The Secret Life of Owls

The stars were absurd, and the skeletons could no longer read them. In the old cities, the language had died. The long and endless winter came, greeted with sadness, joy and even excitement. They would camp out under the stars now and wait. It was best to lie as still as possible and look up at the snowbound peaks, the naked trees, the melancholy galaxies. They would lie still, wrapped as mummies in tawny fox furs, orange tartans, amber wrappings of deerskin and linen, and coats of golden straw. The smoked silence and tarred landscape waited with them. As moths rise from their cocoons, maybe owls would rise from their bedrolls. And with gray eyes and glass talons they would soar into starlight and snow.

The Seasons

Misfortunes come to many scholars, but not all of them involve poverty, exile, loss or the sorrows of desire. Watching a wizened old calligrapher casually write characters from famous poems at his table with a view of the garden and its sculpted pines, one scholar said to his friend that it was utterly vulgar to answer a poem about spring with a poem about the fall. The friend readily agreed, but added as an afterthought that the ancients must have been most barbarous, for they lived through an age which they named for both the spring and the fall. The calligrapher began to laugh, and said: The longer you live, the shorter the distance between the blossoming plum and the golden birch. It’s one and the same wind that scatters flowers and dead leaves; it’s the same sun that journeys through the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. In winter the night stars are bright, and the silence of the earth and sky is sublime. The earth looks like birch bark, the snow like plum blossoms, yet both seem far away and one feels the wistfulness of the pure and empty wind.

The Winter 

One winter never thawed in the cave of her chest. And yet, it had no trees with icicles; it had no hills that sparkle with the glass of dead grass locked in frost. It had no screens of snow, no sculptured ice rivers. Wrapped in sheets of concrete she slept and wandered, leaving no prints on the earth. For the earth left her fallen on stones and stars. For her long legs were songs of hollow straw. Those who have skinned the earth blood-raw have said that she has no skin to speak of. Those who read verses in the vault of heaven have said that her tattoos are illegible. And nothing she holds in her permafrost hand finds its shape once again or remembers its name.

The Wooden Bear

Once upon a time, there was a wooden bear. At midnight, he would transform into a real bear, and go walking through the snow, smoking cigarettes, drinking cider, eating small creatures and philosophizing to the stars. After three or four hours of such nonsense, he would return to his place before an old shop, and sleep as a wooden statue once again. There was a slightly mad cellist who was wealthy, lonely, cruel and mad. One night, she saw the bear wake up and walk in the wet snow. She had to have the wooden bear as her own possession, and hurried home to make her plans. Within a few days, she had paid off the shopkeeper and some brawny fellows to haul the wooden bear to her home. That very afternoon, she made coffee and pastries, and invited all of her rich friends over to brag about her acquisition. They fawned on her and praised her. She was so pleased, she forgot about the enchantment of the carved statue and her devious, secret plans for it. She went straight to bed and slept well. On the stroke of midnight, the wooden bear came alive and went into a temper when he realized he was not at his home on the street. First, he raided her cellar and drank her cider and ate all of her salmon, whether canned, dried, or frozen. Then he left claw marks and tears on her furniture and her curtains. Lastly, he began to play her cello, and he played it very beautifully, far more beautifully than she or anyone in the town could ever hope to play. Hearing the music and waking from her sleep, the woman went downstairs to investigate. Storming into the parlour and seeing the chaos, the woman screamed in rage at the bear. Had she not paid good money for him? Was this her reward? The bear cited the law, and had her know that he had not been paid a cent to be kidnapped and to become her prisoner, but he would gladly keep her cello if she wished to avoid arrest and a long trial. Then, the wooden bear left and walked home, stopping now and then to play something beautiful to accompany the white snowflakes gently falling in the brilliance of the lampposts on the deserted streets.

The Poor Man

It was a mineral winter of oil-gray trees and aluminum clouds. The poor man clutched his beads to pray. The roof and walls of his apartment were cracked. One sink would hardly drain. The heating never worked. Rust and mold reigned. No amount of sweeping kept the dust at bay. Mourning fourteen lost souls, burdened with debt, exhausted and physically broken from thirty years of trauma and labour, he had few words to describe his pain. On the one hand, he knew his misfortunes were the workmanship of his sins. On the other hand, every good deed and work of wisdom seemed to have faded, to have vanished like a mirage. In his desperation, the poor man prayed for some temporal relief, some grace to escape his misery. Then, in a fury, he shook his fist at heaven and complained about the abuse and injustice he had received. Weeping, he immediately asked for forgiveness for possibly blaspheming or being ungrateful. Only seconds later, he was assailed with a new form of guilt, for it seemed arrogant to imagine himself capable of anything but a miserable, blasphemous outburst, and arrogant to ask for what he did not deserve, even if he could not define what it was that he thought he deserved. It now remained for him to find out which guilt was the right one, and whether grace might relieve his confusion.

The Herrings

The dried herrings hang from the smoke-blackened rafters. It is possible that consciousness is indestructible. Have the herrings counted the straws they cannot see in the thatching above their tails? Are they afraid of the spear with a detachable hook? Should they stare into the embers of the charcoals below? Is there a great famished brown bear awakening from hibernation and walking through the birch forest in the snow? Will the herrings dream tonight of the dark blue waters of the northern sea, as if staring into an unimaginable kingdom that only exists in folktales? Is hanging upside down the correct posture for thought? Why have they left those smoking charcoals unattended? And what are foxes?

The Stars

One cold, winter night, a young woman was waiting in vain for the bus. She started to walk to keep from freezing. The omnibus traveled at about 40 mph. The earth traveled around the sun at about 70,000 mph. The solar system drove the celestial highways of the galaxy at close to 600,000 mph. The galaxy traveled at a speed of up to 700,000 mph. The local cluster of galaxies traveled at almost double that speed at 1,340,000 mph. One day, some 4 billion years into tomorrow, her galaxy would crash into another galaxy–it was heading into the collision at a speed of 240,000 mph. She could only walk about 4 mph, but the possibility of a stray motorist driving into her at 20 to 50 times her speed was not improbable. More than 12 people a day died that way. Though the wind was sharp, the traffic lights and shop windows made her feel warm in her heart. The manholes looked like black holes. A dark sea of stars glowed in the northern sky. All the iced, black sidewalks had been covered with the pale blue sparkles of salt. The salt splashes looked like galaxies and constellations of stars, some dim and some bright, giving the illusion of varying distances. She could not escape the temptation to count and build a puzzle as she walked. There seemed to be about 5 galaxies of salt per square of pavement. The more she walked, the more she counted. There were about 40 paved squares per block. Block after block, her vague math seemed to confirm the estimate. There were about 10 blocks per mile, and thus 400 paved squares per mile. She knew from the city’s published records on engineering and maintenance that there were some 90 miles of sidewalk, which meant there were about 36,000 paved squares. To summarize, there were about 200 galaxies per block, 2000 galaxies per mile, and thus about 180,000 galaxies of salt on the sides of the city streets that night, if all had been salted just like the blocks she had walked till now. In those days, scientists thought there might be about 500,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe. Cities like hers, with a population of 150,000 or more, only numbered 5,000. There were not enough cities on earth. She would need almost 600 times more cities with frozen, salted streets to mirror the heavens above.