The School of the Empty Book

At the School of the Empty Book, children are not taught to read until they are ten years old.  Ten is one of the ten holy numbers.  There are ten great sages, each associated with a flower of rare medicinal properties.  There are ten sword-saints, such as Shiema of the Storm and Kir Red-Hand.  And there are ten chronicles of battles past and future in the book everlasting.

It is not that the children grow up impoverished of stories.  Every morning and every evening, they are read some poem, perhaps about the heavenly horses that bring the rain-chariot when it is time to plant the spring crops, or perhaps the curious history of Liaskion, the girl-queen who sacrificed her face in exchange for the wisdom to rule well, and who reigned from behind masks of butterfly and bird, so that even her consort never learned what she looked like.

In the meantime, the children at the School of the Empty Book learn other things: how to rake straight lines and flawlessly undulating curves in the rock gardens, how to prepare acorns for flour, how to spar with weapons of wood and bamboo.  They learn to use the abacus, to meditate on the names of the ten angels without fidgeting, and to arrange flowers, including flowers of folded paper paper in the winter when nothing else blooms.

On his or her tenth birthday, each child is given two books.  One is a primer with the sorts of things you might expect: tales of talking animals and humble trees, conjugations and stroke orders, exhortations about the proper frame of mind in which to attempt calligraphy.  Here the child is finally given a systematic introduction to the beauties of the written language.

The child sees the other book as empty except for the title sheet, upon which the child’s name has been written in an elegant, smooth hand and embellished with gold leaf.  Yet no child can read his or her own book.  The pages seem to be creamy, smooth, and utterly blank.  Others will assure the child that there is something there, several pages densely scribed.  They even agree on what is written.  Often these are stories about mysteries heretofore unknown, such as the current haunt of the nightbird who eats the sun-fruit each evening, or what happened to the child’s beloved older sibling who rode off to war and never returned.  As the years pass, more stories appear in the book, and the pages remain as empty to the child’s eyes as ever.

Inevitably there are some children who spatter ink on their books or hold them up to fire in hopes of uncovering the secret writing.  In the first case, the ink quickly fades away.  In the second, new stories stop appearing.  Even among those who are more careful with their books, the bittersweetness of this gift, which they must rely on others to read for them, never goes away.

for Nancy Sauer