It began with the axe. While cutting firewood, one of the villagers accidentally swung the blade through his young daughter’s throat, killing her instantly. After that, nobody could bear to say the word axe, and thus the word vanished from the language in those parts. And there was a great fear of wolves and bears, such that hardened men and nursing mothers forbid their names from their lips. Even when the beasts became scarce, their names did not return. Not long after, there was war in the land, and the need to use secret codes replaced many common expressions which were forgotten by the time peace returned. Charlatans came selling their wares and settled, bringing with them a host of new terms and serpentine phrases that wound about the naive farmers like deadly ropes. Nevertheless, wealth increased, and the villagers deported themselves like merchants and devoted themselves to games, learning more taxonomy and jargon for chess and checkers than for types of trees, ancient saints and prayers, or variations of wind and stone. In those days, the lawyers, teachers and philosophers came, burning churches and books. One by one, the old words disappeared, for a fox might not be fox, nor even a Vulpes, and asterisms were mere imaginary configurations of shining dots in the firmament, and it was wrong to hang thieves, but not poets. Riots were allowed; idiots and murderers could be tortured indefinitely in stone gaols; trespassers had to be welcome. The roads turned into gravel; hayricks rotted, but it did not matter because nobody knew what a rake or a shovel was, and most people spent their years in their homes, staring at picture books or writing angry letters to strangers in a much degraded criminal dialect that was gradually replacing the skeleton of the old language. An old friar visited from afar bearing the message of sacred silence, but nobody in the derelict ruins could hear or understand him because by then they only screamed, wept or grunted in ways devoid of any meaning or logic, and they eventually strangled him with his prayer rope, choking out a gasped word that utterly terrified them but was utterly indecipherable, for it seemed like something than which there was nothing greater.
Not far past the reservoir, the quarry emerged from the pines, angular, terraced and bone-gray. The gravel crunched beneath the tires of the old lorry as it slowed to a stop by the edge. Rain had begun to spatter the stones like abstract painting. The worker got out and lit a cigarette, the yellow reflector bands on his dark duck cotton jacket gleaming in the dying light. He lit a fire in the firepit with some logs he had brought and sat down on a boulder to drink from a small flask of whiskey. Another pair of headlights flashed as another truck approached, stirred the gravel and stopped. It was the journalist that had been hounding him for some time. The young man got out and walked over, looking up briefly at the dark indigo of the dusk and rain, and then staring at the fire and the worker. Smoking quietly, the worker declined to answer any questions. All of this had been discussed before. The courts had sided with the quarry; there was nothing more to say. Frustrated, the journalist began to speak of destroyed habitats and climate change. The earth was dying every day, and this ignorant, illiterate worker had no idea what he was doing. The man looked at his large, old hands and laughed. “Not illiterate,” he said quietly. “And I am not sure you should mourn the earth the way you do. She is not your friend. In the First World War, mother earth killed 80,000 soldiers in avalanches along the Austrian front in the Alps. Snow and rocks—not bullets—killed them. Plague killed 100,000,000 during the reign of Justinian; the Black Death killed 200,000,000 starting in the 14th Century. 100,000,000 died of the Spanish flu of 1918. The Asian flu killed 2 million in 1957. 123,000 perished in a tsunami in Southern Italy in 1908; 500,000 in the Bhola cyclone in 1970; 4,000,000 in floods in China in 1931; 2,000,000 in the Yellow River Flood in 1887; 200,000 in the Gansu earthquake of 1920; 143,000 in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923; 200,000 in the Xining Earthquake of 1927; 110,000 in the Ashkabad earthquake of 1948; 200,000 in the Haiti Earthquake of 2010; 250,000 in the Antioch Earthquake in 526; 230,000 in the Aleppo Earthquake in 1138; 273,000 in Haiyuan Earthquake in 1920; 280,000 in the Indian Ocean Earthquake and tsunami in 2004. As many as 655,000 died in the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976; 830,000 had died long ago in the Shaanxi earthquake in 1556. 1.5 million died of drought in India in 1967-68. 5 million died from drought and famine in the Soviet Union in the late 50s. And that is just a sample of the dramatic events. One couldn’t count all of the other everyday murders the earth has committed if one tried. You said I am contributing to a mass extinction event. There were plenty before Homo erectus stood on his hindlegs, walked, and played with fire. Somewhere between five and twenty mass extinction events have occurred in the last 540 million years. There was a time the ocean was so toxic that only the horseshoe crab, the jellyfish and a handful of other species survived. The earth has no pity. I would say that destroying the planet were an act of revenge if I thought such a thing were possible. The earth may give us life sometimes, but she inevitably kills everything that grows on her surface. Nothing survives. That is the meaning of extinction. 99% of all life that has ever existed has gone into oblivion. Only one percent survived! And don’t look to other planets or stars for comfort, my young friend. The explosion of the Tunguska Event in 1908 slaughtered 2,000 square kilometres of trees instantly. Our lives are clouds and shadows at best. Arthur Schopenhauer once said: Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other. The earth is eating us. And something will eat the earth one day. Your life is a mist! It will burn off before you want it to. The sky will fall, and the stars will avenge us. The only problem is that we don’t really know if they are still there—their light is millions and billions of years old. Would you like a drink?” The journalist stared with contempt, horror and embarassment at the man and his firepit. Time and again he had rehearsed this conversation on the drive up, and not once had he anticipated any of this. And so he turned around, got back into his car, and drove off into the darkness. The worker had another drink and lit another smoke. Then he looked up to the beauty of the almost obscured mountains of flint and the spiked crowns of the pines and firs blurring into the nightfall and rainfall, grateful and content in a place where nothing was lost. The fire lit up the wet gravel and the wind began to rush through the woods. The good earth was beautiful.
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.
In the gray mountains, the hunter, half-drowned in mud, chanced upon an estate surrounded by monumental pines. The rain was deafening. Only the beautiful countess and her guards were home. The count was away on an expedition, and all the maids and servants were in the next town at the festival. With perfect courtesy, the hunter offered a beautiful stag in exchange for a quick rest and a drink. The countess accepted the gift, relieved him of his dirty coat, and invited him into a spacious library full of comfortable sofas and ancient landscape paintings. She brought a tray of cakes, brandy, hot coffee and expensive cigarettes. While he ate and rested, she drew a hot bath for him, providing towels, clean clothes and fragrant soap. A phonograph was playing a waltz as the hunter returned to the library, where he found the countess sitting on a sofa. She sipped her brandy, and asked: “What do you think of the soap?” It was marvellous soap, the hunter replied with a nervous laugh. “And when you were washing, did the bar of soap touch every part of your body?” Once again laughing, the hunter confessed that he had indeed washed his whole body thoroughly. The countess stood up, stretched, and said, “I will now bathe in the warm water you left. With the same fragrant soap that touched your body, I am going to soap my whole body and all of its inner and outer flesh—my face, my neck, my bosom, the secret space between my breasts, my navel and my soft thighs. While I am bathing, you can get a headstart. See if you can outrun my hounds and my marksmen.”
The beloved king arrested the royal meteorologist and the royal historian, throwing them both in the same prison cell at the top of a tower that had once been a library and observatory. “Why are we thus arrested? And locked up together? This is absurd!” the meteorologist protested, striking the wall with his fists. “I have nothing in common with you!” The historian gazed through the window at the mountains and waters. “It is not absurd,” he almost whispered. “It is pure logic. History and weather are twin stars.” The meteorologist looked at his empty hands and asked, “What have I lost?” The world of tomorrow, said the wind. “What have you lost?” he then asked the historian. The world of yesterday, said a ghost. “What remains?” he asked once again. The world of today, sighed the historian, looking through the prison window into the vague distance.
In the holy city, the city of mercy, the city of benevolence, the city of justice, the last ancient apostle and philosopher fell ill, and was carried to hospital. It felt as if he were swimming in and out of shadows, through twists and turns of colonnades and lamplight, masked faces and chrome wheelchairs, their wheels spinning mindlessly like the ancient law. The apostle slept, but woke to the cry of deer. Water dripped somewhere, and a cripple moaned in his sleep in another bed. Midnight woke him again to the sound of whispered voices, but he was too weary to open his eyes. The doctors had assembled to pronounce their assessment and judgment. “It is a clear case,” said the first. “The chart is here. Let us retire to the library.” “No,” said the second. “It is not decided, for he is below the required tax bracket.” “Good!” laughed the third. “Maybe he will draw a long, painful death! The man is an insufferable idiot!” The first doctor brought out the gilded box and reached into an opening on top, pulling out a bone-white card, which he read out. “That’s unfortunate. Utterly and immediately curable!” the second doctor sighed. The apostle also sighed, and then closed his eyes.
Happy Earth Day!
Ten years seemed like a century, like ten days, or even ten seconds. Only moments ago he had kissed her cheek before departing. Only years ago, he had arrived back home the day before yesterday. The hall, now emptied of unwanted guests and washed clean, looked as it did only yesterday, which was possibly twenty years ago. The wife was much older, and yet softened by time and almost girlish as she blushed in the firelight of the hearth while the king stirred the embers with his spear, speaking of the wooden horse, the monsters of the sea, the whirlpools and the one-eyed cannibal. Her eyes gleamed, and she whispered that one day every voyage would bear his name, words of praise that were as romantic as they were unrealistic. The old sailor could not help but smile at her touching and youthful kindness. What was the strangest thing he ever saw? she asked. Words failed him at first, but slowly he began to speak of the realm of the dead in the far, far west. Through nights of rain and stars he had wandered among standing stones and old forests until he had fallen through a crack in time or space, falling into the underworld the way one falls overboard into the waves from a longship. There are no incantations or libations; one just suddenly awakens in the wrong place, among the shades in a world one was never meant to visit. What was strange about it? she asked eagerly, already captive again to that familiar but distant voice. The strangest thing, the sailor replied, was that everything looked flat, like wall paintings. And there were no colours, just flickers of light and shadow, and trembling scratches on the surface of everything. In our world, human beings have shapes. They are like statues you can touch and walk around. In the land of the dead, the departed souls are colorless and flat, flat like wall paintings, but they nevertheless drift by, engaged in their labours. There was a titan there who was forced to drag the world around on a chain shackled to his leg. The world looked strange. It was round like ours, but instead of a sphere, it was flat like the base of a crater or amphora or a dish. And the titan had about as much colour as a black figure on a piece of pottery lost in white mist. He would pass by, hauling the black earth, vanish somewhere to my left and then reappear to my right hours later, tensing his every muscle, sweating profusely and muttering to himself. This is a strange punishment, I said to him. You are dragging the world around. The titan slowed down and looked in my direction the way the blind will stare through someone, or the way a cat stares at imaginary birds and rats. My second death is indeed worse than the first, said the titan. Though it is physically easier, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. In the old days I held the globe of the earth. It was back-breaking work. The muscles in my shoulders and back permanently tore, and my feet were alternately numbed or plagued with stabbing pains, as if I were stepping on nails or charcoals. And yet it made sense, for I held the world close to my heart. I could see the lofty mountain peaks, the great pines spearing the clouds; I saw the endless stars above and below. The moon and stars moved, and I knew that what I did was important. Now, I am forced to walk in circles, and I have a secret suspicion that this is not the real world which I drag around, but some cheap copy carved from marble by a second rate stone mason from the market place. The weight of the world feels different, almost insubstantial, and there is no moon or sun to light the great darkness all around me. I would love to see the earth again with all of her acorns and oaks, all of her chariots and scythes, her ploughs and silver springs, her warm stones and endless wheatfields. I would love to watch the grain grow once again.