It was an important holiday in the old capital. Several captains were allowed to return from the distant provinces to take part in a military parade. Among them were two old friends posted at opposite ends of the realm who rarely saw each other. After the military parade on the first day, there were days of rituals, long-winded lectures from old priests, moon-viewing from boats on the river, drinking parties, constant changes of clothing, endless exchanges of gifts and poems, visits to shrines and temples, audiences at court, and then another military parade. The old friends caught glimpses of each other through the crowds, but because of their many respective duties, they never had a moment alone to talk. On their last day in the capital, they were finally relieved of all obligations and official functions. In the morning, they drank tea under the willows by the river. Throughout the day, they walked the stone streets, reminisced, and quoted their favourite books. In the afternoon, they drank tea near a silver temple by a renowned walkway through the wooded hills cherished by philosophers. In the evening, they returned to the lantern-lit banks of the river to watch the beautiful young girls stroll by in their brocade gowns and to drink firewater from earthenware cups. One of the friends complained about the distance that separated all of the good, unique things of each province. The other complained of the old capital and all of the time wasted on empty rituals, parades, appearances at court and meaningless lectures. Then, after listening to the willows and the river, they drank one last cup together in gratitude for the great distance and lost time.
It began as a prayer into the endless spaces. A prayer for wind and rain, for freedom and solitude, for quiet. Through the switchgrass shadows and buffalo moved. The stones were enough, and the contrast of pale sands and dark trees was a gift of clarity. Then clouds of thunder came. And there were horses, horse blankets, steel and smoke. It became a field of blood. And plague. And then it became a traveling show of shotguns and hats. And then it was a motion picture. In the motion pictures, you sometimes saw the pale sands and dark trees, and you could hear the wind and the sound of the great solitude, and sometimes you almost wanted to pray once again.
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 counselor held a seed in his palm. What is this? he asked the phalanx. It is a seed, said the phalanx. No, it is a vine, the counselor replied. And the vine is fruit and leaves. The fruit and leaves rot, ferment and mold. And the rot, fermentation and mold are earth and seeds. It does not follow, the phalanx sighed, weary of hearing about atoms and space. All things return to the void, it intoned. Nobody has seen and lived to speak of the void, the counselor warned in a deathly whisper, but everyone has seen chaff, firewood, mulch, vinegar, wine, and soil. Tomorrow eats today. All of your dreams, science, desires and prayers already belong to your enemies and those who disagree with you. Your seed is someone else’s vine, your grapes are someone else’s wine. The phalanx shuddered.
One of the last paraloi, a magellan, cruised through the remnant of galaxies at the very edge. The magellan inspected her instruments, gazed through the chronoscopes and chorascopes and made calculations with the logic boxes implanted in her abdomen and skull. Omens seemed to swirl about in the melancholy of the stars she observed and the data she analyzed. The blood orange galaxy atomized in her very face, and it was a miracle that her paralus survived. In another galaxy, a ring of pale blue exoplanets began to smoke and blur and then froze, half-smoking, half-distended, half-iced and still crisply round, but at a dead stop in their orbits, their sun seemingly frozen in amber radiation. She drove hard into the next galaxy to see mauve gas clouds experience a rainstorm of silver phaethons and other particles. Something tempted her to return the way she came. The rainstorm of phaethons went into reverse motion and disappeared. She encountered the blood orange galaxy again, alive and well, where it was not supposed to be in space or time. Lastly, she encountered the pale blue exoplanets, intact, rotating and revolving correctly. Driving on, she saw the blood orange galaxy yet again, once more in tact and in its proper place. The cranioscope registered no imbalances or damage to her neurology or psychology. The chronoscope and chorascope revealed nothing anomalous in time or space. Once again, the blood orange galaxy suddenly burst into flames and vanished. The magellan doubted her own health and the integrity of her machinery. Inside her vessel, she watched television from antiquity. One channel was broadcasting a rerun of a classic film, in which a man tampers with a gaslight to trick his wife into believing she is insane so that he can cover up his crimes. The magellan began to realize what was happening in the universe. She fell asleep and dreamed that she was a tree full of white wolves.
A galaxy of blood oranges burst all around them, planets and stars glowing with the same sensual twilight. It was an unexpected development, a surprise of physics and mathematics. The smoking paralus crashed into the surface of a planet covered in silver streams and expansive horse chestnut trees. It was forever autumn here. The surviving paraloi disembarked. Several of them gifted in rhetoric gave speeches on the correct course of action. They voted and decided to explore, forage, salvage and scavenge before the next meeting. After voting, the paraloi sang the paean and set off into the woods to gather and eat the horse chestnuts. The horse chestnuts were shiny and delicious. Besides being narcotic, they enabled the paraloi to calculate and meditate at hitherto unknown speeds. Before long, they had measured the circumference of the planet, established its rotation and revolutions, counted all the blood oranges in the night sky, and discovered their lack of food security. Moreover, they began to experience symptoms of poisoning, for horse chestnuts are toxic elsewhere as they are here. Although some were content to eat other things, the majority consumed the horse chestnuts. They met again to vote on the next steps of their adventure. There were long speeches. They voted to conquer the planet, enforce their hegemony over the trees, find a way to return home, make the voyage home, and build trade routes for transporting and selling the horse chestnuts. Once again, they sang the paean and set off to implement their schemes. One would often see one of the paraloi, covered in sick and still cramming raw or cooked chestnuts into his mouth, his eyes lost to faraway dreams or investigations. Others leaned against trees, coughing blood from their lungs and weeping. They invariably lost weight. At another meeting, one of the speakers announced that he was the first wanax of the planet. All native aliens–if any were discovered–and paraloi would be subject to him and pay tributes of horse chestnuts and other materials. The wanax had already selected some paraloi to form a bodyguard. All voted in favour, sang the paean, and entered into a new life of tending trees, gathering and processing horse chestnuts, serving their brutal wanax and waiting for their next narcosis that would alleviate the symptoms of poison and withdrawal. Most were slowly starving to death or succumbing to the toxicity. None were able to think of repairing the paralus and returning home. Runaways left the horse chestnut forests behind to dwell in the gray mountains. Their bodies slowly healed. Desertion meant that they were no longer citizens or paraloi, no longer entitled to speak, vote or sing the paean with the other paraloi. In silence, they ate colorless things from the mountains. Sometimes, a runaway would recall the symptoms of toxicity and shudder, but would still miss the taste, texture and golden pulp of the horse chestnuts with their fragrant narcosis. Some would briefly return to the woods to steal a handful of treats, but would see that the horse chestnuts were really quite colorless, tasteless and dysphoric. Straightaway, they would be running back to the silence and the peace beyond the trees.The mountains were gray and empty. The blood oranges were far, far away.
Some paraloi survived the long and disastrous space voyages to arrive on a strange and most serene planet of islands, high mountains, floating and sinking cities, and beautiful skies with captivating cloud formations. They were brought by gondolas to one of the main cities, a complex of canals and elegant towers stretching from the seabed to the sky. They passed through ancient colonnades and quiet courtyards with plashing fountains. They came to a pale white tower with a commanding view of the ships, harbours, islands, distant white mountains and open sea. It was twilight. The paraloi were served dark wines. To drink the shadows, said a diplomat, in an expression they did not quite comprehend. Night fell and brilliant unknown stars in illegible constellations burned beyond the windows. A bald, tall, thin man with a distinguished and pleasantly distorted face welcomed them into a vast library and orrery with windows and balconies complete with telescopes. It was said that he was one of the great oligarchs and also the head librarian. The paraloi plied him with questions, scribbling formulas and sketches on paper that had been provided for communication. The old librarian welcomed these with tears in his eyes, and at one point embraced a large piece of sketch paper, holding it to his chest with deep gratitude and appreciation. The local diplomats explained that this was the most thoughtful and beautiful gift imaginable, a truly respectful gesture, as the old librarian was a lover of cataloguing. The paraloi shook their heads and whispered, explaining what they had meant by their diagrams and mathematics in relation to the nature of matter, world-mapping and star voyages in their paralus. The old librarian smiled and gently explained that they were mistaken. Their mathematics and physics were but metadata, or cataloguing devices. The universe was actually a library built to look like a planetarium. In fact, one could call it both. Every planet, comet, cloud of gas, every satellite, black hole and event horizon was a book. The worlds were clouds of language and narrative. Wherever one looked, one saw something to read. The death of a star, for example, was not the destruction of matter per se, but a chapter in a book of changes within the great moment of the library, the greatest book. The old librarian was eager to hear of the other books in their corner of the universe. The paraloi were perplexed by his revelation and by his joy.
The last paralus was passing into the outskirts of its own solar system, having traveled a light year through a maze of planets, satellites and meteors. Beyond its prow glimmered the cloud of ices, volatiles, and planetesimals, possibly the very origin of wandering comets and the limits of their known worlds. Deterioration had set into the ship and into the bodies of the paraloi. It would be a matter of hours or days until complete disintegration, and it was more than likely that they would not breach and pass beyond the cloud of planetesimals. They listened to their mournful music and drank. At last, the captain of the paraloi gave a speech in the form of a parable. It is the last hour, he said, and we have come to the very limits of what we can know. Our crew of brave paraloi consists of the only survivors of life in our solar system. The cost of our efforts has been great. Five planets have been ruined, four destroyed, and others damaged so that we might arrive at this moment. There is no life ahead and none behind. What we may know, what is truly real, is this moment. Once upon a time, there was a fiery visionary, a heretic, who said that there were other suns with other exoplanets circling around them, and that our first world was not the limit of what we could navigate. And he said that the universe is infinite. The philosophers said he was wrong because his views did not agree with what they taught. The scientists discovered that there were indeed other suns with other exoplanets, but they said he was wrong because he only guessed without any evidence. One of his closest enemies discovered the rivers of the outer planets by looking through a telescope. For years, successive generations of better telescopes and mathematics confirmed the existence of these rivers. It was not until the first paralus to pass by the planets of rivers that we learned differently–the rivers were an optical illusion. There were no rivers. I cannot help but feel that the universe has an end somewhere, that it is finite and bounded. I do not know what the universe or matter is. Our voyage, however, seems increasingly infinite.