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 Most of those who made it out spoke of outdated gears or rotted roofing—there was no point in describing the sensation of being eaten, of wishing one were safely wrapped in a body cast forever, of the thrill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.
Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.
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.
A poor man saved up his money to buy a good coat, a black coat with a hood. It was to replace a long dynasty of shabby coats that fell apart. The black coat would take him onto the roads and through the fields into events he had long anticipated. There would be rain and starlight and absolute quiet for miles and miles. When he purchased the coat it fit perfectly, and he felt a freedom and comfort he had not known to be possible. At once, he set out through a light rainfall. And then he noticed in the last glow of twilight that the new coat was already coming apart at the seams. It had not even gathered one straw or fleck of dust, and yet it was tearing. The man stopped and whispered something mournful, for he knew that his soul would live forever, but his story had ended, for the coat was integral to the plot.
The skeletons wrapped their black coats around their bones and sat closer to the campfire, watching the firelight dance off their newly cleaned and oiled rifles. There was a strange stillness in the mountains that hung in the trees like an invisible and intangible mist. The coats have gotten better, said the one. First it was blue against gray, then green and gray, then nondescript shades of sand, and now black or green, but at least they seem durable for the time being. Warming his hands on a steel can of coffee, the other skeleton said that it was a difficult thing, picking a coat. Some were good against the rain, some were better with the wind and snow. It was impossible to wear the right coat–one never really knew what the battle was about or where the open road would lead you. And some coats just left you more naked, lying thrown face down on the side of some forgotten road. And the coats are full of surprises.
In abandoned shrines the man who was tired of life lived through dreams of steel. On his wooden sandals ten thousand universes hid in golden dust. Ancient gravel roads possessed for him the clarity of one polished mirror or sword. Always shouting farewell to wind-blown landscapes in a monochrome mirage, in rivers of scripts, down the road he would fade. Down the road, the man would blur.
They waited by the roadside for the coach, dressed well and animated. They were trying to convince a wanderer, a shabby man, who seemed to combine fresh youth and exhaustion in his features, manner and expression, to remain with them until the road coach arrived. They spoke of the rewards, the sites to see along the great highway and the comforts of the coach. The wanderer looked around at the wind blowing through the golden barley, at the racing clouds, and at their long afternoon shadows in the dust. There was something deeply painful in his eyes. Growing up, he started to say, as though launching into an epic while gazing into them plaintively. Then he just laughed, shrugged, and disappeared into the grain fields. Now and then they saw his shadow shapeshifting among the glimmering stalks. The road coach appeared in the distance, trailing a cloud of dust.
When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground–that is an old proverb, the young man said, as he cared for the invalid lying by the side of the great road, the road of caravans and elephant migrations. Do not fear, little one, the old man wheezed as his soul began its departure, for I am too old to remember if I was illiterate or not.
One day, they came to the wheelwright. They asked him why he would only make round wheels. Quietly, the wheelwright spoke of stars, suns, and moons, of the turning of seasons and the way of the wheel over the rolling landscape. With his strong hands, he lifted a wooden wheel and showed them the spokes and the center ring. He even rolled the wheel gently on the ground. They murmured to themselves and went away. Another time, they returned, grumbling once again. They said that they were tired of his wheels, of the sun and the moon, of the stars and the seas, and even the roundness of mother Earth. They hated the wheels, the pinwheels, the windmills, the waterwheels, the rings on their fingers, and even their rounded goblets. They would make other means to travel over the dusty earth and drink from wells. In those days, they would burn wheels by the roadside and stop up any wells that were circular. They would hang wheelwrights from trees. The land became empty of horses, chariots, and carts. The roads were overgrown with weeds and littered with stones.