, you see, was staring with eyes as cold as the buildings in his city.
“And you, do you come to jeer, too?”
The boy answered no.
“Then what are you here for?” asked the old man whose eyes had now started to squint.
“I am bored. And of all the things I have seen so far, you, at least, are interesting. Tell me something, a story, anything.”
And the man started to smile a strange and curious bewitching smile.
“So, you are interested in me?! Well, for your interest, I will do more than tell you something. I will give you a choice. And this is the most adventurous story anyone can ever give you— because the story is yours and, admit it or not, you will write it yourself!”
“Here!” the man proclaimed to the puzzled child, “a choice of gifts! I will show you three things one by one. There are stories about them and I will tell you each in its time. After each story, I will ask if you have chosen. If you say yes, the gift is yours. If you say no, I will keep the thing and you will never see it again.
“So. Will you play?”
And the boy looked with the same cold eyes and nodded yes.
Immediately, the man stuck one hand down into the lining of his blanket. For a moment, the boy glimpsed color and a pocket shimmering with mystery.
“Here.” On the man’s calloused and lined palm lay something which looked like a gem. It sparkled with a light all its own—pure at one time, iridescent the next.
And when the boy held it gingerly with two of his fingers to ask, “Is it a diamond?” he could feel wind colder and stronger than he had ever known. He tasted sweetness so sharp it almost cut his tongue. And in his mind, he could see a woman with hair as soothing as rain. Again he asked, “Is it a diamond?”
And the man answered, “No, it is more than that. It is a tear, a woman’s tear. Difficult to mine and even more difficult to cut and polish and preserve than any gem that can be handled in a long and painful life.
“It came from a woman named Undine. [Oon-DEE-neh.] And nobody knows where she came from except that, one day, a lonely king found her on a beach, on some rocks facing the sea. She was more beautiful than anyone or anything else the old ruler had ever seen. And immediately, he was struck with love for her. He rushed over and offered his help, wondering why she looked so lost and distant. For her answer, she just smiled and said, ‘I am Undine and I am from the sea. Take me if you love me. Make me happy and I will love you.’ Needless to say, the king took her and he loved her. He gave her all his treasures and had wonderful things made for her. A new castle was built just for the two of them and the king named it Undine’s Sea because forever after then, he wanted it to be known as the place where Undine was from. Here they stayed—the king loving his silent queen; the queen seeming at least to love her smitten king.
“All went well for a while. Undine had begun to smile and dance and stay up late talking with her king. One night, however, their fairy tale started to end, or started to begin, if you understand fairy tales.
“Undine was staring out a castle window, The king was nearby staring at her. Suddenly she spoke, turning so the king could see her face, ‘I want to return.’
“’To where?’ asked the king. ‘All I know is that you come from the sea. From what island or archipelago or kingdom, I know not. Here, you are happy. Remember the first words you spoke to me? I have made you happy. You love me. You are mine.’
“Undine asked again. ‘Please let me return. I am from the sea and it calls to me. I hear waves even when birds and crickets welcome the twilight. I hear it in your breathing as I sleep. All I ask for now is your leave.’
“But the king said no. And in his fear of losing her, he turned Undine’s Sea into a fortress: barring doors, covering the windows with thick, immovable slabs of colored glass. All light in the castle became unreal. All warmth had changed from the warmth of love into the heat of stone as wood burned in the hearth all through the night.
“Undine stopped talking. She grew sadder and sadder until one day, she shut herself up in her room and began to cry. She cried and she cried. The king could do nothing to stop it. Undine’s weeping echoed throughout the castle and the door of her room would not open.
“Suddenly tears (or was it seawater?) started to trickle out from under her door. And the trickle grew into a stream as the tears flowed faster and faster. No one noticed at first until the level of tears had risen considerably. The king and whatever servant was there could do nothing to stop it. By now, water was seeping in through cracks and crevices in the stone walls. The strangest part of all this was that, while the water poured from Undine’s room, it would not pour out of her castle-prison. And so the water rose. And everyone drowned until at last, the castle burst asunder—rock, glass and all. Nothing was left but ruins. Undine was never found—only the old king’s body and those of his pages.
“In a few weeks, all the water had dried up except for one drop that remained caught and glistening in a silver thimble. An old man passed by the ruins one day—he stands now before you—and he kept the tear he found well. This is what you have before you now. Choose! Do you want it?”
And the boy did want it of course. He closed his eyes and the blood in his veins thrilled to the rush of water. Undine even now called out to him. And nothing it seemed could ever match the passion and beauty caught in that magical drop.
He wanted, it but this was his problem. And the difficulty of the old man’s proposal was becoming more and more apparent: What of the other two gifts? What if they were even more marvelous, more heart-cutting than this? Yes, he wanted the tear, but what if there were something better than even this? And this was really what he wanted, the boy thought to himself: the best, and as long as there was a chance, he would grasp at it.
So he hardened his heart and tried to still the rush of his blood. His mouth would not say no so he just shook his head.
The old man caught this with his squinting eye and smiled knowingly to himself. Without a word, his hand returned the tear to the depths of his pocket.
When it came out again, it held a piece of wood—no larger than the little finger of a young girl.
“Here is the next one. Another wonder, my next offering. Take it, close your eyes and smell.”
The boy did just that. He took it and his hand trembled with the shiver of life and growth. His fingers felt that they could squeeze flowers from soil and crush dewdrops out of rock. When he closed his eyes, he could see, it seemed, the world from some forest nest on the crown of a hill wreathed with the gentlest of mists. He could see the sun rising and setting all at once. He could see the phases of the moon as it danced a minuet with the world. He could see birth and the dying it gives birth to, the falling of a leaf and the cracking open of a seed. And when he smelled—and, oh, how he breathed in!—he smelled the most fragrant of scents, the most poignant and aromatic scent of age.
He smelled the sap of sleeping trees in their forest kingdoms. He smelled a thousand wooden chests of a thousand hopeful virgins. He smelled the East with all its herbs and scented woods. He smelled the West as the sun shone coldly over its dew-drenched meadows.
And again the man asked, “Do you want it? It is yours if you wish.”
But the boy held back and asked first in his turn, “I might but what is it? What is its story?”
And the man closed his eyes and whispered, “It is my brother.”
“Once when he was young, as he was hiking up a hill to explore some woods, he stumbled upon a wooden box. The box was old and broken. Some of the wood had been eaten all the way through and though the box was bound with bands of old bronze, these bindings were very loose.
“He pried the lid open (By now he knew the box to be a small chest) and he discovered a reed pen inside it and a torn shred of yellowing paper. On it he could read the words: ‘Choose what you wish!’
“And my brother laughed and thought, ‘Of all the things I want, I wish for knowledge mos —and what knowledge can I find in this poor chest?’
“But the box intrigued him so he resolved to chop some wood from trees and split these into boards to patch up the holes in the chest he had found.
“So he took his hatchet which he always brought along and set out to look for the right and proper tree. At the very top of the hill (it was a large hill), he found it. It seemed to be a tree he had never seen before—white and slender with leaves that shimmered gold and silver against the light.
“He broke off a twig to see if the wood would do. And as he did, sap red like blood oozed out of what looked more and more to him like a wound. Suddenly, from the wound came a fragrance he had never smelled before. It was so sweet and pungent that it made him giddy. The tree’s scent had, in every sense of the word, intoxicated him.
“Eagerly, he began to chop the wood. As he did so, he discovered a hollow and in it, a sheaf of papers as white as the bark of the tree itself. Amused by this, my brother took the paper, noticing that it smelled of the same sap, and put these into the chest.
“He took the pen and laughingly pretended to write. The funniest things was, the pen did write and it wrote wonderfully. My brother’s script turned from a scrawl into cursive calligraphy. But more than this, the words he wrote spoke more beautifully than any poet I have ever read before or since.
“So my brother smiled and looked out beyond his nest on the hill. It seemed to him that all his senses had become keener. His wish was granted and all he had to do was write—write in ornate and floral script with words even more painful than poetry.
“He never came back to us again. He grew old and bewhiskered on that very spot. And I saw him only twice more after that day. We looked for him once and I decided to climb up the hill. And there he was smiling, writing. He saw me and sometimes, I still feel, he saw past me, beyond perhaps to this very day. I read what he had written and knew that he would never return.
“I did, however, and forced myself to forget him. And he? I think he saw everything marriages and loves, meetings and separations, pain, blood, the fog and its lifting. And in all he saw knowledge, and in this knowledge, he saw beauty.
“I returned only once more when knowledge had also made me old. I couldn’t see my brother anymore. The chest was still there. There were no sheets of paper around to read, only a pile of gold and silver leaves arranged unnaturally well. On the surface of the chest, however, was the most curious thing: a branch growing from or into the box. It had the beginnings of a leaf and was shaped surprisingly like a person’s finger. And it was this that held the old reed pen tightly onto the chest’s writing surface. I had my suspicions. I broke off part of the branch and again the blood-sap oozed out. I heard someone sigh and I felt it was my brother. And immediately, the branch and the pen, the box and the leaves as well as the tree started to melt into smoke.
“The knowledge which made me old also made me afraid. And so I fled.
“Here now in my hand is knowledge and perhaps someone I loved. It is yours for the asking. Will you ask?”
The boy wanted to. Perhaps even more now than before. Here was knowledge indeed. And more than love, more than passion, this was what he wanted. After all, he was from the city. And the only answer to boredom is questions.
Yet, if he did ask, at least one question would never be answered. And this was the question of the third gift. So deep inside the boy decided—perhaps as the old man’s brother should have realized—that joy comes not from how much you know but from what you know and from how you got to know this.
So once more, he held back, this time exerting more will and effort than before. This time, staking everything on what was last. In not choosing now, he had chosen the last. And closing his eyes, he dreamt and decreed, and decided and prayed—each of these and all—that Last is best. Last is best.
And the man nodded, again smiling his unsettling smile.
“Ah, you have chosen.” And he returned the piece of wood to the folds of his cloak and took out the last, greatest, best, most wonderful gift at last!
But it wasn’t.
It was just a pebble, a smooth piece of stone.
“What is it?” the boy asked eagerly.
“Don’t you know? It’s a pebble, a smooth piece of stone.”
“What story? It’s just a pebble. Here, it’s yours.”
These were the last words the old man spoke. He handed this greatest of gifts over to the boy. And like the mysterious figures in fairy stories, the old man disappeared in a puff of smoke.
And the boy stood there.
His grey stare was cast down, looking numbly at the stone.
The sea was drying up inside him. An old tree lost its leaves, rotted and fell. His grip slackened and the world slipped away. His dreams, well, they were not there anymore and, what was worse, he had begun to believe that they never were.
He turned into a whisper.
For the rest of his life.
He grew up and married—not out of love but out of the need to be, at least, not alone.
And he kept the pebble to remind him of the folly of thinking that we are more than skin and bones and boring summer afternoons.
He kept it and it kept him. A spouse did not keep him from being alone.
All this he took in silence.
His wife left him eventually. Then his children. I am not dramatizing this because there wasn’t any drama. I am not spending too much time on it because it did not take long.
Finally, one day, in his despair, the boy-turned-whisper, after all the long afternoons which had since become his life gathered up in his throat, “spoke.” He went into his house, looked out the window and threw the stone away.
But wonder of wonders, the stone hit a tree and shattered into countless pieces. And as it shattered, it seemed that it exploded and turned into a bird—so white it was all colors; so simple, it was tears and laughter all at once.
Then it was gone, weaving in and out of trees, flitting farther and farther away.
The boy was right the first time.