The Amber Orchard 

And what questions would you pose to my golden pears? the demigodess, cloud-white in the amber, asked. That they rot not and forever ripen, that their motion be as perpetual as their silence and stillness, said the thief, the shadow of long lines and a shaded face. That they hold fast the downward gaze of the black bird and the bright stars, the whisper of wind, the consolation of reason and heartbeat of prayer. That they are to be invested in the golden hour, the devotion of rock sugar, the tobacco at twilight, the softness of milk tea and cottonwood blossoms. May the mound and barrow swell with swords and dragons and coins. May the hearth smoke and the song trail off. May the orchard rustle; may the sheep return. May the golden pears burn into the galaxy. 

Advertisements

The Wanderer and the Herdsman 

It was the end and the wanderers were in the land and there was great fear. The poor watched the moon and the meteor showers, while the lords and ladies poured wine and ate the ribs of their enemies in great banquets that lasted for days. One day a herdsman saw a wanderer, radiant with white smoke and the sparkle of tears or diamonds, passing through the poplars lining the snowbound road. “Wanderer, I have a question!” the herdsman called out in grief. The wanderer paused like an elegant deer and listened. “Should I fear the coming of the beast?” asked the herdsman. The wanderer thought for a moment in his silver glow of winter. “Are you the beast?” he gently asked the poor man. The poor man shook his head vehemently, and said, “I don’t think so. I pray that I am not!” Then the wanderer smiled, placed his hand on the head of the herdsman and whispered, “Then you have nothing to fear and all of the stars are yours.” 

The White Tree 

Long ago, before there were maps and charts, an old king commisioned his sons to venture out into the night, one to the east and one to the west, until they found the great white tree, which is said to be the heart of the world. Both sons had good hearts, and wanted to please their father, but they differed in temperament. The first was rash, while the second was longsuffering. It would be a long journey full of trials, tests and tempests. As he was leaving the stronghold, the first son met an alchemist in the market, a man well learned in the sciences, engineering and magic. He offered to give the prince a means by which he might travel through time and and space to arrive at the white tree immediately. The first son accepted, being a man of science himself, and wanting to please his father quickly; thus he paid the alchemist a fair amount of silver for the craft of such marvellous travel. The second son went to an inn, drank some ale, and spent a fortnight thinking. First, he tried to guess the cost of such a journey. When he realized the sum, he began to sell all he had. Night after night, merchants came to the inn. Some came to buy what the second prince sold. Others came to offer longboats, caravans, provisions, armies, shepherds and oarsmen to assist in the great undertaking. On the fifteenth day, having settled all his accounts and having finished all his preparations, the second son set out, his only possessions consisting of the armadas and caravans by which he would reach the white tree. Not many hours after the first son arrived in the mysterious land of the great white tree, a land of charcoal hills and old stars, the second son arrived, alone with one skeletal horse, his clothing torn, his head shaved and tattooed like a slave’s, his eyes almost dead of light. The great white tree towered above them, majestic and silent. The first son, whose journey had been instantaneous, asked the other how long he had traveled. And the second son said that it had been ten years. What have you seen on your travels? the second son asked. Nothing, said the first. And you, my brother, what have you seen? he asked, puzzled. Everything, said the second son, his eyes flickering back into life. The silence and power of the great white tree is a secret and tremendous thing, and it bestows its gifts differently to each who approach it. When the first son reached out to touch it, he faded into smoke and sand. And under the pale, long, and gnarled branches, the second son wept as the mineral stars sparkled in the night, but as he wept he knew his heart and the kingdom would live as long as the white tree soared into the sky.

The Cat Who Ate 

There was a poor old lady who had lost her mind. She lived between the dark woods and the sea, and owned a russian blue cat. Though devoid of reason or memory, she never lost her generosity; though the cat was also in ill health, his devotion and loyalty to his mistress never faded. And thus began their descent into tragedy. For not long after she had fed him, whether it was morning, noon, or night, she would soon forget. Then, seeing his empty bowl, she would feed him again. In the beginning, the cat assumed this was the reward of retirement. He would end his days in one long, grand feast. As he ate his second or third bowl, he gratefully looked up at her now and then, thinking he was already in paradise. There is, however, no paradise on earth. As her madness progressed, so too the promptness with which she refilled his bowl. What had begun as a pleasant dream of eating now became a nightmare. Sometimes, he would delay or hide behind the cast iron stove or under the sofa, but she would sense his hesitation and begin to softly lecture him in a voice filled with hurt, worry or confusion. Was he losing his appetite? Had he fallen ill? Was her food no longer to his taste? He would try to explain, but could never bring himself to tell the full truth, for it pained him to see how her mind no longer worked and how its absence burdened her spirit. With a great sigh, the now heavy blue cat would pad over to the steel bowl, sigh again, and then lower his head to dutifully eat his meal. At least this brought joy to her; she would stroke his ears and fur, and wander off for a few minutes to iron the dishes or sew potato skins together until the next meal only moments later. The cat invented ways to gag down the now tasteless feed. First, he imagined a different kind of bird for each meal. There were sparrows, thrushes, doves, canaries, larks, blackbirds, nightingales, starlings, swallows, jays and shore birds. When he could no longer think of any more birds, each meal became a fish: goldfish, carp, eels, anchovies, mackerels, sardines, saury, fighting fish, baby salmon, trout, the cataphractus, smelts and sweetfish. The cat ate all the herbs of an imaginary garden, then the rodents, the wattle fences and telephone poles. He ate the switchgrass, silver grass, goldenrod, dandelions, cat tails, rushes and lilies. Then he began to eat the trees—yews, cypresses, cedars, elms, firs, cottonwoods, pines, horse chestnuts, linden trees, willows, black locusts, acacias, maples, and the golden larch. Through tears and cramps, he ate the gravel roads, riverside stones, the scree from the cliffs, boulders and mountains. In a moment of hallucinatory reprieve, he ate the cumulus, cirrus and nimbostratus; he ate the ocean currents, the waves, the driftwood and the glass fishing floats. Stabbing pains ripped through him as he ate comets, meteors and shooting stars. The cat ate the planets and the sun. Night and day he ate, until a great black void of stars and angels remained. The cat sighed. Then the cat whispered to nobody in particular that he would never eat the sacred stars or blessed angels. The angels heard his prayer and began to slowly glide toward him. The cat saw the stars flicker into darkness. 

The Epiphany 

In a moon-white desert full of sand and blue stars, the three magi traveled quietly on their camels, heading into an obscure east. Three nights had passed since the strange star had vanished, since they had departed from the holy cities and their weeping tombs. In later legends, they would be called kings by dreamers, and this was an accidental truth, but only a half-truth. In the east they were awaited not by homes but by angels prepared to escort them back to a distant country of mists, shades and petrified willows far below the earth where everything sleeps. The oldest of the three thought about the hill country they had visited, and vaguely recalled a curious affair of searching for donkeys and falling in among the wandering minstrels and prophets in those very same hills long, long ago. The second, his son-in-law, enemy and usurper, thought of the sheep he had tended not far from the stable they had just visited, of the lions that once prowled in the nearby wilderness, of the soft damsels one sometimes encountered on the way home from the blooded fields. The third, the son of the second, pondered the unfamiliar temple of the holy city, the impenetrable riddleof the stars, and the calming fragrance of straw and hay. Before long such thoughts faded; they could no longer distract themselves and their thoughts from the carpenter, the quiet virgin, and the mysterious child held to her breast. The ghosts meditated in silence as the bells jingled and the camels made quiet footfalls in the sand. A thousand years had passed since they had seen the holy city. Perhaps another thousand would pass before they saw it again. It is a terrible thing for kings to witness the birth of a king. And it is a terrible thing for kings to return to a kingdom not their own. The old grandfathers, ghosts of time, fell into a twilight sleep. The camels were only miniature dark shadows beneath the endless stars. 

The Other Galaxies 

In the night, the stars are white in a black sea. In the day, when I close my eyes, the stars are amber bursts in seas of crimson. The night stars live in the heavens far away beyond the sky. Where do the day stars live? Where are those amber constellations? The pale blue eyes of the child looked hard into the inscrutable expression of the old grandfather. They live inside of you, said the old grandfather. They are the stars of another universe beyond sleep and dreams. They are the stars of the galaxies that dwell inside your head! 

The Long Voyage 

The strange, conical vessel of smoked chrome, its color indefinable, had crashed into the rough surf on a long deserted beach. A lone naturalist abandoned his observation of night crabs to investigate. Onboard, he found an advanced and yet simple technology and the body of the solitary captain. The consoles lit up and infused the naturalist with instructions. He washed the body in seawater, carried it back on board, and placed it in a casket after wrapping it in dark linens. The cone whirred and whispered, crackling with something quite blue and seemingly electric until a catastrophic explosion of thunder shuddered outside. The vessel lifted off and ascended into the galaxy. The voyage was long. For days or years the naturalist was infused with an epic, or possibly the ship’s log. Moons had cracked, planets had burned, time had warped like wood left in water. The golden dust of nebulae had sung. A transcription of its song followed. It was beautiful but incomprehensible. It trailed off, and then there was silence, as if the song of the nebulae had eaten through the log, eclipsing everything else, until the captain had lost his way and crashed. Through the portholes, the naturalist saw the golden stars, but they were silent. One day, the ship suddenly entered into orbit around a soft green planet marbled with swirls of mocha and vanilla and great black craters. Night fell and only one cluster of lights appeared on its surface. The cone initiated its calm and unhurried descent. It landed sideways in what looked to be the mould of a cone set on rails in a gigantic railway station. Only one humanoid person was there to greet him and the wheeled stretcher on the cold, empty platform with its rusted wickets and luminous, moon-pale analog clock of illegible numbers and sharp, black hands. Dressed in a dark, woollen coat, the beautiful woman had mauve skin, copper hair and mournful golden eyes. She spoke telepathically at first, accustoming him to her language as she led him through the wickets into an abandoned city of brick and stone. They brought the casket to a mausoleum in a cemetery full of willows and maples. She prayed and wept for a moment, then took the visitor by the arm to a steakhouse with the sign of a cast-iron lion. Inside, they dined on rare steak and potatoes by candlelight, served by tarnished androids. Through the windows, he beheld the maze of cobblestone streets, narrow shops and houses, arcades, antiquated lampposts, the distant outlines of castles. Where is everyone? he asked, finally able to converse. They are all gone, she sighed. The day our ship left on its maiden voyage, the afterburner caused a multifaceted catastrophe that annihilated almost everyone. I alone have survived. To return to your planet, you would have to annihilate me. I do not mind, but I fear that you would encounter nothing upon your return to your planet, just as you found nothing here. To travel is to destroy. The naturalist was no longer hungry, and he pushed his plate away to drink his ale in silence, remembering the song of the nebulae. They went outdoors and walked up a great hill in a park overlooking the clocktower and the city. A cold, starry sky swirled above. I am sorry, she whispered, hugging him tightly, rubbing his cheeks with her tears. We never meant to disturb your planet. All of our science assured us that we would find salvation at the end of our travels. The man stared into her golden eyes and hugged her fiercely. Where were you heading? he asked. To Eden, she said. To the morning star.