“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.
The shore was like a book of sand and stones, printed by waves and birds. The old friends warmed themselves by the campfire, smoked cigarettes and passed around a bottle of brandy. They had already put away their telescopes. The darkness of the sky and its cold stars seemed to amplify the roar of bright fire and dark water. The planet was desolate in those times, with only a hundredth of its peak population, a number declining every year. Would it have ever worked? one of them wondered aloud, looking skyward with his naked eyes. Another pointed to the sky with the bottle she held and said, No, not without 700 billion voyagers, each able to live close to 10 million years or more in good health in any climate and an endless supply of materials and fuel. And that just to see the fifty some odd galaxies nearby. She passed the bottle to him. It is always about time and temperature, he sighed, and took a drink. The other old friends whispered and gazed into the sparks and flames or faced the great shadow surrounding them, blowing out ghostly clouds of smoke. What little we have known and done, someone said. And someone else started rowing a boat into the dark waves.
In a city far away and long ago, a bookseller came with his cart of books and made speeches to the wind and to the passersby. Rarely did anyone buy a book from him. Quite often, they harangued him for his monologues on the planets, on spirits, on truth and on the end of time. Some threw stones at him, cursed him, or shouted so loud that nobody could hear what he was trying to say. Then one day, he vanished. A time of plague and famine came, and some of the gentler citizens went in search of the bookseller, hoping he would have a book of medicine. After a long journey, they found him dwelling in a shack on the gray coasts of a winter sea. The shack was empty save for some old machinery, a cast iron frying pan and a cold hearth. Where are your books? the travelers demanded. I don’t have any, said the bookseller. Where are they? they shouted. For we are in dire need of them! The poor man looked at the hearth. I burned them all, he said. I burned them to keep my wife warm for we had nothing else. Where is your wife? they inquired. My wife is dead, he replied. The wind soughed in the crude chimney and dark clouds began to roll in from the gray sea. As the travelers were ready to depart in despair, the poor man told them her name, but they could not hear him because of the glory of her name and of the wind that shredded their faces.