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.
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.
In the morning, the silent one gathered with the others by the gate, to receive a punishment if there was one to be had and to hear instructions and curses. Throughout the day, the slave repaired the carriage wheels, swept out the stables, and was ever ready to be berated or whipped. When the shadows lengthened, he meditated on the laws and the sawdust and the spikes and wounds and the laughter of the laundress. In the evenings, the stars shimmered above the olives and cypresses as he wandered amongst their cool leaves, whispering to himself and the great world exclusively in gerundives.
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 flat-out madness beckoned. The young shadows would want to depart for the threshing lands, the sixty mile waste of abandoned barley fields, old machinery, derailed boxcars, empty barns, burnt out cars, rubber tires, tar pits and smoking trees. It was a right of passage, a way to find their lucky stars, or just a visit to the unknown in search of answers. Some were just suicides waiting to happen. Some just wanted to look for fossils and poems or a cold, quiet, darkness in which to slowly kiss or pray. One had to have jeans, boots, hoodies, a hunting knife, matches and cigarettes, rum and hot tea, maybe even a tattered paperback classic or a pocket-sized notebook with a good pen. A good flannel shirt, a toolbox and a radio wouldn’t hurt. One had to have a head full of old leaves and roads never taken. There among discarded carriage wheels, weed-covered crossroads, mounds of sawdust, broken fences and deer bones, they walked in the brisk landscape of midnight without end. The machines and burnt out cars would eventually wake up. The screaming weeds and the deathberries would animate. The sabretoothed threshers and reapers bared their fangs and growled after the running shadows, leaving trails of fragrant dust. Prehistoric wolves and obsolete foxes skulked and skirted the wired roads through the great nothing and its twisted constellations. It was unusual to get out without open wounds and deep inner scars, and nobody was ever quite able to describe the horror and the passion in everyday words. Most of those who made it out spoke of outdated gears or rotted roofing—there was no point in describing the sensation of being eaten, of wishing one were safely wrapped in a body cast forever, of the thrill of having no body cast, of what it means to be thrown through time, of what it is like to be eaten by earth or sharp metal. And behind their silence was the secret revelation that lucky stars only burned back there in that land of golden grain and rust, and the roads never taken are the only ones worth taking.
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.
It may have been ironic that the tall, dark harpooner had escaped his own death twice, that while his beloved friend drifted to safety in the shelter of his own coffin, he himself found refuge in the coffin of the captain, which had somehow emerged intact from the wreckage, that he had drifted through the swells and storms of the ocean without finding his friend, drifting northward and then westward, always northward and westward, without a sign of the whale or the sign of another living soul. And thus the spearman of the seas drifted in the coffin. The initial struggle with the whale as it pulled everyone down, the long voyage leading up to the ghosted encounter, the terror of struggling for breath and for the open sky, these were but distant flashes in his memory now. The whaler lay in the coffin, listening to the lapping water, staring at a wash of stars that he did not recognize and inhaling an oceanic scent that was both familiar and foreign. As he drifted, he did what he had long been pondering—he offered his life up to the holy one of the other whalers, the holy one who had been speared. Dreams of his pale, crucified body drifted in and out of the harpooner’s mind. Like the prophet of the old parable, the harpooner had been swallowed by the gigantic whale, swallowed and then spat out to find the drifting coffin—it was a resurrection and a second birth. A morning finally arrived, as the strange stars faded, and the coffin washed up on the shores of an island that could have been his own many thousands of days or years ago. To his surprise, he was greeted by the tattooed natives. Like the whalers, they were a polyglot ensemble, but dressed in black sarongs printed with white fish bones, various accurately drawn whales or pale, tropical flowers, such as the incomparable plumeria. They wore tattered monkey jackets and other coats of indescribable fabric. Their skin was pale, copper, mocha, golden, but always printed with dark blue tattoos—some interlaced like the woodwork of the whalers, some sketched out like scrimshaw, some more familiar to him from his own islands. Some wore spectacles; others wore helmets of metal and glass, the visors of which resembled ships’ portholes. They lived in makeshift longhouses that were nothing less than overturned ship hulls or shipwrecks patched up with tar and driftwood. Among the natives, the whaler was treated with respect. It was almost paradise—a veritable blending of the life of the whalers and the life of the islanders, of the faraway west and the endless south. The manner of living was good, but the locals were poor sailors and would not build boats or rafts to venture out. While scavenging shipwrecks and often feeding off the survivors, the colony had degenerated into a darkness of mind. Every now and then, the elders would punish one man with ritual whippings—the man who read. He was tall, like the whaler, refused to eat human meat, and collected books which had escaped the waves and bonfires. He was accused of lying for reading and speaking about a time when surgeons could cut into the human body and repair various organs, or for speaking of the mystical truths in tales of fishermen and shepherds who heard the voice of the divine in the desert or at sea, or for being able to predict an eclipse, for praying to one abstraction that none of the natives could name or recall, for drawing pictures of tools and machines that could only be the figments of the most demonic imagination. One day, the elders took the whaler aside and said that they were losing patience with the reader. Perhaps there were some good things in those books—if only the reader understood that they were myths and not realities. Once the reader realized that there was no world beyond the island and the sea, he would see reason again. The whaler smoked silently, saying little, lost in doubts and the depths of his own fading memories and the endless roar of the waves. One day, the elders lost their patience indeed. The whaler was roused by his assigned wife, who whispered that the reader was to be hanged. By the time the whaler got to the beach, it was too late. They had hung the reader from an old, half-buried mast and its crosstrees and were spearing his ribs with old harpoons, opening up his flesh. It was then that the whaler believed once again.