BY JOHN DISHON
Enter the Rivers and Lakes
Dear friend now in the misty predawn when the roads lie lacquered in rime and the shop windows shuttered against the sharp air that bites the nostrils and now when the drunk and destitute hoist themselves up and slunk down cobbled back alleys and dark narrow lanes with itinerant dogs and vagrant felines seeking the day’s design, and now along these open lanes leading to the brothels or the marketplace where stalls sit still and empty like a barren offering, or else down to the shabby temples where incense burns the solemn fumes of a higher realm, and in the shadows of arching gateways and against the crumbling packed walls of the town where the increment rosy glow of morning has yet to touch, no soul shall walk save you.
Among the rammed earth walls and broken-tiled roofs of homes wherein reside all manner of personage, hiding by day behind the face of a sootblacked smith or a ruddy-cheeked merchant under whose clothing a frosty-edged blade nestles cold inside its leather cradle, or in the face of a bored man before the cookfire wielding with deft hands a wok, nimble fingers that could as easy block the flow of blood to your heart with a fleet tap as roll out pastry skins translucent as gossamer wings, or among the clamoring masses now filling the streets with their varied modes of dress and conduct, obscuring to all under heaven the truth that lies behind the visage, the benign gaze of routine or the minatory glare of intent.
Inside the inns and taverns dim and gloomy under the feeble light of oil lamps take whatever seat is offered you and do not let your eye linger too long on the motley crew peopling the card table in the back corner. The wildhaired scoundrel with one eye might not have the patience to brook a stranger’s interest, but more than the calm gentleman resting half-lidded at the table adjacent, a fan folded beside a score of empty wine bowls acting as tally for the accounts he will soon settle with both the shopkeep and with himself.
Do not be alarmed at the gleaming hilts of swords sleeping in their wooden scabbards or the clink of metal under a stranger’s clothes, but perhaps the silent wanderer in torn dress and disheveled hair should not rouse your anger when he fails to give way along the road in his passing. His days are longer than yours, his troubles borne on his face so that they will not smother his heart. You would not guess his skill with palm strikes and you would not believe the blood and sweat he has devoted to making a life of accumulating enmity, and under a roadside pavilion looking out on the river, do not suppose the young couple are not also harboring deeper sentiments. She might be in the fresh of her youth yet her sleeves conceal needles and his eyes flash a shimmer no one would mistake for kindness.
Along winding circuitous rivers under towering craggy cliffs and before perilous peaks on the horizon where a thin line of water falls like a jade rainbow you cannot help but feel small, and now through forests wooded with pine and bamboo or thickets of juniper and yew, past streams and down ancient paths leading to an old bridge stained with the blood of a quarrel still talked about upon crossing, breathe in the misty vapors as you watch from a promontory an old man with a fishing pole and wicker hat stroll the far mountain roads while singing a tune in a dialect you don’t recognize.
We are come to a world within the world. Within this shapeless boundary residing among the common and law-abiding another life teems. Baleful or benevolent, violent or passive, gratitude and revenge coil together like lovers, the righteous uphold justice drifting along the white path or the black, who can say which is which, while the brigands in the greenwood argue their color. Right and wrong, love and hate, who knows how high the sky or how deep the earth? All lives fugitive in their running.
The night is silent. Save for a bell tolling far away, carried on the breeze and what does it toll? Each chime a condemnation of humanity or the counting down of what remains? Know ye who enter here the world of the rivers and lakes the days are not endless. The red earth scatters and blows away like leaves brushed off a dusty path and you but a desiccated withered scrap among the dross. In the distance lanternlight burns amber like feral cat’s eyes in the dead of night and the calm wind carries with it the plaintive notes of a flute and in the trees the very air thrums with life.
Then comes the dawn.