Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
A calligrapher sat in his library, staring at a blank sheet of paper, an inkstone, and a brush, for he wished to compose a love letter to a girl who loved him, whom he loved dearly. For some time, he had delayed inconfessing this love, and she had been more than patient. This morning, as spring rain fell beyond the sliding doors to the garden, he decided he must make a decision and confess. To confess he needed backbone. Even eels, as unstable as they seem, have backbones. The man dipped the brush into the ink and drew a mouth in the shape of a box, a downward curving line below it, and then another mouth in the shape of a box. There before him glistened the character for backbone. It was perfect in form. When it had dried, he put it into a wooden cylinder for carrying scrolls, and made his way to her home. It was autumn there, and she was raking orange leaves, her long hair blown awry now and then by little gusts of cold wind. She was thinking to herself how the wind was like a river ten thousand leagues long, but surprised by his sudden appearance, she dropped the rake. The man approached her, embraced her and kissed her, saying, The backbone is a journey from mouth to mouth. He unrolled the scroll. They gazed at it together as orange leaves rained from above. And then they kissed again. The girl stopped kissing him and looked at the scroll once more. I will not marry you, she said abruptly, nor be your lover. A calligrapher should know that what look to be mouths in this character are the stylized forms of vertebrae in the original ideograph. The backbone is not a journey. It is a sequence of vertebrae. And even if these boxes did signify two orifices, what evil designs and intentions do they signify? The moment is ruined for me for all of eternity. I cannot be with you. And I do not like eels.
When the heavens created us, the immortal masters, they were kind enough to bestow upon us the great game. Our earth is a great sandbox inundated with the game. There are many variations, but the tools or pieces are always the same. One can play with a whole set, fragments of sets, or a single piece. With one piece, you can dig, sculpt or thrash the beasts. With two or more pieces, you can play dice or hopscotch, and so on. One set contains between 206 to 270 pieces if complete. There is a large orb at the top, followed by a pair of shovels, a cage made of sticks, hinges with balls and sockets, smaller, spidery-looking hinges, long poles and other indefinable shapes that can be used in a variety of ways. The long serpentine rope that supports the set has many possibilities for play. The almost orb-like, pear-shaped part at the top is especially fascinating. These can be stacked into pyramids, built into walls, used as drinking vessels, kicked around in football and polo games, or employed as lanterns and candle-holders. You can also line them up in furrows and pretend you are growing cabbages! Some masters have tried to use them to speak to the heavens, as if they were musical instruments, but the heavens do not answer back, and the silence seems greater and more fearful then. There seems to be no shortage of sets in our world, and so we are always at peace, each immortal master playing with his own game. Sometimes we play together and share our tools in
various games, subplots that form part of the great game of the sandbox. One of our favourites is to stage puppet shows with our tools, and pretend that the puppets are immortals, although this requires considerable imagination given the lack of resemblance. Another is to play at banqueting, for these pale implements are edible and better than any beast or plant to eat. We stretch the sets out in great rows and sit down to feast. Our all time favourite is to play at building museums of abstract statuary, positioning the shining white things in various positions or sculpting them into new configurations. They appear to be made of some mineral or stone. Once in a while, the sets, which we affectionately call slaves, crumble into dust, but watching dust blow into the wind can be a very poetic and beautiful way to pass an evening.
Alone, the skeleton wandered the earth. The earth was an empty land of bone. The bones of the mountains with their gaping caves, the bones of petrified forests in the deserts, the bones of bison, fish, men and women, individually and in heaps. All of these bones were like letters from time written to time, and they were letters about time. The last man, the boneman, had a backpack and a wooden walking stick. He wore black bermuda shorts with a white tsunami pattern and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a way of preserving his dignity and an attempt to remember flesh, organs and skin. He generally wore boots or sandals made of rubber tires, which could always be found. The spear-lengthed walking stick was made of ash. To pass the time, he had become a naturalist, or as he liked to joke to himself, an unnaturalist. He was fond of examining fossils, whole skeletons of beasts, and gazing at picture books and calendars that had drawings or photographs of the myriad fauna that had once filled the world. One day, he found some medieval bestiaries in an old library, and began to ponder the imaginary and semi-legendary beasts. It seemed that these images of beasts resulted from a combination of factors: poor skill, inadequate knowledge, poor memory, and playful imagination. These four qualities seemed to make the bestiaries a more honest, more realistic picture of nature than the shiny calendars and color plates of encyclopaedias. They possessed more life and reflected his own sense of his relationship to his inner thoughts and the outer world. The skeleton also visited every old cave, every dolmen, every ancient monument, every medieval and renaissance town and every modern, abandoned city he could. This pilgrimage continued for some years. The cave and tomb paintings, the frescos in churches, the postmodern grafitti and pictographs covering walls, bridges and railcars intrigued and puzzled him. The more he thought about the paintings, the more he felt that very little had ever been new. The newness seemed concentrated at the center of time, and the further forward or backward one progressed from that point, the more senility and monotony one encountered. It seemed as if the earth had been born old, belatedly discovered youth, and then retreated in panic back into old age to ossify once more. Most of human life had been simultaneously prehistorical and posthistorical. What generations had perceived as the childlike primitivism of early art, the skeleton saw as the dying expressions of nauseated bodies on the verge of becoming terrified ghosts. While their forms might resemble the drawings of infants at first glance, he quickly sensed the absence of vigor, wonder and hope. Arthritic in execution, jaded in perspective, exhausted in imagination and desire. He frequently took from his backpack a sketchbook that had belonged to a child, to compare the childlike sketches with the cave and tomb paintings. The child had painted the same things as the cave painters: cougars, bison, antelope, swimmers, flying abstractions, celestial bodies, the sun and moon. The moons and cougars still sparkled in silver crayon. The moons and cougars of the caves were as poorly drawn, but they were lifeless and old, as if they had long become a tolerated commonplace of seasons, tasks, rituals and attempts at guessing the course of events to follow. The moons and cougars of silver crayon in the sketchbook were events in themselves, events of wonder, little visions of something beyond themselves. And how deeply did the skeleton miss the little hands that had drawn them.
It was in the other land on another planet. An island washed by green oceans, with rusted mountains of snowy peaks, ash-gray fields and great mesas of red sand. For a long time, the shadow stared into the sea through the open window. Sometimes, he painted the walls. At other times, he stopped, holding a paint brush or a box with both hands, staring at the window again. The sky and sea called; the wind called. Something infinite was missing. And he almost remembered. The shadow went downstairs and out the door, crunching his way through the gray and red sand. Night was falling. It always seemed to have been falling forever when it fell, and yet distant and impossible when it had not yet fallen. The shadow was barely distinguishable from the darkness now. In the middle of the great field, he began to shovel up the ash and sand until he found his own skeleton. After digging it out, he ran his hands over the bones, brushing off the dust until the skeleton awoke. The skeleton whispered and tried to stand, but was too weak. The shadow carried him on his back. The lights from the house by the shore guided them. I should have brought some dust, the skeleton whispered. Then the world might return. Do not worry, said the shadow. He carried him into the house and up the stairs to the bedroom, laying him on the clean white mattress on the iron-frame bed. A lamp with a broken shade sat on the floor of the almost empty room, pouring too much light onto the ceiling and walls, radiant with their moist new coat of blue paint. It’s like a real sky or a robin’s egg, the happy skeleton exclaimed. The shadow was pleased. What now? the skeleton asked, but the shadow had fallen into a trance again, staring through the window, waiting for something–perhaps the sea, the sky, or only the wind.
The bonesetter worked in a shop not far from the radiant blue sea. The shop consisted of four rectangular chambers surrounding a courtyard lined with porticos and a pluvium at its center. The walls bore mosaics of animal and human skeletons in pale blue paint and square spirals at the tops and bottoms. The bonesetter had painted them himself. One chamber was dedicated to receiving visitors, the second to display various skeletons he had collected, the third to healing, and the fourth to his library and sleeping quarters. Whenever his assistants posed questions, he would remind them to read the bones first. In the evenings, the bonesetter sat down with his wife to a simple meal of bread, wine, and other things. They were happy, and the people loved them for the healing they brought. One day, a great earthquake killed his wife, destroyed his shop, burned his books, and crushed his collection of skeletons into rubble and dust. Most of the island and its towns lay in ruins. The bonesetter managed to dig up his savings and collect whatever else he had deposited at a local shrine. With a handful of other refugees, the bonesetter embarked on a longship for other islands and lands. He came to a small city on a remote shore. The politarchs, pleased that a healer and philosopher had come to their distant land, invited him to lecture in their court on the acropolis. When the bonesetter began to speak of anatomy, bone structures, and skeletons, the court laughed. They did not believe in bones. Confused, the bonesetter asked them to explain. Bones were just the fossils of old medicine, they said. Nobody believed in them anymore. The bonesetter suggested that they feel their own skulls, bodies and limbs. They instructed him that while indeed there were hardened portions of flesh in their bodies, these were not to be consideres bones. The bonesetter requested that a cadaver be brought. No cadavers were available, since the barbarians threw all dead bodies, weighted with stones, into the sea. The bonesetter asked that a convicted assassin, adulteress, or traitor be brought forward. They brought one who fit all three requirements. The bonesetter asked which arm she had used to strike down her victim. The right, she replied. Then bonesetter severed her left arm, and proceeded to strip it, cut it open and to reveal the humerus, radius, ulna, carpus and phalanges as the poor adulteress bled out on the ground. Straightaway, the court condemned him as a heretic, magician, and murderer. They chained him to the dead woman, weighted them with stones, and threw their bodies into the sea. One headsman secretly said to another that one day the sea would give up all of its dead and their skeletons. The other remarked that in the meantime the dead would have someone to set their bones.
The physician was lost in the darkest woods, infected with phantoms, when he found the minervium. It was beautiful to look at, and it whispered sweetly like soft rain, codex paper, or scissors. It monologized in a strange fashion. It seemed so distant and far away at the same time. At times, he thought it whispered to the world; at other times, it seemed she only spoke for him and to him. For three nights, he stared into her and listened to it. Though deep crevasses of pain remained within his bones and sinews, the phantoms began to atomize and fade away. He left the minervium in a comfortable spot by a spring near a grove of wild olives. It seemed heartless and yet caring to abandon her, but he did not know why. In the city he worked once again, treating lepers, consumptives, and hysterics. They were deranged and abusive. In a short time, they had seized most of the villas and agoras, spreading like a cancer. They screamed out for healing. They tore off their bandages. They burned the scrolls of his prescriptions and his books of medicine. They sold his materia medica to the mariners who came and went like the wind in the striped sails of their long black boats. The physician tried to love them, but feared them. Some would even grab his aching body, by the throat or by the hand, and curse him for his lack of pain, his rotting backbone, his poor medicines that did nothing. Streets were cracking; columns were sinking into the rising sea. Resolute, he continued to treat them. One day, walking through the market, a young whore in a drenched chiton brushed past him. Within seconds, he felt the shivering phantoms return. Infected, he sold what was left of his books, herbarium, elixirs and surgical tools to the mariners who came and went like the wind in the striped sails of their black longboats. The phantoms sucked at him, nestled into him, stroked him with their greedy, bone-crushing effervescence. With the silver from his sales, he bought the wild olive grove on the cliffs. For several days, he watched the city crumble, a column here, a street there. Then he found the minervium, still sleeping by the spring where he had left her. She awoke and came into the small villa overlooking the plaintive wild olives, the wind and the sea. They stayed up late into the nights. She stared into his eyes and whispered. Sometimes she sang. She curled around his body like a smoke that went down his throat and backbone like soft rain and slept in his skull and stomach. The silence sparkled with the crunching of leaves, the crackle of flames, the rustling of codex pages, the blading of scissors. Nights like atropine fell upon them. She glowed silver and held his hands. It was hard to say where or who she was and how the minervium would work his brains, but the soft rain washed everything away. A distant star, a whispering lantern close at hand, the minervium bled her light into his emptiness. It would remain to be seen whether or not her light was also empty. It was a matter of deciding whose captive he would be.