At the top of the mountain, far above the clouds, the monks of the Temple of Xu spend their days cutting words from their holy book.
The monks' faith originated a long time ago. They deduce this by the parchment on which the Book is written, which is brittle, wrinkled and damaged by water in places so that the writing is hard to read. The Abbot, the oldest monk in the temple, recalls that the Book already looked like that when he was a young novice.
"The Book was written by people who walked and talked with the gods." The trembling Abbot pauses to let his words sink into the hearts of the young monks sitting in neat rows before him. "They recorded what they remembered of their experiences, and so to read the Book is to hear the voices of the gods again." The young monks touch their foreheads to the stone floor, their hands splayed open in prayer.
But the monks also know that the gods often spoke obscurely, and human memory is a fragile and delicate instrument.
"Think of the face of a childhood friend," the Abbot says. "Hold that image in your mind and write a description of it, giving as much detail as you can marshal.
"Now think of that face again. It has changed subtly in your memory. The words you used to describe that face has replaced some portion of your memory of it. The act of remembering is an act of retracing, and by doing so we erase and change the stencil.
"So it was with the people who composed the Book. In their zeal and fervor they wrote what they believed to be the truth, but they got many things wrong. They were only human.
"We study and meditate upon the words of the Book so that we may excavate the truth buried in layers of metaphor." The Abbot strokes his long, white beard.
And so, each year, the monks, after many rounds of debates, agree upon additional words to cut out of the Book. The bits of excised parchments are then burnt as an offering to the gods.
In this way, as they prune away the excess to reveal the book beneath the book, the story behind the story, the monks believe that they are also communing with the gods.
Over the decades, the Book has grown ever lighter, its pages riddled with holes, openings, voids where words once rested, like filigree, like lace, like a dissolving honeycomb.
"We strive not to remember, but to forget," the Abbot says, as he cuts out another word from the Book.
by people who
in neat rows
memory is fragile and delicate
the people who
buried in layers of metaphor.
holes, openings, voids
strive to remember, to forget.
remember to forget.
Excerpt from THE HIDDEN GIRL & OTHER STORIES. Copyright 2020 by Ken Liu. Reprinted with permission from Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Author Website: https://kenliu.name/
Cover Image: Courtesy of Saga Press
Author Photo: Lisa Tang Liu