The Spider’s Song

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The Book of Onei is an antinomian dream grimoire, providing deceptive yet true information about the art of Oneiromancy or dream magic in the form of poetry, fantasy, and intentionally ambiguous instructions.

In the city of Sophia in the land of Onei, only wisdom was valued and the foolish were outcasts. The wise used them only for pulling carts or breaking stones, but those whose foolishness was too offensive to the wise were driven away, forced out into the rocky wasteland on the borders of the Plains of Day and Night. Sometimes the lights from their campfires could be seen in the distance, but this sight made the wise uneasy and so they often chose to leave their shutters drawn. All over the splendid city made of colored glass and hammered bronze, onion-domed towers and lofty pinnacles, the night was dark, but in the rocky wasteland outside the city there were lights like distant stars. It was almost as if the wise were frightened of those campfires, which grew more numerous every year.

 

Such a fate was Aphron’s, son of the philosopher Qaran the Luminous. He had always been foolish, a drinker of strong wines and a sleeper at noon, but his father’s reputation for wisdom was so pronounced, even in a city as wise as this one, that he had managed to reach his nineteenth year before anyone dared to speak against him. When the outcry to banish Aphron came at last, his father Qaran took him aside and sought to prepare him for what lay ahead.

 

“My son,” he said, “you are not wise, but there is no need for you to become one of those who cluster around the campfires at the edge of the city. For there are two paths to wisdom, and one is close at hand. If you go out past the rocky wasteland and into the Plains of Day and Night, you will come to the Starry River. Cross that river, and seek the priests in the Plain of Day. They will teach you the wisdom of faith and service, and you may return here as a priest.”

 

So Aphron set off, and his path took him out through the rocky wasteland and past the ashes of the discarded cooking fires. None of the foolish were to be seen by day, and rumor had it that they shunned the daylight, seeking to hide their shame by burrowing and digging, living in caves like furtive animals. It took Aphron three days to cross the rocky wasteland, but he never saw any fools there, only their campfires after sunset. When he made an effort to approach a campfire, it would wink out like a closing eye, leaving the night in a more total darkness. So Aphron concluded that the fools had rejected him, knowing him somehow to be a seeker of wisdom. He pressed on into the Plain of Night.

 

The Plain of Night

 

The Plain of Night was a terrible place, where the sun never rose and the moon never shone, like the moonless nights preferred by thieves and reivers. No path showed the way through that dark, flat plain, but for as long as Aphron walked upon it he heard noises in the nearer distance. Stealthy footsteps crept slowly up on him, seeming to be preparing an ambush, but no predator ever struck. Sinister whispers seemed to breathe conspiracies, but he could never make out the words they were speaking. The fear of walking through constant danger was far worse for Aphron than an actual attack, for as a frequenter of taverns and wine houses he was no stranger to sudden violence, and he carried a long, flame-bladed rapier at his side. He clutched the hilt and prepared himself, but no attack ever came.

 

Without any sign of sun or moon, he had no idea how long he walked, but at last he came to a shining river, faintly silver with the light of all the constellations that seemed to glow from beneath the waters. Aphron could not decide if there were stars in the water, the night sky of some other world perhaps, or if it was only a reflection. When he compared the constellations in the Starry River to those in the sky above him, they did not seem quite the same, but he was at a loss to say exactly how. Remembering that he was a fool after all, he gave up wondering, and looked for a place to cross the river.

 

There was a ferry-man on the riverside in the silvery darkness, sitting and playing dice with no one and drinking dust from an old clay cup. When he looked up at Aphron and spread his hand for the fare, his smile looked as evil as a death’s head grinning, and his skin was stretched so tight over his bones he might as well have been a skeleton. But after Aphron had paid the fare, and the two of them had gone halfway across the river, his flesh filled out. His malicious grin became a somber frown, he grew a long white beard, and his eyes became bright and blue, though they stared blindly ahead of him. A moment later, they passed into daylight. Before the ferry-boat had crossed the Starry River, both sides of the bank had been the same black landscape. Now both of them were all but drowned in sunlight, and the Plains were a wonderland of grass and flowers, while the air was so fresh it tasted like honey. The ferry-boat landed on the Plain of Day, and Aphron walked in search of the priests who live there.

 

The City of the Gods

 

The City of the Gods in the Plain of Day was home to many temples, and the creed they taught was one of love and service – love for the gods, and service to humanity. The priests of the Plain of Day were not corrupt, but genuine servants who strove only to stand as interpreters between the earth and heaven, and who trained the priests of the many cities of Onei in the subtle intricacies of the celestial language. Aphron the Fool sought out the temple of Wisdom, for the goddess of Wisdom was the goddess of his city, and no man who had learned her mysteries would ever be accounted a fool.

 

“The highest wisdom,” the priest told him, “Is the wisdom of discernment, which will allow you to serve both god and man. And the key to discernment is to learn the flavor – the taste and the texture of wrong and right. First I will feed you the wrong.”

 

The priest gave him something that looked much like chocolate, the richest and darkest of chocolates, but its taste was sour. It was the taste of his mouth on a long and hateful morning after too much wine the night before, the sweat of an anonymous lover’s unloved flesh, the iron-like stench of blood on his blade after a misspent word.

 

“I know this taste,” he said. “And it is poisonous. Because of these flavors I was sent into exile.”

 

“Then consider that your first taste of wisdom. Now I will feed you the right.”

 

What the priest fed him now was like an amber-colored honey, the taste of goodness and piety, the taste of loving kindness. For many days he feasted upon it, because the taste was new to him, and at first it seemed to Aphron to be the greatest joy he had ever known. For one month and then three months and for one year and then three years, Aphron fed only on the honey of righteousness. But then in time it began to pall. The taste it left in his mouth was so sweet as to be nauseating, and he longed for something more solid to feast upon.

 

“Honey is sweet,” he said. “But it is not satisfying.”

 

The high priest sighed, and opened a door that led out of the temple. “In that direction is the Blue Desert. If you can cross its sand dunes and survive its dangers, you will come in time to the Cliffs of the Sages. They teach the other path to wisdom.”

 

And the high priest would not look at him, but would only point ahead at the Blue Desert with his face averted, as if Aphron had disappointed him or possibly shamed him somehow. So Aphron set out on the road again, two times an exile.

 

The Plain of Day was filled with temples, and Wisdom was only one of them. There were temples to all of the gods on the Plain of Day, from the lordly and wrathful Thunder Wolf to the Huntress with her bow and arrows. He stopped at none of them, though a man could learn wisdom by studying at any of them. The path of the priests was not for him.

 

The Blue Desert

 

On the third day after he left the Temple of Wisdom, Aphron reached the end of the Plain of Day. Blue sands of a darkly luminous color stretched out to the edge of the horizon and beyond, like an ocean without a drop of water in it. Aphron walked on into the Blue Desert without giving the City of the Gods another thought.

 

The Blue Desert was a dangerous place. The sands in the Blue Desert had a mysterious color, that deep yet still luminous color of the last minutes of twilight. This color is usually seen only in the twenty minutes or so before true nightfall, when the sun has gone down completely but the sky has not yet forgotten what the daylight used to be. It is the color of melancholy, the type of melancholy that is aesthetically pleasing, an emotion as hypnotic and fatal as the eyes of a cobra.

 

As he crossed the Blue Desert on foot, Aphron succumbed to that melancholy, suddenly swept by a terrible longing that yet seemed indescribably beautiful to him. He was thinking about a former lover from the City of Wisdom, a great beauty whose eyes had shined with much the same color (or so it seemed to him now). He suddenly decided he must have been in love. He couldn’t know this, of course, but they had already driven his former lover out, to join the other fools whose campfires dotted the rocky wasteland. This twilight-eyed beauty was far from tortured by thoughts of Aphron (being rather more concerned with immediate survival), but Aphron was suddenly tortured by thoughts of them.

 

If torture is really the right word for it, that is – because it had much to savor in it, this emotion of yearning and loss and poignant memory. He thought about their blue eyes, the same blue as the sands, and the soft waves of their long wheat-colored hair. He thought about the way they smiled at him when he came into the tavern, and the way they sang for him when the two of them were alone. These thoughts were painful – among the worst pain he had ever experienced – but he would sooner have given an arm than give them up, and that is never true of anything we do not crave. Aphron craved his own suffering, and for as long as he craved his suffering, he wandered aimlessly through the desert.

 

No one can say how long he wandered there, but Aphron was a fool – and no fool ever kept the face of one lover before his eyes for very long. He savored the beauty of his own suffering for a time that felt terrible, and he could have sworn that it was a hundred years – and then another old infatuation crossed his mind, a red-headed fruit seller he had met for just as long as it took him to buy some peaches. As soon as he thought of this fact, he laughed, and as soon as he laughed at his own foolishness, the blue sands lost their power. The Cliffs of Saint and Sage were right there in front of him, a walk of no more than a few hours.

 

The Cliffs of Saint and Sage

 

When he arrived at the cliffs, their height was terrifying, but he could see that there were people who lived on them in caves like birds. There were piles of bones below the cliffs, as of people who fell, but he couldn’t tell if they were the saints and the sages or merely would-be visitors who had tried to climb up to them. There was no way to reach the caves except to climb the cliffs, so Aphron disregarded the risk and began to climb.

 

Three times he almost fell and joined the bleached bones at the bottom, but each time he caught a hold and continued to climb. He reached a cave before nightfall, and the old hermit who lived in the cave was clearly a sage. He looked on Aphron with eyes that burned, and gestured for him to crawl into the cave.

 

“I have long awaited you,” he said. “Twice-exiled Aphron the Fool. You rejected the path of the priests, because the priests know nothing except right and wrong. Wrong and right are merely opposites, and the path of the sage is to transcend such opposites. By rejecting the path of the priest, you have begun the journey. To complete it, you must wear this hair-shirt, and live in this cage on the side of the cliff. When you no longer know of hot and cold, like or dislike, good or bad, you will have become a sage.”

 

So Aphron lived in the cage on the side of the cliff, praying and meditating and starving and itching. He understood the purpose of it – which made him wonder whether he was really such a fool as he had always been told – but the hair shirt scratched him and burned him, and the cold winds that swept the side of the cliff made him shiver, and the occasional bird’s egg the hermit fed him was less than nourishing. He felt his mind changing as the days wore on, but not in the way the hermit intended. He wasn’t piercing the veil between right and wrong. He wasn’t transcending his preferences. He was only becoming strange, sinking down into a deeper foolishness in which he thought he could begin to understand the language of the spiders, the music that sunlight makes, and the logic of the clouds.

 

The hermit pulled his cage in one day for the purpose of feeding him, saw the crazed look in his eyes, and began to beat him with an old bone. Aphron chose not to resist this violence, but it did make him wonder. How was it that a sage could become so angry?

 

What the Spider Said

 

As he lay in the bottom of the cage on the side of the cliff, a black widow spider crawled up to him. The spider said this: “Soon to be thrice-exiled, you are one of my kind, a follower of the third path. For there are priests and there are sages, but there are also magicians. The priest serves the community through prayer and sacrifice, through articulating its deepest values, and by mediating between god and man. The sage, on the other hand, makes men into gods, by teaching them the wisdom to stand as high as heaven. The magician does neither.”

 

“Then what does the magician do?” asked Aphron. And the spider sang:

 

In the ruined walls of Carthage

There’s a man who sits alone.

He can tell you what your dream is

From the cracks along a bone.

 

In the Empty Quarter, keening,

There’s a woman, old and blind,

And her milky eyes are staring

Through Saharas of the mind.

 

They will show you how to do things-

How to rule the wind and storm.

But you’ll find yourself a stranger

In the place where you were born.

 

As the spider completed this mysterious song, the hermit heard him, and came rushing forward with a little knife. “You’ve been listening to the spiders,” he said, “Just like the others!” And the hermit cut the rope, sending Aphron the Fool to his death far below.

 

Or such was his intention. For while most of those who heard the spider’s song had gained too much wisdom, leading them to contemplate their own deaths with a fatal dispassion, Aphron had only become more strange. He had achieved the foolishness of poetry and of the wandering stranger, and the laws of the world held no weight with him. He changed into a crow with a flick of his thoughts, flew out between the bars of the cage, and disappeared into the open sky.

 

“Where are you going?” yelled the hermit, waving his knife at the departing bird. “Where are you going, you fool?”

 

“I fly for Carthage,” croaked the bird.

 

Image by Jan Toorop

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