It was a cool, warm spring bursting with almond blossoms and rosemary under cloudless blue skies. A postman had fallen gravely ill, and the postmaster ran off to the hospital built of old, blond stones to make inquiries. None of the luscious nurses seemed able to answer his questions. The damnable priest was nowhere in sight. Outraged, the postmaster stepped into a courtyard of plane trees, stone saints and a plashing fountain to have a smoke when he stumbled upon the missing priest, who had been nonchalantly carving and was now sanding pieces of wood. “I was looking for a miracle-worker and all I find is a woodworker!” the postmaster exclaimed. “It’s not that improbable of a combination. The Good Lord generally knows who to send and where to send him when the time comes,” said the hard, stony priest. The postmaster strongly suspected a peasant childhood followed by army service. “And I am neither a miracle-worker nor a woodworker, though I know men and women who have been both,” the priest added with a little laugh. “Your postman has been admitted to palliative care with no hope of leaving. I was informed that I would be informed when I was needed.” The postmaster lit his pipe and watched the sun and shadows dance as a gentle wind stirred the plane trees. A nurse pushed an empty wheelchair along one of the colonnades, its chrome spokes throwing sparks of sunlight. When she had disappeared beyond a dark arch, the mystery of the wooden pieces and the faraway look in the priest’s eyes captivated him once more. “To be sure, you must see this a lot,” he said, trying to explain the quiet, the idleness and the lack of urgency. “Some seasons more than others,” the priest admitted. “Sometimes they want me to camp out by the bedside. Sometimes I only learn of the matter when they are purchasing the coffin or digging the grave,” the priest explained, fastening pieces of wood into place with screws. “The widows who have nothing to do like to keep an eye on things. When someone falls ill, they will rush to the hospital and commune with the dying. Only after they have been seen by the orderlies, nurses and the doctors will they send me a telegram. When I arrive, they love to wail and bemoan my absence in the hour of trial! They then make sure I only stay long enough for a prayer. And they are absolutely offended if a patient manages to write to me or telephone me directly without informing them. I always keep those telegrams.” The postmaster shook his head and puffed out cherry-sweet smoke like a locomotive. “Are the widows here today?” he asked. “Most certainly,” the priest laughed, adding some finishing touches to his strange devices. A woman in black with a white cap arrived, gave a familiar smile and nod to the postmaster, and delivered a telegram to the priest. The priest read it silently, and passed it on to the postmaster without comment. “Deceased!” the latter exclaimed in horror, shaking his head. “Will you be coming upstairs?” the postmaster asked. “No,” the priest replied in a slow, thoughtful exhalation. “I have a delivery to make to a young one,” he added, standing up and holding the finished crutches. “Good day,” the priest mumbled, striding off past the fountain towards the opposite colonnade. It was far too warm and pleasant for it to be a day of death.
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.
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.”
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.
A poor man saved up his money to buy a good coat, a black coat with a hood. It was to replace a long dynasty of shabby coats that fell apart. The black coat would take him onto the roads and through the fields into events he had long anticipated. There would be rain and starlight and absolute quiet for miles and miles. When he purchased the coat it fit perfectly, and he felt a freedom and comfort he had not known to be possible. At once, he set out through a light rainfall. And then he noticed in the last glow of twilight that the new coat was already coming apart at the seams. It had not even gathered one straw or fleck of dust, and yet it was tearing. The man stopped and whispered something mournful, for he knew that his soul would live forever, but his story had ended, for the coat was integral to the plot.
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.
The western desert sank into darkness. The long twilights made his eyelids heavy. The man had forgotten his fatal, colorful coat and the dust of the well, the golden grain and the great monuments. Alone by the river each night, he remembered the darker and longer evenings of the prison, its solitude, its fragrance of death, its myriad mirrors in diamond dreams—dreams softer than beds of papyrus or petals, dreams deeper and clearer than artesian springs—architectonic, arcane, and aeonian—an underground astronomy of argentum and agate. In those depths rose unknown planets and stars into the limitless labyrinth of one world and one word.