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 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.
There was a redhead getting stabbed in the alley. There was a hungry clocktower in the dark square. It wanted to eat him. He passed the quiet fountain quickly to avoid the gaze of the clock. Nothing remained in his head except for a paper lantern, a moth and a cat. the other streets were full of amber lights and the air was fragrant with rum and kerosene. He had tobacco and two little bottles–one black and one amber like the lights among the winter trees. There was some silver left. The streets blurred and slept and came alive again. No matter which street he took, he kept seeing the hungry clock and heard the flickering moth. He was being followed by shadows or maybe the star from the east. There had been a red cat. And a girl who purred. The man needed to find his coat. An antidote would be found in an amber bottle. There was some silver left. He tried right angles and then left angles, but the clocktower returned, tall and lowlit and voracious. It is a terrible thing to be lost, to almost drown on poison, on rum, on knives in alleys. The cat offered him the torn wings of the moth, but neither his coat nor his silver. He needed to stop the man who was stabbing the redheaded girl, but she was far behind or had not arrived yet. Then he would have a smoke if he could only find his medicine and his coat. The hungry tower burned like an amber candle above the starry waves. The virgin appeared but she was not an asterism, nor was the asphalt dragon until the icewater cracked its lightning into his head and the constellations began. A mad eruption of water and wind revealed the dark square, the fountain where she had baptized him and the clocktower. Her dark red hair dripped onto his overcoat. It was too late, but he needed to take his medicine. He reached into his coat pocket and found the silver and tobacco and the amber bottle. Her hands and lips were bloody, but the wounds were shallow. For some reason, he threw the empty medicine bottle into the fountain. Then they drank some rum and smoked to wait for the end. I wanted to live, he whispered, but I could not remember what that was. The hungry clock flickered.
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.
In the end times, young men and women left the great cities in droves, exhausted from living in little prisons without gardens and being unable to see the work of their hands or the glory of their bodies and spirits. One youth ventured northward into the land of ice mountains, marshes of snow and golden reeds, and many blue seas. There he dwelt on the shore cutting timber, catching fish and making his own clothes from hemp, bark and skins. The work arduous, the nights long, the hearth often bereft of game, the youth ailed but endured. On the shores of the sparkling sea, he built a great long ship to venture out into the horizon. It required more time, strength and craftsmanship than his wood shack or forge or clothing had. It was a dream to be shaped with his own hands and by his keen eye. The more he worked, the more beautiful it became, its oars long and elegant, its sails well woven and beautifully dyed, its gunwales and prow carved with spirals and interlacing clouds. One evening, a stranger came to the shore, a supple, soft but strong girl with laughing eyes and silken hair. She admired the boat and said that she had never seen another like it. Her hands roved over the carvings and felt the unbreakable oars. The man whispered that death would take him one night not long from now, perhaps even that very night. For too long he had worked alone in the cold with little to eat and no cure for his illness and no companion to help him. The long ship was finished, but he would never sail in it. The man stared at his workmanship and the sea beyond. The damsel asked him if he regretted wandering away from the great cities. The man shook his head and told her that in the city he knew nothing of life, death or dreams. Now that he had worked with his hands and dreamed, he knew what life was, and so he was not afraid of death. Then with his last breath, he asked her to bury him at sea, somewhere close to the horizon. When he had closed his eyes, the maiden kissed him. Morning was breaking as she sailed out from the marshes into the cold sea, the keel turned toward the endless horizon, the man sleeping in the hull, wrapped in the gift his hands had made.
The captain watched the mutinous black ship fade on the pale blue horizon. They had left him on a small, lush, volcanic island with a boat, a gun, and several crates that amounted to a few months of provisions. It was a benevolent, generous mutiny; he fervently prayed that none of the mutineers would hang. Now he had nothing but time on his hands, time to spend as he pleased. The excitement was terrifying. It was like vertigo. On the first day, he wept with gratitude. On the second day, he wept for all the past days when he could not weep. On the third day, he wept for sorrow. On the fourth, for all the days he was alone and all that he was not alone. On the fifth, he wept for everything ephemeral and eternal. On the sixth, he wept for beauty and joy. The morning of the seventh day was clear and calm; the captain lit a cigar and went for a long walk on the beach.
** I wrote this for Umberto Eco (1932-2016), who passed away this week. I loved his books from the time I was thirteen. Since the day he passed, I have been reading The Island of the Day Before. I am thankful for his great literary and philosophical gifts to the world. May he rest in peace.
Once in a while, the surveyors would come across a mission-white adobe house in the copper wastelands or a log cabin on shores of stone and black sand, only to find a lifer holed up inside. The typical charts were on the walls. The lifer would be working on fixing a radio, picking at a black box with tweezers, lighting a hurricane lamp or playing something mournful on the guitar. The lifers would invariably have books–paperback classics almost worn-out from rereading. There would be a wooden trinket on the wall that looked like the first aid symbol. In the evenings, they would radio, telegraph, fax or phone. The surveyors hardly spoke their idiom, and were uncertain if the sending or receiving of a code were the key mission. The nights seemed interminable, their silence and openness seductive. The moon would misshape itself to the sound of distant and sad music.
In abandoned shrines the man who was tired of life lived through dreams of steel. On his wooden sandals ten thousand universes hid in golden dust. Ancient gravel roads possessed for him the clarity of one polished mirror or sword. Always shouting farewell to wind-blown landscapes in a monochrome mirage, in rivers of scripts, down the road he would fade. Down the road, the man would blur.
My coat is shabby, the man said, standing in the old shop with its dusty, dark wooden counters, broken and naked mannequins, and windows of cracked green and blue glass. In the back sat the old looms, spinning and sewing machines, rolls of fabric and piles of papers covered in sketches or printed with various patterns. The woman of the shop, though beautiful, had crow’s feet and the subdued movements of someone starting to feel the pains of age. After taking off his coat, she had him stand where the lamplight was strong. Rolling out a ream of red tape, she measured his waist, chest, shoulders, arms and neck. It was one of the most intimate moments he had ever experienced. She made some notations in chalk on one of the wooden counters, counted out something on an abacus, and rolled out a long ream of her red tape to cut it, handing the detached strip to the man. I believe there used to be three of you, he said, holding the tape carefully. One sister to spin, one to take measurements, and one to cut the fabric or thread with scissors. I’m the only one left, she said quietly. What happened? he asked. Downsizing, I guess, she sighed with a shrug. Joyfully looking at his length of tape, he asked if this indicated durability or longevity. Oh, no, she laughed. That’s just how long you will have to wait until the coat is ready. It may not even be ready for your burial, but that’s your affair, not mine.
Long after the writer died, new works of his kept appearing in the bookstores, lovely codices of excellent binding, fine paper and elegant fonts in rich, dark ink. One of his readers set out to investigate, and hurried to the winter cemetery, where the black shadows of tombs rose from blankets of snow. At last he found the desecrated grave, and the writer sitting up in his coffin scribbling away by the light of a hurricane lantern. One can never sleep, the poor writer moaned, as he penned another line of bravura prose. There are mounting death taxes and debts in this world and in the other world. Are you not miserable? I am miserable. I now have the infinite time and silence I always wanted, I write better prose and poetry than I could ever have imagined in my waking, breathing life, but all I want is to sleep, to sleep and dream of something different!