The Ploughs

The mechanic came up the road of aspens and saw the old man out front with the axe, chopping wood beside a fire. The cold still misted the far mountains. The great shed to the left was open, and a lantern was burning somewhere inside. The old man pointed, and the young mechanic went into the shed, where the broken ploughs had been stored. Midday came, and the sky had cleared to a breathless blue, the white peaks shimmering beyond the empty fields waiting to be worked. The mechanic came out to find the old man, and asked him for his pay. The old man was surprised, but said he would pay when he had inspected the work. They went into the shed together, and the old man almost burst into tears. What have you done? the old man gasped. All of the ploughs are fixed—they’re all the same now, said the young mechanic proudly. It was difficult at first, said the mechanic, since you have ploughs of different sizes and makes. It took me a while to find the four that were similar and correct, and then I just worked from there, using them as models. The old man lit a cigarette and stared into the wreckage. Yes, all ten of them are indeed the same, the old man noted. And yet, only four were broken the day before.

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 Countess

In the gray mountains, the hunter, half-drowned in mud, chanced upon an estate surrounded by monumental pines. The rain was deafening. Only the beautiful countess and her guards were home. The count was away on an expedition, and all the maids and servants were in the next town at the festival. With perfect courtesy, the hunter offered a beautiful stag in exchange for a quick rest and a drink. The countess accepted the gift, relieved him of his dirty coat, and invited him into a spacious library full of comfortable sofas and ancient landscape paintings. She brought a tray of cakes, brandy, hot coffee and expensive cigarettes. While he ate and rested, she drew a hot bath for him, providing towels, clean clothes and fragrant soap. A phonograph was playing a waltz as the hunter returned to the library, where he found the countess sitting on a sofa. She sipped her brandy, and asked: “What do you think of the soap?” It was marvellous soap, the hunter replied with a nervous laugh. “And when you were washing, did the bar of soap touch every part of your body?” Once again laughing, the hunter confessed that he had indeed washed his whole body thoroughly. The countess stood up, stretched, and said, “I will now bathe in the warm water you left. With the same fragrant soap that touched your body, I am going to soap my whole body and all of its inner and outer flesh—my face, my neck, my bosom, the secret space between my breasts, my navel and my soft thighs. While I am bathing, you can get a headstart. See if you can outrun my hounds and my marksmen.”

The Lost Prayer

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 Sheep

Into a land of emptiness, a mason was transported and abandoned to live and cultivate and build a world. The mists were thick in those days, and it was almost impossible to see anything. For days the mason walked, stopping now and then to hold pebbles, to speak, to gaze into the open, to try and make an event. All he had in his possession was a an army backpack filled with strange things—a long knife, flints, wicks, fuses, some candles, shaves, chisels, a trowel, a hammer, gunpowder, rope, coffee, tobacco, paper, ink, and a fountain pen. None of these worked to make a landscape. Now and then he thought of what was missing from his backpack. Sometimes, he amassed arguments to explain to himself why none of his tools worked. Nevertheless, he felt there was something in the mists and stones. The only living thing in the wasteland was an adorable sheep. One day, it began to follow him, bleating in a friendly way. At first, the sheep was a nuisance, but before long, the mason found the face beautiful, and it was pleasant to feel its fur, to be followed, to have a warm creature nearby throughout the dreadful, ghostly nights. One evening, he spoke kindly to the sheep, and found it could converse in his language. The sheep was quite philosophical, and patiently explained the holes in the mason’s arguments about his tools and work, but encouraged him to keep searching and trying. The mason loved the sheep and longed to build it a nice pen in a field of delicious grass. Nothing came of his efforts. The world would not happen. As time went by, the mason grew weaker, exhausted, and stared off into the gray matter without form, wondering if he would die. Then the sheep brushed up against him, insistently pushing its forehead against his leg. It is time to live, the sheep whispered, and you have all you need to live. Eat, and you will live. The mason broke down and wept, slit the sheep’s throat, dressed the carcass and roasted its meat over a campfire. In the morning, when he awoke, the mists were clearing to reveal beautiful wastes of red sand and elegant black volcanoes smoking softly into the blue sky. The world was beginning.

The Blotting Paper

The calligrapher loved to write and paint and make books. When he was not conducting official business, he read books of philosophy, thought about the world, and wrote or painted in his quiet house, sipping endless cups of tea. White mountains, black trees, worlds of snow, clouds of words, dragons of mist, and phoenixes of light covered the pages of many books alongside texts of parables and poems. The city sometimes summoned his texts for printing with great expectation; at other times, the city forgot him and his manuscripts. One day, the wind and rain rushed down upon the city, scattering rooftiles, breaking down walls and flooding homes. All of his books soaked up the dirty water and then bled out streams of rust and ink. The citizens wondered what he would do. Most thought that he would hang himself from his own willow tree. Instead, the calligrapher repaired roofs and walls wherever he could. Then he dried out his books and sorted them. While burning some, he examined the others that were disfigured but not burnable. With new soot from his fire, he made new ink and painted on the dried but disfigured pages that he had not burnt. When he ran out of these, he returned to buying new paper, but something had forever changed. Once again, he was painting, but always with blotting papers below the pages he painted on and with extra blotting papers at hand to place on top of his paintings. On certain days he would remove a blotting paper from beneath, and affixed his seal to it, to the unfinished poem or landscape of blots and marks. On other days, he would press a blotting paper to the top of a wet page and seal it after taking it off again, its dampness bearing the ghosts of brush strokes. Through abstractions of dark raindrops and pale silences, the calligrapher rebuilt the lost landscape.

The Horseman

In the dark ages, a horseman was dispatched from the old capital to bring important news to a faraway country. Every hundred miles, the horseman briefly rested at the post station, mounted a fresh horse, and dashed off into the openness of the highway. All of the horses were beautiful and galloped well, despite their differences in age, height, and coloring. As the horseman traveled, he viewed a thousand landscapes, learned the migration routes of words and beasts, and dreamed of his country–its stone bridges, lampposts, libraries, teahouses and museums. After crossing the frontier on his last horse, he passed through the twilight lands of shapeshifting trees and dissolving beasts. There were sleepwalkers abroad in the land, gathering stones and collecting dead leaves. At last, he arrived at his destination–the cities of mist and sleep. The sleepwalkers lived in great mansions and ate well, but they never got angry; they never smiled or laughed, either. They amassed heaps of broken stones and dead leaves, storing them in their museums, teahouses, and under their bridges. In the halls of the diplomats, the horseman was received with a mixture of courtesy, suspicion and puzzlement. On a great round table, they unrolled the scroll of their official map, which they updated every fortnight. They pointed to the document, and explained that they could not figure out where the horseman had come from. None of the countries he had passed through, not even the old capital where his journey began, existed. The message he delivered–while understandable in its essentials–was incomprehensible, like the relic of some ancient and indecipherable script from an abandoned and forgotten civilization. They offered him sanctuary in their city. Otherwise, they feared he would gallop back into the nothing. The horseman gratefully and politely declined, setting off at once to return to the old capital. At first, it seemed as if the map had been right. The horseman recognized none of the landscapes along the highway, although he saw sleepwalkers raking leaves and hauling broken stones here and there. The frontier seemed lost. Despairing of ever finding his way home, he continued to ride. One day, only a few miles after seeing a band of sleepwalkers inspecting a stretch of dead trees, he came upon a land he remembered, a land far past the frontier in the heart of the empire. It was twilight, and the horse breathed with great difficulty. The old capital was still far, far away.