The magistrate, who had spent his life in conspiracy, corruption, debauchery, forging chronicles and destroying evidence, left the city with some strong wooden poles, nails, and ropes, and climbed a hill close by. The city applauded this seeming act of repentance. The road workers, carters and pilgrims watched him erect the large crucifix silhouetted against the twilight sky. The magistrate camped there and would not leave, clinging night and day to the empty cross, eating poor meals of lollium bread and skewered doves roasted on the campfire. In the beginning, nobody dared to ascend the sacred hill. Many years passed. Reverent and humble, one pilgrim finally climbed the hill to thank the magistrate and to pray. What faith! exclaimed the pilgrim, but his joy was soon turned to sorrow. I have no faith, said the magistrate. Why then your vigil by this beautiful cross? queried the pilgrim. I am waiting, laughed the magistrate, just in case he returns. I will be ready for him. The pilgrim burst into tears and said, When he comes again, you will behold the glory of love and perfection! The magistrate nodded thoughtfully. My resolve is made stronger by your words, he said. The pilgrim descended the unholy hill, afraid to look back at its cross and its sentry.
In the intricate and ornate chronicles of long ago, a halberdier was dispatched to summon a man who had been hiding in the royal library, awaiting a revelation of his calling. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness. And the man followed him into the streets of twilight. Behold, the lamps of the city! The man watched as the lamplighters extinguished one lamppost after another until not a single lamppost burned. And behold, the city was dark and how vast was the darkness. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness! And they walked in the garden of walled orchards where the glorious pear trees stood, arrayed in golden fruit and golden leaves. Behold the glory of the pear trees! the halberdier cried. And one by one the trees shed their pears and their leaves until not a single leaf adorned the naked black branches clawing at the sky. Come and bear witness! the halberdier cried. The man followed him to the edge of the land, to the great pit beyond the cypresses, where the gravediggers bore coffins and shrouded corpses on stretchers and wheelbarrows, emptying their burdens into the quiet pit. One by one princes and peasants fell into that deathly quiet. The halberdier cried out: Behold, the apostates! And the quiet was intolerable. The man ran away. Vespers and matins, matins and vespers, passed and passed and all the sacred hours in between. The halberdier found the man by the shore, weeping under a willow tree, holding en empty, yellow tobacco box and staring into a small crackling fire of birch logs. It was beginning to snow. Come, my friend, said the halberdier. The man would not rise. I want to depart, he wept. To where? asked the halberdier. To be burned, said the man, in the flames of the lampposts and the golden pears, in the light of those beautiful faces that are no more. The man rose and left his fire and his burning tree, the snowfall and the coal-black sea. Alone, the halberdier sat down by the fire and stared into the mystery of its light.
There was lightning throughout the day, but a clear blue evening followed. The black mountains with snow-bound peaks glowed and loomed larger than possible in the last light. The mysterious stranger in the poncho wandered the high roads skirting the slopes and washes of stone and runoff. Among the boulders he encountered one who was infirm. The stranger sat down next to him, exhausted and unwell. I am not well, he said quietly. That is not possible, said the infirm one. They told me that I am the one who is infirm. Maybe, said the stranger, but I have been sick for many years. Stay with me and we can help each other. No, the infirm one said. You are a liar, perhaps even a thief, and you are not sick; you do not know what it is like, and you cannot help me. I don’t even know where you have come from. The stranger said that he had been in the mines. You do not look like a miner, the infirm one said. You look like an illiterate blacksmith. My ancestors were blacksmiths, the stranger admitted, but I was in the mines. The infirm one shook his head vehemently. His eyes were an abyss to look into, filled with darkness and an indefinable fury. The mountains were also starting to fade into penumbra and silence. I have too many languages, the shadow of the stranger said by firelight. I do not know which one to speak, and I do not know which world this is or what a world is. The infirm one embraced him, and shoved the knife deep into his body. The mysterious stranger bled out alone as the fire died and the mountains vanished.
In the empty castle, there are no mice left to eat, and sometimes the cat is hungry. Of course, it is better to eat fish, for their goodness lasts forever, and there are ways to get to the moats and the river through the cellars, storm drains, and catacombs. Nevertheless, there is the emptiness of time. Wandering the long stone hallways and climbing the infinite towers of gray stone and gray brick, the cat collects bones, wires, old keys, magnetic coils, batteries, fragments of music boxes, and glass marbles to assemble his robotic rats. The idea first came to him when, alone and sad, he drew a face and some whiskers on a pebble with a stub of charcoal, and then battered it about as if it were a mouse. Not long after, he manufactured his first mouse and wound it up. It ran here and there, trailing its rubber tail. The cat was amused and chased it at once. Then it went on to build an army of mice out of metal scraps. The engines whirred, and drew figure 8s in the dust, and the music of the mice danced throughout the castle. Sometimes, the cat forgets, and almost breaks his jaws on the steel skin of his contraptions. One day, he should venture out of the castle and search for real prey. In the meantime, the robotic mice are beautiful, and they help him to forget the hunger, the water leaking into the cellars, the rotting galleries, the broken pillars, and the sinking foundation. And sometimes the mousecraft makes the cat forget the absence of another cat whose forehead he would touch with his own forehead, until their skulls became typewritten paper, their bodies electric eels burning with one sustained prayerful, reasoning and transcendent thought of what it means to walk in the void as phantom tigers and ethereal panthers in a dream of bones and dust.
In the other land of heretic monks who whispered of the pure nothing and crusaders who wore the black cross, the mouser guarded the long spiral staircase of hewn stone. The stairwell was as high as it was bottomless, and he lived in the shadows somewhere between vertigo and insomnia. The rats were the worst threat to the castle and cathedral tower. With his blade he fought them, through crackles of phosphorus matches, electricity and whispers of radiation and radio waves. It was the tango of life or death. Only after a fury of slashing would he find sleep on some quiet stair. The stairs ascended, descended and swirled. It would have been better if there had been circles of incandescent angels to better light the void instead of the rainfall of rats like black clouds. Sometimes, he awoke after nightmares of chasing long tails like gray eels, freefalling, being chewed by glowing teeth, or being crushed by spring-loaded iron jaws. The mouser awoke in the night to see the dead rats playing in life and in death as if he did not exist. They danced and posed. And he thought that it was possible that the rats lie. And there was too much darkness to contemplate even with the lanterns of his golden eyes. The mouser realized that he lived in a mousetrap.
The assassin listened in silence to the accusation of failure. After years of dark streets, pale blades, empty rooms, secret letters, late nights in cafes, and conversations whispered in the penumbra of old cathedrals and colonnades, he suddenly felt tired. What is wrong with my methods? the assassin asked, for he had never failed a single mission. It is not a matter of your tradecraft, said the official; it is a matter of your stagecraft.
The darkness was in the glass jars. The strapling was in the chair by the road. They waited with their jars in a ditch, hiding among cattails and silver grass. When the jars had filled, they climbed the embankment and shuffled towards the chair. Clouds of breath mingled with the mist. Their boots crunched gravel and dead leaves. Now, said one to the strapling, let us see how much night you can swallow. Nobody ever makes it through the first jar. Someone forced the pale head back while another tilted the first jar and poured it into the strapling’s mouth. The strapling swallowed and swallowed with flashing eyes and jerking limbs. There was a long gasp when the jar was emptied. They gave him eight more jars. Once it had consumed the ninth jar, they unstrapped it and set it loose. Anything could happen. A white rope hung from one tree; a knife lay on a roadside stump. There were other temptations placed in concentric circles, the farthest at a radius of a mile from the chair. The strapling was oblivious to all of them. It whispered to itself and walked slowly into the middle of the road. Then it looked into the galaxy above. There was a sound of distant thunder, a shockwave, and then an atomic silence as one third of the stars above rained down. A rainfall of sparks, cold water and dark ash fell around them. They started to run, screaming into the electric air as stars continued to fall. The strapling sparkled with burnt stardust, its cold, pale hands reaching into the broken sky.