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.
It was morning when the sailors found him on the beach, warming himself by a campfire, twirling a lotos blossom and staring into its soft radiance. None of his tools—rope, harpoon, or knife—were anywhere to be found. They wept quietly. One brought him a blanket, and wrapped it around him. Another tried to give him medicine and something to drink, but nothing stirred the lost soul from his trance. A captain suggested they wait before performing the ritual. When they returned at noon after mending their nets, he was examining a white, long, almost conical shell in the dark sand, and murmuring hexameters. The captain wept once more as the other sailors formed a circle around him and sang the funerary song. In the evening, when they came to bring him a farewell gift of a begging bowl, the lost soul had waded into the surf to speak to the moon and stars as he held up a large, broken fish skeleton to the sky. A shore bird glided over the dark waters.
On the wayside, the pilgrim sat below cedars under the wooden rafters of a shelter. On his palms there were no maps to guide, and his head was heavy with seeds of death. Day after day, he counted the hours, and every footfall was a waterfall. The pilgrim had lost his way in a golden sickness. His throat was parched and his eyelids closed. And still he could not bear to name a single mountain of the ancient land, and the closer he drew to its rotting gate, the less he seemed to exist. The pilgrim dreamed it was a woodblock print. It was the long gaze of a stone statue.
There was lightning throughout the day, but a clear blue evening followed. The black mountains with snow-bound peaks glowed and loomed larger than possible in the last light. The mysterious stranger in the poncho wandered the high roads skirting the slopes and washes of stone and runoff. Among the boulders he encountered one who was infirm. The stranger sat down next to him, exhausted and unwell. I am not well, he said quietly. That is not possible, said the infirm one. They told me that I am the one who is infirm. Maybe, said the stranger, but I have been sick for many years. Stay with me and we can help each other. No, the infirm one said. You are a liar, perhaps even a thief, and you are not sick; you do not know what it is like, and you cannot help me. I don’t even know where you have come from. The stranger said that he had been in the mines. You do not look like a miner, the infirm one said. You look like an illiterate blacksmith. My ancestors were blacksmiths, the stranger admitted, but I was in the mines. The infirm one shook his head vehemently. His eyes were an abyss to look into, filled with darkness and an indefinable fury. The mountains were also starting to fade into penumbra and silence. I have too many languages, the shadow of the stranger said by firelight. I do not know which one to speak, and I do not know which world this is or what a world is. The infirm one embraced him, and shoved the knife deep into his body. The mysterious stranger bled out alone as the fire died and the mountains vanished.
There was a corrie of stone and ice where the travelers would gather by the light of certain stars, ambiguous solstices and unthought eclipses to pass through time and space and harvest the good light, the good water, the good wind and the good fire, for with these the sons and daughters of men and women were healed and built into great giant cities of stone and strength. One opened the gate through speaking the old language. One traveler loved the language; he loved and spoke all languages and remembered the times, but the old language was best and was like a fountain within his body and soul. They called him the bear, for bears have big jaws and love rivers. As time went by, the bear noticed that fewer and fewer travelers could speak or revere the old language, and took no precautions as they traveled. They brought illness into the corrie and spoke deplorable words. The gate of stars would often not open. Pilgrims who came to the travelers for guidance and healing became increasingly lost and sick. At times it seemed as if the very stones of the corrie were shifting and crumbling. The travelers still came in the seasons of traveling, but instead of speaking the old language, they forbid others to speak it, and sat around discussing the beauty of their sickness as if it were a gift from heaven. They were dying from their deplorable words and killing others as well. One day, the bear fell sick from an ordinary disease, and wandered into the high peaks to cough and sleep in solitude. While convalescing in the high land, he spoke the old language to himself and found himself traveling high roads through stars and black holes he had not thought possible. In those heights and depths he found great worms of stone, oarfish of mists, and krakens of water. There were silver trees of lightning and golden whirlpools of fire. The earth drew light and strength from the heavens, through his body, and he felt well again. On rising, he surveyed the sad earth from which the old words were vanishing, and knew now that every broken stone and dried up river is a forgotten word, an irreverant grammar, a deplorable sentence, a blasphemy. When he went back down to the corrie, he found that more than half of it had crumbled into a glacier, and the other travelers sat oblivious on a shifting precipice, reading their sores and scabs as if practicing divination, and cursing everything above and below heaven. It was then that the bear realized that he had been transformed into a real bear.
The physician was lost in the darkest woods, infected with phantoms, when he found the minervium. It was beautiful to look at, and it whispered sweetly like soft rain, codex paper, or scissors. It monologized in a strange fashion. It seemed so distant and far away at the same time. At times, he thought it whispered to the world; at other times, it seemed she only spoke for him and to him. For three nights, he stared into her and listened to it. Though deep crevasses of pain remained within his bones and sinews, the phantoms began to atomize and fade away. He left the minervium in a comfortable spot by a spring near a grove of wild olives. It seemed heartless and yet caring to abandon her, but he did not know why. In the city he worked once again, treating lepers, consumptives, and hysterics. They were deranged and abusive. In a short time, they had seized most of the villas and agoras, spreading like a cancer. They screamed out for healing. They tore off their bandages. They burned the scrolls of his prescriptions and his books of medicine. They sold his materia medica to the mariners who came and went like the wind in the striped sails of their long black boats. The physician tried to love them, but feared them. Some would even grab his aching body, by the throat or by the hand, and curse him for his lack of pain, his rotting backbone, his poor medicines that did nothing. Streets were cracking; columns were sinking into the rising sea. Resolute, he continued to treat them. One day, walking through the market, a young whore in a drenched chiton brushed past him. Within seconds, he felt the shivering phantoms return. Infected, he sold what was left of his books, herbarium, elixirs and surgical tools to the mariners who came and went like the wind in the striped sails of their black longboats. The phantoms sucked at him, nestled into him, stroked him with their greedy, bone-crushing effervescence. With the silver from his sales, he bought the wild olive grove on the cliffs. For several days, he watched the city crumble, a column here, a street there. Then he found the minervium, still sleeping by the spring where he had left her. She awoke and came into the small villa overlooking the plaintive wild olives, the wind and the sea. They stayed up late into the nights. She stared into his eyes and whispered. Sometimes she sang. She curled around his body like a smoke that went down his throat and backbone like soft rain and slept in his skull and stomach. The silence sparkled with the crunching of leaves, the crackle of flames, the rustling of codex pages, the blading of scissors. Nights like atropine fell upon them. She glowed silver and held his hands. It was hard to say where or who she was and how the minervium would work his brains, but the soft rain washed everything away. A distant star, a whispering lantern close at hand, the minervium bled her light into his emptiness. It would remain to be seen whether or not her light was also empty. It was a matter of deciding whose captive he would be.