(An Allegorical Story)
While walking towards the Golden Hills, whose jagged mounds shimmered in the heat as through they were composed of steam, less real than an image I might see in a dream, I came across a fellow traveller meditating in the shade of a stone escarpment. His clothing was faded and raw, and for a moment I thought about my own clothing, and felt young and inexperienced. I dismissed this distinction as I sat next to the traveler, so that I might greet him on empty terms, to better discover who he might be.
When I sat beside him, facing as he was facing, I discovered that a league away was a ruin of some building, easy to spot as its walls seemed to be coated in a white clay. It presided over a notch in a wall of yellow stone, built on the right pillar. Finding this reason to speak, I asked the man about whether this was a suitable gateway through the Golden Hills, as it seemed to be away from the path that was in current use. The traveler was kind enough to satisfy my questions.
“I met a local cowherd in this spot, and asked the same thing of him. Fortunately I understood his language, and he was able to tell me a great deal. Do you see how it is like a gate? He told me that no one passes through that gate for fear of a curse, and several generations ago the road was redirected to the south.”
“Is it a shorter way to the mountain pass than the road to the south?” At this the traveler smiled.
“Good, you are not afraid. To answer your question, the way is said to be somewhat shorter, and decidedly more beautiful.”
“It seems from this distance, that the structure has no windows. So it must have been a fortress?”
“I am told it does have windows, but that they only face across the gate, to the other side. Now that your easy courage has firmed up my own resolve to journey in that direction, let’s walk towards it, and I will tell you the interesting story about the place. I am called Thera.”
During my studies, I learned that one of the ancient word-sounds – li – is known to many languages, and describes the distance that a person is able to see across flat land, which is also the distance a healthy person may walk within the time it take the sun to travel 15 degrees. I was taught that sounds such as this, which describe an ordinary observation between a human and the natural world, are like the seeds of humankind, from which all the branches on the trees of language and peoples originate. During our walk, I thought that it is also the perfect measure of distance and time in which to hear a marvelous story. While we walked, it began to gently rain, and this welcome cooling lifted our spirits.
* * *
The cowherd had told that his people were descendants of the chief that built the structure, and they called the place the Crown Gate, and the building the White Crown. His people, who now roamed with their herds along the cold streams that flow from the mountains, following the seasonal grasses and sheltering in tents made of the skins of their animals, kept the story in clear memory, because the story of the White Crown is the memory of how their people lost their old way of life, living in a city surrounded by green crops. When asked for the name of the chief that build it, he refused and spat on the ground. He said that until then, their people had a name, but now were only known as the people of this land, and in turn they do not speak the name of the chief. They say that once there was a matching temple on the other side, called Black Crown, which was destroyed, but would periodically reappear to the unlucky.
As the tradition goes, the chief who built White Crown was not solely responsible for the misfortune, but in fact the entire line he descended from took part in their misfortune, and for this reason the people do not revere a lineage of chiefs any longer, but decide the movements of the people by ritual fortune telling, in which their healers cast certain bones of a sheep to decide by chance whether to remain or move. By submitting their fates to random chance, they hope to avoid the curse that afflicted their chiefs and ancestors.
As with many, the story begins with their first ancestor. He was chasing game for his people, which were scarce. He had wandered for days, weak and exhausted, when he finally did spot one, he chased it along the stone ridge until he reached the Gate, where the animal leapt across to the other side. He took aim, and despite his honed skills, he missed, and his spear’s point shattered against the rock. In those days a spear point was the most valuable thing a person could own. Filled with anger, he sat to down to consider what had happened. He realized that his frustration had led him to throw poorly, and decided to settle himself in order to regain his composure. He sat for a long time in that place until he found himself entering a state of complete calm. When at last this was achieved he opened his eyes and to his surprise, saw a man sitting across from him, on the other side.
The ancestor did not recognize the man at first, but noticed he was sitting, facing him, in the same posture, and seemed to be dressed the same way. Who is this person who dresses as though he is from my people, but who I do not recognize? He waved with his left arm, and the man waved in return, waving with his right. This is like a children’s game, is he mocking me? He called out to him, who are you? And the man replied with the same question. It was then that his eyes perceived that there was something familiar about him after all – he was in fact looking at himself! The longer he looked, the more certain it was, though while this man was dressed the same, had the same features, and repeated everything he said, there was a darker cast to his skin, and a darker tone to his clothes. The chief remained there for a long time, calm and collect, and the other man did not waver. Finally, as the sun began to set, the man mysteriously disappeared before his eyes.
Was this a demon, he thought? Just then, in the place of the figure, an animal approached. The animal was unsurprised and did not seem to notice him. With perfectly calm movements, the chief picked up his other spear, and felled the animal. Certainly he thought, that was no demon. He took the animal home to his people, and suggested they move their camp to the place of the Gates. He asked the fortune teller among his people, who told him that the man he saw was his own self, who lived in a world very close to our own. The chief asked how it was possible that there were other worlds. The fortune teller said, “Do the birds not fly above in flocks, and do the lake fish not also swim below in schools? Just as we live in the realm between the sky and the earth, and travel as a group ourselves? Surely the one you saw is also in his own world, which is somehow between the worlds which we know?”
The idea seemed very odd, but the choice of camping at the Gates proved prosperous. The hunting was good, and water flowed nearby. For the chief, this afforded the opportunity to sit on the gate and look across, hoping to see his twin brother again. This did not come to pass, and the people scratched their heads, saying, “Our chief is no longer willing to hunt for us.” But some said, “Look at the place he has chosen for us to live, it is a good place with plenty of game, who cares that he spends all his time contemplating on a rock?”
When he died the ancestor’s son, the chief, built a level sitting platform and a sturdy canopy to remember the place where his father would sit. During that time, the people found no reason to move, and the people’s numbers grew.
One day, while the chief was sitting at the place where his father would spend his time, practicing the calm sitting that he was taught brought greater skill in the hunt, he opened his eyes and was surprised to see, sitting across from him, another man. Was this the man that his father has spoken of? What was more surprising, this other man was dressed the same as his people, but he did not recognize him. Even more surprising than this, along with the man there appeared an identical platform and canopy to the one he had built! He waved, and the man waved in reply. He called out, “Who are you?” and the man replied, “Who are you?”. He looked closer, and finally saw that the man’s face was identical to his own! To the chief he was identical, man and platform and canopy, except there was slight darker tone to his skin, and a darker color to the canopy, as though it was enshrouded in smoke. As long as the chief sat there, trying to comprehend what he saw, the other remained.
Finally, the sun began to set, and the man, platform and canopy on the other side faded away. Just then, he heard a voice call from below, at the entrance to the Gate.
“Hello!” said the voice, and he looked to see a stranger, leading a few animals. The stranger was wearing clothes the chief had never seen before, and he had never seen these animals who seemed to be content to travel alongside him. “By chance I saw your canopy from afar, and thought this must be the right way to travel. Is this the way to the mountain pass?”
“It is,” said the chief. It was then the people had met their first traveler. The traveler was so grateful for the hospitality that he received, that he gave them a blessing. He asked them to watch his animals while he travelled away, and promised they may have any offspring that came of them during that time. He taught them to care for the animals, and harvest from them.
Amazed by what had come to pass, the chief took to spending much of his time sitting on the platform as his father did. The people thought this was strange, but did not complain, as they grew to enjoy the benefits of the animals in their care, and no longer needed to spend as much time hunting. During this time the people’s numbers grew, and they built many houses.
When the chief had passed away, his son gathered stones and built a tall memorial beside the platform on the Crown Gate. He also built a low wall around the platform, to shelter it from the wind. During that time, the stranger who had brought the gift of the herds to his people returned, very old. “I am too old to travel any further,” he explained, “And I was hoping, that in return for keeping these animals as you have done so well, if I might live out my last here as one of your own.”
The people welcomed this, and the old man became a friend to the chief’s son. He told him about the people he had met beyond the mountains, whose numbers were also growing, and that other travellers were sure to make their way. “I had some trouble finding this place again,” the old man explained. “The golden hills are numerous and confuse a travelers direction. The wind brings dust that make it hard to tell one place from another. Why don’t you paint that tower you built for your father white, so that it will be more easily spotted by future travelers?” The chief took his advice, and when the old man had passed on, buried him beside his father.
One day, while sitting on the sheltered platform at the Gate and thinking about his father and the old stranger, the chief was calming himself as he was taught and looking up was surprised to see, there on the other side, another man. This man was sitting just as he sat, and in addition sat on the same walled platform, in the shade of a memorial tower identically built. Knowing what to expect, he look closer and saw that indeed, he was looking at his own face. He called out, “Who are you?” and the other replied, “Who are you?” and knew that like his ancestors, he was meeting his smoky twin. He sat for a long time looking at this person, and pondering the other memorial, which unlike his own white memorial was black in color. Sitting there for a long time, the figure and the black tower faded away as the sun began to set.
It was then he looked across, and saw a long caravan of strangers approaching. They had never received so many visitors at once, and these people brought many animals of different kinds, new foods and cloth, weapons and tools. During that time, what became known as the White Crown did, as predicted, attract travelers. The people would trade with these travelers, in exchange for the food, leather, horn and shelter that the people’s lands and herds provided. The people grew very quickly in number and in wealth.
When the chief had passed away, his son built a beautiful temple at White Crown for his ancestors. He was taught a tradition, that here his ancestors would practice sitting for long periods of time, and if they did this for long enough, they would see themselves in another world. In this other world their twin was also chief, and it was believed these two worlds were tied together, each growing in wealth as the other. He was taught that he must sit there for the benefit of both places, until he saw that the other world was also well, and bring new blessings to his people.
But this chief had a restless spirit, and did not enjoy sitting still for long periods of time. He asked the elders, “Why should I sit on that windy rock staring across the gap, when our city has grown to offer so much. How can I hear music with all that wind? If I must sit, I would prefer to be on the back of a fast horse than a motionless rock.” The elders discussed this, and decided that according to the stories whoever sat on the Gate saw their own twin. Perhaps it did not matter who sat there, and that one of their own would suffice. They said, “Is the chief not a representative of the people? Why then couldn’t a representative of the chief serve as a representative of the people?” From that time on, one of the elders would be chosen to sit as a priest every day at White Crown.
It came to pass that one day, while sitting in the temple that faced the other side, the priest had achieved complete relaxation and looked up to see his twin on the other side, as had been foretold. He was so overjoyed, he nearly forgot to call out the sacred phrase, “Who are you?” and was relieved to hear in reply, “Who are you?” He was also pleased to see that on the other side, in perfect match of every brick and decoration, an identical, Black Crown facing him. All is well in the other land, he though, and so it will be for us. Marveling at this, he watched until the sun began to set, and the Black Crown and his twin faded away.
As he looked up, wondering what boon would be granted, he saw something startling just a league away – an army approached. Quickly he ran to the city and warned the people. Many of the people fled, others prepared to fight, while the elders took shelter in the temple at White Crown. The army destroyed many homes and killed many people, but in the end were repulsed, and rode away carrying stolen people and animals. The elders in the temple discussed these events. Some said the attack was the fault of the chief, for entrusting the temple duty to a priest. Others said that the foretold blessing was to have enough warning to prepare, and resist the attack.
The chief favored the latter opinion, and preferred the advice of those priests who said that like the vision of the ancestor, to move his people to this sacred place, this vision was an instruction to build an army, and protect this place from attack. The chief raised an army, made weapons of war, and proclaimed it his duty to defeat these marauding neighbors before they could attack again. He set apart the priests who supported him, made them in charge of the White Crown temple, and set off to war.
When the chief returned, he brought with him a great deal of treasure from the defeated neighbors, and to avenge his own people, took many of their animals and people. The stolen people he brought back were disliked for the destruction of their city. Some of the elders spoke against this, saying that a city could be rebuilt, and that there was no reason to keep the stolen people. Other elders said that a debt was owed, and the stolen people would repay that debt by rebuilding and fortifying the city. The chief, furious with the first group, threw them out of the palace, and many left to live as exiles.
Of the second group of elders, the one who had seen the vision of the approaching army and who had become quite powerful, asked if some of the stolen people might be used to build a grand fortified temple at White Crown, to protect the ones who were serving this sacred role, and this was granted. So the city was rebuilt and fortified, and the temple expanded, with much of the work performed by slaves. In this way, the people grew in number and wealth.
Over time, the priests of White Crown grew very powerful. They taught the people of the city about their sacred mission, and collected offerings from them and the travelers who passed the the Crown Gate, and the place become known far and wide for its wealth and grandeur. The chiefs, now kings, fought more wars to protect the city, and to increase its wealth. Whenever they marched off to war, they would ride through the Crown Gate, and receive the blessings of the priests above. The slaves, who had also grown in number, continued to live as servants, and were kept out of the temple.
As it happened, some of the exiled elders had built their own settlements nearby. Because they had come to believe in their tradition that the vision of the army which had established the priests of White Crown was a result of of the Chief abandoning the ways of their people, they sought to take as their example the first ancestor, and practiced sitting calmly and seeking visions of the other side in their own way. Because they were still of the people, they hoped that they could restore the fortunes and end the warfare that had become a part of their lives. They did this without a temple, rejecting the idea as a corruption of the White Crown priesthood. For this reason, descendants of the stolen people came to the outer settlements to practice the ancestor way. In the tradition of the exiled elders, the stolen people were not servants, with many settled among them, and they developed their own traditions.
It was during this time that the river began to dry. This happened slowly, over a few generations, so that the famous city would continue to grow, conduct war, and gain in wealth and slaves even though the water grew increasingly scarce. By this time the settlements of the exiled elders had grown as well, and had their own priests, chiefs and even armies. As the crops began to decline, those who were not rulers suffered the shortfall. Eventually, the armies of the people began to fight even among themselves, and the people began to decline.
It is said that their King suffered for the first time a tremendous defeat in battle, and furious at the decline of the people, was at a loss. He went to White Crown, to the platform where his ancestors sat, and demanded the Black Temple appear. It is said he vowed to cross over and conquer the other world, if necessary, should the blessings not resume and the river return to its banks. He ordered a bridge built across the gate, and made all of his priests practice their rituals for revealing the other side. He did not sit as the tradition had taught, but stood in his armor with his soldiers, prepared to invade. It is said that a great storm arose, but the priests did not cease their rituals, and the soldiers did not remove their armor. The King cried, “If you do not open now, I will destroy the White Crown, and so too will the Black Crown be destroyed.” To everyone’s amazement the storm ceased, the clouds parted, and before them stood the Black Crown. Also before them stood the King’s own twin, with his own army at the ready. Taking this as a challenge, the King ordered his men to march, and advanced across the bridge to the other side.
It is said the King and his army vanished, never to be seen again.
The outer settlements, whose people were composed of the descendants of the stolen and the exiled, predicted that hearing of the vanishing King, soon the enemies of the people would descend on the city. They uprooted, abandoning what they could not carry, and took to wandering, and have done so to this day. The people that remained tried to guard their treasure, temple, and places of power, but were eventually overcome by marauders and drought, and the city vanished into memory, avoided by all.
* * *
“So you see,” said Thera, “You found me sitting and watching from a distance, half in amusement, to see if the place would appear for myself. But your coming along reminded me that I was not seeing anything at all!”
We had reached the gates, and the rain had stopped. Curiously we climbed up into the majestic ruins, and looking down saw some remains here and there of a city that once lay on the other side. Now it was like a graveyard, with dried posts pointing up from the sand like fingers to the sky. We saw the serpentine trace of a dry riverbed, vanishing off into the distance. Finding the place that must have been the old platform, we sat for a while and watched.
“Look!” I cried! “I see it!” There on the other side, I saw two travelers sitting in the shade of a ruined temple. I began to feel uneasy after what I had heard.
Thera seemed delighted, and waved. There on the other side, his twin waved back, and we heard his laughter. “Sounds just like me!” He smiled. And we heard the other say the same.
“That sounds much like any echo I have encountered in my travels,” I said. This was repeated back to me.
“Well, let’s go meet them!” Thera exclaimed, and we made our way around, any bridge having long vanished, to climb up to the other side. There was nothing, and we stood on the spot where our twins in the Black Crown had appeared. The spot was a slight depression in the surface of the rock, filled with a shallow layer of water. Thera laughed and pointed at the reflections at our feet. “Hello, pleased to meet you!”