The dark river of forgetfulness rolled by quietly as two shadows played a game of checkers. One was tall and wore a corinthian helmet; his javelin and spear were planted by an ash tree nearby. The other was in black jeans and a black shirt with stone beads on his wrist; he frequently looked at a palm-sized, rectangular piece of glass that lit up now and then, displaying the absence of time or showing colored tessarae that had various functions that failed to impress the warrior. The man in black was complaining about passive aggressives, virtue signalling, fake news, and other mysteries. For a long time the warrior listened politely, stroking his heroic beard and puzzling over the meanings of the strange words in his friend’s diatribe. At long last, he placed his calculus on the board and said, I think I know what you are describing! We had a similar problem until the time of the tyrants, thousands of years ago, when they first built the theatre. The tyrant took that whole class of citizens and gave them something to do. A whole class? the man in black repeated with astonishment. What did you call them? he asked. Actors, the corinthian helmet replied bitterly. They’re called actors.
“And what do you think of Helicobacter pylori?” the scientist asked. “I like to think of it as a grave political mistake,” said the doctor, as he washed down his creosote, mastic, bismuth and licorice pills with a short glass of chartreuse.
A mysterious character once lived on a mountain by the sea. Those who visited him claimed that he was kind. At times he seemed ancient like an old grandfather; at other times as young and strong as an adolescent. The mysterious character could fish, set bones, build boats and read. He especially loved teaching children to read. When the town coroner heard this, he suspected danger. A plague was imminent. The coroner and the gendarmes arrested the mysterious man, and began the interrogation. What is your name? they asked. When he told him, they said that others had the same name; he must be lying. They gave him anasthetic and removed one lung, one kidney, his spleen, and some of his intestines, all of which they put in jars. After he awakened from his coma, they showed him the kidney in the jar. It was too worn out. Then they showed him the lung. It was too fresh and new. The intestines looked more like eels or gigantic tapeworms than guts. They lined the jars up on a table in front of him. The sight of his glassed innards made him sad. Then they showed him his inked dactylographs and pointed out the imperfections and secret codes embedded in them. In his stomach they had found some silver coins and old nails—these were also in jars, and labeled highly suspicious. Clearly the man was not only an impostor, but also a robotic monster crafted from old and new corpses, machinery, and even strange creatures. He had been sent to deceive with heaven only knew what manner of wizardry. They decided to cut off his hands and feet while he was still awake. Who are you? the coroner demanded as he sawed into a wrist. Mercy! the man sighed. I am whole, and I am true.
In the north, they eat golden ammonia fish, black creosote eels, and mercurial prawns. Clouds are chimercal; water and stone is chemical. They sleep on gravel, and bandage their own wounds. They mine the endless snow and rain, and sometimes summer butterflies. They smoke their straw. In the northern seas, the oarsmen tell the tale of the scrawny mackerel. The mackerel lost its friends and family at a young age, and found it difficult to survive in the black waters. It went to a distant shore and met a marlin. It asked the marlin some questions about sea life. The marlin explained that the world was always eating itself. One had to beware of lying flora and destructive minerals. One was forever caught between the two. The marlin began to talk and to talk, weaving tale after tale to illustrate his points until the mackerel fell asleep. Suddenly the marlin swallowed it whole. Inside the belly of the marlin, the scrawny mackerel woke up in a dark, rosy twilight of brine and acid. It was not the end though. It would have to eat its way out of the eating.
In a moon-white desert full of sand and blue stars, the three magi traveled quietly on their camels, heading into an obscure east. Three nights had passed since the strange star had vanished, since they had departed from the holy cities and their weeping tombs. In later legends, they would be called kings by dreamers, and this was an accidental truth, but only a half-truth. In the east they were awaited not by homes but by angels prepared to escort them back to a distant country of mists, shades and petrified willows far below the earth where everything sleeps. The oldest of the three thought about the hill country they had visited, and vaguely recalled a curious affair of searching for donkeys and falling in among the wandering minstrels and prophets in those very same hills long, long ago. The second, his son-in-law, enemy and usurper, thought of the sheep he had tended not far from the stable they had just visited, of the lions that once prowled in the nearby wilderness, of the soft damsels one sometimes encountered on the way home from the blooded fields. The third, the son of the second, pondered the unfamiliar temple of the holy city, the impenetrable riddleof the stars, and the calming fragrance of straw and hay. Before long such thoughts faded; they could no longer distract themselves and their thoughts from the carpenter, the quiet virgin, and the mysterious child held to her breast. The ghosts meditated in silence as the bells jingled and the camels made quiet footfalls in the sand. A thousand years had passed since they had seen the holy city. Perhaps another thousand would pass before they saw it again. It is a terrible thing for kings to witness the birth of a king. And it is a terrible thing for kings to return to a kingdom not their own. The old grandfathers, ghosts of time, fell into a twilight sleep. The camels were only miniature dark shadows beneath the endless stars.
To read the book of time is to be inspired to write other books, and thus every planet and every world has become a library. On a machine planet a shepherd read the great book of time while tending to his sheep of cast iron and lead. Only one in a hundred sheep would provide steel wool; only half would survive the galactic winters. Through dusted concrete pastures, down tunnels of naked light bulbs and across railroads and scrapyards and mounds of coal and slag, he faithfully led the sheep, resting now and then to smoke or search for straw and stray tools. When he had finished reading the book of time by the light of an old train signal, burning like a tiger’s eye in the darkness, his heart burned with a thousand books, tens of thousands of thoughts, hundreds of thousands of words. At the same time, he hungered for more books, more words, more thoughts to devour. Not a single new codex turned up on his nomadic searches, but he did find a book of blank pages, a book that rather resembled the book of time. The only thing left was to read and write as time permitted, and this is what he did. A word or two by matchsmoke, one page here and there in the company of growling and purring metallic sheep. One day, in the graveyard of rubber tires, the censors arrived with gendarmes and arrested him for reading a forbidden book, for plagiarism and for crimes against truth. They seized the two codices—one bone-white and the other gray like steel wool. The interrogations began at once while the bailiffs and sergeants built a ready-to-wear gallows in a matter of seconds, anchoring it on a mound of coal dust. The censor read out the charges again and demanded the reason for the shepherd’s activities and his refusal to strip for his execution, which was a crime of resistance. The shepherd claimed not to have known that the book of time had been banned. Great books were difficult to come by, and he had found his copy in an abandoned kiln, where books turned up now and then, most of them half-burnt as kindling. Since he had so little time to read or write, he had been forced to choose. And thus he chose both—he copied words from books, especially the book of time, which was the only reading material still in his possession—so that he could immerse himself in the joys of both impression and expression. The censor shook his head in disgust. The shepherd said that from time to time he would slip into a daydream or trance, and during those minutes or hours his pen would not follow what was printed in the book but what randomly appeared in his mind. Thus, in the thousand pages of his bone-white codex that still had some blank spaces left, at least one hundred had not been copied, but had come from the pain in his heart and head. For this reason, the shepherd requested that he be allowed to wear his coat and hold his codex as he hanged. It is a strange thing to hang a legend. And the poor sheep were left alone.
One night, a little girl was saying her evening prayers when an angel appeared to her. Do not fear, said the angel bathed in light. The little girl stared at him in astonishment. I fear, she gasped. You look more like a calamarius than an angel! The tentacles shrank back a little. I am not of the seraphim or the cherubim, but I am an angel from heaven, the strange creature soughed. I thought there was no more sea in the new heaven and new earth, the girl protested. The radiant, anthropoid calamarius wrung its tentacles. Questions and more questions!! he sighed in a voice that could have come from the spiralling twilight of a sea shell. First of all, he argued, it is possible that the new heaven and new earth have not arrived yet. Secondly, when it says there is no sea, it likely means that there is no sea comparable to your polluted black waters, but instead a magnificent ocean of immaculate beauty. Third, the sea has long been associated with the realm of the dead—the saints merely speak of there being no more death when they say that there is no more sea. Have you never read all the epitaphs and poems for drowned sailors? Not all of them, the little girl whispered, but I have read a few inscriptions by the shore. I am sorry for troubling you with questions. The calamarius gently touched her shoulder with the tip of his tentacle. Do not fear. I only came to bring you a gift. Heaven has ordained that you shall receive whatever you ask for. The little girl thought about it, and said: It is written that if someone lacks wisdom, they can ask for it. And I remember reading about a great king who was offered everything in the world, but he only wanted wisdom. Please give me wisdom! The calamarius glowed brighter, and said: That is a good gift, indeed, but one that you are perhaps not ready for. I will give you till tomorrow evening to consider. The calamarian angel turned into smoke and vanished. It was a while before the girl could sleep, but when she did she had the strangest nightmares. First she dreamed of a man who watched as his scrolls were torn up and burned before he himself was lowered into a cistern of filth. Then she saw another man far, far away, wandering from capital to capital in search of employment as he lectured, never dreaming of how his followers would be buried alive in the earth after their books were burned. She saw a queen who dreamed of tranquil lakes and white elephants, giving birth to a beautiful child from her right side, a child she would never know, for she died seven days after his birth. Then she saw a stonemason asking questions and reasoning with friends in a prison cell as he drank a draught of hemlock. She saw a young woman put on her father’s armour and travel north to defend her people, while another woman of another time surreptitiously broke the law to bury her brothers, even though it meant ending her life hanging from a tree. And then there was a slave skilled in logic who did not scream or cave into threats, but calmly discoursed on cause and effect as his enraged master broke his arm. She saw a peasant girl meet a winged angel announcing the birth of holiness. She saw an exiled woman who made tents for a living, all the while teaching the deep things of the spirit despite the dangers of persecution. A man who built amazing machines and had counted every speck of dust in the galaxy died from a sword thrust as he drew geometrical figures and circles in the dirt. A thin old hermit who dwelled on snowbound mountain peaks conversed with clouds and pines. A man who gazed at stars lived under house arrest. And in yet another realm of green islands and pale blue seas with days of glass, there was one who lived among rotting lepers. Bodies burned on stakes; heads fell from gibbets; books burned in pyre after pyre. One by one, faces and screams passed through her head, until she felt a crown of thorns tightening around her skull as she watched a quiet carpenter with loving eyes die on a cross. In the morning, she felt a little feverish, and stepped out into the garden to go cool herself in the nearby pool fed by an aqueduct . She passed through the olives and cypresses until she came to the rolling hills. The early sun painted the grain and flowers in lighter and lighter shades of gray until the world suddenly exploded into warbling and light, into an almost violent radiance, golden and blue, as the birds took flight and the aqueduct loomed in its solid mineral glory, its arches like hundreds of windows into different worlds. Thirsty, exhausted, and stronger than ever before, she faced the day as she embraced the evening to come.