In the monastery, the inquistors found the visiting confessor at a wooden desk in a barren cell, surrounded by books of world history, geography, anthropology and philosophy. In a corona of candlelight they saw the typescripts and manuscripts and his inked hands. What is this calligraphy and typography all about? one of them demanded. I am writing an epistle, the confessor replied. Towhat end? To the ends of the earth! To the world! In the early days, the apostle wrote epistles to the great cities to share his wisdom and his vision of glory. Many centuries of darkness have passed, and there is seemingly no law or good will left on earth. I thought of writing my own epistle to the great cities, to thank them for the good they have done, to praise their monuments and books, to admire their peoples and to wish them well. I would not write such things, said one. The cities do not wish to be praised. It will only make them feel worse—they will see all the more clearly how far and how deep they have fallen into darkness, and they will resent you for it. Another inquisitor agreed, saying, Moreover, such unqualified praise could cause them to ignore their own evil. It would make them feel justified in their pride, animosity and aggression. An epistle like yours would plant the seeds of smoke and famine. A third said that such a fawning epistle would belittle the great cities and trap them in typologies they had no interest in inhabiting or incarnating. It would be a letter of mirages and betrayals. One by one they left the cell. Crushed, the confessor stared at his silent towers of books and felt his brain turn into ice. That night, his heart broke, he suffered a grand epileptic fit, and lost part of his reason. In the days to come, weeping but almost catatonic, he continued to compose his letter in secret to all the invisible cities of the world—cities of damask and morrocco, cities of delftware and china, cities of port and sherry, cities of roman candles and greek fire, cities of rugby and japanning, cities of afghans and astrakhans, cities of the siamese and burmese, cities of landaus and leyden jars, cities of berlins and limousines, cities of homburgs, cities of nankeen, cities of bikinis and chicago screws, cities of mocha, assam, keelung and darjeeling, cities of java and sumatra, cities of turkish and virginia tobacco, cities of lancashires and parchment, cities of indigo and india ink.
The shore was like a book of sand and stones, printed by waves and birds. The old friends warmed themselves by the campfire, smoked cigarettes and passed around a bottle of brandy. They had already put away their telescopes. The darkness of the sky and its cold stars seemed to amplify the roar of bright fire and dark water. The planet was desolate in those times, with only a hundredth of its peak population, a number declining every year. Would it have ever worked? one of them wondered aloud, looking skyward with his naked eyes. Another pointed to the sky with the bottle she held and said, No, not without 700 billion voyagers, each able to live close to 10 million years or more in good health in any climate and an endless supply of materials and fuel. And that just to see the fifty some odd galaxies nearby. She passed the bottle to him. It is always about time and temperature, he sighed, and took a drink. The other old friends whispered and gazed into the sparks and flames or faced the great shadow surrounding them, blowing out ghostly clouds of smoke. What little we have known and done, someone said. And someone else started rowing a boat into the dark waves.
Masks of wood, papier-maché and metal glimmered above ornate costumes in black, gold and silver. An orange moon and stars of paper and paint burned in the background scenery, followed by mineral mountains, castles, wastelands, moors dotted with wildflowers, royal blue skies with angelic clouds, coasts like shards of green, blue and colorless glass. Kingdoms divided, cities burned, kings ravished their princesses, beggars philosophized, mechanics invented, merchants whored along endless trade routes, and the weather ate the faces off the actors. One of them stepped forth into the barrage of applause as the curtains tidily hid away the gibbets, and cried out: What did you come to see, the events of history or impassioned monologues? The background scenery or the voices of the actors? The mirror or the mirrored? The treachery of things or the traitors among us? The machinery of the stage or the long hidden playwright? The midnight-black curtain?
In a city far away and long ago, a bookseller came with his cart of books and made speeches to the wind and to the passersby. Rarely did anyone buy a book from him. Quite often, they harangued him for his monologues on the planets, on spirits, on truth and on the end of time. Some threw stones at him, cursed him, or shouted so loud that nobody could hear what he was trying to say. Then one day, he vanished. A time of plague and famine came, and some of the gentler citizens went in search of the bookseller, hoping he would have a book of medicine. After a long journey, they found him dwelling in a shack on the gray coasts of a winter sea. The shack was empty save for some old machinery, a cast iron frying pan and a cold hearth. Where are your books? the travelers demanded. I don’t have any, said the bookseller. Where are they? they shouted. For we are in dire need of them! The poor man looked at the hearth. I burned them all, he said. I burned them to keep my wife warm for we had nothing else. Where is your wife? they inquired. My wife is dead, he replied. The wind soughed in the crude chimney and dark clouds began to roll in from the gray sea. As the travelers were ready to depart in despair, the poor man told them her name, but they could not hear him because of the glory of her name and of the wind that shredded their faces.
One night, a little girl was saying her evening prayers when an angel appeared to her. Do not fear, said the angel bathed in light. The little girl stared at him in astonishment. I fear, she gasped. You look more like a calamarius than an angel! The tentacles shrank back a little. I am not of the seraphim or the cherubim, but I am an angel from heaven, the strange creature soughed. I thought there was no more sea in the new heaven and new earth, the girl protested. The radiant, anthropoid calamarius wrung its tentacles. Questions and more questions!! he sighed in a voice that could have come from the spiralling twilight of a sea shell. First of all, he argued, it is possible that the new heaven and new earth have not arrived yet. Secondly, when it says there is no sea, it likely means that there is no sea comparable to your polluted black waters, but instead a magnificent ocean of immaculate beauty. Third, the sea has long been associated with the realm of the dead—the saints merely speak of there being no more death when they say that there is no more sea. Have you never read all the epitaphs and poems for drowned sailors? Not all of them, the little girl whispered, but I have read a few inscriptions by the shore. I am sorry for troubling you with questions. The calamarius gently touched her shoulder with the tip of his tentacle. Do not fear. I only came to bring you a gift. Heaven has ordained that you shall receive whatever you ask for. The little girl thought about it, and said: It is written that if someone lacks wisdom, they can ask for it. And I remember reading about a great king who was offered everything in the world, but he only wanted wisdom. Please give me wisdom! The calamarius glowed brighter, and said: That is a good gift, indeed, but one that you are perhaps not ready for. I will give you till tomorrow evening to consider. The calamarian angel turned into smoke and vanished. It was a while before the girl could sleep, but when she did she had the strangest nightmares. First she dreamed of a man who watched as his scrolls were torn up and burned before he himself was lowered into a cistern of filth. Then she saw another man far, far away, wandering from capital to capital in search of employment as he lectured, never dreaming of how his followers would be buried alive in the earth after their books were burned. She saw a queen who dreamed of tranquil lakes and white elephants, giving birth to a beautiful child from her right side, a child she would never know, for she died seven days after his birth. Then she saw a stonemason asking questions and reasoning with friends in a prison cell as he drank a draught of hemlock. She saw a young woman put on her father’s armour and travel north to defend her people, while another woman of another time surreptitiously broke the law to bury her brothers, even though it meant ending her life hanging from a tree. And then there was a slave skilled in logic who did not scream or cave into threats, but calmly discoursed on cause and effect as his enraged master broke his arm. She saw a peasant girl meet a winged angel announcing the birth of holiness. She saw an exiled woman who made tents for a living, all the while teaching the deep things of the spirit despite the dangers of persecution. A man who built amazing machines and had counted every speck of dust in the galaxy died from a sword thrust as he drew geometrical figures and circles in the dirt. A thin old hermit who dwelled on snowbound mountain peaks conversed with clouds and pines. A man who gazed at stars lived under house arrest. And in yet another realm of green islands and pale blue seas with days of glass, there was one who lived among rotting lepers. Bodies burned on stakes; heads fell from gibbets; books burned in pyre after pyre. One by one, faces and screams passed through her head, until she felt a crown of thorns tightening around her skull as she watched a quiet carpenter with loving eyes die on a cross. In the morning, she felt a little feverish, and stepped out into the garden to go cool herself in the nearby pool fed by an aqueduct . She passed through the olives and cypresses until she came to the rolling hills. The early sun painted the grain and flowers in lighter and lighter shades of gray until the world suddenly exploded into warbling and light, into an almost violent radiance, golden and blue, as the birds took flight and the aqueduct loomed in its solid mineral glory, its arches like hundreds of windows into different worlds. Thirsty, exhausted, and stronger than ever before, she faced the day as she embraced the evening to come.