The first sentry always stood in his black and white striped shelter with its red lamp facing the cobblestone plaza in front of the train station. A man of law and vigilance, in his royal blue uniform he was the invisible observer who could not fail to note the humility of those who departed and the arrogance of those who returned. Suddenly these returning travelers knew much, spoke loudly and pretended to have forgotten their native tongue. Hauling their ostentatious baggage, waving around their passports full of stamps and making exaggerated faces and gestures as they recalled all the good sights they already missed, they passed by his post like dirty clouds that stain the clear blue sky. And thus he abandoned his post and bought a train ticket, confessing to the conductor that he hoped he might never return. The man of law who replaced him watched the departing with disgust, envying their wanton displays of freedom, deeply suspicious of their desires for foreign coasts and illegible scripts. Like mimes, these eager travelers acted out the adventures they would have just to remind the company seeing them off of how miserably small and insignificant their worldviews were. One day, the second sentry also abandoned his post, madly crying out to the ticket clerk that he hoped he would return chastised and meek. When he did return, he was court-martialed and shot. The third man of law only appeared when the new lamppost shone for the first time one evening. Standing in the striped sentry box, he watched the pigeons play in the fountain during day shifts and dreamed of books and expensive cigarettes by night. Though friendly and thankful for the bread crumbs and seeds he shared, the birds were careful, being secretly obsessed with the suspicion that he had wandered before and might wander again and knew more of their speech than he let on. When the revolution came, they would be sure to stalk him first and peck out his sandy eyes.
A woman wished to be wed, but she did not know how or to whom. The girls on the trams laughed at her; the typists and notaries at the office ignored her. Thus she wandered the city of old concrete and sand, lonely and invisible. One cold evening of brilliant stars and a dark moon, she entered the train station. Kerosene lamps burned on the platforms. A clock suspended from the iron rafters cast a mournful glow. A man in a dark coat walked toward her, flickering in and out of light and shadow. A long whistle sounded in the distance as they accidentally collided. The man reeked of soap, cigarettes and pine needles, old ink, motor oil and wool. She held onto him and gasped, “You have the fragrance of the last train to depart!” Pressing her to himself, and feeling her trembling body, he sighed, “Or the train that will never arrive.”
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.