Story: rules without meaning

Sarah Shin

This story by Sarah Shin is in response to BXBY, Soojin Chang’s commission for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2022.

We Lake People come from and die in the water. Through it, we pass from one lifetime to another and from this world to the other world. But the water washes away our lives as much as it retains their traces and we do not remember the journey into our bodies, when we are reborn from the lake. If each of us comes into this life with something to do and to be, realising this immutable image of ourselves means, at the same time, to recognise in its wholeness the construction of the cosmos as identical to the epochal means by which it is perceived.

Our ancestors, the Water Bearers of Ka, did not leave much in the way of stories that give language to our embodied inheritance but we have something to start from. Part of my research into their culture is reproduced here, offering a partial glimpse of the customs, beliefs, orders and demise of the Water Bearers of Ka.

Ka was an elliptical island slung around a volcano rising in a series of different types of flora and climate, from the deciduous forest of the lower levels, through subalpine grassland and evergreen thickets, up to the snowy peaks. Each part of the path represented a deepening of the climber’s commitment. If one ascended as high as one could go, as the priests of Ka did, to the meeting point of heaven and earth, one might be permitted entry to the sacred crater lake that mirrored the whole sky. At the clearing told by legend, the priests made their sacrifices. Those who were permitted to enter found themselves in a place of  deep stillness, an opening. Wind, light and the sound of waves surrounding the island conspired to become visible as circles, staffs, crosses and knots in the air. For a moment, the alphabet of salt revealed messages from the water gods, before melting away into the mist.

All Water Bearers were, to greater or lesser degree, adept in seeing and influencing the movement between the subtle and the dense. There were those who toiled in the world of matter, working in the sea, the mines or the kilns, providing the essential base for life’s mysteries, and those who studied the path towards higher planes of existence, which then descended as forms by which the material world was organised. As water evaporates and condenses, what must ascend must also descend; the Urn of the Water Bearers overflowed with water’s wisdom.

According to the principles of light and dark that structured their society, in the light were the Houses of Air and Fire. Among other things, these houses held: electricity, technology, dry wind, science, the sky, politicians, warm spices, invention, siblings, fathers, the sun, religion, telescopes, war, philosophy, science, lions, art, travel, intelligence, artificers, birds and communications. The Houses of the dark were Earth and Water, which included: stones, industry, the phoenix, mothers, farming, wood, poetry, bulls, landforms, the unborn, potters, ghosts, money, many moons, bodies, caves, tigers, the East, secrets, metal and dreams.

The light and the dark and their tendencies are of the same spectrum of energy: this is true until this day. In one direction it is the journey of the unconscious that seeks to find its way to the surface and into form; in the other, the day that becomes night, as the moon wanes once it reaches fullness. There is a movement back and forth – one contains the possibility of the other, from the smallest drop of perception to the whole ocean of memory.

The main shrines of Ka were built in the shape of a circle around the island and each village had its own satellite altars. The circle was mirrored in the Weave, the religious topography of the Water Bearers’ shared memory sustained as a virtual, continuous space by their belief, so that anyone could make their way to a shrine at any time even if they were physically far away. The gods were present on the double support of the real and the imaginal – this was the axis of their worship.

Gradually, driven by a fear of the dark, the Water Bearers went too far in the way of light and its technologies. By the end, they had expelled magic with science, reason dominated dream and they had evacuated their bodies to escape death. They profaned the Weave, which became a marketplace for immaterial goods and tokens. The S-shaped river between light and dark flowed no longer and the magnetic field around Ka began to change. The Weave no longer held; the gods were angry.

In the dying days of the age, some were drawn to the waters, where everything came from. There were those who cultivated the dark – ancient medicines, myth, irruptions of dreams into the day, the old ways – even as it was slipping away. There are few remnants of the Water Bearers, the fearful people who forgot the sea gods, but some fragments, suggestive of small personal seismographs of the dreamworld, are gathered here.

 

[A] Eggs

The first time I went to the sea over that way at the westernmost part of the island, it was as if I’d come to the moon. The beach was covered in stones that looked like large, grey eggs. The strangeness outside matched the strangeness inside me and I felt right among the eggs, the smell of the salt sea, the rattle of the tide washing over the stones. The ‘I’ loosened and ‘I’ breathed outwards to connect. Undone, and open to all of the possibilities of things being undone, I came to understand the white circles and stripes that veined the stones. The shapes rose from the stones sometimes as a lattice, and other times like fireflies patterning light in the darkness of the night. If I tried to touch them, they dissipated, but if I stayed still they would come close to me. After some time, I fell asleep on the beach. When I woke up, I was covered in the glowing letters that cast a net from my body across the ocean and the sky… All effort to keep myself within my boundaries had fallen away. I saw stars that were strings of lanterns that were jellyfish in the sky and tiny cities in the embers of fire. With the letters surrounding me like a cloak, I walked into the sea.

In the waves, I drifted, held by the symbols of light. Far from the shore, the water was completely dark and calm; only moonlight rippled over its surface. A huge black egg rose from the waters, slowly turning on an invisible axis. It was like a spaceship had come down from above. And then it hatched:—

 

[B] Lost goddess

When you are born into a time moving so far away from the gods, one becomes quite inventive. I had the urge to make a performance about a dishevelled monster roaming around a city, trailing glitter and oozing some kind of viscous fluid as it aimlessly wandered. I gave it long hair, to show it was a woman monster (they say that it would be better to be born a sea cow than a woman), and acquired a sealskin. I wore the costume here and there for a few days and it quickly became a part of me, and I a part of it;  without it, I am a fish out of water. There are those who would take my coat to keep me in my human form on land, but my mother, the goddess of the sea, calls me to her.

 

[C] Compass

The purpose of this world’s game is to find your way. There is no map to this world, only a set of correspondences between the external and the internal. We take as our compass a set of practices and tools for making a bridge with the unknown; wayfinding is this movement between known and unknown. We consulted the I Ching, a book of wisdom from when this planet was still called Earth, but this question could be asked of any oracle to guide your way. At the shoreline ritual, we asked: Where is the secret ocean, the missing deep water – the source of the source – within us?

The oracle replied with the seventh hexagram ䷆, 師 shī. The trigrams are K’un, earth above K’an, water: as deep water is stored in the ground out of sight, power is latent in the people.

 

[D] Turtle

Four elephants stand on Turtle’s back and together they hold up the entire cosmos for eternity. Turtle endures for centuries – so long that he grows a train of hair. Once a woman fell from the sky and was aided by geese, who brought soil to heap onto Turtle’s shell to break Sky Woman’s fall. When the pillars holding up the heavens collapsed and the world broke, Turtle cut off his own legs and gave them to the goddess to hold up the sky. Turtle’s shell is the pattern that unfolds into the world of the living, the drum that carries over into the spirit world, the archive of the past and the instrument of the future. Turtle is dreaming and the dream is asking a question: how to create an ease in language so it becomes possible to speak about things without understanding them?

 

[E] Gate

My dreams showed me first and then I saw it everywhere. The gate is usually accompanied by a charge, which you can feel as an increased intensity of sensation and see, if you pay attention in a lucid state of mind, as a halo. In my nights, I dive into the Fourth Lake, swim across to the Fifth Lake and to the Black Lake, where I descend to the underwater gate. The gate always leads to the past, which repeats the same scene over and over again: there is something I must retrieve in order to leave and enter the future.

 

[F] Mountain

The prophecy says that the next world will emerge at the same time that ours is swallowed. When the ninth and final sign appears and fire burns on the water, a mountain will rise, pouring molten sun into the sea. It will rise unfathomably quickly, for the gods are wishing to return. In this next world, a new covenant shall be made between the survivors and the gods, but there will be much that is lost. From our former lives, we will only retain some rules without meaning but that is in our favour, since the gods will be hungry.