The Clergyman’s Dilemma


Maybe it was not a real paradox, but it was enigmatic all the same. The clergyman noticed, as many will, that nobody sat in the front pews. He called the maintenance workers and had them remove the first row. This gave more space for his assistants, ushers and weekday visitors. It was an inviting space; it would amplify the sacred. The second row became the first row, and fell to the same fate. Nobody would sit there. The clergyman wondered why this would be. Perhaps some were too humble and thought it presumptuous to sit too close to the altar. Perhaps others resisted the front out of shame, coming from traditions in which the front rows were reserved for penitents who wanted prayers at the end of the service. There were likely those who just avoided being close to the pulpit and altar because they deeply feared what they represented. The second row was removed, and the third row of pews became the first row. Season by season, the pews and the pulpit would drift further and further apart from each other, but still nobody would sit in the first row. The clergyman greatly envied those heretics who sat in circles or stood during their services. They had eliminated the dilemma centuries ago.

The Great Sea

The river began to speak. It spoke to the poor dry land. It spoke to the acacias. And it whispered to the dried out grass . Then it called to the man who sat on its shore. Come and let me draw you to the sea, it said. And what is in the sea? asked the man. Great things, said the river. And years passed. The river drew silt; it hauled driftwood; it carried off scraps of paper and golden leaves and straw; it ferried swimmers and boatmen. And the old man wondered why he could not get to the sea, and why the river called to him, and why the acacias eventually died and cast their branches and trunks into the stream, but he would not set a raft upon the waters nor wade into the streams, though the river ran forever, beautiful, blue-green and deep to the sea of great things.

The Match

A roof caught fire, and the wind bore an ember far down the street until it landed in a lane right next to an old match that some passerby had thrown away after lighting a cigar. “You look burnt-out,” said the ember. “And you have flown off course,” said the dark match stick. “It’s all right, though. Our purpose has been served.” The ember glowed a little less brightly. “I fear I am running out of time. I wonder if I burned enough.” The match seemed to almost curl, perhaps in a gesture or bow to express something. “To be fire, even just once, is magic.” “Will it be awful when I am extinguished?” “No,” the match said. “The sound of my burning was beautiful. And yet, the silence is also beautiful.” They sat in silence for a bit, the ember losing its heat and glow. Its annihilation was only seconds away. “Don’t worry,” said the match. “One can burn again. In the right circumstances, everything can burn. Everything is fire. A fire waiting to happen.”

The Fire

“I’m on fire! I’m on fire!” yelled the flaxen-haired youth holding the string of a large box kite that had burst into flames. The kite slowly dove earthward like a ruined aeroplane in an old war film. “I’m on fire! I’m burning up!” the youth screamed. A man who had been gathering rare herbs, and who owned the field, walked over and struck him in the jaw. Tears streamed down the pale face. “You are not burning,” said the landlord. “The field is on fire.”

The Numbers

For every number, there is but one element or artifact. There were three golden pears on one tree. Seven black birds passed by. It is not dark, but neither the moon nor the sun can shine. Myriads of stars still burn, but the constellations keep shape-shifting. Earlier, in the distance, five roman arches appeared. I stretched out my hand for a pear, and behold! My fingers had vanished! The moon rose as the tree disappeared, causing the golden pears to fall to the earth. I will not eat them, for they are invisible, and I have no mouth. I pray that the twin stars will not rise into the elliptic because I do not want to go blind. And yet I suspect I am already headless, for I have but one skull and the one moon is full and bright. My thoughts and impressions shape-shift like a jigsaw puzzle ever forming, deforming and reforming. I would like to travel, but that will depend on the numbers. It is hard to exist here.

The Safe

Watching the snowfall one dark winter, I halted below a flickering signboard to light up a smoke. The snowfall danced through light and shadow. I had walked many blocks without discovering where I was going. There were many nights like this, but none of them had brought snow. Arc lamps lined one side of the alley. In the distance, a strangely shaped shadow seemed to be propped against a faded poster of a red whale. Something like music crackled. I walked down the alley to investigate, and I found that the shape was a man, but instead of a head he had a closed, circular safe vault on his shoulders. The three brass numerals of the code wheels darkly glinted. A low, crisp phonographic voice asked for help. It could not remember the combination anymore. Would I help him? After asking some pointless questions about whether he could remember the first, last, or middle numeral, I started the slow process of trying every combination from 000 to 999, my fingers aching in the cold as the wind blew snow flurries around us. None of the combinations worked. The mechanism might be corroded or broken, I told him. Being a welder by trade, I told the poor man to wait. I would return with a blowtorch. I ran through the blizzard, trying to memorize as many landmarks as I could. In my apartment, the grandfather clock struck one. I gathered my things and went back into the cold. A blackout had covered the city. The snowstorm must have affected the power station, and none of the old gas lamps were burning, either. In the darkness I retraced my steps as best as I could, firing up my blowtorch now and then to illuminate a broken street clock, a staircase with a cast iron railing, a stone building with frosted glass windows. At last the red whale in a white sea advertising a strange motion picture approached along with the misshapen shadow of the man with the safe for a head. My friend, the phonographic called out. You returned! It was getting cold. Despite the wind, the wall was positioned inside of an alcove, and his vault and clothing remained mostly free of snow. When I applied the torch, the voice shouted with joy. Fireworks! An angelic blue light sparkled as I set to work on the safe. It did not take as long as I thought it would. Something clicked, perhaps from the heat, and it unlocked, but sparks landed on his duck coat and khakis. Within seconds, he was a screaming monstrosity of fire, jumping up and dancing in the snowfall. The phonographic voice blared a mazurka. Whirling in circles with outstretched arms, the headless one sang of who would dance with Mary until he ran back to the poster and sat down, lifeless and silent. Time after time, I called to him, but the charred body did not respond. What had he been searching for? I wondered as I opened the circular door of the safe. Perhaps there were some bronze coins or unspeakable items or old incriminating letters. A solitary arc lamp came on as I reached into the darkness of the vault, pulling out nothing but handfuls of yellow leaves.

The Half Tree

The strange tree grew on the slope of a great expressionist mountain of iron gray stones and pure snow. It looked like half of a tree, regardless of the path you took to approach it. The northern view showed limbs and leaves vanishing into the west; the southern view suggested branches and flowers smoking into the east. And yet, if one embraced its trunk or climbed it, one found that it was whole, that nothing was lost. Not far from the tree lived an old man who cared for it. One morning, as he walked to the tree with his axe and kindling, a visitor stopped him to ask about the tree. “The half tree,” said the old man, “is an enigma. One half of the world recognizes its medicinal benefits, but instead of buying or cultivating its fruit, they harvest grapefruits and oranges and boil them to try to obtain the unique chemicals only found in this tree, chemicals never to be found in oranges, grapefruits or any other fruit. The other half of humanity harvests the medicine from this tree, refines it, packages it and sells it, but discourages people from taking it and denies its benefits. It is a tree of contention.” The visitor shook her head in disbelief and asked, “Where is the rest of the tree?” The old man shrugged and whispered, “The only place it can be.”

The Canaries

In a small corona of lamplight, the miner regarded the man he had bound with ropes. There was something in the eyes that burned, something he could not understand. At times those blue eyes gave him hope; at other times they ignited a furious rage. The man with blue eyes, tied up with ropes, was none other than one of three rescuers who had managed to tunnel into the damaged gallery before being ambushed and assaulted. The other two had already been tossed into a chasm not far from the lamplight. Leaning his back against the coal seam close to the tunnel exit, the last rescue worker calmly repeated what he had said before. The entire mine was collapsing. The miner was not a hideous cerberus who deserved to be pitched into the abyss. He was a good miner, well loved and respected by all. The lamp and timepiece that he had seized from the rescuer were not magic talismans meant to harm. The provisions of wormwood vodka, rye bread and tinned herring were not poisonous. It would be good to eat something. The ropes were meant to help them on their way back out. The rescuer was almost out of breath, more exhausted than he had ever been before. He had to further explain that his warnings were not imprecations or calumnies; his kind words were not diabolical lies meant to trick. Before the last words were out of his mouth, however, the miner struck him in the mouth so hard he swam through excruciating seas of stars. The lamp glowed, and they sat in silence. The miner played with the timepiece and ignored the lamp and the man bleeding by the exit. Throughout the mine, galleries and shafts groaned with the wooden, stony and metallic sounds of disintegration. Below, in other galleries, there were doubtless thousands of other miners, just as helpless and deranged. A canary in a cast-iron cage would have been nice, the rescuer thought, as he slipped into unconsciousness. In the old days there were beautiful canaries. Giant trees full of them. When he was a littlechild, he had dreamed of building a rocket and flying into the amber fires of the morning star. On that planet, in his dream, in a golden landscape of brassy lava and smoking mountains, there had been soot-black trees full of canaries and other birds–the most beautiful birds he had ever seen. On another night, he had dreamed of a white chantry in a dark forest. The walls were covered in icons of indigo and green. Candles flickered and a woman in white with golden hair had held out her hands to an open window, or perhaps a gaping hole in the roof, to feed birds with grains of wheat. One by one, they came–canaries, doves, golden finches, swallows, flickers, blackbirds, magpies. And they ate from her hand before spiralling and soaring back into a starry heaven. One day, he met a beautiful woman just like her and married her. Those were good and beautiful things. It was good to follow the ways of the birds. In the old days, there were beautiful birds.