It was close to the last hour. There was little discomfort. Religion granted him the prospect of forgiveness and eternal rest. The morphine sedated his body and relieved most of the pain. The thief waited for death the way one waits for an old friend or a nurse, with only the slightest impatience and only a minimum of excitement. Nostalgia was the only difficulty. He remembered the early days of stealing scissors, paper, bicycles, flowers and umbrellas. The morning light on the pavement as the wheels spun and he dashed off into arcane city streets to hide. The nocturnal fragrance of the flowers he clipped from the gardens of great villas. Those were precious moments. Once he stole some cigarettes. Never had he intended real harm; never had he threatened or resorted to violence. And he had never been caught. The inventory of his stolen goods amounted to cheap trinkets few would have missed. One could hardly call them crimes or even sins. The more he thought about it, however, the more he wondered. What if those cigarettes had belonged to someone suffering great sorrow? What if the absence of his cigarettes drove the poor victim into madness or suicide? What if one of the missing bicycles prevented a doctor from making a housecall or a woman from reaching her true love in time to reveal her feelings? What if those flowers were meant to cheer invalid children in run-down hospitals? Then another thought occurred to him. What if nobody really had noticed the thefts? After all, he had never been caught. It were almost as if his life had left no mark on the earth, no ripple on its waters. It were as though he had not even existed.
Long ago, the shadows of the desert migrated in black trucks and jeeps from mesa to mesa, through the rock sugar and cornflower of steppes and mountains. Whenever they camped out, they would perform shadow plays or puppet shows, using the headlights on their armoured automobiles, white sheets or tarpaulin, and an assortment of puppets preserved in army lockers. The radio provided the music, the migrants themselves voiced the songs, dialogue and narration. The characters were the most interesting part of these events: the cougar, the jaguar, the coyote, the hurricane, the avalanche, the lost or abducted princess, the corrupt mandarin, the lone swordsman, the conspiring doctor, the lovesick lawyer, the oxherd, the weaver, the bear in mourning, the mad hunter, the philosophical miner, the celestial but secretive wet nurse, the lost angel, the seven merchants, and the dangerous rider of winged horses. When the blue grass and brass skies darkened, these characters acted out all the many narratives of life before and after and yet to come. Whether watching shadows or low-lit puppets carved of wood and painted in faraway colors, the migrants lost themselves in the interlocking ballads and dramas. Curiously, these events always ended in the same way. Only one character, if it could be called such, stood out from the rest and could not really be defined. They called him the other, the one thief, or the mysterious stranger. Nobody could predict when or where in the time-space of the narrative he would appear, but once he did, he would deliver an indecipherable incantation, a kind of parable or thought experiment, and the lights would go out to end the play. It was in this way that the shadows of the desert contemplated the night of stars and endless time.
Strolling through the blazing wheatfields, the thief praised the glory of nature and the beauty of the blue skies and golden grain. One by one, he plucked the ears, and dreamed of the universe, how it was made of grain and sand, some 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 seeds scattered across the black empyrean. And he dreamed of that moment when the little stones of light, invisible to the eye, collided to create the moon, sun and stars. And the moment the first atoms made plankton and grass, and then the grass made trees. And the plankton made tadpoles, which became larvae and diseases, which changed into scarabs, which begot salamanders, who engendered frogs, fish, calamaria, and sharks, who turned into birds, who became dogs, and the dogs brought forth the deer, the giraffe, the oxen, the camels, the hippopotami, the bear, the jackal, the ape and the human. It would have been wonderful to see man or woman strike flints to see the first spark, for sparks are also like seeds, like grains, like little stones and drops of water. With his hand full of grain, the thief stopped to gaze into the sky. Beyond the cypress trees, a flock of black birds circled, as if forming an eye gazing into eternal emptiness. Nothing can be made of nothing, the thief whispered, his heart almost frozen. The wind blew the grains of wheat into the air, they circled like the birds, and then they were gone.