By Douglas Penick
You should know this. Let me tell it. It’s the story of a world. Listen.
Beneath the baking sun, amid timeless deserts where sands spread to the horizon like boiling seas, He arose, sparkling with fugitive beads of moisture, as a whirlwind in a fiery dust storm.
And that was how it started.
Then this Nameless One, consumed by longing, found hidden veins of water beneath the earth and brought them to the surface in the springtime. From these small meandering streams, he made clay. He formed small pellets, and scattered them. From these seeds grew the grasses and stunted trees that rose up near the shallow lakes. He scattered larger clay pellets, and they became the larvae of the butterflies that gathered in the scant grasses near these ponds. Larger pellets became the eggs of geese, ducks, cranes, hawks and other birds that nested in the trees. Then, from sand, water, heat and from his very breath, the Nameless One formed mankind. From sand and water and heat and wind, the Nameless One made animals in great herds for men and women to eat and to use for transport across the endless wastes that were the only home that they would ever know.
In early summer of that first year, the winds died down. The whirling air with its sand and heat and small drops of water, that for a moment had given life to the Nameless One, dropped. This Nameless God was no more. Save for the short- lived creatures he had made, no mark of his passage or purposes, if any, remained.
Inevitably then, they had to continue. I’m not making this up.
Abandoned in the scorching heat, and condemned to an endless struggle merely to survive, these children of a Nameless God pined for whoever had made them. They called on their forbears living and dead, asking them to beg for his power and for his return. They prayed, and there was no reply.
Thus they knew that only in the names and shapes they made would there be any evidence of their passage in this unforgiving world, for in the smooth sands of the desert, there was only extinction. They shaped what they could and they gave things names.
Wherever they went, they made round mud huts and marked the boundaries of their villages with square mud walls. They scarred their faces with lines resembling the furrows of their meager crops. They made their earth colored garments with raised seams in the patterns of the faint stream beds. They marked their time with knots on smooth cord and wove these into their clothing. They painted their clothes with the shapes of water, rains, streams, vapors, clouds and hidden water veins and the maps showing where they and all the birds and moths and antelope and bison that they fostered might be found.
These kinds of omnivorous activities, had to lead to some more specific kind of event, the kind of thing we like to call: fate.
In all their desperate searching for a place of rest, these people encountered only one true miracle. Digging for water in a place where they knew it flowed beneath the sand, one amongst them, a man whose name is now forgotten, found in the muddy pool he had dug nineteen large gold nuggets. These nuggets emerged from the brown water and shone like the sun. As objects, they seemed the like the soul of this peoples’ life, shaped as it was by the unrelenting sun. The man who found these nuggets acquired the knack of finding more, and his children learned to hammer the gold so that it could be worn. They sewed plates of gold onto their garments. They became rulers, and for many generations they guided their people in their journeys across the sands.
And fate, as we all know, cannot help but provoke annihilation.
Still, these people knew no place of rest and moved across the desert following the seasonal ebb and flow of shallow streams, lakes and hidden water-courses. Then they encountered their only one true disaster.
As they looked out from behind the low mud walls of their temporary village, they saw a band of men riding on horses out of a whirlwind. Such beasts were unknown to them, nor did these people know that any other beings formed like themselves, perhaps the offspring of other gods or created in some other way, existed. Their terror was immense.
The tribe of nomads however had encountered many other kinds of men and women. They saw the gleaming gold on the ruler’s tabard and they knew its value in trade. They attacked the village and seized the gold. Men, women and children, they slaughtered all the children of the Nameless One. These people thus vanished from the earth just as had the unknown god who made them.
You may ask me: How do you know this?
How, I reply, could this not be true.
Douglas Penick was a research associate at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, and wrote the Canadian NFB’s series The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Leonard Cohen, narrator), libretti for two operas (King Gesar and Ashoka’s Dream), and three book-length episodes from the Gesar Epic. Short pieces have been published in, among others, Cahiers de L’Herne, Parabola, Bombay Gin, Agni, Hyperallergic, Descant, BODY, and Tricycle. Publerati published his novel about the Third Ming Emperor (A Journey of the North Star). Dreamers and Their Shadows appeared in 2003. On the web, he can be found at douglaspenick.com.
Photo Credit: “Sunset Atacama Desert Man Silhouette Shadow Alone” by Sebastian Del Va