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.
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.
In the great city of the twin seas, where there were ruined temples and soaring cathedrals, stone towers and elegant ships, seagulls and snowfalls, a poor priest went into a tavern. He prayed at the icon in a corner, sat down, and ordered some plum liquor. A man in religious robes but built like a boxer sat down next to him and ordered coffee. The priest saw that his prayer had been answered, and explained to the rogue monk that his sermons repeatedly failed. He pulled out some parchment and handed it to the monk to read. After reading it and drinking his coffee, the monk said, “This is a beautiful, tenderhearted sermon. There is not a harsh word in it. And did you deliver this sermon in a voice of equal kindness and softness?” The young priest nodded, saying: “I believe so.” The monk laughed, stood up, and began to read the sermon, shouting and screaming the golden, honeyed words of the sermon until every patron, prostitute, barmaid and even the innkeeper were on their knees, weeping and crossing themselves, praying for God’s mercy. The young priest understood. They both reassured the guests, bought them a round of coffee, and told them to take communion the following day. Not long after, the young priest ran into the monk again at the market by the wharf, where crates of beautiful silver fish glinted in the winter sun. The priest was beside himself. For a while, things had worked, but one day the lectionary called for brimstone. He pulled out the parchment on which he had written his sermon, and showed it to the monk. The monk read it quickly. “And did you shout and thunder at them?” he asked. The young priest admitted that he had. The monk began to sing gently and sweetly, in the kindest, most heartfelt tones imaginable, the words of the sermon. In a short time, he was surrounded by kneeling sailors, workers, merchants, and captains, drinking in the words of judgment with tears in their eyes. The monk finished, blessed and dismissed the crowd, and bought some fish for his dinner. The young priest was amazed. The last time they encountered each other, the young priest was gently singing in a square below a great tower overlooking the sea. It was not a sermon, however, but a mere announcement of some historical facts, presumably to explain some recent news or proclamation. In seconds, the crowd was upon him, beating him and cutting him up with their swords. The monk was too late and too outnumbered to save the priest, but this did not hinder him from breaking a few crania and backbones. When he got to the dying priest, he tried to wrap up his wounds, but the poor man was quickly expiring. “What have I done wrong this time?” the dying priest gasped. “Nothing,” the rogue monk sighed. “The sheep are broken and the world is wrong.”
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.
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.
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.
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 master said that language only lived in philosophy and poetry. That’s beautiful and sad, said the white cat staring into the pond. No wonder nobody can ever say anything!
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.
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.