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.
Once, a ghost grew tired of his idle life and decided to take up a trade. In the graveyard one evening, he heard a drunken preacher with a whisky bottle lecturing a tombstone on the inability of ghosts to teach anything to humanity. This sounded fair to the ghost. Most of his comrades were indeed inept at communicating and always resorted to clumsily shaking chairs, moving coffee cups and saltshakers or jangling chains just to ask for simple things like butter and sugar or hypoallergenic candles. It was positively irritating. The ghost went off to the municipal library to find something to teach. While haunting the library one rainy winter, he read a great number of books and decided which subjects to teach to humanity, subjects which his ghostly experience might illumimate in a special way. There would be lectures in phrenology, philosophy of mind, information science, creative anthropology, dromosophical nonfiction, ostrogothica, hydrotaphia, klecksographical design, pneumatology, paleography, paleontology, thanatology and eschatology. Excited, the ghost found an abandoned townhouse, outfitted it with blackboards, large writing desks and some theatre chairs. Then he found some old lamps, a piano and other random equipment. He also built a laboratory in the basement. For months he taught, but most of the humans who dropped by—skaters, goth girls, derelicts, urban photographers, intoxicated priests, party animals dressed as animals, monsters dressed as monsters, strangers with shopping carts, and thieves with crescent wrenches—dropped out after a class or two. Some even dropped dead, much to his horror. One day, as he was staying up late to write his lesson plan on his newly invented discipline of nonphrenology–which was really an interdisciplinary approach to all of his favourite subjects—the ghost was visited by a friendly departed spirit, one of the goth girls who had attended a lecture or two. When he asked her why the lectures were not successful, she said she had no idea that they were lectures and even now had little hope of understanding what he was talking about. Everyone had assumed that they were late night horror and magic shows: chalk magically writing on chalkboards, incomprehensible treatises being passed out to students by an invisible body, ink blots randomly appearing, a player piano without a mechanism, old lamps that turned themselves on and off, creepy hands suddenly feeling the skulls in the audience and a disembodied voice spewing nonsense or reciting endless verses of ostrogothica. Of course! the ghost exclaimed. In his excitement about the various disciplines, he had forgotten to overcome the very problem he had observed in his fellow ghosts. The ghost felt dejected. The goth girl kissed him and asked if they were allowed to date now, since she was no longer his student. The ghost said it was possible, but first he would like some whisky.
On a spring morning, the boxer awoke with a strange case of clairvoyance, or to be more precise, the ability to read minds. As he smoked a cigarette on his porch, a woman walking down the street smiled and bowed, and he sensed how he became part of a poem she was composing in her head. Later, as he strode to the train station, his black jacket triggered an episode of acute anxiety in a man begging for change to buy coffee. The pigeons looked at him in expectation, and the gentleness of their thoughts almost made him stop and abandon his plans for the day. As he inserted coins into a machine at the train station, his tall figure burned in the dark thoughts of a stranger pretending to gaze at the large signboards mapping the train routes and announcing departure times, while his angular jaw and musculature gave the waitress at the coffee shop across the way a warm, unspeakable feeling. Disturbed by wave after wave of passing thoughts and emotions that did not belong to him but included him, the boxer bounded up an escalator and boarded his train. The sounds, whispers, pulses and screams that flooded him on the train left his head throbbing and his body almost lifeless. To a hundred minds crammed in the train car he became a hundred different ghosts, haunting their interior monologues. He began to lose his bearings and forget where he should go. The boxer got off at a stop in his old neighborhood and began to walk down quiet streets, where there were few passersby, heading for the home of his old friend, a beautiful girl with long, dark, red hair. It was not his original destination, but he wanted to see her and feel her thoughts more than anything. The world seemed heavy. He tried to remember as many faces of those whose minds he had read as possible. Lost in such thoughts, he was crossing a street, when he felt the fear and love of someone dear. As he looked up, he briefly saw the truck, the blanched face of his old friend with her dark, red hair through the windshield, and heard the scream of the brakes. Losing consciousness, he hardly felt the broken glass embedded in his skin or her hands on his chest, and he could not read her thoughts anymore. All he wanted was to remember the faces, little bodies and wings of the pigeons he had disappointed.
It is sometimes called the blackbox. It is not black at all, but perhaps it should be. It is the hybrid of a radio and a refrigerator, a camera obscura, a labyrinth, a code matrix, and a battery. The wiring is intricate–one is tempted to think of bombs. Though they can explode and implode, this is actually quite rare. What is not rare is the amount of destruction it can unleash. In the last century alone, this machine was responsible for at least 160,000,000 wartime slaughters, 100,000,000 suicides, 87 million garden variety homicides, and one and half billion abortions, all totalling about a quarter of the world’s population today. Only about 20% is used or known to work, according to the ancient proverb, which means that 80% sleeps in darkness, just as 80% of the universe sleeps in darkness. On the thin shores between twin unknowns, the black box crackles with signals and commands. It breathes. The black box is the most haunted place in the universe. It might even be its own universe. Its ghosts are imperceptible from the outside. They travel in whispers and mute screams no electricity can detect. Their long, steely fingers scratch at the coffin-black spaces between signals and circuitry. They make a pilgrimage for a surface they cannot find. It is an inverted pandora’s box, an insane asylum in a bag of raging winds, an aegis that consumes itself, the lone eye of the gray ones orbiting itself in sheer emptiness, the magnesium flashing head of the gorgon that turns all things to stone, a saturn eating its own offspring. And yet, it is only a small football of fat sizzling with electricity in a fragile cowl of bone.
One can get tired of the lapping waves and the stroking oars. It turns out that there are a limited number of canals and bridges in the town, and the town itself is a limited island in a finite pond. One cannot even make a word problem in topology with this state of affairs. Monotony and despair are inevitable but lethal to the trade of the oarsman. The first is a spiritual problem, the second a practical problem. One can count passing birds, but this distraction only lasts for so long. An older oarsman once related a legend, saying that every time a gondola brushes against the shores of the pond, the coast erodes a little bit more, and the ringed sea expands. Some day, the pond and the gondolas will break through the rocky isthmus and reach the open sea. In the meantime, there is monotony and emptiness. It was already difficult when there were fewer stops, fewer coins, and fewer dinners, and yet the boat keeps moving, and the oarsman keeps punting and stroking the wet sea. These days, there are no real passengers, but they have left behind their seductive fragrances and phantom weights. Only ghosts ride, and rich or poor, they will not pay a single obol, drachma, hyperpyron, zecchino or florin, nor will the guild allow an oarsman to quit or retire. The ghosts are infuriating, but one can not accomplish anything with ghosts. They are notoriously inept at the art of conversation or navigation, incompetent at seduction, and will not help with the punting or steering despite riding for free. They have no appreciation for the coffin-black paint of the gondola, the physics of the forcola, or the laws of tracing cloud constellations. The unthought forcola especially bothers the oarsman, for it is a miracle of nature and engineering. The phantom weight of past passengers and the uncanny presence of ghosts and their intangible, almost irrelevant deaths only grows as the world drifts by. Other gondolas appear in the mists of distance, but no vessel ever catches up to another. A hideous silence laps at the lone wandering gondola.
In the days of the great plague, there was a woman who was stricken and who would most likely die in a fortnight or two. Some friends came to her and whispered of a phantom doctor, who would come and heal her if she secretly summoned him. First of all, the woman wanted to know why he was a phantom. Secondly, she doubted that this doctor even existed. The friends gave her testimony of their own cures. They showed her letters and prescriptions the doctor had given; they could even perform some of the minor surgeries and treatments to keep her alive until he appeared. They had other scraps of evidence, but the woman was an expert logician, and destroyed all of their bits of evidence with clear, cold, cutting and seemingly irrefutable arguments. It seemed insane that a doctor would only come if summoned. Why all of these intrigues and phantasms? It was simple, her friends explained. The doctor had been banished for treason by the princes, scholars, bishops and magistrates. They blamed him for the plague, and feared his visitation would make the realm sink deeper into the ravages of contagion. I would rather see a witch doctor, the woman said. At least I can find some entertainment in his traditions and culture. As for this phantom doctor, keep him far away from me, and do not lay your hands on me with any intention of mimicking his treatments. Some of her friends praised her for her bravery and honesty in clinging to her principles and respecting the laws of the realm. Most of her friends mourned her senseless death, but had to flee the realm to live elsewhere, for the laws of the land were ensuring the swift and violent extinction of all life.
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.