Marching against their will down a winter road, the skeletons in chains headed for the towers of darkness. I told you we should have joined the other army, said one. You are an idiot, said his comrade. No matter who won, we were headed for prison anyway. Why would you say that? the first one demanded. Because we have voices, the other whispered. They stared into the silence of dead golden grass and naked trees immersed in snow. The wind blew through their threadbare coats.
Masks of wood, papier-maché and metal glimmered above ornate costumes in black, gold and silver. An orange moon and stars of paper and paint burned in the background scenery, followed by mineral mountains, castles, wastelands, moors dotted with wildflowers, royal blue skies with angelic clouds, coasts like shards of green, blue and colorless glass. Kingdoms divided, cities burned, kings ravished their princesses, beggars philosophized, mechanics invented, merchants whored along endless trade routes, and the weather ate the faces off the actors. One of them stepped forth into the barrage of applause as the curtains tidily hid away the gibbets, and cried out: What did you come to see, the events of history or impassioned monologues? The background scenery or the voices of the actors? The mirror or the mirrored? The treachery of things or the traitors among us? The machinery of the stage or the long hidden playwright? The midnight-black curtain?
The girl escaped the riots by traveling through mesas, prairies, and deserts. In the sanctuary of an abandoned white mission crumbling at the foot of the iron-gray mountains, she met the almost immortal archivist. The shadow introduced himself with immaculate manners and a gentleness she had never seen before. The man had burning, green eyes full of mystery and tenderness, like a young child still amazed and excited by the world. Dressed in a black frock, a white ruff collar, and long leather boots, she thought he looked like a figure from a history textbook or a character in a renaissance play. The archivist said that he had sailed on galleons six hundred years ago. The interior of the mission was practically a museum exhibit from bygone times. There were bookshelves of ancient codices, polished oak tables covered with manuscripts and charts, and coffers stuffed with relics. They stood over a table, where he showed her pictures resembling an unknown continent. She saw it begin as an almost formless mass in blank, bone-white oceans and acquire firmer and bolder edges of ink, more promontories and inlets, more precise curves. She asked him what the drawings were about. The archivist explained that they were the diagrams of thought experiments, or a succession of related thought experiments that had been acted out in space and time. And he spoke of handwritten thinking machines, diagrams, mind maps, memory palaces illuminated in old manuscripts, geometric drawings with proofs, astronomical tables and charts used for calculation. One by one, he showed her more pictures. Something was beginning to form in her mind. At last, she saw that the drawings were nothing more than maps of her own land. The archivist looked into her eyes with suffering or desperation and asked her what the thought experiments meant.
It began as a prayer into the endless spaces. A prayer for wind and rain, for freedom and solitude, for quiet. Through the switchgrass shadows and buffalo moved. The stones were enough, and the contrast of pale sands and dark trees was a gift of clarity. Then clouds of thunder came. And there were horses, horse blankets, steel and smoke. It became a field of blood. And plague. And then it became a traveling show of shotguns and hats. And then it was a motion picture. In the motion pictures, you sometimes saw the pale sands and dark trees, and you could hear the wind and the sound of the great solitude, and sometimes you almost wanted to pray once again.
The skeletons wrapped their black coats around their bones and sat closer to the campfire, watching the firelight dance off their newly cleaned and oiled rifles. There was a strange stillness in the mountains that hung in the trees like an invisible and intangible mist. The coats have gotten better, said the one. First it was blue against gray, then green and gray, then nondescript shades of sand, and now black or green, but at least they seem durable for the time being. Warming his hands on a steel can of coffee, the other skeleton said that it was a difficult thing, picking a coat. Some were good against the rain, some were better with the wind and snow. It was impossible to wear the right coat–one never really knew what the battle was about or where the open road would lead you. And some coats just left you more naked, lying thrown face down on the side of some forgotten road. And the coats are full of surprises.
The time traveler was bursting with excitement as he traveled to the land and time of the pyramids and the great inundations. A cloudless blue sky stretched eternally over the endless white sands. After visiting the site of the pyramids, he made his way to the city, in search of a renowned scholar who had written treatises on trigonometry and suicide. Although he admired the scholar’s genius and foresight, he also could not wait to demonstrate the advances of mathematics, science and astronomy. The city was desolate. After searching various streets he knew from archaeology, and finding nobody, he began to panic. A dead horse gathered flies by the roadside. The cloudless sky burned. At last, he came upon an engineer, working with some complicated irrigation machinery by the river. The engineer spoke through sign language and writing in the sand. The time traveler said that he was looking for the man who posed the following word problem: when the pyramid is 250 cubits high, and the base is 360 cubits long, what is the measurement of the slope? You are too late, the engineer laughed and gestured, for he died centuries ago. He wrote a chronology in the sand for emphasis. What time is this? the traveler asked. It is the time of plagues. Which plague is this? the traveler asked. It is the apparent end to the plague of silence, said the engineer. Are you the one who wrote the treatise on plagues? The very same, said the engineer, playing with various, unidentifiable machine parts. Nobody has written of your plague of silence; it is mentioned nowhere, and at any rate, we know now that such plagues were mere proverbs and parables, not events! Besides, your chronology is wrong, and it is you who are too late–you were supposed to be alive ages ago! The engineer set down his tools again and asked the time traveler to speak of the future. The traveler spoke of flying machines, pandemics, bombs that wasted cities, raising pillars of cloud and fire, of machines that produced visions of love and suspense, and of machines that could think and speak. Those are not events, the engineer laughed, those are parables, too! Do not be afraid, though, this whole world and the universe is a word problem or a parable. Where can I find the bloody trigonometrist? the engineer demanded. I don’t know, the engineer sighed. I’m not a time traveler and my land is in ruins, as you see. There are real events, the traveler screamed, kicking at the dust to erase the chronology in the sand. It is not one giant parable or word problem! The engineer pondered the sand and the cloudless sky. It was in the days of the plague of silence. The lost traveler sat down and wept.
Once upon a time, a jackal came upon a goat in the hill country. The goat was weeping, but it did not seem to know why. Bloodless and crafty, the jackal lured the goat to a well, telling it that the water was enchanted and would make it happy. When they reached the well, the jackal pushed the goat into its dark depths. The goat mourned its misfortune, but began to recite the old epics to calm itself. The goat was a kind of griot, a living history of all that had ever happened. The jackal was torn between admiration for the goat’s memory and distate for its belief in ancient myths without substance. Nevertheless, the jackal never left the side of the well, and kept vigil night and day as the goat talked itself to death, reciting the old epics, commenting on them, begging the jackal to believe them and see their beauty. Afterwards, the jackal suffered terrible dreams. The face of the goat kept appearing. Later, he dreamed of its white skeleton shining in the darkness below. It was a curse, and the only way to deal with a curse is to stage a drama. The jackal invited the other animals of the hill country to come mourn the death of his friend. The lion, the ox, the sheep, the donkey, and fire serpents came down to look into the well. The jackal would light lanterns, play the drums and wail about the dead goat. As there was little to do besides hunt or graze in that part of the wilderness, more and more animals came to hear the ululations and drumming of the jackal. Before long, the animals forgot their own dead, their own pain, the work they were supposed to do. Night after night, they came to hear the jackal. One day, a camel passed through. The camel had known both the goat and the old epics as he sometimes traveled from the deserts to the hill country. The animals were excited and asked to hear what he had to say. The camel recited what he could, but before long he found that his words displeased the audience. The jackal whispered to the animals and they believed the whispers. It was clear that the camel could not understand their pure love for the goat or their pain. When had the camel ever lost a friend? Besides, it was their hill country, their well, and their goat. Moreover, there was the sorrow of the jackal to consider. Everyone for miles around respected this jackal and felt deeply about his sorrow. It was cruel and unreasonable for the camel to intrude. The more they thought about it, the angrier they became, and refused to let the camel speak. The camel departed, and left the hill country to return to the deserts. The goat had been his last living friend and a true friend. The other friends, including a train of one hundred other camels, had long since perished in sandstorms. In the silence of the sands, under cloudless blue skies and starry heavens, the camel recited the old epics.