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 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 crucifix towered on the edge of the high cliffs of a pit at the end of the earth that fell into the sea, into a cove with a great churning corry. Night and day the whirlpool thrummed and soughed, the winds moaned and screamed. The sides of the pit were two crescent shaped promontories, again of sheer cliff, that gave the ends of the earth the appearance of a clamp or wrench, or two scythes curving towards each other. They may have whipped him lightly, if at all. They did not nail his hands or his feet. Instead, they secured him to the crucifix with ropes made from old whips and chains, but in such a way that hanging was not very torturous, though it was not painless. Ravens trained by augurs brought him food and water. For days, he listened to the horrifying song of the pit and its whirlpool, an incessant sound that magnified at times but never subsided. One by one, they came—pilgrims and outcasts, naked and clothed. They would murmur to the wind or weep before throwing themselves headlong into the darkness of the pit and its cold ocean spray. On moonlit nights or days of clear weather, centurions, legionnaires, the occasional augur and senator, even slaves would come to picnic below the giant cruxifix, eating roasted lambs, loaves of fragrant bread, black olives and figs. They drank heady wines, mocked the hanged man, laughed hideously like hyenas, sang paeans and hymns to their conquests, proclaimed their laws and lectured on their superior science and justice, before packing up to return to they city with its endless dramas, public hearings, lavish banquets and chariot races. The man hanged in silence. The pilgrims and outcasts returned, mumbling and weeping, or silent as the stones on the moor. Some prayed or sang before leaping; others took out parchment and wrote lengthy epistles. Some even burned their books or lit themselves on fire before jumping into the pit. Once, a beautiful maiden in a white chiton approached. He had never seen anyone so beautiful. They conversed, and he saw that she was a poet and an astronomer and a deaconess of the sacred way. His heart burned with love for her purity and beauty as she picked flowers and discoursed on the meaning of the constellations and the eternity of grace. Then, she suddenly plumbed the depths of her body with a dagger and threw herself away into the abyss. The hanged one wept until he lost consciousness. Perhaps he even briefly died. Travelers later reported that they had passed through this desolate country, and had seen the punished criminal still alive and still fed by ravens, speaking strange words to passersby. When they asked a ploughman or a cart driver who it was that sang proverbs and prayed old songs of hope and joy, they laughed and said he was an antiquated type of madman. And what type would that be? the travelers would inquire. A priest, they whispered, but one could hardly hear them for the roar of the wind and the waves in the pit.
Through the wasteland the twin pilgrims wandered, stopping in the ruins of monasteries, camping by old traffic lights that grew like strange, lone trees from mounds of gravel and dust, and unearthing the odd relic here and there as they went. One night, they camped upon the tiled roof of an old sacred site now level with the shaved plains. Winds fiercely blew, and they broke through the roof to get to shelter in the dusted spaces below. The girl wandered with a candle while her fellow built a small fire. She returned with an old book mostly
charred. The script was familiar, and she read aloud the few legible pages that remained. “What a worthless book,” she sighed. “It is nothing but names and genealogies.” The other stared into the fire. She hurled the book at him, and lay her bedroll near the glowing warmth, her body sinking into shadow. The other read the page, and said to his twin, “Bone of my bone, this is not worthless. Maybe the ones who wrote it believed that heaven cares for all people and their stories and where they came from, and this was proof that it was worth praying for others.” The twin did not reply. Later, when she was asleep, he carefully cut the surviving pages from the book and placed them into his journal. Then, taking a fountain pen, he added his own name and the name of his twin. Closing the book, he listened to the fire snap hiss and kept watch on the grim and endless stars shining through the broken roof.
Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
The flat-out madness beckoned. The young shadows would want to depart for the threshing lands, the sixty mile waste of abandoned barley fields, old machinery, derailed boxcars, empty barns, burnt out cars, rubber tires, tar pits and smoking trees. It was a right of passage, a way to find their lucky stars, or just a visit to the unknown in search of answers. Some were just suicides waiting to happen. Some just wanted to look for fossils and poems or a cold, quiet, darkness in which to slowly kiss or pray. One had to have jeans, boots, hoodies, a hunting knife, matches and cigarettes, rum and hot tea, maybe even a tattered paperback classic or a pocket-sized notebook with a good pen. A good flannel shirt, a toolbox and a radio wouldn’t hurt. One had to have a head full of old leaves and roads never taken. There among discarded carriage wheels, weed-covered crossroads, mounds of sawdust, broken fences and deer bones, they walked in the brisk landscape of midnight without end. The machines and burnt out cars would eventually wake up. The screaming weeds and the deathberries would animate. The sabretoothed threshers and reapers bared their fangs and growled after the running shadows, leaving trails of fragrant dust. Prehistoric wolves and obsolete foxes skulked and skirted the wired roads through the great nothing and its twisted constellations. It was unusual to get out without open wounds and deep inner scars, and nobody was ever quite able to describe the horror and the passion in everyday words. Most of those who made it out spoke of outdated gears or rotted roofing—there was no point in describing the sensation of being eaten, of wishing one were safely wrapped in a body cast forever, of the thrill of having no body cast, of what it means to be thrown through time, of what it is like to be eaten by earth or sharp metal. And behind their silence was the secret revelation that lucky stars only burned back there in that land of golden grain and rust, and the roads never taken are the only ones worth taking.
The old tower shifted and then crumbled during the earthquake, obstructing the great road. The starving pilgrims looked like scared black foxes in the twilight. One pilgrim sat down in the rubble, and whispered to nobody in pariticular, “What an impasse! Now we shall have neither wisdom nor excess!”
The white stone was ordinary, almost oval, and beautiful to look at. The pilgrim allowed the other travellers to take turns holding it, but nobody could see what was so special. They returned the stone to him, and went their way. The pilgrim walked the great road past monuments, famous views, venerated boulders or trees, and ancient bridges without seeming to notice anything. Several carriages almost ran over him and a donkey had to gently nudge him out of the way at one point, since he was so lost in the radiance of the stone. A sentry at a gatehouse watched him, and decided to ask what the stone was all about. The pilgrim took him down to the river. This stone is like a library or a gallery, said the pilgrim. When I wash the stone, I see a line of boats along the shallows where I grew up. Or a little army of frogs racing over black rain drops on white water! The sentry smiled at the thought. The pilgrim led him by the arm back up to the roadway, and held the stone out in the sun, drying it in his palm. Now, I see the great plain where they hunt stones; it is covered in snow! The distant mountains are a pale but bold shade of blue. The cranes have already departed. The houses scattered across the fields look like hayricks. Sometimes at night, when it is quite warm, I see the steam rising from a volcanic lake or the nape or throat of a beautiful girl. The sentry laughed, not sure if the pilgrim were the wisest or maddest person he had ever met. Where can one find such enchanted stones? the sentry asked. I found mine when I was a child. I found it at the back of an old stone warehouse where my grandfather stored his rusting farm implements. There were all kinds of tools! Rakes, scythes, shears, plows, hoes, saws, and other things I can no longer name! Do not worry, you will find your stone! The sentry thanked the pilgrim, and invited him to tea in the gatehouse before sending him along. On the roadway at twilight, he found a black stone, dusted but ink-dark once he polished it. The nights of long ago wafted out of the hard mineral surface, and he could see the rooftops, a rusted sea of tiles, and the moon and stars far above.
An old priest traveling southward met a young priest heading north at a lonesome place, where the way skirted high cliffs that fell into a dark oblivion. It was windy, and they rested behind a rock to eat, drink and converse. The old priest asked what had drawn the younger one into the way. I wanted to find safety and acceptance, said the young priest. The divine has no such words in its language, the old priest laughed. Then you do not believe in heaven! the young one exclaimed in horror. On the contrary, the old priest replied, it is because I do believe in heaven. I may not believe in earth, though.
At long last, the pilgrim reached the edge of the west. For years he had walked, wooden staff in hand, dreaming of the alabaster pagodas, rainfalls of flowers, delicious morning dew and utter peace. At the edge there was a gate, made of wooden scaffolding, a twisted, fragile affair that vaguely resembled the script of a language he might once have known. On a bedroll spread upon the red sand, the lame gatekeeper lay, looking at the pilgrim. The bald gatekeeper resembled an emaciated stone statue. I have come, said the pilgrim. I have not strayed, and I have not turned back. No, said the gatekeeper, you have not. The road was long, said the pilgrim, but I was able, and it was a road of peace and illumination. And sickness and death, said the lame one. What do you mean? the pilgrim cried. The gatekeeper was silent, but then finally spoke. The woman you begged alms from ten years ago lost her infants, for she had nothing left to feed them. The man who hid you in his cart and secretly transported you over several borders was captured and nailed to the wheels of his cart. The old man who cut himself while trying to mend your sandals suffered from a horrific infection that lasted for years before he died in agony. These are only a handful of cases. There were many such events along the way. The pilgrim shuddered and looked at the naked gate which had no doors or locks. Clouds of dust rose and blew through the frame. Where is the garden? asked the pilgrim. Is this not the west? It was not a reasonable question—straight ahead beyond the gate the sinking sun burned his eyes with its melancholy radiance of brass and orange light. The sun sets in the desert, said the gatekeeper. It always sets in a desert.