India ink on paper. 8 x 11.
India ink on paper. 8 x 11.
Madmen in striped suits, mimes and anarchists with dynamite wandered the streets. The traveler crossed a great square and stopped by a fountain where a homeless man sat warming potatoes over a makeshift fire. The man wore a dusty black frock coat covered with iron crosses and gold and silver stars; his queue was beginning to silver; his expensive boots were muddy; his sword seemed to be missing. Shouts erupted now and then in the archaic buildings around the square. A bomb exploded in the belltower of a nearby church, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust. “Good afternoon,” said the man. “I was the prince of this town. I would warmly welcome you, but I cannot find the right words.” The traveler, also wearing a great coat with stars and crosses, nodded sadly and sat down next to him. The prince gave him a delicious potato. “Will you miss the palace?” the traveler asked. “No,” said the prince. “It was a prison, much as this town square is.” A mime walked up to them and made threatening gestures that possibly suggested a gallows and hanging. Then he started running and silently screaming, chased by a cursing lunatic running with a live stick of dynamite in his hands. There was another explosion. “Are you sure there is nothing you miss?” the traveler asked. “I miss having someone to talk to,” the prince confessed, and bit into his dust-caked potato.
The captain watched the mutinous black ship fade on the pale blue horizon. They had left him on a small, lush, volcanic island with a boat, a gun, and several crates that amounted to a few months of provisions. It was a benevolent, generous mutiny; he fervently prayed that none of the mutineers would hang. Now he had nothing but time on his hands, time to spend as he pleased. The excitement was terrifying. It was like vertigo. On the first day, he wept with gratitude. On the second day, he wept for all the past days when he could not weep. On the third day, he wept for sorrow. On the fourth, for all the days he was alone and all that he was not alone. On the fifth, he wept for everything ephemeral and eternal. On the sixth, he wept for beauty and joy. The morning of the seventh day was clear and calm; the captain lit a cigar and went for a long walk on the beach.
** I wrote this for Umberto Eco (1932-2016), who passed away this week. I loved his books from the time I was thirteen. Since the day he passed, I have been reading The Island of the Day Before. I am thankful for his great literary and philosophical gifts to the world. May he rest in peace.
A white windmill rose into the immense black clouds that always hovered above the wheatfields. It was taller than most windmills, almost a tower in its own right, and it was here that the old man lived with his son. Inside, the old man smoked his pipe, read heavy tomes, and lectured his son on weather. Nothing was more important or more elusive than weather. Without weather, no farms would make grain and no ships would sail the seas to carry the grain to distant ports. And thus, the old man studied clouds, winds and stars, the great propeller of the mill aimed into the bleak sky. One day, the son would have to carry on this work—the endless work of measuring, annotating, and charting. Meteorology, however, did not pay any bills. One had to grind grain for the locals, maintain the sails and gears, and attend to other matters to survive life in that barren land. The solitude and silence of those places was vast, and the son tried to fill the emptiness with romances, ancient philosophy and daydreams. And thus the son wanted to travel, and eventually he escaped the somber silence of the windmill to chase blond milkmaids, sail on a man-of-war, lose himself in the coffee trade, and climb distant mountains. And yet, no matter where he went or what he did, he felt the cold and silent shadow and solitude of the windmill inside his heart. When he could bear it no longer, he decided to return home to face the giant and vanquish it. Perhaps he would burn it down. One evening during a heavy storm, as he was crossing the great wheatfields leading to the tower, a massive flood broke out and covered all of the land and its villages in a dark blanket of saltwater. Many souls and beasts drowned. Luckily, the son found a stray rowboat, which he climbed into, and started rowing. The only thing that escaped the inundation was the tall, white windmill. And thus, the son rowed to it, and entered once more into the great silence. The father had not been home and must have been washed out to sea. Alone, the son regarded the old machinery, the dark gears, the pale walls and charts, the doves hiding in the rafters, the meteorological instruments and the journals. It was not likely that anyone would bring grain to grind for quite some time. Only the weather remained.
The old reaper labors down in narrow valleys of blue lines like irrigation canals and black marks like trees, of fragile golden fields and chalk-white cliffs that rustle like leaves in the evening breeze. The whirlwind of harvests and harrows has aged him, streaked his raven hair with autumns of cloud. A reaper without a scythe, he wanders out along deep furrows flowing with ash and straw. What his hands and the good earth have made he will sometimes survey from the burning fields or from his old wooden chair. Time drains from his darkly stained fingers. The saltwater sky begins to sough. Looking out, he remembers no other voice than the wind that washed through the yellowing leaves.
Mornings there are continuous evenings, coal-burning dusks of half-lit lampposts, and the trees have all changed into what they once were thousands or hundreds of years ago. In a lost city of copper sulfate, a dream reader with his lexicon considers the most distant constellations, which flicker from far off somnium. The lost soul dreams of eating traditional candy, of watching marbled mountains through nude branches, of chestnut cakes, of gray-eyed goddesses and gray iron bridges. And his verses, none of them original, possess the logic and light of the winter sky.
The old priest received many letters begging him to come and visit. The wires were cold and the streets were broken, but it was safe to travel. It had been for years. One day, he received yet another letter. Grabbing his beads, little book and smokes, the old priest set out into the shadow of crumbling buildings and rusting girders, passing grand trees and piles of rubble. Some spring flowers had broken through the uneven pavement. A white cat followed him, desperately trying to get his attention. Halfway to the main courtyard of the town, the priest thought about returning. It would end the same way it always did. The letters meant nothing. As he thought these things, he passed into the great plaza, crossed the diagonal shadow of its tall clocktower on the warm cobblestones, and headed for the heavy door of an old building with cracks and burns. There were no chalk marks on the door. The priest checked the envelope of the most recent letter with the numbers on the sign above the door and then knocked. The sound of furniture struck out through the walls and there were footsteps on the stairs. Then a voice greeted him. The priest mentioned the letter, the beauty of the day, and the tin of coffee he had brought. The voice begged him to leave and not return. The priest wondered why this moment always came as a surprise. Slowly, he fumbled with some chalk in his pocket, and then marked the door. For a moment he stared at the brass numbers on the sign. I can hear you breathing, the voice suddenly said from beyond the door. Please stop.