In the time of wreckage and reckoning, when the world weirded, a skeletal chrome android dressed in a black hooded robe found a wandering humanoid on the beach where the ocean threshed the sand. It was midsummer’s eve, and the android proposed a game of chess. Having no chessboard at hand, the humanoid made one by drawingthe 64 squares on a sheet of thick sketchbook paper with some willow charcoal. The human only had a handful of real pieces–a white knight, a black bishop, and half a pawn, and so he walked along the surf and collected various things from the shore–old lighters, sand dollars, conical shells, pale driftwood twigs, glass marbles and bottle caps. These he consecrated as bishops, pawns, knights, and rooks. Then he coronated the kings and queens. They played and exchanged riddles. The equinox passed, the solstice passed, another equinox passed, yet another midsummer drew near. One by one, the android closeted the rival pieces. The humanoid was no match for its wisdom. What a marvellous game, the android laughed as the other wept. It is a losing game, said the human. I am lost. The android gazed at the giant breakers, and sighed. In one sense, you lose because you are human–and the game is only partly human; it is an abstraction, an alienation, an imperfection. Checkmate, he said, after placing his white knight. Then to cheer up his friend, he used magnetism to move his piece without touching it. Look! he laughed. The white knight is walking backwards! If you are lost, he can tell you where you should go! The other did not laugh, but played with an old lighter. A miraculous and unexpected flame shot out and set the board on fire. Do not despair, said the android, watching the checker pattern burn. You can never lose. You made the game, the pieces, and the chessboard. You dreamed and designed me. I only play what you thought of long ago. All of my moves are just afterthoughts. Then, he took the lighter from the human and placed the white knight in his cold fist instead. After lighting a hurricane lantern, the android wandered off, talking to himself. Behold! he cried into the waves of darkness. The ocean is never lost.
[This story was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal and the ancient Book of Changes with a nod to Lewis Carroll via Jefferson Airplane]
One day, a mapmaker realized that one of his maps had transformed. Where he had painted a continent, a sea began to bleed through from below, although he did not recall painting over anything other than blank paper to begin with. Scandalized, he repainted the newly discovered continent and left the map out to dry. While it was drying, behold, another map was similarly transfigured. This time, an ocean was marred with golden oarfish and black dragons bleeding through the pale blue waves. Infuriated, the cartographer set to work on this new map, washing away every dragon, kraken and oarfish in thick strokes of a deeper blue. When he was finished painting, he left it out to dry, only to discover that the continent he had repainted earlier was already fading, its long discredited sea from obsolete voyages showing through. One by one, he inspected all the maps, and every map showed signs of damage. Clouds, winds, ghosts, angels, demons, saints, mountains, oarfish, trees and rivers, continents and oceans, strange letters from forgotten alphabets and symbols from discardes sciences bled through the new maps. Frantic, the mapmaker spent days trying to repair them, but the enchantment always returned. The mapmaker gathered all the maps and scrolls together and brought them down to the beach to burn them. For one night, at least, the bonfire would be a light for lost sailors, and the maps would not have been made in vain. All night, the maps burned, but at times he thought he saw a golden oarfish or black dragon in the flames, swimming in the blue waves of nonexistent, other seas. In the morning, staring through the smoke, he saw that a chain of gray islands had blossomed off the coast.
Through curling tunnels of blue-green glass, through curtains of white foam, he moved at breakneck velocity, his feet firm on the board, every muscle alert and receptive to the motion of the breakers. The light and sound coursed around him and through him. Whether he was freefalling sideways or diving upward, the green water followed him and he followed it through depths and heights, always searching, searching the vertigo, the curves and cascades of shimmer and thunder, his body left far behind in sand and sky. The last breaker was the one he had been waiting for. It was high and hard, rising up swiftly, a beast of furious water. And he mounted the beast and soared into the great blue of sea and sky, almost touching the sun. Within seconds, he knew that it would throw him hard, and this certainty lifted his soul through seven heavens of angelic winds. Life was endless. The impact was cruel but not fatal. A stone or brick struck his cheek, and the pavement shredded his legs. For several minutes, he lay on the concrete, just breathing and remembering. The wheels sparkled on the asphalt not far away. All of the abandoned buildings looked like black and white postcards. The skater got up, his mouth full of blood, and walked on air towards the skateboard. The gray pigeons were gathering by a lake of blue spring rain.
The one thing he could never tire of was the sound of the waves. Wave after wave curling, lapping, foaming and hissing, receding back into the silence. The only conceivable sound for silence and solitude was this rhythmic sough of the ocean. The first time he had discovered it was as a child in the north country, either by one of the volcanic lakes or on a gray beach facing the sea—he could no longer remember—and it had remained a constant longing and fulfillment inexplicably twined into the very being of his soul. This was the only thing that kept him sane and pure. To live without the surf would be a kind of spiritual death for him. Or so he believed. Now and then, however, distractions and temptations came. And he would return to the radio that played the music and news of every continent and planet. And with a furious and desperate hunger his hand worked the dial, seeking and seeking every frequency and channel, every broadcast that traversed the great worlding. It always ended the same way. The cheerful bulletins, sultry whispers, alarmed voices, brass bands, orchestras, violent screams and mournful guitars all announced the monotonous death of civilization. Everything sounded similarly hollow and forgettable. The hand then touched the switch and the buttetscotch glow of the console faded into the darkness. Dispirited, his body walked slowly through the nightfall to the beach. There was no golden age, no elysium on any of the earths. The worlds were disappointments. And then the man of waves would walk along the shore and sit in the sand and listen to the breakers. The sounds of the ocean enveloped him. One evening, after meditating on the beach, he decided to invent the radio that others needed. And so night after night he brought a kind of blackbox or phonograph to the shore to record what the great seas whispered and moaned. This was the starting point of his invention, which he later built and exported to other lands. Not everyone found it useful, but wherever his radio played, people tended to find peace. It was a radio that poured out silence from its speakers. Not a mere absence of sound but the very sound of profound tranquility. It was a radio of the sea, of silence and solitude. It was a radio of prayer.
It was in the other land on another planet. An island washed by green oceans, with rusted mountains of snowy peaks, ash-gray fields and great mesas of red sand. For a long time, the shadow stared into the sea through the open window. Sometimes, he painted the walls. At other times, he stopped, holding a paint brush or a box with both hands, staring at the window again. The sky and sea called; the wind called. Something infinite was missing. And he almost remembered. The shadow went downstairs and out the door, crunching his way through the gray and red sand. Night was falling. It always seemed to have been falling forever when it fell, and yet distant and impossible when it had not yet fallen. The shadow was barely distinguishable from the darkness now. In the middle of the great field, he began to shovel up the ash and sand until he found his own skeleton. After digging it out, he ran his hands over the bones, brushing off the dust until the skeleton awoke. The skeleton whispered and tried to stand, but was too weak. The shadow carried him on his back. The lights from the house by the shore guided them. I should have brought some dust, the skeleton whispered. Then the world might return. Do not worry, said the shadow. He carried him into the house and up the stairs to the bedroom, laying him on the clean white mattress on the iron-frame bed. A lamp with a broken shade sat on the floor of the almost empty room, pouring too much light onto the ceiling and walls, radiant with their moist new coat of blue paint. It’s like a real sky or a robin’s egg, the happy skeleton exclaimed. The shadow was pleased. What now? the skeleton asked, but the shadow had fallen into a trance again, staring through the window, waiting for something–perhaps the sea, the sky, or only the wind.
The captain strode through the surf demanding damage reports, his bald head glistening in the purple twilight, his black leather coat dripping pearls. The dark waters roared and receded, flung their fury on the sand and retreated again. A marine biologist came running down from a dune where he had been manning a radio and telescope and ordered the captain off the shore. Mad and soaked through his skin, the captain demanded a damage report. This is a protected beach, the scientist screamed. Time is coming, the captain said quietly, glancing out at the darkling horizon. And you are not ready. Get off the beach, the scientist screamed. You are ruining our experiment! The captain laughed through the tears filling his big blue eyes. My good friend, he sighed, there will be no more tests or papers! A cloud of witnesses has spoken! 57 skeletons float in the green deep. Henceforth you will only publish damage reports! Damage reports! Time is coming. And you have no clue as to what time is! The moon rose square, hollow, and pale.
The sardines, like ancient republics, are always in grave danger. The ocean is the color of their dreams, dark blue and filled with clouds of unspoken thoughts and aeolian winds trapped in bubbles passing back and forth through their gills. It is the secret life of piscatory rei naturali. Some vanish beyond the jaws of sharks and whales. Some fall sick, bloat and drift on their sides, rotting and bleeding slowly into the water. Most are lifted up, after wandering in the labyrinths of seines and weirs. Once caught and transported in brine, they continue to dream in the dark prussian blue of the other, earlier and wider sea. When they meet the air, their sense of danger evaporates like morning rain on the pavement, and their souls escape for a farewell party. They smoke cigarettes and drink sherry with the fishermen. They lay on newspapers in the good sun and listen to short wave fados and stare back at hungry gray cats. They bathe in boxes of icewater and ice cubes. The sardines swim down the cobblestone streets. There are whitewashed houses and tiled roofs. They look at porcelains with blue and white pictographs of sardines that also mirror sea and cloud. They find gentle palms and stone saints. They get lost in old cathedrals and wishing wells. Many have reported on their sidetrips through markets and restaurants, and have described frying in olive oil as something not unlike fireworks or pop candy for their scales. Being chewed has been compared to music for their skin and a massage for those parts of the body that are neither bone nor flesh. Being gutted by kitchen knives and slowly boned by forks is also therapeutic in inexplicable ways. Others have reported on the descent into digestive chemistry and the almost epicurean spaces of atomic collisions, which again are not unlike fireworks or pop candy for the mind. Invariably, their souls return to the moment of death to begin their interrupted ascent into the ether. Like lazy kites or montgolfiers, their little souls rise in elegance, not like careless flying fish, but like sardines, who are sleepy children of the gentle elements, caught up into silver nets of wind and cloud. The five oceans shrink into a black raindrop. The sky is intolerably blue.
[credit for piscatory rei naturali goes to Romanus Cessario]