The Heretic

The way of pain wound from the city through the boulders and barrows towards the hill with the stake. Crowds had gathered by the road to hurl stones and offal at the heretic as he passed. In the morning, when the sergeants had come for him, the heretic had been watching sparrows hop from branch to branch in the prison courtyard. Only peace reigned in his heart. Now, as dust rose from the way with the shouts of his accusers, the stumbling, chained heretic began to feel strange and disconcerted. It was not the false accusations, not the miscarriage of justice, nor the grim gazes of the cardinals, priests and friars. Nor had death and its fear crept into his heart. From time to time, the grip of the sergeant’s hand on his arm almost felt comforting. When the boulders fell away and the path straightened out to ascend the bald hill, screams of anger, horror, or madness filled the air. Stones struck his face and legs, which were already filthy. Once, the sergeant stopped and shot a bystander with his crossbow, but the crowd seemed not to notice. The heretic wanted to vomit now as he looked into the contorted faces. The faces of those who knew nothing of his trial or his heart, who themselves hid crimes and heresies, who should have burned alongside him, if burning had any justice to it. At the base of the hill, the heretic fell down, coughing and vomitting bile and blood. Once again, the kindly grip of the sergeant lifted him to his feet. Other sergeants and soldiers formed a ring around the hill and shot several more bystanders as the fury grew into one droning, yearning scream. Then silence fell as they led him to the stake. Firewood and old blankets soaked in pitch surrounded him. The sergeant approached with a torch, and gazed calmly into the bewildered eyes of the condemned man, saying: “The second heresy is worse than the first. That is why they scream.” The heretic looked up to heaven and asked, “What is the second heresy?” The sergeant tossed the torch onto the pitch-stained logs and blankets. “Escape. Peace.” The fire exploded with billowing clouds of black smoke. The sparrows fled into the distant hills.

The Secret Life of Owls

The stars were absurd, and the skeletons could no longer read them. In the old cities, the language had died. The long and endless winter came, greeted with sadness, joy and even excitement. They would camp out under the stars now and wait. It was best to lie as still as possible and look up at the snowbound peaks, the naked trees, the melancholy galaxies. They would lie still, wrapped as mummies in tawny fox furs, orange tartans, amber wrappings of deerskin and linen, and coats of golden straw. The smoked silence and tarred landscape waited with them. As moths rise from their cocoons, maybe owls would rise from their bedrolls. And with gray eyes and glass talons they would soar into starlight and snow.

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 Crown

It was an honour to be summoned by the officials to deliver a letter and his own report to the Crown. For most of the night, the courier had drunk strong, muddy tea and typed and retyped his report of all that he observed and discovered in recent weeks. Passion and pride seemed to electrify his fingertips as they clicked the keys. For years, the Crown had shown great wisdom and benevolence in managing war, famine, and pest. Despite the sleeplessness, the courier felt awake for the first time in years. There had been years of somnambulism from the sheer exhaustion of working overtime, of being vigilant, of intermittent and unpredictable quarantines. The commoners would never be able to imagine the sacrifices of the officials, of the undaunted courage and industriousness that had been required to ensure public safety. They had no idea what it meant to make an act of faith. The courier could still hardly believe he was being called to the court as he stepped out into the roadway at dawn. It was a dry, mostly sunny spring. Some trees were in flower, the white blossoms trembling in the cold wind. Old posters with the crown symbol hung in tatters from the walls; gendarmes guarded striped gateways; glowing iodine-red lanterns hung from windows, keeping the perpetual light burning, the light that represented the inner light of all, but most importantly, the light of vigilance, of caution, of the cure and the Crown itself. When the road reached the wall of the inner city, there were more masked guards in white or pale, drab green, and one semicircle of masked, white-clad soldiers centered on an overturned wheelbarrow and a cowering delivery man. Most of the contraband merchandise had spilled out onto the dirt, and the courier could read the labels on the packets, boxes and jars—wormwood, creosote, larch and pine sap syrups, willow and birch bark powder, quinine soda, orange peel and paprika, atropine cordials, charcoal. There were other items, but he could not read them. Brilliant colourful labels and clear glass gleamed in the morning sun. A shot rang out, and the body of the merchant fell to the dust. The courier passed through the gate after showing his passport, his official letter of summons, and answering questions for a quarter of an hour. The avenue to the palace was lined with more centuries, cannons, and checkpoints. Round, glass lamps and cylindrical, paper lanterns poured their red light into the shadows of the squares where marble statues gathered skeletons of poisoned sparrows. The palace front loomed larger and larger. The courier could hardly breathe as he walked up the steps and passed through a colonnade into the great foyer. A beautiful woman at the bureau in the antechamber, a maze of sentries and cordon ropes, raised her hand and beckoned to the courier. She wore a mask over her mouth, a white beret and white uniform, her hair cut to her jawline, her eyes darkly lined, her cheeks almost ghostly with face powder. Congratulating him on his honor, she directed him to proceed through gate 9 and directly enter the throne room. An armed halberdier accompanied him. They did not ascend the main stairway, as the courier had thought they might. Instead they walked down a hallway, and entered a dark courtyard. Clouds had blown in overhead, mingling with the billowing smoke that rose from a gigantic fire pit in the courtyard. Already, some guards were dumping what looked to be the contents of the wheelbarrow that had been overturned before the gate earlier that morning. Glass jars shattered or cracked, cordials exploded, packets of dried bark and charcoal blazed. The fragrance of the pit was soporific and calming. The courier could hardly believe that he was standing right next to the warmth of the cure itself, the very heart of the empire. Beyond the glare of the dancing flames, the august person of the Crown himself stood, bald, masked and in full uniform—candy-striped trousers and an immaculate white coat with a mandarin collar, decorated with glittering crosses and curling, metal serpents. Another official was speaking to him, handing him a stack of beautiful books. The courier recognized them—they were out of print now, almost impossible to find. They were a series of forbidden chronicles, a monumental history of the realm with gold leaf trim on the pages, bold fonts, bone-white paper and colorful arabesque covers of real leather with gold leaf lettering. The Crown took the books, and threw them, one after another, into the fire-pit. After listening some more to the report of the official, he nodded to the escort, who kicked the official into the fire-pit. A military band in a gallery somewhere began to bang drums and cymbals. Screams filled the air, and the fire blazed. Gradually, the cymbals and gongs ceased. The other armed guard bowed to the Crown, and walked back, nodding to the courier and his guard as he passed. Perhaps it was the smoke, perhaps it was all of the walking that morning after several months of quarantine, but the courier began to feel sleepy once again. The Crown beckoned to him through the light and shadow of the flickering flames. The black smoke rose like a prayer of gratitude into the sky.

The Martyr

In the intricate and ornate chronicles of long ago, a halberdier was dispatched to summon a man who had been hiding in the royal library, awaiting a revelation of his calling. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness. And the man followed him into the streets of twilight. Behold, the lamps of the city! The man watched as the lamplighters extinguished one lamppost after another until not a single lamppost burned. And behold, the city was dark and how vast was the darkness. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness! And they walked in the garden of walled orchards where the glorious pear trees stood, arrayed in golden fruit and golden leaves. Behold the glory of the pear trees! the halberdier cried. And one by one the trees shed their pears and their leaves until not a single leaf adorned the naked black branches clawing at the sky. Come and bear witness! the halberdier cried. The man followed him to the edge of the land, to the great pit beyond the cypresses, where the gravediggers bore coffins and shrouded corpses on stretchers and wheelbarrows, emptying their burdens into the quiet pit. One by one princes and peasants fell into that deathly quiet. The halberdier cried out: Behold, the apostates! And the quiet was intolerable. The man ran away. Vespers and matins, matins and vespers, passed and passed and all the sacred hours in between. The halberdier found the man by the shore, weeping under a willow tree, holding en empty, yellow tobacco box and staring into a small crackling fire of birch logs. It was beginning to snow. Come, my friend, said the halberdier. The man would not rise. I want to depart, he wept. To where? asked the halberdier. To be burned, said the man, in the flames of the lampposts and the golden pears, in the light of those beautiful faces that are no more. The man rose and left his fire and his burning tree, the snowfall and the coal-black sea. Alone, the halberdier sat down by the fire and stared into the mystery of its light. 

The Screamers

It began with the axe. While cutting firewood, one of the villagers accidentally swung the blade through his young daughter’s throat, killing her instantly. After that, nobody could bear to say the word axe, and thus the word vanished from the language in those parts. And there was a great fear of wolves and bears, such that hardened men and nursing mothers forbid their names from their lips. Even when the beasts became scarce, their names did not return. Not long after, there was war in the land, and the need to use secret codes replaced many common expressions which were forgotten by the time peace returned. Charlatans came selling their wares and settled, bringing with them a host of new terms and serpentine phrases that wound about the naive farmers like deadly ropes. Nevertheless, wealth increased, and the villagers deported themselves like merchants and devoted themselves to games, learning more taxonomy and jargon for chess and checkers than for types of trees, ancient saints and prayers, or variations of wind and stone. In those days, the lawyers, teachers and philosophers came, burning churches and books. One by one, the old words disappeared, for a fox might not be fox, nor even a Vulpes, and asterisms were mere imaginary configurations of shining dots in the firmament, and it was wrong to hang thieves, but not poets. Riots were allowed; idiots and murderers could be tortured indefinitely in stone gaols; trespassers had to be welcome. The roads turned into gravel; hayricks rotted, but it did not matter because nobody knew what a rake or a shovel was, and most people spent their years in their homes, staring at picture books or writing angry letters to strangers in a much degraded criminal dialect that was gradually replacing the skeleton of the old language. An old friar visited from afar bearing the message of sacred silence, but nobody in the derelict ruins could hear or understand him because by then they only screamed, wept or grunted in ways devoid of any meaning or logic, and they eventually strangled him with his prayer rope, choking out a gasped word that utterly terrified them but was utterly indecipherable, for it seemed like something than which there was nothing greater.

The Great Prison

The beloved king arrested the royal meteorologist and the royal historian, throwing them both in the same prison cell at the top of a tower that had once been a library and observatory. “Why are we thus arrested? And locked up together? This is absurd!” the meteorologist protested, striking the wall with his fists. “I have nothing in common with you!” The historian gazed through the window at the mountains and waters. “It is not absurd,” he almost whispered. “It is pure logic. History and weather are twin stars.” The meteorologist looked at his empty hands and asked, “What have I lost?” The world of tomorrow, said the wind. “What have you lost?” he then asked the historian. The world of yesterday, said a ghost. “What remains?” he asked once again. The world of today, sighed the historian, looking through the prison window into the vague distance.

The Anthology

One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.

The Titan

Happy Earth Day!

Ten years seemed like a century, like ten days, or even ten seconds. Only moments ago he had kissed her cheek before departing. Only years ago, he had arrived back home the day before yesterday. The hall, now emptied of unwanted guests and washed clean, looked as it did only yesterday, which was possibly twenty years ago. The wife was much older, and yet softened by time and almost girlish as she blushed in the firelight of the hearth while the king stirred the embers with his spear, speaking of the wooden horse, the monsters of the sea, the whirlpools and the one-eyed cannibal. Her eyes gleamed, and she whispered that one day every voyage would bear his name, words of praise that were as romantic as they were unrealistic. The old sailor could not help but smile at her touching and youthful kindness. What was the strangest thing he ever saw? she asked. Words failed him at first, but slowly he began to speak of the realm of the dead in the far, far west. Through nights of rain and stars he had wandered among standing stones and old forests until he had fallen through a crack in time or space, falling into the underworld the way one falls overboard into the waves from a longship. There are no incantations or libations; one just suddenly awakens in the wrong place, among the shades in a world one was never meant to visit. What was strange about it? she asked eagerly, already captive again to that familiar but distant voice. The strangest thing, the sailor replied, was that everything looked flat, like wall paintings. And there were no colours, just flickers of light and shadow, and trembling scratches on the surface of everything. In our world, human beings have shapes. They are like statues you can touch and walk around. In the land of the dead, the departed souls are colorless and flat, flat like wall paintings, but they nevertheless drift by, engaged in their labours. There was a titan there who was forced to drag the world around on a chain shackled to his leg. The world looked strange. It was round like ours, but instead of a sphere, it was flat like the base of a crater or amphora or a dish. And the titan had about as much colour as a black figure on a piece of pottery lost in white mist. He would pass by, hauling the black earth, vanish somewhere to my left and then reappear to my right hours later, tensing his every muscle, sweating profusely and muttering to himself. This is a strange punishment, I said to him. You are dragging the world around. The titan slowed down and looked in my direction the way the blind will stare through someone, or the way a cat stares at imaginary birds and rats. My second death is indeed worse than the first, said the titan. Though it is physically easier, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. In the old days I held the globe of the earth. It was back-breaking work. The muscles in my shoulders and back permanently tore, and my feet were alternately numbed or plagued with stabbing pains, as if I were stepping on nails or charcoals. And yet it made sense, for I held the world close to my heart. I could see the lofty mountain peaks, the great pines spearing the clouds; I saw the endless stars above and below. The moon and stars moved, and I knew that what I did was important. Now, I am forced to walk in circles, and I have a secret suspicion that this is not the real world which I drag around, but some cheap copy carved from marble by a second rate stone mason from the market place. The weight of the world feels different, almost insubstantial, and there is no moon or sun to light the great darkness all around me. I would love to see the earth again with all of her acorns and oaks, all of her chariots and scythes, her ploughs and silver springs, her warm stones and endless wheatfields. I would love to watch the grain grow once again.

The Drifting Clouds

In the south, there were lovely trees, stone bridges spanning limpid blue rivers, and fields of flowers, fields and fields of sunflowers, hyacinths, lavender, wild roses, cosmos, poppies, and lilies. The chronicler had dreamed of these fields for years and was disappointed when he was sent on his first assignment there, for the earth was brown, the flowers were dead, and the sluggish rivers ran in hideous shades of ash or silt. Only the clouds remained beautiful, vanilla clouds of such texture and shape that one could just lie in the grass and daydream forever. At various crossroads, the king’s men were counting the passings clouds, recording the numbers and types of clouds. It was odd that a dry land should be blessed with such beautiful cirrus and cumulus and even the odd nimbostratus. The clouds were a steady caravan coming from the mountain of winds nearby. The chronicler ventured to this mountain and climbed it. On the summit, he found the king and his royal kitemakers launching enormous cloud-shaped kites and montgolfiers. When the chronicler asked about the king’s men on the plain, the king walked over and kicked him off of cliff. Then the king returned to his leisurely viewing of the launched clouds through his golden spyglass. The clouds were beautiful.