In the south, there were lovely trees, stone bridges spanning limpid blue rivers, and fields of flowers, fields and fields of sunflowers, hyacinths, lavender, wild roses, cosmos, poppies, and lilies. The chronicler had dreamed of these fields for years and was disappointed when he was sent on his first assignment there, for the earth was brown, the flowers were dead, and the sluggish rivers ran in hideous shades of ash or silt. Only the clouds remained beautiful, vanilla clouds of such texture and shape that one could just lie in the grass and daydream forever. At various crossroads, the king’s men were counting the passings clouds, recording the numbers and types of clouds. It was odd that a dry land should be blessed with such beautiful cirrus and cumulus and even the odd nimbostratus. The clouds were a steady caravan coming from the mountain of winds nearby. The chronicler ventured to this mountain and climbed it. On the summit, he found the king and his royal kitemakers launching enormous cloud-shaped kites and montgolfiers. When the chronicler asked about the king’s men on the plain, the king walked over and kicked him off of cliff. Then the king returned to his leisurely viewing of the launched clouds through his golden spyglass. The clouds were beautiful.
The cloud and the sun were laughing so hard they did not see the shadow riding through the hills. Instead, they continued to laugh at the poor man just below them who had taken off his coat and now burned under the brassy sky out on the treeless mesa. Now watch this, the cloud said. And he blew a strong, freezing wind upon the open wilderness, a wind full of hail and snowflakes. The world turned white. The mounted shadow drew closer to the mesa. The sun stared in amazement as the man just below shivered, put his coat back on and tried to walk through the deep drifts of snow. The cloud blew harder, making it almost impossible to walk. It was the most furious blizzard the land had ever seen. Not long after, the man once more took off his coat, which the cloud blew into oblivion. Then he took off all his clothes, which also took flight and disappeared. Alone and naked, the man stood with his arms raised to heaven and froze to death. Breathless, the cloud could barely laugh, but the sun bellowed with mirth and stared in amused shock at the statuesque body covered in snow. Suddenly, they both noticed the marshal on his horse. The marshal dismounted, and wrapped an old striped blanket around the frozen body. The marshal took a swig from a whisky bottle. Then, turning to the cloud and sun, he fired both barrells of his shotgun, reloaded, and fired again. The darkness of solitude and quiet fell.
Only days ago, perhaps even hours, departing from the land of smoke, the wanderer staggered off without a thought of how to find his home. The water he drank along the way was a river falling into bottomless thirst. The roadside ponds of swaying fish refused to carry his reflection. They had told him that the road, stripped of its grass, was a falling down, a slumber like death, a rising and falling of water and wind. The invisible ripples over every curve and turn of the road. There were no white clouds. There were no black pines.
On the wayside, the pilgrim sat below cedars under the wooden rafters of a shelter. On his palms there were no maps to guide, and his head was heavy with seeds of death. Day after day, he counted the hours, and every footfall was a waterfall. The pilgrim had lost his way in a golden sickness. His throat was parched and his eyelids closed. And still he could not bear to name a single mountain of the ancient land, and the closer he drew to its rotting gate, the less he seemed to exist. The pilgrim dreamed it was a woodblock print. It was the long gaze of a stone statue.
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.
The calligrapher loved to write and paint and make books. When he was not conducting official business, he read books of philosophy, thought about the world, and wrote or painted in his quiet house, sipping endless cups of tea. White mountains, black trees, worlds of snow, clouds of words, dragons of mist, and phoenixes of light covered the pages of many books alongside texts of parables and poems. The city sometimes summoned his texts for printing with great expectation; at other times, the city forgot him and his manuscripts. One day, the wind and rain rushed down upon the city, scattering rooftiles, breaking down walls and flooding homes. All of his books soaked up the dirty water and then bled out streams of rust and ink. The citizens wondered what he would do. Most thought that he would hang himself from his own willow tree. Instead, the calligrapher repaired roofs and walls wherever he could. Then he dried out his books and sorted them. While burning some, he examined the others that were disfigured but not burnable. With new soot from his fire, he made new ink and painted on the dried but disfigured pages that he had not burnt. When he ran out of these, he returned to buying new paper, but something had forever changed. Once again, he was painting, but always with blotting papers below the pages he painted on and with extra blotting papers at hand to place on top of his paintings. On certain days he would remove a blotting paper from beneath, and affixed his seal to it, to the unfinished poem or landscape of blots and marks. On other days, he would press a blotting paper to the top of a wet page and seal it after taking it off again, its dampness bearing the ghosts of brush strokes. Through abstractions of dark raindrops and pale silences, the calligrapher rebuilt the lost landscape.
Some paraloi survived the long and disastrous space voyages to arrive on a strange and most serene planet of islands, high mountains, floating and sinking cities, and beautiful skies with captivating cloud formations. They were brought by gondolas to one of the main cities, a complex of canals and elegant towers stretching from the seabed to the sky. They passed through ancient colonnades and quiet courtyards with plashing fountains. They came to a pale white tower with a commanding view of the ships, harbours, islands, distant white mountains and open sea. It was twilight. The paraloi were served dark wines. To drink the shadows, said a diplomat, in an expression they did not quite comprehend. Night fell and brilliant unknown stars in illegible constellations burned beyond the windows. A bald, tall, thin man with a distinguished and pleasantly distorted face welcomed them into a vast library and orrery with windows and balconies complete with telescopes. It was said that he was one of the great oligarchs and also the head librarian. The paraloi plied him with questions, scribbling formulas and sketches on paper that had been provided for communication. The old librarian welcomed these with tears in his eyes, and at one point embraced a large piece of sketch paper, holding it to his chest with deep gratitude and appreciation. The local diplomats explained that this was the most thoughtful and beautiful gift imaginable, a truly respectful gesture, as the old librarian was a lover of cataloguing. The paraloi shook their heads and whispered, explaining what they had meant by their diagrams and mathematics in relation to the nature of matter, world-mapping and star voyages in their paralus. The old librarian smiled and gently explained that they were mistaken. Their mathematics and physics were but metadata, or cataloguing devices. The universe was actually a library built to look like a planetarium. In fact, one could call it both. Every planet, comet, cloud of gas, every satellite, black hole and event horizon was a book. The worlds were clouds of language and narrative. Wherever one looked, one saw something to read. The death of a star, for example, was not the destruction of matter per se, but a chapter in a book of changes within the great moment of the library, the greatest book. The old librarian was eager to hear of the other books in their corner of the universe. The paraloi were perplexed by his revelation and by his joy.
The last paralus was passing into the outskirts of its own solar system, having traveled a light year through a maze of planets, satellites and meteors. Beyond its prow glimmered the cloud of ices, volatiles, and planetesimals, possibly the very origin of wandering comets and the limits of their known worlds. Deterioration had set into the ship and into the bodies of the paraloi. It would be a matter of hours or days until complete disintegration, and it was more than likely that they would not breach and pass beyond the cloud of planetesimals. They listened to their mournful music and drank. At last, the captain of the paraloi gave a speech in the form of a parable. It is the last hour, he said, and we have come to the very limits of what we can know. Our crew of brave paraloi consists of the only survivors of life in our solar system. The cost of our efforts has been great. Five planets have been ruined, four destroyed, and others damaged so that we might arrive at this moment. There is no life ahead and none behind. What we may know, what is truly real, is this moment. Once upon a time, there was a fiery visionary, a heretic, who said that there were other suns with other exoplanets circling around them, and that our first world was not the limit of what we could navigate. And he said that the universe is infinite. The philosophers said he was wrong because his views did not agree with what they taught. The scientists discovered that there were indeed other suns with other exoplanets, but they said he was wrong because he only guessed without any evidence. One of his closest enemies discovered the rivers of the outer planets by looking through a telescope. For years, successive generations of better telescopes and mathematics confirmed the existence of these rivers. It was not until the first paralus to pass by the planets of rivers that we learned differently–the rivers were an optical illusion. There were no rivers. I cannot help but feel that the universe has an end somewhere, that it is finite and bounded. I do not know what the universe or matter is. Our voyage, however, seems increasingly infinite.
They waited by the roadside for the coach, dressed well and animated. They were trying to convince a wanderer, a shabby man, who seemed to combine fresh youth and exhaustion in his features, manner and expression, to remain with them until the road coach arrived. They spoke of the rewards, the sites to see along the great highway and the comforts of the coach. The wanderer looked around at the wind blowing through the golden barley, at the racing clouds, and at their long afternoon shadows in the dust. There was something deeply painful in his eyes. Growing up, he started to say, as though launching into an epic while gazing into them plaintively. Then he just laughed, shrugged, and disappeared into the grain fields. Now and then they saw his shadow shapeshifting among the glimmering stalks. The road coach appeared in the distance, trailing a cloud of dust.