The beloved king arrested the royal meteorologist and the royal historian, throwing them both in the same prison cell at the top of a tower that had once been a library and observatory. “Why are we thus arrested? And locked up together? This is absurd!” the meteorologist protested, striking the wall with his fists. “I have nothing in common with you!” The historian gazed through the window at the mountains and waters. “It is not absurd,” he almost whispered. “It is pure logic. History and weather are twin stars.” The meteorologist looked at his empty hands and asked, “What have I lost?” The world of tomorrow, said the wind. “What have you lost?” he then asked the historian. The world of yesterday, said a ghost. “What remains?” he asked once again. The world of today, sighed the historian, looking through the prison window into the vague distance.
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.”
In the south, there were lovely trees, stone bridges spanning limpid blue rivers, and fields of flowers, fields and fields of sunflowers, hyacinths, lavender, wild roses, cosmos, poppies, and lilies. The chronicler had dreamed of these fields for years and was disappointed when he was sent on his first assignment there, for the earth was brown, the flowers were dead, and the sluggish rivers ran in hideous shades of ash or silt. Only the clouds remained beautiful, vanilla clouds of such texture and shape that one could just lie in the grass and daydream forever. At various crossroads, the king’s men were counting the passings clouds, recording the numbers and types of clouds. It was odd that a dry land should be blessed with such beautiful cirrus and cumulus and even the odd nimbostratus. The clouds were a steady caravan coming from the mountain of winds nearby. The chronicler ventured to this mountain and climbed it. On the summit, he found the king and his royal kitemakers launching enormous cloud-shaped kites and montgolfiers. When the chronicler asked about the king’s men on the plain, the king walked over and kicked him off of cliff. Then the king returned to his leisurely viewing of the launched clouds through his golden spyglass. The clouds were beautiful.
India ink on paper. 8 x 11.
It was the physicist’s turn to babysit the little boy. He had a long history with the parents, but nobody knew the details. Though not a military man, he arrived in a shabby field jacket, looking like an obsolete mandarin with his shaved head and long queue. The others often whispered of his book debts, one-sided love affairs with coffee shop girls, his useless inventions and his devotion to long streaks of solitide in the forests, where he subsisted on tea and cigarettes. The little boy was intrigued. Today, said the physicist in a conspiratorial whisper, after the parents had left, we shall embark on a great journey and learn the secret of life, if not the secret life of the secrets of life! The boy could have gasped. First, the physicist took him down into the dark cellar that reeked of earth and old vines. Suddenly, he switched on a lightbulb and glorious silver light sparkled on the chrome tools, old casks and bags of rice. Then he switched it off and it was pitch black. Then he switched it on and off rapidly like lightning, making the boy giggle. Then he held it on for a long time and then switched it off. The boy was breathless. The madman took him by the hand and led him upstairs. In the dining room, the physicist had set up calligraphy tools—paper and brushes and three bowls. The first held sand, the second water, the third held ink. The boy was to write his name, using each medium. The sand failed to cling to the brush and did not write anything. The water darkened the paper with the phantom of his name but quickly dried. At last, the boy tried the ink, and his name beautifully appeared and remained. The weather was good, so they went out. The man bought lunch at a street vendor. In a park of red dust and lofty pines,
they ate cold noodles covered in sesame paste and chili oil, washed down with iced coffees. After lunch, they climbed trees, played marbles in the dust, fed the pigeons and listened to an old man play the erhu. Then they played a strange game. The physicist blindfolded the boy and handed him objects. The boy had to say what shape the object was and take a bite. The first was round and it was a very bitter grapefruit. The second was a pomello, also round. The third was a round, golden pear. The fourth was a round blood orange, and the fifth was a mandarin orange. The boy had never tasted so many rinds before, but it was not entirely unpleasant. They finished eating the fruits and then went for a long walk along the river. The boy had to observe the other walkers and invent diagnoses and cures for them. It was clear that the pale woman was a vampire’s thrall. The boy suggested iron supplements, hot baths and playing with magnets. The man with the cat on the leash would turn into a bat if he did not listen to classical music by the glow of a naked lightbulb. The physicist approved these diagnoses and remedies. There were conversations with the water and trees, the counting of pebbles and grassblades, and a recital of the multiplication table backwards in the tones and cadence of a monastic chant. The physicist had also brought along rockets, drones, and an instant film camera. Only after the boy had photographed at least one object for every letter of the alphabet was he allowed to set off the rockets and fly the drones. When they had exhausted these, they sat at a picnic table to make origami animals while exchanging riddles, jokes and word problems. After building their menagerie, they sat by the river in silence. The river lapped the sandy shore and mumured past them in flashes of silver and dark blue. It was dusk when they began their walk back. The physicist explained how the traffic lights and lampposts worked. They ate a simple dinner in a little cafe, where the physicist flirted with the waitress, and headed home. There they played chess while listening to a string quartet on the radio. The boy read to the physicist from his favourite books on ghosts and time travel. They said their prayers and it was bedtime. The physicist turned off the light, ready to close the door behind him when the boy asked why the physicist knew so many games. It is all one game that lasts forever, said the strange man in the shabby coat. What is the game called? the boy asked. Logic, said the physicist, and he bid the child good night.
They met on the beach in the early morning, as the dark blue sky still hovered over the waters and the wind whipped at the dry grass on the dunes. After building a fire, the older youth drew circles in the packed, wet sand, filled them with triangles, and began to explain the angles, the measurements, the laws that ruled the division of space. The younger boy, shaved liked his companion, watched in awe. They recalled the old man in another seaside city far away who had taught them about machines, space, and the stars whenever they brought him olives, squid, ink, or wine. I wonder where it all comes from, the younger one asked. The elder looked up into the dark sky where the stars were beginning to fade. Then he gathered some sand into his palm, letting the wind carry most of it away until only a few grains were left. It began with something smaller than one of these grains of sand. What happened? There was an explosion, said the older one, his gray eyes staring through the sand, through his own palm, through the very fabric of the universe. And out of that explosion came everything—time, matter, heat, the workings of the planets and stars. The younger boy opened his mouth and then closed it as he stared intently at the sand grains by the light of the fire. One of these grains of sand could be an explosive, then. Maybe, the older one sighed, dusting off his hands. I don’t know. What are stars? the younger one asked. They are part of the explosion. It happened thousands and thousands of years ago, maybe millions of years ago, and we are still seeing it. The moon, sun, and stars are all part of the great explosion. Then they are explosives, as well! the younger one shouted with joy. Perhaps, the older one sighed. Explosives like our old city. The smoke must have risen for days. The younger one filled his hands with dry sand, throwing the grains at the sea. Then he turned to his friend and asked how many grains of sand there were in the universe. The older boy began to speak of myriads, and myriads of myriads, and myriads of myriads of myriads, writing letters on the sand to explain as he went. The young one felt as if his own head were suddenly hollow and filled with distant stars. When his friend had finished he asked him how large one star might be, and how many grains of sand it might contain. The older one ventured a guess. The younger one walked back to the surfline and stared into the paling sky. Everything is explosive, he whispered, almost breathless.
There was a poor old lady who had lost her mind. She lived between the dark woods and the sea, and owned a russian blue cat. Though devoid of reason or memory, she never lost her generosity; though the cat was also in ill health, his devotion and loyalty to his mistress never faded. And thus began their descent into tragedy. For not long after she had fed him, whether it was morning, noon, or night, she would soon forget. Then, seeing his empty bowl, she would feed him again. In the beginning, the cat assumed this was the reward of retirement. He would end his days in one long, grand feast. As he ate his second or third bowl, he gratefully looked up at her now and then, thinking he was already in paradise. There is, however, no paradise on earth. As her madness progressed, so too the promptness with which she refilled his bowl. What had begun as a pleasant dream of eating now became a nightmare. Sometimes, he would delay or hide behind the cast iron stove or under the sofa, but she would sense his hesitation and begin to softly lecture him in a voice filled with hurt, worry or confusion. Was he losing his appetite? Had he fallen ill? Was her food no longer to his taste? He would try to explain, but could never bring himself to tell the full truth, for it pained him to see how her mind no longer worked and how its absence burdened her spirit. With a great sigh, the now heavy blue cat would pad over to the steel bowl, sigh again, and then lower his head to dutifully eat his meal. At least this brought joy to her; she would stroke his ears and fur, and wander off for a few minutes to iron the dishes or sew potato skins together until the next meal only moments later. The cat invented ways to gag down the now tasteless feed. First, he imagined a different kind of bird for each meal. There were sparrows, thrushes, doves, canaries, larks, blackbirds, nightingales, starlings, swallows, jays and shore birds. When he could no longer think of any more birds, each meal became a fish: goldfish, carp, eels, anchovies, mackerels, sardines, saury, fighting fish, baby salmon, trout, the cataphractus, smelts and sweetfish. The cat ate all the herbs of an imaginary garden, then the rodents, the wattle fences and telephone poles. He ate the switchgrass, silver grass, goldenrod, dandelions, cat tails, rushes and lilies. Then he began to eat the trees—yews, cypresses, cedars, elms, firs, cottonwoods, pines, horse chestnuts, linden trees, willows, black locusts, acacias, maples, and the golden larch. Through tears and cramps, he ate the gravel roads, riverside stones, the scree from the cliffs, boulders and mountains. In a moment of hallucinatory reprieve, he ate the cumulus, cirrus and nimbostratus; he ate the ocean currents, the waves, the driftwood and the glass fishing floats. Stabbing pains ripped through him as he ate comets, meteors and shooting stars. The cat ate the planets and the sun. Night and day he ate, until a great black void of stars and angels remained. The cat sighed. Then the cat whispered to nobody in particular that he would never eat the sacred stars or blessed angels. The angels heard his prayer and began to slowly glide toward him. The cat saw the stars flicker into darkness.
A trader was pressed into the service of the army to survey a tract of wilderness and to deliver supplies to anyone who needed them. As he journeyed along, he passed through a vicious mountain pass and then through a dreadful, stony land that wore out his boots and cut his feet. On the far side of the land of stones, he met pilgrims who were heading in the direction he had come from. He offered them some of his provisions, but they refused. He asked for water and his request was denied. The trader warned them of the land of stones and the vicious mountains, and inquired about the country they had passed through. The pilgrims shrugged, saying that they doubted any such mountain or land of stones could exist, and they had nothing special to report about the lands they had seen. As they headed off towards the land of stones, the trader could not help but notice that they wore the poorest of straw sandals, which would come undone before the end of the day.
With red paper she wrapped long letters scrawled by pale hands. Her hands were empty. The wooden floorboards of the buses creaked and the aquariums of the restaurants and the markets bubbled. Her eyes looked long, looking for something. She remembered the miscounted pocket change and miscounted days. Motorcycles still purred through the markets where he had followed her. And she wandered, heading for the post box with a long red letter, a little song, of motorcycles and markets and long abandoned temples, heavily tattooed and illegible in the evening haze.
Some centuries or milennia into the future, there is an inspector who travels from planet to planet on one of the newest models of black ships with a small crew of technicians. Despite her sophisticated spacecraft and a black budget, almost none of which is spent, her task is simple, a job that lies somewhere on the borders of journalism, archaeology and bureaucratic inventory. She visits decayed planets, assesses them, and writes them off. Sometimes she also revisits the write-offs to note any changes, but this is a formality. Nobody is going to visit them, much less develop them. Throughout the years, she has charted numerous galactic boneyards and abandoned planets, areas of the galaxy not worth maintaining, repairing or even visiting. It is not really known how the planets got this way. It was not her species that damaged most of them, but a species very much like hers. One day, she will speak to a code-breaker who serves as her navigator and cartographer. In the old days, he would have been a programmer, one not immune to the lures of building machines and playing video games. It is based on such experiences that he explains his theory of dead worlds. In the beginning, each world flourishes according to its own native rules or coding. The colonists approach it like a game. Once they have mastered the rules, they can win the game for a time, but they find that winning has too many limitations. It is then that they use cheats, mods or hacks to make the inconceivable happen in the world they are playing. Deer walk backwards, clouds grow wheat aimed for the earth, night skies are cobalt blue and day skies are magenta, and so on. The end result is always the same. The world vanishes, replaced by a new entity, a hacked world, a projection of the colonists’ imagination. Not only can they intervene in nature, they can redefine and change nature. Eventually this manipulation will also become a bore–a pointless draining of time, energy and resources. The original world can no longer be retrieved or repaired; it is not merely buried under endless strata of modifications, it is indelibly altered or erased. The world is then abandoned. Other virgin planets are sought. Most of the time, however, the colonists are not that good at their game, much less at cheats, mods or hacks, and disasters ensue. The worlds die. In the cases where the worlds do not die, they are abandoned because they could not fulfill expectations or meet arbitrary projections. The worlds are then written off anyway, as if they were dead.