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.
One day, a man found a broken golden bird on the road. He gently picked the bird up and took it back to his quarters at the top of a high, round tower that looked out over the gray and barren moors. The kind man lit a lamp, gave the bird some seed and water, and made plasters and medicines to heal its body and wings. It would be many days before the bird could fly again, but the bird hated the cold stone tower and the night stars tempted it. Your medicine is slow and bitter, said the bird, and I do not believe in your magic. The only things I need to heal are the wind and the sky, the earth and its trees. The man thought for a moment, picked up the bird, and threw him from the high window full of night stars.
One of the assassins was entrusted with leading an armed caravan into the deserts. Perhaps it was to stalk and kill an escaped conspirator, perhaps it was to escape a conspiracy or a trial, or perhaps it was a secret mission to better determine the way of the sands and clouds, the history of his nation, the possibilities of empire and the nature of trade routes. The caravan took up its arms, tools, merchandise and machines and departed for the dry oblivion. As they drifted deeper into the soft dunes and burning blue sky, the assassin felt that they were transforming into a song. The caravan was a strong and strange piece of music. Lost in ecstasy, he did not notice the approach of the sandstorm. All of the warriors and camels, except for the assassin, were buried alive. The assassin made his way to a desolate oasis and survived for many years on water, wild grains, and non-integers of birds. One day, a caravan stopped at the oasis and found the bewildered survivor. The travelers decided to take him along. As they crossed the wastes, the assassin spoke of all that he had learned of clouds, sands, and little creatures. When the caravan arrived back in civilization, the assassin learned that his language, nation and cities were no more. Other caravans were departing for newer cities and different times and places, with stronger and stranger music. Lost, the assassin made haste to join their sand-blasted journeys into oblivion.
One can get tired of the lapping waves and the stroking oars. It turns out that there are a limited number of canals and bridges in the town, and the town itself is a limited island in a finite pond. One cannot even make a word problem in topology with this state of affairs. Monotony and despair are inevitable but lethal to the trade of the oarsman. The first is a spiritual problem, the second a practical problem. One can count passing birds, but this distraction only lasts for so long. An older oarsman once related a legend, saying that every time a gondola brushes against the shores of the pond, the coast erodes a little bit more, and the ringed sea expands. Some day, the pond and the gondolas will break through the rocky isthmus and reach the open sea. In the meantime, there is monotony and emptiness. It was already difficult when there were fewer stops, fewer coins, and fewer dinners, and yet the boat keeps moving, and the oarsman keeps punting and stroking the wet sea. These days, there are no real passengers, but they have left behind their seductive fragrances and phantom weights. Only ghosts ride, and rich or poor, they will not pay a single obol, drachma, hyperpyron, zecchino or florin, nor will the guild allow an oarsman to quit or retire. The ghosts are infuriating, but one can not accomplish anything with ghosts. They are notoriously inept at the art of conversation or navigation, incompetent at seduction, and will not help with the punting or steering despite riding for free. They have no appreciation for the coffin-black paint of the gondola, the physics of the forcola, or the laws of tracing cloud constellations. The unthought forcola especially bothers the oarsman, for it is a miracle of nature and engineering. The phantom weight of past passengers and the uncanny presence of ghosts and their intangible, almost irrelevant deaths only grows as the world drifts by. Other gondolas appear in the mists of distance, but no vessel ever catches up to another. A hideous silence laps at the lone wandering gondola.
Once upon a time, a heretic was traveling in the west, when he came upon a beautiful walled orchard full of golden pear trees that belonged to a young princess. She saw the lean vagabond, and her heart opened. Come into my reign, she said, come in and eat of my pears. The iron gates opened, and the wanderer entered into the brilliant haze of leaves and hanging fruit. The birds followed him, for his coat was weighted with seeds and grain. For days and days, he ate her pears and grew stronger. She fed him many kinds of pears, and gave him her cider to drink, and their life was like a dream of nectar and ambrosia. The longer he stayed, the more the birds came to play in the trees and feed from their hands. She would ask him about these gentle winged creatures, and so he interpreted their ballads and their epics for her to hear, and he spoke of the birds that are and the birds that are not. As time passed, her head suffered migraines. She became reluctant to give the heretic his pears, and would limit how many he could pick or collect from the garden. She no longer brought him cider, and she looked at the birds with hatred and fear. One day, as he walked sadly through the orchard, she came upon him and demanded that he leave. You are no heretic, she screamed. You are holy death. You are the angel of death. She banished him from the garden and forbid him to take her golden pears with him. The wanderer left the beautiful orchard, and went to live in the dark woods nearby. A skeleton blossomed under the branches of a black pine. It is said that the birds did not follow, but remained to consume every last golden pear while the young princess held her head in her hands.
One leap at a time, one more dash against the road and the countryside, one more run around a curve and he would escape. One more stroke, one more lunge through the dark water, one more kick forward towards the surface and he would find safety. The burning ship lit up the horizon and revealed the closeness of the sea; the burning ship poured its dark amber light into the fathomless sea to light the way to the surface and the beach. The runner sprinted barefoot across the sand towards the rocks and the flames. The swimmer staggered out of the waves and welcomed the warmth that blew off the crackling hull. In the twilight of flames and shadows the runner and swimmer found each other and embraced, their bodies shaking with terror and relief. They spoke in whispers and gasps of how they longed for wings to become like the white birds who were taking off from the sands to fly to the stars. In the early morning, they sat down in the sand to have a breakfast, some bread, fish and wine, their souls still trembling in the wind blowing through the smoking ship.
The monk struck the novice each time he answered poorly, although the novice had been there for ten years, had read a thousand books, and could recite and solve the most complex riddles. Washing his hands with well water, the monk told the novice to read the book of nature before ever presuming to speak or act again. The novice went into the wilderness and lived among beasts and birds. When he returned, the monk asked him what he had heard. The novice answered. It is good to be a stone, for the river washes over it, the reeds cannot choke it, the birds and beasts most often cannot break it, and if they should, one stone becomes other smaller stones, who bathe in rain, sun and wind and wait with the earth in silence and strength. They drove the man and his commentary into permanent exile, but not long after, their monastery burned to the ground, and many monks went up in flames.