In the night, the stars are white in a black sea. In the day, when I close my eyes, the stars are amber bursts in seas of crimson. The night stars live in the heavens far away beyond the sky. Where do the day stars live? Where are those amber constellations? The pale blue eyes of the child looked hard into the inscrutable expression of the old grandfather. They live inside of you, said the old grandfather. They are the stars of another universe beyond sleep and dreams. They are the stars of the galaxies that dwell inside your head!
In the time of wreckage and reckoning, when the world weirded, a skeletal chrome android dressed in a black hooded robe found a wandering humanoid on the beach where the ocean threshed the sand. It was midsummer’s eve, and the android proposed a game of chess. Having no chessboard at hand, the humanoid made one by drawingthe 64 squares on a sheet of thick sketchbook paper with some willow charcoal. The human only had a handful of real pieces–a white knight, a black bishop, and half a pawn, and so he walked along the surf and collected various things from the shore–old lighters, sand dollars, conical shells, pale driftwood twigs, glass marbles and bottle caps. These he consecrated as bishops, pawns, knights, and rooks. Then he coronated the kings and queens. They played and exchanged riddles. The equinox passed, the solstice passed, another equinox passed, yet another midsummer drew near. One by one, the android closeted the rival pieces. The humanoid was no match for its wisdom. What a marvellous game, the android laughed as the other wept. It is a losing game, said the human. I am lost. The android gazed at the giant breakers, and sighed. In one sense, you lose because you are human–and the game is only partly human; it is an abstraction, an alienation, an imperfection. Checkmate, he said, after placing his white knight. Then to cheer up his friend, he used magnetism to move his piece without touching it. Look! he laughed. The white knight is walking backwards! If you are lost, he can tell you where you should go! The other did not laugh, but played with an old lighter. A miraculous and unexpected flame shot out and set the board on fire. Do not despair, said the android, watching the checker pattern burn. You can never lose. You made the game, the pieces, and the chessboard. You dreamed and designed me. I only play what you thought of long ago. All of my moves are just afterthoughts. Then, he took the lighter from the human and placed the white knight in his cold fist instead. After lighting a hurricane lantern, the android wandered off, talking to himself. Behold! he cried into the waves of darkness. The ocean is never lost.
[This story was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal and the ancient Book of Changes with a nod to Lewis Carroll via Jefferson Airplane]
The strange, conical vessel of smoked chrome, its color indefinable, had crashed into the rough surf on a long deserted beach. A lone naturalist abandoned his observation of night crabs to investigate. Onboard, he found an advanced and yet simple technology and the body of the solitary captain. The consoles lit up and infused the naturalist with instructions. He washed the body in seawater, carried it back on board, and placed it in a casket after wrapping it in dark linens. The cone whirred and whispered, crackling with something quite blue and seemingly electric until a catastrophic explosion of thunder shuddered outside. The vessel lifted off and ascended into the galaxy. The voyage was long. For days or years the naturalist was infused with an epic, or possibly the ship’s log. Moons had cracked, planets had burned, time had warped like wood left in water. The golden dust of nebulae had sung. A transcription of its song followed. It was beautiful but incomprehensible. It trailed off, and then there was silence, as if the song of the nebulae had eaten through the log, eclipsing everything else, until the captain had lost his way and crashed. Through the portholes, the naturalist saw the golden stars, but they were silent. One day, the ship suddenly entered into orbit around a soft green planet marbled with swirls of mocha and vanilla and great black craters. Night fell and only one cluster of lights appeared on its surface. The cone initiated its calm and unhurried descent. It landed sideways in what looked to be the mould of a cone set on rails in a gigantic railway station. Only one humanoid person was there to greet him and the wheeled stretcher on the cold, empty platform with its rusted wickets and luminous, moon-pale analog clock of illegible numbers and sharp, black hands. Dressed in a dark, woollen coat, the beautiful woman had mauve skin, copper hair and mournful golden eyes. She spoke telepathically at first, accustoming him to her language as she led him through the wickets into an abandoned city of brick and stone. They brought the casket to a mausoleum in a cemetery full of willows and maples. She prayed and wept for a moment, then took the visitor by the arm to a steakhouse with the sign of a cast-iron lion. Inside, they dined on rare steak and potatoes by candlelight, served by tarnished androids. Through the windows, he beheld the maze of cobblestone streets, narrow shops and houses, arcades, antiquated lampposts, the distant outlines of castles. Where is everyone? he asked, finally able to converse. They are all gone, she sighed. The day our ship left on its maiden voyage, the afterburner caused a multifaceted catastrophe that annihilated almost everyone. I alone have survived. To return to your planet, you would have to annihilate me. I do not mind, but I fear that you would encounter nothing upon your return to your planet, just as you found nothing here. To travel is to destroy. The naturalist was no longer hungry, and he pushed his plate away to drink his ale in silence, remembering the song of the nebulae. They went outdoors and walked up a great hill in a park overlooking the clocktower and the city. A cold, starry sky swirled above. I am sorry, she whispered, hugging him tightly, rubbing his cheeks with her tears. We never meant to disturb your planet. All of our science assured us that we would find salvation at the end of our travels. The man stared into her golden eyes and hugged her fiercely. Where were you heading? he asked. To Eden, she said. To the morning star.
They called him the legend or the angel. In the distant past, he had visited their planet of stone and had given them the book of time, a codex filled with philosophy, starlight, good grain, whales, and warnings. He was good at teaching, healing, and opening hearts to infinity, but the legend always warned of a great meteor. The book of life, he insisted, would help everyone survive the great burning, whether they departed or stayed. One day, he vanished. Centuries passed. Copies of the book of life could be found in every library and household, but few read it. Nevertheless, the people of that distant planet continued to celebrate the legend, making stone statues and paper effigies of him, gathering on special days to exchange gifts and drink ale, or telling children apocryphal bedtime stories of the legend’s exploits. It was during a great festival for the legend that he reappeared, looking nothing like his effigies and seeming quite awestruck at the quantities of ale, the bright lanterns, the colorful mounds of gifts. Not knowing who he was, some of the people, in a show of hospitality, invited him to speak to their festive assembly. Standing up tall and straight, he pulled a bone-white codex from his coat pocket and began to read. Only a handful of people recognized the words from the book of time. Closing the book, the legend declared that it was the eve of the great meteor and the great burning. The air filled with bitter laughter and angry scorn. An older woman, offering him a pint, gently explained that the last heretic to say such things had been exiled from the world two centuries ago and had probably added his skeleton to the great whirlpool, a handful of moons and exoplanets where the people of that planet sent their human refuse. The meteor, explained another, was a metaphor for hate, and the real legend had used such language to teach kindness and justice. Were there any living beings in the whirlpool? the legend asked, ignoring their reproaches. Quite a lot, conjectured a young scientist, who seemed very nervous. The exiles maintained contact with the mother planet now and then by firing up great flashlights that could blink out codes. They used this to broadcast meteorological and astronomical reports or warnings. In fact, they seemed to be telegraphing now. The scientist pointed upward. It was a beautiful sight. A coil of lights flashing one after the other in the dark sky, spiralling inward, going dark, and then spiralling outward in strange rhythms. The legend said it was time to depart. Only the scientist followed. The others returned to their ale and opened their gifts. As they boarded the rectangular, blue-black ship resembling the coal tender of an old railway train, the legend asked the scientist what the flashlights from the whirlpool had telegraphed. It’s nonsense; it’s no longer one of our words; it’s not a word we use anymore, the scientist mumbled. What word? the legend demanded as the box car ascended into the starry night. Miserere, the other whispered, as a great light blossomed ahead.
In the land of lakes far to the north, a young man with silver hair sat down on the sand by the blue water and wept. What ails you? a raven inquired. My life divorced my life, and I am their abandoned orphan, said the man. I do not even know my name. Long ships full of shadows sailed to that shore and carried away the orphan to a another, distant shore, where they hung him from an ash tree with rope. The man hung there and looked out on the sea. Sometime later, the raven arrived. What ails you? the raven asked. I am a hanged man, a cursed man, said the orphan. My life divorced my life and abandoned me to the elements. I do not remember my name. The raven ate one of his eyes. You are Time, said the black bird. And then it flew off into a deep sky of ancient snows.
In the highlands, a woman went in search of wisdom and philosophy. Some clerics said that she must go to a tower on a low peak lightly covered in snow. When she came to the tower, a round, gray structure of stone only three or four stories high, she found that the main hall was dominated by a forge. A tall, wiry man of bleached hair and ice blue eyes in a dark wool cloak worked the anvil. Is this where philosophy resides? she inquired with some hesitation. Philosophy is homeless, he muttered, but some say he dwells here. I had expected someone else, the seeker admitted. A fair princess in torn robes, perhaps, or a naked virgin clothed in the scarlet of a bleeding heart held in her pale hand. The blacksmith dropped his hammer in shock. That is something I have never seen or heard of till now, he admitted, but I like you well enough and will help you with your quest. And this was the nature of her quest. First, she ventured to an abandoned shrine to retrieve a sacred sword. As she was leaving the shrine with it, she saw all the wildflowers and beasts fall dead for many miles around. It grieved her to see this, so she returned the sword to its rightful place, heedless of how the blacksmith would feel. When she emerged from the shrine a second time, the moors flowered and the beasts awoke from death. Returning empty-handed to the tower, she was surprised to discover that the tall, cloaked man was pleased, though he said nothing, and held out the abandoned sword for her to keep. Then she wandered the mountains until she came to a wide, silver lake of mists. On the shores she found bits of metal darkly glinting in the sand. These she brought to the blacksmith, who heated them and made a beautiful blade, good as new and inscribed with fine letters. For her third quest, he sent her to a lone peak far away to recover a relic buried under a cairn. The relic was a heavy thing shaped like a rolled up tapestry and made of rock, mud and rust. The blacksmith showed her how to soak it, boil it, wash it, scour it, and treat it in various ways until all that remained was aperfectly polished sword of the highest quality. On the fourth quest, she entered a tomb in the black woods to sit without water or food for three days as a sword hung over head. Only after her fast did it fall only inches before her without scratching or cutting her skin. Of the fifth sword, nothing is known. Of the sixth, only that nobody else could retrieve it from a great stone in an enchanted town, and yet she pulled it out with ease to the amazement of all. Returning to the blacksmith and now possessing six beautiful swords, the seeker asked him what the swords meant and when she would learn wisdom. And thus the man with the dark cloak and iced blue eyes said that only one sword remained to be found. It was greater than any sword and meant more than any wisdom or philosophy she had learned or not learned till now. To find it she would need some oars, nets, a pearl, or maybe nothing at all. What rare metal is this sword made of? she asked. It is made of ghostskin and the tears of the night, said the blacksmith. Follow the wasp and the kraken, the sheep and the fish, the morning star and an ancient rock. And do not forget the wind.