My coat is shabby, the man said, standing in the old shop with its dusty, dark wooden counters, broken and naked mannequins, and windows of cracked green and blue glass. In the back sat the old looms, spinning and sewing machines, rolls of fabric and piles of papers covered in sketches or printed with various patterns. The woman of the shop, though beautiful, had crow’s feet and the subdued movements of someone starting to feel the pains of age. After taking off his coat, she had him stand where the lamplight was strong. Rolling out a ream of red tape, she measured his waist, chest, shoulders, arms and neck. It was one of the most intimate moments he had ever experienced. She made some notations in chalk on one of the wooden counters, counted out something on an abacus, and rolled out a long ream of her red tape to cut it, handing the detached strip to the man. I believe there used to be three of you, he said, holding the tape carefully. One sister to spin, one to take measurements, and one to cut the fabric or thread with scissors. I’m the only one left, she said quietly. What happened? he asked. Downsizing, I guess, she sighed with a shrug. Joyfully looking at his length of tape, he asked if this indicated durability or longevity. Oh, no, she laughed. That’s just how long you will have to wait until the coat is ready. It may not even be ready for your burial, but that’s your affair, not mine.
In their travels, the wanderers encountered a sunlit, dry planet of scattered clouds, snowy mountains of stone and rolling plains of golden grass and scattered trees. There were soft seas that washed the semi-arid deserts and steppes. It looked like a good planet to cultivate. One day, as they walked through a plain, explosions of dirt and smoke fatally dismembered several comrades. The rest of the crossing continued uneventfully until they came to the coastal mountains where it began to rain what could only be described as bombs coming out of both clouds and blue sky. After a deluge of phosphorus fire, naptha, and other deafening fireworks burning the ground and leaving black, smoking craters, the land had rest for another thousand days. The wanderers came to discover that these unpredictable mines and bombs were organic, though inanimate, and really no different than weather. The silence was not friendly, though sometimes preferable. It is difficult to safely study an explosion one cannot define or test. In time, there was only one wanderer left intact, a lone shadow walking slowly and thoughtfully over the strange landscape.
The angel brought the blindfolded doctor into the shade where the dark woods began. This is the border, said the angel. I will escort you into the darkness in a moment before leaving you. What is this place? The doctor trembled, feeling the cold hyrcanian air blowing through black needles and dripping undergrowth. It is the silent wood, also known as the forest of suicides. When someone wants to die, they lose themselves in its depths, walking for days until hunger, exhaustion, hypothermia, wolves or bears finish him off. Then I am to be murdered? Not at all, the angel laughed. You are a man of skills; it will be much easier for you to survive. It is more of a contemplative retreat offered freely. The doctor inhaled the fresh, ozonous air and wanted to believe the angel. Why this punishment or this forest? Some revenge for a tragedy long ago, a malpractice case? Not quite, the angel sighed. They say there are some 164,000,000 life forms in this particular forest. It is the perfect place for you to contemplate the 164,000,000 deaths that will occur in the next ten years from unnecessary or adverse medical interventions—and that is a conservative number. It is also the tonnage of waste your hospitals produce throughout seven countries in only one year. Sadly, the amount of debt created, money wasted or stolen, and the poverty figures far exceeded anything we could dream up in a practical manner—there was no forest big enough to match your needs in that respect, but this one will suffice to give you a general idea. They say that the silence and darkness have a calming, soporific effect, and nothing is better for beginning pure contemplation, confession and penance than a good night’s rest.
After watching the small meteor burn up in midair, leaving only a few dark snowflakes of ash to drift gently down to the earth, the boy stared at the dark blue sky and remembered the smell of burnt coffee at the hospital and the smoke of the crematorium, and he said to himself as he walked home through tawny fields, haunted industrial marshes and arcane mineral streets of concete and cast iron, I am not made of stardust.
In the empty castle, there are no mice left to eat, and sometimes the cat is hungry. Of course, it is better to eat fish, for their goodness lasts forever, and there are ways to get to the moats and the river through the cellars, storm drains, and catacombs. Nevertheless, there is the emptiness of time. Wandering the long stone hallways and climbing the infinite towers of gray stone and gray brick, the cat collects bones, wires, old keys, magnetic coils, batteries, fragments of music boxes, and glass marbles to assemble his robotic rats. The idea first came to him when, alone and sad, he drew a face and some whiskers on a pebble with a stub of charcoal, and then battered it about as if it were a mouse. Not long after, he manufactured his first mouse and wound it up. It ran here and there, trailing its rubber tail. The cat was amused and chased it at once. Then it went on to build an army of mice out of metal scraps. The engines whirred, and drew figure 8s in the dust, and the music of the mice danced throughout the castle. Sometimes, the cat forgets, and almost breaks his jaws on the steel skin of his contraptions. One day, he should venture out of the castle and search for real prey. In the meantime, the robotic mice are beautiful, and they help him to forget the hunger, the water leaking into the cellars, the rotting galleries, the broken pillars, and the sinking foundation. And sometimes the mousecraft makes the cat forget the absence of another cat whose forehead he would touch with his own forehead, until their skulls became typewritten paper, their bodies electric eels burning with one sustained prayerful, reasoning and transcendent thought of what it means to walk in the void as phantom tigers and ethereal panthers in a dream of bones and dust.
The captain strode through the surf demanding damage reports, his bald head glistening in the purple twilight, his black leather coat dripping pearls. The dark waters roared and receded, flung their fury on the sand and retreated again. A marine biologist came running down from a dune where he had been manning a radio and telescope and ordered the captain off the shore. Mad and soaked through his skin, the captain demanded a damage report. This is a protected beach, the scientist screamed. Time is coming, the captain said quietly, glancing out at the darkling horizon. And you are not ready. Get off the beach, the scientist screamed. You are ruining our experiment! The captain laughed through the tears filling his big blue eyes. My good friend, he sighed, there will be no more tests or papers! A cloud of witnesses has spoken! 57 skeletons float in the green deep. Henceforth you will only publish damage reports! Damage reports! Time is coming. And you have no clue as to what time is! The moon rose square, hollow, and pale.
The cougar awoke into a blue night of rust and went out to investigate. All the cities were crumbling, and rivers bled ferrous water through the streets. It followed their streams, meowing but hearing no answer. All the buildings had been grayed with a film of petrified ash. It was a dirty white cougar of the ancient white mountains. It had traveled through the rock countries and had played with shards of broken glass and reams of tape, miles and miles of twisted tape and roll film left to blacken in the ever blue twilight. It did not know how long it had hibernated, but it had never imagined awakening to a world without sun and only the light of strange stars. In some of the streams, it found suspicious fish, and ate them raw. It meowed at the lampposts that still flickered, and listened intently to the automated factories still threshing and smelting and refining even though there was nobody left on the face of the machine planet. It investigated the reservoirs and shops where there were headless mannequins in lingerie or phonographs that played without end. And it stopped to listen and to scratch at things, and it wondered if everything were hiding in the music. And what did music mean?