The angel brought the blindfolded doctor into the shade where the dark woods began. This is the border, said the angel. I will escort you into the darkness in a moment before leaving you. What is this place? The doctor trembled, feeling the cold hyrcanian air blowing through black needles and dripping undergrowth. It is the silent wood, also known as the forest of suicides. When someone wants to die, they lose themselves in its depths, walking for days until hunger, exhaustion, hypothermia, wolves or bears finish him off. Then I am to be murdered? Not at all, the angel laughed. You are a man of skills; it will be much easier for you to survive. It is more of a contemplative retreat offered freely. The doctor inhaled the fresh, ozonous air and wanted to believe the angel. Why this punishment or this forest? Some revenge for a tragedy long ago, a malpractice case? Not quite, the angel sighed. They say there are some 164,000,000 life forms in this particular forest. It is the perfect place for you to contemplate the 164,000,000 deaths that will occur in the next ten years from unnecessary or adverse medical interventions—and that is a conservative number. It is also the tonnage of waste your hospitals produce throughout seven countries in only one year. Sadly, the amount of debt created, money wasted or stolen, and the poverty figures far exceeded anything we could dream up in a practical manner—there was no forest big enough to match your needs in that respect, but this one will suffice to give you a general idea. They say that the silence and darkness have a calming, soporific effect, and nothing is better for beginning pure contemplation, confession and penance than a good night’s rest.
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.
One scientist ran into another. The first one said, I have worked tirelessly and have found 10,000 different light bulbs that do not work. Not to worry, said the other scientist; you have actually found 10,000 parallel universes where they do work, and they are shining their bright lights right now. Who will handle my patents in those other universes? the first scientist joked. Who said you were the inventor in those 10,000 other universes? the other replied.
One cold, winter night, a young woman was waiting in vain for the bus. She started to walk to keep from freezing. The omnibus traveled at about 40 mph. The earth traveled around the sun at about 70,000 mph. The solar system drove the celestial highways of the galaxy at close to 600,000 mph. The galaxy traveled at a speed of up to 700,000 mph. The local cluster of galaxies traveled at almost double that speed at 1,340,000 mph. One day, some 4 billion years into tomorrow, her galaxy would crash into another galaxy–it was heading into the collision at a speed of 240,000 mph. She could only walk about 4 mph, but the possibility of a stray motorist driving into her at 20 to 50 times her speed was not improbable. More than 12 people a day died that way. Though the wind was sharp, the traffic lights and shop windows made her feel warm in her heart. The manholes looked like black holes. A dark sea of stars glowed in the northern sky. All the iced, black sidewalks had been covered with the pale blue sparkles of salt. The salt splashes looked like galaxies and constellations of stars, some dim and some bright, giving the illusion of varying distances. She could not escape the temptation to count and build a puzzle as she walked. There seemed to be about 5 galaxies of salt per square of pavement. The more she walked, the more she counted. There were about 40 paved squares per block. Block after block, her vague math seemed to confirm the estimate. There were about 10 blocks per mile, and thus 400 paved squares per mile. She knew from the city’s published records on engineering and maintenance that there were some 90 miles of sidewalk, which meant there were about 36,000 paved squares. To summarize, there were about 200 galaxies per block, 2000 galaxies per mile, and thus about 180,000 galaxies of salt on the sides of the city streets that night, if all had been salted just like the blocks she had walked till now. In those days, scientists thought there might be about 500,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Cities like hers, with a population of 150,000 or more, only numbered 5,000. There were not enough cities on earth. She would need almost 600 times more cities with frozen, salted streets to mirror the heavens above.
They looked at their blackboards, machine consoles, charts and notes covered with formulas. They had come further than ever before to mapping the edges of things, times, planets, and atoms. Words and numbers had been sliced as thin as potato chips and were ready for crunching. The blackboards sparkled. One of the youngest physicists, a prodigy that even the older ones respected, a humble youth who feared his own electric fingers, said that it was all nothing more than a bottle of vinegar. What one needed now was a bottle of red cabbage water, which he did not possess.
In a distant corner of the universe, an astronomer lost all of his funding within days of building a gigantic observatory with a massive telescope on one of the highest mountains of his planet. Through the telescope he observed and counted twenty six stars, a handful for each of the quadrants–east, west, south and north. This was no more than what could be seen with the naked eye. It was dark out there and disappointing. There were not even enough stars to make imaginary pictures, as one could with cloud formations. Somehow, he had expected more stars.
On the 13,870th night, the wanderers began to roll up their bedding and burden their camels. The wind whistled through the dust and the stars of the great black void. One by one, one hundred camels left the rim of the crater, departing for other stars. On the 14,000th night, a golden tree grew up from the black circular grave of ash where the meteor had gone to sleep.
Strolling through the blazing wheatfields, the thief praised the glory of nature and the beauty of the blue skies and golden grain. One by one, he plucked the ears, and dreamed of the universe, how it was made of grain and sand, some 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 seeds scattered across the black empyrean. And he dreamed of that moment when the little stones of light, invisible to the eye, collided to create the moon, sun and stars. And the moment the first atoms made plankton and grass, and then the grass made trees. And the plankton made tadpoles, which became larvae and diseases, which changed into scarabs, which begot salamanders, who engendered frogs, fish, calamaria, and sharks, who turned into birds, who became dogs, and the dogs brought forth the deer, the giraffe, the oxen, the camels, the hippopotami, the bear, the jackal, the ape and the human. It would have been wonderful to see man or woman strike flints to see the first spark, for sparks are also like seeds, like grains, like little stones and drops of water. With his hand full of grain, the thief stopped to gaze into the sky. Beyond the cypress trees, a flock of black birds circled, as if forming an eye gazing into eternal emptiness. Nothing can be made of nothing, the thief whispered, his heart almost frozen. The wind blew the grains of wheat into the air, they circled like the birds, and then they were gone.