The Courtyard

It was a cool, warm spring bursting with almond blossoms and rosemary under cloudless blue skies. A postman had fallen gravely ill, and the postmaster ran off to the hospital built of old, blond stones to make inquiries. None of the luscious nurses seemed able to answer his questions. The damnable priest was nowhere in sight. Outraged, the postmaster stepped into a courtyard of plane trees, stone saints and a plashing fountain to have a smoke when he stumbled upon the missing priest, who had been nonchalantly carving and was now sanding pieces of wood. “I was looking for a miracle-worker and all I find is a woodworker!” the postmaster exclaimed. “It’s not that improbable of a combination. The Good Lord generally knows who to send and where to send him when the time comes,” said the hard, stony priest. The postmaster strongly suspected a peasant childhood followed by army service. “And I am neither a miracle-worker nor a woodworker, though I know men and women who have been both,” the priest added with a little laugh. “Your postman has been admitted to palliative care with no hope of leaving. I was informed that I would be informed when I was needed.” The postmaster lit his pipe and watched the sun and shadows dance as a gentle wind stirred the plane trees. A nurse pushed an empty wheelchair along one of the colonnades, its chrome spokes throwing sparks of sunlight. When she had disappeared beyond a dark arch, the mystery of the wooden pieces and the faraway look in the priest’s eyes captivated him once more. “To be sure, you must see this a lot,” he said, trying to explain the quiet, the idleness and the lack of urgency. “Some seasons more than others,” the priest admitted. “Sometimes they want me to camp out by the bedside. Sometimes I only learn of the matter when they are purchasing the coffin or digging the grave,” the priest explained, fastening  pieces of wood into place with screws. “The widows who have nothing to do like to keep an eye on things. When someone falls ill, they will rush to the hospital and commune with the dying. Only after they have been seen by the orderlies, nurses and the doctors will they send me a telegram. When I arrive, they love to wail and bemoan my absence in the hour of trial! They then make sure I only stay long enough for a prayer. And they are absolutely offended if a patient manages to write to me or telephone me directly without informing them. I always keep those telegrams.” The postmaster shook his head and puffed out cherry-sweet smoke like a locomotive. “Are the widows here today?” he asked. “Most certainly,” the priest laughed, adding some finishing touches to his strange devices. A woman in black with a white cap arrived, gave a familiar smile and nod to the postmaster, and delivered a telegram to the priest. The priest read it silently, and passed it on to the postmaster without comment. “Deceased!” the latter exclaimed in horror, shaking his head.  “Will you be coming upstairs?” the postmaster asked. “No,” the priest replied in a slow, thoughtful exhalation. “I have a delivery to make to a young one,” he added, standing up and holding the finished crutches. “Good day,” the priest mumbled, striding off past the fountain towards the opposite colonnade. It was far too warm and pleasant for it to be a day of death.


The Long Ship 

In the end times, young men and women left the great cities in droves, exhausted from living in little prisons without gardens and being unable to see the work of their hands or the glory of their bodies and spirits. One youth ventured northward into the land of ice mountains, marshes of snow and golden reeds, and many blue seas. There he dwelt on the shore cutting timber, catching fish and making his own clothes from hemp, bark and skins. The work arduous, the nights long, the hearth often bereft of game, the youth ailed but endured. On the shores of the sparkling sea, he built a great long ship to venture out into the horizon. It required more time, strength and craftsmanship than his wood shack or forge or clothing had. It was a dream to be shaped with his own hands and by his keen eye. The more he worked, the more beautiful it became, its oars long and elegant, its sails well woven and beautifully dyed, its gunwales and prow carved with spirals and interlacing clouds. One evening, a stranger came to the shore, a supple, soft but strong girl with laughing eyes and silken hair. She admired the boat and said that she had never seen another like it. Her hands roved over the carvings and felt the unbreakable oars. The man whispered that death would take him one night not long from now, perhaps even that very night. For too long he had worked alone in the cold with little to eat and no cure for his illness and no companion to help him. The long ship was finished, but he would never sail in it. The man stared at his workmanship and the sea beyond. The damsel asked him if he regretted wandering away from the great cities. The man shook his head and told her that in the city he knew nothing of life, death or dreams. Now that he had worked with his hands and dreamed, he knew what life was, and so he was not afraid of death. Then with his last breath, he asked her to bury him at sea, somewhere close to the horizon. When he had closed his eyes, the maiden kissed him. Morning was breaking as she sailed out from the marshes into the cold sea, the keel turned toward the endless horizon, the man sleeping in the hull, wrapped in the gift his hands had made. 

The Salon

One evening, we were discussing the merits of the abbe’s letters on spiritual direction. An engineer was about to finish an exemplary explanation of the last letter when he started to cough, choke, and spit up blood all over the marquise and her sofa. Within thirty seconds, he lay on her floor, as lifeless as possible. Death is rude, a philosophe remarked with disgust. And vulgar, the marquise added.

The Monument

Once upon a time, a traveler came through the village, and stayed for a day, selling beads under a straw parasol out on the roadway. Nobody had ever seen such kindness, heard such tales of wisdom or enjoyed such good company in years. Everyone went out to see him. After he left, everyone lost their beads, forgot the tales and life went on. Some decades later, word came that the traveler had perished in distant mountains. Everyone mourned for days and days. And then at last a great stone monument was built on the roadway, right where the traveler had traded in proverbs and stones.

The Dead

After some introductions, cigarettes—enough time for their eyes to almost get used to the darkness—the dead began to speak of the universe. What was it like for you? asked one. One of them quickly and nervously spoke of the great night of stars, multicolored planets, symphonies, paintings, cafes and X-rays, radios and compact mirrors, indigo streets of echoing footsteps, and flashing amber traffic lights. With their newly acquired level of consciousness, the others could picture these things, even though they were imagining or seeing them for the first time. One of the other dead described an infinity of bottle washers, tinfoil trees, circumambulations of helium, the descent of notes blown from an infinite woodwind, the motion of whirlpools and infrared eclipses. Another spoke of what sounded like an endless rainfall of raindrops, plum blossoms, gravel, umbrellas, and fireworks. Others could only recite numbers, and others strange patterns of tactile sensations, emotions or scents. One of the dead began to worry. Would this dialogue complete a picture puzzle, or just generate more puzzle pieces? It would be difficult to predict whether or not this would get monotonous, as there was no space or time for monotony. It was best to pay attention for now.

The Iron Age

Fired for his inflammatory articles and for refusing to incorporate critical theory into his lectures, the art historian sat down on the flagstones of an inner city courtyard to begin a staring match with a stone pallas that only ended when his eyelids closed for the last time of his life, just as the elegantly but inaccurately undressed statue raised her left eyebrow ever so slightly.

The Harvest

The old reaper labors down in narrow valleys of blue lines like irrigation canals and black marks like trees, of fragile golden fields and chalk-white cliffs that rustle like leaves in the evening breeze. The whirlwind of harvests and harrows has aged him, streaked his raven hair with autumns of cloud. A reaper without a scythe, he wanders out along deep furrows flowing with ash and straw. What his hands and the good earth have made he will sometimes survey from the burning fields or from his old wooden chair. Time drains from his darkly stained fingers. The saltwater sky begins to sough. Looking out, he remembers no other voice than the wind that washed through the yellowing leaves.