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.
The moon voyages began some two thousand years ago. The first to land on its soft surface became embroiled in a war of cloud centaurs, vegetable humanoids and canines made of acorns. Another traveled there to discover all the lost things that earth missed, such as bottled brains and parasols. There were reports of travelers who discovered perfect civilizations in its metallic craters or unusual ways to view an eclipse in the extreme cold. Some later found canals and rivers without ships or navigators, but these tales only lasted for four hundred years before being buried in absolute unbelief. Later, the moon had a short-lived career as a stage actor or character in a bloody tragedy and then as a kind of mobile saltwater dairy farm. Some years ago, the moon voyages yielded only great speeches and haunting footprints. It was otherwise desolate, utterly desolate. The moon is still silent. And watching. One can only imagine what secrets burn deep within the stars.
A trader was pressed into the service of the army to survey a tract of wilderness and to deliver supplies to anyone who needed them. As he journeyed along, he passed through a vicious mountain pass and then through a dreadful, stony land that wore out his boots and cut his feet. On the far side of the land of stones, he met pilgrims who were heading in the direction he had come from. He offered them some of his provisions, but they refused. He asked for water and his request was denied. The trader warned them of the land of stones and the vicious mountains, and inquired about the country they had passed through. The pilgrims shrugged, saying that they doubted any such mountain or land of stones could exist, and they had nothing special to report about the lands they had seen. As they headed off towards the land of stones, the trader could not help but notice that they wore the poorest of straw sandals, which would come undone before the end of the day.
It began as a prayer into the endless spaces. A prayer for wind and rain, for freedom and solitude, for quiet. Through the switchgrass shadows and buffalo moved. The stones were enough, and the contrast of pale sands and dark trees was a gift of clarity. Then clouds of thunder came. And there were horses, horse blankets, steel and smoke. It became a field of blood. And plague. And then it became a traveling show of shotguns and hats. And then it was a motion picture. In the motion pictures, you sometimes saw the pale sands and dark trees, and you could hear the wind and the sound of the great solitude, and sometimes you almost wanted to pray once again.
One winter never thawed in the cave of her chest. And yet, it had no trees with icicles; it had no hills that sparkle with the glass of dead grass locked in frost. It had no screens of snow, no sculptured ice rivers. Wrapped in sheets of concrete she slept and wandered, leaving no prints on the earth. For the earth left her fallen on stones and stars. For her long legs were songs of hollow straw. Those who have skinned the earth blood-raw have said that she has no skin to speak of. Those who read verses in the vault of heaven have said that her tattoos are illegible. And nothing she holds in her permafrost hand finds its shape once again or remembers its name.
Long ago, the peasants were allowed to make three kinds of requests: an appeal for justice, an appeal for mercy, or an appeal for solidarity. Sometimes, they could appeal for all three at once. An appeal for justice meant that a person could demand what was owed to him. An appeal for mercy was a request to have a debt forgiven, a crime pardoned or to receive an unmerited gift. An appeal for solidarity was a request for assistance to solve a problem or merely to have one’s complaints heard and recorded for future reference. This was the law. One day, the bonesetter traveled to the capital to make all three requests. The magistrate seemed to be listening, but suddenly denied all three requests without reason. A trifecta of this nature was rare, and it was actually punishable by law. To be denied thrice or to be denied in all three categories was a symptom of either hidden crime or contagious misfortune in the supplicant, or perhaps both, for no one is really guiltless or innocent. Death or exile was the usual penalty. The bonesetter was exiled. The only place for him to go was the desert. The only desert where he thought he might survive or be happy was some 12,000 kilometres away and almost impossible to reach. Moreover, it was a land of cold waves, golden grasslands and dark mountains, a land of living skeletons, sleepwalkers and sheep. The bonesetter hoped that he would have the courage to venture there, the courage to learn about the sheep and to live with the sheep. The sheep are weighted down with so much beauty and sadness.
Long ago, the shadows of the desert migrated in black trucks and jeeps from mesa to mesa, through the rock sugar and cornflower of steppes and mountains. Whenever they camped out, they would perform shadow plays or puppet shows, using the headlights on their armoured automobiles, white sheets or tarpaulin, and an assortment of puppets preserved in army lockers. The radio provided the music, the migrants themselves voiced the songs, dialogue and narration. The characters were the most interesting part of these events: the cougar, the jaguar, the coyote, the hurricane, the avalanche, the lost or abducted princess, the corrupt mandarin, the lone swordsman, the conspiring doctor, the lovesick lawyer, the oxherd, the weaver, the bear in mourning, the mad hunter, the philosophical miner, the celestial but secretive wet nurse, the lost angel, the seven merchants, and the dangerous rider of winged horses. When the blue grass and brass skies darkened, these characters acted out all the many narratives of life before and after and yet to come. Whether watching shadows or low-lit puppets carved of wood and painted in faraway colors, the migrants lost themselves in the interlocking ballads and dramas. Curiously, these events always ended in the same way. Only one character, if it could be called such, stood out from the rest and could not really be defined. They called him the other, the one thief, or the mysterious stranger. Nobody could predict when or where in the time-space of the narrative he would appear, but once he did, he would deliver an indecipherable incantation, a kind of parable or thought experiment, and the lights would go out to end the play. It was in this way that the shadows of the desert contemplated the night of stars and endless time.