Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
Marching against their will down a winter road, the skeletons in chains headed for the towers of darkness. I told you we should have joined the other army, said one. You are an idiot, said his comrade. No matter who won, we were headed for prison anyway. Why would you say that? the first one demanded. Because we have voices, the other whispered. They stared into the silence of dead golden grass and naked trees immersed in snow. The wind blew through their threadbare coats.
Alone, the skeleton wandered the earth. The earth was an empty land of bone. The bones of the mountains with their gaping caves, the bones of petrified forests in the deserts, the bones of bison, fish, men and women, individually and in heaps. All of these bones were like letters from time written to time, and they were letters about time. The last man, the boneman, had a backpack and a wooden walking stick. He wore black bermuda shorts with a white tsunami pattern and a white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a way of preserving his dignity and an attempt to remember flesh, organs and skin. He generally wore boots or sandals made of rubber tires, which could always be found. The spear-lengthed walking stick was made of ash. To pass the time, he had become a naturalist, or as he liked to joke to himself, an unnaturalist. He was fond of examining fossils, whole skeletons of beasts, and gazing at picture books and calendars that had drawings or photographs of the myriad fauna that had once filled the world. One day, he found some medieval bestiaries in an old library, and began to ponder the imaginary and semi-legendary beasts. It seemed that these images of beasts resulted from a combination of factors: poor skill, inadequate knowledge, poor memory, and playful imagination. These four qualities seemed to make the bestiaries a more honest, more realistic picture of nature than the shiny calendars and color plates of encyclopaedias. They possessed more life and reflected his own sense of his relationship to his inner thoughts and the outer world. The skeleton also visited every old cave, every dolmen, every ancient monument, every medieval and renaissance town and every modern, abandoned city he could. This pilgrimage continued for some years. The cave and tomb paintings, the frescos in churches, the postmodern grafitti and pictographs covering walls, bridges and railcars intrigued and puzzled him. The more he thought about the paintings, the more he felt that very little had ever been new. The newness seemed concentrated at the center of time, and the further forward or backward one progressed from that point, the more senility and monotony one encountered. It seemed as if the earth had been born old, belatedly discovered youth, and then retreated in panic back into old age to ossify once more. Most of human life had been simultaneously prehistorical and posthistorical. What generations had perceived as the childlike primitivism of early art, the skeleton saw as the dying expressions of nauseated bodies on the verge of becoming terrified ghosts. While their forms might resemble the drawings of infants at first glance, he quickly sensed the absence of vigor, wonder and hope. Arthritic in execution, jaded in perspective, exhausted in imagination and desire. He frequently took from his backpack a sketchbook that had belonged to a child, to compare the childlike sketches with the cave and tomb paintings. The child had painted the same things as the cave painters: cougars, bison, antelope, swimmers, flying abstractions, celestial bodies, the sun and moon. The moons and cougars still sparkled in silver crayon. The moons and cougars of the caves were as poorly drawn, but they were lifeless and old, as if they had long become a tolerated commonplace of seasons, tasks, rituals and attempts at guessing the course of events to follow. The moons and cougars of silver crayon in the sketchbook were events in themselves, events of wonder, little visions of something beyond themselves. And how deeply did the skeleton miss the little hands that had drawn them.
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.
It was in the other land on another planet. An island washed by green oceans, with rusted mountains of snowy peaks, ash-gray fields and great mesas of red sand. For a long time, the shadow stared into the sea through the open window. Sometimes, he painted the walls. At other times, he stopped, holding a paint brush or a box with both hands, staring at the window again. The sky and sea called; the wind called. Something infinite was missing. And he almost remembered. The shadow went downstairs and out the door, crunching his way through the gray and red sand. Night was falling. It always seemed to have been falling forever when it fell, and yet distant and impossible when it had not yet fallen. The shadow was barely distinguishable from the darkness now. In the middle of the great field, he began to shovel up the ash and sand until he found his own skeleton. After digging it out, he ran his hands over the bones, brushing off the dust until the skeleton awoke. The skeleton whispered and tried to stand, but was too weak. The shadow carried him on his back. The lights from the house by the shore guided them. I should have brought some dust, the skeleton whispered. Then the world might return. Do not worry, said the shadow. He carried him into the house and up the stairs to the bedroom, laying him on the clean white mattress on the iron-frame bed. A lamp with a broken shade sat on the floor of the almost empty room, pouring too much light onto the ceiling and walls, radiant with their moist new coat of blue paint. It’s like a real sky or a robin’s egg, the happy skeleton exclaimed. The shadow was pleased. What now? the skeleton asked, but the shadow had fallen into a trance again, staring through the window, waiting for something–perhaps the sea, the sky, or only the wind.
The workers were very kind and gentle to the skeleton they had unearthed by accident, one which had been walled up in the catacombs below a wine cellar for over a hundred years. They draped a coat around his shoulders and offered him a cigarette, which he looked at hesitantly, and then began to smoke. It made him cough at first, but it seemed to calm him down. They asked him what he had thought about all these years. It was hard to say, the skeleton reflected. At first, it was a desire for revenge. Then, there was contrition and doubt, followed by seasons of madness and forgetfulness. In the end, he only thought of three things. The desire for the moist mouth of a girl he had once kissed on a bridge, his desire to converse and confess to a priest, and the desire to walk in the countryside—there was a place where lavender, chamomile and verbena grew that he really missed. The workers wondered if he would like a drink. They wanted to cheer him up. Such a remarkable event required something expensive and good. They could bring him cognac, brandy, a good wine, or some sherry. The skeleton coughed up some smoke, and shook its head sadly and slowly. Only table wine or water for him.
The captain strode through the surf demanding damage reports, his bald head glistening in the purple twilight, his black leather coat dripping pearls. The dark waters roared and receded, flung their fury on the sand and retreated again. A marine biologist came running down from a dune where he had been manning a radio and telescope and ordered the captain off the shore. Mad and soaked through his skin, the captain demanded a damage report. This is a protected beach, the scientist screamed. Time is coming, the captain said quietly, glancing out at the darkling horizon. And you are not ready. Get off the beach, the scientist screamed. You are ruining our experiment! The captain laughed through the tears filling his big blue eyes. My good friend, he sighed, there will be no more tests or papers! A cloud of witnesses has spoken! 57 skeletons float in the green deep. Henceforth you will only publish damage reports! Damage reports! Time is coming. And you have no clue as to what time is! The moon rose square, hollow, and pale.