“Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” – God
Their communications systems were the first to fail as the waters rose and fires rained from the skies. The Flood tore through streets and monstrous machines as God spoke in true wrath. Stone titans’ foundations crumbled; the monolithic beasts stumbled and fell. Starvation was rampant, disease endemic. Wholesale slaughter became the norm, the tantric writhing of a society in its death throes. Society’s death reformed time itself, dragged from linearity into the tightening circles and knots of its primordial youth. The sun rose and fell in rhythm. Young grew old and died and were born again. Trees returned, and the birds bred, and Eden grew again. This eternal cycle, to which people gladly returned, birthed Ida Joun: a monastery dedicated to education and stability, deep in the mountains.
The journey to Ida Joun is long and perilous. Acolytes left their village in two-week intervals to ensure none crossed paths on the journey to Ida Joun, three hundred geodesic kilometers winding westward and sharply upward into the frigid cold. They streamed along Samira, whose epithet, ‘the snake,’ was earned through her yearly culling of the student population, some found tetanic from rusted rebar, others mauled by bears, and still others delivered safely to the foot of Joun Tai Mountain, only to die from exhaustion on the steps, or to go mad and fling themselves from a precipice.
Those who wanted power were refused the path to Ida Joun. Those who simply pretended they did not want to lead would surely perish before the ordeal ended; thus, their village selected its council. The council met often, but councilors rarely spoke; they reached decision by consensus. Their silence frightened acolytes, and their gaze seemed terrible, boaring straight into the beyond. But they volunteered anyway.
It does not take long on Samira for the rocks and the trees to lose their names. Joun Tai looms in the distance as nameless concrete hounds at ankles, and glass sparkles viciously in the afternoon light. Ancient, skeletal buildings grin out between the trees. Chickadee and finch calls weave in, and in the distance Cecilia’s waters rush through rocky shallows. A body lies crumpled at the foot of dead old Spindle, whose poorly smelted steel reinforcements made scaling particularly treacherous. Spindle collapsed when flood-induced erosion undermined its foundation, along with the other skyscrapers on the floodplain; only a few remained on the elevated periphery, and were mined by the surrounding villages for glass, steel, and concrete. She had tumbled from a great height and had dashed her head several times against protruding rubble. She had died quickly.
Crows cackle and the brush waves; buzzards circle, and the trees whiffle softly in the wind in sympathy. Subtle motion is still motion. Subtle thought is still thought. When the mountains crumbled and skyscrapers fell and thunder rang for a hundred years, blasting the surface of the earth, and families cowered beneath the ground in terror, they learned the subtlety of their own thoughts and the subtlety of their own motions, in the face of the geological onslaught. The world speaks slowly, but it does not speak quietly.
The mountain gazes down from the clouds dispassionately. The acolytes’ breaths grow shallower with the gaining altitude, and the stone stairway sings hollowly out beneath their footfalls. They lose sight of Cecilia and Samira, who dance and intertwine in their path from the village. Weakness enters their arms, and their fingers bloody and their eyes grow bloodshot and blurred staring out wildly at the rocks around them who speak in painfully slow tones. A stream of bloodied hand and footprints winds up Joun Tai, and they follow it dumbly.
They find water by licking ice from the steps. They no longer eat, and their energy wanes. Pain self-centers: one does not hear the birds chirping happily, or stop to look at the enticing green of the valley below. Egotism silences the world and amplifies the pain. But beyond pain lies a deep emptiness. Acolytes who can find this emptiness can find the strength to reach Ida Joun. Skeletons line the upper steps.
Ida Joun rewards pilgrims with a stone cell cut by centuries of toil into the honeycombed cliff wall of Joun Tai Mountain. Pilgrims eat rice for the three weeks, and afterwards are permitted vegetable stew for the duration of their stay. The cliff wall overlooks Mesal Valley, nesting within Tai mountain range. A string of villages track Cecilia’s flow, running from Joun Tai all the way to the sea.
A pilgrim who remains for a year becomes a monk. If the pilgrim brings three sacks of rice or a goat, he can become a monk in six months. The monastery rises up along the cliff face, and spills out over a narrow plateau, nestled within verdant edible greens which wind sinuous vines up the cliff itself, and nearly hide the ancient stone walls of the Library.
There are no enforced practices at Ida Joun, but centuries of human effort have woven a web of knowledge and practice whose depth and breadth often encourages pilgrims to develop, rather than radically innovate. Knowledge is recorded in the Joun Library. There is no ledger for the books in the Library, and the books are unmarked. The Library is enormous and cylindrical; the center aisle is marked by copy stations, and the surrounding walls are lined with subtly curvilinear shelves. A monk’s task at these stations is to prevent decay of his books. An aged book is recopied onto fresh parchment, illustrations and all. The process is neverending. In this way a monk learns. No knowledge is inaccessible, but much is incomprehensible: works are composed in several languages, all varieties of mathematical prose, and even in binary code.
To assist a pilgrim’s development, tens of elderly devotees live within the Library itself, rather than in cells along the cliff face. These Late Monks, who attempted to pass through Shiro’s winding tunnel but turned back, quietly select the proper book that will speak to a reader. For the last several years, the favorite introductory topic has been time, which no newcomer could ever understand. Only those who have attempted to pass through Shiro’s winding tunnel have confronted time, and only these broken, failed souls can guide acolytes from point of knowledge to point of knowledge in geodesic sequence.
Knowledge without practice is hollow, and much of monastic life revolves around incorporating the teachings of the Library into everyday life. Physical exercise is of primary importance, where monks engage in slow-moving, but extraordinarily strenuous activity. To maintain oneself is to maintain the world around oneself.
Over the centuries, the process of food preparation has complexified the most: the means of production, complex by themselves, take place in the lower courtyards and cellars, where cheese ages, vegetable gardens flourish, and livestock produce eggs, milk, and, for special occasions, meat. Goats and cows move freely, are fed, sheltered, and revered as givers of life. Fed from the gardens, loved by all, these animals are slaughtered only as a last meal for an acolyte who will soon enter Shiro. A considerable area a few building-lengths from the primary buildings themselves is dedicated to grapes and a winery, but wine consumption is strictly forbidden to any not directly involved in the production process.
The vegetable gardens are serviced by a vast aqueduct and filtration structure embedded in the face of the mountain, hewn by ancient chisel work and smoothed by water’s patient carving. Melted snow and rains flow from the aqueduct into vast cisterns at the entrance to the Early Caves; the cisterns drain into columns of sand and beads, releasing a steady flow of purified water at moderate pressure to both Ida Joun proper and the cave network. The Library contains a record of a monk who urinated into the cistern to test the filtration quality—his urine emerged from the filtration columns clear. He went mad on his second day within Shiro, reemerging gaunt and forever changed.
The gardens themselves are a horticultural masterwork, the main attraction for pilgrims, who seek to bring the full breadth of fruit and vegetable to barren climes. Three greenhouses maintain distinct temperatures, titrated by the quantity of sun allowed through vast sliding shades. Water flows through the pipes continually, urged onward by the cisterns’ gravitational pressure, while assistants regulate through an inscrutable network of valves the flow of water to wings of the greenhouses, to individual shelves, and to individual plants. A silent, hierarchical system has evolved about these valves, whereby a small collection of monks with a masterful memory of the valve conformation relay to acolytes instructions via a complicated language of hand-signals.
There is no activity that does not serve the whole. The whole acts solely to support Shiro, from whom only failures return. If one walks the cell block at night, monks’ chatter can be heard; they fervently exercise their speech in their sleep, as noisy in sleep as silent awake.
Ida Joun’s foundation is equilibrium, borne from a collapsed Babel, self-consumed in Flood and chaos. Its denizens strive to strip themselves of their ego through silence, meditation, and constant action in the interest of the common good, sculpting and perfecting the monastery itself, without reference to the acolytes within. The gardens flourish, are reaped, flourish, and are reaped again in endless cycle. The tapestries endlessly elaborate throughout the Library’s circular walls, tracing birth and death and birth again as impeccably stitched towers rise over meters of cloth, only to collapse and rebuild again.
The Library teaches, above all else, the art of perceptual geometry. Here, the geometry of a space is one with its observer. Distance is colored by pain, excitement, boredom, and happiness. Shape is deformed by beauty, experience, and reward. Shaping the world and shaping oneself are equivalent–acolytes learn to manipulate the contours of their world, crafting beauty and stability: rhythm and selflessness built apart from the egotistical self-improvement of both their former selves and ancestral society.
Acolytes focus on the endless and the interminable: the breath and the footstep, whose steady rhythm mark time’s passage from one moment into the same moment, over and over, and over again. They observe the sun’s cyclical arc in silent contemplation, and practice observing time in its true form. They observe with trepidation, knowing that Shiro awaits. They are not ready: stones observe time in its true form, grass observes time in its true form, the sun observes time in its true form; the wretched creatures wait in silence for Shiro, not knowing that Shiro is already before them.
The Shiro Tunnel accepts students along the western escarpment, wreathed in purple ceremonial tapestries that depict in many shades the death and rebirth of the world, flowing in an endless cycle about the mouth and stair of Shiro itself. Acolytes sit in front of the cave for a full week amidst the carefully-tended floral growth, pondering their journey. So few remain, and completion of studies so intermittent, that at most one pupil rests on those steps at any time, monitored and fed by younger students. At the end of the week, the student enters Shiro’s maw. If they return to Ida Joun, they will remain there for their lives in penance.
Shiro is endless. Its depths are as unsounded and branches as innumerable as the blinded mind may imagine.To speak within Shiro is an abomination, and after five years of silence, none disobey this tenant, though the wind whispers madness. The rhythm of footfalls grants Shiro its circularity: never has a length been so knotted with repetition as in that black void. Time, of course, warps with the whim of the traveler. As thirst grows, so time dilates, and so Shiro lengthens. Many students are lost to this interminable growth, as frustrations and doubts interminably multiply. Some will preoccupy themselves with stealing condensed water from moss on the tunnel walls. Others will sprint madly forward in a rush to finish, only to tire themselves and fail early. Many of these weak-willed successfully flee Shiro’s undulations and return in shame to Ida Joun.
Shiro whispers hallucinations to the patient, tempting with a mother’s caress or pinpricks of light. Rattling stones turn to bell-peals on striking railway ties, constructing polyrhythmic harmonies who resonate deeply forward into Shiro’s belly. Sacred geometries begin to reveal themselves: first the spiderwebbed edges of the tunnel reveal themselves, granted visual reality from reflecting sound, but this web is constantly wavering and morphing with each footfall and thought, trembling and collapsing into itself and the silent observer. Into this web Shiro weaves the acolyte’s sanity and self, only to be stretched and knotted and dilated with Shiro itself along that straight tunnel. Hunger claws and thirst depletes—these are all that grow within Shiro’s knots.
The cusp of madness shines phosphorescent blue, where one student died, an unknowably long time ago. Generation after generation gazed upon this corpse, lit phosphorescent blue by devouring fungi, and overcome with pain, either decided to press on or die there in the eerily blue-lit beauty rather than embrace the darkening surround. Some forty corpses lie arrayed: none who emerge speak of this monstrosity.
After Shiro sears the fungal shine onto the eyes of an acolyte, the trip is short, though the distance long: thus its magics reveal themselves. Breaths gain the cyclical rhythmicity of Neolithic ages, where the young grow old and become young again, who kill and breed, and farm and hunt and kill and breed through winters and summers and interminable growths and recessions whose passing marks not a path forward, but simply tracks through Shiro’s knotted belly whose ending is no further from the beginning than the first step taken. A step to the future lands in the present, no further from where it began: this is Shiro’s teaching. The only stable path is perpetual return.
Shiro’s exit is not far from the village. Trees knit the distance, intermingling their branches and whispering in rumbling tones. The sun embodies its arc—a ring of fire across the sky—enmeshed in depthless blue. The birds flit their chaotic paths between the trees, crying unknowing glory. Pinpricks of light catch Cecilia’s dancing surface, intermingling the patter of her droplets with circular rainbows of roaring foam, whose holy circumference marks the covenant between the seeing eye and the watching world, the unspoken marriage between the remolded souls emerging from Shiro’s maw and God itself.
Pilgrims return to their village, completing and matching the youthful outflow, ending a journey at exactly its beginning.
About the author…
Colin Bredenberg is a graduate student in Neural Science at NYU, studying how the brain learns to process visual information efficiently. He writes extensively, and most enjoys exploring how our perception affects our relationship with the world.