One day, a man found a broken golden bird on the road. He gently picked the bird up and took it back to his quarters at the top of a high, round tower that looked out over the gray and barren moors. The kind man lit a lamp, gave the bird some seed and water, and made plasters and medicines to heal its body and wings. It would be many days before the bird could fly again, but the bird hated the cold stone tower and the night stars tempted it. Your medicine is slow and bitter, said the bird, and I do not believe in your magic. The only things I need to heal are the wind and the sky, the earth and its trees. The man thought for a moment, picked up the bird, and threw him from the high window full of night stars.
Long ago, before there were maps and charts, an old king commisioned his sons to venture out into the night, one to the east and one to the west, until they found the great white tree, which is said to be the heart of the world. Both sons had good hearts, and wanted to please their father, but they differed in temperament. The first was rash, while the second was longsuffering. It would be a long journey full of trials, tests and tempests. As he was leaving the stronghold, the first son met an alchemist in the market, a man well learned in the sciences, engineering and magic. He offered to give the prince a means by which he might travel through time and and space to arrive at the white tree immediately. The first son accepted, being a man of science himself, and wanting to please his father quickly; thus he paid the alchemist a fair amount of silver for the craft of such marvellous travel. The second son went to an inn, drank some ale, and spent a fortnight thinking. First, he tried to guess the cost of such a journey. When he realized the sum, he began to sell all he had. Night after night, merchants came to the inn. Some came to buy what the second prince sold. Others came to offer longboats, caravans, provisions, armies, shepherds and oarsmen to assist in the great undertaking. On the fifteenth day, having settled all his accounts and having finished all his preparations, the second son set out, his only possessions consisting of the armadas and caravans by which he would reach the white tree. Not many hours after the first son arrived in the mysterious land of the great white tree, a land of charcoal hills and old stars, the second son arrived, alone with one skeletal horse, his clothing torn, his head shaved and tattooed like a slave’s, his eyes almost dead of light. The great white tree towered above them, majestic and silent. The first son, whose journey had been instantaneous, asked the other how long he had traveled. And the second son said that it had been ten years. What have you seen on your travels? the second son asked. Nothing, said the first. And you, my brother, what have you seen? he asked, puzzled. Everything, said the second son, his eyes flickering back into life. The silence and power of the great white tree is a secret and tremendous thing, and it bestows its gifts differently to each who approach it. When the first son reached out to touch it, he faded into smoke and sand. And under the pale, long, and gnarled branches, the second son wept as the mineral stars sparkled in the night, but as he wept he knew his heart and the kingdom would live as long as the white tree soared into the sky.
“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.
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.
In the monastery, the inquistors found the visiting confessor at a wooden desk in a barren cell, surrounded by books of world history, geography, anthropology and philosophy. In a corona of candlelight they saw the typescripts and manuscripts and his inked hands. What is this calligraphy and typography all about? one of them demanded. I am writing an epistle, the confessor replied. Towhat end? To the ends of the earth! To the world! In the early days, the apostle wrote epistles to the great cities to share his wisdom and his vision of glory. Many centuries of darkness have passed, and there is seemingly no law or good will left on earth. I thought of writing my own epistle to the great cities, to thank them for the good they have done, to praise their monuments and books, to admire their peoples and to wish them well. I would not write such things, said one. The cities do not wish to be praised. It will only make them feel worse—they will see all the more clearly how far and how deep they have fallen into darkness, and they will resent you for it. Another inquisitor agreed, saying, Moreover, such unqualified praise could cause them to ignore their own evil. It would make them feel justified in their pride, animosity and aggression. An epistle like yours would plant the seeds of smoke and famine. A third said that such a fawning epistle would belittle the great cities and trap them in typologies they had no interest in inhabiting or incarnating. It would be a letter of mirages and betrayals. One by one they left the cell. Crushed, the confessor stared at his silent towers of books and felt his brain turn into ice. That night, his heart broke, he suffered a grand epileptic fit, and lost part of his reason. In the days to come, weeping but almost catatonic, he continued to compose his letter in secret to all the invisible cities of the world—cities of damask and morrocco, cities of delftware and china, cities of port and sherry, cities of roman candles and greek fire, cities of rugby and japanning, cities of afghans and astrakhans, cities of the siamese and burmese, cities of landaus and leyden jars, cities of berlins and limousines, cities of homburgs, cities of nankeen, cities of bikinis and chicago screws, cities of mocha, assam, keelung and darjeeling, cities of java and sumatra, cities of turkish and virginia tobacco, cities of lancashires and parchment, cities of indigo and india ink.