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The Tale of the Hollow-men and the Bitter-Rose

The hollow-men live in the rock, they move around inside it like nomadic cave dwellers. In the ice they wander like bubbles in the shape of men. But they never venture out into the air, for the wind would carry them off. 

They have houses in the rock with walls made of holes, and tents in the ice with canvas made of bubbles. During the day, they stay in the rock, and at night they amble onto the ice to dance in the full moon. But they never see the sun or they would burst.

They eat only emptiness, such as the shape of corpses, they get drunk on empty words, on all the empty speech we utter.

Some people say they have always existed and always will. Others say they are the dead. And still others say that every living man has his hollow-man in the mountains, just as the sword has its sheath, and the foot its footprint, and that they will be united in death. 

In the village of A Hundred Houses lived the old priest-magician Kissé, and his wife Hulé-Hulé. They had two sons, identical twins called Mo, and Ho. Even their mother got them confused. To tell them apart, on their naming day the parents put a necklace hung with a little cross on Mo, and on Ho a necklace hung with a little ring.

Old Kissé had one great, unexpressed worry. According to custom, his eldest son should succeed him. But who was his eldest son?

Reaching adolescence, Mo and Ho were already accomplished mountaneers. People called them Passe-partout. One day their father said to them: “To whichever of you brings me the Bitter-Rose, I will transmit the great knowledge.”

The Bitter -Rose grew at the top of the highest peaks. Whoever eats it discovers that whenever he is about to tell a lie, out loud or only to himself, his tounge begins to burn. He can still tell lies, but then he is warned. Several people have seen the Bitter-Rose: from what they say, it resembles a kind of thick, multicolored lichen, or a swarm of butterflies. But no one has ever picked it, for the slightest trembling of fear nearby alarms it and it retreats to the rock. Now, even if a man desires it, he is always a little afraid of possessing it, and it promptly disappears.

In order to describe an impossible act or an absurd enterprise, they say, “It’s like trying to see at night as though in broad daylight,” or, “it’s like wanting to turn on the sun to see more clearly,” or even, “It’s like trying to catch the Bitter-Rose”.
Mo has taken his ropes, his hammer, his hatchet, and his iron hooks. The sun has surprised him on the flanks of the peak called Hole-in-the-Clouds. Sometimes like a lizard and sometimes like a spider, he crawls up the high red rock walls, between the white snows and the blue-black sky. Swift little clouds envelop him from time to time, then release him suddenly into the light. And there, just above him, he sees the Bitter-Rose, gleaming with colors that are beyond the seven colors of the rainbow. Over and over he repeats to himself the charm his father taught him that protects him from fear.

He ought to have a bolt here, with a stirrup of rope, in order to mount his horse of rearing rock. He strikes with his hammer, and his hand sinks into a hole. There is a hollow under the rock. He breaks the crust around it and sees that this hollow has the shape of a man: a torso, legs, arms, and hollows in the shape of fingers spread in terror; he has split the head with one hammer blow.

An icy wind blows over the rock. Mo has killed a hollow-man. He has shruddered, and the Bitter-Rose has retreated into the rock.

Mo climbs back down to the vilalge and goes to tell his father: “I killed a hollow-man. But I saw the Bitter-Rose, and tomorrow i shall go fetch it.”

Old Kissé grew pensive. He could see the procession of misfortunes advancing from afar. He says: “Watch out for the hollow-men. They will avange this death. They cannot enter our world. But they can come up to the surface of things. Beware of the surface of things.”

At dawn the following day, Hulé-Hulé gave a great cry, stood up, and ran toward the mountain. At the foot of the red rock wall, Mo’s clothing lay in a heap, and his ropes and his hammer, and his medal with the cross. His body was no longer there.

"Ho, my son!" she began to shout, "my son, they’ve killed your brother!"

Ho stands up, his teeth clenched, the skin of his scalp tightening. He takes his axe and wants to go. His father tells him: “First listen. Here is what you must do. The hollow-men have taken your brother. They’ve changed him into a hollow-man. He will try to escape them. He will search for light at the seracs of the Clear Glacier. Put his medal around your neck along with yours. Approach him and hit him on the head. Enter into the form of his body. And Mo will live again among us. Do not be afraid to kill a dead man.”

Ho looks as hard as he can into the blue ice of the Clear Glacier. It is the light playing on the ice, do his eyes deceive him, or is he really seeing what he sees? He sees silver shapes with arms and legs, like greased underwater divers. And there is his brother Mo, his hollow shape fleeing from a thousand hollow-men in pursuit, but they are afraid of the light. Mo’s shape flees toward the light, climbs into a great blue serac, and turns around as if searching for a door. 

In spite of his blood curdling and his heart bursting - he tells his blood, he tells his heart: “Do not be afraid of a dead man” - he hits the head by cracking the ice. Mo’s shape becomes motionless; Ho cracks the ice of the serac and slips into his brother’s shape, like a sword into its sheath, like a foot into its footprint. He moves his elbows and shakes himself around, then pulls his legs from the mold of ice. And he hears words in a language he hes never spoken. He feels that he is Ho and that he is Mo at the same time. All of Mo’s memories have entered into his mind, along with the path up Hole-in-the-Clouds peak, and the place where the Bitter-Rose grows.

With the circle and the cross around his neck, he comes back to Hulé-Hulé: “Mother, you will have no more trouble telling us apart. Mo and Ho are in the same body, I am your only son Moho.”

Old Kissé shed tears, his face unwrinkled. But there was one doubt he still wanted to dispel. He says to Moho: “You are my only son. Ho and Mo are no longer distinguishable.”
But Moho tells him with conviction: “Now I can reach the Bitter-Rose. Mo knows the way, Ho knows the right move. If i master my fear I shall have the flower of discernment.

He gathered the flower, he received the knowledge, and old Kissé could leave this world in peace.

 - René Daumal
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