The Sentry Box

The first sentry always stood in his black and white striped shelter with its red lamp facing the cobblestone plaza in front of the train station. A man of law and vigilance, in his royal blue uniform he was the invisible observer who could not fail to note the humility of those who departed and the arrogance of those who returned. Suddenly these returning travelers knew much, spoke loudly and pretended to have forgotten their native tongue. Hauling their ostentatious baggage, waving around their passports full of stamps and making exaggerated faces and gestures as they recalled all the good sights they already missed, they passed by his post like dirty clouds that stain the clear blue sky. And thus he abandoned his post and bought a train ticket, confessing to the conductor that he hoped he might never return. The man of law who replaced him watched the departing with disgust, envying their wanton displays of freedom, deeply suspicious of their desires for foreign coasts and illegible scripts. Like mimes, these eager travelers acted out the adventures they would have just to remind the company seeing them off of how miserably small and insignificant their worldviews were. One day, the second sentry also abandoned his post, madly crying out to the ticket clerk that he hoped he would return chastised and meek. When he did return, he was court-martialed and shot. The third man of law only appeared when the new lamppost shone for the first time one evening. Standing in the striped sentry box, he watched the pigeons play in the fountain during day shifts and dreamed of books and expensive cigarettes by night. Though friendly and thankful for the bread crumbs and seeds he shared, the birds were careful, being secretly obsessed with the suspicion that he had wandered before and might wander again and knew more of their speech than he let on. When the revolution came, they would be sure to stalk him first and peck out his sandy eyes.


The Explosives

They met on the beach in the early morning, as the dark blue sky still hovered over the waters and the wind whipped at the dry grass on the dunes. After building a fire, the older youth drew circles in the packed, wet sand, filled them with triangles, and began to explain the angles, the measurements, the laws that ruled the division of space. The younger boy, shaved liked his companion, watched in awe. They recalled the old man in another seaside city far away who had taught them about machines, space, and the stars whenever they brought him olives, squid, ink, or wine. I wonder where it all comes from, the younger one asked. The elder looked up into the dark sky where the stars were beginning to fade. Then he gathered some sand into his palm, letting the wind carry most of it away until only a few grains were left. It began with something smaller than one of these grains of sand. What happened? There was an explosion, said the older one, his gray eyes staring through the sand, through his own palm, through the very fabric of the universe. And out of that explosion came everything—time, matter, heat, the workings of the planets and stars. The younger boy opened his mouth and then closed it as he stared intently at the sand grains by the light of the fire. One of these grains of sand could be an explosive, then. Maybe, the older one sighed, dusting off his hands. I don’t know. What are stars? the younger one asked. They are part of the explosion. It happened thousands and thousands of years ago, maybe millions of years ago, and we are still seeing it. The moon, sun, and stars are all part of the great explosion. Then they are explosives, as well! the younger one shouted with joy. Perhaps, the older one sighed. Explosives like our old city. The smoke must have risen for days. The younger one filled his hands with dry sand, throwing the grains at the sea. Then he turned to his friend and asked how many grains of sand there were in the universe. The older boy began to speak of myriads, and myriads of myriads, and myriads of myriads of myriads, writing letters on the sand to explain as he went. The young one felt as if his own head were suddenly hollow and filled with distant stars. When his friend had finished he asked him how large one star might be, and how many grains of sand it might contain. The older one ventured a guess. The younger one walked back to the surfline and stared into the paling sky. Everything is explosive, he whispered, almost breathless.

The Courtyard

It was a cool, warm spring bursting with almond blossoms and rosemary under cloudless blue skies. A postman had fallen gravely ill, and the postmaster ran off to the hospital built of old, blond stones to make inquiries. None of the luscious nurses seemed able to answer his questions. The damnable priest was nowhere in sight. Outraged, the postmaster stepped into a courtyard of plane trees, stone saints and a plashing fountain to have a smoke when he stumbled upon the missing priest, who had been nonchalantly carving and was now sanding pieces of wood. “I was looking for a miracle-worker and all I find is a woodworker!” the postmaster exclaimed. “It’s not that improbable of a combination. The Good Lord generally knows who to send and where to send him when the time comes,” said the hard, stony priest. The postmaster strongly suspected a peasant childhood followed by army service. “And I am neither a miracle-worker nor a woodworker, though I know men and women who have been both,” the priest added with a little laugh. “Your postman has been admitted to palliative care with no hope of leaving. I was informed that I would be informed when I was needed.” The postmaster lit his pipe and watched the sun and shadows dance as a gentle wind stirred the plane trees. A nurse pushed an empty wheelchair along one of the colonnades, its chrome spokes throwing sparks of sunlight. When she had disappeared beyond a dark arch, the mystery of the wooden pieces and the faraway look in the priest’s eyes captivated him once more. “To be sure, you must see this a lot,” he said, trying to explain the quiet, the idleness and the lack of urgency. “Some seasons more than others,” the priest admitted. “Sometimes they want me to camp out by the bedside. Sometimes I only learn of the matter when they are purchasing the coffin or digging the grave,” the priest explained, fastening  pieces of wood into place with screws. “The widows who have nothing to do like to keep an eye on things. When someone falls ill, they will rush to the hospital and commune with the dying. Only after they have been seen by the orderlies, nurses and the doctors will they send me a telegram. When I arrive, they love to wail and bemoan my absence in the hour of trial! They then make sure I only stay long enough for a prayer. And they are absolutely offended if a patient manages to write to me or telephone me directly without informing them. I always keep those telegrams.” The postmaster shook his head and puffed out cherry-sweet smoke like a locomotive. “Are the widows here today?” he asked. “Most certainly,” the priest laughed, adding some finishing touches to his strange devices. A woman in black with a white cap arrived, gave a familiar smile and nod to the postmaster, and delivered a telegram to the priest. The priest read it silently, and passed it on to the postmaster without comment. “Deceased!” the latter exclaimed in horror, shaking his head.  “Will you be coming upstairs?” the postmaster asked. “No,” the priest replied in a slow, thoughtful exhalation. “I have a delivery to make to a young one,” he added, standing up and holding the finished crutches. “Good day,” the priest mumbled, striding off past the fountain towards the opposite colonnade. It was far too warm and pleasant for it to be a day of death.

The Train

A woman wished to be wed, but she did not know how or to whom. The girls on the trams laughed at her; the typists and notaries at the office ignored her. Thus she wandered the city of old concrete and sand, lonely and invisible. One cold evening of brilliant stars and a dark moon, she entered the train station. Kerosene lamps burned on the platforms. A clock suspended from the iron rafters cast a mournful glow. A man in a dark coat walked toward her, flickering in and out of light and shadow. A long whistle sounded in the distance as they accidentally collided. The man reeked of soap, cigarettes and pine needles, old ink, motor oil and wool. She held onto him and gasped, “You have the fragrance of the last train to depart!” Pressing her to himself, and feeling her trembling body, he sighed, “Or the train that will never arrive.”

The Amber Orchard 

And what questions would you pose to my golden pears? the demigodess, cloud-white in the amber, asked. That they rot not and forever ripen, that their motion be as perpetual as their silence and stillness, said the thief, the shadow of long lines and a shaded face. That they hold fast the downward gaze of the black bird and the bright stars, the whisper of wind, the consolation of reason and heartbeat of prayer. That they are to be invested in the golden hour, the devotion of rock sugar, the tobacco at twilight, the softness of milk tea and cottonwood blossoms. May the mound and barrow swell with swords and dragons and coins. May the hearth smoke and the song trail off. May the orchard rustle; may the sheep return. May the golden pears burn into the galaxy. 

The Wanderer and the Herdsman 

It was the end and the wanderers were in the land and there was great fear. The poor watched the moon and the meteor showers, while the lords and ladies poured wine and ate the ribs of their enemies in great banquets that lasted for days. One day a herdsman saw a wanderer, radiant with white smoke and the sparkle of tears or diamonds, passing through the poplars lining the snowbound road. “Wanderer, I have a question!” the herdsman called out in grief. The wanderer paused like an elegant deer and listened. “Should I fear the coming of the beast?” asked the herdsman. The wanderer thought for a moment in his silver glow of winter. “Are you the beast?” he gently asked the poor man. The poor man shook his head vehemently, and said, “I don’t think so. I pray that I am not!” Then the wanderer smiled, placed his hand on the head of the herdsman and whispered, “Then you have nothing to fear and all of the stars are yours.” 

The Great Bear 

She was not golden, and so she had no fear. She spoke in the gray town squares every day, laughing and sneering at the enemies of her truth. None dared burn her, for she had her own fires to kindle. The woods called to her, she said. The earth was crying out for salvation. And thus she departed from the land of gray towers. She entered the dark woods with the book of her seven sacraments. She followed her heart. It was darker and brighter than she had hoped. There were black shadows and bursts of pure light through the spring and autumn leaves. Even the shadows seemed to hum with unseen light that burned her eyes. It was exhausting to walk between the lush boughs and the fallen leaves. It was tiresome to travel at the mercy of the terrain, the rocks and great trunks determining her every footfall. There were no gray mists. At last she came to the cabin, the woodshack, the lion’s den. Inside, it was too silent. She was disappointed to find that there was only one table, one bowl, and one bed. She tried to laugh, and lifted the bowl to her lips, but it was empty. Weary, she climbed into the long, great bed of cold wood and hay, and fell asleep. In the morning, a searing pain awoke her. She opened her eyes to see a solitary, gigantic bear, sleeping on his side with her ribs in his mouth. The bear awoke as well, and spat out her ribs. Why did you eat me? she gasped. I thought your ribs might save the world. The birds were whispering of it for years, but they were wrong. There is nothing in your ribs but death. She looked down into the abyss of her chest, and there was indeed nothing but a whirlpool of black flesh, dark blood and blue bottles. A distant groan like soft thunder passed through the woods. What will happen to me? she asked the bear. I do not know, the bear sighed. I do not think your carcass will make me any honey. And since your ribs grow nothing, I cannot keep you. She passed out, awakening later to find him dragging her body far, far from the woods into a great field of snow. And yet, I came to save you, to save your woods, to save the truth, she choked as her body slid down the slope of a pit. Why was the bowl empty? she cried out with the last of her strength. You stole our grain, the bear sighed. The last thing she saw were her ribs flying down from the bear’s paw to land in wet snow by her feet. A distant voice growled farewell. There were other empty and rotten ribs to eat before the end.