In the monastery, the inquistors found the visiting confessor at a wooden desk in a barren cell, surrounded by books of world history, geography, anthropology and philosophy. In a corona of candlelight they saw the typescripts and manuscripts and his inked hands. What is this calligraphy and typography all about? one of them demanded. I am writing an epistle, the confessor replied. Towhat end? To the ends of the earth! To the world! In the early days, the apostle wrote epistles to the great cities to share his wisdom and his vision of glory. Many centuries of darkness have passed, and there is seemingly no law or good will left on earth. I thought of writing my own epistle to the great cities, to thank them for the good they have done, to praise their monuments and books, to admire their peoples and to wish them well. I would not write such things, said one. The cities do not wish to be praised. It will only make them feel worse—they will see all the more clearly how far and how deep they have fallen into darkness, and they will resent you for it. Another inquisitor agreed, saying, Moreover, such unqualified praise could cause them to ignore their own evil. It would make them feel justified in their pride, animosity and aggression. An epistle like yours would plant the seeds of smoke and famine. A third said that such a fawning epistle would belittle the great cities and trap them in typologies they had no interest in inhabiting or incarnating. It would be a letter of mirages and betrayals. One by one they left the cell. Crushed, the confessor stared at his silent towers of books and felt his brain turn into ice. That night, his heart broke, he suffered a grand epileptic fit, and lost part of his reason. In the days to come, weeping but almost catatonic, he continued to compose his letter in secret to all the invisible cities of the world—cities of damask and morrocco, cities of delftware and china, cities of port and sherry, cities of roman candles and greek fire, cities of rugby and japanning, cities of afghans and astrakhans, cities of the siamese and burmese, cities of landaus and leyden jars, cities of berlins and limousines, cities of homburgs, cities of nankeen, cities of bikinis and chicago screws, cities of mocha, assam, keelung and darjeeling, cities of java and sumatra, cities of turkish and virginia tobacco, cities of lancashires and parchment, cities of indigo and india ink.
Once upon a time there was a young postman who loved walking all of the many roads in the old capital and its outskirts, delivering letters and small parcels, stopping to drink tea in the warm afternoon grass, admiring the golden pears dangling over the edges of cinder block walls, walking in deep trances as he thought of the lips of a woman he had kissed in a riverside bar, pressing his uniform late at night as the iron hissed and steamed. Then he fell ill, and quit his job, and fell into a deep depression. Even after he got well, he did not return to work. A large inheritance made it unnecessary. The man hid himself in his ramshackle home by the train tracks, and began to collect stamps. What a remarkable thing a stamp was! There were so many worlds of beauty in those squares and rectangles of paper smaller than the average chewing gum wrapper. In his small, dark, wooden house, he smoked, drank tea, and looked over his collection, arranging, rearranging, and occasionally framing unusual or especially beautiful stamps. There were series of old castles, renowned night views of cities, tributes to historical figures, calligraphic characters in seal script, famous portraits of women in kimonos from colorful, old woodblock prints, and even a few movie stars. He especially loved stamps depicting cats. Surrounded by such pictures, he felt he lived a rich life, even with his otherwise spartan, monastic existence. He only went out to purchase necessities, or to buy and sell stamps or acquire books of stamp lore. He only traveled if he had a stamp market to visit or needed to meet another collector. One day, he ran out of cigarettes and went out to go to the store. As he was walking, he passed a glazier and saw his reflection in a sheet of glass being handled by the shopkeepers. The face in the glass spoke of twenty lost years. Disturbed, he walked on. Ona bridge overlooking a river and its willows, he saw a beautiful woman in a pale blue dress with white polka dots holding a stoic, white cat. Close to the tobacconist, he watched a worker soldering pieces of metal at the entrance to a small factory. The tobacconist was lazily reading a magazine devoted to calligraphy as he counted out the change. All around him the old capital came alive at dusk with the incandescence of streetcars, cafes, motorists, shops, temples, and castles. A red postal truck drove by, and his heart sank. Throughout his walk, he saw the greater world that his personal mosaic of stamps only partially reflected. He wanted to work in a factory, ride trams, drink coffee with a beautiful woman, stroke a cat’s fur, practice calligraphy, have some children, and travel to the distant cities of the night. When he got home, he remembered a name or two from the past. Lighting a cigarette, the man began to write a letter by lamplight.
In the emptiness of stars and sand, in the silence of the moment, when one could barely sense the slow motion of the gears of time, the traveler gazed into the coming night to perceive that the mission was the other stranger, the shadow now emerging upon the mesa, and not the ghosted plaster of the old white adobe building or even the secret letters and pistol he carried in his coat.
With red paper she wrapped long letters scrawled by pale hands. Her hands were empty. The wooden floorboards of the buses creaked and the aquariums of the restaurants and the markets bubbled. Her eyes looked long, looking for something. She remembered the miscounted pocket change and miscounted days. Motorcycles still purred through the markets where he had followed her. And she wandered, heading for the post box with a long red letter, a little song, of motorcycles and markets and long abandoned temples, heavily tattooed and illegible in the evening haze.
The assassin listened in silence to the accusation of failure. After years of dark streets, pale blades, empty rooms, secret letters, late nights in cafes, and conversations whispered in the penumbra of old cathedrals and colonnades, he suddenly felt tired. What is wrong with my methods? the assassin asked, for he had never failed a single mission. It is not a matter of your tradecraft, said the official; it is a matter of your stagecraft.