The way of pain wound from the city through the boulders and barrows towards the hill with the stake. Crowds had gathered by the road to hurl stones and offal at the heretic as he passed. In the morning, when the sergeants had come for him, the heretic had been watching sparrows hop from branch to branch in the prison courtyard. Only peace reigned in his heart. Now, as dust rose from the way with the shouts of his accusers, the stumbling, chained heretic began to feel strange and disconcerted. It was not the false accusations, not the miscarriage of justice, nor the grim gazes of the cardinals, priests and friars. Nor had death and its fear crept into his heart. From time to time, the grip of the sergeant’s hand on his arm almost felt comforting. When the boulders fell away and the path straightened out to ascend the bald hill, screams of anger, horror, or madness filled the air. Stones struck his face and legs, which were already filthy. Once, the sergeant stopped and shot a bystander with his crossbow, but the crowd seemed not to notice. The heretic wanted to vomit now as he looked into the contorted faces. The faces of those who knew nothing of his trial or his heart, who themselves hid crimes and heresies, who should have burned alongside him, if burning had any justice to it. At the base of the hill, the heretic fell down, coughing and vomitting bile and blood. Once again, the kindly grip of the sergeant lifted him to his feet. Other sergeants and soldiers formed a ring around the hill and shot several more bystanders as the fury grew into one droning, yearning scream. Then silence fell as they led him to the stake. Firewood and old blankets soaked in pitch surrounded him. The sergeant approached with a torch, and gazed calmly into the bewildered eyes of the condemned man, saying: “The second heresy is worse than the first. That is why they scream.” The heretic looked up to heaven and asked, “What is the second heresy?” The sergeant tossed the torch onto the pitch-stained logs and blankets. “Escape. Peace.” The fire exploded with billowing clouds of black smoke. The sparrows fled into the distant hills.
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.
They found the revenant by the side of the road, sleeping on a bed of pine needles, oblivious to the rain. After wrapping him in a raincoat, they drove him to the ruins of a small, stone warehouse on the side of a mountain, where they had made a makeshift camp. A good fire burned in a cast iron stove, and the fragrance of fresh coffee wafted through the den. They fed him pancakes and roasted chestnuts and gave him some cigarettes. Though he did not sob or speak much, thin rivulets of tears ran down his pale cheekbones. When he had eaten, they smoked in silence, giving him time. Their ravenous eyes were met by his calm, sorrowful gaze that never blinked. The revenant knew well what they wanted, and began to speak before they could ask any questions. Not long after I was buried, I woke up, and I saw myself at a distance. And I was much younger. It was that time of life when everything is on the edge. And I expected to see the harvest of all the rotten seeds I had sown, but there was no such thing. The man I saw was a good man, almost perfect. And she was perfect. I saw them looking after the garden, chopping firewood, rowing out onto the silver lake at dusk, whispering and laughing. Her eyes were often thoughtful, but never hurt, never sad. For ages, I watched, almost blinded by the radiance of their beauty that only burned and corroded me more from the inside out. And then I was sleeping on pine needles, and it was raining. I wonder if they’ll hang me again. The others exchanged glances. The world is not quite the same, they whispered. There hasn’t been a hanging in a hundred years. The revenant sighed. The fire crackled and the rain began again, making a strange orchestra of the sheet metal, stones, tarpaulin, the glittering boughs, the old army truck, the gravel, and his old white skeleton.
Not far past the reservoir, the quarry emerged from the pines, angular, terraced and bone-gray. The gravel crunched beneath the tires of the old lorry as it slowed to a stop by the edge. Rain had begun to spatter the stones like abstract painting. The worker got out and lit a cigarette, the yellow reflector bands on his dark duck cotton jacket gleaming in the dying light. He lit a fire in the firepit with some logs he had brought and sat down on a boulder to drink from a small flask of whiskey. Another pair of headlights flashed as another truck approached, stirred the gravel and stopped. It was the journalist that had been hounding him for some time. The young man got out and walked over, looking up briefly at the dark indigo of the dusk and rain, and then staring at the fire and the worker. Smoking quietly, the worker declined to answer any questions. All of this had been discussed before. The courts had sided with the quarry; there was nothing more to say. Frustrated, the journalist began to speak of destroyed habitats and climate change. The earth was dying every day, and this ignorant, illiterate worker had no idea what he was doing. The man looked at his large, old hands and laughed. “Not illiterate,” he said quietly. “And I am not sure you should mourn the earth the way you do. She is not your friend. In the First World War, mother earth killed 80,000 soldiers in avalanches along the Austrian front in the Alps. Snow and rocks—not bullets—killed them. Plague killed 100,000,000 during the reign of Justinian; the Black Death killed 200,000,000 starting in the 14th Century. 100,000,000 died of the Spanish flu of 1918. The Asian flu killed 2 million in 1957. 123,000 perished in a tsunami in Southern Italy in 1908; 500,000 in the Bhola cyclone in 1970; 4,000,000 in floods in China in 1931; 2,000,000 in the Yellow River Flood in 1887; 200,000 in the Gansu earthquake of 1920; 143,000 in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923; 200,000 in the Xining Earthquake of 1927; 110,000 in the Ashkabad earthquake of 1948; 200,000 in the Haiti Earthquake of 2010; 250,000 in the Antioch Earthquake in 526; 230,000 in the Aleppo Earthquake in 1138; 273,000 in Haiyuan Earthquake in 1920; 280,000 in the Indian Ocean Earthquake and tsunami in 2004. As many as 655,000 died in the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976; 830,000 had died long ago in the Shaanxi earthquake in 1556. 1.5 million died of drought in India in 1967-68. 5 million died from drought and famine in the Soviet Union in the late 50s. And that is just a sample of the dramatic events. One couldn’t count all of the other everyday murders the earth has committed if one tried. You said I am contributing to a mass extinction event. There were plenty before Homo erectus stood on his hindlegs, walked, and played with fire. Somewhere between five and twenty mass extinction events have occurred in the last 540 million years. There was a time the ocean was so toxic that only the horseshoe crab, the jellyfish and a handful of other species survived. The earth has no pity. I would say that destroying the planet were an act of revenge if I thought such a thing were possible. The earth may give us life sometimes, but she inevitably kills everything that grows on her surface. Nothing survives. That is the meaning of extinction. 99% of all life that has ever existed has gone into oblivion. Only one percent survived! And don’t look to other planets or stars for comfort, my young friend. The explosion of the Tunguska Event in 1908 slaughtered 2,000 square kilometres of trees instantly. Our lives are clouds and shadows at best. Arthur Schopenhauer once said: Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other. The earth is eating us. And something will eat the earth one day. Your life is a mist! It will burn off before you want it to. The sky will fall, and the stars will avenge us. The only problem is that we don’t really know if they are still there—their light is millions and billions of years old. Would you like a drink?” The journalist stared with contempt, horror and embarassment at the man and his firepit. Time and again he had rehearsed this conversation on the drive up, and not once had he anticipated any of this. And so he turned around, got back into his car, and drove off into the darkness. The worker had another drink and lit another smoke. Then he looked up to the beauty of the almost obscured mountains of flint and the spiked crowns of the pines and firs blurring into the nightfall and rainfall, grateful and content in a place where nothing was lost. The fire lit up the wet gravel and the wind began to rush through the woods. The good earth was beautiful.
The crucifix towered on the edge of the high cliffs of a pit at the end of the earth that fell into the sea, into a cove with a great churning corry. Night and day the whirlpool thrummed and soughed, the winds moaned and screamed. The sides of the pit were two crescent shaped promontories, again of sheer cliff, that gave the ends of the earth the appearance of a clamp or wrench, or two scythes curving towards each other. They may have whipped him lightly, if at all. They did not nail his hands or his feet. Instead, they secured him to the crucifix with ropes made from old whips and chains, but in such a way that hanging was not very torturous, though it was not painless. Ravens trained by augurs brought him food and water. For days, he listened to the horrifying song of the pit and its whirlpool, an incessant sound that magnified at times but never subsided. One by one, they came—pilgrims and outcasts, naked and clothed. They would murmur to the wind or weep before throwing themselves headlong into the darkness of the pit and its cold ocean spray. On moonlit nights or days of clear weather, centurions, legionnaires, the occasional augur and senator, even slaves would come to picnic below the giant cruxifix, eating roasted lambs, loaves of fragrant bread, black olives and figs. They drank heady wines, mocked the hanged man, laughed hideously like hyenas, sang paeans and hymns to their conquests, proclaimed their laws and lectured on their superior science and justice, before packing up to return to they city with its endless dramas, public hearings, lavish banquets and chariot races. The man hanged in silence. The pilgrims and outcasts returned, mumbling and weeping, or silent as the stones on the moor. Some prayed or sang before leaping; others took out parchment and wrote lengthy epistles. Some even burned their books or lit themselves on fire before jumping into the pit. Once, a beautiful maiden in a white chiton approached. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. They conversed, and he saw that she was a poet and an astronomer and a deaconess of the sacred way. His heart burned with love for her purity and beauty as she picked flowers and discoursed on the meaning of the constellations and the eternity of grace. Then, she suddenly plumbed the depths of her body with a dagger and threw herself away into the abyss. The hanged one wept until he lost consciousness. Perhaps he even briefly died. Travelers later reported that they had passed through this desolate country, and had seen the punished criminal still alive and still fed by ravens, speaking strange words to passersby. When they asked a ploughman or a cart driver who it was that sang proverbs and prayed old songs of hope and joy, they laughed and said he was an antiquated type of madman. And what type would that be? the travelers would inquire. A priest, they whispered, but one could hardly hear them for the roar of the wind and the waves in the pit.
Through the wasteland the twin pilgrims wandered, stopping in the ruins of monasteries, camping by old traffic lights that grew like strange, lone trees from mounds of gravel and dust, and unearthing the odd relic here and there as they went. One night, they camped upon the tiled roof of an old sacred site now level with the shaved plains. Winds fiercely blew, and they broke through the roof to get to shelter in the dusted spaces below. The girl wandered with a candle while her fellow built a small fire. She returned with an old book mostly
charred. The script was familiar, and she read aloud the few legible pages that remained. “What a worthless book,” she sighed. “It is nothing but names and genealogies.” The other stared into the fire. She hurled the book at him, and lay her bedroll near the glowing warmth, her body sinking into shadow. The other read the page, and said to his twin, “Bone of my bone, this is not worthless. Maybe the ones who wrote it believed that heaven cares for all people and their stories and where they came from, and this was proof that it was worth praying for others.” The twin did not reply. Later, when she was asleep, he carefully cut the surviving pages from the book and placed them into his journal. Then, taking a fountain pen, he added his own name and the name of his twin. Closing the book, he listened to the fire snap hiss and kept watch on the grim and endless stars shining through the broken roof.
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.
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.
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.