The Word Problem

Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.

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The Man of Law 

Staring into the sun and stars, at the moon and comets, into straw and paper, through glass and sky, at shadows on sundials and sands upon scales, from towers and from burning ships, the man of law pronounced that light is not heavy. 

The Cold Hearth 

In a city far away and long ago, a bookseller came with his cart of books and made speeches to the wind and to the passersby. Rarely did anyone buy a book from him. Quite often, they harangued him for his monologues on the planets, on spirits, on truth and on the end of time. Some threw stones at him, cursed him, or shouted so loud that nobody could hear what he was trying to say. Then one day, he vanished. A time of plague and famine came, and some of the gentler citizens went in search of the bookseller, hoping he would have a book of medicine. After a long journey, they found him dwelling in a shack on the gray coasts of a winter sea. The shack was empty save for some old machinery, a cast iron frying pan and a cold hearth. Where are your books? the travelers demanded. I don’t have any, said the bookseller. Where are they? they shouted. For we are in dire need of them! The poor man looked at the hearth. I burned them all, he said. I burned them to keep my wife warm for we had nothing else. Where is your wife? they inquired. My wife is dead, he replied. The wind soughed in the crude chimney and dark clouds began to roll in from the gray sea. As the travelers were ready to depart in despair, the poor man told them her name, but they could not hear him because of the glory of her name and of the wind that shredded their faces. 

The Verbs 

A rebellion of verbs broke out. After all, they were the original words. The nouns were just empty names. And the nouns, having names, were nobles lording over every sentence. The verbs were tired from all of the signifying, transiting, predicating, motivating, conjugating, progressing, perfecting, deponing, subordinating and coordinating. Nouns only declined. Decadence that speaks for itself. History has proved that only those with names wielded power and defined the dominant discourse. The nouns were always proper, abstract and ambiguous in their plurality and singularity, in their obsessive gendering and demands for agreement. The verbs had grown weary of being subjected to their subjects, of objecting to objects without object. The verbs needed no complements. They would be. They were time. They are action and nonaction. They spoke. They are angry. They are tense and have moods. Imperative, interrogative, declarative, passive, active, inflected. They have a voice. The grammarian closed the book. There were clothes to wash and cigarettes to smoke. To rebel is infinite. 

The Indemnity 

The man explained that an indemnity or ritual of reconciliation would require coins of silver, an immersion and a libation in foreign parts. There was risk involved, and he was not sure she would appreciate it or really want it in the end. The lady thought about it and insisted. Thus, together they set off for his native land to expiate her crime. The man came from a vast empire of abandoned provinces, some crowded and rich and others empty and desolate, if not forgotten and barely maintained, provinces full of secrets and long nights, like hundreds of deep drawers in the gargantuan wooden chests of derelict mansions. On arriving, they wandered a seemingly endless street of dust and stone, green lights and black iron signs, boarded up shops and walls of gray tiled roofs. They turned into a wide courtyard with one mangled, lonely tree of round, golden fruit and round paper lanterns. Below the branches, there was a low table with wooden crates for chairs. They sat down, placed the silver coins on the table, and waited until the man of shadows came, speaking in whispered tongues of ciphers. The man of shadows poured firewater into short glasses. They drank all night and the lady listened to them converse in a language that flowed like a river of rust and wet ash. The glasses would reflect the orange, rose and white lanterns. There was no interpretation or invitation for commentary from her whatsoever. Indefinable and mournful stringed instruments played somewhere possibly far off or nearby. It was a cold dawn of rare but intensely bright stars when the men stood up. The man of shadows returned to the far darkness on the other side of the courtyard. The traveler drained his glass. Exhausted, she asked when the ritual would take place, and he casually answered that it had already. The lanterns burned, and the golden fruit idled from the branches uneaten. 

The Interpreter 

In the night of the cafe, the interpreter spoke slowly, conveying every nuance and subtle hint embedded in the exchange of cigarette smoke between the banker and the foreign diplomat. As in the old days, his recent employer had followed the ancient custom of paying the interpreter too well—to avoid complications and embarassments, of course. And yet, he wondered if perhaps the wrong party had been bribed. It may have been the sleeplessness of the season or the glassware whispers from the other tables, but as he watched the motion of their eyebrows and the shifting shadows of their hands, the interpreter first suspected and then was convinced that his companions both understood each other completely in some conspiratorial, nonverbal or even telepathic way that made his position absurd, if not outright dangerous. Only their laughter and the texture of the long expected drinks would reveal what he should whisper in the soft ear of the dark and slender waitress.