In the land of lakes far to the north, a young man with silver hair sat down on the sand by the blue water and wept. What ails you? a raven inquired. My life divorced my life, and I am their abandoned orphan, said the man. I do not even know my name. Long ships full of shadows sailed to that shore and carried away the orphan to a another, distant shore, where they hung him from an ash tree with rope. The man hung there and looked out on the sea. Sometime later, the raven arrived. What ails you? the raven asked. I am a hanged man, a cursed man, said the orphan. My life divorced my life and abandoned me to the elements. I do not remember my name. The raven ate one of his eyes. You are Time, said the black bird. And then it flew off into a deep sky of ancient snows.
The captain watched the mutinous black ship fade on the pale blue horizon. They had left him on a small, lush, volcanic island with a boat, a gun, and several crates that amounted to a few months of provisions. It was a benevolent, generous mutiny; he fervently prayed that none of the mutineers would hang. Now he had nothing but time on his hands, time to spend as he pleased. The excitement was terrifying. It was like vertigo. On the first day, he wept with gratitude. On the second day, he wept for all the past days when he could not weep. On the third day, he wept for sorrow. On the fourth, for all the days he was alone and all that he was not alone. On the fifth, he wept for everything ephemeral and eternal. On the sixth, he wept for beauty and joy. The morning of the seventh day was clear and calm; the captain lit a cigar and went for a long walk on the beach.
** I wrote this for Umberto Eco (1932-2016), who passed away this week. I loved his books from the time I was thirteen. Since the day he passed, I have been reading The Island of the Day Before. I am thankful for his great literary and philosophical gifts to the world. May he rest in peace.
The oars licked and splashed, dove and turned, churning the green sea as the clouds raced for dry islands of rare clouds and birds. The amphorae and the grain stores shifted with the motion of the waves and beating drum. The mute slaves rowed as the captain whipped them, speaking of glory and empire. After the shipwreck, one of the few slaves to break free headed through the surf towards the shore where the other slaves awaited, exhausted but thankful that no soldiers had survived to cut them down in the fury of the surf lest they escape. The one slave walked through the shallows and saw an officer lying in the sand, bleeding and on the verge of death. The slave lifted him up and carried him on his back. What is this? the old centurion asked. The glory of the empire, laughed the slave, staring straight ahead, grateful for the brightness of the endless blue sky spreading like an ink stain over the dark world.
The moon voyages began some two thousand years ago. The first to land on its soft surface became embroiled in a war of cloud centaurs, vegetable humanoids and canines made of acorns. Another traveled there to discover all the lost things that earth missed, such as bottled brains and parasols. There were reports of travelers who discovered perfect civilizations in its metallic craters or unusual ways to view an eclipse in the extreme cold. Some later found canals and rivers without ships or navigators, but these tales only lasted for four hundred years before being buried in absolute unbelief. Later, the moon had a short-lived career as a stage actor or character in a bloody tragedy and then as a kind of mobile saltwater dairy farm. Some years ago, the moon voyages yielded only great speeches and haunting footprints. It was otherwise desolate, utterly desolate. The moon is still silent. And watching. One can only imagine what secrets burn deep within the stars.
In their travels, the wanderers encountered a sunlit, dry planet of scattered clouds, snowy mountains of stone and rolling plains of golden grass and scattered trees. There were soft seas that washed the semi-arid deserts and steppes. It looked like a good planet to cultivate. One day, as they walked through a plain, explosions of dirt and smoke fatally dismembered several comrades. The rest of the crossing continued uneventfully until they came to the coastal mountains where it began to rain what could only be described as bombs coming out of both clouds and blue sky. After a deluge of phosphorus fire, naptha, and other deafening fireworks burning the ground and leaving black, smoking craters, the land had rest for another thousand days. The wanderers came to discover that these unpredictable mines and bombs were organic, though inanimate, and really no different than weather. The silence was not friendly, though sometimes preferable. It is difficult to safely study an explosion one cannot define or test. In time, there was only one wanderer left intact, a lone shadow walking slowly and thoughtfully over the strange landscape.
The captain strode through the surf demanding damage reports, his bald head glistening in the purple twilight, his black leather coat dripping pearls. The dark waters roared and receded, flung their fury on the sand and retreated again. A marine biologist came running down from a dune where he had been manning a radio and telescope and ordered the captain off the shore. Mad and soaked through his skin, the captain demanded a damage report. This is a protected beach, the scientist screamed. Time is coming, the captain said quietly, glancing out at the darkling horizon. And you are not ready. Get off the beach, the scientist screamed. You are ruining our experiment! The captain laughed through the tears filling his big blue eyes. My good friend, he sighed, there will be no more tests or papers! A cloud of witnesses has spoken! 57 skeletons float in the green deep. Henceforth you will only publish damage reports! Damage reports! Time is coming. And you have no clue as to what time is! The moon rose square, hollow, and pale.
A man lived on a wine-black argo. In the early, rosy-fingered morning, it was beached on a wooden shore covered with scraps of paper, papyri, and the kinds of things children leave behind. Once awake, he would survey the lonely shores that stretched to cloud-white walls, knowing he had just missed the linen softness of a woman moving around in the dark or the excited whispers of children. Alone, he cleaned the beach and ate his bread and then departed for the galaxies of amber and green aegises, the thousand gray death ships making their cyclical odysseys through the underworld, and labyrinths of stone and glass where he waged war against the electric humming and shape-shifting of minotaurs. There were ringing bellerophons, raging typhons, hydras to pay off, medusas, ajaxes, sirens, harpies, furies, bacchae, and all manner of other creatures. Only late at night, as the icy stars rose high, would he voyage back among the gray death ships to the silent shores where a bottle of wine and his blessed argo awaited the exhausted body. The man who knew not whether he was helot or hero, twisted and turned on his boat of pitch-black leather and wood. After a drink or two, he set sail into his own night, wondering if he would catch a glimpse of somnus or thanatos, who were more like shadows than shades. Rowing far out, he expected to see charons in their black vessels ghosted with whispers. It would be a miracle if a hitherto unknown, lissome eos came to join him in his wine-dark argo to share her word hoard of secrets and coded caresses. It would be better if he circumnavigated the ocean of twenty-four winds and captured either the somnus or the thanatos to drink of their hidden amber and ambrosia. The only things he really feared were the eternal charybdis, the eternal cronos, and the endless silence of life.