Through laughter and tears, she would look anywhere but in the smoked glass of shop windows or the mirrors in hallways, for her heart was a locked room mystery, and she could not decide whether to be the victim, the murderess or the inspector.
In the switchgrass, they roamed like hollow, square buffalo and rectangular bronze horses, hunting by starlight. They came across an old iron bed with a shredded mattress. For a quarter of an hour, they gazed at it, but the irritant stars forced them onward. Later, after traveling through the nude white landscape of early morning, they found an enamel bathtub filled with dust. The light played in the black ironwoods. They wandered as bronze buffalos and rectangular horses. In the end, when they saw the indigo of the distant sawtoothed mountains, they completed the puzzle and made a fire to brew some dark coffee.
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.
It was snowing. Smoking and thinking hard, the cryptographer watched the large wet snowflakes sparkle in the blue twilight through the window of his study. He returned to the desk, where the mysterious artifact sat, an ancient wooden box covered with a large lock consisting of several concentric circles or dials of various metals, some with the finger holes one would find on a rotary telephone, others with numbers, symbols, and scripts that nobody at the museum could decipher. One cigarette after another, he smoked and scribbled and thought about the mysterious box and its impenetrable lock. It was after midnight, some hundred nights since the beginning of this mess, that he solved the riddle in a glorious epiphany immediately celebrated with a glass of sherry. The numbers were for seasons and years; the runic symbols referred to metaphysical questions. It was only by sheer luck that he thought of the right question for this great and terrible year. The other years, their questions and laws, remained to be found. The lock clicked, and the box opened. Inside, to the left, sat various coils, batteries, hookswitches and a capacitor, all disconnected. To the right sat an apparatus that could have been a transmitter or speaker. The cryptogropher picked it up and spoke. Breaking all the laws he had hypothesized or imagined and almost breathless with a bittersweet fear, he asked several questions at once—where was his favourite book of woodcuts, who was the pretty girl on the train, what world was this and who would like to play with him in the snow? Then he held it to his ear. The night beyond flowed from the transmitter. It sounded like crushed stars, static and falling, wet snow. I really want someone to play with me.