Part I: A Wandering Noon
Noon is walking home. Like any other night, his mind is blank, his steps are heavy, his feet are moving by sheer muscle memory to carry his body. His ears are snugly occupied with voices from faraway lands so that he may silence the universe, and most importantly, himself.
He spots a dead cicada illuminated by street light on the path. He crouches down to look closer, but thinks little of it as dead cicadas are a dime a dozen at the height of summer. In his absent-mindedness, he fails to notice the fog setting in around him. He continues his walk home; in low visibility his memory is a guiding compass.
He climbs the steps of the centuries-old stone bridge on his last stretch of the journey. Fifteen minutes pass before he realises that he is still on the same bridge; for he is still walking on stone and not concrete. The fog has completely obstructed his immediate surroundings, barring a dim yellow light glowing through the fog far off in the distance. He has no choice but to walk towards it. An unearthly silence drowns out the voices in his ears.
As Noon approaches the light, the fog gives way to reveal an immense black wooden gate, in front of which stands an old man. Shrouded in a long onyx robe, he is scribbling on a book using a golden fountain pen. He looks up as Noon draws closer.
Who might you be, asks the old man.
How did you come to this place?
I was walking across Xizi on my way home in a heavy fog.
You are not expected here.
Where is ‘here’? I hope I did not die by mistake.
This is a place for living souls, not of the dead. To return to your realm you must pass through this place. I will call forth a guide lest you find yourself lost.
And thus the elder calls with a voice that reverberates straight through Noon.
The wooden door opens to reveal a heavily-bearded man wearing an ivory linen shirt and a claret robe.
Tutto bene, Laozi?
This is Noon. He found himself here while crossing the bridge in Kinsay. Please assist him in finding his way home.
Where are we, asks Noon.
Nowhere and everywhere, comes Marco’s reply.
Noon walks alongside Marco through a magnificent garden, one so vast that it takes Noon some time to become aware of the figures busy at work; pruning, plucking, digging, watering. They neither notice nor acknowledge both Marco and him as they stroll past.
Sensing Noon’s perplexity, Marco reassures him that these people are unaware of his presence.
They do not exist here, he says, only a projection of their spirits do.
Many desire to change the course of their fate, but are chained to circumstances beyond their control. This garden is where their spirits come to. If we are lucky we will meet the Master of the garden.
Noon gazes at the garden that stretches as far as the eyes can see. Flowers of all colours are blooming, while summer and winter vegetables are ripening at the same time. Marco leads Noon through the orchard, where neat rows of trees of all sizes are bearing citrus, dates, apricots, pistachios, just to name a few.
Where the orchard ends lies a towering hedge in the deepest shade of evergreen stretching in both directions. A small entrance has been carved in the middle. Marco enters. Noon follows not far behind.
Noon realises that they have now entered a maze.
Noon does not know how long they have been walking for, but he begins to notice that the vividness of evergreen is giving way to a sickly acid hue, then a barren brown, before lifelessness takes over completely.
The path is now flanked by dense intertwining branches that are taller than two humans high. It ends abruptly to reveal a lifeless wasteland; the complete opposite of the vista they have left behind. In the distance he can make out figures of no few in numbers. They are rooted on the spot, each crouching and digging the earth with their bare hands.
What are they digging for?
Nothing, says Marco. Fear has paralysed their feet, so the only way they can go is down.
Some of us enjoy doing that.
You might be right, Marco smiles ruefully.
They walk abreast across the arid landscape, weaving around the uneven ground, peppered with holes surrounded by mounds of earth. A few are so deep that Noon can no longer see the person digging it.
They finally arrive before a narrow creek, small and shallow enough to be crossed without a bridge. Noon soon finds himself looking at two men who – unlike the figures he has seen – are dressed out of time like his companion.
Gentlemen, we have a visitor passing through. His name is Noon.
Good day Noon. I am Friedr.
Noon does not speak German, yet he understands Friedr.
Friedr is wearing a hardy wool ensemble, while his associate is adorned in an elegant navy suit, complete with a fancy cravat.
This is Wolteer. You must have passed through his garden.
Noon nods in acknowledgement. The distinguished-looking man nods in return.
Noon peers at the sight beyond them. Men and women, young and old, all of them in varying states of mutilation. Agony and desperation colour their faces; bruises and cuts adorn their bodies. Some are cleft from throat to crotch, revealing their innermost being. Noone is laying a hand on them but themselves.
The four of them make their way slowly through the Stygian landscape, surrounded by the silence of suffering.
Tragic, is it not. Consider your origin. You were not formed to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge, remarked the nobleman in French.
Noon is no longer surprised he understands another foreign tongue.
Having relinquished their will to overcome themselves, they seek only base pleasures, adds Friedr.
The path to hell begins in paradise, Marco concludes.
Pt. III: A Homeward-Bound Noon
We are more than halfway through, Marco informs Noon.
Are there not nine levels of hell, asks Noon.
Alas, we are not in a 14th-century poem, Wolteer replies with a smile.
And neither are we in hell, Friedr proclaims.
Noon feels the descent under his feet, gentle at first, then so steep that everyone has to dig their heels in to remain upright.
The four of them arrive at the bottom of the hill. From a distance away, Noon can hear the roar of a waterfall. In the midst of the misty gloaming, they stand at the edge of a lake, on which semi-translucent black spheres float. Noon can hardly make out the figures inside the spheres except when they are moving. Some are singular, most are joined together. They drift across the vast body of water, and when they come into contact with each other, the spheres bond and move together in the form of a giant honeycomb cluster.
These honeycombs have grown larger everyday, it seems, says Marco.
Yes, cynicism and hopelessness is best practiced in company, replies Wolteer.
Noon voices his incomprehension.
There are those who, having given up on their personhood, find comfort in a life unlived, and solace in inducing others to join them in the lake of embitterment and victimhood.
They continue their walk along the shore of the lake for some time before they come to a large clearing. Standing stones of Brobdingnagian proportions jut straight to the sky, each about two meters wide and three humans tall, arranged carefully in circular ringed patterns. Fleeting in between the inner and outer rings are figures that Noon has come to expect, but this time he notices something different about them.
Though the figures are lavishly dressed, elegant in motion and amiable to each other, a closer inspection reveals features that crawl out of one’s worst nightmares. Instead of eyes, the sockets are lined with sharp, serrated teeth. Forked tongues uncurl when soundless mouths open as if in conversation. Some are drinking from thin crystal flutes that contain tarred ruby-red liquids. Many are holding plates of what looks like small slimy balls – picked up with fingers as sharp as knives – which they pop into their eye sockets to be chewed by tiny teeth, spilling thick scarlet sap down the faces of those who are less measured.
Noon looks at his companions with trepidation. Who are they?
Like the others, they are the spirits of the discontent, Marco begins, but they wield the power to unleash misery upon others, from their loved ones to entire tribes. Some carry grudges borne from childhood, others seek vengeance for their long-departed ancestors.
Is this where they come to be punished?
To live a life devoured by ill will, absent of grace and compassion, is punishment enough, Wolteer replies.
But what about the people whose lives they have affected?
Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty. Only from hardships can true strength be revealed.
That is cruel, Noon protests.
Such is life, answers Friedr, and how you came to be.
Marco leads the entourage to a stone viaduct about fifty span wide, where the lake abruptly ends and falls into a pit of blackness. The familiar fog looms in the distance.
This is where our domain ends, Noon.
And where yours begin once more.
Follow this path and you will soon find yourself in a familiar place.
Will I return home safe?
That much I can assure you.
Thank you, Marco.
I wish you all the luck in the world.
Having bid farewell to Marco, Friedr and Wolteer, Noon marches into the fog, the stone steps under his feet unchanging for some time. When it finally dissipates, Noon finds himself surrounded by familiar trees. His steps grow quicker, his heart longing for home. His hears birds chirping and cicadas singing once more.
Noon arrives in his garden. He spots the friendly gnome who always greets him with a friendly salute, informing Noon that home is a mere few steps away. The familiar sight of his home’s white door comes into view. The moment he crosses the threshold, an enchanting aroma beckons him towards the kitchen. A small bowl bearing his name has been placed on the shiny parquet floor, in which a lovingly-prepared serving of tuna awaits.