The Kingdom

The moon was black. Other birds, birds never heard before, sang in trees of darkness, for dawn was not yet. A contingent of lawmen, led by an old doctor, arrived in an open land of copper grassland and cast-iron groves. They came upon a hunter, and asked him where they were. The hunter said that they had come into the kingdom. They asked him who the king was, but they could not understand either his idiom or his description. When they camped under the stately firs and gazed into the stars, a scavenger gathering wood stumbled into their midst. Was there a king? they asked, but the scavenger denied it. The only king he knew was himself. Would they happen to have any scraps to give him? They gave him some, and warned him that they were men of law and had brought law to the lawless land. Howling with laughter, the madman shuffled into the darkness like a misshapen beast. The days passed. Wayfarers and pilgrims would speak like the hunter, but the deserters never saw any signs of a kingdom—not a single signboard with a royal decree, not a scrap of paper with a royal seal, not a herald to cry the law of the land, not even a gendarmerie or constabulary. At times, they would catch glimpses of high stone towers rising from the mists above the rusted plains or above a canopy of darkly spired trees, but they did not want to investigate. Some pilgrims warned them of hunting deer, of building fires by daylight, and several other royal decrees—the royal horsemen always came for those who practiced such abominations—but the deserters scoffed and beat the pilgrims. There was no king but the law, and they were the law, they claimed. They shunned the great roads that wound through the land, keeping to the back country, drawing their own maps, building fires by day or night, and eating as much venison as they pleased. In open defiance of what they had heard, they built cairns of deer skulls in the meadows. One evening, a pilgrim gave the old doctor a frayed book—as a warning, perhaps, the doctor thought, for the book seemed to be a codex of laws. It made a good pillow that night, when he lay down his head to sleep, covered in deerskin blankets. It was midnight when the old doctor awoke to the sound of horseman.

The Great Hospital

In the holy city, the city of mercy, the city of benevolence, the city of justice, the last ancient apostle and philosopher fell ill, and was carried to hospital. It felt as if he were swimming in and out of shadows, through twists and turns of colonnades and lamplight, masked faces and chrome wheelchairs, their wheels spinning mindlessly like the ancient law. The apostle slept, but woke to the cry of deer. Water dripped somewhere, and a cripple moaned in his sleep in another bed. Midnight woke him again to the sound of whispered voices, but he was too weary to open his eyes. The doctors had assembled to pronounce their assessment and judgment. “It is a clear case,” said the first. “The chart is here. Let us retire to the library.” “No,” said the second. “It is not decided, for he is below the required tax bracket.” “Good!” laughed the third. “Maybe he will draw a long, painful death! The man is an insufferable idiot!” The first doctor brought out the gilded box and reached into an opening on top, pulling out a bone-white card, which he read out. “That’s unfortunate. Utterly and immediately curable!” the second doctor sighed. The apostle also sighed, and then closed his eyes.

The Word Problem

Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.

The Boxes 

A man in prison was asked to write a confession. Not a confession of his crimes, which were mostly manufactured, imaginary things, but a confession of his true feelings about existence. Confessions such as these would be published and stored in a museum of existence that anthropologists and philosophers were building. The man wrote of boxes. He was born in a box full of chrome, glassware and sterilized beds. He grew up in a cinder block box by the sea close to a railway where steel boxes rolled by from time to time. In the north, as a youth, he rode a box on wheels to another big box every day to fill in boxes on paper with words and numbers. A teacher gave him a beautiful dictionary with a cardboard box cover since he was good at words, and so he read this every morning as the rectangular box full of commuters rolled through frost, mist and snow. Later on, he got a job teaching in a box himself, and rode various boxes to this great box filled with smaller boxes. During the day, in one of these smaller boxes, he wrote in chalk on a black box and taught words to students who filled their paper boxes with words. At night, he rode a rectangular, underground box back to his neighbourhood of gray, concrete boxes stacked to the sky and surrounded by gray, boxy trees. In his own quiet box, he drank old vines, smoked, read about southern countries, listened to tango and fado from a radio box and watched the mute, gray cat stare into the nothingness with her ice blue eyes until he fell asleep. Once in a while, on a clear weekend, he would fly a box kite the colour of candle flames from a stone beach, wishing he could rise into the blue sky. The man was tired of his box life, he confessed, as he wrote in the box of his cell in the box of the great prison. At the end of his confession, he began to write of fairy tales he had heard as a child, of lands and times when there were fewer boxes. Even traveling boxes were better then; they were painted blue, yellow, and lamp black; they had large, fancy wheels full of spokes and were drawn by smoking horses. And there were great golden fields full of lilacs, lavender, and chamomile, white mountains of blue veins, and rivers that went anywhere but in a straight line. Exhausted, the man confessed that he would rather have lived as the poorest man in that other world full of texture and shapes, and at the very least, he would have preferred some rambling golden fields and some plane trees on cobbled streets with curvy lampposts. It would have been worthwhile existing then. 

The River 

A man returned to the river of goldenrod and silver grass to meet his soul once again. My soul, he said, where have you traveled? Do not ask me that, said the soul. I have wandered far, for my home is far away, and I have not found my tree. The man asked about this mysterious tree, but the soul merely stared at him with indifference. The man said that it was a depressing age, a time of confusion, a chaotic world. Where was the world going? He recalled the better times—warm nights with lanterns and moths, the willows along the river, the fragrance of oil paints, the roar of the sea. And you were there, you were always there, he said warmly. Do not look back into time, the soul said. You were as empty then as you are now, a daydreamer and a cloudhead. The world has always rebelled against itself; it is not going anywhere. The river never travels. The water travels from the source to the sea, but the river is always in the same place. It is pure nothingness and emptiness. It has no time, and nothing happens to it. The soul threw a stalk of goldenrod into the icy streams. They watched the stalk drift away and disappear around the corner. What do you think? asked the soul. The man suddenly felt a warm, southern wind blow through the grass from beyond the curve of the river. My soul is somewhere else, he said with both fear and relief, and I was mistaken in believing you were her. 

The King 

The king sat on his throne in the holy city at the center of the world, his mind burdened with the deep wisdom of beasts, moon and stars, ancient scrolls and distant revelations. A migraine ate away at his head when they brought the two women before him. They had both given birth to babies, but one night, one infant had perished, and one of the women had switched the dead child with the living one belonging to the other mother. The counselors, magicians, conspirators and men of law looked hard at the king. One day, the king sighed, all of this will be the blink of an eye, a fistful of sand. All of tomorrow’s scholars are worse assassins, usurpers and conspirators than any of us hope to be, merciless in a way that only a distant future world, a world of death, can be. All of tomorrow’s scholars may remember me, but they will not remember this hour or day. It will become for them a symbol, a proverb, a parable, and nothing more. They will call it an invention of chroniclers, daydreamers and fanatic scribes. In their dimension, the child, the mothers, you and I—none of it exists. And if it does exist, it only exists as a cipher amongst millions of ciphers. It is mere algebra for the damned. What can only exist as algebra must be treated accordingly. One must satisfy both sides of the equation. Therefore, I command that you divide this nonexistent child with a sword. 

The Candy Shop 

Every Thursday evening, the father took the little boy to the candy shop. There were mountains of rock candy, rivers of chimerical bottles gleaming with cream soda, vertiginous peppermints, serpentine licorice ropes, gardens of dried fruit, trees dangling jawbreakers and banquets of lemon cakes. The little boy immediately fell in love with the lemon cakes. The father bought three and watched earnestly as the little one ate them in the blue twilight on the long walk home. For six days, all the boy could dream or think about was the softness and sweetness of those fragrant, magical lemon cakes. On the following Thursday, the boy was not allowed to get the lemon cakes. They did not have enough money, the father said. And so they bought some cream soda, which was pleasant, but nothing like the lemon cakes. Later on, during another visit, they had enough money, but the father made him buy jawbreakers, which were not at all pleasant. Another Thursday came, and there were no lemon cakes to be had. They were discontinued, the shopkeeper explained. They were not to be found anywhere in the city. As they began the long walk home, the little boy tried sucking on some rock candy, but he burst into tears. I don’t want to go to the candy shop anymore, he said to the father. In the blue twilight, the father gently patted his head as he surveyed the many signs of the shops, banks, cabarets, cafes and boutiques sparkling throughout the city. My son, he whispered, almost to himself, you can never leave the candy shop. 

The Winter 

One winter never thawed in the cave of her chest. And yet, it had no trees with icicles; it had no hills that sparkle with the glass of dead grass locked in frost. It had no screens of snow, no sculptured ice rivers. Wrapped in sheets of concrete she slept and wandered, leaving no prints on the earth. For the earth left her fallen on stones and stars. For her long legs were songs of hollow straw. Those who have skinned the earth blood-raw have said that she has no skin to speak of. Those who read verses in the vault of heaven have said that her tattoos are illegible. And nothing she holds in her permafrost hand finds its shape once again or remembers its name.