The man who was tired stopped before her threshold. Once again, he could not enter, for again he had arrived with all the wrong questions. The ciphers she would strip from her dark hair were a down-splashing rain through a voice like a sieve. Many cigarettes later, he then realized and determined not to venture back into her five-cornered street, not to get lost and wander her seven bridges. The formulas she had folded and those she had torn were thrown a great distance beyond shadows and unknowns. And his shadow was sleeping, regardless of time, blurring into a whisper of sickness and death. An obsolete silence struck his analog head. Then one night, he went out, shaved and dressed for a wake. And to the darkness he whispered. My cold fingers twine an abacus without beads and hold a cheap cigarette lighter with one single flame.
One winter never thawed in the cave of her chest. And yet, it had no trees with icicles; it had no hills that sparkle with the glass of dead grass locked in frost. It had no screens of snow, no sculptured ice rivers. Wrapped in sheets of concrete she slept and wandered, leaving no prints on the earth. For the earth left her fallen on stones and stars. For her long legs were songs of hollow straw. Those who have skinned the earth blood-raw have said that she has no skin to speak of. Those who read verses in the vault of heaven have said that her tattoos are illegible. And nothing she holds in her permafrost hand finds its shape once again or remembers its name.
Long ago, the peasants were allowed to make three kinds of requests: an appeal for justice, an appeal for mercy, or an appeal for solidarity. Sometimes, they could appeal for all three at once. An appeal for justice meant that a person could demand what was owed to him. An appeal for mercy was a request to have a debt forgiven, a crime pardoned or to receive an unmerited gift. An appeal for solidarity was a request for assistance to solve a problem or merely to have one’s complaints heard and recorded for future reference. This was the law. One day, the bonesetter traveled to the capital to make all three requests. The magistrate seemed to be listening, but suddenly denied all three requests without reason. A trifecta of this nature was rare, and it was actually punishable by law. To be denied thrice or to be denied in all three categories was a symptom of either hidden crime or contagious misfortune in the supplicant, or perhaps both, for no one is really guiltless or innocent. Death or exile was the usual penalty. The bonesetter was exiled. The only place for him to go was the desert. The only desert where he thought he might survive or be happy was some 12,000 kilometres away and almost impossible to reach. Moreover, it was a land of cold waves, golden grasslands and dark mountains, a land of living skeletons, sleepwalkers and sheep. The bonesetter hoped that he would have the courage to venture there, the courage to learn about the sheep and to live with the sheep. The sheep are weighted down with so much beauty and sadness.
In a land of long twilights and melting guitars, a man was lost and confused. For he no longer remembered if he was trying to escape from the alcazar or to enter it. The moon and stars, for example, were both the celestial bodies glimmering above inaccesible ramparts as well as the embroidery of a tapestry on an interior wall. The stones belonged to a castle corridor and to some rockery in a country field. To enter or exit a castle, one needed passwords, and none of the shadows he encountered comprehended his words, so this did not help him. Sometimes he thought he looked out upon the world from a high tower; sometimes he seemed to be looking up at its reddish battlements from a great distance. The haunting voice of a damsel both allured and repelled him. Visions of the castle and the open earth bled their rust into each other, and he shivered. Nights are always cold and lonesome, whether you are inside or outside.
Long ago, the shadows of the desert migrated in black trucks and jeeps from mesa to mesa, through the rock sugar and cornflower of steppes and mountains. Whenever they camped out, they would perform shadow plays or puppet shows, using the headlights on their armoured automobiles, white sheets or tarpaulin, and an assortment of puppets preserved in army lockers. The radio provided the music, the migrants themselves voiced the songs, dialogue and narration. The characters were the most interesting part of these events: the cougar, the jaguar, the coyote, the hurricane, the avalanche, the lost or abducted princess, the corrupt mandarin, the lone swordsman, the conspiring doctor, the lovesick lawyer, the oxherd, the weaver, the bear in mourning, the mad hunter, the philosophical miner, the celestial but secretive wet nurse, the lost angel, the seven merchants, and the dangerous rider of winged horses. When the blue grass and brass skies darkened, these characters acted out all the many narratives of life before and after and yet to come. Whether watching shadows or low-lit puppets carved of wood and painted in faraway colors, the migrants lost themselves in the interlocking ballads and dramas. Curiously, these events always ended in the same way. Only one character, if it could be called such, stood out from the rest and could not really be defined. They called him the other, the one thief, or the mysterious stranger. Nobody could predict when or where in the time-space of the narrative he would appear, but once he did, he would deliver an indecipherable incantation, a kind of parable or thought experiment, and the lights would go out to end the play. It was in this way that the shadows of the desert contemplated the night of stars and endless time.
Into a land of emptiness, a mason was transported and abandoned to live and cultivate and build a world. The mists were thick in those days, and it was almost impossible to see anything. For days the mason walked, stopping now and then to hold pebbles, to speak, to gaze into the open, to try and make an event. All he had in his possession was a an army backpack filled with strange things—a long knife, flints, wicks, fuses, some candles, shaves, chisels, a trowel, a hammer, gunpowder, rope, coffee, tobacco, paper, ink, and a fountain pen. None of these worked to make a landscape. Now and then he thought of what was missing from his backpack. Sometimes, he amassed arguments to explain to himself why none of his tools worked. Nevertheless, he felt there was something in the mists and stones. The only living thing in the wasteland was an adorable sheep. One day, it began to follow him, bleating in a friendly way. At first, the sheep was a nuisance, but before long, the mason found the face beautiful, and it was pleasant to feel its fur, to be followed, to have a warm creature nearby throughout the dreadful, ghostly nights. One evening, he spoke kindly to the sheep, and found it could converse in his language. The sheep was quite philosophical, and patiently explained the holes in the mason’s arguments about his tools and work, but encouraged him to keep searching and trying. The mason loved the sheep and longed to build it a nice pen in a field of delicious grass. Nothing came of his efforts. The world would not happen. As time went by, the mason grew weaker, exhausted, and stared off into the gray matter without form, wondering if he would die. Then the sheep brushed up against him, insistently pushing its forehead against his leg. It is time to live, the sheep whispered, and you have all you need to live. Eat, and you will live. The mason broke down and wept, slit the sheep’s throat, dressed the carcass and roasted its meat over a campfire. In the morning, when he awoke, the mists were clearing to reveal beautiful wastes of red sand and elegant black volcanoes smoking softly into the blue sky. The world was beginning.
The moon that night was four-fifths gray and had a tail of two stars. It looked like a little cougar or a leaping cat. It looked like a silver dandelion about to blow its seeds into the galaxy. Or a lamprey. The burning, thin and tilted crescent smiled down from the dark indigo sky, and the traveler got up again, able for the first time in weeks to breathe and walk the stone paths along the shore of an infinite sea.
Once in a while, the surveyors would come across a mission-white adobe house in the copper wastelands or a log cabin on shores of stone and black sand, only to find a lifer holed up inside. The typical charts were on the walls. The lifer would be working on fixing a radio, picking at a black box with tweezers, lighting a hurricane lamp or playing something mournful on the guitar. The lifers would invariably have books–paperback classics almost worn-out from rereading. There would be a wooden trinket on the wall that looked like the first aid symbol. In the evenings, they would radio, telegraph, fax or phone. The surveyors hardly spoke their idiom, and were uncertain if the sending or receiving of a code were the key mission. The nights seemed interminable, their silence and openness seductive. The moon would misshape itself to the sound of distant and sad music.
The skeletons wrapped their black coats around their bones and sat closer to the campfire, watching the firelight dance off their newly cleaned and oiled rifles. There was a strange stillness in the mountains that hung in the trees like an invisible and intangible mist. The coats have gotten better, said the one. First it was blue against gray, then green and gray, then nondescript shades of sand, and now black or green, but at least they seem durable for the time being. Warming his hands on a steel can of coffee, the other skeleton said that it was a difficult thing, picking a coat. Some were good against the rain, some were better with the wind and snow. It was impossible to wear the right coat–one never really knew what the battle was about or where the open road would lead you. And some coats just left you more naked, lying thrown face down on the side of some forgotten road. And the coats are full of surprises.
In abandoned shrines the man who was tired of life lived through dreams of steel. On his wooden sandals ten thousand universes hid in golden dust. Ancient gravel roads possessed for him the clarity of one polished mirror or sword. Always shouting farewell to wind-blown landscapes in a monochrome mirage, in rivers of scripts, down the road he would fade. Down the road, the man would blur.