The stars were absurd, and the skeletons could no longer read them. In the old cities, the language had died. The long and endless winter came, greeted with sadness, joy and even excitement. They would camp out under the stars now and wait. It was best to lie as still as possible and look up at the snowbound peaks, the naked trees, the melancholy galaxies. They would lie still, wrapped as mummies in tawny fox furs, orange tartans, amber wrappings of deerskin and linen, and coats of golden straw. The smoked silence and tarred landscape waited with them. As moths rise from their cocoons, maybe owls would rise from their bedrolls. And with gray eyes and glass talons they would soar into starlight and snow.
The magistrate, who had spent his life in conspiracy, corruption, debauchery, forging chronicles and destroying evidence, left the city with some strong wooden poles, nails, and ropes, and climbed a hill close by. The city applauded this seeming act of repentance. The road workers, carters and pilgrims watched him erect the large crucifix silhouetted against the twilight sky. The magistrate camped there and would not leave, clinging night and day to the empty cross, eating poor meals of lollium bread and skewered doves roasted on the campfire. In the beginning, nobody dared to ascend the sacred hill. Many years passed. Reverent and humble, one pilgrim finally climbed the hill to thank the magistrate and to pray. What faith! exclaimed the pilgrim, but his joy was soon turned to sorrow. I have no faith, said the magistrate. Why then your vigil by this beautiful cross? queried the pilgrim. I am waiting, laughed the magistrate, just in case he returns. I will be ready for him. The pilgrim burst into tears and said, When he comes again, you will behold the glory of love and perfection! The magistrate nodded thoughtfully. My resolve is made stronger by your words, he said. The pilgrim descended the unholy hill, afraid to look back at its cross and its sentry.
In the intricate and ornate chronicles of long ago, a halberdier was dispatched to summon a man who had been hiding in the royal library, awaiting a revelation of his calling. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness. And the man followed him into the streets of twilight. Behold, the lamps of the city! The man watched as the lamplighters extinguished one lamppost after another until not a single lamppost burned. And behold, the city was dark and how vast was the darkness. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness! And they walked in the garden of walled orchards where the glorious pear trees stood, arrayed in golden fruit and golden leaves. Behold the glory of the pear trees! the halberdier cried. And one by one the trees shed their pears and their leaves until not a single leaf adorned the naked black branches clawing at the sky. Come and bear witness! the halberdier cried. The man followed him to the edge of the land, to the great pit beyond the cypresses, where the gravediggers bore coffins and shrouded corpses on stretchers and wheelbarrows, emptying their burdens into the quiet pit. One by one princes and peasants fell into that deathly quiet. The halberdier cried out: Behold, the apostates! And the quiet was intolerable. The man ran away. Vespers and matins, matins and vespers, passed and passed and all the sacred hours in between. The halberdier found the man by the shore, weeping under a willow tree, holding en empty, yellow tobacco box and staring into a small crackling fire of birch logs. It was beginning to snow. Come, my friend, said the halberdier. The man would not rise. I want to depart, he wept. To where? asked the halberdier. To be burned, said the man, in the flames of the lampposts and the golden pears, in the light of those beautiful faces that are no more. The man rose and left his fire and his burning tree, the snowfall and the coal-black sea. Alone, the halberdier sat down by the fire and stared into the mystery of its light.
They found the revenant by the side of the road, sleeping on a bed of pine needles, oblivious to the rain. After wrapping him in a raincoat, they drove him to the ruins of a small, stone warehouse on the side of a mountain, where they had made a makeshift camp. A good fire burned in a cast iron stove, and the fragrance of fresh coffee wafted through the den. They fed him pancakes and roasted chestnuts and gave him some cigarettes. Though he did not sob or speak much, thin rivulets of tears ran down his pale cheekbones. When he had eaten, they smoked in silence, giving him time. Their ravenous eyes were met by his calm, sorrowful gaze that never blinked. The revenant knew well what they wanted, and began to speak before they could ask any questions. Not long after I was buried, I woke up, and I saw myself at a distance. And I was much younger. It was that time of life when everything is on the edge. And I expected to see the harvest of all the rotten seeds I had sown, but there was no such thing. The man I saw was a good man, almost perfect. And she was perfect. I saw them looking after the garden, chopping firewood, rowing out onto the silver lake at dusk, whispering and laughing. Her eyes were often thoughtful, but never hurt, never sad. For ages, I watched, almost blinded by the radiance of their beauty that only burned and corroded me more from the inside out. And then I was sleeping on pine needles, and it was raining. I wonder if they’ll hang me again. The others exchanged glances. The world is not quite the same, they whispered. There hasn’t been a hanging in a hundred years. The revenant sighed. The fire crackled and the rain began again, making a strange orchestra of the sheet metal, stones, tarpaulin, the glittering boughs, the old army truck, the gravel, and his old white skeleton.
The crucifix towered on the edge of the high cliffs of a pit at the end of the earth that fell into the sea, into a cove with a great churning corry. Night and day the whirlpool thrummed and soughed, the winds moaned and screamed. The sides of the pit were two crescent shaped promontories, again of sheer cliff, that gave the ends of the earth the appearance of a clamp or wrench, or two scythes curving towards each other. They may have whipped him lightly, if at all. They did not nail his hands or his feet. Instead, they secured him to the crucifix with ropes made from old whips and chains, but in such a way that hanging was not very torturous, though it was not painless. Ravens trained by augurs brought him food and water. For days, he listened to the horrifying song of the pit and its whirlpool, an incessant sound that magnified at times but never subsided. One by one, they came—pilgrims and outcasts, naked and clothed. They would murmur to the wind or weep before throwing themselves headlong into the darkness of the pit and its cold ocean spray. On moonlit nights or days of clear weather, centurions, legionnaires, the occasional augur and senator, even slaves would come to picnic below the giant cruxifix, eating roasted lambs, loaves of fragrant bread, black olives and figs. They drank heady wines, mocked the hanged man, laughed hideously like hyenas, sang paeans and hymns to their conquests, proclaimed their laws and lectured on their superior science and justice, before packing up to return to they city with its endless dramas, public hearings, lavish banquets and chariot races. The man hanged in silence. The pilgrims and outcasts returned, mumbling and weeping, or silent as the stones on the moor. Some prayed or sang before leaping; others took out parchment and wrote lengthy epistles. Some even burned their books or lit themselves on fire before jumping into the pit. Once, a beautiful maiden in a white chiton approached. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. They conversed, and he saw that she was a poet and an astronomer and a deaconess of the sacred way. His heart burned with love for her purity and beauty as she picked flowers and discoursed on the meaning of the constellations and the eternity of grace. Then, she suddenly plumbed the depths of her body with a dagger and threw herself away into the abyss. The hanged one wept until he lost consciousness. Perhaps he even briefly died. Travelers later reported that they had passed through this desolate country, and had seen the punished criminal still alive and still fed by ravens, speaking strange words to passersby. When they asked a ploughman or a cart driver who it was that sang proverbs and prayed old songs of hope and joy, they laughed and said he was an antiquated type of madman. And what type would that be? the travelers would inquire. A priest, they whispered, but one could hardly hear them for the roar of the wind and the waves in the pit.
Through the wasteland the twin pilgrims wandered, stopping in the ruins of monasteries, camping by old traffic lights that grew like strange, lone trees from mounds of gravel and dust, and unearthing the odd relic here and there as they went. One night, they camped upon the tiled roof of an old sacred site now level with the shaved plains. Winds fiercely blew, and they broke through the roof to get to shelter in the dusted spaces below. The girl wandered with a candle while her fellow built a small fire. She returned with an old book mostly
charred. The script was familiar, and she read aloud the few legible pages that remained. “What a worthless book,” she sighed. “It is nothing but names and genealogies.” The other stared into the fire. She hurled the book at him, and lay her bedroll near the glowing warmth, her body sinking into shadow. The other read the page, and said to his twin, “Bone of my bone, this is not worthless. Maybe the ones who wrote it believed that heaven cares for all people and their stories and where they came from, and this was proof that it was worth praying for others.” The twin did not reply. Later, when she was asleep, he carefully cut the surviving pages from the book and placed them into his journal. Then, taking a fountain pen, he added his own name and the name of his twin. Closing the book, he listened to the fire snap hiss and kept watch on the grim and endless stars shining through the broken roof.
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.
It was the end and the wanderers were in the land and there was great fear. The poor watched the moon and the meteor showers, while the lords and ladies poured wine and ate the ribs of their enemies in great banquets that lasted for days. One day a herdsman saw a wanderer, radiant with white smoke and the sparkle of tears or diamonds, passing through the poplars lining the snowbound road. “Wanderer, I have a question!” the herdsman called out in grief. The wanderer paused like an elegant deer and listened. “Should I fear the coming of the beast?” asked the herdsman. The wanderer thought for a moment in his silver glow of winter. “Are you the beast?” he gently asked the poor man. The poor man shook his head vehemently, and said, “I don’t think so. I pray that I am not!” Then the wanderer smiled, placed his hand on the head of the herdsman and whispered, “Then you have nothing to fear and all of the stars are yours.”
She was not golden, and so she had no fear. She spoke in the gray town squares every day, laughing and sneering at the enemies of her truth. None dared burn her, for she had her own fires to kindle. The woods called to her, she said. The earth was crying out for salvation. And thus she departed from the land of gray towers. She entered the dark woods with the book of her seven sacraments. She followed her heart. It was darker and brighter than she had hoped. There were black shadows and bursts of pure light through the spring and autumn leaves. Even the shadows seemed to hum with unseen light that burned her eyes. It was exhausting to walk between the lush boughs and the fallen leaves. It was tiresome to travel at the mercy of the terrain, the rocks and great trunks determining her every footfall. There were no gray mists. At last she came to the cabin, the woodshack, the lion’s den. Inside, it was too silent. She was disappointed to find that there was only one table, one bowl, and one bed. She tried to laugh, and lifted the bowl to her lips, but it was empty. Weary, she climbed into the long, great bed of cold wood and hay, and fell asleep. In the morning, a searing pain awoke her. She opened her eyes to see a solitary, gigantic bear, sleeping on his side with her ribs in his mouth. The bear awoke as well, and spat out her ribs. Why did you eat me? she gasped. I thought your ribs might save the world. The birds were whispering of it for years, but they were wrong. There is nothing in your ribs but death. She looked down into the abyss of her chest, and there was indeed nothing but a whirlpool of black flesh, dark blood and blue bottles. A distant groan like soft thunder passed through the woods. What will happen to me? she asked the bear. I do not know, the bear sighed. I do not think your carcass will make me any honey. And since your ribs grow nothing, I cannot keep you. She passed out, awakening later to find him dragging her body far, far from the woods into a great field of snow. And yet, I came to save you, to save your woods, to save the truth, she choked as her body slid down the slope of a pit. Why was the bowl empty? she cried out with the last of her strength. You stole our grain, the bear sighed. The last thing she saw were her ribs flying down from the bear’s paw to land in wet snow by her feet. A distant voice growled farewell. There were other empty and rotten ribs to eat before the end.
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]