It was an honour to be summoned by the officials to deliver a letter and his own report to the Crown. For most of the night, the courier had drunk strong, muddy tea and typed and retyped his report of all that he observed and discovered in recent weeks. Passion and pride seemed to electrify his fingertips as they clicked the keys. For years, the Crown had shown great wisdom and benevolence in managing war, famine, and pest. Despite the sleeplessness, the courier felt awake for the first time in years. There had been years of somnambulism from the sheer exhaustion of working overtime, of being vigilant, of intermittent and unpredictable quarantines. The commoners would never be able to imagine the sacrifices of the officials, of the undaunted courage and industriousness that had been required to ensure public safety. They had no idea what it meant to make an act of faith. The courier could still hardly believe he was being called to the court as he stepped out into the roadway at dawn. It was a dry, mostly sunny spring. Some trees were in flower, the white blossoms trembling in the cold wind. Old posters with the crown symbol hung in tatters from the walls; gendarmes guarded striped gateways; glowing iodine-red lanterns hung from windows, keeping the perpetual light burning, the light that represented the inner light of all, but most importantly, the light of vigilance, of caution, of the cure and the Crown itself. When the road reached the wall of the inner city, there were more masked guards in white or pale, drab green, and one semicircle of masked, white-clad soldiers centered on an overturned wheelbarrow and a cowering delivery man. Most of the contraband merchandise had spilled out onto the dirt, and the courier could read the labels on the packets, boxes and jars—wormwood, creosote, larch and pine sap syrups, willow and birch bark powder, quinine soda, orange peel and paprika, atropine cordials, charcoal. There were other items, but he could not read them. Brilliant colourful labels and clear glass gleamed in the morning sun. A shot rang out, and the body of the merchant fell to the dust. The courier passed through the gate after showing his passport, his official letter of summons, and answering questions for a quarter of an hour. The avenue to the palace was lined with more centuries, cannons, and checkpoints. Round, glass lamps and cylindrical, paper lanterns poured their red light into the shadows of the squares where marble statues gathered skeletons of poisoned sparrows. The palace front loomed larger and larger. The courier could hardly breathe as he walked up the steps and passed through a colonnade into the great foyer. A beautiful woman at the bureau in the antechamber, a maze of sentries and cordon ropes, raised her hand and beckoned to the courier. She wore a mask over her mouth, a white beret and white uniform, her hair cut to her jawline, her eyes darkly lined, her cheeks almost ghostly with face powder. Congratulating him on his honor, she directed him to proceed through gate 9 and directly enter the throne room. An armed halberdier accompanied him. They did not ascend the main stairway, as the courier had thought they might. Instead they walked down a hallway, and entered a dark courtyard. Clouds had blown in overhead, mingling with the billowing smoke that rose from a gigantic fire pit in the courtyard. Already, some guards were dumping what looked to be the contents of the wheelbarrow that had been overturned before the gate earlier that morning. Glass jars shattered or cracked, cordials exploded, packets of dried bark and charcoal blazed. The fragrance of the pit was soporific and calming. The courier could hardly believe that he was standing right next to the warmth of the cure itself, the very heart of the empire. Beyond the glare of the dancing flames, the august person of the Crown himself stood, bald, masked and in full uniform—candy-striped trousers and an immaculate white coat with a mandarin collar, decorated with glittering crosses and curling, metal serpents. Another official was speaking to him, handing him a stack of beautiful books. The courier recognized them—they were out of print now, almost impossible to find. They were a series of forbidden chronicles, a monumental history of the realm with gold leaf trim on the pages, bold fonts, bone-white paper and colorful arabesque covers of real leather with gold leaf lettering. The Crown took the books, and threw them, one after another, into the fire-pit. After listening some more to the report of the official, he nodded to the escort, who kicked the official into the fire-pit. A military band in a gallery somewhere began to bang drums and cymbals. Screams filled the air, and the fire blazed. Gradually, the cymbals and gongs ceased. The other armed guard bowed to the Crown, and walked back, nodding to the courier and his guard as he passed. Perhaps it was the smoke, perhaps it was all of the walking that morning after several months of quarantine, but the courier began to feel sleepy once again. The Crown beckoned to him through the light and shadow of the flickering flames. The black smoke rose like a prayer of gratitude into the sky.
It happened that the sawdust and the logs got into arguments. Not having eyes, the substance of most of their blind observations may be dismissed without footnotes. The more memorable ones included the suspicious nature or nonexistence of the woodworker, the exact shape of the workshop they inhabited, the absolute importance of being a log or splinter and the irreconcilable differences between the two, the fact that logs were really just sawdust, too, or the notion that specks could be logs if they wished to be and declared it to be so. One dry summer in the second year of drought, their arguments became insufferable. Neither the logs nor the sawdust heard the thunder or saw the lightning, nor did they notice the appearance of the sparks.
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.