The Shelter

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.

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The Explosives

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.

The Wanderer and the Herdsman 

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.” 

The Great Bear 

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. 

The Chessboard 

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 Enigmas 

They are not thieves, though they can be said to thieve. To thieve and to war without scars, without possessing. They will come. In the crepuscular time, in the tattooed, blue twilight they will come, with their hands filled with stars, planets and sands they will come, their shadows upon the earth like the blades of ancient scythes. Mountains disperse; clouds become comets; the city rearranges itself into new iron labyrinths of sighs from the whispering acacia and the secretive bosom . It may be that your white bedroll will melt into the black water of time; perhaps your black automobile will transfigure into white laundry. In the red morning, the blood orange of a deplorable sun will light the faceless statues of all that survives. 

The Blood Orange 

The one word she whispered in the warm heart of time became his heart. A thousand generations are a thousand autumn leaves. It was the word of red clouds, red sand and terracotta, of carnage and desire, of stone saints, of the divinity that swims around the mountain of transcendence, the blood orange twilight of futility. Nine tenths of what once was is no more, if it ever was. And thus, the books whispered at night, having bled away their ink to become blank and restless. Our lips were the scars from which the blood runs fresh and sure, lost to the ceaseless emptiness of an obsolete word. The blood orange of the violence of time.