A night of rain and blurred electric signs. The librarian closed the paperback he was reading in a dark cafe, and confessed his desires to nobody in particular. A man at a nearby table accused him of nostalgia, reminding him that what he desired had been available for years, and held up his tablet as proof. The librarian lit a cigarette, slowly shaking his head. A waiter shouted at the smoke. The librarian went out into the rain. Once again, he confessed to nobody in particular that he envied the criminal who wrote with his fingerprints and the blind who caressed the pages of each book in order to read it.
It was morning when the sailors found him on the beach, warming himself by a campfire, twirling a lotos blossom and staring into its soft radiance. None of his tools—rope, harpoon, or knife—were anywhere to be found. They wept quietly. One brought him a blanket, and wrapped it around him. Another tried to give him medicine and something to drink, but nothing stirred the lost soul from his trance. A captain suggested they wait before performing the ritual. When they returned at noon after mending their nets, he was examining a white, long, almost conical shell in the dark sand, and murmuring hexameters. The captain wept once more as the other sailors formed a circle around him and sang the funerary song. In the evening, when they came to bring him a farewell gift of a begging bowl, the lost soul had waded into the surf to speak to the moon and stars as he held up a large, broken fish skeleton to the sky. A shore bird glided over the dark waters.
The captain watched the mutinous black ship fade on the pale blue horizon. They had left him on a small, lush, volcanic island with a boat, a gun, and several crates that amounted to a few months of provisions. It was a benevolent, generous mutiny; he fervently prayed that none of the mutineers would hang. Now he had nothing but time on his hands, time to spend as he pleased. The excitement was terrifying. It was like vertigo. On the first day, he wept with gratitude. On the second day, he wept for all the past days when he could not weep. On the third day, he wept for sorrow. On the fourth, for all the days he was alone and all that he was not alone. On the fifth, he wept for everything ephemeral and eternal. On the sixth, he wept for beauty and joy. The morning of the seventh day was clear and calm; the captain lit a cigar and went for a long walk on the beach.
** I wrote this for Umberto Eco (1932-2016), who passed away this week. I loved his books from the time I was thirteen. Since the day he passed, I have been reading The Island of the Day Before. I am thankful for his great literary and philosophical gifts to the world. May he rest in peace.
One day, a day of good weather, the great sun, as golden as a pear, as ripe as a grapefruit, as heavy with light as a young mother with child, noticed a saint swimming in the shallows by the shore of eternity, enamoured with her light and blessing her radiance, form and abundance. In an instant, she struck him blind. The swimmer lamented, crying out: My star, star that I love most, star who outshines all stars, you will not shine for me. Without you, I am drowned.
A wanderer traveled from town to town, searching for the meaning of life. The mystics said that the answers were in silence. The philosophers said that there were no answers and only questions. In the last town, the scientists told him that what mattered was the number of the questions and possible answers and how to measure their constant changes. They also provided some rules on testing, publication and funding. Wandering in the woods, the poor man came upon a witch. The witch spoke of an ancient god who, not knowing the origin of the earth or the nature of things, went on a quest to find the narrative of life among the very giants who would later destroy all life. This was followed by stories of elephant gods, goddesses of murder, rapacious lightning bolts, and sacred hares. In the end, the witch offered to sell him some herbs and aromatic oils. The wanderer declined, and continued on his journey. The wanderer crossed mountains of silver fir, holm oak and mountain pine, passing among ridges of the whitest snow. The sky could have blinded him with its radiance. In the snow on the slopes of a hill, the wanderer came upon the body of an old priest, who had succumbed to starvation and the elements while making his pilgrimage. The wanderer retrieved the crucifix and rosary which the trembling old hands must have dropped in the snow. After burying the body, he whispered his promise to complete the unfinished pilgrimage on behalf of the old priest.
The man explained that an indemnity or ritual of reconciliation would require coins of silver, an immersion and a libation in foreign parts. There was risk involved, and he was not sure she would appreciate it or really want it in the end. The lady thought about it and insisted. Thus, together they set off for his native land to expiate her crime. The man came from a vast empire of abandoned provinces, some crowded and rich and others empty and desolate, if not forgotten and barely maintained, provinces full of secrets and long nights, like hundreds of deep drawers in the gargantuan wooden chests of derelict mansions. On arriving, they wandered a seemingly endless street of dust and stone, green lights and black iron signs, boarded up shops and walls of gray tiled roofs. They turned into a wide courtyard with one mangled, lonely tree of round, golden fruit and round paper lanterns. Below the branches, there was a low table with wooden crates for chairs. They sat down, placed the silver coins on the table, and waited until the man of shadows came, speaking in whispered tongues of ciphers. The man of shadows poured firewater into short glasses. They drank all night and the lady listened to them converse in a language that flowed like a river of rust and wet ash. The glasses would reflect the orange, rose and white lanterns. There was no interpretation or invitation for commentary from her whatsoever. Indefinable and mournful stringed instruments played somewhere possibly far off or nearby. It was a cold dawn of rare but intensely bright stars when the men stood up. The man of shadows returned to the far darkness on the other side of the courtyard. The traveler drained his glass. Exhausted, she asked when the ritual would take place, and he casually answered that it had already. The lanterns burned, and the golden fruit idled from the branches uneaten.
A man in prison was asked to write a confession. Not a confession of his crimes, which were mostly manufactured, imaginary things, but a confession of his true feelings about existence. Confessions such as these would be published and stored in a museum of existence that anthropologists and philosophers were building. The man wrote of boxes. He was born in a box full of chrome, glassware and sterilized beds. He grew up in a cinder block box by the sea close to a railway where steel boxes rolled by from time to time. In the north, as a youth, he rode a box on wheels to another big box every day to fill in boxes on paper with words and numbers. A teacher gave him a beautiful dictionary with a cardboard box cover since he was good at words, and so he read this every morning as the rectangular box full of commuters rolled through frost, mist and snow. Later on, he got a job teaching in a box himself, and rode various boxes to this great box filled with smaller boxes. During the day, in one of these smaller boxes, he wrote in chalk on a black box and taught words to students who filled their paper boxes with words. At night, he rode a rectangular, underground box back to his neighbourhood of gray, concrete boxes stacked to the sky and surrounded by gray, boxy trees. In his own quiet box, he drank old vines, smoked, read about southern countries, listened to tango and fado from a radio box and watched the mute, gray cat stare into the nothingness with her ice blue eyes until he fell asleep. Once in a while, on a clear weekend, he would fly a box kite the colour of candle flames from a stone beach, wishing he could rise into the blue sky. The man was tired of his box life, he confessed, as he wrote in the box of his cell in the box of the great prison. At the end of his confession, he began to write of fairy tales he had heard as a child, of lands and times when there were fewer boxes. Even traveling boxes were better then; they were painted blue, yellow, and lamp black; they had large, fancy wheels full of spokes and were drawn by smoking horses. And there were great golden fields full of lilacs, lavender, and chamomile, white mountains of blue veins, and rivers that went anywhere but in a straight line. Exhausted, the man confessed that he would rather have lived as the poorest man in that other world full of texture and shapes, and at the very least, he would have preferred some rambling golden fields and some plane trees on cobbled streets with curvy lampposts. It would have been worthwhile existing then.