The Cloud and the Sun

The cloud and the sun were laughing so hard they did not see the shadow riding through the hills. Instead, they continued to laugh at the poor man just below them who had taken off his coat and now burned under the brassy sky out on the treeless mesa. Now watch this, the cloud said. And he blew a strong, freezing wind upon the open wilderness, a wind full of hail and snowflakes. The world turned white. The mounted shadow drew closer to the mesa. The sun stared in amazement as the man just below shivered, put his coat back on and tried to walk through the deep drifts of snow. The cloud blew harder, making it almost impossible to walk. It was the most furious blizzard the land had ever seen. Not long after, the man once more took off his coat, which the cloud blew into oblivion. Then he took off all his clothes, which also took flight and disappeared. Alone and naked, the man stood with his arms raised to heaven and froze to death. Breathless, the cloud could barely laugh, but the sun bellowed with mirth and stared in amused shock at the statuesque body covered in snow. Suddenly, they both noticed the marshal on his horse. The marshal dismounted, and wrapped an old striped blanket around the frozen body. The marshal took a swig from a whisky bottle. Then, turning to the cloud and sun, he fired both barrells of his shotgun, reloaded, and fired again. The darkness of solitude and quiet fell.

The Windmill

A white windmill rose into the immense black clouds that always hovered above the wheatfields. It was taller than most windmills, almost a tower in its own right, and it was here that the old man lived with his son. Inside, the old man smoked his pipe, read heavy tomes, and lectured his son on weather. Nothing was more important or more elusive than weather. Without weather, no farms would make grain and no ships would sail the seas to carry the grain to distant ports. And thus, the old man studied clouds, winds and stars, the great propeller of the mill aimed into the bleak sky. One day, the son would have to carry on this work—the endless work of measuring, annotating, and charting. Meteorology, however, did not pay any bills. One had to grind grain for the locals, maintain the sails and gears, and attend to other matters to survive life in that barren land. The solitude and silence of those places was vast, and the son tried to fill the emptiness with romances, ancient philosophy and daydreams. And thus the son wanted to travel, and eventually he escaped the somber silence of the windmill to chase blond milkmaids, sail on a man-of-war, lose himself in the coffee trade, and climb distant mountains. And yet, no matter where he went or what he did, he felt the cold and silent shadow and solitude of the windmill inside his heart. When he could bear it no longer, he decided to return home to face the giant and vanquish it. Perhaps he would burn it down. One evening during a heavy storm, as he was crossing the great wheatfields leading to the tower, a massive flood broke out and covered all of the land and its villages in a dark blanket of saltwater. Many souls and beasts drowned. Luckily, the son found a stray rowboat, which he climbed into, and started rowing. The only thing that escaped the inundation was the tall, white windmill. And thus, the son rowed to it, and entered once more into the great silence. The father had not been home and must have been washed out to sea. Alone, the son regarded the old machinery, the dark gears, the pale walls and charts, the doves hiding in the rafters, the meteorological instruments and the journals. It was not likely that anyone would bring grain to grind for quite some time. Only the weather remained.

The Confessors

And it came about that the confessors were no longer to be seen in the land. It is the king, said some. He has murdered all the confessors. To bury his secrets. It is not the king, said others, but the weather and its changes. Some argued that the confessors were extinct or had never really existed beyond a handful of crazed individuals. One suggested that they were merely hiding out. And as the sun sank into the lower third of the prussian blue sky, and as the doves gathered on the rooftops and wires, we went our separate ways to confess to cast iron balconies, trees, mahogany bedposts, newsprint, and to ice cubes in empty cups, to confess that we had forgotten our confessions. And in the gentle night, we would dream of all the returning confessors, their round heads as radiant as the faces in a child’s drawing, confessors made of dark crayons, shadows, starlight, and migrant birds.

The Shopkeeper

A beautiful girl opened a shop. She sold all manner of beautiful things—paulownia fireboxes and chests of drawers, cherry bookshelves and coffers, books of hemp, tobacco and rice paper, inkstones, inkwells, and a thousand different kinds of brushes. There were boxes to store type, boxes to hide things gathered from the shore, and boxes of candy, marbles, flutes and porcelain, to name a few of her treasures. As years went by, very few people came to see her, despite her good wares, fair prices and cheerful manner. Those who came showed little interest in her goods, but instead rambled on about old shops long since closed, new shops announcing their grand openings, bygone products, cutting edge products, or the products they were peddling at the moment. Some would bring numerous parcels full of samples, and start exhibiting them or demonstrating them right in her shop, as if she did not know what a tea whisk was, as if she would be interested in bottled saltwalter. Her closest friends and kin refused to purchase so much as a sheet of paper from her, even though she would have charged them next to nothing. To make matters worse, even the thugs ignored her. She possessed the only shop on the street that had not paid protection fees in a hundred years. The only people who were kind to her were travelers, pilgrims and strangers who sometimes strayed into her shop, and the orange and white cats of the street. The woman wanted to burn her shop and run off with a signboard seller down the lane, who was good with a carving knife and brush, who was rumoured to have returned from exile in the islands for unknown crimes in the black rope trade. She always pictured the islands as beautiful, stark places of gray boulders and topaz waterfalls, with dark firs stabbing at the snowy skies. The islands were just down the lane. The islands were far, far away.

The Dromosophist

One day, they buried the dromosophist, and they buried his heavy burden with him, but not before transcribing the cryptic words written on the tall burden. For years, he had gone on pilgrimages, carrying this burden or burdens much like this one, planting them in odd places, and then uprooting them in order to carry them off to other lands. It was like watching someone carry a cross. There were numerous sightings, but nobody could quite agree as to whether it was always the same burden or numerous, different burdens with various meanings. The dromosophist made his last pilgrimage in the autumn, when they burn fields of straw, when orange and red leaves scatter and shudder across country roads. Halfway through the mountain pass, the dromosophist saw something beyond the cliffs, and went to plant his burden, but fell to his death at the bottom of the jagged, steep rocks. The body and burden were recovered by the good peasants of the mountains, who also summoned a scholar from far, far away to come and explain the burden. When the scholar arrived, he gazed at the broken body and the burden, a round, metal disc painted red and affixed to a long, wooden pole. The scholar transcribed the words for the peasants as requested. What does it say? all of the peasants asked. Do not enter, the scholar replied. It is a road sign.

The Painter

In the coffin-black night once more he would dream the wooden table and its shroud-white cloth covered with roasted lambs and carafes of wine, slices of watermelon, and rounds of ghost-white cheese. Pomegranates and olives would build pyramids. In the coffin-black night, the painter would close his eyes to the blurring belfries and blue mountains of pines to view a barmecide banquet like a magic, colourful carpet rolling out in the endless, candle-lit night heavy with nectar, smoke and ambrosia. And he dreamt the walls of formidable churches where faded apostles, timeless and flat, broke breads devoid of the greenness of time and sipped inexhaustible cups of new wine.

The Ghost

Once, a ghost grew tired of his idle life and decided to take up a trade. In the graveyard one evening, he heard a drunken preacher with a whisky bottle lecturing a tombstone on the inability of ghosts to teach anything to humanity. This sounded fair to the ghost. Most of his comrades were indeed inept at communicating and always resorted to clumsily shaking chairs, moving coffee cups and saltshakers or jangling chains just to ask for simple things like butter and sugar or hypoallergenic candles. It was positively irritating. The ghost went off to the municipal library to find something to teach. While haunting the library one rainy winter, he read a great number of books and decided which subjects to teach to humanity, subjects which his ghostly experience might illumimate in a special way. There would be lectures in phrenology, philosophy of mind, information science, creative anthropology, dromosophical nonfiction, ostrogothica, hydrotaphia, klecksographical design, pneumatology, paleography, paleontology, thanatology and eschatology. Excited, the ghost found an abandoned townhouse, outfitted it with blackboards, large writing desks and some theatre chairs. Then he found some old lamps, a piano and other random equipment. He also built a laboratory in the basement. For months he taught, but most of the humans who dropped by—skaters, goth girls, derelicts, urban photographers, intoxicated priests, party animals dressed as animals, monsters dressed as monsters, strangers with shopping carts, and thieves with crescent wrenches—dropped out after a class or two. Some even dropped dead, much to his horror. One day, as he was staying up late to write his lesson plan on his newly invented discipline of nonphrenology–which was really an interdisciplinary approach to all of his favourite subjects—the ghost was visited by a friendly departed spirit, one of the goth girls who had attended a lecture or two. When he asked her why the lectures were not successful, she said she had no idea that they were lectures and even now had little hope of understanding what he was talking about. Everyone had assumed that they were late night horror and magic shows: chalk magically writing on chalkboards, incomprehensible treatises being passed out to students by an invisible body, ink blots randomly appearing, a player piano without a mechanism, old lamps that turned themselves on and off, creepy hands suddenly feeling the skulls in the audience and a disembodied voice spewing nonsense or reciting endless verses of ostrogothica. Of course! the ghost exclaimed. In his excitement about the various disciplines, he had forgotten to overcome the very problem he had observed in his fellow ghosts. The ghost felt dejected. The goth girl kissed him and asked if they were allowed to date now, since she was no longer his student. The ghost said it was possible, but first he would like some whisky.

The Thief

It was close to the last hour. There was little discomfort. Religion granted him the prospect of forgiveness and eternal rest. The morphine sedated his body and relieved most of the pain. The thief waited for death the way one waits for an old friend or a nurse, with only the slightest impatience and only a minimum of excitement. Nostalgia was the only difficulty. He remembered the early days of stealing scissors, paper, bicycles, flowers and umbrellas. The morning light on the pavement as the wheels spun and he dashed off into arcane city streets to hide. The nocturnal fragrance of the flowers he clipped from the gardens of great villas. Those were precious moments. Once he stole some cigarettes. Never had he intended real harm; never had he threatened or resorted to violence. And he had never been caught. The inventory of his stolen goods amounted to cheap trinkets few would have missed. One could hardly call them crimes or even sins. The more he thought about it, however, the more he wondered. What if those cigarettes had belonged to someone suffering great sorrow? What if the absence of his cigarettes drove the poor victim into madness or suicide? What if one of the missing bicycles prevented a doctor from making a housecall or a woman from reaching her true love in time to reveal her feelings? What if those flowers were meant to cheer invalid children in run-down hospitals? Then another thought occurred to him. What if nobody really had noticed the thefts? After all, he had never been caught. It were almost as if his life had left no mark on the earth, no ripple on its waters. It were as though he had not even existed.