The Oarman 

A lost oarman drifted with his oar over the wine-dark sea, his galley having been wrecked not long after it had departed from a burning city in the east. The wind and the waves drove the poor sailor to an almost uninhabited land that had fallen under a terrible curse. On the shores, he met three gray sisters who begged him to slay the monster in the west who had cursed their realm. This monster was said to have wings, tentacles, and strong legs. They gave him a glowing, living glass eye with a dark pupil at its center. It was soft and cool in his palm. That night he traveled safely by its light. In the morning he met an orphan girl who also begged him to slay the great monster. She said it was not the hippogriff, not the chimaera, not like the hydra nor one of the gorgons, nor was it a sphinx. It was more like a person with the head of a calamarius and the wings of a phoenix. It lived at the end of the world. She gave the oarman a mechanical pegasus of wood and silver. Mounting this, he could travel faster, and throughout the next night he traveled closer and closer to the end of the world. The next day, he found a colony of horrified sleepwalkers who gave him magic scrolls with enchanted words, an adamant sword that shimmered like lightning, and the head of a statue that could turn whatever it gazed upon into ice. Armed with these wonders, the lost oarman flew further west. After crossing snowy mountains that came down to the shore, he followed the rugged coastline again, searching and searching for the abomination. The mechanical winged horse suddenly began to smoke and wheeze, and tumbled to the earth, breaking into a hundred pieces. The oarman was lucky to be alive. Night had fallen, so he took out the magic eye. It glowed for a time, during which he discovered that the enchanted scrolls had either faded or turned to dust and the adamant sword was quickly melting into water. He unhooded the magic statue to turn some dirt into ice so he could have water to drink, but it stared mutely into space, and nothing happened. He kicked it over the edge of a cliff. Distressed but undaunted, the lost oarman ventured further west along the coast, holding the dimly glowing eye. Just before dawn, the eye began to whisper frantically, but he could not understand what it wanted to say. It flickered and then went out, turning hard as a stone. It did not matter. The stars indicated that this was indeed the end of the world. He had reached the final great cliff. Below him stretched a glittering beach, and beyond stretched the great empty sea sparkling by the light of the moon and stars. The monster would be nearby. The oarman slept. In the early morning, before it was morning, he saw a shadowy figure on the beach below. It had the body of a man, the wings of a giant bird, and the head of a black octopus. The monster strolled up and down the beach, cursing softly to itself. Its wings were in tatters. At long last, it took off its octopus mask and wings, sat down on some driftwood, built a campfire and began to mend the wings with a needle and thread. For hours it sewed and sewed, only stopping now and then to drink from a carafe of wine or water and stretch its muscular arms. When the rosy dawn broke through the darkness, the man dressed in his wings again and put the octopus head back on his own head. In the half-light of the end of the world, the shadow
was truly terrible to behold. 

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The Cataracts 

In a dark palazzo, the traveler approached what looked to be a great wooden dais. Through the arched windows on the far side of the chamber, he saw aquamarine canals and the pastel facades of the villas perched along their banks. Dark gondolas darted past. Magnificent stone statues stood vigil throughout the chamber, elaborate scrolls and rich paintings hung from the walls. A great, robed woman lay stretched out upon the wooden dais. As he came closer, he realized that the wooden dais was a gigantic type box, a box filled with thousands of dark squares, each one capable of carrying a lead type the size of a crate. Some of these were scattered around the dais, and a mess of printed papers fluttered in the breeze blowing from the canals through the dark arches. The woman asleep on the type box possessed a grandeur and glory that defied words. She was long, fair and slept with one cheek propped on her bent arm, the other arm was thrown dramatically outward, trailing off the dais, as though pointing to the discarded scraps of text that floated in the air or the disarray of the glinting italics in the sides and tops of the huge types. As ancient as time, and yet as youthful as a virgin, her skin glowed with a faint silver radiance. Her imperishable robes, though delicate and intricately woven of platinum threads, were covered with a light film of dust and almost imperceptible cobwebs. Near the bottom hem, he descried the letter pi; at the top, an elegantly pleated theta. A long ladder thronged with angels, saints and abstract spirits rose from the pi to the theta. Despite the beauty of the designs and the incorruptible material itself, the robe was torn, exposing her nudity, which gleamed with the sad pallor of sunless days. She looked almost bloodless, her lips and nipples almost blue, her eyelids dark with fatigue. The more he gazed upon her, the more she seemed to resemble a marble statue from a drowned garden. In the blue twilight of the room, he watched as her skin changed. The robe melted into rivulets of silver water and rolled from her now golden, now luscious and youthful skin. Within seconds, as though written in invisible ink, lines and words appeared all over her body, activated by his own silent breath that had drifted over to her form. Drawing even closer, he saw a map spread out upon her figure. Marked with the lines of rivers, the borders of kingdoms, the markings of living cities and of vanished cities, her skin rippled like the surface of a lake. The legends blurred and reconfigured, the names of the cities and kingdoms appeared in every imaginable type and font, and drifted in and out of view with the subtlety of smoke. He began to search the map, studying every geographical formation, every trade route and secret paradise, every terrestrial hell and valley of shadow. The blood drained from his cheeks and he felt his strength leave his limbs as a dark, bloody gash appeared on her abdomen, but instead of blood, a flood of saltwater gurgled up, pouring out of the red gate. Staring into the cataract within her wound, he saw an architectonic labyrinth of waterfalls within. With horror he saw that he held a sword dripping with gore. Throwing it to the ground, he tried to wash his hands in the jets of saltwater streaming out of her. The blood vanished, but he continued washing. Frantic, he parted the cataracts like curtains, and stepped into her wound, walking through naves of water in search of something that he could not quite name. Tremendous torrents sounded around him. Everywhere he looked, he saw drifting spray and plunging quicksilver. After walking for miles, beyond the last cataract, he found an immense night full of moons, planets, and stars glowing and pulsing above a great sea. There in that immense night full of magic celestial lanterns of many soft colours, he walked into the sea until he was fully immersed. For three days and nights, he walked along the ocean floor, only to emerge at the far end on the threshold of the amber morning star that blazed like a tiger’s eye marble, casting x-ray images of his skeleton on the dark, sandy shores where his shadow would have fallen. Weightless, his body took flight into the star.

The Shovel 

After many years on the road, the wanderer at last found a place where he wished to settle. Not far to the west, great waves washed the sands and stones of the shore. To the north and east, black mountains of dark pines, pale birch, and snowy peaks surged upward. All around where he stood at the crossroads, the golden fields seemed to burn with the finest wildflowers in brilliant shades of white, indigo, violet, mauve, pink, and saffron. There were cool snowdrops, damp bluebells, silent lilies and gentle osteospermums. Wherever he looked, he saw places he could walk, streams to cross, logs and rocks tosit on, as well as rolling fields of barley, switchgrass and goldenrod to get lost in. Then suddenly, he saw the many corpses lying hidden in the grass throughout the meadows. Blood stains burned in a myriad of harsh tones–vermillion, crimson, umber, and purple. Cold, glassy eyes stared down into the soil or up into the lofty clouds crossing the warm blue sky. War, plague or famine had passed through. To burn the corpses would destroy the great fields. The wanderer searched the countryside and found an old shack with tools. Borrowing a shovel, he started the arduous labour of digging graves for each and every body. Some days later, the work was done. The wanderer returned the shovel to the old shack and left. The days passed, and he tried his hand at different trades, traveling from one place to another—fixing lightbulbs, stacking discarded rubber tires, washing bottles and mason jars. No matter where he went or how hard he worked, he found great sorrow and treachery. Furthermore, he often had nightmares of the blood stains and dead faces he had buried. One day, after losing another position in yet another pointless enterprise, he wandered back to the crossroads with its fine fields of wildflowers, its cool winds, mountains and seas close by. The haunted emptiness was intense and deep, but within he found the old shack, the strong shovel and his beloved snowdrops and bluebells. The old shack itself was shabby and ghosted, and yet also clean and peaceful. The wanderer installed some new light bulbs and put the kettle on. It was a good place to live. 

The Old Guitarist 

In a city of pale clay and blue skies, where the acacia sprawls heavenward and green bursts of olibanum trees rise from the dusted rocks, the old guitarist begged for alms and played below a darkened arch from morning till dusk, and from evening till dawn. The moon, sun and stars changed their positions. One day, one of the longest days, he plucked the strings as caftans and robes, donkeys and camels, cats and mice strolled by, vanishing into archways or down the twisted streets. Now and then, he caught sight of a black robe, hurrying about on heaven only knows what errands. In the evening, the black robe returned to splash copper and silver coins on his faded rug. Those songs are wonderful, so full of mystery and beauty, always changing, twisting and turning, like shadows and footprints left long in sun and sand. My goodness, you are a poet, the old guitarist laughed bitterly. I have been playing just one bar from one song all day long, repeating it over and over again to see if anyone would notice. The man in black looked regretfully at the sparkling coins on the blanket. And how did that feel? he finally asked. Like a thousand years, the old guitarist whispered. The moon rose.