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.
There was a poor old lady who had lost her mind. She lived between the dark woods and the sea, and owned a russian blue cat. Though devoid of reason or memory, she never lost her generosity; though the cat was also in ill health, his devotion and loyalty to his mistress never faded. And thus began their descent into tragedy. For not long after she had fed him, whether it was morning, noon, or night, she would soon forget. Then, seeing his empty bowl, she would feed him again. In the beginning, the cat assumed this was the reward of retirement. He would end his days in one long, grand feast. As he ate his second or third bowl, he gratefully looked up at her now and then, thinking he was already in paradise. There is, however, no paradise on earth. As her madness progressed, so too the promptness with which she refilled his bowl. What had begun as a pleasant dream of eating now became a nightmare. Sometimes, he would delay or hide behind the cast iron stove or under the sofa, but she would sense his hesitation and begin to softly lecture him in a voice filled with hurt, worry or confusion. Was he losing his appetite? Had he fallen ill? Was her food no longer to his taste? He would try to explain, but could never bring himself to tell the full truth, for it pained him to see how her mind no longer worked and how its absence burdened her spirit. With a great sigh, the now heavy blue cat would pad over to the steel bowl, sigh again, and then lower his head to dutifully eat his meal. At least this brought joy to her; she would stroke his ears and fur, and wander off for a few minutes to iron the dishes or sew potato skins together until the next meal only moments later. The cat invented ways to gag down the now tasteless feed. First, he imagined a different kind of bird for each meal. There were sparrows, thrushes, doves, canaries, larks, blackbirds, nightingales, starlings, swallows, jays and shore birds. When he could no longer think of any more birds, each meal became a fish: goldfish, carp, eels, anchovies, mackerels, sardines, saury, fighting fish, baby salmon, trout, the cataphractus, smelts and sweetfish. The cat ate all the herbs of an imaginary garden, then the rodents, the wattle fences and telephone poles. He ate the switchgrass, silver grass, goldenrod, dandelions, cat tails, rushes and lilies. Then he began to eat the trees—yews, cypresses, cedars, elms, firs, cottonwoods, pines, horse chestnuts, linden trees, willows, black locusts, acacias, maples, and the golden larch. Through tears and cramps, he ate the gravel roads, riverside stones, the scree from the cliffs, boulders and mountains. In a moment of hallucinatory reprieve, he ate the cumulus, cirrus and nimbostratus; he ate the ocean currents, the waves, the driftwood and the glass fishing floats. Stabbing pains ripped through him as he ate comets, meteors and shooting stars. The cat ate the planets and the sun. Night and day he ate, until a great black void of stars and angels remained. The cat sighed. Then the cat whispered to nobody in particular that he would never eat the sacred stars or blessed angels. The angels heard his prayer and began to slowly glide toward him. The cat saw the stars flicker into darkness.
The lampreys are sad. They do not like the twilight sea. It only flows in one direction; its coloration is obscured by clouds of ink; it tastes of cold metals. It tarnishes their silver scales. What is worse, the lampreys never find anything to latch onto and suck. Instead, they feel as if they are being sucked forward, body and soul, into a great distance withour stars or starfish, where they cannot feel their innards, where they cannot feel the waves touch their outer skin. One lamprey who mysteriously escaped the twilight sea to return to our blessed waters said that even now, his hunting is obscured by that dreadful nightmare, and he is often blinded to things he could suck. It is hard to live. Moreover, despite the horror, he sometimes misses the sensation of having his body being vaccuumed by the great and unreachable maelstrom. Once, the souls who drift below asked him to summarize the sounds, tastes and textures of the twilight sea in as few words as possible. And the lamprey sadly whispered. Hunger. Time.
The moon voyages began some two thousand years ago. The first to land on its soft surface became embroiled in a war of cloud centaurs, vegetable humanoids and canines made of acorns. Another traveled there to discover all the lost things that earth missed, such as bottled brains and parasols. There were reports of travelers who discovered perfect civilizations in its metallic craters or unusual ways to view an eclipse in the extreme cold. Some later found canals and rivers without ships or navigators, but these tales only lasted for four hundred years before being buried in absolute unbelief. Later, the moon had a short-lived career as a stage actor or character in a bloody tragedy and then as a kind of mobile saltwater dairy farm. Some years ago, the moon voyages yielded only great speeches and haunting footprints. It was otherwise desolate, utterly desolate. The moon is still silent. And watching. One can only imagine what secrets burn deep within the stars.
An ancient planet of white sands, gray mountains and large acacia trees was searching for other beings in the universe. It was a matter of life and death and a matter of time. Resources were running out, and the herds of dromedaries that mined, traveled, ploughed, and provided meat were on the verge of extinction. The humanoids of this planet would not be able to build spacecraft without external help. They lacked the workforce and technology. They had, however, built gigantic radio machines with cathode ray boxes and screens that could read signals from the other side of the galaxy. These could not detect life, but it was hoped that they would perhaps find traces of other cultures sending out signals. During the days when the last handful of dromedaries were sick with plague and dying, a radio operator saw something appear on her screen. At first, it seemed nothing more than a crude and abstract mosaic. Gradually, her eyes saw the shape of a camel. Symbols appeared on the fringes of the picture. The machine showed the camel performing various kinds of work on a planet not unlike her own. Other mosaics were soon discovered. They showed humanoids made of tiny squares of light walking down endless hallways and through trompe l’oeil mazes to elude serpents, beasts or other menacing humanoids. Some of the humanoids characters would travel, and maps would acquire more shape and definition. These scenes were often interrupted, and the mosaic would seem to return in time to what she had seen at the beginning, when the camel was first starting its workday or the flickering tesserae of the humanoids were starting off on their exploratory quests or entries into combat. To summarize, the mosaics were like a more angular, moving version of the pictographs and cave paintings on her own ancient planet. It was hard to say what they meant. Only two theories occured to her. The first was that whoever made these mosaics did so to preserve something of their history and literature, and this was all that remained, since the radios of her planet could not pick up anything else. Her second theory was a bit more complex. She wondered if each mosaic were a smaller world within a larger world. In this theory, the beasts and humanoids made of flickering tesserae were not representations—they were the actual beings of this other planet, trapped in very short cycles of time that always repeated but never resulted in a fulfilled dream or completed quest. She mourned these lost souls of cubist light, and wept for her own.
A trader was pressed into the service of the army to survey a tract of wilderness and to deliver supplies to anyone who needed them. As he journeyed along, he passed through a vicious mountain pass and then through a dreadful, stony land that wore out his boots and cut his feet. On the far side of the land of stones, he met pilgrims who were heading in the direction he had come from. He offered them some of his provisions, but they refused. He asked for water and his request was denied. The trader warned them of the land of stones and the vicious mountains, and inquired about the country they had passed through. The pilgrims shrugged, saying that they doubted any such mountain or land of stones could exist, and they had nothing special to report about the lands they had seen. As they headed off towards the land of stones, the trader could not help but notice that they wore the poorest of straw sandals, which would come undone before the end of the day.
A traveler stopped halfway up the mountain to rest in an old wooden shelter. It was starting to rain, but not even the clouds could dampen his joy; his eyes were aflame with the excitement and exertion of the climb and the hope of conquering the peak. Standing close to the threshold and watching the weather through the doorway, he saw a young woman slowly descending the mountain path. She also took refuge from the rain in the old wooden shelter. She rolled cigarettes, shared her brandy with him, and even listened politely as he grew poetic in his praise for nature and its metaphysical treasures. It was especially intriguing to him how there were many paths that led to the peaks of mountains and that when one climbed a mountain, one was really climbing them all. The young woman took another drink of brandy, looked at him thoughtfully, and said, I am not a seasoned climber yet, and probably won’t ever be, but I can tell you with some certainty that only one mountain can be the highest. Only one can be the hardest to climb. No two mountains are identical–neither in height nor in how one climbs them. Moreover, while some peaks may have several accessible faces, I guarantee you that this one peak has only one path to the summit. To try another approach is certain death. I have buried those who tried with my own hands. The traveler watched her back as she descended the path, irritated and afraid, but mostly just irritated that a strange woman had tarnished his glorious day. The rain was turning to snow.