The stars were absurd, and the skeletons could no longer read them. In the old cities, the language had died. The long and endless winter came, greeted with sadness, joy and even excitement. They would camp out under the stars now and wait. It was best to lie as still as possible and look up at the snowbound peaks, the naked trees, the melancholy galaxies. They would lie still, wrapped as mummies in tawny fox furs, orange tartans, amber wrappings of deerskin and linen, and coats of golden straw. The smoked silence and tarred landscape waited with them. As moths rise from their cocoons, maybe owls would rise from their bedrolls. And with gray eyes and glass talons they would soar into starlight and snow.
She was not golden, and so she had no fear. She spoke in the gray town squares every day, laughing and sneering at the enemies of her truth. None dared burn her, for she had her own fires to kindle. The woods called to her, she said. The earth was crying out for salvation. And thus she departed from the land of gray towers. She entered the dark woods with the book of her seven sacraments. She followed her heart. It was darker and brighter than she had hoped. There were black shadows and bursts of pure light through the spring and autumn leaves. Even the shadows seemed to hum with unseen light that burned her eyes. It was exhausting to walk between the lush boughs and the fallen leaves. It was tiresome to travel at the mercy of the terrain, the rocks and great trunks determining her every footfall. There were no gray mists. At last she came to the cabin, the woodshack, the lion’s den. Inside, it was too silent. She was disappointed to find that there was only one table, one bowl, and one bed. She tried to laugh, and lifted the bowl to her lips, but it was empty. Weary, she climbed into the long, great bed of cold wood and hay, and fell asleep. In the morning, a searing pain awoke her. She opened her eyes to see a solitary, gigantic bear, sleeping on his side with her ribs in his mouth. The bear awoke as well, and spat out her ribs. Why did you eat me? she gasped. I thought your ribs might save the world. The birds were whispering of it for years, but they were wrong. There is nothing in your ribs but death. She looked down into the abyss of her chest, and there was indeed nothing but a whirlpool of black flesh, dark blood and blue bottles. A distant groan like soft thunder passed through the woods. What will happen to me? she asked the bear. I do not know, the bear sighed. I do not think your carcass will make me any honey. And since your ribs grow nothing, I cannot keep you. She passed out, awakening later to find him dragging her body far, far from the woods into a great field of snow. And yet, I came to save you, to save your woods, to save the truth, she choked as her body slid down the slope of a pit. Why was the bowl empty? she cried out with the last of her strength. You stole our grain, the bear sighed. The last thing she saw were her ribs flying down from the bear’s paw to land in wet snow by her feet. A distant voice growled farewell. There were other empty and rotten ribs to eat before the end.
Once upon a time, there was a wooden bear. At midnight, he would transform into a real bear, and go walking through the snow, smoking cigarettes, drinking cider, eating small creatures and philosophizing to the stars. After three or four hours of such nonsense, he would return to his place before an old shop, and sleep as a wooden statue once again. There was a slightly mad cellist who was wealthy, lonely, cruel and mad. One night, she saw the bear wake up and walk in the wet snow. She had to have the wooden bear as her own possession, and hurried home to make her plans. Within a few days, she had paid off the shopkeeper and some brawny fellows to haul the wooden bear to her home. That very afternoon, she made coffee and pastries, and invited all of her rich friends over to brag about her acquisition. They fawned on her and praised her. She was so pleased, she forgot about the enchantment of the carved statue and her devious, secret plans for it. She went straight to bed and slept well. On the stroke of midnight, the wooden bear came alive and went into a temper when he realized he was not at his home on the street. First, he raided her cellar and drank her cider and ate all of her salmon, whether canned, dried, or frozen. Then he left claw marks and tears on her furniture and her curtains. Lastly, he began to play her cello, and he played it very beautifully, far more beautifully than she or anyone in the town could ever hope to play. Hearing the music and waking from her sleep, the woman went downstairs to investigate. Storming into the parlour and seeing the chaos, the woman screamed in rage at the bear. Had she not paid good money for him? Was this her reward? The bear cited the law, and had her know that he had not been paid a cent to be kidnapped and to become her prisoner, but he would gladly keep her cello if she wished to avoid arrest and a long trial. Then, the wooden bear left and walked home, stopping now and then to play something beautiful to accompany the white snowflakes gently falling in the brilliance of the lampposts on the deserted streets.
It was snowing. Smoking and thinking hard, the cryptographer watched the large wet snowflakes sparkle in the blue twilight through the window of his study. He returned to the desk, where the mysterious artifact sat, an ancient wooden box covered with a large lock consisting of several concentric circles or dials of various metals, some with the finger holes one would find on a rotary telephone, others with numbers, symbols, and scripts that nobody at the museum could decipher. One cigarette after another, he smoked and scribbled and thought about the mysterious box and its impenetrable lock. It was after midnight, some hundred nights since the beginning of this mess, that he solved the riddle in a glorious epiphany immediately celebrated with a glass of sherry. The numbers were for seasons and years; the runic symbols referred to metaphysical questions. It was only by sheer luck that he thought of the right question for this great and terrible year. The other years, their questions and laws, remained to be found. The lock clicked, and the box opened. Inside, to the left, sat various coils, batteries, hookswitches and a capacitor, all disconnected. To the right sat an apparatus that could have been a transmitter or speaker. The cryptogropher picked it up and spoke. Breaking all the laws he had hypothesized or imagined and almost breathless with a bittersweet fear, he asked several questions at once—where was his favourite book of woodcuts, who was the pretty girl on the train, what world was this and who would like to play with him in the snow? Then he held it to his ear. The night beyond flowed from the transmitter. It sounded like crushed stars, static and falling, wet snow. I really want someone to play with me.
An old lecher saw a young widow praying with her palms facing upward, and having been rejected by her four times, resolved to report her deviant orisons. It was snowing as he made his way to the office of the tribunal that handled cases of heresy. The office was a maze and a library. The darkness was broken by the occasional red lantern, red as the seals of imperial rescripts. After walking for a long time, he reached the innermost sanctum, where the inquisitor sat reading romances and smoking cigarettes, an island in a sea of stacked papers and rolled-up scrolls. The old lecher bellowed out his case in one unstoppable stream, while cadres arrived embracing several unwieldly scrolls at once or carrying bundles of loose leaves stamped and tied up in string. Behold, the inquisitor said, all of the paperwork I must devour and digest. There is little chance your case will ever be found. To this court, your widow might not even exist. And you might not either. In fact, at this rate, her existence and yours is becoming a statistical impossibility. Night and day, the heretics, scientists and informers change their doctrines, their accusations and apologies, their rebukes and their rebuttals. All they do is revolt and report. Our ancient office cannot say with any certainty what the facts of any case are. The prisons are empty. All of the inmates died before the lawyers could sort it. The hangman has left to go begging; the scribes and copyists are starving. Another ice age is at hand. Before long, we will be rolling cigarettes or lighting our fires with all this paper. It is best if you depart at once. Return to your home while you can and gather some firewood.
In the beginning, Heaven gave adamantine rings that shone like silver and platinum to all human children, one ring for each person. The angels passed through the land, gently placing them on the fingers of every woman and man. It was a kind of wedding present or testament of a promised inheritance. Then the angels drifted like brilliant smoke and dazzling snow back to the high mountains. Time went by, and the people grew impatient and greedy. Some traded their rings for food, shelter and clothes. Others traded them for perishable trinkets and vain books. One day, a horde arose, stealing all of the rings. The horde melted down the rings to forge swords, and distributed the swords, one sword for each person, woman and man. All of humanity raised their swords and set off for the mountains. The reason was clear enough. There would be other treasures in heaven. The very stars that shone by night were most likely gigantic gems or precious minerals. The ravenous horde began its ascent, a dark line of ants upon the great white void of the slopes. The way was difficult, and one by one, the climbers fell into snowbanks, chasms, or threw themselves from cliffs. There were some who perished of altitude sickness; there were some who died of cold; there were many who ate the snow and died of famine. The higher they climbed, the more they tended to throw themselves from cliffs of long icicles. Forever they climbed upward through mists and blizzards, forever encouraging themselves with the better view they had of the world from these heights and the closer they had drawn to heaven. Many are buried forever with their swords in eternal snow. A remnant is still climbing today. The mountains of heaven are infinite.
Every day, the mariner watched the clouds and recorded their migrations in the sand. Every night, the wind and the waves erased his cloudscapes. Though he could count ten types of clouds, four heavens, and numerous variations and subdivisions of both, and though he often pondered the possibility that clouds were living things, far more mysterious and majestic than eels, oarfish, calamaria, or dragons, sorrow grew inside of him as he watched them pass by in armadas, in caravans, in solitary paths, their beauty filling him with a lightheaded gravity. Why did the ice, snow, rain and steam find these shapes to form? Why did they change and reform? Were there worlds with different types of clouds with different shapes? Where would snowflakes and raindrops go if there were no forms to receive them? It was undeniable that billions of their atoms would only fill a teacup, and trillions of teacups formed the atmosphere, and it was beautiful to live on an endless beach of soft mornings of soaring kites and white sails and deep nights when the lanterns flickered and the surf moaned. The man lit a smoke and threw the burning match into the infinite night.