The Heretic

The way of pain wound from the city through the boulders and barrows towards the hill with the stake. Crowds had gathered by the road to hurl stones and offal at the heretic as he passed. In the morning, when the sergeants had come for him, the heretic had been watching sparrows hop from branch to branch in the prison courtyard. Only peace reigned in his heart. Now, as dust rose from the way with the shouts of his accusers, the stumbling, chained heretic began to feel strange and disconcerted. It was not the false accusations, not the miscarriage of justice, nor the grim gazes of the cardinals, priests and friars. Nor had death and its fear crept into his heart. From time to time, the grip of the sergeant’s hand on his arm almost felt comforting. When the boulders fell away and the path straightened out to ascend the bald hill, screams of anger, horror, or madness filled the air. Stones struck his face and legs, which were already filthy. Once, the sergeant stopped and shot a bystander with his crossbow, but the crowd seemed not to notice. The heretic wanted to vomit now as he looked into the contorted faces. The faces of those who knew nothing of his trial or his heart, who themselves hid crimes and heresies, who should have burned alongside him, if burning had any justice to it. At the base of the hill, the heretic fell down, coughing and vomitting bile and blood. Once again, the kindly grip of the sergeant lifted him to his feet. Other sergeants and soldiers formed a ring around the hill and shot several more bystanders as the fury grew into one droning, yearning scream. Then silence fell as they led him to the stake. Firewood and old blankets soaked in pitch surrounded him. The sergeant approached with a torch, and gazed calmly into the bewildered eyes of the condemned man, saying: “The second heresy is worse than the first. That is why they scream.” The heretic looked up to heaven and asked, “What is the second heresy?” The sergeant tossed the torch onto the pitch-stained logs and blankets. “Escape. Peace.” The fire exploded with billowing clouds of black smoke. The sparrows fled into the distant hills.

The Ploughs

The mechanic came up the road of aspens and saw the old man out front with the axe, chopping wood beside a fire. The cold still misted the far mountains. The great shed to the left was open, and a lantern was burning somewhere inside. The old man pointed, and the young mechanic went into the shed, where the broken ploughs had been stored. Midday came, and the sky had cleared to a breathless blue, the white peaks shimmering beyond the empty fields waiting to be worked. The mechanic came out to find the old man, and asked him for his pay. The old man was surprised, but said he would pay when he had inspected the work. They went into the shed together, and the old man almost burst into tears. What have you done? the old man gasped. All of the ploughs are fixed—they’re all the same now, said the young mechanic proudly. It was difficult at first, said the mechanic, since you have ploughs of different sizes and makes. It took me a while to find the four that were similar and correct, and then I just worked from there, using them as models. The old man lit a cigarette and stared into the wreckage. Yes, all ten of them are indeed the same, the old man noted. And yet, only four were broken the day before.

The Kingdom

The moon was black. Other birds, birds never heard before, sang in trees of darkness, for dawn was not yet. A contingent of lawmen, led by an old doctor, arrived in an open land of copper grassland and cast-iron groves. They came upon a hunter, and asked him where they were. The hunter said that they had come into the kingdom. They asked him who the king was, but they could not understand either his idiom or his description. When they camped under the stately firs and gazed into the stars, a scavenger gathering wood stumbled into their midst. Was there a king? they asked, but the scavenger denied it. The only king he knew was himself. Would they happen to have any scraps to give him? They gave him some, and warned him that they were men of law and had brought law to the lawless land. Howling with laughter, the madman shuffled into the darkness like a misshapen beast. The days passed. Wayfarers and pilgrims would speak like the hunter, but the deserters never saw any signs of a kingdom—not a single signboard with a royal decree, not a scrap of paper with a royal seal, not a herald to cry the law of the land, not even a gendarmerie or constabulary. At times, they would catch glimpses of high stone towers rising from the mists above the rusted plains or above a canopy of darkly spired trees, but they did not want to investigate. Some pilgrims warned them of hunting deer, of building fires by daylight, and several other royal decrees—the royal horsemen always came for those who practiced such abominations—but the deserters scoffed and beat the pilgrims. There was no king but the law, and they were the law, they claimed. They shunned the great roads that wound through the land, keeping to the back country, drawing their own maps, building fires by day or night, and eating as much venison as they pleased. In open defiance of what they had heard, they built cairns of deer skulls in the meadows. One evening, a pilgrim gave the old doctor a frayed book—as a warning, perhaps, the doctor thought, for the book seemed to be a codex of laws. It made a good pillow that night, when he lay down his head to sleep, covered in deerskin blankets. It was midnight when the old doctor awoke to the sound of horseman.

The Crown

It was an honour to be summoned by the officials to deliver a letter and his own report to the Crown. For most of the night, the courier had drunk strong, muddy tea and typed and retyped his report of all that he observed and discovered in recent weeks. Passion and pride seemed to electrify his fingertips as they clicked the keys. For years, the Crown had shown great wisdom and benevolence in managing war, famine, and pest. Despite the sleeplessness, the courier felt awake for the first time in years. There had been years of somnambulism from the sheer exhaustion of working overtime, of being vigilant, of intermittent and unpredictable quarantines. The commoners would never be able to imagine the sacrifices of the officials, of the undaunted courage and industriousness that had been required to ensure public safety. They had no idea what it meant to make an act of faith. The courier could still hardly believe he was being called to the court as he stepped out into the roadway at dawn. It was a dry, mostly sunny spring. Some trees were in flower, the white blossoms trembling in the cold wind. Old posters with the crown symbol hung in tatters from the walls; gendarmes guarded striped gateways; glowing iodine-red lanterns hung from windows, keeping the perpetual light burning, the light that represented the inner light of all, but most importantly, the light of vigilance, of caution, of the cure and the Crown itself. When the road reached the wall of the inner city, there were more masked guards in white or pale, drab green, and one semicircle of masked, white-clad soldiers centered on an overturned wheelbarrow and a cowering delivery man. Most of the contraband merchandise had spilled out onto the dirt, and the courier could read the labels on the packets, boxes and jars—wormwood, creosote, larch and pine sap syrups, willow and birch bark powder, quinine soda, orange peel and paprika, atropine cordials, charcoal. There were other items, but he could not read them. Brilliant colourful labels and clear glass gleamed in the morning sun. A shot rang out, and the body of the merchant fell to the dust. The courier passed through the gate after showing his passport, his official letter of summons, and answering questions for a quarter of an hour. The avenue to the palace was lined with more centuries, cannons, and checkpoints. Round, glass lamps and cylindrical, paper lanterns poured their red light into the shadows of the squares where marble statues gathered skeletons of poisoned sparrows. The palace front loomed larger and larger. The courier could hardly breathe as he walked up the steps and passed through a colonnade into the great foyer. A beautiful woman at the bureau in the antechamber, a maze of sentries and cordon ropes, raised her hand and beckoned to the courier. She wore a mask over her mouth, a white beret and white uniform, her hair cut to her jawline, her eyes darkly lined, her cheeks almost ghostly with face powder. Congratulating him on his honor, she directed him to proceed through gate 9 and directly enter the throne room. An armed halberdier accompanied him. They did not ascend the main stairway, as the courier had thought they might. Instead they walked down a hallway, and entered a dark courtyard. Clouds had blown in overhead, mingling with the billowing smoke that rose from a gigantic fire pit in the courtyard. Already, some guards were dumping what looked to be the contents of the wheelbarrow that had been overturned before the gate earlier that morning. Glass jars shattered or cracked, cordials exploded, packets of dried bark and charcoal blazed. The fragrance of the pit was soporific and calming. The courier could hardly believe that he was standing right next to the warmth of the cure itself, the very heart of the empire. Beyond the glare of the dancing flames, the august person of the Crown himself stood, bald, masked and in full uniform—candy-striped trousers and an immaculate white coat with a mandarin collar, decorated with glittering crosses and curling, metal serpents. Another official was speaking to him, handing him a stack of beautiful books. The courier recognized them—they were out of print now, almost impossible to find. They were a series of forbidden chronicles, a monumental history of the realm with gold leaf trim on the pages, bold fonts, bone-white paper and colorful arabesque covers of real leather with gold leaf lettering. The Crown took the books, and threw them, one after another, into the fire-pit. After listening some more to the report of the official, he nodded to the escort, who kicked the official into the fire-pit. A military band in a gallery somewhere began to bang drums and cymbals. Screams filled the air, and the fire blazed. Gradually, the cymbals and gongs ceased. The other armed guard bowed to the Crown, and walked back, nodding to the courier and his guard as he passed. Perhaps it was the smoke, perhaps it was all of the walking that morning after several months of quarantine, but the courier began to feel sleepy once again. The Crown beckoned to him through the light and shadow of the flickering flames. The black smoke rose like a prayer of gratitude into the sky.

The Golden Taiga

A golden forest of larch grew beyond the mountains and plains. Pilgrims went there to pray, to find healing sap, to gather and to commune with the bears. The most delicious water bubbled up from secret springs in its depths, and there were magic wasps. The ever-golden spires could be seen from hundreds of miles away, whether from the last snowy mountain passes in the west and south, from the frozen, rusty tundra in the north, or the pale land of lakes in the east. Because of its sacred and precious character, the officials determined that proper signage should be placed every few miles along the perimeter. This would alert the pilgrims to the fact that they had arrived at the right forest. Some of the signs would provide instructions that could be of great use to the visitors as well. Of course, most pilgrims did not mind this gesture. The ones that could read appreciated the verbal confirmation that their long journeys had ceased. The coffers were opened, the materials gathered, the signposts were built. Not long after, an officer found that one of the posts had warped; another had fallen facedown. Extraordinary sessions took place to combat this new plague of violence, although one officer had quietly suggested that the culprits were merely wind and snow. Consequently, the man of law in that region drafted new laws and fines. To vandalize or destroy a sign was punishable with the extreme force of the law. It was necessary to be strict. What began as the destruction of signposts could lead to the destruction of the entire forest. Sometime later, however, a badly scratched signpost was found. Improbable as it was, one of the pilgrims was seized and shot. The officers cleared the forest. Nobody could enter its sacred silence anymore. The man who kept the wasps’ nests deep in the forest resisted arrest, but the officers eventually dragged him out as well, in manacles and chains. Some whispered later that they had seen the man of wasps gather dust and needles in his palms, blowing it to the wind in some mysterious commination. And then one day, something disturbing and unexpected happened. A great explosion, its origins unknown, but thought by land surveyors to be a meteoric event, levelled the forest for hundreds of miles in every direction. Not a single larch was left standing. Lightning fell later in the year, and burned the dead wood and the scrub until only a lake of monochrome ash remained. Old laws were amended and new taxes were enacted, so that the officers could return to the work of replacing the signposts along the perimeter. Marksmen were also posted at strategic approaches, and they straightaway shot the rare pilgrim who came to steal ash in glass jars. Exiled after his arrest to a windblown steppe near the cold lakes, the man of wasps bitterly confessed to visiting pilgrims that it would be easier to bear if the calligraphy on the signposts had at least been somewhat elegant.

The Magistrate

The magistrate, who had spent his life in conspiracy, corruption, debauchery, forging chronicles and destroying evidence, left the city with some strong wooden poles, nails, and ropes, and climbed a hill close by. The city applauded this seeming act of repentance. The road workers, carters and pilgrims watched him erect the large crucifix silhouetted against the twilight sky. The magistrate camped there and would not leave, clinging night and day to the empty cross, eating poor meals of lollium bread and skewered doves roasted on the campfire. In the beginning, nobody dared to ascend the sacred hill. Many years passed. Reverent and humble, one pilgrim finally climbed the hill to thank the magistrate and to pray. What faith! exclaimed the pilgrim, but his joy was soon turned to sorrow. I have no faith, said the magistrate. Why then your vigil by this beautiful cross? queried the pilgrim. I am waiting, laughed the magistrate, just in case he returns. I will be ready for him. The pilgrim burst into tears and said, When he comes again, you will behold the glory of love and perfection! The magistrate nodded thoughtfully. My resolve is made stronger by your words, he said. The pilgrim descended the unholy hill, afraid to look back at its cross and its sentry. 

The Martyr

In the intricate and ornate chronicles of long ago, a halberdier was dispatched to summon a man who had been hiding in the royal library, awaiting a revelation of his calling. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness. And the man followed him into the streets of twilight. Behold, the lamps of the city! The man watched as the lamplighters extinguished one lamppost after another until not a single lamppost burned. And behold, the city was dark and how vast was the darkness. Come, said the halberdier. Come and bear witness! And they walked in the garden of walled orchards where the glorious pear trees stood, arrayed in golden fruit and golden leaves. Behold the glory of the pear trees! the halberdier cried. And one by one the trees shed their pears and their leaves until not a single leaf adorned the naked black branches clawing at the sky. Come and bear witness! the halberdier cried. The man followed him to the edge of the land, to the great pit beyond the cypresses, where the gravediggers bore coffins and shrouded corpses on stretchers and wheelbarrows, emptying their burdens into the quiet pit. One by one princes and peasants fell into that deathly quiet. The halberdier cried out: Behold, the apostates! And the quiet was intolerable. The man ran away. Vespers and matins, matins and vespers, passed and passed and all the sacred hours in between. The halberdier found the man by the shore, weeping under a willow tree, holding en empty, yellow tobacco box and staring into a small crackling fire of birch logs. It was beginning to snow. Come, my friend, said the halberdier. The man would not rise. I want to depart, he wept. To where? asked the halberdier. To be burned, said the man, in the flames of the lampposts and the golden pears, in the light of those beautiful faces that are no more. The man rose and left his fire and his burning tree, the snowfall and the coal-black sea. Alone, the halberdier sat down by the fire and stared into the mystery of its light. 

The Screamers

It began with the axe. While cutting firewood, one of the villagers accidentally swung the blade through his young daughter’s throat, killing her instantly. After that, nobody could bear to say the word axe, and thus the word vanished from the language in those parts. And there was a great fear of wolves and bears, such that hardened men and nursing mothers forbid their names from their lips. Even when the beasts became scarce, their names did not return. Not long after, there was war in the land, and the need to use secret codes replaced many common expressions which were forgotten by the time peace returned. Charlatans came selling their wares and settled, bringing with them a host of new terms and serpentine phrases that wound about the naive farmers like deadly ropes. Nevertheless, wealth increased, and the villagers deported themselves like merchants and devoted themselves to games, learning more taxonomy and jargon for chess and checkers than for types of trees, ancient saints and prayers, or variations of wind and stone. In those days, the lawyers, teachers and philosophers came, burning churches and books. One by one, the old words disappeared, for a fox might not be fox, nor even a Vulpes, and asterisms were mere imaginary configurations of shining dots in the firmament, and it was wrong to hang thieves, but not poets. Riots were allowed; idiots and murderers could be tortured indefinitely in stone gaols; trespassers had to be welcome. The roads turned into gravel; hayricks rotted, but it did not matter because nobody knew what a rake or a shovel was, and most people spent their years in their homes, staring at picture books or writing angry letters to strangers in a much degraded criminal dialect that was gradually replacing the skeleton of the old language. An old friar visited from afar bearing the message of sacred silence, but nobody in the derelict ruins could hear or understand him because by then they only screamed, wept or grunted in ways devoid of any meaning or logic, and they eventually strangled him with his prayer rope, choking out a gasped word that utterly terrified them but was utterly indecipherable, for it seemed like something than which there was nothing greater.

The Revenant

They found the revenant by the side of the road, sleeping on a bed of pine needles, oblivious to the rain. After wrapping him in a raincoat, they drove him to the ruins of a small, stone warehouse on the side of a mountain, where they had made a makeshift camp. A good fire burned in a cast iron stove, and the fragrance of fresh coffee wafted through the den. They fed him pancakes and roasted chestnuts and gave him some cigarettes. Though he did not sob or speak much, thin rivulets of tears ran down his pale cheekbones. When he had eaten, they smoked in silence, giving him time. Their ravenous eyes were met by his calm, sorrowful gaze that never blinked. The revenant knew well what they wanted, and began to speak before they could ask any questions. Not long after I was buried, I woke up, and I saw myself at a distance. And I was much younger. It was that time of life when everything is on the edge. And I expected to see the harvest of all the rotten seeds I had sown, but there was no such thing. The man I saw was a good man, almost perfect. And she was perfect. I saw them looking after the garden, chopping firewood, rowing out onto the silver lake at dusk, whispering and laughing. Her eyes were often thoughtful, but never hurt, never sad. For ages, I watched, almost blinded by the radiance of their beauty that only burned and corroded me more from the inside out. And then I was sleeping on pine needles, and it was raining. I wonder if they’ll hang me again. The others exchanged glances. The world is not quite the same, they whispered. There hasn’t been a hanging in a hundred years. The revenant sighed. The fire crackled and the rain began again, making a strange orchestra of the sheet metal, stones, tarpaulin, the glittering boughs, the old army truck, the gravel, and his old white skeleton.

The Quarry

Not far past the reservoir, the quarry emerged from the pines, angular, terraced and bone-gray. The gravel crunched beneath the tires of the old lorry as it slowed to a stop by the edge. Rain had begun to spatter the stones like abstract painting. The worker got out and lit a cigarette, the yellow reflector bands on his dark duck cotton jacket gleaming in the dying light. He lit a fire in the firepit with some logs he had brought and sat down on a boulder to drink from a small flask of whiskey. Another pair of headlights flashed as another truck approached, stirred the gravel and stopped. It was the journalist that had been hounding him for some time. The young man got out and walked over, looking up briefly at the dark indigo of the dusk and rain, and then staring at the fire and the worker. Smoking quietly, the worker declined to answer any questions. All of this had been discussed before. The courts had sided with the quarry; there was nothing more to say. Frustrated, the journalist began to speak of destroyed habitats and climate change. The earth was dying every day, and this ignorant, illiterate worker had no idea what he was doing. The man looked at his large, old hands and laughed. “Not illiterate,” he said quietly. “And I am not sure you should mourn the earth the way you do. She is not your friend. In the First World War, mother earth killed 80,000 soldiers in avalanches along the Austrian front in the Alps. Snow and rocks—not bullets—killed them. Plague killed 100,000,000 during the reign of Justinian; the Black Death killed 200,000,000 starting in the 14th Century. 100,000,000 died of the Spanish flu of 1918. The Asian flu killed 2 million in 1957. 123,000 perished in a tsunami in Southern Italy in 1908; 500,000 in the Bhola cyclone in 1970; 4,000,000 in floods in China in 1931; 2,000,000 in the Yellow River Flood in 1887; 200,000 in the Gansu earthquake of 1920; 143,000 in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923; 200,000 in the Xining Earthquake of 1927; 110,000 in the Ashkabad earthquake of 1948; 200,000 in the Haiti Earthquake of 2010; 250,000 in the Antioch Earthquake in 526; 230,000 in the Aleppo Earthquake in 1138; 273,000 in Haiyuan Earthquake in 1920; 280,000 in the Indian Ocean Earthquake and tsunami in 2004. As many as 655,000 died in the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976; 830,000 had died long ago in the Shaanxi earthquake in 1556. 1.5 million died of drought in India in 1967-68. 5 million died from drought and famine in the Soviet Union in the late 50s. And that is just a sample of the dramatic events. One couldn’t count all of the other everyday murders the earth has committed if one tried. You said I am contributing to a mass extinction event. There were plenty before Homo erectus stood on his hindlegs, walked, and played with fire. Somewhere between five and twenty mass extinction events have occurred in the last 540 million years. There was a time the ocean was so toxic that only the horseshoe crab, the jellyfish and a handful of other species survived. The earth has no pity. I would say that destroying the planet were an act of revenge if I thought such a thing were possible. The earth may give us life sometimes, but she inevitably kills everything that grows on her surface. Nothing survives. That is the meaning of extinction. 99% of all life that has ever existed has gone into oblivion. Only one percent survived! And don’t look to other planets or stars for comfort, my young friend. The explosion of the Tunguska Event in 1908 slaughtered 2,000 square kilometres of trees instantly. Our lives are clouds and shadows at best. Arthur Schopenhauer once said: Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other. The earth is eating us. And something will eat the earth one day. Your life is a mist! It will burn off before you want it to. The sky will fall, and the stars will avenge us. The only problem is that we don’t really know if they are still there—their light is millions and billions of years old. Would you like a drink?” The journalist stared with contempt, horror and embarassment at the man and his firepit. Time and again he had rehearsed this conversation on the drive up, and not once had he anticipated any of this. And so he turned around, got back into his car, and drove off into the darkness. The worker had another drink and lit another smoke. Then he looked up to the beauty of the almost obscured mountains of flint and the spiked crowns of the pines and firs blurring into the nightfall and rainfall, grateful and content in a place where nothing was lost. The fire lit up the wet gravel and the wind began to rush through the woods. The good earth was beautiful.