The streets were salted and the sky was clear. Days passed spent in waiting for snow that never appeared. Barricades throughout the city prevented the uninhibited flow of traffic. With new boots and some new banknotes, the reasons for sheltering seemed absurd, even if there was a plague raging. I walked slowly to the station, as if the snow had already fallen, as if it impeded my body. Halfway down the long road, I stopped under a tall, slender oak. At its crown burned three golden leaves, the effects of marcescence, that had somehow survived months of wind and rain. The path to the station was straight from west to east, like the passage of a rook across a board. I tried to remember what lay past the station, but nothing came to mind. On work days I could ride the train south to the other city by the river, full of quaking aspen and cottonwood—again, moving in a straight line. The only things I knew on the path were the bridges over the river, the tree tops and rooftops, the signboards of old warehouses and new buildings of stone and glass. The north of the city had faded into mist. I only visited the dentist and the bookstore there. One caught a bus that ascended a long hill of soaring pines and cedars and old houses to descend a longer, gentler hill of elms, two story shops and galleries to reach the intersection with a great thoroughfare. A white clock always glowed above the brick building on the northwest corner. Whether I visited the bookstore or the dentist first, the trajectory was the same. The bookstore was across the street from the building with the clock. The dentist was five blocks eastward from that point. One traveled like a knight going or coming. As a man of the cloth, it seemed sad that I could never travel like a bishop through the city. One could live like a king in a palace of rats, dust and cobwebs, making few moves. One could venture out into the rapidly vanishing chessboard, living one square day and one square night at a time, nonessential and expendable, like a pawn. The wind crackled through the three golden oak leaves high in the cloudless sky. I could not remember why I had come out for a walk.
The road curved down into the gentle hill country of grain fields and widely spaced chestnuts. The late sun revealed the poor condition of the soil, the scattered stones, the dried-out gardens and the ramshackle wooden huts of the peasants. Wooden wheels and broken plows sank into dust beneath the great trees. The rider came upon an old grandfather smoking his pipe in the shade of a birch, watching the crystal water of a stream bubble past him. What is this land? the rider asked. The old grandfather shrugged, and said that it had various names, some memorable, some forgotten. What has happened to the fields? the rider queried. The abundance of streams and the green hills made drought seem unlikely. It is some blight, said the old grandfather, but we do not know. Life is hard. Are your masters cruel? the rider asked. Masters have always been cruel, in one way or another, said the old man. In the past, it was different. There was the lash, there was the tax, there were atrocities sometimes, but in between there were long, quiet days of plowing, sowing, watering, and reaping. At night, the stars were clear and bright, and we ate chestnuts around the hearth and told tales. Then there were wars and rumours of wars, and there were new landlords. There was no lash anymore—at least, it became quite infrequent, but we owned less, and the laws became strange. The rider had put a cigarette to his lips and was searching his coat for a light, when the old man held out a little paper box of matches. The rider lit his smoke, and handed back the box. Thank you, he said. They smoked in silence for a while as the rider surveyed the broken country. What laws? he finally asked. I don’t know the breadth and width of it, said the old man, but it began with the agronomists who came to teach us that durum is lolium and lolium is durum—except when it is not. And do not even mention when barley is barley or when it is not. They would not let us store reserves of seed, and we would wait for the seed to come, and we would sow it, but some of the seed destroyed our fields, and some was prone to blight. Though we have streams everywhere, they warned us of the dangers of using the water for our fields, and many of the fields dried up. That is horrible, said the rider. That is horrible. The old man nodded and blew out a serpentine stream of smoke. It is, said the old man. And if I could still walk, I would walk as far as I could, until there is a land with different landlords, but alas, my legs are old, my bones are frail. Are there no children to help you? asked the rider. The old man said nothing, but slowly, tears began to roll from the wrinkled corners of his eyes. Stroking his beard, he attempted to say something, but kept his silence. At last he stood up, wiped his face with the sleeve of his coat and looked hard into the eyes of the rider. Lolium is not durum, said the old grandfather, and he held out a handful of grain.
It was a white room with a view of a courtyard where a fountain plashed among willow trees. A crucifix hung on the wall. The bald, haggard man, tall but frail, lay under the immaculate white sheets, his torso propped against white pillows. By the bedside, there was a framed photopgraph of his wife at the age of twenty-five in an elegant dress, mascara and lipstick. Beside it was a photograph of men with rifles in army uniforms. And beside the photographs lay a small, dark book. A masked nurse brought in a well-dressed visitor. “It has been a long time,” said the patient. “I did not want to disturb you,” the man said, his eyes wandering with no place comfortable to settle. “I thought you had renounced me and changed your name,” the old grandfather sighed. “I did,” the youth admitted, “but that is not why I am here. You will have to put your personal feelings aside for a moment. It is not about you. It is about the world.” The old man laughed. “Of course,” he said. “Please, go on. It is good to see you again. Tell me what is on your heart.” The young man clenched his fists and looked straight into the wrinkled face. “First, your absence is needed. Nobody needs you here anymore. It’s unspeakable, unthinkable that you allow the children to visit, that you fill their heads with candy and the same old nonsense about a different time and a different world, with folktales and imaginary friends. Second, you are needed elsewhere.” The old man called the nurse and asked for his wheelchair. It was almost time to go down to the courtyard. “What do you need?” the old man asked “To fight,” said the young man. “Our foreign enemies have begun to become aggressive and there is no reversing the tide without war.” The old man nodded thoughtfully and laughed again. “This is no time for irony,” the man insisted. “Your generation invented wars for no reason. It only makes sense that you clean up your mess. Our generation does not lack courage. We have been on the frontlines fighting for a better world in our own way. Our generation, however, has no business getting our hands dirty in the grime that all of you dredged up. Only you can resolve this. They will listen to you. And I have a plan that might just work.” The nurse brought the wheelchair and helped the old man get into it. “Have you heard, honey? I’m off to war again!” he laughed as she wheeled him into the hallway. “Not if the doctor has any say about it,” she said sternly. The doctor did not have much to say. The armed forces polished up the vintage bombers. Within a few weeks, stretchers and wheelchairs armed with bombs and detonating devices rained from the aircraft flying low over foreign cities. The sky was filled with shimmering wheels and bodies in cloud-white gowns and the smoke of the rubble rising like incense. And the old man laughed as the parachute attached to his wheelchair opened like a bright, spring flower. Only a few seconds remained to him; he kissed the photograph of his wife, made the sign of the cross and gazed into the beautiful blue sky.
The lawyer crossed the plaza in front of the palace of justice and walked up to an ice cream truck. Only two flavours were available according to the chalkboard: neaopolitan and spumoni. The lawyer ordered spumoni. The vendor looked at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes and said that there was none left—he would have to survive on rosa. And not just today. After dishing out the ice cream, he turned up the radio, just as the football game became animated with the static of disembodied shouts. “What the hell is this?” the lawyer demanded. “I don’t want rose petal ice cream. I want spumoni. last time you offered limone or fragola and had neither—offering me mandorla instead. The time before it was malaga or zabaglione. I wanted malaga and you gave me amarena. When it was cioccolato and fior di latte, you only had bacio, and the time before that, when it was cannella or menta—you made me take the noce!” Another roar burst from the radio. Switching off the radio, the vendor leaned over and said that one should be very careful about talking that way—especially a man who had eaten nothing but neapolitan for a month in the early summer. Word gets around. Things could happen. The lawyer paid, grabbed his rose petal ice cream, and walked over to a bench, where a bald, thin franciscan sat chain-smoking and staring at the doves strutting on the pavement. It was unbearably hot. The only things that moved were flies, birds and shadows. “It is always c,” said the young scholar. “It is never a or b—never. They do not exist. This is the mystery of the third letter. It is the exact opposite of disappearing ink!” The lawyer ate a mouthful in disgust and watched the franciscan light another cigarette before spitting out, “And don’t even bother with the tobacconists!”
The wall clock clicked, watching the office, watching him at his shabby desk, where he examined pages, made annotations and corrections and placed the finished copies into a growing paper tower to his right. The others discussed their days off–mostly wasted on board games or solitary trips to the cinema, as none of them were married or had lovers. The editor could never remember his days off, unless a chimerical rain fell on the streets, or he saw a flock of enchanted black birds on the way home from the bookstore or café. The only real entertainment was to smoke in a slow, meditative way, while watching cloud formations pass overhead or the waves of the sea washing the rocks. There was precious little in the world that interested him. As his pen scurried across a page, he wondered how he had come here, into this changeless gray box, always refrigerated in a way that made his cups of black tea futile. He had nothing in common with anyone. He had not wielded a shovel long enough to impress his father; he had wielded it rather too long to be of any use to his sons or colleagues. Shovels had led to reports in work offices, and reports in work offices had led to printing offices. An old dictionary, a cigar box of newspaper clippings and a discarded typewriter led to other offices. And then, like a mouse in a simple but inescapable mousetrap, he had sunken into the endless routine of this last office, where he tried to remember the other, older world, even writing monostichs of memoranda on index cards that ended up in coat pockets or between the pages of the paperbacks he read on the trains to and from work. Once in a while, a seemingly random thing–a red streetlight in the rain or the soft arm of a brunette in a leather coat brushing or pushing against him in the crush on the train–would open a gate into a vague, dark and airy space, possibly something in his memory. For days he would ponder the significance of the omen or symptom of phenomena beyond time. The red light or the texture of the stranger’s body would be noted on an index card, only to be forgotten after nothing else materialized. In the office, the workers had the habit of discussing their mysterious wounds which came from accidents that they could not remember. A hand would have salt burns, a finger would bear minute, blood-red puncture wounds, an arm had thin, parallel cuts, as if from paper. Examinations like this always ended in laughter and words of mutual encouragement. The editor had no external wounds. Generally, he was careful with the staplers and avoided picking salt up off the streets on frozen nights. The only thing that haunted him was a strange, musical tinnitus at night and then the slow, agonizing regrowth of his spleen or other organs by day. At some point in the past, he had lost his spleen, his appendix, his gallbladder, perhaps even part of his liver. There had been years without any phantom pain or inflammation. Then one quiet day, as the office grew colder, the wall clock began to tick loudly and slowly. It was so slow it could not have possibly reflected the actual passage of time. Seconds passed and he noticed a slight prick and mild burning in his right abdomen. The tiny point of heat and pain grew slowly at about 3% an hour, from the size of a lentil to the size of a crab apple, to the size of a large plum. When he was putting on his coat, his head filled with the clicking of the wall clock, the radio static of winter rain outside, the resurging gall of stomach acid and black tea burning his throat, he could barely walk out of the office. The doctor ran tests and gave him hyosine, but the tests were inconclusive. The x-rays depicted a ghostly otherworld that reminded him of that dark and profound space beyond the red street light, beyond the soft arm of the brunette who once leaned against him on the train. Then the pain disappeared altogether, and the editor wondered about the soundness of his mind. Then one evening, the clock began to tick loudly again. A stabbing pain no larger than an asterisk or a comma began to throb in his right abdomen. Once again, it grew by only 3% an hour, until his passage to the train station was a remarkable combination of torture and sleepwalking. Just as a transient asked him for some loose change, he felt a merciless spasm roll through his body; he coughed and coughed until he spat up a plum-dark organ that could only have been his resurrected gallbladder. The blood stains flickered below the station lights, and he felt a great peace enter his body. It was gone–every last trace of pain was gone. Some days later, however, the process started all over again. The wall clock, the pain, and the vomiting of a piece of spleen or liver. Most nights, he took his hyosine and other drugs, suppressing the spasms. It would be shameful to uncover his naked organs at the office, on the train, or even at home. Once everyone was asleep, he could venture into the back alleys behind his apartment or visit the industrial strength lavatory of an obnoxious late night pub and urge himself of blood and inner matter, vomiting until he was empty and pure. One night, however, he came home, and just as he was approaching the dinner table, he began to seize and declaimed a blood splatter of broken spleen all over the cutlery, bone china, an incomplete chess game, his pale wife and his sons. The youngest cried; the older sons cast dark looks of suspicion and judgment. The wife helped him clean up the mess, and sent him out onto the balcony with a glass of rum and a cigar to contemplate the rain dripping from the pines. The second time was similar. The third time saw the beginning of a languid argument amongst the others as to which organ he had coughed up this time–whether it was the gallbladder, spleen, or fragments of liver. A shortage of hyosine prevented him from continuing his futile treatment. The editor could not afford time off; he continued to commute to work, to listen to his colleagues discuss their scars and the progress of their board games, and to scratch his pen against index cards in between spells of marking up the pages on his desk. One day, he found an old book on the life of a saint, who spoke of light beyond darkness and of great silence. It was the silence beyond the red streetlights–he was sure. He bought an icon and an electric candle. At night, the pale light and gold leaf of the icon opened the gate of the great silence beyond everything, the abundant emptiness that washed the edges of the red traffic lights and the contours of her warm arm and dark hair. The revenant viscera did not return, and if they did, it did not matter to him, for they touched the great quiet darkness as well as the missing bottles of hyosine. The wall clock itself froze in incalculable, impermeable silence that fell softly like winter rain.
The law was strict in the town, from the ordering of the old, tall houses lining the streets to the timing of the clocks in the bell towers. The dark gray statues of the ancestors were always dusted or polished, the churchyards were mowed, the names of old were spoken with reverence. It was impossible to speak ill of the dead; gallows humour was outlawed; doctors who joked during a surgery were heavily fined. The morgue, crematorium, and mausoleum displayed the grandest and most elegant architecture of all the buildings, out of great reverence for the departed. One could not murder, commit suicide, have an abortion, or euthanize anyone, either—again, out of grave respect for the dead. The law was as unbreakable and immoveable as the encircling mountains, as frozen and hard as the glaciers, as clear and pure as the lake sparkling at the end of the main thoroughfare. It was with great shock, therefore, that the town greeted the sudden appearance of Citizen W on the street that runs in front of the library and courthouse. Not only was Citizen W dead, as reported by the priest, coroner, and lawyer the night before, but Citizen W had not even been transported to the morgue yet. The hearse had broken down, and the carriage-maker was none other than the dead Citizen W, who was now passing the hours staring at the topiaries between the library and courthouse. The scandal was unimaginable. At six o’clock in the morning, Citizen W had simply come out. And there he was, for all to see, dead and quite pleased with himself, munching on a rotten pear that a squirrel had dropped. To think that some had ridden in his carriages before! To think that some had greeted him with a slight bow or a tip of the hat. Within a short time, scandals accumulated. Citizen Y escaped from the morgue wearing next to nothing, and was wandering the streets with her hair down, gazing into the windows of the great, old houses, riding trams, talking to birds and cats, and distracting the youths who were not sufficiently offended by her presence in public, in her state of attire. Time wore on, and the dead came out. In droves, in flocks, in murders, in prides, in troupes, they came out. What had started out as scandal would have become routine—the town scientists and chess grandmasters did not seem to care—except for the fact that the dead now wanted to be noticed. This was one great headache. A corpse would try to blend in for as long as possible, all the while hinting that he or she might have a secret to confess, suggesting certain dates or times when a party could be gathered. And then, in a lull between the blaring of trombones, the corpse would exclaim, “I am dead!” And one by one, the scandalized and the exultant would rush to embrace the dead person. The morning edition was sure to carry a front page article. There were less celebrated cases, to be sure. One would be walking a husky or samoyed along the trimmed hedges when suddenly a corpse would appear on the steps leading up to his house. Normally, one could just walk by, pretending not to notice. It was different, however, when Citizen H came out of his pale blue townhouse and was ignored by the candlestick-maker and the butcher, who were involved in a fairly serious argument about political economy. Citizen H yelled at them until they disappeared around the next corner, but they never seemed to have heard. Moments later, the notary was passing. Hearing and seeing Citizen H swearing and threatening from the top of his steps, the notary agreed to report the matter to the law. Perhaps the notary meant well. It was, after all, almost the dinner hour when citizens wished to dine in peace, and it would be good to calm and quiet Citizen H. And thus he drew up and lodged the complaint. On hearing that the dead had been insulted, the judge could only rule in accordance with the law. The butcher and candlestick-maker were arrested and heavily fined. They were forced to close and sell their businesses the next day to pay the expenses. Meanwhile, rumours swirled around regarding the corruptive influence of Citizen Y on the youth, some of whom she had debauched in the stacks of the public library—most notably in the broom closets and in the sections on magic, pyrotechnics, poetry and anarchist philosophy. The youth who hung out in the grammar, physics, mathematics and economics sections were generally considered safe. One youth, after being seduced by Citizen Y, decided to join her in eternity, and committed suicide in the library. Outraged, his father attempted to bring charges against Y. Outraged at his outrage, Citizen H dispatched the ever affable notary to bring charges against the father. The bailiff, meanwhile, went to arrest the son for committing suicide. The result was a legal nightmare. The judge ruled that neither Citizen Y nor her protege, the suicide, could be charged because they were dead. Though suicide was still a crime on the books, and this was the surely the first time that a suicide had been arrested for said crime, prosecution would violate other statutes protecting the sanctity of the dead. Moreover, the judge instructed the court reporter to strike the bulk of the proceedings from the record and the newspaper reporter to refrain from printing the majority of what had transpired—the very typing and note-taking may have been illegal and punishable. One lawyer objected and threatened to appeal. And this is where the judge made a terrible mistake by brandishing a pistol. He shot the lawyer and then shot himself. Legally speaking, he should have just shot himself, but passion can obscure and obstruct reason. The lawyer was now as untouchable as the judge. Within seconds of the intial blood spatter and smoke, the bailiff, sergeant and court reporter quit, boarding the first express train departing for another country. Not long after, many civil servants and industrialists came out of their houses and stood on their front steps, as dead as Citizens Y, H and W, as dead as the cadavers still buried in the graveyards. The pastor of a local church arranged for a trombone concert to celebrate these new additions to the community and then ordered some renovations. First, a wooden park bench and a little lending library, not much bigger than a birdhouse, were installed on the lawn by the sidewalk, should the walking dead want to stop, rest, and read a book. Also, a wooden signboard was nailed above the entryway to welcome the marginalized who had once departed but had now returned. Most thought this to be a brilliant new exegesis of an old parable, but others wondered why so much attention was being given to the corpses who shopped, strolled through parks and operated heavy machinery with impunity and even accolades. Was this not a belated attempt at winning influence and gaining attention for herself? Should she not have been an advocate of the dead from the very beginning? Around this time Citizen X, the lawyer shot by the judge, tried to pass a bylaw limiting the casual emergence of the dead as well as their proselytizing. In a paper that was widely debated, he proposed that the increased numbers of the dead would result in a deflation of their value and uniqueness. Citizen H almost agreed in an editorial responding to the paper—what was required, however, was a thorough investigation from the perspective of law and natural philosophy regarding the definition of death and the relative degrees of morbidity. Otherwise, it was impossible to address the growing problem and properly apply etiquette and law. The morning editions may be regarded as the first artifacts of this exchange; they straightaway abandoned the habit of publishing obituaries from other towns, laying the groundwork for a topographical category of at least one degree of morbidity. The obituaries of other towns could not properly be called obituaries, their dead not even acknowledged as dead, until the law and the academy resolved the open question. Not long after, Citizen Y reignited the passions of the city when she embarked on a rampage of defacing or destroying the elegant and ancient statuary of the town. The monuments were not living–that was clear; and yet, they represented the dead. The question was–were they dead? And when were they more dead–when they were left alone to adorn the squares and streets or when they were defaced or toppled? The matter was not really settled when Citizen W stepped out of a long catatonia, threw away the bone-dry remnants of his pear core and assaulted the notary by biting him so fiercely in the neck and sucking his blood that he died of exsanguination. The body was left on the street. And apparently, it preferred to lay there and not get up again. That night, numerous citizens perished from such attacks, but the reports never reached the morning editions. Some nights later, a living shepherd came down into town to announce to the constabulary that the mountains were full of drumbeats. Assessing that it was not the season for outdoor concerts, the constable locked the shepherd up for the night on the charge of being inebriated and for crying wolf. The second night, however, the drumbeats could be heard throughout the town. What might it be? they asked the historian. The historian said it reminded him of night marchers. Citizen H demanded an immediate retraction—night marchers only lived in the southern islands. This was a slight against the inhabitants of the southern islands and an offense against their deceased ancestors. The historian attempted to explain that many lands had tales of such ghosts, the ancient dead armies of exterminated or forgotten citizens who returned at inconvenient times to strike terror and reclaim their lost heritage. Citizen H declaimed that this was the perverted bias of the living; the very concept of history was an offensive discipline meant to malign and subjugate the dead. It was an obsession based on jealousy, fear and a desire to exterminate the dead. The historian walked away, heading for the station, where he boarded the night train for a distant country. When the train left the station and the lights of the town, he sighed with relief and gazed into the dark indigo landscape. It was then that he saw the lines of magma flowing down the sides of the mountains. It was not magma, however. It was the light of torches–thousands and thousands of torches held by the skeletal hands of night marchers heading toward the town. The historian laughed quietly to himself and decided to get a drink in the dining car. Sitting in the southwest corner, he sipped his cognac and looked over at the adjacent table, where a dark gray statue divided his time between petting his pigeon, reading a book and contemplating the midnight landscape. The historian looked around. At the far end of the car sat the bodacious Citizen Y, naked and blonde, also gazing through the window into the midnight landscape with her angelic blue eyes full of mystery and hunger.
It was a poorly lit shop, but immaculately clean. The windows had been polished to pure transparence, the gray wooden floors mopped, the shelves stocked with bottles of spring water, wine, wheat grains, ash, salt, and light. Behind the counter, a man in black sat, glancing at a large leather-bound ledger and scribbling numbers on a chalkboard laying flat next to the cash register, all the while clicking an abacus. A man in a striped suit entered and placed several tin cans on the counter. I want your shop to start carrying these items. This is not a canned goods store, said the owner. I only deal in bottled goods—mostly water, wine, salt, ash and light. Sometimes oil, sometimes honey. Sometimes balm. Nobody wants balm, said the other man. Nobody wants breakable bottles. Your merchandise is irrelevant—sales are slow. I don’t want to be involved in the can trade, the owner responded. Everyone is involved in the can trade, the intruder laughed darkly. Every other corner store in this district is stocking canned goods. What’s the matter with you? My faithful customers want bottled items, they pay for them, they return again and again for them, and thus far, I have made a good living and nobody has been harmed. I want to run a bottle shop, said the owner. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t want to live in a world without glass bottles, just as I don’t want to live in a world without candles, cloth bags or wooden boxes. Interesting, the intruder sighed. I hear the wooden box shop was closed by the health authorities. And the cloth bag store went up in flames. Most unfortunate and most absurd. And without another word, he left, leaving the tin cans and a calling card on the counter.
Though not a renowned or even respected detective, he had closed more cases than most. In the end, the political intrigues of a supreme court justice and some academics banished him to the archives, where younger detectives and lawyers avidly sought his counsel in secret. Middle aged and broke, he lived in a crumbling apartnent of cracked walls, molded window sills, and rotting furniture, where he studied law on his spare time and visited his neighbours, many of them criminals or low-lifes whose files had crossed his desk before. Despite deploring their lifestyle, he was struck by their honesty and even hospitality. Thus he brought them groceries, cigarettes, sometimes even cash. He sat with them and listened to old tales of narrow escapes, regrets and confessions. One evening in the winter, before the new year, he was invited to a party on an upper floor. To get there seemed equivalent to climbing a mountain or navigating the tunnels and galleries of a mine. At last, he reached the apartment and entered a magical world of obsolete jazz, laughter, fragrant bodies slow dancing, and strong drink. Midnight struck, and in the middle of a lengthy and enjoyable discussion of ancient martyrologies with a young woman with dark eyes, he looked around at the shadows, blue paper lanterns, and sparkling champagne glasses and felt a premonition of sadness—the end had come. Though he was not sure what was ending, it seemed clear it was ending, if it had not already ended. In the early hours of the morning, he went home, went to sleep, and forgot about martyrs and young women with dark eyes. Within a few months, the world descended into plague and revolution. Running into neighbours was infrequent, and discussing anything of substance even rarer. One evening, some acquaintances arrived with a bottle of sambucca and some files. They sat down at his table without invitation and poured the liquor into his glasses, beckoning to him to come sit and have a drink. Horrible serial murders had broken out, and they could not seem to solve two different cases. The first murderer always struck with a noose. The second always shot his victims. All of the bodies were staged with dramatic artistry. The archivist and former investigator opened the files and looked through photographs, testimonies, reports, and maps. Slowly, he sipped the sambucca and thought. Not a word passed from his lips as he examined the evidence. When his glass was empty, he looked at his colleagues and said that the investigation would have to wait. There was only one killer. Both cases were one case. The perpetrator was likely a magistrate or high-ranking official. It would be impossible to arrest him–or her–and bring the matter to trial. It would even be dangerous to continue investigating. Though the weaponry and geography differed, the elaborate staging of the bodies in both cases showed remarkable similarities as well as almost identical sources of historical and cultural allusions, albeit interpreted differently according to they type of victim. The head or upper neck would always have a bullet hole or noose attached—the rest of the body would be neatly dismembered and arranged with spaces between the parts—arms, legs, torso, hands and feet. The victims of both cases, while always female, included almost every other demographic. At first glance, this could be confusing, but in reality it was consistent with the statement the suspect was attempting to make about all of the citizenry. What is the statement? the others asked. The magistrate or official had a fractured or bifurcated soul—politically, religiously, philosophically, but he or she is not necessarily a centrist or anything like that. Rather, the suspect is possibly one who has shifted between opposing parties to the surprise of loyalists, antagonists, and even traitors, but somehow without facing any consequences. This should not come as too much of a surprise—renowned mathematicians and artists throughout history did the same through numerous regimes in the blood-stained revolutions centuries ago—each of their enduring books or works of art bear dedications to successive rulers who extirpated their predeccesors. The visitors scratched their faces and sipped from their glasses. What is he or she confessing? That the revolution, new as it is, has already failed, as the world before it failed, the investigator explained. That he or she has failed. Those victims that were shot were often staged with religious relics or props—bread, wine, candles, icons. They represent the good of the old republic that is lost, goodness that at some level even irritated or nauseated the suspect because of its goodness. The available biographical information of these victims suggests they mostly lived up to these old standards of ethics or goodness. And yet, more than the goodness, it is lostness that matters here. That is what is enshrined. The victims that were staged with pagan or secular symbols—empty libation cups, earth soaked in blood or wine, weighing scales, books of law, sheaves of wheat, swords, tools, serpents—they represent what could not, what will not be realized. These victims failed to revolutionize, to fully become what they had set out to become, or they retained the vices of the old republic in some way. Why only women? one of the detectives asked. I am not sure, said the investigator. At the risk of sounding—problematic?—women have been employed in both progressive and regressive symbolism. Virgin mothers, good mothers, chaste saints, redeemed prostitutes, working women of the factories, female soldiers, nurses, famous women scientists, for example. Many virtues have feminine personifications or allegorical figures or even feminine nouns: justice, prudence, charity, and wisdom. Or it may just be the sexual preference and pathological character of the murderer. And what is the real motive, then? What is the real confession? Why confess? the other detectives asked in woeful chorus. The investigator refilled his glass and placed several photographs on the table. They could have been stills from a motion picture. Nostalgia and regret, he said. There is nothing more painful, nothing more humiliating, nothing more damning. It may be the case that all of the victims are avatars of two allegorical figures, twin personifications of lostness. That is what dismembers history. That is what dismembers the revolution and the world. That is what dismembers the magistrate. That is what has dismembered these poor victims.
The prince wished to improve the commerce of his towns, and sought out a learned man of law to draft his edicts and contracts. Most of his own barristers and solicitors were either corrupt or senile. He entrusted the task to his secretary. The secretary first went to the university, but found it hard to follow what the clerks said. Then he went to the mint, but their discussions of rising and falling prices, monetary theory and the various weights of coins left him numb. In the clothing ward and on the docks, he lost count of the prevarications and outright lies and ended up walking off in quite a steam. Arguments among the medical lawyers at the hospital made his blood run cold. At long last, he came to the court library. The librarian himself was a man who had been an agronomist, an army engineer, a lawyer and now a law librarian, a rueful man of letters who drank bitter tea and smoked cigars in a vast chamber full of books and cats. The law librarian answered his questions in slow but short sentences, and offered to draw up the papers. The secretary almost wept when he read the finished documents–they were as clear and graceful as a sundial casting crisp shadows. Some days later, the prince summoned the secretary and began to scream. What on earth was the trash he had submitted? It is the clarity of sunshine and shadow! the secretary exclaimed, bursting into tears. It is a coffin without breathing holes! the prince thundered. I don’t want clarity! I want ambiguity! Clarity is somnolence, sleepwalking and daydreaming! I want the force of gray clouds filled with rain!
The carriages would travel quickly thanks to the steam engines, but the railway was long, stretching indefinitely through forest and steppe. Dining and kitchen carriages provided banquets at all hours of the day. Cafe carriages and lounge carriages provided quiet jazz from phonographs, carafes of dark coffee, smoked vanilla ice cream, rum and vodka and the printed weather reports to read. The sleepers were elegant, the linen immaculate; the showers offered fresh bars of lavander soap and boiling hot water. In the cinema carriages, one could watch black and white films wherein rifle-bearing villains hiding in the shadows of cypresses and colonnades gasped as pale beauties disarmed them. One could not complain. Many could remember the old days of train travel–of lining up to get tickets, of arguing with conductors and other passengers, of huddling around the only cast-iron stove per three carriages, of rusted hinges and tools, of gazing through cracked and frosted glass windows at landscapes of snow and cold stars, of reading bone-white pages of crime novels, history monographs and slender volumes of poetry by flickering kerosene lamps, of sneaking into the dining cars after hours to kiss or forage for matchbooks and cigarettes. Now, the fragrance of cigars, expensive soaps, good upholstery, alcohol, perfume, and ironed clothes followed one from car to car. It was the fragrance of cleanliness, progress and good times. The only curious rule of the new train was that only one side of every carriage had windows. The other side, the same side in every carriage, had been soldered shut with iron sheets–for the safety and comfort of the passengers. The connectors between the carriages had no windows at all. Conductors thankfully never appeared and one could just sink into the luxurious softness of the chairs in deep comfort, enjoying the quiet of the engines, the smoothness of the rails, even the soporific tone of the meteorologists in the railway newspapers. One evening, a magenta and crimson glow filled the twilight of the carriages as signal lamps glowed beyond the open windows. The train slowed to a halt. There was no station in sight–just some leafless trees and the snowbound earth. Disembarking, the passengers were surprised by the sight of hundreds of soldiers in gray coats directing them toward a barbed wire barricade with a checkpoint lit up by intermittent, meteor-red flares and the dull iodine glow of a signal light pointed at those waiting to pass through. Fireworks exploded overhead in celebration of the finished journey. An old margrave asked what lay beyond the gate. The firing squad, a soldier laughed. Through a sudden break in the crowd, the margrave saw a line of passengers fall as blood speckled the snow. Then, turning to a fellow passenger who was a thief, the old margrave asked why some of their traveling companions were not in the line. The other shrugged and shoved his hands into his pockets. The only thing the thief could remember was that he had seen some of the missing passengers tampering with the blocked up windows one night, when he had stolen into an almost empty dining carriage to search for matchbooks and cigarettes.