Madmen in striped suits, mimes and anarchists with dynamite wandered the streets. The traveler crossed a great square and stopped by a fountain where a homeless man sat warming potatoes over a makeshift fire. The man wore a dusty black frock coat covered with iron crosses and gold and silver stars; his queue was beginning to silver; his expensive boots were muddy; his sword seemed to be missing. Shouts erupted now and then in the archaic buildings around the square. A bomb exploded in the belltower of a nearby church, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust. “Good afternoon,” said the man. “I was the prince of this town. I would warmly welcome you, but I cannot find the right words.” The traveler, also wearing a great coat with stars and crosses, nodded sadly and sat down next to him. The prince gave him a delicious potato. “Will you miss the palace?” the traveler asked. “No,” said the prince. “It was a prison, much as this town square is.” A mime walked up to them and made threatening gestures that possibly suggested a gallows and hanging. Then he started running and silently screaming, chased by a cursing lunatic running with a live stick of dynamite in his hands. There was another explosion. “Are you sure there is nothing you miss?” the traveler asked. “I miss having someone to talk to,” the prince confessed, and bit into his dust-caked potato.
It was the physicist’s turn to babysit the little boy. He had a long history with the parents, but nobody knew the details. Though not a military man, he arrived in a shabby field jacket, looking like an obsolete mandarin with his shaved head and long queue. The others often whispered of his book debts, one-sided love affairs with coffee shop girls, his useless inventions and his devotion to long streaks of solitide in the forests, where he subsisted on tea and cigarettes. The little boy was intrigued. Today, said the physicist in a conspiratorial whisper, after the parents had left, we shall embark on a great journey and learn the secret of life, if not the secret life of the secrets of life! The boy could have gasped. First, the physicist took him down into the dark cellar that reeked of earth and old vines. Suddenly, he switched on a lightbulb and glorious silver light sparkled on the chrome tools, old casks and bags of rice. Then he switched it off and it was pitch black. Then he switched it on and off rapidly like lightning, making the boy giggle. Then he held it on for a long time and then switched it off. The boy was breathless. The madman took him by the hand and led him upstairs. In the dining room, the physicist had set up calligraphy tools—paper and brushes and three bowls. The first held sand, the second water, the third held ink. The boy was to write his name, using each medium. The sand failed to cling to the brush and did not write anything. The water darkened the paper with the phantom of his name but quickly dried. At last, the boy tried the ink, and his name beautifully appeared and remained. The weather was good, so they went out. The man bought lunch at a street vendor. In a park of red dust and lofty pines,
they ate cold noodles covered in sesame paste and chili oil, washed down with iced coffees. After lunch, they climbed trees, played marbles in the dust, fed the pigeons and listened to an old man play the erhu. Then they played a strange game. The physicist blindfolded the boy and handed him objects. The boy had to say what shape the object was and take a bite. The first was round and it was a very bitter grapefruit. The second was a pomello, also round. The third was a round, golden pear. The fourth was a round blood orange, and the fifth was a mandarin orange. The boy had never tasted so many rinds before, but it was not entirely unpleasant. They finished eating the fruits and then went for a long walk along the river. The boy had to observe the other walkers and invent diagnoses and cures for them. It was clear that the pale woman was a vampire’s thrall. The boy suggested iron supplements, hot baths and playing with magnets. The man with the cat on the leash would turn into a bat if he did not listen to classical music by the glow of a naked lightbulb. The physicist approved these diagnoses and remedies. There were conversations with the water and trees, the counting of pebbles and grassblades, and a recital of the multiplication table backwards in the tones and cadence of a monastic chant. The physicist had also brought along rockets, drones, and an instant film camera. Only after the boy had photographed at least one object for every letter of the alphabet was he allowed to set off the rockets and fly the drones. When they had exhausted these, they sat at a picnic table to make origami animals while exchanging riddles, jokes and word problems. After building their menagerie, they sat by the river in silence. The river lapped the sandy shore and mumured past them in flashes of silver and dark blue. It was dusk when they began their walk back. The physicist explained how the traffic lights and lampposts worked. They ate a simple dinner in a little cafe, where the physicist flirted with the waitress, and headed home. There they played chess while listening to a string quartet on the radio. The boy read to the physicist from his favourite books on ghosts and time travel. They said their prayers and it was bedtime. The physicist turned off the light, ready to close the door behind him when the boy asked why the physicist knew so many games. It is all one game that lasts forever, said the strange man in the shabby coat. What is the game called? the boy asked. Logic, said the physicist, and he bid the child good night.
An old plaintiff came to the courthouse. Inside, he found the bureaus empty, the glass cracked, the ceiling fans inert. Cobwebs covered the ceiling and old documents littered the floors. He wandered through rooms of broken typewriters and empty desks. At last he came into the courtroom itself where a bailiff was meditatively sweeping with a large broom. “I have come to lodge a complaint!” the plaintiff shouted. The bailiff paused and turned to him, saying, “It’s a bit late for that. The magistrate has run off, and the other officers walked out.” The old plaintiff sighed. “What happened?” “Nothing,” said the bailiff. “And that is why he left. The land was on the brink of revolution. The people were drunk with fury. Day after day the crimes of the lords and ladies, peasants and thieves, rapists and traitors were exposed. There were pamphlets and posters, marches and speeches, but nobody was arrested or charged. The bureaucrats worked around the clock to explain what happened, and then the clouds of revolution dissipated. Besides, even before that, the courts were backed up with absurd lawsuits and impossible trials. There were onions that wanted to be declared potatoes, robots who murdered their wives, the censorship or revision of fairy-tales, dissolutions of parliament, agencies working against themselves and each other, stolen secret letters, taxes on cotton candy and tariffs on steel!” The plaintiff shook his head in disbelief, and cried: “There is corruption and death in the land!” The bailiff quietly agreed, but seemed eager to return to his sweeping. Then he reached into his pockets and pulled out brass and silver stars, the abandoned badges of the magistrate, marshalls, sheriffs, bailiffs, and sergeants. “This is all I have,” he said sadly, giving them to the old man. The old plaintiff held the seven stars in his hands and wept.
A traveler came to the old capital with his vintage camera that had an accordion lens and shot large format film. There was a famous wall there where citizens would glue or pin up their posters, grievances, unpublished novels, poems, love letters, accusations, vindictive and compromising drawings of old lovers, manifestoes, gossip, lies, public service announcements, censored news, questionable ads for obscure medicines, alternative history and sometimes real history. There was little worth reading. At last he came to a section painted with chalkboard paint and covered with an enigmatic poem in white chalk that read: #noitisnt #notheycant #notheywont #noyouarent
Long after the future, the historians noted that whether the eunuchs burned palaces or voyaged the seven seas, whether they went into exile or returned from exile, the only thing they had in common was that their mouths were sewn shut or their tongues had been removed, and they all lacked children to be the interpreters of their silence.
It happened that the sawdust and the logs got into arguments. Not having eyes, the substance of most of their blind observations may be dismissed without footnotes. The more memorable ones included the suspicious nature or nonexistence of the woodworker, the exact shape of the workshop they inhabited, the absolute importance of being a log or splinter and the irreconcilable differences between the two, the fact that logs were really just sawdust, too, or the notion that specks could be logs if they wished to be and declared it to be so. One dry summer in the second year of drought, their arguments became insufferable. Neither the logs nor the sawdust heard the thunder or saw the lightning, nor did they notice the appearance of the sparks.
The first sentry always stood in his black and white striped shelter with its red lamp facing the cobblestone plaza in front of the train station. A man of law and vigilance, in his royal blue uniform he was the invisible observer who could not fail to note the humility of those who departed and the arrogance of those who returned. Suddenly these returning travelers knew much, spoke loudly and pretended to have forgotten their native tongue. Hauling their ostentatious baggage, waving around their passports full of stamps and making exaggerated faces and gestures as they recalled all the good sights they already missed, they passed by his post like dirty clouds that stain the clear blue sky. And thus he abandoned his post and bought a train ticket, confessing to the conductor that he hoped he might never return. The man of law who replaced him watched the departing with disgust, envying their wanton displays of freedom, deeply suspicious of their desires for foreign coasts and illegible scripts. Like mimes, these eager travelers acted out the adventures they would have just to remind the company seeing them off of how miserably small and insignificant their worldviews were. One day, the second sentry also abandoned his post, madly crying out to the ticket clerk that he hoped he would return chastised and meek. When he did return, he was court-martialed and shot. The third man of law only appeared when the new lamppost shone for the first time one evening. Standing in the striped sentry box, he watched the pigeons play in the fountain during day shifts and dreamed of books and expensive cigarettes by night. Though friendly and thankful for the bread crumbs and seeds he shared, the birds were careful, being secretly obsessed with the suspicion that he had wandered before and might wander again and knew more of their speech than he let on. When the revolution came, they would be sure to stalk him first and peck out his sandy eyes.
They met on the beach in the early morning, as the dark blue sky still hovered over the waters and the wind whipped at the dry grass on the dunes. After building a fire, the older youth drew circles in the packed, wet sand, filled them with triangles, and began to explain the angles, the measurements, the laws that ruled the division of space. The younger boy, shaved liked his companion, watched in awe. They recalled the old man in another seaside city far away who had taught them about machines, space, and the stars whenever they brought him olives, squid, ink, or wine. I wonder where it all comes from, the younger one asked. The elder looked up into the dark sky where the stars were beginning to fade. Then he gathered some sand into his palm, letting the wind carry most of it away until only a few grains were left. It began with something smaller than one of these grains of sand. What happened? There was an explosion, said the older one, his gray eyes staring through the sand, through his own palm, through the very fabric of the universe. And out of that explosion came everything—time, matter, heat, the workings of the planets and stars. The younger boy opened his mouth and then closed it as he stared intently at the sand grains by the light of the fire. One of these grains of sand could be an explosive, then. Maybe, the older one sighed, dusting off his hands. I don’t know. What are stars? the younger one asked. They are part of the explosion. It happened thousands and thousands of years ago, maybe millions of years ago, and we are still seeing it. The moon, sun, and stars are all part of the great explosion. Then they are explosives, as well! the younger one shouted with joy. Perhaps, the older one sighed. Explosives like our old city. The smoke must have risen for days. The younger one filled his hands with dry sand, throwing the grains at the sea. Then he turned to his friend and asked how many grains of sand there were in the universe. The older boy began to speak of myriads, and myriads of myriads, and myriads of myriads of myriads, writing letters on the sand to explain as he went. The young one felt as if his own head were suddenly hollow and filled with distant stars. When his friend had finished he asked him how large one star might be, and how many grains of sand it might contain. The older one ventured a guess. The younger one walked back to the surfline and stared into the paling sky. Everything is explosive, he whispered, almost breathless.