Day 25’s dream-memory is called “Stones of Heaven” and it’s a tale that when looked into should remind people of their own lives.
This remembered dream-memory of Kaim’s explores the meaning of strength and weakness in humanity. In one end, we have people who dedicate so much of their lives to achieving perfection and discipline that they soon begin to shed the very humanity which gave them the strength to begin their journey in the first place. On the other side of the equation we have those who have failed in their own attempts to achieve something great yet from this failure (or failures) they’re able to gain a sort of wisdom which just reinforces their very humanity in the face of adversity and hardship.
Stones of Heaven
The waterfall lies deep in the forest, more than a day’s travel from the nearest village.
It is said to be a holy place.
In search of the divine amid the towering peaks, pilgrims stand beneath the plunging falls in their final ascetic practise.
The water of the falls is freezing cold.
All it takes is a momentary lapse of concentration, and the person is hammered down by the rushing water.
The pilgrims call this waterfall the Stones of Heaven.
Heaven is testing their mental and physical strength, they say, by hurling an endless stream of “stones” down upon them in the form of the powerful waterfall.
“And the stones have a mysterious power,” a former pilgrim says to Kaim with a pained smile. He himself failed in this final austerity, he adds.
“Different Stones of Heaven fall on each person. It’s as if they can see into your heart.”
“What do you mean?” Kaim asks.
“The burdens you bore and the dreams you dreamed in the secular world appear to you one after another.”
In his own case, he says, what came to him first were the voices of women.
“The water plunging down into the basin of the falls began to sound like women’s voices. Sweet voices whispering in my ear, voices sobbing, voices moaning in a lover’s embrace… an incredible variety. And for better or worse I knew every single one of them. Some I was thrilled to hear again, while others I hated remembering.”
“Meaning, you’ve gotten yourself into a lot of trouble involving women?”
“I have indeed. Not to boast or anything, but that was one battlefield I knew better than anybody. I survived, but I made a lot of women cry, and there were a lot of them I loved. My whole purpose in undertaking the austerities was to put that life behind me, but the Stones of Heaven know what they’re doing. In the final, final test, they go after your greatest weakness. If you waver the slightest bit, you’ve had it. The water slams you down, and your austerities are over.”
The man feeds a stick of kindling into the campfire.
“And I’m not the only one,” he continues.
“One fellow heard the voice of the mother he hadn’t seen since he was a little boy; another heard the voice of his dead child.”
“Is it always voices?”
“I wish it were. If you hold up through the voices, the waterfall’s mist starts changing into the shapes of people. You might see somebody who you hated so much in the secular world that you wanted to kill him, or it might be some loan shark you had to go into hiding to get away from.
One little flinch and you’re done for.”
This particular austerity can be performed only once. There are no second chances.
Someone who has persevered for a whole day and night but who fails in the end has no choice but to return to the secular world in defeat, as this man did.
“Not that it was easy for me to get on my feet again once I was back there, either.”
The man chuckles and calls out to a young pilgrim. Or, more precisely, to a young man who was a pilgrim until a few moments ago, but who has just now dragged himself up to the lip of the basin in utter dejection.
“Hey, young fellow, the campfire’s over here. I’ve got liquor to warm up your insides, and some fresh-grilled meat. Get a little of that in your stomach and you’ll have the strength to make it down to the village.”
The man now makes his living as master of the teahouse by the waterfall. Of course, pilgrims undergoing austerities carry no money with them, but the man is not expecting to become rich doing this work.
For bodies chilled by long hours of pounding under the waterfall, he provides a warming fire, food and drink, and sometimes even money to tide them over when they first go down to the village. Payment can be made at any time. The men can bring him the money after they have started to take in earnings again from the jobs they find in the secular world.
He sets no date for repayment. He takes no IOUs. He says he is fine with that.
“Aren’t there some who don’t pay at all?” Kaim asks.
“Of course there are,” the man says matter-of-factly. “But I think my running this teahouse has another kind of discipline for myself.”
“Another kind of discipline?”
“That’s right. The Stones of Heaven will accept only the strongest pilgrims, the ones unperturbed by anything. The role I want to play is to accept the ones who were broken by the Stones of Heaven – the weak human beings. I want to go on accepting the weakest of the weak. The kind who not only succumb to the Stones of Heaven but who even fail to pay for their food and drink afterwards!”
“That is your kind of discipline?”
“Exactly. It makes for a hard living, that’s for sure. I thought I was prepared to deal with cheats and weaklings, but there are a lot more of those than I ever bargained for,” he declares with a hearty laugh.
But then he quickly turns serious and says, “To tell you the truth, I think of this less as a form of discipline than as a way to get even.”
“Get even? With whom?”
“With those gods or whatever they are that keep hurling down their Stones of Heaven.
Human beings are weak – shockingly so, in the eyes of a God. But, I think, and this is not just because of what happened to me, that being weak is the best thing about human beings. Weakness can make us cunning, but it can also make us kind. Weakness can torment us, but it can just as easily be our salvation.
Don’t you see? If the gods are hurling down their Stones of Heaven just to make people aware of their own weakness – just to make us savor our own powerlessness – then I’d just as soon drop my trousers and moon them. I’ll slap my bare butt and say to them,
‘I’m not like you! I’m not going to punish human beings for being weak! I accept them for what they are, weakness and all!'”
The man feeds a new piece of kindling to the fire and says with a shy shrug, “I guess I got carried away.”
Kaim smiles and shakes his head as if to say, “Not at all.”
“Tell me, though,” the man goes on. “I see you’re a traveller, but you don’t seem to be a pilgrim.”
“You’re right, I’m not,” Kaim says. “I was trying to cross over the pass and took the wrong road.”
“Well then, as long as you’re here, why not give the Stones of Heaven a try? It’ll be something to talk about.”
“No, thanks,” Kaim says, smiling.
“Whats the matter? Afraid they’re going to show you whatever it is that shakes you up?” The man smiles and nods. “Can’t say I blame you, though.”
The man is mistaken about Kaim. He is not the least bit afraid of such a thing.
What scares him is the opposite prospect. That of not being shaken up. Of encountering in himself a person unmoved by anything at all.
“Anyway, it would be suicide to jump into the waterfall without preperation.”
“It’s freezing cold, for one thing. There’s even colder water bubbling up from a spring in the basin. Even the most well-conditioned person has to be careful and take time to accustom himself to the low temperature. If you go in all at once, it can stop your heart.”
The man jerks his chin in the direction of the falls as if to say, “Look at them.”
Two new pilgrims are preparing themselves for the challenge of the Stones of Heaven.
The men appear to be brothers. The older one kneels at the edge of the basin, splashing himself and massaging the cold water into his skin from foot- to heart-level. The younger brother is too impatient for that. He wants to jump right under the falls. The elder brother cautions him and takes all the time he needs to accustom himself to the water’s coldness.
He exudes the quiet power of one who has withstood the most rigorous training.
“Aha,” the teahouse owner says to Kaim, smiling. “we’re in for a rare privilege. I think we are about to see the first successful attempt in a long while.”
“You can tell?” Kaim asks.
“You can if you’ve spent as much time here as I have. The winners and losers are decided before the men ever step under the falls.”
Having completed his meticulous preparations, the elder brother enters the basin. Even then, the steps he takes are slow and cautious.
The younger brother follows him in, kicking up a spray with every step.
“The younger one is hopeless,” says the man with a sigh, adding another stick of kindling to the fire.
“I’d better get the liquor ready now,” he mutters to himself.
The brothers stand side by side beneath the pounding waterfall. The Stones of Heaven rain down upon them.
As the man predicted, the elder brother, utterly calm, stands up to the onslaught of images sent by the Stones of Heaven.
Also as the man predicted, the younger brother yields to the Stones of Heaven and is beaten down into the basin of the waterfall.
But then something happens that goes far beyond what the man predicted.
Writhing in agony, the younger brother bobs helplessly in the basin, unable to rise himself.
He is drowning.
He tears at his own chest. His heart is failing. He was not fully prepared to enter the icy water.
“Help me, brother, please!”
But the elder brother doesn’t move. He remains under the waterfall in total concentration.
“Hey, what are you doing there? Hurry and help him!” the man yells, but the elder brother’s expression remains unchanged. He never flinches.
“He’s drowning! You can’t just leave him like that. He’ll die!”
The elder brother never moves.
He grits his teeth, keeps his eyes clamped shut, and shows no sign of moving out from under the waterfall, as if to declare, “This is it! This is the final test of the Stones of Heaven!”
The man screams at him, “You idiot!” and dives into the rolling basin in a rash effort to help the younger brother.
For the moment his untrained body hits the frigid water, the shock of it seizes his heart.
Still, he reaches out toward the drowning brother, who is sinking beneath the surface. A great shudder goes through him and with an enormous groan he takes hold of the young man’s wrist and pulls his limp body toward him.
He tries to return to the shore, but his strength gives out and he falls back into the water.
Next it is Kaim’s turn to dive into the basin beneath the falls. He takes hold of the two unconscious men and drags them toward the shore.
The tones of Heaven pour down on Kaim, and he is assaulted by one vision after another –
scenes from his wanderings,
the climbing and sinking sun,
and countless deaths of those he has come to know on the road of his all-too-long life.
It will do you no good, he silently declares to the gods hurling the Stones of Heaven at him.
My heart remains unmoved. I have lived through a reality far crueler than any phantom you can show me.
Whether or not his life is a sign of his strength, he does not know. He will not boast of it, nor will he tell the tale to others.
He has, however, lived it; that much is certain. He has lived it through the years.
Kaim climbs onto the shore and lays the limp bodies of the teahouse master and the younger brother beside the fire.
As he warms himself, he thinks, The Gods who hurl the Stones of Heaven are inferior Gods.
If they could truly see into everything, they would never have been foolish enough to show Kaim scenes from his past. For what would disturb him most of all would be the unwelcome sight of moments from his own limitless future.
And if they were to ask him the simple question, “For what purpose were you born?” his knees would buckle in an instant.
The first to regain consciousness is the young pilgrim.
The teahouse master’s condition is critical. Kaim’s attempts to warm him and massage his clenched heart have little effect.
“Pull yourself together now! Look, we’ve got a fire here – the fire you built! Let it warm you!”
Kaim shouts into his ear until the man finally manages to force his eyes open a crack and move his purple lips.
“Is… is he… all right?”
“Sure, he’s fine, don’t worry.”
“Oh, good… good…”
“Pull yourself together, man!”
“Tell me, though… is strength the same as coldness?”
“Never mind! Stop talking!”
“Because if it’s true… if strength is coldness, I don’t want any part of it…”
The man gives Kaim a faint smile and closes his eyes.
He will never open them again.
Human beings are weak and fragile.
All it takes for a person to die is for a fist-sized organ to stop beating.
Human kindness, on the other hand, may derive from everyone’s profound awareness of the fragility of life.
Facing the teahouse master’s lifeless corpse, the younger brother hangs his head and cries. This weak man, defeated by the Stones of Heaven, sheds heartfelt tears for the man who saved his life.
His strong elder brother, meanwhile, is still being pounded by the waterfall, unfazed by the Stones of Heaven.
Surely his strength will be recognized by the gods, and he will bring his ascetic training to perfect completion.
Still, Kaim finds the tear-stained face of the younger brother beautiful in a way the stronger elder brother’s can never be, and he wishes that he himself could be moved like the younger man.
There was an unmatched nobility in the last smile of the teahouse master who gave up his life to save that of a complete stranger. Kaim wishes that he, too, could experience such feelings.
And what of my own face?
Living through a thousand years of life is not strength.
Yet, burdened with a life he cannot lose, will Kaim ever be able to change weakness into kindness?
This he cannot tell.
He can only live, unknowing.
He can only walk on.
He can only continue his journey.
Kaim looks at his reflection in the basin of the waterfall.
On the water’s heaving surface, he sees the trembling face of a lonely wanderer.