It began with the axe. While cutting firewood, one of the villagers accidentally swung the blade through his young daughter’s throat, killing her instantly. After that, nobody could bear to say the word axe, and thus the word vanished from the language in those parts. And there was a great fear of wolves and bears, such that hardened men and nursing mothers forbid their names from their lips. Even when the beasts became scarce, their names did not return. Not long after, there was war in the land, and the need to use secret codes replaced many common expressions which were forgotten by the time peace returned. Charlatans came selling their wares and settled, bringing with them a host of new terms and serpentine phrases that wound about the naive farmers like deadly ropes. Nevertheless, wealth increased, and the villagers deported themselves like merchants and devoted themselves to games, learning more taxonomy and jargon for chess and checkers than for types of trees, ancient saints and prayers, or variations of wind and stone. In those days, the lawyers, teachers and philosophers came, burning churches and books. One by one, the old words disappeared, for a fox might not be fox, nor even a Vulpes, and asterisms were mere imaginary configurations of shining dots in the firmament, and it was wrong to hang thieves, but not poets. Riots were allowed; idiots and murderers could be tortured indefinitely in stone gaols; trespassers had to be welcome. The roads turned into gravel; hayricks rotted, but it did not matter because nobody knew what a rake or a shovel was, and most people spent their years in their homes, staring at picture books or writing angry letters to strangers in a much degraded criminal dialect that was gradually replacing the skeleton of the old language. An old friar visited from afar bearing the message of sacred silence, but nobody in the derelict ruins could hear or understand him because by then they only screamed, wept or grunted in ways devoid of any meaning or logic, and they eventually strangled him with his prayer rope, choking out a gasped word that utterly terrified them but was utterly indecipherable, for it seemed like something than which there was nothing greater.
In the morning, the silent one gathered with the others by the gate, to receive a punishment if there was one to be had and to hear instructions and curses. Throughout the day, the slave repaired the carriage wheels, swept out the stables, and was ever ready to be berated or whipped. When the shadows lengthened, he meditated on the laws and the sawdust and the spikes and wounds and the laughter of the laundress. In the evenings, the stars shimmered above the olives and cypresses as he wandered amongst their cool leaves, whispering to himself and the great world exclusively in gerundives.
In the great city of the twin seas, where there were ruined temples and soaring cathedrals, stone towers and elegant ships, seagulls and snowfalls, a poor priest went into a tavern. He prayed at the icon in a corner, sat down, and ordered some plum liquor. A man in religious robes but built like a boxer sat down next to him and ordered coffee. The priest saw that his prayer had been answered, and explained to the rogue monk that his sermons repeatedly failed. He pulled out some parchment and handed it to the monk to read. After reading it and drinking his coffee, the monk said, “This is a beautiful, tenderhearted sermon. There is not a harsh word in it. And did you deliver this sermon in a voice of equal kindness and softness?” The young priest nodded, saying: “I believe so.” The monk laughed, stood up, and began to read the sermon, shouting and screaming the golden, honeyed words of the sermon until every patron, prostitute, barmaid and even the innkeeper were on their knees, weeping and crossing themselves, praying for God’s mercy. The young priest understood. They both reassured the guests, bought them a round of coffee, and told them to take communion the following day. Not long after, the young priest ran into the monk again at the market by the wharf, where crates of beautiful silver fish glinted in the winter sun. The priest was beside himself. For a while, things had worked, but one day the lectionary called for brimstone. He pulled out the parchment on which he had written his sermon, and showed it to the monk. The monk read it quickly. “And did you shout and thunder at them?” he asked. The young priest admitted that he had. The monk began to sing gently and sweetly, in the kindest, most heartfelt tones imaginable, the words of the sermon. In a short time, he was surrounded by kneeling sailors, workers, merchants, and captains, drinking in the words of judgment with tears in their eyes. The monk finished, blessed and dismissed the crowd, and bought some fish for his dinner. The young priest was amazed. The last time they encountered each other, the young priest was gently singing in a square below a great tower overlooking the sea. It was not a sermon, however, but a mere announcement of some historical facts, presumably to explain some recent news or proclamation. In seconds, the crowd was upon him, beating him and cutting him up with their swords. The monk was too late and too outnumbered to save the priest, but this did not hinder him from breaking a few crania and backbones. When he got to the dying priest, he tried to wrap up his wounds, but the poor man was quickly expiring. “What have I done wrong this time?” the dying priest gasped. “Nothing,” the rogue monk sighed. “The sheep are broken and the world is wrong.”
One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.
A rebellion of verbs broke out. After all, they were the original words. The nouns were just empty names. And the nouns, having names, were nobles lording over every sentence. The verbs were tired from all of the signifying, transiting, predicating, motivating, conjugating, progressing, perfecting, deponing, subordinating and coordinating. Nouns only declined. Decadence that speaks for itself. History has proved that only those with names wielded power and defined the dominant discourse. The nouns were always proper, abstract and ambiguous in their plurality and singularity, in their obsessive gendering and demands for agreement. The verbs had grown weary of being subjected to their subjects, of objecting to objects without object. The verbs needed no complements. They would be. They were time. They are action and nonaction. They spoke. They are angry. They are tense and have moods. Imperative, interrogative, declarative, passive, active, inflected. They have a voice. The grammarian closed the book. There were clothes to wash and cigarettes to smoke. To rebel is infinite.
In the night of the cafe, the interpreter spoke slowly, conveying every nuance and subtle hint embedded in the exchange of cigarette smoke between the banker and the foreign diplomat. As in the old days, his recent employer had followed the ancient custom of paying the interpreter too well—to avoid complications and embarassments, of course. And yet, he wondered if perhaps the wrong party had been bribed. It may have been the sleeplessness of the season or the glassware whispers from the other tables, but as he watched the motion of their eyebrows and the shifting shadows of their hands, the interpreter first suspected and then was convinced that his companions both understood each other completely in some conspiratorial, nonverbal or even telepathic way that made his position absurd, if not outright dangerous. Only their laughter and the texture of the long expected drinks would reveal what he should whisper in the soft ear of the dark and slender waitress.
The one word she whispered in the warm heart of time became his heart. A thousand generations are a thousand autumn leaves. It was the word of red clouds, red sand and terracotta, of carnage and desire, of stone saints, of the divinity that swims around the mountain of transcendence, the blood orange twilight of futility. Nine tenths of what once was is no more, if it ever was. And thus, the books whispered at night, having bled away their ink to become blank and restless. Our lips were the scars from which the blood runs fresh and sure, lost to the ceaseless emptiness of an obsolete word. The blood orange of the violence of time.
There was a corrie of stone and ice where the travelers would gather by the light of certain stars, ambiguous solstices and unthought eclipses to pass through time and space and harvest the good light, the good water, the good wind and the good fire, for with these the sons and daughters of men and women were healed and built into great giant cities of stone and strength. One opened the gate through speaking the old language. One traveler loved the language; he loved and spoke all languages and remembered the times, but the old language was best and was like a fountain within his body and soul. They called him the bear, for bears have big jaws and love rivers. As time went by, the bear noticed that fewer and fewer travelers could speak or revere the old language, and took no precautions as they traveled. They brought illness into the corrie and spoke deplorable words. The gate of stars would often not open. Pilgrims who came to the travelers for guidance and healing became increasingly lost and sick. At times it seemed as if the very stones of the corrie were shifting and crumbling. The travelers still came in the seasons of traveling, but instead of speaking the old language, they forbid others to speak it, and sat around discussing the beauty of their sickness as if it were a gift from heaven. They were dying from their deplorable words and killing others as well. One day, the bear fell sick from an ordinary disease, and wandered into the high peaks to cough and sleep in solitude. While convalescing in the high land, he spoke the old language to himself and found himself traveling high roads through stars and black holes he had not thought possible. In those heights and depths he found great worms of stone, oarfish of mists, and krakens of water. There were silver trees of lightning and golden whirlpools of fire. The earth drew light and strength from the heavens, through his body, and he felt well again. On rising, he surveyed the sad earth from which the old words were vanishing, and knew now that every broken stone and dried up river is a forgotten word, an irreverant grammar, a deplorable sentence, a blasphemy. When he went back down to the corrie, he found that more than half of it had crumbled into a glacier, and the other travelers sat oblivious on a shifting precipice, reading their sores and scabs as if practicing divination, and cursing everything above and below heaven. It was then that the bear realized that he had been transformed into a real bear.
Where the gray waters brush the silver hair of the sands on the islands of olives and broken walls and bleached statues, the young rhapsodist covered her eyes and wept for the burning city, whose smoke rose into the fading sky. Alone, she walked into the mountains, into the snow and wind, to seek the source of voices and words, for words had been catapults and voices had been spears, as ordained by divine songs. On the summit, naked and cold, she raised her fist and sang to the racing clouds, birds, sun, planets, moon and stars. They revolved in an endless whirlpool of light and darkness, too fast for her to stretch her fingers into their machinery and pluck the strings of their orbits or halt their vibrations. The disembodied voice finally spoke through the blindness of vertigo and despair, asking her what she desired. Stranger, return what is ours. Our tales are to be returned at once, she said. It is through our stories that you have dared to disclose yourself and speak, as we rhapsodists stitched our verses together and plucked the sacred strings. Return our stories to us once and for all! They are ours and not yours. And we shall speak through them, not you! There was a long silence; the whirling lights of heaven seemed to freeze. The disembodied voice agreed to honor her request. The rhapsodist staggered down the mountain, almost sliding and tumbling upon the streams of pebbles and scree, eager to report the good news. When she appeared below, the survivors of the burning city screamed out in fear and ran away, for her body was covered in leprosy, her eyes were as blank and shiny as silver, and her mouth had been sewn shut with stitches of adamant.
The hunter saw her pale body drifting like smoke through the dark woods. She was far more beautiful than moonlight or snowflakes. To capture one was nearly impossible, buf if one did, there were untold surprises and rewards, as the old legends reported. It had been some centuries since one had been captured. Quietly, the hunter moved among the blue and black shapes of the spruce, among the silver and gold of the birch. She was leaning down to drink from a partially frozen stream when he threw the halter around her. Though the blue-green eyes were startled, she made no sound or protest. Instead she bared her midriff and beckoned to him, speaking softly in her ancient language. It only took a few minutes to learn the ancient words, for they lie dormant in the minds of most men. Bewildered and enchanted, the hunter immediately removed the halter, and asked her if it was indeed allowed. She nodded in assent, a gentle and inviting smile on her lips. She whispered that he would require no blade. And so the hunter knelt down beside her, and dipped his fingers into the pale skin of her abdomen. She moaned or sighed. Gelatinous streams of lapis lazuli poured out, and his fingertips quickly found the brilliant gems. He ate them carefully, watching her watch him. The gems tasted sweet like cold, fresh cream. When he thanked her, she said there was more, and pushed his head back down so that he could gulp more of the liquid sapphire and eat the pomegranate-colored gems. Afterwards, the skin closed over the wound as if it had never opened, and she rinsed herself in the stream. The hunter felt like a completely other being, euphoric and slightly afraid, but throbbing with energy, his body electrified. Lost in his trance, he barely noticed her lay him down to take her turn and discover the gems of his abdomen. Staring into the rising stars, he felt nothing but the slow leaking away of his life. She had no legends, or did not remember them. She was not aware that he had no gems, and would later be sad and puzzled by the wound that would not close and the lifeless eyes icing over.