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.
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.
It may have been ironic that the tall, dark harpooner had escaped his own death twice, that while his beloved friend drifted to safety in the shelter of his own coffin, he himself found refuge in the coffin of the captain, which had somehow emerged intact from the wreckage, that he had drifted through the swells and storms of the ocean without finding his friend, drifting northward and then westward, always northward and westward, without a sign of the whale or the sign of another living soul. And thus the spearman of the seas drifted in the coffin. The initial struggle with the whale as it pulled everyone down, the long voyage leading up to the ghosted encounter, the terror of struggling for breath and for the open sky, these were but distant flashes in his memory now. The whaler lay in the coffin, listening to the lapping water, staring at a wash of stars that he did not recognize and inhaling an oceanic scent that was both familiar and foreign. As he drifted, he did what he had long been pondering—he offered his life up to the holy one of the other whalers, the holy one who had been speared. Dreams of his pale, crucified body drifted in and out of the harpooner’s mind. Like the prophet of the old parable, the harpooner had been swallowed by the gigantic whale, swallowed and then spat out to find the drifting coffin—it was a resurrection and a second birth. A morning finally arrived, as the strange stars faded, and the coffin washed up on the shores of an island that could have been his own many thousands of days or years ago. To his surprise, he was greeted by the tattooed natives. Like the whalers, they were a polyglot ensemble, but dressed in black sarongs printed with white fish bones, various accurately drawn whales or pale, tropical flowers, such as the incomparable plumeria. They wore tattered monkey jackets and other coats of indescribable fabric. Their skin was pale, copper, mocha, golden, but always printed with dark blue tattoos—some interlaced like the woodwork of the whalers, some sketched out like scrimshaw, some more familiar to him from his own islands. Some wore spectacles; others wore helmets of metal and glass, the visors of which resembled ships’ portholes. They lived in makeshift longhouses that were nothing less than overturned ship hulls or shipwrecks patched up with tar and driftwood. Among the natives, the whaler was treated with respect. It was almost paradise—a veritable blending of the life of the whalers and the life of the islanders, of the faraway west and the endless south. The manner of living was good, but the locals were poor sailors and would not build boats or rafts to venture out. While scavenging shipwrecks and often feeding off the survivors, the colony had degenerated into a darkness of mind. Every now and then, the elders would punish one man with ritual whippings—the man who read. He was tall, like the whaler, refused to eat human meat, and collected books which had escaped the waves and bonfires. He was accused of lying for reading and speaking about a time when surgeons could cut into the human body and repair various organs, or for speaking of the mystical truths in tales of fishermen and shepherds who heard the voice of the divine in the desert or at sea, or for being able to predict an eclipse, for praying to one abstraction that none of the natives could name or recall, for drawing pictures of tools and machines that could only be the figments of the most demonic imagination. One day, the elders took the whaler aside and said that they were losing patience with the reader. Perhaps there were some good things in those books—if only the reader understood that they were myths and not realities. Once the reader realized that there was no world beyond the island and the sea, he would see reason again. The whaler smoked silently, saying little, lost in doubts and the depths of his own fading memories and the endless roar of the waves. One day, the elders lost their patience indeed. The whaler was roused by his assigned wife, who whispered that the reader was to be hanged. By the time the whaler got to the beach, it was too late. They had hung the reader from an old, half-buried mast and its crosstrees and were spearing his ribs with old harpoons, opening up his flesh. It was then that the whaler believed once again.
It was the physicist’s turn to babysit the little boy. He had a long history with the parents, but nobody knew the details. Though not a military man, he arrived in a shabby field jacket, looking like an obsolete mandarin with his shaved head and long queue. The others often whispered of his book debts, one-sided love affairs with coffee shop girls, his useless inventions and his devotion to long streaks of solitide in the forests, where he subsisted on tea and cigarettes. The little boy was intrigued. Today, said the physicist in a conspiratorial whisper, after the parents had left, we shall embark on a great journey and learn the secret of life, if not the secret life of the secrets of life! The boy could have gasped. First, the physicist took him down into the dark cellar that reeked of earth and old vines. Suddenly, he switched on a lightbulb and glorious silver light sparkled on the chrome tools, old casks and bags of rice. Then he switched it off and it was pitch black. Then he switched it on and off rapidly like lightning, making the boy giggle. Then he held it on for a long time and then switched it off. The boy was breathless. The madman took him by the hand and led him upstairs. In the dining room, the physicist had set up calligraphy tools—paper and brushes and three bowls. The first held sand, the second water, the third held ink. The boy was to write his name, using each medium. The sand failed to cling to the brush and did not write anything. The water darkened the paper with the phantom of his name but quickly dried. At last, the boy tried the ink, and his name beautifully appeared and remained. The weather was good, so they went out. The man bought lunch at a street vendor. In a park of red dust and lofty pines,
they ate cold noodles covered in sesame paste and chili oil, washed down with iced coffees. After lunch, they climbed trees, played marbles in the dust, fed the pigeons and listened to an old man play the erhu. Then they played a strange game. The physicist blindfolded the boy and handed him objects. The boy had to say what shape the object was and take a bite. The first was round and it was a very bitter grapefruit. The second was a pomello, also round. The third was a round, golden pear. The fourth was a round blood orange, and the fifth was a mandarin orange. The boy had never tasted so many rinds before, but it was not entirely unpleasant. They finished eating the fruits and then went for a long walk along the river. The boy had to observe the other walkers and invent diagnoses and cures for them. It was clear that the pale woman was a vampire’s thrall. The boy suggested iron supplements, hot baths and playing with magnets. The man with the cat on the leash would turn into a bat if he did not listen to classical music by the glow of a naked lightbulb. The physicist approved these diagnoses and remedies. There were conversations with the water and trees, the counting of pebbles and grassblades, and a recital of the multiplication table backwards in the tones and cadence of a monastic chant. The physicist had also brought along rockets, drones, and an instant film camera. Only after the boy had photographed at least one object for every letter of the alphabet was he allowed to set off the rockets and fly the drones. When they had exhausted these, they sat at a picnic table to make origami animals while exchanging riddles, jokes and word problems. After building their menagerie, they sat by the river in silence. The river lapped the sandy shore and mumured past them in flashes of silver and dark blue. It was dusk when they began their walk back. The physicist explained how the traffic lights and lampposts worked. They ate a simple dinner in a little cafe, where the physicist flirted with the waitress, and headed home. There they played chess while listening to a string quartet on the radio. The boy read to the physicist from his favourite books on ghosts and time travel. They said their prayers and it was bedtime. The physicist turned off the light, ready to close the door behind him when the boy asked why the physicist knew so many games. It is all one game that lasts forever, said the strange man in the shabby coat. What is the game called? the boy asked. Logic, said the physicist, and he bid the child good night.
There is an old proverb that says three monks cannot haul water to provide for themselves. There happened to be three real monks discussing this actual story from every angle at their small, new monastery on the cliff. One, who happened to know a bit of math and logic, which is poetry after all, suggested that they remain as three monks but pretend to be alone when it came to chores. The other two readily agreed and the rest of the day was spent in hauling water, each one carrying his own bucket. By nightfall, they had stored the equivalent of a reservoir and decided to celebrate with some tea. Apparently, we have no firewood for boiling tea and making dinner, said the first monk, a little disappointed. To hell with proverbs! said the third monk. Tonight we will fast, said the second monk, and tomorrow we can talk about economics, which I happen to know something about. Perhaps some division of labour might be necessary. The other monks agreed, for economics is also poetry, and there is nothing more beautiful than a life of contemplation and poetics in the wilderness of mountains and waters.
The mound of sand rose pale and smoky in the blue night of great stars as a light breeze constantly added and subtracted grains of sand to and from its mass. The lost assassin thus perceived the merciless impossibility of death, the momentous eternity, the shattering and reassembling of numbers and words, and the distance of distance.
A logician spent years testing word problems, striving with paradoxes and studying all the arcana of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Through various tests and formulas, he came to the conclusion that there were many logics—some which worked together well, some which contradicted others, and even some which contradicted themselves while remaining valid. There seemed to be no way to unify and map all the logics into one great logic.There were days when logic seemed to darken his mind like the desert sun; there were nights when logic lifted him on the wings of white birds to sail off to the stars. The poor man grew tired and ill. At last, he traveled one day and one night over the desert to an old weathered church, and confessed to his priest: I believe in the faith, I do not believe in logic, but I do not believe in an illogical faith. Worried for his health, the priest blessed him and sent him on a pilgrimage, giving him a map of the exact route to take. On the first segment of the journey, he encounteed the smallest oasis he had ever seen. On the second segment of the journey, he passed through the mountains and watched racing clouds and falling rain. On the third segment of the journey, he arrived at the shore and beheld the sand dunes and the immeasurable sea beyond. As an apostle once said, perhaps mystically or symbolically, everything was made of water and by water. There on the beautiful shore the logician wept, for a saint who weeps is analogous to a saint who walks on water.
[credit to Simone Weil for the last analogy]