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.
There was a corrie of stone and ice where the travelers would gather by the light of certain stars, ambiguous solstices and unthought eclipses to pass through time and space and harvest the good light, the good water, the good wind and the good fire, for with these the sons and daughters of men and women were healed and built into great giant cities of stone and strength. One opened the gate through speaking the old language. One traveler loved the language; he loved and spoke all languages and remembered the times, but the old language was best and was like a fountain within his body and soul. They called him the bear, for bears have big jaws and love rivers. As time went by, the bear noticed that fewer and fewer travelers could speak or revere the old language, and took no precautions as they traveled. They brought illness into the corrie and spoke deplorable words. The gate of stars would often not open. Pilgrims who came to the travelers for guidance and healing became increasingly lost and sick. At times it seemed as if the very stones of the corrie were shifting and crumbling. The travelers still came in the seasons of traveling, but instead of speaking the old language, they forbid others to speak it, and sat around discussing the beauty of their sickness as if it were a gift from heaven. They were dying from their deplorable words and killing others as well. One day, the bear fell sick from an ordinary disease, and wandered into the high peaks to cough and sleep in solitude. While convalescing in the high land, he spoke the old language to himself and found himself traveling high roads through stars and black holes he had not thought possible. In those heights and depths he found great worms of stone, oarfish of mists, and krakens of water. There were silver trees of lightning and golden whirlpools of fire. The earth drew light and strength from the heavens, through his body, and he felt well again. On rising, he surveyed the sad earth from which the old words were vanishing, and knew now that every broken stone and dried up river is a forgotten word, an irreverant grammar, a deplorable sentence, a blasphemy. When he went back down to the corrie, he found that more than half of it had crumbled into a glacier, and the other travelers sat oblivious on a shifting precipice, reading their sores and scabs as if practicing divination, and cursing everything above and below heaven. It was then that the bear realized that he had been transformed into a real bear.
The counselor held a seed in his palm. What is this? he asked the phalanx. It is a seed, said the phalanx. No, it is a vine, the counselor replied. And the vine is fruit and leaves. The fruit and leaves rot, ferment and mold. And the rot, fermentation and mold are earth and seeds. It does not follow, the phalanx sighed, weary of hearing about atoms and space. All things return to the void, it intoned. Nobody has seen and lived to speak of the void, the counselor warned in a deathly whisper, but everyone has seen chaff, firewood, mulch, vinegar, wine, and soil. Tomorrow eats today. All of your dreams, science, desires and prayers already belong to your enemies and those who disagree with you. Your seed is someone else’s vine, your grapes are someone else’s wine. The phalanx shuddered.
Where the gray waters brush the silver hair of the sands on the islands of olives and broken walls and bleached statues, the young rhapsodist covered her eyes and wept for the burning city, whose smoke rose into the fading sky. Alone, she walked into the mountains, into the snow and wind, to seek the source of voices and words, for words had been catapults and voices had been spears, as ordained by divine songs. On the summit, naked and cold, she raised her fist and sang to the racing clouds, birds, sun, planets, moon and stars. They revolved in an endless whirlpool of light and darkness, too fast for her to stretch her fingers into their machinery and pluck the strings of their orbits or halt their vibrations. The disembodied voice finally spoke through the blindness of vertigo and despair, asking her what she desired. Stranger, return what is ours. Our tales are to be returned at once, she said. It is through our stories that you have dared to disclose yourself and speak, as we rhapsodists stitched our verses together and plucked the sacred strings. Return our stories to us once and for all! They are ours and not yours. And we shall speak through them, not you! There was a long silence; the whirling lights of heaven seemed to freeze. The disembodied voice agreed to honor her request. The rhapsodist staggered down the mountain, almost sliding and tumbling upon the streams of pebbles and scree, eager to report the good news. When she appeared below, the survivors of the burning city screamed out in fear and ran away, for her body was covered in leprosy, her eyes were as blank and shiny as silver, and her mouth had been sewn shut with stitches of adamant.
The hunter saw her pale body drifting like smoke through the dark woods. She was far more beautiful than moonlight or snowflakes. To capture one was nearly impossible, buf if one did, there were untold surprises and rewards, as the old legends reported. It had been some centuries since one had been captured. Quietly, the hunter moved among the blue and black shapes of the spruce, among the silver and gold of the birch. She was leaning down to drink from a partially frozen stream when he threw the halter around her. Though the blue-green eyes were startled, she made no sound or protest. Instead she bared her midriff and beckoned to him, speaking softly in her ancient language. It only took a few minutes to learn the ancient words, for they lie dormant in the minds of most men. Bewildered and enchanted, the hunter immediately removed the halter, and asked her if it was indeed allowed. She nodded in assent, a gentle and inviting smile on her lips. She whispered that he would require no blade. And so the hunter knelt down beside her, and dipped his fingers into the pale skin of her abdomen. She moaned or sighed. Gelatinous streams of lapis lazuli poured out, and his fingertips quickly found the brilliant gems. He ate them carefully, watching her watch him. The gems tasted sweet like cold, fresh cream. When he thanked her, she said there was more, and pushed his head back down so that he could gulp more of the liquid sapphire and eat the pomegranate-colored gems. Afterwards, the skin closed over the wound as if it had never opened, and she rinsed herself in the stream. The hunter felt like a completely other being, euphoric and slightly afraid, but throbbing with energy, his body electrified. Lost in his trance, he barely noticed her lay him down to take her turn and discover the gems of his abdomen. Staring into the rising stars, he felt nothing but the slow leaking away of his life. She had no legends, or did not remember them. She was not aware that he had no gems, and would later be sad and puzzled by the wound that would not close and the lifeless eyes icing over.
One of the assassins was entrusted with leading an armed caravan into the deserts. Perhaps it was to stalk and kill an escaped conspirator, perhaps it was to escape a conspiracy or a trial, or perhaps it was a secret mission to better determine the way of the sands and clouds, the history of his nation, the possibilities of empire and the nature of trade routes. The caravan took up its arms, tools, merchandise and machines and departed for the dry oblivion. As they drifted deeper into the soft dunes and burning blue sky, the assassin felt that they were transforming into a song. The caravan was a strong and strange piece of music. Lost in ecstasy, he did not notice the approach of the sandstorm. All of the warriors and camels, except for the assassin, were buried alive. The assassin made his way to a desolate oasis and survived for many years on water, wild grains, and non-integers of birds. One day, a caravan stopped at the oasis and found the bewildered survivor. The travelers decided to take him along. As they crossed the wastes, the assassin spoke of all that he had learned of clouds, sands, and little creatures. When the caravan arrived back in civilization, the assassin learned that his language, nation and cities were no more. Other caravans were departing for newer cities and different times and places, with stronger and stranger music. Lost, the assassin made haste to join their sand-blasted journeys into oblivion.