The fiery serpents were always present. No matter how fast he walked, no matter how tight he shut his eyes, their rattling, slithering and hissing spread from the gates and across the cobblestones as if they were all tentacles of one single menacing and tenacious hydra that had infected the buildings and thoroughfares in the city of rain. They were not lethal or metaphysical like their ancient ancestors. The modern serpents feared neither heaven nor earth and knew nothing of the nehushtan, asklepian, aegis or cadeuceus. They could only make you sick, indebted, unemployed or homeless. To ignore them brought some degree of safety—they were known to strike the fearful repeatedly, laying them low with fevers, chills, tachycardia and depression. To heed them was also wise—one wrong step off a stair or curb and one could find a serpent plastered to an arm or leg, burning like a portuguese man-of-war. The man walked quickly, almost insane with suspense. Would he decide to be cautious or oblivious? Would they strike and bite him or not? The man never knew whether to pray for safety or good judgment. Through the gaps in the concrete colonnades, he could see the crimson coils burning into the wet black landscape.
The firebox was dark and ancient and worn. The house where it had first sat dreamed itself into smoke when one third of the stars fell from the sky. No signs of burning marred the cool polish of its smooth cherry grain, its heavy lid always closed, its drawers full of brass coins. The iron handles curving, the iron handles rusting, the wooden brazier sat like a stone. One day, many houses later,, the young man opened the heavy lid. Inside smoked a mound of white ash. It looked like the pale face of a ghost, of time, of timelessness, of the nudity of bones.
There was a corrie of stone and ice where the travelers would gather by the light of certain stars, ambiguous solstices and unthought eclipses to pass through time and space and harvest the good light, the good water, the good wind and the good fire, for with these the sons and daughters of men and women were healed and built into great giant cities of stone and strength. One opened the gate through speaking the old language. One traveler loved the language; he loved and spoke all languages and remembered the times, but the old language was best and was like a fountain within his body and soul. They called him the bear, for bears have big jaws and love rivers. As time went by, the bear noticed that fewer and fewer travelers could speak or revere the old language, and took no precautions as they traveled. They brought illness into the corrie and spoke deplorable words. The gate of stars would often not open. Pilgrims who came to the travelers for guidance and healing became increasingly lost and sick. At times it seemed as if the very stones of the corrie were shifting and crumbling. The travelers still came in the seasons of traveling, but instead of speaking the old language, they forbid others to speak it, and sat around discussing the beauty of their sickness as if it were a gift from heaven. They were dying from their deplorable words and killing others as well. One day, the bear fell sick from an ordinary disease, and wandered into the high peaks to cough and sleep in solitude. While convalescing in the high land, he spoke the old language to himself and found himself traveling high roads through stars and black holes he had not thought possible. In those heights and depths he found great worms of stone, oarfish of mists, and krakens of water. There were silver trees of lightning and golden whirlpools of fire. The earth drew light and strength from the heavens, through his body, and he felt well again. On rising, he surveyed the sad earth from which the old words were vanishing, and knew now that every broken stone and dried up river is a forgotten word, an irreverant grammar, a deplorable sentence, a blasphemy. When he went back down to the corrie, he found that more than half of it had crumbled into a glacier, and the other travelers sat oblivious on a shifting precipice, reading their sores and scabs as if practicing divination, and cursing everything above and below heaven. It was then that the bear realized that he had been transformed into a real bear.
Once, a scholar received an inheritance of five keys and a codex of the highway to the abandoned city. The codex was an almanac and a map. Not long after he set out, the codex fell into a well and half of it was drowned and blurred. Some nights later, the wind was blowing, and sparks from the campfire landed on the remaining half of the codex, burning it. Nevertheless, the man resolved to be the codex and find his inheritance of which he vividly dreamed. When he arrived at the abandoned city, he wandered the streets, trying his keys in every lock of the gates to its houses and gardens. At long last, one key finally turned, and he entered into his estate, but there were ghosts there who asked him to leave. They had their own keys and deeds to the estate, and they had already summoned the oligarchs, knowing this day would come. The sergeants and men of law came to arrest him, but after hearing his tale, they allowed him to stay in the empty city, as long as he never entered a house or garden. And for this reason, the scholar became an arsonist, a veritable pyrrhomaniac, burning down the city one house each night, while hiding in the water of the wells by day. The abandoned city thus became a great and enduring smoke signal for wayfarers who might be walking the endless highways.