Marching against their will down a winter road, the skeletons in chains headed for the towers of darkness. I told you we should have joined the other army, said one. You are an idiot, said his comrade. No matter who won, we were headed for prison anyway. Why would you say that? the first one demanded. Because we have voices, the other whispered. They stared into the silence of dead golden grass and naked trees immersed in snow. The wind blew through their threadbare coats.
In the time of plague, many tribes warred with each other. A once great tribe found itself in ruins, many of its people enslaved by wealthy herdsmen, many of its herdsmen dying, the sheep, cattle and camels often stolen or owned by outsiders. The prince of the tribe invoked the sacred name and the name of a prophet, and asked his sons and daughters for counsel. One son promised to release all the cattle to the poor, but had little to say about the wars or the plague. One daughter advised that nothing change, lest the tribe sink into deeper ruin, while attempting to get cures from the enemy, which she thought would fetch a fair price from their own thralls. A second son said that he would give the thralls what they needed, and lead the tribe in a holy war to suppress the other tribes. A third son advised silent strength and cautious trade with the other tribes. The prince decided to follow the advice of the second son, and holy war was unleashed. The second son led the thralls from victory to victory to victory. At last the armies returned. The thralls possessed their own cattle, and the land was at peace, but men and women still suffered from the great blight. At last, the prince called his third son, begging him to go forth in silent strength and peacefully trade with the other tribes. The third son prayed, and led one hundred camels forth into the great wastes to trade for a cure, but there were no more tribes left, only fields of bones, and nobody who remained, few that they were, knew anything of a cure.
On a wooden sign standing alone in a great prairie far from any railroad, mine or herd, the following notice was scrawled in chalk:
The great horses of the great war are not coming back, whether or not they have actually been or are being shot.
The skeletons wrapped their black coats around their bones and sat closer to the campfire, watching the firelight dance off their newly cleaned and oiled rifles. There was a strange stillness in the mountains that hung in the trees like an invisible and intangible mist. The coats have gotten better, said the one. First it was blue against gray, then green and gray, then nondescript shades of sand, and now black or green, but at least they seem durable for the time being. Warming his hands on a steel can of coffee, the other skeleton said that it was a difficult thing, picking a coat. Some were good against the rain, some were better with the wind and snow. It was impossible to wear the right coat–one never really knew what the battle was about or where the open road would lead you. And some coats just left you more naked, lying thrown face down on the side of some forgotten road. And the coats are full of surprises.
Long ago, a nomad won an enormous rug from a princess after a glorious campaign. One could have sat four or five tents on it. Rolled up, it had to be carried by ten camels walking abreast, with ten servants to guide. Fortunately, the camels and servants came with the rug. The poor herdsman was now almost a prince. As time went by, the generous nomad offered the rug to host royal banquets for khans, concerts for itinerant musicians, weddings for blacksmiths, and prayers for priests from faraway lands. One day, a khan asked for a piece, thinking it to be enchanted. Another day, an unhappily wed girl asked for a piece by which to remember the handsome herdsman and to have at least something for a dowry. By and by, a priest begged for a square to carry with him on his trek along the silk, spice, and tin routes. A musician demanded some scraps as payment for a performance he had already been paid for. In this way, the rug shrank considerably. After several wars and circuits of the various trade routes, the nomad married a captive girl he freed from a slave market. She gave him many children, but they took up a lot of space. After she died, each child demanded his or her own piece of the rug to remember their departed mother and to have an inheritance. And then one by one, they departed, cursing the nomad’s miserliness for hanging onto his last shreds of fabric. Alone now, the old nomad barely had enough rug to lay on or wrap around his body. Like his scraps of rug, all but one of his camels remained. On the rug each night, lying on his back and staring at the stars, he prayed that heaven would allow him to keep this one last piece, for he had heard that the princess had passed on, and he wished to make a pilgrimage to her tribe and city, to offer the last scrap as a burial gift. And if that were not possible, then perhaps heaven would enchant this rug with the magic of old tales, so that he might fly into the stars and converse with celestial spirits and angels. And then he would sigh, remembering something he had heard somewhere. One cannot be many.
I was writing the last pages of my text on eclipses of the moon and sun when the event happened. I was still wearing my bronze armour for I had to write in a hurry between battles, and wanted to finish my treatise before beginning my tragedy on the life of the destroyer who traveled on a winged horse armed with a crystal eye and the horror that turns men to stone. And then there was thunder, a rainfall of stars, and smoke all over the surface of the earth. Logic fails to explain or express the journey, for either I was carried off by a comet or another strange cosmic phenomenon, or spirits transported me from the earth into the vicinity of unfamiliar stars and planets. The third possibility is that I have gone mad. It is unlikely I could have survived the first type of event without burning up or suffocating. Travelers have often reported the burning up of falling stars and the way the air grows thinner the higher you climb into the mountains. It would seem that there is no air in the ether and traveling through the atmosphere is a violent and hazardous event. The second possibility is no less impossible or disconcerting, for it is said that even if spirits or immortals exist, they are too far away in space to notice our earth or care about our life, and being transported by them to this area of space by their powers makes no sense, for I have not encountered anyone or anything other than a great void of orbiting stars, streaming luminous clouds and the shadows of planets. The one planet in my vicinity, which I orbit each day, at about the same distance of the moon to our ancient earth, glows with swirls of amber, molten gold, topaz and black steel. It is like looking into the forge of a blacksmith or into one of those strange marbles of glassblowers, or a rare gem. It is a cat’s eye without a body. Its warmth wafts over to me. I do not seem to have difficulty breathing, but I know there can be no air, for nothing lives or grows in this empty sea. This morning star, like an ember in the dark sky, like a mysterious cat’s eye, seems to be made of gases and elixirs. I believe these elixirs drift outward, the way heat drifts from a hearth, the way an aura of light spreads from one little lantern into the night. It seems possible that these elixirs have made me immortal. I do not breathe, I do not eat, I do not weep or feel pain anywhere in my body, and I do not die. The only thing I feel is an infinite sadness. My mind works without ceasing as I ponder the revolutions of stars and planets. Some five hundred years must have passed since my arrival. I can guess this by the patterns of changes in the stars, the seasons of my planet, and the number of calculations I have made from where I float like a drowned sailor in the universe. I now know the circumference and age of my planet, I have numbered the planets in this ring of stars and guessed the durations and lengths of their orbits, I have predicted countless phenomena with increasing accuracy. I am a living almanac who cannot impart a single iota of what I have observed and tested. On the earth I once heard legends of subterranean hells full of darkness and flames that maidens would fall into and heroes would visit at great risk. I did not think about such things much. I was too occupied with the codex and the spear. Whether or not a hell exists under the earth, it certainly exists here. It is a beautiful hell. My soul burns with the beauty and sadness of the starry chaos. The third possible explanation for my night voyage remains. I may be locked into a an infinite madness, a madness so great that my body may have died but my mind cannot sense it and sleep, a madness that only increases my pointless calculus of astronomical phenomena while decreasing my memory of life. Perhaps all three explanations are interwoven, swirling together in this maelstrom of suspended and turning lights and shadows. I pray that this is true, for if there is a hell, then it seems more possible that there is a heaven that will someday draw me from the dance of flames, from death without death, from infinite madness. I have come to experience infinity, but I have yet to find eternity. I would like to find a friend in this great emptiness.