That day, the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace. They left behind, in long succession, the first terraces on the west which descend, like the steps of an almost measureless amphitheater, to a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and intricate juniper hedges already prefigured the labyrinth. They lost themselves in it, gaily at first, as if condescending to play a game, but afterwards not without misgiving, for its straight avenues were subject to a curvature, ever so slight, but continuous (and secretly those avenues were circles). Toward midnight observation of the planets and the opportune sacrifice of a turtle permitted them to extricate themselves from that seemingly bewitched region, but not from the sense of being lost, for this accompanied them to the end. Foyers and patios and libraries they traversed then, and a hexagonal room with a clepsydra, and one morning from a tower they descried a stone man, whom they then lost sight of forever. Many shining rivers did they cross in sandalwood canoes, or a single river many times. The imperial retinue would pass and people would prostrate themselves. But one day they put in on an island where someone did not do it, because he had never seen the Son of Heaven, and the executioner had to decapitate him. Black heads of hair and black dances and complicated golden masks did their eyes indifferently behold; the real and the dreamed became one, or rather reality was one of dream’s configurations. It seemed impossible that earth were anything but gardens, pools, architectures, and splendrous forms. Every hundred paces a tower cleft the air; to the eye their color was identical, yet the first of all was yellow, and the last, scarlet, so delicate were the gradations and so long the series.
It was at the foot of the next-to-the-last tower that the poet — who was as if untouched by the wonders that amazed the rest — recited the brief composition we find today indissolubly linked to his name and which, as the more elegant historians have it, gave him immortality and death. The text has been lost. There are some who contend it consisted of a single line; others say it had but a single word. The truth, the incredible truth, is that in the poem stood the enormous palace, entire and minutely detailed, with every illustrious porcelain and every sketch on every porcelain and the shadows and the light of the twilights and every unhappy or joyous moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons who had dwelled in it from the interminable past. All fell silent, but the Emperor exclaimed, “You have robbed me of my palace!” And the executioner’s iron sword cut the poet down.
Others tell the story differently. There cannot be any two things alike in the world; the poet, they say, had only to utter his poem to make the palace disappear, as if abolished and blown to bits by the final syllable. Such legends, of course, amount to no more than literary fiction. The poet was a slave of the Emperor and as such he died. His composition sank into oblivion because it deserved oblivion and his descendants still seek, nor will they find, the word that contains the universe.
[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]