In the monastery, the inquistors found the visiting confessor at a wooden desk in a barren cell, surrounded by books of world history, geography, anthropology and philosophy. In a corona of candlelight they saw the typescripts and manuscripts and his inked hands. What is this calligraphy and typography all about? one of them demanded. I am writing an epistle, the confessor replied. Towhat end? To the ends of the earth! To the world! In the early days, the apostle wrote epistles to the great cities to share his wisdom and his vision of glory. Many centuries of darkness have passed, and there is seemingly no law or good will left on earth. I thought of writing my own epistle to the great cities, to thank them for the good they have done, to praise their monuments and books, to admire their peoples and to wish them well. I would not write such things, said one. The cities do not wish to be praised. It will only make them feel worse—they will see all the more clearly how far and how deep they have fallen into darkness, and they will resent you for it. Another inquisitor agreed, saying, Moreover, such unqualified praise could cause them to ignore their own evil. It would make them feel justified in their pride, animosity and aggression. An epistle like yours would plant the seeds of smoke and famine. A third said that such a fawning epistle would belittle the great cities and trap them in typologies they had no interest in inhabiting or incarnating. It would be a letter of mirages and betrayals. One by one they left the cell. Crushed, the confessor stared at his silent towers of books and felt his brain turn into ice. That night, his heart broke, he suffered a grand epileptic fit, and lost part of his reason. In the days to come, weeping but almost catatonic, he continued to compose his letter in secret to all the invisible cities of the world—cities of damask and morrocco, cities of delftware and china, cities of port and sherry, cities of roman candles and greek fire, cities of rugby and japanning, cities of afghans and astrakhans, cities of the siamese and burmese, cities of landaus and leyden jars, cities of berlins and limousines, cities of homburgs, cities of nankeen, cities of bikinis and chicago screws, cities of mocha, assam, keelung and darjeeling, cities of java and sumatra, cities of turkish and virginia tobacco, cities of lancashires and parchment, cities of indigo and india ink.
Masks of wood, papier-maché and metal glimmered above ornate costumes in black, gold and silver. An orange moon and stars of paper and paint burned in the background scenery, followed by mineral mountains, castles, wastelands, moors dotted with wildflowers, royal blue skies with angelic clouds, coasts like shards of green, blue and colorless glass. Kingdoms divided, cities burned, kings ravished their princesses, beggars philosophized, mechanics invented, merchants whored along endless trade routes, and the weather ate the faces off the actors. One of them stepped forth into the barrage of applause as the curtains tidily hid away the gibbets, and cried out: What did you come to see, the events of history or impassioned monologues? The background scenery or the voices of the actors? The mirror or the mirrored? The treachery of things or the traitors among us? The machinery of the stage or the long hidden playwright? The midnight-black curtain?
There are no empires today. There are corporations and governments, but there are no empires. An empire is a night sea that washes the shores of the bookshelves and polished furniture, its long dark rivers bringing back tea, tobacco, cups and plates, distant poems, contraband, strange inventions, phonographs, words and fragrances, the very ingredients of thought and empire, the very possibility of a world. The night sea is the mirror and the gate. There is no world tonight. The phonographs, ashtrays and pale pages are bone-dry.
On a spring morning, the boxer awoke with a strange case of clairvoyance, or to be more precise, the ability to read minds. As he smoked a cigarette on his porch, a woman walking down the street smiled and bowed, and he sensed how he became part of a poem she was composing in her head. Later, as he strode to the train station, his black jacket triggered an episode of acute anxiety in a man begging for change to buy coffee. The pigeons looked at him in expectation, and the gentleness of their thoughts almost made him stop and abandon his plans for the day. As he inserted coins into a machine at the train station, his tall figure burned in the dark thoughts of a stranger pretending to gaze at the large signboards mapping the train routes and announcing departure times, while his angular jaw and musculature gave the waitress at the coffee shop across the way a warm, unspeakable feeling. Disturbed by wave after wave of passing thoughts and emotions that did not belong to him but included him, the boxer bounded up an escalator and boarded his train. The sounds, whispers, pulses and screams that flooded him on the train left his head throbbing and his body almost lifeless. To a hundred minds crammed in the train car he became a hundred different ghosts, haunting their interior monologues. He began to lose his bearings and forget where he should go. The boxer got off at a stop in his old neighborhood and began to walk down quiet streets, where there were few passersby, heading for the home of his old friend, a beautiful girl with long, dark, red hair. It was not his original destination, but he wanted to see her and feel her thoughts more than anything. The world seemed heavy. He tried to remember as many faces of those whose minds he had read as possible. Lost in such thoughts, he was crossing a street, when he felt the fear and love of someone dear. As he looked up, he briefly saw the truck, the blanched face of his old friend with her dark, red hair through the windshield, and heard the scream of the brakes. Losing consciousness, he hardly felt the broken glass embedded in his skin or her hands on his chest, and he could not read her thoughts anymore. All he wanted was to remember the faces, little bodies and wings of the pigeons he had disappointed.
The moon that night was four-fifths gray and had a tail of two stars. It looked like a little cougar or a leaping cat. It looked like a silver dandelion about to blow its seeds into the galaxy. Or a lamprey. The burning, thin and tilted crescent smiled down from the dark indigo sky, and the traveler got up again, able for the first time in weeks to breathe and walk the stone paths along the shore of an infinite sea.
There was lightning throughout the day, but a clear blue evening followed. The black mountains with snow-bound peaks glowed and loomed larger than possible in the last light. The mysterious stranger in the poncho wandered the high roads skirting the slopes and washes of stone and runoff. Among the boulders he encountered one who was infirm. The stranger sat down next to him, exhausted and unwell. I am not well, he said quietly. That is not possible, said the infirm one. They told me that I am the one who is infirm. Maybe, said the stranger, but I have been sick for many years. Stay with me and we can help each other. No, the infirm one said. You are a liar, perhaps even a thief, and you are not sick; you do not know what it is like, and you cannot help me. I don’t even know where you have come from. The stranger said that he had been in the mines. You do not look like a miner, the infirm one said. You look like an illiterate blacksmith. My ancestors were blacksmiths, the stranger admitted, but I was in the mines. The infirm one shook his head vehemently. His eyes were an abyss to look into, filled with darkness and an indefinable fury. The mountains were also starting to fade into penumbra and silence. I have too many languages, the shadow of the stranger said by firelight. I do not know which one to speak, and I do not know which world this is or what a world is. The infirm one embraced him, and shoved the knife deep into his body. The mysterious stranger bled out alone as the fire died and the mountains vanished.
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.