The Mountain that Rose Up Forever
Once there was a young shaman determined to press farther and deeper into the realms of dream than any who had come before him. In that wild, many-terraced land, like the side of a mountain rising up forever, the shamans pursued their desperate cures, seeking out the indigenous beings of that place, who could wear any number of bodies, or none at all, and might best be thought of as ideas rather than things.
These ideas could cure as well as kill, help as well as harm. A shaman had to master them, overpower them with the force of his personality, match them magic for magic and come away with no worse than a draw . . . or he would come away sick in body, mind, and spirit—if he came away at all. But with a bit of luck, and more skill, a shaman could expect to return with some fragment of the idea he had faced, a fragment that, like a seed, contained the whole and, when properly prepared and administered, might effect the hoped-for cure . . . or at least lessen the worst of the symptoms.
It was to this—and more—that the young shaman aspired. He apprenticed himself to one shaman and then another and then another still, until he had learned all they had to teach him. As he grew to manhood he became adept in the mysteries of the sacred drugs, in the techniques of meditation, mortification, and exaltation. He made his first forays into the realms of dream, then quested farther, and deeper, and always returned with hard-won wisdom. These initial successes didn't satisfy him but only spurred him on.
He made a point of seeking out the people other shamans had failed to cure. The sick became his teachers; the numinous ideas of the dream realms became his masters. Rather than fight them, like other shamans did, and as he, too, had been taught to do, he sat humbly at their feet and asked them questions. He talked to them. No one had done this before. What force could not achieve he won by words. His fame spread. He was idolized, envied, feared, hated.
Meanwhile, he grew steadily wiser . . . yet perhaps also more foolish, for now he became convinced that he could cure death itself.
And so it was that he went in search of death. And he found what he was looking for—or maybe it was the other way around. In any case, he sat at the feet of death, and death settled down beside him, and there, at the top of the mountain, the two of them talked for a long time, as close as brothers. There was laughter and tears, thunder and lightning. When it was over, and he had climbed back down the ladder and reentered his body, the shaman brought back a deeper understanding of death than any shaman had ever possessed.
He couldn't cure death; he knew that now. Nobody could cure it. Death wasn't a sickness or a disease. But for that very reason, there was no longer any reason to fear it. That was the cure he brought. Not a cure for death, but for life. And he began to spread this cure the only way he knew how, in the same way he had received it himself: by word of mouth.
Soon the shaman was in greater demand than ever. People came to him from all across his country and even beyond its borders, a seemingly endless parade of the sick, the frightened, and the ignorant, all suffering, beneath their various ailments, from the same simple, insidious illness: a fear of death so pervasive, if largely unacknowledged, that they could not face up to being alive. He helped as many of them as he could with his talking cure. A web of enlightenment leapt from point to point, person to person.
And yet it all took place against a darkening background. For when the shaman had returned to the world, more had accompanied him than he'd realized. A shadow had followed, slipped in behind him. Or perhaps it was just that death's gift to him had come with strings attached—as death's gifts often do.
It was one thing to fear death no longer. It was quite another to be in love with death. The shaman's healing words could not reach enough people to make a difference against the spread of this terrible, voracious love. When it came for him, he fled across the sea. He could fight no longer.
Though safe in his refuge, he watched with helpless anguish as the love of death consumed the country he loved and—in one way or another—all who lived there. It was then that death found him again. Or to tell the truth, he grew tired of waiting and went in search of his old friend. He had no wish to witness as the conflagration that had already begun became the pyre of millions—his words could heal no one now, least of all himself: a cancer had crept into his mouth and taken root there.
So he set out once more into the realms of dream, pulling up the ladder behind him (he would not be needing it any longer), and for the final time climbed the mountain that rose up forever. There, at the top, death was waiting. He was seated comfortably on a patch of ground, grinning as he always did. He patted the ground beside him. There was a bottle there, and two glasses, or the ideas of them.
But the shaman, somewhat to his own surprise, did not stop. He walked past his old friend without a word, stepped off the edge of the mountain, and began the long climb to whatever it was that waited beyond forever.