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.
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.