A young scribe working in a remote village encounters a stranger traveler with an even stranger story. The last citizen of a once glorious civilization recounts the story of how his beloved city and people met their final fate.
I will never forget that day – many years ago now – when the stranger came to the village. Not many strangers visited us at all, and almost never from another country. The appearance of this particular foreigner would have been remarkable for his presence alone, but why he came was even more memorable. Thus the village remembers him simply as the stranger. Even now, many years after his likely death, anyone speaking of “the stranger” needs not explain whom they mean. Everyone knows.
I was only twenty-two then, a precocious scribe assigned to the backwater village on the edge of the desert. I hated it, the dust that would blow into its streets, the bumptious ways of its people, who tilled the fields as far as they could until the land was barely arable anymore. It was no place for an ambitious young man, but I was needed there and promised an appointment at the royal court if I exercised my duties well. I could not have imagined then in my misery that I would receive the last, and perhaps the only, account of the land of K---.
It was the height of the harvest season when the stranger arrived. The men were bundling sheaves of the wheat they had reaped that day and the women were in the fields gleaning. It was late in the day; the sun shone with a weakened, golden light as it descended over the Western Desert. I sat under a canopy at the counting table, tabulating the day’s harvest for the king’s tax collectors.
Just then, an approaching shadow appeared over the dunes to the west. A child shouted when he saw it and soon the entire field was in an uproar. It was a caravan. Men rushed to grab their sickles as the women ran from the open fields. No one ever came from the desert, even caravans. They went to the north, the most direct route to the nearest city, where it would be loaded on the river-barges bound for the even greater cities of the kingdom. But here? Travelers avoided this place at all costs. There was nothing here for them.
The caravan neared and the amorphous shadows on the dunes coalesced into dromedaries ridden by the Western Nomads who knew the secret routes through the desert. But as it drew even nearer it was obvious that this caravan was different. The camels were not laden with any treasures. Its men looked weary and haggard, and beside them walked a strange figure, not like my people or the Western Nomads or indeed the people of any nation I had come to know either before or since. He was tall and gaunt, with skin the color of bronze, hazel eyes that seemed almost golden, and great lengths of thick, wavy, white hair that streamed from his head and in his beard. His look was severe, yet weary.
The caravan stopped at the king’s stele on the edge of the desert and its lead driver asked to speak with the ruler of the town. The towns people immediately led him to me, for I was the king’s representative of sorts, and the only one there who could read or write. The driver addressed me in my own tongue.
“Greetings, man of this place.”
I returned his greeting and asked his business.
“We have journeyed from afar – not from the lands where we usually trek, but much farther, far past the far end of the desert over the horizon, beyond a great river, in the land where the elephants roam. We heard tales of great cities of gold, but found nothing – only this man who asked us to take him far away from there. He said the cities were no more, but would not answer further. We leave him here at his request. See what you can understand from him.”
I looked at the stranger.
“Do you understand me?” I asked.
“I understand you perfectly,” he answered in my language, with only the hint of an accent. I was surprised that someone from a land so far knew my language so well.
I took him in my home and ordered a bath and a fresh set of clothes made ready for him. That night I dined with him, and watched him curiously as he ate silently with a stolid bearing and a measured pace. He took very little wine, even though I insisted he drink.
When he had finished and reclined, I asked, “The caravan driver said you requested to be left here? Why here, of all cities in the world, in this godforsaken frontier village, where there is nothing?”
“Because of you,” he answered.
“Me?” I asked, shocked.
“Not you yourself, of course. I have just learned your name. I asked the caravan-leader to take me to the nearest village with a scribe, so he left me here. And this is perfect. I intend to have my history written and then to leave. I have no desire to draw attention in any city.”
“Not just mine, but of my people. You see, I am the last of my nation and my race, the last who speaks the language of my ancestors. I had thought about wandering into the wilderness and letting my people’s history die silently with me, and I attempted that at first, but I felt as though I would explode. The entire weight of a thousand years of glory and power rests entirely within me. Imagine that burden. The only way I have to unburden myself of it is to tell it, and to have it written. Only then will I have peace.” He paused, then continued, “I take it this village does not keep you very busy?”
“No,” I said. “You want me to transcribe your story.”
“Exactly. I have nothing with which to pay you. I have no money. I am old and tired. But perhaps my story for its own sake is worth your time, paper, and labor.”
“Very well,” I said, intrigued. His arrival had been the most noteworthy occurrence in the village for at least a year, and what he told me sparked my curiosity immensely. I had never heard of anyone encountering such a one as he, even in the cities. Of course he could be a liar, but his gruff and reserved manner hinted otherwise. Still, I hesitated.
“You think I am a liar,” he said, as if he read my thoughts. “I seek nothing from you other than your transcription. I do not want your manuscript. It is yours. Then I will leave. Is that what a charlatan does?”
“Certainly not,” I said. “But you cannot deny it was only natural for me to have doubts.”
“I find no fault in you. Now let us both rest and tomorrow we can begin.”
I agreed and bade him good night.
On the following morning I gathered my pens, inkwells, and paper, and sat at my writing table as he began his tale. I took down everything he said to the letter, and reproduce it here exactly as he told me.
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My name is not important and my country was known under many names, but the name under which I most fondly remember it is the name of my people, which gave its name to their empire. I will not say it, but only abbreviate it as K---, to show that I am not lying if anyone inquires. But no one will find anything. We were a proud and ancient people. Our sacred legends said we descended from the gods. Our first kings were heroes who first irrigated the fields, built the first cities, taught us the art of writing, and laid down our basic laws.
After them, our kings were mighty warriors, and we were a race of warriors. First we subdued the barbarian tribes that always threatened our peace. Then the neighboring nations made war against us, and we subdued them as well. At first we only made them swear peace; then we imposed tribute; then we annexed them outright. In four generations our kingdom had become an empire.
And what an empire! How can I describe the magnificence of our nation? Our cities shone resplendent with gleaming white marble, red and pink granite, and yellow sandstone. Our temples towered gracefully, covered with friezes and adorned with statues so graceful they seemed alive. Great avenues shaded by trees connected plazas where merchants sold the delicacies of a hundred lands and water gushed from fountains for all who needed it. Among them stood great mansions and palaces with their famed gardens luxuriant with the blooms of a thousand different kinds of flower and the plumage of a thousand different kinds of birds. And the kings even provided public gardens so that even the poorest might enjoy their beauty.
Nor were our people for want of anything. Aqueducts brought fresh water from the mountains and pipes carried soiled water out of the cities. Great road connected each city with guards stationed to ward off robbers. Our courts administered justice diligently, judging civil disputes and punishing crimes. The kings imposed only the lightest of taxes and closely scrutinized their officials. And the royal largesse provided relief for widows, orphans, and anyone else who suffered misfortune. Of course we had our poor, but it was said that even our poor never went hungry.
But the true wealth of our nation lay neither in the magnificence of our cities nor the wealth of our people. It was in the life of the mind. Our first poets refined and elevated the common tongue, and our kings decreed that the poetic language should be standard and that all should be educated in reading and writing it properly. Soon, great schools were founded where the brightest minds debated questions of theology, philosophy, natural science, and jurisprudence. Great libraries housed the volumes of their written studies, penned by the finest calligraphers in the graceful script of our language.
We were first and foremost a nation of poets, and the beauty of our songs could make even the most hardened barbarian sigh in wonder. These were written down, but only to teach. Every promising student was tasked with committing them to memory, and in even the remotest villages a traveler could hear their verses in casual conversation on the street. Such was the love my people had for their songs.
The songs were, of course, set to music, and our musical arts were the finest in the world. From the simple songs of our ancestors to great symphonies of two dozen diverse instruments, our cities always resounded with song. Our artists painted great murals and sculpted great friezes and statues commemorating the stories of our people. And fortified with the great schools of mathematical learning, our architects and engineers built ever more daring structures – magnificent palaces and temples with a grace that seemed to float in the air. In all my travels I have never seen anything like them.
But those times were before mine. I was born at their very end, when our nation grew weak and decadent. But our decadence was not like that of other nations. Their vices were greed or sensuality or indolence, and they succumbed to invasion. We destroyed ourselves. It was a slow and insidious destruction at first, and I cannot say precisely when the destruction began, but I know exactly how it began.
A man arose among us who called himself a prophet – not the prophet of any god, but, he said, of the future. He denied the existence of any god and preached that the evil of the world could only be atoned in this world because, he said, there was no other existence. He divided the world into pleasure and pain, and held it unjust that one should know pleasure while anyone else knew pain. And it was not enough, he said, for one man to alleviate another’s pain, for pain would still persist in the world. Only the collective elimination of pain would lead to the paradise on earth.
At first he was laughed at, and died an outcast a hundred years before I was born, but his disciples took up his doctrine and preached it with ten times his zeal. They preached the evil of our nation; that we as conquerors were evil for the pleasure we gained from our subjects’ pain; that our poems, songs, and art – indeed, our very customs – as the heritage of that evil, were equally evil and therefore unworthy of remembrance or even existence. To build the new paradise on earth, they said, we had to eradicate not only our empire, but our very nation and people.
They gained adherents first among those considered odd or lonesome, then – shocking though it seems – among our very nobles. Often I have wondered why those entrusted as guardians of our empire would be the first to betray it, and I found only one explanation: guilt. They saw themselves as unworthy of their privilege, and indeed many were, but they dared not surrender any of their titles or estates, so they adopted an idea that could make them feel virtuous. The execrable prophet’s school provided them exactly that.
The nobility made a great show of dressing as street beggars and calling themselves by their names instead of their titles. Even our king at one time called himself merely “chief administrator.” Yet for all of their self-denunciation, none of these men surrendered a single piece of property or government privilege. Instead, they devoted their patronage to fund denunciations of themselves and our nation. In response, the worst sort of men leapt at the money – literary prostitutes without talent, who said what the guilty wanted to hear in exchange for fame and fortune.
With bad artistry and de-ennobling art now with official endorsement, the morals of the general public became corrupted. Yes, it was the degeneration of the arts that more than anything led to the degeneration of the population. People know what they see. When they see deeds of valor and self-sacrifice, love of family and country, reverence for gods and ancestors, they emulate those virtues by which they create and preserve. But when they instead see elevation of the irrational, the illiterate, the promiscuous, the lazy, the corrupt and dissolute out of sheer contempt for their opposite virtues, which are then denigrated, they emulate what they are told is good. And so our people, once so great, became a morass of corruption.
Soon building the paradise on earth required loathing everyone and everything fortunate, our nation foremost – a guilt over our very existence. That we had defeated our enemies and made them subject to us was the primary grievance, but this soon extended into every other aspect of life. The pleasure of the conqueror over the pain of the conquered transformed into that of the powerful over the powerless, of the rich over the poor, and even of men over their wives and parents over their children. The former were seen as knowing only pleasure and the latter as knowing only pain, stirring hatred in the latter against the former across all divisions, and our nation crumbled: one pitted against the other, one torn by guilt, the other embittered by grievance.
And if anyone confronted anyone who professed the prophet’s doctrines and urged no more than self-examination, they would hurl insults as a “hater” and a “reactionary” and even become physically violent. Those who disbelieved, doubted, or even questioned the prophet became outcasts – and had to live as outcasts if they were to survive at all.
As you might have suspected by now, I was one of those outcasts. Often I have wondered why I was immune from this plague of the mind that had infected the general population. After all, I was trained in the same schools and with the same books as they. But I viewed those works as though I were seeing them from a different planet from my peers. The instructors taught us only critique – to find fault with the works of our ancestors as perpetuating the evils of our people and our kingdom. The rest of them were obedient pupils. They drank the draught their teachers gave. I did not.
Perhaps that was because I was an outsider from the very beginning. I did not come from the nobility – otherwise I certainly would have succumbed to the mind-plague. Yet I moved among them, for my father was a scribe and I followed him in his profession. From what I saw of the nobles, I felt nothing but contempt for them. Their “nobility” had nothing to do with the true nobility of the soul. Instead, they reckoned it only by how much gold, or how many estates or titles they could accrue. And they were utterly corrupted morally. The things I have seen them do, or heard them boast about to each other, would turn you white with shock – then red with outrage. I was immune from shock after a while – as most of my people were. Indeed, these sordid deeds I first learned from the nobles soon became popular street entertainment.
This utter nihilism – lack of any belief in gods, natural law, honor, or morals – revolted me from my youngest years. Thus I had few friends, but was the better for it. My friends I found in old books, written from the age before the mind-plague set in. I admired the deeds of the heroes of old, marveled at the wisdom of the ancient sages, stood in awe of the ancient kings and the resolve by which they built our nation. I lived an interior life in a past world, but I was happy there, for around me I saw nothing but degeneracy and corruption.
Yet I hesitate to congratulate myself, for I had one fault that I regret still and will regret until I die: cowardice. Yes, I call myself a coward because I was silent. I saw how those who spoke out against the madness and corruption fared. At first, they had their reputations and careers destroyed – but that was only at first. No one, or very few, defended them, which only emboldened the persecutors. Soon, any “oppressive or reactionary expression” was criminalized, and they went to prison. At almost the same time, individual fanatics or mobs would kill those who dissented from the madness without ever being punished. At first, the murderers would be prosecuted only half-heartedly and always acquitted. Soon even these sham prosecutions ceased, and expressing anything other than self-hatred incurred a virtual death sentence. And that arrangement suited our rulers best: they did not even have to enact any law punishing contrary thought with death, yet it was as though they had.
Perhaps you can understand me. My silence ensured my survival. But I consider myself a coward. I hold myself to the standards of my ancestors, and by their standard I am indeed a coward. This I must carry with me until my dying day. No amount of consolation will convince me otherwise. But I have said enough about myself. I have not yet told you of the final destruction of my people.
This may sound unbelievable, but I assure you: I have witnessed everything I tell you now. With the population corrupted and our leaders at once hypocritical and self-loathing, they invited not only the subject peoples, but those from among our traditional enemies, into our cities to live, not expecting them at all to bear us any love. Foreign tongues and foreign ways filled our streets, oblivious to the grandeur among which they lived and openly contemptuous of those whose cities they inhabited. Indeed, when they saw our weakness, our corruption, and our self-loathing, their contempt and enmity only increased. Soon they set fires to our temples and libraries, and that was when the final downfall began.
Not only did our rulers do nothing to stop the arson, but my own people, whose ancestors had built and filled those very temples and libraries, joined the arson. “Now,” they said, “now is our chance to usher in the paradise on earth, as our prophet foretold.” They lit torches in the fires fueled by our volumes of poetry and philosophy and went about the entire city, setting palaces, schools, shops, homes – anything they could find – alight. Soon a great wind arose from the west and the fires joined into a single, massive conflagration. With that, my people threw themselves into the flames. First they tossed their children – few that they were by then – wailing and struggling, into the fire. Then they grabbed and tossed any who resisted them into the flames. Finally, almost all at once, they jumped into the flames and perished. I heard their shouts: “Forgive me!” “Justice!” and most disturbing, “Finally, we are free!”
I stood watching, hidden behind a tomb. Had I been discovered, I would surely have been dragged into the flames. But I gazed blankly. I did not weep. I could not. I would have wept for the lost treasures of art and of the mind stored in that city, but part of me secretly rejoiced that at last the execrable doctrine was destroying itself, eating its tail like a serpent. But at such cost!
As soon as word of what transpired in the royal city spread, every other city did likewise, its inhabitants torching it and jumping into the flames. Not a one survived. I am sure some rural villages escaped, but they were so few by then, I doubt anyone remains who knows my language as I do.
I consigned myself to wandering the world, to tell the story of my nation and my people, and how in a fit of madness they destroyed themselves. I offer it as a warning, lest any similar madness seize any nation. Let the first one to repeat the doctrines of the execrable prophet be hacked to pieces in the public square; any less of a punishment would not suffice to stem its destructive spread.
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He concluded his story. By then night had fallen. He was tired and I was exhausted from writing, but was rapt with wonder. I did not want his tale to end. Ten thousand questions raced through my head, but I resolved to ask only one – the one I most desired answered. I asked him to sing one of the songs of his native land, but he hesitated.
“I was not trained as a singer,” he said. “And besides, you would not understand our language.”
“No matter,” I answered. “Music is a language understood by all.”
That clearly satisfied him, he pulled an odd-shaped double flute from the folds of his robe and began to play, interspersing the music with his song. I have heard nothing like that music before or since. The passion, and at the same time the subtlety of that music, with the flute sounding almost like the voice of a spirit, stirred my soul from the very first note until the last reverberations died. It was a masterful composition, with two themes in different modes sung first in sequence, then varied and intertwining, combining at last to a unified, triumphant melody. And even though he professed to be an amateur, the stranger was one of the finest singers I have heard.
He stopped, and I sat silently, overwhelmed by what I had just heard.
“Truly,” I said at last, “something great and magnificent was lost.”
He nodded solemnly and we withdrew to bed in silence.
I came to wake him the next morning, but found him already packed and ready to depart. A courier was riding to our royal city and the stranger had begged to accompany him.
“You arrived only the day before yesterday. Stay with me a while longer – as long as you want,” I said, wanting to transcribe his language and songs.
“You have been a generous host,” he said, “and I thank you. But I will never spend more than three nights in a single place. Remember, I am condemned to wander. I dare not tarry too long in any one place, lest I begin to consider it home. My home is gone forever, perished in flames, and nothing can replace it.”
“Then stay one more night,” I said. He shook his head.
“The courier leaves today. I do not know when I will be able to leave next, so now I must go.”
With that I wished him safe travels and peace. He wished me long life and a clear mind, and turned to depart with the courier.
I never saw nor heard from him again, and I desperately inquired everywhere I could about this land of K---. I only had its initial, so I investigated into every possible land I knew, but none fit his description, either for its grandeur or for its destruction. I knew what languages were spoken beyond the desert, but none sounded anything like the dulcet language of the song.
I had about given up my search and even began to doubt the stranger as a charlatan. Yet there was that song. No one but the most masterful musician could have composed such a piece, or fabricated an entire language. That was the only thing that still made me place faith in him.
I received corroboration eventually, many years later. I had long left the village and was assigned to the royal court. An ambassador came from the land beyond the desert, from a nation we knew well. Among the gifts he bore from his prince was what he called “handiwork of the gods,” the work, he said, “of a forgotten people.” Word of the stranger’s account had circulated by then, and the vizier summoned me to examine the work. It was a flute exactly like the one the stranger played for me! Except his was of wood; this one was of silver, and exquisitely engraved with scrolling and floral patterns.
“Blow into it,” I said.
The vizier handed it to me, and I blew. It was that same spirit-like sound! I fumbled with my fingers, attempting a scale. There was no mistaking the sound. I set it down, ecstatic, closing my eyes to reminisce about the stranger’s song.
“Treasure this,” I said. “There is only one other like it that I know, and there will be none other like it.”
From that day I took great and secret pride knowing I had been among the only men on earth to converse with the last man of K--- and to hear the story of his land. But my mind could never rest at ease, for hearing his story and gazing upon all the wonders of my own nation, I can never banish the thought that one day the same fate might befall us. Thus I have preserved the story for all to read.