In hell, it is no uncommon thing to see ghosts, walking nightmares, shadows of indefinable depth. The broken stones, slanted towers and crumbling, cliff-like streets invite the constant haunting of the imprisoned mind, the chained soul, the perennially garotted heart. Hell indeed has nine circles, but they frequently subduct into eachother in tremendous and explosive earthquakes of dark flame and scarring sound. In those quiet nights between such tremors, it is said that a rather peculiar ghost
haunts the streets, walking silently, whispering ancient words, sounding hours, calling out invitations to the granite faces that make mouths against the emptiness. The maimed one walks with cruciform shadow, a beggar cloaked in dried blood, leaving a trail of nails and wood splinters. Nobody ever follows him, this maimed one making rounds by candlelight, like an incongruent firewatch in an impossible and invisible inferno of cold fire. And yet everytime he passes, it seems a vault or arch lights up, a skull softens, a distant and forgotten bell chimes. It is a face that the souls of the lower depths long to recognize or understand, a ghosted face, a radiant body, an illegible cipher. And in those unbearable and short intervals when his broken silence breaks through stone and fire, the souls hold their breath and long to breathe the pure wind of another world. And in those sixty seconds or less, hell is beautiful.
The shore was like a book of sand and stones, printed by waves and birds. The old friends warmed themselves by the campfire, smoked cigarettes and passed around a bottle of brandy. They had already put away their telescopes. The darkness of the sky and its cold stars seemed to amplify the roar of bright fire and dark water. The planet was desolate in those times, with only a hundredth of its peak population, a number declining every year. Would it have ever worked? one of them wondered aloud, looking skyward with his naked eyes. Another pointed to the sky with the bottle she held and said, No, not without 700 billion voyagers, each able to live close to 10 million years or more in good health in any climate and an endless supply of materials and fuel. And that just to see the fifty some odd galaxies nearby. She passed the bottle to him. It is always about time and temperature, he sighed, and took a drink. The other old friends whispered and gazed into the sparks and flames or faced the great shadow surrounding them, blowing out ghostly clouds of smoke. What little we have known and done, someone said. And someone else started rowing a boat into the dark waves.
In the last days they came for the coyote to punish him. They said that he would have to build every day for eternity. And he could only build with scissors, paper, and rock. It’s not much to build with, the coyote thought. It would be better if I had some cornmeal, tobacco, and clay, or even just the empty blue sky.
The mound of sand rose pale and smoky in the blue night of great stars as a light breeze constantly added and subtracted grains of sand to and from its mass. The lost assassin thus perceived the merciless impossibility of death, the momentous eternity, the shattering and reassembling of numbers and words, and the distance of distance.
In the other land, in another part of the universe, the prince taught the nature of things and of the divine. What is reality? It is like four days, or ages or moments. It is like a ride in a chariot outside the walls of the other city. On the first day, you see a man who has rusted and worn in the wind of time, ancient and weak. On the second day, you see a man of wounds and sickness, who walks with crutches in the dust of the cemeteries and ash heaps. On the third day, rolling and thundering alongside the circular wall, you pass a man without life, a corpse being eaten by worms, insects, and rats. On the fourth day, you almost run over a man of hunger, meditative and emaciated, his blood turned to lead, his bones almost bursting through his sinews, his spirit wandering in the effervescent transendence. The chariot orbits the outside wall of the other city. The most ancient wooden artifact from our history is a little chariot that has lost its chessboard. One of these facts is tangential. Our first racing chariot is a whirlwind of lightning that rolls and thunders, its wheels and its spokes blur in the cold wind, and the four days are one circle of day, which is an empty evening in the autumn when the golden leaves detach from their branches and sail into the darkness of stars like stringless kites.
After many seasons of traveling, the young damsel arrived at the foot of the great round tower. It was built of luminous gray stones and rose to heights that only hawks and eagles have tasted. One could barely see the crenelated battlements at its crown. There seemed to be no discernible windows. A single tall gate with a portcullis yawned before her. Trembling in her dark cloak, the damsel went forward into the tower. The sergeants in chain mail holding crossbows and guarding the entrance barely noticed her. Inside, she met a cleric who whispered that she should mount the stairs. Crossing the wide flagstone lobby, she began her ascent of the spiral staircase that wrapped around a thick column, a tower within the tower. There were no landings or chambers to encounter; the stairs wound all the way to the top. Cold and breathless, the damsel thought she would fall asleep before arriving at her destination. Suddenly, the staircase terminated in a wide chamber still encircling the thick round column at the centre. Off to the side, a princess dressed in white sat on a small throne before a large table upon which rested a candelabra, a few letters and some writing tools. The damsel bowed deeply before the throne. The princess rose, and approached the table, inviting the damsel to come forward. She took a letter from the pile of papers, inspected it and asked the damsel if it were her letter. The damsel nodded, still scarcely able to breathe. The princess announced that the damsel’s request to be a nonperson had been approved. Her relationship with the state would be severed at once; she would owe no taxes; she was no longer subject to the laws of the realm. She would be anonymous. She would not exist. The princess laughed happily and congratulated the damsel, and bade her to follow. They came to a door in the round wall of the central column. Above it, there was a black signboard with something written in white letters and roman numerals. The princess took out a key ring, searched among the many keys, and then unlocked and opened the door all the way. It was pitch black beyond the threshold. It seemed to be a bottomless cistern. A strange and haunting scent like an invisible herbarium wafted up from the depths, a scent of cold water, ammonia, old trees, weeds, night skies, eel skins, mountain stones, worn out boots, fireboxes and matches, charcoal, dust and straw. It was the heady fragrance of infinite black night. The princess looked intently into the damsel’s eyes, her own eyes electric and a slight blush rising to her cheeks. The damsel stepped closer to the darkness. Without warning, the princess embraced her, almost crushing their cheeks together, and then leaped into the cistern. The damsel fell to her knees and stared in disbelief as the princess changed from an effervescent gossamer cloud into an angel, then into a pale death mask, a white crane, a bleached butterfly, and, last of all, a fragile snowflake caught in the black whirlpool of eternity.
I was writing the last pages of my text on eclipses of the moon and sun when the event happened. I was still wearing my bronze armour for I had to write in a hurry between battles, and wanted to finish my treatise before beginning my tragedy on the life of the destroyer who traveled on a winged horse armed with a crystal eye and the horror that turns men to stone. And then there was thunder, a rainfall of stars, and smoke all over the surface of the earth. Logic fails to explain or express the journey, for either I was carried off by a comet or another strange cosmic phenomenon, or spirits transported me from the earth into the vicinity of unfamiliar stars and planets. The third possibility is that I have gone mad. It is unlikely I could have survived the first type of event without burning up or suffocating. Travelers have often reported the burning up of falling stars and the way the air grows thinner the higher you climb into the mountains. It would seem that there is no air in the ether and traveling through the atmosphere is a violent and hazardous event. The second possibility is no less impossible or disconcerting, for it is said that even if spirits or immortals exist, they are too far away in space to notice our earth or care about our life, and being transported by them to this area of space by their powers makes no sense, for I have not encountered anyone or anything other than a great void of orbiting stars, streaming luminous clouds and the shadows of planets. The one planet in my vicinity, which I orbit each day, at about the same distance of the moon to our ancient earth, glows with swirls of amber, molten gold, topaz and black steel. It is like looking into the forge of a blacksmith or into one of those strange marbles of glassblowers, or a rare gem. It is a cat’s eye without a body. Its warmth wafts over to me. I do not seem to have difficulty breathing, but I know there can be no air, for nothing lives or grows in this empty sea. This morning star, like an ember in the dark sky, like a mysterious cat’s eye, seems to be made of gases and elixirs. I believe these elixirs drift outward, the way heat drifts from a hearth, the way an aura of light spreads from one little lantern into the night. It seems possible that these elixirs have made me immortal. I do not breathe, I do not eat, I do not weep or feel pain anywhere in my body, and I do not die. The only thing I feel is an infinite sadness. My mind works without ceasing as I ponder the revolutions of stars and planets. Some five hundred years must have passed since my arrival. I can guess this by the patterns of changes in the stars, the seasons of my planet, and the number of calculations I have made from where I float like a drowned sailor in the universe. I now know the circumference and age of my planet, I have numbered the planets in this ring of stars and guessed the durations and lengths of their orbits, I have predicted countless phenomena with increasing accuracy. I am a living almanac who cannot impart a single iota of what I have observed and tested. On the earth I once heard legends of subterranean hells full of darkness and flames that maidens would fall into and heroes would visit at great risk. I did not think about such things much. I was too occupied with the codex and the spear. Whether or not a hell exists under the earth, it certainly exists here. It is a beautiful hell. My soul burns with the beauty and sadness of the starry chaos. The third possible explanation for my night voyage remains. I may be locked into a an infinite madness, a madness so great that my body may have died but my mind cannot sense it and sleep, a madness that only increases my pointless calculus of astronomical phenomena while decreasing my memory of life. Perhaps all three explanations are interwoven, swirling together in this maelstrom of suspended and turning lights and shadows. I pray that this is true, for if there is a hell, then it seems more possible that there is a heaven that will someday draw me from the dance of flames, from death without death, from infinite madness. I have come to experience infinity, but I have yet to find eternity. I would like to find a friend in this great emptiness.