Once upon a time there was a man who wanted infinity. He wanted to feel everything, to experience everything, to taste it like a cup of tea steeped thick and bitter, accompanied by a few crackers and a slice of cheese or two.
So he removed himself from the lands of man, and went high atop the Mounts Austere, where the air is thin and the sky is so clear you have to bring your own clouds for protection. There, on that peak, he built an apparatus. He fashioned lenses, levers, pulleys, fixed them with tubes and poles and lengths of wire. He built a grand observatory and pointed its looking glass at the darkest, emptiest spot in the sky.
He looked into emptiness because he knew that everything would hide inside nothing, where it would be most safe.
Yet after all this, he ran into a problem. He could not focus on emptiness because there was nothing there to focus on: he needed something to keep his gaze steady or else his gaze would waver back and forth, never fixed.
He used a multitude of lenses and sifted through a plethora of spectrums, seeking the crack through which he might spy on, and extract a dose or two of infinity. But after nearly a decade of this, he had not come upon a single glimpse, signature of smear of what he sought. He was no closer now to perceiving the imperceptible than he had been when he began.
Such was his determination that the failure of this approach did not deter him. He renounced the scientific approach, and sought another Method.
He sought out and secured a book of magic. He attentively memorized it's pages, and, letter by letter, fulfilled what it prescribed. And, when the time came for him to perform the rites, such was the degree of his volition that no satan in all of the Asiyyah, could refuse his summons.
"What would you have of us, o man?" they asked, prostrating themselves before him.
"I want to know infinity. I want to experience it, to taste it like a cup of tea. I want you to go and fetch me some of it. That is all that I want of you."
"Through us you may control the elements," they offered.
"Can you bring me infinity?"
"That we cannot do," they answered.
"Then you may go."
The man then sought out and secured a Holy Book in which was recorded the correct prayers and absolutions needed to be preformed in order to attract the angelic host, and pursuade them to act on his will.
And, alike in the demonic invocation, it was not so much the words he used as their content, and such was the evidence of his nobility that the angels were compelled to answer his call. They came, each in their turn.
"Yes, mortal man, what will you have of us?"
"I seek infinity."
"We have knowledge for you. We have the power to grant you wisdom, perhaps a shred of revelation, if you so wish."
"Can you bring to me some infinity?"
"Oh, no. That is not something we can dole out. For that, you must ask the Master of Infinity, Himself."
"Very well." And he dismissed the Angels and erased the charts and words from the dirt. He washed his hands and he changed his robe, he cleared from himself of everything but his wish, his single want. He prostrated himself on his mountain top, and directed himself to the Utmost Presence.
And it so happened that the Immaculate Presence deigned to speak with the man, and it so happened that the man could hear these words:
"What do you seek, My creature?"
"I want to hold infinity, Lord. I want to taste it like a cup of tea, to feel it in my veins, to see it through my eyes."
"Is that what you desire?"
"Above all else."
"Then I will give it to you - but first you must find someone to share it with."
The condition struck the man like a blow. "Why would I need some thing," he wondered, "to accept everything?"
But he knew that he could not barter with God, and so he accepted the condition, and he quit his mountain top, and returned to the lands of man.
Once upon a time there was a woman who wanted her self. She wanted to know her self, to feel her self in everything she did. She wanted to be fully conscious of what made her self herself, so she would never be tricked by the activity of life, which she found always swallowed her up in a morass of shallow complexities and unexplainable bursts of emotion.
So she took herself away from life and went to a wide valley. At the bottom of this valley there was a vast, vast sea. It was the sea Mendous, whose colour is red.
There, she bent herself over the waters, and sought to spy her own reflection. She spent many, many hours, days, years, staring into those waters, but every time her face became clear, every time she began to catch a glimpse of who she really was, a wind or some ripple would spring out of nowhere and shatter her moment of comprehension.
Eventually, she realized her vigil was of no avail. So she stood, and walked into the desert, to the sages. She entered their tents, and performed their rigors, and passed their tests. Such was her persistence that they looked upon her, and saw that she was a one to perhaps harness with their high secrets. So they allowed her to gain audience with them, and they asked to know what she was seeking.
“I seek my self.”
“Ah, what a noble quest!” they replied. “But would you not also like to learn to read minds, or to chart the destinies of others, even yourself?”
“I want my self.”
“Here, if you do these excersizes, you will have visions of the Twenty Realms of Mohal. And if you wear this amulet, you will be able command the jinn of the water, or the stone if you want. It is your choice. We see you are a worthy one to know these secrets, and they won’t cost you much.”
Not one of the sages had what she sought. So she went to the forests, and came to the huts of the Wise Witches. After overcoming the obstacles and trickeries those crones set before her, she gained audience with the Wicked Ladies, who saw in this woman a potential understudy.
“Daughter, daughter,” they squawked, “what is it you want of us?”
“I seek myself. Can you tell me how, where I can find my self?”
“Ah, your self it is? We have potions to awake your body, to give your spirit wings. We have spells to increase the power of your beauty so that others will be inraptured by you, and you might feel much self-pleasure in that…”
“But can you help me know myself?’
“Ah… to know thyself, it is then. No,” they answered – because it is their honesty that makes them most wicked – “We cannot help you with that.”
And so the woman returned to the sea, and on its shores she knelt, and prayed to the Creator of All.
“Oh God who created me,” she prayed, “will you give myself to me?”
And the Creator heard his creation, and spoke softly to her heart:
“We will give you yourself, but first you must find someone to share it with.”
On hearing this, the woman nearly threw a fit, right then and there, in the Presence of the Creator. “Why do I need someone else,” she thought, “to know myself?”
But she wanted what she wanted so much that she stood from the sands of the red sea, and made her way back to the lands of man.
Now it so happened that the man who wanted infinity and the woman who wanted her self found each other. And straight away they knew this was the person who would be able to share what they were after. Here was someone whose grasp was sufficient to sustain the gift they both sought.
Wth few preliminaries – for both were impatient for the fulfillment of their ambitions – they bought a house just outside of town, and set to preparing for their receiving.
But their marriage was anything but easy. It was everything but peaceful. Trying to fit the two of them into the same bed, the same intimacy, was not unlike two storms sharing the same valley. Some nights they were electric, wonderful, fresh and majestic. But on others, they could not seem to converge without rending into each other violently, inflicting unintended wounds and unable to suppress their rage, but rather amplifying that rage, that want, until they were forced to separate, and spend days in recovery, mending thier wounds away from each other.
They tried, but it was ever and always a trial to harmonize
One day, pushed to the thresholds of tolerance, they went into town, to a man of renown, a Sculptor famous for his skill. Such was this man's craftmanship that all other artificers sought to implement it as a standard in their art, against which all else was weighed. He was the Master’s Master, and the man and the woman thought that he might be able to assist them.
He listened to their stories, and after a moment of contemplation, he told them he could help.
“How?” they asked.
“This is how,” he explained. “I will make you 24 masks, one for every hour of the day. Each of these masks, except for two, you will share with one another, and by them you will come into harmony. They will harness your ambitions and create a channel where by they will flow without disturbance. But here is the fantastic aspect of this work. Listen: when the midday hour approaches, the man will put on the mask appropriate to that hour, the mask of noon, and for the duration of 60 minutes, each minute counted by 60 beats of his heart, he will experience his infinity.”
“What about my self?” asked the woman.
“I am getting to that. When his hour is up, he will put away the midday mask, and together you will resume the hours, until it is the midnight hour comes. Then you, woman, shall put on the mask proper to that hour, and as it was with your husband, so it will be with you: for the duration of 60 cycles of 60 beats of your heart, you will commune with your self. Does this sound satisfactory to you?”
“Yes!” they both proclaimed. “That is a brilliant idea! When will they be ready, and what is their price?”
“I can have them completed in a few weeks. As for their cost, I am not yet certain. But I trust that when I come up with it, you will pay it.”
“If these masks work as you propose, we will surely pay whatever your require!”
“No doubt you will. Now return to your home, and when they are ready, I will have the masks delivered.”
The man and the woman returned to their house, and waited excitedly for their masks. The days rattled passed – the shaky foundation of their house was being discarded, tumbling down to the earth, being pushed off for another. Hardly a word was spoke between them, hardly a glance exchanged. They passed their waiting in mutual solitude.
The masks finally came, and were immediately put to use. It was as the Sculptor had promised. The man got his infinity – laying prone in the grass of their lawn for the prescribed period, the mask strapped tight over his face – and she, too, under the cover of the stars, resting on the roof, alone, with her self, communing. They no longer had cause to struggle. Neither did they feel much delight in the other’s company. They were pacified, quieted, satisfied.
A year passed, then two. The woman discovered that she was pregnant, and told her husband. They rejoiced together, swiping masks and getting along wonderfully.
One evening, there came a knock on the door. The woman, belly full, went to answer it. It was the Sculptor.
“So delighted to see you! Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you, yes. Tell me, have the masks fared you well?”
“Oh, yes! They are perfect!”
She set the table, the husband came down stairs, delighted to see their guest. They ate together. Afterwards, the husband spoke.
“Yes, yes, the masks. Excellent construction. Perfect in every way. We thank you, but we also wish to pay for them. Have you come up with your asking price?”
“Then tell us – nothing would be too great!”
“Well, that is not true. There are many things that would be too great, just as many as there are those which would be insufficient -- and that is why it has taken me so long to decide on the perfect payment.”
“And you have discovered this payment.”
“Then what is it?”
“It is your daughter.”
The mask fell from their faces. Both the man and the woman stared in disbelief at the Sculptor.
“Our – our daughter? Well, um, our child is not even born yet – but that is beside the point. Our daughter! You must be joking…”
“I am not. The price – the only price that is equal to what I have given you, is your child.” The Sculptor then indicated the belly of the woman and repeated, “Your daughter.”
“That is absurd.”
“It is fitting. Painful, I am sure, but fitting. And truthfully, there can be no alternative, no haggling. I will not accept the masks back. They are for you, and have been used by you, and their price is set.”
The Sculptor then rose from the table, and walked to the door.
“I will return on the day of your daughter’s birth. I will make it so that you will never lay eyes on her. She will be mine as soon as the labor is complete.”
And thus saying, the Sculptor left their house.
When the labor pains came over her, the woman laid herself out on her bed, and strove through them with patience and determination. At last, she felt her child about to come forth, and at that moment, she sensed a presence enter the room. Immediately, she knew it to be the Sculptor, come to claim his due. Tears streaming from her face. She cried out, and sought to bargan with the man.
“Spare my child,” she pleaded. “Do not take her.”
“The choice has already been made,” came his answer from a profound distance. “You must pay for the gift I have wrot for you and your husband, which you have already accepted, and have put to no little use.”
The woman began to pray to God for help, but she knew no Divine intercession would come. These events were the outcome of her own actions. These consequences could not be revoked. And knowing this, she realized her error. She saw that she had been faithless. She had been promised her desire by the Almighty One, and still, she had relied on another to fulfill it. She gnashed her teeth, overcome with regret.
The head of her first born had already emerged from her womb. Soon, all would be finished. Clutching at what remained of her hope, she addressed the sculptor once more.
“Take me, in my child’s stead.”
There was no answer. Then, it came:
“Very well. I will take you, and your son, but your daughter will remain.”
“You bare twins.”
“But – but you said nothing of taking my son… only, only my daughter!”
“Be that as it may, he belongs to me. Do you still wish to exchange yourself for your daughter?”
The woman felt her grief redouble. She came to wish she had never sought her self in the first place. But she had, and had tasted it, however briefly. And now, now she must to loose it. She saw no other way.
“Yes,” she said to her captor. “Take me. Leave my daughter to be free of you and your wicked intentions.”
“My intentions,” answered he as he began to extract the woman and her son from the house, “My intentions may not be as wicked as you presume. But who are you to speak of my intentions, when for so long you have been ignorant of your own?”
Now, when his wife went into labor, that very moment, though he was standing next to her where she lay, a heaviness overtook the man, and jettisoned him into the darkness of sleep. And even though he was removed from the Awake, the man felt the presence of the Builder, and he sought to defend his kin from that man’s designs.
But it quickly became evident that the man’s will was not sufficient to this task – his will, which once had invoked the princes of the jinn, which had held congress with the Angelic spheres, which had scoured the earth unremittent, undaunted, for what he sought – here, before the Builder, it was as frail as a single cloud in the face of wind and sun and stone. His effort was as nothing before this other, who had built the man’s very reality, who had delivered to this man his highest want. There was, in point of fact, no contest between them. An impotent gust, and a slight movement of the hand, brushing it aside.
When he came to, the man could not recognize where he was. There was blood everywhere. Everywhere. He turned, towards the sound of a single, wailing voice. The voice of a babe, pronouncing its first, healthy declaration of life.
Perhaps he had, in some small way, succeeded—?
On the table lay his wife, and she was dead. Between her legs lay his son, and he was dead. But that sound, a living sound. He walked to the heap of lifeless flesh, setting aside limbs, fluids, the carnage of birth, until he found…
A daughter? he asked. A daughter? he repeated. Who… where had this child…
Before he could steady his mind, before he could reign in his thoughts, that they might not overwhelm him, they rushed ahead, taking symbol, memory, sight, sensation, and assembled from these one monstrous truth. Setting before him, like a dog with game in jaw, the simple, evident reality that had become his.
He lifted up his daughter, cradling her in his arms, staring at her face, her features. She wailed, her face wrenching, half in welcome, half in rejection of this place she had come to. This place. Her face. It was true.
In his hands he held the newborn self of his wife.
And he could not look, not at that husk that remained of his wife, not at the shell that remained of his son, that remained of his – admit it – that remained of his infinity.
I have been cheated. Rightly, just cheated.
And thinking this, he left the room, carrying his daughter with him, bringing her to the washroom, pouring her a bath, bathing her in the lukewarm water, thinking nothing. Allowing himself to think of nothing at all.