It is better to be invisible. His life was better when he was invisible, but he didn’t know it at the time.
He was born invisible. His mother was invisible too, and that was why she could see him. His people lived contented lives, working on the farms, under the familiar sunlight. Their lives stretched back into the invisible centuries and all that had come down from those differently colored ages were legends and rich traditions, unwritten and therefore remembered. They were remembered because they were lived.
He grew up without contradiction in the sunlight of the unwritten ages, and as a boy he dreamt of becoming a shepherd. He was sent to school, where he learnt strange notions, odd alphabets, and where he discovered that time can be written down in words.
It was in books that he first learnt of his invisibility. He searched for himself and his people in all the history books he read and discovered to his youthful astonishment that he didn’t exist. This troubled him so much that he resolved, as soon as he was old enough, to leave his land and find the people who did exist, to see what they looked like.
He kept this discovery of his recent invisibility to himself and soon forgot his dream of becoming a shepherd. But in the end he didn’t have to wait till he was old enough. One night when the darkness was such that it confirmed his invisibility in the universe, he fled from home, ran to the nearest port, and stole off across the emerald sea.
He traveled for seven years. He did all the jobs that came his way. He learnt many languages. He learnt many kinds of silences. He kept his mouth shut as much as possible and listened to all the things that men and nature had to say. He traveled many seas and saw many cities and witnessed many kinds of evil that can sprout from the hearts of men. He traveled the seas, saying little, and when anyone asked him why he journeyed and what his destination was, he always gave two answers. One answer was for the ear of his questioner. The second answer was for his own heart. The first answer went like this:
“I don’t know why I am traveling. I don’t know where I am going.”
And the second answer went like this:
“I am traveling to know why I am invisible. My quest is for the secret of visibility.”
Those who worked with him in those years saw him as a simple man. Actually, they didn’t see him at all.
After traveling for seven years he arrived at a strange port. The town seemed empty. The houses were silent. He disembarked and found himself in a great square patterned in black and white, as if it were a giant chessboard. The air was tinged with an orange glow. There was an eternal motionlessness about everything that made him feel he had wandered into a disquieting dream.
The town was empty, but he could feel that there were people all around. He fancied he heard an occasional whisper in the air. He was so disturbed by the strangeness of the town that he wandered deeper into its riddle. But the town was a riddle without an answer. Everywhere he heard tinkling bells. Happy voices laughed in the gentle wind. Even their laughter was a kind of secret. In the far corner of the square he heard sweet voices reciting the ineffable names of things. He was so overcome with the invisible enchantments of the town that he didn’t want to leave.
He had been following the musical voices of young girls whispering unseen beneath the flavored moonlight of that mysterious town, when he heard the blasts from the ship calling him to return. The moonlight, glowing on the chessboard patterns of the town’s magnificent square, filled his heart with a beautiful solitude that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
As he turned to go, tearing himself unwillingly from the limpid voices of the girls, he was suddenly touched with the scent of honeysuckle. He started to weep. A haunting sonata, yellow and lilac amongst the dazzling illusions of the quivering chessboard, started up far behind him. He wept as he listened to the flute melodies piping out forgotten moments of his life.
He was still weeping when a gentle voice, out of the fragrant air, said:
“Why are you crying?”
He started. Not seeing who was addressing him, but not overly disturbed by it, he replied:
“I am weeping because I don’t understand the beauty of this island.”
“Then why don’t you stay?”
“But how can I stay? I can’t see the inhabitants. I don’t even know where I am.”
“You shouldn’t worry. The inhabitants can’t see you either. At least most of them can’t. You are just a voice to me. But everything is in your voice. Besides, you are seeking something that you’ve already found, but you don’t know it. Such are the causes of unhappiness.”
“Where is this place?”
“It doesn’t have a name. We don’t believe in names. Names have a way of making things disappear.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When you name something it loses its existence to you. Things die a little when we name them. I am speaking only of this island. I cannot speak for anywhere else.”
“So if you don’t want things to disappear what do you do?” “We think of them. We dwell in them. We let them dwell in us. You ask many questions: if you are so interested why don’t you stay and live with us and learn our mysteries?”
“Thank you, but my ship is calling me. I must set sail, or I will never find the things that made me leave my homeland.”
“You may learn much here.”
“But I may never catch another ship again. I don’t know how frequently they come here. And then I would miss the sea and the journey.”
“The sea is always there, ships come when they will, the journey always continues, but this island is discovered only once in a lifetime – if you’re lucky.”
The ship’s blast sounded again, calling three times in stern warning. He shuddered at the sound. When the third blast fell silent, he listened to the plaintive wind. He listened to the flute choruses threading the cypress trees. He listened to the sound of water flowing among the wreaths of acanthus leaves in the marble fountain.
Lost in wonder, he stared at the white harmonic buildings round the square. He noticed their pure angles, their angelic buttresses, and their columns of gleaming marble. He inhaled the fragrance of childhood, of sweet yellow melodies, and of ripening mangoes. When a woman’s voice began singing from the spire of the blue temple of that land, the wind itself became silent. He noticed how all things invisible seemed to become attentive to the glorious singing which poured a golden glow into the limpid moonlight. He found himself smiling. When the singing stopped, and a new happy silence lingered, he decided to stay.
The ship set sail without him. He watched as it rocked its way over the green waters. The port was still deserted and all over that island the silence became deeper. As the ship disappeared over the horizon, time changed around him. Slowly, he ceased to be aware of himself. One moment he was in the middle of the shimmering chessboard square, and the next moment he found himself wandering over streets of polished glass, wandering through alleys paved as if with stained-glass windows. Light poured upwards from below, as if the island’s relationship with the moon and sky had become inverted.
The voice that was his guide was silent; it was only the instinct of another presence which calmed him as he walked through the serenity of the island.
He was struck by the buildings. They were magnificent; they were bold; they had astounding facades, with stately columns and conch-shell capitals and graceful entablatures. The pedestals displayed a lofty and balanced sense of proportion. The buildings, all apparently empty, loomed everywhere. They attracted the lights, they gave off an air of grandeur and majesty, and yet they seemed to hang in mid-space. They appeared to rest on nothing, suspended. Even the great churches, with their golden domes and their moody spires, seemed to be made of an ethereal substance. The buildings, in their perfection, looked like some kind of dream-created illusion. He was puzzled by the monumentality of things and their apparent lightness.
He came to the wonderful avenue of mirrors. The housefronts, the castle facades, the bridges, the villas, the basilicas, were all made of mirrors. The mysterious loggias where statues stared at him with an almost palpable longing and lust were also made of mirrors. They all reflected themselves into an oddly terrifying infinity. When he saw how all things multiplied everything else, multiplying him wherever he looked, he experienced the strangest sensation. It was a sense of the happiness he must have known before birth, a happiness that he suspected was his eternal birthright. It reminded him obliquely of the joy he experienced when he first saw a rainbow. And while he lingered in that mood he noticed a rainbow gradually materialize over the golden dome of the silent church. The rainbow, reflected in all the mirrors of the castles and housefronts, had clear colors of such astonishing beauty, complementing the calm radiance of the moon, that he found himself saying:
“You must be masters of the art of happiness.”
The voice guiding him laughed a little. Then fell silent. Then said:
“We are masters of the art of transcendence. We are masters of suffering. I’d appreciate it if you never mention the word happiness on this island again.”
The avenue of mirrors seemed to go on forever. As he went along, shivering in the silver facades, he felt himself becoming more insubstantial, less real. He seemed to be losing his identity to the mirrors. He felt as if the heaviest and least important parts of him were dissolving in the effulgent lights. At the same time he felt himself becoming more peaceful, less questing, and freer from anxieties. He would normally have been quite afraid to lose such a familiar part of himself as his anxieties. But he was much too preoccupied with the brilliance of the lights. He was fascinated by the way they changed, the way they flared in red and gold. He was mesmerized by the gyrating spectacle of an infinity of perfect realms, perfect interiors, pure landscapes of joy, and the atmosphere of bliss that dwelt in the shining depths of the mirrors.
To his astonishment, as he looked deeper into the mirrors, as into the depths of a magical lake, he saw beautiful women playing mandolins, reading illuminated books, singing silently in chorus, reciting words that turned into radiant colors, dancing naked on lacquered floors. White and yellow birds circled them overhead in the spacious air of their palaces made from moonlight.
He was about to speak when another wonderful sight caught his eyes. He turned and beheld, in another mirror, a magnificent garden in which flowers bathed in a celestial glow. As he watched, entranced, a white unicorn with an emerald horn trotted past gracefully, scattering enchanted beams of beatification.
Further on, in the blue mirrors fronting the Great Basilica of Truth, he saw a green lake. In the middle of the emerald lake, focal point of all the magic lights, was the forgotten sword of Justice. Its blade was of incorruptible gold, and it pointed to the illuminated heavens, dazzling the eye with its divine purity.
“I understand nothing,” he said.
He hadn’t recovered from the wonders he had just seen. He never would.
“Retain your bewilderment,” said the voice, his guide. “Your bewilderment will serve you well.”
“But what do all these things mean?” “What do you mean by mean?”
“Who are the beautiful women? What does that wonderful unicorn signify? What is the sword?”
The voice said:
“You will meet the women later, the unicorn is seen only by those who can see it, and the sword is the sword.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Things are what they are. That is their power. They are all the things we think they are, all the things we sense they are, and more. They are themselves. If they meant something they would be less. Whatever you see is your personal wealth and paradise. You’re lucky if you can see wonderful things. Some people who have been here see only infernal things. What you see is what you are, or what you will become. Many of our greatest men and women have been here for hundreds of years and have never seen the unicorn. You have just arrived and you have seen it.”
The voice paused. Then after a while, with a little amused laughter, he said:
“The council will be delighted by this. The royal astrologers who predicted this moment will be overjoyed. Without knowing it, we have been awaiting your arrival for a long time. If you survive what is to come, if you make it to the great convocation, it is possible that you are the one who will initiate the new cycle of the Invisibles.” Towards the end of the street he saw angels taking flight in the last mirrors. They had rainbow wings. The upward rush of their lights, their mighty glowing presence, terrified him and almost made his heart stop. His terror momentarily blinded him. It was a long while before he could breathe normally again and resume his journey into the island.