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.”
Once in antiquity, a wise and noble judge crossed the great desert in search of an epiphany. Along the way, he lectured the shifting sands, interrogated every mirage, and even thrashed an almost naked apostle. In the end, he came to the great river, dried out and thirsty. Behold, he said to himself, the river is pure and I thirst, but I have nought with which to draw water–neither stone jar, nor earthenware cup, nor glass bottle, nor leather wineskin. And the judge sighed. Not long after, a caravan arrived, glorious and terrible as an army of many banners. One by one, the dromedaries, sheep and traders knelt down to drink, but the naked apostle who had come with them leapt into the great river to swim and drink as his heart desired. The judge eyed such savagery with disgust, and prayed that the whole caravan would drown in the tainted waters. The shadows passed, the clouds and stars passed, the very hawks and kites passed. And the skeleton of the judge passed not, but remained by the edge of the sparkling river, bone-dry.
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.
Happy Earth Day!
Ten years seemed like a century, like ten days, or even ten seconds. Only moments ago he had kissed her cheek before departing. Only years ago, he had arrived back home the day before yesterday. The hall, now emptied of unwanted guests and washed clean, looked as it did only yesterday, which was possibly twenty years ago. The wife was much older, and yet softened by time and almost girlish as she blushed in the firelight of the hearth while the king stirred the embers with his spear, speaking of the wooden horse, the monsters of the sea, the whirlpools and the one-eyed cannibal. Her eyes gleamed, and she whispered that one day every voyage would bear his name, words of praise that were as romantic as they were unrealistic. The old sailor could not help but smile at her touching and youthful kindness. What was the strangest thing he ever saw? she asked. Words failed him at first, but slowly he began to speak of the realm of the dead in the far, far west. Through nights of rain and stars he had wandered among standing stones and old forests until he had fallen through a crack in time or space, falling into the underworld the way one falls overboard into the waves from a longship. There are no incantations or libations; one just suddenly awakens in the wrong place, among the shades in a world one was never meant to visit. What was strange about it? she asked eagerly, already captive again to that familiar but distant voice. The strangest thing, the sailor replied, was that everything looked flat, like wall paintings. And there were no colours, just flickers of light and shadow, and trembling scratches on the surface of everything. In our world, human beings have shapes. They are like statues you can touch and walk around. In the land of the dead, the departed souls are colorless and flat, flat like wall paintings, but they nevertheless drift by, engaged in their labours. There was a titan there who was forced to drag the world around on a chain shackled to his leg. The world looked strange. It was round like ours, but instead of a sphere, it was flat like the base of a crater or amphora or a dish. And the titan had about as much colour as a black figure on a piece of pottery lost in white mist. He would pass by, hauling the black earth, vanish somewhere to my left and then reappear to my right hours later, tensing his every muscle, sweating profusely and muttering to himself. This is a strange punishment, I said to him. You are dragging the world around. The titan slowed down and looked in my direction the way the blind will stare through someone, or the way a cat stares at imaginary birds and rats. My second death is indeed worse than the first, said the titan. Though it is physically easier, it makes no sense to me whatsoever. In the old days I held the globe of the earth. It was back-breaking work. The muscles in my shoulders and back permanently tore, and my feet were alternately numbed or plagued with stabbing pains, as if I were stepping on nails or charcoals. And yet it made sense, for I held the world close to my heart. I could see the lofty mountain peaks, the great pines spearing the clouds; I saw the endless stars above and below. The moon and stars moved, and I knew that what I did was important. Now, I am forced to walk in circles, and I have a secret suspicion that this is not the real world which I drag around, but some cheap copy carved from marble by a second rate stone mason from the market place. The weight of the world feels different, almost insubstantial, and there is no moon or sun to light the great darkness all around me. I would love to see the earth again with all of her acorns and oaks, all of her chariots and scythes, her ploughs and silver springs, her warm stones and endless wheatfields. I would love to watch the grain grow once again.
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.
In the south, there were lovely trees, stone bridges spanning limpid blue rivers, and fields of flowers, fields and fields of sunflowers, hyacinths, lavender, wild roses, cosmos, poppies, and lilies. The chronicler had dreamed of these fields for years and was disappointed when he was sent on his first assignment there, for the earth was brown, the flowers were dead, and the sluggish rivers ran in hideous shades of ash or silt. Only the clouds remained beautiful, vanilla clouds of such texture and shape that one could just lie in the grass and daydream forever. At various crossroads, the king’s men were counting the passings clouds, recording the numbers and types of clouds. It was odd that a dry land should be blessed with such beautiful cirrus and cumulus and even the odd nimbostratus. The clouds were a steady caravan coming from the mountain of winds nearby. The chronicler ventured to this mountain and climbed it. On the summit, he found the king and his royal kitemakers launching enormous cloud-shaped kites and montgolfiers. When the chronicler asked about the king’s men on the plain, the king walked over and kicked him off of cliff. Then the king returned to his leisurely viewing of the launched clouds through his golden spyglass. The clouds were beautiful.
Madmen in striped suits, mimes and anarchists with dynamite wandered the streets. The traveler crossed a great square and stopped by a fountain where a homeless man sat warming potatoes over a makeshift fire. The man wore a dusty black frock coat covered with iron crosses and gold and silver stars; his queue was beginning to silver; his expensive boots were muddy; his sword seemed to be missing. Shouts erupted now and then in the archaic buildings around the square. A bomb exploded in the belltower of a nearby church, sending up a cloud of smoke and dust. “Good afternoon,” said the man. “I was the prince of this town. I would warmly welcome you, but I cannot find the right words.” The traveler, also wearing a great coat with stars and crosses, nodded sadly and sat down next to him. The prince gave him a delicious potato. “Will you miss the palace?” the traveler asked. “No,” said the prince. “It was a prison, much as this town square is.” A mime walked up to them and made threatening gestures that possibly suggested a gallows and hanging. Then he started running and silently screaming, chased by a cursing lunatic running with a live stick of dynamite in his hands. There was another explosion. “Are you sure there is nothing you miss?” the traveler asked. “I miss having someone to talk to,” the prince confessed, and bit into his dust-caked potato.
It was the physicist’s turn to babysit the little boy. He had a long history with the parents, but nobody knew the details. Though not a military man, he arrived in a shabby field jacket, looking like an obsolete mandarin with his shaved head and long queue. The others often whispered of his book debts, one-sided love affairs with coffee shop girls, his useless inventions and his devotion to long streaks of solitide in the forests, where he subsisted on tea and cigarettes. The little boy was intrigued. Today, said the physicist in a conspiratorial whisper, after the parents had left, we shall embark on a great journey and learn the secret of life, if not the secret life of the secrets of life! The boy could have gasped. First, the physicist took him down into the dark cellar that reeked of earth and old vines. Suddenly, he switched on a lightbulb and glorious silver light sparkled on the chrome tools, old casks and bags of rice. Then he switched it off and it was pitch black. Then he switched it on and off rapidly like lightning, making the boy giggle. Then he held it on for a long time and then switched it off. The boy was breathless. The madman took him by the hand and led him upstairs. In the dining room, the physicist had set up calligraphy tools—paper and brushes and three bowls. The first held sand, the second water, the third held ink. The boy was to write his name, using each medium. The sand failed to cling to the brush and did not write anything. The water darkened the paper with the phantom of his name but quickly dried. At last, the boy tried the ink, and his name beautifully appeared and remained. The weather was good, so they went out. The man bought lunch at a street vendor. In a park of red dust and lofty pines,
they ate cold noodles covered in sesame paste and chili oil, washed down with iced coffees. After lunch, they climbed trees, played marbles in the dust, fed the pigeons and listened to an old man play the erhu. Then they played a strange game. The physicist blindfolded the boy and handed him objects. The boy had to say what shape the object was and take a bite. The first was round and it was a very bitter grapefruit. The second was a pomello, also round. The third was a round, golden pear. The fourth was a round blood orange, and the fifth was a mandarin orange. The boy had never tasted so many rinds before, but it was not entirely unpleasant. They finished eating the fruits and then went for a long walk along the river. The boy had to observe the other walkers and invent diagnoses and cures for them. It was clear that the pale woman was a vampire’s thrall. The boy suggested iron supplements, hot baths and playing with magnets. The man with the cat on the leash would turn into a bat if he did not listen to classical music by the glow of a naked lightbulb. The physicist approved these diagnoses and remedies. There were conversations with the water and trees, the counting of pebbles and grassblades, and a recital of the multiplication table backwards in the tones and cadence of a monastic chant. The physicist had also brought along rockets, drones, and an instant film camera. Only after the boy had photographed at least one object for every letter of the alphabet was he allowed to set off the rockets and fly the drones. When they had exhausted these, they sat at a picnic table to make origami animals while exchanging riddles, jokes and word problems. After building their menagerie, they sat by the river in silence. The river lapped the sandy shore and mumured past them in flashes of silver and dark blue. It was dusk when they began their walk back. The physicist explained how the traffic lights and lampposts worked. They ate a simple dinner in a little cafe, where the physicist flirted with the waitress, and headed home. There they played chess while listening to a string quartet on the radio. The boy read to the physicist from his favourite books on ghosts and time travel. They said their prayers and it was bedtime. The physicist turned off the light, ready to close the door behind him when the boy asked why the physicist knew so many games. It is all one game that lasts forever, said the strange man in the shabby coat. What is the game called? the boy asked. Logic, said the physicist, and he bid the child good night.
The first sentry always stood in his black and white striped shelter with its red lamp facing the cobblestone plaza in front of the train station. A man of law and vigilance, in his royal blue uniform he was the invisible observer who could not fail to note the humility of those who departed and the arrogance of those who returned. Suddenly these returning travelers knew much, spoke loudly and pretended to have forgotten their native tongue. Hauling their ostentatious baggage, waving around their passports full of stamps and making exaggerated faces and gestures as they recalled all the good sights they already missed, they passed by his post like dirty clouds that stain the clear blue sky. And thus he abandoned his post and bought a train ticket, confessing to the conductor that he hoped he might never return. The man of law who replaced him watched the departing with disgust, envying their wanton displays of freedom, deeply suspicious of their desires for foreign coasts and illegible scripts. Like mimes, these eager travelers acted out the adventures they would have just to remind the company seeing them off of how miserably small and insignificant their worldviews were. One day, the second sentry also abandoned his post, madly crying out to the ticket clerk that he hoped he would return chastised and meek. When he did return, he was court-martialed and shot. The third man of law only appeared when the new lamppost shone for the first time one evening. Standing in the striped sentry box, he watched the pigeons play in the fountain during day shifts and dreamed of books and expensive cigarettes by night. Though friendly and thankful for the bread crumbs and seeds he shared, the birds were careful, being secretly obsessed with the suspicion that he had wandered before and might wander again and knew more of their speech than he let on. When the revolution came, they would be sure to stalk him first and peck out his sandy eyes.
A woman wished to be wed, but she did not know how or to whom. The girls on the trams laughed at her; the typists and notaries at the office ignored her. Thus she wandered the city of old concrete and sand, lonely and invisible. One cold evening of brilliant stars and a dark moon, she entered the train station. Kerosene lamps burned on the platforms. A clock suspended from the iron rafters cast a mournful glow. A man in a dark coat walked toward her, flickering in and out of light and shadow. A long whistle sounded in the distance as they accidentally collided. The man reeked of soap, cigarettes and pine needles, old ink, motor oil and wool. She held onto him and gasped, “You have the fragrance of the last train to depart!” Pressing her to himself, and feeling her trembling body, he sighed, “Or the train that will never arrive.”