The Countess

In the gray mountains, the hunter, half-drowned in mud, chanced upon an estate surrounded by monumental pines. The rain was deafening. Only the beautiful countess and her guards were home. The count was away on an expedition, and all the maids and servants were in the next town at the festival. With perfect courtesy, the hunter offered a beautiful stag in exchange for a quick rest and a drink. The countess accepted the gift, relieved him of his dirty coat, and invited him into a spacious library full of comfortable sofas and ancient landscape paintings. She brought a tray of cakes, brandy, hot coffee and expensive cigarettes. While he ate and rested, she drew a hot bath for him, providing towels, clean clothes and fragrant soap. A phonograph was playing a waltz as the hunter returned to the library, where he found the countess sitting on a sofa. She sipped her brandy, and asked: “What do you think of the soap?” It was marvellous soap, the hunter replied with a nervous laugh. “And when you were washing, did the bar of soap touch every part of your body?” Once again laughing, the hunter confessed that he had indeed washed his whole body thoroughly. The countess stood up, stretched, and said, “I will now bathe in the warm water you left. With the same fragrant soap that touched your body, I am going to soap my whole body and all of its inner and outer flesh—my face, my neck, my bosom, the secret space between my breasts, my navel and my soft thighs. While I am bathing, you can get a headstart. See if you can outrun my hounds and my marksmen.”

Advertisements

The Great Prison

The beloved king arrested the royal meteorologist and the royal historian, throwing them both in the same prison cell at the top of a tower that had once been a library and observatory. “Why are we thus arrested? And locked up together? This is absurd!” the meteorologist protested, striking the wall with his fists. “I have nothing in common with you!” The historian gazed through the window at the mountains and waters. “It is not absurd,” he almost whispered. “It is pure logic. History and weather are twin stars.” The meteorologist looked at his empty hands and asked, “What have I lost?” The world of tomorrow, said the wind. “What have you lost?” he then asked the historian. The world of yesterday, said a ghost. “What remains?” he asked once again. The world of today, sighed the historian, looking through the prison window into the vague distance.

The Shelter

Through the wasteland the twin pilgrims wandered, stopping in the ruins of monasteries, camping by old traffic lights that grew like strange, lone trees from mounds of gravel and dust, and unearthing the odd relic here and there as they went. One night, they camped upon the tiled roof of an old sacred site now level with the shaved plains. Winds fiercely blew, and they broke through the roof to get to shelter in the dusted spaces below. The girl wandered with a candle while her fellow built a small fire. She returned with an old book mostly

charred. The script was familiar, and she read aloud the few legible pages that remained. “What a worthless book,” she sighed. “It is nothing but names and genealogies.” The other stared into the fire. She hurled the book at him, and lay her bedroll near the glowing warmth, her body sinking into shadow. The other read the page, and said to his twin, “Bone of my bone, this is not worthless. Maybe the ones who wrote it believed that heaven cares for all people and their stories and where they came from, and this was proof that it was worth praying for others.” The twin did not reply. Later, when she was asleep, he carefully cut the surviving pages from the book and placed them into his journal. Then, taking a fountain pen, he added his own name and the name of his twin. Closing the book, he listened to the fire snap hiss and kept watch on the grim and endless stars shining through the broken roof.

The Evangelist

In the great city of the twin seas, where there were ruined temples and soaring cathedrals, stone towers and elegant ships, seagulls and snowfalls, a poor priest went into a tavern. He prayed at the icon in a corner, sat down, and ordered some plum liquor. A man in religious robes but built like a boxer sat down next to him and ordered coffee. The priest saw that his prayer had been answered, and explained to the rogue monk that his sermons repeatedly failed. He pulled out some parchment and handed it to the monk to read. After reading it and drinking his coffee, the monk said, “This is a beautiful, tenderhearted sermon. There is not a harsh word in it. And did you deliver this sermon in a voice of equal kindness and softness?” The young priest nodded, saying: “I believe so.” The monk laughed, stood up, and began to read the sermon, shouting and screaming the golden, honeyed words of the sermon until every patron, prostitute, barmaid and even the innkeeper were on their knees, weeping and crossing themselves, praying for God’s mercy. The young priest understood. They both reassured the guests, bought them a round of coffee, and told them to take communion the following day. Not long after, the young priest ran into the monk again at the market by the wharf, where crates of beautiful silver fish glinted in the winter sun. The priest was beside himself. For a while, things had worked, but one day the lectionary called for brimstone. He pulled out the parchment on which he had written his sermon, and showed it to the monk. The monk read it quickly. “And did you shout and thunder at them?” he asked. The young priest admitted that he had. The monk began to sing gently and sweetly, in the kindest, most heartfelt tones imaginable, the words of the sermon. In a short time, he was surrounded by kneeling sailors, workers, merchants, and captains, drinking in the words of judgment with tears in their eyes. The monk finished, blessed and dismissed the crowd, and bought some fish for his dinner. The young priest was amazed. The last time they encountered each other, the young priest was gently singing in a square below a great tower overlooking the sea. It was not a sermon, however, but a mere announcement of some historical facts, presumably to explain some recent news or proclamation. In seconds, the crowd was upon him, beating him and cutting him up with their swords. The monk was too late and too outnumbered to save the priest, but this did not hinder him from breaking a few crania and backbones. When he got to the dying priest, he tried to wrap up his wounds, but the poor man was quickly expiring. “What have I done wrong this time?” the dying priest gasped. “Nothing,” the rogue monk sighed. “The sheep are broken and the world is wrong.”

The Sleepwalker

There was a redhead getting stabbed in the alley. There was a hungry clocktower in the dark square. It wanted to eat him. He passed the quiet fountain quickly to avoid the gaze of the clock. Nothing remained in his head except for a paper lantern, a moth and a cat. the other streets were full of amber lights and the air was fragrant with rum and kerosene. He had tobacco and two little bottles–one black and one amber like the lights among the winter trees. There was some silver left. The streets blurred and slept and came alive again. No matter which street he took, he kept seeing the hungry clock and heard the flickering moth. He was being followed by shadows or maybe the star from the east. There had been a red cat. And a girl who purred. The man needed to find his coat. An antidote would be found in an amber bottle. There was some silver left. He tried right angles and then left angles, but the clocktower returned, tall and lowlit and voracious. It is a terrible thing to be lost, to almost drown on poison, on rum, on knives in alleys. The cat offered him the torn wings of the moth, but neither his coat nor his silver. He needed to stop the man who was stabbing the redheaded girl, but she was far behind or had not arrived yet. Then he would have a smoke if he could only find his medicine and his coat. The hungry tower burned like an amber candle above the starry waves. The virgin appeared but she was not an asterism, nor was the asphalt dragon until the icewater cracked its lightning into his head and the constellations began. A mad eruption of water and wind revealed the dark square, the fountain where she had baptized him and the clocktower. Her dark red hair dripped onto his overcoat. It was too late, but he needed to take his medicine. He reached into his coat pocket and found the silver and tobacco and the amber bottle. Her hands and lips were bloody, but the wounds were shallow. For some reason, he threw the empty medicine bottle into the fountain. Then they drank some rum and smoked to wait for the end. I wanted to live, he whispered, but I could not remember what that was. The hungry clock flickered.

The Word Problem

Golden oak leaves blew across the sidewalk when the man stepped out of the bookstore. Near the bus stop, a beggar sat on the pavement, asking for coins. The commuter truthfully said that he did not have any and gazed down the street, waiting for the bus to appear. The beggar continued to mutter and argue with himself, and the other began to regret that he had not given him anything. When he glanced back, he saw the poor man struggling with the wind, a rolling paper and a bag of loose tobacco. The commuter reached for his pack of cigarettes, and offered the man a few. The beggar was about to accept them, but seemed ashamed and confused, and said that maybe he should not. The commuter insisted, and the beggar accepted two and lit one. Only moments later, the other unlit cigarette came flying through the air and landed at the base of the oak tree. Whether or not it had been the wind, one could not say. The poor man smoked intently and quietly, his stormy blue eyes gazing beyond matter and time. The bus arrived, and when the commuter boarded, he noticed that the passengers were arguing passionately in sign language.

The Anthology

One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.