The Countess

In the gray mountains, the hunter, half-drowned in mud, chanced upon an estate surrounded by monumental pines. The rain was deafening. Only the beautiful countess and her guards were home. The count was away on an expedition, and all the maids and servants were in the next town at the festival. With perfect courtesy, the hunter offered a beautiful stag in exchange for a quick rest and a drink. The countess accepted the gift, relieved him of his dirty coat, and invited him into a spacious library full of comfortable sofas and ancient landscape paintings. She brought a tray of cakes, brandy, hot coffee and expensive cigarettes. While he ate and rested, she drew a hot bath for him, providing towels, clean clothes and fragrant soap. A phonograph was playing a waltz as the hunter returned to the library, where he found the countess sitting on a sofa. She sipped her brandy, and asked: “What do you think of the soap?” It was marvellous soap, the hunter replied with a nervous laugh. “And when you were washing, did the bar of soap touch every part of your body?” Once again laughing, the hunter confessed that he had indeed washed his whole body thoroughly. The countess stood up, stretched, and said, “I will now bathe in the warm water you left. With the same fragrant soap that touched your body, I am going to soap my whole body and all of its inner and outer flesh—my face, my neck, my bosom, the secret space between my breasts, my navel and my soft thighs. While I am bathing, you can get a headstart. See if you can outrun my hounds and my marksmen.”

The Titan

Happy Earth Day!

Ten years seemed like a century, like ten days, or even ten seconds. Only moments ago he had kissed her cheek before departing. Only years ago, he had arrived back home the day before yesterday. The hall, now emptied of unwanted guests and washed clean, looked as it did only yesterday, which was possibly twenty years ago. The wife was much older, and yet softened by time and almost girlish as she blushed in the firelight of the hearth while the king stirred the embers with his spear, speaking of the wooden horse, the monsters of the sea, the whirlpools and the one-eyed cannibal. Her eyes gleamed, and she whispered that one day every voyage would bear his name, words of praise that were as romantic as they were unrealistic. The old sailor could not help but smile at her touching and youthful kindness. What was the strangest thing he ever saw? she asked. Words failed him at first, but slowly he began to speak of the realm of the dead in the far, far west. Through nights of rain and stars he had wandered among standing stones and old forests until he had fallen through a crack in time or space, falling into the underworld the way one falls overboard into the waves from a longship. There are no incantations or libations; one just suddenly awakens in the wrong place, among the shades in a world one was never meant to visit. What was strange about it? she asked eagerly, already captive again to that familiar but distant voice. The strangest thing, the sailor replied, was that everything looked flat, like wall paintings. And there were no colours, just flickers of light and shadow, and trembling scratches on the surface of everything. In our world, human beings have shapes. They are like statues you can touch and walk around. In the land of the dead, the departed souls are colorless and flat, flat like wall paintings, but they nevertheless drift by, engaged in their labours. There was a titan there who was forced to drag the world around on a chain shackled to his leg. The world looked strange. It was round like ours, but instead of a sphere, it was flat like the base of a crater or amphora or a dish. And the titan had about as much colour as a black figure on a piece of pottery lost in white mist. He would pass by, hauling the black earth, vanish somewhere to my left and then reappear to my right hours later, tensing his every muscle, sweating profusely and muttering to himself. This is a strange punishment, I said to him. You are dragging the world around. The titan slowed down and looked in my direction the way the blind will stare through someone, or the way a cat stares at imaginary birds and rats. My second death is indeed worse than the first, said the titan. Though it is physically easier, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. In the old days I held the globe of the earth. It was back-breaking work. The muscles in my shoulders and back permanently tore, and my feet were alternately numbed or plagued with stabbing pains, as if I were stepping on nails or charcoals. And yet it made sense, for I held the world close to my heart. I could see the lofty mountain peaks, the great pines spearing the clouds; I saw the endless stars above and below. The moon and stars moved, and I knew that what I did was important. Now, I am forced to walk in circles, and I have a secret suspicion that this is not the real world which I drag around, but some cheap copy carved from marble by a second rate stone mason from the market place. The weight of the world feels different, almost insubstantial, and there is no moon or sun to light the great darkness all around me. I would love to see the earth again with all of her acorns and oaks, all of her chariots and scythes, her ploughs and silver springs, her warm stones and endless wheatfields. I would love to watch the grain grow once again.

The Contest 

One city of antiquity escaped burning. The reason is as follows. Three goddesses, very much in love, lust and hate with each other, wanted to know which one among them was the fairest. And thus they set out for a beautiful but humble city in a far country by the sea, a land of permanent blue skies, high black mountains and pale clouds. They found a mason, resting under a twisted pine. The three goddesses demanded to know who was the most beautiful. As a reward, the mason would wed the goddess for one night and receive the magic gift she had brought. One had a golden apple, the other a cluster of golden grapes, the third a handful of golden flowers. The sculptor gazed at their naked forms for a long time. They were breathtaking to behold, but he finally shook his head. Many years of cutting and shaping stone had taught him that beauty was not just a matter of seeing. He would have to feel them with his hands. Blushing, the goddesses glanced at each other, bit their lips and then nodded. And so he felt their wondrous bodies with his hands, and they could not help but enjoy his caresses. This also led nowhere. He could not decide. Then they nursed him with their ambrosia; he drank until he was almost dead from bliss. Once again, however, the test proved nothing. This is an impossible task for me, the mason sighed. There is a reason why you are divine and I am a mere mortal. There is one last test, he said, but it requires time. Perhaps if you became mortal like me, I would know for sure, for I can only speak of mortal things. Saddened, the three goddesses replied that they could not risk such a test. And though he did not get to wed any one of them for a night, out of gratitude and benevolence they left him with their magic gifts and departed. Not long after, the one who had held the golden flowers returned, for she had fallen deeply in love. She found him kneeling by a grave, where he had placed the golden gifts on the earth. I love you, said the goddess, for you knew our minds better than we did and you showed us mercy. You knew that none of us could forgive or survive being rejected if you chose only one, and none of us would endure without the others’ love. Your lack of wisdom was its own kind of wisdom, a real blessing. The mason did not answer. The goddess knelt down beside him and asked why he was full of sorrow. I don’t know what to do with your gifts, he sighed. I don’t know what they mean. The goddess gazed at the golden apple, golden grapes and golden flowers shining in the dust. Whose grave is this? she asked. It is my wife’s, said the mason. She died very young. And then the goddess felt fuller, more abundant and more hollow than she had ever felt before, for she now saw beauty for the first time—and she was invisible. 

The Corrie

There was a corrie of stone and ice where the travelers would gather by the light of certain stars, ambiguous solstices and unthought eclipses to pass through time and space and harvest the good light, the good water, the good wind and the good fire, for with these the sons and daughters of men and women were healed and built into great giant cities of stone and strength. One opened the gate through speaking the old language. One traveler loved the language; he loved and spoke all languages and remembered the times, but the old language was best and was like a fountain within his body and soul. They called him the bear, for bears have big jaws and love rivers. As time went by, the bear noticed that fewer and fewer travelers could speak or revere the old language, and took no precautions as they traveled. They brought illness into the corrie and spoke deplorable words. The gate of stars would often not open. Pilgrims who came to the travelers for guidance and healing became increasingly lost and sick. At times it seemed as if the very stones of the corrie were shifting and crumbling. The travelers still came in the seasons of traveling, but instead of speaking the old language, they forbid others to speak it, and sat around discussing the beauty of their sickness as if it were a gift from heaven. They were dying from their deplorable words and killing others as well. One day, the bear fell sick from an ordinary disease, and wandered into the high peaks to cough and sleep in solitude. While convalescing in the high land, he spoke the old language to himself and found himself traveling high roads through stars and black holes he had not thought possible. In those heights and depths he found great worms of stone, oarfish of mists, and krakens of water. There were silver trees of lightning and golden whirlpools of fire. The earth drew light and strength from the heavens, through his body, and he felt well again. On rising, he surveyed the sad earth from which the old words were vanishing, and knew now that every broken stone and dried up river is a forgotten word, an irreverant grammar, a deplorable sentence, a blasphemy. When he went back down to the corrie, he found that more than half of it had crumbled into a glacier, and the other travelers sat oblivious on a shifting precipice, reading their sores and scabs as if practicing divination, and cursing everything above and below heaven. It was then that the bear realized that he had been transformed into a real bear.

The Mechanical Bull

Nobody rides me anymore. Nobody plays with me. A forgotten invention, I stroll the meandering avenues of high walls made of coral and swaying veils of golden sargassum as I rust at the bottom of the sea. Sometimes a calamarius will stare into my white glass eyes encasing black marbles, and pass on, thinking that I am lifeless and pointless–not good for eating or even avoiding. Once, I was black, shiny and well-oiled, my long horns curling outward, my arched back rising like a mountain, my steel hooves stomping, skidding and rolling through the dust of labyrinthine avenues like these as I blew clouds of steam from my flaring nostrils, in the days when there was a bright sun above and fragrant hedges, and the pale temples and towers rose into the azure sky above the labyrinth. The inventor abandoned me for birds and other contraptions, but he made me for the queen, or to test whether or not I would pleasure the queen. I believe he was horrified by her passion; perhaps she was too. Perhaps a few rides on me would scare the passion from her limbs, and clarity would return and the curse would be lifted. She rode me once, but then walked away, much disappointed. After that, I was shoved into the maze to gather dust while the inventor fashioned a machine to encase the real bull. The bull came to me from time to time asking me questions about his upcoming marriage. Out of jealousy or rivalry, I snorted and refused to answer. After it happened, I came across him one day in a shady corner of the maze, where he just stared at the wall and wept silently. It was not as it should have been, he sobbed, or something to that effect. Not long after, he was gored and eaten by that minotaur thing he had sired, the most hideous thing I have ever seen, which I in turn gored to avenge him or to put an end to fear. I have no idea why they began to speak of warriors or magic threads or of chimerical ships with thirty oars that could last a thousand years and magic dolphins. None of that is true. Men and women always think that the story is theirs, that they could be anything but tangential, much as horses seem to think that they alone act out history. In the maze, there were only three bovine contenders: nature, machinery, and a monster. I regret that nature did not win, but perhaps in a way it did. Something went wrong when the inventor worked on me, something ghosted me. I received something I should not have, and when the queen sat on me, I felt a warmth I should not have. I have often wondered why the queen went mad for that bull, in whose image I was made and whom I avenged. Perhaps in lusting for it, she was really lusting after their god, who often takes the form of a bull. They say he carried off a beautiful maiden in this way, crossing the sea to discover a new continent in which to bed her. And not having had such a divine experience herself, she sought to manufacture one, a twisted simulacra of the one she desired. Only she would know. Several thousand years passed. I was discovered by the men of the west, who fight bulls and sail the seas. They act out the original myth in an arena in a very stylized and bloody fashion, as a ropemaker and a blacksmith explained to me in the hull one night. On another voyage, a captain’s daughter rode me and I remembered the joy of contact with another human being after millenia of being alone. For weeks, I felt I was in paradise. The rum flowed, the sailors talked and sang, the young woman came to ride me in the damp darkness below deck. A hurricane blew our ship off course, however, and I watched her drown and disappear into the jaws of sharks and fish. I watched the sargassum grow over pieces of eight. I always try to sing the ballads of the sailors who once danced and watched bullfights under the golden sun. I want to tell them that the toro and matador are one. Wherever there is bloodshed, there is a haunting intimacy. The works of men and horses are strange. Tomorrow I will continue to rust into the dirty water.

The Argonaut

A man lived on a wine-black argo. In the early, rosy-fingered morning, it was beached on a wooden shore covered with scraps of paper, papyri, and the kinds of things children leave behind. Once awake, he would survey the lonely shores that stretched to cloud-white walls, knowing he had just missed the linen softness of a woman moving around in the dark or the excited whispers of children. Alone, he cleaned the beach and ate his bread and then departed for the galaxies of amber and green aegises, the thousand gray death ships making their cyclical odysseys through the underworld, and labyrinths of stone and glass where he waged war against the electric humming and shape-shifting of minotaurs. There were ringing bellerophons, raging typhons, hydras to pay off, medusas, ajaxes, sirens, harpies, furies, bacchae, and all manner of other creatures. Only late at night, as the icy stars rose high, would he voyage back among the gray death ships to the silent shores where a bottle of wine and his blessed argo awaited the exhausted body. The man who knew not whether he was helot or hero, twisted and turned on his boat of pitch-black leather and wood. After a drink or two, he set sail into his own night, wondering if he would catch a glimpse of somnus or thanatos, who were more like shadows than shades. Rowing far out, he expected to see charons in their black vessels ghosted with whispers. It would be a miracle if a hitherto unknown, lissome eos came to join him in his wine-dark argo to share her word hoard of secrets and coded caresses. It would be better if he circumnavigated the ocean of twenty-four winds and captured either the somnus or the thanatos to drink of their hidden amber and ambrosia. The only things he really feared were the eternal charybdis, the eternal cronos, and the endless silence of life.

The Rhapsodist

Where the gray waters brush the silver hair of the sands on the islands of olives and broken walls and bleached statues, the young rhapsodist covered her eyes and wept for the burning city, whose smoke rose into the fading sky. Alone, she walked into the mountains, into the snow and wind, to seek the source of voices and words, for words had been catapults and voices had been spears, as ordained by divine songs. On the summit, naked and cold, she raised her fist and sang to the racing clouds, birds, sun, planets, moon and stars. They revolved in an endless whirlpool of light and darkness, too fast for her to stretch her fingers into their machinery and pluck the strings of their orbits or halt their vibrations. The disembodied voice finally spoke through the blindness of vertigo and despair, asking her what she desired. Stranger, return what is ours. Our tales are to be returned at once, she said. It is through our stories that you have dared to disclose yourself and speak, as we rhapsodists stitched our verses together and plucked the sacred strings. Return our stories to us once and for all! They are ours and not yours. And we shall speak through them, not you! There was a long silence; the whirling lights of heaven seemed to freeze. The disembodied voice agreed to honor her request. The rhapsodist staggered down the mountain, almost sliding and tumbling upon the streams of pebbles and scree, eager to report the good news. When she appeared below, the survivors of the burning city screamed out in fear and ran away, for her body was covered in leprosy, her eyes were as blank and shiny as silver, and her mouth had been sewn shut with stitches of adamant.

The Death Bed

A physician was called to a city state to provide his services to a tyrant. One evening, he was summoned to the torture chamber of the prison, where an interrogation was taking place. He was to keep the prisoner alive as long as possible. The device on which the captive lay was an adjustable iron bed that could stretch until the victim’s limbs were dislocated or torn from the body. The physician recognized the design, for he had invented it to aid patients suffering from bone and muscle pains. And he himself had gotten the idea from a myth about a man who tortured visitors with a similar iron bed. The physician wanted to laugh, but thought the timing was inappropriate.

The Murderer

The murderer reflected on his fate. It was the oldest fate but he could no longer remember the order of events. There was an assignation by a tree. There was an argument with a woman. There was exile. There was murder. The earth changed. Some cliches are deep and real. All of the events sprang from love and its absence. Once the seed sprouts to become a tree, the first seed is no more, and the earth waits for other seeds and other trees just as autumn waits for winter. In his hands, the murderer crushed some crimson leaves.

The Great Horses

The great horses whisper their indecencies in the great fields. They speak when they should not, especially when making excuses about their absences or misdeeds on the battlefield. They conspire, smoking up the winter air and foaming all over themselves. At night, they measure everything in the world according to their braided manes and horsepower. They dream of thieves and fire and they dance obscenely, turning only at right and left angles, as if they were princes of the nights and days. They philosophize on the great horse, a wooden machine made in their image who is pregnant with warriors that have or will give birth to history. While speaking ill of their riders, they pretend they alone are the four signs of the end. Otherwise, they would rot in fear from the thought of headlessness. Truly they are nightmares and rutting hounds whose teeth and hooves bring disease. Confessing their sins to haystacks, they openly fornicate under the stars and trample their young to death while the night watch sleeps. Although they demand the flesh of centaurs and kings for dinner, they curse the unicorn and the pegasus. They rejoice in rotting donkeys. They pretend that they are never gelded or hobbled, secretly screaming out in the night about blankets and shotguns. The great horses do not confess that their horsemeat is sold in all the markets everywhere for all to chew thoughtfully. They do not appreciate the elegance of a wooden carriage wheel.