The Brief History of the Dead :: Kevin Brockmeier

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.

Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district, said that he had felt a prickling sensation in his fingers and then stopped breathing. “It was my heart,” he insisted, thumping on his chest. “Took me in my own bed.” He had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was on a train, the kind that trolleys small children around in circles at amusement parks. The rails were leading him through a thick forest of gold-brown trees, but the trees were actually giraffes, and their long necks were reaching like branches into the sky. A wind rose up and peeled the spots from their backs. The spots floated down around him, swirling and dipping in the wake of the train. It took him a long time to understand that the throbbing noise he heard was not the rattling of the wheels along the tracks.

The girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park said that she had died into an ocean the color of dried cherries. For a while, the water had carried her weight, she said, and she lay on her back turning in meaningless circles, singing the choruses of the pop songs she remembered. But then there was a drum of thunder, and the clouds split open, and the ball bearings began to pelt down around her—tens of thousands of them. She had swallowed as many as she could, she said, stroking the cracked trunk of the poplar tree. She didn’t know why. She filled like a lead sack and sank slowly through the layers of the ocean. Shoals of fish brushed past her, their blue and yellow scales the brightest thing in the water. And all around her she heard that sound, the one that everybody heard, the regular pulsing of a giant heart.

The stories people told about the crossing were as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives, so much more particular than the other stories, the ones they told about their deaths. After all, there were only so many ways a person could die: either your heart took you, or your head took you, or it was one of the new diseases. But no one followed the same path over the crossing. Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all. Hanbing Li said that he woke inside the body of an aphid and lived an entire life in the flesh of a single peach. Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow—four words—and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details.

No two reports were ever the same. And yet always there was the drumlike thumping noise.

Some people insisted that it never went away, that if you concentrated and did not turn your ear from the sound, you could hear it faintly behind everything in the city—the brakes and the horns, the bells on the doors of restaurants, the clicking and slapping of different kinds of shoes on the pavement. Groups of people came together in parks or on rooftops just to listen for it, sitting quietly with their backs turned to each other. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. It was like trying to keep a bird in sight as it lifted, blurred, and faded to a dot in the sky.

Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use it to produce a newspaper. He stood outside the River Road Coffee Shop every morning, handing out the circulars he had printed. One particular issue of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet—theSims Sheet, people called it—addressed the matter of this sound. Fewer than twenty per cent of the people Luka interviewed claimed that they could still hear it after the crossing, but almost everyone agreed that it resembled nothing so much as—could be nothing other than—the pounding of a heart. The question, then, was where did it come from? It could not be their own hearts, for their hearts no longer beat. The old man Mahmoud Qassim believed that it was not the actual sound of his heart but the remembered sound, which, because he had both heard and failed to notice it for so long, still resounded in his ears. The woman who sold bracelets by the river thought that it was the heartbeat at the center of the world, that bright, boiling place she had fallen through on her way to the city. “As for this reporter,” the article concluded, “I hold with the majority. I have always suspected that the thumping sound we hear is the pulse of those who are still alive. The living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only so long as they remember us.” It was an imperfect metaphor—Luka knew that—since the pearl lasts much longer than the oyster. But rule one in the newspaper business was that you had to meet your deadlines. He had long since given up the quest for perfection.

There were more people in the city every day, and yet the city never failed to accommodate them. You might be walking down a street you had known for years, and all of a sudden you would come upon another building, another whole block. Carson McCaughrean, who drove one of the sleek black taxis that roamed the streets, had to redraw his maps once a week. Twenty, thirty, fifty times a day, he would pick up a fare who had only recently arrived in the city and have to deliver him somewhere he—Carson—had never heard of. They came from Africa, Asia, Europe, and theAmericas. They came from churning metropolises and from small islands in the middle of the ocean. That was what the living did: they died. There was an ancient street musician who began playing in the red brick district as soon as he reached the city, making slow, sad breaths with his accordion. There was a jeweller, a young man, who set up shop at the corner of Maple and Christopher Streets and sold diamonds that he mounted on silver pendants. Jessica Auffert had operated her own jewelry shop on the same corner for more than thirty years, but she did not seem to resent the man, and in fact brought him a mug of fresh black coffee every morning, exchanging gossip as she drank with him in his front room. What surprised her was how young he was—how young so many of the dead were these days. Great numbers of them were no more than children, who clattered around on skateboards or went racing past her window on their way to the playground. One, a boy with a strawberry discoloration on his cheek, liked to pretend that the rocking horses he tossed himself around on were real horses, the horses he had brushed and fed on his farm before they were killed in the bombing. Another liked to swoop down the slide over and over again, hammering his feet into the gravel as he thought about his parents and his two older brothers, who were still alive. He had watched them lift free of the same illness that had slowly sucked him under. He did not like to talk about it.

This was during a war, though it was difficult for any of them to remember which one.

Occasionally, one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for Heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of Heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of Hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not Heaven, and it was not Hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself—a sort of outer room—and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next. It was true that most of the city’s occupants went away after sixty or seventy years. While this did not prove the theory, it certainly served to nourish it. There were stories of men and women who had been in the city much longer, for centuries and more, but there were always such stories, in every time and place, and who knew whether to believe them?

Every neighborhood had its gathering spot, a place where people could come together to trade news of the other world. There was the colonnade in the monument district, and the One and Only Tavern in the warehouse district, and right next to the greenhouse, in the center of the conservatory district, was Andrei Kalatozov’s Russian Tea Room. Kalatozov poured the tea he brewed from a brass-colored samovar into small porcelain cups that he served on polished wooden platters. His wife and daughter had died a few weeks before he did, in an accident involving a land mine they had rooted up out of the family garden. He was watching through the kitchen window when it happened. His wife’s spade struck a jagged hunk of metal so cankered with rust from its century underground that he did not realize what it was until it exploded. Two weeks later, when he put the razor to his throat, it was with the hope that he would be reunited with his family in Heaven. And, sure enough, there they were—his wife and daughter—smiling and taking coats at the door of the tearoom. Kalatozov watched them as he sliced a lemon into wedges and arranged the wedges on a saucer. He was the happiest man in the room—the happiest man in any room. The city may not have been Heaven, but it was Heaven enough for him. Morning to evening, he listened to his customers as they shared the latest news about the war. The Americans and the Middle East had resumed hostilities, as hadChina and Spain and Australia and the Netherlands. Brazil was developing another mutagenic virus, one that would resist the latest antitoxins. Or maybe it was Italy. Or maybe Indonesia. There were so many rumors that it was hard to know for sure.

Now and then, someone who had died only a day or two before would happen into one of the centers of communication—the tavern or the tearoom, the river market or the colonnade—and the legions of the dead would mass around him, shouldering and jostling him for information. It was always the same: “Where did you live?” “Do you know anything about Central America?” “Is it true what they’re saying about the ice caps?” “I’m trying to find out about my cousin. He lived in Arizona. His name was Lewis Zeigler, spelled L-E-W-I-S. . . .” “What’s happening with the situation along the African coast—do you know, do you know?” “Anything you can tell us, please, anything at all.”

Kiran Patel had sold beads to tourists in the Bombay hotel district for most of a century. She said that there were fewer and fewer travellers to her part of the world, but that this hardly mattered, since there was less and less of her part of the world for them to see. The ivory beads she had peddled as a young woman became scarce, then rare, then finally unobtainable. The only remaining elephants were caged away in the zoos of other countries. In the years just before she died, the “genuine ivory beads” she sold were actually a cream-colored plastic made in batches of ten thousand in Korean factories. This, too, hardly mattered. The tourists who stopped at her kiosk could never detect the difference.

Jeffrey Fallon, sixteen and from Park Falls, Wisconsin, said that the fighting hadn’t spread in from the coasts yet, but that the germs had, and he was living proof. “Or not living, maybe, but still proof,” he corrected himself. The bad guys used to be Pakistan, and then they were Argentina andTurkey, and after that he had lost track. “What do you want me to tell you?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders. “Mostly I just miss my girlfriend.” Her name was Tracey Tipton, and she did this thing with his earlobes and the notched edge of her front teeth that made his entire body go taut and buzz like a guitar string. He had never given his earlobes a second thought until the day she took them between her lips, but now that he was dead he thought of nothing else. Who would have figured?

The man who spent hours riding up and down the escalators in the Ginza Street Shopping Mall would not give his name. When people asked him what he remembered about the time before he died, he would only nod vigorously, clap his hands together, and say, “Boom!,” making a gesture like falling confetti with his fingertips.

The great steel-and-polymer buildings at the heart of the city, with their shining glass windows reflecting every gap between every cloud in the sky, gave way after a few hundred blocks to buildings of stone and brick and wood. The change was so gradual, though, and the streets so full of motion, that you could walk for hours before you realized that the architecture had transformed itself around you. The sidewalks were lined with movie theatres, gymnasiums, hardware stores, karaoke bars, basketball courts, and falafel stands. There were libraries and tobacconists. There were lingerie shops and dry cleaners. There were hundreds of churches in the city—hundreds, in fact, in every district—pagodas, mosques, chapels, and synagogues. They stood sandwiched between vegetable markets and video-rental stores, sending their crosses, domes, and minarets high into the air. Some of the dead, it was true, threw aside their old religions, disgusted that the afterlife, this so-called great beyond, was not what their lifetime of worship had promised them. But for every person who lost his faith there was someone else who held fast to it, and someone else again who adopted it. The simple truth was that nobody knew what would happen to them after their time in the city came to an end, and just because you had died without meeting your God was no reason to assume that you wouldn’t one day.

This was the philosophy of José Tamayo, who offered himself once a week as a custodian to the Church of the Sacred Heart. Every Sunday, he waited by the west door until the final service was over and the crowd had dissolved back into the city, and then he swept the tile floor, polished the pews and the altar, and vacuumed the cushions by the Communion rail. When he was finished, he climbed carefully down the seventeen steps in front of the building, where the blind man stood talking about his journey through the desert, and made his way across the street to his apartment. He had damaged his knee once during a soccer match, and ever since then he felt a tiny exploding star of pain above the joint whenever he extended his leg. The injury had not gone away, even after the crossing, and he did not like to walk too far on it. This was why he had chosen to work for the Church of the Sacred Heart: it was the closest church he could find. He had, in fact, been raised a Methodist, in the only non-Catholic congregation in Juan Tula. He frequently thought of the time he stole a six-pack of soda from the church storage closet with the boys in his Sunday-school class. They had heard the teacher coming and shut the door, and a thin ray of light had come slanting through the jamb, illuminating the handle of a cart filled with folding chairs—forty or fifty of them, stacked together in a long, tight interdigitation. What José remembered was staring at this cart and listening to his teacher’s footsteps as the bubbles of soda played over the surface of his tongue, sparking and collapsing against the roof of his mouth.

The dead were often surprised by such memories. They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory, the jobs and routines and hobbies that had slowly eaten away their lives, yet the smallest, most inconsequential episode would leap into their thoughts a hundred times a day, like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake. The old woman who begged for quarters in the subway remembered eating a meal of crab cakes and horseradish on a dock by Chesapeake Bay. The man who lit the gas lamps in the theatre district remembered taking a can of beans from the middle of a supermarket display pyramid and feeling a flicker of pride and then a flicker of amusement at his pride when the other cans did not fall. Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games all forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him—these formless, almost clandestine memories. They seemed so much heavier than they should have been, as if that were where the true burden of his life’s meaning lay. He sometimes thought of piecing them together into an autobiography, all the toy-size memories that replaced the details of his work and family, and leaving everything else out. He would write it by hand on sheets of unlined notebook paper. He would never touch a computer again.

There were places in the city where the crowds were so swollen you could not move without pressing into some arm or hip or gut. As the numbers of the dead increased, these areas became more and more common. It was not that the city had no room for its inhabitants but that when they chose to herd together they did so in certain places, and the larger the population grew the more congested these places became. The people who were comfortable in their privacy learned to avoid them. If they wanted to visit the open square in the monument district, or the fountains in the neon district, they would have to wait until the population diminished. This always seemed to happen in times of war or plague or famine.

The park beside the river was the busiest of the city’s busy places, with its row of white pavilions and its long strip of living grass. Kite venders and soft-drink stands filled the sidewalks, and saddles of rock carved the water into dozens of smoothly rounded coves. There came a day when a man with a thick gray beard and a tent of bushy hair stumbled out of one of the pavilions and began to bump into the shoulders of the people around him. He was plainly disoriented, and it was obvious to everyone who saw him that he had just passed through the crossing. He said that he was a virologist by profession. He had spent the last five days climbing the branches of an enormous maple tree, and his clothing was tacked to his skin with sap. He seemed to think that everybody who was in the park had also been in the tree with him. When someone asked him how he had died, he drew in his breath and paused for a moment before he answered. “That’s right, I died. I have to keep reminding myself. They finally did it, the sons of bitches. They found a way to pull the whole thing down.” He twisted a plug of sap from his beard. “Hey, did any of you notice some sort of thumping noise inside the tree?”

It was not long after this that the city began to empty out.

The single-room office of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet was in one of the city’s oldest buildings, constructed of chocolate-colored brick and masses of silver granite. Streamers of pale-yellow moss trailed from the upper floors, hanging as low as the ledge above the front door, and each morning, as Luka Sims stood cranking away at his mimeograph machine, sunlight filtered through the moss outside his window and the room was saturated with a warm, buttery light. Sometimes he could hardly look out at the city without imagining that he was gazing through a dying forest.

By seven o’clock, he would have printed a few thousand copies of his circular and taken them to the River Road Coffee Shop, where he would hand them out to the pedestrians. He liked to believe that each person who took one passed it on to someone else, who read it and passed it on to someone else, who read it and passed it on to someone else, but he knew that this was not the case. He always saw at least a few copies in the trash on his way home, the paper gradually uncrinkling in the sun. Still, it was not unusual for him to look inside the coffee shop and see twenty or thirty heads bent over copies of the latest Sims Sheet. He had been writing fewer stories about the city recently and more about the world of the living, stories he assembled from interviews with the recent dead, most of whom were victims of what they called “the epidemic.” These people tended to blink a lot—he noticed that. They squinted and rubbed their eyes. He wondered if it had anything to do with the virus that had killed them.

Luka saw the same faces behind the coffee-shop window every day. “HUNDREDS EXPOSED TO VIRUS IN TOKYO. NEW EPICENTERS DISCOVERED IN JOHANNESBURG, COPENHAGEN, PERTH.” Ellison Brown, who prepared the baked desserts in the kitchen, always waited for Luka to leave before he glanced at the headlines. His wife had been a poet of the type who liked to loom nearby with a fretful look on her face while he read whatever she had written that day, and there was nothing that bothered him more than feeling that he was being watched. “INCUBATION PERIOD LESS THAN FIVE HOURS. EXPOSURE AT NOON, MORTALITY AT MIDNIGHT.” Charlotte Sylvain would sip at her coffee as she scanned the paper for any mention of Paris. She still considered the city her home town, though she had not been there in fifty years. Once, she saw the word “Seine” printed in the first paragraph of an article and her fingers tightened involuntarily around the page, but it was only a misprint of the word “sienna,” and she would never see her home again. “VIRUS BECOMES AIRBORNE, WATERBORNE. TWO BILLION DEAD IN ASIA ANDEASTERN EUROPE.” Mie Matsuda Ryu was an enthusiast of word games. She liked to read the Sims Sheet twice every morning, once for content and once for any hidden patterns she could find—palindromes, anagrams, the letters of her own name scrambled inside other words. She never failed to spot them. “ ‘TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR BUG’ CROSSES ATLANTIC. FATALITY RATE NEARING ONE HUNDRED PER CENT.”

The people who went knocking on the doors of the city began to notice something unusual. The evangelists and travelling salesmen, the petitioners and census takers, they all said the same thing: the numbers of the dead were shrinking. There were empty rooms in empty buildings that had been churning with bodies just a few weeks before. The streets were not so crowded anymore. It was not that people were no longer dying. In fact, there were more people dying than ever. They arrived by the thousands and the hundreds of thousands, every minute of every hour, whole houses and schools and neighborhoods of them. But, for every person who made it through the crossing, two or three seemed to disappear. Russell Henley, who sold brooms that he lashed together from cedar branches and hanks of plastic fibre, said that the city was like a pan with a hole in it. “No matter how much water you let in, it keeps pouring right through.” He ran a stall in the monument district, where he assembled his brooms, marketing them to the passing crowds, which barely numbered in the low hundreds these days. If the only life they had was bestowed upon them by the memories of the living, as Russell was inclined to believe, what would happen when the rest of the living were gathered into the city? What would happen, he wondered, when that other room, the larger world, had been emptied out?

Unquestionably, the city was changing. People who had perished in the epidemic came and went very quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours, like a mid-spring snow that blankets the ground at night and melts away as soon as the sun comes up. A man arrived in the pine district one morning, found an empty storefront, painted a sign in the window with colored soap (“SHERMAN’S CLOCK REPAIR. FAST AND EASY. OPENING SOON”), then locked the door and shuffled away and never returned. Another man told the woman he had stayed the night with that he was going to the kitchen for a glass of water, and when she called to him a few minutes later he did not answer. She searched the apartment for him—the window beside her dressing table was open, as though he had climbed out onto the balcony—but he was nowhere to be found. The entire population of a small Pacific island appeared in the city on a bright windy afternoon, congregated on the top level of a parking garage, and were gone by the end of the day.

But it was the people who had been in the city the longest who most felt the changes. While none of them knew—or had ever known—how much time they had in the city, or when that time would come to an end, there had usually been a rhythm to their tenure, certain things a person could expect: after finishing the crossing, you found a home and a job and a company of friends, ran out six or seven decades, and while you could not raise a family, for no one aged, you could always assemble one around you.

Mariama Ekwensi, for one, had made her home on the ground floor of a small house in the white clay district for almost thirty years. She was a tall, rangy woman who had never lost the bearing of the adolescent girl she had once been, so dazed and bewildered by her own growth. The batik cotton dresses she wore were the color of the sun in a child’s drawing, and her neighbors could always spot her coming from several blocks away. Mariama was a caretaker at one of the city’s many orphanages. She thought of herself as a good teacher but a poor disciplinarian, and it was true that she often had to leave her children under the watch of another adult in order to chase after one who had taken off running. She read to the smaller children, books about long voyages, or about animals who changed shape, and she took the older ones to parks and museums and helped them with their homework. Many of them were badly behaved, with vocabularies that truly made her blush, but she found such problems beyond her talents. Even when she pretended to be angry with the children, they were clever enough to see that she still liked them. This was her predicament. There was one boy in particular, Philip Walker, who would light out toward the shopping district every chance he got. He seemed to think it was funny to hear her running along behind him, huffing and pounding away, and she never caught up with him until he had collapsed onto a stoop or a bench somewhere, gasping with laughter. One day, she followed him around a corner and chased him into an alley and did not come out the other end. Philip returned to the orphanage half an hour later. He could not say where she had gone.

Ville Tolvanen shot pool every night at the bar on the corner of Eighth and Vine. The friends he had at the bar were the same friends he had known when he was alive. There was something they used to say to each other when they went out drinking in Oulu, a sort of song they used to sing: “I’ll meet you when I die / At that bar on the corner of Eighth and Vine.” One by one, then, as they passed away, they found their way to the corner of Eighth and Vine, walked gingerly, skeptically, through the doors of the bar, and caught sight of one another by the pool tables, until gradually they were all reassembled. Ville was the last of the group to die, and finding his friends there at the bar felt almost as sweet to him as it had when he was young. He clutched their arms and they clapped him on the back. He insisted on buying them drinks. “Never again,” he told them. And though he could not finish the sentence, they all knew what he meant. He was grinning to keep his eyes from watering over, and someone tossed a peanut shell at him, and he tossed one back, and soon the floor was so covered with the things that it crunched no matter where they put their feet. For months after he died, Ville never missed a single night at the tables—and so when he failed to appear one night his friends went out looking for him. They headed straight for the room he had taken over the hardware store down the street, where they used their fists to bang on the door and then dislodged the lock with the sharp edge of a few playing cards. Ville’s shoes were inside, and his wristwatch, and his jacket, but he was not.

Ethan Hass, the virologist, drank not in the bars but from a small metal flask that he carried on his belt like a Boy Scout canteen. He had been watching the developments in his field for thirty years before he died, reading the journals and listening to the gossip at the conventions, and it sometimes seemed to him that every government, every interest group, every faction in the world was casting around for the same thing, a perfect virus, one that followed every imaginable vector, that would spread through the population like the expanding ring of a raindrop in a puddle. It was clear to him now that somebody had finally succeeded in manufacturing it. But how on earth had it been introduced? He couldn’t figure it out. The reports from the recently dead were too few, and they were never precise enough. One day, he locked himself in the bathroom of the High Street Art Museum and began to cry, insistently, sobbing out something about the air and the water and the food supply. A security guard was summoned. “Calm down, guy. There’s plenty of air and water for you out here. How about you just open the door for us?” The guard used his slowest, most soothing voice, but Ethan only shouted “Everybody! Everything!” and turned on the faucets of the sinks, one by one. He would not say anything else, and when the guard forced the door open a few minutes later he was gone.

It was as though a gate had been opened, or a wall thrown down, and the city was finally releasing its dead. They set out from its borders in their multitudes, and soon the parks, the bars, the shopping centers were all but empty.

One day, not long after the last of the restaurants had closed its doors, the blind man was standing on the steps of the church, waiting for someone who would listen to his story. No one had passed him all day long, and he was beginning to wonder if the end had come once and for all. Perhaps it had happened while he was sleeping, or during the half minute early that morning when he had thought he smelled burning honey. He heard a few car horns honking from different quarters of the city, and then, some twenty minutes later, the squealing of a subway train as its brakes gripped the tracks, and then nothing but the wind aspirating between the buildings, lingering, and finally falling still. He listened hard for a voice or a footstep, but he could not make out a single human sound.

He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello?” he shouted. “Hello?” But no one answered.

He experienced an unusual misgiving. He brought his hand to his chest. He was afraid that the heartbeat he heard was his own.

— (via dibache)

Gods :: Vladimir Nabokov

Here is what I see in your eyes right now: rainy night, narrow street, streetlamps gliding away into the distance. The water runs down the drainpipes from steeply sloping roofs.

Under the snake’s-mouth of each pipe stands a green-hooped bucket.  Rows of buckets line the black walls on either side of the street. I watch as they fill with cold mercury. The pluvial mercury swells and overflows. The bareheaded lamps float in the distance, their rays standing on end in the rainy murk. The water in the buckets is overflowing.

Thus I gain entry to your overcast eyes, to a narrow alley of black glimmer where the nocturnal rain gurgles and rustles. Give me a smile. Why do you look at me so balefully and darkly? It’s morning. All night the stars shrieked with infant voices and, on the roof, someone lacerated and caressed a violin with a sharp bow. Look, the sun slowly crossed the wall like a blazing sail. You emanate an enveloping smoky haze. Dust starts swirling in your eyes, millions of golden worlds. You smiled!

We go out on the balcony. It’s spring. Below, in the middle of the street, a yellow-curled boy works lickety-split, sketching a god. The god stretches from one sidewalk to the other. The boy is clutching a piece of chalk in his hand, a little piece of white charcoal and he’s squatting, circling, drawing with broad strokes. This white god has large white buttons and turned-out feet. Crucified on the asphalt, he looks skyward with round eyes. He has a white arc for a mouth. A log-sized cigar has appeared in his mouth. With helical jabs the boy makes spirals representing smoke. Arms akimbo, he contemplates his work. He adds another button. . . .  A window frame clanked across the way; a female voice, enormous and happy, rang out summoning him. The boy gave the chalk a punt and dashed inside. On the purplish asphalt remained the white geometric god, gazing skyward.

Your eyes again grew murky. I realized, of course, what you were remembering. In a corner of our bedroom, under the icon, there is a colored rubber ball. Sometimes it hops softly and sadly from the table and rolls gently on the floor.

Put it back in its place under the icon, and then why don’t we go take a walk?

Spring air. A little downy. See those lindens lining the street? Black boughs covered with wet green spangles. All the trees in the world are journeying somewhere. Perpetual pilgrimage. Remember, when we were on our way here, to this city, the trees traveling past the windows of our railroad car? Remember the twelve poplars conferring about how to cross the river? Earlier, still, in the Crimea, I once saw a cypress bending over an almond tree in bloom. Once upon a time the cypress had been a big, tall chimney sweep with a brush on a wire and a ladder under his arm. Head over heels in love, poor fellow, with a little laundry maid, pink as almond petals. Now they have met at last, and are on their way somewhere together. Her pink apron balloons in the breeze; he bends toward her timidly, as if still worried he might get some soot on her. First-rate fable.

All trees are pilgrims. They have their Messiah, whom they seek. Their Messiah is a regal Lebanese cedar, or perhaps he is quite small, some totally inconspicuous little shrub in the tundra. . . .

Today some lindens are passing through town. There was an attempt to restrain them. Circular fencing was erected around their trunks. But they move all the same. . . .

The roofs blaze like oblique, sun-blinded mirrors. A winged woman stands on a windowsill washing the panes. She bends over, pouts, brushes a strand of flaming hair from her face. The air is faintly redolent of gasoline and lindens. Who can tell, today, just what emanations gently greeted a guest entering a Pompeian atrium? A half-century from now no one will know the smells that prevailed in our streets and rooms. They will excavate some military hero of stone, of which there are hundreds in every city, and heave a sigh for Phidias of yore. Everything in the world is beautiful, but Man only recognizes beauty if he sees it either seldom or from afar. . . . Listen . . . today, we are gods! Our blue shadows are enormous. We move in a gigantic, joyous world. A tall pillar on the corner is tightly swathed in wet canvases, across which a paintbrush has scattered colored whirlwinds. The old woman who sells papers has curling gray hairs on her chin, and mad light-blue eyes. Unruly newspapers stick chaotically out of her pouch. Their large type makes me think of flying zebras. A bus stops at its signpost. Upstairs the conductor ba-bangs with his palm on the iron gunwale. The helmsman gives his huge wheel a mighty turn. A mounting, labored moan, a brief grinding sound. The wide tires have left silver imprints on the asphalt. Today, on this sunny day, anything is possible. Look—a man has jumped from a roof onto a wire and is walking on it, splitting with laughter, his arms wide-spread, high over the rocking street. Look—two buildings have just had a harmonious game of leapfrog; number three ended up between one and two; it did not fully settle right away—I saw a gap below it, a narrow band of sunlight. And a woman stopped in the middle of a square, threw back her head, and started singing; a crowd gathered around her, then surged back: an empty dress lies on the asphalt, and up in the sky there’s a transparent cloudlet.

You’re laughing. When you laugh, I want to transform the entire world so it will mirror you. But your eyes are instantly extinguished. You say, passionately, fearfully, “Would you like to go .  .  .  there?  Would you? It’s lovely there today, everything’s in bloom. . . .”

Certainly it’s all in bloom, certainly we’ll go. For aren’t you and I gods? . . . I sense in my blood the rotation of unexplorable universes. . . .

Listen—I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator.

Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale, release life’s rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life.

They are leading camels along the street, on the way from the circus to the zoo. Their plump humps list and sway. Their long, gentle faces are turned up a little, dreamily. How can death exist when they lead camels along a springtime street? At the corner, an unexpected whiff of Russian foliage; a beggar, a divine monstrosity, turned all inside out, feet growing out of armpits, proffers, with a wet, shaggy paw, a bunch of greenish lilies-of-the-val . . . I bump a passerby with my shoulder. . . . Momentary collision of two giants. Merrily, magnificently, he swings at me with his lacquered cane. The tip, on the backswing, breaks a shopwindow behind him. Zigzags shoot across the shiny glass. No—it’s only the splash of mirrored sunlight in my eyes. Butterfly, butterfly! Black with scarlet bands. . . .  A scrap of velvet. . . . It swoops above the asphalt, soars over a speeding car and a tall building, into the humid azure of the April sky. Another, identical butterfly once settled on the white border of an arena; Lesbia, senator’s daughter, gracile, dark-eyed, with a gold ribbon on her forehead, entranced by the palpitating wings, missed the split second, the whirlwind of blinding dust, in which the bull-like neck of one combatant crunched under the other’s naked knee.

Today my soul is filled with gladiators, sunlight, the world’s din. . . .

We descend a wide staircase into a long, dim underground chamber. Flagstones resound vibrantly under our steps. Representations of burning sinners adorn the gray walls. Black thunder, in the distance, swells in velvet folds. It bursts forth all around us. We rush headlong, as if awaiting a god. We are packed inside a glassy glitter. We gather momentum. We hurtle into a black chasm and speed with a hollow din far underground, hanging on to leather straps. With a pop the amber lamps are extinguished for an instant, during which flimsy globules burn with a hot light in the dark—the bulging eyes of demons, or perhaps our fellow passengers’ cigars.

The lights come back on. Look, over there—the tall man in a black overcoat standing by the car’s glass door. I faintly recognize that narrow, yellowish face, the bony hump of his nose. Thin lips compressed, attentive furrow between heavy brows, he listens to something being explained by another man, pale as a plaster mask, with a small, circular, sculpted beard. I am certain they are speaking in terza rima. And your neighbor, that lady in the pale-yellow coat sitting with lowered lashes—could that be Dante’s Beatrice? Out of the dank nether world we emerge anew into the sunlight. The cemetery is on the distant outskirts. Edifices have grown sparser. Greenish voids. I recall how this same capital looked on an old print.

We walk against the wind along imposing fences. On the same kind of sunny, tremulous day as this we’ll head back north, to Russia. There will be very few flowers, only the yellow stars of dandelions along the ditches. The dove-gray telegraph poles will hum at our approach. When, beyond the curve, my heart is jabbed by the firs, the red sand, the corner of the house, I shall totter and fall prone.

Look! Above the vacant green expanses, high in the sky, an airplane progresses with a bassy ring like an aeolian harp. Its glass wings are glinting. Beautiful, no?  Oh,  listen—here is something that happened in Paris, about 150 years ago. Early one morning—it was autumn, and the trees floated in soft orange masses along the boulevards into the tender sky—early one morning, the merchants had assembled in the marketplace; the stands filled with moist, glistening apples; there were whiffs of honey and damp hay. An old fellow with white down in his auricles was unhurriedly setting up cages containing various birds that fidgeted in the chilly air; then he sleepily reclined on a mat, for the auroral fog still obscured the gilt hands on the town hall’s black dial. He had scarcely gone to sleep when someone started tugging at his shoulder. Up jumped the oldster, and saw before him an out-of-breath young man. He was lanky, skinny, with a small head and a pointed little nose. His waistcoat—silvery with black stripes—was buttoned askew, the ribbon on his pigtail had come undone, one of his white stockings was sagging in bunched wrinkles. “I need a bird, any bird—a chicken will do,” said the young man, having given the cages a cursory, agitated glance. The old man gingerly extracted a small white hen, which put up a fluffy struggle in his swarthy hands. “What’s wrong—is it sick?” asked the young man, as if discussing a cow. “Sick? My little fish’s belly!” mildly swore the oldster.

The young man flung him a shiny coin and ran off amid the stands, the hen pressed to his bosom. Then he stopped, turned abruptly with a whip of his pigtail, and ran back to the old vendor. “I need the cage too,” he said.

When he went off at last, holding the chicken with the cage in his outstretched hand and swinging the other arm, as if he were carrying a bucket, the old man gave a snort and lay back down on his mat. How business went that day and what happened to him afterwards is of no concern to us at all.

As for the young man, he was none other than the son of the renowned physicist Charles.  Charles glanced over his spectacles at the little hen, gave the cage a flick of his yellow fingernail, and said, “Fine—now we have a passenger as well.” Then, with a severe glint of his eyeglasses, he added, “As for you and me, my boy, we’ll take our time. God only knows what the air is like up there in the clouds.”

The same day, at the appointed hour on the Champs de Mars, before an astonished crowd, an enormous, lightweight dome, embroidered with Chinese arabesques, with a gilded gondola attached by silken cords, slowly swelled as it filled with hydrogen. Charles and his son busied themselves amid streams of smoke blown sideways by the wind. The hen peered through the wire netting of her cage with one beady eye, her head tilted to one side. All around moved colorful, spangled caftans, airy women’s dresses, straw hats; and, when the sphere lurched upward, the old physicist followed it with his gaze, then broke into tears on his son’s shoulder, and a hundred hands on every side began waving handkerchiefs and ribbons. Fragile clouds floated through the tender, sunny sky. The earth receded, quivery, light-green, covered with scudding shadows and the fiery splashes of trees. Far below some toy horsemen hurtled past—but soon the sphere rose out of sight. The hen kept peering downward with one little eye.

The flight lasted all day. The day concluded with an ample, vivid sunset. When night fell, the sphere began slowly descending. Once upon a time, in a village on the shore of the Loire, there lived a gentle, wily-eyed peasant. Out he goes into the field at dawn. In the middle of the field he sees a marvel: an immense heap of motley silk. Nearby, overturned, lay a little cage. A chicken, all white, as if modeled out of snow, was thrusting its head through mesh and intermittently moving its beak, as it searched for small insects in the grass. At first the peasant had a fright, but then he realized that it was simply a present from the Virgin Mary, whose hair floated through the air like autumn spider-webs. The silk his wife sold off piecemeal in the nearby town,  the  little gilded gondola became a crib for their tightly swaddled firstborn, and the chicken was dispatched to the backyard. Listen on.

Some time elapsed, and then one fine day, as he passed a hillock of chaff at the barn gate, the peasant heard a happy clucking. He stooped. The hen popped out of the green dust and hawked at the sun as she waddled rapidly and not without some pride. While, amid the chaff, hot and sleek, glowed four golden eggs. And no wonder. At the wind’s mercy, the hen had traversed the entire flush of the sunset, and the sun, a fiery cock with a crimson crest, had done some fluttering over her.

I don’t know if the peasant understood. For a long time he stood motionless, blinking and squinting from the brilliance and holding in his palms the still warm, whole, golden eggs. Then, his sabots rattling, he rushed across the yard with such a howl that his hired hand thought he must have lopped off a finger with his axe. . . .

Of course all this happened a long, long time ago, long before the aviator Latham, having crashed in mid-Channel, sat, if you will, on the dragonfly tail of his submerging Antoinette, smoking a yellowed cigarette in the wind, and watching as, high in the sky, in his little stubby-winged machine, his rival Bleriot flew for the first time from Calais to England’s sugary shores.

But I cannot overcome your anguish. Why have your eyes again filled with darkness? No, don’t say anything. I know everything. You mustn’t cry. He can hear my fable, there’s no doubt at all he can hear it. It is to him that it’s addressed. Words have no borders. Try to understand! You look at me so balefully and darkly. I recollect the night after the funeral. You were unable to stay home. You and I went out into the glossy slush. Lost our way. Ended up in some strange, narrow street. I did not make out its name, but could see it was inverted, mirrorlike, in the glass of a streetlamp. The lamps were floating off into the distance. Water dripped from the roofs. The buckets lining both sides of the street, along black walls, were filling with cold mercury. Filling and overflowing. And suddenly, helplessly spreading your hands, you spoke:

“But he was so little, and so warm. . . .”

Forgive me if I am incapable of weeping, of simple human weeping, but instead keep singing and running somewhere, clutching at whatever wings fly past, tall, disheveled, with a wave of suntan on my forehead. Forgive me. That’s how it must be.

We walk slowly along the fences. The cemetery is already near. There it is, an islet of vernal white and green amid some dusty vacant land. Now you go on alone. I’ll wait for you here. Your eyes gave a quick, embarrassed smile. You know me well. . . . The wicket-gate squeaked, then banged shut. I sit alone on the sparse grass. A short way off there is a vegetable garden with some purple cabbage. Beyond the vacant lot, factory buildings, buoyant brick behemoths, float in the azure mist. At my feet, a squashed tin glints rustily inside a funnel of sand. Around me, silence and a kind of spring emptiness. There is no death. The wind comes tumbling upon me from behind like a limp doll and tickles my neck with its downy paw. There can be no death.

My heart, too, has soared through the dawn. You and I shall have a new, golden son, a creation of your tears and my fables. Today I understood the beauty of intersecting wires in the sky, and the hazy mosaic of factory chimneys, and this rusty tin with its inside-out, semidetached, serrated lid. The wan grass hurries, hurries somewhere along the dusty billows of

the vacant lot. I raise my arms. The sunlight glides across my skin. My skin is covered with multicolored sparkles.

And I want to rise up, throw my arms open for a vast embrace, address an ample, luminous discourse to the invisible crowds. I would start like this: “O rainbow-colored gods . . .”

Cities of the Red Night :: William S. Burroughs

The Cities of the Red Night were six in number: Tamaghis, Ba’dan, Yass-Waddah, Waghdas, Naufana, and Ghadis. These cities were located in an area roughly corresponding to the Gobi Desert, a hundred thousand years ago. At that time the desert was dotted with large oases and traversed by a river which emptied into the Caspian Sea.

The largest of these oases contained a lake ten miles long and five miles across, on the shores of which the university town of Waghdas was founded. Pilgrims came from all over the inhabited world to study in the academies of Waghdas, where the arts and sciences reached peaks of attainment that have never been equaled. Much of this ancient knowledge is now lost.

The towns of Ba’dan and Yass-Waddah were opposite each other on the river. Tamaghis, located in a desolate area to the north on a small oasis, could properly be called a desert town. Naufana and Ghadis were situated in mountainous areas to the west and south beyond the perimeter of usual trade routes between the other cities.

In addition to the six cities, there were a number of villages and nomadic tribes. Food was plentiful and for a time the population was completely stable: no one was born unless someone died.

The inhabitants were divided into an elite minority known as the Transmigrants and a majority known as the Receptacles. Within these categories were a number of occupational and specialized strata and the two classes were not in practice separate: Transmigrants acted as Receptacles and Receptacles became Transmigrants.

To show the system in operation: Here is an old Transmigrant on his deathbed. He has selected his future Receptacle parents, who are summoned to the death chamber. The parents then copulate, achieving orgasm just as the old Transmigrant dies so that his spirit enters the womb to be reborn. Every Transmigrant carries with him at all times a list of alternative parents, and in case of accident, violence, or sudden illness, the nearest parents are rushed to the scene. However, there was at first little chance of random or unexpected deaths since the Council of Transmigrants in Waghdas had attained such skill in the art of prophecy that they were able to chart a life from birth to death and determine in most cases the exact time and manner of death.

Many Transmigrants preferred not to wait for the infirmities of age and the ravages of illness, lest their spirit be so weakened so to be overwhelmed and absorbed by the Receptacle child. These hardy Transmigrants, in the full vigor of maturity, after rigorous training in concentration and astral projection, would select two death guides to kill them in front of the copulating parents. The methods of death most commonly employed were hanging and strangulation, the Transmigrant dying in orgasm, which was considered the most reliable method of ensuring a successful transfer. Drugs were also developed, large doses of which occasioned death in erotic convulsions, smaller doses being used to enhance sexual pleasure. And these drugs were often used in conjunction with other forms of death.

In time, death by natural causes became a rare and rather discreditable occurrence as the age for transmigration dropped. The Eternal Youths, a Transmigrant sect, were hanged at the age of eighteen to spare themselves the coarsening experience of middle age and the deterioration of senescence, living their youth again and again.

Two factors undermined the stability of this system. The first was perfection of techniques for artificial insemination. Whereas the traditional practice called for one death and one rebirth, now hundreds of women could be impregnated from a single sperm collection, and territorially oriented Transmigrants could populate whole areas with their progeny. There were sullen mutters of revolt from the Receptacles, especially the women. At this point, another factor totally unforeseen was introduced.

In the thinly populated desert area north of Tamaghis a portentous event occurred. Some say it was a meteor that fell to earth leaving a crater twenty miles across. Others say that the crater was caused by what modern physicists call a black hole.

After this occurrence the whole northern sky lit up red at night, like the reflection from a vast furnace. Those in the immediate vicinity of the crater were the first to be affected and various mutations were observed, the commonest being altered hair and skin color. Red and yellow hair, and white, yellow, and red skin appeared for the first time. Slowly the whole area was similarly affected until the mutants outnumbered the original inhabitants, who were as all human beings were at the time: black.

The women, led by an albino mutant known as the White Tigress, seized Yass-Waddah, reducing the male inhabitants to slaves, consorts, and courtiers all under sentence of death that could be carried out at any time at the caprice of the White Tigress. The Council of Waghdas countered by developing a method of growing babies in excised wombs, the wombs being supplied by vagrant Womb Snatchers. This practice aggravated the differences between male and female factions and war with Yass-Waddah seemed unavoidable.

In Naufana, a method was found to transfer the spirit directly into an adolescent Receptacle, thus averting the awkward and vulnerable period of infancy. This practice required a rigorous period of preparation and training to achieve a harmonious blending of the two spirits in one body. These Transmigrants, combining the freshness and vitality of youth with the wisdom of many lifetimes, were expected to form an army of liberation to free Yass-Waddah. And there were adepts who could die at will without any need of drugs or executioners and project their spirit into a chosen Receptacle.

I have mentioned hanging, strangulation, and orgasm drugs as the commonest means of effecting the transfer. However, many other forms of death were employed. The Fire Boys were burned to death in the presence of the Receptacles, only the genitals being insulated, so that the practitioner could achieve orgasm in the moment of death. There is an interesting account by a Fire Boy who recalled his experience after transmigrating in this manner:

“As the flames closed around my body, I inhaled deeply, drawing fire into my lungs, and screamed out flames as the most horrible pain turned to the most exquisite pleasure and I was ejaculating in an adolescent Receptacle who was being sodomized by another.”

Others were stabbed, decapitated, disemboweled, shot with arrows, or killed by a blow on the head. Some threw themselves from cliff, landing in front of the copulating Receptacles.

The scientists at Waghdas were developing a machine that could directly transfer the electromagnetic field of one body to another. In Ghadis there were adepts who were able to leave their bodies before death and occupy a series of hosts. How far this research may have gone will never be known. It was a time of great disorder and chaos.

The effects of the Red Night on Receptacles and Transmigrants proved to be incalculable and many strange mutants arose as a series of plagues devastated the cities. It is this period of war and pestilence that is covered by the books. The Council had set out to create a race of supermen for the exploration of space. They produced instead races of ravening idiot vampires.

Finally, the cities were abandoned and the survivors fled in all directions, carrying the plagues with them. Some of these migrants crossed the Bering Strait into the New World, taking the books with them. They settled in the area later occupied by the Mayans and the books eventually fell into the hands of the Mayan priests.

The alert student of this noble experiment will perceive that death was regarded as equivalent not to birth but to conception and go on to infer that conception is the basic trauma. In the moment of death, the dying man’s whole life may flash in front of his eyes back to conception. In the moment of conception, his future life flashes forward to his future death. To reexperience conception is fatal.

This was the basic error of the Transmigrants: you do not get beyond death and conception by reexperience any more than you get beyond heroin by ingesting larger and larger doses. The Transmigrants were quite literally addicted to death and they needed more and more death to kill the pain of conception. They were buying a parasitic life with a promissory death note to be paid at a prearranged time. The Transmigrants then imposed these terms on the host child to ensure his future transmigration. There was a basic conflict of interest between host child and Transmigrant. So the Transmigrants reduced the Receptacle class to a condition of virtual idiocy. Otherwise they would have reneged on a bargain from which they stood to gain nothing but death. The books are flagrant falsifications. And some of these basic lies are still current.

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” The last words of Hassan i Sabbah, Old Man of the Mountain.

“Tamaghis . . . Ba’dan . . . Yass-Waddah . . . Waghdas . . . Naufana . . . Ghadis.”

It is said that in initiate who wishes to know the answer to any question need only to repeat these words as he falls asleep and the answer will come in a dream.

Tamaghis: This is the open city of contending partisans where advantage shifts from moment to moment in a desperate biological war. Here everything is as true as you think it is and everything you can get away with is permitted.

Ba’dan: This is given over to competitive games and commerce. Ba’dan closely resembles present-day America with a precarious moneyed elite, a large disaffected middle class and an equally large segment of criminals and outlaws. Unstable, explosive, and swept by whirlwind riots. Everything is true and everything is permitted.

Yass-Waddah: This city is the female stronghold where the Countess de Gulpa, the Coutess de Vile, and the Council of the Selected plot a final subjugation of the other cities. Every shade of sexual transition is represented: boys with girls’ heads, girls with boys’ heads. Here everything is true and nothing is permitted except to the permitters.

Waghdas: This is the university city, the center of learning where all questions are answered in terms of what can be expressed and understood. Complete permission derives from complete understanding.

Naufana and Ghadis are the cities of illusion where nothing is true and therefore everything is permitted.

The traveler must start in Tamaghis and make his way through the other cities in the order named. This pilgrimage may take many lifetimes.

[The “Cities of the Red Night” chapter in the novel of the same title]

Parable of the Palace :: J. L. Borges

That day, the Yellow Emperor showed the poet his palace. They left behind, in long succession, the first terraces on the west which descend, like the steps of an almost measureless amphitheater, to a paradise or garden whose metal mirrors and intricate juniper hedges already prefigured the labyrinth. They lost themselves in it, gaily at first, as if condescending to play a game, but afterwards not without misgiving, for its straight avenues were subject to a curvature, ever so slight, but continuous (and secretly those avenues were circles). Toward midnight observation of the planets and the opportune sacrifice of a turtle permitted them to extricate themselves from that seemingly bewitched region, but not from the sense of being lost, for this accompanied them to the end. Foyers and patios and libraries they traversed then, and a hexagonal room with a clepsydra, and one morning from a tower they descried a stone man, whom they then lost sight of forever. Many shining rivers did they cross in sandalwood canoes, or a single river many times. The imperial retinue would pass and people would prostrate themselves. But one day they put in on an island where someone did not do it, because he had never seen the Son of Heaven, and the executioner had to decapitate him. Black heads of hair and black dances and complicated golden masks did their eyes indifferently behold; the real and the dreamed became one, or rather reality was one of dream’s configurations. It seemed impossible that earth were anything but gardens, pools, architectures, and splendrous forms. Every hundred paces a tower cleft the air; to the eye their color was identical, yet the first of all was yellow, and the last, scarlet, so delicate were the gradations and so long the series.

It was at the foot of the next-to-the-last tower that the poet — who was as if untouched by the wonders that amazed the rest — recited the brief composition we find today indissolubly linked to his name and which, as the more elegant historians have it, gave him immortality and death. The text has been lost. There are some who contend it consisted of a single line; others say it had but a single word. The truth, the incredible truth, is that in the poem stood the enormous palace, entire and minutely detailed, with every illustrious porcelain and every sketch on every porcelain and the shadows and the light of the twilights and every unhappy or joyous moment of the glorious dynasties of mortals, gods, and dragons who had dwelled in it from the interminable past. All fell silent, but the Emperor exclaimed, “You have robbed me of my palace!” And the executioner’s iron sword cut the poet down.

Others tell the story differently. There cannot be any two things alike in the world; the poet, they say, had only to utter his poem to make the palace disappear, as if abolished and blown to bits by the final syllable. Such legends, of course, amount to no more than literary fiction. The poet was a slave of the Emperor and as such he died. His composition sank into oblivion because it deserved oblivion and his descendants still seek, nor will they find, the word that contains the universe.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Paradiso, XXXI, 108 :: J. L. Borges

Diodorus Siculus tells the story of a god, broken and scattered abroad. What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?

Mankind has lost a face, an irretrievable face, and all have longed to be that pilgrim — imagined in the Empyrean, beneath the Rose — who in Rome sees the Veronica and murmurs in faith, “Lord Jesus, my God, true God, is this then what Thy face was like?”

Beside a road there is a stone face and an inscription that says, “The True Portrait of the Holy Face of the God of Jaen.” If we truly knew what it was like, the key to the parables would be ours and we would know whether the son of the carpenter was also the Son of God.

Paul saw it as a light that struck him to the ground; John, as the sun when it shines in all its strength; Teresa de Jesus saw it many times, bathed in tranquil light, yet she was never sure of the color of His eyes.

We lost those features, as one may lose a magic number made up of the usual ciphers, as one loses an image in a kaleidoscope, forever. We may see them and know them not. The profile of a Jew in the subway is perhaps the profile of Christ; perhaps the hands that give us our change at a ticket window duplicate the ones some soldier nailed one day to the cross.

Perhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was erased, so that God may be all of us.

Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinth of dreams, and tomorrow not know we saw it.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Parable of Cervantes and Don Quixote :: J. L. Borges

Weary of his land of Spain, an old soldier of the king sought solace in Ariosto’s vast geographies, in that valley of the moon where misspent dream-time goes, and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalban.

In gentle mockery of himself he conceived a credulous man who, unsettled by the marvels he read about, hit upon the idea of seeking noble deeds and enchantments in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.

For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.

Devoto Clinic, January 1955.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

The Witness :: J. L. Borges

In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.

Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed.

In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]