|To begin, darkness.
In the darkness a light flickered into being. Then another, and another. The lights were moving.
They were fireflies. First a handful, then a swarm, and then hundreds and thousands of fireflies glittered with their cold fire in the darkness.
It reminded the monk of a river of stars, or a bridge of stars, or a ribbon, twining away into darkness, insubstantial and glimmering, and it was along this ribbon that the monk began to walk.
In his hand he was holding a scrap of paper, which glowed even more brightly than the fireflies.
As he walked, the fireflies, which had been flickering on and off, began to fall away, to drop and to tumble like camellia blossoms.
The monk tumbled with them. He realized as he fell that he was not falling through fireflies, but through the stars in the night sky.
He landed gently on a barren plain of rock, malachite-green. He scrambled to his feet.
He began to walk across the glassy green plain. In his dream he was wearing huge wooden sandals, of the kind that are worn in the rainy season, to keep a person high up and out of the mud. As he walked the wooden sandals were worn down and worn away, and soon he was walking in his bare feet across the plain, which was sharp as a hundred knives, and the blood ran from the soles of his feet, leaving red footprints behind him.
* * *
He walked through a plain of monstrous bones, jagged and shattered and inhuman.
He walked through a swamp, which was hot and wet, and the air was filled with biting gnats and midges smaller than the eye could easily see, which settled on his skin and at the corners of his eyes and stung him, raising welts where they bit his skin. Soon the air was black with the creatures.
His strip of paper shone brightly, and he held it high in front of him, and he kept walking.
And then he was through the swamp. He spat the last of the midges black from the back of his throat, and wiped them from his eyes.
He walked through a garden that talked to him, although it advised him to go back, told him that the King of Dreams should not be idly sought out, and that he should remain in the garden, and walk its paths, and sit beside its sweet waters; but how it was the garden spoke to him the monk could never have explained.
He left the garden, with regret, and he walked on.
* * *
He saw that he was standing in front of two houses, next to each other, and there were two men sitting in the veranda of one of the houses, fishing with lines in the pond below.
"I seek the King of All Night's Dreaming," called the monk. "Am I going the right way?"
"How can you not go to him?" asked the first of the men. "When all the ways are his?"
The second man, who was fat and seemed sad, said nothing.
The monk unfolded his token to show it to them. And it was then, if he had any doubt before, that he knew for certain that he was dreaming. For he could read the characters on the paper he carried. They were simple characters, so simple he thought it a wonder he had not been able to read them before, and they described one who shaped, who molded and formed things from chaos and from nothing, who transmuted things from formlessness and shapelessness into that-which-was-not-real, but without which the real would have no meaning.
The second man sneezed, to attract the monk's attention, and then he pointed, almost as if accidentally, to a specific hill.
The monk bowed his thanks, and walked toward the hill.
Looking back, as he reached the hill, he saw the fat man was now floating, face-down, in the fish pond, and his murderer was looking down at him from the balcony of his house.
* * *
When he was halfway up the hill he looked back one more time and saw that the house had gone, and the men and the pool, and where it had been there was nothing more than a graveyard.
Ahead of him was a huge house, built to be perfectly one with its surroundings: it was at once a shrine and a castle and a home. It was a place of waterfalls and gardens, of painted screens and elegant, curving roofs. He could not tell if it was one house or a hundred houses. He saw courtyards and orchards and trees: spring blossoms and autumn leaves and summer fruit all grew beside each other on the trees of the strange gardens.
Bright birds sang from those trees; they were of blues and reds so vivid that they seemed like flying flowers, and the songs they sang were passing strange.
The monk had never seen a place like it.
There was a carved gate, made of golden wood, with strange beasts carved upon it, and the monk went to the gate, and beat a small gong that hung there.
The gong was soundless, but he was certain that those who needed to know that he was there knew it.
The gate shifted and changed, and a many-colored creature stood in front of him: a monstrous bird, with a head like a lion's, sharp teeth, a snake's tail, and huge wings. It was an enormous itsumade, a creature from legend.
"State your business," said the itsumade. "Who are you, and why do you wish to disturb my master?"
"This place is so beautiful," said the monk, "and its beauty is only increased by knowing that when I wake all other places will be lacking, for they will not be this palace. Do I truly stand in the gardens of the palace of the King of Dreams?"
His words were gentle, but they carried a rebuke to the gatekeeper, for even a monster from legend should remember certain civilities.
"This is indeed the Palace of Dreams," growled the itsumade. "Tell me what you wish, or I shall eat you."
The monk extended his hand, to show the itsumade the slip of paper he had been given. It blazed with its own light. The itsumade lowered its head and grunted. "I did not know," it said. "I thought you were but a dreamer."
The monk became aware at this time that someone was watching him from high in a black pine tree. The watcher was a raven, huge, black and dark, and when it saw that it was observed it flew down to the monk with huge, flapping motions, landing on the path a little way in front of him.
"Follow me," said the raven, in a voice like two stones grinding together.
"Will you take me to the King of Dreams?" asked the monk.
"You would not seek to question a poem, or a falling leaf, or the mist on the mountaintop," said the raven. "Why, then, do you question me?"
* * *
The house was like a maze, and the monk followed the raven through twilit galleries and pavillions, strange and austere; through passages formed of screens, beside calm ponds and perfect rocks and stones they walked, the monk always following the bird.
"From your reply," said the monk, "I presume that you are a poet."
"I serve the King of All Night's Dreaming," said the bird, "and I do his bidding." It flapped its wings and fluttered up, to land on a screen, so it was level with the monk's head. "But you are correct. Once, I was a poet, and like all poets, I spent too long in the Kingdom of Dreams."
The raven ushered the monk into a room decorated with painted screens. There was a raised dais at one end of the room, and upon the dais sat a wooden chair inlaid with mother-of-pearl. It was a perfect chair, of simplicity and strangeness, and the monk knew that this must be the throne of the King of Dreams.
"Wait here," said the raven; then it strutted from the room like a proud old courtier.
The monk stood nervously in the throne room, and he waited for the arrival of the King of Dreams.
In the monk's imagination, the King of Dreams became an old man, with a long beard and fingernails, and then he looked like Binzuru Harada, and then he became a demon, half man and half ch'ien lung.
One moment he was alone in the throne room, eyeing the painted screens, and then he was no longer alone, and the King of Dreams sat in the chair upon the dais.
* * *
The monk bowed low.
The King of Dreams had skin as pale as the winter moon and hair as black as a raven's wing, and his eyes were pools of night inside which distant stars glittered and burned. His robe was the color of night, and flames and faces appeared in the base of it and were gone. He began to speak, in a voice that was gentle, yet as strong as silk. You are welcome in this place, he said, in words that the monk heard inside his head. But you should not be here.
"I have come," said the monk, "to plead for the life of a fox, who is, in my world, lost in dreams. Without your aid, she will perish."
And perhaps that is what she wants, said the King of All Night's Dreaming. To be lost in dreams. Certainly she has a reason for what she has done, and it is a reason you know little of. Besides, she is a fox. What is her fate to you?
The monk hesitated. "Amida O-noko taught us to have love and reverence for all living things. This fox has done me no harm."
The King of Dreams looked the monk up and down. And is that all? he said, unimpressed. That is why you desert your temple, and come to me? Because you love and revere all living things?
"I have a duty to all things," said the monk. "For, as a monk, I have put behind me all the bonds of desire, all worldly ties."
The King of Dreams said nothing. He seemed to be waiting.
The monk lowered his head. "But I remember the touch of her skin, when she pretended to be a woman, and it is a memory I shall take to my grave, and beyond the grave. And the ties of affection are very hard to break."
I see, said the King of Dreams. He stood, then, and stepped off the dais. He was a very tall man, if he was a man. Follow me, he said.
They walked through a waterfall which ran down one wall of the palace. It brushed and breathed on them without making them wet.
On the other side of the waterfall was a small summer house, and it was to this place that the King of Dreams led the monk.
Your fox also came to me, and asked for a gift, said the King of Dreams, although she was more honest about her love than you. And I gave her my gift. She dreamed your dreams. She dreamed your first two dreams with you, then she dreamed the last dream for you, and she opened the box with the key.
"Where is she?" asked the monk. "How can I bring her back?"
Why would you bring her back? asked the King of Dreams. It is not what she wants, and it will not bring you happiness.
The monk said nothing.
The King pointed to the table in the summer house. On it there was a small lacquer box, which the monk recognized from his dreams. There was a key in the lock.
She is in there. Follow her, if that is what you wish.
The monk reached down, and, slowly, he opened the box. It opened, and opened, until it filled the entire world, and, with no hesitation, the monk went inside.