Raw-boned, the old friend of the fall comes out of the dusk down at the crossroads with a pale, cold face of gravel and flint, his black coat littered with hay and straw. Though his gates are empty, his idle plow rotting under a leafless chestnut tree, he invites you to dine on starlight and time and blue wine by fast, forgotten streams. With bone-thin hands the old bard counts off the names of his cities, his buried seeds, the years of good harvests, the years of drought, and his old friends long lost in their watery sleep. Through the twilight he sings and his saturnine blade casts its curved shadow on the golden grain.
Some nights, his face is nothing to read, for his inflamed skin no longer needs to hide. For he was skinned alive a long time ago. For he was forever his only very own manskinner. Some nights, sometimes, the shade returns, with bone-white teeth and bitter laughter, only to show him an invisible figure, pure as the water flowing out of his cage. As he dreams, the manskinner closes the door, whispering one name that is pure and profane, before plumbing his lungs with a beautuful blade, cool as the night’s most fragrant shade. The one dreams of a mirror that sheds all of its petals. The other screams the last notes of night’s love song. It ends in the blood-red dawn.
It was in the land of hemp, some years ago, that the burghers asked the ropemaker to dig a mass grave. They feared the worst, and wars could breed plagues. A contract was drawn up and the ropemaker went to the outskirts of the town to dig not far from the highway. Strong and dedicated, the ropemaker worked quickly. The hole grew wider and deeper. One day, the bottom caved in even more, and he fell down into a pit. There did not seem to be any way to dig himself out. His shovel was nowhere to be found. For days, he sat in the pit, listening to carriages and carts roll by, bearing fresh rope to the ports where it was sold to chandlers, who then sold it to the great ships of the west. Though he tried to climb the muddy slopes and cry for help, nobody heard him and he kept slipping and falling down. It would soon be time to harvest his hemp. The ropemaker missed surveying his crops, retting them, stretching and twining the stalks in 300 yard walks between hooks, chatting with peasant girls and working under the blue sky. And then there was the bundling, loading, and the departures, the evenings of brewing and drinking, the fragrance of the good earth, the fragrance of bread, the way his hands were strong from years of working the earth and the twine. The ropemaker had a few seeds in his coat pocket that he carried around for good luck. One must have fallen into the soil, for he woke up one morning to see a stalk growing on the floor of the pit. A handful of seeds and one stalk do not, however, make a rope. And even the strongest hands need something to hold onto.
It was a miracle. The little boy was finally allowed to get a helium balloon at the seaside market. It was yellow with a blue swirl and looked to him like a tiger’s eye. After his mother had finished her shopping, she even allowed him to run down to the soft dunes and to the gray beach beyond to play alone for awhile. The sound of waves and the solitude were perfect. It was time to test the wisdom that had been planted in his heart. What goes up must come down, he whispered almost breathlessly. When you love something, you must set it free and it will return to you. The little boy ran along the surfline, ecstatic and terrified, anticipating the event, the great moment of his test. At last, he turned to face the cold breakers and the cry of shore birds. The little fingers let go of the string. The helium balloon rose quickly. It soared higher than the birds towards the clouds. The tiger’s eye was beautiful, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen; he loved it dearly, and waited. It was hard to breathe. The balloon did not return or fall. The wind carried it higher and higher into the colorless sky, further out to sea, beyond the gray clouds. The tiger’s eye disappeared from sight. And the boy sighed heavily, unable to stand the new, vast weight of his desolation, a desolation greater than the endless sea. The cold waves curled and broke on the sand.
In the days of old, days of revolution and unrest, the watchmen appointed a rider. Though imperfect in many ways, as all souls are, they wanted him for their army and for this specific task, not just for his able body and horsemanship, but also because of his intelligence, passion, purity of heart, and his deep love of freedom and truth. Freedom, they solemnly whispered, as they presented him with the gifts of a dark horse and twin lanterns, requires calm reason and endless vigilance. And thus began a lifetime of insomnia for the rider, as he endured the trial of waiting for the right time to ride. They told him he would know, but it was not that clear when he would know. The first time he saw bombs bursting into the night sky, he began to gallop down the road, but the watchmen stopped him. Those were just fireworks, they laughed; the real bombs would come later. And so the rider returned to the stables. Every night he prayed, stayed awake, and read the communiques, pamphlets and the books of classic philosophers. When pamphlets warned of death and taxes and the communiques spoke of riots, the rider would begin to saddle his horse and fill his lanterns with oil, but then he would hesitate. The riots might be isolated disturbances; the pamphlets might be exaggerations of the heated moment. And so he would walk from coffee house to coffee house to confer with other watchmen, but they were divided in their assessments. Some wanted him to hurry up and ride; others saw no reason yet to ride whatsoever. It seemed it would never be midnight. It seemed as if the whole weight of the revolution bore down on his breaking shoulders. It seemed as if the revolution were a dream or fairy-tale from another continent. The rider saw riots, read pamphlets, and heard the thunder of bombs blazing like roman candles. The watchmen whispered. When they were terrified, he tried to remain calm and calm them down. When they were nonchalant, indolent or apathetic, he tried to rouse them from their sleep with glorious words. Some nights, it did indeed just seem like fireworks. Some nights, he fell asleep in the saddle after hours of deliberating as to whether the thunder outside meant that he should ride out. The rider began to hate the revolution, but he hated tyranny even more. Every night, he stayed awake to pray and read, wishing he could have time to think, or better yet, to sleep. There were nights when the lanterns seemed like the chains of a prisoner. There were days when he wanted to shoot the dark horse. And there were times when in the innermost secret places of the heart, the rider felt that the watchmen and the tyrants were a gang of thieves working together, but he could not prove this. To make matters worse, he could neither commit to fearing this nor resigning himself to it. It only made him feel sick and tired. The horse was getting old, and the rider was no longer a youth. Most nights, he allowed himself to sleep, to sleep and dream of four horsemen who rode out and absolved him and freed him from his excruciating, maddening life of insomnia and sleepwalking. Revolutions are endless and they devour their children, he often thought. The midnight would never come.
The messenger ran into the rustic teahouse where the old master was pondering a gentle ripple crossing the surface of his tea. When the messenger had finally caught his breath, he reported that the great swordsman, who served as the highest ranking general in the land, had revolted and burned to death his liege, the warlord of the realm, by surrounding and setting fire to the ancient temple where he was staying. It had come as a great shock, as the swordsman had always been upright and loyal. Needless to say, an army from the west had arrived within a fortnight to avenge the warlord. The reign of the swordsman had already ended, and he was either dead or cloistered in a secret monastery somewhere. One could not imagine how such things came about. It was a most tragic betrayal. The old master sipped his tea, and remarked that the great swordsman had finally learned something of value.
An ancient planet of white sands, gray mountains and large acacia trees was searching for other beings in the universe. It was a matter of life and death and a matter of time. Resources were running out, and the herds of dromedaries that mined, traveled, ploughed, and provided meat were on the verge of extinction. The humanoids of this planet would not be able to build spacecraft without external help. They lacked the workforce and technology. They had, however, built gigantic radio machines with cathode ray boxes and screens that could read signals from the other side of the galaxy. These could not detect life, but it was hoped that they would perhaps find traces of other cultures sending out signals. During the days when the last handful of dromedaries were sick with plague and dying, a radio operator saw something appear on her screen. At first, it seemed nothing more than a crude and abstract mosaic. Gradually, her eyes saw the shape of a camel. Symbols appeared on the fringes of the picture. The machine showed the camel performing various kinds of work on a planet not unlike her own. Other mosaics were soon discovered. They showed humanoids made of tiny squares of light walking down endless hallways and through trompe l’oeil mazes to elude serpents, beasts or other menacing humanoids. Some of the humanoids characters would travel, and maps would acquire more shape and definition. These scenes were often interrupted, and the mosaic would seem to return in time to what she had seen at the beginning, when the camel was first starting its workday or the flickering tesserae of the humanoids were starting off on their exploratory quests or entries into combat. To summarize, the mosaics were like a more angular, moving version of the pictographs and cave paintings on her own ancient planet. It was hard to say what they meant. Only two theories occured to her. The first was that whoever made these mosaics did so to preserve something of their history and literature, and this was all that remained, since the radios of her planet could not pick up anything else. Her second theory was a bit more complex. She wondered if each mosaic were a smaller world within a larger world. In this theory, the beasts and humanoids made of flickering tesserae were not representations—they were the actual beings of this other planet, trapped in very short cycles of time that always repeated but never resulted in a fulfilled dream or completed quest. She mourned these lost souls of cubist light, and wept for her own.
The old priest received many letters begging him to come and visit. The wires were cold and the streets were broken, but it was safe to travel. It had been for years. One day, he received yet another letter. Grabbing his beads, little book and smokes, the old priest set out into the shadow of crumbling buildings and rusting girders, passing grand trees and piles of rubble. Some spring flowers had broken through the uneven pavement. A white cat followed him, desperately trying to get his attention. Halfway to the main courtyard of the town, the priest thought about returning. It would end the same way it always did. The letters meant nothing. As he thought these things, he passed into the great plaza, crossed the diagonal shadow of its tall clocktower on the warm cobblestones, and headed for the heavy door of an old building with cracks and burns. There were no chalk marks on the door. The priest checked the envelope of the most recent letter with the numbers on the sign above the door and then knocked. The sound of furniture struck out through the walls and there were footsteps on the stairs. Then a voice greeted him. The priest mentioned the letter, the beauty of the day, and the tin of coffee he had brought. The voice begged him to leave and not return. The priest wondered why this moment always came as a surprise. Slowly, he fumbled with some chalk in his pocket, and then marked the door. For a moment he stared at the brass numbers on the sign. I can hear you breathing, the voice suddenly said from beyond the door. Please stop.
Alone, the skeleton wandered the earth. The earth was an empty land of bone. The bones of the mountains with their gaping caves, the bones of petrified forests in the deserts, the bones of bison, fish, men and women, individually and in heaps. All of these bones were like letters from time written to time, and they were letters about time. The last man, the boneman, had a backpack and a wooden walking stick. He wore black bermuda shorts with a white tsunami pattern and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a way of preserving his dignity and an attempt to remember flesh, organs and skin. He generally wore boots or sandals made of rubber tires, which could always be found. The spear-lengthed walking stick was made of ash. To pass the time, he had become a naturalist, or as he liked to joke to himself, an unnaturalist. He was fond of examining fossils, whole skeletons of beasts, and gazing at picture books and calendars that had drawings or photographs of the myriad fauna that had once filled the world. One day, he found some medieval bestiaries in an old library, and began to ponder the imaginary and semi-legendary beasts. It seemed that these images of beasts resulted from a combination of factors: poor skill, inadequate knowledge, poor memory, and playful imagination. These four qualities seemed to make the bestiaries a more honest, more realistic picture of nature than the shiny calendars and color plates of encyclopaedias. They possessed more life and reflected his own sense of his relationship to his inner thoughts and the outer world. The skeleton also visited every old cave, every dolmen, every ancient monument, every medieval and renaissance town and every modern, abandoned city he could. This pilgrimage continued for some years. The cave and tomb paintings, the frescos in churches, the postmodern grafitti and pictographs covering walls, bridges and railcars intrigued and puzzled him. The more he thought about the paintings, the more he felt that very little had ever been new. The newness seemed concentrated at the center of time, and the further forward or backward one progressed from that point, the more senility and monotony one encountered. It seemed as if the earth had been born old, belatedly discovered youth, and then retreated in panic back into old age to ossify once more. Most of human life had been simultaneously prehistorical and posthistorical. What generations had perceived as the childlike primitivism of early art, the skeleton saw as the dying expressions of nauseated bodies on the verge of becoming terrified ghosts. While their forms might resemble the drawings of infants at first glance, he quickly sensed the absence of vigor, wonder and hope. Arthritic in execution, jaded in perspective, exhausted in imagination and desire. He frequently took from his backpack a sketchbook that had belonged to a child, to compare the childlike sketches with the cave and tomb paintings. The child had painted the same things as the cave painters: cougars, bison, antelope, swimmers, flying abstractions, celestial bodies, the sun and moon. The moons and cougars still sparkled in silver crayon. The moons and cougars of the caves were as poorly drawn, but they were lifeless and old, as if they had long become a tolerated commonplace of seasons, tasks, rituals and attempts at guessing the course of events to follow. The moons and cougars of silver crayon in the sketchbook were events in themselves, events of wonder, little visions of something beyond themselves. And how deeply did the skeleton miss the little hands that had drawn them.
A trader was pressed into the service of the army to survey a tract of wilderness and to deliver supplies to anyone who needed them. As he journeyed along, he passed through a vicious mountain pass and then through a dreadful, stony land that wore out his boots and cut his feet. On the far side of the land of stones, he met pilgrims who were heading in the direction he had come from. He offered them some of his provisions, but they refused. He asked for water and his request was denied. The trader warned them of the land of stones and the vicious mountains, and inquired about the country they had passed through. The pilgrims shrugged, saying that they doubted any such mountain or land of stones could exist, and they had nothing special to report about the lands they had seen. As they headed off towards the land of stones, the trader could not help but notice that they wore the poorest of straw sandals, which would come undone before the end of the day.